Disclaimer off the bat: I grew up reading comic books like so many other people (X-Men, Spider-Man, and Ghost Rider – that’s right – mostly), but I hardly know the universe. Odds are that I missed a whole slew of easter eggs, comic book-subtext, references, etc.
Only one of these three films is really worth a watch, and that would be Joss Whedon’s The Avengers from 2012. Though it follows a similar template to most superhero films (although it thankfully isn’t an origin story – is there anything duller?), it transcends the model for several reasons that the other two in this thread can’t claim:
Firstly, Whedon is funny. He’s got a sharp ear for dialogue that’s at once silly and badass, cheesy and funny. While that style might not be a fit for some comic adaptations it works perfectly in The Avengers. The one-liners are great, and the best moment – Tony Stark’s Galaga comment and the subsequent shot of the SHIELD worker going back to his video game – is laugh-out-loud funny.
Secondly, the acting is really superior to that in the other films (more on those below). It’s not just that the leads are good and really inhabit their roles, it’s also that there’s no real drop-off from minor characters and featured extras. Stellan Skarsgard in a near-throwaway role? Paul Bettany as a voice actor? Clark Gregg, Powers Boothe, Harry Dean Stanton, and Jerzy Skolimowski(!)? Well done.
Thirdly, the structure of the script is pretty smart in that it plays – until the obligatory NYC climax – like a film from a different genre: the classic spy mystery. More so than either Man of Steel or The Amazing Spider-Man, The Avengers, with Black Widow’s traits anchoring this element, plays like a thriller of mistrust, dead-ends, and whodunits. In the same way that Nolan’s Batman films – love ’em or hate ’em – took on noir/thriller characteristics and embedded them into the Gotham/gothic world, The Avengers builds narrative suspense in traditional ways: why is Loki giving himself up so easily (itself such a tried and true plot point: see the recent Skyfall); what is the purpose of the tesseract; why would anyone want to bring Banner/the Hulk into things?
Lastly, The Avengers takes on tropes from other films and plays them up to great effect. See the intro to Scarlet Johansson’s Black Widow character. When we meet her she’s in the middle of being interrogated (or interrogating) and the scene that we’re thrown into feels pulled from a Cold War ’70s spy thriller. Similarly, Banner’s intro – in a dingy room in what looks like India – could be from a medical/sci-fi adventure film (Andromeda Strain, et al). Whedon’s smart to not overplay the hand – these scenarios are just brief windows that we – from having watched so many damn movies – are already familiar with. They don’t need explaining beyond the fact that they serve the dual purpose of both introducing us to character and giving us a taste of the different films/stories that these individuals come from.
Man of Steel on the other hand, while better than the bore that was The Amazing Spider-Man, doesn’t really tread any ground that Bryan Singer’s (also pretty boring) Superman Returns didn’t. This is a film that’s entirely earnest, that throws Superman into a Metropolis universe almost devoid of phone booths, and that draws its best performances (perhaps ironically, given my comment above) from its side characters.
Laurence Fishburne, Kevin Costner, and Diane Lane steal the show from Russell Crowe, Henry Cavill, and Amy Adams, with Michael Shannon proving capable, though somewhat comical in the first half of the film (he really turns it on for the last act).
The film is partially a drag because a) writers Nolan and David S. Goyer can’t find the right balance of humor and pathos, b) the third act is so long and redundant that it’s comical, and c) Zack Snyder falls in love with snap zooms.
There are really funny moments in Man of Steel. Superman is thrown into a “X days of work injury free” sign and the number quickly resets to 0. A hard cut from a monotone warning to a close-up of a beeping and blinking “Warning” sign…reveals it to be the readout on a copy machine out of ink. But otherwise, everything’s so self-serious. Sure, Superman is the ultimate beacon of morality and he really (really) loves the American people (side note: I get that he’s American “born,” but he always refers to saving the people “of this planet,” yet he’s clearly an American symbol through-and-through), but his grown up boy scout act doesn’t hold unless he’s interacting with his parents (those scenes are quite good) and really hurts the believability of his final action in the battle versus Zod (Shannon).
