The Superhero Movie Learning Curve – Part Two

Hollywood has been trying to put superheroes on screen since the very beginning. And while they may not all be winners, on the whole they have been gradually getting better, both as stronger films, and as films that are more faithful to the source material. And you can see the stages of evolution, like a child developing through the years…

I could easily write 1,000 words about any of these films, even the bad ones (or, some might say, especially the bad ones), but I’ll try to focus on their role in the ever-developing Hollywood Superhero Movie. (But if anyone really wants me to write a whole post about Daredevil, just let me know, I’m ready to go.)

The Teenage Years (2000 – 2007)

When you become a teenager, you start being much more responsible for your actions, both good and bad. And whenever you achieve something, it’s all the more impressive since you have actually accomplished something of merit, all on your own. Likewise, when you make mistakes, you tend to do so in a spectacular fashion. It’s an age where you start to figure out what kind of person you are – and what kind of person you want to be.

The first movie to usher in this era of superhero movies was X-Men (2000).

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The X-Men are, far and away, one of the hardest franchises to adapt from comics to other media. Thanks to the multitude of characters and all the different powers they have, most X-Men stories start out strong and then end up collapsing under the weight of their own continuity.

X-Men (2000) movie put superhero films on the map in a major way – it was a legitimately great ensemble drama. The movie still has a sense of fun, but it definitely isn’t campy, and it doesn’t try to get the laughs by winking at the audience (most of the time). The cast is phenomenal, and by using Wolverine and Rogue as the outsiders to this world of wacky mutants, they act as the audiences’ proxies, thus tying all the exposition they need into the story as a whole. It does drag in some places, especially thanks to that damned exposition (it’ll get you every time). But this movie is still really good – and definitely signaled a change in the status quo of superhero films (not to mention that it helped wash out the bitter aftertaste towards comic book movies left by Batman and Robin).

This movie also distanced itself from the source material to a degree, by changing the costume designs, and taking their pick with the characters themselves. The costume change is easy to understand – colorful costumes and masks seem unnecessary for the X-Men, who aren’t traditional superheroes out fighting crime. And as previous superhero films had shown, colorful costumes can look really cheesy on screen. They also were more selective with which characters to use – instead of adapting one particular era of the X-Men team, they chose characters from across the entire history of the franchise, and adapted them to fit their needs. This set a precedent going forward for several comic book films – comics are not novels. They’re serialized stories that unfold over many decades, and it’s okay to pick and choose, rather than adapting everything exactly how it appears in the comics.

X-Men kicked off a renaissance of superhero films taking themselves more seriously, declaring a new status quo. And the next contender, and arguably a better adaptation overall, was Spider-Man (2002).

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Unlike the X-Men film, Spider-Man kept the trappings of the comics (the X-Men’s colorful costumes were changed to black leather uniforms for the film, but Spider-Man’s costume is essentially faithful), and told a timeless origin story. The film certainly has flaws, no doubt (why do Spider-Man and the Green Goblin randomly get their powers on the same night?), but it also has a lot of charm that works in its favor.

As with any film, the creators made some changes, but in this case they’re all fairly easy to understand. Two major changes are to Mary Jane, and the web-shooters. (By the way, “Mary Jane and the Web-Shooters” would be an awesome band name.) The Mary Jane in the comics started as a shallow party girl, who gradually matures over time. In the film, she is much more emotional and vulnerable (though the film does hint that, like the MJ in the comics, she hides her bad home life by putting up a brave face among her friends). This change makes sense for Hollywood, because it helps the audience understand why Peter cares for her (he’s loved her all his life), and provides a tangible goal for him throughout the film. To that end, she does suffer from typical Hollywood woman syndrome, bouncing from man to man without much thought – but that’s a conversation for another day.

More famously, Spider-Man’s mechanical web-shooters are swapped out for organic webbing he produces as part of his powers. This is another change that I always understood, regardless of my personal feelings towards it. It has always seemed a bit odd that a teenager would be able to invent this incredible adhesive AND a spectacular delivery system. Admittedly, though, that’s part of the character – Peter is meant to be a brilliant kid, a step apart from his peers – but this film wisely makes him a more traditional, everyday nerd (the type who can sew an incredibly elaborate superhero suit that looks like a team of professional Hollywood costume designers on a multimillion dollar blockbuster film – you know, that type of nerd).

