The year 2017 saw an unprecedented number of comic book movies released in cinemas. Nine, to be exact. While some of these films were less successful than others, such a high number of them meant that a great many comic book movie characters graced our screens – and this is something that’s of huge importance.
Perhaps more than any other storytelling medium, comic books truly hinge on the strength of their characters, because it’s this that shines through on every page. Comic books can include great action-based artwork, but don’t have the capacity to dazzle with pyrotechnics and CGI. Instead, they must keep readers engaged with the creation of compelling characters, about whom we care, if they’re to succeed. This is why some of them have endured as pop culture icons for over 75 years.
When this aspect of comic books is translated onto the big screen, it can sometimes get lost in the mix – and poorly drawn characterizations can drown amid the special effects. Not so in 2017, though. In 2017 – the year of nine comic book movies – we were treated to a host of excellent characters.
The following heroes/villains are the ones that reached out from the screen and made us feel deeply – whether that be love, admiration or fear. These are the characters that stayed with us long after the end credits rolled, because they resulted from the perfect marriage of writing, casting, direction and performance. These are the ones that we’ll remember most and these, are the best comic book movie characters of 2017.
It was by no means inevitable. Fans of Wonder Woman had continually heard for years how the Amazon warrior had not appeared in a big screen, live action solo movie because her story was particularly difficult to film. Many understood this argument to be nonsense – Diana of Themyscira is, after all, based in Greek mythology and legend, which should be far easier to render into cinema than, say, the tale of Green Lantern. But, Wonder Woman languished outside of DC’s live-action adaptations – despite being one third of its ‘Trinity’ alongside Superman and Batman, who are characters that have been published for as long as Wonder Woman has.
Then, in 2016, she arrived onscreen in Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice, played by Gal Gadot, and she stole the movie. Her solo film was announced shortly thereafter, written by Allan Heinberg, Jason Fuchs and Zack Snyder, and directed by Patty Jenkins. Whatever alchemy caused these particular individuals to come together with Gal Gadot, it worked – and Wonder Woman burst onto the screen as the lead in her own, glorious story, taking us on an emotional rollercoaster ride through World War I.
This comic book movie character absolutely nailed the essence of the comic book icon upon whom she’s based. That unique combination of passion, empathy, determination, courage, wisdom and grace that have made the Princess of Themyscira beloved around the world, decades before she ever appeared in cinemas is what lies at the heart of this depiction of Wonder Woman, and it’s the exact thing that anchors the whole story.
Whether it’s the young Diana, standing atop an escarpment, secretly mirroring the movements of the Amazon warriors she so admires, or the teen Diana, taking instruction from her Aunt – General Antiope; whether it’s adult Diana gazing in innocent mystification at Steve Trevor lying on a beach, or adult Diana leading weary soldiers into battle across No Man’s Land – the Wonder Woman of this film is absolutely everything we needed her to be.
There’s something special about franchise characters that already stand out from their brethren, and then reveal more of themselves when we least expect it. That is the case for Yondu Udonta, in Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol 2. In 2014, he arrived in Guardians Of The Galaxy as a leader of Ravagers – a space pirate, seemingly villainous in nature. We learned that he ‘stole’ our hero – Peter Quill – from Earth when he was a child, and kept him as some kind of forced labour, raising him into a life of galactic crime.
Played by Michael Rooker, Yondu is a gruff, almost psychopathic man here, so when he reappears in Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol 2., we expect him to cause more mayhem and destruction. But, it turns out we had him all wrong. It turns out – although the life he gave Peter was not ideal – it was better than him being found and killed by his biological father, Ego, as others were before him.
Suddenly, we have a whole new view of Yondu. Now, he’s a man wracked with guilt about having been hired by Ego to find his many children, and having delivered so many to their eventual deaths. He’s a man who’s long hidden the truth from Peter – allowing the younger man to blame him, and focus his rage in his direction, rather than reveal what a monster his real father is.
Finally, when Yondu sacrifices himself to save Peter – and comforts him while doing so by saying, “He might have been father, boy, but he wasn’t your Daddy” – the depth of Yondu’s quiet heroism is made abundantly clear. He broke Ravager rules to accept payment from Ego to find and deliver his children, and was horrified when he finally learned what he was doing to them. Then, he took action to save one – and he’d been saving him ever since.
But, Yondu is not a hero because he saved Peter Quill. He’s a hero because he made mistakes, took responsibility for them, and changed his ways accordingly.
When she first appears onscreen in Thor: Ragnarok, she appears to be a scavenger on the planet Sakaar, who captures Thor immediately after he crash lands. When she drags him to the Grandmaster, who runs the place, she’s referred to as Scrapper 142 – a worker, making her living on Sakaar by retrieving valuable items from a giant trash pile that constitutes the lost and discarded belongings of the galaxy.
But, soon enough, we learn that she’s Valkyrie – and we learn this because Thor cannot escape Sakaar and save the universe without her help. Valkyrie is a fellow Asgardian and former member of the Valyrior – the warrior force sworn to protect the throne of Asgard. Her unit was decimated by Hela, Goddess of Death, in their last battle, and she’s been drowning her sorrows on Sakaar ever since.
