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Superhero summer not quite a bummer

By Gordy Stillman

Section: Arts

September 16, 2011

The last few summers have been dominated by comic book movies. For example, 2008 boasted both “Iron Man” and “The Dark Knight,” two of the most well-regarded movie adaptations for Marvel and DC respectively. Summer 2012 is already shaping up to be another comic book-filled season with the release of “The Avengers” by Marvel and the conclusion of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy with “The Dark Knight Rises.” In the meantime, this summer featured a host of comic book origin stories: “Thor,” “X-Men: First Class,” “Green Lantern” and “Captain America.” While these four may have been origin stories, they all had their own strengths and weaknesses.

“Thor” was the first to hit theaters with a May release. The film explains how Thor—based on the Norse god of thunder—makes his way to Earth and eventually positions himself to join the Avengers, a team of superheroes. Unlike the other Marvel movies, it features elements of a space opera and travel between different realms (rather than planets). These realms include the palatial Asgard (home of Thor), the desolate world of “Frost Giants” and Earth, specifically New Mexico. Thor (Chris Hemsworth), in a display of youthful arrogance and brashness, travels to the realm of the Frost Giants and picks a fight with them in hopes of asserting his dominance. After barely managing to return home, his father (Anthony Hopkins) banishes him to Earth, stripping him of his powers until he is deemed worthy again. Needless to say, by the end of the movie he has become worthy and has also become interested in the film’s female lead, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman).

The biggest problem with “Thor” was that it felt obvious that it existed as groundwork for future films. Despite this, it always retained a sense of “epicness,” particularly when Asgard and other non-Earth realms were shown.

Next out of the gate from Marvel was “X-Men: First Class,” a historical fiction film as well as a superhero flick. While four movies have already been released in the X-Men universe, this is the first one to tell the origins of Charles Xavier’s X-Men and Magneto’s Brotherhood of Mutants. Aside from expanding upon Eric Lenshurr’s (later Magneto) time in Auschwitz, it’s largely a movie set against the Cuban Missile Crisis. While, as a fan, I fundamentally disliked how many characters’ origins were re-imagined, I did like that the film portrayed the missile crisis as being the result of an outside puppet master rather than deliberate Cold War antagonism. There were even parts that I both liked and disliked at the same time, such as the way Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) becomes crippled. Overall, “X-Men” proved to be one of the better comic movies of the summer.

The third movie of the summer (and the only DC release) “Green Lantern,” was very much a space opera. Unlike “Thor,” I thoroughly enjoyed it. “Green Lantern” tells the story of how Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds) becomes the first human member of the Green Lantern Corps, a space police group. He is bestowed a ring powered by the green light of willpower; anything he imagines, the ring constructs using the power of his will. While he learns to use his new powers, he also has to juggle his complicated relationship with his best friend—and boss—Carol Ferris (Blake Lively) while protecting the earth from an entity. This entity is called Parallax and is basically fear incarnate. As if that weren’t enough, he must also deal with a mentor (Mark Strong) who himself is interested in the corrupting power of the yellow light (fear). While the movie could be hard to follow for someone not already interested in the series, it did a great job of laying the groundwork for a series of films.

The last and certainly not least comic book movie of this summer was “Captain America: The First Avenger.” This movie tells the story of Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), a small, weak, young man who wants nothing more than to serve his country on the battlefields of World War II. He is chosen to be a part of an experimental super-soldier program; after passing numerous tests, which reveal his self-sacrificing nature, Steve is injected with an experimental serum that allows him to reach peak physical human potential. He’s stronger, faster, taller and fundamentally superior to his original form—and he’s also now able to take part in the war effort. Eventually he comes face to face with his arch-nemesis, the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), a man who benefited from an earlier version of the super-soldier program, resulting in his red hue, who now serves as Hitler’s expert on the occult. Tying the movie to the rest of Marvel’s “Avengers” universe, Red Skull’s mysterious power source appears to come from Asgard, the realm of Thor. While “The Avengers” were alluded to in the title, “Captain America” did a much better job than “Thor” in its ability to hold up as its own movie and not necessarily as a building ground for a future film. “Captain America” also did a better job than “X-Men” as a historical fiction piece by staying true to the original origin stories.

While there were plenty of movies that I did not enjoy seeing this past summer, including “Bad Teacher” and “The Smurfs,” I never fundamentally disliked any of the four comic book movies released this year. At the very minimum, I’m excited about the arrival of both “The Dark Knight Rises” and “The Avengers” next summer, but these four also proved to be movies worth seeing.

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