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Category Archives: Superhero Movies
The great promise of Agents of Shield and Netflix’s Defenders series was the idea that these shows would examine what happened when The Avengers weren’t around to save the day, in the spaces below their notice. The pitch went that these shows would dig into the meat and potatoes work of facing down threats in a world where aliens attack, as well as the street-level problems that can’t be solved with energy blasts and theater-shaking explosions. But while each of the MCU’s television series have done their share of noble work, they’ve rarely felt connected to their cinematic brethren. Rather than exploring what it means to live in the shadow of Marvel’s biggest heroes, more often than not, these shows feel as though they exist within their own separate worlds.
Enter Spiderman: Homecoming, a film devoted to exploring the lives of people who live under the pedestal that Tony Stark and The Avengers occupy. Despite Spider-Man’s dive into the fray in Civil War, Homecoming spends most of its runtime with Peter Parker (Tom Holland) yearning to be more than a momentary part of that super-team. The nascent web-slinger feels like he’s on the outside looking in and not significant enough to rate much attention from Tony Stark (or his driver, Happy Hogan, who’s the “point man” on the Spider-Man project). But the script, credited to a six-man team, smartly parallels Peter’s sense of being beneath his idols’ notice with a villain who’s motivated by the sense that the Starks of the world don’t care about the little people like him.
To call Wonder Woman the best DCEU film is to damn it with faint praise. It’s certainly a true statement, but limiting it to those terms does a disservice not only to how the film stands on its own, but how it represents a notable achievement (and hopefully turning point) for the representation of women in superhero cinema.
But even on its own merits, the film succeeds when it breaks away from the conventions cemented by its Bat- and Super-brethren, and stumbles when it gets caught in the same muck that has hobbled the movies of Wonder Woman’s D.C. Comics stablemates. The end result is the DC Extended Universe’s first legitimately good film, but one still weighed down by the cinematic baggage of its predecessors.
Caution: This article contains major spoilers for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
One of the best things about storytelling is that it offers a chance to walk in another person’s shoes, to step outside of oneself and have experiences that are not possible in most people’s day-to-day lives. But films, television shows, and novels also offer fantasy; they offer escapism and the chance to live out an existence, in two-hour chunks, that is wilder and more fantastical than our own. Some of our culture’s most prominent stories present a particular, alluring version of that idea — the fantasy of the ordinary person discovering that they are, in fact, more special than they ever could have known.
When Luke Skywalker gazes out at the twin suns of Tatooine, the sight evokes his longing for adventure, the unshakable feeling that the universe has more in store for him than just the inner workings of a moisture farm. When we meet Harry Potter living under the thumb of the Dursleys, it’s to establish the lowliness of his position, the improbability that the boy who lives under the stairs could, in reality, be the chosen one. And Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 presents its own orphan protagonist in Peter Quill who, after a lifetime of hoping and wondering, discovers that he too is more powerful and unique than he had ever imagined.
As the Marvel Cinematic Universe continues to expand, each new franchise and sub-franchise must add more characters so as to provide new faces for the merchandise, and each fresh sequel risks becoming increasingly unwieldy and unmanageable. While Captain America: Civil War managed to thread that needle nicely, the tyranny of “more” still threatens to hobble each new franchise installment before it’s even left the spaceport.
To that end, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, a follow-up to the surprise 2014 hit, does feel overstuffed in places. It introduces two new major characters, flips a pair of baddies to the side of good guys, and still needs to service the five original Guardians of the Galaxy amid a host of new locales and novel threats. But for a franchise whose first entry brought several Star Wars comparisons, writer/director James Gunn succeeds in his follow up by employing the Empire Strikes Back method.
It’s not simply that Guardians 2 reveals the identity of Star-Lord’s father or spends time in caverns that turn out to be living organisms. It’s that Gunn splits his heroes up for most of the film, only to bring them back at the end for the raging climax. That tack helps balance the many needs of a film like Guardians 2 with several overlapping storylines, all of which center on the theme of discovering who your family truly is.
So much of Guardians of the Galaxy’s story is achingly standard issue. This isn’t the first film to feature a collection of rogues and nobodies reluctantly coming together to save the world, and it won’t be the last. The tale of the dissolute young man who eventually learns to fight for something greater than himself is a well-worn one, and the motley crew of suspicious characters slowly becoming a family is a well-known cliché. In other words, when Guardians came out in 2014, it didn’t exactly reinvent the wheel.
And yet, it is a film full of such charm, such character, such inventiveness in ways beyond its story, that it becomes incredibly easy forgive the ways in which it obediently marches through the usual blockbuster narrative progression. The audience will tolerate, and even enjoy, all the hoary tropes in the universe if you can couch them in a world, an attitude, and a cast of characters worth spending time with.
Someday, in the not too distant future, we’re going to get a raw, documentary-style Batman film, about a regular guy who just so happens to dress up like a bat and get into ugly fist fights with criminals. And when that happens, we’ll turn around and laugh at how cheesy and unrealistic the Christopher Nolan films seem by comparison. Today’s cultural sensation is tomorrow’s hokey relic. So it goes.
But until that happens, it behooves us to look at Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman film, which scans as corny and even rudimentary relative to Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, with some perspective. After the semi-grounded approach to the character in recent years, it seems odd in hindsight that Burton’s take on the character was praised for its serious approach to the source material. But contemporary critics were comparing it to William Dozier’s Batman ‘66, the overtly comedic, Adam West incarnation of The Caped Crusader. So, as I discussed with Robbie Dorman on the Serial Fanaticist Podcast, while much of Burton’s tack in the 1989 Batman feels broader and even goofier than the Batman of today, his version fits into a wide spectrum of portrayals of the character, on the page and on the screen, that’s taken shape over the last eighty years.
