Ask Standing On The Shoulders Of Giant Midgets: Superhero movies

>> Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Howdy, howdy, howdy! (Hey, look at me everybody! I'm a cowboy!) Heh. So, we're back for another entry of Ask Standing On The Shoulders Of Giant Midgets. The next question in the queue is Mrs. B.'s, but we went ahead and answered it because it was related to one from CursiveArts. So that should bring us to Matt's query:

Marvel comics is on its way to having a big movie franchise to tie in its other movie franchises when The Avengers comes out. Why do you think DC isn't doing the same with a Justice League movie?

What's your position of fan films of comic books etc. that are done well (e.g. Batman Dead End)? Should those people be given a shot at making a movie for reals?

Superhero comics have a long history of crossovers, team-ups and epic "who-would-win" fights between assorted characters; it's almost an essential part of comics culture back to the dawn of superhero comics in the 1930s, and publishers have been more than happy to oblige with marketing events that are sometimes little more than fanservice. But the scene is a little different in the movies.

In the movies, in fact, franchise crossovers have long had the reek of death about them. This goes back to the 1940s when some genius at Universal noticed the downward death-spiral box office trend afflicting the once profitable Frankenstein franchise. The now-popular idea of a "reboot" not only wouldn't have occurred to anyone in those days, but would probably have been laughed out of the office as confusing to audiences. Unfortunately, it also didn't occur to anyone that the main problem with the Frankenstein franchise was that James Whale's brilliant Bride Of Frankenstein (1935) was followed by a pair of increasingly silly and gratuitous sequels, the adequate-but-only-just Son Of Frankenstein (1939) and the fairly wretched Ghost Of Frankenstein (1942), and that maybe what was needed if they weren't going to retire the series while they were still just ahead would be to drop more money on the script, cast and effects for the next entry instead of simply relying on the "Frankenstein" brand to sell tickets. No, what occurred to the genius at Universal was that the studio had just had a hit with The Wolf Man (1941)--why, if you could combine the audiences for Wolf Man with the audiences for the Frankenstein pictures, you could have the monster (painful pun intended) hit of the year.

The ridiculous Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man (1943) did well enough, sadly, for Dracula to get dragged into the mix in the following year's House Of Frankenstein, and somehow things managed to go downhill from there. (Second-best thing about House Of Frankenstein: the way the poster proudly proclaims the presence of "Hunchback!" and "Mad Doctor!" as if these are marquee characters. The best thing about House, of course, is the way John Carradine plays Dracula as if he's constantly surprised he's in this movie--Dracula's surprised or Carradine is, take your pick.) By 1948, "monster rally" movies would be played for comedy, pretty much terminating-with-prejudice the entire first generation of Universal monsters (Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster and The Wolf Man and all their miscellaneous relations and dwellings) until Hammer resuscitated (or shamelessly stole, depending on your perspective) the classic Universal monster formula in the 1960s by adding blood and boobs.

A similar thing took place through the '50s and '60s with Japan's giant monster movies, though Western audiences never took them all that seriously to begin with and it wasn't until fairly recently, even, that American audiences suddenly became aware that Gojira was, in fact, a fairly serious and metaphor-laden horror movie and not a semi-comic-surreal carnage fest about a giant monster capable of eating Tokyo and a fire-breathing lizard (sorry, Raymond Burr jokes are just too easy to pass up, not that you could miss Raymond Burr--rimshot!). But there, anyway, you have team-ups and crossovers in the movie industry: they've traditionally been the last penny-grabbing gasps of a creatively-bankrupt franchise and/or silly kiddie movies with no plot beyond the havoc being wreaked onscreen.

Which makes Marvel's extended gameplan bold and possibly suicidal. We'll just have to see if they can make it work. They're gambling on audiences being more plugged into comics, where team-ups are practically obligatory, than to films, in which team-ups are one step away from "Heyyyyyyy Aaaaaaaabbbbbbbottttt!" Problem is, I'm not exactly sure that's going to work, since the core geek audience plugged into superhero comics substantially overlaps with the core geek audiences for science fiction and horror films in which crossovers are treated with suspicion (see also: the mixed-mostly-negative reaction to AvP and general recoil from AvP: Requiem). Plus, the fact that it takes more than the geeks to make a film a hit: even assuming loyal fans flock to Joss Whedon's Avengers, if loyal fanaticism were enough to guarantee success, Whedon would be working on the third or fourth Serenity sequel instead of a superhero movie, wouldn't he?

