Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Revisiting BATMAN BEGINS And Ends

Shared in various internet forums, my article on "Comic Book Movies & What Ails 'Em" drew a variety of responses. One item of marginal significance to the overall piece that nevertheless persistently elicited a strong reaction was my identification of BATMAN BEGINS as one of the stinkers in the current comic movie boom. This wasn't any surprise, of course. The cult of the Christopher Nolan bat-flicks has always been strong, and I've been the subject of its criticism ever since I first suggested that the original film is significantly less than the greatest thing since sliced bread and that its director doesn't walk on water. Every time I've ever raised the issue, I've gotten pushback, and looking over it now, my original article on BATMAN BEGINS is rather sketchy, more like a series of impressions of the film assembled immediately after having watched it the first time. I've seen it again since then. The subsequent viewing only hardened my initial impression of it--I think I was originally too kind to it. I've also seen most of the third Nolan bat-flick, which is even worse than BEGINS.[1] The reaction to the comic movie article seems an opportune moment to revisit and expand upon my original evaluation.

Adam West's uber-campy '60s television Batman casts a very long shadow over both the character and comic-based productions in general. Its popularity catapulted it from an amusingly stupid diversion to a thing that, in far too many quarters, defined a screen adaptation of a comic book as some cheap, way-over-the-top, insultingly stupid piece of shit that was not to be treated seriously as drama or, indeed, regarded as anything more than dumb, shallow, entirely disposable fun for those who find such things fun--a coffin-shaped box for the genre. Even the appearance, years later, of quality items like SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE and the INCREDIBLE HULK tv series couldn't exorcise this particular demon, which stood as an obstacle to quality comic adaptations--to comic adaptations, period--for decades, and, in fact, continues to haunt them to this day.

The Batman was particularly haunted by it. Tim Burton's BATMAN (1989), which was based on the original Golden Age comics, was very good, still the definitive live-action treatment of the character, but the franchise it touched off immediately collapsed into full-blown, full groan Adam West-ism with BATMAN RETURNS and never looked back. Every entry went further in this direction than the last, every entry was far worse than the last. I've always believed a lot of the accolades poured over BATMAN BEGINS were a consequence of its moving away from this. It didn't quite move as far from it as its fans pretend, though.

Conceptually speaking, Marvel's major characters have always been much stronger than those of DC Comics. The Batman is the exception. As a child, Bruce Wayne sees his parents gunned down by a mugger in a bad section of town and from that moment forward dedicates his life to an endless crusade against crime. He is the avatar of vengeance--crime had created what would become its greatest scourge. His years to adulthood are spent singlemindedly honing his mind and body to the task. To strike fear into his enemies, he becomes a bat, and the bat, rather than Bruce Wayne, is his true identity. With the fortune inherited from his parents, he launches his private war. From here, his tale takes a new turn. Over the years, he encounters an entire rogue's gallery of villains who are like twisted reflections of himself, also obsessively devoted to making over the world in their own image. The question is raised as to how much their appearances are a consequence of his own. It's simple and brilliant; a powerful modern myth and a goldmine for any storyteller.[2]

And, of course, BATMAN BEGINS pretty much abandons all of it. The film is as entirely uninterested in and unengaged with the source material as was the later (and also dreadful) MAN OF STEEL. BEGINS was released after the first two SPIDER-MAN films had become successful, and it tried to ape those pictures by making Bruce himself somewhat responsible for his parents' death and having him blame himself, rather than the criminal element. Instead of dedicating his life to a crusade, Bruce seems to entirely waste his youth. He's directionless, overly emotional, and goofs off enough to be kicked out of half a dozen colleges. In the comics, the murderer of his parents was unknown until years into his crusade as the Batman, which was a significant part of the myth--the murderer's anonymity meant that crime, rather than just a man, had killed them. In BEGINS, the killer--a hood named Joe Chill--is apprehended immediately after the murder and sent to prison. He's killed in a mob hit when Bruce is 23, at a time before Bruce has even started down the path that will lead him to becoming the Batman. The film's central character is entirely severed from his origin myth by that point--it's a completely different story about a completely different character, not the Batman. For five years, Bruce takes to wandering around the world, lost and without purpose, studying crime and "fear" for reasons he, himself, says he doesn't even understand. In my original piece, I wrote that the babbling about "fear" never comes across as overly pretentious; upon rewatch, I feel as if I understated the pretension factor, but my real objection to it, then as now, was that it's used to fill the vacuum created by abandoning the character's backstory. If one can come up with something better, one can sort of justify this kind of thing. The creators of BEGINS couldn't come up with anything better--they just abandoned the story of the Batman and threw out a cloud of pretentious squid's ink to try to cover that fact. The result is a new "Batman" with no core, lost in a production as unfocused as the character.

In the film, the nomadic Bruce is eventually recruited into the League of Shadows, a secret society of ninja with a hazy anti-city ideology headed by the mysterious Ra's Al Ghul. He spends two years in extremely rigorous training with the League without, apparently, ever even bothering to ask what the League is all about. His time with it abruptly ends when the man he takes to be Ra's Al Ghul looks him in the face and says the order's goal is to "destroy" Gotham and other cities. The reason offered is that cities are "corrupt," which is, of course, no real motive at all. The real reason is because those in the League are the designated villains in the film and designated villains need something villainous to do, whether it makes any sense or not. Delivered deadpan, this big "reveal"--if it can be called that--is the sort of thing one immediately expects to be followed by one of the dramatic "shock" music cues from the old Adam West Batman. Upon first watch, I laughed and shook my head in utter disbelief that the film had gone in this direction. It didn't improve upon rewatch.

As with a lot of old films of camp value, BEGINS wasn't in on the joke--it presented that moment as something we're supposed to take entirely seriously. In explaining the film before its release, Nolan was ever so serious and how ever so serious his movie was to be. From Variety (8 Feb., 2004):

"Batman will be more realistic and less cartoonish. There are no campy villains... Humanity and realism, says Nolan, is the crux of the new pic. 'The world of Batman is that of grounded reality,' he says... 'Ours will be a recognizable, contemporary reality against which an extraordinary heroic figure arises.'"

This sentiment was dutifully picked up and parroted by many reviewers (which can't help but make one wonder if they ever even saw the picture). Holding to this as a goal is another way in which Nolan's project was fundamentally misguided, and had the director rigorously pursued that path, one could legitimately say it was yet another way in which the film is fundamentally at odds with the source material. The Batman is a blatantly romantic fantasy awash in heaping helpings of glorious expressionism. What Nolan actually did, though, was, as I noted in my original review, try to paste together two diametrically opposed strains of story, great and solidly grounded Batman material like Frank Miller's "Batman: Year One" and the sort of shallow, overcooked, and silly kid's stuff one got from DC comics--and Adam West Batman--decades ago. The two destroy one another; every element of the latter in the film is ludicrous, yet it's treated with the same humorless gravity as the rest of the story.

"Year One" had presented a dark and utterly corrupt Gotham. Throughout, there was the theme that this was a town that badly needed a Batman. BEGINS taps into that again and again. After leaving the League, Bruce doesn't really have any reason for becoming the Batman. Rather than following an urgent psychological need to wage a war on crime after a lifetime spent preparing for it, BEGINS' Bruce takes up the fight idealistically, simply deciding Gotham needs him. That this radical change renders extraneous and irrelevant everything leading up to that point never seemed to occur to the filmmakers. Following "Year One" and "The Long Halloween" (another tale of the early Batman), the film sets up Carmine "The Roman" Falcone as Gotham's biggest crime boss, a guy with a massive criminal empire, with his fingers in every crooked pie and protected on all sides by corrupt officialdom. Invincible to everyone but a costumed vigilante who doesn't play by the rules. Unfortunately, having spent a lot of time setting up Falcone in this way, the film immediately disposes of him. The Batman roughs up some thugs (in an exceptionally poorly directed action sequence),[3] chains up Falcone, hands over to officialdom some evidence that wouldn't be admissible in any court in the U.S., and that's the end of the Roman. It takes only a few minutes of screentime. So much for Gotham's profound corruption and its need for a Batman.

This, of course, entirely discredits what little motive there was behind the big villain plot, to which the film then returns. Gotham was said to be irretrievably corrupt, yet the Batman decimates its central crime figure with near-effortless ease. As that central villain plot plays out, it proves to be an incredibly elaborate, impossible, completely ridiculous motive-free scheme--a meaner, more dour version of the sorts of things the giggling no-goodniks of the Adam West Batman used to do twice a week.

Ra's Al Ghul's plan to "destroy" Gotham is to fill the city's water supply with a chemical that, whenever vaporized, drives people insane and makes them kill one another. He isn't introducing it by poisoning the reservoirs; he's having it poured from drums into a pipe leading into the city. No, that's not a joke. Not an intentional one, that is. His henchmen have been pouring it in for weeks. To note the obvious, water in such a system doesn't sit in a pipe; it's constantly rushing into the city in the way we're shown because it's being used. New York, the comic model for Gotham, uses a billion gallons of water a day. Even if some idiot could introduce enough of a chemical into the system in this way to matter--and he couldn't--everyone who has a hot shower or who boils water should have been going insane for weeks. To activate the chemical, which has magically stayed in the lines all that time, the villains have stolen a microwave device that, when placed on a hijacked train, will, we're told, vaporize the city's entire water supply. No one apparently informed BEGINS' creators what makes up most of the human body. No one apparently informed Ra's Al Ghul that the easiest way to destroy a city would be to simply set off a big bomb or a few big bombs.

