Nov 20, 2017

2017 Was Great for Comic Book Movies

At the start of the year, on my Facebook, I made a list of 2017's Comic Book Movies and the order in which I wanted to see them. I thought it'd be fun to look back on that list and see how the year ended up actually placing them.

So let's call this...

The Year in Comic Book Movies
by Duy

So before we start on this, I just want to point out that there are three criteria for a comic book movie to make this list:

  1. It has to be live-action. This is mainly because I missed (and still have not watched) the Lego Batman movie at the start of the year. And comparing animation to live action is just an apples and oranges comparison anyway.
  2. It has to be a US release and it has to be in English. Because Blade of the Immortal as far as I know never made it here, and it wouldn't be an apples to apples comparison either.
  3. It has to not be the Kingsman. I don't even like Mark Millar's comics, so why would I watch his movies? I'm not doing that to myself, c'mon. And you shouldn't watch anything you don't feel like watching out of a feeling of obligation either.
Now, the list as I saw it in February 2017, and what I said back then:
  1. Justice League. I'll probably see it, but the fact that I'm using the word "probably" to qualify my seeing a movie featuring what was once my favorite superhero team just shows how much I've hated everything Zack Snyder has ever done.
  2. Logan. I've never loved the X-Men movies, but I've always been entertained by them. Hugh Jackman as Wolverine isn't on my list of ideal casting choices, but this is his last, and I will miss him.
  3. Ghost in the Shell. Because the premise and visuals of the original property have always appealed to me.
  4. Guardians of the Galaxy 2. The first movie was fun as hell and this looks like it's gonna be a good time.
  5. Spider-man Homecoming. Spider-Man is my favorite character, but the high school version of him is not my favorite version. Plus Andrew Garfield basically nailed my ideal version of Spider-Man.
  6. Wonder Woman. I think the casting is perfect and she's by far my favorite icon who hasn't yet had her own movie who doesn't have a lightning bolt on a red shirt. Cautious because it's a DC movie.
  7. Thor: Ragnarok. The perfect combination of character, source material (looking more and more like it'll take from Walt Simonson's run), and content that I just really want to see on the big screen.
So now, how'd it all go? 

SPOILERS FOLLOW

#7: GHOST IN THE SHELL



Overall it's been a good year for comic book movies, especially for me. I didn't really like the way they did adaptations until the first Thor hit in 2011, and since then it's been a constant raising of the bar. This year, I enjoyed every movie that came from the Marvel, DC, and X-Men franchises, which means that the only comic book movie I hated this year was Ghost in the Shell.

Unlike most criticisms of Ghost in the Shell, I was not opposed to the casting of Scarlett Johannson as Major Motoko Kusanagi. Yes, I am well aware of the racial implications, but as I've mentioned before, either ScarJo was the Major or the movie wasn't getting made. And in this industry dominated by male protagonists, I was okay with that compromise if it meant getting this brand of Japanese culture out there in the world. (I also thought about if a Filipino property like Darna were to get made, if I would be fine with a racebend for the main character. Ultimately, I'd like the movie to get made than not.)

No, where Ghost in the Shell loses me is the fact that the first act of this movie is beautiful. The setting, this big sci-fi vision of Japan by way of America, was gorgeous. The fight scenes were crazy good. The premise of Ghost in the Shell has always been interesting, the idea that you could transfer your consciousness to another body. It's a fascinating starting point for thinking about what makes us who we are. 

And then the movie decided to focus on that. Slowly, and excruciatingly, for the next two acts. At one point, the Major, who has up to that point been a sad, morose individual, meets her human Japanese mother, who tells her that she reminds her of her dead daughter, who was full of life. And how? How does this morose Caucasian woman remind you of your energetic and lively Japanese daughter? 

By the time the final act rolled around, everything that made the movie promising to begin with was gone. The set was gone, any connection to the characters was gone after a painful-to-sit-through second act, and even the coolness of the fight scenes were gone. The final fight, lifted straight out of the anime, involved the Major fighting a giant spider tank, which was so ridiculously executed, complete with a hamfisted villain taking control and narrating the action for the audience to follow.

