The Superhero Movie Learning Curve, Part Three: Higher Learning
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…
Buckle up folks, this is going to be a long one.
Maturity (2008 – 2012)
When you go to college, half of the point is to make new mistakes. You have to learn what happens when you have no safety net; when you can't fall back on the old habits that got you out of trouble before. You begin branching out, trying new things, experimenting; you make new friends, declare a major or two, and possibly pull down an internship in your field of interest. And like it or not, you set the path for your future.
In 2008, there were a slew of comic book movies, but two of them in particular ended up completely changing the game. The first of them was Iron Man.
Before 2008, Iron Man was a character not a lot of people outside of the comics scene had heard of. He’d had a brief cartoon in the ’90s, but was nowhere near as prolific as Spider-Man or The Hulk. Add to that an actor like Robert Downey, Jr., still best-known for his public struggles with addiction, and it was clear this was gonna be an odd one for audiences to get on board with. Turns out the movie was freaking fantastic.
I spoke last time about how comic book films had started trying to bring an element of realism to the stories, with films like X-Men and Batman Begins grounding their characters in a very real world. Iron Man did the same thing, but in a completely different way. The characters riffed off each other with improvised, conversational banter. Iron Man’s origin was cemented in the very real conflicts in Afghanistan, and there was a very deliberate effort to make Tony Stark, his suit, and his lifestyle completely believable. In many ways, it was a lot like Batman Begins (both films devote more than an hour of screen time to the characters developing their superhero identities / suits), but Iron Man’s approach was novel for a new reason: it was fun. The film is able to take itself seriously when it needs to, but it also enjoys the irreverence of Tony Stark and his decadent lifestyle. Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts isn’t just another girl Stark is pining for – she is his equal, able to ground him and temper his wild instincts. And when they have scenes together, you feel genuine affection between the two characters.
This was also the first film Marvel Studios put together itself, and you can tell it was a labor of love. They weren’t slaves to continuity, but they knew what they could change in service of the story – and what they couldn’t change without damaging the character and angering the fanboys. Because they were the fanboys. For the first time in history (or at least Marvel’s history), the studio didn’t just own the film rights, they owned the character and published his adventures every month. They were the audience that read Iron Man comics, and they wanted to get it right.
No film is perfect, of course. The third act of Iron Man feels rushed, and the villain’s motivations don’t entirely account for his super-villainous behavior. But this movie still completely changed the game.
And then after the credits, Samuel L. Jackson showed up to talk to Tony about the Avengers Initiative.
It was the first Marvel Studios movie, and they had no idea if anyone would even like it, let alone whether it would make money, but they still laid it all out on the table: We’re gonna make an Avengers movie.
The next film was another Marvel Studios joint, the Hulk reboot: The Incredible Hulk, starring Edward Norton as ol’ jolly green.
I like this movie a lot, though it is certainly more dour than Iron Man (or any of the other Marvel Studios movies to date). And in many ways, it tells a very similar story to Hulk 2003 (Banner’s desperate quest for a cure), but does a much better job. Banner is essentially suffering from post-traumatic stress from his Hulk incidents, which the movie tracks like an alcoholic counting his days of sobriety. A surprising amount of the film plays without dialogue (since Banner spends so much time on his own), yet they still do a nice job with developing the character of Bruce Banner, and articulating his struggles. The villains are well-done, and the Hulk scenes are all pretty entertaining.
Again, I spoke last time about in-jokes and references, particularly in Hulk – this film includes several references to the old TV series, but they’re not distracting, and don’t take you out of the film in the same way. They’re not there as touchstones of this character that must be shoehorned into the film (the way they are in Ang Lee’s movie) – they’re quick jokes. When Banner uses his famous line (“Don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.”) in broken Portuguese, it plays as a laugh and then the film quickly moves on. There’s also a reference to the Hulk’s notorious purple pants, but again, it’s fast, and if you don’t get the reference, you’ll still get the joke. Because that’s the way it should be.
The Hulk is always going to be a challenging character to adapt, for a number of reasons, but The Incredible Hulk is still a film that can be held up as an example of how to do it fairly well.
… and then, at the end of the movie, Tony Stark shows up.
