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A Beginner’s Guide to Superhero Cinema, Part 2

A Beginner’s Guide to Superhero Cinema, Part 2: Marvel Studios

Marvel Studios

Last week we ran the first half of Scott Weinberg’s epic superhero cinema roundup, starting with the 1978 Christopher Reeve classic ‘Superman.’ Today, Fretts guides us from the dawn of the new millennium to this year’s embattled, gonzo-grossing entries.

Note: As with Part 1, we’re focusing solely on superhero adaptations here. “Original screenplay superheroes,” such as the ones found in Darkman, Unbreakable and The Incredibles are so prevalent they deserve a Beginner’s Guide of their own!


2000

X-Men If Superman (1978), Batman (1989) and Blade (1998) established the “single hero” superhero movie format, then it’s safe to say that Bryan Singer’s X-Men taught us how cool a superhero team-up movie could be. It’s not just that visual effects finally caught up to comic books and (finally) allowed all of our favorite characters to inhabit the movie world in wonderfully convincing fashion; it’s also that smart filmmakers were beginning to use digital animation for more than just a simple visual gimmick.

Knee-deep in obvious but effective subtext involving alienation, insecurity and acceptance, the first X-Men movie struck a chord not only for its colorful characters and action sequences, but also because the screenwriters took care to focus on a few themes that resonate with all of us—especially young people. And those fans have remained loyal throughout one of superhero cinema’s most popular (and profitable) franchises.


2002

Blade 2 Marvel’s no-nonsense, ass-kicking vampire slayer returns under the direction of a much more creative filmmaker (Guillermo del Toro) and the result is a dark, gory and highly entertaining sequel that improves upon an already solid predecessor. Plus it made even more money than the first Blade, which meant we’d be treated/subjected to at least one more sequel.

Spider-Man It took Sam Raimi longer than it should have to land a big-time superhero franchise of his own—but the guy sure didn’t waste his first opportunity when Marvel and Sony came calling. Comic book fans around the globe had been waiting for a big-time Spider-Man movie for a very long time, and it’s safe to say that they weren’t disappointed by the final product. Boasting a strong ensemble, a well-crafted origin story and just enough action mayhem to keep audiences happy, Spider-Man quickly became a smash hit and set the stage for a very popular trilogy.


2003

Daredevil By this point Marvel had spread many of its most popular characters across a wide array of production companies, and while this helped everyone cash in during the early stages of the superhero movie trend, it also led to a decent amount of mediocre releases. Case in point is Mark Steven Johnson’s rendition of everyone’s favorite legally blind crime-fighter. Colin Farrell and the late Michael Clarke Duncan earn their paychecks as a pair of supervillains, but very little else in this strained and predictable adaptation manages to leave much of a mark. The director’s cut does represent an improvement over the theatrical release, but most Daredevil fans would agree that you should focus instead on the Netflix version.

Hulk Filmmakers had a pretty tough time figuring out what to do with this big, green and very popular anti-hero before Joss Whedon realized that the Hulk works best as part of a super-team—but that didn’t stop the Oscar-winning Ang Lee from giving it his best shot. OK, so the mutated poodles were a bad idea, but there’s still a decent amount here for fans to get behind, like Hulk’s super-cool mega-jumps and that nifty comic book-panel editorial gimmick. Also Jennifer Connelly.

X2: X-Men United Justifiably confident after seeing how well their first attempt at an X-Movie did with fans, critics, and box office reporters, 20th Century Fox and Bryan Singer stuck with their formula but raised the stakes with more characters, more action and a satisfying expansion on the themes of alienation and acceptance. Plus there’s just so much eye-popping spectacle on display that it’s quite simply a whole lot of fun. This franchise has produced more good films than bad, and X2 is certainly one of its best.


2004

Blade: Trinity After a pair of well-received and profitable entries, it was no surprise to see New Line roll the dice on a third Blade chapter, but despite some colorful new supporting characters and a handful of decent action bits, Blade 3 turned out to be a fairly flat and repetitive affair. Much of the malaise can probably be attributed to a bored-looking Wesley Snipes, who was allegedly a huge jerk on the set—and his attitude seems to have seeped into the final product.

Catwoman Hoo boy. As bad as you’ve heard, although Halle Berry does the best she can with such a flimsy plot and lots of silly dialogue. Hey, there’s only so much one actor can do. Even an Oscar-winning actor. Probably worth checking out just so you can be a part of the “worst superhero movie ever” conversation.

