Piece by Piece: Can Superhero Movies Take Risks?

Superhero movies have exploded in popularity in the last 17 years. But is there room for serious drama?

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There have been three different Bruce Waynes and three Peter Parkers since Hugh Jackman first adopted The Wolverine’s claws and mutton chops. Two generations of the Fantastic Four, Professor Xavier and Magneto have been reincarnated and redesigned, collided with their new selves and The Green Lantern has gone the way of the Green Hornet and decided to make fun of superheroes instead. Careers have been made by superhero movies and some have already faded into obscurity. The Marvel cinematic universe has been entirely constructed and collided into two Avengers movies with a third on the way and through all this Hugh Jackman has been Wolverine.

Seventeen years as the same character, with nine film appearances as the man is an impressive feat (Roger Moore is the most prolific Bond with seven film appearances) but there is something equally admirable about Jackman’s commitment to portraying the Canadian loner throughout his entire career. X-Men was only his third career film appearance and is what thrust him into the public eye. Jackman’s career was jump started by the very film that is responsible for the seismic shift we have seen in box office cinema and the start of superhero movies as more than childish. His career has progressed along with the popularity of the superhero movie and with him bowing out with the incredibly final Logan it is fair to look at the changing nature and development of the superhero movie.

Real stakes, fake world

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I make no secret of the fact that my favourite superhero movies are those that have fun with the concept first and foremost. It’s why Guardians of the Galaxy was such a breath of fresh air and why Deadpool made it into my top 20 films of the year while Dr Strange sat on the bench. It’s why I believe that Batman Vs Superman and Suicide Squad the worst things to come out of Hollywood in 2016. There is room for the serious in the comic book flick, yet outside of Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, how many can you name that have plumbed into real darkness and serious drama. It is true that Peter Parker is spurred by the death of Uncle Ben, that Wolverine and Black Widow are the results of experimentation and that Peter Quill’s mother dies slowly at the start of Guardians of the Galaxy but with it all there is a level of detachment.

The drama is merely a background – a motivation to spur on a character – to allow for moments where the audience can pump their fists and cheer over their hero overcoming. The actual meat of the drama in superhero films invariably comes from an outside source threatening the physical world with force; an alien horde, a Machiavellian God, a Nazi invasion.

A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic

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One film that comes to mind as a film motivated by more than outward force is Captain America: The Winter Soldier which disposed of the basic superhero structure in exchange for a militaristic, political framework. It applied a superhero theme to a Bourne film, it had no single villain, there was no Apocalypse tearing the world apart or horde of alien invaders, its threat was based in the reality of the situation and Captain America, had he failed, would have been the main victim of the film. Unlike the city of New York in The Avengers or Gotham in Batman Begins, the danger in The Winter Soldier was focused primarily on Steve Rogers.

Its story was driven by character principles rather than an immediate threat to the world, it just so happens that Captain America’s principles are also the same as Americas. The world of The Winter Soldier was threatened by being overrun but the specifics of the takeover were not stated, the film simply placed its viewers in Steve Roger’s state of mind.

Age of Ultron is an example where the threat demeans the drama and action at the centre of it. The general threat of the world being overrun is too large, too vague and expansive that people cannot really engage with it. Even when Ultron focuses his attack on Sokovia, it’s honestly hard to care about these nameless faces and crowds. These kids and parents in car pile ups, stuck on broken bridges are simply objects, tools to tell a story. In Civil War Scarlet Witch accidentally causes a huge accident and multiple deaths in a busy city, it is an affecting moment not because of the civilians who die in the street but because the grief is focused solely on Scarlet Witch and how she feels about it, it’s just how empathy works.

The majority of people can’t bring themselves to be emotionally invested in the trials of real world horrors because it is too far detached from them, never mind a fictional comic book country. Film is best when it is smaller in scale, Die Hard is so effective at conveying the stakes because it is John McClane and HIS wife that are in danger, the drama unfolds in real time and we feel each small inconvenience because each small inconvenience is his. No one cares about Nakatomi’s bonds or any of the office workers, not even the pregnant woman who needs to sit on a couch, even Hans Gruber cares enough about her to let her sit down, so why don’t viewers?

It is because viewers connect with who they have had time to connect with, upping the number of people in danger never ups the stakes if the people in danger are undefined. Yet comic book movies abuse this trick to no end. It’s something that they struggle to grasp time and time again. But that is not to say that comic book movies should have Man of Steel’s complete disregard for the population, forcing buildings down and levelling an entire city all for the sake of a grudge match. It is that comic book movies will benefit from delving into the personal rather than the expansive.

