In the spring of 2002, James Schamus stepped out of a Times Square movie theater and called Ang Lee. They were deep into production on their newest film, a $137-million adaptation of the Marvel Comics character The Incredible Hulk. It was the biggest canvas either had worked on, their first foray into the Hollywood big leagues after a decade of indie and foreign language work. And Schamus had just realized it was a guaranteed bomb.
Schamus had been Lee’s producing partner – and, frequently, his writer – going back to Lee’s micro-budget 1991 debut Pushing Hands. In the decade since, Lee had established himself as one of cinema’s premier talents with a near-unblemished run that culminated in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. An undeniable masterwork – simultaneously epic and intimate, thrilling and poetic – the film earned ten Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, and remains the highest-grossing foreign language film in American box office history.
After achieving the impossible – namely, juicing a Mandarin period piece to do James Bond numbers – Lee and Schamus could write their own ticket. They could have set down stakes anywhere, but settled on the relative ghetto of superhero cinema. There was room to grow there, with new money pioneering in and technological advances promising seemingly unlimited opportunities just around the corner.
It may be hard to imagine in our spandex-saturated moment, but in 2001 superhero cinema was still lightly pioneered territory. The Christopher Reeve-starring Superman films were an early success that descended into self-parody following the ouster of director Richard Donner and spawned no immediate imitators. Tim Burton’s 1989 mega-hit Batman foreshadowed the wave to come but bears little resemblance to its progeny, with its gothic camp and backlot German Expressionist fantasias. Once Burton’s instinct for the kinky grotesque got the better of him, he was pushed aside in favor of Joel Schumacher and the franchise quickly took a nose-dive into synergistic excess, with toy company executives sitting in on creative meetings and demanding the finished film be sufficiently “toyetic.” Audiences quickly soured, and it became an open question whether they would ever recover their taste for the Caped Crusader.
In short, when Lee and Schamus started work on Hulk, there were movies about superheroes but there were not yet superhero movies. The field was still wide open; the iron bars of Genre had not yet clanged shut. The gee-whiz optimism of Superman, the cartoon noir of Batman, the leather-bound vampire cool of Blade, and the character-driven allegory of X-Men all found purchase in the wide-open spaces of the days before Spidey and The Dark Knight and the MCU. Early drafts of Hulk’s script had the character fighting sharks and mutated insect men, fidelity to the source material be damned. It was still the possible to assume any superhero film’s comic-book origins were a liability, rather than the single most valuable asset in showbiz.
So Lee and Schamus could, perhaps, be forgiven for thinking the public would accept a big-budget superhero story about trauma, repression, and inherited mental illness shot with the visual ambition of a filmmaker dead set on inventing a new generic language in one pass. Hulk’s aesthetic dances, sometimes gracefully, between retro sci-fi pulp, sugar-rush comic book psychedelia, and Gordon Willis-style shadows of such depth they seem to hide oceans of repressed emotion, all in service of a story about patriarchal abuse translated through mad-scientist tropes.
Hulk is a strange chimera, as much indebted to classic Universal monster movies as glossy Marvel singles. It is decidedly somber, even adult, composed simultaneously of Lee’s characteristic emotional sensitivity and the operatic swings of classic comic books. It is quite possibly the first and last superhero film to feature a scene of two characters discussing their relationship with enough maturity it could conceivably be airlifted into a Sundance drama without issue. It also features a scene where the Hulk battles snarling mutant “Hulk dogs.”
The film was a bold gamble that populist thrills and adult themes could coexist within the genre – that not only could superhero movies be anything, they could be everything, all at once. It was a big swing, but the nascent genre’s history was still limited enough for its future to feel boundless.