BEGINS, like so many other comic adaptations, suffers from epic-itis. The Batman has been through as many versions and permutations as any character in comics, but while in various forms, he's certainly tackled his share of population-threatening menaces, his finest moments tend to come as a street-level crimefighter. It's hardwired into the character by virtue of his origin, and reinforced by most of his rogue's gallery. In that respect--as in so many other respects--the BEGINS project was fundamentally at odds with the nature of the character. The Batman isn't just some ninja. He's a scientist, a criminologist, a master detective, among the many core facets of the character entirely excluded from BEGINS. To the others in his world, he's a very mysterious figure, which is impossible to portray on film if, as happens with BEGINS, we're constantly following his every move, in on his every trick. And for all the talk of "fear" in BEGINS, we're never allowed any sense that the criminal underworld ever develops any real fear of him, the point of his becoming a bat in the first place.[4]

As a Batman film, BEGINS is an utter failure. As a standalone film, it's insultingly idiotic. Like the event that makes up its climax, it's a train-wreck. Like MAN OF STEEL, it's a film whose creators had no real interest in the character or his world and who didn't show the material any respect. And like train-wrecks, MAN OF STEEL and most adaptations-in-name-only, it sucks.

--j.

---

[1] I still haven't seen THE DARK KNIGHT, the most hyped film of the run. The first film left me with no desire to see it, and the third did absolutely nothing to spur my interest either.

[2] It must be said that DC Comics, the Batman's owners, have often been terrible stewards of this myth. In the Batman's earliest days, he was entirely unconcerned with preserving the lives of the scum with which he tangled. As his primary readers were children, DC editorially imposed a mandate that the character wouldn't kill anyone anymore (the same as happened with Superman). Initially, this was carried out by simply not putting the character in a position where such a thing was necessary. Later writers, unfortunately, grafted the no-killing parameter on to the personality of the character itself, which simply can't be done in any logical manner. Worse, they made the Batman very self-righteous about this, then made a regular practice of rubbing readers' noses in it in such a way as to make a joke of the character. Several years ago, there was a story in "Action Comics" (#719, "Hazard's Choice") about the Joker poisoning Lois Lane. She's dying. Superman and Batman go to see the Joker and ask how they can save her and he tells them that they can inject him with a chemical that will mix with one already in his blood and provide an antidote. The rub? Injecting him will kill him. Back in the good ol' days of the early Golden Age, the only question that would arise next is whether the two of them would have injected the Joker before they killed him. The meek, pathetic characters DC has made of them, though, won't even consider it--they simply slink away, returning to Metropolis to watch Lois (Superman's wife at the time) slowly die while mouthing self-righteous platitudes. The writer then chose a cop-out ending wherein the Joker's joke was that the poison wouldn't kill Lois after all, but even that helps make the point. Characters who think that decision amounts to a "moral" one are pathetic and useless, and bereft of any real sense of morality.

A Batman who, when placed in such situations, becomes a principled advocate of the health-and-safety-at-all-costs of mass-murdering animals like the Joker and self-righteously denounces anyone who doesn't share his enthusiasm for their continued-existence-at-all-costs--and this happens all the time in the books--is violating one of the most basic rules of the archetype. Given the circumstances of his creation, it's literally impossible to imagine the Batman making the argument that the lives of Thomas and Martha Wayne (his parents) are no more valuable than that of the thug who shot them down in cold blood. If he really believed that, he wouldn't be the Batman. Yet that's exactly the argument his writers routinely have him make.

[3] All of the action sequences in the film are poorly shot.

[4] Underscoring the terribly unfocused nature of the production, the film, as noted, spends a great deal of time on the theme of "fear," includes the Scarecrow, a villain primarily associated with fear, then does basically nothing with him. He's given almost no screentime and no opportunity to do much of anything.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Comic Book Movies & What Ails 'Em

For comic books fans, the last 16 years have been a pretty plum time for screen adaptations of our beloved sequential artfom. There have been comic book movies almost as long as there had been comics but it was the success of BLADE in 1998 that established comic movies as a major A-list genre, one that shows no sign of fading away in the near future. Since then, we've gotten a few great movies (HULK, X2, THE AVENGERS, SIN CITY, WATCHMEN, etc.), quite a few good ones (SPIDER-MAN, THOR, X-MEN, IRON MAN, PUNISHER: WAR ZONE, etc.), and a whole pen of turkeys (V FOR VENDETTA, DAREDEVIL, CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER, BATMAN BEGINS, MAN OF STEEL, SPIDER-MAN 2, etc.).[1] That's pretty much the pattern with any other genre, but comic adaptations have so far managed a better record than most. Sturgeon's Law says "90% of everything is crap," and I only depart from it in thinking the number closer to 99%, but the comic pictures have somewhat bucked this trend.. The crap probably still dominates, pound-for-pound, but the good-to-great stuff occupies a much larger percentage of the whole, which is remarkable in itself and positively extraordinary when one considers that most of these films are huge-budget Hollywood tentpole features (a category that, these days, generates almost nothing but crap). Even if I wasn't a lifelong comics fan, the significantly better-than-usual success rate of these pictures would make them something I'd want to see continued.

There are still some things missing from this boom, though. Pretty noticeable things. Things I would argue this genre needs if its going to survive and thrive. I've been rattling on about them in various forums for years now, haranguing friends, spinning out posts on internet message boards, etc. And for all the years, they're still missing from the films.

The first big omission, one I'm far from alone in noticing, is the women. Lady superheroes, or even lady supervillains. They aren't entirely missing in action. They feature in the team movies, but they're often barely even a presence. Storm in the X-Men films is probably the most glaring example. In the comics, Storm--Ororo Munroe--is an excellent, well-drawn character. She's a Kenyan princess, the daughter of a witch priestess and an American journalist. Her parents were killed in a bombing when she was very young, and, buried alive in the resulting rubble herself, she became terribly claustrophobic, a condition that plagues her for the rest of her life. She becomes a child thief in Cairo and when her mutant powers manifest at puberty, she uses them to set herself up as a goddess among an isolated native tribe in the Serengeti, which is what she's doing when Charles Xavier recruits her for the X-Men. She could carry a film or even a series of films by herself. In the X-Men movies, all of that is stripped away and she's barely even given any lines. A viewer who only knew her from her screen representation wouldn't know much more about her than her physical appearance (in the films).

Given the volume of comic movies we've seen since BLADE, the lack of big, prestige comic pictures with women as the principal stars is astonishing. To date, there have been only two: ELEKTRA and CATWOMAN. The first, spun off from the awful DAREDEVIL film, was almost unwatchable. The second had some good ideas, the right star, and wasn't as bad as its reputation suggests,[2] but it certainly wasn't a very good movie.

A particularly dark gaze of disapproval must fall upon DC (Warner Bros) in this matter, as it holds the rights to the best-known, most iconic lady superhero ever created. Wonder Woman is a princess of the Amazons of Greek myth, a tribe that, in the comic telling, was once enslaved then, when freed, retired from the world of men to immortal lives on a mystical island. Wonder Woman--Diana--was created from a clay effigy of a baby crafted by her mother Queen Hippolyta and given life via supernatural means. She grows up to become a powerful warrioress and eventually a kind of ambassador to the outside world, dedicated to combating injustice.[3] The character has been revamped several times since, with both good and bad results. Any potential film project has a rich vein of mythology 70 years deep from which to draw. A WW feature was announced a few years ago then fell through. A new WW television series made it as far as the pilot stage in 2011 then was rejected. The CW tinkered with the idea of a new series as well, a sort of prequel called AMAZON, then, in January, dropped it. Israeli model Gal Gadot has just been announced as the new screen Wonder Woman.[4] She isn't going to star in a WW movie, though. Rather, she's been relegated to a guest appearance in the upcoming MAN OF STEEL sequel pitting Superman against Batman, a project each new piece of information suggests has as its goal becoming the world-champion turkey of the comic movie canon.[5] The lack of a Wonder Woman movie so far into this boom is an absolute scandal, one that shows no sign of being redressed in the near future.[6]

The list of supergals who would translate well to the screen is quite lengthy. Everyone has their favorite picks. Marvel has already established the Black Widow in their cinematic universe, and, essayed by the most excellent Scarlett Johansson (who can certainly carry a picture), she seems an obvious choice. Dazzler, a mutant whose body converts sound into energy; is arguably better suited to the screen than to the page. The villainess turned sort-of heroine Emma Frost appeared, while still villainous, in X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, but, as usual, was barely even a presence. She would be a great subject for screen treatment. Supergirl is a young, petite girl who battles overwhelming forces of evil--what's not to love? She was used to often good effect in SMALLVILLE; I definitely want to see her return to the big screen in a film that does her justice. I've long thought a Tigra flick would be a worthy project for the right filmmaker. That seems, at first blush, a
somewhat odd choice, but when it comes to great, endlessly quirky movie material Tigra has everything. It’s a Jekyll-and-Hyde story, it has magic and super-science, a banished race, an ancient legend, odd sexual fetishism (when it comes to her dealings with Kraven the Hunter, who would almost have to play the villain of the piece)--a great, conflicted character who was a superhero cat (The Cat) before she ever became a superhero cat-woman. For a project willing to veer a bit off the beaten track, she's a goldmine. And, of course, the big one in Marvel's stable--or at least the big one as far as I'm concerned--is the She-Hulk. Jennifer Walters, the shy and reserved cousin of Bruce Banner--the Hulk--is gunned down by vengeful mobsters and to save her, Banner must transfuse her with his own gamma-irradiated blood, a process that eventually transforms her into a big, green Amazon with super-strength. Unlike her cousin, though, she doesn't become a raging brute. She retains her full faculties in her Hulk form and her real transformation, it turns out, is more personal than physical. Becoming the She-Hulk makes her shed her shyness and gain confidence in herself. A lawyer, she comes to love being a superhero on the side, and to prefer the She-Hulk to her own form. Being a Marvel character, of course, she's far from perfect. Those old insecurities can creep back in, her life can become quite complicated, and she doesn't always make the best decisions when trying to sort it all out. Her writers have given her a great deal of depth over the years--she's probably the best-realized, most human superheroine in the Marvel stable, a great, great character who is long overdue for feature treatment.[7]

