RANKING THE SUPERHERO FILMS OF 2016
by Jeremy Goeckner, Editor-In-Chief
It was the biggest year yet for all of us comic book nerds who dreamed that one day our obsession would take the world by storm. But never in our wildest dreams could we imagine a year where SIX major studio comic book adaptations would be released nationwide! Needless to say, the comic book movie craze is as alive as ever and it’s only going to continue to grow from here.
But before we look forward into the amazing year to come in comic book movies, I thought it would be good to take some time to do the definitive ranking of the year that was in superhero cinema. Now I’ll go right off the bat and say that these are not the definitive rankings of the entire Front Row. They are only my, Jeremy Goeckner’s, personal ranking with reasons that I will lay out. And your list may be completely different from mine. And you know what? That’s completely awesome. Film is subjective and debate with discussion is always what we’re going for here.
Also, it is important to note that we are only looking at the Superhero comic book films of this year. We’re not going for every comic book property and we’re staying in the live-action realm. So, let the public beating commence!
This is an amazingly easy choice for the bottom spot. While the first TMNT live-action reboot had some fun sequences and hid the deficiencies of Megan Fox enough to be bearable, the sequel suffered the same problems that most sequels do: namely overstuffing. At first the trailers promised a bigger and better sequel with fan-favorite characters like Beebop and Rocksteady and Casey Jones leading the foray against one of the most powerful villains in all of Turtle-dom. Yet what we got was a film with far too many characters and far too many plot lines to follow. It’s like the producers and writers were so surprised the first film worked that they decided to throw in everything they could think of. Quite frankly, this was a terrible let-down of a movie. And Arrow star Stephen Amell deserved far better from his first major motion picture role. It’s sad to say but I fear we won’t see the Turtles on the big screen again for quite some time after this mess.
This film marked the third entry into the infant DCEU and was an odd choice from the get-go. I mean even the vaunted MCU waited until film number ten to go truly weird and unusual with Guardians of the Galaxy. But give credit to WB for going for the all-villain super-team so early in their cinematic universe. The results are a very mixed bag however. The movie doesn’t hold up well upon multiple viewings. There are remnants of something very watchable and maybe even good sprinkled throughout the theatrical cut of the film but it only makes us long for that great movie that might have been. What we do have is the best possible film debut of Harley Quinn in Margot Robbie and Will Smith brought an unexpectedly touching spin to Deadshot. We’ll have to wait a while longer to figure out exactly what Jared Leto’s Joker is up to as well. But with this movie specifically, the beginning (or assembling of the team) happens to be the best part of it. And when you’re building to a massive 3rd Act action sequence and it turns out to be one of the worst I’ve ever seen, there is somebody to blame. Whether it be the screenwriter, the director, the execs at WB, someone neutered this film and rendered it less effective in the process. But if we can get some more mileage out of these characters in other DCEU films where they are much better utilized, then we might be able to call this an artistic success to match it’s massive box office haul. As it stands now, it’s number 6 on my list for the year.
It seemed like the easiest choice of the year. Bryan Singer launched the X-Men movie universe with the first two (and some would say best) movies. After taking time off, he returned with what was perhaps the best of 2014 in X-Men: Days of Future Past. That film combined both casts of the film franchise and made time travel problems within movies seem easy. So this time out lets give Singer and crew what many consider the baddest villain in the X-Men stable in Apocalypse, have an Oscar-calliber actor portray him, give him an even larger budget, move to the 80s and just watch the cash flow in. In many ways the movie works brilliantly. Singer understands what he has in the talents of James McAvoy and Michael Fasbender as Xavier and Magneto and utilizes them very well. The young counterparts of our favorite 90s X-Men are identifiable and strike an early impression on the viewer that makes for a longing to see that TAS translation we’re all begging for! But where the movie fails is with its main villain. Apocalypse isn’t exactly a complex character from the comics pages but he is one of the most powerful and one of the most dangerous. And while we get a good opening sequence for background on the character, we never quite feel how much a threat he can really pose even though so many characters TELL us. But the movie fails to SHOW us. And there were so many ways to do that. But while the movie falls short in that department, the film isn’t the terrible mess many critics make it out to be. It’s enjoyable to watch, gives us a few new lanes to look at and brings us closer to what we all grew up with. Now whether or not they stay on that path… time will tell.
This is without a doubt the most divisive film of the year. While Man of Steel is the first film in the DCEU, this was the first film in the Universe to be truly made with a long-term plan in mind. And on paper it should have worked flawlessly. Take the two biggest superhero names in history and pit them against each other. The cavalcade of stars they got to be in the cast also inspired a lot of confidence. Now I know I’m on an island here as far as the Front Row goes, but I did not hate this movie when it came out. I wanted more out of it, but I still thought it was a fine first effort. Now that doesn’t mean I was blind to the problems of the film. And aside from personal artistic choices in the movie, the biggest problem was the editing. Sequences were cut short, conversations left hanging, moves to different locales that didn’t flow at all, etc. And while I understand the reasoning for not making an exception, the Ultimate Edition of this film fixes all of those problems and makes it a completely different movie. While it is 30 extra minutes of footage it makes the entire cut flow in such a way that it doesn’t feel longer at all. It just makes sense. And the biggest thing it adds in is the character of Superman. While the theatrical cut feels like a Batman movie that sprinkles in Superman, the Ultimate Cut truly gives both an equal amount of screen time and makes the ending of the film far more meaningful. But the sad truth is that even though I find this film to be good, it should have been great. It should have blown us all away. It should have redefined the entire superhero movie conversation. But it didn’t. And that is why it’s number 4 on this list. But please, do yourself a favor and don’t let the negative theatrical cut deter you from seeing the Ultimate Cut. It WILL change your perspective on this film.
