Friday, May 5, 2023

Notes on Film: Superheroes

 by Anthony King

Make me love them.

I'm happy to report there are no pressing matters in my life presently, which means I have nothing to bitch about, and there are no existential crises looming (knock on wood). I've been spending quite a bit of time outside which, as movie obsessives, we tend to neglect. All the time outside has meant less time sitting on my butt in front of a screen and sleepier Anthony which means earlier bedtimes, ergo fewer nighttime movies. I highly recommend the fresh air and sunshine. With that in mind I have a fun topic and a bit of challenge to pose to you, dear reader. But first, a few things I've seen in the past week.
I was finally able to cross the cult favorite Massacre at Central High (1976) off my list last weekend. I haven't been this caught off guard by a movie in a very long time. I hate the phrase “better than it needed/deserved to be” as much as anyone, but honestly, I can't think of anything other than that to set up this movie. At first glance Massacre is a typical, schlocky teenage revenge story. Derrel Maury stars as David, the new kid at school who floats between the nerds and jocks. He's quiet, mysterious, and has captivated both cliques, boys and girls, with his intrigue. David's seemingly premeditated, nefarious plans come out in acts of revenge throughout the picture in ways that are, at the same time, mean-spirited, over-the-top, deserved, and jaw-dropping. In the same way I felt watching Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker (1981) the first time, I couldn't help but fall for the charm of the movie's nuances, ballsy attitude about teenage comeuppance, and gritty, honest coming of age theme. Co-starring Robert Carradine as a “cool” nerd with a major attitude problem, Massacre at Central High is one that should be at the top of your watchlist for Junesploitation next month.
Spring is here, and with it comes my excitement to spend as much time outdoors as possible (I hate the cold). Because of that excitement I've been watching some nature-related/adjacent documentaries (lots of National Geographic stuff) including Werner Herzog's and Dmitry in Vasyukov's 2010 documentary about trappers in Siberia called Happy People: A Year in the Taiga. Floating between the indigenous people and native residents of the village called Bakhtia we spend a year (compressed into 94 minutes) living with these people who depend wholly from what the land around them provides. From the three months of spring/summer/fall to the brutal nine months of bone-chilling winter, we travel with a small group of trappers to the Taiga wilderness where they live in cabins they've built with their bare hands, wander across the tundra on skis they've crafted from trees they've cut down, and, most importantly, spend plenty of time with their dogs. Like most Herzog documentaries, this is an unflinching, unglamorized, inspiring look at people truly living on the outside. You can stream Happy People: A Year in the Taiga on Tubi or Kanopy.
On to the topic at hand. It should be no secret to anybody that reads my writing, listens to my podcasts, or follows me on Twitter that I simply don't like superhero movies. Well, I can't say that with 100% honesty. I love Batman and Batman-related things. Any version of the caped crusader in film or television, live-action or animated, I will watch, and more than likely love. Batman (1989) is the first movie I remember seeing in the theater; I would watch Batman: The Animated Series every day after school in the '90s; I even love Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) and Joker (2019). I haven't seen either Suicide Squad movies or Birds of Prey (2020) but I can all but guarantee I'd like them. I remember seeing Superman (1978) as a kid and I just wasn't into it. But watching Superman III (1983) for F This Movie Fest this year, which I thought was a fun time, got me thinking. Am I wrong? Am I just poo-pooing these movies because I think I'm above them?