Shulkie became a subject of some controversy earlier this month. David Goyer appeared, with a few other screenwriters, on a podcast called Scriptnotes. At one point, the discussion turned to the She-Hulk and got pretty ugly. Host Craig Mazin said "the real name for She-Hulk was Slut-Hulk. That was the whole point. Let’s just make this green chick with enormous boobs." Goyer joined in, among other things calling the character "a giant, green porn star" who was created to sexually service the Hulk. The response from Stan Lee, comics' Allfather and She-Hulk co-creator, was swift and to the point: "Only a nut would even think of that." Alyssa Rosenberg, writing in the Washington Post, more extensively unloads on Goyer in a piece that mostly hits the mark. Goyer's comments could just be dismissed as juvenile dumbassery (which is what they are), but it's also rather telling that, prompted to randomly bullshit over a subject about which he clearly knows nothing and to which he's given no real thought at all, this is what comes out of him. And Goyer is the fellow who is going to be writing the new screen incarnation of Wonder Woman.

It was heartening to see the furious reaction to this incident on the internet--pretty much outrage all the way around. It must be acknowledged that, in the overly Puritanical U.S., bringing any lady superhero to the screen involves (or can be seen as involving) navigating a sort of minefield of sexual politics. If a superheroine is sexy or shows any hint of libidinous impulses, there's an unfortunate tendency in some quarters to find this exploitative and unacceptable and in others to find the character slutty and unadmirable. Either attitude is pretty much indifferent to superheroes as a fantasy of superbeings who are still recognizably human, and neither seriously engages with it. One stems from unvarnished sex-is-bad Puritanism, the other from a range of other concerns having to do with the portrayal of women in a distorted, inappropriate or negative way, the reduction of women to commodified sexual objects, a media culture that presents only such women as models, and so on. And there's a lot of crossover between the two.[8] The She-Hulk is a character that definitely brings all of this to a head. In addition to everything else, she's also sexy and she knows it, and, as Rosenberg writes, "a swashbuckling heart-breaker." If someone portrayed her as some "brain-dead courtesan" (also Rosenberg), there would be outrage,[9] and when Goyer and Bazin go Beavis-and-Butthead on her, there is outrage. There are still knuckle-draggers and Puritan tight-asses in the world, but most people usually come to the right conclusions on such matters.

An obstacle in getting the ladies to the screen in feature roles is no doubt the perception that they fail at the box-office, but, to point out the obvious, they've never really been given anything remotely approximating a fair chance. The very few efforts there have been in the past bombed because they weren't any good. I've made getting comic-book-style supergirls to the screen a sort of mission within my own film work, but my micro-budgeted productions are certainly no solution to this vacuum. They do, however, point in a possibly useful direction and provide a segue to the other missing ingredient in the current superhero boom.

Behind the comic adaptations, there is, unfortunately, an increasingly entrenched tentpole mentality at work. Everything has to be some huger-than-huge, mile-a-minute effects-laden epic with the fate of the world resting on the outcome, and each new picture has to top the last one on this score. And we need the huge-scale epics, to be sure, but they need to be supplemented with smaller projects that give the characters room to live and breath. The ability to tell such tales in the comics and develop the characters at length is what has made them survive and thrive over the years. When an epic tale came along, readers had a good understanding of the characters and it gave the story more meaning and greater impact.

On the other hand, the focus only on huge epics in the cinematic adaptations does real violence to the source material. Le Beau and partner-in-blog Daffy Stardust recently began a regular podcast over at Le Blog, and their second, which deals with comic-book movies, involves a relevant discussion of CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER. As they (Daffy, primarily) note, Cap, in the comics, blamed himself for the death of his sidekick Bucky during the war. It was a psychological scar that gnawed at him for years, constantly showing up in the background. When it turned out Bucky was still alive, that long history gave the revelation a real impact. The movie comes in the midst of a series of films that have done absolutely nothing to establish that Cap feels any guilt over Bucky's death, and in trying to cut that corner in the service of scale, sacrifices that impact. A smaller Cap project, tucked between THE FIRST AVENGER and AVENGERS or between AVENGERS and WINTER SOLDIER, could have been used to lay the necessary groundwork (it wouldn't have hurt to delay tackling the Winter Soldier story until later, either). In the pages of "Iron Man," the conflict between Obadiah Stane and Tony Stark was an elaborate tale full of twists and turns that went on for about two years and involved Stane ruining Stark and taking over his company while Stark gives up his Iron Man identity and ends up reduced to an alcoholic shell of his former self. He has to put himself back together from almost nothing and confront Stane in what becomes an epic duel to the death. The first IRON MAN feature, while good, wouldn't even qualify as a Cliff's Notes representation. One of the worst examples of this sort of harm is the handling of George Stacy from THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN. In the comic version, Peter Parker becomes paranoid that Stacy, a police captain and the father of Peter's girlfriend Gwen, is starting to suspect he's Spider-Man. Over time, Stacy even drops hints to that effect. It goes on like this for a while then, one day, Spider-Man is battling Dr. Octopus atop a building and a big section of brickwork is knocked loose and falls to earth. Stacy, on the scene below, charges in and rescues a child from the falling debris, but he's crushed beneath it. Spider-Man swoops down, pulls him out of it and tries to get him to a hospital. It plays out like this:

As with all the rest, the moment is dependent upon all that preceded it. In the movie version, it's all just thrown away. Stacy is a rather unlikeable Dennis Leary who, only appearing in parts of one film, never develops any real history with Peter, unmasks Peter then, as he's dying, extracts from Peter a promise to stay away from his daughter. Not only do the filmmakers sacrifice what could have been a powerful moment, they have Stacy use his dying words to be a prick.

Spider-Man is ill-suited to epic-ism in general. He's primarily a street-level character. He doesn't often face potentially earth-shattering threats. His bread-and-butter involves dealing with much more down-to-earth problems. His rogue's gallery is mostly made up of street criminals who have gained extraordinary powers--Electro, Mysterio, the Vulture, the Kingpin, the Sandman, Shocker, the Enforcers (who I'd love to see on film). The same is true of the Batman. It's especially the case with Daredevil, whose finest moments usually involve entirely mortal adversaries. Among the legion of things the 2003 DAREDEVIL film got terribly wrong was the decision by the studio suits, in the aftermath of SPIDER-MAN's mega-success, to turn it into a huge-scale, effects-laden blockbuster picture--totally out of character for the material. Daredevil is film noir. Daredevil is crime-stories full of bad luck and savage ironies told in smoke-filled rooms with light filtering in from outside through venetian blinds. It's THE USUAL SUSPECTS and CHINATOWN and ROMEO IS BLEEDING and DRIVE. You don't need $78 million in bad wirework and CGI to do Daredevil. You find a Jet Li and put him in a red suit.

One could, in fact, theoretically do a great Daredevil movie in which Matt Murdock never even puts on that red suit. One of my favorite DD stories is "Badlands" from "Daredevil" #219. It's a sort of modernized HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER in which Murdock, dressed just like Brando in THE WILD ONE, wanders into a dingy little town in New Jersey, rights a wrong that had been done in the past, then leaves. Not only does he never don the uniform, he never even says a word. He's never identified as anything other than some drifter. That's not, by itself, a feature, but it has the right spirit.

One of my favorite Hulk stories is a simple little Bill Mantlo tale from "Incredible Hulk" #262. It's almost like a Twilight Zone episode about a mysterious woman who lives in a glass house by the sea and almost looks as if she's made of glass herself. She finds Bruce Banner washed up on shore and takes him in. She's an artist who works in glass--her entire home is filled with her sculptures. She says she wants to sculpt him. He stays for weeks and becomes her lover. By the end, it's revealed that her "sculptures" are real people she's turned to glass. She has the power to do so, but only by the light of a full moon. She lures Banner into her studio and not only wants to turn him to glass but to capture him in mid-transformation to the Hulk. Needless to say, things don't go as she planned. The final image is a wonderful ghost.