This movie came out only six weeks after Iron Man, and already Marvel Studios made it clear what their mission was. It wasn’t just the goal of an Avengers film; it was the strategy of having multiple separate, yet interconnected films leading to one big payoff. And it made perfect sense – when Stan Lee created these characters, he also created the Marvel Universe as we know it. Even right at the beginning, the Fantastic Four could fight the Hulk, or Spider-Man could walk down the street and bump into Daredevil or Dr. Strange. There was a level of interconnectivity that nobody had ever attempted before. And now, nearly 50 years later, Marvel fans began to see the same thing happening in these movies.
The next film out was Hellboy II: The Golden Army, a sequel to the 2004 film (I actually prefer Hellboy, but Hellboy II is a better movie in a lot of ways). There was also Punisher: War Zone, which was sort of a reboot, but mostly just a stand-alone film. And then came the next film to change comic book movies forever: The Dark Knight.
This was the sequel to Batman Begins, and as you can probably guess, there’s a lot I could say about this one. First of all, it’s an exceptional Batman film. It carries the themes of the first film through, and delivers on all the promise that film had to offer. The cast is extraordinary, the film does a nice job of juxtaposing Batman against Harvey Dent, and the story feels like a chapter of Batman’s life we don’t often see: Batman hoping to retire early. The Batman we know in the comics is driven to be Batman right from age eight – it’s pretty clear right away this is what he’ll be doing with the rest of his life. But in Begins, the decision came more organically, and as an adult, so the goal is slightly different. He doesn’t want to stop all of crime forever – he wants to save Gotham from itself. His goal is to help pull the city out of the mud, but for the citizens themselves to get it back on track. So by the time Harvey Dent shows up on the scene, this version of Batman is ready to retire, to let the people of Gotham take it from there. Unfortunately, the criminal element has upped the ante – and thus comes the Joker.
Heath Ledger’s Joker is, without a doubt, one of the top ten performances ever given in film. He’s brilliant in the role, and what’s more, they got the character absolutely right. They deviated from his origin somewhat (in Nolan’s Batman world, apparently even getting your skin bleached in acid is too unrealistic), but his actions are 100% true to the character from the comics. He’s terrifying, and then he makes you laugh, and then he makes you hate yourself for laughing. He has no origin – it doesn’t matter who he was before, what simply matters is who he is now and what he’s capable of. And by swapping out the bleached skin for self-applied make-up, I think this Joker is even more frightening because he chose to dress like a clown (rather than rolling out of the acid tank with white skin and green hair and red lips, and saying, “Yeah, I can work with this.”).
It’s a really well-done Joker story, since it hits every part of his character. He frequently gets characters to kill each other, he lies to people without actually lying, and he tells multiple origins of how he came to be (the Joker in the comics once said, “Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes I remember it another. If I’m going to have a past, I’d prefer it to be multiple choice!”). Joker’s attempt to drive Harvey insane is a reference to a comic where he tried to drive Gordon insane, and his last line in the film could have almost been a direct quote from that story: “Madness is a bit like gravity. All it takes is a little push!” He’s no match for Batman in a fight, but that’s not how the Joker wins – he wins by putting characters in no-win situations. He wins by making you believe anarchy is the way to go. And it works. The Joker is the only person in The Dark Knight who actually wins.
Look, clearly I could talk about this film for hours. I have talked about this film for hours, several times. But let’s focus on the legacy this film left behind. Not only was it a damn fine film with an Academy Award-winning performance (Heath Ledger), the movie is more than just another wacky adventure – there are very strong themes that drive everything in the story. Nolan’s films are all very clearly driven by the themes at the heart of them, and his superhero films are no different. (Drinking Game: Take a shot each time someone says “fear” or “scared” in Batman Begins. Enjoy your alcohol poisoning.) In The Dark Knight, these themes are more complex than just good vs. evil – they get to the very nature of what makes a hero, and what people are capable of when their backs are against the wall.
