BLOG: It’s a bird, it’s a plane . . . it’s . . . mediocre?!?!

| May 25, 2014 | 0 Comments

SuperHeroMovies

I am going to admit something up front.  I know little to nothing about comic books other than the basics.  When I was a kid, I wasn’t a comic book fan.  They came through my hands occasionally, but not enough to get me involved – to by honest, my attention was aimed at a galaxy far, far away.

I know some comic book heroes on sight like Spiderman, Superman, Batman, Iron Man and Thor, but I have no idea who The Guardians of the Galaxy are, nor Thanos, nor Ultron, nor – GASP! – even Green Lantern.  I have no idea what an Age of Apocalypse is, but given time the movies may define it for me.  I know comic book lore in fits and starts.  For example, my knowledge of the fact that Superman was once killed by a monster named Doomsday may someday win me some money in a trivia contest. 

The point is, I really never delved into these adventures on the page – my introduction to these pop culture demigods has come through the movies.  In fact, I have more knowledge about superheroes since Iron Man came out in 2008 than I ever did as a kid. 

I find myself entertained by the superhero movies without feeling the Earth move.  There’s an expectation from every movie that I see – superhero or not -that the next film will be the most incredible moviegoing experience of my life.  By actual math, this has only happened about six times in my life and I expect it to happen again sometime in the next decade.  I love great movies where all the pieces fit together perfectly.  It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it reminds me of why I hold this beloved medium so close to my heart.

I have reason to believe that the superhero genre (at least, the one that has bloomed since Iron Man debuted eight years ago) has the potential for greatness.  It has happened before and I  hold out hope that in the near future it may happen again.  Lately though, it seems to sort of wade in a sea of mediocrity.  Most films of the genre are mediocre at best, but I can say that only rarely have they ever fallen into the depths of wretchedness – there are a few. 

Great films these days are the luck of the draw.  It depends on the freedom of the writing and the directing.  It depends on the desire to really make something worthwhile, rather than just give the audience the base expectation of costumes and digital sound.  Studios run and hide from films that are deep and thoughtful.  They want door busters that will reach The Widest Possible Audience, which is why event pictures these days are rarely, if ever, small and personal.

It was that kind of fear and loathing that, in 2005, caused Warner Brothers to pull advertising for Batman Begins after a group of 12 year-olds at a test screening in Austin, Texas complained that they were bored.  That movie turned the genre on its head and revitalized Batman as our most enduring – and current – crime fighters.  It also redeemed The Caped Crusader’s good name after Batman and Robin.

Greatness has been achieved in this genre thanks mostly to Christopher Nolan’s Batman films.  Those films were intelligent, well-made and didn’t pander.  Nolan – in every film, not just Batman – wants to tell a good story, and doesn’t seem to care about the market tests.  He also got the most out of his actors.  Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Heath Ledger, Morgan Freeman, Liam Neeson, , Anne Hathaway, Thomas Hardy, Gary Oldman.  These are good actors giving good performances in a movie that you wouldn’t expect to have them.  They aren’t playing for effect, but simply play effective and interesting people.

That was also the case with the original Iron Man.  Director Jon Favreau told a good origin story but was smart enough to get the action out of the way of the movie’s key asset: Robert Downey, Jr’s mouth.  Downey has a way of playing a smartass without getting on our nerves.  That film raised the genre to a sort of Rock Star status.  It was made by a creative team who wanted to tell a good story.

That’s also the case with my favorite superhero movie of late, Zack Snyder’s Watchmen.  It wasn’t everyone’s favorite – and in some cases made several Worst Lists – but I have to say that this was the movie that liberated the genre from the confines of the bee-line narrative in which the hero inevitably must find himself in the arena of a smash and bash fights with his mortal enemy.  Here was a film that stretched the idea of superheroes, examining their angst, their fears and their mishaps in a world theys slowly begin to realize that they can’t save.

Since Watchmen, I’m afraid, I’ve seen a great deal of nervousness on the part of the studios to produce a film that is liberating and different.  Superheroes have to be universal, and easily marketable.  Their adventures have to be watered down so the audience won’t think that they are required to think too much.  Yet, that doesn’t stop some filmmakers from trying. 

The Sam Raimi Spider-Man pictures never really grabbed me.  There was something – personal opinion here -kind of mean about Toby Maguire, almost like he wasn’t enjoying the role.  I’m alone in my opinion that the newer Spider-Man movies with Allen Garfield are an improvement.  I was dazzled by 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man and thought that the recent The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was problematic but still managed to tell a good story.  The director of both films is Marc Webb, who is apparently obligated to make his film loud and action-packed but based on what he put on the screen it is apparent that he is more interested in telling a good love story than making a good action picture.  I’m okay with that, action scenes are easier to pull off then convincing personal chemistry. 

