I am a fan of superhero movies in general (as you have probably noticed). Many are good, most are enjoyable popcorn flicks, and some are downright awful. The Incredibles is pretty close to great, in my opinion. But The Incredibles had the big advantage of being animated. Live-action superhero movies are very difficult make well. A lot of the direct-to-home animated movies are better done than the live-action movies because it is just easier to bring the world off the page. However, the ease of animated superpowers wouldn’t make up for poor dialogue and voice acting.
Superheroes are larger-than-life. They’re supposed to be and that makes playing the role very difficult because there is such a fine line between larger-than-life and all-out ham. Sometimes I don’t know if one of the problems with a superhero movie is that the actor just can’t quite bring the role to larger-than-life, or that a bad script/dialogue/direction hampers the actor’s ability to do that. Sometimes this is a combination of factors. I don’t think it matters if the actor has ever heard of the characters before, either. If the internets are to be believed, Kevin Conroy, who voiced Batman in “Batman: The Animated Series,” knew nothing about the character but he got the voice acting exactly right.
Another other complication with superheroes is that everyone has a different amalgam. If a fan has an idea about a superhero, but the movie uses a different amalgam, then that fan will probably think the movie has failed their superhero, and possibly too that the actor chosen was all wrong.
Okay, moving on from the theories and set-up. Here are some personal examples of where things went right, where they went wrong, and why (all of this is my own opinion of course; and I haven’t seen every superhero movie [yet] so my opinions may change over time).
1) Went Right – These are movies that through a combination of the right script, director, and actors (or maybe in spite of these things) managed to define a superhero for me.
a) Iron Man – I have to admit, I knew next to nothing about Iron Man except that he was instrumental in starting the Civil War, which people more familiar with Iron Man tell me was pretty out of character. I’m not going to get into that because I just don’t have enough information. I went into the first movie with close to zero expectations, which is pretty unusual for me. And everything worked great. Tony Stark was absolutely not Batman (this is important since on paper the characters do have a lot in common). Tony Stark was spoiled, neurotic, egotistical, and yet still wanted to try to make up for his mistakes (once he decided to grow up, that is).
b) Superman (Christopher Reeve) – He was such a big, blue Boy Scout. And he managed to make Clark Kent such a dork no one would believe he was actually Superman. I’m not saying the movie didn’t have flaws; I’m saying he’s still my definitive Superman.
c) Ever-lovin’ Blue-eyed Thing – The movies weren’t great, and too much time was given to Johnny’s stunts, but the actor managed to capture the pathos of the Thing. In this case that shouldn’t be surprising since Michael Chiklis apparently loved the Thing and lobbied to get the part.
d) The Joker – this is pretty unique. When I saw Jack Nicholson as the Joker, I thought there could never be a better Joker. This was the definitive Joker, now and forever. But then I saw The Dark Knight and I realized a character with a lot of depth/history/amalgams couldn’t be defined so easily. Both Jokers are just perfect for the movies they were in.
e) Wolverine – Yeah, yeah, I know X-Men and sequels weren’t necessarily awesome, and that “Origin” was awful, but I think Hugh Jackman has managed to capture the essence of Wolverine. So here’s an example that in spite of a mediocre to bad movie happening around an actor, and actor can still do a fantastic job portraying a superhero.
f) Norman Osborn/Green Goblin – Green Ranger jokes aside, Willem Defoe was an excellent Norman Osborn. Especially since Raimi (so the internets tell me) was going for a Silver Age feel, it was nice to get such a dark and downright creepy villain. Anyone Norman didn’t respect he treated badly (including his own son) and he wouldn’t hesitate to remove those in his way. And yet there were a few points that made him almost sympathetic. Almost. And good villains help make good movies.
g) Raimi’s “Spider-man” franchise – The third movie had problems and I’m not going to argue that (damn executive meddling). But to me, while I wouldn’t say that the actors (except for the above) were definitively their characters, everything came together to create a definitive Spider-man story. Peter Parker was a loser who tried to do things right, and sometimes got them wrong, and beat himself up for it and tried again and again. In the course of the franchise, he grew up some, which is to be expected, but as I’ve said before, Peter Parker has a universal “Kick me” sign on his back, so no matter how well his life is going, something bad is going to happen. And I think the movies (problems with the third one aside) managed to really portray that very well.
