This year gave us one of the most super hero-centric summers in cinema history. Between early May and late July, four super hero films based on characters from the two big publishers of Marvel and DC were released, and for the most part, a lot of people flocked to theaters to see them. As a fan of these characters that enjoys their film adaptations more than just about anything, I have very distinct feelings about each film that came out. In my position as a comic book “pundit” of sorts, contributing comic book reviews and other editorials to a few different sites and a couple of podcasts, ranking these films comes pretty naturally to me personally.
Now, everyone has their own opinion about where these films stand, and they are all as equally valid as my own. My opinions may not exactly jive with an agreed-upon consensus that sites like Rotten Tomatoes would have you believe has been reached, but either way, whether you agree with me or not, I hope that this ranking of super hero films is at the very least interesting, and at the most, an argument with merit.
So, without further ado, here are this fan’s rankings for the super hero films of summer 2011.
#4: X-Men: First Class
I know some people will automatically call for my head for placing this film in last place, and I’m by no means calling it a bad film, but I generally enjoy comic book movies for how much they evoke the material on which they’re based. I like seeing either classic stories brought to life, or new stories charted from a familiar basis by the rules established in the source material. When looking at First Class through this lens, it accomplishes neither of these.
Consider this: the title of the film is X-Men: First Class. For comics fans, that very title evokes the expectation that the first class of X-Men appear, which are (generally, and besides Wolverine) the characters that are most familiar to a mainstream audience. The original X-Men team consisted of Professor X, Cyclops, Iceman, Angel, Beast, and Jean Grey (then known as Marvel Girl). Seems like a pretty solid lineup, right? A story showing how these characters first came together? That’s a movie I’d like to see.
Who are the characters in this film? Well, that’s where you start to ask what’s going on. We have Professor X and Beast, but now the First Class would seem to consist of Banshee, Havok, and Darwin. “But hey!” you might say. “Angel’s there too!” Well, sort of. The character in the film is Angel Salvadore, not Warren Worthington, the original Angel. Angel Salvadore wasn’t even created until the early 2000s by writer Grant Morrison for his New X-Men comics run, taking place long after the First Class had gotten together. Why is she included here? It’s pretty confusing, especially if you’re an X-Men fan.
Also confusing is whether or not this is a prequel to the longstanding Hugh Jackman/Patrick Stewart X-Men film series or if this is charting new territory. In the marketing campaign, they use several short clips and homages to the first film series, but too much contradictory continuity is at play in this film to set it within the same universe. So, logic would say that this is the first in a new series, but then they have cameos from actors that appeared in the last series, namely Hugh Jackman (in a brilliant cameo, by the way) as Wolverine and Rebecca Romijn as an older Mystique. Some clarity about where this takes place wouldn’t hurt.
As for the movie itself, it’s merely okay. Matthew Vaughn is a talented filmmaker, no question, but several components here miss the mark. The convenience of how the team arrive at their code names is very juvenile and uninspired, and as a film that almost pats itself on the back for representing diversity among characters in a world that hates and fears them, the film does a monumentally stupid thing by killing the major African-American character well before the major battle even begins.
The fact that it completely changes the motivation for a well-documented historical event also really bugged me. The Cuban Missile Crisis was motivated by operations made by the United States Government to overthrow Fidel Castro’s communist regime in Cuba, namely the infamous Bay of Pigs and Operation Mongoose. When these failed, the governments of Cuba and the USSR began to work together to construct secret bases, in Cuba, that would potentially allow medium-range nuclear missiles to strike the United States. That’s how it started.
Here though, First Class would have you believe that the crisis was motivated by Sebastian Shaw’s thirst for power. Understandable, and it makes for interesting previews, but as a narrative tool the timing and the execution just don’t ring very true for me. I have virtually no qualms about much of the performances in this film, as I think James McAvoy is a charismatic and interesting choice for this iteration of Professor X. The supporting cast is filled pretty well by January Jones as Emma Frost and a surprisingly nuanced performance from Kevin Bacon as Sebastian Shaw, but the show is stolen by Michael Fassbender as Magneto, easily the most interesting and visceral performance given in the film. While on its own terms I like First Class, to me when compared to the other three films of this summer it falls behind the rest.
#3: Green Lantern
In a previous piece for this very site, I outlined exactly why I think that Green Lantern is completely undeserving of the hyperbolic and melodramatic criticisms it’s had leveled at it, largely from movie critics but also by some members of the comic book fan community. Is this film everything it should be? No, absolutely not. Not nearly enough weight was given to the relationship between Hal Jordan and Sinestro, Hal’s defeat of Parallax was pretty simplistic, and it used more than a couple of typical super hero film stereotypes to push its story forward.