Let's put it another, even less optimistic way: if Marvel's gameplan works it will basically be bucking six decades of conventional wisdom about movie franchises, regardless of how awesome or awful Avengers might be. Indeed, Avengers may be the greatest superhero movie ever made (no disrespect to Whedon but this is highly unlikely: his competition for that includes The Dark Knight, Spider-Man 2 and X2 just off the top of the head and for starters), and if it bellyflopped at the box office I don't think anybody outside of Marvel would actually be surprised and quite a lot of people would say "I told you so" while numbering off on their fingers a number of the sequels I've already mentioned in this post.

Possibly the only thing offsetting the poor cinematic history is that team comics have been a mainstay for Marvel comics to a greater extent than any other publisher. Indeed, with The X-Men and The Fantastic Four, I do believe that Marvel may have been the first publisher to introduce comic book heroes who only existed as teams (I don't feel like researching this point at this exact moment and if anybody wants to point to a predecessor in the comments section, please have at it). It's such a part of Marvel's identity that, for instance, the X-Men movies didn't feel like "rallies" because "The X-Men" are, sort of conceptually, an organic whole or function as a single hero (yes, I know that members like Wolverine actually wandered in from other comics and subsequently wandered out into their own books and other crossovers, but I think you know what I mean). There may be one other offset, which is the fact that Marvel has been setting up several of their recent superhero movies as semi-prequels to The Avengers, though that may cut more than one way: the fact that Iron Man 2 felt more like a prequel to an unmade film more than it felt like a coherent sequel to Iron Man was one of the most pretentious and irritating things about the damn thing and exacerbated the general messiness, lack of focus and superabundance of loose and/or dangling plot threads; it sort of made me want to not see The Avengers just to get Iron Man 2 back for kind of ripping me off.

Anyway, speaking for myself, I have some trepidation and skepticism about whether Marvel's bet is going to pay off. I wouldn't mind Avengers being very good and very successful, though at the same time I'm not sure I expect it to be and am afraid that it's success will most likely lead to everybody making "superhero rallies" until the cow is not only sucked dry but completely deflated and only suitable for use as a kind of pathetic leather beanbag.

All of which may answer the question of why DC isn't following suit. DC's team-ups, with the possible exception of Neal Adams' Green Lantern/Green Arrow run in the 1970s, have usually felt less vital or necessary than most of Marvel's (though there have been exceptions through the years). Although Batman and Superman were frequently paired up, that often felt like pure marketing and not because anything in the internal logic of either character caused it to make sense that they'd share a dimension, much less nemeses and adventures. The Justice League Of America has frequently felt like that situation multiplied, with science-fiction, fantasy and mystery characters jumbled together in ways that sometimes worked but frequently lead to head-scratching if you overthink things (and show me a true geek who doesn't overthink things). I would say part of this is pure real-world history: whereas Marvel (a successor imprint to Timely Comics and Atlas Comics) went into the superhero business in the 1960s under the guidance of a single editor (Stan "The Man" Lee) imagining a shared universe (or at least, at first, a New York City over-brimming with neurotic superheroes), National/DC was essentially a conglomerate from early on, starting with a series of mergers that turned into a number of absorptions of separate imprints and/or intellectual properties by way of purchases, lawsuits and settlements. The Fantastic Four and Spider-Man exist in the same universe because that's how Stan Lee imagined the New York created by the artists he worked with; Captain Marvel and Superman exist in the same universe because National Periodicals sued Fawcett Publications into near-bankruptcy with a claim that Marvel was nothing but a Superman ripoff and then bought all the character rights for a song. So if Marvel and Supes seem both a bit redundant and negatory when they make JLA appearances together, as if they're some kind of matter-antimatter pair and how does a planet have room for two all-powerful caped-and-tighted demigods without one annihilating the other by mere proximity, well... yeah, that's exactly what they are, actually, a proton-antiproton pair from alternate dimensions squeezed into a comics panel by a lawsuit.

