Friday, November 14, 2008

Artisans Over Auteurs: Comic Book Films Playing It Safe

In one of my previous blog entries, I suggested that superhero films have begun to gain respectability, and just last week I blogged about the rivalry between Warner Bros. and Marvel. This week, I decided to follow up on both posts and see how the two studios are faring in their attempts, or lack thereof, to maintain this reputability based on recent news and rumors about upcoming superhero projects. First came the word that pop superstar Beyoncé Knowles expressed interest in playing Wonder Woman (pictured below), followed by a rumor that Warner Bros. is looking at Charlie's Angels director McG for the DC Comic adaptation. Then there was the announcement from Marvel that Joe Johnston of The Rocketeer and Jurassic Park III fame would be helming The First Avenger: Captain America (pictured below to the left). I took to the blogosphere to seek out what others had to say about these developments and also to offer my own take on how they relate to the maturation of superhero cinema and how they might affect the overall direction of their respective studios. The first external blog I replied to, entitled "Rumor: Beyoncé Wants Wonder Woman; Warner Brothers Wants McG," is a reaction to the news by Kevin Powers of The second, "Captain America To Be Directed By... Oh. Really? That Guy?" comes from Stuart Heritage of Hecklerspray and critiques Marvel's choice of Joe Johnston. My comments can be found below or by following the links.

"Rumor: Beyoncé Wants Wonder Woman; Warner Brothers Wants McG"
Thank you for your insightful post regarding these recent Wonder Woman reports. What strikes me most about the rumors, if true, is that they seem to imply that Warner Bros. is playing it safe with their upcoming superhero adaptations. While casting Beyoncé is a daring move for social reasons, she is still a pop sensation who would guarantee box office numbers and indeed "seems only interested in what the film might do for her, not what she could do for the iconic story." In other words, Beyoncé is bankable. Enlisting McG would also be a prudent decision on the studio's part, as his filmography consists of successful Hollywood blockbusters, TV episodes, and music videos. He has also been in talks to direct a superhero film since the rumored Superman film several years back, so his involvement should not surprise anybody. You would think that after the financial and critical phenomenon that was The Dark Knight, the studio could afford (and be inspired) to experiment a bit with their choice of actors and directors. The fear of losing money should not be an excuse. Even with a struggling economy, the movie business is supposed to be "recession proof," so what do they have to lose?

I would love to see Warner Bros. continue to recruit more auteurs in the vein of Christopher Nolan and Bryan Singer with distinctive vision and a sense of artistry for their superhero films. McG is more of an artisan than an auteur. His movies are solid, competently made moneymakers. Charlie's Angels and We Are Marshall are decent, but standard Hollywood movies that fail to really transcend the conventions of their respective genres. You even talk about expecting Terminator Salvation to be a surprisingly "solid execution," as if making excuses for a mediocre filmmaker. Given his track record, McG is the obvious pick to direct a big budget action picture, which is exactly the kind of choice the studio should avoid if they want films that are not merely acceptable, but exceptional. Even though you claim McG is adequate, are there any other, more suitable filmmakers you would like to see behind the camera for Wonder Woman? It's a shame Joss Whedon was dropped from the project, as he could have brought that extra artfulness to the table, in my opinion. I would just hate to see Warner Bros. drop the ball so soon after a movie as strong as The Dark Knight. What are your thoughts?

