Monday, August 4, 2008

Part 6: Pulling it all together

Clearly, there are a great number of factors to consider when putting together a Super Hero movie. The end result can range from fantastic on down to horrible. Obviously, the intent is always to provide the audience with the best experience possible but still, for almost every Spiderman we get a Daredevil and for every Batman Begins we get a Batman Forever. What separates the best from the worst?

The Hero Saves the Day or Movies you Should not miss.

There are some movies which escape the genre of Super Hero movies. They can and should be enjoyed even by people who perhaps are not so much fans of comic books yet still love good action movies or just plain entertaining features.

Any discussion of the greatest Super Hero movies of all time has to include The Dark Knight (2008). It contains every element needed to appeal to both the core audience for action movies and to the more casual fan. The storyline is complex, the characterizations layered, and the themes that run through the movie are easily accessible.

Interestingly, one of the most important lines any Super Hero movie must consider is life and death. Will people face real death or will they simply be put in peril yet ultimately escape. The Dark Knight turns the question into a primary theme. The Joker (Heath Ledger) is an indiscriminate killer who uses a variety of methods to dispose of enemies, police, and innocent bystanders. On the other side of the divide is Batman (Christian Bale) who refuses to take a life.

Questions of morals and corruptibility run throughout the movie. Yet it is not so lost in following these questions that it forgets to fulfill expectations for dynamic action. Though the primary villain, the Joker, has weaker motivations than you will typically find for villains on this list, the visuals, story, and action combine to fill over 2-1/2 hours with entertainment.

Close behind is an animated feature, The Incredibles (2004). Easy to dismiss because it is an animated feature, The Incredibles is a surprisingly well put together feature. The cast of heroes from Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) to Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) to Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) is one that is instantly recognizable as belonging to the Golden Age of heroes. The villain Syndrome (Jason Lee) has classic motivations, a cool look, and provides a distinct threat to the heroes that is believable and fun to watch as they overcome it. The action sequences are mind-blowing and highly entertaining. To casually dismiss it because the Incredibles are not a DC Comics or Marvel Comics creation and because it is animated is to do yourself a huge disservice. The Incredibles bears up well to repeated viewings and should be high on the list for anyone who enjoys good Super Hero movies.

The Hero is On His Way or Movies Worth Seeing more than once.

There are several movies which are on the cusp of greatness. They are above average action movies with good characters and story lines yet are not quite on the same level as the very best of the genre.

Take a movie like The Fantastic Four (2005). It explores themes of how to deal with being different in a variety of ways, Dr. Doom (Julian McMahon) provides a great challenge for the heroes, the path to the final confrontation is entertaining with some nice turns along the way, and the final battle is epic. This is a movie which has a deserved fanbase but it is not quite on the same level as the top few movies.

In the same vein would be a movie like Iron Man (2008). Perfectly cast from Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) to eye-candy Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) to fun villain Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), it jumps right into the action and keeps the audience entertained from beginning to end. There is a nice dose of excellent action, strong supporting characters, and the theme of redemption for Stark is one that the audience can latch on to. Yet there is just...something, some undefinable something that marks it a step below the very best. Perhaps it is the less deep motivations of Stane or the surprisingly short final confrontation with the Iron Monger but something makes this movie one that, while entertaining, just is not on the same level as the very top tier.

There are a number of movies that fall into this vein. 2 of the 3 Spiderman movies fall into the realm of movies that are highly entertaining, have engaging action sequences, cool villains, and explore themes that most people should find interesting. In the first of the three, that theme has to do with how power is handled and in the second the themes are revenge and dealing with broken dreams. Where do they fall short while The Dark Knight and The Incredibles succeed? Perhaps the motivations are just a bit off or the resolutions just a bit hokey...sometimes it is hard to say why one movie works better than another movie, a theme we will explore more in the underrated section.

Some movies make it into the realm of eminently satisfying movies simply because one certain element stands out above the others. For example, The Incredible Hulk (2008) is a pretty average movie for most of the length. The opening is slow and somewhat maudlin. The action sequences seem to be battling the ghosts of The Hulk (2003) and, while good, are not great...until the finale where the Hulk (Edward Norton) battles the Abomination (Tim Roth). Here we see the true potential of Super Hero movies with a battle that is truly titanic. Two seemingly evenly matched super strength warriors battle each other across a city and their path of destruction is truly memorable. If not for this scene then it is possible that, incredibly, The Incredible Hulk would have followed The Hulk into the pits of disappointment. The motivations ring hollow, Norton is not particularly sympathetic as Bruce Banner, and the story tends to drag in places yet the movie is redeemed by the finale.

