Top 10 Comic Books of the 2010s #5

He is inevitable.

Avengers | Infinity War was going to appear somewhere on this list at some point. It’s the best case example of the most ambitious films being the most impressive to watch if made to their full potential. Half the entertainment value of Avengers | Infinity War is the fact that it even exists, that someone was able to actually make it – and that they didn’t disappoint.

They say a superhero film is only as interesting as its super-villain and Thanos is the greatest super-villain of the decade for several reasons. He has a developed perspective on the universe, the kind not usually seen in action-packed blockbusters. He’s a real character rather than a plot device and arguably, in an ensemble of heroes from across the universe, the protagonist of the film (something rarely seen, if ever). His ideology makes sense, the psychological arithmetic behind it checks out. He’s not a “villain” per se – just an individual whose experiences in life have informed his view. He’s a real person, not merely an excuse for the Avengers to assemble again. He’s also empathetic, in a disturbing way.

The issues which motivate Thanos will need addressing for real when the Human population reaches 10, 000, 000, 000 in the mid- to late 21st century – during most of our lifetimes. In spite of everything, he compels you to at least listen to him – the sign of a great villain.

Which is not to say the other characters are in any way less interesting as a result. The joy of a film like this is of combining a universe of characters together to first see how they come up against each other before eventually combining their respective abilities to find a common solution. When pulled-apart to be examined clinically, these interactions are probably revealed to be nothing more than algorithms in which each character is one functional piece of a larger puzzle but they’re all written consistently so this is hidden by the appearance of everything they say and do being what would naturally happen.

Such a large ensemble cast could’ve threatened to capsize the plot with its own form of overpopulation, so what’s satisfying is that, despite the scope and scale, everything is self-contained and still happens for a reason. The cross-cutting between the three action scenes taking place simultaneously on Nidavellir, Titan and in Wakanda may be a perfect representation of the experience of reading whole-company crossovers with great, double-page spreads but the crucial thing is that it manages to feel weighty and substantial without seeming bloated. The form and function are, like the humour and darkness, perfectly balanced (as all things should be). None of it is ever forced, it all happens for a reason. The crowd-pleasing presentation style comes after the content of the scenes, as opposed to the other way around (something far too many blockbuster filmmakers completely fail to understand).

This is the kind of film which I could spend much longer writing about – a good thing but inconvenient. I’m ranking this 5th amongst the films of this decade in its genre because of how the almost impossible task of bringing together an entire universe of characters was accomplished with simplicity and how the desired spectacle was delivered within that simplicity in order to still be coherent. This is, in a way, the ultimate comic book film and as such demonstrates the appeal of the genre in the best way as well as demonstrating how to avoid some of the genre’s biggest problems. Every character has a least one key moment that proves crucial for the plot yet none are included simply for the sake of being there.

On paper, this must surely have been the most ambitious film to make and therefore the most difficult to do well, never-mind in a way which achieves its full potential – and they did and it does. Simply as a piece of film-making, it’s an unrivalled achievement and is the most easily re-watchable blockbuster – not because it requires no engagement but quite the opposite.

Plus, it’s the first comic book film in which the heroes fail and the villain succeeds. Thor could’ve decapitated Thanos there and then and everything I’ve said about it already would still be true. But it managed to still crawl over that one last, unclaimed inch to deliver an ending which defied everyone’s expectations – and which everyone who, like me, grew up with these films – particularly with this franchise – will remember for the rest of our lives.

Avengers | Infinity War will be streaming soon on Disney+

Top 10 2010s Comic Book Films #6

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 takes everything that worked about Vol. 1 and amplifies it. Vol. 1 was an amusing space romp with larger-than-life characters and cool music, so Vol. 2 is even funnier but also explores deeper themes while developing its characters’ backstories.

