Top Five comic book based film/TV shows?
There’s a slight distinction here between the ones I think are the best, and the ones I enjoy watching the most.
So for the first:
1. The Dark Knight – this is the only superhero film I can think of that actually grapples with the central idea that a hero should ultimately be striving to create a world in which he or she is not necessary. In other words, the film takes the ideas it invokes about democracy and the use or abuse of power seriously – the arguments between Dent and Gordon, or Bruce and Fox, about how far is too far matter (there’s a reason Civil War will not appear on either of these lists, and it’s because I found the ending a complete dramatic cheat – the film sets up a problem it can’t solve in the first act, and then substitutes it for the question of whether Bucky should be summarily executed, which… we all know the answer to that). It has the dramatic courage to be a tragedy.
It helps that the casting is so strong – Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Rachel in particular. I didn’t realise just how vapid Katie Holmes was in the part until I saw Maggie Gyllenhaal play it – it’s believable that two intelligent, serious-minded men could fall in love with her (a note for any and all future adapters, if your hero has any kind of depth, his love interest will be a woman with presence, not, for example, Kim Basinger’s Vicki Vale). It’s also one of the best cinematic experiences I’ve ever had – when Batman flipped the batpod the entire audience went crazy. (I always try to see blockbusters as close to opening as possible, because there’s an energy in an audience that’s keyed up and excited about seeing a film that’s infectious. Or, as a friend put it to me, I enjoy seeing films most when the audience acts like a theatre audience).
2. Wonder Woman – this is one of the more brilliantly emotionally manipulative films I’ve seen in recent years. The scene where Wonder Woman goes into no man’s land…it’s such a transparent attempt to get the audience on side, and it works, every damn time. it struck me after watching it how rare it is to see a female character get to be a goddamn hero all the way through her story. I admired Buffy as an accomplishment (and I’d argue Sarah Michelle Gellar never got sufficient credit for what she did with the character), but so very often her most heroic moments were intertwined with immense trauma, as though that was the necessary cost of heroism for women.
The other thing about Wonder Woman that feels genuinely revolutionary is the complete absence of the male gaze – Gal Gadot is a stunning women, but the camera never pervs on her (Chris Pine’s blue, blue eyes are always exquisitely well lit however), or on any of the Amazons. (Whereas in Justice League that’s all the camera seems to do).
3. V for Vendetta. Natalie Portman’s English accent is unforgivably terrible, but this is the only Alan Moore adaptation I can actually stand to watch. (The League of Extraordinary Gentleman was probably doomed to failure anyway – it’s almost certainly more suited to television – but the film of it is just…terrible). I haven’t read the original comic, but the film seems to streamline and update the source material very intelligently – when Stephen Fry’s character shows Evey the Koran, it’s genuinely moving, but it’s a detail I suspect doesn’t exist in the original text. I also think Hugo Weaving does an incredible job playing V, particularly as he never gets to use his face.
4. Captain America: The Winter Soldier – Civil War has made me think less of this film, as it really highlighted to me how easily the anti-government rhetoric they give to Cap can be twisted into something anti-democratic (there’s less separating Cap’s generalised suspicion of politics from the insinuations about all politicians being intrinsically corrupt that have been coming from the far right and, to a lesser extent, the far left over the last years, and that can lead to some dangerous things left unchecked). However, setting aside my discomfort with the film’s politics, The Winter Soldier is a fantastic achievement. The political thriller angle works really well for Cap as a character, and if anything it has only become more relevant (the use of algorithms is probably scarier now, when we’re starting to see how they can be used to subvert democratic processes, than it was when the film was released). Robert Redford was also a fantastic ‘get’ for this film – there aren’t many actors who could deliver his lines about Hydra and make them seem almost reasonable, but he manages it. (This is also the last film where Marvel’s inevitable last act ‘giant confrontation atop a floating thingy’ didn’t feel like a schtick).
