Superheroes are ubiquitous. Well, not in reality. Maybe for those stuck in a permanent trip, but for the rest of us we get our fill through the hordes of superhero flicks that hit the screens annually. This year, we’ve already endured Captain America, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and a few others that could fall under the super-umbrella (300: Rise of an Empire and Robocop). That’s not even considering the superhero films that are still to be released this year and those already slated for 2015 and beyond. As a result of this super saturation, many have questioned whether this now-huge niche in the film industry is a bubble that is about to burst. (Mark Harris brilliantly argued his case for Grantland in this article.) Harris’ case is compelling and could very well be true, but there is also a positive aspect of the growing bubble: (some) people are beginning to perfect the superhero flick.
Don’t misunderstand me; I included “some” for a reason. Not all superhero films are great, but it appears we are reaching a place where directors and producers actually learn from their mistakes and adapt. Unfortunately, there are still many disappointments. Most recently, viewers had to withstand the utter letdown of The Amazing Spider-Man 2. You’ll remember from a previous article that Marc Webb tragically backtracked and undid most of the forward strides he made in the first installment of the Spider-Man reboot. That movie alone shows that not everyone has quite figured out the ideal formula for a critically successful super-movie. However, other filmmakers have shown that even with such constrictions they can make an inventive and captivating work of art. This notion has been proven in the Thor series, the Iron Man series (save for 2), the Captain America series, and most of the X-Men installments.
Iron Man was the first film made under the then-newly formed Marvel Studios. The dichotomy of the pre and post Marvel Studios was palpably present in the Robert Downey Jr. led film. From the first scene, one could sense that things were going to be different. Obviously, exponentially growing technology made the film more aesthetically pleasing, but there was some other aspect that was not found in previous Marvel films: the movie was ballsy. Naturally, Tony Stark is going to evoke more promiscuous behavior than Peter Parker, but (smartly, in my opinion) Marvel Studios fostered the badass-attitude found in Iron Man and applied it to all future endeavors.
2011 was a monumental year for Marvel Studios. To kick off the annual summer movie extravaganza, Marvel released Thor. Though not completely unknown, Thor was a superhero whose name was not ubiquitous in popular culture prior to 2011. That fact helped make Thor a success. The movie started from scratch and filmmakers didn’t have to worry about what someone had done before them. As Teddy Roosevelt said, “Comparison is the thief of joy” (he was also a grade-A badass). Casting heartthrob-Chris Hemsworth as Thor and Natalie Portman as the strong female lead also played a huge role. Like Iron Man, Thor adequately carried an aura of “badassness” not seen since the likes of Hugh Jackman as the rough-and-tumble Wolverine. It seems a basic principle, making superheroes badass, but sometimes basics are lost in the shuffle and it takes getting back to them to improve. The second big moment in 2011 for Marvel was the release of Captain America: The First Avenger. Again, Marvel was entering virtually unchartered territory, constructing a patriotic hero despite sentiments flowing the opposite way. By casting Chris Evans, Marvel fulfilled their obligatory hunk position but demanded a sense of respect by casting Hugo Weaving as the enemy. Of course, these characters’ stories were crucial to the culmination that became Marvel’s The Avengers in 2012, which received essentially universal acclaim.
Possibly the epitome (at least in most people’s minds) of superherodom is the Dark Knight trilogy directed by Christopher Nolan and starring Christian Bale. The trilogy did not shy away from the dark nature of Batman’s world, but used it as a connection point for the audience. The Dark Knight (the highest rated of the trilogy) was released in 2008 amidst a great recession and tumultuous times for large financial institutions and iconic American businesses. For most Americans, times had never seemed darker or more desperate. The parallel between fiction and reality created a relatability not easily fostered. This – coupled with extremely high production value, great acting, and superb directing – created a series that will not soon be forgotten. But, while the superhero movies following The Dark Knight Rises may not have been as good, they have not all fallen flat.
Following a disappointing sequel, the Iron Man series found a winner in the third installment released last summer. The second installment in the Thor series was released last year, and while the reviews were not as positive as the first, it was good enough that one should have hope for the future of the franchise.
This year, Captain America: The Winter Soldier was released to an even warmer reception than its predecessor; a feat not often completed. But the biggest winner this year, so far (we have the zany Guardians of the Galaxy to look forward to), was X-Men: Days of Future Past.
