The Nukes Gotta Go: The Evo­lu­tion of Comics in Cinema

Public News (Houston) - - FILM - by Glen Ryan Tadych

In my be­gin­nings with Pub­lic News, I pre­sented a so-so re­view of Avengers: Age

of Ul­tron (2015), what was sup­posed to be one of 2015’s biggest movies. It was def­i­nitely one of last year’s most an­tic­i­pated films, be­hind Star Wars: The Force Awak­ens and Jurassic World, but the end re­sult was on a sub­par level com­pared to pre­vi­ous films in the Marvel Cin­e­matic Uni­verse (MCU), par­tic­u­larly for the se­quel to The Avengers (2012). Now that we are well into 2016, sev­eral heav­ily an­tic­i­pated comic book films have hit the­aters, with and with­out fa­vor­able re­cep­tion. The dif­fer­ences in both the films and their re­views have sparked nu­mer­ous dis­cus­sions re­gard­ing the sta­tus of comic book films. Are they get­ting bet­ter? Are au­di­ences get­ting tired of them? I my­self have had fre­quent con­ver­sa­tions with a co-worker, an avid comic reader who will be re­ferred to as the Comic Book Guy, and it’s in these dis­cus­sions where I’ve rec­og­nized a pat­tern re­gard­ing these films and the in­dus­try.

Dead­pool, Batman v. Su­per­man: Dawn of Jus­tice, Cap­tain Amer­ica: Civil War, and

X-Men: Apoc­a­lypse all re­leased within three months of one an­other; a heavy dose of comic book films for such a short span of time. In­ter­est­ingly enough, the re­cep­tion for these films is all over the place. Dead­pool re­ceived an overly wel­com­ing re­cep­tion from au­di­ences, pre­sent­ing it­self as a fresh ap­proach to comic book films, but this had more to do with the tit­u­lar char­ac­ter than the film it­self. Dead­pool (Wade Wil­son, played by Ryan Reynolds) isn’t like most comic char­ac­ters we see on the big screen, and given the long wait fans en­dured for a proper adap­ta­tion of the char­ac­ter since the botch­ery of X-Men

Ori­gins: Wolver­ine (2009), it’s fair to say ex­pec­ta­tions were ex­tremely high. Ex­pec­ta­tions reached even higher when Dead­pool of­fi­cially re­ceived its R rat­ing from the MPAA, an in­evitable de­ci­sion given the char­ac­ter’s vul­gar na­ture. This is a point when most stu­dios will pur­sue dif­fer­ent di­rec­tions to make the film suit­able for wider au­di­ences, but there comes a time when do­ing this de­stroys the project’s in­tegrity. So I’ll def­i­nitely ad­mit I was glad to see Fox have the nerve to just re­lease Dead­pool the way it was meant to be seen, de­spite my not having much in­ter­est in ei­ther the film or the char­ac­ter, and it cer­tainly paid off for them given the film’s world­wide gross of $763 mil­lion— Dead­pool was 2016’s high­est gross­ing film un­til Civil War sur­passed it in May. Mov­ing on to Batman v. Su­per­man and Civil War, it’s ob­vi­ous the for­mer was just an out­right mess, and the film’s 85% drop in ticket sales af­ter one week—a his­toric oc­cur­rence for such an ex­pen­sive and highly an­tic­i­pated film—should serve as more than enough ev­i­dence to sup­port this po­si­tion. And if that weren’t enough, ac­tor Jeremy Irons (who played Al­fred in Bat