5. Jessica Jones, Season One – the show is not without its problems (realistically it needs to be at least two episodes shorter, and killing off Lester Freamon for no goddamn reason is asinine), but the ideas it plays with are so fascinating, so well embodied by the actors, and so intelligently shot, that I think it gets away with it. Kilgrave is also a genuinely terrifying villain – and terrifying on multiple levels, which is what makes him so effective. He is both naturally and supernaturally frightening – invoking the possessive, abusive rapist so many women have good reason to fear, as well as the rather unnerving idea of someone with absolute power. It’s rare in superhero narratives to be genuinely frightened by what might happen to the hero, and yet I think the audience is absolutely scared of what might happen to Jessica, in a way they never have been for Batman or Iron Man or anyone else. (That said, I don’t think I’ll be rewatching it any time soon, as I found it too unnerving).
As for the ones I enjoy the most…I’d probably knock V for Vendetta and Jessica Jones off the list and replace them with one of the below:
Thor – it’s not a great film. I know that. But I find the whole ‘fish out of water’ angle unreasonably charming, and the whole set up of Jane being baffled and confused by Thor’s courtly manners is much more fun than it has any right to be. Hemsworth is not a great actor, but he has the right kind of chemistry with his scene partners, and much like Luke Cage, I think this is a part where having the right look and physique is half the battle. (I scold myself for failing at feminism every time I watch it, because I find the scene where Thor sweeps Jane into his arms endlessly swoon-worthy).
Daredevil, Season 1 – it’s the only Netflix show that doesn’t fall apart in its backhalf, it doesn’t make me queasy the way Jessica Jones did, and I cannot think of a better encapsulation of why people are attracted to these kinds of stories than the hallway fight in the second episode. Not because it’s a brilliant fight scene (though it is), but because of the emotional kicker at the end when Matt Murdock takes off his mask to comfort a frightened child. “You don’t have to be scared.” (It baffles me that the show runners have staged multiple hallway fight scenes since then, but seemed to have missed that it was the emotional catharsis that made that scene so powerful). I also have a lot of time for the way they use Karen to mess with the audience – I don’t think anyone saw the scene where she shot Wesley coming, which is a sign that they subverted expectations in a good way.
Agent Carter – the first season, at least. The second season fell apart a bit (I blame the love triangle that goes no where interesting for this), but Hayley Atwell is a real presence in the part, and her chemistry with James D’arcy is a delight.
X-Men 2 – watching Wolverine tear through the men invading the school is a delight, and for the number of characters it has the film is incredibly tightly constructed. It’s also the last X-Men film that doesn’t beg the question of why they don’t just kill Magneto (he has a point – he totally has a point – but he’s also the cause of at least 70% of everyone’s problems. Everyone would be better off if he was gone). It even seemed like they might do something interesting with Rogue… who was one of my favourite characters in the cartoon.
I also have a lot of time for Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, though it is a genuinely…weird film in a lot of ways, and weird in ways I don’t think I understood at the age I saw it. I know a lot of people would choose one of Sam Raimi’s Spiderman films, but… I can see that they’re well done, but none of them made me fall in love with the character, so…
I liked Black Panther, and T’Challa’s speech at the end of the film moved me in a way I really did not anticipate, but fundamentally… I think the politics the film explores are far more interesting than any of the characters (with the exception of Killmonger), which holds it back for me. (Much like Captain America, Black Panther seems like an intrinsically political character to me – obviously there are politics in all comicbook films, but you could transfer Black Panther into a political thriller far more easily than a character like Spiderman or Superman). Of course, I will always, always love Okoye.
it also makes me sad that no one has managed to make a Superman film that really captures the appeal of the character (at least for me. I don’t even read comic books, but this strip has seemed to sum up why people love Superman ever since I read it). I have watched the original Christopher Reeve film, and while he and Margot Kidder are incredibly well cast, there’s some weirdness in the structure that makes it tonally very uneven. I also think Gene Hackman (who I really rate) turns in a rather odd performance. And the Zack Snyder films don’t seem to understand the character at all (I want to see the Superman film Jesse Eisenberg thought he was in – it would be batshit insane, but at least it would be interesting).