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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.
One of the interesting aspects about superhero cinema is the development of particular franchises, as subsequent instalments take the set-up of the origin stories to new places. When Deadpool was released in 2016, its irreverent, self-aware and achingly postmodern stance demonstrated there was still plenty of stretch left in the spandex. In the case of Deadpool 2, this same spandex gets stretched again, largely to the same places. As a result, David Leitch’s film, working from a script by Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick and star Ryan Reynolds, largely feels like a re-tread. Swear-tastic dialogue? Check. Fourth wall breaks? Check. Comically gruesome violence? Check. Anything that feels fresh? Not so much. This is disappointing because the first Deadpool felt fresh and vibrant, but Deadpool 2 is largely more of the same. Deadpool/Wade Wilson (Reynolds) continues his mercenary ways, Colossus (Stefan Kapicic) tries to make Wilson into a superhero while Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) makes snarky comments, Dopinder (Karan Soni) idolises DP’s violent approach in disturbing ways. New arrivals Russell (Julian Dennison) and Cable (Josh Brolin, in his second Marvel appearance of 2018) add some additional concerns over destiny and consequence, but their arcs as well as those of the other characters feel stretched and almost redundant. The most interesting aspect of the film is frustratingly underdeveloped – a potentially disturbing aspect that does develop an ongoing conceit of the X-Men franchise as a whole. X-Men has repeatedly dramatised concerns over prejudice and intolerance, and in Deadpool 2 we see the DMC (presumably Department of Mutant Control/Containment) as well as a mutant ‘rehabilitation centre’, complete with creepy headmaster (Eddie Marsan). Annoyingly, these institutions and their draconian practices are largely relegated to the background. It may seem churlish to criticise a film for what it isn’t, but agencies such as these are ripe for satire and snubbing authority, exactly what Deadpool is famous for. Therefore, when the film resorts to the same flippancy towards dramatic stakes as its predecessor, there is little to get excited about. Deadpool 2 does succeed on the action front, including one bravura sequence featuring a long take centred on Domino (Zazie Beetz). In addition, the cast are all game and amusing, especially Reynolds whose charisma and devotion to the character ensure that Deadpool is still fun to spend time with. There are plenty of laughs too, but they probably won’t linger any longer than the injuries of our indestructible protagonist.
Amidst the problems of Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, one pinnacle of wisdom, class and super-powered kick-assery stood tall above everything else – Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman/Diana Prince. Despite this appearance and over 70 years of comic book history, the world’s most famous superheroine has waited until 2017 for a solo big screen appearance. Happily, Wonder Woman is worth the wait, as director Patty Jenkins delivers a dynamic, inventive and witty superhero adventure of duty, will, the pervasiveness of evil and the power of love. From the wraparound story in modern day Paris to childhood and training among the Amazons of Themyscira, Jenkins, Gadot and screenwriter Allan Heinberg draw the viewer into Diana’s world, sharing her joys, fears and discoveries.
Rather than following the dour example of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel and BVS: DOJ, Wonder Woman is more reminiscent of Captain America: The First Avenger with its period setting and also Thor with its dramatisation of myth, and shares a sense of fun thus far lacking in the DC Extended Universe. Diana becomes aware of the wider world when American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) arrives with WWI German soldiers in hot pursuit. From here we embark on a ride to London and thence to the Western Front, a ride that is jaunty, gripping and at times powerfully moving. Jenkins strikes a fine balance between fish-out-of-water comedy, both for Steve among the Amazons and Diana among the British, grim moments featuring the impact of war on civilians and the ruthless aggression of General Ludendorff (Danny Huston), and some truly magnificent action set pieces. These set pieces constitute major developments of the drama: the first exhibits the skill and power of the Amazons; the second demonstrates Diana coming into her own as a warrior and had me welling up with emotion; the third begins with a gritty physicality before escalating to truly epic proportions. A common criticism of superhero films is that the final act succumbs to CG overload, but in the case of Wonder Woman the onslaught of visual effects expresses narrative development and the characters’ discoveries.
This climactic sequence also features the film’s greatest strength: acknowledgement of the pervasiveness of evil. Throughout the film, Diana believes that it is her mission to destroy Ares, the god of war, because this will end the Great War, a belief that Steve and the rest of their notably diverse team find naïve. A central villain is common to superhero cinema and often the purpose of the narrative is to defeat him (or occasionally her), but the more challenging entries in the genre such as X-Men, The Dark Knight and Logan do not locate evil quite so easily. Diana’s journey of discovery is also that of the viewer in realising that this film is doing something a little different, and the joy of this difference alongside the electrifying action makes the film into something special.