The Anti-Cinematic Universe

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Yet, superhero movies are exclusively a box office deal, they are designed to be spectacle cinema, to sell popcorn, to please large crowds and sell IMAX tickets. They need to amaze, to meet expectations and simultaneously subvert the expectations of myriad subsections of fans who know every possible route that can be taken with a character. The rights to these films are also owned exclusively by larger companies, and Marvel, DC and Fox are keeping their rights close to their chest, meaning that every superhero movie must be excessively vetted to ensure it makes optimal economic sense. A small-scale Batman film that doubled as a detective story would be extremely feasible to pull off, but if it diverts from the larger goal of the studio then it cannot be created. Since Iron Man’s post credits sequence the cinematic universe has become the goal, each new film must serve to that. It even makes sense for Fox to split up the X-Men franchise into three separate franchises to allow themselves the gratification of the merging of these franchises in X-Men: Days of Future Past.

The movies made to serve the cinematic universe are for the most part frustratingly similar, they follow the same character moments and story beats, feature unmemorable villains and share a tone. Whether it is the glum drabness of DC or the larger than life wit of Marvel, the point stands that there is less room for risk when all the chips are kept in the same pot.

Logan is far from a perfect movie but what it is film that shows a different direction for superhero movies, it is a sign that the subgenre could become its own genre, it has already developed enough tropes, actors such as Tilda Swinton, Chitewel Efijor and Anthony Hopkins are becoming more commonplace, and styles are being developed on different ends of the spectrum. Deadpool is a comedy, Logan is a drama, The Avengers is action, Winter Soldier is a thriller and Batman Vs Superman is CSPAN. Logan shows a proliferation that can only be good for the industry, and while it follows the Marvel route of struggling to create convincing villains it has taken inroads to create a more personal story, a road trip driven by self-destruction. It is adventurous with its direction and indulgent in its message. While viewers have been standing on the tracks waiting to be hit by the Marvel train of homogenisation Logan is prepping the ground work for an alternative track.

The Last Year – Downsize’s Top 20 films of 2016

[Due to release schedules for the UK, Downsize Media’s reviews of the year will run from 1 February 2016 – 31 January 2017. Notable movies that missed the cut include: Moonlight, Hacksaw Ridge, Fences, Hidden Figures and Split]

[Due to release schedules for the UK, Downsize Media’s reviews of the year will run from 1 February 2016 – 31 January 2017. Notable movies that missed the cut include: Moonlight, Hacksaw Ridge, Fences, Hidden Figures and Split]

 

20

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Wiener Dog

A film that decided against adhering to traditional structure, Wiener Dog uses its little brown mascot to connect a series of vignettes. Essentially four short films, the film is a melancholic look at relationships, spanning across generational divides. The stories are all connected by a dark humour, whether through their criticism of the mundanity of everyday life or the ridiculousness of the art world, the film finds something to laugh at in each bleak world. Wiener Dog boasts a great ensemble cast with performances that ooze a deadpan charisma.

19

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Zootopia

Disney and Pixar have been merged for a few years now but this is the first example where a Disney branded film takes on the guise of a Pixar film. The film manages to remain cutesy and fun while not patronising its young viewers and still addressing themes of racial profiling and news media. The film boasts stunningly detailed creature designs and manages to remain funny for everyone. Kids won’t get the Breaking Bad meth lab scene, but they’ll still laugh at the Lamb in the yellow hazmat suit.

18

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Eye in the Sky

Pivoting on the Breaking Bad segue, let’s talk about something pretty un-Disney. Eye in the Sky is a film about drone strikes on terrorist cells. What impressed me most about Eye in the Sky was how level headed it was about such a heavy subject matter, it doesn’t seem to be endorsing or criticising the methods but instead using drone strikes as a vehicle to explore career politics and public relations in government. The characters of the story are taken more from The Thick of It rather than Syriana.

17

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10 Cloverfield Lane

A strangely titled film, 10 Cloverfield Lane’s story has nothing to do with Cloverfield. Instead of an Alien Invasion film it is a prison thriller set in a fallout shelter. If Cloverfield could be considered as a mirror for the opening invasion from War of the Worlds then 10 Cloverfield Lane is Ogilvy’s hideout. With John Goodman at the helm embodying a terrifyingly unstable but well-meaning psychopath, the film is a collection of cushion clutching tension and a testament to claustrophobic fear.

16

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Midnight Special

Jeff Nichols has a good thing going, he makes small films, gets Boardwalk Empire’s Michael Shannon to star and he refines his storytelling. Midnight Special is not his strongest venture yet it still manages to capture something special. There is something so impressive about Nichols’ tight control of his world, his ability to speak with visuals and create intrigue makes Midnight Special one of the most fascinating films of the year.

