Posts Tagged ‘ Marvel ’

Did the World Need a Wonder Woman Movie?

In today’s Hollywood, producers, movers, and shakers are all clamoring for “shared universe” franchises. Inspired by the juggernaut of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, every possible story-telling rock is being overturned in the hunt for a franchise of franchises–money making interconnected characters and settings that will hopefully have infinite reservoirs of built-in audience appeal.

It cannot last.

Soon the silver screen will be graced with a Mummy remake starring the incomparable Sofia Boutella. But I doubt even her physical grace and screen charisma can carry a movie that is basically going to be Tom Cruise playing Ethan Hunt (again) vs. monsters. Universal is hoping otherwise, though. In fact, they hope it will be a relaunch (they tried already with an abysmal Dracula movie a few years back) of their monsters-themed shared universe.

On the horizon, we have other studios with similar hopes for Transformers spin-offs (because Bumblebee, the yellow camaro that cannot talk can totally anchor a feature film) and Godzilla vs. King Kong movies.

They’re all trying to do what Marvel did with its superhero movies, and thus, they all miss the point.

Superheroes work as a “shared universe” because they already occupy one. They already dwell in a common space within our collective imagination–they live within the mythic.

That is what the DC shared universe of super hero movies has failed to grasp thus far. Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel offered some rays of light, but mostly was subdued by a larger interest on the director’s part of making a darker, grittier superhero universe–an impulse that took over (and took a shit on) the Batman v. Superman debacle.

Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman, though, finds the soul in her super heroine that the boys’ outings for the DC murderverse never could. In Batman v Superman, Superman was dragged into the muck in a sophomoric attempt to make his idealism grapple with the ugly side of humanity.

Wonder Woman shares a similar thematic impulse, but executes it so much more capably.

The film is in many ways a bildungsroman for Diana, the nascent Wonder Woman (who never gets called that on screen), who moves past fish-out-of-water gags in London to have her eyes opened to the horrors of war on the Belgium front of WWI. She has trained her whole life to fight war in order to end it, but the suffering she actually witnesses surprises her.

It’s a somewhat superficial exploration of the limits of idealism, but it’s more depth than one generally finds in a super hero movie (Winter Soldier aside) and does much greater justice (pun intended) to her character’s unflappable heroism than Snyder’s take on Superman where Henry Cavil mostly had to grimace to try to maintain Supes’ dignity in the face of terrible, terrible writing.

One cannot credit Gal Gadot enough for her turn as the titular heroine. Even when she exudes naive confidence that the key to peace is simply to find Ares, the God of War, and slay him, her radiance is irrepressible and you want her to be right even though you know she can’t be. Naturally, Diana must learn the hard way that the world of men is not so simple as that and Gadot carries that growth–and conveys the protagonist’s distance from humanity–flawlessly. It’s ironic that many people, both myself and director Patty Jenkins, were skeptical that Gadot had the chops for this part since now she seems like the perfect screen embodiment of the character and likely will be for perpetuity the way that Hugh Jackman will always now be Wolverine.

The other key player in the success and charm of the film is Jenkins. She adopts the visual aesthetic of Snyder’s work–slow mo, muted color palettes–and bends them more purposefully to her story. Her camera loves Gadot’s face, seen often in close up, as much as it does the glint of her armor deflecting a bullet and she manages to humanize the action and epic story (one regrettable bit of CGI artificiality aside) so that the audience feels connected to Diana’s story through her warmth and optimism.

So Wonder Woman is an expertly executed super hero movie and, as many have pointed out, it’s high time that we had one of these stories helmed by a female character.

But, alas, it is one of these stories.

It doesn’t take a fine analytical edge to see the DNA this film shares with its predecessors, particularly the Marvel films that have previously perfected the formula. At one point, Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor leads Diana into a bar to recruit an odd-ball crew for their dangerous mission behind enemy lines and I half expected the camera to pan across the pub to see Chris Evans’s Captain America on the very same endeavor.

It’s a great movie, no doubt. But more than anything, I left wondering if this genre has anything left to give us? The fight choreography was great, but we’ve seen characters tackle rooms of baddies with similar dramatic flair dozens of times–yes, even female characters. Just imagine shooting Black Widow’s fight scenes from Marvel in the style of 300 and you’re there. We’ve also seen the epic show down between God-like heroes and villains tearing the screen and reality apart in blasts of cosmic energy again and again.