Furthermore, Wonder Woman makes good on its gender politics. Diana is a superb character, defined not as a woman but as a warrior for justice. The film therefore manages to present that elusive thing called equality, where men and women unite for a common cause because they all care. Furthermore, the absurdities of patriarchy are highlighted, such as when Diana encounters the British high command in London and is dismayed by their lack of compassion, in stark contrast to the nobility of the Amazons. Some might find the romance between Steve and Diana clichéd and disappointing, but it is important to note that their relationship is part of a larger conceit of love that pervades the entire film, from the bonds among the Amazons to those between Steve’s fellow soldiers, and the compassion and empathy that drives Diana throughout. Superhero movies are often concerned with hope, but Wonder Woman goes further, Jenkins crafting a thrilling and moving tale of the compelling and invigorating power of love for all humanity.
X marks the spot and, by all accounts, the end. James Mangold’s Logan concludes Hugh Jackman’s seventeen years playing the Wolverine, and it serves as a fitting finale to the hirsute one’s cinematic adventures. Shot through with bitterness, regret and melancholia, Mangold’s film in a bold, mature character study that balances pathos and dark wit with more grounded and gritty action sequences than we have seen previously in this franchise. Dispensing with world-shattering events, Logan follows the eponymous mutant along with fellow long-term player Sir Patrick Stewart as Professor Charles Xavier, and newcomer Laura (Dafne Keen), as they attempt to escape from armed men working for a mysterious company. There is little in the way of super-powered battles, as the action consists of physical fracas of fists, feet and claws, as well as bullets and bombs. The adult rating is well deserved as F-bombs and claret fly with wild abandon, and the bloodletting especially demonstrates how sanitised the earlier X-Men films were. Here, limbs are severed, heads are pierced, bodies erupt and blister. The violence is far from gratuitous, however, as pain and injury is not restricted to the faceless adversaries of our heroes. Logan is at his most vulnerable, bearing scars and wounds, coughing throughout the film and easing his pain with a near-constant flow of alcohol. Charles is worse, suffering from a degenerative disease that causes telepathic seizures. Both men are also deeply troubled by their pasts, some of which we know from previous films but others are only referred to in passing. The fruity language is integral to this burnt-out masculinity, since Logan and Charles have largely given up caring. Mangold maintains the conceit of world-weariness throughout the film, with a measured visual style that often captures the characters in wide shots of the unsympathetic landscape, making the film more like a western than a standard superhero movie (although the Shane references are a bit too neat). Perhaps most bleakly, there is little sense of redemption in the film, as animosity and prejudice remain prevalent, but crucially are not located in any single evildoer. The X-Men series has always been interested in prejudice and difference, but this was simply reiterated in recent entries. Logan reinforces that prejudice and fear of the different are systemic issues deeply imbricated in society, despite supposed progress. This makes Logan not only a fitting farewell to a beloved character, but a highlighting of contemporary issues that demand attention and the effort for change.
Take the frank, profane humour of Judd Apatow and mix with the explosive and gory violence of Matthew Vaughn. Add the superhero trappings of costumes, digital effects, and tragic origin story. Mix with knowing humour and regular breaks of the fourth wall. Simmer for 108 minutes and you’ll have something approaching Deadpool, Tim Miller’s rendering of Ryan Reynolds’ labour of love to bring one of the least conventional costumed adventurers to the big screen. Deadpool pulls off the remarkable feat of both following the superhero formula while also sending it up, in a way that is satirical but never mean-spirited. The profane humour and explicit violence are sometimes shocking but far from gratuitous as they perfectly express the film’s conceit of de-sanitising superheroes. In Deadpool, people are hurt and killed in gruesome manner, a vast amount of property is destroyed, and a powerful individual with an axe to grind acts in complete flagrance of the law. Furthermore, Wade Wilson/Deadpool’s (Reynolds) motivations are rather less noble than your average X-Man, and the film contrasts him with two actual X-Men, Colossus (Stefan Kapicic) and Negasonic Teenage Warhead [no, really!] (Brianna Hildebrand). The contrast between Colossus’ goody-goofy rhetoric and Deadpool’s glibness perfectly encapsulates the film’s send-up of its genre, while Miller’s directorial style is fluid and paces the action, humour and satire just right. Deadpool is gleefully distinct from a conventional superhero film, and its development of the genre demonstrates there is plenty of stretch left in the spandex.
I recently had a conversation with a friend about recent films that we had different responses to, Kick-Ass 2 (Jeff Wadlow, 2013) and The Wolverine (James Mangold, 2013). I found both of these disappointing and my friend thought they were alright. In the case of Kick-Ass 2, my fellow conversant knew that it would not surprise or shock them like the first, and that the only way it could have done would be to change the style of the film. Therefore, the film was enjoyable as an extension to the first, but nothing more. The absence of Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) was felt, and my friend commented that the story did not have enough suspense, unlike Matthew Vaughn’s original.
