Ranking the (Modern) Marvel Movies

Yeah, so on Twitter today I posted this ranking for the (Modern) Marvel movies:

And that list deserves some unpacking, so I'm going to unpack it.  First, the assumptions:

  • I have excluded the properties developed by non-Marvel studios.  All of them fall below the Hulk in this ranking anyway.
  • I have included the Ed Norton Hulk only because it is the last pre-Disney Marvel Movie.
  • I think this is a great topic for discussion but I don't think you can change my rankings on this list by more than +/- 1 for any movie without really missing the point.

OK, so that said, let's unpack in reverse order:

13. Ed Norton Hulk: Honestly, it's the best comic book movie up to the point it was made, but by the standards we have today it's a very bad flop.  The two biggest reasons it flops are (A) special effects, and (B) Ed Norton as Bruce Banner.  Norton in this movie is just a version of Norton's character in Rounders (which may be Norton's only trope), and he's not really very Bruce Banner-y.  Maybe that's the director's fault; maybe that's his fault.  Maybe it's the casting director's fault who cast him because he "looks like" Bruce Banner. Also, CGI was not ready for prime time, and this movies suffers greatly for it.  But the one thing this movie is clearly trying to do is to establish the "Marvel Formula" for superhero movies, and we have to give it props for that.  It makes the list at the bottom, but I would propose that none of the other movies on this list had a chance at all until/unless this movie tried to work out how Marvel Comic translate into Marvel Movies - more so than Iron Man 1, even though that was the first movie to succeed at delivering the Marvel movie formula.

12 + 11. The Thor Movies: OK, without the Thor movies, we don't have Hiddleston or Hemsworth, and without them we don't have the first Avengers movie.  They delivered something the Marvel Universe needed, and these movies were entirely serviceable as such. I also enjoyed much the visual effects in these movies as I am a fan of the Kirby-esque version of Asgard, and I think we mostly saw that in these movies.  But: nobody is dying for the third Thor movie.  The epic tale (which is what Thor comics thrive on) is out of vogue in movie-making.  This is testified to by the adverse fan reaction to the newest Superman movies: Man of Steel was Epic SciFi, and fans are not amused.  I'm not sure I share all the aversion, but these movies are simply not epic enough to deliver space-spanning awe and wonder toward the Realm Eternal.  They are good movies.  They are not Great movies.  Fingers crossed for Thor 3, I guess.

10. Guardians of the Galaxy: My huge bias here is that I'm an old-school Guardians fan.  I'm a Vance Astro guy; I'm a Starhawk guy.  The modern Guardians is dumbed down for my tastes, and this movie is dumbed down in a huge way from other Marvel movies in that it relies on cussing as "funny" dialog.  However, it is better than the Thor movies for a couple of reasons, not the least of which are the soundtrack (which is used as a kind of narrator) and the clever remix of the antihero type in almost all of the main characters.  This movie is better than Deadpool by a lot, and it does what Deadpool really wanted to do -- which is to create sympathetic and funny antiheroes to off-set the semi-seriousness of the Avengers cycle of movies.

9. Avengers 2: Rather than beat this movie up, let me say this: Cap 3 is everything that Avengers 2 ought to have been.  Avengers 2 is proof that Joss Whedon was not the reason Avengers 1 was a great movie.  And the great shame of it is that it wasted Ultron in a spectacular way.  But: there would not be a Cap 3 without Avengers 2, so it can't be all bad.  It is still a very watchable film.

8, 7, 6. the Iron Man films: I have no doubt that my ranking these films here in the middle of the pack rubs a lot of people the wrong way, and that my order of their ranking is utterly out of step with the common comics nerd.  But I can completely justify my ranking with one question: in which movie does Tony Stark make the most progress as a character?  That is to say, which story actually means the most in the audience understanding who Tony really is?  IM1 is where he makes the least progress even though it is necessary to get him in the suit and under the arc reactor.  IM3 is simply closing the loop on open plot points (albeit in a very satisfying way).  IM2 is the movie in which we really get to know something about Tony and why he is the way he is (toward Pepper, toward the world), and that makes this movie the most interesting of the 3.