2009 gave us two more movies: Watchmen and X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
Here’s the thing: disregarding any feelings I have towards the original comic, DC Comics, or Alan Moore, I enjoyed the Watchmen movie. I think it’s got some really good stuff in it, though I think it would have been stronger if Zach Snyder knew how to direct actors (so far, he seems to have no idea, which means sometimes even great performances just don’t quite come together). But Watchmen was interesting because it was a commentary on superheroes, but was also a serious superhero movie (as opposed to taking a comedic approach, something we’ve seen several times in cinema over the years, like the masterpiece The Incredibles, or less thoughtful films like Mystery Men). The downside of that was that the audience didn’t really know what to expect, so they didn’t get as much out of it as they could have. And, look, I’m not a huge Zach Snyder fan, but he’s more tolerable here. I think he got some things completely right (sometimes possibly even improving on the source material), and some things totally wrong (Malin Ackerman). However, overall the film was much better than it should have been given the sum of its parts, and is probably the best-case scenario as far as a Watchmen movie is concerned.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine was the first X-Men movie after The Last Stand, and suffers from a lot of the same problems. There are way too many mutant ‘cameos’ (“You guys remember Gambit, right? Well, here’s a sort-of version of Gambit for three seconds! And you guys like Deadpool, yeah? Well, here’s a completely diluted, bastardized version of Deadpool, hope that does it for you!”), added to a muddled mess of a story. And the story of Wolverine before he has amnesia is actually completely unnecessary to tell because, at the end of the movie, he doesn’t remember anything that happened during the movie. Not only that, but he should be a completely different character, since he has a totally different set of life experiences to influence who he is and how he acts – but somehow he is identical to the character we saw in the previous films, yet with any sense of a coherent story completely washed away. And look, guys, I could spend more time on the details, but the point is, it’s not very good.
2010 brought us a few more. Kick-Ass was another commentary on superheroes, but again, is played almost entirely for laughs (though the film does serve as an odd example of improving on the source material significantly). Jonah Hex was… also a movie. And then there was Iron Man 2.
Iron Man 2 generally gets a bad rap. It’s not a terrible film, but it is very flawed. Part of what I do love about the movie comes from the exploration of what the real world’s real response would be to a real-life superhero (especially one as public – and publicly flawed – as Tony Stark), and I absolutely love the idea of a supervillain whose only goal is not to defeat the hero, but to cause the hero to set himself up for his own failure. The movie has a few too many subplots (for those wondering which subplot would have been the easiest to cut, it’s the “Tony is dying” subplot; it doesn’t add much, and doesn’t really go anywhere), and doesn’t quite recapture the charm of the first film, but it’s still a lot of fun. (Plus, that briefcase armor scene was dope.)
This film also introduced Scarlett Johansson as S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. Black Widow, and includes a lot of set up for the Thor movie. For some audience members, this took them out of the story (particularly for those who didn’t know the characters, so didn’t yet understand the Avengers franchise that was being set up), but for me this is one of the things I like about the Marvel movie universe – the interconnectivity between the characters mirrors that of the comics. It’s not as well-done as it could be, and Nick Fury in particular behaves very differently in this film from how he does in the films that follow, but again, it’s important to remember that no one had ever attempted a franchise like this, especially in this way – and I still like it.
In 2011, the first comic book film was The Green Hornet, which is pretty much nothing like the source material, so let's jump ahead to the next one: Thor.
Let’s be perfectly honest here: the Thor movie should not have worked. He’s a very difficult character to get right, if only for the sheer number of bizarre concepts built into the character. Furthermore, the film had to make the world of Asgard so believable that it could stand side-by-side with the realistic tone set forth in the Iron Man movies. And all of that is just to scratch the surface of the daunting tasks set forth by a Thor movie, which is why nobody had been able to make one for all these years. But Marvel did it, and by thunder, it was awesome.
Once again, Thor was a very challenging exercise in what you can change from the source material, what you can cut, and what you can’t really mess with. For example, in the comics, Jane Foster is a nurse – but making her an astrophysicist gives her a reason to interact with Thor / Asgard / cosmic events, but also keeps her established as a smart woman (in fact, she’s a doctor now, which is an upgrade from nurse). That’s an excellent example of a change you can get away with. They also made some wise cuts – in the comics, when Thor slams his hammer down, he transforms into Dr. Donald Blake, a scrawny man with a walking stick. Blake doesn’t add much to Thor’s character, beyond the sense of humility gained by being turned mortal by Odin. The film does a nice version of the same by having Thor retain his appearance and memories, which means he remembers that he was a god who was turned into a human (which is a harsher punishment anyway). So, yeah, that was a good call.
