Marvelling at the Madness: Why Superhero Film Reviews Don’t Make Sense

By  Florianne Humphrey

Perhaps I view the world with rose-tinted glasses, but I love films that critics love to hate.  The films I love are superhero films, Marvel productions in particular, which tend to gain mixed, if not negative reviews, from critics.

I’m no film guru, the first ‘indie’ film I can name is ‘The Artist’, which was not only French, silent but also black and white. A quick search informs me that it did pretty well. It was nominated for six Golden Globes, twelve BAFTAS, ten Academy Awards and, the accolade I trust the most, 97% on Rotten Tomatoes.  For a silent film, it certainly made a lot of noise in the film industry.  Now, for its creative antithesis, the recently released X-Men: Apocalypse, the ninth instalment in the series. A dire 48% on Rotten Tomatoes and the headlines for the top three reviews are less than encouraging: ‘Mutants in a Muddle’, ‘A Calamitous Dud’, and ‘The end is…sigh.’  Critics have pulled apart aspects including the CGI, the costumes, the action, the mass destruction, the dialogue…the list is endless, but it includes things that everyone expects from a superhero film.

I’m not such a fan of the franchise to think it perfection beyond criticism.  The films tend to be twenty minutes too long and there is always a moment when you think it is over and then the action explodes onto the screen again.  But I leave these films blinking in surprise after a sudden return to reality, because the loud sound, the bright colours, and the intense plot always transport me somewhere else for two and a bit hours.  Is that ever a bad thing? For fantasy films in particular, their main duty is to provide that brief escape from reality.

But many film critics don’t seem to appreciate that Marvel films are just pure entertainment and are intent on using the same points of comparison as more ‘serious’, Academy-nominated films.  The main complaint that critics have for the new X-Men film is that it has little regard for humanity.  Like all superhero films, the bad guy’s plans for world domination lead to skyscrapers and bridges collapsing to rubble.  However, apparently film critics thought it was immoral that the mutants didn’t spend a scene rallying together to rebuild the ruins of civilisation, or at least shed a tear or two for the victims.  Cold as it may be, watching a superhero film desensitises you to violence and death, by dint of the fact that they are so frequent and unrealistic.  Wolverine deflecting bullets from his adamantium claws and Magneto slitting throats with a floating metal necklace are so fantastical that the deaths have no impact.  The only tragic death was that of a mutant, but the whole point of X-Men is that you are meant to side with them over the humans.  If you want a film focussed on the heart-wrenching, senseless loss of innocent life, go and see Titanic.

Then there are the remarks about sexism because, if a film critic cannot think of something to say, they don their feminist hat that they have kept locked up in a cupboard until this point because it is finally trendy.  Don’t get me wrong, superhero films and female empowerment have a rocky history, but the Marvel television series Jessica Jones took a step in the right direction.  In terms of X-Men: Apocalypse, critics are angry about the mutant Psylocke because of her limited dialogue and revealing leotard.  Firstly, her male counterpart Angel said no more than she did and was hardly wearing loose, chaste clothing.  Maybe they could have given her some trousers for the chill but, as that is the exact outfit she wears in the comic book series, it was at least true to the origin source. In a two hour film with a vast cast and a heavier focus on action, there isn’t time for every character to have an extensive and confessional soliloquy.  At least Psylocke fights for herself and doesn’t, like women in other films, passively wait for the man to save her.  Most importantly, labelling the film as sexist because of Psylocke ignores the other badass women, such as Jean Grey and Mystique who both wore ‘appropriate’ clothing while saving the men in their pivotal, dialogue-heavy roles.

Then there was the critique of the over-dramatic dialogue. If you’ve seen any of the Fast and Furious films then you’ve been treated to Vin Diesel’s quips, from ‘you break her heart, I’ll break your neck’ to ‘this time it ain’t just about being fast.’ Shakespearean poetry it is not, but scriptwriting and dialogue take a back seat in action films when all you want is more fight scenes and unbelievable stunts.  X-Men is no different and, although some of the dialogue is genuinely funny, it does have its fair share of clichés, mainly thanks to the bad guy who declares ‘everything they’ve built will fall! And from the ashes of the world, we’ll build a better one!’  These are lines not written to be picked apart by literature students; they are there to heighten the drama and tension.

The weirdest critical comment I have read is about the gratuitous use of CGI.  How else do they expect the mutants to fly, shoot red lasers out their eyes, move metal, or teleport?  Sadly, we don’t have superpowers in real life, and that is where CGI steps in.  Avatar was praised for its special effects because no one expected the directors to hire real-life blue skinned, pointy eared creatures.  Criticising a superhero film for using CGI is like condemning a 1920s film for being black and white.  So, if special effects give you a headache, don’t watch superhero films.

It’s a free country. I’m not going to wave a pitchfork at any film critic that challenges my favourite films.  I’m tough enough to cope with criticism. I’m sure Marvel can too with the millions they rake in at box office.  But if you’re going to review a film, understand why it was produced in the first place and what it is trying to achieve.  It is what it is, so get real and embrace the fantasy.

Image via Flickr.

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