With Age Of Heroes, Tom Breihan picks the most important superhero movie of every year, starting with the genre’s early big-budget moments and moving onto the multiplex-crushing monsters of today.
Here’s a fun mental exercise: Describe Venom to a child. I’ve tried it. It’s ridiculous.
It goes something like this: So Spider-Man gets sent to an alternate dimension, right? All the most famous heroes from Earth are there to battle all the most famous villains because some mystical godlike being thought it would be a good idea (but really so Marvel could have an excuse to sell toys). While he’s there, Spider-Man gets this new black costume (again: toys) that turns out to be made out of alien ooze. But the ooze is a creature—they call it a symbiote—and the creature starts taking over Spider-Man and turning him bad, and Spider-Man has to fight the ooze and get rid of it.
So anyway, there’s also this reporter who’s really mad at Spider-Man, I forget why, and then the ooze finds him and bonds with him, and then that guy turns into a big and evil version of Spider-Man. He’s obsessed with killing Spider-Man, and he’s got all these teeth and this big, weird tongue, and sometimes he eats people. But also sometimes he’s good. And then sometimes the costume goo goes and bonds with other people, like the guy who used to be the Scorpion. And sometimes it spawns these other costumes, and they become other characters, and they’re even more evil.
So: That’s Venom. An absurd and incoherent character with a byzantine mess of a history and a pronounced and integral bloodlust. The best superhero movies take their heroes and focus on what matters about them, what drives them. Batman is a traumatized, paranoid billionaire who puts his entire focus into his righteous vengeance against the forces of darkness. Superman is an alien deity who is also a giant idealist dork, and he’s here to serve as an inspiration for all of us. Spider-Man is a nervous kid who’s always outmatched but who’s driven to do good anyway because of his guilt and his own innate goodness. Blade is a half-man/half-vampire who hates vampires because they killed his mother while he was being born. The same is true of the villains. But Venom has no core. He is a hungry blob who hates Spider-Man. That’s his thing.
As a character, Venom is way too ungainly, and way too free of human motivation, to work in a movie for children. But in the late ’80s and early ’90s, when Marvel was going through a boom period, Venom became an enormously popular character. That was partly because the celebrity comic book artists of the era all seemed to be competing to see who could draw the most ridiculous version of Venom, and it was partly because of the general hunger, in that time, for any hyperviolent and exaggerated comic book characters. (See: Wolverine, Punisher, Lobo. We thought they were all cool!) And so the producers of Spider-Man 3 decided that Venom was finally ready for his big-screen debut. And to play this towering mass of muscle and teeth, they cast the kid from That ’70s Show. Even he doesn’t know how that happened.
Producer Avi Arad, who also worked on the new Venom movie, has taken the blame for badgering Spider-Man auteur Sam Raimi into including Venom in the third installment of his franchise. So Raimi had to work the whole story of the black costume and Venom into his movie, compressing years of comic book plotlines into a single chunk. (That new Venom movie, while deeply ungainly, at least had the good sense—or the corporate-crossover good/bad luck—to keep Spider-Man out of the story entirely.) Alongside that entire Venom saga, Raimi also tried to include Peter Parker’s relationship struggles, his ballooning ego, his love/hate relationship with his amnesiac supervillain-spawn best friend Harry Osborn, and his struggle upon learning the details of his uncle’s death. He also crammed in the Sandman—a stock Spider-Man villain who became, in Raimi’s version, both a tragically regretful escaped convict and a King Kong-esque soulful monster. All of this is in one movie. The pro-wrestling term for this kind of storytelling, which does not require much elaboration, is “10 pounds of shit in a five-pound bag.”
To tell this many vaguely connected stories in the space of a single movie, Raimi has to rely on the magical power of coincidence. So: The Venom blob comes to Earth on an unexplained meteorite, crashing in Central Park undetected and glomming onto the first person it meets, which happens to be Spider-Man. Later on, when Spider-Man manages to disentangle himself from said blob, the one guy who happens to be in the empty church below is Eddie Brock, the smarmy fraud-committing photographer who happens to hate Peter Parker. When Spider-Man saves a lady from a crane collapse, the lady happens to be his collegiate lab partner. (She can’t just be someone who works in an office. She has to be a model doing an office-themed shoot.) The criminal who accidentally murdered Parker’s uncle happens to be the same one who is transformed into a sentient sandstorm. I could go on.
