31 May 2012

The Five Degrees of Superhero Comic Films

It's no stretch to say that the past cinematic decade has been dominated by Superhero and Comic Book films. 2012 offers three huge properties at once - The Avengers, The Amazing Spider-Man, and The Dark Knight Rises. Since we're about in the middle of all these flicks, it seemed like a good time to dig into the patterns of quality a bit deeper. These films can range from the spectacular to the terrible - why is that? For the purposes of this article, I've limited the scope to 21st Century mainstream superhero comic book films.* Let's begin:

The Unwatchable:

There are many Superhero movies that are just so infuriatingly bad that they are rendered unwatchable. They aren't any fun at all and there is nothing to be gained from watching them. This happens for a few reasons. We can start with Ghost Rider (2007) and Punisher: War Zone (2008). Both are classic Marvel Anti-heroes who have never done that well on screen. They both are deserving of massive gory violence and unrelenting action instead of the camp and brooding they received. The tone of either is tricky to pull off, and they're more suited to comic media.

Next we have a pair of failed DC adaptations, Jonah Hex (2010) and Green Lantern (2011). The Green Lantern's stock has been rising in the comic world with an excellent string of titles, tho poor casting, marketing, and plot doomed the film. It's something that tried to overreach its boundaries - a massive galactic cast of characters works over a franchise or better yet, a 50-year narrative history, but not forced into two hours. Jonah Hex is more like Ghost Rider - a very difficult tone that just wasn't pulled off.

It's sad that two heroine films, Catwoman (2004) and Elektra (2005) are some of the worst films ever made. While Elektra isn't really an interesting character, Catwoman can certainly be appealing - but this maybe is not the most practical way. I mean, there's still ways to display tits and be functional. Lastly, two X-Men films, The Last Stand (2006) and X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) are so egregiously bad that it makes me want to punch babies all day. The problem with all these films isn't with their pulp origins. Much more has been done with less, and much more comic-y films have been made - they just lose so much quality from inferior filmmaking, flimsy narratives, and disservice to fans. We'll talk more of that later.

The Enjoyably Silly:

A step up from the Unwatchables are the Enjoyably Silly flicks. I've split these into two categories: A) Enjoyably Bad and B) Enjoyably OK films. There's a fairly subtle difference. The Enjoyably Bad films include both Fantastic Four (2005) and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007), which are really pretty shitty, but for the most part honour its source material, play into its camp, and deliver a pretty fun couple of hours. Likewise, there was nothing wrong with the original Punisher (2004), which didn't take itself as seriously as its sequel, but had a likeable cast (Tom Jane, naturally), and was fun enough. Lastly, this year's Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2012) was more of a Ghost Rider film than the 2007 original, and allowed itself to be as manic, insane, and self-aware as Ghost Rider is supposed to be. None of these flicks are very good, but none of them strive to be more than they are.

The Enjoyably OK films include the recent Marvel Avengers franchise kickers THOR (2011), Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), and The Avengers. All of these are certainly quite a large step up from something like Fantastic Four, but none really reach the status of the best Comic Book Films out there. They're all well-made though, are masters of their tone, and have some of the most solid, engaging characters of any film on this list. Still, they don't rise above their origins are remain excellent adaptations of another medium rather than great films.

The Ones that take themselves too seriously:

Comic Book films are tricky. I have just disparaged a handful of great, fun movies for remaining in the Pulp World, but trying to completely leap out of that world is also a fatal move. It's an important distinction - in order to be considered good movies on their own, Comic Book Films need on some level to acknowledge and revel their own silliness (and sometimes stop there, which is fine, it will make tons of money), but also try to be something more. Often though, this attempt to be something more is either ridiculously unsubtle, doesn't fit with the scope of story, or botches character development, so no one really cares how important the film pretends to be.

The first such of these films was Daredevil (2003), which is generally underrated in the Superhero Film Pantheon, because it comes close to being a pretty good film, with an articulated origin story, gritty tone, and cast (c'mon, Ben Affleck isn't that bad, is he?). Despite these successes it never figures out what it wants to be and trips over itself constantly. There are many more famous examples, including both versions of the Jolly Green Smasher, Hulk (2003) and The Incredible Hulk (2008). Both films fail to realise that the "Other Guy" is far more interesting than Banner, though I don't think Ang Lee gets enough credit for trying to elevate the character based on many Banner storylines from the comics. One reason why the Hulk was such a star of The Avengers was because it's the first film to get him right - summing it up in two words and a grin: "Hulk - smash."