15

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Deadpool

Superhero movies are getting old, it’s been 17 years since X-Men began the trend and now it’s at full speed. In 2017 we will see:

  • The Justice League
  • Wonder Woman
  • Lego Batman
  • Logan
  • Guardians of the Galaxy 2
  • Spider Man: Homecoming
  • Thor: Ragnorok

It’s exhausting, and there’s no apparent end in sight. Yet with popularity comes parody and thank god that Deadpool came along to break up the monotony. Now that the tropes have been established on the big screen Deadpool is finally free to come along and laugh at them. The film’s humour is not the most advanced but its R rated fun is indicative of superhero films being able to do something different.

14

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Moana

Disney is back on top, having bought out the competition it is now reaping the rewards of its monopoly. Moana displays some of the best-looking animation I have ever seen, and it combines modern animation style with flat animation and cut out style sequences. Held together by a terrific soundtrack the world of Moana is a brilliantly realised introduction to an unfamiliar mythology in a way that Disney has not done so well since Hercules.

13

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Embrace of the Serpent

Having not yet seen The Handmaiden, or Toni Erdmann this is the only foreign language film on this list. Embrace of the Serpent is a Colombian film about an Amazonian shaman leading two different scientists, forty years apart, through the rainforest. Shot in black and white the Amazon looks like an alien planet and the tribal people that lurk represent a constant danger. The film is calming and considerate for the most part yet finds time for bat shit insanity and trippy visuals.

12

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Silence

Scorsese knows what film is, he knows how to titillate better than anyone working today. In Silence he takes a side step from titillation and into contemplation. He ponders the meaning and compatibility of religion, delves into ideas of martyrdom instead of success and creates a dark descent of a narrative. Despite this there is still room for the expected Scorsese touch of dynamic violence and brutal barbarism.

11

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Green Room

Green Room doesn’t waste time, it’s villains are neo Nazis, murderers who own attack dogs and bowie knives, they’re the villains and the aim of the film is to get away from them. The film features some brutal gory visuals and unpolished action, if I was to use one word to sum up the film it would be ‘grimy.’ Condensation sweats off the walls and lights flicker dimly. The film is a real time journey into desperation, characters are developed so as to show their vulnerabilities and their strengths, then they are placed into the fray for the next hour. It’s an entertaining spectacle weighed down with a nervy realism, a low-key action film were the stakes are real. I don’t want to draw too many comparisons to Die Hard but it’s kind of like Die Hard in that respect.

10

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Hell or High Water

Western movies have fallen out of fashion in the last… 40 years? So it’s always nice to see something honour the memory of something that fell out fashion a long time ago. Hell or High Water is a modern western, following bandit brothers on a bank robbing spree through Texas. The two are pursued by the human embodiment of a past his prime cowboy, Jeff Bridges. The film is an exciting crime caper with a side order of social commentary, nicely filmed and endlessly gripping it is brought together by great performances on all sides.

9

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La La Land

Films about films, aren’t they self-indulgent? Yes. Yes they are.

That doesn’t mean they can’t still dazzle and amaze with fantastic cinematography, lighting and set pieces. The technical aspect of La La Land and design is beyond amazing. Aside from the sheer level of escapism that La La Land offers there is an even deeper level of sincere passion from the filmmaker. This is a film made from love and it shines through in the writing. Fans of Whiplash will know that Chazelle is crazy for jazz and here he cuts through the chaff and essentially tells viewers that he needs more people to love it too. The film moves from one cinematic set piece to the next, breaks conventions and fourth walls like crazy. It unfolds like a stage play, skipping ahead to the interesting parts of the story. The film suffers in the middle when the music dries up but it just makes the moment when it comes back all the more impacting.

8

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The Nice Guys

Is there a sub-genre that has persisted as well as the Buddy Cop movie? Find two stars and give them a mystery to solve. Simple. The Nice Guys is one of those rare films were everything just slips nicely into place, the chemistry between the two leads is immediately funny and the setting of LA in the ‘Golden Age of Porn’ is the perfect backdrop for the convoluted neo noir story behind it. The writing is sharp and layered with hidden jokes, subtle cues and even moments of the surreal humour. The biggest thing The Nice Guys has going for it is that each actor brings exactly what they need to the table and because of it there isn’t a single scene that falls flat.

