California Literary Review

A Look Back at 2011: Superhero Films Edition

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December 29th, 2011 at 6:25 pm

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The Cast of  X-Men First Class

The Cast of X-Men First Class

The 2000s could easily be called the decade of superhero movies, and this trend has continued into the 2010s. Instead of slowing down after ~11 years of mixed results, this genre still attracts major actors, filmmakers, budgets, and online rage. It, along with other sci-fi-y/CGI-laden fare such as Transformers and Star Trek, has all but killed the conventional action flick, which helps explain the continuing popularity of the The Fast and The Furious franchise. For all the complaints one might have about the series, it actually offers something unique on the movie landscape.

2012 will present at least four more of these films. The Avengers (May 4) and The Dark Knight Returns (July 20) are probably two of the most anticipated comic book movies of all time. The Amazing Spider-Man (July 3) is a controversial reboot of a franchise that only started 10 years prior, and one that probably had more life to it, despite the catastrophe that was Spider-Man 3. And Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (February 17) is a needless sequel to the needless Ghost Rider and still starring Nicolas Cage in the lead role. The hook for the new movie is that he pisses fire.

In the following, I look back at 2011′s major superhero-centric releases. Sorry, Dylan Dog: Dead of Night.

The Green Hornet- January 14 (dir. Michel Gondry)

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A January 14 release date immediately implied a lack of confidence in this Michel Gondry-directed, Seth Rogen-starring feature. Unlike (most of) the other heroes on this list, newspaper publisher Britt Reid/The Green Hornet didn’t begin his life affiliated with a comics company. Rather he was a radio hero from the 1930s who made his way to comic books, serials, and a television series in the 1960s primarily known for casting Bruce Lee as Reid’s loyal manservant Kato.

Overall, The Green Hornet had a lot going for it despite the character’s lack of recognition among the general public. It had dialogue written by Rogen and his long-time co-writer Evan Goldberg that was punchier than in the average superhero movie, did a good job at establishing the camaraderie between Reid and Kato, and maintained a decent sense of humor without turning to camp. The film was well cast with Tom Wilkinson, Christoph Waltz, Jay Chou, Edward James Olmos (one of the many victims of the latest season of Dexter), and even Rogan. In this respect, the movie’s greatest misstep was an utterly miscast Cameron Diaz playing an utterly pointless character.

Seth Rogen as Britt Reid and Jay Chou as Kato in The Green Hornet

Fun fact: Britt Reid is the descendant of John Reid, The Lone Ranger.

However, the biggest problem with Hornet was that it was not able to live up to its obvious potential. I got the sense that there was a darker film lurking beneath its surface. The good guys actually killed bad guys while pretending to be the bad guys and gleefully relished the role of ne’er-do-wells. The city was plagued with widespread corruption on all levels: the police, the district attorney’s office, and even the Reid family newspaper, The Daily Sentinel. The main villain and secondary villain were unrepentant in their evil and seemed to pose an actual threat, rather than being brutish bumblers whom you wonder how they rose so high in the criminal hierarchy. And, the final battle in the newspaper offices with half-a-Black-Beauty was actually well done. That was probably thanks mostly to Gondry (director of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Be Kind, Rewind; and The Science of Sleep), who deserved a lot more room to experiment in the superhero genre.

But something felt missing in Hornet, that soul that makes a movie a film rather than a collection of scenes. Either it wasn’t willing enough to delve deep enough into weightier matters (which I personally doubt), or it was severely edited/ “studio-ed” before, during, and after filming in order to receive and maintain a PG-13 rating.

Worldwide gross: $228 million ($99 million domestic; $129 million foreign)

Thor- May 6 (dir. Kenneth Branagh)

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After the several levels of disappointment of Iron Man 2, Thor was the first real test case for the upcoming The Avengers movie. Sure, there was The Incredible Hulk several years earlier but that already carried with it the reboot stigma, wasn’t connected to The Avengers until the credit cookie, and they’ve even recast Bruce Banner a third time for the upcoming film.

Surprisingly, Thor worked as a (second tier) superhero movie. Branagh did a good job at establishing Asgard and Thor’s fellow Asgardians, and the scenes set there were a welcome reprieve aesthetically and story-wise to the primarily earthbound tales of other comic book films. Chris Hemsworth in his first released leading role had a genuine presence that allowed him to portray a God on Earth, as well as a God among Gods, even against more experienced professionals.

 Chris Hemsworth as Thor on Asgard in Thor

Thor on Asgard, the more interesting part of the film

While the scenes on Earth (in particular those involving the relationship between Thor and Jane Porter (Natalie Portman)) were far less clever than the ones on Asgard, they succeeded in making me believe that The Avengers might work. Unlike Iron Man 2, which ofttimes felt more like S.H.I.E.L.D. featuring Iron Man, Thor pulled off the concept that these films are connected without sacrificing the hero at its core. When The Destroyer comes from Asgard and S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Cale asks “is that one of Stark’s?”, it gave the impression that they are living in the same universe without beating us over the head that a spin-off is coming. Also, although S.H.I.E.L.D. was present throughout the film, unlike in Iron Man 2, it served more of a function to the plot, and not having Big Time Agents like Nick Fury and Black Widow constantly interacting with Thor further helped establish the film on its own merits.

