Back in August, I posted a bunch of highlights from the first year “4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch,” my weekly feature on Tor.com looking at all the live-action feature films based on comic-book superheroes.
Here’s a bunch of highlights from August to now, posted because I feel like it. You should definitely check the feature out, which appears every Friday around noon…..
On X-Men Origins: Wolverine:
And then we don’t even get halfway through the first mission before Wolverine quits in a huff and we fast forward six years to Creed killing off the members of the team, as if that’s supposed to mean something. But we only saw the team for half a second, so neither Wolverine’s departure nor Creed’s tracking them down to kill them has much of an impact, beyond the sundering of the two half-brothers. I had more emotional connection to the doomed X-Force team in Deadpool 2, for crying out loud.
On The Wolverine:
Screenwriters Mark Bomback and Scott Frank have taken a fairly simple plot—long-lost father returns to family, turns them into crimelords, our hero must help the woman he loves regain the family honor—and convolute the hell out of it. We’ve got yakuza, we’ve got ninjas, we’ve got family drama, we’ve got a spectacularly unconvincing fight atop a bullet train (mind you, I have no problem with anything Logan did on top of the train, it’s that any of the yakuzathugs lasted more than a second up there), we’ve got different factions of different people wanting people dead, maybe, except maybe just kidnapped or what the hell? If Yashida’s intent was to live, why did he even bother with a will and faking his death? Was he giving it all to Mariko because he intended to use her as a figurehead and was he just a sexist asshole who didn’t realize his grand-daughter was awesome? (Mind you, that would be perfectly possible, but aside from one cryptic bit of dialogue from Viper, it’s totally unclear.)
What I particularly love about the movie, though, is that it still has the same message that all the best X-Men stories have: hope. Xavier’s dream has always been for mutants and humans to live in peace, and his actions have always been to make sure that mutants are safe and cared for in a world that hates and mistrusts them. Those themes are still at the heart of this story, whether it’s the search for the mythical Eden, or simply the act of helping Laura get away from Transigen.
The theme is given added tragedy by Xavier’s awful mental state. Sir Patrick Stewart gives one of his greatest performances—in a career full of truly great performances—as he goes from broken down and scattered to suddenly much more focused when he has a mutant to help in Laura. His breakdown is heartbreaking, seeing this regal, noble figure whom we’ve seen played by two different actors through a long and heroic life reduced to hiding in a giant metal box in Mexico so he doesn’t accidentally kill any more people he loves.
What’s appealing truly about the movie is the uniquely 21st-century aspect of the whole thing, which is the role of online media. The only reason Kick-Ass becomes a phenomenon is because the video of him jumping in to save a guy from getting beaten up goes viral. It isn’t his skill as a hero that makes him famous, it’s his desire to be a hero that does so. The most important part of the video isn’t him wading into the fight. Rather it’s his response to the goon who asks why he’s getting the shit kicked out of him for someone he doesn’t know. His reply: “Three assholes, laying into one guy, while everyone else watches, and you wanna know what’s wrong with me?”
On Kick-Ass 2:
The problem is, we know that Kick-Ass isn’t a normal kid—he’s an inspiration to everyone, the person whose presence broke the dam and led to the wave of costumed heroes. True, he wasn’t really the first one as everyone claims—that was Big Daddy—but for someone who’s supposed to be inspirational, he’s incredibly boring. In a movie that’s supposed to be about stepping up and being a hero—and also knowing when to step down—that lack of charisma works against the character. (Though I am amused that Kick-Ass continues to almost never win a hand-to-hand fight, needing Hit Girl or Dr. Gravity or the rest of Justice Forever to help him out.)
Luckily, others pick up the slack, notably Jim Carrey. The erstwhile Riddler and Mask gives one of his finest performances here, as he’s barely even recognizable with his swagger, his Noo Yawk attitude, and the prosthetic nose and teeth. I particularly love the fact that he castigates his teammates for swearing, which is especially hilarious in a movie in which one of the main characters is called the Motherfucker and has a team called the Toxic Mega-Cunts. Williams also has a swear jar for Hit Girl, who laments at one point that he’s going to need a much bigger jar.
