After a brief lull in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, the comic-book genre propelled back to full force and 2021 brought us seven new films. Here, I rank these films in order of my personal preference.
Marvel dominated with four MCU entries releasing and kicking off the brand’s Phase 4. It started with Black Widow, which was supposed to release in Spring 2020 and was then followed by Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Eternals, the latter also having meant to release last year. Marvel closed the year out with Spider-Man: No Way Home.
In its Sony slate, Venom: Let There Be Carnage released, swapping places with Morbius, which has moved to next year.
DC initially just had The Suicide Squad to release, with Matt Reeves’ The Batman being pushed back to 2022 and being revealed to be a standalone project, outside of its own cinematic universe. However, early in the year, many had their wish granted as Zack Snyder was given the all-clear to release his director’s cut, as he intended it of Justice League.
There’s a varying degree of quality in this list but for the most part, it was a very strong year for the genre. Let’s get started!
7) Venom: Let There Be Carnage
Venom was a regressive film for the comic-book genre, a painfully embarassing watch with an ear-scraping script, its action sequences were terrible and even the stature of Tom Hardy in the lead role couldn’t propel the film. When I heard that a sequel was commissioned and Andy Serkis would be stepping in the director’s chair with Quentin Tarantino’s regular cinematographer Robert Richardson shooting the film, my interest was piqued. Despite a generally positive reception this time around, unfortunately, I think it’s possibly even worse than the original!
The script is once again cringe-inducing and Tom Hardy phones his performance in. Serkis’ direction is surprisingly totally anonymous, as is Richardson’s cinematography. Even Woody Harrelson is completely wasted as the villain and isn’t allowed to inject any of his personality into the film. Naomie Harris joins the cast as a villain called Shriek and her performance is abysmal. I can’t believe this film exists in the form it does and the only saving grace is it runs under 100 minutes, but it feels like a lot longer!
6) Black Widow
Black Widow starts out in a promising fashion and almost suggests a new direction for the Marvel Cinematic Universe with its grittier tone and its well choreographed and stylised action sequences. It embraces its globe-trotting James Bond-esque origins even if it lacks the sophistication, sex and wit. Unfortunately after about half an hour, the film loses its edge and descends into convention with a half-baked story, cheesy family reunions and an over reliance on CGI, particularly at the film’s climax, which has been many a comic book film’s downfall in recent years. There are glimpses of Cate Shortland’s authorship in the first half an hour but the rest of the film feels like it was directed by a committee.
5) Spider-Man: No Way Home
Spider-Man: No Way Home is a mostly thrilling ride with some excellent surprises in its narrative. It perfectly melds with the Sam Raimi and Marc Webb era and irreverently integrates the included villains with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The film clearly takes inspiration from Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, which was rapturously received and although I admired that film’s effort to metatextualise its story, it runs into a raft of problems.
No Way Home features some excellent interactions between characters, particularly in the second act, and the script penned by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers is sharp. It is not an easy task to meld the past and present in a film, with other tentpole films such as Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker cheaply capitalising on nostalgia.
No Way Home naturally barrels towards a large CGI set piece in the final act, which is well-handled due to some plot revelations that allow the film to explore what it means to be Spider-Man. The narrative choices are generally well-judged and attempts to mirror or contrast other entries in the MCU or prior Spider-Man films.
Perhaps a controversial choice, but I found Eternals (the first MCU entry to receive mixed-to-negative reviews) to represent a refreshing change of pace for the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Nomadland Oscar-winner Chloe Zhao lends an intimate and delicate hand to the material. The complex cosmic narrative is well-handled and each of the ten Eternals is well introduced and possess identifiable character traits, no mean feat when you’re juggling . The relationship between them all is admirably tackled, which is no mean feat as there is always a high risk of sidelining characters, especially when you have ten personalities to juggle.
What allows Eternals to succeed (and perhaps why the film has received a decidedly mixed critical reception) is that it distances itself away from the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe formula and tone. This is a key problem with many entries, which silences the director’s vision and some of the films fall into the trap as feeling they are directed by committee. Other than some moments of light humour which are characteristic of most entries, Eternalsboasts a heavier weight in that it asks some difficult questions of its characters and portrays them as god-like, reminiscent of Zack Snyder’s treatment in his DCEU entries Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and the director’s cut of Justice League. The film’s at its best in its quieter moments when characters weigh up some tough decisions.
3) Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
The best MCU entry of the year, other than a wonky beginning, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is upper-tier superhero fare. It follows the Marvel formula but its emotional warmth and martial arts sequences make it stand out from the crowd. There is a great set up of Shang-Chi’s family, which plays an important dynamic in the film. Shang-Chi boasts some innovative set pieces, fusing and updating the wuxia and kung-fu genres with modern visual effects. The first action sequence on the bus and another early sequence set in Xialing’s fight club are particular highlights with their kinetic energy. The tone of the film feels like a melding of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Chronicles of Narnia with the mystical worlds that Cretton creates. Some of the sheen is lost in the final act of the film as Cretton succumbs to a big CGI battle, which is customary for comic-book films and is often their downfall as the investment is lost in the characters. However, the final CGI spectacle doesn’t derail the film as it is not overlong and there is a purpose in the narrative but it would have been far more exciting if Cretton had tried to deviate from convention.
2) The Suicide Squad
The Suicide Squad is for the most part a giddy, gory and thoroughly adult superhero film. The film is written and directed by James Gunn, whose sensibility for gory horror and dark humour, blend perfectly with the source material, feeling much more akin to his earlier works such as Slither and Super. Gunn originally hit critical acclaim with Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy and its sequel, the first film in particular proving a refreshing break from the tired Marvel formula that really allowed his personality to shine through. Despite breaking free of the Marvel formula, Gunn was still constrained to a 12A / PG-13 rating, therefore The Suicide Squad represents him at his most unrestrained.
The Suicide Squad fits into the wider DCEU rather awkwardly in that it is a part-sequel to 2016’s critically mauled Suicide Squad in that it shares a handful of the same characters but it also functions as a part-reboot in that everything about it is completely different to that film.
Gunn has proven a knack for picking unfamiliar comic-book characters and spinning a gripping yarn from their background. The Suicide Squad is paced extremely well and the script is stuffed with quips and wisecracking interplay between the characters. There is violence and gore aplenty – heads are decapitated, blood splatters after characters get shot in the face and King Shark likes to devour people… a lot! This is a film that earns its 15 / R rating and it is all the better for it. Like its predecessor, there isn’t much of a story again this time round, but the characters combined objective acts as a coherent plot and there are some excellent character twists along the way. Gunn does an excellent job in not allowing his audience to get to attached to characters, as life is pretty expendable in this film.
In a wider context, what impressed me most about The Suicide Squad was its progressive characters for the genre, which acts as a revisionist take on the superhero genre. The superhero genre is overpopulated with generic films that are uncomfortable in breaking the mould and Gunn’s film actively tries to defy conventions, even if it’s not always successful, but the ambition is to be admired.
The main drawback of the film is in its ending, which unfortunately sticks to convention and is a little anti-climatic when the rest of the film is so entertaining and refreshing.
And the best comic-book film of 2020 is…
1) Zack Snyder’s Justice League
Zack Snyder’s Justice League is an astonishing achievement and represents a mature and risky effort in establishing the DC team. The four hours fly by and it is a visual treat throughout. This is a Snyder film through and through but it interestingly represents a more mature effort in that the storytelling here is improved from some of his previous filmography, where some of his films have bordered on the incoherent. By the film having its length, the film can breathe and Snyder works wonders in establishing and developing each and every character of the team. There is no conceivable way this story can be told in a two hour run time.
The wider context of this director’s cut is fascinating in how different it is from what Warner Bros chose to release. The stark differences between both cuts is something that can and likely will be studied for years to come and having watched this director’s cut, one has to question the psychology of the decision to approve the theatrical cut for cinema release.
Ultimately, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a frequently astonishing and bold take on this DC lineup and it earns its four hour run time. With this director’s cut and Army Of The Dead, Snyder has matured as a director and he has markedly improved on some of his lesser qualities in previous films in regards to storytelling and representations.
What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments or tweet @TheFilmMeister