I liked “Logan” and “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” and loved “Wonder Woman,” but I was nonplussed by “Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2,” was relatively bored by “Thor: Ragnarok,” and outright hated “Justice League.”
When the end of the year gave me the breathing room to think about what worked for me and what didn’t in the genre that has come to dominate the movies, a pattern became clear: The superhero movies that work best for me, and the moments that felt most resonant to me in the movies that didn’t, were about love and sacrifice, rather than about cool fight scenes.
What set Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman,” James Mangold’s “Logan” and Jon Watts’s “Spider-Man: Homecoming” apart from the pack was their willingness to engage with emotions that are more tender, and more complicated, than the standard “with great power comes great responsibility” dilemma.
“Wonder Woman” was the best of them in part because those emotions are the driving force behind the entire movie. Diana’s (Gal Gadot) absolute intolerance for war and conflict are the things that drive her off Themyscira and into the human world. Steve Trevor’s (Chris Pine) wonder at her idealism is an enormous driver in their romantic chemistry.
“Wonder Woman” holds its heroes to much higher standards than many of its competitors do: It’s not a movie about defeating a CGI boss in the final act, though it does, to its detriment, have Diana face off with such a boss (David Thewlis’ Ares). Instead, because Diana’s goal is to end all wars, “Wonder Woman” is a bittersweet tragedy, not another story of victory, however temporary.
In a similar way, “Logan” works and feels powerful because it’s about another sort of no-win scenario. Logan (Hugh Jackman) is trying to give one generation of mutants a dignified ending, even as Charles Xavier’s (Patrick Stewart) failing body and mind make that impossible, and he transitions in trying to safeguard the next generation, represented by Laura (Dafne Keen), even as he’s losing the power to preserve both her and himself. “Logan” is marred by the silly metaphor that effectively has Logan fighting himself, and by Mangold’s inability to resist making the film’s parallels to the classic Western “Shane” a part of the text rather than allowing viewers to notice them for themselves.
And though “Spider-Man: Homecoming” deviates the least from existing formula, it’s anchored by Tom Holland’s excellent lead performance, which succeeds in making Peter Parker genuinely seem young enough to be struggling with the question of not simply how to balance his superheroic and human identities, but how to be a good person in a complicated world.
The superhero movies that left me so vexed are the ones that seem most wedded to old ideas and old ways of telling these stories. But in their brightest spots, they all had some sense of sacrifice, or at least of potentially difficult choices for their characters. Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) decision to give up god-like power is one of the most interesting parts of “Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2,” a movie that would have been much more interesting were it willing to give full rein to the ideas about grief and loss dancing around its edges.
Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) loss of his eye in “Thor: Ragnarok” actually provides one of the more striking images in a frenetic, cluttered movie. And “Justice League”? Well, it says something about the dismal quality of “Justice League” that it managed to entirely squander the pathos and fear of Superman’s (Henry Cavill) resurrection.
2017 feels like the year that superhero movies stumbled on a big idea, even if they didn’t all realize it: Sometimes, it’s more interesting to watch super-powered people lose or face disappointment than to cheer when they win.