While Guardians of the Galaxy proved that Marvel could get weird in the MCU, no film was as big a gamble as Doctor Strange. The Sorcerer Supreme has always had a loyal following in the comics be he is also undoubtedly one of the trippiest characters Marvel has ever produced. So why does the film work so well? Many reasons in fact. First and foremost is the cast. Marvel really pulled out all the stops to get a ridiculously talented group of actors; headlined by Benedict Cumberbatch. Having been one of my favorites since the first days of Sherlock, Cumberbatch has now achieved superstar status and rightfully so. In this film he is so good at taking us through the hero journey. Specifically the way in which we get to see this arrogant jerk slowly morph into the hero to save the world. The journey is thoughtful, filled with the typical beats but done in a very expansive and unique way. And rounding it out with a thoughtful and even-keeled villain by Mads Mikelson and equally impressive work from Chiwetel Ejiofor and Tilda Swinton and you understand why the acting carries the film. But the visuals of Doctor Strange are some of the most gorgeous the MCU has ever seen. These special effects look completely fantastical but also still somehow feel right at home in the more down-to-earth MCU visual style. And much of that comes from director Scott Derrickson. Long a favorite of mine for his horror work, what he accomplishes with Strange is a deftness at producing more universally appealing fare while still keeping his uniquely creepy visual palette and flair (see The Exorcism of Emily Rose, etc). He moves the story along at a great pace and always remembers to let us have some moments of levity to counteract the general weirdness of the entire premise. And, I mean, if you’re not feeling thoroughly acid-tripped out by the mind-bend sequence then you need to check your dosage.
The first foray into R-Rated territory of the X-Men franchise produced, literally, the most surprising hit of the entire year. And this isn’t a case of hardcore fans driving up ticket sales and claiming success that way. No; the film is really just that damn good. Now while foul-mouthed and sadistically amoral mercenary Wade Wilson has long been one of the most popular comics characters, movement for getting him on the big screen was extremely slow due to concerns about the family-friendliness of superhero movies to that time. But all the poking and prodding from fans and producer/star Ryan Reynolds finally paid off as Fox gave them a small budget; presumably to simply get rid of them. Well throw all that out of the window. What made Deadpool such a fan-favorite in the comics is expertly translated to the screen. The breaking of the fourth wall, that fast quips, the hyper-violence, the sexual perversion, it’s all here and it’s all gloriously irreverent. But this movie is more than just shock value in a superhero film. Of course Reynolds is perfect as the merc with a mouth, but the rest of the cast also completely buys in and plays to the same level. And while Ed Skrien’s villain isn’t going to set the world on fire, the best part of this film is the love story. The chemistry between Reynolds and Morena Baccarin is so sweet and earnest that we deeply care about Wade before he is even given any super-powers. And with the banter they establish a truly loving relationship that I think most people would really want. And lets not forget about the amazingly awesome X-Men meta references to Patrick Stewart, James McAvoy and Hugh Jackman. And if you’re not hysterically laughing just from the opening credits alone, you might not agree with it being this high on the list. But for a little film many expected to fail, Deadpool has found himself near the top of the mountain and that is incredible all on its own.
The MCU is a life-force unto itself. Who could have guessed back in 2008 when Iron Man first hit theaters what this film experiment would become? After the credits rolled Nick Fury appeared in Tony Stark’s living room and told him he was a part of a bigger universe but that he just didn’t know it yet. Man was he ever right. Now we have officially started the third phase of the MCU plan with the release of our number 1 film on the list and many rightfully call it the best they’ve ever produced. I don’t think I’m ready to go there yet but it is easily the number 1 film on this list. Joe and Anthony Russo busted out with their exceptional direction on Captain America: The Winter Soldier and man have they ever showed that was no fluke. In managing the giant stable of MCU characters in this film, it’s not too unreasonable to think that this served as their Avengers audition of sorts; and man did they ever nail it! They weaved a tight and thoughtful mystery thriller into the midst of this super-powered showdown and took the exact right beats from the popular comic book storyline to make it work in this film incarnation. And the key component that makes it the best is the dynamic between Tony and Steve. We’ve grown up with these characters in a sense and to see their ideologies that have been bubbling under the surface finally emerge and clash is both devastating and exhilarating at the same time. Sure, the airport sequence is one of the best 20 minutes ever put on film and sure the fan-service scenes of our favorite superheroes coming to grips with the accountability they must have for their actions is great. But, the movie lives and dies on the dynamic of family and friendship. The Avengers are no longer people who work together or even friends; they are now each others’ family. And that is what makes the final act of the film so effective and so heartbreaking. The choices we make and the people we ally ourselves with sometimes have long-lasting consequences. It’s still yet to be seen how far these consequences will last but this movie is easily in my overall top 10 of the year; so it’s an easy top pick here. And for one more year, the MCU reigns over the superhero film landscape.