7

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Kubo and the Two Strings

Stop motion animation is an art that is getting less and less exposure as time goes on, as 3D rendering has become more widely available stop motion has fell behind as an overly time consuming, outdated method. Which is a shame because there is an overwhelming presence to stop motion, it’s shadows are not simulations, each frame is crafted. It’s art, creation and effort down to its core. Kubo and the Two Strings is one of the most beautifully crafted movies in recent years, Laika studios has pulled out all the stops to make a film, specifically for kids which takes no shortcuts. It’s message is spiritual and philosophical, its design is stunning and its exciting and filled with genuine stakes. Kubo is a one eyed, parentless child whose remaining family is conspiring to kill him, the film does not coddle its protagonist, it puts him through the wringer and sees him endure actual troubles. This is a film that every child should see and anyone who appreciates craft will be stunned by the design.

6

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Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Strangely titled and delightfully charming, Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople unfolds like a children’s story. The story of Ricky Baker the troublesome orphan escalates quickly and commits itself to the muted ridiculousness of its story. Then it goes a bit further. Segmented into ten chapters it’s a joyful experience that hops about without losing site of the central focus of the film. It’s heartfelt, sweetly funny and weird. Having written parts of Disney’s Moana and with a sequel to What We Do in the Shadows in the works it seems as if we’ll be seeing more of Waititi’s kiwi wit in the future.

5

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Arrival

It’s important to remember that Sci-fi is not simply a vehicle for space battles and explosions. It’s an entire genre, and within that genre there is a multitude of options and subgenres. They can be psychological horrors (Moon), time travel thrillers (Looper) or even straight up romance (Her). When you take Sci-fi as the be all and end all you end up with generic garbage about reactor cores (Passengers).

Arrival took its sci-fi basis and used it as a tool to tell a human story about communication. Held together by a criminally overlooked performance from Amy Adams. Arrival is an intently focused story that never loses track of its ideas. It’s brilliant to see a big budget cerebral sci-fi like this and with Denis Villeneuve attached to the new Blade Runner project I have hopes that this will be a trend that picks up steam.

4

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The Neon Demon

Nicolas Winding Refn’s films have been steadily becoming more elusive and more fluorescent with each new instalment. With Only God Forgives it appeared that he took this a bit too far for general audiences. However, with his latest film, Refn has pulled back on the elusiveness and turned up the lights. The film is a fever dream of stunning colour, amazing long shots and heavily loaded dialogue. What separates The Neon Demon from other Refn flicks is the tongue in cheek attitude that seeps from every pore, it’s more ridiculous than most films you’ll have seen in 2016 and it embraces it to great effect. It’s the best looking film of the year along with having the most amazing soundtrack.

3

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Manchester by the Sea

It could so easily have been another one of those films, you know the ones that I’m talking about: The Oscar baiting, heart warming tale of misfortune and overcoming the odds. All the ingredients are there for a manipulative slog of misery but Manchester by the Sea manages to become so much more than the sum of its parts. By drawing viewers in with the mysteriously detached behaviour of Casey Affleck’s Lee Chandler and a dry humour it encourages intrigue while still entertaining. It is a stunningly well crafted movie filled with intensely realised and human characters. What impressed me most was how often Manchester by the Sea left the audience to fill in the gaps, it leaves the performances to simmer by taking away dialogue at times when there would be opportunity for trailer soundbites. The film must be seen to be appreciated. The weightiest moments of the film take place without words, it is the expressions, the visuals, the build up that inspire the devastation.

2

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Nocturnal Animals

From the very first shot of Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals you know it’s not going to be an easy watch, it promises uncomfortable situations and delivers on it in spades. The film is one uncomfortable moment after another. A revenge flick with an incapable protagonist, harsh, barren landscapes with a bitter love affair to hold it all together, everything in the film meshes so well together. It certainly has a dark atmosphere but it is more realised than most films and consistent in its tone. Michael Shannon makes his second appearance on the list with a deservedly Oscar nominated performance as jaded detective Andes next to a dejected and beaten down Jake Gyllenhaal. Much like 2013’s Blue Ruin, Nocturnal Animals plays out like a feature length episode of Justified. Dark, gritty and uncompromising, it’s a wild ride that will stay with you.

1

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Sing Street

After the collective misery of the previous two entries on this list it may come as a surprise to many that I do like my films to contain a little bit of escapism occasionally. Sing Street is a film all about dreaming big and getting out, with a feel good original soundtrack of 80s pastiche that has made its way to my regular rotation. (It is an absolute crime that Drive It Like You Stole it did not receive an Oscar nomination for best song, especially seeing as it unfolds along with one of the best scenes of 2016.)