Here's the thing. It's a movie based on a manga, meaning it's being graded on a curve because its failure says to executives, we need less stuff based on manga. It's a movie with a female lead, meaning it's being graded on a curve because its failure says to executives, we need less stuff with female protagonists. And it's a movie that whitewashed the main character, and the only time that ever gets forgiven is if the movie is good enough to justify the final result. I think Ghost in the Shell could have opened so many doors if it had succeeded. It didn't, and that 110 million dollar budget could have gone to, oh, you know, a Black Widow movie instead that people have demanded for years.



#6: SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING




There is nothing wrong with Spider-Man: Homecoming. I repeat: there is nothing wrong with Spider-Man: Homecoming. It's a perfectly good movie that does exactly what it set out to do: establish that Spider-Man is in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and he's a rookie. It's great. It's a good movie.

It's also kinda just there, for me. This may be the movie I'm the most fanboyish about, but I don't like Spider-Man as a rookie, I don't like Spider-Man as a protege to anyone, and I don't even particularly like him as an Avenger.  It doesn't really help that I feel that the movie should have been a Miles Morales movie, and that it kickstarted the most complicated debate I had with myself about diversity casting, and I'm still not sure where I land on it.

Again, the movie is perfectly fine. Tom Holland is the Ultimate Spider-Man. Michael Keaton's Vulture was incredibly compelling. And the plot twist is one that I never saw coming, and has to be the best plot twist of the year in my eyes (which worked extra well because of the diverse casting).

It's just not for me, at the end of the day. I wish Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone had been given this level of scriptwriting and production care. But they weren't. That ship's sailed. And ultimately, that's okay. I have decades worth of Spider-Man comics. The movies can belong to others.


#5: JUSTICE LEAGUE



Justice League moved up two spots, since it was a movie I was frankly not excited to see when the year started and ended up being a fun time in the theater. It's no secret I am not a fan of Zack Snyder or his vision for Superman, and I definitely don't even think Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice work as movies in a vacuum, as both are filled with non-compelling characters and an overabundance of logical flaws. I'm not going to bash either of them anymore. It's been years, and there's no point. There's also no point in debating what is or isn't "objectively good" unless you're talking to someone who's actually making these things, or unless you want to sound like a snob. People like what they like.

So, given that I absolutely hated Snyder's previous two DCEU offerings (and actually, anything Snyder's done that I've seen), Justice League is easily my favorite of his portfolio. Now a lot of that might actually be co-director Joss Whedon, who finished off the film and directed my favorite superhero movie of all time in The Avengers, but until it's specified exactly who did what, I won't even try to guess.

Justice League is an incredibly flawed movie, and it seems patched together and is the most derivative of all the movies on this list. The entire backstory is basically Lord of the Rings, right down to the verbiage (Amazons are Elves, in that they're beautiful warriors with crossbows; Atlanteans are dwarves in that they're rougher and fight with tridents/axes; and the race of man is the race of man, because we couldn't find another way to say this instead of "the race of man."). Even the character dynamics look like they're lifted out of other, similar movies, and the villain Steppenwolf is terrible. It doesn't really work within the established characterization and continuity of the DCEU either. Superman was incredibly violent in the first two movies, and when he wakes up, that's how he still is, but supposedly that's him being out of character. He's also spoken about as a beacon of hope, when of course nothing the previous two movies have shown us has demonstrated that. 

I'm fairly certain that the movie is banking on you having a pre-existing connection to these characters to truly be invested in it, and the main advantage DC has over Marvel is this: it's Superman and Batman. People do have a pre-existing connection to these characters, and when they start playing the classic John Williams and Danny Elfman themes, it's basically a callout to the audience saying "Remember us? We're doing these guys now." Forget how they were the previous two movies. Take what you know and love about Superman and Batman, and apply it to this movie. That's what it's saying. And when the one of them that has had a successful movie gets her theme song from her movie playing, instead of her theme song from her 1970s show, it's saying "Take the Wonder Woman we showed you earlier this year, the one the world fell in love with, and put her next to the Superman and Batman you remember."