"Captain America To Be Directed By... Oh. Really? That Guy?"
Thank you for your humorous post about the relatively underwhelming choice of Joe Johnston to direct the Captain America movie. While I am a huge fan of The Rocketeer and can even enjoy Jumanji for its nostalgic value, I cannot help but feel that Johnston is too safe a pick and that Marvel is taking no creative chances when it comes to this crossover agenda they have been pushing as of late. What I have noticed, and what this announcement seems to prove, is that the studio seems to be going with somewhat unremarkable directors compared to the ones they were enlisting just a few years ago. Whatever happened to finding notable auteurs like Bryan Singer (X-Men), Sam Raimi (Spider-Man), Guillermo del Toro (Blade II), or even Ang Lee (Hulk)? Well, actually I probably just answered my own question. Unfortunately, the rather lukewarm reception of Hulk probably killed off any chance of getting talented visionaries again as far as major Marvel character adaptations go. Though you praise "indie darling" Jon Favreau (Iron Man) and "up-and-comer" Louis Leterrier (The Incredible Hulk), I find it hard to compare them to the quality of the directors that came before. While I thoroughly enjoyed both of their efforts, they have yet to prove to me they have the personal touch and artfulness to set their work as a whole above the rest. Instead, they have shown themselves to be simply competent filmmakers who know how to piece together a solid film. Like artisans, they promise a reliable product, which is why the studio chose them. Assuming I am not alone in this analysis, what do you make of this trend?

I will admit, however, that not all of Marvel's recent decisions have been unadventurous. The choice to put the brilliant Edgar Wright in charge of Ant-Man is indeed a breath of fresh air, and a Thor movie directed by Kenneth Branagh sounds promising. Heck, the idea of even attempting a live action Thor film is a brave endeavor in and of itself, given its ridiculous premise. At the same time, while these two characters do play a key role in Marvel's upcoming crossover plans, they are arguably less important than Iron Man and the Hulk, who are probably better known among casual superhero fans, and especially Captain America, the leader of the Avengers team. I am assuming this is why Marvel is playing it safe in terms of these crossovers, because they cannot afford to alienate audiences by experimenting artistically with one character if he is the crux of the eventual crossover film. A poorly received Captain America picture could translate to an Avengers movie that no one wants to see. As a result, they have chosen Joe Johnston, the safest bet to produce an adequate product. That said, The First Avenger: Captain America, like Iron Man and to a lesser extent The Incredible Hulk, can still be a good or even great film even with an artisan like Johnston at the helm, and at the end of the day, that is ultimately what matters. I would personally just like to see the filmmakers behind the camera be as adventurous as the heroes in front of the camera.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Franchise Flexibility: How DC Can Be Distinct

I have mentioned in other posts Warner Brothers' intent to emulate the crossover technique recently initiated by Marvel Studios in their upcoming DC-Comics-based adaptations. The plan is to "[release] a single film for each character, and then [use] those movies and their sequels to build up to a multicharacter film." This move is clearly an attempt on the part of Warner Bros. to capitalize on current industry trends and compete with Marvel. After all, DC and Marvel have been rivals in the comic book world for years (as represented by the epic battle depicted to the right). It is only logical that their respective film studios should challenge each other as well. While the temptation for any business might be to replicate what is already successful, Warner Bros. can in my view better counter Marvel's efforts by differentiating itself from the opponent rather than copying them.

If anything, Warner Bros. should look to the critical and financial accomplishment of its own summer sensation, The Dark Knight, as an example of abstaining from popular convention. The movie works as a complete, self-contained story without any promise of future character crossovers, unlike Marvel's two interrelated films from this year, Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk, which serve as precursors to the upcoming Avengers film. Director Christopher Nolan even recently told the L.A. Times, "I don’t think our Batman, our Gotham, lends itself to that kind of cross-fertilization." Furthermore, regarding future Batman-related projects, leading man Christian Bale has said that he finds it "tricky to imagine working on it without it being a collaboration with Chris." As such, it is unlikely that fans will see Bale's version of the Caped Crusader in a non-Nolan-directed Justice League film unless the studio can manage to lure the actor with either an irresistible screenplay or a huge paycheck. This may certainly be the case if Armie Hammer ends up filling the role in George Miller's possible Justice League adaptation, which remains in pre-production limbo but might resume at some point.