man v. Su­per­man) said the film’s story was “over­stuffed” and de­served its neg­a­tive re­cep­tion. Civil War on the other hand has had an ex­cep­tion­ally su­pe­rior per­for­mance, both com­mer­cially and crit­i­cally. But why is this? If you ask me, I say it’s sim­ply be­cause Civil War is a bet­ter movie, gen­er­ally speak­ing. All the char­ac­ters and plot points aside, bet­ter de­ci­sions were made with Civil War in the edit­ing process. Both films were lengthy, but one could ar­gue Civil War had bet­ter pac­ing than its DC coun­ter­part. Re­gard­ing the char­ac­ters, I feel this is more or less self-ex­plana­tory, but Civil War pos­sessed the bet­ter char­ac­ter de­vel­op­ment for ob­vi­ous rea­sons. The MCU has de­vel­oped these char­ac­ters in film for eight years now, start­ing with Iron Man (2008), and having such ex­ten­sive char­ac­ter arcs from film to film over that span of time means when a friend vs. friend film like Civil War fi­nally comes about, harder and deeper notes will be struck. In a sense, this is what comic books them­selves are like, and it’s awe­some to see this level of con­ti­nu­ity fi­nally find­ing its way into cinema. I won’t say the MCU is the first fran­chise to do this, as that credit be­longs to Harry Pot­ter, but the MCU is no doubt tak­ing that con­ti­nu­ity to a level be­yond Harry Pot­ter.

Batman v. Su­per­man was our in­tro­duc­tion to Ben Af­fleck’s Bruce Wayne/Batman, and for those who cared about Henry Cav­ill’s Su­per­man, this film was only his sec­ond en­try, in which case I don’t think most au­di­ences had de­vel­oped much of an at­tach­ment to his char­ac­ter. And when we’re talk­ing about a cli­mac­tic fight to the death be­tween two iconic char­ac­ters such as Batman and Su­per­man, it’s dif­fi­cult to prop­erly chan­nel an emo­tional re­sponse from au­di­ences when you’re only in the sec­ond chap­ter of your se­ries. Yes, Batman v. Su­per­man shows us why these two would go up against each other, but it plays it­self out in more of a pre­dictable way be­cause the film­mak­ers have to rush to fill their 150-minute run­time.

An­other part of Batman v. Su­per­man’s prob­lem was that it just wasn’t about the tit­u­lar char­ac­ters, whereas if it had been and noth­ing else, the plot could have been sim­pler, pos­si­bly re­sult­ing in a more bal­anced movie. Char­ac­ters like Lex Luthor, Won­der Woman and Dooms­day were not needed, and when one thinks of the screen time wasted on these char­ac­ters, it makes one won­der what more could have been done with the char­ac­ters that mat­tered. Now, we fi­nally ar­rive at X-Men: Apoca

lypse, a film which has the lux­ury of be­ing part of a rather ques­tion­able fran­chise. The X-Men films have been down such a rocky road since the epony­mous film’s re­lease in 2000, having a strong start with the first two en­tries be­fore go­ing mas­sively down­hill in the third and fourth. Ori­gins: Wolver­ine is a film I find so atro­cious, I gen­er­ally refuse to ac­knowl­edge its ex­is­tence. X-Men: First Class (2011) saved the X-Men fran­chise the same way Batman Be­gins (2005) did for Batman af­ter Bat

man & Robin (1997). Aside from the fact James McAvoy and Michael Fass­ben­der’s per­for­mances as Charles Xavier and Erik Lehn­sh­err were un­ex­pect­edly out­stand­ing, First Class uti­lized a sim­ple plot fea­tur­ing sim­ple char­ac­ters with sim­ple mo­ti­va­tions, while also bring­ing a less grounded and more comic book at­mos­phere to the fran­chise, un­like the first two in­stall­ments.

X-Men: Days of Fu­ture Past (2014), the se­quel to First Class, sort of went in the op­po­site di­rec­tion by fea­tur­ing a far more convoluted plot, yet still re­tain­ing the strong comic vibe of its pre­de­ces­sor. Oddly enough, this ex­per­i­ment worked well for the X-Men se­ries, and served as an apol­ogy for mis­takes made with the di­rec­tion of pre­vi­ous en­tries. Un­for­tu­nately, Days of Fu­ture Past worked too well be­cause its suc­ces­sor, Apoc­a­lypse, wasn’t able to top it in the eyes of most. A film like Apoc­a­lypse brings about prob­lems be­cause when you’re au­di­ence knows the pro­tag­o­nists will face off against an apoc­a­lyp­tic threat be­fore the movie is even re­leased, you’ve au­to­mat­i­cally put your­self into a cor­ner. When it comes down to it, one of two things will hap­pen: The world will end, or it won’t. And with these types of films, about 99.9 per­cent of the time, the world spins on. So right there, you’ve made the more skep­ti­cal mem­bers of au­di­ence ask, “Why should I care about what hap­pens?” In some re­spects, it can make any char­ac­ters’ deaths point­less, as well as the en­tirety of the film. We’re in a comic book movie era now where a film like Civil War has the up­per hand against Apoc­a­lypse be­cause while we know the Avengers are go­ing to split and face each other, Civil War’s story un­folds in a way where we don’t know who will suc­ceed or po­ten­tially lose their life, which brings about drama and sus­pense and emo­tion­ally in­volves the au­di­ence in what’s tran­spir­ing on­screen. And with all that said, where ex­actly are these films go­ing? It’s hard to say just when the “comic book movie genre” ap­peared in cinema be­cause for dif­fer­ent peo­ple, there are dif­fer­ent start­ing points. We have Tim Bur­ton’s

