Tag Archives: superhero

‘Deadpool’ proves not all superhero films have to be the same

With superhero films flooding the marketplace, it was only a matter of time before someone made the anti-superhero film, a movie that takes all the signature tropes of the genre, presents them to the audience and then, almost literally, takes a steaming dump on them. That movie is “Deadpool.”

Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) is a smart-mouthed mercenary who falls in love with a stripper named Vanessa (Morena Baccarin). When he is diagnosed with terminal cancer, he volunteers for an experimental procedure run by a madman, Ajax (Ed Skrein). The procedure mutates his appearance, cures his cancer and gives him instant healing ability, but Ajax intends to use Wade as a slave. He escapes, but is horribly disfigured. This pushes him to don a mask and become the “superhero” Deadpool.

Much like Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man and Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, it is hard to picture anyone else other than Ryan Reynolds as the titular character. He inhabits the role of the snarky, wise-cracking hero with ease, simply becoming the character that fans have envisioned for years.

The violence is extreme, the language and innuendo filthy, and there are so many inside jokes about the genre that some might go right over the casual moviegoers head, but it all works because of the lighthearted tone and the charismatic lead. It is a near-perfect blend of Hollywood glamour meets counter-culture, a big-screen extravaganza that appeals to the disillusioned outsider in all of us. While it is not ground-breaking or terribly original in terms of plot, it is a lot of fun and serves as a welcome breath of fresh air in comparison to the more droll and serious fare of superhero films (*cough* Batman v Superman *cough*).

‘Wonder Woman’ a fine film, but could have been more

Directed by Patty Jenkins, “Wonder Woman” is by far the best film in DC’s extended universe (though in honesty, that’s not much of a hill to climb). Diana (Gal Gadot) lives on Themiscyra, a hidden Amazonian land. When Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes onto the island, he lets the kingdom know of the great war happening beyond the sea. This appeals to Diana’s sense of duty and she ventures out to save mankind.

Being the most famous superwoman in the world, it’s past due for Diana to get her own film. Gal Gadot has a great balance of strength and earnestness, though a tad too much naivete, but her virtue represents the character well. The action scenes are exciting and it’s refreshing to see a superhero movie tell a superhero story; a hero who really is just trying to save people.

The problem though is that Wonder Woman is a female superhero and her femininity is not pushed for her benefit except in a few brief instances. Her creator, William Moulton Marston, intended for her to be used as a representation of the power of women, and she certainly is in the film by simply kicking ass, but the repressive male world could have been utilized more and in turn boost her message. Perhaps instead of a band of men that go to war with her, she brings together a group of undervalued women and teaches them the ways of combat and of breaking free from their bonds. And the villain could have been accentuated to represent male oppression. Diana’s presence alone carries a lot of weight surely, but her representation as a feminine power symbol could have been far expanded.

The story is rather thin and predictable as well with some on-the-nose language, but the corniness serves the narrative well. After all, when your villain is named Dr. Poison, you shouldn’t take things too seriously. It should be fun.

And as dramatic as the fight scenes sometimes are, the conclusion of the film is another big, dumb, loud battle with lots of explosions and lightning and blah. A simpler conclusion would serve better.

But the character of Wonder Woman is strong and that is the central point. It’s no longer just a boy’s club of superheroes anymore and with the public on her side, pumping millions of dollars into her movie, maybe, finally, female superheroes will be treated with more respect. It’s way past due.

‘Captain America: Civil War’ a strong entry in MCU

It seems as though a new superhero movie is coming out every few weeks. Most of them pass by and out of memory just as quickly as they came, but there are a few superhero films that stand above the rest, that peak more interest than the normal reboot/sequel, and fans had circled “Civil War” on their calendar ever since it was announced.

Directed by Joe and Anthony Russo, the film features Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) struggling to keep the Avengers together as the government cracks down on their exploits as civilian casualties pile up. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) is in favor of registering with the United Nations and the proposed Sokovia accord, but Steve is not sure. When his friend Bucky/the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) is implicated in a terrorist plot, the Avengers fracture between those siding with Captain America and maintaining their independence and those siding with Iron Man and starting public accountability.

Some of the action scenes are a bit nauseating as shaky cam takes over in place of actual dynamic action, but the set piece between the two rival teams of superheroes is one of the greatest in any superhero film; fun, interesting, action-packed and dramatic.

