What a massive letdown. I feel like everyone who’s been raving about it for the last few weeks has had their expectations of the superhero genre lowered so far that they’re willing to accept an intermittently entertaining movie as a massive triumph.
It did have funny moments. It had lots of them, actually, and I laughed at them. Those seem to be what audiences appreciated about the movie, and quite rightly, since they were the best thing in it by far.
But I felt like all those jokes were just there to get the audience through what was otherwise a tiresome bore of a story. I’ve heard plenty of people complain that it takes the Avengers too long to Assemble, and yes, it does, and that’s boring. But the final big battle—the last half-hour to 45 minutes of movie—is also boring. Again, not the jokes that leaven the action, which were funny. The action itself. It’s just a bunch of CGI things chasing each other around and knocking over CGI buildings. Yawn.
By contrast, I also just got around to seeing The Raid: Redemption, which for 0.5 percent of The Avengers’ budget delivered 100 minutes of awesome action. Part of that is because one guy trying to kill another with a machete or his bare fists is simply way more relatable than Commander Data in a goat helmet trying to destrooooy the wooorld with his magic GameCube, nyah ha ha ha. But another major part is that for all Joss Whedon’s strengths, and many are on display in The Avengers, he’s never been great at action sequences. (With the notable exception of River Tam vs. the Reavers, which kicked more ass than all the action scenes in The Avengers combined.)
What he has been good at, however, is establishing emotional stakes for his fighting, and I was really surprised to see him fall down on that job entirely. I challenge anyone reading this to explain what any of the Avengers wanted out of life or how the battle that took up the last third of the movie either got them what they wanted or changed their goals.
It’s not like this stuff is impossible. Take the example of Captain America, whose disconnection from modern society is played for a couple of laughs in The Avengers. This go-around of Avengers movies has been mostly based on Mark Millar’s The Ultimates, and in those comics Cap’s disconnection isn’t just a joke, it makes him deeply lonely. When he went off to war his fiancee was a young woman; in the blink of an eye she has grown old and married his best friend. He still hangs out with them all the time because they’re the only people he can relate to, and he struggles to meet someone new because his attitudes about women are naturally stuck in the 1940s. Cap needs the Avengers because otherwise he would be completely isolated, but they don’t understand him either.
Who is Captain America in The Avengers? Something about trading cards?
Or take Thor. In The Ultimates he’s a radical environmentalist who thoroughly mistrusts Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D., and loathes working with a war profiteer like Tony Stark. He’s forced into an uneasy alliance with them when Loki manages to trick the world into seeing him as a delusional mental patient who believes he’s a Norse god.
Who is Thor in The Avengers? Something about come home with me brother, daddy misses you.
And believe me, I don’t want to be making a boring “The book was way better” complaint, because my feelings about Millar are at best mixed, while I’m a big Joss Whedon fan. But be honest, everybody: did The Avengers stir anything in you other than laughter, a few times? Did it make you feel suspense, or empathy, or excitement? If you took out the one-liners from Robert Downey, Jr. and Mark Ruffalo, and a couple of good sight gags from the CGI Hulk, wouldn’t what remained have been completely intolerable? Wouldn’t you have laughed more at a good comedy anyway?
We can expect better, people. We have seen better, with superhero movies, many times. The first Christopher Reeve Superman, both Tim Burton Batmans, the second Sam Raimi Spiderman, X-Men: First Class, and The Dark Knight, just off the top of my head.
Maybe it’s just not possible to do better than this with superhero teams. Maybe that’s too much to ask. Though strangely I do have some hope for the Runaways movie.
I’ve been carrying around an idea for a feature for a long time – it’s a superhero comedy of remarriage, a/k/a “what the world needs now.” With my writing partner on vacation, I thought the dog days would be great to dive in and start drafting. Unfortunately, I haven’t really been able to suss out its bones. The hours I’ve devoted to it have put me in touch with a lot of the characters in very useful ways, but mostly I’ve been too daunted by the next level of detail – the outline – to even keep myself in the chair working.
I watched Kick-Ass last week (Big Josh: it doesn’t suck), but left it out of my Monday Movies gig because I was short on time and I had this exercise in mind. A screenwriter’s “beat sheet” is a list of significant moments – less detail than a list of scenes, more detail than three-act structure. I’ve been in screenwriting classes where we were asked to do ten-point beat sheets. Screenwriter Blake Snyder, known for Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot but better known for his screenwriting manual Save The Cat!, compiled a fifteen-point beat sheet, believing that the exact same beats should fall not only in the same order but arriving at roughly predictable page numbers of a screenplay. (For better or worse, his work has moved from observation to prescription.)
Below the fold, I’ll read the Kick-Ass screenplay by Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn (downloadable via Simply Scripts) and see how it matches up to the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet, a/k/a the BS2. Each beat says what page Snyder believes you should find it on in parentheses next to it, and I’ll indicate in my discussion where it actually falls. The rule of thumb for translating screenplay pages to screen minutes is 1 page = 1 minute and I’ll indicate how far apart the film and the screenplay get.
