These films say that a hero can save us…
Welcome back, everybody, to the finale of my 2016 Year in Review series, which has now consisted of 13 articles with 41,000 words (and counting) spread across 2 weeks. But we have all done it! We have made it to the last one! If you’re just joining us, we’ve been counting down My Bottom 10 Films of 2016, and today is when we finally reveal the #1 of this wretched hive of scum and villainy. On Friday we counted down #10 to #6, yesterday we dealt with #5 to #2, and today we dedicate ourselves to the top spot. If you have yet to read either of those articles, then you follow the links provided to get caught up or to refresh your memory. And just before we dive in, I want to assure you that I did not lop off the #1 entry into its own separate article just to draw this out another day. I really did need the length of a full article to do this one justice.
Right, time to be That Guy, because I’ll never say anything nice again, HOW CAN I?
There ARE major spoilers. You have been warned.
01] Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice/Captain America: Civil War/X-Men: Apocalypse/Batman: The Killing Joke/Suicide Squad
Dirs: Zack Snyder/Joe & Anthony Russo/Bryan Singer/Sam Liu/David Ayer
Star: A lot of people
Back in 2010, my brother and I irritated the hell out of our dad by forcing him to sit through all 10 minutes of credits for Iron Man 2 in order to catch the post-credits sequence. You’ll recall that said post-credits sequence is about 30 seconds of Phil Coulson standing in a desert in New Mexico and a shot of Thor’s hammer, which wasn’t even really a surprise given that the Thor film had already been announced a year ago. Our dad was not amused by this, but my brother and I were giddy with excitement. We weren’t comic readers, but we identified as nerds, having spent a lot of our maturing years on the Internet, and loved our comic book films, so we felt a sort of inclusive excitement and joy in watching The Grand Marvel Experiment unfold in front of our eyes. We knew that something special was happening, we knew that a subculture we identified with was beginning to fully take over the mainstream after having teased doing so for years beforehand, and we welcomed its occurrence with open arms.
It managed that, alright. Superhero movies are everywhere now. Even in a year that mostly underperformed financially, superhero movies dominated the box office to such an extent that they may as well have been the only tickets in town – 4 of the top 10 grossing films of 2016 worldwide were superhero movies. If you’re a big studio and you don’t have your own superhero franchise, or series that you can spin-off into a nebulously-defined “Cinematic Universe,” then you may as well not exist. Day in and day out, we are saturated with news stories related to superhero movies – casting announcements, trailers for trailers, interviews with people who were in or turned down superhero movies years ago, or making entire articles out of one actress offhandedly joking about a superhero role she could play. Entire press conferences exist to announce a suite of films that won’t be out for another 5 years, whole websites now rely almost entirely on this constant drip-feeding of new “information” to stay afloat, and this year we shall be getting a brand-new superhero movie, each a part of its own self-contained universe, every 2 months.
And my dad, who loudly grumbled about being forced to sit through a load of endless credits for a 30 second glimpse of something he didn’t understand in the slightest? He can’t get enough of them. Over the year leading up to both Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad, almost every instance spent with him would inevitably involve at least a passing conversation about both films – whether Ben Affleck will make a good Batman, if Jared Leto will be a good fit for The Joker, questioning how Batman could even hope to fight Superman, and so on. He was there opening weekend for Suicide Squad, saw Batman v. Superman despite the dire word-of-mouth, loved Deadpool, kept up with Captain America: Civil War. The man who initially only came to see Iron Man 2 with myself and my brother because we promised him some Samuel L. Jackson in it, is now a full-on convert to the superhero movie.
In 2016, the superhero movie has won. It has taken over and consumed mainstream culture whole.
And I am fucking sick of it.
