Spoilers (but not many)
2016 might have witnessed a fair amount of upheaval, but one thing remained constant: Hollywood’s love of superheroes is as strong as ever. While DC sat out 2015, Marvel saw three of their properties in theaters; this year The Big Two had six combined. Next year that will edge up to seven. In addition, geek-favorite franchises Star Trek and Star Wars continued their multi-year missions through galaxies far, far away. Almost all of them raked the ticket sales (analysists were divided on whether Star Trek Beyond fell short of breaking even or turned a modest profit). Either way, neither profit margins nor quantity of films produced equal quality. 2016 was a very mixed year in terms of artistic merit, as fans could be forgiven for experiencing whiplash when trying to create a double bill for some of these movies. Some films excelled by being able to break new ground, while others entertained with well-executed tried and true formulas. Some were an utter mess (and not simply in their murky CGI sequences). It could have been worse; viewers were denied anything quite as terrible as last year’s Fantastic Four. Then again, that is placing the bar quite low.
Marvel Studios came into 2016 after a good but not stellar 2015. Their Avengers sequel Age of Ultron featured some strong character work amongst the supporting cast, while being a bit patchy overall. Clearly it was time for Joss Whedon to step down before getting a chance to script Thanos. Ant-Man was more tonally even, and in the end more successful of the pair. Neither, though, captivated fans in the manner of 2014’s Captain America: Winter Soldier or Guardians of the Galaxy. Perhaps Marvel Studios is establishing an even/odd year pattern? After all, 2013 was the year of Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World, while this year they demonstrated once again that they are the current gold standard of cinematic spandex.
Marvel’s first entry for 2016 was Captain America: Civil War. Translating the original concept to film was never going to be easy and the project had many skeptics from the start. However, writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely rose to the occasion. Having scripted all three Captain America films, they clearly have an affinity for the character as they have traced his evolution from reluctant icon to man out of time to a natural leader and defender of his ideals. This film grasp of Steve Rogers is shared by actor Chris Evans who continues to grow more naturally into the character with each outing, especially the solo ones. Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark may have logged more hours on screen, but it is Evans’ Cap who has had the most individual growth. Much of the credit for that rests with the work of Markus and McFeely.
There are plenty of reasons to knock Hollywood’s current obsession with sequels/spinoffs/shared universes, but Civil War was a reminder of the advantages to this system. Actors build on the work they had done in other films in order to keep each character distinct despite a rather crowded cast. Markus and McFeely’s script deftly balances the various personalities, allowing each of them a moment to shine in the ensemble. New players are introduced, supporting ones get a turn in the spotlight, while long-term favorites continue to shine. This is most heartedly appreciated during the extended airport fight sequence which serves as a summation of the films’ virtues. Expertly directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, its dynamic, visceral action is grounded, never obscured by excessive digital effects work. At its core is the clash of personalities which animates the film. Along with an earlier closed-quarters stairwell scene, Civil War delivers the most thrilling action sequences of the year.
And yet, at the same time, Markus and McFeely, acknowledge the limits of violence. Ever since Man of Steel, superhero films, indeed Hollywood action spectaculars in general, have been increasingly scrutinized for disaster porn. Starting with last year’s Ultron, viewers could see Marvel’s new emphasis on avoiding civilian casualties, and, when they do occur, how it troubles the responsible heroes. Civil War presents two opposing philosophical reactions to this subject without tilting the movie too far in one of the other. Indeed it is much more evenhanded than Mark Millar’s original comic series ever was. More importantly, might does not make right. Viewers are conditioned to the “correct” side always winning a fight. Bond will always beat the terrorists because Bond represents the more ethical argument. Not so in Civil War. In the end, Steve and Tony slink off to their separate corners. Nothing is settled. There is only disunion. When Everett Ross asks Baron Zemo how it feels to have lost, Zemo offers up what may be the film’s moral lesson: “Did I [lose]?”
What is interesting is how this distrust of violence can also be viewed in Marvel’s Doctor Strange. Again, writers Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill (Jon Spaihts shares a story credit) dream up a way to minimize collateral damage by inventing a mirror dimension which isolates dueling sorcerers from the external world. In addition, during the climatic action sequence, Strange is seen paying attention to the devastation being unleashed around him. He breaks the fundamental rules of magic not simply to best his foe, but also to reverse the damaged done to innocents. Indeed the final victory is determined by brains. Instead of outfighting The Dread Dormammu, Strange outthinks him. This plot point lends authenticity to the movie, as it was a motif in the original Stan Lee/Steve Ditko Doctor Strange stories. It was not unusual in these comics for Strange to mutter to himself, “Mordo/Dormammu is more powerful than me, so I must use my wiles to win the day.”
This is not the only way in which the film honors its source material. Director Derrickson, plunges headlong into Ditko’s psychedelic aesthetic, rendering the artist’s far-flung mystical dimensions with a surprising amount of faithfulness. Doctor Strange shares with Guardians of the Galaxy cinematographer Ben Davis and visual effects supervisor Stephane Ceretti, who working with Derrickson craft a film that possesses, like Guardians, an inventive sense of wonder. At the same time, Derrickson knows when to slow down the pace, allowing the characters to shine. The most memorable sequence of the film features not a fight but a conversation between Strange and his mentor The Ancient One. As The Ancient One, Tilda Swinton speaks poignantly of her life, as feels her last moments draw near. Their ghostly astral projections are shot against the New York skyline at night, ethereal lights rippling behind clouds. It is an image as striking as any of the flashier set pieces which animate the movie.
Doctor Strange has been knocked by some for presenting a character who shares too many personality traits with Tony Stark. While there may be some truth to it, the ultimate fault probably rests with Stan Lee for recycling personality types when he co-created them in the 60s. It should be noted that Benedict Cumberbatch does bring a higher level of anger and self-reproach to his character than Downey does. Downey’s Stark is used to being the life of the party, while Strange simply thinks that he is. Stark gets the laughs while Strange’s inability to land a punchline is itself a running gag throughout the film.
Of course, comic book fans looking for copious, snarky gags had one surefire place to look in 2016: Deadpool. As with Civil War, this was a film that not everyone was convinced needed to be made or that the hype about its R rating was justified. (Why did Deadpool “need” to be rated R? Except for a couple MAX series, the vast majority of his comic book adventures have been the equivalent of PG or PG-13). Regardless, Fox surprised audiences with this one, delivering a free-flowing joke fest which entertained even the fans who had long grown sick of the Merc with a Mouth’s shtick. Key to the success was the decision by writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick to keep the story streamlined. Instead of plunging Deadpool into some epic showdown over the fate of reality, they sent him on a simpler yarn of revenge/get the girl back. This approach combined with Ryan Reynolds’ spot on timing kept a buoyancy to the project long after it could easily have grown tiresome.
At the same time, the narrative never really rises above cliché. The writers and Reynolds are a bit too caught up in their perceived cleverness, mistaking the use of a stereotype for a critique of one. Yes, the credits namecheck “British villain” and so on, only, to give fans exactly that. Ed Skrein’s Ajax is just as disposable as many of Marvel Studio’s antagonists. Moreno Baccarin’s Vanessa is a beautiful, sexy damsel in distress who never really exists as anything beyond a motivation for Wade to go kill some guys. Even the best of superhero films flubbed the love interests this year (the lack of chemistry between Evans and Emily VanCamp’s Sharon Carter is Civil War’s most glaring false note). None of them were treated as dismissively as Amy Adams’ Lois Lane. Then again, with Arrival Adams got to reminder viewers just how brilliant she is, so she’s doing alright. Deadpool may be a fun movie, but it is not the radical subversion of the genre its most adamant defenders make it out to be.
It is, though, solid entertainment which is much more than can be said for the wildly uneven X-Men: Apocalypse. After the mostly successful Days of Future Past, fans had reasons to be excited for director Bryan Singer’s latest take on the plight of homo-superior. The film is not a total failure, containing patches of cleverness. Kodi Smit-McPhee brings a charming charisma to Nightcrawlre which is instantly endearing. Similarly the new casting of Tye Sheridan and Sophie Turner as Scott Summers and Jean Grey make a good impression as well. Alexandra Shipp has the proper gravitas for Storm, though, so far her performance is more potential than realization. Evan Peters continues to entertain as Quicksilver, even if some of his speedster clowning felt a bit repetitive of his standout Days sequence.
Overall, if Fox’s plan going forward is to replace the older generation with a new fresher-faced cast than they seem to have made the right choice. Where the previous two entries built the narrative so successfully around Professor X/Magneto, here all the tension has seeped out of the conflict. Michael Fassbender as Magneto is looks particularly unengaged, an impression reinforced by some of the actor’s own comments. It does not help that his character has the most paint by numbers arc of the entire film (once that wife showed up was there anyone who did not know that she was going to die in some horrible manner in order to send Erik back down his dark, brooding ways?).
As ham-handed as it is, Fassbender still gets to play a character, which is more than can be said for Oliva Munn’s Psylocke, who is mostly asked to stand around in little clothing. Someone in script development forgot that in order to create an empowering female character, you need to first give her an actual personality. Otherwise she is simply gratuitous cheesecake (and no, David Ayer, sprouting snarky one-liners does not equal a personality). Most wasted, however, is the great Oscar Issac. After mastering 60s folk singers, 80s Yonkers politicians, near future scientific geniuses and sci-fi space pilots with subtle skill and boundless charisma, he finally found something he cannot do: Apocalypse. Written generically, voiced vaguely, possessing ill-defined powers, the villain never commands the viewer’s attention. Which is just as well, since he is usually lost in a blur of overdone CGI. Visually the movie is a mess, full of hyper-kinetic moments which rarely translate into anything dynamic. There are exceptions (and yes one belongs to Psylocke) yet they are few.