Peter Quill’s relationship with his father, Ego, is an extended analogy for humanity’s relationship with God; discovering the love He must feel for all His children throughout the Universe but also His ability to justify being what mortals would think of as psychotic. Watching Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 for the first time was an incredible experience for me, because I saw a big-budget mainstream blockbuster sci-fi film using its characters and concepts to delve into such big ideas.

Ego can justify what he did to Peter’s mother because she could die of old age in the blink of his eye anyway. His nature as a celestial and everyone else’s nature as mortals can’t be resolved – in other words, God and man will never truly be able to understand each other because of their fundamental differences. Ego killed Meredith Quill to spare them both pain but Peter will always be traumatised by it. All the major characters have suffered some sort of defining trauma in their pasts and Vol. 2 fleshes them out in more detail – from Gamora’s abusive upbringing under Thanos to Yondu, previously a supporting character, having grown-up in slavery. They’ve all been emotionally wounded by circumstance and that’s what brings them together as a family.

The reputation of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is that it’s derivative of Vol. 1 but with more jokes and action sequences but it’s not. It’s much more sophisticated than it receives credit for because – while it’s true that a lot of Vol. 1’s beats are revisited – there’s more happening beneath the surface. But it’s good that it’s beneath the surface because the general Marvel movie audience still get what they came for.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is now streaming on Disney+

Top 10 Comic Book Films of the 2010s #7

Avengers: Age of Ultron is the controversial entry on this list. I’ve had to accept that I get more out of it than most, who generally think of it as being too generic a blockbuster to stand out from its genre contemporaries. So allow me, then, to explain why I’ve listed it as the 7th best comic book film of the 2010s.

It’s because, despite most of the film being one, long action scene, in and amongst that is one of the more personal, character-based films about superheroes. Every major character has some sort of emotional subplot that plays a much more significant role in the main narrative, rather than being an afterthought as usual.

For instance, Tony Stark’s self-obsessed curiosity is followed-through to its logical conclusion with the creation of Ultron, who acts as a cracked mirror for his own internal struggle between taking great risks with the best intentions. Barton’s character is developed more than anyone else’s in a way which reminds the audience that these heroes do have families and homes, their own lives outside of their super-heroism. They are real people. The Maximoff twins, who only have each other and hate Stark for how his imperialist past has directly affected them are the outside perspective providing as much of a critical look at the Avengers as Ultron.

Perspective is also the key word here. Ultron is a mistake made with honest intentions, the Maximoffs’ hatred of Stark is justified by what he’s unknowingly done to them and, after being created by Stark, Ultron decides to side with the silent majority and stand against the Avengers. It’s a simple equation but it’s informed by what we know about these characters and their experiences: Stark on one extreme, the Maximoffs on the other and Barton in the centre as the every-man just doing what he can to keep his family safe. There’s also Banner, who, after initially helping him create Ultron, comes up against Stark when only he realises the true extent of what they’ve done – but still agrees to help him create The Vision, despite the same risks applying.

Banner’s relationship with Romanoff is a microcosm of the Avengers’ whole team dynamic; they’re all trying to be better people than who destiny has made them and that’s what brings them together.  They choose to believe in the optimistic alternative to Ultron’s algorithmic philosophy because they’re the human element – something the Maximoffs eventually come to realise.

At times, the scale does seem overwhelming but beneath the surface is a drama about what it takes to be these characters, who they are and what their motivations are. This is not the best Avengers film but it’s the best example of each character working together as a team. Out of all four Avengers films, this is the one that doesn’t just have them in it but is also primarily about them.

Top 10 Comic Book Films of the 2010s #8

What makes the comic book genre unique from others is that it’s the only one which has perfected the cinematic universe. This was inevitable as it’s how the comic books which inspired the films were always structured, whereas other genres are reverse-engineering their properties to connect with each other after-the-fact and to lesser results. In this way, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is like an entirely new form of cinema and Avengers: Endgame distils that form into a single product, which is why it’s the one piece of essential viewing for that franchise. If you can see only one Infinity Saga film, this is the one that will provide the most satisfying experience. It includes all the major characters (an almighty 45 actors receive single on-screen end credits) and journeys back to previous films (including Guardians of the Galaxy, featured on this list as #10).

This is the singular representation of the experience of having followed the Saga from its beginning twenty-one chapters prior and is the most expensively-budgeted thank you to the fans that have enabled it to exist. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is an experiment so far not replicated by any other production company to such popularity and Avengers: Endgame is a microcosm of that experiment. It would’ve been the perfect ending had Marvel Studios the wisdom to eventually stop in order for the story to have value in being complete. Just as Logan (#9 on this list) will, I think, be remembered as the film which was produced by a studio brave enough to end their story, Avengers: Endgame will inversely be compared as the moment Marvel Studios should’ve done the same but didn’t. How the two films’ respective legacies will develop only time will tell.

Avengers: Endgame will definitely be the more well-remembered film, though Logan will likely earn more academic favour. And yet, I’ve placed Avengers: Endgame above Logan. Why? Because, for a list ranking the decade’s comic book films, Avengers: Endgame is more representative of the whole. The Infinity Saga has been the golden age of the genre and its finale, Avengers: Endgame, is the golden statue of it, reminding us in one film of exactly what that golden age was by being the definitive on-screen depiction of comic books: a mishmash of characters from all genres and styles in a heightened reality combining themselves in emotionally stimulating adventures of epic proportions. No other film based on comic books will ever come close to better translating them to the screen because Avengers: Endgame gets it exactly right.

Those of us who’ve grown-up reading comic books and watching the films they subsequently inspired have waited our whole lives for something like this and part of the joy seeing it done so perfectly is that it doesn’t just transpose the frames to motion pictures but brings with it the same feeling so accurately as for there to be no difference in experience. This film is a generational zeitgeist that, in years to come, will serve as a preserved reminder of what growing up as a shamelessly naive comic book reader was like; the way they can switch between high fantasy action to intimately dramatic scenes as if they’re one and the same. The third act accomplishes this to a fault, making the final battle, like all the great double-page spreads of iconic whole-company crossovers, one in which everything external is an outward manifestation of the internal.

Captain America has finally overcome the greatest challenge and become worthy of Mjolnir and now finds himself, when faced with the worst threat he’s ever fought, surrounded by all the friends and allies he’s ever known or inspired – a This is Your Wonderful Life befitting of a centennial warrior who’s devoted his whole life to guiding the human race and giving them everything he can to protect them. In his most desperate moment of need, everyone he’s every positively affected assembles to help him and I found myself asking, if this were me, how many would come? Who would they be?

It’s the perfect conclusion of the dramatic half of the film, which is about trauma and learning to overcome it, and does so by exploring the question of what happens when superheroes lose? How do they cope with that? The genre exaggerates the Human experience and so, in this case, overcoming it is Thor finding himself still worthy of his name. It’s a relatable moment because it’s when he has the key breakthrough that begins to turn things around for him. Everyone has their own version of that moment. It matters because we’ve been on his journey with him through all his previous appearances, and so that moment is the culmination of the developing character arc which led up to it. This doesn’t need a cinematic universe to be possible but only a cinematic universe can develop a film character in so much detail for that kind of pay-off to be delivered – or any of the other moments of pay-off.

Every previous Infinity Saga film is somehow referenced by Avengers: Endgame – some directly, some indirectly. But that’s what makes it the perfect case study of what happens when a cinematic universe is done well, rather than just being a marketing gimmick – the result is directly proportional. That’s why I believe that Avengers: Endgame will be the essential viewing for film students in decades to come when studying the cinematic universes of the early 21st century: Marvel’s is the prototype and Avengers: Endgame was what it all led to and didn’t disappoint and so will therefore be looked back-upon as the definitive example of the kind of films that are being produced by western culture at this current time – which is what making films is really all about.

Top 10 Comic Book Films of the 2010s #9

When it comes to comic book films, the “big two” brands are Marvel Studios and DC Films. But, before acquiring the company, Marvel outsourced the X-Men to 20th Century Fox and Logan is the perfect example of the kind of films Marvel wouldn’t have made with the character themselves. Not only is it R-rated but it also develops themes and ideas too internal for family-family crowd-pleasers like Marvel Studios to risk taking.

The main idea being: what happens to superheroes when they inevitably age? Their adventures can’t last forever and sooner or later, they must face their unstoppable decline. From that concept comes a story in which an established character, portrayed in 8 previous films over 17 years by the same actor, now finds himself at the end of his series and facing a literal franchise fatigue, his sense of adventurousness long since faded. It’s about the way in which a person’s inner youth will leave them for the nostalgia of their own glory days and take the excitement of the world with it. Logan is the culmination of all the previous X-Men films, most other mutants gone from the Earth and the few pieces left behind now raging against the dying of their own last lights.

It’s the conclusion of a lifetime’s work that’s daring enough to definitively kill its protagonist and say “That’s it, no more”. Long-running stories only have value when they end and few studios are ever daring enough to bring them to a close.

In the same way, Logan is also the end of an era. The X-Men film series started before the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the Logan character was the link connecting them together. With him gone, it was simply binding its time until its end. With 20th Century Fox now a Walt Disney company and future X-Men films being developed within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Logan is the last major chapter of a unique franchise that no longer exists and was experimental enough to produce films which didn’t follow the same cookie-cutter format. Perhaps, in years to come, Logan will still be a film people are talking about rather than one featuring any iteration of the character Disney brings us. Perhaps it will be an indictment into the monotonous process of a studio coming to encompass yet more of Hollywood.

Whatever happens, for future generations studying this genre, Logan will arguably be the best example. It’s a watershed moment demonstrating what more can be done with comic book characters and a raising of the bar that the more mainstream superhero films may never overcome. Logan is perhaps the first film based on a comic book that should’ve been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, though it remains the only one nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay (and claims that its fantasy source material is inspired by this more realistic adaptation rather than the other way around). It’s the final, rousing movement in a great symphony that marks the watershed between what it established as being possible to achieve for the genre and how little was afterwards.

 

Logan will be streaming on Hulu soon.

Top 10 Comic Book Films of the 2010s #10

I’ll start this list with Guardians of the Galaxy because in 2009 it wouldn’t have been on anyone’s list of comic book properties they wanted to see adapted into a film by 2019 (apart from Jon Schnepp’s). It was such an obscure property that questions were asked by some as to whether it was even based on a comic book or if it were Marvel Studios’ first original film.

Guardians of the Galaxy works so well because of James Gunn’s unique directing style – the choice to hire him (also an obscure name from cult B-cinema) was another reason there was doubt over whether the film could be a hit, the main causes of scepticism being Rocket and Groot.

These two characters could’ve worn thin easily, especially with Groot’s limited vocabulary. That they became the breakout stars and, depending on who you ask, the most popular on-screen comic book heroes is testament to the way, not just in which Marvel Studios can make a blockbuster franchise out of anything, but in which there’s no limit to what can be done with comic book characters if the story’s being told by people who love the source material and its unlimited potential for great stories.

Guardians of the Galaxy is now streaming on Disney+

The King (2019)

The King is about the young King Henry V ascending to the throne during the Hundred Years’ War with France. Henry’s younger brother Thomas had been their dying father’s chosen heir but when he’s killed in battle, Henry becomes the soon-to-be king. But Henry is unfit, preferring to indulge in the kind of hedonism enjoyed by young, wealthy men with fewer responsibilities. With King Charles V of Spain taunting him, the hotheaded and over-reactive Henry prepares to lead England into war and prove his abilities as a leader.

This historic background – which originally occurred over the much longer time-frame of 1413 to 1420 – is used as a catalyst for telling the story of a young man finding himself imbued with a responsibility he neither wanted nor expected to have but determined to honour it as best he can, even at the cost of forgetting the original points of everything this leads him to do. In this way, The King does what every great biopic does: it frames the situation of its historical protagonist in a context that can be understood by modern audiences.

