Tag Archives: comics

Stop trying to limit superhero movies

(Spoilers for “Logan” and various other superhero movies throughout; seriously, I would not read this unless you have already seen “Logan,” especially if you’re planning to do so in the near future.)

So it turns out “Logan,” the latest entry in the X-Men movie franchise and the seeming swan song for Hugh Jackman in the title role after nearly two decades, is pretty darn good (4 out of 5 stars in my book). It has well-staged, bloody action sequences, a story with real stakes and depth, a vibrant post-apocalyptic (by way of the Western) aesthetic and three great central performances from Jackman, Patrick Stewart as Professor X and Dafne Keen as Laura, the pint-sized female Wolverine clone (that’s not a spoiler; it’s in a trailer). The movie is a critical darling (92 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, which is an imperfect but useful barometer) and a box office hit.

All of these things, in the abstract, are good. It was about time Jackman got a legitimately great movie to go along with his star power as Wolverine, and finding new ways to tell superhero stories is a welcome development. And yet, I’m already starting to see an irksome trend in certain circles, particularly among the legacy media and older critics, when it comes to the reaction to the movie.

The argument usually goes something like this: “Logan” shows that superhero/comic book movies need to tone down their more outlandish elements to tell more grounded, emotional, realistic stories. You can see this thinking creep up in outlets from The New York Times and The AV Club to Matt Zoller Seitz at RogerEbert.com and the good folks at Vulture.

I’m not here to put the hammer down on any of these outlets or authors; they all do great work, and I value their insight. And they’re not completely wrong, only slightly. The problem is they’re blaming the wrong thing when it comes to bad superhero movies: It’s the not the gaudy costumes or loads of special effects, but basic storytelling issues.

To be sure, “Logan” is markedly different from both the prior X-Men movies and the broader superhero movie landscape. Its sun-drenched cinematography and brutal bursts of violence would feel more at home in a Clint Eastwood Western (“Unforgiven” is an obvious point of reference), and the fact that it eschews much of the previous X-Men movie continuity and gives Wolverine a definitive ending by (MASSIVE SPOILER INCOMING) giving him the death he so clearly craves gives “Logan” a standalone feel uncommon in the world of shared comic book movie universes.

Yet these individual features of “Logan,” while worthy of praise, aren’t what make the movie really work as well as it does. “Man of Steel” is one of the most visually impressive superhero movies ever made, complete with Terrence Malick-esque lyrical shots of nature (remember those early trailers?), but the character assassination job it does on Superman makes it a travesty. “The Dark Knight Rises” is another movie reflecting on the life and legacy of a tortured, brooding hero, but despite all the cinematic muster Christopher Nolan brings to bear, its fundamental screenplay issues turn the movie’s narrative into mush, and Nolan previously gave us “The Dark Knight.”

Speaking of Nolan’s Batman trilogy, we’ve already seen what happens when everyone starts raving about a really good superhero movie that happens to take a more grounded, grim approach: People learn all the wrong lessons, thinking it’s the “dark” aesthetic and tortured heroes that make the movie good instead of concentrating on complex themes with interesting characters and good filmmaking. The smashing success of “The Dark Knight” in 2008 spawned a wave of inferior imitators, culminating in the absolute nadir of “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.” “Dawn of Justice” is drenched in darkness, takes itself EXTREMELY seriously and touches on potentially interesting themes, only to get lost in a tidal wave of terrible characters, incoherent plotting and a suffocatingly morose tone.

Besides, superhero movies shouldn’t be limited to one approach. That’s certainly not true of the comics on which they’re based; your typical Superman story isn’t the same as your typical Batman story, which isn’t the same as your typical Spider-Man story or your typical X-Men story, and so on and so on. Sure, there are plenty of comics in the mold of “The Dark Knight” and “Logan,” but for the most part they’re outliers. And we’ve had several recent examples of stellar superhero movies that tell great stories with interesting characters while embracing the more outlandish elements the genre offers.

Don’t believe me? If there’s one superhero movie in the last decade that basically everyone loves that isn’t “The Dark Knight,” it’s “The Avengers.” And, if you’re one of the five people on Earth who hasn’t seen “The Avengers,” it has about as much in common with “The Dark Knight” as a toaster does with a giraffe, at least in terms of visual style and characterization of its heroes.