Batman (1989) in one hand, Blade (1998) in an­other, as well as var­i­ous other works, but most prob­a­bly credit X-Men (2000) with crack­ing the code to the genre’s com­mer­cial­iza­tion. X-Men was the comic book film to in­tro­duce the for­mula that’s be­come so pre­dictable with these types of movies, though we must re­mem­ber it was a brand new thing at the time. XMen showed films based on comic book char­ac­ters could be grounded in re­al­ity yet re­tain­ing the source ma­te­rial’s fan­tas­tic el­e­ments, all while be­ing com­mer­cial to au­di­ences on a mass scale. For the next 12 years, nu­mer­ous films de­pict­ing var­i­ous comic book char­ac­ters hit the­aters, some per­form­ing bet­ter than oth­ers. But the game-changer came in the sum­mer of 2012 when Dis­ney and Marvel fi­nally de­buted the long-awaited team-up film The Avengers. The idea of do­ing a fran­chise fea­tur­ing an en­sem­ble of char­ac­ters, each of whom would re­ceive a solo in­tro­duc­tory film be­fore the grand fi­nale where ev­ery­one fi­nally meets, had never re­ally been done in live-ac­tion cinema. It was a huge gam­ble that started when rights for some char­ac­ters were still con­trolled by dif­fer­ent stu­dios, and not too many peo­ple be­lieved it would pay off. Many thought Avengers would come out and ei­ther flop, or just be OK be­fore fad­ing into a foot­note. This wasn’t the case as Avengers quickly be­came a smash hit, break­ing box of­fice records and lasting an en­tire sum­mer cin­e­matic sea­son, an ex­tremely dif­fi­cult feat these days. Know­ing their fu­ture was se­cure, Dis­ney and Marvel took the MCU into di­rec­tions some would have thought too far­fetched in pre­vi­ous years. A film like Guardians

of the Galaxy (2014) would never have thought to be a suc­cess prior to Avengers’ re­lease, and even upon an­nounce­ment of Guardians, many peo­ple in­clud­ing my­self were skep­ti­cal of whether it work. As it turned out, Guardians is now one of the MCU’s most suc­cess­ful and pop­u­lar en- tries, with a heav­ily an­tic­i­pated se­quel due for re­lease next year. So why is the MCU is so con­sis­tently suc­cess­ful when most other comic book films, bar­ring a few no­table ex­cep­tions, tend gain lit­tle trac­tion or flop com­pletely? This is one of the many con­ver­sa­tions I’ve had with my co­worker, the Comic Book Guy, and his as­sess­ment is rather in­ter­est­ing. Fol­low­ing his view­ing of Apoc­a­lypse, the Comic Book Guy said (and for the sake of con­text it should be noted he is not a huge fan of Christo­pher Nolan’s Dark Knight tril­ogy, par­tic­u­larly the lat­ter two films): “Su­per­hero film/show writ­ers, the plot does not have to re­volve around an end of the world event. These nukes, por­tals and apoc­a­lyp­tic plots have be­come so pre­dictable that they’re not threat­en­ing any­more.