Rather than interpreting it as a detriment to the existing Batman franchise, the recasting of the character could be seen as an opportunity to tell an entirely different self-contained story, removed from the continuity of Nolan's films altogether. By concentrating on just creating the best and most complete narrative rather than trying to connect it to other movies for the sake of crossing over, the Justice League film could prove a more worthwhile effort than some people expect. For this to happen, the adaptations for each individual character from the superhero team would have to be isolated from the Justice League movie. If Mark Millar is able to make his proposed eight-hour Superman trilogy, which would follow the character from the beginning to the end of his life, it would, like Nolan's films, leave no room for crossovers. As far as the Justice League picture goes, this means Warner Bros. might have to use a different actor for Superman than whoever they decide to go with in the upcoming reboot. Planned films for League members like Green Lantern, The Flash, and Wonder Woman must also remain separate from the superhero team in terms of both casting and continuity.

Another way Warner Bros. could distinguish itself from Marvel is to take the idea of reboots to a whole new level. Rather than milking every superhero franchise to its last drop, the studio could actually plan on definitively ending a series and then taking it in an entirely different direction with a new series. In other words, they could treat their superhero properties like the everlasting James Bond franchise, which cycles different actors through the title role over time, constantly changing flavors and reinventing itself with each leading man. As IGN points out, the Batman films to date have actually been remarkably diverse with each incarnation (symbolized by the multiple Batmen from the comics to the left), though not until Nolan had any been treated as a storyline with a definitive ending. Adam West and Joel Schumacher both interpreted the concept as a campy comedy, Tim Burton's films channel 1930's film noir and Gothic fantasy, while Nolan's installments reflect more of a realistic crime drama sensibility. There are multiple possibilities as to where the Batman franchise can go after the conclusion of Nolan's films, aside from changing actors. For instance, it would be interesting if the next wave of Bat-films drew from supernatural horror or perhaps even placed the character in a different time period. A live action rendition of the futuristic sci-fi animated series "Batman Beyond," which was at one point considered, might be in order. This franchise flexibility would also leave room for adaptations of individual stories from the comics like Batman: Year One, The Long Halloween, or The Dark Knight Returns, which in my view could hold their own as distinct, unrelated films.

Ultimately, this method of constant reinvention can work, if the lasting success of the Bond franchise is any indication, with its six actors and twenty-two films over a period of forty-six years and counting. Such reboots open up doors for quality storytelling and creative freedom, as superhero films would not be limited by the need to awkwardly align with other movie continuities. Perhaps more importantly, it offers an alternative to the current Marvel mode of doing things, with which audiences might become disillusioned should the studio's crossover agenda prove less satisfying than expected. With the promise of constant fluctuation, DC Comics fans could always look forward to a new and refreshing take on their favorite characters instead of waiting for the current series to go sour. If nothing else, Warner Bros. could at least avoid seeming desperate in an attempt to copy Marvel and actually give their rival studio a run for the money.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Comic Book Fan Entitlement: Doing Justice to the Source Material

In my first blog post, I suggested that in today's superhero-obsessed Hollywood, the worlds of comic books and comic book films are becoming increasingly entwined. Naturally, comic book fans are among the prime demographic to which comic book films are targeted. This also means that such pulp fiction enthusiasts are the hardest to please when it comes to the adaptations of certain superheroes. Spending one minute perusing any message board or reading blogs dedicated to the discussion of comic adaptations is enough to recognize the variety of differing, and often very passionate, opinions on the matter. One begins to notice a sense of entitlement, the impression that these fans feel they deserve quality adaptations. A portion of a recent essay from Michael Peterson entitled "A Question of Accessibility: Studying Pathology and Archaeology" got me wondering, how does a comic book film do justice to the source material in ways that please the core audience? Peterson writes, "A film audience doesn't want a Batman story, they want the Batman story." In my exploration of the blogosphere this week, I decided to search external blogs concerning "important" properties that are dear to the hearts of comic book fans and critics alike and whose film adaptations are currently in the works: Superman (pictured to the left) and Watchmen (pictured below to the right). My goal was to discover what certain aficionados thought it might take to make the Superman story or the Watchmen story, and also to provide my own thoughts. The first post, "What To Do With The Superman Movies," is, as the title clearly states, a suggestion by blogger "dailypop" on how best to handle the next installment of the aforementioned franchise. The second, "A Bit More On The Watchmen Movie," is a critique of the Zack Snyder's upcoming adaptation written by "Ampersand" from Alas, A Blog. My comments can be read below, or in context by following the adjacent links.