On Iron Man:
Luckily, Iron Man is a very good movie, which is one of the main reasons why the MCU has been a success for a decade now. It starts off brilliantly, establishing Stark’s character quickly and efficiently as he sits in a Humvee holding his drink steady as it bounces through the desert and chatting with his escorts. It’s to the credit of Favreau and the screenwriters that this scene is so brilliantly effective, as we only have a few minutes to get to know these characters before they’re shot at. They don’t just redshirt the three airmen, they’re three people you actually care about, so it matters (to us and to Stark) when we see them die.
On The Incredible Hulk:
For all the talk that this was a reboot and they were going to move past the origin, and all the rest, Incredible Hulk winds up hitting pretty much the same beats as Hulk: Banner becomes Hulk, Banner is chased by Army, Banner is captured by Army, Banner has city-damanging climactic fight against another CGI monster, Banner gets away in the end, Betty is super-pissed at her Dad.
The main change, of course, is the removal of Banner’s father, which is very much a change for the better. The biggest problem with Hulk was mistaking it for a movie about Banner père rather than Banner fils, as Nick Nolte sucks all the life out of the movie. But without that psychological hit, we don’t have anything that actually makes Banner interesting. Norton just plays Banner as a random dude who happens to turn into a big green rage-monster, but there’s no sense of personality here. Technically, replacing the charisma-free Eric Bana with Norton is trading up, but it’s not trading up enough, as Norton’s best mode is as the calm, normal-seeming guy.
Worse, there’s no sense of torment. Norton’s Banner is just bland and uninteresting and unconvincing. There’s no there there. He should be frightened and haunted, and instead he’s just a guy on the run who happens to have very good ways of winning fights.
On Iron Man 2:
Also, Vanko’s plot, such as it is, is phenomenally stupid. Get his ass kicked on the racetrack just to make Stark look bad? That’s it? If Hammer hadn’t freed him, his real plan would never have kicked in, and that, at least, makes sense—wanting to destroy Stark’s legacy by blowing up Stark Expo and taking innocent lives, using technology pioneered by Stark and perfected by Vanko, based on work done by their fathers. But even then, it all feels perfunctory.
The development of Stark’s relationship with Potts—his complete inability to actually talk to her (or anyone) like a person—is a delight, watching Rhodes try to balance the needs of duty versus his friendship with Stark is compelling (especially with Don Cheadle now in the role), and the whole movie is worth it to see Samuel L. Jackson be Fury for more than half a second, and it’s truly magnificent. In fact, S.H.I.E.L.D. is responsible for most of what’s great in the movie—besides Fury, you’ve got even more of Clark Gregg’s deadpan awesomeness as Coulson, and the triumphant debut of Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, who here establishes her role in the MCU as one of the few actual grown-ups, a role she will continue to fulfill in subsequent appearances.
And then we have Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston who are beyond amazing. Hemsworth effortlessly blends Thor’s nobility, his arrogance, his charisma, and his lust for life. It’s a bravura performance, one that owes as much to Norse myth as it does Marvel Comics, but dammit, it works. Half the movie is carried entirely by his infectious grin. Hemsworth plays Thor as someone who is almost always having fun—but when he isn’t, those emotions are just as powerful, whether it’s sadness at Odin’s alleged death, anger at being forbidden from attacking Jotunheim, frustration at being trapped on Earth, or shut-down depression after failing to lift the hammer. It’s an emotionally complex performance far beyond what the character even needs to be effective, and Hemsworth deserves tremendous kudos for that.
With all that, he’s almost completely blown away by the guy playing his brother, because holy shit is Hiddleston amazing. Loki is a self-centered figure of mischief, yes, one who prefers illusions and misdirection to the more direct battle that his brother and the other warriors go for, but he also simply wants to be a good son to his father. He envies Thor his place as their father’s favorite, and it leads him down the garden path to betrayal—but also to the throne. But Hiddleston beautifully plays the character’s tragedy, as even in the end, his only desire is to be accepted as an equal son by his father—and when the father won’t give it to him, he chooses oblivion. He’s still the best villain in the MCU pantheon, and will continue to be so through at least four more movies.
