by Jack Kentala
2011: I finished the picture edit for my second feature film (with a sound overhaul in its late stages for an early ’12 release); wrote a very long book; started prepping my third feature; seriously considered getting a dog and/or getting engaged; and I saw none of the movies that has caused nationwide critics to cream their pants.
I take a bit of that last part back. It’s rather thrilling to see The Tree of Life tentatively making the top of giant amalgamating Best-Of polls, and it’s a huge victory for director Terrence Malick, who has started a late-career Renaissance that will probably kill him. (I “reviewed” this fine film and own it. I’ve watched the universe-creation sequence roughly fourteen times. No comment on how many of those times I may or may not have cried.)
And now I’m slowly remembering my point: I didn’t see enough awards’ bait to feel like I can make any sort of definitive statement on 2011 as a whole. I didn’t like Drive nearly as much as everyone else. I refuse to see The Artist (and don’t get me started). Hugo gave me my first 3D headache. Shame is playing two states away. I’ve got Tabloid and Margin Call in my Netflix stack (right underneath a disc of Justice League Unlimited cartoons). I’d rather spend the ticket price on an actual racetrack bet than see War Horse.
I did, though, see a fair amount of middling fare, like the unreasonably-enjoyable Fast Five, the oh-god-they’re-probably-going-to-turn-this-into-a-franchise Battle: Los Angeles, and director Zack Snyder lost all his cred with his better-than-it-deserved Watchmen adaptation with the fetish flop Sucker Punch.
I also saw pretty much every superhero film released and, these days, that’s no small feat. So in keeping with the time-honored tradition of making pointless lists at calendar year-end, here are the three worst superhero films from 2011.
Captain America: The First Avenger
Let’s get the title out of the way. I’m sure the studio marketing hit squad pulled their hair out over this one. Sure, anyone with a passing knowledge of Marvel’s stable of superheroes knows Captain America (especially after his much-publicized comic-book death). But given that Captain America: The First Avenger is set back in that quaint time of the 40s, Marvel must’ve thought we’re all too stupid to see the fast-incoming Avengers films (set in the present day), so they tacked on “The First Avenger” so we mouthbreathers wouldn’t get too confused between scenes of horrid CGI and Hugo Weaving’s ghastly German faux-accent. (In his defense, he was probably having fun while getting paid.)
A lot of my problems with the film (which are also problems within the film itself) have to do with the framing narrative. It’s World War II. The US is at war with Germany. There’s a reason why so many videogames go back to this era: It was arguably the last time our nation faced off against an adversary that could be considered unredeemably “evil.” It was also a halcyon era sandblasted by the idea of an America owned by middle-class whites, and just off every Main Street there were pies gently cooling on windowsills and pretty girls who’d get “serious” by holding hands.
We all know it’s total fucking bullshit, though, but Captain America’s world is that fantasy world. All the more fantastic because the titular Captain, in his European scrapes, only fights a weird branch of the German Army that spouts lame, just-off-the-mark chants of “Hail HYDRA!” and gear up for war wearing big masks. The latter lets our heroes murder as many HYDRA drones as possible without that pesky PG-13 rating climbing up into the R realm. It’s one of those MPAA tricks: You can murder as many people you want as long as it’s historical (Saving Private Ryan) or you can’t see their human faces (here), but if you say FUCK more than twice, it’s an R for you, sir. (And never mind that Captain America is nowhere near an R-rating. Just saying.)
There’s also the typical Superhero Movie problem in that the Captain America mythology is so huge it has to include some of the bare bones of his band of hooligans. They barely get any screen time beyond Howard Stark (e.g. Iron Man’s dad) and the Captain’s gee-gosh love interest, the criminally-underused Hayley Atwell. (See AMC’s pretty-good miniseries remake of The Prisoner to see her do more than give teenage boys boners.)
So Captain America is dragged down by the central tenets of the genre, though it’s certainly not the first to befall its fate. Simply put, the running time can’t cram in the Captain’s origin story, a love interest, hooks into The Avengers (other than in the title), and any substantial fear wielded one of the worst villains in 2011: Hugo Weaving as a Voldemort lookalike, both missing their noses, though Weaving’s Red Skull is, yep, bright red.
And I didn’t even get around to the creepy-as-fuck scrawny version of Chris Evans, who looks like he desperately needs to find the visual effects supervisor for Benjamin Button. At least Evans won’t need to play a weakling for the planned 2014 sequel.
Hal Jordan, hero of Green Lantern, is given a ring of power by a dying pink fish-man. He plays the reluctant hero and becomes part of the weird-alien collective called the Green Lantern Corps. And with his ring, using sheer willpower and imagination, he can create any solid object. Well, as long as it’s bright green.
So during the first public need for using his power, Jordan is faced with a helicopter about to crash. With his ring, it’s obvious he can easily save it. He could make a giant pillow for it to land on. Or rebuild the broken parts of the helicopter with juicy green energy. Or, hell, do it like the goddamn cartoons and encase it in a giant stasis field and slowly bring it down to land.
But what does Jordan do? He turns the rest of the helicopter into a Formula-1-style racecar and builds a winding track for it to drive on and slow down.
This is what we’re dealing with.
A college friend was big into comics, and he and I saw Batman Begins the day it came out. He was blown away by the film which, while far from perfect, wasn’t as shit as the other Batmans before. Through him I learned a passing knowledge of comics and, like all comic nerds, he always argued that a Green Lantern Corps ring is inherently overpowered. I actually remember getting a rather long treatise on the Justice League and how Hal Jordan is considered to be the greatest Lantern in the Corps.
