Thursday, 29 July 2010

The Super 00's

The Best Superhero Films of the 2000s - Part V of a series

The Dark Knight (c) 2008 Warner Bros.

One would be amiss to dismiss superhero movies as a genre. They have really risen up during the last decade, mostly because they have made tons of money. They have partially made the classic one-man-army action movies obsolete. Their heroes may be powerful, but they are ordinary and vunerable at the same time. It is easier to identify oneself with Spider-Man than with John Rambo. As nowadays war movies have to be serious and westerns don't sell any more, it's the last of the classic boy's own adventures the young 'uns still have.

In fact, a superhero movie has in a way become the new century's answer to westerns. The stories in both bear strong similarities, namely in that they usually deal with an individual that brings order to chaos. The superhero genre's movies usually follow a tight pattern, that leaves few twists. As they are made to be franchises from the first film on, they can take time to deal with origins in the first, on why to sacrifice oneself for the innocent in the second and the darker side in the third.

In case you didn't figure already, I really dig the genre. I am a nerd, and mentally on the level of a 14-year-old, so there's that. But for children's movies, the recent superhero movies have given plenty to chew even for adults. To say there's something wrong with the genre essentially is to go on complaining about how superheroes are essentially stupid or how bendy the movies' logics are. Honestly, some people are such boring grumps. The studios have gotten great independent directors to do the films of the popular characters. The risk must be smaller than in completely original big-budget films as the superheroes' names are already familiar to large audiences. Thus the films practicaly sell themselves. The genre is divided enough that I've in purpose left the superhero movies out from my other lists. What troubles me is that most of the good superhero movies feature male protagonists, while Catwoman, Elektra, etc. are usually crap. I wonder why Hollywood can't make reasonable female protagonists.

So what follows is a sort-of top ten of superhero movies of the decade.

Batman Begins
2005, Dir. Christopher Nolan

In advance this was claimed to be hyper-realistic. Not so. It simply has left the Tim Burton-fantasy world and Joel Schumacher neon-vomit behind it, and happens solely in the clinical Nolan-verse. Simply because it doesn't have any elements which couldn't exist in our world doesn't make it realistic. It is the only Batman film to fully explore, what makes the character tick, and intimidation is the name of the game. It's great that as rare as it is for a superhero movie, the protagosist is morally a bit ambiguos. This will be more properly examined in the sequel. I love the scenes that are like a horror movie for petty criminals. The final third is pretty generic super hero stuff, but this is a huge step into the direction Nolan has headed head first to this day.

Big Man Japan (Dai Nipponjin)
2007, Dir. Hitoshi Matsumoto

Oh man, this would actually fit more into comedy or sci-fi, but seeing as I forgot to include it, here it is. It fits the superhero bill good, too, as it is about a normal schmuck, who occasionally heads to a power plant to get electrocuted. This makes him to grow into a giant and battle some utterly surreal monsters. It is shot as a fake mockumentary and the comedy comes from settings and enviroments. The jokes are hilariously underplayed. Even the bad CGI is utilized well to this purpose. And the main character sure is a lovable loser, working at a dangerous job and hated by the people he has sworn to protect. He is also in his father's shadow, who was a national hero in the same job. This is a truly batshit crazy Japanese Kaiju comedy, and telling anything more about it would just ruin the surprises. And you wouldn't believe me if I did. Find it.

The Dark Knight
2008, Dir. Christopher Nolan

By the way, this trailer has become a classic of it's own and one of the most well-known of all time. It has countless variations on YouTube.

Everyone loves this, as no one could've anticipated just how good this was going to be. Like Burton's Batman Returns, this is one of the rare occasions where the director didn't have to do any pandering for children, and could introduce adult themes into the superhero world. Nolan uses a bit of all sorts of great recent adult films in building this film's athmosphere. It's part Heat, part Se7en, all post-9/11, creating an astonishingly cold and grey dog-eat-dog world. But some goodness is to find in even the streets of Gotham. This surely was THE blockbuster with brains AND balls before Inception rolled along. It is a bit structurally uneven, but nevertheless damned entertaining. And not to mention the best description of American traumas in the George W. Bush era. It is a product of its time, but one that one would picture future people looking back on.

2003, Dir. Ang Lee

This is an underrated gem. Granted, a comic-book like telling of the story of a great green ogre and a slow-moving father-issues drama aren't the pair made in heaven, but they do work surprisingly well together. This is a film so dark, that the gritty reboot looked tame in comparison. It's almost a shame this has to be a franchise movie of a popular comic book character. If it was an original creation, everyone would hail this film. Hulk's a too stupid a character to deserve a treatment this deep. Nick Nolte steals the show as the father from hell, and the movie's creations, such as Hulk-dogs, are pretty sick. The film could use a little more humour, though.

Alas, Hollywood saw that this didn't have enough action and made a sequel so stupid Hulk himself could've wrote it. In the upcoming Avengers movie they will take away the only thing that made it even a bit interesting, Edward Norton.

The Incredibles
2004, Dir. Brad Bird

Even though Pixar showed how to do it first, Hollywood couldn't tell a proper story of a superhero group as a family dynamic (Fantastic Four - although the first one isn't quite as bad as everyone says) or superheroes in a society that wants to control and limit their powers (Watchmen). The Incredibles succeeds in both of them and manages to be also funny, charming and actually exciting. And to boot, all the family characterizations are pretty spot-on, too.
Brad Bird would've wanted to have a symphatetic character that would've been killed to create an athmosphere of real danger. Pity this didn't materialize. It would've been just another slap to the face of live-action superhero movies, who can't even kill Spider-Man's girlfriend, even though it would be essential to the character. The Incredibles is one of the most sequel-worthy Pixar movies to my mind, but given how much we have other superhero movies, it's probably better they stick to more original subjects.

Iron Man
2008, Dir. Jon Favreau

It is sad that the blockbusters in the noughties were either so dark, or so crap, that whenever a decent light-hearted romp appeared, it generated a huge buzz. So was it with this and the first Pirates of the Caribbean. But still the studio execs force-feed us that Dark Knight-light crap over and over again. Yuck.

But this, along with the Spider-Man franchise, are the closest people have gotten on to realize how the Marvel characters work. Superheroism is supposed to be fun as well, as witnessed by Tony Stark in this. And the whole cast, including Jeff Bridges, seems to have had heaps of fun making this, too. The plot is generic and the story has a few worrying implications (can Iron Man truly kill terrorists just like that without anyone ever addressing the issue?), but the quality one-liners cover the stuff pretty good. Plus, the characters have actual development and SOME moral issues during the movie as well. The film embraces it's boy's own roots by not only centering the movie on technology, partying and hot chicks, but also totally metal music like AC/DC and Black Sabbath. Iron Man Rocks! I hope the sequel does too, haven't seen it yet.

2002, Dir. Sam Raimi

This is a real cornerstone of the genre, side-by-side with Donner's Superman and Burton's Batman. It set the genre's archetype for this decade. Thus the film has been parodied, referenced and reproduced dozens of times already. It, as the character does, deals with an everyman, who gets the gift of great powers. Like people would, he first tries to exploit them for profit. But the bitter irony of not taking action gives him a punishment by getting an innocent man, his father-figure, killed. He wovs to use his powers for good as you might've guessed.

The film tells a quite good growing-up story as it is, even without the explosions. I also love the Green Goblin villain by Willem Dafoe, although I would've liked to save him later in the franchise to get him to be more vicious. Now he has little chance of getting the girlfriend or the mother-figure killed.

I have made it clear in this blog that even though I quite like the film, I don't think it is the Ultimate Spider-Man film. 1 & 2 feel like Burton's Batman films compared to the better, Nolan films yet to come. Let's have them, Marc Webb!

Spider-Man 2
2004, Dir. Sam Raimi

This, however, is at least closer to it. The only problems with this stem from the poor romance-dialogue (MJ's monologue at the end is particularly cringe-worthy). Also Spidey isn't nearly as concerned about maintaining his secret identity as he is in the comics. But hey, enough about the problems. What works:
This is a romance film about two people who can't work out how to be with each other and aren't sure of the other's feelings, either. This doesn't overplay the action, and has Peter Parker unable to use his powers due to low self-esteem for much of the movie. This leads also to pretty hilarious slapstick scenes. When the action finally arrives, it's pretty kickass, but never forgets who are fighting and what their personalities and dilemmas are. Also once again the villain works very good. I didn't like Dr. Octopus that much in comics, but Alfred Molina's version works fine in this. It's just that I would wish him to be a little more nefarious, too. Like in that Evil Dead 2-homaging surgery scene. Hm. Nevermind.

I'd also like to say, that this one's game version is one of the very, very, very rare tie-in license games that is fun to play.

2000, Dir. M. Night Shyamalan

Ah, back when M. Night still made somewhat tolerable movies. This is actually a pretty good one, in that many people (including me) didn't realize this was a superhero movie any more than Bruce Willis's character did. It's silent, coldlighted world sold itself pretty well as a real world at the beginning. The end twist makes sense to me in the universe the movie built up to, and it was meant to work as a prelude to two more films of the franchise. Sadly, this tanked, whereas Signs and probably some other crap Shyamalan films have succeeded. The audience isn't always the smartest.

X2: X-Men United
2003, Dir. Bryan Singer

The first X-men film is overrated in my book, and the third one underrated. But everyone gets it that this does it just right. In case you didn't know, the series deals with the society's hatred of people who are different. The intolerance against mutants is compared to hatred against Jews, communists and especially homosexuals. In this the character Iceman "comes out of the closet" with his mutant powers to his family, who react by saying "Have you tried not being a mutant?"

This movie handles the big cast better than it's predecessor. The story's focus is on Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), who will find out more about his past, as hinted out in the first movie. Another primary character is Professor Xavier (Patrick Steward), who is being used against his will as a tool to destroy all mutants. As people often are in these cases in real life too. The bad guy isn't Ian McKellen's Magneto this time, but a greedy general William Stryker. Not only is he power-hungry, he holds a personal grudge against the mutants because of his son, who is also a mutant.

This movie has more action this time, but fortunately it doesn't interfere with the plot. This is how more action movies should be made; the action alongside the story, not only neat CG-sequences. Consequently, the movie's CG is quite nicely made, especially considering the diminishing returns in this series (Wolverine looks as crap as The Phantom Menace). My favorite scene would have to be the lead-up to Magneto's cunning escape from prison. "Never trust a beautiful woman. Especially one that's interested in you". Ian McKellen is easily my favorite villain on this list, surpassing even Heath Ledger's Joker.

Dammit, now I mentioned Him. I tried to write the only Dark Knight review in history that didn't. He did a good job, him.

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