One of the interesting things you may not be aware of is that DC and Warner Brothers did contemplate a superhero rally, or at least teaming up Batman and Superman. Significantly, Batman Vs. Superman was a very serious proposal made during the aftermath of the catastrophic release of Batman And Robin and fan uproar over the leaked Superman: Flyby draft (you know, the one where J.J. Abrams thought it would be awesome if Krypton didn't blow up, Lex Luthor was an alien CIA agent and Superman got his powers the same way Ralph Hinkley did; ever feel like the universe dodged a bullet?): i.e. Warner and DC were looking at doing pretty much what Universal did when faced with the underperformance of the last Frankenstein movie and a lack of ideas for continuing the Wolf Man franchise, "fixing" the poor reception to Batman And Robin and the long, long, looooonnnnng gap since Superman IV by green-lighting a movie that would throw them together, hey, why not? Nevermind that one character can do anything, even reverse time by flying backwards really fast, and the other guy's an ordinary billionaire in a rubber suit with nipples on it; forget that what was keen about the one franchise was that you had a technicolor-blue dude doing spectacular stuff against the backdrop of a fairly ordinary and familiar (and even banal) '70s/'80s New York City while the other franchise existed in a surrealist goth version of the Emerald City from Wizard Of Oz. People like Superman, right? And they like Batman, right? So they should like Superman + Batman twice as much, that's logic. Right?

Happily, somebody at Warner's decided to make Batman Begins and the underrated Superman Returns instead, and Batman Vs. Superman remains tabled for now.

And, really, undoable until Warner's reboots Batman, which I imagine they'll do as soon as they respectably can after Christopher Nolan finishes what's expected to be a trilogy. The rumor, at least, is that The Dark Knight Rises is going to be Nolan's last Batman film. We'll see, though I suspect that if there are directors capable of turning their backs on dumptrucks full of money being backed into his driveway, Nolan's one of them. (The fact that Inception was, ahem, a modest success doesn't hurt, does it?) While one doesn't know how many rumors one should take seriously, especially when talking about a director and writer who keeps things close to the vest and has a magician's talent for misdirection, I won't be shocked if Nolan's apparent decision to put Bane in the movie signals that Nolan is willing to do something irrevocable to Batman, knowing that Warner's will eventually do a complete reboot/reimagining of what he's made whenever they want to anyway; that is, I happen to think Christopher Nolan is perfectly capable of ending a Batman film with Bruce Wayne in a wheelchair, or dead, or with the audience wondering if the top kept spinning after the credits. I'm not making a prediction, I'm just saying Christopher Nolan has really big balls. And they're made of a very dense and shiny metal.

But I think I got sidetracked: the point I was actually getting around to is that one of the distinguishing things about Nolan's Batman franchise is that he's made the movies as near-present, quasi-realist mystery-science-fiction as opposed to something more conventionally "superheroic". That is, his Gotham is pretty clearly Chicago using a pseudonym and maybe wearing a wig and false moustache, and while there's nothing "realistic" about a guy going out every night and getting into a completely un-refereed UFC smackdown and still being able to walk every morning and things like identifying fingerprints from a shattered bullet or turning every cell phone in the world into a sonar mapping network is completely SF, Nolan's Batworld is still recognizably related to our own. I.e. it isn't one where super-powered aliens fly around and shoot rays from their eyes or magical rings, though those things might be less far-fetched, really, than the amount of damage Batman takes without displaying any signs of parkinsonism.

It probably also doesn't help that previous efforts at live-action DC superhero team-ups have become notorious comedy fodder on the Internet.

Anyway, all that probably covers it. But wait until the box office returns from The Avengers are in: if The Avengers is a hit, I imagine Warner and DC will rush to get some kind of superhero team onscreen, and if it flops, well... there will be much joy in Mudville the boardrooms of TimeWarner.