Down to Defeat: Whither the Hero? or movies gone wrong.

As fun as it might seem to watch Super Hero movies, sometimes the boat is missed and the results are disappointing. Perhaps the poster child for this is the aforementioned The Hulk. It spends so much time on metaphysical questions that it fails to deliver the story lines that are needed in a fantasy world such as one inhabited by Superheroes. It exhibits the same flaw that ultimately crippled Fantastic Four:Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007). A weak path to the movie, albeit with some very cool special effects, ultimately is not saved by the finale but instead turns the entire movie into a travesty, a weak echo of what was expected. Both finales involve not a fight of epic proportions and over the top action but instead a metaphysical, abstract mind-meld that leaves the audience disappointed. It is not necessarily that either effort was a bad movie or even that the endings were unsatisfying...if they were a different genre. But in a Super Hero movie you want action and both movies failed to deliver it for their denouement.

Another way to miss it is to miss the "feel" of the source material. It has been tried twice with the Punisher franchise. The first time, when Dolph Lundgren took on the role of Frank Castle in the 1989 version the movie was roundly panned, possibly because Dolph Lundgren has the screen presence of a leper and the grace of a 1-legged mule. He simply was not a sympathetic character and his acting removed the viewer from the world they were trying to immerse themselves in. When Thomas Jane took on the role in 2004 he suffered many of the same issues. His facial expressions vary so seldom that you assume he is attempting to recreate the legendary Kuleshov Effect. While the climax is indeed a bloodbath worthy of the comic book source material, the variety of guns he uses is remarkably small and not nearly as over the top as expected. We have seen larger arsenals of weaponry in a variety of flicks. As a result, The Punisher is just another gunfighting movie that does it more poorly than a lot of other gunfighting movies and does not have a storyline or characterizations to make up for it.

Superman Returns (2006) is another example of a movie that is a fine effort at movie making but a failure as an attempt at a Super Hero movie. The climax is reached without a real super hero type activity and as a result it is a rather depressing, maudlin, dark-hued effort that leaves people waiting to see Superman (Brandon Routh) unleash on them wondering what happened. If this movie were not Superman then perhaps the cheese-ball overacting of Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor and his rather pedestrian motivations could have been overcome to give us an entertaining foray into the questions of relationships rekindled after an unexpected time apart. Perhaps not. But we will never know.

When Super Hero movies forget their core audience and either are not true to the source material or else fail to deliver action packed finales they almost always end in tremendous disappointment.

Who Was that Masked Man? or, Super Hero movies that have been underrated.

As Super Hero movies go, the box office numbers for Hellboy (2004) and Hellboy II:The Golden Army (2008) were not stellar. Yet both efforts star a wisecracking Super Hero (?) Hellboy (Ron Perlman) in the best tradition of the Gold Age of comics. He is an interesting character study of "genetics versus environment"and his desire to be "normal" provides an entertaining sub-plot. To be sure the motives of the villains are pretty stereotypical but the movies move along at a good pace, are entertaining to watch and should have been much better received.

Another fine example would be Daredevil (2003). The movie had interesting characters, an action packed plot, motivations that made sense, and while the battle with Kingpin (Michael Clarke Duncan) was disappointing, it did come after an epic battle between first Daredevil (Ben Affleck) and Elektra (Jennifer Garner), then Electra and Bullseye (Colin Farrell), and finally Daredevil and Bullseye that is not to be missed. Yet it has been roundly panned and dismissed as a weak effort. I suspect it has more to do with the timing of its release with Ben Affleck in a starring role than the quality of the movie itself.

This look at Super Hero movies obviously overlooks older, and sometimes great efforts such as Superman (1978) and is not meant to look at every movie ever made. But in looking at the list, one thing becomes clear. When people set out to make a Super Hero movie, they sometimes go half way or they forget their core audience. It is all too easy to dismiss those audience members as dorks or geeks and assume the same level of effort to produce great movies in other genres is not required for Super Hero flicks.

In truth, some of those audience members are among the most discerning members out there, capable of catching subtle nuances and themes that fly over the heads of many audience members. To create a great Super Hero movie, it is incumbent to treat the source material and audience members with respect, to give us a script that includes sensible motivations, 3-dimensional characters, explores issues people care about, and still delivers the action we crave to resolve those situations.

In real life it is not possible to resolve disagreements with girlfriends by defeating a Super Villain...but that is what we want in our movies. That is what we look for, it is what we want, and it is what we celebrate. Long live the Super Heroes.

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