Of the superhero movies (and by that I mean Marvel/D.C.) I have liked one (Doctor Strange, 2016). I liked X-Men (2000) when I saw it 23 years ago, but who knows how I'd feel now. I wasn't into Spider-Man (2002), or Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). I don't even like Glass (2019) or Brightburn (2019) because they were too superhero-y for me. So what's the common factor in the superhero movies I do like? Grit, for the most part. I like the dark ones. But that doesn't explain why I liked Doctor Strange (not gritty) and despised Brightburn (gritty). Why does it even matter? I don't have to like superhero movies. If I'm not into them, I'm not into them. So what. My family is into them, though, and I'd love to be able to sit there watching (and enjoying) all together without gritting my teeth in contempt (towards the movie, not them) or leaving the room.
The reason I bring this up is because I love Star Wars. Like Batman, I love all things Star Wars. I love all nine live-action movies, I love all the animated stuff, the books, the shows, all of it. Up until last year I'd only seen three movies (the first of each trilogy) and my stock response for when someone would ask, “Do you like Star Wars?” would be, “No. It's not for me.” We started watching The Mandalorian in 2019 when it came out, and I thought to myself, “You know, I wonder if Star Wars really is for me.” So, finally, last year we started going through all nine movies. And wouldn't you know, I became obsessed with all things Star Wars. Not the crazy obsessed like so many toxic fans (of anything) in the world; just pure, unadulterated love for anything concerning Star Wars. So here's the crossroads I'm at concerning superheroes: if I could make that drastic of a 180-degree turn on Star Wars, it's possible that could happen with superheroes.
Here's my question, friends. Having just read through all that, and knowing what you know about me, what's the one or two superhero movies that could turn me? I understand there's so many timelines and studios and... BARF! I don't care about any of that, and I don't need (or have to be required to possess) a deep understanding of characters and their histories. I love Star Wars now because it's fun. I know almost nothing about character backgrounds and the history of the world of Star Wars and I still love it. This leads me to believe I can feel the same about superhero movies. And to be honest, I kind of want to be able to enjoy them. So give it your best shot! Make me love superhero movies.


  1. The Batman, obviously. Maybe you've seen it already

    Other than that, i'd go with The Wolverine (not to be confused with Wolverine Origin) and Logan

    1. Oh I totally forgot about LOGAN. Definitely seems right up my alley.

    2. I second Logan. Jackman's performance is so exhausting, in a good way. Also, The Punisher series from Netflix is really good. Obviously, the punisher has no super powers so it's more grounded in reality, though only slightly. It's got plenty of grit and violence and it's a lot of fun.

    3. I third Logan and second Mashke's Watchmen recommendation.

  2. Well first of all, it’s totally fine to not love superheroes!

    But if you do want recommendations, I would really suggest the first IRON MAN. You don’t have to worry about the universe, it’s just a good story about a flawed guy trying to become better, with a great central performance, and kickass action scenes.

  3. Hrmmm...excellent question.....

    My initial answer would be, hands down, The Dark Knight. The intricacies in the writing amaze me every viewing. Its brilliant. BUT since you called out loving the batman, ill assume you are well versed.

    I love @DanielEpiers suggestion of Iron Man. The whole of the MCU rests on its shoulders. The introduction, evolution, and creation of the Tony Stark on screen personal cannot be understated. Another brilliant concept: an individual involved in the distribution of weapons coming face to face with the reality of his role..and transforming into a different kind of weapon with the desire to help. Amazing movie.

    Other clicks to picks:

    Superman II..probably the donner cut...I know you didnt connect with part 1 as a kid but the fact you had fun with III makes me think you'll like II. Its got GREAT villains, a pretty deep story around the superman/lois relationship, and an interesting idea around superheros questioning being a superhero.

    Spiderman II: Doc Oc was always visually fun in the comics. Here he's given some real grounding in reality. One of the best "conflicted villains" out there played wonderfully by Alfred Molina.

    Watchmen: Ok, ill probably be taken to task for this one, but hear me out. I consider the source graphic novel to be, literally, one of the best pieces of fiction ever. At least as far as ive read. Adapting it in any fashion is a fools errand. Cant do it. It is still untouchable. Now..that being said..i still VERY much enjoy what Snyder did with his adaptation. I like the characters, choices, and overall flow of the abridged stories from the source. But then again doctor...I am Pagliacci (Hrm).

