Henry Bevan on the golden age of superhero cinema…
Wonder Woman will save the DC Extended Universe. This is a loaded statement, but at this point, it seems everyone will save the DCEU. We all need a hero, and my money is on Diana Prince. The latest trailer only strengthens my belief.
My belief that Patty Jenkins and Gal Gadot will create a great superhero movie arises from three things: 1) They have to, as this movie cannot fail. Its failure will not only be catastrophic for the DCEU, but also for female directors and female-led superhero movies; 2) Wonder Woman is a great character and is different from anyone we’ve seen in either a DC or Marvel movie; 3) The critique that the trailers make the film look like a mid-noughties superhero movie isn’t a criticism, it is a blessing.
The mid-noughties was the golden age of superhero movies. Sure, there wasn’t the same volume of caped crusaders as there is now, but the movie quality was insane. If you take the time period as 2003-2007, three of the superhero movies released are superhero cinema benchmarks that would still make a superhero movie all-star starting eleven: X2: X-Men United; Spider-Man 2; Batman Begins.
Now, the word “auteur” should only be used in a classroom, but those three films remain some of the only superhero movies unencumbered by studio notes. They are three movies where the directors’ identity is obvious. Of the recent films, only Guardians of the Galaxy, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Logan have as heavy a directorial footprint as the mid-noughties triumvirate.
Until Logan, a film given a lot of freedom, X2 was the best film in the franchise. Bryan Singer successfully trades off the civil rights movement, and no X-Men film since has managed this with as much verve. Spider-Man 2 remains the best Spider-Man film and is one of the best blockbusters since the turn of the century, as Raimi possibly makes the most Raimi superhero movie he could. Batman Begins is arguably the best Batman screen adaptation. The film where Christopher Nolan blended seriousness and theatricality before he made the more serious-minded movie, The Dark Knight (which falls just outside our dates).
A lot of people give Batman Begins some stick for its bonkers third act. How come a film that takes its hero seriously suddenly diverge into a ridiculous end where the bad guys destroy Gotham with a microwave and fear gas? Well, because the film is a meditation on fear. Bruce’s arc is about overcoming his fear of bats, which embody what he believes is his biggest failure, his parent’s deaths. Just as the character learns his fear doesn’t have to consume him, Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson) appears at one of Bruce’s fancy dinner parties and has Gotham consumed by fear.
Everything in Batman Begins serves this theme. Nolan’s action direction in this film is often criticised, and whilst the car chase runs too long, the dock fight’s rapid-cut editing is used to turn Batman into a legend, into a boogeyman. The audience is only meant to see glimpses of him until he drags Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) out of the limo and growls: “I’m Batman.” Nolan’s first Batman film, like most of the mid-noughties superhero films, is hyper-focused on its storytelling objectives.
Indeed, Spider-Man 2 is about how someone’s responsibilities can get in the way of their personal life. In his opening shot, Sam Raimi establishes what his super sequel is about. Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) wants Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst), but his responsibilities, both average and superheroic, prevent him from doing so. Spider-Man 2 is hyper-focused on this, and Peter’s arc is about finding a balance. Oh, and Raimi condenses all this information into his opening shot. Nolan and Raimi’s grasp of storytelling and filmmaking is what the differentiates their auteur efforts from Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman. That film was clearly a Zack Snyder movie, it just didn’t make much sense.
Of course, there were some bad threequels (X-Men: The Last Stand and Spider-Man 3) released during this time period and the Fantastic Four films, released in 2005 and 2007, were fun but forgettable romps that were somehow much better than what was released in 2015.
When it is released on the 2nd June, we will see where Wonder Woman lands. But, to me, it can have no higher honour than looking like a mid-noughties superhero movie.