I go to movies (and consequently write about them) because I like movies. I try to like the movies I go to see: to take them on their own terms, meet them in the world they create. People that go to movies presumably to identify everything wrong with them (ie, CinemaSins, Screen Junkies, etc) really bug me. A lot. They are fun-sucking parasites who mistake fault-finding or cheap parody for critical analysis. I like that we have temples of entertainment to which we can journey and forget our troubles temporarily in the smell of popcorn and the hum of projector wheels. And I like that, sometimes, special things can happen there.
But, unlike most or possibly all of you, I don't like comic book movies.
Normally a thing like this wouldn't bother me: difference is the spice that makes film great. When people like a movie that I don't, I'm glad that they enjoyed it, because for all the work that went into it, somebody ought to. But I feel that, in the spirit of letting you enjoy the movies you will, I should say something. Obviously this is opening a can of potentially angry fanboy worms, but know that I'll love you no matter your life choices.
First, I concede that such a categorical ban of such a broad genre is pretty narrow-minded and possibly unfounded of me. I feel (and based on the many comic book movies I have seen have concluded) that basically, a comic series does not, and cannot, a good movie make. Fanboys will claim that comics give us unique opportunities to explore important contemporary themes along with timeless motifs, that they are a window into us. They do, and are, but their prolonged (and often interminable) episodic structure cannot be made into effective, original cinema, the very form of which is bound by tight time constraints and often years of work per single offering. Comics work on their own because they are more like television shows, offering small chunks of story minced out on a weekly basis. Movies in a series come at most once a year, and therefore cannot have the same kind of structure. The resulting attempts have yielded a lucrative but lame formula which has become something of an addiction to both studios and audiences, one that values the next movie more than the one currently being shown. What fanboys forget is that movies of any genre offer us a glimpse into ourselves. That's why we make them in the first place.
But my complaint is not that movies like these exist, or even necessarily that they are popularly enjoyed. What I see is an artificial behemoth that is damaging the art that gave it life (such a great comicky theme!) and whose disease is spreading. The great comic houses of DC and Marvel are running an arms-escalation race similar to the one they both lost in the 90s when people people realized it wasn't the 50s anymore and stopped buying comics, causing their bankruptcy. The film medium has now provided them a renaissance with exponentially higher cost but much less product to produce. The result is a reliable but generally unchanging palette of movies on accelerated production timetables. Each is enormously expensive, and while each has also so far paid its own bills, one wonders for how long a brand of movies with near-identical dramatic arcs can be profitable.
The answer, you say, is forever, because we only tell a handful of stories to ourselves in the first place. Is there anything in Captain America different from Errol Flynn or Star Wars? Essentially, no. A hero's journey is a hero's journey, a romance is a romance, and a tragedy is a tragedy. Part of my grief comes not from content for its own sake, but from the amount of fanboy control exercised thereon, at the expense of quality. This begins as early as the writing room with screenwriters who were weaned on Superman and The Hulk creating indulgent fan fiction at the behest of controlling studio heads. They are not free, even if they would, to stray even experimentally from the adopted canon, else vengeful fanboy crucifixion and shameless studio eviction are inevitable. (Remember the fallout from Superman killing in Man of Steel? Or, just this week, Marvel's and Edgar Wright's divorce after he worked on Ant-Man for 8 years?) Thus the rest of us are presented with formulaic summaries of hallowed storylines in which no meaningful surprise is hidden and no real depth is or can be plumbed. The nuance that might be present in a comic series lasting years is sanded off in order to present a sleek, boring replica.
But what, you say, of Ironman 3? Wasn't the Mandarin's character twist a brilliant attempt at freshening up the property, of breaking with the establishment? I say, no, not really. It was more an example of world-building in place of story telling, of again waiting to show off the "real story" yet to come just before Robert Downey Jr's contract is up. Like much of what these movies do, it only works at a self-conscious level at best, something only hardcore fanboys will appreciate because they know how it used to be different. The rest of us are left with unsatisfying narrative arcs glossed over too quickly to be meaningful. They are films made to go through the motions, like playing Super Mario World even though you have it memorized, and we are left to be the younger sibling watching over the shoulders of the player.
I concede perhaps over-generalization, but ask yourself: what are the real stakes in a comic movie? Is the outcome ever uncertain even a little bit? You didn't really think Spider-Man would die, did you? That maybe he wouldn't come out on top, or that a baddie might get away? If Christopher Freaking Nolan's Dark Knight can't actually die, who would entertain even momentarily that Thor or Wolverine or Ironman would? Take the example of Captain America, whose entire purpose was to prepare the way for The Avengers. Of course poor Steve-o's sacrifice can't be consummated, because he has to appear in the Real Movie for which he has been giving us a 2-hour preview. I guess what bothers me about these movies, about paying money to experience the same archetypical story I would get in pretty much any other movie, is that given the "mythology" each brings with it, there can be no real originality or dramatic vitality.
