The Avengers: Age of Ultron is finally released later this month, 3 years and four superhero movies after the first installment. Of those four movies, three were sequels and I would contend every one was better than that series’s previous entry. And so, I thought I’d celebrate those times that superhero part-twos have actually added to or even improved on the original films and take a look at just how they did so. As someone who was underwhelmed with the first Avengers (the $1.5 billion gross suggests I am in the minority), I nevertheless have high hopes for the next impending chapter.
The Dark Knight:
Where else to start? The superhero sequel par excellence, there aren’t many out there that would disagree with The Dark Knight‘s reputation as the greatest superhero movie of them all. Bigger, longer, darker and more emotional than Batman Begins, this is a film of stunning ambition and genuine weight. I think everyone is familiar with Heath Ledger’s unforgettable work as The Joker (and the consequences on his personal life the role had) but the film is equally remarkable for the incredible stunt work (almost all of which was practical rather than CG) and Aaron Eckhart’s criminally underrated turn as Harvey ‘Two-Face’ Dent, the emotional core of the film. This was the first time a superhero film truly dared to be more than that label was supposed to allow, and the result is a film that resembles Heat with its cat-and-mouse dynamic more closely than it resembles what we had come to expect of Batman. The gleaming nighttime Chicago cityscape also provides us with a Gotham City that we had never seen before – and made it feel more real than ever. Complex emotional developments, dark and shocking plot turns, TWO truly terrifying villains, a downbeat ending and jaw-dropping stunt work make this the benchmark for every way in which a superhero sequel might transcend its origins and become great.
It’s funny how, looking back on them, after Spiderman-fatigue at the hands of Marc Webb (heehee) and Andrew Garfield, Sam Raimi’s films, which seemed so new and edgy when they came out, seem so dated. This is not a bad thing. We’re so used to broody superhero darkness these days that these films are so refreshingly fun and innocent. The other great thing about Raimi’s vision of Spidey is that people forget (mostly due to Spiderman’s absence from the Marvel films for rights issues – though that is soon to change), that this is Marvel Comics’ flagship hero! Peter Parker is the Clark Kent of Marvel, the guy that we most relate to as an everyman, that speaks to us about how with great power comes great responsibility. And this film does the most to capture that. We find Pete tired of being Spiderman. He wants to live a normal life and be with Mary Jane, and so he abandons his responsibilities as a hero. The film’s strength is that it offers us so many different strands of conflict that, unlike Spiderman 3 (possibly the worst film in the history of cinema), are blended together seamlessly. Peter must decide between a normal life and being a hero when he cannot have Mary Jane both ways. His friendship with Harry Osborne is threatened as he carries the secret of having killed Harry’s father, The Green Goblin. And Dr. Octopus, the deliciously insane villain, faces his own struggle against the bionic arms taking control of his brain as he comes to terms with his own guilt and role in his wife’s death.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier:
Here we have one of those films that just had no right to be as good as it is. Captain America: The First Avenger is the sort of film that, while there’s nothing really wrong with it, just doesn’t do anything for you if you aren’t American, really. It’s a bit too middle-of-the-road to ever really excite and, like most of Marvel’s Phase One films, seems designed to set up sequels more than to actually tell a story. And so in the minds of many (yours truly included), the phrase ‘Let’s go see Captain America 2′ is not one that elicited much excited. But thank the film gods that surprises like this can still jump off a screen at you. This is more 70s political thriller than superhero film. Managing to continue the story of the first film in a way that is emotionally resonant and totally unexpected while still staging breathtaking action scenes (and finding time to give us a very sinister Robert Redford as the film’s main supporting part), Winter Soldier somehow takes a character as unbelievable as Captain America and makes us genuinely care for him. We also feel the difficulty he has in adjusting to a new life in 21st century America, having slept through most of the 20th, a situation that produces equal parts hilarity and pathos. Arguably the best film Marvel has yet released (barring maybe the first Iron Man), this is probably the most essential pre-Avengers: Age of Ultron viewing, as the plot twists here confidently dismantle everything Marvel has built for us and raise the stakes in a completely thrilling and uncontrived way.
Hellboy II: The Golden Army
It speaks volumes for the genius that is Guillermo del Toro that he followed up his Oscar-winning 2006 masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth with this pulpy sequel. And even greater volumes that it feels every bit as personal and fully realized as his fantasy gem. While the first Hellboy introduced a very unconventional hero (how many Nazi-summoned demon private-eye’s are the on our screens?) and was simple, pulpy fun, this second film is better in every way. Written as an original story rather than adapted from an existing comic, del Toro crafts a visually sumptuous work that is bursting with unforgettable images and ideas – from the subterranean troll market to the sightless Angel of Death to a towering elemental that terrorizes New York in a battle that manages to be exhilarating, funny and heartbreaking at the same time. Del Toro’s strength, apart from his unparalleled ability as a visual storyteller, is his refusal to compromise character development to facilitate action. The villains here are all motivated by real issues, and the audience must sympathize with and understand them, making this more than simple good-versus-evil. Hellboy himself, having chosen to ally himself to humanity in the first film, now realizes that perhaps people really are too narrow-minded to ever accept him and his kind, setting up a complex dilemma which the film negotiates movingly and effortlessly.
The Matrix Reloaded
Okay, so it’s not a superhero film. And okay, it’s not better than the first film. But dammit I will never let a chance to talk up The Matrix Reloaded pass me by. The thing that people misunderstand about this film is that it’s not meant to be The Matrix. This is a whole different exercise. And it’s by far the most fun in the franchise. While the third installment is a bloated, overly serious mess, this film is lean, light and full of incredible set pieces, the most notable of which is the 15-minute car chase sequence that surely ranks right up there with the best ever on film. Although the film suffers from setting-up-a-sequel-syndrome, this only really affects the very end. For the most part, seeing Zion and the last remaining humans is a fascinating sequence and it opens up so many questions about the universe which the third film fails to answer, and Neo’s command over the power he discovered in the first film is just plain awesome, dude (as Keanu’s Ted of Bill &Ted’s Excellent Adventure might have said). We get a great villain in the Merovingian, a progressively more frightening Agent Smith and I’d be lying if I said I’m not still trying to work out what the damn Architect says at the end. The Matrix was all about presenting us with a massive idea and challenging us in a cerebral sense to embrace and come to terms with it. Reloaded accepts all that and instead poses the question ‘What are the possibilities of this world?’ And boy does it answer that in style.
I think the main thing these films have in common is that, without the need to go through the motions of setting up who these people are and how their worlds work, they can delve into more mature avenues of inquiry, things that we could never get to see when we had to grasp at some big concepts. Technically, they all present us with even more ambitious action sequences and set pieces than their first parts, all in very different ways, and thus are not just more impressive on the level of character but also on that of pure escapism. Here’s hoping that Avengers: Age of Ultron can follow the same pattern and, without being hamstrung by exposition, give us a set of characters who are developed enough to be understood as ‘real’ people with complex conflicts…while they level cities and blow up things, because that’s cool too.
posted by Dave.