That same issue features another great, small tale, also written by Mantlo, called "Foundling." Banner, after the business with the sculptress, seeks a job at a research institute. When he arrives, he sees a fleeing hysterical boy ran down, tackled and sedated by a fellow in a lab coat and a woman. The boy is screaming about how they're not really his parents. The man explains the boy is his son, who has severe psychological problems and must be kept heavily medicated. He's the doctor who runs the research institute and Banner goes to work for him. Banner learns from others at the institute that the boy has had problems since hitting puberty. One night there's a ruckus on the grounds and it's revealed that the boy is a Dire Wraith, a shape-shifting alien monster who fell to earth years ago and was raised by the doctor and his wife as their own son. Since hitting adolescence, he's begun realizing he's different in some way--a realization the couple have tried to repress--and when he assumes his Wraith form he begins to remember his programming. He attacks Banner, who becomes the Hulk and the two fight it out. The alien is no match for the Hulk, but just as the jade giant is about to put him away the doctor rushes between them. He says the boy is still their son and insists the Hulk back off. When the Hulk notes the boy is nothing but a a monster, the doctor angrily throws it in his face that he is nothing but a monster and has no right to pass judgment on them. With a look of anguish at the doctor's words, the Hulk leaps away, leaving the couple nursing their now-re-sedated "son."

The comic Hulk is hated and hunted, constantly tormented by a world he can't understand. Another Hulk favorite of mine, this one widely recognized as a classic, is "Heaven is a Very Small Place" ("Incredible Hulk" #147). Authored by Gerry Conway, this is about as stripped down as stories come--only a few pages. In the story, the Hulk is leaping through a desert and sees a town form before his eyes. The people seem friendly and at first, the Hulk thinks this kindness is directed toward him. The town is like a ghost, though. No one seems to see the Hulk. He realized they're immaterial. Eventually, through, he comes upon a little girl in a wheelchair who apparently does see him. They chat, they get along, she calls him a friend and then she and the rest of the town abruptly vanish. The Hulk is anguished, screams for the town to come back. There remains nothing but empty desert, though, and he strikes the ground with sufficient force to generate a minor earthquake.

Another stripped-down gem is "The Kid Who Collects Spider-Man" ("Amazing Spider-Man" #248). Authored by Roger Stern, it's about a meeting between Spider-Man and his biggest fan, a kid who has collected everything he can about the wall-crawler. The two have a nice little chat--the kid seems to know everything about Spidey's career.And then the boy asks him who he really is. And Spider-Man unmasks and tells him! He tells of how his inaction led to his uncle's death, how this led him to do what he does. The two part on good terms and the big reveal at the end is that the boy was gravely ill and dies from leukemia a few days later.

Still another keeper: Tom DeFalco's "Time Runs Like Sand" from "Marvel Two-In-One" #86. An exhausted Flint Marko, the Sandman, wanders into a bar and orders a drink. The nervous bartender, recognizing him, calls for the Fantastic Four, reaching Ben Grimm, the Thing. Grimm rushes to the saloon, bursts through the door and calls out Marko. But the Sandman doesn't want to fight. Instead, they have a seat, order drinks and Marko relates to Ben the story of his life. He's tired of being a hood and just wants to leave that all behind. At the end he surrenders to Ben and volunteers to go quietly, but Ben, now finding him sympathetic and impressed with his willingness to reform, decides to cut him a break and lets him go free.


(Like Mantlo, DeFalco could sometimes spin offbeat stories with haunting endings. His "An Obituary For Octopus" from "Spider-Man Unlimited "#3 is such a tale, and, by my estimation, the second-best Dr. Octopus story, behind only Mantlo's Owl/Doc. Ock war from "Spectacular Spider-Man" #72-79. Read about it here.)

I could spin these into infinity. Most I've rattled off are particularly stripped down, but even the standard-issue superhero material typically takes place on a much more intimate level than the epic features allow. Such stories are what comics have been doing for decades and what helped make them popular enough to jump to film in the first place. The movies rarely even touch these kinds of tales though.

To me, the most exciting news about upcoming Marvel projects isn't ANT MAN (particularly since it just lost Edgar Wright) or the second AVENGERS picture or any of the other features that have been discussed. It's the Netflix material Marvel is developing. A 13-episode Daredevil series, followed by a series devoted to Jessica Jones ("Alias"), one for Luke Cage, one for Iron Fist (whose story could be a feature epic), and then a miniseries teaming all of the above. With competent people at the helm, the street-level heroes can be done well and on what, by Hollywood tentpole standards, are microscopic budgets. Hopefully, the series format will scale back the productions to something more closely approximating the comics and allow the characters and storylines to breath and to develop at a more natural pace.

There needs to be a place among the features for the smaller-scale, more intimate productions as well. The first X-Men movie is what made me begin to think about this, then the second one cinched it. If the tentpole epics leave Storm's background on the cutting-room floor, put her in a movie of her own. Hers is a story that can definitely carry one, and at a minor fraction of the cost of a full-blown X-Men epic.[10] Lower cost means less risk, and such films could be used as a way to get the ladies into starring roles. A regular schedule of smaller pictures could also act as a more general proving-ground for some of the lesser characters. BLADE is the point of reference here. It took a fairly obscure character, dropped him into a film of, by Hollywood standards, medium budget ($40 million) and not only turned him into a massively bankable property but kickstarted the current comic movie boom. The bigger-name characters should, from time to time, be put into these smaller productions too.[11] The opportunity to build better, longer, more detailed narratives and characters of greater depth doesn't just enrich the bigger projects, it lets filmmakers tell the kind of great smaller stories that make up the bulk of the comics that built these properties but that aren't being told at all via the huge-scale tentpole pictures.

I hope some of what I've written points to what I see as the third necessary but absent element: a more ambitious and varied approach to the material. When it comes to comic adaptations, Marvel leads the pack by a mile--other than WATCHMEN, DC hasn't really done anything worth the time during the present boom. But Marvel tends to be rigorously conservative, mainstream, and safe with their films. No edge, PG-rated content, very little quirkiness or anything that wanders too far afield, and they're all basically the same kind of story told in the same way. The other studios who handle Marvel properties do the same, and this really needs to change. The comics on which these films are based have told every kind of story there is to be told. Dramas, horrors, swashbuckling adventures, comedies, spy stories, love stories, war stories, political thrillers, coming-of-age tales, Twilight Zone-ist fantasies--you name it, the books have done it, and the films need to start better reflecting that diversity.[12] Broaden the field. Mix it up a bit. Take some chances. The recent departure of Edgar Wright from ANT MAN doesn't bode well. Wright has exactly the kind of quirky vision one wants to see applied to such a character, and after having worked on the project for 8 years and with filming imminent, he's fired over "creative differences." Is there any doubt a far more conventional product will emerge in his absence? It's just not healthy. Conservatism in such matters is a path to stagnation, eventual box-office failure then death. The comic adaptations work from too rich a field to allow that to kill them.

A rather long post. A short version for the "tl/dr" crowd:

Women, damn it!
Bigger isn't better; better is better.
Smaller can be better.
Innovate, damn it!

'Nuff said.

--j.

---

 [1] Parenthetically carving up the individual films in this way tends to smooth over the differences in their quality in a way I dislike. To note the obvious (in the service of my own neurosis on this point), each of those categories represent a broad group of films of often wildly varied quality. I feel I should offer examples, if just to lay my cards on the table).

 [2] Certain films (like certain actors) achieve, in the critical press, a sort of official designation as a turkey, and bashing them becomes a fad. CATWOMAN fell victim to this.

 [3] Wonder Woman was originally a project of William Moulton Marston, a psychologist and one of the co-inventors of the lie-detector test, who believed that women would one day rule the world and created the character as "psychological propaganda" for this eventuality. He intended her to be a living embodiment of all that is great in Woman. His early stories are a fascinating stew of fairy tale narratives, odd symbolism and bondage and domination themes.

 [4] About that choice, I'll say only this: This is the comic book version of Wonder Woman, laying a no-doubt well-deserved smackdown on a certain boy in blue...


...and this is Gal Gadot, chosen to be the new screen Wonder Woman:


 [5] Starting with the fact that it's a sequel to MAN OF STEEL, an abomination ground out by people who seemed to have no interest at all in making an actual Superman film and who didn't. MOS is a cretinously stupid, noisy, explosion-filled sci-fi action picture--the epitome of upbudget "blockbuster" trash--about a war on another now-extinct planet carried over to Earth. A tale in which the alleged central character is virtually a guest-star in his own movie. Henry Cavill, who has a great look for Superman, probably doesn't have half a dozen lines in the whole of it, and the utterly inappropriate efforts to darken his backstory at the expense of that backstory leave nothing of the original character. Certainly nothing worth continuing in follow-up films.

 [6] After THE AVENGERS made over $1.5 billion worldwide, the suits at Warner Bros. decided to try to ape that success but without putting in the work on the individual characters as Marvel had. They wanted to use the MAN OF STEEL sequel to immediately set up a future "Justice League" movie, again guest-starring Gadot as Wonder Woman.

 [7] I've long found her second solo book, "The Sensational She-Hulk," to be a particular delight. John Byrne, who had written her in the Fantastic Four for a few years, made her aware of her own existence as a comic book character. She breaks the fourth wall and talks to her creator and her readers, and the series became, among a great many other things, an endlessly fun rumination on the nature of the medium-- in my view, some of the most wonderful comics ever published.

