Earlier this year, James Mangold’s Logan was finally released to nearly unanimous praise, with many calling it the best superhero film since Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Upon reflecting on the comic book films released since 2008, after Nolan’s movie changed the face of the genre, it was difficult to think of many films which have lived up to it. The ones that do—besides Logan—are X-Men: First Class, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy. Out of over 30 superhero films to come out in the last nine years, only five of them be considered as truly “great.” While there are some very entertaining films to come out of the genre, the remainder are just fine, at best. They rarely feel great or special; they’re adequate at best and blatantly unwatchable at worst. With very recent films such as Logan and last year’s Deadpool still doing something right in the genre, superhero fatigue isn’t the issue at hand here. Instead, most films of the genre are often refused their rightful space to play in the creative sandbox.
The five superhero movies noted as great all have an underlying trait in common: their ability to transcend the tropes of the genre. By focusing on more than just the superhero tropes and elements, these films can also be classified under different genres. For instance, The Dark Knight works as a Michael Mann-esque crime film, and X-Men: First Class works similarly as a ’60s spy thriller. Days of Future Past and The Winter Soldier function just as well as political thrillers. Even Guardians of the Galaxy works as a throwback to classic sci-fi, and Logan works as a neo-western. While this isn’t the sole requirement for making a superhero film great, it definitely helps. Playing around with different genres allows these films to pick up different cinematic traits, while still keeping the superhero elements at their core. For example, Logan uses the plodding pace and brewing tension of neo-westerns, like Joel and Ethan Coen’s No Country for Old Men, to great effect. By subverting the expectations of the genre, these superhero films are not only stronger, but also more fresh, because they are willing to try something new.
For most films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), that’s not the case. The biggest issue for them is that they have found a groove that works with audiences and they are rarely willing to stray away from it. This has honestly ruined the enjoyment of some of their earlier work because audiences are watching the same films constantly with very few changes. For example, Iron Man has lost its charm, because they’ve taken that origin story and reused it with different characters. They have also repeatedly revisited the same regrets and struggles of Tony Stark in both Iron Man sequels, Avengers: Age of Ultron and Civil War. Stark’s character arc no longer feels fresh, and because it feels like he hasn’t learned anything from the prior films, it really taints what the first Iron Man was trying to accomplish. In the six films revolving around Stark, he hasn’t evolved as a character, because he goes through the same conflict in each film. While the MCU films are well-made on a technical level, they feel more like products set to entertain first and foremost while sticking to a specific formula that still works with audiences. This isn’t a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination, but it really hinders any true creativity that can potentially make adequate films great.
Another element that can allow these films to truly stand out is to craft them in such a way that provides a more humanistic approach to the genre, especially with how the characters are written. While they are still superheroes, the five greats give the characters so much humanity that audience members can still relate to them. For instance, looking at Days of Future Past, even though Charles Xavier is bestowed with incredible powers, we still feel his trauma from the previous film and his struggles to help other mutants like himself as he descends into addiction and self-loathing. He’s such a well-rounded character, brought to life by James McAvoy with such weakness and fear, that we feel sympathy for him as a person.
While something like Captain America: Civil War tries to emulate that same humanity, it falls apart because, ultimately, the spectacle comes first. Watching Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) try to accept and repair the detriments caused by his weapons and the Avengers initiative while Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) struggles to stick to his own moral code feels secondary to just watching the two fight each other with witty banter whilst setting up future films in the extended universe. While the action set pieces are well done, the dialogue is clever and the setting up of future films is able to excite the audience, they’re not enough to push a narrative and character arcs forward in a two and a half hour film.
Another example of great character building is in Guardians of the Galaxy. For most audiences, the characters of those comics were unknown, but James Gunn is able to brilliantly introduce these characters and give them personalities and depth to work within a span of two hours. Thanks to his writing, Gunn creates actual human beings as opposed to cardboard cut-outs, and continued to do so in his recent sequel. For something like DC’s Suicide Squad, that isn’t the case. Instead, we are given characters that are both familiar (Joker, Harley Quinn) and unfamiliar (Captain Boomerang, Killer Croc) and director David Ayer fails to develop them enough for us to truly care about them as people so that we can’t root for them by the end. While that isn’t the defining reason as to why the film is poor at its best, it definitely has an impact on why the film doesn’t work in the same way as Guardians of the Galaxy.
One other major component that makes a superhero movie great is how well it can work as a stand-alone feature. The great superhero movies do not rely on sequel baiting and setting up a universe to work, and instead, stand on their own as individual works. Yes, all five of the films are part of their own extended universes, but even if one hasn’t seen the other films, they can still get a lot out of them on their own. The only partial exception could be Days of Future Past as it references events from First Class, but even that still provides enough information so to not keep new viewers in the dark. By standing on their own, these films are able to focus on the current narrative without interrupting what’s going on in the current moment. This also benefits the flow of the film because it keeps a consistent pace, therefore keeping the audience consistently invested without taking them out of the film itself. Instead of coming off as mere corporate products designed to sell future films, the best superhero films of recent memory are able to stand on their own; which works to its advantage.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the case with most of the output from the MCU and the DC Extended Universe (DCEU). The MCU surely suffers from not allowing most of their films to stand out on their own thanks to their constant desire to set up future films. For example, in Captain America: Civil War, Spider-Man makes a very brief appearance to set up the forthcoming Spider-Man: Homecoming before conveniently being written out of the plot. The DCEU is also just as (if not even more) guilty of it. They are currently three films in and they’re already forcing a set up for the inevitable Justice League in films such as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. The e-mail scene in that film is not only completely out of place, but it also makes Warner Brothers and DC seem desperate to jump-start a cinematic universe. The scene is only there to tease future films in the DCEU, focusing on what will happen in the future as opposed to what is happening in the current film. The tease is not only unnecessary, but it also hinders the progression of the narrative in Batman v Superman. By adding in this scene, it kills the pace already set prior to this moment and interrupts the narrative for something that should have been a post-credit sequence. By trying to jump-start a franchise whether blatantly or with some subtlety, the filmmakers are interrupting the general narrative flow by taking people out of the film.
What makes a superhero film great is that it transcends into different genres to create something wholly unique, while featuring humanistic characters and fascinating narratives to feel connected to the all-powerful beings on screen, and the ability to stand out on their own despite being in their own franchises or extended universes. Most films of the genre post-Dark Knight, fail to provide that effect, and therefore range between just fine and terrible. Most of the MCU is adequate enough, but the films in the shared universe are unable to play further in the creative sandbox, while DC is failing to balance setup for future films and driving the current narrative. It’s times like these where filmmakers should do more with the superhero genre, but hopefully films like Logan signal a change.
(Featured Photo by Caleb Fox)