"What To Do With The Superman Movies"
First of all, thank you for an inspired post providing your own personal insight to what is going on in the world of superhero movies. For some reason, I have found that most blogs on the topic merely relay comic book film news without much critical analysis involved. By identifying Superman as the "blueprint for the superhuman hero," you acknowledge the fact that great care must be taken in adapting the iconic character the screen correctly. Indeed, "the idea of a man flying" is not enough to inspire awe given today's limitless usage of CGI. I actually thought that one of the strengths of Bryan Singer's Superman Returns was that it addressed the possible irrelevance of the character in contemporary society, illustrated in the film by Lois Lane's article, "Why The World Doesn't Need Superman." However, the underwhelming response to that film proves that a modern Man of Steel movie must go even further to eradicate any public notion that Superman is obsolete and connect with viewers on a higher level. Perhaps the themes of "madcap inventiveness and absurdity played against mundane everyday life" that you mention are a step in the right direction, though I feel it needs to go even further than merely the absurd, perhaps setting the ordinary against the divine. Superman is morally incorruptible and virtually indestructable, essentially a god. I think the next Superman film must remind us why he is the hero that all other superheroes look up to, go grander with its themes yet still retain a more personal human element to which viewers can relate. That said, I was curious as to your thoughts on Mark Millar's recent proposal for an epic Superman reboot, an eight-hour, Lord-of-the-Rings-like trilogy that would chronicle the entire life of the character, starting a thousand years ago on Krypton and ending "with Superman alone on Planet Earth, the last being left on the planet, as the yellow sun turns red and starts to supernova, and he loses his powers.” Do you believe your idea could work within the framework of Millar's concept or is his more in the darker vein that you feel inappropriate for the series?

"A Bit More On The Watchmen Movie"
Thank you for your insightful analysis of the upcoming Watchmen adaptation with regard to its original source material. I agree with your point that the film's slavish reproduction of the graphic novel will not necessarily translate into a quality film. Much of the enthusiasm for the film spawns from its apparent frame-by-frame adherence, rather than the possibility for it to achieve for films what the original Watchmen did for comic books, that is to comment upon and deconstruct the medium from which it comes. You say "it's not going to be as good as the comic." While I agree that the adaptation will probably not be as groundbreaking to the medium of film as the comic was to its medium, I do believe that it has the potential to be innovative in the ever-expanding genre of superhero films. Several things I have seen and heard about the film seems to be deliberately reflecting on superhero films of the past. For instance, the changes made to both costumes of Nite Owl and Ozymandias for the film bring to mind the flambuoyant rubber costumes from Joel Schumacher's Batman films. Indeed, Ozymandias' suit actually sports those infamous nipples... Given the notoriety of Schumacher's series, one can only assume that Zack Snyder is intentionally exploiting this style in a symbolic way and not attempting to replicate it based on any sort of "cool" factor. A big reason I think Watchmen is employing intelligent pastiche instead of empty reflexivity is based on the music used in the trailer. The song is Smashing Pumpkin's "The Beginning is the End is the Beginning," written for the soundtrack to Schumacher's Batman & Robin. Snyder admitted at Comic Con 2008 to choosing the song ironically based on its "lineage." These touches give me hope that the movie "looks like every other superhero movie that’s come out in the last few years" on purpose. Perhaps one reason to admire the film is because it deviates from the aesthetic of the original graphic novel. Rather than subvert the visual style of existing superhero movies, as its comic predecessor did, maybe the film is subverting the source material itself by exploiting those formal techniques to achieve a different end. Either that, or Zack Snyder is simply trying to make a movie that looks cool, which may very well be the case judging by his slick previous effort 300. Still, I would rather give Watchmen the benefit of the doubt until I see it.
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