I’m really glad I wasn’t with him when he saw Green Lantern.
Maybe I’ve just been spoiled by the fantastic casting of the original Iron Man. Robert Downey, Jr. was already Tony Stark. Ryan Reynolds is still best known as Van Wilder and Scarlett Johansson’s leftovers (good thing the Marvel Avengers and DC Justice League stay separate lest there be some awkwardness between Reynolds’ Jordan and Johansson’s Black Widow). He’s not a strong actor, and while his reluctant-hero shtick works, he doesn’t have the necessary gravitas to step into the role of a badass whose power comes from a ring that looks like it was made from melted-down Ring Pops.
Also, I may have spoken too soon when dissing Weaving’s Red Skull as the most laughable villain, since Peter Sarsgaard’s elephant-man Asperger’s-syndrome-suffering troglodyte might beat out silly red makeup.
What’s interesting about Green Lantern, though, is that the studio and DC Comics aren’t pushing for a Justice League movie yet, so we’ll have to suffer through Green Lantern 2 first.
(Note for all three of you interested: Granted, Marvel had a big lead on its superhero-ass-kicking-ensemble with two Iron Man films, Thor, Captain America, an appearance by Black Widow in Iron Man 2 [though neither Ang Lee's Hulk or the Ed Norton-starring The Incredible Hulk will use that Hulk], but DC seems to be having a tricky time assembling their Justice League. While it’s confirmed that there won’t be standalone films for Avengers Black Widow, Hawkeye, and Hulk, only Green Lantern has a “canon” Justice League movie with the other six either in the making or being rebooted. What’s somewhat sad is that after the will-probably-be-very-good-but-not-brilliant The Dark Knight Rises, there will be another Batman that has nothing to do with Chris Nolan’s Batmans, since this rebooted Batman will serve on the League. Zack Snyder is already on damage control, erasing all memories of Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns with the upcoming Man of Steel. If DC goes the route of Marvel and only makes three standalone films before venturing into an orgy of superheroes, there still has to be a sensical way to exhibit the “classic” Justice League lineup of Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, Flash, Aquaman, Wonder Woman, and the Martian Manhunter without confusing filmgoers insofar as to dry up the box office. In other words: There will be a lot of probably-shitty superhero movies coming out for the next foreseeable, uh, decade.)
Look up the plot synopsis of Thor if you haven’t seen it or want to spoil it or just want to follow along with the few zingers I have left because, my dear Dincanauts, you do realize it’s almost Christmas, right? This writer has to make dog-treat cookies for my favorite canines without typing my fingers off.
Why Thor gets the backhanded compliment of being the least-worst of this honorable three is because, despite unwisely splitting its narrative between fantastical Asgard and boring-as-fuck New Mexico, the film is loaded with brownie points. First being that the early parts of Thor work splendidly as a fish-out-of-water tale, with godly Thor crashing down to Earth and, despite speaking remarkable English, doesn’t quite figure that things don’t work the way here than in Asgard. It speaks enough that I can remember a scene where Thor downs a cup of coffee at a diner, breaks his mug on the table, and shouts for more, confused why everyone else is confused because it’s apparent common in Asgard to smash your drinking object when finished. And I saw this movie back in May whereas the rest were DVD viewings within the last two months.
Thor’s crippling identity crisis stems for aforementioned narrative splitting. We have Asgard and its Shakespearean betrayal (which is probably the exact phrasing they used to attract director Kenneth Branaugh and actor Anthony Hopkins), all rendered in vivid color and crazy CGI. But then Thor quite literally crashes to Earth; and not just Earth but New Mexico, which is where all of America’s unwanted sand goes. I’m sure the disconnect was intentional, but it simply does not work, especially when the Earth story was far more compelling than the boring power struggle in Asgard; it’s like we, the viewer, are being punished for wanting to see candycane Asgard but only in very, very boring scenes, while all the interesting stuff is happening on Earth.
Thor also suffers from having too much talent that all seem like they’re slumming it for a paycheck. Natalie Portman is just shy of being too hot for portraying an astrophysicist, but she could pick better projects coming off her Black Swan Oscar win. (Never mind Portman’s appearance in the lame stoner fantasy Your Highness.) And while Chris Hemsworth effortlessly charms, the story lazily has Portman going all dreamy-eyed for Thor without reason. Stellan Skarsgard kind of flits around, since he doesn’t have breasts or big muscles. The Wire’s Idris Elba must be the first black guy after Asgard relaxed its Jim Crow laws or started equal-opportunity employment for dudes guarding a big galactic wormhole gate thing. Kat Dennings continues her career-long role as a semi-apathetic smartass who gets most of the one-liners (regardless of whether or not they’re funny).
There’s a common thread here: None of these films – and pretty much every superhero or action film released within the last decade – seem particularly-fulfilling because we know there’s something on the horizon. In the past it’s been a sequel, but now we have these unwieldy superhero-posse affairs threatening to consume the brains of our male youths. There’s already a trailer for The Avengers, despite Marvel confirming Captain America 2, Thor 2, and Iron Man 3 (the latter of which director Jon Favreau is as confused about as am I, because what the fuck can Stark do without his Avenging buddies?). So logic also follows that, at some point in production, someone had a great idea for the film but, nope, we need fodder for the sequel. It’s like climbing the hill of a rollercoaster only to find that there’s no big drop at all; just a low-speed, no-thrill ride through pretty scenery.