2019, a year of… Superhero Movies

I haven’t seen Brightburn yet because it seemed to be more a straight horror film with clever marketing than a revolutionary take on the superhero genre, and I’m not a very big fan of horror – but of the nine superhero films I did see, I loved five, was disappointed by two, shocked by one and appalled by the other. I thought I would talk about them all, even the ones I didn’t like. I don’t feel my very small opinions will risk damaging anyone’s career.

The One That Appalled Me

Shall we just say, Joker was not my cup of tea, and move on? Actually, no. Give me a minute. Because seriously, what the fuck was Joker? Was it the story of a comedian who gets a slot on tv talk show after doing a single stand-up gig but still feels hard done by? The film that reveals that the Joker took on that persona for no more interesting reason than he had a clown costume lying around from his old job? A clever satire about how white guys never pay the consequences for their actions? I don’t know, because the film’s get-out-of-jail card – anything that we see on screen may just be imagined by Arthur Fleck – allows absolutely any interpretation to be made. Is Joker for or against gun violence? Is it pro- or anti-capitalist? Is it a warning about incel culture or a celebration of it? Is it anything at all? Does it even matter?

I think it does matter, at least a bit, partly because the films seems (if interviews with Todd Phillips are to be believed) at least partly a reaction and a response to the idea (beloved of a section of Hollywood directors and old white guys everywhere) that ‘you can’t say anything funny anymore because everyone is so easily offended’. If the Joker is influenced by the failed attempts to green-light The Hangover Part IV you have to worry, don’t you? A bit?

Less flippantly, it also matters because the film is so irredeemably grim from beginning to end. It’s well made, it looks great and it features some very good performances, but boy oh boy is it hateful. There seems to be a belief that the bleaker, the grittier, a superhero narrative the better it is, because it makes it more grown-up, more adult, and Joker is the peak (please) of this trend. But it’s nonsense, isn’t it? A film doesn’t need to be rated 18 to be good. Most of the classic films of the thirties, forties, and fifties are rated U or PG. Citizen Kane isn’t a kids film, is it? Of course it isn’t. There are ways to tell a sophisticated story that don’t require you to have your lead character shoot people in the face. That should be obvious. I don’t know why it isn’t.

The One That Shocked Me

I was never a massive fan of Guillermo del Toro’s two Hellboy films – I liked them but I didn’t love them – but the rebooted Hellboy gave me a new-found respect for how controlled he managed to keep their plots. The reboot defies the idea that less is very often more in these sort of films and, predictably I guess, ends up being a bit of a mess. There is good stuff in the swirl, but there is a lot of swirl. If you pared the film down to just Hellboy and Stephen Graham’s brilliant voice performance as Gruagach, the sweary grumpy man boar, you might have had something special, maybe. But the Arthur and Merlin stuff, the Nazi stuff, the dead dad and the man who turns into a tiger and the eighty foot tall demons and Big Mo from Eastenders with a machine gun stuff? Too much. Way too much.

OK, you can keep the Big Mo from Eastenders with a machine gun stuff. Big Mo with a machine gun, Hellboy and a sweary man boar voiced by Stephen Graham. But that’s it. That’s your film. Nothing more.

The Two That Disappointed Me

The last half an hour of Glass was, well, no spoilers but, errr, blimey. I would go out on a limb and say that was not what the audience was hoping for. I know Shyamalan likes a twist but, come on. Really? Cracking performance by James McAvoy though.

X-Men: Dark Phoenix was a huge improvement on 2016’s Apocalypse but, without wanting to sound mean, the Disney buy-out of Fox was probably well timed as far as the future of the X-Men go. They had quite the run there, for a while, but all good things etc etc. Give it a decade or so then launch them into the MCU. I didn’t hate Dark Phoenix – an excellent soundtrack moved it along very nicely and it had its moments of beauty – but it felt like an end in more ways than one.

The Five I Loved

Much has been made of Captain Marvel being the first Marvel film to have a female lead (and of course it was about time they made one) but the difficulty for the writers was not introducing a woman to the MCU (which is easy really, unless you are a bit of a wanker a superhero is a superhero) but someone whose powers far outweigh those of the existing Avengers. Captain Marvel is the first Superman-level hero in the MCU, stronger than the lot of them, so the importance of character work in her introduction was huge. A combination of great casting, a fun script, and a time frame one step removed from the rest of the MCU made the job look easy. But it wasn’t, and the film deserves more credit than it got.

The DCEU has had as many downs as ups but Shazam! was one of their best yet. Hugely likeable, with great jokes and a warm family feel (albeit one with dark Joe Dante-esque scares).

Spider-Man: Far From Home was great, obviously.

Avengers: Endgame was great, obviously.

And have you seen Fast Color yet? It’s on Netflix so you probably could if you wanted to. It’s very good. It’s quieter and slower (and let’s face it, smarter) than most superhero films, with a budget that I imagine wouldn’t pay for one day’s shooting of any other film on this list. It builds a world brilliantly, with clues rather than signposts, and leaves a lot unsaid, so it can concentrate on the characters. Lorraine Toussaint and Gugu Mbatha-Raw in particular give superb performances but the whole cast are great. Fast Color is a perfect illustration that there are other directions for superhero films to go than ‘bigger’ or ‘crueller’, that stories about superpowers can be small and mostly about family, and that a quiet ending can grab the heart tighter than a CGI spectacle. As I say, it’s on Netflix. Give it a go, yeah?

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