By Brett Yates
I’ve gotten to the point where my hatred of superhero movies is so intense that I get angry just seeing that a new one has been released. In the case of last weekend, it was “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” the Marvel character’s second reboot in the past five years, and the sixth Spider-Man movie since 2002.
Spider-Man is one of the better comic book characters, because Peter Parker’s superpower feels as much like a vaguely gross adolescent affliction as it does a mystical gift; being half-spider is obviously a better fate than becoming the sort of insect into which Gregor Samsa transformed in Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” but in some sense it’s sort of the same thing. I’ll probably see the movie and, within 15 minutes, will hate it and feel embarrassed at the knowledge that I’m about to waste another two hours of my life within the artistic void that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
As a snob, however, I’ve spent some time mentally compiling a list of superhero movies to which I’m able (in earnest) to give my stamp of approval — the exceptions to the rule of my distaste. Here are my top five:
“The Dark Knight” (2008): Obviously. Christopher Nolan’s sole significant directorial achievement is primarily an action-crime drama, with all the hard edges of an urban gangster movie; its comic book provenance simply allows it to go bigger than its competition, reaching a kind of crazy grandeur instead of limiting itself to “gritty” realism or the depressing low-level glamorization of real-life criminality.
“Unbreakable” (2000): M. Night Shyamalan’s final film is even better than “The Sixth Sense” and represents the closest thing we have to a superhero movie taking place in the real world. Nobody wears tights or a cape but the characters themselves have read comic books, which supply the conceptual framework with which they’re able to locate and make sense of the protagonist’s superpowers. An origin story that takes place amid the failures and disappointments of midlife, it makes for an oddly moving tale of self-exploration.
“Birdman” (2014): Some viewers may consider the imaginary superhero subplot of “Birdman” to be incidental; to me, Alejandro Iñárritu’s assessment of the apocalyptic moment in 21st-century Hollywood, is the boldest and most memorable part of his Best Picture winner. Iñárritu isn’t a scold, however: he gives superheroes their due, and the scenes of Michael Keaton flying through New York make a better case for the fundamental appeal of the genre than most summer blockbusters do. Iñárritu understands that every truly great movie is, at some level, a superhero movie — that art is about breaking free from ordinary life.
“Blankman” (1994): A childhood favorite, Damon Wayans’ crime-fighting comedy speaks touchingly of the desperation within comic book fandom and of the imaginative need that superheroes fill within the communities that their genre neglects. Batman is a billionaire, but the kids who spend the most time dreaming about him almost certainly aren’t — “Blankman” is the only superhero movie that addresses these dreamers directly.
“Iron Man” (2008): With Tony Stark’s first big-screen appearance, it was clear instantly that the summer Cineplex landscape had changed forever. In his hugely amusing “Iron Man,” Jon Favreau invented the modern Marvel movie. What he produced instead was a sleeker, wittier thing, absent of any narrative grandiosity or graphic excess. His high-tech yet determinedly earthbound entertainment template proved endlessly replicable, as Marvel went on to produce one movie after another in which, despite adapting an image-based medium, its directors managed not to create a single memorable image. From then on, they would at every moment implicitly acknowledge that these films were nothing more than popcorn fare, that they had no burdensome “artistic” history behind them, and that they would contain nothing — no scrap of true feeling, no interesting detail of cinematography — to interrupt the smooth ride ahead.