Personal chemistry occupies only the corners of another series that, for me, runs hot and cold: The X-Men.  To date, they have spawned seven films and to be honest they always come up short.  The first two films dealt with a real-world parallel – being different in a society that is trained to hate you (there is a lot of hidden parallels to gay rights).  The mutants are outcasts divided into two camps, one of which wants acceptance, the other side wants war.  Yet, the series dropped those ideas in favor of action action action action.  There are too many characters to shuffle around and they are only defined by their special power – any measure of personality is missing. 

Another problem: The entire series seems hung on Wolverine’s shoulders, which is a problem because he’s kind of blah as a superhero.  Thus far, he’s had two solo adventures and both have been a snooze. The fault does not lie with Hugh Jackman, I must say.  He’s a charismatic actor who occupies the role all too well.  The problem is that the character he’s been given has a limited appeal.  His personality is made up of grouchy indifference with occasional fits of violent rage.

Certainly the most successful of these series is The Avengers Universe.  These films (which, to date, include nine feature films and a TV series) has run hot and cold with me: Iron Man (very hot), The Incredible Hulk (cold), Iron Man 2 (cold), Thor (very cold), Captain American: The First Avenger (hot), Marvel’s The Avengers (warm), Iron Man 3 (cold), Thor: The Dark World (lukewarm), Captain America: The Winter Soldier (very hot).  The best of this series is Captain America which celebrates its hero’s aw-shucks manner.  The worst are the adventures of Thor, a character that even the filmmakers are unable to figure out.  Either way, for this series, it isn’t really the degree of good or bad on the individual scale.  What is to be admired is the decision to give everyone their own adventure so that the uninitiated can get to know all the players before they are given an adventure that brings them together. 

That’s something rival DC could learn from.  The DC pictures, outside of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy have been, let’s face it, kind of a drag.  They’ve dropped the ball twice with Superman, first with the snoozy Superman Returns and then the baffling Man of Steel (actually there hasn’t been a good Superman movie since Superman II back in 1980).  Before Superman’s underwhelming return, DC stumbled badly with Catwoman and Green Lantern.  As far as feature films, they seem to be asleep.  Actually, DC does better on television with both “Smallville” and “Arrow.”

I realize that I’m rambling.  My point is that superhero movies – like any other genres – have the potential to be great, but with all the millions and millions of dollars being pumped into these ventures, it’s impossible to think of a studio executive putting anything new or experimental on the line.  There have been great movies, but there hasn’t been a ground-breaker since Watchmen. 

Financial risks are something that the studios would rather avoid anyway.  No one wants to imagine a normal, average popcorn crowd walking into a familiar brand name and being inundated by some director’s personal vision.  That’s a 50/50 prospect (especially based on Watchmen’s public reaction) and it’s not something that the accounting department wants to hear.  In truth, they’d rather avoid another personal vision-turned financial disaster like Ang Lee’s Hulk – a bizarre psychological examination that even its few admirers had to struggle to understand.

Personally, what I’m looking for is something outside of my base expectations.  That was the case last month with Captain America: The Winter Soldier which benefited from a very timely plot development – government infiltration.  It did something new, it was not only a great action picture, but a great drama as well.  I responded to that film so strongly because it had a sense of urgency where most films in the Avenger series do not.  If I gave Watchmen and Nolan’s Batman  trilogy my highest marks it’s because they delve into the dark and unpredictable world of crime and human decay and get down to the messy business of what it’s like to be a superhero.  The message: It sucks, it really sucks.  Those films had a point to make, and it’s difficult to imagine such a cold and stormy atmosphere populating The Avengers or Spider-Man (The X-Men come close but still play it safe).

This is a genre that isn’t going anywhere soon and, not to sound like a pessimist, I don’t see it improving.  I see more mediocre films coming than anything truly groundbreaking.  What you can hope is that the best directors will break away from the familiar pattern and occasionally try something new.  You can hope that they will engineer something that doesn’t look like the last three pictures you saw.  What they need is a little chaos, a little unpredictable machination from which the heroes must use their brains as well as their brawn.  After all, most of these characters have been around for more than half a century telling stories that keep readers coming back for more.  Let’s hope the movies can do the same.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
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