But wait, there's another question there!

What's your position of fan films of comic books etc. that are done well (e.g. Batman Dead End)? Should those people be given a shot at making a movie for reals?

That's actually a fairly easy one to give a short answer to: the ability to make a good short film doesn't really say a lot about one's ability to handle a feature. They're completely different animals in almost every respect, and while a short film may be some indication of one's artistic abilities in framing or lighting a shot or other technical aspects of filmmaking, making a film with your own money and the donated work of friends and colleagues over a couple of days says nothing about your ability to make good use of large amounts of other people's money allocated among many different departments over a period of months.

The subject of the film doesn't really enter into it. Christopher Nolan and Brian Singer have made some of the best comic book adaptations committed to film, and their previous projects wouldn't lead one to think either man would have the least bit of interest in comic books or superheroes at all. (That indeed may be the secret to their successes: Nolan and Singer both approached their superhero projects as films first and comic book adaptations second, putting much of their focus into story, theme and character and letting the big action setpieces fall into place and take care of themselves in due course.) Sam Raimi's work prior to the Spider-Man films certainly suggests comic books are a good fit for his sensibilities (indeed, he'd already directed a superhero movie, 1990's Darkman, before making Spider-Man) but Raimi's background would generally be considered that of a maker of horror movies (experience that's used very effectively in the operating room scene in Spider-Man 2, by the way). Zack Snyder's adaptation of Watchmen, on the other hand, suggests that revering a comic book may be a disadvantage when turning it into a movie; Watchmen isn't terrible by any means, but it isn't especially good, either, and it's slavish devotion to putting every one of Dave Gibbons' panels onscreen in some form or another is one of the things that weighs the whole thing down until it's a bit of a drag.

All that said, I'm all for giving talented directors of short films (about whatever) chances to handle features (about whatever), especially if they happen to be friends of mine and deserve the work and their success would make me happy tho' I'd miss them if they're local and ended up moving to L.A. But it's probably obvious that that's more about my prejudices and sticking up for friends than anything else. As for directors of well-made shorts who I don't know, I wish them well. (The hacks can go back to their day jobs.)

Thanks for the question(s), Matt!


Carol Elaine Tuesday, June 21, 2011 at 3:24:00 PM EDT  

the adequate-but-only-just Son Of Frankenstein (1939)

I am flouncing away in a huff.


Eric Tuesday, June 21, 2011 at 5:35:00 PM EDT  

Now, come on: Son is alright and has some nice touches, but it comes on the heels of the iconic Bride, one of the best horror movies ever made. In fact, you might even say Son is adequate/just in almost exactly the same way Return Of The Jedi is adequate/just: it's an okay film with some definite high points (and more than a few low points) that suffers greatly in comparison to either one of its predecessors (and is accordingly blown away when you consider both).

But I'll give you this: if you're going to flounce away in a huff over something, Son is an acceptable cause to flounce for. How's that?

vince Wednesday, June 22, 2011 at 12:07:00 AM EDT  

Having mostly ignored comics all my life, and hence not being a big comics fan, well-written sequels to Serenity would be far preferable to almost any superhero movies.

I will admit I'm a big fan of the '89 Batman (and to some extent Batman Returns) and have liked the Nolan reboots to date.

mattw Thursday, June 23, 2011 at 9:33:00 AM EDT  

Wow. Thanks for the insightful response.

One of the things that got me about Iron Man 2 was the whole I made a new element by shooting a laser at a triangle thing.

While I'm skeptical as to whether an avengers movie will work, I don't see how a JLA movie would work with DC's current set up. Which is fine.

I've seen that Justice League TV pilot once upon a time ago and that's an hour of my life I'll never get back.

As for Batman vs. Superman, we all know who would win. (Batman, of course).

Carol Elaine Thursday, June 23, 2011 at 5:30:00 PM EDT  

But I'll give you this: if you're going to flounce away in a huff over something, Son is an acceptable cause to flounce for. How's that?

Well, okay.

I think.

*goes off to stare at her Basil Rathbone poster*

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