Can these scenes really thrill us anymore? Show Wonder Woman to children–preferably some little girls–as their first action movie and they would probably be in rapt awe.

But for us, what is left? We can hardly be dazzled any longer. The story beats and their larger-than-life climaxes are requisite, familiar. The DC movie universe is building toward its Justice League, which looks to be The Avengers with the lights turned down. Marvel itself is building toward the culmination of its “Phase 3” in the two-part Infinity War. And now the world has a really good Wonder Woman movie.

Maybe that’s all it needs.

Maybe it’s time to say, “I say, we will have no more [comic book movies]. Those that are [in production] already, all but one (stop Aquaman, please!), shall live. The rest shall keep as they are…”

Holy Crap! Did a Marvel Movie…Just Say Something?

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As regular readers will note, I have been consistently fascinated by this huge media machine that fans know as the “MCU.”

That stands for Marvel Cinema Universe for you neophytes.

I won’t waste my breath retreading the history of this massive multi-movie endeavor that has garnered a couple billion dollars so far, but up to now, that history has told a story of action adventure story tropes being successfully staged by A-list talent for pure, empty-headed fun.

The latest installment, though, has offered us just a little more.

[Ahead there be SPOILERS!]

Not only is Captain America: The Winter Soldier by far the most complex of the Marvel films in its plotting (that’s not necessarily a good thing as it has a bit of a “oh, look, there’s the kitchen sink” feel to it), but it also innovates by using this very, very silly world of super heroes and diabolical villains to comment on our reality.

That’s right, kids. Captain America–always a propagandistic symbol in his own right–has a political message for the 21st century.

The plot, boiled down, is that S.H.I.E.L.D–the far-reaching, but thus-far benevolent super-spy organization that has been in the background during the entire MCU evolution–was infiltrated from the early days by the remnants of another group, the Nazi-splinter group of mad scientists called Hydra.

Wow…like I said: silly stuff.

But here’s the important part. Good ole all-American Captain America must bring down both organizations–why? Because these intertwined institutional beasts see too much and are at the “tipping point” of having the technological power to smite their enemies proactively.

It’s not hard to read it all as a post 9/11 allegory. The massive new fleet of S.H.I.E.L.D hellicarriers has built-in drone-like weapon systems that can snuff out satellite-selected human targets. What’s more is that a powerful computer algorithm has allowed the Hydra-SHIELD monstrosity to predict its enemies before they act against it. Analytics, anyone?

Captain America: The Winter Soldier takes on the surveillance state, but it doesn’t argue for a luddite approach to deal with these encroachments on the right to privacy. Instead, the story demands both accountability and transparency.

In the end, S.H.I.E.L.D. is destroyed. (Marvel fans are hardly shocked; it’s happened in the comics before, too. The only real question is: What are they planning for that TV show that centers on an organization that’s now belly up?) More importantly, though, the deep and dark secrets of both are uploaded onto the Internet.

Tucked in among all the ass-kicking (and some character stories about Captain America finding his old best buddy and a new one) this film asks: If the genie can’t be put back in the bottle, then what? And it suggests as an answer that we all need to know exactly what the genie is up to. What it knows…and what it can do.

Ultimately, corruption is the enemy. Nothing as powerful as S.H.I.E.L.D. was in this fictional universe can avoid it. Its analogue in the real world is clear: Every day we learn that the American security apparatus has more capabilities than we’d imagined the day before. They can read your e-mail. They can hack your computer remotely. Having that power is corruption itself. Its misuse is inevitable.

The only remedy to this inevitability is vigilance.

For that, there can’t be secrets.

Sci-Fi Connoisseur: What’s Wrong with Agents of SHIELD (and maybe Marvel in general)

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So, in case you’re living under a rock or no longer watch network television, there’s this new show on this season called Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

This program takes place inside the fictional universe of the Marvel movies–ala Iron Man and The Avengers. It was the subject of much pre-premiere hype courtesy of the involvement of Joss Whedon in a supervisory role and it debuted to spectacular ratings.

And then those ratings began to plummet.

Well, maybe not plummet, but decline steadily. Again last night, the first run episode saw considerably fewer people tune in than the week before. Now, granted, this isn’t just some one-shot sci-fi series trying out for the big time. This is a piece of the Marvel machine, so it’s not like it’s on the chopping block just yet, but these numbers don’t bode well. ABC might be part of the Disney empire, but that empire still wants every one of its mercilessly consumable little soldier properties to be making money.

Understandably, the geek-verse is twitching madly over the show’s shortcomings and long-time Joss Whedon fans are preparing to see yet another one of his brilliant creations cut down before its prime.

Except, here’s the problem: This one ain’t so brilliant.

Whedon’s shows always thrive on families being created, but this time, we’re being asked to just believe that this little team is already there without any real investment in them. Let’s flip through the roster really quickly:

First, and obviously, there’s Agent Coulson, the one holdover from the other Marvel properties. Of course, he was supposed to have died in The Avengers. And he did, he totally did. There are hints that something is up with him; I’m betting clone. But even this potentially intriguing aspect of the character isn’t being handled well. We get hints about there being something “off” about him. I’m sorry, not “hints.” The same hint. Every week. But at least, as played by Clark Gregg, he’s an endearing leader for this little cadre.

Then, second-in-command (I’m assuming) is Ming Na as Agent Bad Ass. She has an actual name, but who cares. First of all, let me get this out of the way, she’s smoking hot (and not smoking hot for 49, but just plain smoking hot). Like no joke. Okay, sorry. She’s also playing this character well, with just the right edge of intrigue. Keep her.

Next down the list is Skye, a computer hacker brought into the agency in the pilot episode. Here’s a perfect example of what’s being mismanaged on the show. The actress playing Skye is a charming pretty-much-newcomer named Chloe Bennett. She infuses a lot of personality into a character that is being miswritten. In fact, she’s being miswritten so badly that not only are her actions unbelievable, but every other characters’ actions become unbelievable when she’s in the room. Case in point, there were some interesting suggestions in the second episode that she has a hidden agenda and wasn’t really playing for SHIELD at all. Hello, complex and compelling characterization! Unfortunately, the character’s idealistic subterfuge got flushed away like two episodes later for a guy and then, insult to injury, after she reveals her duplicity, she’s allowed to hang around and pretty much forgiven for her transgressions. Come on, Joss. She’s not just somebody stowing away on Serenity here. This is a super-duper spy agency. I’m pretty sure someone somewhere would be water-boarding her over this.

And it only gets worse from there. The team also includes two affable Brits Fitz and Simmons. Not “Fitzsimmons,” but one character named “Fitz” and another named “Simmons.” It was a cute gag, but it also kind of demonstrates how forgettable the characters are when you introduce them by joking about how indistinguishable and interchangeable their names are. Seriously, I didn’t know which was which until last night’s episode…and actually, I’ve forgotten again.

Finally, there’s some tough, lone-wolf agent guy named Ward. That lame stereotype is literally all there is to this character. Please. Kill. Him. Next. Episode. Replace him with some character played by Summer Glau. Or Tahmoh Penikett. Or hell, bring back J. August Richards from the pilot. Give me someone with something interesting to grasp onto!

Therein lies the problem. Marvel has slapped together a cast of cookie-cutter cast members for a good old fashioned adventure show like something out of the 80s. Remember Knight Rider? Remember how KITT was dramatically blown up like every season finale in Knight Rider, only to be rebuilt within ten minutes of the beginning of the next episode?

That’s SHIELD. It’s playing it safe, way too safe.

The bar has been raised for TV genre fare. Walking Dead has so many flaws from a narrative perspective, but at least it takes risks. I’m not saying that SHIELD has to kill off characters (well, other than Ward; he has to die) but it needs to find something more compelling in its characters. The C-list Marvel villains they’ve been dredging up for these one-shot episodes will not be enough to keep us coming back. The intrigue with the villainous organization behind the plots they’re uncovering has some potential, but the bottom line is that the producers need to learn what makes shows like Homeland or Game of Thrones compelling–and then realize that that something is to be original.

Joss Whedon has never shied away from this before. He took risks with Buffy–big ones. Sometimes they paid off, sometimes, eh, not so much. He pushed envelopes with sexuality on Dollhouse (though not as many as he wanted to) where he was playing the long game (and didn’t blow a potential gold-mine plot thread in four freakin’ episodes!). I suspect there’s a lot of Marvel’s hands in the big pile of crap-that’s-wrong-with-this-show. It feels like each episode is like the Marvel movies–contrived to try to make us feel tension that really, ultimately, we know isn’t there. With its constant boot-licking of The Avengers, the show’s best parallel is Iron Man 2, which was just way too interested in setting up the larger franchise to bother telling a good story.

It all raises the question–yet again–of how long Marvel can keep this cinematic universe going. Warner Brothers has taken a lot of flack for not getting their DC Comics movies humming along like Disney’s new cash cow, but maybe that’s for the best after all. At least Nolan’s Batman never got to wear out his welcome or just seem tired (in fact, we could’ve gone for one more movie so that the ending would actually make sense).

Thor 2 comes out next week, and–naturally–there will be some cross promotion with the SHIELD series. Could it breathe new life into the show? Maybe. Or maybe the show is just the first sign of senescence for this whole concept.

Sci-Fi Connoisseur: The Avengers

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My intention was to chart the important comic book movies, those that really contributed to the rise of the genre (and hence to the coming of The Man of Steel). So some Marvel fans might argue that I should touch on Iron Man and maybe some of the other Phase 1 movies like Captain America and Thor. Well, those people would be wrong. Frankly, Iron Man was nothing special. It was well executed, sure, but the ground had been laid by the X-Men and Spidey. Iron Man is only important because it launched Phase 1 for Marvel and everything in Phase 1 was building toward one thing…

Ratings:

There’s a semi-valid argument to be made that The Avengers cannot be considered a great movie in its own right because it depends so heavily on how well its characters were established in the films building up to it. I said “semi.” When you get down to it, the same could be said of the Dark Knight. Though knowing who Batman is would get you pretty far with that movie, the whole Rachel storyline was built in Begins. So, it is right and proper that we consider the awesomeness of The Avengers…

And awesome is the word. The first and most astounding thing is that, as I said before, it just shouldn’t have worked. To take three heroes who have been built up in separate movies and shoehorn them together successfully into one movie is feat enough, but The Avengers not only accomplishes this but it also makes the most interesting characters the bit players who stepped up–Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk and Scarlett Johansson’s for-some-reason-accent-free Black Widow. Marvel has chosen its directors wisely and trusted them to pull off the fairly challenging task of making the absurd more than watchable, but absurdly entertaining. But with an ensemble cast like this, there really was only one director who could pull it off. For those of us who have been long-time fans of Joss’s, seeing the whole world–the whole bloody verse!–acknowledge and admire his genius is extremely gratifying (and it doesn’t hurt that he’s just a heck of a guy).

Shere Audacity…10
In Joss We Trust…10

Now, just the other day I was writing about The Dark Knight, giving it my highest (yet still hopelessly arbitrary) rating yet. But there’s something I didn’t mention about the plot of The Dark Knight that I’d like to address by way of contrast. Much has been made of the trope of the villain landing himself in the good guys’ hands in a way that is “all part of the plan” in recent films (cough, Skyfall, cough). Yes, clearly The Dark Knight did this before The Avengers, but there’s a key difference to the move Whedon’s screenplay is making compared to Goyer and the Nolan brothers’ Dark Knight: the good guys eventually win. In The Dark Knight, the Joker pretty much gets everything he wants (cough, Skyfall, cough). The good guys are manipulated at every stage of the game and in the end, Harvey Dent is dead–and a murderer–and Batman’s forced to flee in disgrace (and apparently, if the sequel is to be believed, to become a giant cry-baby). But the massive, sprawling, absolutely unbelievably epic action finale of The Avengers (which is way more exciting than Batman having to kill a couple of Rottweilers to stop his nemesis from kicking him on the ground) results in an actual victory for the good guys. And dang it, isn’t beating the bad guys something comic book superheroes are supposed to do?

Triumph…10

As I’ve already intimated, nobody–NOBODY!–does an ensemble cast like Joss Whedon. My evidence: Buffy, Angel, Dollhouse, and Firefly/Serenity. If you have not already, watch them and love them. So there’s a lot I could say about characters in this film. Evans is great as the fish out of water. Downey Jr. is predictably and perfectly smug–until he tries to call Pepper one more time before blowing himself up in a wormhole, que dulce! Hemsworth doesn’t get much to do except deliver a few good punchlines, but come on, he’s a God, cut him some slack. The SHEILD folks are kinda snoozy, but there’s still more than enough wow factor on the roster to earn Avengers a nice fat point bonus for characterization (which it will…patience).

But I want to point out a particular character moment that is so Joss and so good. Black Widow had already been introduced in the Marvel universe through the regrettably uneven Iron Man 2, but she had not been fleshed out one iota until The Avengers. We meet her here as a total bad ass when she wipes out a room full of Russian thugs while tied to a chair. Then she dares to go face to face with the man-would-Hulk-out. But, to show us the menace of our villain, when she confronts the baddie who has brainwashed her friend and fellow agent Hawkeye, his talent for manipulation reaches into her soul and finds that one vulnerable soft spot where she can actually be hurt…PSYCH! No, you don’t, Loki. She done played you. Seriously, it’s such a nice move that Whedon makes: “No, my female hero is not going to be reduced to tears by some man shouting at her. She’s instead going to use this chauvinistic expectation to draw out the information she needs. Thank you, come back when you’re ready for someone this awesome.”

Character…10

Okay, minor gripe: Loki. Even Whedon was concerned that Loki couldn’t pose enough of a threat to merit the Avengers assembling. Give Tom Hiddleston his due, though, he really does take the petulant brat from Thor and make him into a damaged soul out to prove that no other frail souls can rise above his level, can ever be more. His sudden acquisition of a brainwashing spear thingy makes him more insidious, too. Throw in a disposable alien army and you have one of the best action sequences in cinema history. It’s enough, but since it’s obvious we’re squaring off against The Dark Knight for THE title, it’s obvious he’s no Joker.

Antagonist…5

Total: 45

What? Cop out? Weenie move? Okay, yes, it’s the same score I gave The Dark Knight. I can’t choose between them. Together they show two poles of what the best in comic book movies can be. I had more fun in Avengers, but I thought more in Dark Knight, so I give them the tie. The real question now is: Where will Man of Steel fall?

Nitpicks:

  • Thou shalt not nitpick Joss Whedon…mainly because he’s already done it. If you watch the commentary track, you’ll hear Joss address most of the soft spots in the script himself (like the conveniently insta-death for the invading alien army once the wormhole is closed) with his typical wit and humility.

 

How Long Can They Keep This Up: An Iron Man 3 Retrospective

Who knows when they started calling it “Phase I,” but it can’t have been too early in the scheme of things because, really, who could’ve expected it to work well enough to be a “phase” of anything. After the blockbuster success of the Spider-Man film series, the big cheeses over at Marvel Comics decided they were tired of watching so much of the money earned by their characters flow into the coffers of the big studios like Sony. So, they decided to finance and create big, tentpole super hero movies themselves and keep a much more sizable stack of cash from the productions in the process.

It was quite the scheme, with only one drawback: Pretty much all the best Marvel characters were already tied up in deals with other studios. With Spider-Man and the X-Men locked in contractually with other studios, they just didn’t have much to work with. (Now, someone, somewhere will say, “Hey, you forget The Fantastic Four!” To which I say, “No, I did not,” but you should. How stupid would The Avengers have been with that stretchy dude?)

But Marvel dug deep, dusted off the Batman-wannabe with a drinking problem, Iron Man, and began developing Phase I of their universe’s conquest of the box office. Last summer they capped off Phase I with The Avengers, a mash-up of Marvel’s B-list superheroes that could only have been pulled off by the nigh-invincible wit of Joss Whedon and is now the third highest grossing movie in history.