Hellboy Mike Mignola's bizarrely lovable monster hunter hits the big screen in wonderfully pulpy fashion, and the affection the Guillermo del Toro feels for the character is more than a little palpable. A welcome respite from the standard origin story, Hellboy brings a nice dash of horror-friendly attitude to an action/adventure extravaganza. Plus, thanks in large part to leading man Ron Perlman, it’s also pretty damn funny.

The Punisher One of Marvel’s darkest, edgiest, and justifiably meanest characters gets a basic and relatively generic adaptation. Thomas Jane brings a steely resolve and John Travolta hams it up to amusing effect, but overall this one feels like a pilot for a Fox series that didn’t get picked up.

Spider-Man 2 Everyone’s favorite web crawler is back, and (much like Fox did with X2) Sony and Sam Raimi were fully intent on surpassing their first chapter in the Spidey saga. With the origin story already established, Spider-Man 2 is able to jump right into a new direction without too much backstory, and it certainly doesn’t hurt that this sequel delivers one of the coolest cinematic supervillains to date: Alfred Molina’s Dr. Octopus is nothing short of fantastic, both acting-wise and in the department of wildly cool special effects. 


2005

Batman Begins If you thought that the previous Batman franchise flew completely off the rails by veering from “funhouse cool” to “eyesore camp,” well, you weren’t alone. The powers that be at WB finally decided to pull the trigger on a new Bat-series, but this time they were going to keep a firm grip on what we like to call “tonal consistency.” To this end they hired the remarkably talented Christopher Nolan, tapped comic book adaptation expert David S. Goyer and allowed Christian Bale to create a moody, gloomy and quietly bad-ass rendition of the Caped Crusader.

And if we’re still keeping track of the “unquestionably influential” superhero movies, then Batman Begins certainly deserves a spot high on that list. Not only did it kick-start a wildly successful trilogy; it also worked as a reminder that not all of these films have to be all sunshine and primary colors. Sometimes we’re in the mood for a slightly more sober piece of superhero noir, and this film (hell, the whole trilogy) fits that bill very nicely.

Elektra Female superheroes, Jennifer Garner and moviegoers in general all deserve better than this melodramatic, slightly incoherent and boring semi-sequel to Daredevil. While certainly not as egregious a misstep as Catwoman, this one reminds us of the disappointing fact that female superheroes have yet to nail down their own landmark movie.

Fantastic Four Of the three different films called “Fantastic Four,” this one is unquestionably the best. Granted, it’s sort of basic and simple but there’s still a little dash of the charm that makes this team so beloved (at least on the page, that is). A pre-Captain America Chris Evans steals the show as a wise-assed fast-talker who can turn into “human torch” And while it’s not as action-packed or powerful as the best superhero flicks, this Fantastic Four (and its sequel) seems to work pretty well as a family-friendly alternative to the more intense ones.


2006

Superman Returns Bryan Singer decided to take a break from kicking butt on Marvel’s X-Men characters to tackling DC’s Superman, and the result was a mixed bag, at best. Nobody can deny that the whole airplane/stadium sequence is seriously impressive, and it’s pretty obvious that Kevin Spacey is having a ball as Lex Luthor, but for every good component there’s something else that’s confusing, off-base or just forgettable. And when your very best sequence arrives smack-dab in the middle of the movie, that’s a problem.

X-Men: The Last Stand …and since Mr. Singer was off making a Superman movie, that meant that the third X-Men installment had to find a new director. They found one in Brett Ratner, a filmmaker who seems to inspire more fanboy/girl outrage than just about anyone besides Michael Bay or Zack Snyder. Sure, X-Men 3 is sort of choppy, a little sloppy and saddled with more characters than it knows what to do with, but it’s far from the worst film in this franchise.


2007

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer Director Tim Story returns, which adds a nice dose of consistency with the first film. But unfortunately, aside from the welcome inclusion of Silver Surfer and some more wisecracks from Chris Evans, this sequel didn’t exactly blow the hardcore comic book fans away. I found it sort of amicably entertaining, although (yes) they probably should have gone another way with Galactus.

Ghost Rider One of Marvel’s strangest and scariest anti-superheroes, and Sony handed the reins over to the writer/director who gave us… Daredevil? Really? That’s an odd choice. And while it’s always fun to watch Nicolas Cage sink his teeth into a juicy genre role, this flick simply stuck too closely to the “origin story” template—and the action scenes weren’t all that hot.

Spider-Man 3 This is what we call a “too many cooks in the kitchen” sequel, and it sure as hell seems like Sam Raimi was finally swallowed up by the countless executives at Sony and Marvel, not to mention toy companies and various promotional partners. There’s no other way to explain why they felt the need to wedge so much stuff into one movie. Some of the action beats are pretty solid, but plot-wise there’s virtually nothing here but a bunch of new characters and endless peals of exposition.