Marvel has always had a problem with maintaining dramatic stakes in its films. They are not going to kill off Iron Man or Captain America (they are worth billions of dollars) so how do you keep a movie engaging when there is literally no chance of your heroes biting the bullet? “Civil War” solves this issue by focusing on the relationship between Captain America and Iron Man. The characters may not die, but the relationship between them may come apart and the audience is kept interested by focusing on how Steve Rogers and Tony Stark develop as friends, turn enemies and how they will ultimately end.

Captain America is not a complex character. It is difficult to give him an internal dilemma and once he makes his decision in “Civil War”, there is not a lot going on internally. This is a detriment, but not a fatal one for the film. His actions serve as a counterpoint and seeing how far he is willing to go to maintain his friendship with Bucky and his independence is engaging enough.

And no MCU film has quite gone to the lengths of digging deep into the character’s soul a la Batman in Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” trilogy. Doubtless this is to keep the audience as wide as possible, but there are moments for “Civil War” to go a bit deeper, especially with Iron Man in particular. With Pepper Potts (Gwenyth Paltrow) out of his life, guilt plaguing him and his best friend leading a resistance against him, the film suggests the depths of his sorrow, but could go even deeper, perhaps hinting at his alcoholism as it does in the comics. It is a wasted opportunity to build some escalating themes into his character.

For those who enjoy the MCU films, “Captain America: Civil War” will be an enjoyable experience, one of the best of entries alongside “Avengers” and “Guardians of the Galaxy.” But for those who have issues with the previous MCU films, those issues (lack of deep character revelations, franchise-building, cluttering narratives, uninteresting villains- though that is better in this film) will find more to complain about to some degree.

But kudos to the studio for making “Civil War” more than just another superhero film. There’s heart, fun and dynamism here.

Are the X-Men the new preeminent superhero franchise?

Ever since the proliferation of the superhero genre, sequel-making and universe-building have overtaken movie studios. As rights are sold and potential franchises rise and fall, from the dust, three central pillars have emerged as the tentpoles of the superhero movement: Disney’s Marvel’s Cinematic Universe (Iron Man, Captain America, Thor), Warner Bros. DC Extended Universe (Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman) and Fox’s X-Men (Wolverine, Deadpool, Magneto- they also technically have the Fantastic Four, but no one likes them). There could also still be a case made for Sony, who have the rights to Spider-Man, but they have signed a deal with Marvel, and Spider-Man is now essentially part of the MCU.

It has been widely assumed for years that the MCU was the best that superhero films had to offer. Marvel stuck to a strong formula, building up their heroes in individual films before releasing team features. They utilized strong wit, relatable characters and easy-to-digest narratives to build their brand and it has worked, delivering billions of dollars in sales and strong critical response.

Meanwhile, the DCEU is still trying to get itself together. Attempting to differentiate itself from its Marvel cousin, their films are darker, more intense and full of characters right from the get-go. Unfortunately, audience and critical response has been more tepid. By trying to appeal to so many people while being different, the films are a mess of half-ideas, rushed plotlines and shallow characters. They feel more like board room projections, broken down into audience demographics, rather than singular visions made by committed storytellers, especially in comparison to Christopher Nolan’s preceding Dark Knight trilogy.

And in the background, Fox’s X-Men, one of the first franchises to start the superhero extravaganza, has lingered. Never the biggest in terms of box office, the critical and commercial response has ranged from great (X2: X-Men United (2003)) to terrible (X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)). And yet in the past few years, the landscape has started to change, and it’s worth proposing a new thought: Are the X-Men now the best superhero franchise out there?

Diehard MCU fans would likely guffaw at such a notion, but something is starting to seep into the MCU that wasn’t there before: blandness. While the quality of the films has not deteriorated, innovation has not been present either. “Doctor Strange” was far too similar to “Iron Man.” “Captain America: Civil War” was equally similar to being an Avengers film, which are also growing more and more alike. And the lack of stakes is starting to decrease the interest in the characters. Marvel is never going to kill Tony Stark or Steve Rogers. So putting them in more and more dangerous adventures is not really keeping us emotionally involved. It’s becoming more and more a case of been-there, done-that, and it’s starting to seem that while Marvel continues to excel at making decent movies, they are just making the same movie over and over again.

Meanwhile, Fox’s X-Men have been changing the formula towards what the DCEU was presumably trying to do: darker and edgier. But where the DCEU failed by trying to appeal to the same demographics, the X-Men have decided to ignore the “traditional” superhero audience. Here, they may have discovered something very interesting; while other studios continue to view the superhero audience as kids and parents, the kids who grew up watching the original “X-Men” (2000) and “Spider-Man” (2002) have actually grown up. They have stayed fans of superherodom, but being in their twenties and thirties, their palettes have evolved and mature films with mature themes are no longer a detractor for them. As one of those kids, I have witnessed the effects myself.

