The Superhero Movie Learning Curve, Part Four: Career Ambitions
Hollywood has been trying to put superheroes on screen since the dawn of man. And while they may not all be winners, on the whole they have been gradually getting better, both as stronger stories and as films that are more faithful to the source material. And you can see the stages of development, like a child developing through the years…
And in the past few years, the genre has exploded, in just about every meaning of the word.
Ambition (2013 – 2020)
At a certain point, as as adult, you have to get your act together. You have to start planning for the future, making a life for yourself. You start to leave your goofy friends from high school and college behind, and start forming new relationships as an adult. This doesn’t mean you don’t still do stupid things from time to time (your old buddy from college comes into town and you get wasted; you forget to pay your credit card bill on time, and end up deep in debt), but they tend to be less frequent, less severe, and less insurmountable. And more and more, you start to figure out the kind of person you want to be.
After the Avengers and the Dark Knight trilogy, the landscape of Hollywood as a whole was completely changed. Franchises tried to replicate the success of each, and eventually the success of both. Every studio scrambled to put together their own gritty reboots and cinematic universes. And no genre tried harder than the genre where these trends had started: the superhero film.
We're gonna have to tackle these by year, and we'll have to glaze over some of them, because in the past seven years we got forty five movies. And I'm sure there are some that I'm missing.
2013 - Applying Lessons
In 2013, Marvel released their first two films to follow the Avengers, both of which act as direct sequels: Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World. Both films have shaky receptions, especially due to their villains (though I'll argue both films are underrated), but they also share a criticism unique to the Marvel Cinematic Universe: "Why don't Thor or Iron Man call any of their Avengers friends to help?" This question also plagues their next film, but it would soon be resolved... because Marvel was learning that their superhero sequels couldn't be like any other sequels. They would have to change to fit into the evolving nature of a Cinematic Universe.
We also got Man of Steel, a movie that many people have debated (including myself). But what's important here is that it's an attempt to replicate the success of Iron Man and Batman Begins, to the point where they roped Christopher Nolan into producing the film. The film wants to be a "grounded" and "gritty" take on Superman (like Batman Begins), while also starting a brand new cinematic universe (like Iron Man). We can debate whether Superman should even get a gritty reboot until the cows come home, but let's just say that my opinions on the matter differ from those of DC Entertainment.
Functionally, Man of Steel accomplishes everything it sets out to do - it grounds Superman in a modern world and it fills the cast with wonderful actors - but it also makes some Choices and caused a lot of discourse. This debate would weigh on the film, and shape the direction of its sequel...
Also, we got another X-Men movie, the Wolverine. It was fine.
2014 - Rushing to Do an Avengers
2014 was actually a really important year in the development of superhero movies, because it's where we saw which franchises were willing to embrace comic book tropes and lean into the weird stuff. It's also where two franchises tried to hit the gas and get to the Avengers-style payoff of their universe, and neither of them worked.
First, we got Captain America: The Winter Soldier. While I think this is an extremely good movie, it also struggles with the same question that bogged down Iron Man 3 and Thor: the Dark World. It's resolved in part by including Black Widow and Nick Fury as main characters, but this is the final Marvel film where they can get away with doing solo adventures without any other major Avengers.
We also get Amazing Spider-Man 2, a movie that learned so many of wrong lessons from the Avengers that it actually killed the franchise on arrival. The movie muscles in three villains, and teases three or four more at the end, all so they can try to do a Sinister Six team-up movie. But the MCU didn't work because we saw a room full of other superheroes' gear; the franchise didn't launch because of the cool stuff we saw in Odin's treasure vault. And the fact that so much of the film is dedicated to future movies really turned off the audience, and made them less interested to follow the series forward.
Also in the same film, Spider-Man finds out that his dad gave him super-blood, his previously-unmentioned best friend starts dying of a disease that took thirty years to kill his father, Spider-Man stalks his girlfriend and they get together and break up... four times? I think? Even setting aside the obvious "rushing the franchise" stuff, it's not a great film.
