Comics to Screen is a recurring feature in which Ben Kaye analyzes the constantly evolving leap from comic books to screens of all sizes. This time, he looks back at a year of comic book movies filled with as much hype as heroics.
Back in January, I looked ahead at this year’s crop of comic movies with my typically geeky anticipation. There was so much to look forward to, from the great Dark Knight versus Man of Steel duel to the welcoming of Spider-Man into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. 2016 was looking pretty bright back in January … but then 2016 actually happened.
I saw Doctor Strange on the evening after the Presidential Election. While the best cinema works as a mirror of reality, it’s also an escapist’s retreat, and surely the magic of Marvel would serve as an entertaining distraction. At times, it was hard not to shift uncomfortably as themes of fear and humanity were discussed with often too-pertinent dialogue. But it was far easier to let the wonders on the screen persevere against any negative emotions welling inside, and I left reminded why superhero movies are so important to fans like me.
These types of films are by definition based on the notion that good will triumph and that the best parts of the world will fight their way through the worst. They entertain, they impress, and they make millions of dollars, sure, but they also serve to feed that portion of the human spirit that wants to see wrongs righted and brightness wash out the dark.
When we debate the quality of these movies, things can get heated; I already know the crap I’m going to receive for my appearing to favor one cinematic universe over the other, though I swear I objectively just calls shit like I sees shit. What it comes down to, though, is that we’re debating over something that can only bring us joy or fail to, which when you think about it, are far more pleasurable stakes than the madness of the real world. In times when things seem the most hopeless and tense, it does us well to witness a bit of heroics.
07. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows
It’s almost unfair to rank Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows with the rest of this year’s comic movie fare, because it operates on such a different level — a much lower one. The Michael Bay-produced sequel is actually an improvement on the 2014 CGI/live action reboot of the beloved series, but it still falls victim to all the same cringe-inducing missteps. Characters that should be bursts of nostalgic joy, like Krang and Casey Jones, end up somehow both irritating and under utilized. Whatever it does get right (Bebop and Rocksteady are actually a freakin’ joy), it finds a way to screw up (they only fight the Turtles once, barely, and their introduction is completely ruined by a dick joke).
Like its predecessor, it tries to be a kids’ movie that appeals to an adult audience with no finesse, mixing childish slapstick with incongruous sexualization and middle fingers. Director Dave Green actually does a fine job with what he’s given, but the plot is followed with such nonsense logic mostly reliant on characters’ (and the audience’s) ignorance that it ends up as a poorly structured cartoon brought to life, and that makes for some poor cinema.
06. Suicide Squad
Suicide Squad is just the latest example of DC Films/Warner Bros.’ unfortunate habit of false advertising. Trailers gave the impression that the movie would be a violent, fun, quirky romp with an array of stimulating characters. What we got was a bloodless, dull, brash slog with a string of tiresome caricatures.
The “plot”, as it were, is such a slipshod and pointless thing that it’s barely worth mentioning, meaning all we’re left with to find any appreciation in David Ayer’s entry in the DC Extended Universe is character. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing for a property like this, but when you’re given barely two hours to establish some 11 (!) characters we have to invest in plus a serviceable story and attention-grabbing fight scenes, things are going to suffer. Having characters introduced with no other purpose but to die (Slipknot), to tickle fans’ taints (Joker), or with seemingly no purpose at all (Katana) leaves an already jammed blockbuster with no space to breathe. It’s that sort of congested presentation that makes any attempt at emotional heft by the film’s end not only awkward, but laughable in all the worst ways.
05. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
This was the one for which even the most fair-weather superhero fans were waiting, the ultimate comic book beatdown. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was meant to bring two of the world’s most iconic capes together and formally establish the DC Extended Universe. Instead, it was just another critical loss leader for both DC Films and director Zack Snyder.
Beyond being yet another joylessly desaturated drag of a film, BvS is one of the most horrendously plotted pieces of cinema in years, comic based or otherwise. Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer can write films, but they were given so much to do here that none of it got done well. The government’s motivations for investigating Henry Cavill’s Superman are completely unclear, and Jesse Eisenberg’s clownish Lex Luthor’s whole plan is a muddled catastrophe. Ben Affleck as Batman and Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman are the strongest additions to the DCEU yet, but they’re squished under the weight of too many story lines — many of which are only introduced to set up Justice League, including a thumb drive of pathetic cameos. It’s the constant problem of DC’s rushed attempt at starting a cinematic universe: Too many ideas, too little time.
Also, “Mother Martha” is going to go down as a new “Jump the Shark.”
04. X-Men: Apocalypse
Why is it that every third X-Men movie feels the need to go so completely for broke? I asked this same question back in January, and it still holds. While X-Men: Apocalypse doesn’t come close to the dissatisfaction of X-Men: The Last Stand, it’s still too reliant on familiar tropes and too determined to introduce a new generation of mutants into an already populous field to ever really reach its potential.