On Captain America: The First Avenger:
First of all, the script entirely gets Steve Rogers. All we knew about him when we first met him in 1940 was that he was 4F, a sickly young man who still wanted to serve his country. Over the years various folks (Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in the 1960s, Roger Stern and John Byrne in the 1980s, Fabian Nicieza and Kevin Maguire in the 1990s) added more and more to his backstory, establishing the crippling poverty he grew up in, but also that his parents (Irish immigrants) instilled a sense of patriotism and belief in the American dream in him.
The First Avenger doesn’t really deal with the poverty, instead focusing on Rogers’s physical infirmities and determination to stand up to bullies, whether it’s the jerk who won’t stop talking over the newsreels in the movie theatre or Adolf Hitler and Johann Schmidt. Evans absolutely sells this aspect of Rogers’s personality, which is especially impressive since he did the whole thing while green-screening and being computer manipulated into a tiny person and generally probably completely unable to interact properly with the other people on the screen with him. Yet the F/X never get in the way of the characterization, and Rogers comes across as completely honest and true.
And that’s only the beginning of the work Evans does, as he never loses sight of Captain America’s optimism, his intelligence, his compassion, his willingness to stand up for what’s right. In the wrong hands, Cap can be corny, he can be bland, he can be incompetent, he can be naïve, but when done right, he’s a human symbol, and both those words are important. In this movie (and subsequent ones), he’s very much done right, a credit to both the writing and the truly amazing acting that Evans does. He’s inspirational without being hackneyed, noble without being goofy, compassionate without being weak.
One of the best conceits of the script is that, while there’s plenty of excellent action, there’s also superlative dialogue and characterization. My favorite is that every main character gets a one-on-one with Loki at some point in the film. Some are brief, like Rogers and Loki trading pointed barbs in Stuttgart, or Hulk cutting Loki’s rant off by smashing him into the floor over and over again (a scene that never fails to be hilarious, and which will be beautifully called back to in Thor: Ragnarok), or Loki giving instructions to the suborned Barton. Some are hilarious, like Stark’s threatening Loki while offering him a drink, or Fury throwing the ant-boot metaphor back in his face. (“Let me know if ‘real power’ wants a magazine or something.”) And some are poignant, like Thor’s plea to Loki to come home that falls on uninterested ears, and Romanoff’s expert manipulation of the god of mischief. Tom Hiddleston proves himself again to be the rock star of the MCU, giving us a complex, anguished, furious villain, one who refuses to remain in his brother’s shadow, and it has led him down an awful path.
The climax is one of the finest superhero battles ever committed to film. Everyone uses their powers intelligently, Cap’s strategy is sound, and I particularly like that the Avengers work constantly to save lives and keep the fight contained. (The location shooting plays to that, as every single place we see in the battle is within about a ten-block radius of Grand Central Terminal, a touch this native New Yorker appreciated.)
On The Amazing Spider-Man:
This movie also makes it impossible for me to ever believe that Peter Parker was able to keep anybody from figuring out that he’s Spider-Man, mostly because he spends basically the entire movie showing off his powers in his civvies, and the entire second half of the movie losing his mask, whether on purpose (on the bridge to help calm the kid he’s trying to rescue down—which was actually pretty effective) or by accident (when the cops fight him). But after trashing the bathroom, after showing up Flash Thompson by making the basketball stick to his hand, by using his powers in public constantly, it’s just frustrating.
On top of that, the movie makes all kinds of story choices that are dictated, not by what makes a good story, but by the fact that it’s only been ten years since someone did a movie that showed Spider-Man’s origin, so changes had to be made to avoid repetition. So Peter can’t enter a wrestling contest and then let the thief who steals the receipts go by because Sam Raimi did that, so it’s a thief at a bodega instead. Except you still need the wrestling hit, because that’s what inspires Peter to put on a costume, so he, er, um, falls through a ceiling into a wrestling ring with posters of guys in costume on it. Sure.