At least, it was until May 3rd, 2002, with the premiere of director Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man. X-Men, the first film to really feel like what superhero films would become, had been a hit the year before. Spider-Man was a supernova, becoming the first movie to take in a hundred million dollars in a single weekend. The film was simultaneously a synthesis and an innovation, doing what Halloween had done for slasher films a quarter-century earlier: it took elements that had been bubbling under the cultural surface and assembled them into something so undeniable it defined the genre moving forward. Every film that followed would have to reckon with the schematic it set.
Except Hulk. Hulk was too deep in development to change course. When it arrived, it was not taken as an innovation, or even an anomaly; It was taken as an insult. There was a mold now; a mold it not only didn’t fit but didn’t even seem to be aware of. It was as if someone made a disaster movie in which quality infrastructure and levelheaded public planning keep the record-shattering earthquake from toppling a single building.
The key climactic image of Spider-Man is of the titular hero alighting before an American flag, ready to enter courageous battle with cackling evil. In Hulk, it is of visions of the anti-hero’s most emotionally scarring memories flashing before him as he and his tortured father are locked frozen together, mid-blow, at the bottom of a lake iced over in a literalization of repressed generational anguish. Popcorn patriotism it ain’t.
As far as the public was concerned, they were being sold a bill of goods. A strong advertising push and lingering post-Spidey superhero mania gifted Hulk a strong opening weekend at the box office, but as soon as word got out, the film suffered a record 70%-drop in ticket sales in week two, and never recovered.
There likely is not a world in which Hulk was a runaway hit. It is too idiosyncratic, too ambitious and too coarse to win over any but a self-selected few willing to meet it halfway. The rancor it inspired feels disproportionate, however. Plenty of inferior films have come and gone with far less fuss; Green Lantern and Fantastic Four (take your pick of which one) are, across the board, less competent and coherent adaptations of properties every bit as beloved as the Hulk and were greeted with a mix of shrugs and chuckles from all but the deepest crevices of perpetually-enraged fanboy culture.
Nearly twenty years later, however, Hulk still threatens to pop commenter veins: “Absolute garbage.” “I couldn’t finish this ‘monstrosity’ of a film.” “Simply put: terrible.” “Even as a kid I knew this movie was a stinker. I will never watch it again.” “BORING.” “worst superhero film of all time.” “Booooooooo!”
That kind of ire doesn’t come from disappointment; it comes from betrayal. Bad films are forgotten; films that waste our time, that appear to lie to us – those are the ones that stick in the craw. Hulk’s failure wasn’t one of quality; worse films have been more beloved. Rather, it was a failure by the standards of its genre – which is to say, a failure of expectation. When it entered production, a superhero movie could be anything. By the time it premiered, it had to be one thing, and its borders did not – and do not – extend to films wherein metaphor supersedes spectacle. The fact that it was something else meant that, to every Spider-Man fan who saw it in 2003 – which is to say, just about everyone who bought a ticket – it was fundamentally a broken promise. Expectations can be subverted, but they cannot be ignored.
Schamus understood he was a T-rex looking up at a rapidly descending asteroid the moment he walked out of that Times Square screening of Spider-Man. Years later, he recounted his creeping worry as he phoned Lee: “I think that there’s now a genre. And you don’t mess with genre, frankly. You can definitely riff on it, you can develop it, you can ironize it, you can do anything you want with genre except go head-on against it. Genre is smarter than you are and more powerful than you are.”
In the two decades since Spider-Man, superhero cinema has gone from a genre to the genre to, quite possibly, cinema itself – at least American industrial cinema. The dizzying scale and success of its films are such to make Spider-Man seem like a modest chamber piece. The numbers are hardly worth recounting, but in case the genre’s enormity needs quantifying: fully half of the highest-grossing films in domestic history are superhero films; the oldest is from 2012. Starting that year, there has been a superhero movie in the top five films of the year every year, usually several; in 2018, there were four. The current worldwide box-office belt holder, 2019’s Avengers: Endgame, boasts a three-hour runtime and eighteen Oscar winners and nominees amongst its clown-car cast.