What started with “X-Men: First Class” in 2011, which featured spy drama and Nazi hunting continued with “The Wolverine” in 2013, which was set in a non-Western locale and bared the weight of the nuclear bombing of Nagasaki. And 2014’s “X-Men: Days of Future Past” delivered a thoroughly satisfying sci-fi rumination on genocide and transformational hope. But what really blew up the formula was last year’s “Deadpool.” Here was a hard R-rated flick complete with cursing, violence and sexuality. And not only did critics love it, audiences made it the highest grossing R-rated movie of all-time. This was definitive proof that superhero movies did not need to be “fun-for-the-whole-family” type of affairs; they could be badass, violent, mature films as well.

Sure, “X-Men: Apocalypse” was a bit of a disappointment following such a run of success, but a fall every now and then is inevitable. Just this year, the X-Men have dialed up the ante even more, delivering another massive, mature success with “Logan”, a film that carries more visceral emotion than any superhero film ever made. It is violent, it is dour, and yet it is a beautiful story harkening back to the Western, a true innovation for the genre.

And appearing alongside “Logan” is the equally surprising TV series “Legion.” The first TV show based on the X-Men since the various animated series back in the 1990s and early 2000s, “Legion” is confusing, disturbing and wonderfully strange. The viewer has no real idea of what is real, what is fake, who is a friend or enemy, even what is happening at any given moment. There’s never been a TV show like it. It seems to belong more in the real of student surrealist exploration and yet here it is, presented on basic cable, with millions of dollars backing it and a second season already confirmed. Marvel’s TV series, “Agents of S.H.E.L.D.”, on the other hand is a far inferior, kind of bland experience.

And down the pipeline, the X-Men are looking at a second Deadpool film, an X-Force film, another live-action TV show and a rumored X-Men film with the younger cast featuring Dark Phoenix, a bizarre, cataclysmic character given poor treatment in “X-Men 3.” With confirmation that future X-Men projects will stray away from the Xavier-Magneto relationship and with castmembers Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart and presumably Jennifer Lawrence, James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender calling it quits, the X-Men are literally transforming in front of our eyes. It is very exciting to see the franchise adapt towards something new, something interesting, something beyond just the standard “family-adventure” type of affair.

So have the X-Men become the preeminent superhero franchise today? That is up for debate. The MCU continues to be the biggest box office draw, and the DCEU may somehow pull themselves up and deliver on the promise of the Justice League (I’m not holding my breath on that one though).

But when it comes to the MCU versus X-Men, you really have to ask yourself; is it better to settle for standard fare that hits just enough of the right notes or is the occasional risk that sometimes falters, but really tries to be more than its genre, more deserving of your love?

‘Doctor Strange’ a worthy addition to MCU

Another origin story. Another weak villain. Another redemptive hero. Another shallow love interest. Another Stan Lee cameo. Another post-credits scene. More CGI action. In spite of the continuing weaknesses of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films, “Doctor Strange” still manages to be a fun and enjoyable ride.

Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a cocky surgeon who crashes his car and irreparably damages bones in his hands. Searching for the ability to cure his ailment, he travels to a remote village across the world and meets the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), who teaches him about the mystic arts and prepares him for a confrontation with a fallen student, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), who seeks to bring an evil demon to Earth.

Cumberbatch is strong as Doctor Strange, blending a good mix of pompousness with vulnerability. Tilda Swinton is also a very good Ancient One. Rachel McAdams has a needless role as a trophy girlfriend for the doctor, but she isn’t as grating as Natalie Portman or Gwenyth Paltrow in similar roles. And Mads Mikkelsen is pretty pedestrian as another bad guy who wants to destroy the world, blah blah blah.

The true star of the film are its special effects, with its bending buildings and parallel dimensions and magic and demons. It makes the film a visual feast and helps smooth over the fact that the story itself is pretty bland.

But at least the environment is different. The MCU now has wizards and magic and some pretty crazy science behind its latest hero. While Captain America’s films are espionage dramas and “Iron Man” is modern action and “Guardians” is 1980s sci-fi, “Doctor Strange” is psychadelic new age fantasy. So while its story is familiar, at least Marvel puts that story into different genres.