2008

The Dark Knight The box-office receipts for Batman Begins were a clear indication that moviegoers appreciate Batman’s relatively sober new direction, and so they just went ahead and made the sequel just a little darker, a bit more devious in the screenplay department. Combine moody superhero antics with a compelling crime procedural, and then throw that brilliant Heath Ledger performance into the mix; it’s not hard to see why this particular franchise is so well-regarded, and many seem to call this one the best of the three.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army If you thought that Guillermo del Toro had extinguished his supply of live-action Hellboy affection, just wait until your eyeballs get a load of the visual and fantastical feast he puts on display here. It’s just as funny and exciting as the first Hellboy, but the gifted filmmaker’s affection for “monsters” of all shapes and sizes has never been more evident. Here’s hoping that del Toro, Mignola and Perlman can pull it off one more time with a Part 3.

The Incredible Hulk If Ang Lee’s Hulk was a bit too sappy, pulpy and occasionally silly for your tastes, then Louis Leterrier’s much more action-centric rendition is probably more up your alley. Both films have their charms, but Edward Norton makes for a considerably more compelling Bruce Banner than Eric Bana did. And of course Banner keeps up his excellent taste in leading ladies (Jennifer Connelly the first time around; Liv Tyler on this one). But this is mostly just a smash 'em up action flick, and one in which Tim Roth provides us with a comic book villain you’ll love to hate—and a good villain is half the battle, really.

Iron Man After years of watching other studios turn their beloved characters into films that ranged from pretty damn good to wildly disappointing, Marvel had a pretty brilliant idea: they could start their own feature film division! And so they did. Jon Favreau’s Iron Man was the first release from Marvel Studios, and it sure looked like the new guys had a really good idea of what they were doing. It would take a few more years for movie fans to realize how good of an idea this actually was.

Obviously Marvel needed their first release to really impress moviegoers, and so they chose Robert Downey Jr. and Iron Man to introduce the true “Marvel Universe” movies—and of course it was a massive success. It’s funny now to recall how some thought Iron Man was a “second tier” superhero and that he couldn’t pack moviegoers in like a Batman or Spider-Man would, but thanks to a clever script, some dazzling eye candy and (perhaps most important) Mr. Downey’s wise-ass, tongue-in-cheek charm, the first Iron Man movie got the Marvel Cinematic Universe off to a great start.

Punisher: War Zone Say what you like about the chintzy Dolph Lundrgen Punisher movie or the relatively toothless Thomas Jane version—but this particular Punisher flick kicks all sorts of unexpected ass. Easily one of the most brutal and joyously nihilistic superhero movies you’re likely to see. That’s not to say that all superhero movies should be dark, violent, R-rated affairs—but it is nice to savor an entertaining one when it does pop up.

The Spirit Following the success of Sin City, someone decided to give comic book creator Frank Miller a shot at directing his own movie. The result was disastrous, and that’s me being kind. This one may actually trump Catwoman as the worst of the worst. I’ve never read the 1940s Will Eisner source material but it’s safe to say it deserved better than this dreary, garish eyesore of an adaptation. Not to mention Samuel L. Jackson.


2009

Watchmen Alan Moore’s celebrated tale of superhero angst is brought to the screen via Zack Snyder, and while literary purists may have bristled at the alterations between page and screen, there’s no denying that the Watchmen movie is a pulpy, unique and visually insane piece of cinema.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine Hugh Jackman is always fun to watch as the cigar-chompin’, wise-crackin’ tough guy of the X-Men universe, but not even he could salvage this sloppily written, repetitive and simplistic prequel. That’s not to say that superhero screenplays need to be Shakespearean masterpieces, but this flick trots out “amnesia bullets” as a plot device, which feels like something that fell out of a 1950s soap opera.


2010

Iron Man 2 By the third of Marvel’s “Phase One” features (after Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk) the company had a firm grasp on their game plan: drop a few juicy hints and clues for the serious fans, but focus mainly on simply delivering a sci-fi action adventure with generous dashes of wit and humor. Iron Man 2 may not hold up as well as the other Phase One entries, but it certainly does have its charms. (Sam Rockwell pretty much steals the whole movie.) Plus this was our first introduction to Natasha “Block Widow” Romanov, which means it’s an important chapter in the annals of the MCU.

Jonah HexSort of like The Crow, only set in the old West, but something went horribly wrong on the way from page to screen. When the very best thing you can say about a big budget spectacle is that Megan Fox sure is pretty, you’re looking at a bad movie.