Success has not liberated the genre from the formula laid down by Sam Raimi & Co. in 2002. If anything, the confines have only narrowed. Defenders tout the genre’s mutability, pointing to the spectrum represented by Captain America: The Winter Soldier’s faux-70s paranoia, Doctor Strange’s kaleidoscopic Zen, and Black Panther’s Afro-futurism – and that’s just within the Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe.
What’s notable, however, is how little daylight is truly allowed to exist between such diverse setups. Much has been said about the factory-mold sameness of superhero films, where the dominant flavor options are vanilla or vanilla with vanilla sprinkles. However, it’s worth noting in brief the repressive boundaries of high-floor, low-ceiling machine filmmaking:
Prerequisites include self-reflexive humor, universe-saving stakes raised to the point of meaninglessness, anonymous Space Hitler villains, an obsession with world-building over story coherence, the even over-lighting of a post-dose Claritin ad, and cookie-cutter set-pieces that assume scale equals substance and invariably involve defeating a whosie-whatsit with a flibbertigibbet.
Even Warner Bros.’ DC Extended Universe films, the low and lonely competition to Disney’s global stranglehold, have pivoted away from their trademark Hot Topic grit and grime. For better or for worse – and pretty clearly the latter for all but an energized corps of red-pilled Redditors – Zack Snyder was the only post-Nolan filmmaker with auteur pretensions allowed unshackled within directing distance of a tent-pole superhero film. After the twin farts of the not-quite-coherent-enough-to-be-quasi-fascist provocation Batman vs. Superman and the stillborn difference-splitter Justice League, DC stuck Snyder in a basement to tinker with the latter for the true believers and piloted for the knowing quips and bloodless spectacle of sunny Marvel-land with films such as Aquaman and Shazam!
The film that pointed the way forward was Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman. It was supposed to be Justice League’s warmup act, arriving just a few months before the film that was supposed to put an Avengers-style billion-dollar-bow atop years of angsty franchise-building, but felt like it was transported from a different universe – one that dared to be, well, fun. Like Black Panther after it, it struck a long-overdue blow for representation and was rewarded for it; also like Black Panther, it pushed against the bounds of genre in ways that simultaneously thrilled and assured how impenetrable those bounds are. No, it couldn’t come up with much of a villain, much less give him a send-off more compelling than a CGI punch-out-by-numbers – but you might as well complain about rain in Seattle. It’s just the way of things.
But to watch a filmmaker with the classical artistry of Jenkins and a star with the absolute conviction they deserve their place in front of the camera of Gal Gadot is to experience what made Hollywood Hollywood, especially when so much offers such a pittance in comparison. For its trouble, was rewarded with the franchise’s best domestic box-office haul to date and its first score above 60% approval on Rotten Tomatoes. When Justice League bellyflopped a few months later – $650 million worldwide being considered a bellyflop in contemporary Hollywood necromancinomics – it seemed like Jenkins and Wonder Woman pointed the way forward for DC, and for superheroes at large.
That is, until Wonder Woman 1984, the much-hyped, twice-delayed follow-up arrived on Christmas morning and promptly sprinted face-first into the glass wall of genre. The widespread and immediate response across the onlineosphere was as if the reanimated Warner Brothers had hand-delivered a notarized F-U to the home of every HBO Max subscriber. The galaxy of “worst. movie. ever.”-s supplied by the Twitter hate-bacchanal are hardly worth recounting, and critics were hardly kinder.
And there is plenty to criticize, particularly at the script level – which sometimes loses track of its characters, their motivations, and even their powers in a saggy middle and imports the racial politics of the era it’s set in. But script problems are practically a feature, rather than a bug, of this kind of tent-pole extravaganza, so often defined by scriptwriting-by-committee and death-by-a-thousand-notes. Sending drafts through the studio gauntlet is like sending Soviet conscripts into Stalingrad; if anything survives at all, no matter how deformed or diminished, you call it a win.
