In a year filled with some fantastic genre movies, December 2018 went out on a high for me, dragging me into a theater again and again over the month. Bumblebee, Aquaman, and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse each surprised me as some of my personal favorites of the year, but what surprised me most was the exuberant sincerity that bound them together.
The DC movie universe, the Transformers franchise in the Bayhem era, and Spider-Man as a ceaselessly rebooted blockbuster star have come to be defined by an aura of rote cynicism as they’ve progressed (outside of a few choice, laudable exceptions—Wonder Woman and Spider-Man: Homecoming gave a much-needed jolt of fresh perspective). The DC films, whether you’ve appreciated the approach or not—it’s one that certainly has built a fanbase willing to turn up in droves—have largely sought to ground their superheroic leads in grey, morally compromised worlds. Clark Kent’s primary dramatic thrust is given over to a fear of his awe-inspiring power (and the capacity to kill that comes with it) in Man of Steel, while the World’s Finest team-up in Batman v Superman must be preceded by Batman wanting to beat the snot out of Superman, because we can’t take the idea of a man running around in spandex dressed as a bat seriously if he’s not literally branding criminals or what have you.
While the DC films have diversified and expanded beyond some of that self-serious grimdark recently, the Michael Bay Transformers movies might have remained as some of the most cynical blockbusters in recent history, even if they have gotten progressively more bonkers as the franchise marched on and on. The Transformers movies are so averse to the original material that pretty much everything they do is in service of trying to push you away from the fact that they’re based on toys, chasing ooh-rah militarism, lusty shots of female stars, and product placement with the same fervor they have for nigh incomprehensible action hysteria starring jagged-balls-of-metal-that-are-ostensibly-Transformers. There tends to be a seeming sense of disdain for what Transformers fans actually liked about the series in the first place.
And then there’s the Spider-Man cinematic diaspora, perhaps oddly in contrast made cynical not by the films themselves but by audience reaction to re-doing the same Spider-Man stories over and over again. Even Tom Holland’s Spider-Man, now beloved as he is, faced consternation because of the thought of yet another reboot, this time slotting Peter Parker into a wider universe of similar Marvel movies that we’ve been watching for close to a decade. How many times have we told ourselves that we’re sick of watching Uncle Ben die, or having to get used to a new face as the same old Peter Parker learning the same old lessons in yet another reboot? It takes a lot to sneer at a superhero whose earnestness is arguably as much of a superpower as the proportional strength and speed of a radioactive spider is, but the feeling has grown nonetheless thanks to the studio forces behind him.
And yet Bumblebee, Aquaman, and Into the Spider-Verse all triumphed—thanks, in part, to rejecting some of that cynical malaise that had infected these franchises. Each of these films found joy in their source materials that most other movie interpretations have instead sought to file down to the flattest nub in an attempt to ground these silly, childish playthings into movies that will appeal to as many potential moviegoers as possible.
Bumblebee doesn’t just embrace a modern take on that age-old “G1” aesthetic Transformers fans have been chasing ever since the controversial movie redesigns first emerged. It also tells a refreshingly sweet story about the blossoming relationship between Hailee Steinfeld’s Charlie, a young woman still grieving her dead father, and the titular Transformer, cut off on a new world he can’t understand or properly communicate with. It’s an ‘80s teen adventure movie that just so happens to co-star a giant robot that turns into a yellow VW bug. But it’s also a refutation of the Transformers films that came before it, rejecting the aggressively apocalyptic destruction porn that defines Bayhem at its grossest excesses, instead proving that you can tell a great Transformers story with intimate, personal stakes and a sincere amount of heart. Bumblebee knows what it’s going for, and never tries to hide that in an attempt to appear as...well, more than meets the eye.
Aquaman and Spider-Verse, meanwhile, make for an even more intriguing pairing in this regard, for the kinds of earnestness they choose to pick out of a shared source material in the comic book medium.
Aquaman—despite coming off the back of a rehabilitation of Arthur Curry, that’s sought to re-contextualize the DC Comics character as a mighty badass hero instead of a goofy fish-talker—is a movie that is delectably dumb as rocks in all the right ways, just like the comics that inspired it can be. It’s got more ham than an all-you-can-eat gammon buffet, and relishes in not just the spectacle of superhero comics, but the scale they can capture in page after page.
Some of the most jaw-dropping moments in the movie come when director James Wan just draws back the camera, and slows everything down to almost create a moving comic book panel. You see it when Arthur and Mera dive into the deep dark sea surrounded by monstrous Trench creatures, or the grand climactic battle between Ocean Master’s forces and the monstrous, eldritch-horror-looking sea creature Aquaman has managed to team up with (voiced by Julie Andrews, no less!), and even the incredible cheese that is its lead stars walking onto a beach while a Pitbull track sampling Toto’s “Africa” blares across the soundtrack. It’s a spectacularly unfiltered tribute to the goofy joy of superhero comics, embracing their awesome scope and silliness in equal measure—and it does so precisely because the team behind it knew that superheroes have always thrived on a bit of sheer ridiculousness.
Spider-Verse also takes a little of that goofy joy Aquaman has—Spider-Ham is a primary supporting character, for crying out loud—and goes even further than it did in replicating the aesthetic of its source material with a celebratory, groundbreaking animated style. But its primary source of earnestness doesn’t lie in that inherent bit of cheese that Aquaman relishes, but the idealistic heart of superhero comics. Spider-Verse is a brazenly, unabashedly sincere movie, its heart permanently webbed to its sleeve as it champions age-old ideas like the need to never give in to adversity, the power of teamwork, or the fact that anyone, regardless of background, can strive to put on a mask and become a hero. There’s no filter on those messages either, or attempts to present them as something loftier than they are, as if that’s the only way they can have dramatic weight. They’re just the entire point of what Spider-Verse’s heroes stand for.
In an era where superhero movies are still, more often than not, a little hesitant to embrace the idealism and glee of their source material in an attempt to appear more grounded and self-serious—despite superhero films being bigger and more accepted than ever—that kind of simplicity is a rare joy. It’s nice, in what feels like the peak moment for genre blockbusters, to be reminded of that genuine joy every once in a while. So to get three exuberant bursts of it in December was something worth remembering.
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