5. Ant Man:  I think someplace I ranked this movie above Avengers 1, and I'm not sure that evaluation holds up.  I think it deserves a place in the top 5 Marvel movies because it gets so many things right, from the nostalgia for Hank Pym's Ant Man to the sort of lovable rogue we get in Scott Lang.  It has a great tone, and I love it that it's a caper movie as opposed to something way out of line for the scope and scale of Ant Man's powers and also the sort of guy we have in Scott Lang.  I like that this movie is really a movie about how families work and how fathers love.  I like it that it ends with the ant staying giant-sized.  This isn't a serious movie at all but it is pretty serious movie-making, and it deserves to be up above the movies we already covered.

4. Captain America 1: let's be honest - a lot of people would put this movie way farther down the list for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that they don't understand that it is a costume drama -- a period piece paying homage to WWII-era movies and movie-making, as well as to the comics of the day which were from a much simpler time.  The point of this movie is that it ought to be more like a 1950's Disney movie (like Davy Crockett) -- until the very end where Steve finds himself in Times Square in 2011, and very literally the dream is over.  I mean: he literally wakes up and discovers that he isn't in that old world anymore where love sacrifices everything for others, and the Marvel Universe as we know it where he arrives.  This is a really great movie that gets better every time you watch it -- unless you don't understand it at all.

3. Avengers 1: we really can't deny that this movie set a very high watermark for the Marvel Movies in spite of my criticism of Whedon's less-spectacular outing in Age of Ultron.  It did a great job of Assembling the Avengers; it had a lot of balance and some really great beats.  My son and I watch it and we always say every time: this next scene is great.  It's as good as a movie about a team coming together for one specific reason can be, and for that it deserves to be in the top 3.

2. Captain America 3: As I said above, this is actually the better Avengers sequel, right?  This is the one where all sorts of things comics fans are dying to see happen, but unlike Avengers 1 and 2, it is character driven, not a just a string of tropes.  For a full-length review, see my Rotten Tomatoes review of it.

1. Captain America 2: Well, of course a Cap movie is going to sit in my #1 slot, so don't act surprised.  Here's the thing: Iron Man 1 demonstrated that a comic book movie could be a good action movie if you spent enough money on it.  If you cast RDJ against Jeff Bridges, and you write their dialog in a competent way, you are going to get a winner.  Cap 2 did something that the other movies had not tried yet: it tried to be a genuine thriller in the same mould as the Bourne Identity or The Day of the Jackal.  And: it succeed in a way nobody expected (except maybe the Russos).  Everything about this movie works, and it really does break out from being a "merely" formula movie into being something so much better.

That said, the floor is open.  Feel free to post your own list, but be prepared to defend it.

Yes, but is it Art?

This post is my obligatory review of Captain America: Civil War.

The shorter version: this is the Avengers movie we were looking for.

The longer version:

This is also the Spiderman we were looking for, the Black Panther we were looking for, the adapted classic comic villain were looking for, the Bucky and Cap we were looking for, and the sort of movie the Last Captain America movie ought to be.

This is not War and Peace.  This is not Casablanca or the Godfather.  This is a movie adapted from the comics in such a way that if you know all the comics, there is a spectacular avalanche of fan service, and if you have never read a comic, the script and action are plenty to satisfy.

I give it a solid 4 stars, and I'll come up with a more-substantive review for it at RottenTomatoes later today.

Daredevil Season 2 Review

This weekend I posted the following Twitter review of Daredevil Season 2, which runs on Netflix:

To which one of my twitter followers responded that it's not gore-porn if the characters who are perpetrating it are someone morally-averse to whatever it is they are doing.  I think this is a bizarre approach to this topic, and so I am going to briefly expand my review and then talk about what "pornography" is, and how it applies to this topic.