But “The Dark Knight” and “The Avengers” actually have a lot in common when it comes to what actually matters in good movies. Both movies have strong scripts that put the focus on character first and foremost; “Dark Knight” is about Batman embracing his role as “the hero Gotham deserves” by learning to make hard choices and sacrificing his reputation for the greater good of saving the city’s soul, while “The Avengers” juggles several arcs for many of its major characters, many of which go back to their prior movies. Iron Man learns to be a team player with his self-sacrifice play at the end, Captain America accepts his transition to the modern world and embraces his leadership role, Black Widow gets a shot at redemption in the movie’s best scene, and Bruce Banner only becomes the Hulk (willingly) after revealing his big secret and completing his arc by accepting that the Hulk is part of who he is.

Both “The Dark Knight” and “The Avengers” also have talented directors who work well with actors. Nolan is justly recognized as one of the great boundary-pushing visual stylists of our time (see: “Inception”), while Joss Whedon has steadily worked his way up from TV to become a great blockbuster director more than capable of his own visual masterstrokes: The montage of the various Avengers fighting together in New York is packed with great moments, from Thor and Hulk working together to take out one of the giant space worms to (complete with Hulk punching Thor as payback from their earlier brawl) to Hulk and Loki’s “puny god” moment.

The lesson here, go figure, is hire directors with skill and vision if you want your superhero movie to be good. This is a lesson “Logan” learned well, bringing back James Mangold to both write and direct from “The Wolverine,” which salvaged the Wolverine solo series after the abysmal “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.” Mangold has a solid track record in well-constructed genre pieces, from the Johnny Cash biopic “Walk the Line” (which earned several Oscar nominations as well as a win for Reese Witherspoon) to the throwback Western “3:10 to Yuma.” With apologies to Bryan Singer, who’s directed most of the X-Men movies, the best ones in the series are the ones he DIDN’T direct, including “Logan,” “X-Men: First Class” and “Deadpool.” Singer’s approach is mostly defined by being singularly unremarkable, with a drab color palette, a bland approach to action scenes and an outright dismissal of the comic book source material in many instances. Cyclops even makes a crack about “yellow spandex” in the first X-Men movie, but it’s not like his late ’90s leather club wear is that much better.

The takeaway here is there’s no one right way to make a superhero movie, and studios should embrace a wide array of approaches to bring in as wide an audience as possible. Comics creators have shown incredible imagination over the decades when it comes these characters, and there’s no reason we can’t expect the same when we see them on screen.

Comics for Superhero Movie Fans- All-New Wolverine

Today marks the release of “Logan,” the latest entry in the X-Men movie franchise and, assuming Hugh Jackman isn’t lying, his final turn as Wolverine after 17 years and eight prior outings as the character. The movie is earning rave reviews, particularly for its realistic violence (it’s rated R, somewhat of a rarity for superhero movies, though there are notable exceptions), lived-in Western aesthetic and compelling character work from Jackman as Wolverine/Logan, Sir Patrick Stewart as an aging Professor X and newcomer Dafne Keen as Laura, a young girl with claws of her own and superpowers similar to Wolverine’s. You may remember her from this final trailer for the movie:

Laura’s who we’re going to focus on here today. While the obvious recommendation as a tie-in to this movie would be “Old Man Logan,” the story upon which the movie is very loosely based, the fact is “Old Man Logan” is problematic in a number of ways and the movie basically just borrows some elements of the “Old Man Logan” setting and not much else. However, there is currently an ongoing series from Marvel about Laura having taken up the mantle of Wolverine after he died (minor spoiler; he’s been dead in the comics since late 2014), and it’s great. Presenting: “All-New Wolverine.”

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Copyright Marvel Comics

“All-New Wolverine, Vol. 1: The Four Sisters.”

Creators:

  • Written by Tom Taylor
  • Art by David Lopez, David Navarrot and Nathan Fairbairn

Necessary backstory:

Wolverine died in the aptly named “Death of Wolverine” miniseries in 2014, but before he died he discovered he had a female clone codenamed X-23 that been created as part of the Weapon X program, the same program that had given him his claws and indestructible skeleton. Wolverine helped X-23 escape from that life and learn her name, Laura Kinney. Now that Wolverine is dead, Laura has taken up his costume and superhero career.

Why this story?

Marvel has made a significant effort in recent years to diversify its superhero lineup, both by creating new heroes (most notably Ms. Marvel, a Pakistani Muslim teen with shapeshifting powers) and by passing old superhero identities on to either new characters or previously established ones. There’s a new woman Thor, Sam Wilson shares the Captain America identity with Steve Rogers, and most recently there’s a new black, teenage, female Iron Man. But of all these transitions, Laura taking up the mantle of Wolverine is arguably the most successful for one simple reason: The old Wolverine is dead.