She’s initially reluctant to join Thor in his quest to escape Sakaar and save Asgard from Hela, due to her past trauma. But, Valkyrie’s depiction here is not one of a typical cinematic ‘damaged heroine.’ Valkyrie does not need to be reminded of her worth, nor persuaded of her value – she knows exactly who she is, and what her options are, and she makes her decisions based on thought processes in which she doesn’t need to include others.
Instead, she’s drawn out of her choice of ‘retirement’ by the challenge of facing Hela once more. There are no simpering hysterics here, nor are there any shrinking violet histrionics. Valkyrie does not need to be saved, and she does not need to be a romantic interest for anybody.
She quietly and steadily relives her previous battle with Hela, and the sensation of losing her fellow warriors – and then she takes a deep breath, puts on her iconic armour and literally faces her greatest fear without once breaking her stride.
We’ve unarguably reached the stage in the development of the comic book movie genre where most of the villains being faced by our heroes are CGI creations. Sure, there are human and humanoid examples – such as Lex Luthor, Ego, General Zod and Ivan Vanko, for example – but these are far outnumbered by the likes of Thanos, Steppenwolf, Ultron, Doomsday, and the Chitauri. The point here is that human and humanoid villains remain far more terrifying than CGI monsters, because they’re familiar and relatable – making stories that rely on CGI monsters feel somewhat cowardly at this stage.
This is why Ares, as portrayed by David Thewlis in Wonder Woman is such a great comic book movie character. Firstly, his identity constitutes one of the two big plot twists of the film. We think, as does Diana, that the Nazi General Ludendorff is Ares, because he’s so thoroughly evil. But Diana kills him and nothing changes. When Sir Patrick then reveals himself to be Ares, we’re faced with the unsettling truth – the true villain has presented himself as an ally, all along. This means that, when Ares begins to ‘monologue,’ and reveal his nefarious plan to Wonder Woman, he does so in the voice and visage of a friend.
He tries to convince Diana of the worthlessness of mankind, and manipulate her into joining his cause. His longterm actions lead to the death of Steve Trevor, and this inspires such rage in Wonder Woman that she momentarily lashes out, with indiscriminate force. Such is the power of this depiction of Ares – he does not need to create computer generated maelstroms, nor fill the screen with motion-capture shenanigans. All he needs to do is take hold of Wonder Woman’s Lasso Of Truth, and speak quietly of his hopes and dreams.
Inevitably, a giant showdown occurs and the two Gods clash on a computer enhanced battlefield. But, even then, the CGI on Ares constitutes only a suit of armour, drawn from the debris on the airfield on which they’re fighting. We still know who’s inside because the majority of his screen time has been spent as a human man whom we once considered a friend.
She’s the first leading female villain to be included in a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie, and this alone warrants her recognition as one of the best comic book movie characters of 2017. While supporting villainous roles have occasionally been filled by women, a real, honest-to-goodness evil female monster has been long overdue. Hela appears in Thor: Ragnarok – directed by Taika Waititi, written by Christopher Yost, Craig Kyle, and Eric Pearson, and played by Cate Blanchett – and she’s an absolute triumph.
She appears to Thor and Loki immediately after the death of their father Odin. In his last moments, he informs the brothers that they have a sister, and that she’s been locked away. The only thing keeping her incarcerated has been Odin’s life, and the brothers must prepare for her return when he passes. It turns out that their sister is the Goddess Of Death, and goodness – what a Goddess she is.
She speaks in quiet, measured tones – as if she’s savouring every last, delicious word. She thrives on absolute power, and expects nothing but complete submission from those around her. She’s of superior intelligence, and is responsible for Thor’s detour to Sakaar – after she pushes him out of the rainbow bridge and into the vastness of space on her way to seizing the throne of Asgard. Most importantly, she’s the holder of the biggest Asgardian secret of all.
When she strolls through the Asgardian palaces, she reminisces to her newly acquired minion, Skurge, about all the years she spent fighting alongside her father, Odin – leading his army in his invasion and defeat of the Nine Realms. She’s enraged to see that they frescoes adorning the palace ceilings are false – depicting peace, tranquillity and riches under a benevolent monarch. She tears them down to reveal the true images that lie just beneath the surface – of Hela and Odin rampaging through the galaxy waging bloody war in search of power and wealth.
Finding that she’s been erased – that her contributions to the comfort and security Asgardians now enjoy have been wiped from history in favour of manufactured stories about men – only increases her determination to claim her birthright. Odin made her what she is, and then banished her for it. Now that Hela is back, she intends to put things right – whatever the consequences.
Reactions to the highly anticipated Justice League were decidedly mixed – with large swathes of the audience leaving the theatre with a sense of disappointment. Few could argue, however, that the comic book character of The Flash was not only a highlight of the film itself, but also of the year.