Next we got X-Men: Days of Future Past, which semi-successfully pulls off an Avengers-style team-up within an ensemble franchise. How does it do that? By using time travel to bridge the two timelines, bringing back the original cast to meet up with the new cast. I think this movie works in a lot of ways, although I do think it undercuts the film that they killed off so many of the new characters in between films. Also, unlike in the Avengers, the old cast members don't do a full team-up - they really make more of a glorified cameo/act as the framing sequence for the film. But it's still a fun movie that trades on the nostalgia for the audience. If the X-Men franchise was ever going to hope to do an Avengers, this was the best way to do it.
But how was Marvel pushing their cinematic universe forward? Well, they made Guardians of the Galaxy. They knew they wanted to do more cosmic stuff, so they took a team that had really only been popular in the comics for less than a decade (and even the word "popular" is a stretch), got a great cast and a great writer/director, and asked us all to trust them. It was one of the biggest gambles in the MCU, and it absolutely paid off. They went full comic book, complete with a talking raccoon wielding a machine gun riding on a talking tree. This was a test to see how willing general audiences were to handle some weird stuff. And it was a shot in the arm for the MCU, a declaration that they were willing to commit to the craziest stuff from the comics. And the fans loved it.
Also, Michael Bay produced a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie that tried to echo the tone/look of Batman Begins, ended up replicating a lot of the vibe from the Amazing Spider-Man franchise, and ultimately faired about as well.
2015 - Only Three Movies? That Will Never Happen Again
In 2015, Marvel ended "Phase 2" with two movies. First was Avengers: Age of Ultron, a film I kind of enjoy (despite some real problems), but the thing I like most is that it's partially a response to Man of Steel. Both films have lots of chaos and commotion and destruction, but at least in Age of Ultron, the Avengers try to get the civilians to safety.
They followed this with Ant-Man, a movie I mostly like, despite the fact that it feels shackled by its source material. The movie has to do a lot of work to justify Hope not going on the mission, because it's an Ant-Man movie, and not an Ant-Man and the Wasp movie (yet). The movie feels somewhat embarrassed to be about Ant-Man, at least for a few lines (though these lines were in the trailer, and that may have colored how I feel about the film). But it's also a movie with a lot of heart, and it's actually extremely earnest, something that's fairly rare for the often-snarky Marvel Cinematic Universe brand.
And then we got Fantastic Four, a.k.a. Fan4stic. I didn't see the film, but it seems like the movie had a lot of interesting ideas that it got bogged down in, and then the studio came in and made them add some action and re-do the ending, and it was a whole big mess. It seems like this movie tried to replicate Man of Steel or Batman Begins by doing a "grounded, dark, gritty origin," and once again it failed.
2016 - Everybody Does an Avengers (or a Guardians of the Galaxy)
2016 brought a lot of films, so let's go through these as quick as we can.
Deadpool capitalizes on the same audience as Guardians of the Galaxy while also replicating the success of the nostalgia hit people got from Days of Future Past. I know Ryan Reynolds tried to get a Deadpool movie going for five or six years, but I think he got extremely lucky that the movie came out when it did; it happened at just the right time. Audiences were ready for a subversive take on superheroes that actually fit into the franchise, and Deadpool delivered.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice has to deal with all of the discourse from Man of Steel, introduce a version of Batman from one of his most famous comics (which the film learned the wrong lesson from), introduce Lex Luthor (Superman's best/most iconic villain), kill Superman (because Superman's two most famous stories are his birth and his death), introduce Wonder Woman (the best part of the movie, mostly because she's the only character who smiles), and tease the Justice League (because god forbid everyone get their own movie first; let's just watch some security camera footage of each one and then get some of that sweet Avengers money). It's a mess, and it's mean-spirited, and it's not for me. But I know the Zach Snyder films have an audience, so... if you like these movies, I hope they make you very happy. They are not. My. Thing.
Captain America: Civil War wound up being more like Avengers 2.5, featuring a full cast of characters from the previous films (plus the introduction of Black Panther and a new MCU version of Spider-Man). Not only does this solve the issue of what to do with solo sequels (i.e., include as many characters as makes sense), but it also accomplishes something that Age of Ultron doesn't - it replicates the sense of wonder from the first Avengers film. The novelty of seeing all of these heroes side-by-side had worn off by Age of Ultron, but Civil War recaptures it by bringing new heroes (Black Panther, Spider-Man and Ant-Man) into the group, and by having them fight each other.
