WEEKEND SUPERHERO: 2015 Comics on Film: What Worked

Marvel films of 2015

Some why to some big winning superhero films of 2015. It was a big year for movies & movie-goers, alike; with offerings ranging from a re-charged Mad Max, James Bond meeting his maker, the IMF meeting its match, and Pixar therapy. At some point, before the Force Awakened all over a World that had previously gone Jurassic, there were actually superhero movies in that mix – two thirds of them actually making pretty good coin.

Spoiler: they were all Marvel movies (DC/Warner burning rubber for a 2016 entry to the race); but with Marvel only at the helm for the previously mentioned two thirds. Hopefully, there were lessons learned from how those numbers lined up (studio to success wise); but schadenfreude comes later – about those winners….

Henry Pym Ultron Age of Ultron

Avengers: Age of Ultron & Ant-Man seemed kind of mismatched, to some, when Marvel’s summer slate was announced. In some ways, they still are. AoU may have come in under fan & industry expectations – critically & financially – but still had one of the best runs on record. Ant-Man, on the other hand, pulled another Guardians of the Galaxy sized surprise; exceeding expectations, and adding Paul Rudd to Marvel’s stable of unlikely superhero types (along with Chris Pratt, and – yes – Robert Downy, Jr.). Despite higher anticipation, and given the shoes it had fill (its own), there was probably more stacked against an Avengers sequel than most people realized/ cared to admit.

Avengers Age of Ultron Logo

Why it worked: winning formula falls short; but holds steady. Blockbuster sequels usually mean more… everything; well, a little went a long way, when the first Avengers film firmly established the MCU formula (and for those of you waiting for me to define said formula: keep waiting – this is going to be a long enough piece, without going into all that), so the ‘more,’ in this case, came from the antagonist corner. By ‘more,’ I’m not referring to the android hoard our heroes had to contend with (no more than the invading alien hoard, after all); but more snarky one-liner attitude, from principal baddie, Ultron – voiced by principal snark, James Spader (necessary, when more snark is being added to any realm of Tony Stark). Beyond finding more reasons for our heroes to be at odds with each other, and the whole handling of the twins thing, this was really where the film fell short, for me.

The source material to AoU was to the Avengers what Age of Apocalypse or Days of Future Past was to the X-Men; and fans rightly expected wholesale carnage. What we got was an Ultron origin story, instead of the ultimate Ultron story, with only the threat of mass murder. Some would say that this was an example of the MCU formula being too kid’s gloves with its material. I might be inclined to agree. Fortunately for the franchise, audiences seemed content with getting more from the heroes (by way of gee-whiz factor), and seeing them getting their hands full, than having a truly heavy Heavy pushing them beyond their breaking points.

Frankly, the weakest thing about AoU was its most important component, the villain – the key component to any conflict driven narrative – but even here, there was kind of an out. One of the most glaring changes to the MCU, from its source material, has been the removal of Hank Pym from the Avengers equation. Pym was the original creator of Ultron, with Ultron fixated on Pym’s somewhat simplistic & passive world view. With the Pym-Stark dynamic delegated to Tony’s father, however, that just left Tony as the object of Ultron’s imprinting. To me, this would easily explain why Ultron was depicted as overly smug, and unbearably hip – he wanted to throw Tony Stark’s larger than life persona back at him. The original wanted to purify the World more than Pym did; this guy just wanted to prove what an Nth degree Stark ego was capable of (hint: not long term healthy, for life as we know it). Bottom line: the MCU formula didn’t ruin Ultron – changing his creator just made for an altogether different creation. Not one I particularly cared for; but source Ultron had a series line, after all – so maybe there’ll be a more serious Ultron 5, by the time Thanos starts laying hands on people we know.

Now, I don’t expect for anyone to have taken any of that into consideration, when overlooking Ultron’s failure to live up to Loki (or the source title); so ultimately, the success of AoU – beyond its franchise hype – was likely due to an army of Ultrons giving all those heroes something to do (like in the first film), while challenging the film makers to keep it from being a mess (as they did for the first film).

