Comic Book Movies Should Be Fun To Watch
Come on, y'all, it's the Suicide Squad
When Clark Kent took to the skies to save Lois Lane in Superman: The Movie, released in the winter of 1978, audiences were introduced to a new kind of spectacle. Instants before Margot Kidder plummets to her death, she is scooped out of the air (by Superman, duh) where she elegantly delivers the line, “You’ve got me? Who’s got you?” I believe that this moment — funny, enigmatic, kind of dumb — is the origin story of the big budget superhero movie.
We kicked off August with the latest chapter in the evolution of the mega summer blockbuster, Suicide Squad, and you probably don’t need me to tell you that critics and comic book guys alike are calling it a real mixed bag o’ nuts. The whole “what if the BAD GUYS were the GOOD GUYS” conceit promised a lot of high-energy hijinx, but it just didn’t delight me in the way that I have come to expect from these movies. Maybe it was the lack of truly exhilarating action scenes, maybe it was the meandering script, or maybe it was just that Will Smith never released a fire hip-hop song to coincide with the film’s release, but it’s a confusing movie that’s led me to wonder just what kind of radioactive gamma ray is needed to make a superhero movie good. Naturally, I went and watched a whole buttload of them, and I’ve come away with some ideas.
Because it is often difficult to be a comic book movie fan. For every brilliant bit of dialogue in The Dark Knight, there’s 10 Mr. Freeze puns in Batman & Robin. For every stunning sequence in Spiderman where he swings through the air, building to building, there’s literally all of Spiderman 3. The cinematic highs are sky-high, and the lows are about as low as Fantastic Four’s Rotten Tomatoes rating. (Editor’s note: Heyo!) The superhero genre has the unique power to accomplish feats no other can touch — they can explore awe-inspiring settings that would be completely ludicrous anywhere else, they can jump over plot holes in a single leap. (Lines like: “Oh, he can breathe in space or whatever, that’s a superpower that he has now,” usually do the trick.) They’re not bound by terrestrial rules like gravity, or characters not being dudes whose heads are skulls that are on fire, and this enables them to be imaginative and wild, pulling off incredible acts of cinematography that are simply not feasible in more grounded fare. And when they're really good, they sometimes even justify the 3D glasses.
The people at Marvel Studios, alongside their new parent company, Disney, have been killing it lately. The last few years have seen a slew of Marvel universe flicks like Deadpool, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Ant-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy. These movies are genuinely funny, while still being action-packed. They have exceptional gags and sequences that are just super-awesome visually. They’re not afraid to be campy, or let their characters be deeply flawed. Deadpool is a movie about a lousy, no-good idiot who spends most of the movie getting his ass kicked. We see him get his arms broken and his body busted up and, at one point, there’s a scene where his girlfriend pegs him — all of it is stupid and wonderful.
X-Men: Days of Future Past is comparatively a more serious film, but still manages to make time for some grand gags. There’s a scene where Quicksilver, as performed by Evan Peters, runs around in slow-motion and saves everybody from getting shot by nifty Magneto-safe plastic pistols, and it’s all set to the tune of Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle.” He pushes all the bullets around in mid-air and makes the bad guys punch themselves in the face, or bonk each other with their Nerf guns. He even steals somebody's hat and eats some soup out of the air, and all of it happens so elegantly and meticulously, like a beautiful superhero ballet, that I could only be left thinking: “How the hell did they even shoot that?” I went back to see X-Men two more times, just so I could see this bit again. There’s honestly nothing else like it in film. (Not counting Clockstoppers, which isn’t a superhero movie, but does have French Stewart in a starring role so y’know, that’s something.)
Released last summer, Ant-Man has unexpectedly become one of my new favourite movies. Edgar Wright, serving as a co-screenwriter here, who will hopefully be allowed to write superhero movies forever, uses his penchant for unique and elaborate set pieces to construct some ultra memorable sequences. (Editor’s note again: Peyton Reed, the director, formerly of Bring It On, does great work too!) Ant-Man has a nifty suit that allows him to shrink to the size of the eponymous insect, and the film cleverly shapes the most spectacular moments around this ability. In one astonishing scene, Ant-Man and his sworn enemy, Yellow Jacket (who naturally also has a cool bug-themed shrinky suit), end up duking it out inside of a briefcase that’s falling out of a plane while “Disintegration” by The Cure plays off of a tumbling iPhone’s speakers, unintentionally activated by Siri. It is bafflingly cool.
Ant-Man succeeds by beginning with a small story about a recently released convict trying to see his daughter and piles on the stakes until the film reaches ultra-human proportions. It does what few superhero films dare to do: start small and with a character’s motivations first. In a surprisingly avant-garde sequence, Ant-Man has to compress his body to the scale of a subatomic particle, and the film reaches a cinematographic height that’s pulled straight out of a Jodorowsky fever dream. It’s an exceptionally creative story that makes excellent use of the genre’s lack of limitations.
And then, we have Guardians of the Galaxy — the ultimate ensemble superhero film, as far as I’m concerned. A remarkably creative effort with awesome and fascinating locations, characters who are engaging and familiar while still feeling fresh, a hilarious script that’s expertly paced with an omnipresent villain who feels believably threatening - spending two hours in this world, living through these characters, is a pleasure. Each character in the ensemble has a clear and believable motivation that serves to make their presence feel vital, rather than simply justify their existence. Peter “Starlord” Quill is an outlaw who, through no real fault of his own, has been swept up into a story that places him at the centre. Gamora, the forcibly-adopted daughter of Thanos (the ultimate evil in Guardians), seeks to get out from under the thumb of her oppressor/father. Rocket Raccoon wants the big score, Drax The Destroyer must avenge his wife and child who were brutally murdered at the hands of the central villain. Oh, and did I mention a lovable talking tree golem NAMED GROOT?!! Oh boy, Groot goes along for the ride because (and I honestly tear up every time this gets revealed) the rest of the cast are his only friends and he wants to protect them! GROOT!