First, Daredevil Season 2.  You know: when we watch Agents of SHIELD on Disney/ABC, what we are getting is the worst possible mix of TV mashed up with existing comics canon. The show is based on a concept which, frankly, was dated when it was in its hey-day: the idea that there is a secret security agency which is both obscure and global, high-tech and invisible, which has both airborn cities (Helicarriers) and elusive but effective agents -- and the update is such a mash-up of throw-away Marvel characters and plot lines that it simply has nothing to rise up to or fill in.  What we get from Marvel/Netflix, on the other hand, is something else.

My take from my jaded perch is that Netflix is sort of covering the old "Marvel Knights" line in terms of content and tone, which means the world is ultimately more realistic/noir than the mainstream movies, and more concerned with entertaining people older than 12 with characters and settings that people who have lived past their first teenaged crush can somewhat relate to.  I have absolutely no qualms with this in theory, and I think that the actual plotting of the 2 seasons of DD and the single season of JJ so far have delivered were compelling.  By a long shot, these stories are the most engrossing Marvel storytelling maybe ever -- but DD in particular has been marred by one thing in particular: hyper-violence and graphic depictions of mutilation and injuries.

So for what I have left to write here, let me offer just a few items: a definition, a distinction, a disclaimer, and a direction.

The definition is this: the standard definition of "pornography" is "sexually explicit videos, photographs, writings, or the like, whose purpose is to elicit sexual arousal."  When I co-opt that term to say "gore-porn," I use it to mean "explicitly-violent videos, photographs, writings, or the like, whose purpose is to elicit a cathartic response to violence."  "Gore-porn" is when anyone creates a scene in a movie or TV show which has the obvious purpose to make the violence into a spectacle, and that spectacle has two consequences: an initial gross-out of the audience followed by a desensitizing which causes the audience to want more of the same in more extreme form to get the same response.  There's no narrative reason for the scene to be that explicit -- in fact, the horror the scene creates could be made more poignant but being more subtle.  For example, in the Diner when Frank Castle mutilates a hit man to get information on the Blacksmith, the camera stays on the torture, the punching, the violence -- when the single cut to Karen in the back room listening to the violence and her reaction to it is far more telling than the special effects showing how the man is physically destroyed.  In the scene where Stick is torture by Yakuza, we are forced to watch them use WWII torture techniques on him rather than to merely watch Scott Glenn's face tell us the story in a more personal way.  The story is not advanced by one iota when we are forced to watch the violence, but it s there rather to do something else with the story which, I think, is artistically cheap and morally low.

The distinction I would make here is between the graphic depiction of violence and admitting that violent acts are part of this story.  The one place I would point to in 2 seasons of DD to make this point is in Season 1 when Matt goes into the gang hideout to save the young boy being held hostage and has to fight his way through the final hallway to get to the room the boy is in.

That fight scene is undeniably brutal -- and about half of it happens off camera with sound effects.  Most of the real drama is to see that as the fight progresses, Matt Murdock is clearly spent on the fight -- he gives every ounce of whatever he has to give physically to get to the end of the hall and seek to save the boy.

The difference between that scene and, for example, the scene is season 2 where we look into the mob hang-out that has been shot up by Frank Castle and the establishing shot is made through a large-caliber bullet hole in a victim's corpse ought to be obvious, but I am afraid that it is not to most people.  The violence associated with the Punisher does not merely have a higher death count: it has a far more graphic nature, with more gore and more blood, and human bodies are treated worse than meat.

"Yes, Frank," says the fan of this show who disagrees with me, "but this is actually the point, no? Aren't the showrunners trying to get us to think of the Punisher as a brutal animal who treats his victims are worse than meat?"  Let me say this: we know because of the way Karen Page relates to Frank Castle that this is categorically untrue.  Frank Castle is rather supposed to be a man pressed to the final limit of the human longing for justice, and is willing instead to seek vengeance instead since justice is often too meek for his taste. The way they treat the victims of Frank Castle rather stands in the way of us seeing him the way we finally see him in the final episode as a true enemy of evil.