I’m not sure whether Marvel is willing to meddle with the way Avengers is being handled, while the rest of the MCU still takes shape – opting instead to use it as a chorus line, while experimenting with upcoming verses. A good chorus line brings attention to the verse; good verses keep the audience singing along to the chorus. AoU might have been a trimmed variation on the same old chorus; but there have been plenty of good supporting acts (Captain America seems to be doing most of the heavy lifting, at the moment) to keep audiences coming back to the main attraction. One such act:

Ant-Man Logo

Why it worked: winning formula exceeds expectations. Ant-Man had more riding on it than arguably any other MCU project. I say arguably, since the same was once said for Guardians of the Galaxy. The difference is that Guardians was an unknown quantity, in terms of source familiarity, and no one really knew what to expect of it based purely on its own merits (instead, forecasting based on cast & crew creds). Ant-Man, on the other hand, did have a known source character – just not a highly regarded one; and with the likes of Edgar Wright & Paul Rudd attached, seemed destined to be another light-hearted romp, in the vein of Iron Man or Guardians. With Wright’s departure, came concerns over a Hulk sized creative rift/ schizoid presentation. Between the source character being regarded as a lightweight, IM formula fatigue, and the question of creative cohesion, people were starting to wonder if Ant-Man would finally check the march of the Marvel movie machine. It didn’t.

DC fans, in particular, were expecting a silly film, with silly characters, with some silly excuse for saving the World thrown in. Well that’s exactly what we got, and that’s exactly what the film needed. What Dour Cinema defenders failed to consider was just how diametrically opposed a film like Ant-Man is to The Dark Knight trilogy. Had Ant-Man taken its subject realistically serious, it would have been as truly silly as Christopher Nolan going for a comic superhero instead of a real world vigilante (with, like… Bat-nipples, ‘n stuff). It helped that the Ant-Man people kept things mostly balanced (Rudd went for affable, rather than funny; the sidekicks kept to the heist role, and didn’t become too distracting; the villain had some decent rationale behind his character & misdeeds; seamless, organic cameos; the ex & her new beau not being total tools; precocious kid didn’t give me diabetes… after all) – Wright still left his mark on the story/script, after all – but for the most part, movie-goers still want something of an experience. What that often amounts to is a roller-coaster ride, instead of a straight story – ups & downs, in & outs, and odds & ends, instead of just sitting through a plotted course, from point A to point B, for a payoff at the end. Yes, the payoff at the end can be more satisfying than the rollercoaster ride; but in Ant-Man’s case, there was enough of a ride to keep viewers entertained – and that still counts for something, where movie making is concerned.

Sure, there were some bits I could’ve done without (kudos for making the loss of an ant register; but ants don’t make cutesy pets – I’ve been saying this since Honey, I Shrunk the Kids), and more need for suspending disbelief than I would’ve liked; but one more reason for Ant-Man’s success: a cut to the chase. Between the rise of the MCU, Nolan’s Batman, and Sony’s Spider-Man reboot, I think a degree of origin fatigue may have set in. This may account for the failure of another 2015 superhero entry; but this article’s just for the winners. With Ant-Man, we got a mythology-in-progress – much like A New Hope. Now, before you grab your complimentary pitch forks/ torches, lemme expand on that Star Wars comparison. Like Star Wars, Ant-Man’s central theme was legacy redemption; and like Star Wars, they didn’t stop at just one. We were brought in at the end of the original hero’s story, just so a new champion could clean up his legacy messes, while preventing history from repeating. The film also wasn’t as much a slap to the face of source fans, as originally feared/ felt. As much as hated the idea of Janet Van Dyne being cut out of the MCU, that old chestnut – about never showing a peripheral character’s face – left Yoda’s “No, there is another” ringing in my ear. That, and the obvious similarities between her loss and the loss of the original Bucky. There will be a Wasp, at some point – we know that – but I expect a twist to come of it; and I appreciated the perceived effort. Now, just to throw off any speculation, over my speculating, I offer one word as a dropped lizard’s tail: Micronauts (dives out nearest window).

Between AoU & Ant-Man, the MCU formula has been reaffirmed, and then some. If you thought there was no living with Marvel before….

Well the good news  (for Dour Cinema types & haters of the MCU formula, in general) is that the prospect of being a Downey, Pratt, and Rudd MST3K captive may be interrupted by another dark turn by Captain America. 2016 looks to be a good year for comic characters in blue being bad.

So that’s what worked; next week: what didn’t. It’s a very narrow field… c’mon – give us a guess….

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About the author

Sam Joseph

Sam is an Avid consumer/observer of Geek culture, and collector of Fanboy media from earliest memory. Armchair sociologist and futurist. Honest critic with satirical if not absurdist­­ wit with some experience in comics/ animation production.

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