A ‘fantastic’ failure

I did not see Fox’s recently opened Fantastic Four this weekend. More than likely, you did not either. That’s all right. Most everyone didn’t. As soon as the first reviews started coming in late last week, signs pointed towards a disaster. Not only were they negative, they were downright cruel. Peter Travers of The Rolling Stones said, “The latest reboot of the Fantastic Four – the cinematic equivalent of malware – is worse than worthless. It not only scrapes the bottom of the barrel; it knocks out the floor and sucks audiences into a black hole of soul-crushing, coma-inducing dullness.” A.O. Scott of the The New York Times similarly reported, “Ms. Mara disappears. Her character also has the power to make other things vanish. I would say she should have exercised it on this movie, but in a week or two that should take care of itself.”

What went wrong? How could Marvel Comic’s original flagship superhero team flounder so poorly again cinematically (the 1994 and 2005 films are similarly awful)? It is the classic story of Hollywood greed and incompetence.

20th Century Fox was about to lose the rights to the Fantastic Four franchise unless they released another film, and, rather than lose them for nothing back to Marvel, they rushed into production on a stopgap film. Suffice it to say, a rushed production for purely financial reasons is never a strong way to create a good movie.

There was hope in the beginning though. Director Josh Trank was hired, he of the indie hit Chronicle (2012). Up and coming actors such as Miles Teller, Kate Mara, Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Bell were cast in the lead roles. With that talent brought together, a hit seemed assured. The first trailer promised a darker tone and teen angst. This was a new version of the beloved superhero team, one that seemed to take them seriously. And then the rumors about the shoot started to creep up online.

The Hollywood Reporter reported that Trank was aloof on set, often isolated. It was rumored that he was in over his head, often unsure of his decisions and unable to answer questions to cast and crew. It was even rumored that things got so bad that producers Simon Kinberg and Hutch Parker were forced to step in and finish the film, with reshoots as recently as just three months ago. Trank had been rumored to be a frontrunner for one of the upcoming Star Wars films. He has since been removed from consideration.

As the first awful reviews started coming in, Trank took to Twitter, posting that, “A year ago I had a fantastic version of this. And it would’ve received great reviews. You’ll probably never see it. That’s reality though.” The tweet has since been removed.

Josh Trank tweet
Josh Trank tweet

Whether Trank was in over his head or the studio interfered too much, it doesn’t really matter. The final product is apparently a Frankenstein-esque bore.

Early estimates for the weekend indicate that the film made $26.2 million for the weekend, a pathetic showing compared to the $191.2 million that Avengers: Age of Ultron opened to or the $57.2 million that Ant-Man earned. Even audiences who saw the movie gave it a measley C- cinemascore (for comparison, Pixels, a widely panned Adam Sandler film, received a B from audiences). It is highly unlikely, even with the international box office, that Fantastic Four will earn any profit, and a planned sequel and mashup film with the X-Men will almost surely never happen.

Hopefully, Fox will come to their senses the next go around and just let the Fantastic Four movie rights lapse back to Marvel. After their third failed attempt to jumpstart a  ‘Fantastic’ franchise, Marvel fans deserve better.

Guardians of the Galaxy Review

Even five years ago, the idea of a Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) film would have been ludicrous. They were B-list superheroes at best. Most people had never heard of them. But with Disney now determined to churn out a superhero film every few months to hold onto their current popularity for as long as they can, it was only a matter of time before something near the bottom of the barrel was given a $200 million budget just for an open summer timeslot. None of this is meant to disparage the fun film, but it is interesting to think about how we have reached a certain apex in superhero film fashion where a ragtag team of losers that includes a giant tree and a talking raccoon with a machine gun is now a major motion picture.

Peter Quill, also known as Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), begins the film as a rogue thief looking to make a profit until one of the items he snatches turns out to be an object with immense power that is coveted by an evil warlord, Ronan (Lee Pace). Through his adventure, he meets allies in Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket Racoon (voice of Bradley Cooper) and Groot (voice of Vin Diesel). With each working through their own complex pasts involving betrayals and strange lab experiments and heartbreak, they learn to move on from their needs for money or power or revenge and work together to accomplish a greater good. If this sounds somewhat similar to The Avengers (2012), that’s because it is, but with more bizarre, sci-fi elements at play it does distinguish itself. In fact, if you pay close enough attention, you will also see striking similarities to Star Wars (1977) in character types and plot structure.