All that happenstance isn’t the only shortcut on display. We also have Harry Osborn’s amnesia, a storytelling device so cheap and clumsy that they stopped doing it in sitcoms a full generation ago. Near the end of the movie, Harry has his big climatic change of heart just because some random-ass butler finally shows up to tell him that Spider-Man didn’t really kill his father, something that this useless butler could’ve told him years earlier. And because there’s no time for anyone to express any sort of awe or disbelief, the brilliant scientist Peter Parker and his even-more-brilliant scientist professor (Dylan Baker as Curt Connors, who would’ve presumably turned into the Lizard if Raimi had kept making Spider-Man movies) learn of the existence of alien life, and they barely react. Connors simply glances at this blob, which should be the greatest scientific discovery in human history, and woodenly intones, “It has the characteristics of a symbiote.”
But rewatching Spider-Man 3 today, what’s really striking about the way the movie does its business is the tone, so broad and clunky and mannered that the whole thing seems desperately anxious that it might lose the attention of somebody watching. Characters don’t have interior lives; they broadcast the most theatrical versions of whatever simple emotion they might be feeling. Characters don’t engage in dialogue; they pretty much just recite their motivations to each other. That’s true of all of Raimi’s Spider-Man movies, including the masterful Spider-Man 2. But in a movie like that, he found room to turn Doctor Octopus into a rich and conflicted character. There’s no space for anything like that in Spider-Man 3.
That’s the movie’s downfall, but it’s also the charm. Raimi figured out fun and comprehensible ways to do mostly CGI superhero action before anyone else, and some of the fight scenes in Spider-Man 3 are fun. But Raimi’s more interested in telling a story of goofy melodrama, with bits of screwball comedy here and there (see: Bruce Campbell’s extended Pepé Le Pew riff), than he is in any of Spider-Man 3’s superhero stuff. Raimi, for instance, puts infinitely more energy into the scene of Harry revealing himself as Peter’s romantic rival than he does into any of the Spidey/Green Goblin fights. And this, of course, brings us to the best-remembered thing about the movie. It brings us to the fucking dancing.
As the symbiote works its way into Parker’s brain, he becomes more of a confident and selfish asshole. Raimi and Tobey Maguire convey this with bangs, cartoonish hepcat slang, and aggressive jazz hoofing. The scenes of Maguire dancing became an instant punchline as soon as the movie came out, and I remember squirming through them in the theater, embarrassed for myself and Maguire and Raimi and everyone else who was a party to this. But if you watch the movie today, those scenes are the best thing about the movie. They’re overblown and deeply, gloriously silly. It helps, I guess, that Maguire has spent the entire rest of the movie playing Parker as a brutally weedy doof. So when he suddenly materializes at a jazz bar’s piano bench, then spins through the air, it works as a moment of ecstatic release. With those scenes, the movie achieves some sort of absurdist drama-nerd transcendence.
There are other good things about Spider-Man 3. The Sandman CGI effects, while primitive, are expressively horrific. Thomas Haden Church does his best to find the gravity in an utterly underwritten role. J.K. Simmons gets more chances to fume adorably as J. Jonah Jameson. Raimi continues with the strange trope of New Yorkers gathering to gape at superhero fights, apparently not even slightly bothered at the threat of falling debris. James Franco does the twist in stunningly incompetent fashion. And even though it’s not their actual story arc, Maguire and Kirsten Dunst do a convincing job portraying a couple who got together as kids and who really have no reason to be together anymore.
Venom doesn’t show up until the very end of the movie. This is another good thing, as Topher Grace plays him as the least intimidating or compelling villain who has ever existed. This isn’t even Grace’s fault. As a sitcom star and occasional cameo guy in Steven Soderbergh movies, Grace always had his own charisma. In Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, he weaponizes his insincerity and turns it into something resembling evil. But in that Venom role, all he can really do is insist that being bad makes him feel good. He jumps around and snarls a little bit, and then Spider-Man kills him with some clangy poles and one (1) pumpkin bomb. Tom Hardy’s lobster-munching slapstick-id version of Venom isn’t exactly a cinematic icon, but he could only ever be a vast improvement.
