On Super Hero Movies

In the last couple months I’ve done something I haven’t done in years: I saw two first-run super hero movies in a large multiplex during the weekend of their premieres–Thor and X-Men: First Class. Also, thanks to a run of super hero movies on cable, I also got caught up on a few others I hadn’t seen yet, including X-Men: The Last Stand and Wolverine. The former two have been some of the best-reviewed super hero movies of the last five or so yes, the latter two among the worst.

What’s odd, though, is that I didn’t really see much difference in the quality of the four films. All featured excellent fight scenes, some charismatic performances, sloppy plots, cliche-riddled dialogue and often ham-fisted directing. They were all entertaining movies, but none of them entered into the upper-echelon of super hero movies, movies like the first two Spider Man movies, the first X-Men film, Iron Man and of course Batman Begins and The Dark Knight–in which their relatively high Rotten Tomatoes aggregate ratings suggest they belong. I’d put both these movies solidly in the middle tercile of comic book films, with First Class toward the top and Thor closer to the bottom.

Take Thor which, were it not for a fairly awesome performance by Chris Hemsworth and an appearance by Stringer Bell as a Norse god, was mediocre at best–a surprisingly action-less action movie filled with archetypes, not characters. X-Men: First Class was better, helped along by excellent performances from James McAvoy, not Hugo Stiglitz and that guy from Footloose and the impeccable Swingin’ Sixties costuming of its handsomely-suited men and be-miniskirted and go-go booted women.

Everything is correct here.

But when the screenplay began to delve into issues beyond the personal complexities of Xavier and Lehnsehrr’s relationship, the movie became bogged down in hack dialogue, awkward editing, and an oddly racially-tinged moment where the camera cuts to the just-introduced black character of Darwin right at the moment where the guy who showed his penis to Matt Dillon in Wild Things mentions slavery. Shortly thereafter, Darwin turns literally ashy before vaporizing completely after absorbing the male prostitute from JFK’s killer dance moves.

The world's most powerful mutant.

Wolverine had a similarly sloppy plot and awkward screenplay, but strong performances from Hugh Jackman and Liev Schreiber as well as some well-choreographed fight scenes and scenic shooting locations made for a pleasantly entertaining film even it was lacking in the world(s)-at-risk stakes of Thor or First Class.

(Interestingly, Wolverine was heavily criticized for not doing anything to expand upon the origins of the character that wasn’t already known from the other X-Men films. And yet Thor is an entire movie that does nothing but lay part of the groundwork for The Avengers. Nothing of consequence is established in Thor that couldn’t be established in a two-minute conversation in The Avengers.)

Now I’m decidedly the least versed in comic books, movies and comic book movies among the regular contributors here at The Satellite Show, so let me throw this out to my fellow writers and readers: what are your favorite comic book movies? What makes a good comic book movie? Is there some collective delusion that Thor is a better movie than it is? Or am I missing something?

About David D.

I'm a wine professional. Like a real one who makes most of his living in wine and have for most of my adult life. I also write, but you can see that.
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3 Responses to On Super Hero Movies

  1. Clint says:

    I think you’re definitely approaching the films from a non comic geek standpoint. Which is entirely fair, and I will admit I have yet to actually watch the Wolverine movie, but it might be a possible explanation for your confusion.

    For example, I approached Thor from the standpoint of Jack Kirby. Kirby’s work is chock full of stilted dialog and 2-dimensional characters, not to mention borderline insanity… but you roll with it, because it’s Jack Kirby. The Thor comic at its beginning was also about teaching a proud God humility and sacrifice, which came through for me in spades in that movie. I know I wasn’t hearing a lot of Thor love in the snippets I was catching from the other end of the brewery table on Thursday, but I have trouble understanding why anyone could say nothing was accomplished. I’d rather watch HOW someone goes from Thor at the beginning of that movie to Thor at the end of it than have Hemsworth at the beginning of the Avengers say “Oh yeah, I was totally a hot shit God, then my dad made me mortal and I learned some lessons and here I am let’s fight evil!” And while I appreciate Justin’s deep seated obsession with an R-rated Thor movie, such an offering would have nothing to do with the Marvel source material.

    If an X-men comic isn’t preaching to you in an obvious and often overbearing manner, it’s not a true X-men comic. This is why, come to think, Grant Morrison is such a natural fit for the series.

    Was Darwin’s death gratuitous and unnecessary? I admit I was a bit uncomfortable with it, but because Darwin is a peripheral character at best to the X-legacy I wasn’t nearly as upset about it as I was about the bullshit sendoffs that Cyclops and Professor X got in Last Stand. Last Stand took the Dark Phoenix saga, one of the best story arcs ever published in mainstream comics, and shat all over it. First Class had the smarts to leave Jean Grey out, leave Wolverine out (mostly) — basically just grab a bunch of characters even the comics geeks don’t really have much stake in and use them as window dressing while the filmmakers concentrate on the Xavier/Magneto relationship. Emma Frost does have her following, but that’s probably why even people who otherwise like the movie are upset with Miss Jones.

    Did everything in First Class work for me? No. One moment almost ruins the movie for me , the more I keep thinking about it. But you’ll find out about that in a little over an hour from now.

  2. David D. says:

    I think that most film critics are also approaching the movies from a non comic book geek standpoint which makes the acclaim for Thor in particular odd to me. And that was my point. I did like Thor. I found it entertaining. But not the great movie in the echelon that critics seem to want to put it. Compare its 78% Rotten Tomatoes rating against Batman Begins’ 84%

    Point taken on Thor though. I’ve never had much interest in the Avengers canon, though I did like the Iron Man movies, so my ignorance of and ambivalence toward Thor no doubt affected my reaction. So as somebody not invested in the Avengers too deeply, I could show up watching The Avengers movie and have Thor there and be pretty much okay with it. Does Thor tell the story more effectively? Sure. But in the end, my point there was contrasting the critical response to Wolverine, which similarly tells a prequel story of little impact on the X-Men movie canon as we know it and was criticized for it, to the effusive praise for Thor. I think both movies are similarly flawed and both are “passably good” at best in my book.

    And that comes as someone whose entire comics consciousness pretty much involves only the X-Men and their affiliates, as I was an avid reader in the early to mid-1990’s–an era that I feel was a rather dark and existential phase for the franchise with the X-Cutioner’s Song, Age of Apocalypse, Wolverine’s time in Japan, etc. I liked that more than the broadly preach-y Humans vs. Mutants stories which dominate the films. Wolverine, in fact, captured more of that internal angst-y tone than any of the X-Men movies. Be that as it may, I’d put First Class as decidedly better than X3 and potentially the best of the bunch, though I haven’t seen the first two in ages.

    That’s the most I’ve written about comic books in ages. I guess I dipped a Fabian Nicieza madeleine into some X-Men tea there.

  3. Clint says:

    Something that may help you make more sense of this is that Rotten Tomatoes often considers “fresh” a review that, if you actually read it, may be rather lukewarm, or even backhanded in its praise. I remember going through the Thor reviews and finding a fair number along those lines. So even though it might have a 78% aggregation, a lot of the positive count comes from reviews that gave it 3 of 5 stars, or whatever in their scale was “Eh, I suppose I liked it.”

    I’d have to actually watch Wolverine to have a true opinion on it versus First Class, but I think my personal favorite of the bunch is still X2. And just so you’re aware, that early 90s era of X-men gets a lot of flak from comics fans (not without some justification), so if the Wolverine movie really was bringing that look and feel to the screen then I’m not surprised there was a snubbing.

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