Those of you who recall The Grimsby Pledge that I mentioned in the last article will remember that I mentioned seeing 4 films that I despised worse than Grimsby last year. Yet, when you include the films in #3 and #2, I have now listed 7. To be clear, the only films listed in that slot up there that destroyed my soul worse than Grimsby managed to were Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad. X-Men: Apocalypse is not as bad as those (but is still pretty goddamn dire), Batman: The Killing Joke is not as bad as those (although carries many of the same problems that plague both films), and Captain America: Civil War is absolutely nowhere near as bad as either of those, but I have lumped them all together in one entry to make a point. 2016 is the year that I lost almost all interest, excitement, and investment in the superhero movie, because it’s the year that the genre stopped respecting me as a viewer.
Why do we care about superheroes? I recognise that I run the risk of sounding Film Crit Hulk-y by posing this question, but it’s one that needs asking for this article to work. So, why do we care about superheroes? After all, in theory, or at least in the way that they are presented on screen in movies today, they are rather fascistic – all-powerful figures whom we entrust with our safety and allow to operate with few safeguards or restrictions, whose moral compasses are deemed always absolute and whom we revere in ways that resemble gods. The flipside of that coin, of course, is that they can be hopeful and idealistic. We can see the purity of justice and lawful power that often gets distorted, corrupted, and abused in real life play out on the panels of a comic book or the celluloid frames of a film. We can be presented with powerful, loaded images that can mean so much to those oppressed in some way in real life – like a Muslim Pakistani-American superheroine in a time of widespread Islamophobia, or a Black superhero who is impervious to bullets in a time where it’s more of a newsworthy event if a month goes by without footage of a police officer shooting an unarmed black man going viral.
When you attach those to the sorts of storytelling structures and style taken from soap-operas – tales theoretically designed to run forever, where the characters grow and develop along with the viewer, becoming parts of their lives and connecting on a deep personal level as a result – then you get an idea of the ideal of what superhero stories are capable of. They can provide escapism from the miseries of the real world with idealised depictions of what humanity is capable of at its best, where good can triumph over evil, where those lacking representation or respect in the real world can see themselves in these characters and these stories, and where we can become so invested in these complex characters that we, for at least an instant, forget that none of this matters and that nothing major is going to change outside of pre-announced instances.
Of course, we need to be willing to buy into this whole artifice in order for us to be able to get anything out of it. We need to accept certain things inherent in the genre to truly enjoy it. We need to accept that, even when our superheroes work hand in hand with other forms of law enforcement or fight similarly superpowered-beings instead of rent-a-thugs, that there is something more than a little insidiously fascistic about superheroes as a concept, and we need to accept that the infrastructure of comics (and now comic-book movies) are so large and unwieldy and tightly-controlled that little of any major consequence or shocks are going to happen in most of these stories, because the system is not in place to support that. At this point, although they are capable of telling great stories, crafting memorable characters, and even occasionally tackling heavy and politically-relevant themes in mature ways, a lot of us are willing to accept comics and, far more specifically (since it’s the area I have better knowledge of), comic book movies as comfort food – things we enjoy because it’s nice to spend time in this world with these characters for a feeling that is still unmatched in the rest of the Film world.
That’s what the Marvel Cinematic Universe has mostly morphed into post-The Avengers. Every now and then, it’s taken a slight risk creatively or thematically – leaving Iron Man 3 pretty much entirely in Shane Black’s hands to make a Shane Black movie, making Captain America: The Winter Soldier a politically-timely conspiracy thriller that threatened to blow up the entire MCU as we knew it – but mostly, it’s settled into pumping out The Marvel Movie. There’ll be the occasional quirks or stylistic distinctions, but mostly these films feel the same, look the same, have the same narrative pacing, the same emotional beats, the same blow-out CGI finale… And here’s the thing, I am mostly fine with that. I really liked Doctor Strange, Ant-Man was mostly very good, and I really do believe that The Grand Marvel Experiment has created something that no other Hollywood franchise has managed or will ever manage to: this feeling of a living, breathing, interconnected, and deeply-woven universe that exists far beyond the times we spend in it. I shed tears for Peggy Carter’s off-screen death in Civil War despite her having only appeared substantially in one film because, even with that relatively miniscule screen time, she was that well-drawn, left that much of an impression, and meant so much to other characters in this universe that I felt a sense of loss when she finally succumbed to Alzheimer’s.