    1. I agree with all of this except that the Superman II Donner cut should only be watched after watching the theatrical released Lester cut. They really are 2 different movies and Lester’s is the superior version, imho.

    2. Thanks Chris..and im thinking you may be right...i grew up with countless rewatches of Lester and have only seen the Donner cut 1x.

      One other observation...i adore Reeves Superman I and II and am still beyond impressed that at a time when there was virtually no superhero movies, let alone franchises, the opening shots of Superman 1 completely lay the premise, the villains, and the plot for Superman 2. So ahead of its time and STILL so much better than "well thought out" modern day franchises.

    3. Yep, agree. Best casted comic book movie superheroes:
      1 Christopher Reeve as Superman
      2 Hugh Jackman as Wolverine
      3 Chris Evans as Cap
      4 Robert Downey Jr as Ironman
      5 Ben Affleck as Batman (if only he wasn’t in total crap Batman movies)

    4. Watchmen is kind of a tricky one since the story is a deconstruction of the superhero genre. If someone is already not a fan of the genre, I don't know if they're going to get drawn into it by a more grimmer and more cynical take. That said, I also like the movie even though it doesn't come close to touching the comic.

    5. True, true. The prompt was to turn him onto them. I love Logan and Watchmen and they never turned me into a superhero movie fan (except for Spider-Man - I make an exception for him). I am planning on becoming a fan, though, next year when Aaron Taylor-Johnson plays Kraken. I'll see how that goes. Really hope it isn't lame.

      Maybe Superhero movies overall should better. :)

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  5. Logan (2017) is probably the best superhero movie ever made.

    But please don’t start there. Watch these first:

    You liked liked X-Men (2000) 20-years ago because it was a great stab at a big budget comic book movie that did a good job of walking the line between taking-it-seriously and campy-fun. The CGI look silly now, but that’s forgivable for the divine perfection that was the casting of Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. He’s too tall to play the cigar chomping Canadian berserker, but that is the only criticism anyone could reasonably make about his portrayal of one of the best comic book characters ever dreamed into existence.

    X2 (2003) was an even better Wolverine movie.

    X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) is a mess, but should be seen for the conclusion to this version of the Dark Phoenix saga.

    X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) may be the worst comic book movie ever made.

    The Wolverine (2009) is a well executed, if hollow, action movie, and a fairly faithful adaptation of the classic Frank Miller comic book series.

    X-Men: First Class (2011) is the Jennifer Lawrence-driven reboot of the franchise with excellent performances by Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy as Magneto and Professor X. Rose Byrne is great too. This isn’t a Wolverine story, but needs to be seen because its sequel is very much one.

    X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) is a great adaptation of the legendary comic book by Chris Claremont and John Byrne. It’s the Star Trek generations of this franchise, if you’d like that movie.

    X-Men: Apocalypse (2016) may be the worst comic book movie ever made, and has no Wolverine ta boot.

    Dark Phoenix (2019) should not be watched even though it is the conclusion to this version of the Dark Phoenix saga.

    Now it’s time to watch Logan. Is it good even if you never watched another X-movie? Yes. But if you’ve watched 20 years worth of X-Men movies, it is an emotionally satisfying conclusion to a sometimes great, sometimes terrible, always interesting movie saga. Patrick Stewart should’ve gotten a supporting actor Oscar nomination. Dafne Keen is going to be a great movie star if she gets the right rolls in the future. The Reavers are some of the best villains translated from the comic page. It’s meta. It’s neo-western. It’s a road trip movie. It pisses me off that Jackman is coming back for Deadpool 3. And I like the Deadpool movies.

    So, yes. Watch Logan. And if that doesn’t kindle an appreciation for what comic book movies have to offer, nothing else will.

    1. I appreciate your enthusiasm, Chris! That sounds like an awful lot of work just to fully appreciate one movie, so I’ll just watch LOGAN on its own and see if I feel inspired to go back and watch the others.

    2. @Chris, i mostly agree with your assessment of the movie series, but i don't agree that he has to watch them all before Logan.