So much of Justice League felt like a retcon of the Snyder movies, and that's what it had to be for it to move forward as a franchise. You have to make them likable, and while Henry Cavill's Superman isn't quite there yet (I have simultaneous hopes and doubts at the same time that he'll ever get there), it's a massive step up from what came before. I found the Flash more annoying than funny, but the use of his powers was entertaining. Batman, who could have easily overshadowed the entire team by virtue of being the biggest star and the biggest character, stepped back and made sure everyone got a bit of the spotlight, which is a good thing because as Iron Man has proven, you can create stars when your biggest star makes everyone look good. Wonder Woman was rightfully given a major spotlight, and if the rumors are true that they're going to restructure the Universe to make her the centerpiece, it'd be a good move. 

All in all, despite the derivativeness and the flaws and Henry Cavill's wooden, wooden delivery, it was a good time. I wouldn't watch it again in the theater, but I don't regret the money I paid to see it either, and it gives me hope for the future of this universe.

And Aquaman rocked.




#4: LOGAN


This is my favorite of this year's posters.

I've already talked about Logan at length here, and I won't repeat myself too much. But of all the movies on this list that I really want to see have an impact on the game, it's Logan. In this genre with a billion other subgenres, one thing is almost always constant: the big budget, larger than life tone. Logan proved you could do a toned down, lower-scale story within the genre and tug at the heartstrings. I would like to see more of that, preferably with characters like the Question or Catwoman.

Logan surprised me and shot up this list partly because I've always found the X-Men movies entertaining, but not great. I enjoyed them, but they never resonated with me, until this one. "Don't be what they made you" is a great mantra for life. 

And can we talk for a second about how incredible Dafne Keen is? The kid was nine when the movie was made. Nine! At nine years old I was still picking my teeth in public. Did we not have great child actors in my generation, or do Dafne and the Stranger Things kids just signify that kids are getting smarter quicker?

Also, bonus points for Logan for having the best How It Should Have Ended segment ever.



#3: WONDER WOMAN




Wonder Woman is the most important blockbuster movie of the year. Wonder Woman the character, from everything I've seen, and Gal Gadot owned the year. Wonder Woman is the most socially relevant movie of the year. I will say that. I won't dispute it. And I love the way she was portrayed in this movie. 

The three best superhero castings of all time are game-changers: Christopher Reeve for obvious reasons, Robert Downey Jr. for ushering in the Universe model, and Hugh Jackman for showing you can do this for 17 years. That's Tier 1. Others like Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, they're great, but they don't change the game. So they're Tier 2. If Gal Gadot kicks down the door for female protagonists, she's Tier 1, easily.

But I won't deny that a lot of the movie left me cold. There's too much Steve Trevor, and while Steve Trevor is a good character, there were times during the two times I saw the movie that I would have thought he was the main character. And Ares is just the worst villain ever. How hard could it have been to get the freaking god of war to look imposing and threatening? 

But the message is important, Wonder Woman is great, and her presence front and center in today's landscape is indicative of how far we've come and how far we have left to go. And she has my favorite superhero debut scene ever. And it's one of only three movies on this list I saw twice in the theater. So despite everything, this movie's number 3.

She was warned. She was given an explanation.
Nevertheless, she persisted.



#2...

And now it gets difficult to choose, because we're not talking about the single most fun time I've had in a theater in years (or maybe even ever) and a movie that I expected to be just fun and ended up making my robot heart feel more emotions than anything on this list. So this is a difficult choice. And it might change tomorrow or the next day. So what the hell, as it is today, let's go here:

#2: GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOLUME 2




Guardians 2 made me feel feelings, and it's not something I expected it to do. It balanced out the humor and the drama, and when Cat Stevens' "Father and Son" hit, it ended on the perfect note. The Gamora and Nebula storyline was poignant in and of itself, and that's before you consider that it's going to build up to Avengers: Infinity War. Drax was charming and hilarious, yet still not without his touching moments as a father figure to Mantis. The Starlord/Ego storyline was probably the weakest bit of the movie, and even that was still pretty good. And Yondu's funeral is just the most touching moment I've ever seen in any comic book movie. I just want to point out that it's the blue guy and the raccoon that makes me feel things. (And twice in the theater, too.)


So it's up there. It might be number 1 tomorrow. Who knows.