While Steve Rogers is still fighting crime as Captain America, the original Thor is still having his own adventures and Tony Stark is lying in a coma, Laura doesn’t feel like an asterisk because her progenitor is well and truly gone. While it’s true that almost nobody stays dead in superhero comics forever, Marvel has really committed to making Laura the new Wolverine, freeing her to have her own adventures without constantly trying to get out from under the shadow of her predecessor.

It helps that Tom Taylor, David Lopez and the other creators do a phenomenal job telling Laura’s story. While there’s the necessary fluid, occasionally bloody action…

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Scene from “All-New Wolverine No. 2.” Copyright Marvel Comics
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Scene from “All-New Wolverine No. 4.” Copyright Marvel Comics

…Taylor also makes sure to give Laura a compelling personality and arc. In this first story, Laura discovers a group of clones of her that have been created by an evil pharmaceutical company for nefarious purposes. The story revolves around Laura becoming a protector and mentor figure for the girls, just as she was taken in and mentored by Logan before he died. It also shows her struggling to curb her more violent tendencies and showing the girls how they need to do the same, because none of them need to be defined by the fact that they were created to be weapons. It’s a great introduction to Laura Kinney and a great superhero story in its own right.

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Laura’s first appearance in full costume in “All-New Wolverine No. 1.” Copyright Marvel Comics

You can find “All-New Wolverine, Volume 1” at your local comics shop, online at Amazon.com and digitally at Comixology and other platforms.

Comics for Superhero Movie Fans- Batman: Year One

Hey everyone! This is the first entry in a new, occasional series I’ll be running called Comics for Superhero Movie Fans, in which I’ll be recommending comic books for people who like watching superheroes on the big screen.

Why comics? Well for one, it gives me an excuse to talk about comics, which is something I very much enjoy since I am a weekly comics reader. But mostly I want to encourage people to read the books that are the source material for today’s most popular movies (including “Star Wars”; Marvel is publishing a line of “Star Wars” comics set primarily between “A New Hope” and “The Empire Strikes Back,” and since Disney now owns “Star Wars,” these comics are canon). While much is often changed or lost in the translation from page to screen, it’s still true that movie studios pull characters and entire storylines from comics, and comics also offer a rich vein of stories for people who enjoy seeing these colorful characters in action.

So, without further adieu, here’s my first recommendation, and it’s an easy one:

year-one-cover
Copyright DC Comics

“Batman: Year One”

Creators:

  • Written by Frank Miller.
  • Art by David Mazzucchelli
  • Coloring by Richmond Lewis
  • Lettering by Todd Klein

Necessary backstory:

  • The great thing about “Batman: Year One” is its brevity and simplicity; this is the definitive Batman origin story, and as such you don’t need any working knowledge of the broader DC Comics universe, which can be a hurdle for new readers on occasion. As long as you have some vague conception of who Batman is and what his deal is, you shouldn’t get lost.

Why this story?

  • As I just said, it’s the definitive Batman origin story. While Batman’s origin had been told before and has been retold since (we’ll likely get to his most recent origin story before long), these four issues sketch out a near-perfect story of how Bruce Wayne began his crime-fighting career. It’s the story everyone keeps going back to, including Christopher Nolan in his Batman trilogy and (to a lesser extent) Zack Snyder in “Batman v. Superman.”
  • You’ve likely already seen a handful of moments and characters from this comic. “Batman Begins” borrows the scene where Batman summons a massive colony of bats to protect him from overzealous police. In the comic, it looks like this:
yearone-bats
Copyright DC Comics.

“Batman Begins” also includes Detective Flass, the corrupt Gotham Police officer who’s also Jim Gordon’s partner (remember “SWEAR TO ME!”?). In “Year One” he has a much bigger role as an active antagonist to Gordon, though one of Gordon’s best moments in the story comes when he beats up Flass to show that he won’t be cowed by the corrupt officials in Gotham.

  • “Year One” is actually Frank Miller’s best Batman story. “The Dark Knight Returns” is often cited as his best, because it helped touch off the grim and gritty antihero period of comics, but “Year One” holds up better because it doesn’t have the uncomfortable authoritarian overtones of “Dark Knight” and it’s more interested in telling a Batman story than deconstructing Batman as a hero.
  • The art is fantastic. Miller is no slouch in the art department himself, but Mazzucchelli created a number of unforgettable images in this story, including Batman dropping in on a bunch of mobsters having dinner and a bat bursting in on Bruce Wayne as he recovers from his first, bloody night as a crime fighter.
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Copyright DC Comics
year-one-origin
Copyright DC Comics

That’s all for this first part in the series. Next up: A story from the gang at Marvel.