 [8] The latter stems from legitimate concerns with which I'm sympathetic within reason. It's unfortunate that I feel compelled to add that "within reason" caveat there, but those concerns are often based on a very unrealistic and unfounded evaluation of the overall culture, and in their more extreme forms--the forms that, for example, condemn any hint of sexuality in superheroines--are anti-human, and not worthy of serious consideration. As for the Puritans, fuck them. I couldn't give a shit about anything they had to say if I ate an entire package of Ex-Lax

 [9] This actually happened to Supergirl. By the end of the '60s, DC started trying to revamp and "Marvel"-ize many of their major characters, and Mike Sekowsky, who had just lent a hand to the revamp of Wonder Woman, was given Supergirl, then the featured attraction in Adventure Comics. Under his guidance and that of later writers and artists, Supergirl became a mature, well-written character and went through her most creatively rich period. It lasted 26 issues (minus some reprints), and became popular enough that she was given her own title for the first time. Then the new title debuted and nearly everything that had made the previous title work had been dropped. Supergirl was suddenly written as a witless Barbie-fied airhead involved in an increasingly ridiculous series of adventures. The reaction was swift and furious--after only 9 issues, the book was cancelled.

[10] Nearly all of the other X-Men have been given similarly short shrift.

[11] It looked as if Fox was going to do this with the X-Men Origins series. Then, instead, their efforts in this vein all became upbudget tentpoles again. The life of Magneto project grew into the much bigger X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, which wasn't bad, but I would have preferred the project that was originally discussed. The Wolverine Origin movie, starring a character who had already been a featured attraction in every X-Men film, grew into a huge-budget--and borderline unwatchable--piece of shit that embraced all the worst abuses of the character's backstory from recent years.[*] Then Fox took up the single-best Wolverine story of all time, the Chris Claremont/Frank Miller miniseries from 1982. The original mini is a dark story of love, honor, and betrayal heavily influenced by Japanese cinema. Its imagery is simple and straightforward like a samurai movie, a perfect film already storyboarded on the page. The rights to turn it into a film was a license to print money. After early public braying that the film would be a faithful adaptation, the Fox suits chucked the original story in the trash and made another big, noisy and, often completely incomprehensible shitfest with virtually no connection to the source material. Throwing that story away is a crime. This was not the direction those projects needed to go.

[*] Wolverine, in his first decades in the comics, was initially just a fellow who aged like anyone else. His healing abilities took time to work, and as he got older, it began to work more slowly. His claws were bionic implants, mechanical devices grafted on to him during the same experimentation that laced his bones with adamantium. Later revisions turned up his healing power to 11--almost instant regeneration from even the most horrendous damage; the origin of his claws were rewritten--they became natural bone claws that were covered with adamantium like the rest of his skeleton; his backstory was changed to make him essentially immortal--a fellow who had lived for centuries and whose healing powers kept him forever young. So not all the bad decisions about these characters are made by Hollywood. Yes, this is a footnote to a footnote--sue me.

[12] To bitch about THE WOLVERINE some more, the original story was, as I said in my earlier notes, very much like a samurai film. One of the many infuriating things the fimmakers did was rigorously jettisoned any hint of Eastern influence, both in the film's look and in its themes. They threw away what made it special and turned it into just another conservative superhero movie.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Depth of the Dead

When it comes to favorite movies, in general and in particular, numbered "top" lists are very popular on the internet, but as I've noted here before, they're something I don't really do. Even I could never create one with which I wouldn't find cause to rather vehemently disagree, and if the movies are all great anyway, what's the point in pitting them against one another like that? The closest I come to any such list is in my picks for my favorite horror movies. It's a list two items long, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) and DAWN OF THE DEAD (1979), both directed by Mr. George A. Romero.[1] My all-time favorite between the two is usually whichever one I've seen most recently.

I first saw NOTLD as a teenager when a local station in my hometown broadcast the newly "colorized" edition created by Hal Roach Studios. This was in the earliest days of colorization,[2] and if you've never seen any of those first efforts, they're a dreadful sight to behold. Amorphous blogs of sickly color randomly splashed about the screen like some old two-strip Technicolor process gone very wrong. I'm sure the colorized NOTLD looked just as bad as all the rest. I have to assume that, because I first saw the film via a broadcast on a UHF channel that aired it during some pretty bad weather, and in such atmospheric conditions, it was virtually black-and-white. I recorded it too, which was fortunate because I fell terribly in love with it. The crummy reception immortalized on the tape became part of its charm, and I sort of missed its quirks the first few times I saw a cleaner print. It was pretty much my favorite horror movie from the end of that first screening, the undisputed champion by a knock-out, and it remained so right up until, some time shortly after, I first saw DAWN OF THE DEAD on video. In my head, the two have been in contention for the title ever since.

In the abstract, it seems a bit odd that I'd pick those two as the best while a teen and then so many years and so many, many more movies later still judge them as sitting at the top of the heap. Nostalgia can prove a potent addiction to those who, with age, succumb to it, but I've never let it dictate my tastes in movies. With me, if a flick in which I once delighted doesn't hold up, it just doesn't hold up. I may still find it charming, but I ain't gonna' call it good. NIGHT and DAWN have stayed with me for so long because they really are as good as I initially took them to be. Better, even.

NOTLD launched what became a wave of superior horror pictures in the years that followed it. Mostly made up of indie features, this wave ran parallel with and sometimes intersected Hollywood's "decade under the influence," capturing the same cultural zeitgeist and transforming it into some of the finest work the genre has ever seen. Brutal, nasty, pitiless movies that broke every rule; intelligent horrors that were actually about something, something more than merely making viewers start and that, as a consequence, were disturbing then haunting for reasons far beyond the visceral surface scares they tried to inflict. The wave rolled for a little more than a decade before crashing on the dull, grey rocks of the slasher films in the early '80s.[3]

Horror hasn't seen another age of its like, but its legacy has lived on in various ways. The modern zombie picture introduced by NOTLD is one of them.

There were zombies in film and literature long before NOTLD, mindless creatures resurrected by magic and that served some living master. EC's great line of horror comics in the 1950s delighted in things like ghastly, putrefying corpses that returned to life to right some wrong done them while they yet lived. Richard Matheson's 1954 book "I Am Legend" introduced the idea of humanity being overrun by the victims of a plague that turns them into non-supernatural vampires. Pieces of what came together in NOTLD have a varied lineage (and all of the ancestors I've just mentioned have been acknowledged as inspirations by the film's creators), but as a package, the rotting, self-propelled corpse that returns to life, consumes the flesh of the living, can only die via destruction of its brain and that overruns civilization belongs strictly to NOTLD.

Critics read much into the film, and, indeed, there was much there to read. Its creators, George Romero, John Russo and co., have denied they'd set out to make any big social statements. NOTLD goes where it does because of the temperaments of those who created it and because of the times in which it was made (which it reflects). The basic concept was original and solid, and in the execution it was well-written, well directed, well played--a great, dark, relentless pressure-cooker of a horror picture show about the world coming to an end.

The world didn't, though,[4] and eleven years later, Romero set out to continue the end with DAWN OF THE DEAD, a film that picked up NIGHT's theme of social breakdown,[5] added a critique of consumer culture and created or significantly expanded upon a host of metaphorical uses of the living dead. It was larger in scale than its predecessor, longer and much gorier and whereas the first film had been more of an Expressionistic nightmare, DAWN was like a comic book brought to life, full of action and vivid colors and woven through with a wickedly black sense of humor. A great, great movie.

A noteworthy but little noted feature of these films is that, though the dead overrun the world and rip to pieces anyone who falls into their clutches, they never really kill anyone. They're just dumb creatures following some instinctual imperative. It's really the living who kill themselves and one another. The living are stupid and shortsighted and polarized and self-concerned and distrustful and, perhaps on a less negative note, too damned civilized to properly address the growing crisis, and these qualities, again and again, are what actually get them killed. The devil isn't in the walking corpses besieging from outside. It's resides, instead, within us. And the reason it's so horrifying is that, when one sees this, one recognizes it as true. The only way dumb, slow-moving ambulatory corpses could overrun the world in the first place is because we, who on the surface have every advantage, failed to come together to stop them. The dead, then, are, on one level, the ghosts of our own tragic--or damnable--shortcomings, rising to overwhelm and perpetually haunt us.[6]

On another, they're also, collectively, a representation of death itself. In the zombie apocalypse, the shuffling ghouls are slow and they're dumb, but they're also everywhere and into everything, forever creeping up on you, inexhaustible, inexorable, inevitable. If you're quick and smart, you can get away from them, maybe for a long time, but as time goes by, you become a little less quick-witted, a little less fleet-footed and they're still there, still patiently trudging along after you. They may not get you now or next week, but against death, you're in a no-win scenario--they will get you eventually. The excellent Ford brothers movie THE DEAD (2010) makes particularly good use of this element.

On still another level, "they're us," as Fran says of the dead in DAWN. Twisted reflections of people driven by degraded versions of the memories and instincts that guided them through life, a shadow of both what once was and of what they once were. In DAWN, they all want to go to that paradise of capitalist consumerism, the mall--exactly where the living characters want to be.[7]  In one scene, the pregnant Fran draws the attention of a zombie in a baseball uniform. Separated by plate glass, he doesn't try to get at her as all the rest have. He just sits and watches her, looking sad, making childlike noises and invoking images of safe, wholesome childhoods filled with little-league games; for the expectant mother, both a mournful reflection of the world that's been lost and a mark of the awful new non-kid-safe one that has been born. In the excellent pilot to the less-than-excellent WALKING DEAD tv series (2010), a man who didn't have the heart to kill his wife after she died and reanimated is haunted by her zombie, which, nightly, returns to his front door seeking admittance.[8] "Bub," the featured creature in Romero's DAY OF THE DEAD (1985), still experiences rudimentary emotions--he reacts with clear agony at finding his keeper murdered and even goes on to avenge the killing.[9] When we first meet "Big Daddy," Romero's central zombie from LAND OF THE DEAD (2005), he's still hanging out at the gas station at which he worked in life, still coming out to pump gas whenever the lot bell rings. On the other side of this, the brilliant opening credit sequence of Edgar Wright's SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2004) shows people who, in going about their daily routines in mind-numbingly stupid service jobs, look exactly like zombies; by the end of the film, literal zombies are being used to do the same jobs.