On The Amazing Spider-Man 2:
Let’s start with this, because it’s my biggest problem with this movie: Gwen Stacy dies in the end. On the one hand, yes, she died in the comics. Hell, it’s one of the four or five most famous deaths in a comic book. In many ways the character is better known for having died than for what she was when alive, which is too bad, as she was actually a pretty damned awesome character. That’s why her death was so effective, in fact. (Thank goodness for Spider-Gwen, which mines Marvel’s copious use of alternate timelines to give us the heroic Gwen we all deserve without actually reversing yet another character death.)
The thing is, that’s not a good enough reason to kill her off in this movie. Yes, it happened in the comics. You know what else happened in the comics? Peter was bitten by a radioactive spider, not a genetically engineered one. Peter’s father and mother were secret agents, his father wasn’t a scientist who experimented with spiders. Peter entered a wrestling competition and let a thief steal the receipts, not a guy robbing a bodega, and that guy killed his uncle while robbing their house, not out on the street. Max Dillon was a janitor, not an electrical engineer. The Osborns don’t have a genetic disease, and Norman was the one who became the Green Goblin first. Dr. Kafka’s a compassionate woman not a psychotic man with a stupid accent. For that matter, Gwen died without ever knowing that Peter was Spider-Man.
They didn’t feel the need to pay attention to any of that other stuff, so why be beholden to superhero comics’ most famous fridging?
On Jonah Hex:
But this movie not only doesn’t embrace the crazy, it isn’t even willing to give it a handshake. The addition of Hex’s supernatural ability is there mostly just to move the plot along. (It also gives us the Jeb-Hex conversation in the graveyard, which is the only really watchable scene in the entire movie, mostly due to the usual magnificence of Jeffrey Dean Morgan.) At the very end, the fight between Hex and Turnbull keeps cutting back and forth to a fight in the spirit world that is presented with no context, though at least the spirit world is better lit than the engine room of Turnbull’s boat.
Nothing that happens in this movie makes any sense. Grant recruiting Hex is incomprehensible, especially since he doesn’t actually know about Hex’s superpowers, the reasons for the Crow helping Hex out (twice!) are never adequately explained, nor is how the Crow are able to do any of this. The existence of the superweapon is problematic, as I don’t see how it would never be used after this, since the plans exist. Why wasn’t this used in World War I? For that matter, Hex gets a mess of steampunk weapons from Smith—another Magical Negro Q like Lucius Fox in Batman Begins, this one played by Lance Reddick—for no compellingly good reason except it’s 2010 and there should be steampunky things.
On Green Lantern:
This movie comes in for a lot of crap, to the point that Ryan Reynolds filmed a scene of himself as a time-travelling Deadpool shooting actor Ryan Reynolds in the head while reading the script for Green Lantern to avoid having this film get made.
And yes, it’s a bad movie, but it’s not actually that bad, and it has one scene in it that makes the whole movie worthwhile in my eyes.
It’s the scene where Jordan is surprised when Ferris recognizes him in costume still being Hal Jordan, and Ferris makes the single greatest speech in the entire seventy-year history of superhero movies:
“I’ve known you my whole life! I’ve seen you naked! You don’t think I would recognize you because I can’t see your cheekbones?”
Thus Green Lantern finally addresses the problem that every single live-action superhero production has had since Kirk Alyn first tried and failed to convince us that a pair of glasses would be enough of a disguise for Clark Kent in 1948. Most superhero disguises are adequate for hiding the person’s identity from the general public. But almost all superhero disguises would never for one second fool anyone who’d met both the superhero and the secret identity. It’s impossible to credit that someone who knew Barry Allen wouldn’t realize he was the Flash under that mask that still leaves his eyes, jaw, nose, and mouth exposed—especially since he has the same voice. Every once in a while you get a Christopher Reeve who is able to make it work with body language and voice work, but mostly you get the same person, and there’s just no way to believe that anyone would be fooled who met both.
And finally in Green Lantern we get exactly the right reaction from Ferris, the one we kept seeing characters not have and look incredibly stupid and unobservant for seven decades.
