Ever since the first X-Men movie hit the theatres in 2000, the comic book movie genre has witnessed a remarkable surge in terms of both production and fan base. This is not to say that the cinematic genre is a recent phenomenon. The latter half of the 20th century saw Linda Carter as Wonder Woman, Christopher Reeve as Superman, and various actors – Val Kilmer, George Clooney, and Michael Keaton – as Batman. In the hands of Christopher Nolan, the superhero genre reached a crescendo, and not only did it herald a reboot of various franchises, but also opened the doors for a wider range of characters to be explored. In addition to Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man, we are now spoilt for choice with offerings from the Marvel Cinematic and DC Extended Universe, which could very well translate into wider options for binge-watching and for cosplay in the form of Deadpool, Aquaman, Doctor Strange, Captain America, to name a few. Excluding The Lego Batman Movie, this year saw the release of six major comic book movies, both standalone as well as ensemble. We delve into the major standalone superhero films that dominated in 2017.
The year began on an exciting note at the Berlin International Film Festival with the premier of James Mangold’s Logan. The final part in the Wolverine trilogy opened to universal critical acclaim, and has since generated awards buzz for both Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart’s swan song in the world of mutants. What set Logan apart from other superhero movies and drew favourable comparisons with The Dark Knight was its exploration of the human condition, as well as a departure from the sanitised action of Marvel-Disney collaborations. Logan, like its predecessor, The Wolverine (2013), steers towards existential musings. The Wolverine saw its protagonist getting infected and thus losing the ability to heal himself. It posed a grave question for a character whose allure in the Marvel universe rests on his immortality and hell-bent resilience, but there is a simmering aggression and pain underneath, an alienation, for having outlived almost everyone he ever cared for. In the year 2029, there are very few organic mutants left. Following the events of X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), they have become forces of popular culture, finding currency through comic books and toys.
In his last outing as Wolverine, Hugh Jackman finds new depths to dig into. He is terminally ill, slowly dying of adamantium poisoning. His claws have lost their sharpness, as though he has been scraping at his own being for too long to carve out a meaning of his prolonged existence. However, before he sees that one glimmer of beauty in ordinary life, we see a glimmer of his old self — gruff, agile, slasher-esque — when the young mutants get scissor happy and trim his beard to make him resemble the iconic comic book hero before he sets out into the sun.
Speaking of the sun, the upcoming summer months shone bright with the light of Diana of Themyscira. Helmed by Patty Jenkins, Wonder Woman gave the DC Extended Universe a reliable shoulder to lean on. An origin story about the Amazonian warrior, Wonder Woman was a breath of fresh air in a male-dominated genre. The film is set during the First World War, which Diana believes to be the work of the god of war, Ares. To save humanity from destroying itself, she collaborates with Steve Trevor, an American spy working for the British government. The film was both critically and commercially successful, and sparked a new discourse on feminism around not just the character of Wonder Woman, but also the need for more female role models and women filmmakers vis-a-vis Gal Gadot and Patty Jenkins. The film further subverts the genre by not reducing Chris Pine’s Steve to a hapless dude-in-distress, waiting to be rescued by the heroine. The two share a companionate relationship, where each person learns from the other: Steve learns to rise above himself and work for the greater good, while Diana, who had hitherto harboured a one-dimensional opinion of mankind, comes to see it with all its flaws, and yet embrace it.
Another superhero who learned to better himself in 2017 was Spider-Man. Directed by Jon Watts, Spider-Man: Homecoming was hailed by many as the best and the most youthful film in the franchise. This reboot eschews the origin story, and instead focuses on Peter Parker’s journey toward becoming an adult. Picking up after the events of Captain America: Civil War, the film shows Parker as a 15 year-old high school student who is struggling to keep his superhero identity a secret, but is also itching to get into action and prove himself worthy of joining the Avengers. In the words of Alex Abad-Santos (Vox), “We get to experience and understand the conflict at Spider-Man’s core: having to balance all the anxieties and uncertainties of being a teen while also knowing the thrilling power of being a superhero.” Like Logan, this film, too, breaks away from the usual clutter of Marvel Studios, and its most powerful scene — when Toomes discovers Parker’s alter ego — does not rely on CGI to make an impact. The film was further praised for Tom Holland’s breezy performance, and for Michael Keaton’s villainous turnout as the conflicted Vulture, who does not dream of world domination, but simply wants his family to have a comfortable life.
Standalone superhero films this year were more character-driven than their predecessors, and refrained from making special effects their main highlight. The origin story of a female superhero became one of the biggest blockbusters, proving its detractors wrong about women-centric films; the second reboot of an ailing franchise put a teenager in the centre, whose heroics are innocently undercut by his inelegance; and a reluctant hero at last made peace with his death in one of the most violent superhero film made till date. Each of the three broke new ground in its own way, thus leaving us hopeful about the future of this genre.
The 7th Maruti Suzuki Delhi Comic Con will take place from 15th to 17th December, 2017, at NSIC Grounds, Okhla.
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