Saturday, June 11, 2016

Captain America: Civil War and Superhero Fatigue

Way behind on reviews (cause of travelling and stuff) so time for me to catch up on the movies I've seen lately.

A lot’s been written lately about how audiences and critics are becoming tired of superhero movies following the same formula and offering nothing new. To see whether this is having a diminishing effect on quality (and the box office), I thought I’d take a look at the four major comic book movies that have been released so far this year.

First out of the gate was Deadpool. Your typical “boy meets girl, boy gets cancer, boy becomes a mutant mercenary” tale, Deadpool succeeds almost entirely on the hilarious breaking the fourth wall tone and the lead performance of Ryan Reynolds. Few actors get a second chance at a character after bombing the first time (though to be fair, Reynolds was the least of the problems with X-Men Origins: Wolverine) but Deadpool’s second big screen appearance wisely ignores the previous film, except to poke fun at it. It’s amazing that a relatively low budget spin-off has quickly become the most successful X-Men movie and one of the biggest R-rated movies of all time. It’s richly deserved, since the film was clearly a labor of love (Reynolds stuck with it off and on for 10 years). The plot may be pedestrian, but the movie has heart and a really fucking dirty mouth.

Which brings us to the next superhero movie of 2016, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. You’ve already heard millions of critics tear the movie apart, and yes it is bad, but it’s worth taking some time to point out why it fails. It’s not because it’s too dark, too serious, or too deep, despite what Zack Snyder’s fans would have you believe. BvS is just a bad story, told incompetently.

The main problem is that Snyder is just the wrong filmmaker to bring these characters to the screen. Man of Steel was clearly made by someone embarrassed by the very idea of Superman, who couldn’t relate to the character unless he was either apathetic or borderline homicidal, instead of the shining beacon of hope he’s supposed to be. Batman is superficially more suited to Snyder’s style, but even there Snyder focuses on the surface details (i.e. how “badass” he is) without really examining what makes Bruce Wayne tick or his moral code. It’s telling that the only above average movie Snyder has made is Watchmen, which as a deconstruction of the very idea of heroism actually benefitted from the director’s cynical, nihilistic approach.

Of course there are many other problems with the film. Plot holes galore (though what movie doesn’t have at least some?); no development (and barely any dialogue) for Superman, who mainly just broods; feeble villains (a big CGI mess called Doomsday and Jesse Eisenberg playing Lex Luthor as Mark Zuckberg on a gallon of Red Bull); laughable dialogue (“Martha! Why did you say that name?!”); atrocious editing (scenes feel like they are just thrown in randomly with no establishing shots or connective tissue); and some of the most shoehorned-in cameos in movie history (Wonder Woman – looks cool, has no reason to be in the story. Then at one point she literally watches trailers for the other Justice League characters on a computer). So yeah, it’s a big, daft, boring mess that would turn anyone off superhero movies for a while.

To quote Nick Fury, it was “hopelessly, hilariously outgunned” a little over a month later by Captain America: Civil War, which is basically the same movie except not crappy. The 13th movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe could certainly afford to coast a little on audience’s affection for the characters, but for the most part Civil War is a solidly-constructed tale that makes some salient real world points and goes to some dark places for the characters while still being tons of fun (the latter not currently being welcome in the DC movieverse).

The throw in everything but the kitchen sink approach (Ant-Man turns up for no reason, but we love Paul Rudd so it’s okay; Spider-Man turns up for no reason, but Marvel have the character back so might as well have him kick some ass and throw some quips, which new actor Tom Holland does well) stretches credibility in parts but gets away with it because of how much goodwill the characters and this universe have generated. The airport battle is as spectacular as you’ve heard (even if the reason for the fight is somewhat unconvincing) and the conclusion is nicely understated and brutally personal compared to the sky battles that have become increasingly overused in Marvel movies.

Daniel Bruhl as Zemo actually turns out to be one of the better MCU villains, with refreshingly low-key motive and pretty much all the characters have their moment to shine. It lacks the “gotta see it again right away” excitement of the first Avengers or even Guardians of the Galaxy (which is probably why Civil War’s legs at the box office haven’t been that great) but it’s definitely a top five Marvel movie and a great kickoff to Phase III.

Finally, we come to X-Men: Apocalypse, which I have yet to see. Reviews have called it a disappointment and the box office seems to be following that trend. Bryan Singer has given a lot to the franchise, although my personal favourite (X-Men: First Class) wasn’t directed by him. But like Christopher Nolan, he seems like a director that doesn’t really want to embrace the wild and almost goofy nature of comics, and unlike Batman, X-Men really needs someone to embrace that, as the success of Deadpool has shown. I personally don’t care if Marvel gets the rights back to X-Men (unlike the Fantastic Four, the X-Men work better in a world without other superheroes) but I think it’s time for Singer to step aside. If they can’t get back Matthew Vaughn (the director of First Class) then my dream choice for an X-Men reboot would be Joss Whedon. He said in an interview before he was picked for Avengers that he was more suited to X-Men because he could relate to the pain the characters feel. As good as his Avengers movies were, X-Men would be a return to something truly personal for him, like Buffy, and I think he would knock it out of the park.

So where does that leave us? Two good superhero movies were big hits. Two apparently not so good ones disappointed but still will make lots of money. Superhero movies aren’t going away, but the time has passed for them to get by on the “Ooh, we’ve never seen these characters on screen together” wow factor. The problem with Hollywood isn’t too many superhero movies. There’s just too many movies with weak scripts and lackluster direction being made. The fix for that isn’t running a different genre into the ground. It’s just making better movies, period.


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