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The superhero genre groundwork was laid by the Superman and Batman franchises, improved by Blade, and received its first fully formed incarnation with 2000’s X-Men. The subsequent 19 years delivered a further eleven films, ranging from the highs of X-2 and Logan to the lows of X-Men Origins: Wolverine. X-Men: Dark Phoenix is, sad to say, another low. There are many familiar features, from visual renderings of telepathy to energy blasts from eyes, but there is little that’s new or interesting. Writer-director Steven Kinberg displays little flair or innovation, making the viewer pine for the stylistics of Bryan Singer (controversy notwithstanding) or Matthew Vaughn. Action set pieces on a space shuttle and aboard a train pale in comparison to earlier entries in the franchise as well as those in Marvel Studios’ output. That said, Kinberg does manage to evoke a sense of atmosphere, fitting for the steady and dangerous increase of power in Jean Grey (Sophie Turner). At their heart, superhero films are always about power and its appropriate use, and Dark Phoenix does continue this conceit in relation to Jean, and also Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), but without any significant depth. Indeed, much of the early part of the film is fairly bland, despite potentially shocking moments, though it does pick up slightly when Erik Lensherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender) appears. Despite the best efforts of the cast, and a prominence of female characters, the strongest element of the film is the score, with Hans Zimmer at his most Hans Zimmer. Crashing synths and booming Braaaaaaahms abound, adding to the atmosphere even if the end result is somewhat hollow. As a chapter in the franchise, Dark Phoenix feels conclusive, and it is a damp squib for this long running series to go out on. But then again, you can never keep a good (or bad) mutant down.
Some are born powerful (Wonder Woman), some achieve power (Batman), others have power thrust upon them. Such is the case with foster child Billy Batson (Asher Angel), blessed with superpowers by a mysterious wizard (Djimon Hounsou) by virtue of his, well, virtues. Curiously, much of Shazam! actively avoids these virtues, as Billy shows the zero responsibility that comes from his great powers. Super powers have been linked to growing pains and puberty before, especially with Spider-Man, but with Shazam! this becomes literal, the film quirkily merging superpowered antics with the out-of-body humour of Big. It proves a pleasant addition to the DCEU, as director David F. Sandberg and star Zachary Levi bring levity and humour to the film, that are generally lacking in the largely grim franchise. Some of this humour consists of lightly mocking the other films, as Wonder Woman, Batman, Aquaman and Superman merchandise appear and references are made to the events of other films in the series. Many of these jokes find their mark, as Shazam! is frequently very funny, as Billy/Shazam along with friend Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer) experiment with superpowers as well as super names, investigate lairs and struggle to keep everything a secret. Once villain Dr Sivana (Mark Strong) comes on the scene, Billy must step up to the ‘hero’ part of superhero, and again the film is acutely aware of the legacy it joins, echoing sequences from Man of Steel especially with a cheeky humour, as well as overt references to Big and Rocky. Along the way, the film also makes some interesting explorations of family, both in the traditional and non-traditional sense. Combined with the humour, this is the most satisfying aspect of Shazam!, as the film provides some genuine surprises in its exploration of familial ties. It is less successful in its pacing, often feeling languorous and overlong. This is down to its many parts not being brought together cohesively: Billy exploring his powers; Sivana pursuing his ambition; the trials and tribulations of Billy’s fellow foster children and foster parents. These elements remain disparate rather than coherent, ham-fistedly roped together rather than linked by connective tissue. Other filmmakers have struck the balance between internal story strands, franchise tie-ins and acknowledging fan knowledge through references. With Shazam established, along with a group of supporting characters and adversaries, maybe future instalments will strike a better balance than this initial effort. In the meantime, there’s plenty of fun to be had here.
The Death of Supermanis one of the bestselling comic books ever published, shifting over six million copies upon its release in 1993. The story’s bold premise and provocative artwork is turned into animated pictures, complete with a fine ensemble of voice actors. The Death of Supermancharts the arrival of the seemingly indestructible alien beast Doomsday, its rampage through Metropolis (and the Justice League) and its battle with the Man of Steel. Like many a superhero tale, The Death of Supermanalso engages with ideas of identity and roles. A romance blossoms between Lois Lane and Clark Kent, the latter of whom struggles to reconcile his public and secret identities. The other members of the Justice League, including Wonder Woman, Batman and Green Lantern, as well as Lex Luthor, also worry about Superman’s role, and these concerns run throughout the film and its sequel.