It’s only a pity the rest of the movie is kinda dumb.
On X-Men: First Class:
One of the things I liked about the X-movies is that they didn’t start from scratch. While X-Men was the first movie featuring Xavier and his students, it was also clear that they were pretty well established at that point, that Xavier has been rescuing and training and helping mutants for years. Given how many superhero movies of the 21st century have felt the need to start with the character’s origin (sometimes twice, viz. the Spider–movies), this is something of a relief. Over the course of that and several other movies, we saw that the X-Men have a history, from the recruitment of Jean Grey as a girl in the past and meeting former students like Hank McCoy in the present in The Last Stand to Xavier showing up at the end of X-Men Origins: Wolverine to take Scott Summers and the other victims of Stryker away to his school.
It is rare that comic book heroes actually have a history in real time in conjunction with their publication history. Even though Fantastic Four #1 came out in 1961, the FF weren’t actually formed fifty-seven years ago in-story. Comics have existed on a kind of sliding timescale, where the origin story was seven-to-ten years ago no matter when the current story comes out in relation to the first.
So it’s fascinating to watch First Class firmly establish that the X-Men in the Fox movies were actually formed around the time the comic book started. The movie primarily takes place in 1962 so it can be tied into the Cuban Missile Crisis, but that’s only one year prior to Uncanny X-Men #1’s publication. And it gives us the X-Men’s origin, not in their first film, but in their fifth.
On X-Men: Days of Future Past:
Some of the problems with First Class are present here as well, particularly with regard to cast bloat. There isn’t enough space to give everyone equal time, so where the secondary Hellfire Club bad guys are ciphers in First Class, it’s the extra X-Men in the future who get to be that in Days. Heck, even Storm barely has anything to do (though that was partly dictated by Halle Berry’s pregnancy). Blink, Bishop, Iceman, Pryde, Colossus, Sunspot, and Warpath barely even register as people.
The treatment of the characters from the last film is also a bit disappointing. Frost, Banshee, Azazel, and Salvadore are briefly mentioned by Magneto as having been killed, and that’s it. Havok shows up for half a second in Vietnam, a pointless cameo, and there isn’t even any mention of Riptide. Instead, we get Quicksilver (who never uses that name, sticking with Peter Maximoff), who’s actually a lot of fun as played with a delightfully laconic affect by Evan Peters, and McCoy, who has none of the comics character’s verve and wonderful mix of genius and wit. As with Xavier and Magneto, so too with the Beast—Nicholas Hoult is a decent enough actor, but he can’t hold a candle to Kelsey Grammar. (And we’re reminded of how much better he was in the part in his brief cameo at the end.)
On X-Men: Apocalypse:
No effort is made to make [Michael] Fassbender, James McAvoy, Nicholas Hoult, Rose Byrne, or Lucas Till look twenty years older than they were in First Class. No effort is made to make Summers’s transition from whiny teenager to future leader of the team in any way convincing. No effort is made by Sophie Turner to actually make Grey a compelling character. She’s supposed to be a struggling, tormented young woman, but she comes across instead as someone acting in a high school play who just wants opening night to be, like, over so she can go hang out with her friends. (Her performance, which is totally lacking in all luster, does not bode well for her upcoming focus in Dark Phoenix.)
Singer’s first X-film was one of the best superhero films ever done at the time it was made, the vanguard of a revolution in the subgenre that we’re still enjoying the fruits of eighteen years later. His last X-film (Simon Kinberg is scheduled to direct as well as write the next one) is one of the most bland and dull, two words I wouldn’t use to describe any of Singer’s other films (except maybe his first, Public Access). Even the wrongheaded Superman Returns was better than this dud.