The Flash, as portrayed by Ezra Miller, first appeared in the DC Extended Universe in Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice – along with Wonder Woman, Aquaman and Cyborg. We saw only snippets of him then – in security camera footage, in an apparent dream sequence, and in a scene that saw Bruce Wayne approach him. What we saw then though, even in those brief moments, was a complex and satisfying new characterization of an individual already familiar to a notable percentage of the audience, thanks to The Flash TV series – which is unconnected.
In a film that seemed to lose its momentum and its way at times, The Flash really provided the glue that held it together. He’s one of the only characters in the movie that benefits from an actual arc, which sees him transform from inexperienced fledgling hero, to a young man who faces his fears and finds that he’s a capable superhero in his own right.
We see this Barry Allen power through his sense of being overwhelmed at his inclusion in this group of extraordinary individuals, to reach a point where he’s able to embrace his unique ability to the extent where he can see how to employ it effectively as part of this super-powered team.
The fact that he also delivers the better parts of the humour included in Justice League is testament to the skill of Ezra Miller, who has crafted a performance in which those elements seem entirely organic, rather than artificially applied.
As the other very real, human villain to appear as a comic book character in 2017, Vulture is a truly chilling individual – precisely because he comes from relatable circumstances. He loses his job and turns to criminal endeavours to support his family. Sure, his job was salvaging and clearing alien and advanced human technology after Avengers battles, but that’s simply a plot device used to tell a very common human story.
Spider-Man: Homecoming was one of the most highly anticipated films of the year, since it represented the web-slinger’s literal homecoming – back into the loving arms of Marvel Studios. The anticipation was also due to the casting of Michael Keaton as Adrian Toomes – also known as Vulture. Keaton is, of course, already famous for his past foray into the realm of comic book movies – having played Batman for Tim Burton almost 30 years ago. He also starred in Birdman, so we’re not unaccustomed to seeing him take flight.
But his character here is what keeps Spider-Man: Homecoming from being slight and fluffy. While the hero, Peter Parker, provides the light comedy (until he gets trapped under a building), it’s Adrian Toomes that brings the menace. He’s a man that tells himself he’ll do anything for his family, but in truth, he’s responding to feeling emasculated by the government, and by the Avengers.
The government takes his job, and Tony Stark has more money and resources than he does. Then, along comes Peter Parker, who not only turns out to be Spider-Man, but also wants to date Toomes’ daughter – and what we’re left with is a highly triggered, angry white man. There are few things more terrifying than that.
Thor: Ragnarok is filled with moments of true hilarity – woven through the film in such a way as to strike the perfect balance between drama, action and comedy. Korg – the Kronan gladiator that Thor befriends while trapped on the planet Sakaar – is responsible for a number of those moments, thanks to the performance of Taika Waititi, who also directs the film.
Korg is a motion-capture character, holding just a few scenes in the threequel – but he steals every one of them and is revealed to be a true hero as the story draws to a close. He’s first seen in the tunnels around the gladiator arena on Sakaar, mentoring Thor on how to survive his new situation. He gets to know the God of Thunder and is something of a calming presence, thanks to his relaxed, carefree dialogue delivery – which is in stark contrast to his fearsome, rock-based appearance.
When it comes time for Thor to escape, with Hulk, Valkyrie and Loki in tow – Korg is one of the first to step up to help, and in battle, proves himself to be a skilled warrior. Inspired by Thor’s determination to escape, Korg unites with a fellow gladiator and stages a revolution – leading to the liberation of all those enslaved by The Grandmaster. He does this without ever losing sight of the next mission, though, and is soon on hand to help evacuate the people of Asgard, away from the threat of Hela.
Simply put, General Antiope of the Amazon Army is Wonder Woman’s hero. As Princess of Themyscira, Diana looks up to her mother – the formidable warrior, Queen Hippolyta – but it is her Aunt, Antiope, that truly leads her to embrace herself and her true identity.
In the childhood of Diana, we see that Queen Hippolyta causes obstructions to her progress, as she seeks to protect her from the threat of the world beyond their hidden island. Antiope, on the other hand, enables Diana, and supports her requests for Amazon combat training. Antiope then undertakes that training, and helps Diana become a better fighter than even she ever was.
But, it’s Antiope’s leadership of the Amazon Army that warrants her acknowledgement as one of the best comic book movie characters of 2017. She’s entirely fearless in her training of her warriors, and she’s instrumental in their development of a truly unique fighting style – that sees them take to the air and work together as a team to bring down their enemies.
When she trains with Diana, she continually builds her confidence and reminds her of her power. When she thunders across the beach on horseback – leading the Amazon Army from the front – she wears a wry smile on her face, knowing that this is where she’s meant to be. When she bellows “Shield!” to her fellow warriors, spins into the air and takes out three armed Nazis with three arrows at once, she’s both an effective soldier, and a symbol of victory to her Army. When she literally takes a bullet for Diana, she uses her dying breath to set the Amazon Princess on the path to fulfilling her destiny.
General Antiope is every inch the hero of one of the greatest comic book icons of all-time – and her depiction by Robin Wright in Wonder Woman is absolutely flawless.