(I’m not going on record saying that this or all movies should follow the BS2 exactly — I’ve been trying to internalize the lessons of Scott Myers’s Narrative Throughline and Christopher Vogler’s Writer’s Journey as well, both of which could be used to look at the structure of this and many other movies. I have not been trying to internalize this horse pill. Also if you have my copy of The Writer’s Journey I’d like it back.)
Back when he crapped all over comic book movies Josh K-Sky and (and I, in the comments) neglected to mention A History of Violence, David Cronenberg’s brooding gangster film. I only recently got around to reading the graphic novel by John Wagner (recently reissued by Vertigo), and it’s one of many examples of what was apparently once called Bluestone’s Law (after pioneering film critic George Bluestone): only bad books make good movies; good books make bad movies.
In general, Bluestone’s Law as I understand it secondhand is based on the idea that deviation from the original is more respected when the original is not beloved. We’ve largely gotten past that whole problem of “deviation” when it comes to novels, but we haven’t with comics, and I think it might be instructive to consider why.
Most people, I think, still see comics and movies as really pretty similar. Comics are the closest one can get to a movie on the page, goes the subconscious expectation. Both tell stories with dialogue supported by visual depictions of action, and comic book authors have adopted many visual storytelling tricks from movies. Comic book scripts and movie scripts even look a lot alike, and many TV screenwriters have dabbled in comic book writing.
The fact that their comics have not generally been very good should give a hint, though, that the visual support to dialogue works pretty differently in movies and in comics.
Art in comics must be very simple. It has to convey an action in a space maybe two inches tall by two inches wide. Artists will pack only as much into those small spaces as can be intelligible.
But within those limitations it can be extremely evocative. It activates the imagination when done well, leading us right into the “vivid and continuous dream” that John Gardner names as the action of all good fiction. We see movement and emotion in our heads.
Because that movement and emotion is linked to specific visual cues, however, we believe mistakenly that it’s all there on the page. Beloved comics get transferred to the screen by directors who want nothing more than to reproduce what everyone loved so much in print, and they sit there, visually dead.
When comics do work on the big screen it’s usually because directors find ways to make them look great there. Vince Locke’s art in A History of Violence the book is forgettable, so Cronenberg was free to go his own way. Harvey Pekar works with different artists in every story, so Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini were similarly free in American Splendor.
Which brings me to James Gunn’s Super, just out on DVD, and its contrast with last year’s Kick-Ass. Like Kick-Ass, Super is based on the idea of an ordinary guy dressing up as a superhero.* Unlike Kick-Ass it was not preceded by a comic, and when I try to imagine it as a comic I can’t see it translating well.
Rainn Wilson plays The Crimson Bolt, aka Frank D’Arbo, a guy who finds himself adrift when his wife abandons him and returns to heroin. A vision from God and some late-night Christian superhero TV convince him to become a costumed hero, and when he visits a comic book store to do research on heroes without superpowers he accidentally picks up Ellen Page as a sidekick, Boltie. Because he doesn’t have powers he settles on hitting his villains with a wrench. Or shooting them when necessary.
All the way to the bloody climax Gunn rides the line between comedy and despair. He lets the actors play their roles with absolute seriousness, and doesn’t ever try to undercut how messed-up and deluded Frank is supposed to be. He and Boltie are crazy people, and when he bashes a guy in the head for cutting in line at the movies, it’s appropriately horrifying.
In the same moment, though, the violence is undercut by a slapstick visual tone. Not Three Stooges slapstick where the violence doesn’t hurt, Troma slapstick, where the gore is extreme and doesn’t feel quite real.
That specific tone simply wouldn’t work in a comic. I’ve tried to imagine some of the most arresting images in Super as comic panels, and I think they’d either be unleavened horror, or else that nasty, mean-spirited visual slapstick that characterizes most of Mark Millar’s work (including Kick-Ass) and Garth Ennis titles like Crossed. There simply isn’t enough space in a panel for most artists to enact that uncomfortable middle ground where Super lives. All of which means that while Super may be a far better movie than Kick-Ass, I’m not sure it’d be half as good a comic.
*It’s weird that in neither of these movies do the protagonists bother to learn about the Real-Life Superhero movement. The Kick-Ass 2 comic book series offers something along these lines, but in this day and age it’s hard to fathom anyone doing non-Internet-based research, as Rainn Wilson’s character does in Super, and when they did wouldn’t they immediately stumble on the RLS phenomenon? Plus both movies assume RLS’s would be vigilantes, whereas in truth they seem to be motivated more by an endearing concept of heroism. Less crimefighting, more soup-kitchen fundraising.
X-Men: First Class — Sebastian Shaw is surrounded by armed G-Men on a balcony who shoot round after round into his body on the floor below.
But because his power allows him to absorb and control limitless energy, he easily shoots their firepower back at them.
Time Bandits: Evil is surrounded by the time cavalry: cowboys, hoplites, the odd space cannon. They give him everything they’ve got…
…and back it comes.