After two promising films that indicated a return to glory for the X-films, the third film spit the bit. History does, indeed, repeat itself sometimes…
On Red Sonja:
The script is trapped between adapting an existing character and servicing the needs of Hollywood. The two biggest problems are the presence of Schwarzenegger’s Kalidor, who’s there as a hedge against a) a female protagonist who is b) played by an unknown; and the ending, where they kiss. It contravenes the whole point of Red Sonja to have her forego her vow just like that at the end for the sake of a very Hollywood-ized kiss. (And yes, I know Sonja’s vow only to sleep with a man who overpowers her is problematic to say the least, and one that has been fodder for many a comic book story, but this movie doesn’t really address it except to have Kalidor make fun of it and have Sonja ignore it for Kalidor, which is giving Schwarzenegger’s musculature way too much credit.) Having said that, I enjoyed the hell out of Sonja and Kalidor fighting each other so hard that they both collapse from exhaustion.
On Dick Tracy (1990):
Most of the cast is very obviously having a great time, starting with Madonna living up to her character’s first name as Breathless Mahoney, perfectly playing the sultry lounge singer. (She does a lovely job singing the Stephen Sondheim-written songs Mahoney performs at the Ritz Club, too.) Glenne Headley gives Trueheart a nice edge, her performance beautifully inspired by Noel Neill’s Lois Lane and Rosalind Russell’s Hildy Johnson. Seymour Cassel and Charles Durning are delightful as the Greek chorus of Tracy’s fellow cops, trying to keep up with the determined detective, Dustin Hoffman is perfect as the pathetic Mumbles, and Paul Sorvino and James Caan lean into their histories of playing gangsters as Lips and Spud.
But the standout here is Al Pacino. There are far too many occasions in Pacino’s career when he’s let shouting substitute for acting (Scent of a Woman, The Devil’s Advocate, Glengarry Glen Ross), but this is the only time he does it to good effect. He’s having a grand old time, going so far over the top as Caprice he gives everyone around him nosebleeds. It’s a joyous, hilarious performance, leaving no piece of scenery unchewed.
Sadly, the kudos do not extend to the lead, and that’s where the movie falls apart. Beatty never once gives the impression that he’s playing Chester Gould’s determined detective. Instead, he’s playing Warren Beatty, movie star. No matter how many times he puts on the bright yellow coat and hat, he never inhabits the role the way the rest of the cast does, never convinces me that he’s Dick Tracy.
On the Men in Black trilogy:
The first movie is the jewel in the crown, and deservedly so. It’s eminently quotable (to this day whenever I drive by the World’s Fair grounds, I have a tendency to call out, “Hey—old guys! Do those still work?”), the plot moves along nicely, the acting is fantastic, and the whole thing has the signature macabre look that Barry Sonnenfeld made his trademark with The Addams Family.
Indeed, the look of all three is perfect, from the wild designs of the various aliens to the retro-futurist look of MIB HQ and much of their equipment. (It’s the same look that Brad Bird would give The Incredibles and which we also see in The Venture Bros., to wit, what everyone thought the future would look like in 1965 or so.)
On Iron Man 3:
Having said that, the use of the Mandarin is brilliant. The notion of the Mandarin as a construct used to cover for the Extremis soldiers exploding is fantastic. It enables them to use Iron Man’s greatest foe, and also shine a light on the stereotype that he was created as. Ben Kingsley deserves tremendous kudos here, as he plays the Mandarin as genuinely menacing. His speeches about the massacre at Sand Creek and the origin of fortune cookies (“They’re actually an American invention, which is why they’re hollow, full of lies, and leave a bad taste in the mouth”) are quite clever and scarily delivered justifications for the bombings. And then his later performance as drugged-out Trevor Slattery is just hilarious.
In addition, I love Killian’s explanation for the Mandarin being at least in part inspired by Thor’s arrival in his titular movie. Thor showing up in the southwest in Thor has a lot of the same implications for the MCU that Dr. Manhattan’s arrival did in Watchmen. Prior to that, every hero the world had seen (and this includes ones retconned into the past like Ant-Man, the Wasp, and Goliath) had been human with enhancements of some sort, whether mechanical or chemical. But Thor is something other, a god-like being who brought a bunch more god-like beings and a big giant robot—and later an alien invasion—to Earth. As Killian said, “When the big dude with the hammer dropped from the sky, subtlety became a thing of the past.”
Look for the rewatch of Thor: The Dark World this coming Friday, with the rest of the month including Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Avengers: Age of Ultron.