That’s what the Marvel Cinematic Universe is capable of doing if you are able to buy in, which sounds like giving it a pass with the age-old lame-ass excuse of “turn off your brain,” but the sensation that one gets from it is so unique and unparalleled that I honestly don’t care. I named the airport fight in Civil War one of the 20 best scenes of last year for exactly this reason. But a relationship is a two-way street, one person shouldn’t have to put in all the effort to make it work, they need to be met halfway. If we, the viewers, are supposed to buy into and accept the fact that none of this really matters and that nothing major or lasting or surprising is going to happen in any of these movies – the Marvel hype machine, in particular, being run with more ruthless uncaring efficiency than a videogame developer at crunch time – then they, Marvel, should respect our intelligence and not blatantly rub our noses in that fact whilst expecting us to grovel for more.
Civil War marks the third time in five movies, or fourth time in seven movies if you also count Tony’s “retirement” in Iron Man 3, where the film ends with the proclamation that “THINGS WILL NEVER BE THE SAME AGAIN!” and it’s getting harder and harder to believe the series when it says that. For example, when S.H.I.E.L.D. was shut down at the end of Winter Soldier, depriving most of The Avengers of their funding and authority, did you notice any significant change in how Age of Ultron went down? Of course you didn’t, because Tony Stark stepped in and funded everything personally. When most of the old Avengers scattered to the wind at the end of Ultron, where characters like Hawkeye retired and Tony Stark left yet again, did you notice any massive change in how Civil War or Ant-Man went down? No, you didn’t, because Civil War brought most of them back anyway, even if there’s no real reason for Ant-Man to risk prison and never seeing his daughter again, otherwise known as his entire motivation in Ant-Man.
Essentially, whenever a Marvel film tries to pretend that it’s being something that it’s not, that’s when I lose patience with this whole endeavour. These films are not paragons of progressive virtue, not one of their films so far has been headlined by anybody other than a White man, so when Ant-Man ends with the promise of Hope van Dyne finally getting to suit up as The Wasp and join the fray with a self-referencing self-mythologizing “it’s about damn time,” I feel insulted, like I’m supposed to cheer for Marvel doing the bare minimum (and even then not really). When Ultron or Civil War ends with yet another cry of “NOTHING WILL EVER BE THE SAME AGAIN!” I feel insulted, because I understand basic pattern recognition and know that such a claim is more hot bullshit. When Civil War starts trying to debate the ethics of superheroism, I roll my eyes because I know that, by the hour mark at the latest, it’s going to forget about all of that entirely because less than half of these film post-Avengers have really been about anything other than their own continued existences.
I don’t ask for much when I sit down to watch Marvel movies. All I ask is for a compelling story about a cast of characters I enjoy being in the company of, who grow and change from where the film started to when it ends, for that growth to carry over between films, and to not be openly insulted over the fact that I’m still willing to give a little leniency to even those most basic of requests. Yet, that’s exactly what Civil War does in its final 10 minutes. Rather than ending on the image of Cap dropping his shield and walking away in disgust, therefore at least keeping up the veneer of these events potentially mattering in some way, the film instead has Cap send Tony a letter telling him that, despite how broken their friendship is right now, they’ll become best buds again in time and Tony can always call him. It is literally the equivalent of Marvel Studios head honcho Kevin Feige walking on screen to inform the viewers that they just wasted 2-and-a-half-hours of their lives because everything they just saw was completely meaningless, but join us again in a year cos Spider-Man: Homecoming is gonna be totally sweet, yo!