Again, if the problem were self-contained I wouldn't bother, but it is spreading. Outside of comic book land we have something like Star Trek Into Darkness. (Perhaps not the best example since I have already maligned it elsewhere.) When Kirk is "dying" you know he won't: not because his hero's journey and therefore the story is incomplete, not because he must yet pass through fire and ice and come out better and blah blah blah, but because Paramount has a franchise to maintain. At least the first time around they had the nerve to actually kill Spock (albeit temporarily). It is one of any number of growing examples of starry-eyed fanboy writers breaking the rules of their story for the sake of a) doctrinal soundness and b) the profit-hungry studio machine. For this reason I am exceedingly apprehensive of the forthcoming Star Wars movies, or that there will be a 2 and 3 of Godzilla, and indeed why I have almost given up on the non-comic breed of franchise altogether.
So, while you are all enjoying X-Men in the Past Right Now, I'll be sitting at home writing angry blog rants because there are exactly three (!) comic movies playing right now, all with the same comic house father but with three separate and vengeful studio mothers, tying up screen space that might have gone to somebody's unique, risky, but probably rewarding original idea. Or at least to a broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera.
Am I being too obnoxious about a problem over which I have no control? Or do you find yourself wanting to join the boycott? Let me know how you feel, and when it comes out I'll look at Edge of Tomorrow, which at least looks like it shouldn't have a sequel.
The summer season is full upon us, and that means movies where stuff gets destroyed and superheroes and so on. While this writer isn't planning on ceasing his embargo of superhero movies (I am currently writing a discourse thereon that will be available soon) I do enjoy a good monster romp now and then (check out Pacific Rim from last summer.) Of course this week we all saw the other Pacific menace, Godzilla, as brought to us by Gareth Edwards. While I did have some qualms with some elements that we'll get into later, I found the movie to be largely a breath of fresh air in a genre dominated by adolescent mediocrity.
Godzilla is the story of (spoiler alert) a giant monster that causes havoc for humans. The humans involved, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, and others, are caught in the crossfire as the military tries to subdue the prehistoric beast.
The film's greatest strength, by far, is the artistic quality Edwards and his team bring to the story. The film is often artwork first, then action movie, a work of a cool kind of terrifying beauty. One of the advantages of a largely CG environment is perfect control over shot composition, and the shots in the movie, be they full-on destruction or a only fleeting glimpse of Zilla's razor back, are handsomely done. In a film where we know exactly what will happen from the outset, the shots are also how Edwards creates suspense throughout. He teases (some say too much) the monster, only giving a peak here and there for most of the movie, and much of the destruction is seen after the fact. I say this works for a property so ubiquitous, as it gives you something to keep watching for. Along with the visual elements, the score and sound design are hugely effective as well. These combined elements do much to distinguish this movie from others of its kind by the likes of Roland Emmerich and Michael Bay.
However, much of what didn't work in the movie forces it to be associated with its lesser-quality action movie brothers anyway. This comes down to characterization specifically, and writing generally. None of the characters are any kind of flushed out, which is frustrating given the film's Oscar- and Emmy-winning cast. More offensive, though, is how the film's female characters are used. They are all essentially there to be a motivation for the men (who have important things to do!), usually because of some combination of grief and guilt. Obviously not shocking considering its genre, but it felt different here again because of the talent of the cast and the outrageous extreme to which the ruse is taken. Even Olsen, the closest thing to a female protagonist in the film, only has about 15 minutes of screen time, and much of that is filled with screaming and not knowing what to do. But the sin, I am careful to note, lies in the material and not the performances. What little the actors are given they generally make good use of, but it is often very little they are given indeed.
An interesting historical read of the film I was thinking about involves our post-imperial unease with the atomic bombs used on Japan in WWII. The original 1954 film is largely a Japanese reaction to the terror caused by the weapons, of the indiscriminate annihilation of entire cities; but our American versions have never really addressed that. This one does, if marginally, by claiming that Godzilla was awakened by American nuclear tests. The subsequent fallout is ascribed by some as nature correcting itself, and the conflict (ironic, slightly) of whether to use nuclear weapons to destroy the creature is a prominent one.
Overall, I say that the movie is generally impressive, especially visually and technically. Ultimately, the film forces us to realize that we have no control over nature, that while she might let us live as we will, she is still in charge and is something of which to be in awe. Edwards' vision supports this, even if whenever a human is involved the vision gets a little hazy.
Godzilla features Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Ken Watanabe, Bryan Cranston, Sally Hawkins, Juilette Binoche, and David Strathairn, and is rated PG-13 for the wanton destruction of landmark American architecture.
Writer: Max Borenstein
Director: Gareth Edwards
by Chase Harrison