That being said, I like it better than First Class because it largely stays true to the mythos it attempts to present from the source material about the Green Lantern Corps, and I just plain had more fun watching this film. The things Green Lantern did well are very present, namely the characterization of Hal Jordan. Ryan Reynolds owns this character for this film, and presents the tenets of what comics fans have come to expect from Jordan: the swagger, the fly-by-night attitude, the family trouble, the girl trouble (and paradoxical-yet-present lack thereof), and most importantly, the will. By the end of the film when Hal speaks his oath almost as a totem to drive off the fear-inducing powers of Parallax, you can see Reynolds go from a state of fear to growing more confident with every passing word of his oath. I really liked that component of this film.
The component that was severely lacking yet sadly overlooked is Mark Strong’s performance as Sinestro. As current comics fans know, Sinestro is one of the most psychologically complex and intrinsically fascinating anti-heroes in comics, largely due to the current characterization granted him by writer Geoff Johns. You could tell that Strong was heavily inspired by Johns’ work on the character, and even consulted with the writer about who Sinestro is and what makes him tick. Strong even revealed in an interview with Box Office Magazine that he wanted no part of a visual reimagining of the character that fundamentally changed the way he appeared, and instead suggested that they remain as close to the source as possible when looking at Sinestro’s aesthetic. He felt that it said a lot about who he was, and where he came from. In the end, though, that character wasn’t nearly as present in the film as he should have been.
Parallax was an interesting choice for a villain, as he’s a relatively modern inclusion to the comics. A lot of the origin for Parallax as presented in the film comes from some classic stories about a “mad Guardian of the Universe” and how those immortals sometimes reach for more power than they should have. It’s not a better characterization than the Parallax of the comics who acts as a parasitic embodiment of fear, but it’s clean and allows for an accessible story for the mainstream audience. The film does make an effort to build Parallax up as an almost unbeatable adversary, making Hal’s single-handed defeat of the villain seem out of place. In the end, though, the design was interesting, the look of the last battle was pretty visually distinct, and if not entirely satisfying I found it pretty immersive.
I get why some people didn’t like it. The concept is definitely out there, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that a bad story is always the definitive outcome of an unusual premise. The film fails to give us a story that’s as interesting or thought-provoking as the popular comics that no doubt spawned this film’s creation. At its best, the Green Lantern concept is space opera mixed with super heroism, which can’t be fully exploited by the largely earthbound origin story of Hal Jordan. If a sequel to this film gets made, the filmmakers need to show us why the Green Lanterns are respected law enforcers throughout the universe, and better illustrate why Hal Jordan’s humanity allows him to ascend to levels that other members of the Corps didn’t think possible.
The best thing that the movie did for a potential sequel is get all of the preliminaries out of the way. No service needs to be given to Hal’s learning curve just as a rookie. I hope that if a sequel gets made, it focuses on one of the most interesting facets of Hal’s early time as a Lantern, and that’s his student/mentor relationship with Sinestro blossoming into a deep friendship that then devolves into a bitter rivalry.
In regards to this film, though, I had a pretty decent time at the theater watching Green Lantern, and a good amount of fun watching the planet Oa and other Lanterns like Tomar-Re and Kilowog fully realized as cinematic characters. For this fan, that alone was worth the price of admission. What did GL do that First Class didn’t? It showed fidelity to the mythology and was true to Hal Jordan’s character. Not a bad start.
To say that I was surprised by Thor is an understatement. I’ve been a big fan of the character since at least 2007 when writer J. Michael Straczynski brought him back to the Marvel Universe as a major force to be reckoned with in a world that had seemingly almost forgotten him. I wasn’t quite sure how this film would go over with an audience before it was released, because it had a tall order of combining the gravitas and celestial nature of the Marvel Thor concept with the real world analogue that Jon Favreau started with 2008’s Iron Man. This was going to be a world where a Norse God of Thunder occupied the same one as that careless playboy with a suit of armor. It would be interesting to see how they pulled it off.
I had immediate confidence in the film, though, when Kenneth Branagh was announced as the director. One of the best trained dramatic personalities in the world, if anyone can do justice to the concept of Thor, his world, and how to marry Asgard with Earth, it was Branagh. I was curious about the cast being filled out, automatically confident with Anthony Hopkins as Odin and Natalie Portman as Jane Foster. Having only seen a little bit of Chris Hemsworth from 2009’s Star Trek and absolutely nothing from Tom Hiddleston, I waited with somewhat bated breath to see how the confrontation between the two brothers of Thor and Loki would be realized. Needless to say, they knocked me on my ass. This film was great.