Kick-Ass Most superhero movies are suitable for the whole family. Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass is not one of those movies. It is, however, a wildly over-the-top and somehow refreshingly vulgar action/comedy about a bunch of powerless troublemakers who decide to assume the role of crime-stoppers…and actually (somehow) manage to pull it off. Chloe Moretz steals the whole film as the foul-mouthed Hit Girl.


2011

Captain America: The First Avenger It seems like a great idea now, but it must have been a pretty dicey proposition for Marvel to set one of their biggest “Phase One” tent poles in a 1940s period piece. Moviegoers love contemporary superheroes, but would they take to one who kicks ass across WWII? Fortunately they did, and not only was the first Captain America movie a big hit; it still stands as one of Marvel’s very best movies, thanks in large part to director Joe Johnston (The Rocketeer) and Chris Evans’ exceedingly charming performance as Steve Rogers.

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance If the first Ghost Rider adaptation was sort of flat and forgettable, then it only made sense for Sony to go in the opposite direction and hire the directors of Crank to give the flame-headed cult character a spark of energy. Unfortunately this sequel is nearly as tiresome as its predecessor, thanks mainly to it vague semblance of a plot and a jumbled editorial style. As usual, Cage is good for a few chuckles and a few of the action bits are decent. But at this point it seems like Ghost Rider would work better as part of a super squad, and not as the anchor of his very own movie.

The Green Hornet Seth Rogen as a masked action hero? Sure, it’s kind of a stretch, but we’ve seen stranger superhero movies than this Michael Gondry concoction. It’s a weird and inconsistent little experiment, but it’s also kind of fun.

Green Lantern DC decided to expand their cinematic horizons beyond Superman and Batman, and unfortunately they chose one of their weirdest characters, spent a whole lot of money and failed to generate a new franchise. Leading man Ryan Reynolds had already suffered through Blade: Trinity and X-Men Origins: Wolverine before surviving this flick—although his next bid at superheroic stardom would prove to be more than a little successful.

Thor If DC had a “tough sell” in Green Lantern, then so did Marvel when it came to the Norse mythology-inspired demigod known as Thor. While it’s easy to give Thor some fun stuff to do in comic books and cartoons, the characters risks coming off ridiculous if not handled carefully. Marvel smartly hired Kenneth Branagh to bring some weight to the old-fashioned yet otherworldly material on Thor’s home planet, and leading man Chris Hemsworth brings an essential charm and likability once the action lands on Earth. 

X-Men: First Class The X-franchise needed a fresh start after the disappointing The Last Stand and the outright terrible X-Men Origins: Wolverine trash fire—and boy did they pull it off with this one. It’s not easy for a big franchise to waver between sequels, spin-offs, and prequels, but First Class proved that the producers could quickly bounce back after a clunky misfire or two.


2012

The Amazing Spider-Man The fact that Sony was intent on rebooting a franchise that was barely 10 years old tells you all you need to know. Very little of the cockeyed charm that Sam Raimi brought to the earlier trilogy is in evidence here…and it’s safe to say that nobody ever needs to see the Spider-Man origin story again. We get it: nerd, museum, radioactive spider. Enough already. Silver lining: Andrew Garfield’s affable performance prevents the movie from getting too familiar.

The Avengers Marvel throws a big fat party to draw their “Phase One” to a close, and it took no less of a maniac than Joss Whedon to pull this thing off. Action, humor and all sorts of awesome little moments for everyone who followed along from Iron Man to The Incredible Hulk to Iron Man 2 to Thor to Captain America. Throw in Black Widow, Hawkeye, and Nick Fury and you’ve got one hero-heavy movie. But let’s face it: the Hulk pretty much steals this whole movie, right?

The Dark Knight Rises Meanwhile, DC brings their massively popular and appreciably moody Batman trilogy to a close in rather satisfying fashion. Tom Hardy’s Bane might not have been quite as memorable as Heath Ledger’s Joker, but those were some pretty big shoes to fill.

Dredd Finally the cult classic comic character gets a film worthy of his overt bad-ass-ness. From the stylish action to the blisteringly cool score, this is the sort of “grown-up” superhero movies we want more of. Lena Headey offers one of the nastiest villains in recent memory and has fun doing it. Bring on the damn sequel already.


2013

Iron Man 3 Tony Stark’s trilogy comes to a close but thanks to the Avengers flicks and Captain America sequels, the armored wise-ass will continue to sarcastically dominate the Marvel movie world. This one proved to be a welcome return to form after the relative aimlessness of Iron Man 2, and high praise is due for that goes to director Shane Black, who simply seems like a great fit for the Tony Stark character.