I know that it’s part of the world, but it’s hard to not laugh at a man running around in tights all day. At least in The Amazing Spider-Man it’s made fun of. I just can’t take it seriously, and when Henry Cavill comes zooming out of a cave, fully clad in the costume we all know and love(?), also inexplicably seeming to have quickly shaved, the “go America” zeal is lost in peals of laughter.
The Amazing Spider-Man is such an agonizing slog that it’s hard to write about. Despite strong performances from Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, and Sally Field (way better here than in Lincoln), it falls flat. The CG is terrible and already outdated and the idea that nerds are actually really cool, good-looking kids who don’t wear varsity jackets, but do still dress like they’ve been pulled from some kind of catalog is absurd.
A major difference between Whedon’s writing and that of James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent, and Steve Kloves (credited with the script for this one) is that Whedon’s humor would work largely outside of a Marvel or superhero universe. It’s funny in almost any context. Not the case in Spider-Man. Also, Whedon does a better job – most of the time – at couching his exposition in interesting ways. Again, not the case here. Do we really need to hear that NYC construction worker say, to no one in particular (oh wait, he’s talking to us, I mean himself), “that’s the guy who saved my kid”? Can’t we just see the guy and recognize him? Am I so stupid that I’ve forgotten him already and would be utterly confused without this outstandingly insipid bit of dialogue?
By my count there are three good scenes in The Amazing Spider-Man. 1) Peter (Garfield) and Gwen (Stone) talk shyly in the hallway about a possible date. It’s really well-acted and funny in that they don’t actually say anything of substance to one-another yet seem to entirely understand what they’re both talking about; 2) a bit of visual exposition (finally!) when Peter sees the mouse in the lab, injected with the same stuff that Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) injected himself with, now cannibalistally eating another, un-injected mouse. It’s funny, kind of shocking, and tells the story without telling us the story; and 3) Stan Lee’s cameo as the librarian with headphones on, completely oblivious to the fact that a huge fight is going on behind him. Again, it’s funny, it’s a different visual approach than we’ve seen to that point, and it’s well staged. Otherwise…not much.
These films got me thinking: is the ‘New Yorkers band together’ plot point a function of superhero movies, or vice versa? Can these plot points be separated from 9/11? In The Amazing Spider-Man the construction workers escort Spider-Man to his final confrontation with The Lizard. In Man of Steel the people pull one-another from wreckage, and Colonel Nathan Hardy (Christopher Meloni) comes to accept Superman (“this man isn’t our enemy”) at a critical juncture. In The Avengers Iron Man directs the NYPD to help citizens and, like in Man of Steel, Penn Station and the people inside are featured.
I realize that perhaps this is just inherent of superhero movies taking place on earth. These are, after all, “freaks” or “aliens.” How super would they be if they weren’t shown to be protecting a weaker people? Still, this device is so tired. Even the final scene in The Avengers, which is the best of the three climaxes and moderately successful because of the multitude of characters Whedon has to cut to, feels so repetitive. What about a superhero film, set on earth, where the citizenry isn’t really at issue? Would that feel cheap?
And the 9/11 parallels – whether intentional or not – also start to feel like flimsy violin strings. A foreign invader (The Lizard, Zod, Loki) destroys part of a major metropolis, there’s the obligatory cut to people running from clouds of dust and collapsing buildings, people help one-another, the cops/army come in and, though somewhat initially confused as to who the real enemy is, still do their best to ward off the attacking forces and restore order, and ultimately said invader is dispelled by a heroic effort. It’s not necessarily fair to say that these all have to be direct references – after all, there are plenty of examples of just the above pre-2001; but still, it’d be nice to have a superhero film that doesn’t use mass destruction of some city as its climax, keeps things smaller, intentionally avoids the parallel (or actively pursues a different one), and contains things in the Marvel, DC, etc universe from which it originated.