The latest reboot of the Fantastic Four hits theaters this weekend and there is much trepidation and reluctance surrounding Marvel’s first family. This time around, 20th Century Fox gave Josh Trank the opportunity to hopefully right the ship of this much loved group of heroes. It has not done particularly well in the past and pretty much everyone has been blamed; the studios, writers, directors, actors, and even the superheroes themselves. It remains to be seen if the franchise can be successfully launched, but Trank’s involvement got me thinking about his other superhero movie.
In 2012, Trank burst onto the movie-making scene with his debut, Chronicle, about three teenage boys who discover a strange glowing object underground and are given super human powers. It was an inspired debut and not based on any comic book idea, specifically, and has even spawned rumors of a sequel!
In that vein of thought, this week’s Top 5 looks at movies with superheroes that did not originate from a comic book and/or have a comic book feel to the movie, either through the protagonist or overall tone. Not surprisingly, the list starts with the movie that sparked it.
I normally hate found footage movies, but Chronicle is one of the few exceptions to my general operating principle to avoid this medium. I still find the angles and point-of-view to be slightly obnoxious and unable to draw out the full range of an actors capabilities. However, the concept, Trank’s execution of the major story elements, and the emotional beats of Andrew (Dane DeHaan), Matt (Alex Russell), and Steve (Michael B. Jordan) are nuanced as well as annoyingly accurate. It feels true to what a group of teenagers in the YouTube generation would be and do with super powers, even if some of the beats are completely obnoxious, just like teenagers!
The final third of the movie loses a little bit of the camera perspective for the sake of the action and Andrew’s story, but it feels like an intimate look at what a real super hero/villain origin story would look like. Hopefully, Trank can channel some of that magic for his reboot of Fantastic Four.
I apologize if this sounds a little crass; but this movie will either piss you off or make you piss your pants from laughing so hard.
James Gunn will do that to you (Exhibit A: Slither). While he hit a home run by mainstreaming his cinematic sentiments for Guardians of the Galaxy—one of my favorite movies of 2014—his previous superhero iteration was dark, violent, disturbing, and horrendously funny. Woven amongst these elements is an oddly spiritually-inspired story about justice, love, and moral duty. Leave it to James Gunn to make you feel deeply uncomfortable while expositing profound existential truths.
Starring Rainn Wilson as Frank Darbo, an unenviable loser, who starts the movie with what appears to be a way out of his league wife played by Liv Tyler. We soon discover what has brought them together and they are quickly torn apart when his wife’s demons catch up to their young marriage. After she mysteriously disappears, Frank sets out on a vigilante quest dressed as the superhero “Crimson Bolt”, armed with a red monkey wrench as his instrument of justice.
Gunn takes it to some pretty messed up and crazy places, especially once he introduces Frank’s unwanted sidekick, Libby (Ellen Page), and the final action sequence of the film is bloody, tragic, and surprisingly well thought out. I didn’t rate this movie all that high when I initially watched it, but I keep returning to it often and it is definitely worth a second viewing.
Also, if you watch for anything, watch it for Nathan Fillion’s small part as The Holy Avenger. You will not be disappointed.
3) The Matrix
While it would spawn comic books and the super cool prequel The Animatrix—available on Netflix—The Wachowski’s most well-known movie boasted a comic book feel, Sci-Fi thematics, and a superhero that knew Kung-Fu. Here is what I had to say about the film on a previous Top 5 from last year:
“The Matrix is a cyberpunk sci-fi movie with not just amazing visuals but an incredibly complex mythology and narrative. Based on the principles of Jean Baudrillard’s philosophical work, Simulacra et Simulation; Christian, Buddhist, Gnostic, and Hindu religion; and Bracha Ettinger’s matrixial theory, the Wachowski’s weave an immensely modern allegory of living in our increasingly tech-heavy society and an amazingly deep story on the human condition. What made the Matrix so great is what makes Sci-Fi my favorite genre. The stories are malleable, rich, multi-layered stories that ask questions and generally leave them open, all while being compelling, entertaining, and visually interesting. One could opine on the philosophical and religious complexities of The Matrix, as well as the visual and story-telling influences, but that can be saved for the summer movie series or maybe a podcast someday? We’ll see.”
2) The Incredibles
I’ve written so often about The Incredibles in recent Top 5’s I think it is approaching the status of untouchable for awhile. Anyway, my thoughts about this film are best summed up in my Top 5 Pixar Movies post from June:
“In 2015, the movie market is over-crowded with superhero movies. Starting in 2016 it is only going to be standing room only! In 2004, movie-goers weren’t so over-saturated. That might account for some of the success and effectiveness of Brad Bird’s directorial debut with Pixar. It wasn’t a medium we were familiar with, yet.
However, whatever superhero movie cognizance existed 11 years ago or today, The Incredibles endures for its distinct and dazzling visuals, as well as the wonderful story of a family dealing with mediocrity, anonymity, coming-of-age, and rising to a challenge. Deftly juggling these multiple themes and storylines has a final product that looks less like the crazy, frenetic circus act of Finding Nemo and is much more controlled; gleaming like a multi-faceted story diamond.”
If you have any inkling to put any other movie above Paul Verhoeven’s classic Sci-Fi satire—and we’re talking Jonathan Swift level highbrow satire—Robocop says, “Drop it!”
Now if you think I am joking about either the high-level satire or making this movie #1, it’s probably because you either hate this movie or haven’t seen it. Verhoeven is a bit of an acquired taste, but if his sensibilities are pleasing to your movie palette, it goes down oh so wonderfully.
The movie reads like a comic book with its over the top action beats and slightly absurd but super awesome origin story. Verhoeven artfully crafts a masterful balance between the stereotypical action of the late 80’s and 90’s and commentary on everything from American consumerism; skepticism on the advance of technology; fascism and the police state; to corporate greed and gun violence. My favorite element of Verhoeven’s movies are these absurdly strange commercials or adverts he sticks into his movies. They subvert the on-screen narrative and force you to think beyond what you are watching and hearing. It is subtly clever, always hilarious, and are clearly meant to reinforce a narrative you appreciate more on a second viewing.