Studying the kings and queens of England in school was only ever about facts and figures, there was never any focus on the people as individuals or why they’re worth knowing about. The King does the complete opposite, by not tarting itself-up just because it’s the story of an old English king as so many period dramas do. It’s not a celebration of Britain’s long-lasting monarchy, it’s a film which seems to have been made to be judged on its own merits rather than being praised simply for its popular subject matter. As a result, Henry is given respect as a legitimate character in his own right, making him not an Oscar-bait performance of British royalty but as a real person who once lived and doesn’t have the understanding of his legacy that we, the audience, do 600 years later.

I’ve always felt a yearning for history and the people who came before me. The main reason for my dissatisfaction with how history is taught is because I never felt the connection to my forebears. They were real, they once existed in this world, they once experienced the sensory phenomenon of life that we do. They’re not an invented backstory. They were real people who simply walked the Earth too long ago for us to truly understand them in real terms.
Watching The King gave me that personal connection to Henry because its naturalistic directing and respectful approach to its historical characters makes it certainly the most realistic depiction of that time and those people that I’ve seen. In my experience, most period dramas only show “what happened” and rarely create an atmosphere that shows what it was actually like to be a Human being in that time.

The King is a film of verisimilitude. It’s not directed with the kind of distance between its characters and the audience inherent to most period pieces – this is only a period piece because it happens to be. Instead, its scenes and the characters in them are presented as if they’re otherwise happening now. Its depiction of Lancastrian England is internally consistent and self-contained, not as a window into the past to be looked through like a diorama but as the world these characters inhabit and which for them is just as real as our own.

For example, the highlight of the film is a dramatisation of the beheading of Richard Conisburgh and Henry Scrope. Something which has always confused me is how, when learning in history class about the beheading of King Charles I, there was never any discussion of the fact that it actually used to be practised in Great Britain nor the considering of the subject’s experience – especially given that it’s now only practised by the worst of terrorists. It was always covered matter-of-factly, that it happened but not whether it should’ve happened or the lived Human reality of it.

Whereas The King doesn’t simply tell the audience that those people were executed for treason, it depicts the event from every relevant point-of-view: Henry, who heartlessly and coldlessly states that it shall happen, matter-of-factly and without changing his tone and Conisburgh and Scrope, who can now only count down the time they have remaining until they’re finally able to discover what it’s like for the end of their life to come in such a savage, undignified way. Henry watches in a chair as a cold wind blows, his face still unchanged while Conisburgh and Scrope become more and more filled with dread.

It’s a horrid scene but that’s what’s so memorable about it: that it takes the approach of neither glamorising the decapitation nor pointing the finger at the society of the past. Instead, scenes are presented as they might have happened with the faith that the audience will find it actually more entertaining than if they chose to deliberately try and make it so. It’s the kind of execution scene that, to my knowledge, has only been done previously in Cromwell, the dramatisation of said execution of King Charles I. Alec Guinness underplays Charles’ fear and humiliation as part of the drama of the scene. The only difference between Cromwell and The King is – how shall I put it? – the way in which the actual beheading is shown.

The effect is that the characters aren’t really characters, they’re people on screen doing whatever they do. They’re not in a film, the film is just the medium for everything within it, which is otherwise just as real and believable as the present. Director David Michôd has taken the unconventional, radical approach of not telling the story of a historical monarch through the typically-expected lens of reverence, instead taking it seriously enough to do it properly. Does Timothée Chalamet’s portrayal of Henry compare to those of Kenneth Branagh (Henry V) or Laurence Olivier (The Chronicle History of King Henry the Fift with His Battell Fought at Agincourt in France)? Frankly, I don’t care because The King is the version with the kind of credibility and accessibility and absence of theatricality that will enable it to culturally endure much longer – as well as being the one I’d rather watch.