Not to nitpick, but this is something we start to see a lot of in this era of superhero films – costumes that could not possibly be crafted by these heroes. This was something that always really bothered me about this film, even when I was a kid. There’s no explanation of how Peter Parker, broke-ass college student, made that costume when, in real life, it took a team of professional artists blowing pressurized air into laser-cut webbing. It’s something comic book artists don’t have to worry about, but Hollywood does. With every film, designers have to ask the same questions – how to approach the costume? Make it look just like the comics, or go for something more polished? How close should they adhere to the design of the comics? Do they stick with spandex (as with Spider-Man), or opt for more practical-looking options (Daredevil, Superman Returns) that look like they could actually take some abuse in a fight? Or toss everything out for something more original? The change to the Green Goblin’s costume (the ‘Power Rangers’ mask, as it is not-so-affectionately called) comes from the same mindset of trying to blend the comic design with a real-world practicality. As we’ll see throughout these films, there’s a LOT of trial and error involved…

These two films (X-Men and Spider-Man) signaled a new era of the new age of comic book movies. Now the films can be taken more seriously, put together by filmmakers who care about getting it right. And they can finally achieve the impossible – bringing a superhero fight to life on the screen for real. This was impossible for the Superman films, but Spider-Man could finally FLY through the air, and look more or less real.

With Blade II also released in 2002, the Hollywood superhero movie machine was in full swing. And then came 2003, which was an interesting year for superhero films…

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Daredevil – Look, I need to get this out of the way: I actually like the Daredevil movie. I like the attempt to show a real-world superhero (popping painkillers and pulling out teeth in the shower), and the idea of confessing your superhero career to your priest actually makes a lot of sense, and I’m surprised we haven’t seen it more. That said, despite all that, I can objectively say that this film is wrong-headed in several major ways. And probably the worst is that Daredevil’s character arc is that he learns to stop killing bad guys.

I talked about this last time as well, but this film is one of the most blatant examples of the kill-happy superheroes (despite the main bad guys actually surviving the end of the film). The film opens with Daredevil letting a rapist die on the subway tracks, and it doesn’t seem to be his first execution. At the end of the film, he spares the Kingpin’s life, thanks to the epiphanies he has had during the film. The problem is, he is still established at the beginning as a character who kills bad guys. If this were an original character, or someone like Wolverine, that might be a much less frustrating arc. But Matt Murdock is an established Marvel hero who, notably, does not kill people (he and the Punisher have come to blows several times over this exact debate). And here he is, dropping perps in the street like a gangsta. And although I am required by nerd law to mention that the Director’s Cut is actually much better (though your mileage may vary), it doesn’t do anything to address that glaring issue.

Also, once again – there’s no way a pro-bono lawyer from Hell’s Kitchen affords a custom-molded leather superhero suit. Call me a broken record, but that has always bothered me.

X2: X-Men United – Arguably the strongest in the franchise, X2 builds off everything set up in the first film, and uses it to set up a neat, clean, fun story, with some real consequences.  While the first film is slow in parts, particularly as it sets up the world of the X-Men, X2 ramps up the stakes right from the get-go. It also delivered on the promise of the first film, with Wolverine finally cutting loose and going berserker on some bad guys. Once again, there are a few characters who get shortchanged (Cyclops especially) while the focus is pushed onto Wolverine and the younger characters (Rogue, Iceman, and Pyro) – in a lot of ways, it’s just like reading X-Men comics, where the exact same thing happened, just over a longer time frame. This was definitely the best comic book movie circa 2003.

Hulk – I want to spend as little time as I can on this one. This film is awful. How awful can it be, you might ask? Guys, I actually got my first kiss at this movie, and I still try to pretend it doesn’t exist (and it wasn’t because of the kiss). If X2 is getting an A+ on a test, Hulk 2003 is swiping whiskey from dad’s liquor cabinet and throwing up on his slippers.

There’s a lot wrong with this film, but perhaps the thing that drives me up the wall most about this film is how hard it tries to force the conventions we know about the Hulk. Think about it – the general audience’s knowledge of the Hulk starts and ends with the ’70s series. And the iconic line from that show was “Don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.” This line is literally the first thing people associate with the character, followed closely by the fact that he often wears purple pants in the comics. So, when Josh Lucas tackles Eric Bana, Bana’s Banner turns and says, “Don’t make me angry… You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.” Get it? Just like the show! He even re-uses the line at the end of the film. And when Bruce is captured by the army, they give him a pair of over-sized purple elastic shorts – get it? Just like the comics! It’s one thing to include nods to the fans. It’s another to hit them over the head with these overly-winking references that make you throw out your neck from rolling your eyes too hard. (There are references that don’t bother me in the 2008 Hulk film as well, but we’ll get there.)

And the whole thing might even be watchable if Ang Lee had remembered to light the nighttime action scenes, because you literally can’t see a thing that happens in half the Hulk fights.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen – Is there anything worth saying about this one? No? Okay, moving on.

With 2004 came Hellboy (a film I actually enjoy quite a bit), The Punisher (with Thomas Jane, a fun film, though very cheesy), and Blade Trinity (which would have been more entertaining if they’d cut out everyone but Ryan Reynolds). Also, apparently that cat-lady from Batman Returns got a spin-off with Halle Berry, but that doesn’t really have anything to do with superheroes or comic books, so I’m not gonna get into it.