      Maybe watch X-Men 1 just to see where Wolvy is coming from.

      Ideally, watch X-Men 2 because i think it's the better movie

      But you can totally watch Logan by itself

  6. I grew up with comics, so it's hard for me to divorce my love for that with my love for a lot of the superhero movies. I think the appeal to me with a lot of superhero fiction is that there's typically a very basic and pure morality involved. In a lot of cases the hero has experienced some sort of trauma, and they end up using that to become better people and help others. It's simplistic, but there's an optimism and idealism in it about human nature that I think is missing from a lot of other fiction. Maybe we aren't as selfless as Spider-Man, Captain America, or Batman, but we can dream of being that, or aspire to be that kind of person.

    To that end, I think my first suggestion would be Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, especially with the sequel releasing next month. It's a great family movie, and probably the most sweet and sincere movie I can think of that does the whole "anybody can be a hero" thing. Probably my favorite comic book movie.

    Iron Man, as the start to the MCU is another one worth watching, and if nothing else you get a fun RDJ performance out of it. If you continue along with the MCU releases in chronological order, with Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, and to a lesser extent Thor, you're going to get much less enjoyment out of those. A lot of people act like it's only post-Endgame that the MCU has had problems, but there were plenty of less-than-stellar movies along the way. However that leads me to my next actual recommendation.

    Captain America: The First Avenger would be that recommendation. The role Chris Evans was born to play (especially looking at a lot of his recent non-Marvel work). Much like Superman, Cap is an easy character to make dull if instead of making him human, you make him perfect. Here, he's the little guy who just wants the chance to stand up for himself and more importantly for others. RDJ as Iron Man is great, but I think Cap actually has the best defined story arc across his time in the MCU.

    Maybe part of the reason Joe Johnston was able to make a great Captain America movie is because he made another great superhero movie back in 1991, with The Rocketeer, with F This Movie favorites Jennifer Connelly and Timothy Dalton in supporting roles. Rocketeer also pairs well with other pulp superhero '90s movies, The Shadow and The Phantom.

    Honorable mentions:

    GDT triple feature: Blade II and Hellboy 1 and 2.

    '90s indie comic adaptations: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990), The Crow, and of course, Mystery Men.

    1. 100% agree about Cap., Evans and Johnston. And I took kids who didn’t care about superhero movies to see Into the Spider-verse and they were playing (without electronic devices) Spiderman all weekend long.

    2. Totally forgot I tried to watch Spiderverse. Wasn’t into it unfortunately. Maybe I just don’t like Spider-Man.

    3. You're dead to me Anthony.


  7. Logan is an interesting question its an exceptionally well done flick and really tries something different. However to me its kind of analogous to the recent joaquin Joker, albeit to a lesser degree. If you really look at the characters, the tone, and the story, its basically a heavy heavy dour emotional character drama that has superheroes tacked onto it. So while i very much appreciate it, i dont necessarily "like" it as i found it draining. Definitely interested in your take if you watch!!!

    1. I love Logan, but I'd be hesitant to recommend it in the context of this column as a) it doesn't really work as a gateway into superhero films and b) part of its appeal is the affection for Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart built up by previous X-Men movies (even though many of those movies weren't good).

  8. Anthony, I admire your interest in something you've previously dismissed! (And I also admire your "going outside" bit--I've been trying to do the same!)

    My top recommendation would be the Thomas Jane Punisher movie. It's gritty, it's got good villains, and it's not overly CGI'd. Plus, you get a primo Ben Foster performance and those are always fun.

    If you want to try something else, the first Hellboy movie was super fun.

    For the MCU, I might recommend Iron Man 3 simply because it's a Shane Black joint and therefore shares DNA with The Nice Guys, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and Lethal Weapon.

    Finally, I agree with everyone saying you should watch Logan; you might also enjoy X2 which I feel is the best of the X-Men movies and still one of my all-time favorite superhero movies.