The adaptation struggles to bring the emotional heft to the screen, not least due to rather stilted animation. Compared to recent fare likeIncredibles 2and Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, this superhero adventure feels lacklustre and uninspired. Character movements lack fluidity, backgrounds are often under-developed and the film falls into an unfortunate space between comic book and animation, lacking verve and dynamism. Where The Death of Supermandoes succeed, perhaps surprisingly, is in its brutality. The violence inflicted by Doomsday is bloody and often graphic, from crushed and severed heads to battered and bloody heroes. The eventual conflict between Superman and Doomsday is compelling and does deliver in the physical and emotional stakes, even though the end is known. While the journey to the climax is not always engaging, it is a hard viewer who does not experience a lump in their throat
The follow-up, Reign of the Supermen, is more successful in the animation stakes, offering greater vibrancy and movement. It also has a good line in humour, which is while present is less at home in The Death of Superman. In Reign of the Supermen, the humour is effective, especially the comedic quips of the Flash and Green Lantern. The film also does some exploration of power and its proper uses, the various ‘Supermen’ offering different takes on the concept. On the downside, the Supermen as well as the overarching plot seems overtly derivative of other cinematic superhero adventures, which leads to the film feeling like a half-hearted imitation of The Avengers. Overall, this double bill falls short in several ways, but does provide thrills and laughs in others.
Superhero narratives have a reputation for being conservative. Terms such as chauvinistic, right wing and valorising the cult of the individual often appear in discussions of the genre. Since Pixar and director Brad Bird first presented their superpowered family in 2004, films such as Wonder Woman and Black Panther have offered alternatives to this pattern. Incredibles 2 does so as well, making it the best sort of sequel: it gives us what we know and expect and also something new. There is the same blend of action and humour, much of the latter deriving from Bob Parr/Mr Incredible’s (Craig T. Nelson) struggling with domesticity while Helen/Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) leads on the action front. In one bravura sequence, a souped-up motorcycle chases a train with the tangibility and immediacy of live action. The introduction of more supers allows for further exhilarating sequences, and the humour and action are brought together brilliantly with the development of Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile).
All this is great fun, but in its narrative development and also world building, Incredibles 2 displays some surprising elements. The film’s focus on Helen is not the limit of its exploration of gender, as discussions between Helen and Evelyn Deavor (Catherine Keener) as well as Voyd (Sophia Bush) raise further issues. Furthermore, Incredibles 2 also questions our engagement with technology through its villain the Screen Slaver, and while this discourse could be reduced to clichéd monologuing, it is striking that the film includes this feature. In addition, there is a curious social aspect to the presence of supers in the film’s world. When Helen and Bob consider their future, they refer to the private sector, and benevolent government agencies are shut down due to public mistrust. All of this distances the Incredibles from the more self-righteous exploits of Batman and Iron Man. If superheroes are presented as inspirational figures, especially for children, figures that want to help others and make the world a better place, Incredibles 2 suggests that the place to do that is within the purview of the state. In a time of rampant individualism and self-interest, Incredibles 2 continues Disney’s surprising messages of acceptance, tolerance and state intervention and responsibility. If the imagined nation the United States of Disney actually practiced what films such as Zootopia, Beauty and the Beast and now Incredibles 2 suggest, it might not be so bad. And that may be the most incredible thing of all.
After the mixed responses to Man of Steel, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad, Wonder Woman demonstrated that given the right level of care and attention, DC could deliver an effective superhero film both for audiences and critics. Justice League sheds the ponderousness of BVS: DOJ and avoids the jumbled storytelling of Suicide Squad, borrows plot elements from both The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron, and presents a colourful array of characters. The new arrivals – Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa) Barry Allen/The Flash (Ezra Miller), Victor Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher) – receive short shrift in the rush to squeeze everything into two hours, and would have benefitted from earlier standalone films to give them and their respective worlds more detail. The lack of balance between characters is mirrored by the imbalance between the wit of Joss Whedon and Chris Terrio’s script and the portentousness of Zack Snyder’s direction, a problem that also affected BVS: DOJ. Despite this, Justice League still manages to deliver on the promise of multiple super-powered individuals, with a sometimes dazzling display of spectacular abilities, all of which are neatly tied to character development. From Bruce Wayne’s Batman’s (Ben Affleck) array of wonderful toys (composer Danny Elfman also references his own score from 1989’s Batman) to Diana Prince/Wonder Woman’s (Gal Gadot) reluctance to lead, Cyborg’s fear over the loss of his humanity to Aquaman’s cynicism and the Flash’s youthful exuberance, powers work as part of identity, and the appropriate use of this power is a recurring conceit of the film. Some of these potential heroes have to mature into their powers, others need to be reminded of its responsible use or restraint. Against all this, poorly-rendered (in both written and visual terms) villain Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) is rather underpowered despite his goal of planetary conquest, and the film’s chief pleasure is watching the members of the League bounce off each other verbally and physically. Several spectacular set pieces – one with a semi-assembled League and another with them complete – deliver smackdowns of varied spectacle and visual impact, while a neat strand of humour (largely coming from Flash) adds further pep to the concoction. Justice League falls someway short of the standard set by Wonder Woman, but it is far from kryptonite for the DCEU.