But we also got Spider-Man 2 in 2004, and once again the sequel tops the original.

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This is easily the strongest of the Raimi Spider-Man trilogy. It’s not a perfect film (Spider-Man losing his powers thanks to personal problems is a pretty overt metaphor for losing the ability to write after breaking up with someone, an issue only a screenwriter would have come up with), but it’s still a strong contender in the great movie sequels. But most importantly it’s an excellent adaptation of Spider-Man comics.

Peter Parker in Spider-Man 2 is very much like he appears in comics for years. He’s a guy who can’t hold a steady job, keep a good apartment, or be there for his friends. He’s a guy who loves a girl, but cannot get his stuff together to actually be with her. He’s someone whose heroes and mentors turn out to be freaks and maniacs, and who loses his best friend thanks to his secrets. He’s so beset with misfortune, that the only times he ever feels things are going well are when he feels the rush and escape of being Spider-Man. He is life’s punching bag. And despite the issues with the film, it’s still a sterling adaptation of the heart of that character.

(Still, I wish Spider-Man himself were funnier in these films. He’s meant to be a smart-ass, but it doesn’t come through at all in the Raimi movies. Just sayin’…)

2005 brought us Constantine (a movie I enjoy, but it’s certainly not for everyone), Elektra (not very good), and Fantastic Four – and look, I have a lot of opinions about the Fantastic Four as characters, but we have a lot of movies to get through, so I’ll get into those another time – just know that this movie is not very good.

Oh, and we also got a little ditty called Batman Begins.

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Batman Begins changed the game. First of all, it was a shot in the arm for the Batman franchise, which was sorely needed after the 90s franchise. But it was so much more than that. It had the best-defined character development of any superhero movie so far, and really did an incredible job with one of the hardest parts of Batman’s origin – why did a guy with no powers decide to dress like a bat and beat up mental patients? The movie actually manages to set up a realistic world for Batman, and set him up as a well-defined, believable character.

Obviously, I could spend another 1,000 words on this film alone, but suffice it to say this movie was a HUGE game-changer. This was the Hollywood Superhero Movie getting a driver’s license – suddenly a whole world of possibilities opened themselves up. Now superhero movies could be more than just blockbusters – they could be deep. Batman Begins is still somewhat a transitional superhero film, with a few of the Hollywood trappings of the previous films (the fight on a speeding train, the machine that evaporates all the water in the area, and a few eye-rolling cliche lines). But it was a really well-done drama about the character, and that’s the point – it put the character at the center of the story. It was a damn fine Batman film, is my point.

This also symbolized the birth of the reboot. Casino Royale, Superman Returns, The incredible Hulk, Star Trek, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, The Amazing Spider-Man – each film made possible by the commercial and critical success of Batman Begins only 8 years after the reviled Batman and Robin sank the previous series. It proved that, if you made a strong enough film, an audience could forgive a franchise’s previous failings. (The results thus far have varied…)

And then in 2006, we got X-Men: The Last Stand and Superman Returns. If Batman Begins is getting a driver’s license, X-Men 3 is like crashing your car straight into a wall. The film is terrible, and completely fails to deliver on any of the promise of the other films, and practically torpedoed the entire franchise (there’s a reason the next two films were prequels and not sequels – nobody had any idea where to take the franchise next). And why did this happen? Because the director of the first two, Bryan Singer, had left the franchise, and been replaced by Brett Ratner (of Rush Hour “fame”).

Singer, meanwhile, had left to direct Superman Returns. And that film, unfortunately, was not up to the standards we had come to expect from Singer’s X-Men films. Instead, Returns is a long, drawn-out homage to the ’70s Superman films, and is extremely reverential – and, as a result, extremely stunted. It was a regression, instead of a push forward into new territory. Plus, the movie is a little slow, which is pretty surprising for a movie about a flying alien who catches an airplane in midair.

2007 didn’t fair that much better. Ghost Rider was goofy, but also kind of dumb. Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer was better than the first one, but only just barely. And then there was Spider-Man 3: a film that squeezed in 3 villains, trying to wrap up the Harry Osborn story while also adding in Sandman, and ALSO forcing in the symbiote costume / Venom storyline (which could be a whole movie in itself). Additionally, Sam Raimi’s goofy, tongue-in-cheek style (which had been creeping in through the previous films) finally broke to the surface, and as a result the tone felt inconsistent, both within the film and the franchise as a whole. And there’s more stuff (singing, dancing, weeping), but you get the idea. Once again, as with the Batman and Superman franchises of the previous years, and the X-Men franchise one year earlier, the franchise completely collapsed after the third film.

And then 2008 rolled around, and pretty much everything changed…

Next time: Maturity…

(Read Part One and Part Three)

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