There’s a fundamental dishonesty in the superhero movie in 2016, effectively, but addressing that dishonesty honestly in the text itself ends up being just as repellent. This is where we reach Batman v. Superman. At the time of my review, I called it “the superhero movie that we deserve” and I think it’s one of the best observations I made all year, especially given the films that followed it. Almost every single superhero film in this recent boom has tried to situate itself in reality, in a world like our own, despite the world of superheroes being inherently outsized and escapist. Whether it be in tone, whether it be in occasional feints towards acknowledging the uncomfortable undertones in our obsession with superheroes, whether it be in our need to have iron-clad explanations for every goddamn thing lest our suspension of disbelief be somehow shaken, or whether it just be replacing the colourful ridiculous X-Men costumes of the comics with ones that were rejected from a Matrix cosplay contest for being too lazy, we apparently desire our superheroes to be “real.” This rarely manifests in “realness” of actual substance, like, say, with complex characters, but instead through, well, films like Batman v. Superman.
Batman v. Superman is a horrifying, depressing, soul-destroying, miserable fucking slog of a movie and I hate its guts. Its story is stupid, its characters are horrible, its tone is relentlessly grim in the most immature of ways, its visual design is uninspired, its attempts at world-building are legitimately laughable, its rampant distracting product placement would make even Sony Pictures take pause, and its casual misogyny is disturbing. I hate every part of this awful fucking movie. But it does have one thing going for it over Civil War: it’s honest. As my friend pointed out, although I’m probably missing their actual point with how I’m applying it here, Batman v. Superman is probably the most honest modern superhero movie ever made. It calls attention to the fascistic undertones, it calls out the issues of moral relativism, it demonstrates the awkwardness of trying to build a wider world at the expense of the story being told, it utilises its awful ending to basically call out the complete lack of sustained consequences in these films, it utilises its miserable tone as an example of how most of these films still have not moved past The Dark Age of Comics for their tone and inspiration… For all its flaws, and my God there are many, BvS is at least frank and honest about the kind of movie it is supposed to be.
But what I hate most about Batman v. Superman’s honesty is how juvenile it is about it. This isn’t the kind of film that tackles what’s wrong with its genre to offer up critique or decides to utilise that honesty as a way to display some kind of betterment. No, this is a film that decides that being honest gives it free rein to light everything on fire and stomp around in the filth like a teenager. Rather than offering any kind of solutions to the genre’s inherent problems, it decides that it would rather burn everything to the ground by making The Superhero Movie, a one-size-fits-all encapsulation of all of the genre’s flaws and worst excesses because fuck trying to better things, right? There’s a pithy nihilism to proceedings, the same kind you find in people who voted for Trump or Brexit just to see what would happen and, God, I didn’t think other people would actually go for it(!) After all, people are going to turn up to this shit no matter what, so why try harder?
Speaking of refusing to try harder: Suicide Squad, the worst film I saw this year. Batman v. Superman at least had ambition, it wanted to be The Superhero Movie and to be honest about that whole genre and process. Suicide Squad doesn’t even have that level of petulant nihilistic ambition in its bones. It’s a film that exists solely because Warner Bros. panicked over Man of Steel being soul-crushing garbage, saw the writing on the wall with Batman v. Superman, and were hoping that throwing something, anything, up on screen would end up sticking and providing them with a solid enough base to build this DC Cinematic Universe on. This is reflected in the film itself, which is completely pointless, makes no sense, and is ugly in this disturbingly authorless and generic way. It’s openly contemptuous of any audience members who would pay money to sit down and watch it, refusing to serve up a film so much as it does a 2-hour trailer that provides Exhibits A through Z of why lionising and reaching into 90s comic books for your visual and tonal iconography is a fucking terrible idea.