Even with all its titanic flaws, Spider-Man 3 still made a fuckload of money: Nearly $900 million, the most of any Spider-Man movie ever. All these people paid to see it, but nobody really liked it. Once the world had seen Batman Begins, a movie where characters show at least some semblance of recognizable human emotions, it was hard to make anyone love this sort of mannered and incoherent bullshit, lucrative though it may have been. There were plans for Raimi to make another Spider-Man movie or two, but he ended up leaving because of creative differences, and Sony disastrously rebooted the whole character just five years after Spider-Man 3.
The year after Spider-Man 3 made all its money, two very different superhero movies told their silly stories with levels of sophistication that a movie like this just couldn’t match. Studios mostly stopped trying to jam their movies full of characters. Instead, they slowly and patiently built stories, taking pains not to insult the intelligence of their audience. For all the money it made, Spider-Man 3 was a dead end, the spectacular flameout of an experiment. We’ll never get another movie like it. And as dumb as Spider-Man 3 is, it also makes me nostalgic for the era just before studios really figured out how superhero movies could or should work.
Other notable 2007 superhero movies: Nicolas Cage didn’t get a chance to become Superman, the way he’d wanted. But he did get his chance to join the superhero lexicon with Ghost Rider, the adaptation of the supernatural Marvel character who I thought was the coolest thing in the world when I was in fourth grade. Cage has a lot of fun as Johnny Blaze, the biker stuntman who turns into a flame-headed skeletal vengeance demon, but the movie’s story—from Daredevil writer-director Mark Steven Johnson, inexplicably getting another shot at this superhero-movie thing—and its ludicrous visuals make it hard to watch.
Worse was Fantastic Four: Rise Of The Silver Surfer, which took one of the most iconic storylines in Marvel Comics history and rendered it as simplistic CGI malarky. There’s ambition in the movie, which tried to expand the superhero-movie template into something cosmic and all-consuming more than a decade before Avengers: Infinity War. But there’s nothing even remotely satisfying in the way it actually tells that story. Maybe its greatest sin is in the way it transforms the planet-devouring Galactus, maybe Marvel’s greatest stoner-logic destructive force, into a fucking cloud.
You could probably make an argument that 2007’s most viscerally satisfying superhero movie was Mirageman, the low-budget Chilean flick where Marko Zaror, the towering martial artist who’d once been the Rock’s stunt double and who’s gone on to international straight-to-DVD action stardom, puts on a blue mask and beats the shit out of a bunch of dudes.
The year had a few superhero movies that, even more than Spider-Man 3, were explicitly for kids. Underdog is a live-action movie about a talking CGI superhero dog with Jason Lee’s voice; future Lois Lane Amy Adams, future Tony Stark’s father John Slattery, and future giant hammer-forging Infinity War cameo Peter Dinklage all play roles. TMNT gave the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise an animated theatrical reboot, seven years before it got another theatrical reboot. And former Bill S. Preston, Esq. Alex Winter directed Ben 10: Race Against Time, a live-action made-for-TV adaptation of a Cartoon Network show. Also, this probably doesn’t count as a superhero movie, but the documentary Confessions Of A Superhero told the stories of the people who dress up as superheroes and pose for photos on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame.
There were also plenty of non-superhero comic book adaptations. 300 screened in 2006, but it came out in theaters, made piles of money, and helped inspire a whole new wave of American fascism in 2007. Meanwhile, Persepolis got nominated for an Oscar, and 30 Days Of Night turned out to be a way more fun horror movie (with a way better random Ben Foster performance) than it probably had any right to be.
Next time: 2008 is the single most important year in the history of superhero movies, and that comes down to two movies. Iron Man started the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, and its tone—sunny, antic, knowingly clever—established the voice of the most dominant entity in film today. But The Dark Knight was a genuine cultural phenomenon—the first superhero movie ever to be received as a masterpiece rather than a frivolity. You could certainly argue that Iron Man was more important to the development of superhero movies, but you could also argue that The Dark Knight was more important to the culture at large. And in its overwhelming success, The Dark Knight may have been almost as important to Marvel’s success as Iron Man was. I’ve gone back and forth on this many times, but we’re going with The Dark Knight.