Beginning last year, I started keeping a journal in which I write down every movie that I watch. If I’ve already seen the movie before, I put a black asterisk by it. This serves a lot of purposes, including helping to jog my memory, but it’s also helpful at the end of year when it comes time to assemble the top 10 list that I’m expected to compile for Downright Creepy. It also helps me to keep a running tally of how many movies I’ve seen that came out this year, and in order to make end-of-the-year lists easier on myself, I’ve been keeping that tally in rough order of preference.
This weekend, I passed on seeing Interstellar–which I saw someone on Twitter describe as “Bullshit Space Dad Feelings Movie,” which probably isn’t at all fair, but more or less sums up my impression of the trailer–and instead caught an unexpected late showing of Big Hero 6, which rapidly jumped up near the top of that list.
There are a half-dozen or so movies jostling for my top spot of the year, and three of them are Marvel movies, and I think there’s something going on there, besides just that Marvel has got this making-movies-out-of-comic-books thing down. Big Hero 6 doesn’t look like it needs any boost from me–it beat Insterstellar at the box office, has an 89% at Rotten Tomatoes, and seems to be doing just fine for itself–but while I’ve seen several people talk about Big Hero 6 in a mostly positive way, it’s typically also been in a way that dismisses it as “entertaining and pretty,” as in the consensus over at the aforementioned Rotten Tomatoes. While I’m sure someone somewhere else has tackled this already, and probably more intelligently than I’m about to, I do think that, just as with my pick for number one movie last year in Pacific Rim, there’s something more important going on here than just a pretty, agreeable kids movie, and something that’s reflected in the other great superhero movies that came out this year, and that are rubbing shoulders with Big Hero 6 for my top spot.
In a word: Optimism. I grew up as a kid reading comics mostly in the 90s, during the Image boom which was defined by holographic foil variant covers, ridiculously big guns, and grim-n-gritty storytelling. As a kid, I didn’t mind. I ate that stuff up. I had tons of Spawn comics and WildC.A.T.s and all that other nonsense, and my best friend’s favorite artist was Rob Liefeld, and we didn’t think there was anything wrong with that.
But for a long while now, grim-n-gritty story lines have dominated the comics landscape, and pretty much until the launch of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, they were all there was when it came to even halfway decent superhero films. Grim-n-gritty has its place, and while we all may now look back and make fun of the early Image comics lineup–which we’re allowed to do, because we did time in those trenches–there are plenty of good comics that are grim-n-gritty. But while that may work for Batman, superhero comics (and films) are capable–I’d argue uniquely capable–of being a lot of other things, too. While Alan Moore’s (impeccable, don’t get me wrong) work on Watchmen and its various imitators have forever codified the previously-unspoken connection between superheroes and fascism (not to mention fetishism), superheroes are also inextricably linked to that much more pleasant -ism, optimism. And this has been a good year–maybe the best year in cinematic history–for optimistic superhero movies.
While you may be able to debate the optimism of what is probably this year’s best superhero flick, Winter Soldier*, it seems pretty indisputable that Guardians of the Galaxy and Big Hero 6 are situated firmly in optimistic territory. In the former we have a movie in which a lovable band of misfits literally save the world by holding hands, and both are films that are emphatically about the importance of teamwork and believing in the best in yourself. I’ve already talked about Guardians of the Galaxy, so let me touch briefly on Big Hero 6.
One of the key things preventing Big Hero 6 from being discussed in the more serious terms that we mostly seem to reserve for live action films and Pixar movies is that, on the surface, it isn’t really doing anything particularly new. The animation looks great, and San Fransokyo is a great setting, but fundamentally, a lot of Big Hero 6 feels pretty familiar, from the standard-issue comic book origin story to the action sequences and a flying scene that–while still touching–could have been lifted straight from How to Train Your Dragon. Like with Pacific Rim, the important stuff in Big Hero 6 is hidden under the hood of the narrative. But under that hood, a lot of big stuff is going on.
Not only is this a movie about teamwork and being yourself, and a flick that actually earns its “revenge isn’t the answer” message, it’s also an extremely science-positive, all-ages adventure that champions learning and caring–as exemplified by the diverse team of geniuses whose powers all derive from their interests and personalities, and the fact that Baymax, the movie’s symbol and anchor, is actually a caregiver robot. Given that, pretty much until the release of Iron Man back in 2008, superhero movies almost universally downplayed the intellects of their characters in favor of their more aggressive traits and cool emotional problems, that’s a big deal.
Like I said earlier, there’s a place in superhero comics and movies for grim-n-gritty story lines, but for my money what superheroes do best is to highlight the best of what people are capable of. When they’re firing on all cylinders, superhero stories can tell optimistic, all-ages tales about teamwork, friendship, and believing in yourself better than just about any other medium. It’s easy to dismiss optimistic stories in favor of grimmer ones, but looking around the world right now, I think those messages are ones that we sorely need, and I’m thrilled to see them getting the kind of big screen treatment that they deserve. Long live the optimistic superhero movie!
* I’d argue that Winter Soldier is as much about teamwork and believing in people (instead of systems) as any of the other movies I talked about here, but those themes are encased in a more chilling paranoia-driven thriller story structure that makes them perhaps a bit less accessible.