This X-Men series is almost exhaustively-expansive. As of this writing, the series has been active for fourteen years – and there are already ruminations of another sequel. The first X-Men flick (of this series at least), aptly titled X-Men, was released in 2000 and was one of the first works that created the massive tsunami that is the superhero wave we have been riding for over a decade. Miraculously, the series began with a great cast and has kept it basically intact. This fact has played a role in the longevity of this series.
X-Men 2 came out in 2003 and, in most respects, was better than its predecessor. X-Men: The Last Stand was a subpar cap to the then-trilogy until it became more than a trilogy by inserting a prequel, X-Men Origins: The Wolverine, in 2009 – which, in a word, sucked. Somehow (smaller budget) the film actually seemed to regress in visual aesthetics, and with yet a different director the consistency vanished. The series, however, was saved with another prequel.
X-Men: First Class was released in 2011. Instead of highlighting the origins of one character, First Class smartly created a prequel that delved into the past of most of the main characters from the first few installments. The film employed the talents of Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence (pre-big time), and January Jones to reinforce its necessity as the fifth film in a super series. Next, Marvel Studios decided to try again with a Wolverine-centered film.
The Wolverine was released last year to considerably higher acclaim than Origins. This time around, Marvel found a veteran director (James Mangold, 3:10 to Yuma, Walk the Line) to intentionally make The Wolverine work as a standalone film, while sneakily fitting into the timeline if questioned. This was done through making the story a character piece, unlike any typical superhero flick, using an entirely novel aesthetic for the X-Men universe. But, Marvel couldn’t leave the saga like that. They had to connect the dots. Therein lies the reason behind Days of Future Past.
X-Men: Days of Future Past hit theaters some weeks back to remarkable ratings. To give an idea of how high, Rotten Tomatoes has Days of Future Past trailing The Dark Knight (the supposed magnum opus of superherodom!) by merely one percent. Naturally, I went to see what all the hype was about.
The first intelligent move for Days of Future Past was recruiting the director of X-Men and X2, Bryan Singer,to take the helm again. The other great aspect of the movie was that everybody was back. To name some of them: Hugh Jackman, Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender, Halle Berry, James McAvoy, Nichloas Hoult, Ellen Page, and… Peter Dinklage.
I’ll give a brief summary: It’s some decades into the future and the mutants are in dire straits. They are forsaken to some foreboding location where everything is black and light is scarce. It turns out that early in Mystique’s career as Mystique (that is, after she stopped going by Raven. Kind of like Saul becoming Paul, except the opposite), she set off some terrible chain reaction when she killed an obvious enemy of all mutants (Peter Dinklage) in the early 70s. It was her action that snowballed into the devastating circumstances mutants across the world face. In lieu of such knowledge, Professor X and Magneto decide they must go back in time in order to prevent the event from occurring. However, Professor X isn’t healthy enough to make the voyage, so the only rapidly self-healing mutant you know takes his place.
Writing this short blurb, the premise sounds ludicrous. But this is a superhero movie; logic is optional in most cases. Bryan Singer showed his full potential in this film. From the first shot, the imagery is breathtaking in its horror, delivering precisely the emotion to sell the scene and set the tone. Throughout the film Singer was able to speak volumes through his shots, supplementing actors’ actions and evoking emotions ranging from despair to hilarity. As one might expect, the cast fully delivered as well, creating believable scenes (as believable as you can get for a sci-fi flick), and developing characters.
Overall, the masterful storyline – tying up loose ends and incorporating past scenes while using a comic-driven plot – made X-Men: Days of Future Past extremely good entertainment. The approach was precise and all the players delivered. So, we could very well be reaching the superhero threshold, but if movies like this are being made, I’m in.
Brent Glass is a Michigander who graduated from Eureka College in May of 2013. He spent time at the Sagamore Institute in Indianapolis, IN (a non-partisan think tank) where he worked on political economy pieces for Detroit, MI and Elkhart, IN. Additionally, he spent the summer of 2012 at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, CA, working on social media management. Currently he is working full-time as a Management Assistant. He plans to further his education in the fall of 2014 at Wayne State University in pursuit of a Ph.D. in Urban Development.