Past the slew of complaints that could be lobbed, to one degree or another, against nearly every contemporary blockbuster is the fact that the movie actually just doesn’t feel much like a superhero flick. The New York Times complained it was fluff – “I didn’t expect that [Wonder Woman’s] next big adult battle would be at the mall.” The AV Club wondered where the action was. RogerEbert.com was blindsided by a plot out of an 80s comedy.
And while the plot is straight out of a Penny Marshall comedy, it’s hardly by accident. While the 1984 of the title initially seemed to point to something Orwellian and dire, some Cold War extension of the original’s Great War-era world-on-the-precipice vibe, it turns out the 80s it’s interested in is the 80s of John Hughes and Big and fanny packs. It contains a nottie-to-hottie transformation, a montage where one character tries on an array of ridiculous period outfits while another gives them a thumbs up or down, and an extended fish-out-of-water sequence where a character magically transported from 1918 to 1984 marvels at escalators and mistakes public trash cans for abstract art.
And therein lies the Hulk of it all: it comes off as misshapen for not fitting a mold it doesn’t seem terribly interested in. Like Ang Lee before her, Jenkins uses superheroics as a context in which to update and play with a discarded genre. While Lee was interested in the strange mix of solemnity and pulp of retro sci-fi and monster b-flicks, Jenkins gravitates towards lighter fare. She has attempted to resurrect the high-concept comedy by smuggling it in the body of comic book punch-a-palooza – and when comic book punch-a-paloozas are the only game in town, if you want a crack at a comedy it better come wearing a cape.
It is light, it is bright, it is, in its best moments, fleet – something so few ponderous justify-the-ticket-price-with-a-150-minute-runtime epics rarely achieve. Gadot and Chris Pine continue to project the irreplaceable lightning-in-a-bottle charisma of capital-letter Movie Stars, when so many of their contemporaries feel like memeable Internet Boyfriends who could be interchanged with a dozen other widgets. In fairness, we do confirm here one thing Gadot can’t play is ennui; fortunately, she’s not asked to for long. Jenkins seems to mostly grasp Gadot is best deployed for iconography rather than nuance. And for pure magnetism – Gadot and Pine have real chemistry the film happily lavishes in. Modern superheroes are, by default, sexless Ken Dolls, but WW84 comes the closest by far to being horny on main; Pedro Almodovar would be proud.
The film’s obsession with high-concept shenanigans is charming, in a goofy sort of way. The gags are hardly original, but there’s a cozy familiarity to them. Of course, the genre is goofy down to its bones, but critics largely found the film to be the wrong kind of wacko. It is a film chock full of the kind of literal magic that might, say, strand Bill Murray in a karmic time-loop or transform a horny preteen into Tom Hanks. That magic comes in the form of wishes – supernatural, “Genie, I sure could go for a cool billion,” wishes, that exact, a la monkey’s paw, a terrible price. You get it; you’ve seen the Twilight Zone episode.
The centrality of wish-making was taken by many as the film’s ultimate insult. The consensus among the comic book hot-or-not crowd is that robots, aliens, radioactive spider bites, Infinity Stones, wisecracking raccoons with arboreal sidekicks, parallel universes, talking to fish, plutocrats investing in civic life by punching out neurotic clowns while hoarding billions, gaining x-ray vision through exposure to the sun, archery as a superpower, whatever the Sokovia Accords are, flying backwards around the earth to reverse the flow of time, and Benedict Cumberbatch playing American are all In, but wishing is Out.
Wish-hating was a prominent critique across the critical spectrum: “I’m going on…at such length in an effort to describe what’s essentially indescribable until you see and hear the film for yourself — the extent to which the making and granting of wishes, the incitement and revocation of wishes, the incessant yammering about wishes, invade the narrative like verbal kudzu.” “Superhero films too often rely on mystical items to fuel their narratives, but a magic rock that grants wishes like a gleaming monkey’s paw? It’s hackneyed.” And, perhaps most succinctly, from the podcast We Hate Movies: “It takes it out of the genre…it’s unnatural for this many adults to spend two and a half hours talking about wishes.”