In difference to other superhero films (though this film barely qualifies in that genre and should be considered more of a sci-fi comedy), Guardians focuses more on humor and action than heart and emotion. The aliens and costumes are bizarre and colorful, the characters and species are plentiful and there are so many laws and devices and objects of immense power that it is difficult to keep track of what may be going on at any particular moment in terms of plot. The filmmakers, director and writer James Gunn and writer Nicole Perlman, understood this bizarre dynamic inherent in the comic book and instead of attempting to create a serious work with sci-fi elements embraced the lunacy of the team, working in jokes and gags that not only mock the characters, their world and the plot, but also the conventions of the superhero film in general (the team deciding to work together, nobody trusting each other, the epic conclusion just to name a few). The result is the world’s first multi-million dollar, superhero cult film.

While the film is nothing truly original, it is a lot of fun along the way, full of colorful images, humor and above all, memorable characters. Marvel and Disney have found a formula that works to produce upmost audience satisfaction, and while it is not earth-shattering art, it serves as enjoyable entertainment.

SPOILERS

The film opens with the death of Peter Quill’s mother, a moment seemingly out of place with the rest of the film. One assumes this was meant to serve as some sort of motivation for his character for the rest of the film, but this falls flat as aliens, magic stones and epic battles begin to overrule the plot. With its somber tone and with it being seemingly the only scene that requires no visual effects, it starts the film off on the wrong foot.

The film then transitions to Quill stealing artifacts and selling them on the black market and this is where things really take off. We learn about his character as he uses strange froglike creatures as microphones and converses with guards who have no idea who he is. This should have been the true start to the film and perhaps a mention that he was of earth and cherishes his music as a last remembrance of his mother would have worked stronger. The music is used very effectively throughout the film, not only highlighting the plot but also Quill’s attachment to Earth and to his mother while also representing his own renegade personality.

Many of the plot elements of Guardians of the Galaxy are confusing. If viewers were not familiar with previous Marvel installments, they may be completely lost in terms of who is who, who hates who, what are the different species and who has treaties with whom. In the end, the film ultimately decides that the plot doesn’t matter that much and focuses on the characters and their relationship with the MacGuffin (Hitchcock’s term for whatever the characters want- in this case a stone that can destroy worlds). Once it is established that this bad guy (Ronan) wants this object that will destroy innocent people and the Guardians have to stop him, the film becomes a very straightforward heroes must save the world(s) narrative and this serves the film better.

The true strength of the film relies on the characters and the actors portraying them. Quill is charismatic and cocksure if incompetent, Gamora is deadly and looking to redeem her past, Rocket Raccoon is immature and greedy, Drax is angry and vengeful and Groot is just fun to watch interact with the others since he can only say three words. Each of the actors (and animators in some cases) brings them to life with vitality that makes the audience understand them and empathize. Watching them interact is fun and keeps the action and humor flowing even when the plot stumbles along.

In the end, Marvel and Disney deliver exactly what you’d expect: laughs, action and strong characters. It seems that the formula for the Disney/Marvel movies has been pretty much set in stone now: flawed heroes who need to learn to work with others against stereotypical villains who are seeking an object that will cause great harm to others. In comparison to great films that we can compare to fine Italian culinary, Disney/Marvel has perfected the sit down family restaurant: filling, full of fun, but nothing particularly memorable or moving. This would be suitable for comic book films in general as popcorn fare until you compare these Disney/Marvel films with other superhero films such as The Dark Knight (2008) or X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) which seem to push the envelope on the emotional range of what superhero films can be. A little more emotional depth and boundary pushing would truly elevate films such as Guardians of the Galaxy further.

As the superhero film has progressed to an assembly line of various entries per year, Guardians represents a move towards the obscure as mainstream. One can only imagine with the multiple sequels, obscure franchises and hundreds of characters how long this current stretch of films can continue to generate revenue. History has taught us that superheroes have always gone through periods of death and rebirth, from the censorship of the 1950s with the Comics Code Authority to the Batman television show (1966-68) to Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987) to Batman and Robin (1997) all crashing various waves of superhero popularity. Guardians of the Galaxy is not that crashing point, but it does represent a stretch towards a lack of ideas for Hollywood big-budget films. One hopes that studios recognize the need to change and adapt to superhero overuse and at least change some of the formulaic nature of these films before another crash hits us soon (I’m looking at you, Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2015)). For now though, we can enjoy Guardians of the Galaxy as a fun, humorous adventure romp and rest assured that superheroes aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.