I think it’s a deliberate quote.
I’m tickled by the news that Baz Luhrmann is preparing to shoot The Great Gatsby in 3-D. It made a great video game, so why not?
I liked Spike Jonze’s Where The Wild Things Are, but I also wished at the time that it hadn’t been the definitive take — even that they’d have let a couple of other writers and directors use the costumes and sets to film their own takes on the material.
The industrial strength of a film adaptation has a way of establishing itself as the canonical vision of a printed work. It’s healthy for a print work, especially a classic, to be allowed more than one crack. Imagine how great it would be if, some years down the line a Watchmen adaptation came out that was as different from Zach Snyder’s take as Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight was from Danny Elfman’s?
Given the giddy pasticheworks of Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge, and given the prima facie senselessness of telling a muted work like Gatsby in 3-D, I can’t help but be optimistic about this. Maybe, perversely, it will even have a touch of Hemingway’s apocryphal rebuttal in it.
x-posted at Alyssa Rosenberg.
Blue Valentine is a mirror image of (500) Days of Summer. Both tell the story of a relationship’s rise and fall; both hop back and forth in time. The latter movie, a comedy, front-loaded the joy of the beginning of the relationship, then showed most of that joy to be one-sided. It had a great feel for infatuation but had less to say about sorrow, and ended up something of a slight novelty item because of that.
Spoilers, big blocks of screenplay, and the c-word all below the fold… (continue reading…)
Russell Brand is your new Dudley Moore:
I remembered the first movie vaguely but fondly from my youth; Netflix obliged On Demand and I took another look at it last weekend.
What struck me immediately is how strongly the 1981 film plays against the tagline “don’t you wish you were Arthur?” Watch that trailer; Moore’s bray is as grating in the movie as it is there. Impressively, Moore’s drunk antics are rooted in frustration and imprisonment, and for the first ten minutes of the film (much of which is in the trailer) it’s obvious that he’s the only one laughing at his jokes and everyone pretends to like him because’s he’s rich. When John Gielgud arrives the following morning, we get to meet Arthur in a human relationship for the first time. It’s a complex relationship that forms the heart of the movie, and it’s impressive that we spend as much time with Arthur before we see him through the eyes of someone who cares for him beyond what he’s paid to do.
I can see Russell Brand playing unlikable, but I have a hard time thinking he’ll stay unfunny for that long. Brand on a rising arc of world comedy domination; when Moore made Arthur he was long past his sketch-comedy heyday (his early 60’s group Beyond The Fringe was the acknowledged ur-Monty Python). His Arthur lands somewhere between a dramatic role and a comic showpiece, and it’s stronger when it’s the former. I suspect Brand’s will be funnier but more slight.
I do like that the Brand trailer sets up his betrothed as too sexually forthright for Peter-Pan Arthur, and it’s of a piece that his object of desire would be the comparatively undersexed Greta Gerwig. (Think of her wonderfully awkward turn with Ben Stiller in Greenberg.) Jill Eikenberry’s Susan Johnson is WASPily frigid. It feels contemporary and insightful that Arthur would fear sex, although it may just be played as a cartoon.
Cross-posted at Alyssa Rosenberg‘s joint.
Black Swan is a stunning, harrowing story of the demands we make on performers’ bodies and souls. It’s almost impossible not to compare it to Aronofsky’s last film, The Wrestler, and while it’s a more exciting and contained work in some ways, I think it’s a slightly less interesting engagement with those issues.
For me, one of the remarkable aspects of The Wrestler was how it showed Mickey Rourke’s character as feminized — his body as much the property of his audience as Marisa Tomei’s pole dancer. On this level, Natalie Portman’s vomiting ballerina Nina Sayres is a more familiar figure. Perhaps aware of this, Aronofsky goes to great lengths to show us just how unfamiliarized this body is becoming, using sly, shifting CGI to portray her creeping body horror.
Heightening the tragedy for Rourke’s wrestler was the way the movie dangled the possibility of human connection in front of him, either with his daughter or Tomei’s character. In Black Swan, it’s pretty clear from the beginning that Nina has nowhere to turn and no means of connecting with the compromised lifelines in front of her. She lives in a claustrophobic Manhattan apartment with a domineering mother. Her director regards it as a high priority to toy with her sexually. The film makes it pretty clear that both of these aspects of Nina’s life are in her favor as an artist. Mila Kunis as a sometime-fellow, sometime-rival dancer makes overtures of friendship, and while Nina can use her to rouse her dark urges from within her repressed shell, she can never spin together enough strands of connection to grow as an artist and a human.
I enjoyed Jason Bellamy‘s take on Black Swan’s themes of repression and sexuality. They are familiar territory covered with frightening, high-test surrealism. Again, though, sex as women’s main problem is well-trod ground. Black Swan is an engrossing, terrifying psychosexual thriller, but The Wrestler felt newer to me.
…looks like Chicago.
(Click on the images for more.)