MY TOP FIVE FAVORITE FILMS of all time (this took years of deliberation, then, again, hours of elimination) are “Pulp Fiction,” “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “All About Eve,” “Roman Holiday,” and “Goodfellas.” Brazenly violent, patois-filled twists on gangster-noir, romantic comedy before it was confined to the trope that “she was pretty all along,” and character-centric dramas which have outlasted generations of multiplied cinematic cynicism… I will re-watch these movies any given day of the week. Apparently, film critics universally agree with me because the lowest Rotten Tomatoes positive consensus any of them scored was a 93% rating for “Pulp Fiction.”
However, there will also never be a cold day in Hell when I’ll turn down the opportunity to re-watch ANY of these movies: “Guardians of the Galaxy,” “The Avengers,” HALF of the “X-Men” franchise, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” “Iron Man” or Christopher Nolan’s entire Batman trilogy (“Batman Begins,” “The Dark Knight,” and “The Dark Knight Rises“).
These movies are all recent superhero movies and according to Rotten Tomatoes, they all have the same A- -to- A+ grade average the top 5 in my personal pantheon do. But the minute you say “Iron Man” is one of the most well-made movies of all time, that’s the minute you are laughed off the Internet and out of the room. Superhero movies are dumb. Superhero movies are disposable. People do not assume the same amounts of intellect, heart, and effort were infused into “The Dark Knight” as were into “Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance),” which, by the by, was my favorite “non-super” movie of 2014 (purposely ironic, given its star, Michael Keaton, and its story–the comeback of an actor formerly world-renowned for a superhero franchise called “Birdman.”
THE MINUTE YOU SAY “IRON MAN” IS ONE OF THE MOST WELL-MADE MOVIES OF ALL TIME, THAT’S THE MINUTE YOU ARE LAUGHED OFF THE INTERNET AND OUT OF THE ROOM.
I’m not saying every well-crafted, much-beloved superhero movie should enter the annals of legendary cinema but it shouldn’t not simply because it is based around the concept of a superhero. As well-reviewed as Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” franchise may have been, it will always be dubbed by critics as well as the general public as undeserving of any official recognition (i.e. your Oscars, BAFTAs, etc.).
Director and screenwriter James Gunn of “Guardians of the Galaxy” recently jabbed back at this exact criticism, saying, “The truth is, popular fare has always been snubbed by the self-appointed elite. I’ve made B-movies, independent films, children’s movies, horror films, and gigantic spectacles. In all honesty, I do not find a strikingly different percentage of those with integrity and those without working within any of these fields of film.”
Why do people feel this way? For as many unwatchable superhero movies–“Daredevil” (2003), “The Punisher” (2004),” and 2011’s “Green Lantern“, there are as many tremendously terrible artsy-fartfests (hate to drop SAT vocabulary on you).
FOR AS MANY UNWATCHABLE SUPERHERO MOVIES (“DAREDEVIL”), THERE ARE AS MANY TREMENDOUSLY TERRIBLE ARTSTY-FARTFESTS (HATE TO DROP SAT VOCAB ON YOU).
Take, for example, last year’s multi-talent-stacked crime drama, “The Counselor”… This movie ONLY had Academy Award nominees and winners at its helm–its director being Ridley Scott (3-time nominee) and its stars comprising of Michael Fassbender (2014 nominee for “12 Years a Slave”), Javier Bardem (2007 winner for “No Country for Old Men”) and Penelope Cruz (2008 winner for “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”). The critical consensus was, and I quote, “‘The Counselor’ raises expectations with its talented cast and creative crew — then subverts them with a wordy and clumsy suspense thriller that’s mercilessly short on suspense or thrills.”
Let’s not forget how horrifically grisly, yet completely empty and meaningless Spike Lee’s “Oldboy” managed to be. A 2013 remake of the viscerally existential and far superior Korean crime-thriller by Park Chan-wok, Lee’s interpretation also had bloody savagery and psychological suspense but drags without anything resembling human motivation or emotion beneath the curtain of violence.
