A shortlist of the best Marvel films on DVD and Blu-ray
by Tony Dayoub
Once unable to get many of its most iconic characters on the big screen, its superheroes tied up in litigation due to some bad business decisions, Marvel Entertainment now thrives thanks to much of the education it reluctantly received in courtrooms. Its rival, DC Comics (publishing home of Superman and Batman), is stuck in a sort of stasis, unable to capitalize on a stable of comic book characters that are arguably better known than Marvel's. (Remember the Super Friends, aka the Justice League?) Perhaps DC is a victim of "synergy" with parent company Warner Brothers. The conglomerate's natural tendency to play it safe resulted in this summer's Green Lantern, a homogenous piece of hokum that stunk of test-marketing. Just this past summer, as the annual geek convention known as the San Diego Comic-Con was raging, Warner announced that the release of Zack Snyder's all-star Superman feature, The Man of Steel, would be delayed until 2013. Meanwhile, the canny Marvel Studios keeps drawing its licensed characters closer under the roof of its new parent company, the Walt Disney Company. Disney purchased the distribution rights for the remaining features in the Iron Man and Captain America franchises, as well as this week's Avengers film, an experiment in which multiple franchise stars like Thor and the Hulk will unite with the aforementioned heroes to form a powerful mega-team.
Marvel's films succeed by going for the purest distillation of its distinctive characters' qualities, often pairing the right, edgy filmmaker (up-and-coming or veteran) with a project and reframing their character concepts to play better onscreen at the risk of alienating even their most loyal fans. Yes, superhero films still have certain limitations. The first entry in a series usually spends an excessive amount of time on exposition to explain the character's origin; how much time did Spider-Man actually spend fighting the Green Goblin in the first installment? That's why you'll see a lot of sequels on this list. And a new storytelling convention is equally detrimental; recent movies in this genre have been peppering their already large casts with other popular characters (to comic fans, at least), burning valuable screen time in order to set up future franchises; for example, Iron Man 2 introduced the Black Widow and War Machine, the blockbuster serving more as a prelude to The Avengers than as a film in its own right. But this past July, Marvel's latest entry, Captain America: The First Avenger, stunned speculators by besting the latest and last Harry Potter film at the box office, after the Potter movie had one of the best opening weekends of all time the week before. Any cries that the superhero genre is in its final death throes have been silenced.
The films I've highlighted below are largely designed to be enjoyed by viewers without knowledge of a lot of the extra baggage. For your consideration and in order of theatrical release date, my favorite Marvel films:
Blade, Director Stephen Norrington, 1998
From the first, ingeniously orchestrated, bloody rave scene featuring a dangerously sexy Traci Lords, Blade sets the tone for subsequent Marvel films. (This R-rated film is the first from the current Marvel establishment.) Here they rework Marv Wolfman and the late Gene Colan's relatively minor vampire hunter from The Tomb of Dracula comic series into a samurai-like fighter against the undead, a perfect vehicle for actor Wesley Snipes. It's an example of how much importance Marvel puts on integrity of character without being slavishly beholden to comic book continuity.
Kris Kristofferson's portrayal of cranky sidekick Whistler (killed off in the second act) is so on point that he's resurrected in the sequel. The same can't be said for the villains, who are kind of lame. Stephen Dorff never strikes one as formidable enough to deal with the badass Snipe. And the buffoonish Donal Logue is even less threatening, serving as a comic relief example of all the different ways Blade can maim bloodsuckers without killing them. The "big finale" is as anticlimactic as the opening rave scene is terrific. But these are minor quibbles. Blade nicely sets up the Marvel movie franchise and, for better or worse, can also be seen as a precursor to many of the vampire sagas that have succeeded it, from Twilight to True Blood.
Blade II, Dir. Guillermo del Toro, 2002
The rare sequel that tops the original, Blade II is an early showcase for horror master Del Toro. Here he moves the action to an unnamed Eastern European location because the only thing creepier than fighting vampires is fighting them in the former Soviet Bloc. The Daywalker (a boogeyman's name given to Blade by his undead quarry) is recruited by his Pureblood vampire enemies to exterminate the Reapers, a new breed of genetically engineered supervampire killing off the older race. Del Toro brings the destructive weight of comic book battles to the screen. When Blade tussles with the Reaper leader in the film's climax, one can see the camera vibrate with every blow.
Leonor Varela is a stunning, sultry counterpoint to Snipes as the reluctant leader of the hero's Pureblood associates, the Bloodpack. The Germanic Ron Perlman (who would later play another comic book character for Del Toro in Hellboy) plays Reinhardt, a vampiric rival to Blade with a huge, racist chip on his shoulder. The inexperienced Luke Goss brings some surprising complexity to his role of Jared Nomak, the twitchy first Reaper, imbuing the character with no small bit of pathos. (He'd go on to play the similarly outcast Prince Nuada for Del Toro's Hellboy II: The Golden Army.)
Singer, the openly gay director of indie phenom The Usual Suspects, is able to draw on personal experience and his facility with ensemble casts to make X2 perhaps the best superhero movie since Richard Donner's Superman: The Movie (1978). Singer is easily able to switch back and forth between a personal plot for popular character Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), who is trying to reconstruct his shattered memory, and the threat that his former mentor, Col. Stryker (Brian Cox), represents to the entire mutant species. The transitions from the macro-story to the smaller personal one never seem forced, nor do they make the film feel overstuffed.