Speaking of replicating the success of previous films, X-Men: Apocalypse just lifts scenes from previous X-Men movies and does them again. It's a bad flick.
I didn't see Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, but I do applaud the film for committing to the weirdness - that movie has Bebop, Rocksteady, Krang and an alien invasion. That's the right direction for these bombastic, toy-selling franchises.
Suicide Squad tries really hard to replicate Guardians of the Galaxy, but has no idea what makes that movie work. It doesn't even understand its own premise, positioning the team as a response to a possible evil Superman instead of unsanctioned black ops agents, which is what they should be. It's a charmless, hollow movie that robbed the best make-up Oscar from Star Trek: Beyond, and also I hate it.
Doctor Strange is a perfectly fine origin story, though it's not nearly my favorite. I wish Marvel was as comfortable committing to the magical side of their universe as they were to the cosmic side, but with both Doctor Strange and Thor, they always seem to keep one foot in the realm of "all magic is just basically science."
2017 - Most of These Movies are... Actually Good?
2017 was actually a pretty good year for superhero movies, with a few exceptions. And it started off with one of the best ever made: Logan.
Logan is a loose adaptation of the Old Man Logan comic series, but it's also all about the aging death of the superhero franchise, adaptation decay, and legacy. I don't know what more there is to say, other than to say that the film is really good.
We got a Power Rangers adaptation that I have a soft spot for, though it definitely has a lot in common with the other reboots of this era (the Amazing Spider-Man, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles). Then we got Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, which I like but that audiences were mixed on.
And then came Wonder Woman, which is mostly terrific, although it loses a few steps at the end. And so badly, I wish this had been the film to kick off the DC Universe. I wish this had been the tone of the Superman reboot. I wish that this is the tone DC had put into their projects, instead of the gloom and dour tone of Man of Steel or Suicide Squad.
Spider-Man: Homecoming brought us into the world of the MCU's new Spider-Man, and once again, we get a lot of Iron Man (and a bit of Captain America). While there's a lot of debate about whether this version of Spider-Man is "comics-accurate," it certainly gives us a great chance to see what daily life is like in the MCU. As the Marvel Cinematic Universe continues to expand, I'm glad that the creators are sometimes able to tell little stories like this one to help make the world feel more lived-in.
Thor: Ragnarok continued the tradition of team-up-sequels, bringing the Hulk into Thor's world (and throwing in a quick Doctor Strange cameo). This movie is absolutely beloved, and there's a good reason why: this movie gives us more of that Guardians of the Galaxy tone, yet it's more wholesome than that series is. It also includes riffs on colonialism and assimilation, themes that would become far more explicit in their next film...
And then we get Justice League. And look, I didn't see it, but again... this one wasn't for me. I'm not a Zach Snyder fan, and while I enjoy a lot of Joss Whedon's projects leading up to his Marvel movies, from what I have seen of Justice League, it's not my thing. And I so badly wish that it was; I wish the DC heroes across the board were being adapted with as much love and care and heart as most of the Marvel films.
2018 - What Do You Do With Your Success?
2018 brought many more films that are generally really good, including a few gambles that absolutely paid off. And perhaps none of them had the same level of cultural impact as the year's first: Black Panther. What more can we say about this film? It's a masterpiece, it transcends the genre, and even earned a Best Picture nomination. Much like Logan (which received a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination), it uses the superhero movie genre to say something important about the world; in this case, it talks about the state of Black people in the world, and the consequences of colonization and slavery. It's superb.
And Marvel followed it up with their most ambitious film, Avengers: Infinity War. And you can tell a lot about someone by what they do with success. Marvel had been firing on all cylinders, and could do no wrong at the box office. So did they continue to make safe, reliable fan service following their same formulas? No, they blew it all up. While so many of their films had ended with neat, optimistic beats, Infinity War was a tragedy. And while anyone could tell you that the dead characters would return (this is a Marvel movie, after all), the message was clear: Marvel wasn't going to sit on its laurels and remake its old films endlessly. They were here to tell big, emotional stories.
