Captain America: The Winter Soldier ended as expected – with a multi-leveled set piece made up of dog fights, explosions, moral tension, more explosions, and, of course, the one-on-one “boss fight” between Cap and the film’s titular antagonist. It was true to genre form, and, admittedly, it was awesome. Then X-Men Days of Future Past concluded with Mystique walking away, and Guardians of the Galaxy’s climaxed with a dance off. And they were equally awesome, a fact that may prove to be the superhero genre’s hope moving forward.
If it’s not obvious already, superhero movies aren’t going away. Not soon, at least. In fact, Marvel Studios, Warner Brothers, Fox and Sony -the four studios between whom the various Marvel and DC superheroes are currently split – released tentative schedules for their upcoming blockbusters as far as 2020. And if The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which cost Sony 255 million dollars to produce, according to Forbes, is any indication, these studios will continue to invest obscene amounts of money in these franchises in the hopes of hooking audiences for sequels and sequels to come.
When confronted with such numbers, even the most ardent fans can’t help but wonder if these films aren’t over-saturating the market. Along with the growing numbers of reboots and novel-to-film adaptations being split into multiple installments, it takes no significant degree of cognitive wherewithal to question whether producers are simply taking advantage of the pop culture craze to milk the genre – and fans – for all they’re worth.
Yes, I’m interested in the seeing the phenomenon of a cinematic universe growing installment after installment, but not if doing so requires complacency with a system that equates lazy adherence to the “good guy find purpose and can therefore punch harder and defeat bad guy” formula and flashy third acts with success.
Fortunately, Summer 2014’s superhero successes set an excitingly new precedent for narrative integrity in the genre.
Warning: major plot spoilers ahead. Though, to be honest, if you’ve read this far, you’ve more than likely already seen the movies herein discussed.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Marvel’s Captain America: the Winter Soldier led the summer releases back in April. A spy-thriller in superhero tights, Winter Soldier, true to superhero form, packaged political tension, eugenic utilitarianism, and contemporary concerns of government oversight into an identifiable and punchable villain: Hydra. The film focused on the character of Steve Rogers as a man out of time and without a cause, a man who struggles with deciding whether or not he still believes if America is still the country he once represented. The well defined character arc, in addition to the peerless action directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, set the film apart from many of its predecessors.
It followed the genre model, but it did so refreshingly well, yet it still lacked something its followers would possess: relatable acts of nonviolent heroism. Cap is cool to watch, and he inspires as a symbol, but that’s not too applicable to the rest of us still waiting for a dose of super soldier serum. In the end, the superhero remains separated from viewers.The most relatable act of heroism in the film belonged to the unnamed character who refused, at gunpoint, to launch the Insight Helicarriers. While brave, his choice isn’t that of a superhero – it’s the choice of one inspired by the superhero. The films to follow put more of the nonviolent heroism in the hands of the titular characters.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2
Sony’s Amazing Spider-Man 2, directed by the aptly named by Marc Webb, debuted in early May riding a multi-million dollar marketing campaign involving even the federal postal service. While beautiful CGI pleased the eyes of many an audience member, Spidey met much criticism from those looking for more than a cartoon, however gorgeous, battle royale between Jamie Fox’s Electro and Andrew Garfield’s Spider-Man. And not wrongly so. While I will admit to aligning with the smaller population of critics who ultimately enjoyed the film, I recognize its many distracting and unfortunate issues, most notably the feeling that the producers unnecessarily shoe-horned in much of the film’s content without much thought to narrative cohesion.
In other words, Amazing Spider-Man 2 is very much the child of Marc Webb (500 Days of Summer) and famous/infamous blockbuster-writing duo Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (Transformers, Transformers 2, Star Trek: Into Darkness).
The film just didn’t seem to know what it wanted to be, mixing the intimate (and interesting) Peter/Gwen relationship that everyone loved about its predecessor with world building (all the stuff about Peter’s dad and Oscorp) and attempts at compelling villains that ultimately fall flat and/or make little sense.