To their credit, director Bryan Singer and writer Simon Kinberg handle this better than most historically have, but then scenes like a random mall trip and the unemotional death of Havok (Lucas Till) remind that the task is rarely accomplished flawlessly. Angel (Ben Hardy) once again fails to gain cinematic justice, and even a reasonable performance from Oscar Isaac isn’t enough to save the final confrontation from feeling lackluster. On top of tired story arcs — Magneto (Michael Fassbender) struggles with vengeance and Professor X (James McAvoy) has abiding faith … again — and a staunch refusal to make an X-Men movie without a Wolverine cameo, we’re left with something that’d be subpar even in comic form.
That said, the young X-Men introduced are intriguing, if underserved, and it’s so freakin’ cool to see them standing in the Danger Room in classic costumes at the end. Things like that give X-Men: Apocalypse the redemption that lesser films this year lacked.
03. Captain America: Civil War
Captain America is perhaps the most consistently excellent franchise in superherodom, and Marvel’s team deserves the utmost kudos for its success. Once again, they delivered a gripping and nerdgasm-worthy tale with Captain America: Civil War, a rare accomplishment of blockbuster spectacle and valid pathos.
In so many ways, Civil War achieved the type of story and characters that Dawn of Justice dreamed of. The plan of Daniel Brühl’s Zemo is even more convoluted than that of Eisenberg’s Luthor, but it’s well relegated to the background. The actual political struggle of the Sokovia Accords is rationally earned, leading viewers to truly care about the conflict in ways that other movie never managed. Directing superstars Anthony Russo and Joe Russo also found a way to choreograph massive fights without succumbing to the scorched Earth-style destruction trap other superhero films fall victim to, giving us both the single greatest multi-hero battle ever filmed and more intimate fisticuffs with true stakes.
Greater still, writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely were able to introduce two brand-new characters (Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther and Tom Holland’s Spider-Man) into the film’s already crowded ranks without shortchanging either and leaving us wanting more. Successfully creating a film that stands on its own while also building anticipation for what’s next is the dream of any cinematic universe, and no one does it better than the Russo’s and Captain America.
The success of Deadpool was satisfying on so many levels. The fact that it was even made was as much a victory for fans who campaigned for it as it was for the team that worked so hard to make it happen (star Ryan Reynolds, director Tim Miller, and screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick). The fact that it was made on a relatively small budget, rated R, bloody and funny as hell, and actually a great film is a victory for superhero cinema in general.
In a semi-ironic twist, this send-up of comic book movies is perhaps the most faithful adaptation we’ve seen in recent years, if not ever. Reynolds has found the character he was born to play — even if it requires his pretty little face to be disfigured and masked. His Deadpool looks and acts just like he was pulled from the books, with his constant dick jokes and impeccably recreated costume. Trying to be too precise in adaptations often reveals the weaknesses of one medium or the other, but somehow it’s pulled off here with epic grace despite utilizing one of the most epically ungraceful anti-heroes around. Even Colossus (a trio of actors for voice, body, and facial performance) is faithfully presented, a version of the Russian mutant 100-fold better than anything in the first X-trilogy.
Yet while it so wonderfully transfers the characters from panel to screen, Deadpool spends its entire runtime mocking genre tropes even as it apes them. Go figure that a movie sending up the genre it’s a part of ended up reinvigorating that very cinematic style.
01. Doctor Strange
It’s not often that a November release outshines the summer blockbusters, but Doctor Strange bucked that trend with mystical aplomb. In a counterbalance to the Marvel Cinematic Universe-spanning Civil War, director/writer Scott Dickinson was handed a character comparatively untethered from all the jumble of the establishment. Without the same burden of “the bigger picture,” he was able to deliver a film that, for all its familiar beats, felt wonderfully fresh.
There are clear parallels between the story of Stephen Strange (a spot-on Benedict Cumberbatch) and that of Tony Stark, but there are important differences in both the nature of the character’s conflict resolution and his desire to reach it. Strange knows nothing about the mystic arts when he travels to the Far East, and he doesn’t want to be the savior of the Earthly plane once he masters them. Watching him wrestle with his own ego and the greater world he selfishly inserted himself into presents an existential journey that audiences hadn’t yet witnessed in the MCU. Even when it struggles with some of the same aspects that have too long plagued comic book movies — namely the villain — it manages to defeat it in a way that’s incredibly smart and gratifying. Any shortcomings are further assuaged with the aide of a stellar supporting cast, namely Tilda Swinton and Chiwetel Ejiofor. Along the way, Marvel conjures up the best visual effects ever seen in a comic movie, making this perhaps the first movie that is truly enhanced by 3D.
Whereas Deadpool provided evidence that there’s another path towards a quality superhero film, Doctor Strange proved there’s still some magic to be tapped in the old ways.