Comic book films dominate modern blockbuster film making, but are they any good? This year has seen a lot of critical backlash against modern Hollywood practices, but it hasn’t been enough to stop viewers from turning out in droves to catch the latest superhero films on opening weekend. This year, we’ve already seen four films based on separate Marvel properties released, including the most recent Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) entry, Doctor Strange. That film strengthened what’s otherwise been a weak year for Marvel properties in film — certainly nothing to compare with, say, 2014, which saw the release of MCU highlights Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy.
But let’s focus on Marvel’s latest films by ranking their 2016 offerings from worst to best. Be forewarned: I’m not particularly fond of any of these films.
3. X-Men: Apocalypse
If 2016 was the summer that broke movies, X-Men: Apocalypse was an important part of that conspicuous breakdown. It was one of the many blockbusters that fell far short of expectations. After the successful time-traveling retread that was X-Men: Days of Future Past, the X-Men series squandered its reunited characters in one of the most generic superhero plots ever, concerning a brightly-colored villain of vague but boundless power who wants to destroy the world for no clear reason other than to “build a new one from the ashes.”
Apocalypse the character is a joke, and the stakes he presents as a villain are familiar and impersonal, but that might be forgivable if our protagonists were doing anything interesting. But they’re not — Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, who astoundingly checked-out of the role) is still conflicted, Quicksilver does the same thing he did in the last film, young Professor X (James McAvoy) goes bald and the movie tries to act as though that’s important, and Wolverine is captured and only has a cameo appearance.
The whole film feels less like a work of art with anything to say and more like a soulless product, lousy with greenscreen and overused CGI that only draws attention to the lack of effort involved. This is Marvel, or rather 20th Century Fox, at their lowest point — at least, so far.
2. Captain America: Civil War
Captain America: Civil War may be the film that finally soured me on the MCU. The rest of the world seemed to embrace the film for its new depiction of Peter Parker, a hero-on-hero airport battle, and themes of revenge gone awry, but I couldn’t generate enough interest in the plot to care about any of it.
More than any film so far, Civil War feels like just another episode of a Marvel theatrical TV series, more concerned with hero crossovers and teasers for future sequels than it is with its own plot or titular hero. There’s the beginning of an interesting rift between Captain America and Tony Stark due to the possibility of a government oversight, but that’s quickly tossed aside in favor of a standard “villain who pits our heroes against each other using a ridiculously convoluted scheme” plot.
It doesn’t help that even that storyline and its themes are pinned on two of the film’s least interesting characters (which is saying something, since there are a whole lot of uninteresting characters to choose from at this point): Black Panther and Bucky Barnes.
Captain America cares about the once-brainwashed Bucky, but we have no reason to. Black Panther’s introduction is the very definition of tacked-on, and when he isn’t in costume, actor Chadwick Boseman simply monologues nonsense with all the faux-gravitas he can muster. The look of the film is as bland as the writing. There are good things within Civil War (unlike Apocalypse), but it’s primarily an exhausting mess.
Deadpool was the best Marvel film to come out this year, and it wasn’t even supposed to get made. 20th Century Fox didn’t trust the appeal of an R-rated superhero enough to invest much of a budget, but that didn’t stop audiences from coming out in droves to make Deadpool one of the year’s biggest successes. I’m still not that crazy about it. I think the brilliant opening credits (featuring title cards like “Directed by An Overpaid Tool”) are the film’s high-point.
The plot is no less generic than Civil War or Apocalypse: A wise-cracking crook turned into a deformed (but still wise-cracking) vigilante seeks revenge on the man responsible for his deformities. There’s a surprisingly sweet romance in there, mostly thanks to the performances of Ryan Reynolds and Morena Baccarin, but Deadpool runs away from the love of his life out of shame. Later, she accepts the new him without reservations, so why did he have to hide from her, other than to pad the runtime?
Luckily the plot doesn’t matter much when you really get down to it. Deadpool doesn’t add up to much when you consider the film as a whole, but it works well as pure entertainment, cramming as many one-liners into each scene as humanly possible. When there are so many jokes per minute, some of them are bound to hit, even if many of them seem primarily geared toward 14-year-olds. Thanks largely to the antiheroic character of Deadpool, this is a movie that subverts expectations and breaks the fourth wall just enough to be smarter than most other modern comic book films.
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