This, the dead as an in-the-rotten-flesh commentary on us, is the element that makes zombies so wonderfully malleable. I've long maintained one can use them to tell just about any kind of story. Filmmakers have taken this ball and ran with it in a multitude of directions. DEAD SET uses zombies to comment on "reality television," DIARY OF THE DEAD to cover the impact of "new media" in the Information Age. Brian Yuzna's RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD III (a zombie version of Romeo & Juliet), gives us sympathetic zombies. A teen resurrects his girlfriend, killed in an auto accident, using a chemical at a military facility. She seems herself at first but her mental state begins to deteriorate beneath an overwhelming urge to kill and consume human brains. The military in the film launches a program aimed at turning the risen dead into bioweapons, experiments that, in light of the remnants of the creatures' humanity, seem Mengele-esque. Is the zombie lass in DEADGIRL (2008), discovered, captured and abused by sadistic teens, just dead flesh or a rape victim? The central protagonist of I, ZOMBIE (1998) is a fellow infected with zombie-ism, and the film uses the condition to study his isolation and loneliness as his humanity progressively disintegrates. THE LIVING DEAD GIRL (1982), directed by French fantasist Jean Rollin, offers a theme of friendship strong enough to survive beyond the grave. Carl Lindbergh's SHADOWS OF THE DEAD (2004) offers a fellow infected with zombie-ism who then infects his girlfriend in a sort of parallel with AIDS. As the title suggests, Michele Soavi's excellent DELLAMORTE DELLAMORE (1994)[10] uses the rising dead as a vehicle to explore existential questions of life and love. And so on into infinity. There's no limit to these sorts of uses of the living dead.

The diabolically black humor that runs through DAWN is a descendant of a literary tradition that extends back beyond the Brothers Grimm, but it comes to the film most directly from EC Comics. Through books like "Tales From the Crypt" and "Vault of Horror," Bill Gaines, Al Feldstein and the rest of the EC gang spun out terrifically twisted, relentlessly irreverent, and gloriously ghastly tales full of creepy critters, pungent puns, gory excess and the roughest possible justice to wrongdoers, a scare souffle sufficient to swiftly set to brisk heel its kid consumers at the mere appearance of a graveyard on their flank. Among those irrevocably damaged by these damned digests was none other than DAWN's director George Romero. Three years after DAWN, in fact, he teamed with fellow EC victim Stephen King to create CREEPSHOW, a direct homage to those bedeviling funny-books of their youth. Zombie films picked up a mean streak of EC-ism, from RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD (1985) to the RE-ANIMATOR series to the EVIL DEAD films to FIDO (2005) to POULTRYGEIST (2006) and on into infinity (and EC and the species of horror it bred became a major influence on horror cinema in general).

I love the better zombie movies, and there are a lot of them. Still, there are some trends of late within zombie cinema over which I'm not, in the abstract, particularly enthusiastic. The most debated among fans is probably running zombies. Danny Boyle's 28 DAYS LATER (which only technically wasn't a zombie picture) featured, as its apocalyptic avatars, hard-charging sprinters, and this set off a vogue in galloping cadavers that continues to this day, most noisily in the most unfortunate WORLD WAR Z. Running zombies seem counter-intuitive--as SHAUN OF THE DEAD's Simon Pegg has noted, "death is a disability, not a superpower." More significantly, though, supercharged zombies sacrifice much of the content I've just been outlining in favor of mere momentary visceral thrills. I dislike, for the same reason, the trend, in make-up effects for zombies, of piling on the appliances and giving the creatures alien eyes. This can create ghoulish critters, to be sure--important for a horror production--but it robs the creatures of their humanity. Buried beneath so much rubber, paint and stuffings, they may just as well be evil Lectoids from the 8th dimension or invaders from Mars. The zombies of DEAD SET are a triple whammy--they run, they're make-up-heavy and have animalistic eyes, and they emit utterly inhuman screeches. They couldn't be any further removed from humans or apparitions of humans if they grew tails and coats of fur. Most horror filmmakers, of course, are just looking to create what they hope will be a scary monster to rage across the screen. Zombies of this particular make and model, though, are, at best, a pretty superficial kind of scary. Some fans can be quite dogmatic in their objections to such things, particularly running zombies. I'm certainly not. There's no rule-book for fictional creatures, and I'm certainly never one to put movies in little boxes. If a movie with running zombies works, it works, and those running zombies aren't worth a moment's fretting over. I do, however, think zombies, when handled in that way, lose a lot of what makes them special and gives them real power.

When they're treated properly, there's a lot of depth to the dead. As zombies have, in recent years, become an ubiquitous feature of pop culture, the "treated properly" part has, unsurprisingly, proven a pretty significant caveat. The number of productions has skyrocketed, but most zombie pictures, like most of any kind of picture, are terrible, made by people who neither have anything to say nor the talent to effectively say anything if they did. Still, over time, we fairly regularly get great work out of this particular subgenre, and that will likely continue, even if--as I think likely--the number of productions soon drops off as a consequence of oversaturation. I think its potential is nearly limitless, and I think talented people will continue to recognize this and to line up to try their hand at it and take it in new directions. Their visions of the dead will continue to rise, treating us to a smorgasbord of screaming, meaty treats. Maybe one day, there will even be one that comes along and settles my indecision between NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and DAWN OF THE DEAD by eclipsing both.

Well, maybe.

--j.

---

 [1] And George is one of the finest filmmakers the genre has ever produced. He's caught a lot of flack from segments of fandom for his last few films. That just means we don't deserve him. But I'm damn glad we have him.

 [2] From a technical standpoint, colorization has come a long way, but it will never be anything other than a disgraceful vandalization of b&w movies.

 [3] The period is given favorable coverage in the excellent documentary THE AMERICAN NIGHTMARE.

 [4] Or in it either. By the end of the film, it looks as though the zombie plague may be on the verge of being contained. Thankfully, it got out of hand again.

 [5] A theme that, in the meantime, had also been the central focus of Romero's 1973 non-zombie flick THE CRAZIES.

 [6] The impression of the zombie as apparition is tied to its being a creature that slowly drifts along through the world, offering only the occasional emotional moan to mark its passing. This is only one of the many wonderful tropes thrown aside by more recent productions featuring hard-charging sprinter zombies.

 [7] At the same time, the zombies aren't constantly raging against one another and don't kill or plot against or screw over one another, which makes for quite a contrast with the living.

 [8] Frank Darabont, THE WALKING DEAD's original showrunner, understood the potential power of this kind of metaphor and introduced it into the series. It had been virtually non-existent in the comic; its writer, Robert Kirkman, has signaled his disinterest in it. Unfortunately, Darabont was fired after the first season, and one need only read my interminable articles on this blog to see where the series went in his absence.

 [9] "Bub," essayed by Sherman Howard, is, without hyperbole, one of the greatest movie monsters since Karloff's in FRANKENSTEIN. Like the other great elements in DAY OF THE DEAD, it's mostly lost beneath the embarrassingly poor acting of everyone else involved.

[10] Better known, in the U.S., as CEMETERY MAN.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

For 999 Words Less

"For a long time, I've had the idea of putting together a series of posts on the general degradation of the art of the movie one-sheet. In this era of Photoshopped 'big faces' posters, even calling this an 'art' anymore often stretches the meaning of the word to the breaking point."

Me, writing almost exactly a year ago in the first of those intended posts. That first presentation was an exhibition on how corporate Hollywood's devotion to "nothing-succeeds-like-success" led it to seize upon the SCREAM poster artwork and duplicate it into infinity. It's been 18 years since SCREAM. People born back when it debuted are now graduating high school but the movie biz is still using that same damn poster to peddle its wares to the public. It's like some '80s-era joke about Soviet social regimentation, except the joke isn't on the commies this time.

Today's presentation bemoans the sad, declining state of movie-poster-ism from a different angle. These days, new features, even good ones, are routinely saddled with unbearably shitty artwork. Those Photoshopped faceful frescos then follow the flicks to home video, becoming, alas, the featured public face of the film for most who will see it. But what about older movies, the pictures produced from that bygone era when the one-sheet was considered an art and earned respect as such? Those of us with even a touch of grey in our chin-whiskers can legitimately grouse about our living memories of the not-so-long-ago back-in-the-day when a lot of movies, upon their initial releases, sported poster artwork that was outright awesome, things you actually wanted to take home and hang on your wall. Those movies come to home video too, in wave upon wave, but often--far too often--that classic artwork ends up being discarded and replaced by, comparably, substandard rubbish that looks an awful lot like the awful, substandard rubbish that passes for artwork on the newer flicks with bad artwork.

When I was but a lad, I had STAR WARS on my wall:


And not on my wall, but accompanying the film's release...


Can't argue with that, right? Well, it seems you can if you're George Lucas. When STAR WARS came to DVD, it wasn't with these images as covers. Instead, it was...