Kick-Ass 2 A bunch more of the same, only not quite as novel this time around. Certainly worthy of a look for fans of the broad, sardonic nihilism laid down in the first chapter, but doesn’t stick to the ribs like that one did.

Man of Steel We just got finished with a pretty gloomy Batman trilogy (and Marvel has already claimed the “colorful and light” vibe) so now it’s time for a rough, gruff, and angst-laden Superman to contend with. Earns points for being a bit more energetic than Superman Returns, but doesn’t add much to the pantheon of Superman movies aside from a few challenging moments in Act III and some pretty eye-popping action scenes.

Thor: The Dark World Marvel’s second entry in “Phase 2” (after Iron Man 3) is generally considered one of the less memorable of Marvel’s productions, but if this is what your “worst” movie looks like, then you’re doing something right. The plot is a little sketchy but there’s still some good fun to be had, thanks mainly to Hemsworth’s affable performance and (of course) Tom Hiddleston’s adorably evil Loki.

The Wolverine
While most of the X-Men were dealing with misadventures in other decades, Wolverine got his second shot at his very own movie. His first one was a prequel, but this one takes place right after The Last Stand and focuses on Logan’s trip to Japan, an old promise he made, and a bunch of dangerous new troublemakers all over the place. To call this one a step up from X-Men Origins: Wolverine would be a massive understatement.


2014

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 Sony continued to squeeze blood from the Spider-Man stone, although it seems more than a little obvious that this character’s cinematic template had grown pretty tiresome. Andrew Garfield does what he can to bring some charm to the proceedings but for the most part this feels more like a corporate-mandated checklist of superhero movie components and less like an actual movie.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier If Marvel’s first Captain America was a throwback to the 1940s war movie (and boy was it!), their second chapter proved to be a smoothly impressive take on a 1975 political/paranoia thriller, an old-school vibe that’s underlined by the presence of Robert Redford. Plus there’s lots of action, a few huge bombshells for those who follow the whole MCU series, and good ol’ lovable Chris Evans, who shines once again as America’s most patriotic superhero.

Guardians of the Galaxy There was a whole lot of early skepticism when this “relatively unknown and clearly bizarre superheroes-in-outer-space” adaptation was in production, but the fans of the source material kept their fingers crossed. Fortunately Marvel hired the perfect guy for such a strange project, and the film turned out to be a smash hit as well as a fan favorite. That’s why James Gunn will be back in the director’s chair for next year’s sequel. Against all odds, this is one of the most entertaining adventure movies of the past decade. 

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Yeah, they’re back to squeeze a few more dollars out of the nostalgia market. Sue me, I’m not a fan.

X-Men: Days of Future Past For those who’d write off a franchise that’s already up to its seventh chapter, well, you’d be missing out on one of the best X-Men movies so far. First Class danced through the early 1960s, and this entry has a lot of fun with its 1970s period design—but what’s most impressive is how Bryan Singer and his team keep coming up with new ways to keep a massive gang of superheroes so damn busy.


2015

The Avengers: Age of Ultron By this point Marvel was trying to keep so many plot threads, characters and McGuffins in the air that even the hardiest fans were starting to get confused. Joss Whedon’s overstuffed but undeniably nifty Avengers sequel does a fine job of keeping all the parts spinning in the right direction, plus by this point the whole ensemble has a really nice chemistry together, which is something that allows one to overlook a few of the flick’s clunkier components.

Ant-Man With so many superhero adaptations leaning on the “dark and gloomy” side of the spectrum, Marvel wisely opted to close “Phase Two” down with a new hero, a good sense of humor, and a generally sunny disposition—and boy did it pay off. Turns out this semi-obscure little superhero delivered one of Marvel’s biggest paydays yet.

Fantastic Four It’d been a while since we had a full-bore, no brakes train wreck of a superhero adaptation, but this sloppy, silly and absolutely dreary Fantastic Four flick felt like it was slapped together by a computer program and an Ultron-style team of robots. Nothing against these classic characters, but maybe there are a few superheroes that just aren’t meant to become live-action movies.


And that brings us up to 2016! Already this year we’ve been treated to Sony’s wild (and wildly successful) Deadpool, plus last week brought us Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and soon we’ll be treated to Captain America: Civil War, X-Men: Apocalypse and yet another visit with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Keep in mind that this is just for this year. To cover the superhero adaptations coming in 2017 and beyond would probably take an entirely different yet also egregiously long article like this one.


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