There's three more here. First we have Superman Returns (2006), which again is a pretty good film and probably one of the better in this category, but it kept trying to be some kind of Immortal Story imposed on a remake of Richard Donner's film. For all the pomp, Superman doesn't do much other than lift things for two hours, and he doesn't inspire the world-changing hope he tries to, even if the film tells us different. There's also Spider-Man 3 (2007), which failed to follow up Spider-Man 2 (2004), which spoiler, is our pick for the Best Superhero Film Ever. Again, Spider-Man 3 could have easily fallen into the Enjoyably Silly group, and that would have been fine. It feels a lot like a comic book, with random thugs, and villains and huge cool battles. The problem is that the film tries to make us care about everything. There's too many layers forced on the audience and none of it pretends to be as ironic as it should be.

 Let's talk about Iron Man 2 (2010) for a second because its category was hard to place. It's certainly an enjoyable film with some really cool action sequences, difficult stakes for the growing Tony Stark, all while definitely having fun with itself. At the same time, though, there's all these really out of place dark sequences like Tony's accidental drunken rampage and it approaches the consequences of his competition and control of industry. The tone and themes get jumbled, and it tries to leap over the moon while being ridiculous. It doesn't work.

The Intense Brooders

There's no other real category for these two. Chris Nolan has elevated Batman over all other franchises through his two films that are steeped in realism, trying desperately to forge a psychological profile for someone who would actually dress up as a bat and hunt crime, as well as the practical consequences for doing so. Neither film is actually that perfect classic though, mostly due to both of their Third Acts where the story starts unraveling from a psychological profile into a weird Microwave Chase in Batman Begins (2005) and the somewhat forced Boat Decision in The Dark Knight (2008). The problem with these films is that they refuse to acknowledge the obvious - the idea of a Batman existing is still equally insane to any other superhero out there, and understanding and buying into that idea is the same as any other crazy thing that happens in these movies. It tries so hard to ignore this basic fallacy that it fails at becoming the purest form of Superhero Movie. Still, these things are great films in their own right and do succeed in surpassing their roots.

The Cream of the Crop: A Middle Way

Out of all this junk then, we come to five films that really exist in between the dichotomy between fun and crazy and serious, authentic films. These are the kind of classics that can stand against the best of any other action film out there. Three of them are X-Men, two Spider-Man and one Iron Man.

The first two X-Men films worked in part because they were breaking new ground. There was nothing like them that came before and they were thus unhampered by the pressures, tropes, and standards that they would actually create. X-Men (2000) actually does a fantastic job of bringing the team together, particularly Wolverine and Rogue, and though there are low points (whiffed potential with Storm, Cyclops, and Sabretooth in particular), it introduces and honours the greatest villain of all time and is also simultaneously able to make fun of its origins hokier elements and retain the authentic characters and narrative.

Its sequel, X2: X-Men United (2003) does everything its predecessor does, but better. It introduces better characters, better villains, and then splits up and tests the group established in the first film. This is all while having very emotional as well as some incredibly cool and clever sequences. X-Men: First Class (2011) is one of the few successful period Superhero films and it again hits the balance between a fun and engaging movie as well as being full of complex themes and characters. Both of these are exceptional films that neither trip over their own inherent silliness or get lost in their ideals.

Iron Man (2008) gets a solid mention here because not only was it instrumental in proving that The Avengers could work, it did things that no Superhero film had done before it, from the irreverence of its protagonist, the real-world political application of superpowers, and all with a classic B-Lister. If Iron Man had been anything like Ghost Rider or something else, it would indeed be a bleaker future for the Superhero film.

We end with a pair of great movies, Spider-Man (2002) and Spider-Man 2 (2004). Like X-Men and its sequel, Spider-Man gets a lot of the wackiness right while maintaining Great Responsibility. It laughs when it should but it also has some big stakes that center around its protagonist. Spider-Man 2 cranks everything up a notch, making things personal, bringing Peter Parker's relationship with Mary Jane to a head, threatening New York City itself, and providing a mentor/student conflict much more engaging and genuine than similar beats in Iron Man or Batman Begins. It's the best we got and should be the model for all other Superhero films to come.


The big question then, is what will The Amazing Spider-Man and The Dark Knight Rises be like? From the looks of it, it seems like The Amazing Spider-Man has mastered its dark yet vibrant and funny tone that makes up so much of Spider-Man, but if it can't enjoy itself or has a plot that falls apart (or a villain that looks as shitty as this...crap), it won't reach Cream of the Crop Status. The Dark Knight Rises is destined to be a Brooder, but basically if it can have an intensity and a coherent third act it may just be the best we've ever got.

*Ok fine, if you want to know about Blade, it descends from Enjoyable to Unwatchable through the course of the franchise, and Hellboy brings itself up to the Cream of the Crop with a second installment that improves upon a very good first installment.

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