All of this is ignoring, of course, that the year prior Avengers: Endgame made more money than any other film in history – and the entire gross domestic product of Liberia – with a plot entirely constructed around a Malthusian Purple People Eater eliminating half the galactic population with wish-granting jewels. More people saw Endgame than voted for Biden; we surrendered our societal standing to complain about head-scratcher MacGuffins years ago, when the Gods of the Four-Quadrant Hit declared all movies must appeal equally to nine- and forty-year-olds. The real bleating heart of the matter, then, is not substance but approach – namely, tone.
The dominant tone of superhero cinema is at once self-effacing and tortuously self-serious. Endgame spends much of its runtime insisting on the gravity of its cartoon space genocide, buckling under the crushing weight of its sub-Leftovers pouting it just as insistently attempts to undercut at the machine-calculated beats with a postmodern wink to the camera. Scarlett Johansson will in one moment intone somberly about All The Good Men We Lost To Jacked Grimace and in the next crack a joke about how nuts it is she gets emails from a racoon. It is simultaneously the most important thing that has ever happened and embarrassed at its own inherent froth.
Wonder Woman 1984, however, is happy to be froth – gloriously, unapologetically so. It is every bit as operatic, as silly – frankly, as childish – but unencumbered by either pretension or postmodern self-doubt masquerading as knowing commentary. Both WW84 and Endgame are propelled by wish-granting primordial jewels, but only one film understands that a film about wish-granting primordial jewels should at least have the manners to be fun, and the confidence to not poke at itself when it succeeds.
And it succeeds. It feels, in the best way, like a relic from a time when a comic book adaptation was free to do more with less – when the aim could simply be to be diverting, not to pay off a decade’s worth of world-building and make space for another decade-plus of content, and to be, in short, simultaneously everything and nothing, the Most Important Thing that will be subsumed by the next Most Important Thing in six months. How strange it is to congratulate a film for its restraint in being merely a sequel, but here we are.
It is connected, of course, to the larger DC Universe, but those connections are tangential rather than essential. You only need to have seen one film – its direct predecessor – to follow it, rather than twelve, as has become industry standard. We begin with our hero in one place – grieving, apparently for a lifetime; again, the script does not wholly escape franchise-necessitated awkwardness – and ends in another, having grown. This is kindergarten-level storytelling, but something most blockbusters – trapped in the television-style stasis of a Forever Franchise – can only gesture at unconvincingly. The arc of the standard cinematic superhero is growth from someone who can’t save the world to someone who can; they are empowered, and that’s more or less that. Wonder Woman’s arc here is emotional. She has to make choices, with consequences, about what matters to her, and how much she’s willing to give up for it. When’s the last time Thor had to achieve anything beyond unlocking a cool new weapon, or make a sacrifice past having to wear a cool new eyepatch?
The movie it feels most indebted to, ironically enough, is Spider-Man – although the original Donner Superman is certainly an influence. It is both grandiose in its emotions and ridiculous in its comedy, unpretentiously heightened in a way that has fallen out of fashion as the bounds of the genre have narrowed towards demographically targeted perfection. No one has had more fun in a superhero film than Pedro Pascal does here since J.K. Simmons was first screaming about pictures of Spider-Man.
But more than that, it is deeply, almost embarrassingly earnest – sometimes clumsily so, but ultimately with its heart in the right place. In a moment where so much feels like a pose or branding exercise, it is unafraid to wear its feelings on its sleeve – to swoon, to be washed away in the adolescent sweep of its doomed romance, to unironically and with a full throat endorse something as gauche as a message.