However, that batting average is still better than Batman Vs Superman: Dawn of Justice which confirms once more that Zack Synder does not have the vaguest idea how to direct an action sequence. Whatever might have once been fresh in 300 has been reduced to annoying stylistic tics. He almost pulls off something awesome when Batman rushes in to rescues Martha Kent, only for the sequence to be spoiled with the realization of just how blasé Batman is being about killing his opponents. Again, stylish flourish is everything for Snyder, trumping any attempt to build compelling characters beyond what the actors themselves bring to the roles. Now, there is something to be said for grand theatrical filmmaking, but in the right hands. By the time arrives to film Superman’s funeral, Synder has more or less achieved self-parody.
Dawn of Justice is a sprawling, ambitious film. The screenplay by Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer bites off a lot more than it can chew. There are themes about love, parents, responsibility, the greater good, and theology. Plenty of seeds for a good film are here, and both Terrio and Goyer have written good films in the past. However, nothing here congeals into anything coherent. As stated above, the actors are mostly on their own. Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor may not be canon, but it is both interesting and entertaining, which is more than can said for practically every other performance in the film. There is a mad energy to it, which animates any scene in which he is present. Does his plan make sense? Not really, but hey, give Eisenberg credit for trying. He could have simply cashed his check and meandered through the film on autopilot, which is more or less what the entire cast of Suicide Squad does.
After the critical lambasting of Dawn of Justice, Warner Brothers, must have assumed that it could not have gotten any worse this year. Well, it did. Where Snyder’s movie shot for the moon and failed, David Ayer, who both wrote and directed Suicide Squad, is unable to clear a much lower bar. Suicide Squad’s goals are more modest, yet, given the superhero genre that is a relative statement. Ayer still cooks up some vaguely motivated villain without properly explained powers to threaten all life on the planet. This immediately shows a misunderstanding of the source material, as the best of the classic John Ostander tales featured the team running agent extractions or quieting civil unrest. Of course, whether Ostander’s work was ever in the discussion is a fair question. The film’s main reference point is clearly the New 52, Harley Quinn centric iteration.
Margot Robbie’s performance as Harley Quinn is meant to be a show-stopping high-energy romp, which fails to deliver on any of those qualities. Robbie is a competent actress who speaks her lines, hits her marks and swings her hips in the right direction. She does not bring any personality to her role. Nor does any other performer. Will Smith and Viola Davis as Deadshot and Amanda Waller cruise through the movie on autopilot. Smith’s early scene with his character’s daughter is particularly leaden, as if he were trying out dialogue for Further Pursuits of Happyness. Meanwhile, Davis is not helped by a script that renders Waller much more ruthless than she is the comics, tipping her over the line from resolute to cold-blooded sociopath. And speaking of sociopaths, there is a certain Clown Prince of Crime haunting this movie, because, um, reasons? Jared Leto does not play the Joker as much as offer an impersonation of someone else performing the Joker. Leto’s interpretation is all over the place, which may have been meant to signify the villain’s unpredictability, but, in the end is simply incoherent. Also, the film’s decision to make Mr. J., on some level, actually care about Harley does not work. About half way through the film, the viewer begins to wonder if the character is present more for narrative padding than backstory. Jai Courtney and Jay Hernandez as Captain Boomerang and Diablo get one or two solid character moments, then lack the opportunity to build on them.
Finally, Suicide Squad possesses a very dubious detachment to violence. In Dawn of Justice, Synder does try to respond to the Man of Steel devastation critiques, though the results are decidedly mixed. Ayer, however, acts like the issue had never been raised. The Enchantress’ evil plot involves transforming everyday citizens into mindless zombies for her army, which are then mowed down by the Squad in the fashion typically reserved for supervillain cannon fodder. The problem is no one, not even the US soldiers chaperoning the Squad, ever raise the issue of “um, innocent victims, should we, like, try not to kill them?” At the end of the day, the Squad may kill more bystanders over the course of the narrative than the Enchantress and the Joker combined. No wonder they keep repeating “we’re the bad guys.”
This complete emotional detachment from violence is a perfect example of how hollow Suicide Squad is. Then again, it made a lot of money, so there is an audience for such superficiality. At the end of the day, Warner Brothers is a for-profit corporation which cares more about box office receipts than critical notices. Thus, Zack Synder returns to the director’s chair for next year’s Justice League. That leaves Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman as fans’ best hope for something different from the DC Cinematic Universe. While trailers show promise, the overall aesthetic design looks a little too reminiscent of Synder’s love affair with drab monochromes. If Warners wishes to copy Marvel’s success, as clearly they want so badly to do, they would be best served by studying how the studio was able to release two films this year which both possessed their own distinct sensibility while belonging to the same world. A satisfying life is defined by diverse experiences and so should the movies which reflect it. Even those of the spandex variety.