That, of course, will only come as a surprise to those who hadn’t already seen Batman: The Killing Joke, a 40-minute animated adaptation of the once-legendary and now-VASTLY-OVERRATED one-shot of the same name, that was inexplicably paired with a 30-minute Batgirl-focussed prologue so dire and so campy (despite the relentlessly desperately grimly self-serious tone) that it caused bursts of unintended laughter in the Batman-devoted fanbase at my screening. The prologue has already gone down in infamy for being so pointless and only making an already misogynistic story even more misogynistic, but harping solely on that distracts from the more pertinent question: why did we need an animated version of The Killing Joke? Why now, in 2016? The whole novelty of it originally was that it was a grim, semi-realist, deconstructionist take on the Batman mythos; nowadays, we have so many of those that The LEGO Batman Movie is deliberately aiming to be a much-needed corrective to that. So why does this exist? Did we really need to hear Mark Hamill grumbling out those lines in his Joker voice one last time? Was that really worth all of the money and effort?
Oh, yeah, and X-Men: Apocalypse also came out last year. I watched that with a friend and we both felt the seasons change outside the cinema screen as the film dragged on and on. I’m not going to dignify it with a long-winded explanation as to why it’s here. The X-Men films have been good exactly twice, Fox clearly has no actual plan for this series beyond keeping the rights away from Marvel, much like Suicide Squad this film has no second act and no point to it, and watching it was akin to being forced to watch a narcoleptic grandparent with arthritis put together a puzzle consisting of 5 pieces over the course of nearly 2-and-a-half-hours. You forgot this came out, nobody cares about this thing, I just lobbed it in here to prove an overall point.
That point being: superhero movies, right now, are obligations that I actively dread, when they were just recently celebratory events that I relished. They’ve become about nothing more than themselves, their own existences, their own brand, and almost all of them that I saw this year were less “stories with characters and themes” and more “studio executives shuffling pieces on a board to ensure that the next 3 of these can happen.” Worst of all, they are rubbing our faces in this fact. Civil War whiffed it completely at the finish line, Batman v. Superman threw a $250 million 2-and-a-half-hour strop, Suicide Squad correctly assumed that people would turn up to any old empty trash so long as it was marketed heavily enough, Batman: The Killing Joke existed for no reason other than somebody at Warner Bros. realising that they hadn’t made a Killing Joke movie yet, and X-Men: Apocalypse… Christ, I can’t even remember a single goddamn thing about X-Men: Apocalypse, why does that film even exist, again?
It’s gotten to the point that I have had to lower my expectations and requirements below the floor to get sufficiently positive about any of these new movies. Doctor Strange was literally just Marvel remaking Iron Man again but with added mysticism and a stoner art major’s first semester coursework, but it was also the first Marvel film since Guardians of the Galaxy to feature both strong consistent character work and a complete lack of self-importance or open brand-tinkering, so I was able to fully enjoy it in spite of the usual Marvel problems. Deadpool was just OK, and subscribed to the Shrek school of parody – “If we stop every 5 minutes to call attention to how dumb and played out this bog-standard superhero origin story movie is, then that gives us carte blanche to play it straight the rest of the time!” – but at least it told a story with characters, had a reason to exist, and wasn’t so joylessly fucking grim!
Again, I don’t want to be That Guy. You know, That Guy who keeps whining about superhero movies as artless and propagating the myth that there’s some kind of superhero bubble that’s gonna burst any day now. I really don’t. But the fact is that these past 366 days at the cinema broke my enjoyment and excitement for superhero movies. The magic is gone, the thrill is gone, the illusion has been shattered, and I’m now seeing that the Emperor has no clothes. These films need to get better, they need to be about something again, they need to have some kind of a surprise factor, and they need to at least put up the veneer of their stories and events having consequences. They need to stop taking audiences for granted and treating us like gullible rubes who will eat up any old shit and not care one bit that we are being insulted to our very faces.
I fear that this is asking too much, that the problem is too systemic and deeply-rooted for anybody to address or even realise until it is far too late. All I know is that I greeted Marvel’s “surprise” announcement of casting Brie Larson as Captain Marvel with a heavy sigh. Even their attempts at “surprises” mean nothing anymore.