Feeling the overwhelming sense of being underwhelmed yet? I'm just getting started.

THE DIRTY DOZEN is a kickass picture with a kickass premise and kickass cast, and when, in 1967, it first kicked ass on the big screen, here's how its kicking ass was pimped to potential viewers:


When it made its way to DVD, though, there were definitely no boots to heinie:


In 1975, Roger Corman's shop turned out DEATHRACE 2000, which became their most successful feature up to that time. The poster that helped sell it:


Now take a gander at the cover Buena Vista (Disney) slapped on it when they were distributing it on DVD:


Thankfully, the most excellent Shout! Factory later corrected this, returning to the original artwork for their re-release edition.

Another hit pic of the period featuring fast cars and a race across the country was SMOKEY & THE BANDIT (1977). Its poster:


And look at what ended up on the DVD:


Still another road picture and an action classic, THE ROAD WARRIOR (1981):


And its significantly-less-than-classic home video incarnation:



Still out on the violent, crazy road, Clint Eastwood's 1977 actioneer THE GAUNTLET was blessed with poster artwork by the great Frank Frazetta:



And here's the DVD release:


(Thankfully, the Blu-ray release has apparently restored the original artwork.)

Clint's second Man With No Name flick FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE (1965) offers another look at this phenomenon. The original poster:


Worth at least a thousand words. And the original DVD release:


A picture worth about 999 words less. MGM was responsible for that particular turd of a cover, and the company is one of the worst in the business for this sort of thing. Here, for example, is the poster for the 1975 James Bond outing THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN:


And what MGM did:


Still another: 1983's OCTOPUSSY:


And MGM's home video release:


All of the Bonds (and a lot of MGM's back catalog) are treated this way.

John Boorman's excellent EXCALIBUR (1981) had poster artwork worthy of the film:


On DVD, though, this is what was slapped on it:


The 1976 remake of KING KONG:


The promise of "the most... original motion picture event of all time" to advertise a remake is most amusing. Less amusing is what happened to this Kong's artwork on his second DVD release:


Another monster brought to the screen, this time by Wes Craven, was DC Comics' SWAMP THING (1982). Its poster appeared as an ad in DC's entire line of comics on the film's release:


When it came to DVD, though, the cover itself was the monster (and not in any good ways):


Freddy Krueger became a box-office sensation in the '80s. This is the killer poster that greeted crowds of the curious in 1984:


By the time it hit DVD, though, the artwork had become nightmarish in an entirely different way:


The original nightmare continued with A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS (special thanks to "GaiaClaire" on the IMDb's horror board for noting this one):


...and the artwork nightmare continued with its later DVD release, too:


THE LAST ACTION HERO (1993) was an expensive bomb for Arnold Schwarzenegger, but it's actually a fun and unfairly dismissed movie. Its poster:


On home video, its distributors gave it a cover that treated it about as fairly as its harshest critics had:


Looking over such atrocities (and the others in this vein are absolutely legion), one gets the impression that there are lots of lost bets involved or that perhaps lurking behind such decisions are sinister hidden agendas aimed at sabotaging the pictures. One can conjure up images of resentful men in marketing departments who realize their contemporary work is rubbish and attempt to sabotage the releases of old films in their care so as not to have those films' superior poster artwork on the shelves next to their own deficient efforts. Who knows? The only thing one can say for sure is... well, you don't need me to tell you that.

--j.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

CGI & Its Discontents

I was a huge fan of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK when I was a kid, in a way that only kids can be huge fans of something. Went to see it, had a poster, the book-and-tape, the Marvel comic-book adaptation, even dressed up as Indiana Jones for Halloween one year. Watched the movie until it had fused with my DNA. I remember well the ugly bitterness and abject revulsion that greeted my first viewing of INDIANA JONES & THE TEMPLE OF DOOM as, only a few minutes into the picture, Indy and company bail out of a plane in a rubber life-raft. They fall and fall then land with what should have been a sickening crunch but is, instead, only the beginning of a wild ride down a mountain, down a river... you get the idea. You've probably even seen it. People on internet message boards often speak of "having their childhood raped" as a response to some particularly bad screen version of something they loved when younger. I was still a child when I saw TOD, but it was my first (and still worst) encounter with that phenomenon. What I was experiencing in that moment wasn't just the painful realization that no one behind the franchise even cared about turning out a quality product (what would later become known as the "jump-the-shark" moment); it was also an example of Hollywood learning that, if you throw enough special effects and rapid-fire action at an audience, the movie can make a bundle without even having to be particularly good. TOD was filled with one absurdity after another and raked in nearly $180 million, becoming the third-biggest moneymaker of its year.

My article about WORLD WAR Z drew some interesting remarks in my "comments" section from a fellow named John. I'd intended to respond at the time, but I've put it off for a while then decided I probably had enough to say to make a new article of it. In that earlier piece, I'd written of the big studio, big money "blockbuster" pictures,

"I've lived long enough to have seen the birth of the tentpole pictures. The ones that caught fire in my youth and created the trend made their big piles of money because they were actually good, or that's what I'd like to think."

John agreed, and wrote that "there's been an incredible, tragic fall from grace for the modern blockbuster, and while the reasons for this are multifaceted and well-documented by countless writers, if pressed I would have to say that the biggest factor that ruins the enjoyment for me would be the overabundant CGI." John had been revisiting some of the movies of his youth and was "amazed at how much quotable dialogue and memorable set pieces exist per capita. The inherent constraints of a pre-CGI world forced filmmakers to not only use their spectacle more sparingly (and with more buildup), but to supplement those signature moments with inventive lines and performances."

There's a lot of truth in that, but I'd add, as caveat, that it wasn't just a matter of force. The filmmakers who worked on the blockbuster pictures when those pictures became so central to Hollywood's cash-flow--JAWS, STAR WARS, and beyond--still had at least one foot in the old-school craft of filmmaking and its rules. Not coincidentally, they appeared during a particularly fertile period for American cinema, the "decade under the influence."

If I may be allowed a digression...

In the waning days of the mogul system, Hollywood had faced a crisis. This crisis had many aspects but one of the biggest was aging executives who just didn't understand what people wanted to watch. After the runaway success of EASY RIDER and MIDNIGHT COWBOY, the 1970s saw Hollywood increasingly willing to turn its big moviemaking machine over to the rising young artists of the era, granting them increasingly large budgets with increasingly little oversight. The result was, among other things, the last (to date) great era of Hollywood filmmaking. Arguably its greatest era. One that was ended too soon, though. A string of failures was capped, in 1980, by the flop of HEAVEN'S GATE--director Michael Cimino, hot off THE DEER HUNTER, had gone radically overbudget, producing a Western that cost $44 million and grossed only $1.3 million. After this, the show was over. The inmates were put back in charge of the newly-corporatized Hollywood asylum and thus began the reign of the money-men.

Right smack-dab in the middle of this impressive era, there had appeared a monster movie called JAWS. It was given a very wide release, heavily marketed, and made a killing--became, in fact, the biggest moneymaker in movie history. Then a sci-fi fantasy called STAR WARS made the scene and blew away JAWS for the record. CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND turned up the same year--also a big hit. The money-men saw the green, saw the potential, and the next few years saw SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE, STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, ALIEN, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, and on and on. The PLANET OF THE APES pictures had, a few years earlier, demonstrated the moneymaking potential of creating franchises and licensing products in other markets, and most of the successful pictures in this vein followed their lead--a second killing to be made in sequels and sales of lots of derivative music, action figures, books, games, toys. This was the beginning of what would become the tentpole blockbuster.

These films are generally seen as a countervailing trend to that "decade under the influence" and their success paired with the failure of HEAVEN'S GATE as a factor in killing it off. And that's mostly true. In an era marked by much more intimate, complex, down-to-earth and personal cinema that had to carve out an audience to succeed, they're blatant mass-appeal spectacles. Expansive, escapist films, huge releases, huge marketing campaigns, minimal risk, and they're the path Hollywood chose. What I've long thought is missed or at least obscured by that analysis is the extent to which these films were, like those others, also a product of that era of Hollywood filmmaking. The creators behind them were as well, steeped in the craft like those doing the edgier stuff. Their work was quite good for what it was--that's why we're still talking about it--and they benefited from the relative freedom of the era--in any other, they wouldn't have been allowed to make the films as they did then. They had both talent and enthusiasm for their projects, and, reflecting the period, often put a lot of themselves into the work, even when it was work-for-hire. The new special effects were, in their hands, merely a tool for telling a story, not the story itself. They couldn't rely on those effects to sell their films,[1] and doing so wasn't, for the most part, even their aim. They understood that film is, in part, a magic trick, an art of illusion, and their conventional wisdom was that, to sell an audience on something implausible, one must make it and everything that unspools around it seem as plausible as possible.

My youthful experience with TEMPLE OF DOOM was an example of Hollywood unlearning all of this and walking away from it. TOD's director Steven Spielberg had already absorbed some lucrative but, artistically speaking, very pernicious lessons about pop cinema via the runaway success of his E.T.: THE EXTRA TERRESTRIAL two years earlier,[2] and, as he has admitted many times over the years, he didn't even want to make TOD. The film was merely a cynical cash-in on the original, and its past-his-prime director's indifference is painfully obvious throughout it. More importantly, it's also a film that proved wrong the conventional wisdom regarding selling the implausible. Most importantly of all, neither the manifest indifference of its creator nor its infinity of inanities prevented it from making a fortune.[3] As CGI rose to prominence, these lessons would have a major impact on the course of Hollywood filmmaking.