I like the movie a lot, and I think Chris Hemsworth does a great job as Thor. One of the things I like most is that the film isn’t afraid to totally take the piss out of their hero – he keeps getting hit by cars or shot with tasers, and throughout the film he totally sells that he’s more than a fish-out-of-water, he’s a god who is completely out of his element, completely without power. For an example of what I’m talking about, check out his facial expression at the end of this clip:
Hemsworth sells Thor as an arrogant blowhard who keeps getting taken to task during the movie, and thank god, because if he didn’t commit to it, the movie absolutely wouldn’t work. All that said, Tom Hiddleston absolutely steals the show as Loki. I know this isn’t exactly a novel opinion for the internet, but Tom Hiddleston is very talented, and totally shines as Loki.
The next film to come along was X-Men: First Class, which ended up being probably my favorite superhero movie of 2011.
After X-Men: The Last Stand, the studio had no idea what to do with the franchise they had just torpedoed, so they started moving into the world of prequels. And while Wolverine didn’t do much to bolster the franchise again, First Class managed to get back to the spirit of the franchise. This film returns to the premise that made the first X-Men movies work, as well as the premise that makes the comics work, and approaches it with fresh eyes. It returns to real characters having real arguments, taking the issues presented in the film seriously. Yes, there’s some goofiness, too – it’s certainly the lightest of the X-Men films thus far – but the arguments and debates and frustrations voiced by the characters feel like genuine human reactions. This is best seen in Mystique’s storyline, as her powers best represent the two sides of the debate, the choice between hiding her abilities and wearing them proudly. Another part of what makes this film work is that it doesn’t feel like a slave to continuity – it certainly works with what has been established, but isn’t afraid to deviate slightly where the story would be better served. Again, there is nothing in the earlier films or the comics to suggest Mystique ever lived with Professor Xavier, but it works for the story.
I won’t tell you X-Men: First Class is a perfect movie – it’s sometimes cheesy, it’s rarely subtle, and insert easy joke about January Jones’ poor acting abilities here. But it was the first X-Men movie in years to live up to the potential the franchise always held, and arguably does it better than any other. Once again, the cast is fantastic, and it’s just a really well-done movie.
You know how, as you grow up and go to school, you have that one night where you do something really stupid? Maybe you stay up late watching a Mork and Mindy marathon and end up getting only one hour of sleep the night before a very important test? Or you get drunk and spend all your money buying fancy cheeses online? It may not be the greatest mistake ever, but there can still be heavy consequences, not the least of which is a reminder that you aren’t as smart or mature as you thought you were? Well, in 2011, Green Lantern came out, and it was pretty much the same thing.
Obviously Batman has had no trouble on the big screen lately, but before Man of Steel, the DC heroes had a tough time getting on screen. Green Lantern wasn't wretched, but it certainly didn't yield the success (or the sequel) that Warner Bros. was hoping for. But DC's FOMO would only get worse as Marvel continued to gain momentum.
The next movie to come out was Captain America: The First Avenger – and I think it’s very interesting that this year was marked by superhero period films (even Thor feels less like a traditional superhero film and more like a Shakespearian drama, though there’s also a flying dude with a lightning hammer in it). Captain America may not be the best-known character outside of comics, but he is a critical player in the Marvel comics universe, and very challenging to get right. Much like Superman, Cap is usually portrayed as a bit of a boy scout, sometimes such a super-nice guy that he doesn’t have an edge. And much like Superman, that’s not really the full story, but it’s true that he is good for the sake of good, and a character like that can be pretty hard to make compelling. But the first half of Captain America is an absolute treat. The whole cast is terrific (Stanley Tucci is brilliant as always, and special props go to the scene-stealing Tommy Lee Jones), but Chris Evans does a remarkable job. I remember being very nervous about his casting (the role was uniquely unlike anything he’d ever done), but he absolutely nails it.