That’s not to say that a superhero film is only as good as its villain(s). While portrayed notably well by Jamie Fox and Dane DeHaan respectively, Electro and Harry Osborn’s character arcs failed to make much sense – they became villains, well, because they needed to for plot’s sake, and that’s really it. This would be acceptable if the film didn’t spend so much time on these characters (an attempt at legitimate backstory that succeeded in creating a number of distracting contradictions) at the expense of time exploring its more fruitful material, a mistake Guardians of the Galaxy avoids in its treatment of its primary antagonists, Ronan the Accuser and Nebula.
Ultimately, this film felt designed for (and was redeemed by, in my opinion) its final heart-wrenching minutes. It is defined by one question: did the death of Gwen Stacy “work.” I would argue that yes, it worked, but it could have more effectively done so in the format of a 30-minute indie film rather than a multimillion-dollar, 2.5 hour blockbuster laden with Sony product placement.
Amidst all the world building and pretty pictures, the film threads a yarn of hope. In those last ten minutes, Peter – man and superhero – deals with a very real emotional villain: despair.
Peter’s choice to don the Spidey mask again at the film’s end marks the most notable act of heroism in the superhero film. Gwen Stacy’s death totals Peter: guilt about his association with her leading to her death, the loss of his first love and the future they just decided to have together, and the reminder that he can never seem to save the people closest to him. It is, as my brother called it, an enormous emotional boulder, one that Peter’s spider powers can’t help him lift.
It’s Gwen Stacy’s graduation speech that compels him to hope again – to “become hope” – after spending five months sans Spider-Man mask to stand beside Gwen’s grave. More powerful than the tired origin story, the film becomes, at its end, something new: a reaffirmation story. Peter’s courage isn’t about becoming something new, but about returning to the state in which he began the film, though now wiser and more purposed, I think. It’s about not giving up.
Gwen’s death forced Peter to confront the fact that great power doesn’t come with the responsibility to save everyone, but with the responsibility to at least try, and that’s why it works.
In the end, Peter’s character arc redeemed the film in my eyes, but barely. The plethora of cut footage and final scenes evidence the argument that the filmmakers struggled to balance story and world-building. It’s successors would do well to devote more screen time to the exploration of such intimate and relatable drama as did the likable parts of this film, as did the second installment of the Raimi Spidey films, rather than franchise establishment.
X-Men: Days of Future Past
Third in the lineup: X-Men Days of Future Past, directed by Bryan Singer. Not only a merging of the original X-Men film cast with that of the recent First Class cast, this film managed to reboot the disgraced franchise, essentially erasing the questionable decisions of Brett Ratner’s X-3: The Last Stand from the X-Men movie canon. Thank you, Mr. Singer.
But Days of Future Past uses its time travel plot not just for revision. The film’s plot is driven by preventing the 1973 Raven/Mystique, played by Jennifer Lawrence, from committing an act of violence in the name of vengeance against the X-villain known as Bolivar Trask, played by Peter Dinklage. Unlike most superhero stories in which violence is, usually by definition, the means of conflict management, Days of Future Past gets to make the argument, via time-travel shenanigans, that not committing said act of violence is the only way to prevent the eventual genocide of undesirable mutants and humans alike.
However, the interesting premise, based on the comic arc written by Chris Claremont in 1981, plays a secondary role to the character arc of the film’s actual protagonist: James Maccavoy’s young Charles Xavier, aka Professor X. While the film follows Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine as the future’s representative in the past, the struggle for Professor X’s belief steals the show. By 1973, the hopeful idealist of the previous film has given up: after a stray bullet to the spine paralysed Charles at the end of the last film, confining him to the iconic wheelchair, he can now walk around the empty mansion (since Vietnam War draft took most of the students, the school shut down) in his pajamas and unkempt hair by injecting a de-paralyzing serum that takes away his mutant ability of telepathy. When Wolverine comes to him with a mission from the future, he sets Charles on a quest that would require him to reclaim his hope and the mantle of “professor.”
Refreshingly, Days of Future Past places the typical race/Civil Rights/gender equality commentaries on the backburner in order to forefront a genuinely moving character arc. While the aforementioned commentaries remain, the narrative provides little resolution for them, illustrating instead the personal costs of belief in such causes.
