Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Avengers & the State of Superhero Movies

As I'm looking forward to the third Iron Man movie, I can't help but take note of the fact that I never wrote a review of The Avengers.  I think that I write reviews for pretty much every superhero movie that comes out, but I never got around to the biggest one of all (box-office wise).  I wrote about The Amazing Spider-Man and The Dark Knight Rises, but somehow I never got around to that one, especially considering that I loved the crap out of it.  Still, it's been so long that it seems kind of silly to write a review about it now, so I'm just going to use that movie as a launching-pad for some other thoughts I have about superhero movies in general.

I've been a fan of comics for most of my life now.  I've been reading them since I was twelve, and I'm going to turn forty this November.  Unlike a lot of fans, I've never had a period where I didn't get them.  In fact, I doubt that I've gone more than a month without setting foot in a comic book store since I started getting them.

I also went to my first comic book convention around the same time that I started reading comics.  I remember how excited I was because Stan Lee was there, and there was a panel where he talked about all kinds of upcoming movie projects.  I also remember getting all excited when he'd write about the movies featuring Marvel characters in his "Stan's Soapbox" column.  Can't you remember all those great Marvel movies from the late eighties and early nineties?  Here, I'll pause as you start naming them off.


The thing is, I would get all excited about supposed Iron Man, Silver Surfer, Spider-Man, etc. movies that never saw the light of day even though my uncle, who was following comics for some time before me, told me that I shouldn't trust anything that Stan would say.  Apparently, "The Man" had a bit of a track record of hyping movies that were "in development" that never actually got developed.

Not only that, but Lee would praise utter crapfests like The Punisher (the Dolph Lundgren one) and Captain America (the one with J.D. Salinger's son).  Face it, true believer, the state of superhero movies was pretty abysmal.

As I got older, I pretty much figured that I would probably never see a decent comic book movie.  The best ones around were the Batman films, and those all just got worse and worse.  Spider-Man was in development hell as they tried to figure out exactly who owned the rights to make the movie with the character, and the idea of James Cameron directing was just too good to be true.  (Although he genuinely did have a hand in developing a film, even though it went nowhere.)  Everything that did exist was clearly made by people who had no idea what was cool about superheroes in the first place.

I remember that Wizard magazine used to have a pretty cool column called "Casting Call" where they would pick their dream choices for hypothetical superhero movies.  It was enjoyable, but I never thought I'd ever see them come to light.  I mean, Sir Patrick Stewart as Professor X?  You gotta be dreaming!

And then X-Men came out, and everything changed.  Have there been bad superhero movies since then?  Absolutely, with Daredevil, Spider-Man 3, and The Fantastic Four springing to mind.  To take those three examples though, each one is a billion times better than the versions that came before.  Daredevil made an appearance in The Trial of the Incredible Hulk.  He wore a black costume that had a blindfold on it, because apparently Daredevil thinks it's a wise move to announce to the underworld that he's blind.  He was also the guy who used to host Solid Gold.  Ever see the 1970s live-action TV Spider-Man?  Don't.  And the FF had it so bad that the director made a movie that he had no intention of releasing.  With the more recent versions of those films, I can at least find some good things to say about them, not so much with the older versions.

We've had some other bad ones, like Green Lantern, but if that movie had come out when I was just starting to read comics, I'd think that it was the greatest thing ever.  At least it was made by people who read the comics and had some understanding of the mythology, even though it was a colossal misfire as they attempted to translate it into a movie.  As a fan, I at least enjoyed seeing some ideas that I loved in the comics come to life on the big screen.

All this brings me back to The Avengers.  A movie that featured characters from four other franchises?  And it's all in the same continuity with (mostly) the same actors?  The twelve-year-old me would have pooped my pants in anticipation, but once I wised up to Stan Lee's trickery, I'd say that it was darn-near impossible.  Even if they tried it, the movies would probably stink, and the end product would probably be so far from the concept that it would be unrecognizable.

I've heard a lot of people say that the film was overrated.  I can see that, but at the same time, it was something that I'd never thought I'd see, and dammit, it was good.  In fact, all of the movies leading up to it were good.  I know some folks will want to quibble with me on that, but I enjoyed them all.  They were true to the genre and featured capable actors and some fun dialogue.  None of them transcended the genre (with the possible exception of the first Iron Man) but they were all solid, entertaining films.

The Avengers, and I hope you'll forgive the cliche, was greater than the sum of its parts.  I harbored some doubts as to whether it could actually work, but it all came together quite well.  And unlike the Christopher Nolan Batman films, which are great, The Avengers completely embraced its genre roots.  And that's pretty impressive considering what a crazy mish-mash of genres comics tend to be.  You wouldn't think that Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man could live in the same space as Chris Hemsworth's Thor, yet you never question it when it's happening.

Did it touch on more real-life issues like The Dark Knight did?  No, but it wasn't exactly trying to, either.  It was a movie that embraced everything cool about superheroes and celebrated it.  It's probably the first movie where I could tell a non-comic book fan, "Yeah, that's pretty much what it's like."  I should also note that my wife, who enjoys these kinds of movies but not with the same enthusiasm that I do, actually saw this one TWICE in the theater.

Considering its box-office, it obviously appealed to a more mainstream crowd, which proves what we comic book fans have been saying for a long time - being true to the comics will only be a good thing.  These characters have endured for decades; there must be a reason for that.

I guess I'd say that The Avengers is kind of the ultimate B-movie in a way.  It breaks no new ground, but it gets everything right, and it doesn't suffer from the curses of most B-movies like painfully awful dialogue, bad acting, and awful effects.

There are just so many things that I enjoy about it, that you can add my name to the list of people who are over-rating it.  I loved the bit where Captain America finally takes charge, and he's able to convincingly tell a god what to do.  Even better, it's great that it was prefaced with Iron Man realizing that the guy he's been mocking this whole time is the man for the job, saying, "Call it, Cap."  Not only are there so many little moments that I dig, I can't recall a big-budget action film that actually gets BETTER in the third act.  I usually find these things to kinda run out of steam as they get toward the end.  I would actually say that the film's weaker scenes are at the beginning.

Here's hoping that they don't screw it up with the second Avengers movie.  But even if they do, I've already seen enough good superhero films to get the taste of the 70s, 80s, and 90s out of my mouth.  Even if it totally stinks, I can guarantee it will be better than Batman and Robin.

As for the next thing that I'm doubtful as to whether it can happen or not?  Getting Andrew Garfield's Spider-Man and Hugh Jackman's Wolverine in The Avengers 2.  Good thing I've been wrong before.


Tony from Pandora said...

You didn't mention special effects... Do you think that played a part in why the older movies sucked so much? There was a time that people would watch movies just FOR the special effects... I think now that technology has developed to be able to do virtually anything... it's now (thankfully) taken a back seat to the actual storyline (Transformers excluded, of course).

Movies that tout their special effects don't appeal to me, because to me that means, "the movie is horrible, but the spaceship looks SO real!". So I'm glad you didn't mention the special effects as a basis for why a comic book movie was good or not good. But do you think that has played a significant part.

I've just thought that these movies just couldn't have been made 20-30 years ago because the technology didn't exist to do these stories justice...

Lance Christian Johnson said...

When I sat down to write this, I actually intended to write a little something about the improved special effects. Guess it couldn't have been that important considering that I forgot!

But yeah, I think it definitely helps to see Spider-Man actually swing through the buildings rather than be pulled up on ropes as his arms wave around.