Like it or not, we live in an age of superhero films. Marvel Studios has a fully established and ever expanding universe. Warner Bros. DC is trying to build theirs as quickly as possible. And Twentieth Century Fox… well Fox doesn’t seem to have a plan other than throw something out there and hoping it sticks the landing.
2016 has arguably been the biggest year for the genre. Six superhero films graced the silver screen this year, more than any other year previous (and double that of last year). But like all genres, there’s good, there’s bad and there’s some pretty ugly too. Without further ado, it’s time to separate the good from the great, and the dire from the disappointing.
Suicide Squad was, simply put, a shambles. What was marketed as a subversive romp turned out to be a paint-by-numbers generic story. Awful writing translated to thinly written characters and borderline narrative incoherence. At times it felt like there were two films playing at once: One was a dark brooding action film and the other was a flashy stylish attempt at a comedy. Margot Robbie was fine as Harley Quinn and Will Smith played an excellent assassin version of himself, but beyond that, there was not much to like at all. Thanks to the hack-and-slash editing style, much of Jared Leto’s take on The Joker didn’t make it to the final cut and left the character underwhelming and severely underdeveloped. For a film about villains, it had one of the weakest villains and blandest evil schemes in recent memory. Worst heroes ever? More like one of the worst superhero films of all time.
Fresh of the critical and commercial success of Days of Future Past, the next instalment of the X-Men franchise seemed like it would be a slam dunk. Unfortunately, Apocalypse is as forgettable as blockbusters come. In almost every way, this is the biggest film in the franchise yet with a bigger cast and even bigger destruction. But with this excess comes a lot of emptiness. The central themes of segregation and discrimination barely feature at all making the whole affair morally hollow. With a myriad of younger cast members to introduce, the first act crawls at a snail’s pace. Jennifer Lawrence is once again pushed to the fore front of the action simply because she is a box office draw; the film goes out of its way to compromise the character’s views to make her more recognisable. With only another Quicksilver scene as its standout, there isn’t much to get excited about here. But at least it’s more narratively consistent than Suicide Squad.
Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice
I think the best way to describe Batman V Superman is “a beautiful mess.” There’s certainly a lot to like on display. The leads all give good performances, particularly Ben Affleck who proved all his doubters wrong as an excellent ageing Batman. The film is also beautifully shot; Zack Snyder once again proves he is a master of directing action and making each frame look like art. However solid performances and good action alone doesn’t make a film good. Snyder’s visual prowess is matched by his inability to tell a cohesive story. A lot of interesting philosophical questions are asked but aren’t explored in any great depth because BvS bit off more than it could chew: It tries to make a Batman film, a sequel to Man Of Steel, a versus film between two of the most iconic characters of all time as well as set up the Justice League. The lack of focus and sloppy resolutions means that a lot of ideas and potential is wasted in this rather joyless superhero film. Not to mention Jesse Eisenberg is poorly cast as a thoroughly un-intimidating Lex Luthor. Alas, this was not the powerhouse fans (and the studio) had hoped for.
It’s Marvel’s 14th film in their cinematic universe, and somehow they’re still telling origin stories. Doctor Strange does follow the same story thread as the first Iron Man film, just with more magic than technology, which is disappointing. But what this film lacks in narrative innovation, it makes up for in spades with the visuals. With Scott Derrickson in the director’s chair, this film looks like no other film you will have seen, not only this year, but this decade. Colourful, psychedelic imagery pulled straight from Steve Ditko’s original artwork comes to life on the screen, making this a stunning cinematic experience. Benedict Cumberbatch as the titular hero is suitably charming and brings the well-timed comedy that has made the MCU what it is today. The resolution also takes away the huge fight sequence characteristic of generic superhero films and replaces it with something a little more subtle and clever. However, like most Marvel movies, we do have a boring, one-note villain in Mads Mikkelsen’s Kaecillius.
Captain America: Civil War
While this may not be the Citizen Kane of superhero films, Captain America: Civil War is most definitely a fantastic film. It does the seemingly impossible by juggling so many larger than life characters but still doing each of them justice. What sets this film apart is its ability to tell a very personal story amidst the big action bonanza. That doesn’t mean the action isn’t exhilarating; the much lauded airport scene is probably the best fight sequence in the history of the genre. But it is the emotional chord that Civil War strikes that makes it stand out amongst the crowd. The action always serves a purpose, it isn’t just there to kill time. We are invested in these characters and that makes every punch that much more impactful. This film also does a great job of smoothly integrating new characters like Black Panther and (cinema’s third iteration of) Spider-Man. It’s fair to say that the Russo brothers have set the bar for future superhero team-up films very high.
Fox certainly didn’t see this coming… It is truly remarkable that relatively low budget, crass superhero film is as good as it is. For those who are getting sick of formulaic superhero films, Deadpool certainly shakes up the saturated market. The writers cleverly break the fourth wall to poke fun at the genre and it makes for some great satire. Ryan Reynolds was born to play the merc with a mouth, bringing his fast-talking, smart ass sensibilities to the screen. The story was simple, but effective, a refreshing step back from the apocalyptic threats of most superhero movies. It also stands alone as its own story: A disturbing trend of the genre is that it is far too concerned with teasing what is to come that it forgets to do the simple things, like make a film. While your grandmother may not enjoy it, with its ultra-violence and toilet humour, Deadpool is one of the most original superhero films ever. Not bad for a film that nearly wasn’t made…