While paying tribute to some of the early Marvel stories featuring this world, the film also takes a cue from Straczynski’s recent work in its attempt to meld the celestial world with the ground-level one. Straczynski himself even appears in the movie as the first hick that tries to pull the hammer out of the ground! Chris Hemsworth is charismatic, regal, and highly likable as the God of Thunder. True to his purpose, Tom Hiddleston’s Loki is an elusive creature to the uninitiated audience, and even partially so to fans of the books. By the time we fully see what Loki’s final plan in the story is, he’s kept you guessing at least three or four different times across the film about what he truly wants out of his plot.
I have to admit that it’s very, very convenient that Thor have a “weekend epiphany” on Earth about all he’s done wrong when he’s existed for such a long time on Asgard. I think that’s easily forgiven though, because not only is this film a great action piece at both the beginning and end, but it does enough service to the characters involved that you really do go on quite the emotional journey with these people that it feels more genuine than it perhaps should. I think that this is largely attributed to Branagh’s understanding of story and training as an actor, as well as his years of experience telling stories.
While this film to me is a close second for this summer, I still think it stands as the best example of the modern Marvel Cinematic Universe. I think it succeeds over the Iron Man entries in this regard because of the characters and conflicts involved. Thor vs. Loki just feels more resonant than Stark vs. Obadiah Stane or Ivan Vanko, and does service to the feeling of familial conflict. A spat between brothers on a godly scale is a very interesting story, and Thor succeeds because that is the conflict at the center of everything here.
#1: Captain America: The First Avenger
And now, we arrive at my pick for best superhero film of the summer in the first true outing of the Star-Spangled Avenger. This film should be Marvel’s new standard for how to adapt their characters, because not only did it hit the right marks as far as adapting a longstanding character from the source and playing by its rules, but the performances given here were far, far better than they have any right to be. I certainly didn’t expect Evans to be the top super hero of the summer, but I really think that that’s exactly what he becomes here, because there’s an earnestness and truth to his performance that he provides that I didn’t quite get from the other super hero films this season.
Part of what blew me away so much about this film is the fact that you start off with a wonderful grasp on the characters of the main hero and villain. Thor comes close to providing this, but it’s really the evolving nature and responsibility that Thor himself accepts over the course of the movie that makes it interesting, and you’re not really supposed to have much of a grasp on Loki as he’s the master of misdirection. With First Avenger, the audience is given a nearly immediate understanding of the evil and thirst of power that permeate the character of Johann Schmidt, as well as the virtue, passion, and patriotic duty that distinguishes Steve Rogers from his fellow heroes.
The main thing that elevates this film above the rest, I believe, is the ultimate conflict between Captain America and the Red Skull. Beyond the incontrovertibly noble backdrop of America versus the Nazis, these men are physical matches and polar ideological opposites. Cut from the same cloth due to the efforts of Stanley Tucci’s brilliant Dr. Erskine character, both men have been elevated to the level of super soldier by the good doctor’s serum, but then come from very different schools of thought that are naturally and inexorably opposite each other. Where Cap represents freedom and drive that raise you to a superior level, Red Skull is all about oppression and sadism in order to seize total control of both his nation and the world at large. Even though the scale of Thor’s conflict was so grand between realms, the World War II setting and the stakes presented made me feel that this conflict was somehow larger, as the very nature of the free world was at stake.
Beyond Evans great and true performance as Cap, Hugo Weaving is to be equally commended for crafting the most memorable villain in all of Marvel’s films. Comic writer Greg Pak, known for his work on The Incredible Hulk and Hercules, wrote in the epilogue to the first issue of his newest mini-series Red Skull: Incarnate that Schmidt is very much the most evil villain in the entire Marvel Universe. Weaving brings the conniving, arrogant, evil bastard to life with great success, and it’s his effort here that makes the threat of HYDRA seem so palpable. Add to the mix a wonderfully subtle and nuanced quasi-love story and I think you have the super hero film of the summer.
All in all I think that sums it up. While I enjoyed all of the entries to one degree or another, there is a hierarchy to the quality of the films and the preceding is just one fan’s take on it. I’ll be happy to own all of these films when they hit home media later this year, and I’ll look back pretty fondly on the summer of 2011 as a pretty solid moment for super hero cinema. Next year we have three major summer film releases to look forward to in The Amazing Spdier-Man, the highly ambitious Marvel Studios crossover The Avengers, and Christopher Nolan’s last hurrah in Gotham City in the highly anticipated Batman film The Dark Knight Rises. I hope I can give you another piece in about a year ranking those blockbusters!
Like I said, this was just one fan’s picks for this year’s super hero films. How would you rank them? Which film next year are you looking forward to the most? Sound off and be heard!