Everything in Sing Street is there to enhance the music, drama unfolds to allow for the songs to be weighed down with more meaning. Our protagonist, Connor’s life revolves around music and his love interest, Raphine. The relationship between the romance and the music work perfectly in tandem, each enhancing the other. Connor has limited knowledge about what he can be, he is impressionable and limited, his band cycles through new inspirations and changes their style week by week.

Sing Street is enjoyable on a minute by minute basis, it is charming, funny, emotional, romantic aspirational, real and fantastical all at the same time. It is brilliantly written and contains one memorable moment after another. It is never boring or unpleasant, constantly engaging and entertaining for everyone.

 

Well that’s my review of 2016, let me know how wrong you think I am, let me hear your lists or give me any recommendations you have.

 

Affleck’s latest stumbles out the gate

Live by Night tells a compelling character drama beneath a basic gangster film

Ben Affleck has a solid track record as a director, whilst maintaining a steady level of entertainment his films have managed to be increasingly serious, pulpy fiction that is based in a heavy-set reality. Live by Night is the latest production from the Boston based star. He comes fresh from his DC regimented fitness regimen into ill-fitting suits and prohibition era Florida.

Affleck’s lead, Joe Coughlin, is a principled man, we are introduced to this by the first scene of the film, voice over narration over still of the first world war. After serving Joe grew disdainful of hierarchies and refuses to take orders from another man again; “I left a soldier, I came back an outlaw.” Therein lies the central conflict of the movie and Joe Coughlin’s character. He enters a life of crime to avoid taking orders until he finds himself coerced into organised crime and so into a structure of taking orders once more. The dramatic weight of the movie rests in the conflict built into Joe. The issue is whether he can maintain his steadfast principles whilst finding success in a business that is built by people who hold none.

The dialogue of the characters is poetic and deliberate, it’s all very cinematic and unreal. Joe’s narration provides exposition for each scene as we hop from conversation to conversation. If I was being harsh I would say that the film breaks the rules of ‘show, don’t tell’ all too often. It is clear when watching that the film was based off a book and in this case, it is not necessarily a compliment.

Live by Night wanders on the fringes of being just like films you’ve seen a hundred times before. It possesses the same story beats as films like Goodfellas and Donnie Brasco but tries to hold on to the central premise that this is a film about one man’s desire to remain a ‘good man.’ At some points this comes off but for too much of the film it loses site of what it is and instead becomes a basic gangster film that offers nothing new.

The gangster style conflicts at the centre of the film are all too easy to deal with. Each victory comes from hiding behind a wall and then shooting your enemy and the repercussions of the violence are uniformly skipped past via montages that try to coast by on the merits of their cinematography and nothing more. The film takes the easy route too often with the meat of its story, Joe battles against Italian and Irish mobsters, evangelical Christians and the KKK. It’s hard to come up with a collective of people easier to demonise outside of the Nazis, this means the film dedicates very little time to developing its threats. Meaning that the main villains of the film never seem to truly threaten Joe. This leads to the film’s most frustrating sequence, where a confrontation with the KKK that has been building up for most of the film is completely resolved in a two-minute montage.

All secondary characters in the movie appear to be hugely undeveloped, so much so that they appear to be irrelevant to how the story progresses. Characters are inorganically brought into the story to serve their purpose and then leave when the story is finished with them. The majority of characters are low effort stereotypes with little likeable qualities or charisma, there is a chance that this was an intentional in order to demonise criminals and thugs who intend to die as criminals and thugs, but it is almost too easy of a way to shift empathy onto Joe as the only humanised character in the film.

There seems to have been a concerted effort to make Sienna Miller’s Emma appear as some sort of moral litmus paper for Affleck’s character. However, his circumstances, his wife, his career and behaviour perform this same purpose and so she is an extremity that the film could do without. All in all too many things in the film serve the same purpose. The film does not mix up the action and drama in enough significant ways to keep it interesting and takes too long to get going. The film tries to reflect Joe’s ambivalence toward crime and wholesomeness, but in doing so it results in a beige character drama with a light crime overlay.

Recommendation

Live by Night appears to be disinterested in 90% of its content, it is a gangster film that doesn’t want to talk about gangster life. If you have managed to see any of the films near non-existent marketing then you may feel hard done by the film not doing what it says on the tin, but for all the film’s negatives it is still an interesting character drama about a man conflicted.

It deserves commendations for appearing as if it were a regular gangster film when in fact it is telling a different, more humanist story. It is a film for contemplation rather than cheap thrills, and when viewed as such it is a rewarding experience with some great dialogue and interesting reflections. It just wastes too much of its screen time.