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Tag Archives: Comic Book Movies
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.
Ahead of the release of Captain America: Civil War, Andrew Bloom and Allison Shoemaker rank every Marvel Cinematic Universe hero and villain–both in film and on T.V.–and decide who would win in a hypothetical fight between each good guy and bad guy.
Deadpool is at its best when it’s making fun of superhero movies. The film feels like a deliberate counter-reaction to the seriousness and prominence of comic book films in pop culture, and in that regard, it’s a wild success. When it fills the opening credits with descriptions of its actors rather than their actual names (e.g. “Moody Teen”, “British Villain”, etc.), features knowing winks to its star’s prior, emerald-tinged efforts as a cape, and plays “Angel of the Morning” behind its freeze-framed mayhem, it’s a statement of purpose, an indication from the very beginning that this is not going to be your average superhero flick and the movie is very much in on the joke.
At the same time, Deadpool is at its weakest when it capitulates to the sober, formulaic demands of its genre, when it hits the expected beats of your typical good guy origin story—a tragic past, a dull antagonist, and a lost love–even as it vociferously proclaims that its “hero” is anything but a good guy. The film does its best to throw in a comedic riff on these moments. Deadpool himself, a.k.a. Wade Wilson, has plenty of playful quips for the movie’s villain, Ajax (Ed Skrein), even as his rival slogs through the usual, perfunctory threat and intimidation routine. And Wilson’s ribald remarks permeate the sad-sack backstory and star-crossed romance that might otherwise hurt the film’s humorous tone.
To this end, the film makes a firm attempt to take some of the edge off of some of its more standard-issue elements—generic baddie Ajax and his wooden henchwoman Angel Dust (Gina Carano) chief among them. But at its core, Deadpool can’t completely run away from the typical superhero movie tropes it ends up employing, even as it’s trying to make fun of them. That drags down the proceedings in the moments where the otherwise off-the-wall film tries to be a little more solemn or conventional.
I had the faintest glimmer of hope at the climax of Avengers: Age of Ultron. In the midst of our intrepid heroes’ battle with the titular AI run amok, when the chances for a civilian evacuation seemed bleak, Nick Fury came blazing to the rescue with a helicarrier, and reassured Earth’s Mightiest Heroes that he had “pulled her out of mothballs with a couple of old friends”.
Here it was, the moment when Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. would have the slightest impact on the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe. Sure, the TV show’s characters would be relegated to a quick cameo or even the background, but the devoted fans who had slogged through the show’s rougher patches would be rewarded with a brief glimpse of Fitz or Simmons or Mack or somebody from the ragtag remnants of S.H.I.E.L.D., there to help save the day. It only made sense. After all, if recent episodes of the show were any indication, Fury and Maria Hill had been working with Coulson’s team off-screen for some time, and there were more than a few capable agents suited to the task.
But no. Instead, the brief-if-pleasant bit of continuity came in the form of an appearance by the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent from Captain America: The Winter Soldier who had refused to launch Hydra’s helicarriers despite being held at gunpoint. It was a nice callback, but one that still left me feeling cold to a film that seemed to only make the broadest of gestures toward the rest of the MCU.
Superman is an alien from beyond our solar system, but also a part of humanity. He’s a boy from Kansas, but also a demigod. He is, at once, both the other and the familiar. It’s a duality that director Zack Snyder and screenwriter David S. Goyer explore in Man of Steel, and they demonstrated the similar duality that’s inherent in attempting to adapt Superman for the screen.
In the film, Superman struggles with the tension between his knowledge that he is a living monument to a world and a people who have long since been destroyed and the feeling that he is a part of our world with friends and loved ones who are just as meaningful. By the same token, the film’s creative brain trust (which includes the director of The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan) struggles to both honor Superman the icon, the character who has come to represent so much over the course of decades of stories in every medium imaginable, and make him a relatable character who movie audiences can connect with.
It was a noble effort, and a difficult one at that, but ultimately, an unsuccessful one as well. At the end of the film, Superman is still more icon than man and more symbol than individual.