CAUTION: This article contains major spoilers for Doctor Strange.
There’s a recurring set of complaints about the “samey-ness” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The argument comes in several forms. One common strain posits that every Marvel movie simply follows a predetermined formula, involving some McGuffin (lately, an infinity stone), an undercooked villain, and an inevitable third act action sequence that sets everything right. Another contends that the MCU films lack distinct authorial voices and break down to a house-mandated style. And one recurring grouse, even among fans, focuses on the way Marvel Studios films are shot and lit and even color-corrected.
There’s a grain of truth to each of these critiques, but as I discussed with Robbie Dorman on the Serial Fanatacist Podcast, I find them all largely unavailing. For one thing, even the studio’s first set of films, released prior to the game-changing Avengers team up (Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger) have vastly different vibes and tell markedly different types of stories. From a Shakespearean-influenced high fantasy romp, to a 1940s throwback adventure, to a military-heavy fugitive narrative, to a more traditional hero’s origin story, the Marvel movies have come in different flavors from the very beginning.
What’s more, while there are common themes of redemption and certain recurring motifs common to many superhero films in the MCU, there’s also a focus on character that has served to distinguish Marvel’s films from one another independently of the antagonists or plot obstacles in a given film. As others have pointed out, Marvel Studios has found great success by focusing on the development of its heroes (and those close to them) making their personal journeys the driving force behind these films, rather than the newest set of villains or big plot development that have driven other franchises. And, over the course of fourteen movies, plenty of entries in the MCU series of films have subverted the tropes that the series’s critics accuse it of slavishly adhering to.
Doctor Strange acts as both a confirmation and a rebuke to these arguments. It features some of the MCU’s most dazzling visuals and breaks with some of the franchise’s biggest conventions. And yet, at the same time, it feels like a recapitulation of many of the same types of stories and beats that other Marvel Studios films have employed in the past.
Suicide Squad director David Ayer and the brain trust behind D.C. Comics’ nascent cinematic universe achieved something I didn’t think was possible — they managed to produce a 1990s blockbuster in 2016. With the emergence of late sequels like Jurassic World and Independence Day: Resurgence, perhaps this shouldn’t have surprised me. But the refurbished, Day-Glo atmosphere of the third entry in the perpetually stumbling DCEU still managed to catch me off guard. I’d anticipated a copycat of Guardians of the Galaxy and its quippy “bad guys gone good” spirit, but I didn’t imagine that M.O. would be filtered through a lens borrowed from twenty years ago.
Nevertheless, all the elements of a Clinton-era blockbuster are firmly present and accounted for: Will Smith gives a standard Will Smith Performance™, one that could have easily been transplanted from Men in Black or, heaven help us, Wild Wild West. There are dry cool action movie lines aplenty. And there’s a cartoony, almost surreal vibe to the entire film, that makes Suicide Squad seem divorced from the attempts at realism embraced in Batman Begins and closer to the cornucopia of neon camp in Batman Forever.
CAUTION: This review contains major spoilers for Batman: The Killing Joke
The traditional superhero story is a simple one. The bad guy threatens to do some bit of evil; the good guy comes in to stop it, and the day is saved. Lather, rinse, repeat. The costumes change, and so do the capers, but for a while, that was the dependable, well-worn blueprint for the battles between capes and criminals.
And then, somewhere along the line, that started to change. Writers like Alan Moore began to deconstruct those old stories. They started to look at the ways that these battles might not be so weightless, how those heroes and villains might still leave their marks on one another. These artists examined how the good guys could not fight evil day after day, week after week, year after year, and yet come out of those battles unsullied, unblemished, and unscathed.
Batman, after all, fights monsters. How long can you run headlong into battle with monsters before you start to become more monstrous yourself? It’s not every comic book adaptation that drops references to Nietzsche, even when it’s one of his most famous quotes, but it’s appropriate for Batman: The Killing Joke, an animated film adaptation of the Alan Moore classic. Because more than The Joker, more than Batman, more than Jim or Barbara Gordon, it’s a story about what happens to those who fight monsters. It’s a story about the abyss.
Before Anthony and Joe Russo were directing superhero movies, they worked on a little show called Community about a group of misfits at a community college. The series, oddly enough, had a surprising amount in common with The Avengers. Both were about seven people from different backgrounds who bounced off one another in interesting ways, carried their own unique psychological baggage, and who would still, now and then, come together and do amazing things.
One of the most remarkable things about Community was its mastery of tone. The series was pitched as a comedy, and true to that billing, it was a funny, creative, and occasionally off-the-wall show. And yet it could just as easily shift into something quiet and personal, something unremittingly dark, or even something difficult and complex that lacked the sorts of easy answers seemingly required of all network sitcoms. The Russo brothers brought the same incredible ability to mesh different tones and characters to Captain America: Civil War and translated it onto a much bigger stage without missing a beat.
Because Civil War is hilarious, action-packed, and all kinds of fun. It’s has tons of inventive sequences and fights big and small that are filled with humor and imagination. But at the same time, Civil War is, in its own way, a very dark film about fear, regret, anger, a deep divide and a personal loss. It touches on big ideas like moral responsibility, individual guilt for broader actions, and the dangers of power without boundaries. The film, however, grounds these ideas in its well-developed characters, intimate individual moments, and personal relationships. It’s a smorgasbord of different scenes and settings and moods that can make you laugh, gasp, and feel the tragedy of a given moment, without letting these varying tones clash. And that is one hell of an achievement.