Guardians does an impeccable job with its cast, and it has to, because 99 per cent of the people watching this movie are being introduced to these characters with absolutely no prior context. (This is something that Suicide Squad could have taken a page from.) When Spider-Man shows up in his movie, we know the deal: he’s Spider-Man and he’s gotta fight crime because y’know, great power, great responsibility. With the Galaxy crew, most of us are coming to these guys for the first time, and boy, do we learn to love them all. (Especially Groot.) When the gang faces off against a whole squadron of bad guys, everyone gets ready for a big showdown. Groot shoots out one of his tree limbs, and sweeps up all the baddies and mashes them around, saving everyone a whole bunch of trouble. The movie caps off the scene with Groot looking back at the camera and his best pals, and flashing the most sincere smile that a CGI redwood is capable of delivering, as if to say, “Look what I did for you guys!”, and it’s heart-breaking. Guardians is peppered with moments like this — intense, exhilarating action topped off with honest touches that enable us to cherish these new friends.
The Marvel movies so consistently nail this stuff, and I truly believe this is why they are winning the movie war. Their superhero contributions prize fun and spectacle over everything else — laser-focused in their tone, while still being capable of going dark when they need to. Guardians affords itself exactly three minutes before the title card rolls out to be devastatingly heartbreaking and then follows it with an incredible opening sequence where Chris Pratt enthusiastically disco dances through a ruined city to the tune of the now ubiquitous “Come And Get Your Love.” The ensuing hour and 50 minutes make you fall in love with their ‘70s nostalgia take on science fiction.
The DC Universe’s previous effort, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, a film title that sounds exactly like a court case and is just about as hilarious as one, was near-universally lambasted for its depressing-as-hell tone and excruciating amounts of rain machine. This is a movie that is bending over backwards to be as edgy and dark in demeanor as it could possibly be. In fact, much of the film takes place in government buildings as senators discuss the legislation of meta-humans while Ben Affleck (as Bruce Wayne) broods and schemes.
The trouble with putting Superman and Batman in the same movie is that they don’t play well when forcibly shunted together. The Man of Steel’s movies are pretty much always set during the day, featuring exaggerated characters and clear-cut villains. Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor in Superman: The Movie is fond of monologuing, played grandiose, and at one point, launches a nuclear missile aimed at his girlfriend’s hometown of Hackensack, New Jersey. Superman, when disguised as Clark Kent, likes to pretend to be a clumsy buffoon, dropping more stacks of paper than Ally McBeal at a K-Y Jelly factory. Batman films are moodier affairs. They almost exclusively take place at night, with twisted, maniacal villains like Jack Nicholson’s Joker or Danny DeVito’s Penguin. Bruce Wayne as performed by Michael Keaton gets to be a smarmy sophisticate, albeit with terrible hair. The tone is less about dramatic spectacle and more about gripping tension.
Having these two dudes in the same feature ends up hamstringing both characters, even when you’re bracing for a fight. Batman, who is pretty much just a non-powered rich dude who never skips leg day, feels needless in the face of a guy who is borderline unkillable and can fly super fast and shoot lasers out of his face. Batman v Superman has to spend so much of its energy justifying why Superman can’t just swoop in and punch Lex Luthor into space that it never really gets anywhere good. Kryptonite, the device invented by writers to get around the problem of “How do you create danger when your protagonist can’t get hurt?,” inevitably shows up in a big way. (And, in my opinion as a comic book fan, kryptonite has and always will be a major warning sign for an incoming weak storyline.)
I’m sure the producers pulled in dense piles of money by putting both their box office titans in the same film, but some things just aren’t worth it. The whole affair was always going to be a mess from start to finish, and now Batman v Superman will forever stand as a testament to how not to make a goddamn superhero movie. In conclusion, when they’re done right, superhero movies totally rule. I love them for their maximum intensity fight scenes. (Like when Colossus and Blink face off against a bunch of evil robots in X-Men: Days of Future Past, and Blink used her teleportation powers to warp the hulking metal Colossus into the sky so he could dropkick the stupid heads of their automaton attackers. That was shockingly cool.) I love them for their wonderful performances — who could ever forget Heath Ledger’s incredible Joker monologues in the Dark Knight, “See, madness, as you know, is like gravity — all it takes is a little push.” (Aaaaaah! Chills, chills, chills.) And as it turns out, I kinda hate them for their corruptibility. (Every pandering, marketing-oriented use of on-the-nose ‘70s pop in Suicide Squad, every dumb, embarrassing dad joke made by Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor, clearly added to try and squeeze some levity into Batman v Superman.) Ultimately, there’s a lot of give-and-take here for audiences; even the most well-intentioned superhero movies still have to sell those dumb, novelty soda cups.
I’m confident the genre will figure out a way around Suicide Squad’s missteps and find its way back into the light. Superheroes always mean well, even when they get tricked into furthering the dark schemes of their antagonists; justice prevails, good triumphs over evil; the hero has to save the day. Plus, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is coming out next year and it’s gonna have BABY GROOT, so you know I gotta see that.