Unfortunately, the film didn’t do as good a job at setting up Loki. Tom Hiddleston is a fine actor, but Loki’s personality, maliciousness, powers, and goals weren’t well enough established throughout the film, and by the time he and Thor had their fight on Rainbow Bridge it seemed perfunctory. This is part of the concern with having Loki as the main villain in The Avengers. Although he was the bad guy in Avengers #1, and The God of Mischief certainly has the potential to make chaos for the world’s greatest heroes, Red Skull from Captain America, Justin Hammer from Iron Man 2, and even The Leader from The Incredible Hulk all seemed to have greater weight.

Worldwide gross: $449 million ($181 million domestic; $268 million foreign)- probably benefiting from its position as first comic book film of the summer, Thor was the highest grosser of the year.

X-Men: First Class- June 3 (dir. Matthew Vaughn)

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Prequels are very tricky business, and Matthew Vaughn not only pulled it off, but made the best movie in the entire X-Men franchise. What sets First Class apart from The Avengers line is that it functions as a stand alone film, even with four predecessors. While Thor and Captain America had its eyes towards the franchise, First Class existed independently. Put another way, even without the Marvelverse or Xiverse connection First Class succeeds as a work unto itself. I’m not entirely sure you can say that about the other films on the list.

The cast (including Bridesmaids‘s Rose Byrne, Winter’s Bone‘s Jennifer Lawrence, Mad Men‘s January Jones, and Super‘s Kevin Bacon) is very good and anchored by James McAvoy as Professor X and this year’s most remarkable actor Michael Fassbender as Magneto. Many of the relationships in the film are strong in ways that the original X series never really accomplished. Although Mystique with her doubts about herself, her powers, and fitting in can be likened to Rogue from the first trilogy, this film handles her concerns much more adeptly, and her interactions with Beast, Professor X, and Magneto are significantly better written and acted than Rogue’s with Iceman, Professor X, and Wolverine.

Another benefit of Vaughn’s work was abandoning the dark with black leather motif of the original X trilogy to create the bright, vibrant world of the 1960s with yellow and blue flight costumes/flight suits harkening back to the original look of the X-Men. Additionally, First Class seemed to have a bigger scope than the other films on the list and best showed that the Earth these characters inhabit is much larger than themselves.

Worldwide gross: $353 million ($146 million domestic; $207 million foreign)

Green Lantern- June 17 (dir. Martin Campbell)

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Despite its affiliation with Warner Brothers, DC has had a difficult time getting film franchises off the ground. Compared to Marvel, which has seemingly cornered the market on superhero films, DC only has one true success- Batman. While multiple failures are par for the course, what makes DC surprising is its lack of attempts at big screen greatness. Nevertheless, I consider Watchmen up there with the Nolan Batman films as one of the best comic book movies ever made, and Superman Returns for all its many flaws was at least an ambitious failure. Beyond that, Jonah Hex? Red? Constantine? None of those are marquee names.

But in DC’s most prime properties (Superman, Batman, and Watchmen), you actually sensed that the filmmakers cared about the characters, and they worked to create the visually distinctive universes in which they live. Singer, Nolan, and Snyder didn’t just show the superheroes themselves, but how their existence impacted society. Sure, Superman Returns fell apart under its own pretensions and Singer’s uncomfortable obsession with the Donner films, but he tried to produce a more epic superhero film, and one born from the bizarre premise that the Man of Steel date raped his ex-girlfriend and ran away for five years.

Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor in Superman Returns

Genius businessman anti-hero Lex can work better than mad scientist Lex.

So in this realm of quantity over quality, Green Lantern had at least some tradition to live up to. Lantern is a major character in the DC-verse, and this was DC’s tent pole picture in a summer of three significant Marvel films. Moreover, it had a fantastically large budget (between $200-$300 million) and a lot of advertisement, though not a lot of buzz.

Unfortunately, Green Lantern suffered from probably the worst space crime considering how many of these films we contend with every year: it was too conventional. The film felt compelled to shove itself and protagonist Hal Jordan (a decent Ryan Reynolds) into some sort of Iron Man format, going so far as having Jordan use Tony Stark’s trick to defeat Obadiah Stane at the beginning of the film, albeit against drone planes. While a hero must struggle on his journey, Jordan’s path sacrificed a great deal of the character. And I’m not talking about his comics counterpart, but the character established by the film itself. Making a brash, cocky fighter pilot who thinks he’s God’s gift to everything deal with angst and insecurities after learning that he actually is the coolest person on Earth came across as forced and lazy. I’m not saying Jordan wouldn’t feel conflicted, but the way the film presented it did not work, and his decision to take the mantle felt very “well, we’re entering the third act so I guess his struggle is over.”