That message itself has been the source of controversy. As the film progresses, more and more people make catastrophic wishes, with the ensuing chaos spreading from the offices of a collapsing pyramid scheme, to the greater D.C. area, before eventually contaminating the globe. The film’s third act has the madcap, pot-boiling-over energy of The Purge played as farce, with the coked-up pitch of Pascal’s huckster tycoon gradually infecting the whole film and sending it careening off down a dozen feverous avenues.
Most blockbusters feel trapped behind glass. They can travel to Mars and still feel ensconced safely within an Atlanta sound stage where every extra exists solely to orbit the protagonist and reflect the light of their journey. WW84’s globe-hopping certainly feels green-screen-enabled, but Jenkins crams as much life into that phony frame as she can fit. When Wonder Woman steps into the chaos of wish-mad D.C., it feels as though the camera could linger on any of a hundred background players to catch a piece of their own independent story – and, here and there, it does. There’s a whole world out there, eager to devour itself.
The eagerness with which the masses misuse the power they’ve been given has been decried as elitist. The line, as voiced by the AV Club’s Katie Rife, is that it “argues that the masses don’t know what’s best for them, and if you give the people what they want, the world will descend into chaos.” As Rife notes, elitism is inherent to the genre’s obsession with Randian supermen shepherding the helpless populace.
But the ideological villain here isn’t populism, it’s consumerism. The fatal flaw of Pascal’s villain is greed – simple, human greed, a wonderfully smaller motivation than the alien lust for conquest of nearly every other comic book baddie – a greed that reflects and amplifies the ethos of its era. The issue is not that the groveling, ungrateful masses think they’re entitled to bread and roses; it’s that a society based on everyone wanting the whole pie to themselves, damn their neighbor, is unsustainable, as the brutality of American history in this or any era proves. And, ultimately, it is ordinary people who are empowered to make or destroy their world; all Wonder Woman’s powers amount to little in the final act. In the end it is she who has to ask the masses for help. This is a film that climaxes not with brawling but with a conversation about what matters in life, and in ultimately valuing acceptance over achievement and acquisition it rejects traditional capitalist values in favor of something simpler, nobler, and more human.
No accounting would likely rank Wonder Woman 1984 a masterpiece. It is a flawed film, but so many of its flaws are borne of it trying to stretch – sometimes awkwardly – past what we’ve all come to expect. The final battle between Wonder Woman and Kristen Wiig’s Cheetah feels indifferent, yes, but more than that, it just doesn’t feel like it belongs. It seems like a concession to the expectation that there must be a certain minimum threshold of digital melee within the final act of a superhero film. The missed opportunity isn’t so much that Jenkins flubbed the fight as that she didn’t have the leeway to chart another path.
After the success of Wonder Woman, Jenkins should’ve been able to make whatever film she wanted. After The Dark Knight, a success of a similar scale, Christopher Nolan got to make Inception, a movie that only seems like a hit because it ended up being one; on paper, the pitch sounds like money-pit hogwash. But that used to be the calculus for directors: I make you money, you let me off the leash. That is increasingly untrue, as the bounds of what Hollywood is willing to bankroll increasingly narrows to IP with a built-in audience – in other words, the unoriginal.
After Tenet, even Nolan’s days as the last blockbuster auteur may be numbered. Much like WW84, it suffered from the impossible expectations of being one of the only morsels of megawatt entertainment for a starved, pandemic-ravaged public to squint at on shrunken home setups. Both are wobbly and inchoate but bold attempts to be something, when a vast desert of nothing seems ready to swallow cinema and so much more besides. The opportunities to make anything with personality, with vision, with a sensibility that isn’t Everything Else, are harder and harder to find. They should be celebrated, even when they arrive fractured, broken, incomplete. Here’s hoping Patty Jenkins gets to make her Inception, whatever that may be. For now, let’s treasure every bit of ill-fitting idiosyncrasy she smuggled into the vehicle she had. Enjoy it while you can; in all likelihood, there will be less tomorrow.