And in the end, Days of Future Past also swaps the action-packed third act typical of the genre for a political and ideological standoff supplemented by just enough action to move things along. The resolution requires not an exercise of superpower, but instead an abstaining from superpowered influence to allow for choice. It’s a fantastic and satisfying ending in every way. As in Spider-Man, the heroes win by choosing to hope and to trust, though this iteration focuses on the nonviolent acts of heroism, whereas that focus only supplemented Spider-Man’s action-heavy plot.
Also, the now-famous “Quicksilver scene” is a cinematic treat worthy of note in its own right.
Guardians of the Galaxy
And finally, after a two-month wait, the fourth and final superhero film graced the silver screen: James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy. Though perhaps more Star Wars-meets-Firefly than superhero film, Guardians expand the Marvel cinematic universe into the cosmic realm, only hinted at in Thor and The Avengers. More importantly, however, it too revised the traditional formula.
Full of feel-good 80’s anthems, throw-away one-liners, and genuinely comical character interplay, Guardians’ heart rests in its portrayal of team formation. While Avengers united the world’s mightiest heroes, pulling them from their individual franchises to establish a common universe, Guardians relies on the deice of team formation for success.
In The Avengers, each character demonstrates growth, but that growth affects only them, really. For example, Steve Rogers accuses Tony Stark of being a selfish playboy who could never be a soldier because he would never make the sacrifice play for his teammates. Then, in the end, Tony proves himself willing to sacrifice himself by redirecting the nuke into the portal. But that’s Tony’s arc, and we don’t really know what changed him, or if he needed to change in the first place.
Gunn’s Guardians, alternatively, demonstrate a need to change before they can truly unite to save the day. Peter Quill, aka Starlord, played by Chris Pratt, must allow for the possibility of hurt before he can truly let people get close; his resistance to intimacy stemming from the loss of his mother at a young age. Zoe Saldana’s Gamora must accept those she sees as less honorable than her. Dave Bautista’s Drax not only learns that he cannot face his enemies alone, but also that he is not alone in feeling the pain of lost loved ones. Bradley Cooper’s Rocket Raccoon must swallow his self-pity and selfish pragmatism in order to, as Quill states, “give a shit.” And Groot, well, roots the team together with his compassionate innocence, a trait made real in his sacrifice at the end – a sacrifice made for the protection of friends, not the defeat of an enemy, I might add.
All of these changes represent not just individual character arcs, but arcs that occur in order for the individuals to come together as a team. Groot says it best – after only uttering the words “I am Groot” throughout the entire film, the talking tree claims “We are Groot,” before sacrificing himself to save his teammates. The single pronoun change represents the film’s core: the Guardians of the Galaxy is not an association of individual superheroes, but is instead only effective as a superteam.
Then the remaining heroes defeat the film’s villain not with coordinated maneuvers and strategies like a suddenly polished basketball team, but by holding hands. Yup. In the end, they defeat Ronan by dispersing among the four of them the power of the Infinity Stone that would have killed any one of them individually. The heroic act here is to choose to be a part of a group.
To drive it home, Gunn ends the film with Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s “Ain’t No Valley High Enough,” a song on the mixtape Peter discovers after finally opening the gift his mother left him on her death bed years ago.
Whereas the Avengers go their separate ways at the film’s conclusion, the Guardians fly off together – a “family,” as Gamora puts it.
The superhero narrative is often and easily allegorized as the triumph of good over evil – punching and laser-shooting metaphors for the difficult conflicts of our lives. But the punches gets old, no matter how cool CGI makes them look. Instead, the superhero narratives that change up the genre model with nonviolent and personal acts of heroism that accompany the genre conflict can infuse the many superhero films to come with relatable life.
As these movies continue, expect the stunning graphics that come with obscene budgets. Expect expanding universes and interconnecting stories. Yes, expect world-building. But hope for nuanced writing that asks more of our heroes and their decisions than simple character development for the sake of an action-packed final act.
Photo via Moviehabit.com