Both of us agreed that Hit Girl/Mindy McCready (Chloe Grace Moretz) was the best thing in Kick-Ass 2, so for me, it was disappointing that she was underused and spending time becoming a ‘regular girl’, only for her to abandon that and re-embrace Hit Girl. It is a common trope in superhero narratives that heroes renounce their super identities (see Superman II [Richard Lester, 1980], Spider-Man 2 [Sam Raimi, 2004], The Dark Knight Rises [Christopher Nolan, 2012]), but it tends to be more traumatic and a crisis of identity. Had Kick-Ass 2 focused on that element, it would have been more effective, even as an identity crisis within high school. High school is fertile ground for dramas about identity and finding oneself, so a high school action comedy about Hit Girl would have a lot of potential.
Unfortunately, with Mindy/Hit Girl side-lined, Kick-Ass 2 lacks not only suspense but emphasis, wavering between Dave Lizewski/Kick-Ass and his ongoing ambition, as well as Colonel Stars and Stripes’ (Jim Carrey) Justice Forever band, and the increasing villainy of Chris D’Amico/The Motherfucker (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). The film therefore lacks focus and a coherent theme, essentially trying to play off the original’s feature of having superheroes swear and get badly hurt. But in Kick-Ass, that was a point rather than a gimmick. In Kick-Ass 2, it’s just a gimmick. There are some good sequences, including the final battle and indeed most scenes involving Mother Russia (Olga Kurkulina), and I liked the suggestion of a romance between Mindy and Dave, but overall, the film felt lightweight and uncertain of its meaning.
It used to be the case that sequels were never as good as the originals. Superhero films especially buck that trend, with Spider-Man 2, Blade II (Guillermo Del Toro, 2002), X-2 (Bryan Singer, 2003), The Dark Knight, maybe even Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer (Tim Story, 2007) improving what came before. Sadly, it seems that Kick-Ass 2 is what we used to expect from sequels.
The Wolverine is another matter. The X-Men franchise has been very patchy, at its best striking a balance between personal dramas, thrilling action and wider ramifications. The wider ramifications was the major missing feature from The Wolverine, as it is the most intimate and personal film of the franchise thus far. Director James Mangold has a talent for intimate, down-to-earth drama, whether that be the biopic melodrama of Walk The Line (2005) or the terse psychological thrills of Identity (2003). The Wolverine demonstrates that he can still deliver the necessary action spectacle (although perhaps that should be credited more to second unit director, editor and the special effects team), but despite the bullet train sequence and the final battle with Silver Samurai, The Wolverine is remarkably unremarkable, because there seems to be little reason for what is going on. It is essentially the further adventures of Logan, revisiting an old friend, making new ones including a requisite new romance, and I was left thinking ‘So what?’ The spectral presence of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) was unconvincing, and the most moving moment was Logan’s early communion with a wounded bear. It could have been refreshing to see Logan more vulnerable, like those mentioned above it is an instance of the superhero losing their powers, but the trope of him having to adapt to being hurt was not given enough variety, swiftly becoming repetitive.
To make matters worse, the villain of The Wolverine was very uninteresting, Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova) little more than a mutant riff on the vicious beauty, which was done far more interestingly with Mystique (Rebecca Romijn/Jennifer Lawrence) and Emma Frost (January Jones) in previous installments. Perhaps if she had been in a position to fight Logan herself, like Lady Deathstrike (Kelly Hu) in X-2, it might have been interesting, but instead she is far from a worthy adversary. The final clash between Wolverine and Silver Samurai was flashy but felt more like an obligation than an organic development, while the sudden reappearance of the bone claws was overly convenient.
Overall, The Wolverine felt lightweight, nothing attached to what was going on. For me, the X-Men films have been most enjoyable when the stakes are high, which they have been previously:
X-Men – the irradiation of the world leaders
X-2 – the death of all mutants and, subsequently, the death of all humans
X-Men: The Last Stand – the ‘cure’ for mutation
X-Men Origins: Wolverine – more personal, but still a campaign against mutant-kind
X-Men: First Class – the Cuban missile crisis and World War Three
The Wolverine – dying man wants to live forever and will steal Logan’s ability to heal so that he becomezzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz
The stakes of The Wolverine are too low and, therefore, the film lacks drama. Ironically, the biggest problem with The Wolverine is the best thing in it – the mid-credits sequences featuring Professor X and Magneto. I had read that Patrick Stewart was going to cameo, but I was not expecting Ian McKellen to show up as well. In addition, the foreshadowing of Trask Industries is another nice detail, demonstrating economic storytelling and raising expectations. I eagerly anticipate X-Men: Days of Future Past (Singer, 2014), combining the elements established in earlier instalments into something both new and familiar. But when the best thing in a film is a scene with no connection to what went on before, then the film as a whole is clearly doing something wrong.