They manage to hit all the beats of Captain America’s character remarkably well, and all of that is set up in the first half. The film is also a terrific example of including references to the comics that satisfy the fans, and aren’t distracting to non-fans. The second half feels a bit more by-the-numbers as far as superhero movies go (not bad, but nothing too special), but the last few scenes bring the movie back around, and it ends on a beautiful note. It does a nice job of keeping the story character-centric, so even when the film meanders into the third act, Steve’s arc is still very clear, and fairly well-executed.
2012 started modestly, with Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (a sequel meant to make you forget the original, which then failed to appeal to anybody). And then The Avengers blew the doors off the world.
The point of this article is not to gush on these films, so I’ll try to keep this relatively brief – The Avengers was a success is pretty much every way, and the first reason is because they actually made it.
The road to The Avengers was long and challenging. They had to make sure these franchises could convincingly exist in the same world (a particular challenge when it comes to Iron Man and Thor). They had to cast actors who could carry franchises, but still work well together. They had to find a balance between these characters, and a story that justified everyone being there and gave them all something to do. There were so many moments where this movie could have fallen apart. Hell, it almost did fall apart a few times – after Iron Man, Samuel L. Jackson and Marvel fell into financial disputes that almost ensured he would have been recast or omitted from the following films. If nobody had even liked Iron Man, this whole story would have been dead before it began. But defying the odds, they managed to make six movies in five years, all culminating in one film like the a season finale of a television series.
Speaking of television, that was the second victory: bringing on Joss Whedon (who has also been revealed to be a bad dude). I enjoy a number of his projects, but that’s not why I was super-excited when he joined the project – I was excited because he’d basically already been making this movie for his entire career. Every movie and TV series he’d ever made thus far was basically the same story: a group of very different people (usually one or more has some sort of superpower) band together to fight some ultimate enemy. Along the way they have very dynamic arguments with very quotable banter, then overcome their differences to fight as one. And over time, these people become a surrogate family to each other. That’s the plot of The Avengers in a nutshell, and he’d already been telling that same story for fifteen years, and had gotten pretty good at it by this point. He was also a huge fan of Marvel comics to start with, so he was at a unique position to be the exact right man for the job. And while the film isn't perfect, it's safe to say that he still totally delivered.
The film is especially noteworthy because, for the first time, we were seeing a superhero universe on screen. It wasn’t just the further adventures of Iron Man and his wacky friends, it was 4 separate franchises brought together, and within the film there is even more set-up for a grander universe unseen (from the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier to the cosmic stuff). There’s more to say on this film (there’s always more to say), but we should press on.
2012 also brought us the Amazing Spider-Man, an uneven movie that I remember enjoying, but that doesn't really hold up. Especially considering that the second film sunk the franchise, it's disappointing to see all of the miscalculations that led to the sequel's issues. That said, the cast of this film is terrific - in fact, it's becoming more and more rare to find a superhero movie that doesn't have an extraordinary cast. As the genre continues to build momentum, they continue to attract more and more exciting talent.
The last big superhero movie of 2012 was The Dark Knight Rises, the conclusion to Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. And this is a big deal for one major reason – it’s a conclusion to a superhero trilogy where every movie was enjoyable. Rises isn’t as strong as Batman Begins, and nowhere near as strong as The Dark Knight, but I still enjoy it, and it's an excellent conclusion to the character’s arc. Going back through the films I’ve mentioned in these posts so far, try to find a third film in a series that successfully pays off on the movies that came before, and serves as a final act of a trilogy. You literally can’t do it. Spider-Man 3 and X-Men: The Last Stand are the only Part Threes to even try to tie off the franchise in a satisfying way, and both completely failed; they buckled under too many plot-lines and general lack of awesomeness. Rises is hardly a perfect film, but it manages to bring Batman’s story to a close in very satisfying way.
So, once the dust settled in 2012, it was clear that the game had been changed. Batman was DC's safest bet, but their most successful version of the character had just been retired. Meanwhile, Marvel continued to push toward making movies feel more like comic books. In addition to that, every other film franchise would begin to strive for that Avengers-level synergy. Avengers changed cinema, because it proved that an audience would follow continuity from film to film.
Next time: Ambitions...