I know a few people who are getting sick of superhero and comic book movies, and with good reason considering this year’s offering of Thor, X-Men: First Class, Green Lantern, and Captain America to name a few. Back when I was young you could still consider superhero movies to be a new thing, but here in 2011 we have more comic book movies than I could have ever dreamed possible as an adolescent. You’ll notice I use the terms “superhero” and “comic book” interchangeably here, but that is simply for ease of use – rest assured I am well aware of the inherent differences and that there are non-comic book superhero movies and non-superhero comic book movies.
Ever since 1989, when I saw the first Tim Burton Batman movie in theaters at an extremely young age, I have been hooked on superhero movies. Around that same time I became interested in comic books, but it wasn’t until highschool and college that I started actually reading more than single issues of titles like Batman or Uncanny X-Men. Due to this odd mixture of nerducation I have a decently even nostalgia for both the film versions of superheroes and their original, printed inspirations. I know that the Joker didn’t actually kill Bruce Wayne’s parents, but I didn’t know it the first time I saw the movie and still enjoy it even after learning “the truth”. Now when I go to see a movie like Thor or Green Lantern if I’m not already intimately aware of the source material I will take a decent amount of time to educate myself so that I can approach the movie from both perspectives and have a deeper understanding of both what has inspired the movie and also what has changed in order for them to make this material into a movie.
I’m Getting Sick of Origin Stories
When it comes to many superhero movie franchises, you can generally predict that at least 1/4 of the first film is going to be dedicated to the origin story of the main character(s). In some cases, like with the Punisher movie, you can consider the entire film to be origin story. In the case of Punisher, I didn’t mind this so much but I was disappointed that the main actor changed to the second movie which created a disconnect in my mind. The same is true of the Incredible Hulk movies, though I feel Ed Norton did a good job making the change in actor painless, and though the movie effectively retold the origin story briefly at the beginning it wasn’t blatant about it and still treated itself like a good sequel to the first movie.
In the next few years we’re going to see reboots of both Spider-Man and Superman, and both of these films concern me already simply because of the origin story aspect. I don’t really want to see Uncle Ben die again on film, even if I am behind the idea of a film that focuses on Peter in high school for more than 10 minutes. I’m pretty sure newborns today come into the world knowing the origin story of Superman. I’m fine with rebooting a franchise and I’m fine with re-casting main characters, but my main point is that both of these movies already has a big hurdle they have to get over or avoid for me to fully enjoy the film and that’s not a great start for any movie.
Marvel’s Pre-Avengers Movies
The origin story discussion above is one of the reasons that I really enjoyed the movie Thor. Sure there are some very valid complaints people have about the movie, that the human characters are non-consequential or that Thor’s character development seemingly happens in a rush, but when it comes to superhero movies these are lesser sins to me that are easily overcome by the movies high points. Blessedly, the movie starts with Thor AS Thor, he is the god of thunder, and there is minimal time needed and minimal time spent in explaining this. On top of that, he starts the movie out as a complete badass and that’s enjoyable to see in a superhero movie. The movie reminded me of that time I saw Batman in the theaters back in 1989 and the first scene is Batman being himself to the fullest, scaring bad guys and kicking ass with martial arts and gadgets.
Perhaps even more importantly, the movie Thor did an excellent job of introducing Loki as a villain and setting things up for the upcoming Avengers movie. When it comes to a property like the Avengers, and my recent distaste for origin stories, the more of that movie that is not spent on introducing the characters and setting things up the better! On top of that we already have two quality Iron Man movies that have spent time introducing S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Black Widow, so I am gaining more and more enthusiasm that the Avengers movie will be exactly what I want it to be. That said, the Captain America movie is the last piece that needs to fall into place and if that ends up falling flat it may be tough for the collective movie to pull through (especially since it is already being produced).
X-Men, or Lack Thereof
In an interesting twist, the latest X-Men movie actually takes place during the origin story of the team but avoids feeling like an origin story. In this case, as hypocritical as it sounds, I would have preferred if the movie had involved more of the teams origins (ie – the actual First Class mutants) because while the movie was titled X-Men: First Class it really should have been titled Professor X and Magneto: Some Mutants Over There Somewhere. Despite that, I enjoyed the movie quite a bit but after the fact I was extremely frustrated that all of the mutants beyond the two main characters and one main villain were effectively pointless and could have been replaced with any other mutants without any big changes to the movie.
I appreciated the efforts that were put into the movie to make sure it mostly tied in to the existing films, and as I stated the portrayals of Xavier, Magneto, and Sebastian Shaw were exceptional to the point of carrying the movie. However, the entire movie ended up being one big origin story and the characters that it focused on are either secondary characters or villains in the existing films. I share these observations because I think it is incredibly interesting that many of the reasons I liked Thor are the exact same reasons that I disliked X-Men: First Class.
Superhero Movies: Ensemble vs. Spotlight
The heading basically says it all. When it comes to superhero movies the majority of them are spotlighted because of the source material but also because of the early examples starting with Superman in 1978 and then Batman in 1989. These films set the standard for superhero movies and their sequels and also set firmly in everyone’s minds that superhero movies featured one character in the spotlight. There were certainly attempts at ensemble superhero films beforehand, but X-Men in 2000 was the first time that many of us really believed it could be done correctly. It was followed by X2 in 2003 which only reinforced our optimism (or maybe just proved that Bryan Singer knew what he was doing). At the same time we were seeing multiple Spider-Man movies which declined in quality as they progressed, I believe in no small part to the fact that they shifted from spotlight to ensemble films but things didn’t change to account for the shift and the overall quality suffered.
What Marvel is attempting to do now is an interesting combination of the two ideas where a series of spotlight movies build up to one big ensemble film, and I have to say I’m excited to see the result. Of particular note is the fact that Joss Whedon is at the helm of the Avengers movie, which gives me a lot more faith that it will be a good piece of work because as you should know Mr. Whedon has some experience with ensemble works. So yes, at its core this whole rant effectively boils down to “Why I think the Avengers movie will be good”, but I personally enjoyed going through the specifics and I hope you enjoyed some of the discussion as well!