#1: THOR: RAGNAROK



This was number 1 on my list of anticipated movies, and it didn't disappoint. Thor is my favorite Marvel character next to Spider-Man, which makes him my favorite character in all of superhero movies. And while I can understand the fans who wanted a serious Thor movie, here's my take on it: we've had serious Thor movies. I'm happy with those and I want variety in the stuff I consume. I love Batman: the Animated Series, but I also love The Brave and the Bold. I loved the serious episodes of Justice League and I love the one where Circe turns Wonder Woman into a pig and Batman has to sing "Am I Blue?" in order to turn her back. I like having fun. I like serious stuff. I like the contrast. 

And Thor: Ragnarok had such a contrast. It's basically two movies in one, and it doesn't hurt that one half of the movie, the part that's on the Grandmaster's world of Sakaar, is so heavily influenced by Jack Kirby that it made me pick up my Fantastic Four Omnibus and start digging into classic Kirby. And it also doesn't hurt that the other half of the movie is so clearly influenced by Walter Simonson's run, to the point where he likened some of those scenes to having an out-of-body experience:



Look, as was advertised and as was obvious, Thor: Ragnarok is a comedy, so your enjoyment is going to be strictly based on how much you're willing to laugh and whether or not the humor aligns with yours. Thankfully, I was ready for both. We get too serious about these characters and we can laugh with them and at them every now and again.

Having said all that, while Sakaar was definitely funny, I never felt, not once, that Hela wasn't anything other than the greatest threat the Marvel Cinematic Universe has ever faced. You'll notice that Skurge was the comedic foil... up until Hela arrives, at which point Skurge stops saying anything funny or doing anything funny. If I had to cut out one joke in the entire movie, it would have been the Hulk falling on the bridge, because we didn't need a laugh at that moment. But both times I saw it, it also got the biggest reaction from the crowd, so what do I know? And the stories of personal growth remain intact and are compelling.

I personally love how incredibly dark the movie actually is under the surface. It reminds me of Alan Moore and Chris Sprouse's Tom Strong in that sense. Widely praised for being a "return to fun comics" with its light tone and humorous moments, Tom Strong is a story where the main character is raped twice, whole races are victims of genocide, and there may be some hints of incest in it.

It's the most quotable movie of the year too, from Korg ("I wanted to start a revolution, but I didn't print enough pamphlets, so no one showed up but my mom and her boyfriend. Who I hate.") to Loki ("I have been falling! For thirty minutes!"), I've been repeating lines since.

Thor fighting villains to Led Zeppelin's Immigrant Song? Twice? Brilliant. Can I just say how much I love this movement towards classic rock for the music of these things?

Thor: Ragnarok was the most fun experience I had in a movie theater since The Avengers. It's my favorite solo-billed superhero movie ever. We can laugh at this hobby. We don't have to be too serious about it. I wouldn't want this tone all the time, but for a one-off? It's great. I love it.

And while we're at it, let's talk about Thor being funny.

A classic story — arguably THE classic story — from Thor's early days is when he and Hercules fight, ripping the city apart all because Hercules was flirting with Jane.

There's no way to adapt that story to live action, straight-up, without being at least unintentionally funny. It's so over the top and ridiculous, but it works in a comic because the art style gives you that space and that dissonance to distance yourself from the ridiculousness of the premise. It would be so silly in live action.

Let's look at a few moments from classic eras of Thor and if you are against Thor being funny, please comment below how you would adapt these live action, without the audience laughing. Here's Thor after Jane tells him she loves him.


Here's Odin in his ridiculously uncomfortable-looking bathtub.


And here's Odin, Thor, and Loki, talking about what's most important to them.


So much of Thor is like that — so over the top and melodramatic (should I mention the time he lectured hippies on the merits and drawbacks of dropping out of high school?) — that you may as well own the exaggeration. You may as well own the comedy. There's nothing wrong with that, guys. We're allowed to have fun in this hobby. I love the Shakespeare stuff too, but when I read classic Thor comics, some stuff is just funny. That doesn't take away from the fact that it's awesome.




All in all, 2017 was a great year for comic book movies. if you didn't like one, there were others to enjoy. We're living in a golden age, friends. Let's bring 2018 on.

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