Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Assessing the Heroes Part 2

The recent spate of Super Hero movies has been very entertaining for me. I am a closet Comic Book lover who prefers a bit of the 40s, 50s and 60s feel when they were more about entertainment and less about angst. About the time every new title that hit the market echoed the angst of the Fantastic Four my interest began to wane. I think the Darkhawk title was a pretty good example. It started out with a sense of fun and adventure...then made a left turn into every issue being so full of angst that it became an exercise in misery.
Of course, the poster child for angst came from Marvel comics with the Fantastic Four. Thus rose the challenge; how can you make a bunch of angst-ridden heroes into an entertaining movie? Well, for the male portion of your population, starting with Jessica Alba as Susan Storm is never a bad idea. There are not a huge number of straight males who don't find her smoking hot. I freely admit to not being one of those few.
At the same time, simply adding her to the line-up does not make a movie entertaining in and of itself. What do Awake (2007), The Eye (2007), The Love Guru (2008), and even Good Luck Chuck (2007) have in common? Jessica Alba was in the movie and it did not draw crowds. It isn't enough to have beautiful people such as Alba and Chris Evans (Johnny Storm) roaming around. The writers still must like us care about the characters they portray.
The difficulty of having his wife reject him and always appearing odd is something that had audiences empathizing with Ben "the Thing" Grimm (Michael Chiklis). The all brain, no comprehension of sexy woman hitting on you syndrome of Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffud) struck a chord with millions of geeks, nerds, and comic book aficionados. And so forth.
Further proof that being sexy does not an entertaining movie make comes in the form of versatile actress Jennifer Garner. In the middle of her run on Alias she made movies as varied as 13 Going on 30 (2004) and Daredevil (2003). How is it the first was considered a success and the second a failure?
Again, it has to do with whether the character was entertaining. Somehow Elektra (Jennifer Garner) came across as not butt-kicking but as a bit needy, whiny and weak. How that is possible when someone looks like she does in the above picture is hard to understand. It also illustrates the fine line between creating a character that works and one that doesn't.
That is the secret to making good lead characters. Give us a character we can like. After well-publicized life problems, why would fans flock to a Robert Downey Jr. movie? To be sure, there is plenty of attractive flesh in Iron Man (2008)...I think this picture gives you a feel for the tone.
But nobody in their right mind is going to shell out $30 bucks (assuming 2 tickets, some popcorn, soda, and maybe a candy of some sort) for a few glimpses of toned legs and skimpy outfits unless the story is entertaining. While very few of us will have a device of questionable scientific legitimacy keeping us alive, many of us might wish we could jet-set around Vegas and California with the beautiful people, drive fast cars, and have a cool, fun, high paying job. Being on the edge of losing that and seeing the need to make a difference as Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) did in Iron Man draws people in, entertains them, and sends them home happy. And it never hurts if the good guy looks cool and can blow stuff up using an outfit like this. If you want to purchase one just like it for me for Christmas I will happily forward my particulars to you. And for those who never read the Iron Man titles, here is a minor spoiler for you. When Rhodie (Terrence Howard) scoped out the silver suit in Stark's home and says, "Next time"...he gets to wear a suit like that under the name War Machine. If that character is part of the next Iron Man it will be a major geek-out moment.

Now, you might think from what I said above I think characters should have no angst or something along that line. Far from it. In Batman we have a character who, in the current incarnation, is so angst-ridden that he considers giving up the super hero game in The Dark Knight (2008). Yet the movie is hugely entertaining...including him. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) can do things very few if any of the viewers can. Yet his struggle to deal with tragic losses without becoming hateful and vengeful resonates with many people. His troubles are deep but not presented in a way that overwhelms you with dreariness. Contrast that with, for example, Superman (Brandon Roush) in Superman Returns (2006)In trying to restart the Superman franchise there were a lot of external factors. George Reeves and Christopher Reeves, 2 iconic Supermen both came to unfortunate and tragic ends. Christopher, in particular, was still so associated with the franchise that many questioned if reviving the franchise was even possible. With that in mind, Superman Returns was entirely too dreary. The choice to shoot everything in greyish, muted, dark tones, to score it with moody music and to couch the attempt to rekindle heat between Superman and Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) in terms of her smoking habit tended to turn the movie too dreary and subsequently fan excitement for a sequel has been, to say the least, rather muted. Nor is Superman the only franchise to suffer this malady.

The Punisher franchise could offer an excellent counterpoint to most of the movies out today. Unlike Batman, The Fantastic Four, Spiderman, Superman, or even the X-men, the Punisher of the comics not only never had any compunction about killing people, his title was noted for exceedingly high body counts. Yet in the restart after the roundly panned Punisher (1989) in which Dolph Lundgren played a Frank Castle similar to the comic in that he used large numbers of huge weapons, the Punisher (2004) spends so long setting up the background that Frank Castle (Thomas Jane) never gets his guns off, so to speak and the cliactic battle is too little, too late for fans of the comic version and too brutal for those who went into the movie not knowing what to expect. That is part of why Punisher: War Zone (2008?) is having so many problems in production; the studio is rumored to be afraid to make a movie that will appease the hardcore Castle fans but still want to be hardcore.
Fortunately, we have an example of a hero who is willing to kill done right. For sheer fun, very little beats the wise-cracking, butt-kicking demon turned good guy, Hellboy.He has no compunction about killing. In fact, some of his best lines have to do with opponents he believes he has killed who refuse to stay dead. The killing is never matter of fact, random, or brutal. How do you politely is in fact fun? Hellboy (Ron Pearlman) plays it just right to make it entertaining.
So when you look at what forms an entertaining protagonist there are clearly several factors that come in to play. Is the character entertaining? Do they avoid having so many problems that instead of having fun the viewer is dragged down into misery? Are their goals, dreams, and actions something people can relate to in some way, however tenuous that vicarious thread might be?
And to me it mostly comes back to fun.

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