From its opening extended take of soldiers walking through deserted streets, Dunkirk arrests attention and maintains a tight grip throughout its running time. It is by turns a gripping, moving and eerie experience, more an existential thriller than a war film. It eschews prolonged battle sequences yet the fear of attack by land, sea and air is constant, while aerial dogfights make abrupt intrusions into the visual assembly. Its story progresses through the attempted evacuation of British troops from the French coastal town in 1940, but presents its three plot strands across different time frames – land for a week, sea for a day, air for an hour – simultaneously rather than sequentially. It draws on silent cinema with a great trust in visual storytelling, combined with an intense soundtrack that blends Hans Zimmer’s relentless score with a sometimes suggestive and other times crashing sound mix. It is light on characterisation and dialogue, which combined with its primarily visual storytelling results in a somewhat impressionistic experience. It is in several ways a departure for writer-director Christopher Nolan, being his first foray into historical dramatization while also foregoing a central character such as Bruce Wayne or Dominic Cobb, since its three narrative strands follow a range of figures caught up in the evacuation. On the other hand, Nolan is very much on home turf thematically, as his familiar tropes are present including a layered narrative and an explicit engagement with the cinematic manipulation of time. The intercutting of the three stories echoes the multiple levels of Inception and Memento, as well as the nested narratives of The Prestige and the time-jumping of Interstellar. Nolan and editor Lee Smith cut between these strands, and this discontinuity demonstrates Nolan’s ongoing exploration of trauma and the associated fracturing of the mind.
The film emphasises trauma with Cillian Murphy’s shell-shocked Shivering Soldier, who contrasts with Tom Hardy’s unflappable RAF pilot Farrier, while stoicism informs the older generation both civilian – Mark Rylance’s Mr Dawson – and military – Kenneth Branagh’s Commander Bolton, as well as the younger generation in Dawson’s crew and Fionn Whitehead’s young Tommy on the beach who would be a wide-eyed innocent if his eyes did not hint at what he has seen. This is a recurring feature throughout Dunkirk, as director of photography Hoyte Van Hoytema captures close ups of faces and eyes as well as subjective angles and oppressive lighting to convey the imprisonment of the stranded soldiers, also by Nolan’s decision to concentrate the film on the empty stretch of the beaches as well as the pitiless expanse of the sea. For some, this could be alienating as viewers may want a wealth of character detail in order to engage with the drama. But the film’s sparseness is also a great strength as the film creates an immersive and absorbing world that the viewer can themselves inhabit and fear. The ‘enemy’ is only seen in silhouette, which makes them all the more menacing, especially when bullets from unseen sources pepper the soldiers and, in a sense, the viewer themselves. All reactions to film are subjective, and Dunkirk emphasises the subjectivity of experience. Experience is central to the film, the experience of the characters parallel to that of the viewer. As a film, Dunkirk is an intricate and electrifying lattice of image and sound. As an experience, it is ruthlessly efficient and mercilessly tense, a sublime immersion in trauma, time and terror.
There is a widely held misconception that BVS: DOJ is about an epic physical showdown. It isn’t. What the title refers to, and what the film portrays over its sometimes ponderous running time, is an ideological debate between saviour and vigilante. Perhaps surprisingly for a filmmaker best known for bombastic action set pieces, Zack Snyder grapples valiantly with this political debate, resulting in a film where the most interesting sequences are those that feature actual debates. A brooding, melancholic and traumatised Batman/Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) debates with reluctant but loyal Alfred (Jeremy Irons); an idealistic yet doubtful Superman/Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) debates with Lois Lane (Amy Adams), Martha Kent (Diane Lane) and Perry White (Laurence Fishburne); senator Finch (Holly Hunter) debates with fellow politicians as well as twitchy billionaire Alexander Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg). Meanwhile, the mysterious Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) seems to have more answers than everyone else, yet raises questions herself. In-between the debates are immense set pieces, many shot in Snyder’s trademark slo-mo that recalls 300 and Sucker Punch (other references to Snyder’s back catalogue also appear). DOP Larry Fong lenses the film in gloomy shades, especially the ruin of Wayne Manor and the urban wastelands in which our ‘heroes’ battle. At times, the grand portentousness does overwhelm the drama, the wit of Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer’s script hamstrung by Snyder’s lumpen pacing. Yet while the film lacks the lean muscularity of Christopher Nolan‘s Dark Knight trilogy or even the more focused bombast of Man of Steel, it does make a strong contribution to the fundamental questions of superhero cinema – what does it mean to be a hero and what does it mean to be super? Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice may not be the zippiest superhero film, but it is one of the more thoughtful.