How many great superhero movies have there been? Not ever — just in the last nine years. Sometimes it feels like they've been with us for all eternity, but the current superhero movie era can really be traced back to 2008’s “Iron Man.” Back then, Christopher Nolan was in the middle of his grim “Batman” run, but “Iron Man” was the one that kickstarted the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It planted the seeds for DC’s own, so-far-stuttering version, plus the odds and ends from the "X-Men"-owning Fox wing of Marvel.
So back to our original question: How many of these have been great? We’d say zero. There are some good ones, including the first “Iron Man,” the goofy “Guardians of the Galaxy” and, somewhat controversially, “Iron Man Three.” But most of them, including, sadly, the new “Logan,” are mediocre — strong in stretches but hobbled by some design flaw or need to conform to a wearying house style. Even the runts, like "Ant-Man" and "Doctor Strange," are weighed down by compromises.There are bad ones, too, of course, including “Iron Man 2,” “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and “Deadpool.”
Mind you, these are just our opinions, and comic book movie-heads would definitely disagree — and they’ll let us know how stupid we are, because they’re a vocal, not terribly tolerant lot who take it personally when you insult their favorite brand. (Raise the rage levels exponentially if the dissenter is a woman.) Because at this point, superhero movie fans are only slightly less insane than your tweeting Trump supporter.
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Thing is, there’s not much difference between any of these films, good, mediocre or just plain bad. They’ve all made all the money. (The only one that didn’t was that epic non-starter of a “Fantastic Four” reboot.) They’ve all been part of something bigger: a cinematic universe of one stripe or another. They almost all have post-credits “bumpers,” teasing future product with characters only die hard nerds would know by sight. And as they years have worn on, they’ve all increasingly had too many characters, too many (usually boring) villains and far, far, far too much plot.
It’s difficult to remember this now, but the first “Iron Man” was a blast. It was silly-but-serious, with a clean redemption narrative and, best of all, Robert Downey Jr., back when he needed his own redemption story. Cut to 13 MCU movies later and the whole genre is like that Japanese video game “Katamari Damacy.” In it, you start off as a little guy rolling a sticky ball around a city, a farm or some space with lots of objects and people. Ten minutes later you’re manning an unwieldy behemoth that’s collected untold junk, making it a burden to control or even move an inch. But at least “Katamari” is fun.
If you’re not a comic book movie zealot, observing what’s happened to the MCU is like a game of “Katamari” gone bad. By the time “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and last year’s “Captain America: Civil War” rolled around, they’d become 2 ½ hour drags of stuff and things — too much junk, not enough organization. These films don’t even tell stories now anymore; half of the running time is spent setting up stuff that will happen in future installments, or discussing events that happened five movies ago. These are the only movies you watch, right? And you watch them endlessly, memorizing them like a monk memorizing a prayer. After all, these films are now like religion.
This brings us to “Logan,” the ninth movie in the X-Men-verse, and allegedly the final bout with both Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine (aka Logan) and Patrick Stewart’s honcho Professor X. It’s being sold as a comic book movie that’s no mere comic book movie. And it is legitimately different: There’s no save-the-world climax. There are only two superheroes. It’s not bright and cheery, though it’s also not a humorless slog like “Batman v Superman” or “Suicide Squad.” Logan is finally allowed to go full-on boozy wreck, and when he kills people, it’s not a goreless PG-13, as it’s been since the first “X-Men” all the way back in the year 2000. You lose count how many times some poor henchman gets blades through the face or loses an appendage. He also says “f—“ a lot.
But it’s still a comic book movie. Journos have been talking about “superhero movie fatigue” for a few years now, and it’s not entirely cynical to charge that Hollywood found a way to profit off the oversaturation. They simply give us “renegade superhero movies.” First came the R-rated (and profoundly obnoxious) “Deadpool,” then the light (if too easy) “The Lego Batman Movie.” But they still mostly play by the rules, giving the audiences what they’ve already had time and again.
Now here’s “Logan,” which avoids so many of the irritating tropes of the genre, but in a way that seems designed to still keep the audiences on the eternal superhero movie train. Even if “Logan” makes more money than any comic book movie ever made, it will likely still be seen as an outlier — a one-off that gave superfans a little break before returning to the norm. Comic book movies are now too big to fail, but also too unwieldy to fix. And it doesn’t look like the days when Hollywood made other kinds of movies — dramas, romantic-comedies, historical sagas, literary adaptations, hell, even Westerns — is ever coming back. Comic book movie honchos found something that riled up the masses, they gave it to them in spades, and now the genie will never go back in the bottle. Hell, it sounds like what Trump did to less than half of America.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge