Aquaman

aqua1Less is  more. Its a lesson that patently escapes most modern filmmakers (and producers/studios) on the evidence of most blockbusters these days. Aquaman is a film that squeezes two or three films into its 2.5-hour running time; when I was watching it I felt oddly divorced from what was going on, almost absently watching it, and it only occured to me afterwards that it was likely because I simply couldn’t keep up with it. Aquaman is really The Aquaman Trilogy in one huge package, and in doing that it repeats the same mistake that blighted Man of Steel, Batman v Superman, and others.

Maybe its my age, and maybe it’s the only way to maintain the ATD-impacted younger generation’s attention and stop them getting bored, but there’s so many relentless plot points and acton scenes it leaves the film all blockbuster without any substance. Case in point: when Aquaman is smuggled into Atlantis and counsellor Vulko (Willem Dafoe?wtf?) issues him with plot exposition triggering another quest the momentary stillness is immediately broken by another attack and another fight sequence incase that three-minute exposition has set the young’uns to sleep.  Indeed, what is the point of Black Mantra in the film? It seems that in any well-conceived project he’d be the nominal ‘bad guy’ for a whole film but here he’s almost an afterthought, appearing and then disappearing until he pops up again for an action sequence and then gone again, resurfacing (sic) for a mid-credits sequence at the end.  I suspect his character could be entirely cut and the film would be largely unaffected.

There’s a good movie in here somewhere, I think, but it’s probably about an hour long, and the other hour could be likely edited into a satisfying Aquaman Pt 2. Chucking it all together just makes it feel insanely aimless and scattershot. Its hardly unusual in this, it just mirrors how so many films are now. Films seem to lack the confidence to take their time, add some weight and space. We used to blame it on the MTV generation, but is that even a thing now? And who watches TV commercials anymore- surely we can’t blame the tight editing of commercials these days now that we skip through them.

It certainly highlights the comparative success (as a movie, if not box office) of Shazam! which I watched a week or so ago and really, really enjoyed. The entire plot of Shazam! would likely have been reduced to 40 minutes in Aquaman. Its a shame, because Aquaman‘s cast is pretty good on the whole, and the production design quite impressive, albeit perhaps mind-bogglingly OTT, but its all for naught, its all overcooked and.. well, you know, if it was a meal you’d be stuffed and chucking it all back up an hour or two later. Pardon the image, but that’s how this film felt. Such a shame. Less is more.

Superman Returns Expanded OST

suprmn retTo get me in the mood for the (hopefully imminent) arrival of La La Land’s 3-disc Superman: The Movie soundtrack, I’ve been listening to John Ottman’s score for the ill-fated Superman Returns from 2006- well, the expanded 2-disc edition that La La Land released in 2013. It might seem a perverse choice, but I really like Ottman’s score – mainly because it re-uses so many of John William’s original themes. Its almost a Superman Greatest Hits, with plenty of Horner’s Brainstorm score also thrown in, partly from the choral sections which accentuate the films rather ill-judged religious tensions regards our Kryptonian hero, but yeah, there’s a lot of Brainstorm in passages of this score. I think it’s a really nice, melodic and thematic old-fashioned superhero score – inevitably it owes a huge part of its success to those timeless classic William’s themes and motifs, but as a fan of that original score it was lovely reprise. You just can’t make a Superman film without John William’s music- God knows Hans Zimmer later tried, but Man of Steel etc are woeful, frankly, compared to William’s masterpiece. Whenever Ottman reprises the Superman main theme, I always get a tingle, and the frequent use of the Fortress of Solitude music is lovely, lending it something of an importance not present in the original film.

Admittedly I’m not best equipped to really comment on the 2006 film,  I haven’t seen the film for some time, probably back when it first came out on Blu-ray over a decade ago. When I first saw it at the cinema (and subsequently on disc) I really enjoyed it but I’m open to a rewatch recalibrating my opinions somewhat. Time inevitably changes things. Back when it came out I was overjoyed by its sense of heritage, its honouring of Richard Donner’s original – it felt like the Superman III we deserved back in the day. And the music! As a lover of William’s original score, how could I not be bewitched by hearing it again?

Looking back on it, maybe the film was just too faithful and sincere to the original and needed a fresher, more unique voice of its own- it’s a shame the same creative team didn’t get to make a sequel that, having set up the return of our hero, actually gave him an adventure worthy of the Big Screen (that being said, one of the things I remember enjoying of Superman Returns was how intimate and character-based it seemed). Instead the franchise stalled again and took a decidedly different approach with Man of Steel etc.

Anyway, I’ve certainly been enjoying exploring this score again. I hadn’t given it a spin for awhile, but it certainly holds up pretty well. Indeed, considering how film music (and superhero scores in  particular) have been going lately with the almost mundane background muzak of the Marvel films etc, it’s almost a great surprise. supermanalbumSure, in the great scheme of things its a poor shadow of the Williams classic in comparison, and I’m sure the 3-disc edition of the original will blow this out of the water, but that’s true of most scores compared to that 1978 colossus.  But this hasn’t been a bad way of getting me in the mood for that lovely old album I used to love listening to, an album assembly that features on disc 3 of the new set and that I’m really looking forward to hearing again.

Ah hell. Time I dug out my old vinyl and jumped back to being a thirteen-year-old kid again, lying on my bed with the gatefold on my lap, listening to the music and dreaming of heroes and villains. 

 

 

 

Star Trek: Discovery (2017)

disc1There certainly seems to be a problem with all these ‘old’ intellectual properties. Star Trek seems to be suffering a similar existential angst as Star Wars. The issue, of course, is that Star Trek dates back to the 1960s, and Star Wars to the 1970s, and here we are in 2018 and they are still trying to be valid and of the times we are living in. It’d be a bit like trying to bring back the 1930s serial Flash Gordon and expecting it still be modern and of our time- you could update it I guess but it wouldn’t have the b&w innocent charm of those serials, in  a similar way to how Snyder’s Man of Steel update of Superman lost so much of what appealed to fans of Donner’s Superman: The Movie (the irony being that Superman Returns tried so hard to replicate the original and got criticised for just that).

My gut thinking is, ‘why bother?’, why not just do something new?  What makes anyone think that Star Wars is really anything more than a trilogy released between 1977-1983? Was the biggest problem for Lucas’ prequels that they were a product of the 1990s-early noughties, and that the whole franchise should have been left behind, a problem doubly compounded for Disney trying to now do it decades later still? Is it possible, for instance, to return to The Matrix now, continue that series as if it could be just as valid now as it was back in 1999-2003?  Like the old adage, ‘you can’t go home again’, if you have to change everything so much that it no longer looks or feels like the original, then why even bother?

Why indeed keep looking at the past, instead of developing something genuinely new and of our time?

So anyway, Star Trek: Discovery is yet another attempt to resurrect that old 1960s series whilst making it new and valid, albeit with the additional noose around its neck of being a prequel set ten years before the adventures of Kirk and Spock of the original show.  It does seem the common perception these days that prequels just don’t work and we haven’t arrived at that perspective by accident. On the one hand, prequels are always handicapped by dramatic consequence- in the recent Solo movie, for instance, we ‘know’ from the outset that Han and Chewie will survive simply because they have to, as they appear in the original Star Wars movie set years later, as does the Millenium Falcon, so any tension we feel during action sequences etc is, er, severely hampered. Also, prequels cannot help but be seduced by unnecessarily fan service- in the case of the Solo movie, how Han met Chewie, how Han won the Falco from Lando, etc. Its like ticking boxes rather than telling a honest dramatic story.

So anyway, Star Trek: Discovery would quite possibly be a great space opera were it not for the fact that its pretending to be Star Trek. I mean, let’s be clear, it’s not Star Trek. It may have the name in its title, and it may have Vulcas and the Federation etc but its not Star Trek. The show’s Klingons are not Klingons. They do not look like Klingons, they have a language that requires subtitles and they don’t really behave like Klingons- certainly not the same Klingons that contested with Kirk back in the original Trek. Likewise all the tech thrown around in Discovery, the ships and the holograms and everything, its amazing and pretty to look at but it’s no way predating Kirk. A hundred years later, maybe, sure.

So my issue watching Discovery is simply this- it’s not a bad show, really, but it should be its own show. Slapping Star Trek on it is just, well, it doesn’t work, because it doesn’t look like a Star Trek show or feel like a Star Trek show, then, indeed, why bother? The writers seem so enamoured with updating everything and making it culturally relevant to ‘now’ that it loses sight of what the simple pleasures of the original were, and frankly if it insists on that, why call it Trek? I kept watching this show and I quite enjoyed it, but it never really felt like Trek and all the way through I kept asking myself why did they bother? What was the point of the show other than making money and appealing to an established fanbase rather than making one of its own?

Another issue is that it feels indebted to Roddenberry’s own revisionism in Star Trek: The Next Generation, in which he laboured the utopian ideal of Star Trek with no-one arguing or falling out or getting paid or having any life beyond Star Fleet and hopping around the galaxy. Its an irony that the characters of the ‘sixties show feel more ‘real’ than those of subsequent series simply because they are living, breathing characters having wild west-adventures in space without idealising how people behave or saddling everything with a Prime Directive that kills any dramatic tension.

But at least they keep the design of the original phasers, I guess we should be thankful for that.

A Bit Late to the Party: Daredevil

dare1I’ve just started watching the Netflix series Daredevil, thanks to having received the season one Blu-ray set for Christmas. So yes, I’m rather late to the party with this one, as the show was particularly well-praised and a second season has already aired. I can imagine most people reading this thinking I’ve just come out from under a rock or something. Its a symptom of the bewildering fragmentation of the television industry these days-unless you are willing to pay for everything (Sky Atlantic, Netflix, Amazon, etc) you simply aren’t going to be able to access everything , not legitimately anyway. Years ago most of the best American shows aired on terrestrial channels, then eventually they started to migrate over to satellite subscription channels,  and now there’s the internet services (and even cable provider Virgin Media) competing with unique content.

Its rather unfortunate, as we are living in something of a Golden Age for quality television, that due to this fragmentation of the market, viewing figures are going down, not up.The subscription method largely offsets those diminished ratings, but it does have some effect on, well, the cultural impact of the shows themselves. How many people have seen The Man In The High Castle, or Outlander? What were the viewing figures for Daredevil? Sky TV seems happy for shows like Arrow to number viewing figures in hundreds of thousands, whereas such a show back in the late-70s/early-80s on terrestrial tv would have audiences in the millions.

So anyway, I’ve seen just the first two episodes of Daredevil, but already I can see why there was so much praise and fuss over the show. Its great. The cast are impressive with some great chemistry already, and the take on the character (going for a slow-burn introduction to the character and his origin/world) cleverly profits from the season-long arc and having plenty of screen time to get it right, showing the advantages of the episodic format over a short-duration film. And it’s clear that the artistic and technical maturity and sophistication of television production these days doesn’t necessarily reveal the huge gap between small-screen and silver-screen like it did in the  old days. Television holds up these days, and what television inevitably loses in pure bang-for-your-buck spectacle, it clearly trumps with character development and extended plot arcs.

And yes, binge-watching is clearly a bonus. I watched those first two episodes back to back and will likely do the same with the next two, the 13-episode series likely watched in a week or two, easy. As its my first Netflix show, I have to say I’m very impressed, and it has me considering that Jessica Jones set recently released.

Interestingly, Daredevil is very dark and very violent, and it is clearly showing how that can be done superbly well with a superhero character – a clear lesson that perhaps the DC movie division should have heeded with its Man of Steel/Batman v Superman properties that seem to be struggling with the darkness and ‘reality’ they are aiming for. Of course I’ve only just started the show and will need to see how the season unfolds, but so far they seem to have nailed it. Avoiding all those spoilers/reviews seems to have paid off.

dare2.jpgThe only thing that kept bugging me was where had I seen the actress who is playing Karen Page? Every scene she was in I was distracted by the “where the hell have I seen her before?” brainworm that kept burrowing into me. I hate it when that happens. Eventually, well into episode two I had to resort to a visit to IMDB. The actress is Deborah Ann Wolf, and I’d seen her in True Blood, a show I had watched a few seasons of before giving up on it several years ago. I remember she was one of the best things in True Blood, and it’s  great that she seems to be a regular in Daredevil.

Did Watchmen almost destroy the DC Superhero movie?

bvs22016.68: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice Ultimate Cut (Blu-Ray)

The shadow of Zack Snyder’s Watchmen looms large over BvS, right from the very beginning, with a portentous/pretentious (delete as applicable) flashback to the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents. In slow motion it looks and feels like a continuation of Watchmen -it even features the Comedian playing Bruce Wayne’s father. Watchmen is one of my favourite films, particularly of the Superhero genre, mostly because, whatever its faults, it remains true to its source and consequently has the internal logic that Alan Moore laboured over. But the central problem of BvS is Snyder still thinks he’s making Watchmen, resulting in a film that isn’t true to its source material (whether it be Batman comics, Superman comics, or Frank Millers Dark Knight Returns which is, crucially, wholly seperate from any Batman continuity I’m aware of, something many fans forget). Sometimes BvS feels more like Watchmen 2 than the Man of Steel 2 it should have really been.

Perhaps it was a reaction to criticism of Man of Steel, and Snyder falling back to what he ‘knows’. He obviously felt that the solution was to adopt the Watchmen method of treating the Superhero genre. The whole point of Watchmen was to put superhero archetypes in a real-world situation and analysing their impact and ironic tropes. But that’s not really the ‘point’ of the Batman strip or the Superman strip. They are ‘just’ superheroes. There’s this weird dichotomy of a crazy billionaire dressed up as a bat beating up what he perceives to be people who deserve it, a centrally daft premise, and trying to validate that as a real-world response to real-world problems. Nowhere is this more infuriating than with the constant agonising that is the film’s treatment of Superman, something extended from the previous Man of Steel. It’s clear to me that Snyder is confusing Superman with Dr Manhattan, which is misguided in the extreme.

bvs3Note the similarity to the scene of the Vietnamese surrendering to Dr Manhattan in Watchmen (bowing to him as if acknowledging his Godlike status) to scenes of people reaching upwards to Superman as if again, surrendering to his Messianic, Godlike status. In just the same way as an untrusting public scared of his Godlike powers turned upon Dr Manhattan, so people turn against Superman in BvS. Its far removed from the treatment of the character in Superman: The Movie, in which he is simply accepted as a ‘good’ guy in whom everyone can believe in to do the ‘right thing’. Okay, that might be simplistic in our modern cynical world, but that’s Superman, and over-analysing and agonising over his place in our real-world is what Watchmen was about in creating Dr Manhattan. This is supposed to be a Superman movie, not a Watchmen movie, and psycho-analysing superheroes just backs you into the Dark Knight corner and ultimately gets you nowhere.

Instead of the Caped Detective, this film’s Batman is a rogue vigilante, a younger variant of the DKR version and more Watchmen‘s Comedian than is really necessary (is there indeed something deliberate about the Comedian playing Bruce Wayne’s father in the prologue?). The Comedian revelled in the chaos of the world and saw all the greed and depravity and crime as the natural way of things in a cold universe with humanity lacking any decency. Batman in BvS follows this direction, even branding villains and killing when necessary, in his almost perverse version of justice, traumatised by earlier events involving (it is inferred, at least) the death of Robin. The central difference is that the Comedian laughed and smiled about it, seeing the irony of costumed heroes only making things worse, while Batman just frowns harder at his inability to ‘cure’ Gotham of the blight of crime over the course of decades of effort and whose only response is to, well, just try harder.

In the end, the looming shadow of Watchmen just confuses BvS and paralyses it. It wants to be dark and serious and Watchmen-like, but also wants to be a Marvel movie and launch a DC-Universe version of the Marvel Studios output. It wants to be a Batman movie, adapting DKR, but it also wants to be a Man of Steel sequel. It wants to be a Batman/Superman hybrid movie, but it also wants to be a Justice league prequel. It wants to be everything for everyone, and pretty much fails to be anything at all.

bvs1The last hope of DC fans and in particular fans of BvS was its Ultimate Cut. Of course its impossible for thirty minutes additional footage to save such an already troubled picture. Surprisingly, the additional thirty minutes do actually improve on some of the internal logic failings of the theatrical cut, and fix some glaring inconsistencies and plot holes. But you know, I think you could put those thirty minutes in and take another sixty minutes out and you’d have a better picture. As it is, it’s way too long and slow and contains too much redundant stuff.

The Apocalyptic dream-sequence adds nothing to the film. It may look visually interesting and feature another action sequence (if only to spice-up the pace of a flagging film), but it adds absolutely nothing to the film at all. Neither do the shots of a future-Flash shouting an enigmatic message about saving Lois Lane. Its almost like an intermission; BvS stops to show a scene from some other movie and then we’re back to BvS.  Indeed, it’s not even as if Bruce Wayne/Batman considers the dream or comments on it- not even “I just had the damndest dream” to Alfred, or a “I think I somehow just saw a vision of the future.” It isn’t referenced in the film at all. It happens and then it’s gone. Its adds nothing at all, utterly redundant, only functioning to confuse the audience, as if a trailer for BvS Part Three was edited into the film by mistake or an angry editor with a score to settle against Snyder. It really didn’t need be there at all. Its bad storytelling, it’s bad movie -making. Its just some nod to the geeks who know the original comic storyline and tease the larger DC Universe, but as far as making a decent movie, it’s a glaring error.

If you’re making a film about Batman and Superman, and calling it Batman v Superman, then thats your story. Everything should serve that story and that story should be your focus. If there is some elaborate scheme to orchestrate that face-off then establish that and see it out, and have that face-off be your big pay-off, your big finale. Don’t drop in a late cameo of Zod’s corpse turning into Doomsday just to excuse the appearance of Wonder Woman as an advert/tease for her own movie. For one thing, the logic is total bullshit- if Lex Luthor created Doomsday to kill Superman, and that scheme succeeded, then who’s going to kill Doomsday if Superman is dead? Doomsday is hardly going to be an obedient lackey for a despotic Luthor. I can imagine Doomsday killing Superman then turning on everyone else and Luthor thinking “whoops”as Doomsday lives up to his name and nukes the planet. I thought Luthor was a genius?

BvS isn’t about making a decent movie. It isn’t even really trying to be a decent movie, because if it was, it’d be about an hour shorter with a more focused story, As it is, it is just one long confusing tease for Wonder Woman/Man of Steel 2/ Batman/Justice League and all the other films Warner/DC are intent on making. It is a cynical and calculated attempt to sell a raft of further movies instead of making one decent or even great movie. Thats a betrayal of the fans and the movie audience in general, but sadly symptomatic of how films are made these days.

 

The Problem With Superman

Curious having seen Batman Vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, I rewatched Man of Steel.

Confused as BvS may be, I think it’s actually a better film than MoS. Rewatching it again, I have to say MoS is actually worse than I remembered. It’s such a mess of a film, and a lot of what is wrong about it carries over into BvS,  the lessons from it not learned but rather perpetuated with an anti-Superman dominated by over-the-top CGI hysterics.

stm1The problem with Superman is, well, Superman. They don’t know what to do about him, how to handle the character. Which is weird to me, writing this in 2016 because they nailed it, pretty much, in the mid-seventies with Superman: The Movie, way back in 1978. That film seems to be like the elephant in the room: the Kryptonian scenes were cool and majestic, the childhood scenes wonderful Americana, and the Metropolis scenes with our grown-up hero/Clark Kent alter ego just perfect comic-book escapism. With a template like that, it’s hard to imagine going wrong. So why are Snyder and Warner/DC so seemingly hellbent on distancing themselves from the 1978 classic?

Maybe it’s because Warners tried sticking to that Superman: The Movie template with Superman Returns, which got something of a box-office drubbing when it came out; $390 million worldwide on a $270 million budget (makes BvS something of a huge success with its current haul of $810million worldwide). Superman Returns was hardly perfect, the chief problem was it being overblown and badly produced (although how much of that $270 million was spent on earlier aborted Superman films, I wonder?).  I think it was much better than people perhaps appreciated at the time. It did many things right- particularly casting Brandon Routh who looked the part as Superman and was uncannily like Chris Reeve as Clark Kent. Kevin Spacey was a pretty good Lex Luthor too- indeed both actors are better than Henry Cavill or Jesse Eisenberg are in BvS.

The damnedest thing is that what was wrong about Superman Returns is the one thing that they carried over from it to MoS- namely, taking the title character way too seriously. In Superman Returns the character is saddled with unnecessary Messianic, Christ-like allegory and a semi-religious fixation, complicated with a pointless backstory of Lois Lane and a son.  Superman: The Movie had the tagline “You’ll believe a man can fly”. Superman Returns might well have had “You’ll believe a Messianic figure can be dull”. All this anguished soul-searching about Superman’s place in the world and What He Means to us is like a lead weight around Superman Returns and  now MoS and BvS after it.

I really wish they had kept the cast and creative team of Superman Returns for a sequel rather than trying to reboot though. If they had dropped that Christ imagery and just given the character a decent adventure with a bit more action rather than endless dull soul-searching we might have had a cracking movie.

sr

But they went the way of the reboot, and I can only despair at how they must have scrutinised Superman Returns and tried to analyse what was wrong with it. The main star looks great, let’s drop him. All that moody soul-searching that cripples the story, lets have more of that. But let’s go darker (did they get the notes mixed up, went with the ‘To Drop’ list instead?).

To some extent you have to blame Christopher Nolan and his Dark Knight films. Somehow they have been held up so high in critical regard and audience awareness that they are the established measure of how to handle DC characters. Like no-one figured out that Superman and Batman are polar opposites- you can’t approach them the same, the whole point of them is that they are so different. Trying to treat Superman like Batman with his tortured psyche is pointless and ignorant of the real character. Besides, there are quite a few fans of the Batman comics who will rightly contest that Nolan’s Dark Knight films rather missed the ‘real’ Batman anyway.

Hiring Zack Snyder to direct MoS was another bad move. I’ve nothing against Snyder, visually he has a knack for putting comic-book action panels onscreen, but he should be kept clear of producing or script-writing. He seems to think Watchmen is some kind of bible for showing superheroes on film, when Watchmen should really be considered of a genre quite apart from Superhero films. It’s a commentary on the Superhero genre not a blueprint of what it should be. Suggesting that the Superman or Batman comics should be more like Watchmen is utterly missing the point of them.

Snyder seems to think that Dr Manhattan, for instance, is some kind of blueprint of how to portray Superman. Dr Manhattan isn’t that- he’s a commentary by Alan Moore on the idea of a Superman. His powers make him distant and aloof from humanity- he isn’t a hero, he’s a God-like figure increasingly remote from us, less human by the minute. Trying to treat Superman the same way is just crazy- Superman isn’t a God, he’s a hero. He’s an alien, yes, and one with great powers, but essentially he is one of us, actually becoming more human by the minute. Snyder is forcing Superman into some kind of Dr Manhattan figure and it’s totally missing the real point and crippling him and the movies.

mos1For one thing, look at the suit. The MoS/BvS ‘look’ just isn’t, well, really Superman, is it? Just in the same way as the true comic-book character is gone, so is the look. The bright colours of the comic-book, the rich red and blue, is lost, replaced by some muddy, washed-out look. It almost looks like the armour of Tim Burton’s take on Batman and is as much a miss-step as how the character has been portrayed.

It seems to me you can only go so far imagining superheroes in the Real World. Its something the Marvel films seem to have done quite well so far, although with the Avengers films and the upcoming Civil War I have to wonder if they are straying too far into this territory themselves. Comics aren’t Shakespeare, and directors and audiences shouldn’t really expect comic-book movies to be Oscar-bait dramas. They are escapist entertainment, with odd people with impossible powers wearing daft costumes and if Warner/DC go too far they will just ruin what chance they have of the success they clearly crave. Maybe part of the problem is Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns. It was a solid, brilliant examination of the Batman character in a noir-ish Real World approximation of our world. But it wasn’t really Batman.

Superheroes couldn’t function in our Real World. I guess that was one of the lessons of Watchmen. You can’t really have costumed guys running around outside of the law; how long would that be allowed before the Government brought in the military to neuter the heroes? Before they were outlawed? Frank Miller had Superman acting as an American Super Weapon in TDR because that’s the only way the American government would find Superman acceptable. Its the same kind of thinking that runs through the rather dour X-Men films. It might be realistic but how far down the rabbit-hole do you go before you aren’t making the actual comic-book anymore? People read them because they are mostly escapist fun. Entertainment.

Superman: The Movie had a genius conceit, right from the start. Some kid opens up a comic book and the camera falls into a panel and it comes ‘alive’. But all through the movie, we are still in that comic.  And that’s a central point that Snyder and Warner/DC seems to be missing. We don’t go to see Superhero movies to see what they would be like in our world. We go to see Superhero movies to see what it would be like for us to be in their world. It’s a fundamental difference.

Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

bvs1.jpg2016. 27: Batman Vs Superman: Dawn of Justice (Cinema)

I have to keep reminding myself; its ‘just’ a superhero movie. The whole genre is daft, isn’t it? You get grown guys dressed up in silly costumes and a genre increasingly taking itself far too seriously and you wind up with films like Man of Steel and BvS. Talented guys like Zack Snyder give too much credit to the passions of geeks and nerds and teenage comics readers and we get misguided films like this that believe that comicstrips can be like Shakespeare or something. Weighed down by self-importance and juvenile politicising and scripts that cover up massive plot-holes with CGI bombast until that very CGI bombast becomes the be-all and end-all of everything.

Sod it. Let’s start again. My favourite superhero film is Superman: The Movie. It’s a classic lesson in how to treat a comicbook with respect without taking itself too seriously. Its a fine line, I admit, but there is a limit to how seriously this stuff should be taken. Guys in tights, you know?

Another thing about Superman: The Movie. It’s kind of aged, because, well, it has– it was made in the ‘seventies. It dates back to photochemical effects and miniatures and is pre-CGI. But it still shines today because Christopher Reeve was genius casting and it’s him who makes you believe a man can fly. You love his Clark Kent, admire his Superman. You don’t have to lay waste to Metropolis and slaughter thousands of innocents to make the film exciting. Superman cares about burglaries and cats in trees and planes falling out of the sky. He’s a good guy. That’s all we need to know.

You see, Superman: The Movie wasn’t made by geeks for geeks. It was made by ordinary grown-ups for family audiences. There was a grounding of reality about everything. My question is, are the geeks ruining films? Have they inherited Hollywood and usurped the old storytellers?

bvs4Because here we have BvS. It says everything about where the genre has gone over the decades. We first had Superman: The Movie, we later had Batman. Now we have Batman vs Superman and its about as intellectually stimulating as the title suggests. I mean, that whole ‘Martha’ thing. How stupid do these film-makers think we are? And the first time Supes meets Batman, Batman is clearly chasing bazooka-wielding bad guys, but Supes gives them a pass in order to bust open the Batmobile and tell Bats off. And what exactly was Lex’s superplan to rule the world with Doomsday? How the hell was he expecting to control Doomsday once it had killed Bats and Supes? And Supes can hear/see Lois in trouble wherever she is, but can’t hear/see a bomb hidden in a wheelchair right in front of him. He can travel faster than a bullet but can’t get that bomb out of the building just as it detonates. Did Snyder learn nothing from reading/making Watchmen?

It’s a big mess of a film. It doesn’t have one protagonist, it has two. Or three. Or four, depending on who we count. It doesn’t have one plot. It has two or three spread across separate timelines, some of which may be dreams or visions or mis-remembered memories or clips from future films. Again, did Snyder learn nothing from reading/making Watchmen?

My first thoughts walking out of BvS? That it wasn’t as bad as the reviews made out. That I sort-of quite enjoyed it (whilst knowing that I really shouldn’t have though).

There doesn’t seem much point reviewing this film. Its already become an ‘event’, perhaps even more so than Disney’s relaunch of Star Wars. Suffering a delayed release and endless marketing and leaks (the trailers simply revealing – and promising- far too much) it seems evident that even during production the film was being retconned into less just a single film but more a launchpad for a whole series of other films, subjecting it to a tension that clearly always threatens to rip it apart and undermine the whole enterprise.

The Corporate stakes are huge: Warners and DC need the film to launch a film franchise to counter Marvel’s huge series of films after the faltering Superman Returns and Man Of Steel reboots and they also need it to work on its own and recoup its huge (anything from $250 to $400 million) production costs. Maybe even impress both the critics and the fanboys while it’s at it too. Well, good luck with that.

A better film had the line, the light that burns twice as bright burns half as long and it’s never truer than regards BvS. It burned so very, very brightly – subjected to largely vicious reviews from the press, fanboys themselves were largely split on the films merits with huge emotional debates becoming angry and personal online (fueled by some predictable Marvel vs DC nonsense too). The box-office has been initially amazing; contrary to those reviews, the film managed a huge opening weekend but was subjected to a corresponding massive drop-off by the second week (some outlets already quoting an 80% drop-off, even the most conservative estimating a fairly damning 70% drop). The film was scarcely in cinemas when release dates for an extended cut were being mentioned for as early as July and attention turning towards that as if the cinema release was already done and over.

As I’m writing this, the film was released little over a week ago, and already it almost feels all over. Everything has been said. Its almost scary. How much has been discussed and dissected on forums and on Youtube and media outlets? Its almost boring already, and the film has only been out just over a week. What on Earth is the Cultural half-life of a Hollywood blockbuster now? Or the timeline of its box-office: days? Weeks? A month? How much money has been spent on making and publicising this film, how much spent on distribution and marketing, how much spent by filmgoers, casual and otherwise (I know of one guy at work who has seen the film three times already), how much has been spent on merchandising and how much spent preparing for its home video release?

I have the feeling that we need a year or two to go by before we can really judge this film and even then we have to have some frame of reference to go by. By which criteria does someone judge it anyway? Do we judge it on its own artistic merits, or on how well it ultimately performs at the box office and more importantly how that impacts the succeeding DC movies? We have Suicide Squad this summer and the Wonder Woman film being shot right now. There are already rumours of reshoots for Suicide Squad, how long before reactions to BvS affect the making of Wonder Woman? Its like BvS isn’t just a film anymore- maybe it was never ‘just’ a film, and thats the root of all its issues.

So anyway, here’s my take, for what it’s worth.

bvs21) Ben Affleck. The best Batman ever? I really think he might be. His haunted Bruce Wayne is borderline psychotic and he absolutely nails the Batman. He looks pretty definitive in my book with a huge physical presence. He just deserved a better film. No, he deserved his own movie.  Which leads me to-

2) There’s much more Dark Knight Returns in BvS than I had expected. I have two differing thoughts on this. On the one hand, had Synder really wanted to just make Dark Knight Returns then maybe he just should have, and dropped all the Man of Steel tie-in stuff altogether (and certainly all that Justice League worldbuilding too). On the other hand, there’s more to the Batman than Frank bloody Miller, and it’s past time film-makers managed to shake the curse/weight/inspiration/shadow of DKR from the character. It shaped/handicapped the Chris Nolan trilogy and clearly inspired so much of BvS but surely its done now. Besides, DKR isn’t even canon. DC has always said it exists in some alternate universe away from the ‘proper’ character.

(There’s even a very fine animated movie of DKR that does the story well so a live-action version is surely already redundant but… I have the horrible feeling that, even with so much of it featuring in BvS, we will one day see a ‘proper’ live-action complete film version of DKR someday in the future. Maybe it’ll be ten, twenty, even thirty years from now, whenever it happens, it’ll happen. They just can’t leave the bloody thing alone).

3) Henry Cavill is awfully bland. I don’t blame Cavill for this, I’ve seen him much better in other stuff- in his defense, its the depiction of Superman in these films that is still pretty bland and boring. He was ill-served by Man of Steel and is just as ill-served here, maybe more so. Zack Snyder seems to have confused Superman with his Watchmen film’s Dr Manhattan. Superman is not Dr Manhattan- someone should tell Snyder that. But BvS continues to ask the same questions as MoS and it’s getting just as mired in them; we don’t trust our leaders, as they evidently prove corruptible and weak, so if there was a Superman, how could we trust him?  It’s pointless really because after two films it still doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. One thing I was curious of- there is plenty of questions in BvS about Superman, but all the public/police/politicians etc seem okay with that Batdude terrorising Gotham. What gives?

3). BvS is a much better film than Man of Steel, and yet Snyder still makes some of the same mistakes. Snyder seems to confuse drama with noise, visual as well as aural. Man of Steel did not need to blight MOS’ Kryptonian prologue with a huge sky battle/CGI shitfest. It did not add any gravitas or drama to it. Neither did it need the Planet-killer sequence or Metropolis laid waste. Battering audiences over the head with cartoon CGI theatrics does not add dramatic involvement or excitement. MoS would have been more interesting had it just comprised of Henry Cavill’s Clark Kent  wandering the planet trying to find his place in the world and hiding his powers while helping save people. It could have left donning the Superman suit until the end, made it the film’s climax. BvS addresses some of the fundamental excess of MOS’ ill-thought Metropolis battle in a novel way by forming its plot around its aftermath and justification, and yet forgets its own lessons by falling back into another CGI shitfest in the battle with Doomsday. Its almost boring. No, it is boring. Context is thrown out of the window with CGI characters and CGI explosions and… yawn.

bvs3 4) About boring- too many heroes equals too much CGI nonsense and it’s just too bloody boring for words. The most dramatic moments in the entire series of Star Wars films are those between Luke and Vader in TESB. Two combatants in a fight that is dramatic and involving and personal and weighted by a sense of reality. You don’t have Luke jumping across huge chasms or Vader firing lightning from his fingers. Just two dudes sword fighting with laser swords (the laser swords is conceit enough, the drama is in the conflict, the opposing characters and their ideologies).

Each successive superhero film seems to be throwing ever-bigger odds against an increasing roster of protagonists and, well, Age of Ultron was boring as shit. That whole finale with hundreds of little Ultrons attacking our band of merry superhumans in slo-mo was utterly boring.  Its the big danger facing superhero films today- they are getting too big, becoming too much like video-games. Future Justice League films seem hellbent on continuing this trend. Each of these films seem to think bigger is better and the idea of Snyder having a roster of several heroes battling some bad guy even bigger than Doomsday fills me with dread, frankly. But I do worry how far this genre can go before making things utterly abstract and the stakes utterly redundant.

5) Oh thats quite a bloody ’nuff about BvS. Two thousand words and I haven’t mentioned Supes meeting the ghost of his dad on a mountain for a chat about causality. Here’s hoping that the Ultimate Cut fixes everything. And maybe that somebody somewhere in Hollywood starts to exercise some kind of restraint with these superhero movies eventually.

 

 

Pacific Rim (2013)

pacificIt seems rather pointless bringing up anything remotely negative about Guillermo del Toro’s cinematic love-letter to geeks of all ages. The fact that it has some of the most banal dialogue seen since George Lucas reached for his typewriter to pound out those prequels seems almost besides the point. Pacific Rim doesn’t care about corny dialogue or average acting; its all about the enormous action set-pieces, the huge explosions, the frankly colossal mechs/robots and the bigger-than-skyscrapers monsters. Its utterly bonkers, a pure comic-book movie in its bold colours, its simple plot, its one-dimensional characters… to moan about all that seems to be missing the point. You are not meant to study the scripts for films such as this; Guillermo wasn’t trying to create art here (although many of the images are breathtaking). He was making a movie for the geeks, aimed straight at their King Kong-loving, Godzilla-loving hearts.

Its also likely the nearest thing we’ll ever see to a Neon Genesis Evangelion live-action movie.  Some of the shots of the mechs look like they are straight out of that anime- I’m sure much of it is intentional.  Indeed geeks everywhere can no doubt play a game naming references/nods to all manner of genre material. Commander Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) is so much like Akira‘s Colonel Shikishima in dress, mannerisms etc its like he’s stepped out of a live-action Akira movie by mistake, as if he turned left instead of right on leaving his dressing-room and blundered onto the wrong set. There are the obvious homages to Godzilla sprinkled throughout the movie, so many we surely don’t need another ‘genuine’ Godzilla movie.

It is a great fun movie, and I’d love to see where a sequel might go. If you can switch off your brain and relax, let its dumbness wash over you and succumb to the hypnotic jaw-dropping visuals you are in for a treat. Its certainly superior to any of the Transformers movies. My only reservation, is how many times can we see cities being demolished in huge cgi-action spectacles (Avengers, Transformers 3, Star Trek Into Darkness, Man of Steel…) before we are so jaded by it that it becomes, dare I say it, boring? Because in all of these movies, while the destruction is vast, the dramatic, emphatic involvement in what we are seeing is pretty much zero as it is. Man of Steel‘s Metropolis is pretty much wiped off the map with thousands maimed, crushed, burnt, killed, and yet its all a cartoon, not mattering a jot.  Much the same can be said of the citizens of Sydney and Hong Kong and other decimated locations glimpsed in news reports during Pacific Rim. I know I’m missing the point. This isn’t that kind of movie. But with all this mad destruction in these movies aren’t we in danger of becoming so inured to the depiction of such violence and destruction that it doesn’t matter? Is all this comicbook nonsense reaching such a saturation point that it damages any impact of realistic/down-to-earth violence in movies? How much bigger/louder can Hollywood go with these comicbook movies anyway? After destroying cities becomes the norm, what next? 

Zod! The Magic of the Movies!

Yesterday I watched part of the bonus disc packaged with the Man of Steel * Blu-ray issued in America. Its a huge three-hour presentation of the movie with added interviews, behind the scenes shots, production art, etc displayed alongside or in place of the actual movie as it runs (its actually half-hour longer than the movie). Its mightily impressive, I just wish it accompanied a better movie… but anyway, I digress. So I was watching, oh, the first twenty minutes, and yes, its lots and lots of green screen. Early on there’s the scene where General Zod and his dastardly cohorts blast their way into the Krypton Council Chamber (or whatever it is), and the actor who plays Zod, Michael Shannon pops up in a sub-window and talks a little about playing Zod, while another pop-up window alongside shows the scene playing in-movie being shot. And he’s being filmed wearing a motion-capture suit. Shannon admits he found it odd playing this big mean villain whilst wearing something that looks like PJs crossed with a leotard. But I’m just watching this all gob-smacked. That big armoured suit he wears pretty much throughout the movie was cg?

General_Zod_Man_of_SteelA few things immediately sprung to mind. Firstly, wow, that’s mighty impressive from a technological standpoint. I’d watched the film at the cinema and would have never guessed that the suit wasn’t real, aint those fx boys clever? Second, that’s a hell of a way of blowing/wasting  a big budget. I mean, wouldn’t a real-life (albeit maybe toned-down) costume have sufficed? I dare say all those fx shots for that suit of armour alone would have funded any number of Dredd sequels, for a start.

The thought struck me that these ‘blockbusters’ are getting so huge and bloated with unnecessary waste. Its not as if spending a fortune on cg armour/costumes made the film any better, is it? Little wonder so much of the latter portions of the film struck me as looking like a cg cartoon, there’s more cg there than I thought. Sure, its impressive, I suppose, but good grief, these films need some restraint, not an excuse to blow more money on needless fx shots. Doesn’t anybody say, hey guys, I know we can do that, but do we NEED to do that?

"This movie's stupid!"
“Zod! This movie’s stupid!”

I haven’t seen anymore of that bonus disc yet. I’m almost afraid to. These days I can’t watch BBC News 24 without venting my ire at the screen for Auntie Beeb wasting tax-payers money sending journos to every slightest ‘event’ (hey, a member of the Royal Family has stubbed his/her toe, rush a filmcrew to the Palace and camp it there for live updates every fifteen minutes for 24 hours), without me now losing it watching movies. At least the Blu-ray of  Star Trek Into Darkness  didn’t add insult to injury by having a similar ‘How We Blew Millions’ feature (although I think its available as a download on iTunes).

*And before you mention it, yes, I need my head examining buying this movie. But I was keen on seeing the making-of/Maximum Stupid Movie Mode thing and its only on the US copy. And besides, it simply has to be better than the monstrously stupid-sounding  Batman vs Superman thing that’s going to follow this. Hollywood seems hellbent on making its films look good by making something even crappier straight after.

(oh, and I’ve decided I’m going to use this accompanying picture of Ben watching the telly with the ‘Zod… ‘ caption every time I watch a really stupid movie. )

 

 

Man of Steel (2013)

mos1Spoilers ahoy folks….

They just don’t know when to stop. Good grief, the amount of cgi in this film, all the huge explosions and collapsing buildings and all manner of fireworks and bang-for-your-buck effects. I trust Man of Steel 2 will be set in a desolate post-apocalypse Metropolis, as most of the city and its inhabitants must have perished in all the chaos of the grand finale. It’ll take decades to rebuild that city. The irony of Superman reluctantly killing General Zod, in order to stop Zod killing an innocent family, when we had surely seen thousands die in the wake of the great battle beforehand, almost made me giggle.

But there’s no room for logic or common-sense here. I could see where we were going early in- indeed, ten minutes in with Russell Crowe’s Jor-El riding on a giant flying insect dodging exploding spaceships/buildings/laser blasts etc, I knew the film was in trouble, as it so quickly veered into the insane cgi excess of George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels. It looked like a cartoon, and all the sincerity of Crowe’s live-action performance on-set couldn’t foster any empathy for the cgi version of him darting through Krypton’s chaotic battle-strewn skies. Will film-makers never learn that beyond the spectacular visuals there is all the emotional power of a car-wash or a kettle boiling in stuff like this? The last 45 minutes of Man of Steel was visually amazing but boring as hell. I’ve never been so bored watching a film prove a man can fly. Matrix Revolutions did all the super-hero fight/flight stuff years ago, and we’ve seen cgi cities fall in Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon and The Avengers. Its been done. We’ve seen it. Film-makers need to find ways of bringing back old-school stuff like drama, emotion and character into these videogame snore-fests.  I’ve honestly never been so bored by a blockbuster movie, and it shocked me, as I thought that title had been confidently snatched by Star Trek into Darkness. Looking at the trailer for The Lone Ranger that ran before Man of Steel, it seems that we are in for another example of mad cgi excess there too. Well count me out.

Personally, I think its evident Warner Bros and the production team simply tried too hard to respond to criticisms of Superman Returns, a film I enjoyed and actually feel is a better film than Man of Steel. I may be in the minority with that but the hell with it. Superman Returns had better acting, better depth, characterisation, an emotional core. It didn’t bore me- indeed it involved me emotionally. I loved its nods to Superman: The Movie and Christopher Reeve, its respect for both that film and the character. Man of Steel? Well, Superman is no Dark Knight, so ‘gifting’ Superman all that Batman angst was the wrong way to go for a start, and with that, and the over-reliance on visual effects, well, it was a recipe for disaster. So, thoroughly disappointed by Man of Steel.  And the less said about Hans Zimmer’s Wall Of Sound/Soundscape Of Noise score the better.

In my opinion, in order of quality, Superman: The Movie is the best Superman film, followed by Superman 2, Superman Returns (those three forming a great trilogy) and then Man of Steel (and even then only because Superman 3 & 4 are truly awful films).

I’ll end this now with one last observation- John Carter was a far, far better movie. Yep, I’ve said it. Its light-years beyond Man of Steel in story, direction, acting, visuals, music- you name it, John Carter did it better.  But as far as box office is concerned, quality is no sure-fire road to success it seems, as John Carter ‘flopped’ and Man of Steel is surely headed towards a billion dollars. Its enough to make me weep…