All of this kicks off with a bang as Alan Cumming's devilish looking Nightcrawler is introduced in an opening setpiece that sees him single-handedly taking down the Secret Service as he mounts a teleportation attack on the White House. Through Nightcrawler, and his disturbing appearance, we get a (maybe not so) subtle examination of prejudice against homosexuals. X2's mutants can be just as valuable to society as the LGBT community and should not be punished for being, as Lady Gaga sings, "Born This Way."
Hulk, Dir. Ang Lee, 2003
Ang Lee adds another unique entry to his eclectic filmography. Stylistically innovative, this comic book movie is likely the closest one will ever get to putting the visual feel of a comic book up on a big screen. Editor Tim Squyres worked with effects house ILM to create split-screen effects that recall the scene transitions of a comic book, with objects sometimes exploding from one panel to another the way they did in some of comic artist Jim Steranko's most original layouts. (Although Steranko didn't draw the character with any kind of regularity, his work for Marvel during the Silver Age was influential.)
Lee examines some of the same family dysfunction he has explored in movies like The Ice Storm. This time it's the simmering anger between Bruce Banner (Eric Bana) and his father David (Nick Nolte), whose experiments led to the death of Bruce's mom. Lee contends that Bruce's emotional repression is as much of a contributing factor to his transformation into the green-skinned behemoth, the Hulk, as that pesky gamma radiation is. Interestingly, Lee takes the Hulk's metamorphosis further than the comic book ever did. His version of the monster grows larger and larger the angrier it gets. The movie's finale suffers from the unnecessary physical confrontation between father and son as Nolte gains the power of the comic book's Absorbing Man, a chameleon-like ability to gain the elemental characteristics of any object he touches. But otherwise, this is an at times meditative probe into one man's psyche as he tries to get a grip on his dark side.
Okay, now that Raimi got Peter Parker's lengthy origin out of the way in the first Spider-Man, he is able to offer a popcorn flick that capitalizes on the manic, Rube Goldberg-like shot sequences which mark his earlier movies. And Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina), with his steel-cable limbs, provides him with plenty of opportunities. This starts with the film's most frightening scene, when the good doctor has just had the metal arms fused onto his body in a lab accident. While the doctor lays unconscious on a surgical gurney, the callous medical team preparing to amputate the arms joke and banter, unaware that the limbs have themselves achieved consciousness. Soon, they tear up the operating room in a violent scene that rivals the horror of any of the complicated setups of his Evil Dead films.
Tobey Maguire is appealing as the once-timid Peter Parker, whose newfound confidence as the web-slinger sees him chafing under the additional responsibility. Parker wishes he could channel the comfort he feels in his own skin into a fledgling relationship with Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst). This throws off his superhero game somewhat, with momentary, psychosomatic losses of his super-abilities plaguing him in the midst of pivotal bouts against Doc Ock. Raimi is able to successfully harness Maguire's persona as a representation of post-9/11 New York and its denizens, down but not out, particularly in a touching conclusion to a subway battle between the Spider and the Octopus.
Iron Man, Dir. Jon Favreau, 2008
The epitome of the Marvel film, Iron Man is a self-contained story (though Samuel Jackson's post-credit cameo gets the ball rolling on the upcoming Avengers film) that succeeds on the strength of its perfect casting. Robert Downey Jr., an actor bouncing back from a notorious bout with drugs and alcohol, plays billionaire weapons designer Tony Stark, a playboy contending with his own battles in that arena. The charisma he brings to a second-tier Marvel character is such that it vaunted the superhero to the top of the Marvel pantheon. If this movie wouldn't have worked, Marvel Films and their dream of a unified franchise made up of smaller franchises like Thor, Captain America, and more would likely never exist.
Favreau updates Stark's origin as a captive in the jungles of Southeast Asia to accommodate our current war, setting his captivity in Afghanistan instead. Coupling that with the counterintuitive casting of Jeff Bridges as the scheming Obadiah Stane gives the movie a touch of relevance in its disdain for the military industrial complex. Laidback Bridges is a strong yin to frenetic Downey's yang as the two battle it out for control of Stark International. The decision by Stark to reveal his secret identity to the world opens up a story avenue for future films wanting to explore the difficulty of celebrity, nearly aborted by the failure of Iron Man 2 to capitalize on such a plotline.
Punisher: War Zone, Dir. Lexi Alexander, 2008
This is the third film iteration of the Punisher, played here by Ray Stevenson (Thor), as close to a living version of comic artist Tim Bradstreet's version of the tormented Frank Castle as one can get. Lexi Alexander's gritty, gory take on the character pays homage to comic writer Garth Ennis' run on the Punisher series (aimed at mature audiences). What the movie gets right in casting and storytelling is nearly undone by one fatal flaw: cinematographer Steve Gainer's overreliance on colored gels in a film that should logically look more like a black-and-white noir. There's a clue to why he pumped up the film with so much needless color in a featurette included on the disc, where he misguidedly offers Warren Beatty's colorful Dick Tracy as one of his inspirations.
Castle — who lost his family to mob executioners — is a vigilante so savage in his retaliation he could almost be likened to a serial killer whose targets just happen to be members of the Mafia. The Wire's Dominic West holds his own opposite Stevenson, playing the hideously deformed Jigsaw, a once handsome capo whose face was cut up by Castle during a confrontation he barely survived.
This is a modified version of a retrospective first published on 7/27/2011 in Nomad Editions: Wide Screen.