Dead­pool, The Dark Knight (which should prove my non-bi­ased opin­ion), X2, Civil War, Iron Man, The In­cred­i­ble Hulk, Dare­devil, and Raimi’s Spi­der-man are all su­per­hero films where the threat is not an apoc­a­lypse. Smaller, per­sonal threats will help ex­plore the in­di­vid­ual traits and per­son­al­i­ties of these char­ac­ters. We learn noth­ing from, “Oh the world is end­ing, I should try hard to stop that.” But, “I’ll beat the ar­mor off of my team­mate if it means I’ll keep my friend safe,” or, “I’ll kill any and ev­ery­one in my path to get re­venge and save my girl,” ac­tu­ally say things about who these peo­ple are. Read the books, learn WHO they are as well as what they can do, and then keep it sim­ple.” We’ve all heard the phrase, “Comic book movies are dy­ing off.” Di­rec­tor Steven Spiel­berg even com­mented on this sub­ject say­ing: “We were around when the Western died and there will be a time when the su­per­hero movie goes the way of the Western. It doesn’t mean there won’t be an­other oc­ca­sion where the Western comes back and the su­per­hero movie some­day re­turns. Of course, right now the su­per­hero movie is alive and thriv­ing. I’m only say­ing that these cy­cles have a fi­nite time in pop­u­lar cul­ture. There will come a day when the mytho­log­i­cal sto­ries are sup­planted by some other genre that pos­si­bly some young film­maker is just think­ing about dis­cov­er­ing for all of us.” I agree with this to a cer­tain ex­tent, touch- ing on what the Comic Book Guy said. I feel a cer­tain type of comic book movie is dy­ing off, mean­ing the for­mu­laic, pre­dictable type. Only comic book movies and shows that tell deep, emo­tion­ally-in­volved sto­ries with these char­ac­ters are go­ing to sur­vive. It’s the only real way we mem­bers of the au­di­ence can con­nect with these char­ac­ters. This is why Cap­tain Amer­ica: The Win­ter Sol­dier and the Marvel Netflix se­ries Dare­devil and Jes­sica Jones are held in such high re­gard, be­cause not only are their he­roes un­der­stood by the au­di­ence, but the vil­lains are as well. For ex­am­ple, in Jes­sica Jones, we’re not fol­low­ing some­one stop­ping their neme­sis from gain­ing ab­so­lute power and take over the world. We’re watch­ing a woman con­front a per­sonal tor­menter from her past, stand­ing up against ev­ery­thing she fears. For comic book adap­ta­tions, we have to know why the villain chooses their course of ac­tion, and to a cer­tain ex­tent sym­pa­thize with them. This is why Vin­cent D’Onofrio’s Wil­son Fisk in Dare­devil is such a praised char­ac­ter, be­cause we sym­pa­thize with him, un­der­stand him, and even root for him most of the time. He’s not just do­ing some­thing frivolous like blow up the planet. He wants to save Hell’s Kitchen, just as Dare­devil does. The two go about it in en­tirely dif­fer­ent ways, and Fisk’s ac­tions di­rectly af­fect the other char­ac­ters in the show, whom we also care about. It’s more per­sonal and that’s what these films need to re­main in­ter­est­ing. The fact Netflix is tak­ing on these char­ac­ter arcs in the form of mul­ti­ple episode arcs only means we’re go­ing to get more, and frankly proper, de­vel­op­ment, show­ing the sub­ject mat­ter is still very much rel­e­vant. This is what suc­cess­ful live-ac­tion comic book adap­ta­tions are evolving into. It’s not about mak­ing a comic book movie or show any­more. It’s about mak­ing a thriller, a drama or even a com­edy. Civil War and Jes­sica Jones work be­cause they’re heav­ily char­ac­ter-driven dra­mas. Win­ter Sol­dier works be­cause it’s a po­lit­i­cal thriller. This is a time where these films and shows have to rise above the stereo­types as­so­ci­ated with them in the past. With­out that, we’ll keep get­ting generic, pre­dictable re­sults. Some stu­dios have wised up to this and some haven’t, which is why some projects are an over­whelm­ing suc­cess and oth­ers dras­ti­cally bomb. Comic book movies aren’t dy­ing, they’re evolving, and in the process of evo­lu­tion, only the fittest make it through. The nukes need to go, and al­low depth to flourish.

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