Computer-Generated Imagery grew out of the use of computer graphics in films going all the way back to the late 1960s. From a one-minute sequence in 1982's STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN--the "Genesis Effect" remaking a planet--to the awesome light-cycle sequence in that same year's TRON, CGI grew into the alien-directed water-tentacle in James Cameron's THE ABYSS (1989) and to the liquid-metal killing-machine in his TERMINATOR 2 (1991). Eventually, it progressed to the point where George Lucas used it, in his very unfortunate STAR WARS: THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999), to generate an entire universe and many of the "characters" in it. It has been an ubiquitous feature of upbudget Hollywood flicks for two decades, and a familiar part of films in general.

In the hands of capable and talented filmmakers, CGI technology is a wonderful tool. It can be, among other things, a major time-saver, a safer alternative to dangerous stunts, a cheaper alternative to location shooting, and, most of all, it can allow the conjuring forth of images never before displayed on a movie screen. As it has developed over the years, it can put just about anything on a screen.

It can't do everything well, though. In general--and particularly in certain areas--practical effects still have an organic feel that CGI can't touch. A well-executed practical effects can seem quite real, and if you're engrossed in a film, you can believe in it and accept its existence within that world. It doesn't draw attention to itself as an effect, and you don't find yourself thinking of it as one. That's very much a magic trick. And when it comes to things like gore effects (an area in which the use of CGI has become quite common), CGI simply can't pull that off. It's always jarring, it always calls immediate attention to itself, it always just looks like animation, no matter how well done,[4] and, as can happen with a badly executed practical effect, it distances the viewer from the movie.[5] While CGI can render inanimate objects that can't be readily distinguished from the real thing, animated CGI characters can be very hit-or-miss; if they more closely resemble something with which we're familiar in the real world, they can seem particularly dodgy. CGI can deliver wonderful stylized fantasy worlds, but an abundance of it is often jarring if plopped down in a world more similar to our own. A world that is a mirror of our own but rendered via CGI can be particularly bad, a soulless cartoon.[6]

These and other limitations are often ignored by filmmakers, particularly in high-profile Hollywood releases.

Over the years, the Hollywood studios came to be quite dependent upon their annual blockbusters to keep their lights on. These films became their "tentpoles." The lessons from films like TOD[7]--that effects-laden, rapid-fire action setpieces can sell even a substandard movie and that mass audiences aren't even remotely as picky about plausibility as everyone had assumed--collided with the CGI revolution in a terrible way. Just as the studios were learning that quality didn't really matter that much and that mere spectacle (backed by largescale marketing) was enough to generate obscene amounts of money, CGI delivered into their hands a technology that enabled them to put on screen just about anything. Spectacle without limits.

The toxicity of this combination made itself felt almost immediately. In 1993, JURASSIC PARK hit the screens. Its incredible, mostly-CGI-rendered dinosaurs were a marvel to behold, but it was painfully apparent, from nearly the beginning, that no one involved in its production (other than the effects teams) even had any interest in trying to make a quality film. It was strictly a showcase for the dinosaur effects and utterly brainless (and terrible) in every other respect. And it made $900 million on its initial release.

It was the future. The coming years would see a seemingly endless stream of atrocities like BATMAN FOREVER,[8] ARMAGEDDON, INDEPENDENCE DAY, THE MUMMY, TRANSFORMERS, 2012, MAN OF STEEL, X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE, the STAR WARS prequels, WORLD WAR Z, and on into seeming infinity--films in which the sole draw is a string of effects-laden setpieces of escalating absurdity and that are otherwise as offensively inane as anything ever proffered as allegedly professional motion pictures.[9]

John, my commenter who set me upon this article, identified CGI--or, more particularly, its abuse--as the "biggest factor" in the downfall of the blockbusters. I'm not sure I would entirely agree with that, as there were a lot of other factors involved,[10] but as an entire species of films exist solely to showcase various setpieces enabled solely by CGI tech--films that are otherwise quite dreadful--it has to rank high on the list.

It should also be noted, since I've bashed them to such an extent, that there are still some good upbudget Hollywood movies. Not many, but certainly a few. The slew of comic book adaptations of the last 16 years have produced a handful of keepers (along with the expected boatload of stinkers). And within a system as driven by the buck as Hollywood, there are always a few talented filmmakers who have had enough commercial success that they can work on blockbuster-scale pictures and, to some extent, buck the usual trends, getting their way over the pressure to keep things so strictly lowest-common-denominator.[11] Pixar has done some good, big animated movies (I'm particularly fond of THE INCREDIBLES). These are mostly exceptions, though. Even among the better ones, we're just not seeing the kind of classics that regularly appeared in this class of films in the past. John writes:

"It'll be fascinating to see how our current era is viewed 50 or so years from now. Nothing ages faster than special effects, and blockbusters that are built exclusively around green screen indulgence may be nothing more than the synthpop of cinematic history."

The last is an appealing metaphor. Where it may fall sort is that even sythpop crap can invoke, in some people who lived through the era,[12] some little pang of nostalgia. Can you really imagine anyone ever getting nostalgic over THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW?

--j

---

 [1] In the earliest days of the big-budget effects movies born with STAR WARS, this was especially true, because the effects technology was literally being invented for those movies and, half the time, they didn't even know how well those effects were going to work.

 [2] Among other things, he learned that he preferred to construct his films in such a way as to tell those in his audience exactly what they should think about absolutely everything he shows them on the screen, rather than allowing them to make up their own minds about it, and, most importantly, he learned that peddling schmaltzy, sentimentalist crap in this way can be quite lucrative.

 [3] It also served to reinforce Hollywood's already-growing conviction that nothing succeeds like success. A clone culture was a natural consequence of post-DUI corporate Hollywood's extreme aversion to risk. An environment positively awash in sequels, remakes and rehashes had appeared at the very end of the '70s and was well in place by the time of TOD, which was largely a small-scale, badly-executed rehash of the previous film. The clone culture eventually came to dominate Hollywood's output--today, almost anything on which any real money is spent has to be heavily derivative of something that has already succeeded.

 [4] The tech may one day enable such things to seem so realistic that viewers can't tell the difference, but we're nowhere near that now, nor have we been at any point in the decades since CGI appeared.

 [5] John Boorman makes a related point on the commentary to DELIVERANCE. Boorman came to the subject via Bill McKinney's extraordinary performance as a corpse after Burt Reynolds puts an arrow through him. McKinney apparently spent some time training himself to lie absolutely motionless, holding his breath and with eyes wide open for extended periods, which is how Boorman was able to frame relatively long sequences with McKinney's dead inbred rapist in the shot. Boorman (who, as I recall, was describing a conversation he'd had with someone else) decried the fact that, when people see something extraordinary in movies today, they just assume it was done with a computer. He thinks this takes a lot away from the cinema, and he's right.

[6] And soullessness is, in my view, a more general problem with CGI, owing to its inorganic nature.

 [7] And I use that as my example solely to follow through on my earlier comments--I don't want to be seen as excessively picking on TOD; it's only one scores of films that reinforced those lessons, and not even necessarily an important one of that particular many.

 [8] That was another one that left me stunned. I'd been quite fond of Tim Burton's original BATMAN (1989), which is still the best live-action iteration of that character, but I'd missed the 1992 follow-up BATMAN RETURNS. That film, as I later learned, had devolved the franchise into a witless cartoon, but when I went into BATMAN FOREVER, I was wholly unaware of this creative collapse, which was, of course, even more severe in FOREVER. Only minutes in, I was flabbergasted and turned it off (I came back to it later and finished it only because I'd paid for it). Warner Brothers spent $100 million on a feature-length version of the old, awful Adam West Batman television series; it made over $336 million. The next sequel, BATMAN & ROBIN, was even worse.

 [9] The lack of serious limitations on the capabilities of the technology encourages less grounded filmmakers, chasing spectacle, to use it to inject into their productions an escalating stew of cartoonish idiocies, which kill any human engagement with the film. John, my commenter, used INDIANA JONES & THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL as an example of where this can lead, and it's a good choice. One of my strongest memories of that movie was Shia LaBeouf doing an embarrassingly bad Tarzan act, swinging on vines through a hail of mimicking monkeys--a cartoon jungle, cartoon monkeys, a brainless, unengaging--even anti-engaging--sequence that actively alienates everyone not predisposed to ooh-and-aah over such asininity. John chose the film's swordfight, carried out through the jungle on the backs of two moving jeeps--abjectly ludicrous cartoons. He could have chosen the cartoon ants, which, at one point, carry off a cartoon of what's supposed to be a full-grown man. And on and on.

[10] Including, for example, the more general--and pathological--aversion to risk by studio suits, the insistence, beyond a certain budget level, on persistently dumbed down movies micromanaged by people with MBAs in place of any knowledge of the art of filmmaking, the clone culture, the shortening attention spans of audiences--something Hollywood has helped drive--and so on.

[11] That's how we got Ang Lee's quite good HULK (which was criminally underappreciated), and two very good X-MEN films out of Bryan Singer. And also how Singer then shot himself in the foot with the unfortunate SUPERMAN RETURNS.

[11] I've lived through that, but I'm not one of them.