I am the target audience for these comic book superhero movies. I’m a 24-year-old male willing to spend $10+ on a movie featuring characters from comic books originally made with teenagers in mind. I took the bait after The Avengers and started delving into the world of comics: the panels, the trade paperbacks, the graphic novels, the convoluted continuities, the oh-so-temporary terminations of main characters. And I’ve been hooked ever since.
But I loved movies first, so when I go to a superhero movie, I’m watching it as a film first and a comic book adaptation second. Sometimes my affection for the source material colors my feelings about the movie. Take, for example, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which is based on one of my favorite Spider-Man stories. Funnily enough, I can’t say which story it is, because that’s a spoiler all its own. That sentence is probably a spoiler itself for those well-versed in Peter Parker’s history. Whoops.
Peter Parker, played again by Andrew Garfield, is Spider-Man, of course (Crap, is that a spoiler? WHAT ISN’T A SPOILER???), and his girlfriend is Gwen Stacy, played again by Emma Stone. The chemistry between the two stars is again the best part of the movie. There’s some good action involving an underused Jamie Foxx as the villain Electro and the terrific Dane DeHaan as Peter’s old friend Harry Osborne. Also, the scenes of Spidey swinging through the city have never been so exhilarating. But the movie rests on the relationship between the stars, which makes for underserved secondary characters and rushed plot points. However, seeing as the original Amazing Spider-Man comics depended a lot on the soap opera-ish relationship between Peter and Gwen, I was satisfied.
Chemistry of a different kind is at the heart of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. This time the formula is the combination of precise action and political intrigue to form one explosive Marvel movie, the best one without the word “Avengers” in its title since Iron Man. Chris Evans returns as the titular Cap, still adjusting to civilian life in the 2010s when the also titular Winter Soldier appears and starts causing havoc. (SPOILER ALERT: Captain American is not the Winter Soldier. I know, it’s confusing.) Cap teams up with the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) to find the Winter Soldier and to figure out how to fix the chaos that his appearance sets in motion. This gives Marvel their best chance yet to showcase Evans’ relatable soulfulness and Johansson’s sassy pluck.
Winter Soldier is also the first Marvel movie since Iron Man to actually be about something, or at least something more than simply the battle between good and bad/evil/corrupt. I don’t mean to say that battle is insignificant, but superhero stories have potential to be so much more. Marvel takes the Winter Soldier story and provides an uncanny analog for the complications of drone warfare and unrestricted surveillance à la the NSA, demonstrating some of the boldness The Dark Knight Rises exhibited targeting the Occupy movement in 2012. I like my comic book movies to have good action and strong characters, and I like my comic book movies to have deeper significance. Give me a movie with all three, and I’ll love it.
Two out of three ain’t bad though, and X-Men: Days of Future Past manages to be great. Where Winter Soldier finds significance in its subject matter, Days of Future Past gets by on some of the best character development in a superhero movie ever. Winter Soldier has character development, but it’s mostly at the service of the plot. Spider-Man is all character development and no plot. Days of Future Past’s plot is the character development, with a climax that hinges on a character’s choice rather than a big battle that’s barely more than a trope.
It’s not really about anything though- but that’s okay. Days of Future Past combines the cast of the Bryan Singer & crappy director Brett Ratner movies with the retro cast from First Class by sending Wolverine back in time (basically) to warn the estranged Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) of a dark future that comes as a result of Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) assassinating the scientist, Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), who created the Sentinels, which are essentially mutant-hunting robots. Does it sound complicated? That’s okay, because the story is so well-organized around the characters and their decisions that you forget the time-travel stuff is bogus. You also don’t care that Singer isn’t aiming for deeper significance by making the mutants a social allegory like in his first two movies. Sometimes a great story and great characters are enough.
Days of Future Past was the only story I hadn’t read before seeing the movie. Spider-Man’s was one of my favorite comic book story arcs of all time, but it was my least favorite of the three. I’m not as much a Cassandra as many actual critics are about the state of Hollywood movies these days. I do wish there were more variance in blockbusters, but we’ll never reach a point when there aren’t good movies being made. And as far as comic book movies go, as long as they tell great stories, what is there to complain about? Consider this target audience member more than satisfied.