Having said all that, my disclaimer is this: I am pretty confident that not all violence is naturally excluded from artistic portrayal. (that in itself prolly deserves its own blog post)  All violence is not excluded from art, but let me suggest that it is one thing for us to know that Oedipus has dug out his eyes and another to watch him dig out his eyes.  There is a way to do what ought to be done to advance the story and there are many other ways to stain the story with gratuitous portrayals of violence which do nothing but treat the viewer as if he or she is watching live gladiator combat.

Finally, my direction forward to better art in these Marvel Netflix series is pretty simple: they should try harder to tells the story visually rather than create a spectacle of violence.  The stories themselves are rather complex and interesting without the blood splattering and the open wounds getting the center of the shot for minutes on end.  I admit that some violence is really necessary to tell these stories, but there is a difference between showing the physical cost of the conflict between Matt Murdock and his adversaries and dwelling on the clinic extent of his wounds, as if watching his injuries being sticked up advances the plot or story one iota.

How Dungeons & Dragons fixes all fiction (especially comic books)

You have no idea how much I miss blogging here, at this blog, where there is no pressure to be anything but me and no topics too arcane or non-theological to tackle, and especially: it's OK to blog about comics in a way that a 50-year-old guy who is still 12 on the inside would blog about comics.

First, you should listen to this podcast episode:

In that episode, they talk about something all of us people who were alive before computers who read science fiction and comics also did to greater and lesser degrees: we played (or were forbidden to play) Dungeons & Dragons.  Most of us probably played Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (to be fair and completely too-specific), and we owned a bag full of dice and at least three hard-covered books which told us everything we needed to know about the kind of things we might build into a campaign, or that we might happen to encounter in a campaign.

In the pre-computer world, we used a lot of graph paper, and there had to be people who were playing with us and also plotting our rise and fall.  Compared to gaming today, it was actually quite social and quaint.  It looked a lot like a very complicated game of Cribbage, if I am honest, except that nobody since the middle ages wore a robe with a hood to a game of Cribbage.

But before any of this even went that far, we had to build a character, and the most fundamental thing about building that character was his or her alignments.  Now: what does that even mean?  Well, let me show you:


That is a grid I have been working on since listening to that podcast which has to do with character alignments, using the basic system which AD&D uses (or at least used to use).  And: you can see my attempts to puzzle in the basic interesting characters from Marvel Comics into this grid just for the sake of showing how it works.  As a caveat, the diagonal lines are meant to show motivational-outcomes for these alignments, not actual motives.  For example, Reed Richards is in the "vengeance" quadrant of you are reading the diagonals, but Reed isn't motivated by vengeance (notice I spelled it right here), is he?  He's actually motivated by goodness and autonomy -- as opposed to Doom who is motivated by a high view of authority ruined by a poor moral compass.  that's why they are good against each other: they are naturally in competition

And that brings me to the point of this post.  Right now, I think Marvel Comics stink right up to high heaven -- and it's for one obvious reason: all of their characters cluster around the center of this grid.  All of their characters are lame examples of millennial passivism when it comes to bigger questions, and therefor there's not really any drama to be worked out.  All the drama turns out to be low brow and sensual rather than playing out on a bigger table with bigger stakes.

So if anyone is reading this post at Marvel, think about this: the reason the movies are working and the comics are not is that the movies still have characters who are not clustered around the center of the grid.  The more you work to cluster them around the center of the grid, the more boring and unfulfilling the art turns out to be.


It's not the Years, Honey. It's the Mileage ...

As I write this post, it's March 2016, which is 11 years and a few months after the first post was published here.  You know: wow.  That anyone still visits here is also a "wow" item to me, so thanks for that.

But, over time, things change -- and one of those things is my ownership of the domain "kingdomboundbooks.com".  That's relevant to this blog because almost all the images on this blog are warehoused there, and in April 2016 I will no longer be the domain owner for that .com real estate, and all the images here which are stored there will go dark.

That's a big deal because I think while the writing here is competent, the graphics are the heart and soul of the endeavor.  If there's a way for me to migrate the images, I'm going to do it -- but there's probably no way to fix all of them.

Nice to see you all.  Please carry on.