So why am I going through this little bit of cinema history that, if you’re still reading at this point, you probably already know. It’s because I’m wondering something: In the annals of geekery, Marvel Phase I was a truly remarkable accomplishment–up there with the original Star Wars (holy) trilogy and the monumental and sweeping Lord of the Rings uber-film (I think of it as one 14 hour movie). Both of those sagas, though, have now been tainted by going to the well too often. Star Wars, of course, has been blighted by the wimpy, whiny pre-Darth Vader Anakin Skywalker of the CGI-everywhere prequels and the Lord of the Rings  will someday soon come pre-packaged on 48 fps Blu-Ray with its soon-to-be equally long, but way lower-stakes prequel, The Hobbit.

My question, then, is: How long until Marvel screws this thing up?

(Oh, here’s where I’m going to feel free to include SPOILERS about any and all of the Marvel films, including Iron Man 3.)

This weekend (or last weekend, if you’re in China) we got the first hard evidence for the longevity of Marvel’s grand design. Iron Man 3 is the official beginning of “Phase II.” It will include return visits with Thor (Yet another “dark” sequel, this one due in November) and Captain America.

We’ve got next to nothing to go on when it comes to Cap’s next outing, but sitting in the theater for Iron Man 3, we were treated to a big, booming trailer for the Thor sequel. It looks sufficiently massive and action packed to continue to bolster confidence in the slick machinery of the Marvel movie-making enterprise (which has to-date only stumbled with Iron Man 2 by making it too much of a commercial for the rest of Phase I).

For its part, Iron Man 3 is a new paint-by-numbers sheet from the same book as the original. Pretty much the ingredients that work in all of these movies: punchy humor and lots of CGI combat–this time with genetically-overclocked super soldiers in the employ of the sort-of Mandarin who are strong enough to rip iron man suits to pieces with their bare hands (by the way, someone remind me to write an essay about conservation of energy in superhero movies; these guys are constantly regrowing body parts or heating up extremities to a couple thousand degrees–where is that energy coming from? Just how many Snickers are they eating between battle scenes?). Fortunately enough, Tony Stark–boy genius–has been suffering from insomnia and has stockpiled an enormous inventory of extra, specialized suits to duke it out with the say-what Mandarin’s forces in the coda (Okay, seriously, if I was a fan of the comics, this little perturbation of the canon continuity would probably irk the crap out of me: Tony Stark’s greatest nemesis from the comics, The Mandarin, is in this incarnation only a two-bit actor being controlled by the real villain…Guy Frickin’ Pearce? I’ll give you this, I sure didn’t see that twist coming.).

Obviously, Robert Downey Jr. continues to earn his mega paychecks by carrying the picture. His smirk is easily 46% of the appeal of the Iron Man movies (and a full 4.7% of the Avengers’, which is pretty good when you’re competing for credit with the awesomeness of Joss).

The movie’s already a ginormous hit internationally and having a great opening weekend stateside. Right about now, Marvel must be thinking things bode pretty well for Phase II.

And they’re probably right. Joss Whedon (who, as we all know, can do no wrong) will take the helm for Avengers 2, slated for release in 2015. Sure, expectations will be high, but with a proven cast, trusty formula, and an idea that Whedon’s nursed since before the first film started rolling, it will probably work again.

But Marvel isn’t just thinking about Phase II.

Plans for Phase III include ground work to be laid in Guardians of the Galaxy in 2014 and extended with character films like Ant-Man after Avengers 2 (Which, come on, we all know will be titled Avengers Assemble, right?).

Yes, you read that correctly: Ant-Man. No, his costume doesn’t look like an ant, but his power is to shrink to, well, ant-size (again, Marvel Comics and believable physics don’t mix so much; for proof, just reference all the flying iron man suit parts in 3. Really? A faceplate has enough propulsion built-in to fly from Tennessee to Miami? I’m honestly supposed to accept that and enjoy my move? Oh, who am I kidding, I did.).

Guardians of the Galaxy seems like an even bigger risk. In case you weren’t aware, its central characters will include Zoe Saldana as a CGI alien chick (okay, so we already know that audiences will both accept and want to tap that), a walking tree (Lord of the Rings, much?), and–prepare yourself–a raccoon with a rocket launcher.

You can’t make this shit up, folks.

Is America, nay, is the world ready to love Rocket Raccoon? I just don’t know.

But who’re we kidding–I’ll be at the theater in person to find out.