2) In the Middle – basically movies where no one was particularly terrible, but no one owned the superhero either. Most superhero movies and portrayals fall into this. Some, of course, are better than others. So in this case I’ll just cite honorable mentions (characters that were good despite the movies but not necessarily definitive) –
a) The Riddler – I’m almost certain I’ve lost some of you right now, but hear me out. Batman Forever was not a good movie. It was where the franchise was slipping towards camp but before everything went wrong (see below). The portrayal of the Riddler was clearly based heavily on Frank Gorshin’s Riddler in the 1960s series. Now, as campy as that series was, the Riddler was actually pretty creepy, much more so than the Joker or anyone else (this is best seen in the Riddler’s own episodes). I like Frank Gorshin’s Riddler, but I don’t know if that kind of creepy portrayal is definitive (the Animated Series portrayed a stuck-up intellectual), which is why this is only an honorable mention. But Jim Carrey did a good job channeling that Riddler, which is why both are credited.
b) Reed Richards – the movies weren’t good, and Reed never had as much charm or pathos as the Thing or Human Torch. But I think the idea of the insecure nerd was shown pretty clearly in the two movies, as well as Reed’s general cluelessness on relationships. Now, in the comics this is not exactly how it played out, particularly because Reed is ten to fifteen years older than Sue. But as the movies attempted to match their ages better, I can see where this Reed fits into that idea.
c) 1960s Catwomen – The show was full of camp and slapstick, but I liked the Catwomen (Julie Newmar best, then Eartha Kitt, then Lee Meriweather). If the main idea of Catwoman was to portray a femme fatale, the show actually got this idea across. One of my favorite episodes was when Batman and Robin stumbled onto Catwoman’s scheme well before she was ready. Did she put them in an overly-contrived death trap? Nope. She just threw them out the window. Awesome. Also, I liked how Eartha Kitt’s voice managed to have something of a purring quality to it.
d) Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen – I couldn’t think of a better casting choice for Professor X and Magneto, and I’m still surprised the movie got actors of that caliber. They were fantastic, but I think because the three X-men movies didn’t really focus on their relationship and history, the actors couldn’t really get into the depth of the two characters.
3) Went wrong – and on the other side of the spectrum are those movies in which too many elements went wrong and thus the superhero was not super, the story not compelling, and the movie pretty unremarkable.
a) Daredevil – The only person even remotely interesting or compelling was Foggy Nelson, and he’s just supposed to be a bumbling sidekick. The Kingpin wasn’t bad, and the actor had the physical presence, but he didn’t get a lot of screen time. Daredevil, as I said, is a poor man’s Batman, and much of the comic material this was based on was written during Frank Miller’s run (before he went mad). Usually I advocate that non-Batman heroes should not be Batman, but in this case, well, there should have actually been more Batman. But Ben Affleck and his chin just did not have the presence or the charisma or whatever that certain something is to portray a superhero. Likewise for Jennifer Garner and her pouty lips. And yet in that same movie, Bullseye was so over the top he wasn’t believable either (as I said, fine line between larger-than-life and all-out ham). I don’t think the script or story helped either. In this movie, nothing came together in a manner to define a superhero.
b) Dr. Doom – ugh, do I even have to explain this one? He wasn’t DOOM. Dr. Doom is one of the greatest villains of the Marvel universe. This guy? He was Victor von Doom, CEO. He was a poor man’s (metaphorically speaking) Norman Osborn. He was lame lame lame. The way the movie was written detracted so much from Dr. Doom because he should have been an egotistical maniac from the outset and genius enough to build his own superpowers. And it was obvious to me either the actor was just not that good, or not that invested in the character. And without a good villain, a superhero movie is sunk. He was slightly better in the second movie, but still a far cry from the real DOOM. Heck, this guy would barely pass as a malfunctioning Doombot.
c) Batman and Robin – Unlike Daredevil, which I believe had the correct elements in play even if it was sunk by the specifics, this movie was pretty much wrong in every single aspect. Everyone from the actors to the director to the writers absolutely got everything about Batman wrong (and I say this as a person who likes the 1960s Batman). Burton’s movies had a very Gothic (duh), 1930s feel to them. Batman Forever was starting to slide into camp, and I’m not sure why the new director did that. Maybe he thought it needed to be lightened up? Anyway, this movie started at camp and dug itself deeper.
– George Clooney’s uninspired performance made him the worst Batman and Bruce Wayne ever (and you’d think the guy could pull off a handsome, charismatic playboy…).
– I didn’t mind the actor who played Robin but he was so whiny in that movie I just wanted him to go away.
– Barbara Gordon sounded like she was from L.A. instead of London and why was she Alfred’s granddaughter anyway?
– Mr. Freeze and Poison Ivy teaming up makes no sense on any level (he wants to freeze the world, she wants to cover it in plants; this is absolutely not going to work).
– Just follow this link. It will explain all.
I do anticipate superhero movies, but like any other genre there are hits, misses, and ones in between. Maybe I’ll go over some more later. Maybe not. For right now, I’ll finish this with a very ’80s music video link so you can have the song stuck in your head too.