Behind Nolan’s Batman vigilante action is the story of a grown man helping his city, and himself, overcome their fears as one. Just as behind “Guardians of the Galaxy”‘s multi-species team of heroes (talking raccoons, hot green women, and one regular ol’ human) is the surprisingly soulful relationships that form uneasily and in a realistic time frame amongst the members.
As Gunn also said, “If you, as an independent filmmaker or a ‘serious’ filmmaker, think you put more love into your characters than the Russo Brothers do Captain America, or Joss Whedon does the Hulk, or I do a talking raccoon, you are simply mistaken.”
Gunn’s wise-cracking raccoon, Rocket, was, indeed, the surprising showstopper amongst an already-charismatic team of, well, real actors. Voiced by 3-time consecutive Academy Award nominee Bradley Cooper, Rocket was created for the big screen through painstaking detail and observation. Gunn and the animators at Framestore, the visual effects company that worked on “Guardians of the Galaxy,” studied a real-life raccoon (see him with Gunn below) to finalize the particulars of not only Rocket’s looks, but also the way in which he would brandish a gun and stand and walk on his hind legs, as he does throughout most of the film.
That was all just for the concept art stage of Rocket. You can see the adorable-and-furious result below:
As for sound, Gunn had a clear-cut vision for Rocket to not be overacted. Rocket was specifically directed to sound laidback and easygoing in the final product. Cooper, according to Animation Supervisor Kevin Spruce, could not “exaggerate his performance and make him too cartoony,” but it was equally important that Rocket maintained a level of pizzazz to keep his personality distinct and entertaining.
Gunn’s level of cinematic intuition and skill was such that he ensured the animators did not get sloppy about an oft-ignored issue with special effects; An observational detail of which he took special notice was how actors naturally don’t always look each other in the eye when they are speaking while animators usually make it so that their characters do. Spruce attested that Gunn made sure his animation team was very precise as to “what Rocket would do and how he would react in any given situation.” Sounds like a lot of intellect and sweat over a movie that is so disposable and unworthy of the classics.
“IF YOU, AS A ‘SERIOUS’ FILMMAKER, THINK YOU PUT MORE LOVE INTO YOUR CHARACTERS THAN THE RUSSO BROTHERS DO CAPTAIN AMERICA, OR JOSS WHEDON DOES THE HULK, OR I DO A TALKING RACCOON, YOU ARE SIMPLY MISTAKEN.”
~DIRECTOR JAMES GUNN, “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY”
Perhaps, the “Superhero” label is what is screwing these films over. What if it were simply removed? The most recent a superhero film was regarded as not being a superhero film was 2000’s M. Night Shyamalan thriller, “Unbreakable.” Lo and behold, it accrued an ever-growing cult of devotion from indie filmmakers and critics alike that the most highly regarded “superhero film” has never seen. Freed from the construct of any pre-established superhero lore, the audience was able to view the “super” in the movie through fresh, real-life lenses.
On the other hand, it shouldn’t require a “real-world” context for a superhero film to convince its adult audience members that it is a serious work of art, should it choose to rise to that occasion. Nolan’s Batman trilogy was revered for its tonal and thematic resemblance to a classic crime drama-slash-thriller. It never, however, won any Oscars in the major categories because it still heavily featured feats of strength and aerodynamics (in one word: superheroics), that defied the laws of reality, dooming it for stigmatization. Just tell me Commissioner Jim Gordon’s words are not some of the best last lines in a movie. Ever.
All I know is, I have never read a comic book in my life–but every time I watch a well-shot, well-written and well-acted superpowered flick, I feel transported, rejuvenated, enlivened… When I saw the gimmick-reliant indie “Boyhood” in theaters last year, I found myself making to-do lists of the emails I should answer first in my inbox. Thank you, Richard Linklaters of the world, but most of us do not go see movies to be reminded of the monotonous minutiae of our lives. We go to escape. See y’all at “Ant-Man.”