The year also gave us Deadpool 2 (pretty good), the Incredibles 2 (pretty good), Ant-Man and the Wasp (better than the original), Teen Titans Go! To the Movies (I still need to see this one), Venom (I'll watch it someday), and Aquaman (I still need to see this one, too).
Oh, and of course, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Much like Black Panther, Spider-Verse resonated with people who didn't care about superheroes or Spider-Man, because it made them feel like they belonged in superhero movies. The fact that both films have POC leads is only one aspect to what makes those movies work. but it was a huge step forward for representation in superhero media.
2019 - Hits and Misses
2019 was such a scattershot of successes and failures. Glass was a train wreck (pun intended), Captain Marvel was a smashing success. Shazam! (which I still need to see too!) further proved that DC movies could be fun and still be successful, Hellboy was a hot dumpster fire. Dark Phoenix was an underwhelming end to the franchise, and Spider-Man: Far From Home was a fun, forgettable romp.
But there's two movies we need to talk about, because they are going to signal the future of the genre: Avengers: Endgame, and Joker.
I love Avengers: Endgame, despite some faults the film has. My second-favorite thing about the film is how it culminates the chaos and comic-book-weirdness that had built throughout the Marvel universe, and puts it all on display. This is a film where a kid with spider powers rides on the back of a pegasus, holding a glove with six stones that grant wishes, while aliens fire lasers at a giant man. And the franchise had actually gotten to the point where all of that was completely earned. It was the logical conclusion of more than twenty films, and the logical answer to that question: "Why don't all of these characters hang out together in their movies?" They do now. They've teamed up several times, and the world has continued to be enriched and deepened with each film.
But more than that, I love that it puts the arcs of its main characters front and center. This is a film about the original six Avengers, and especially about Iron Man and Captain America. And while there are a lot of great details that show off the fun of the Marvel universe, I genuinely believe that every seen furthers the goal of the film: to bring Iron Man's and Captain America's arcs to a close, and to begin the next chapter of Marvel.
And then there's Joker. Endgame is to Iron Man as Joker is to the Dark Knight; both are very different films that came out the same year, and both are going to inspire many imitators in the coming years. And while I'll acknowledge that Joker delivers stellar performances, it falls short of what I think it wants to do... I don't think the film actually has that much to say. Black Panther uses the superhero genre to deal with important questions. Joker asks questions (especially about how we treat the mentally ill), but doesn't have any answers. Instead, it wants credit for having asked the questions at all. And I worry that it will inspire a lot of imitators that took the wrong lesson away from it. And I don't mean shooters or terrorists (though I was worried that would happen); I mean filmmakers. I really hope that this doesn't inspire a wave of R-rated supervillain films done in the style of better filmmakers... especially if they all feel as irresponsibly disinterested in results as Joker does.
2020 - We Got Two Movies Before Everything Went to Crap
Okay, technically 2020 will have three superhero movies, because Wonder Woman: 1984 comes out in two days. But obviously the pandemic has postponed many movies this year. The only two superhero movies we did get, Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) and Bloodshot, I still haven't seen. But Birds of Prey succeeds in bringing a director's unique style into the film, something many of these superhero movies are reluctant to do (especially at Marvel). Meanwhile, Bloodshot is intended to launch a new cinematic universe (much like everything is these days), and if the Valiant universe succeeds, there may be a third party superhero line to challenge the established franchises, which would only be good for everyone. Both films will likely have sequels, so time will tell about the impact they may actually have on the superhero genre.
Even before the pandemic, I would be willing to say that the latest era of the Superhero Movie Learning Curve officially ended in 2019. This was when Marvel wrapped up the first chapter of their ongoing story, and DC took a big swing with Joker.
So, what comes next? Are we entering the Imperial Phase of the Superhero Genre? Or will what comes next be closer to a midlife crisis? Marvel is certainly switching gears, focusing on more diverse, smaller-scale stories with no Avengers film on their books, and bringing TV shows into their agenda. Will other studios do the same, or use this as a chance to try to catch up with the biggest game in town?
Only time will tell.