Ryan Reynolds as Hal Jordan in the Green Lantern

In brightest day, in emptiest theater…

This isn’t to mention the lack of a decent villain (Peter Sarsgaard as Hector Hammond does what he can) and the horrible casting of Blake Lively as the female lead- an expertly trained fighter pilot/savvy business woman. Massive plot holes (why did Sinestro put on the yellow ring?); belabored Earth sequences; unintentionally hilarious, Airplane!-esque flashback sequences; a lack of creativity with the ring that can do anything; and thinly drawn characters from many species and sides all served to make this film a massive disappointment. Additionally, despite a good opening sequence featuring Jordan’s predecessor Abin Sur, DC’s previous strength of building a unique society was virtually absent this go around. This was especially curious and problematic considering how the filmmakers received the opportunity to build two universes- one on Earth and one on Oa, the Green Lantern Corps’ base of operations; both worlds seemed very insular.

Worldwide gross: $219 million ($116 million domestic; $103 million foreign)- that’s right, the biggest budgeted film did the worst of the top 5 on this list. It also ranked on The Hollywood Reporter’s list of this year’s biggest bombs.

Captain America: The First Avenger- July 22 (dir. Joe Johnston)

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Although X-Men: First Class was the better film, Captain America is possibly the more interesting one. Along with a remarkable visual sense that captured the look and feel of 1940s films, director Johnston and writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely took another remarkable approach to the man who throws his mighty shield by making Captain America into a biopic of Steve Rogers.

Yes, I know Steve Rogers is not a real guy, but the movie seems to borrow more from that genre (in particular war biopics such as Sgt. York) than from other comic book films. There’s even the tragic death of a proto-family member (Dr. Erskine, Rogers’ father figure) that propels the hero towards his destiny.

Like most conventional biopics, Captain America focuses on before the main character becomes a superstar. We start with the tortured upbringing that inspired his values, complete with homages to his future (e.g. garbage can shield). It’s not an easy journey towards greatness, and he gets rejected numerous times before finally getting that shot to perform (i.e. receiving a chance to enlist in the army). Even after he gets the record deal (i.e. Vita-Rays), it’s a long way to the top; he still needs to do crappy gigs before obtaining celebrity status (i.e. actually fighting the war). But after playing his first major concert, he gets the acclaim, the back-up band (i.e. the Howling Commandos), and the funding to travel the world and show off his greatness (i.e. destroy Hydra).

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This song should receive an Oscar nomination. Same goes for Kavinsky’s Nightcall from Drive.

As a comic book movie, this becomes Captain America‘s biggest problem. The scenes where Captain America goes after Hydra should be and could have been a movie in and of itself. The film worked well enough that we wanted to see more of Captain America’s adventures in World War 2. Instead, we rush through him defeating the worse-than-Nazis villains in a montage and curse The Avengers for causing the filmmakers to cut down this part of his journey. But seen as a biopic, this technique makes more sense. We don’t focus on Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, or Dewey Cox playing stadiums. Biopics rarely show people at the top of the game because the struggle getting there is what these films primarily concern themselves with.

The biopic angle also explains some of the other elements of the film. Yes, Steve Rogers might appear a bit too humble, but most biopics focus on a whitewashed version of the real person anyway. Additionally, while many of the side characters seem to lack personalities or hard edges, very few biopics from any era concern themselves with the side crew.

Worldwide gross: $368 million ($177 million domestic; $191 million foreign)

Super- April 1 (dir. James Gunn)

Rainn Wilson as The Crimson Bolt in Super

Rainn Wilson as The Crimson Bolt in Super

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention James Gunn’s Super. Not a conventional comic book/superhero movie and only released in 39 theaters nationwide, Super is not just the funniest movie of the year but probably the funniest movie in several years. Starring Rainn Wilson as The Crimson Bolt, a fry cook who turns to crimefighting after his recovering drug addict wife (Liv Tyler) is brought back into the junkie fold by a crime lord (Kevin Bacon), Super succeeds where The Green Hornet failed in showing the inherent darkness of the genre. While many R-comedies of recent years fail to truly push the envelope, Super takes the comedy film to unexpected and hilarious places. More importantly, the humor and brutality continue and build throughout the film, as opposed to slowing down once the plot kicks in, which I find to be an unfortunate condition of many modern comedies. Ellen Page co-stars and scene steals as Bolty, a comic book store clerk who positively adores her role of The Crimson Bolt’s sidekick.

I wrote about Super in the mid-year, Best And Worst Movies Of 2011, Part 1 Listicle, and I still maintain what I said then. It is not just the type of film that deserves a cult following, it is the type of film that will get a cult following.

Worldwide gross: $324,138 ($324,138 million domestic; n/a foreign)

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