My Summer in Superheroes

Bad, bland, and preemptively avoided disaster. Keep the superheroes coming, Hollywood.

My beloved bride isn’t the sort to despise my comic book proclivities–she knew what she was getting into and she’s adapted well. After a bit of a tussle over where to hang the limited edition Olly Moss Blade Runner poster (behind the bedroom door, out of sight) she’s settled down to a long life of weekend outings to comic book movie adaptations. Though it is possible for me to be critical of these loud, story gleaming assaults on the senses I am contractually bound to see these films. The blood pact I have made is with my 5-11 year old self who dreamed of large screen adaptations of Captain America, Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, and all the rest. Stuck in a short era of only rudimentary computer generated effects (and parents who wouldn’t let me see a PG-13 feature anyway) I resolved to wait. The Marvel films, corporate chum though they are, are the fulfillment of this child’s wishes. Who am I to deny him his dreams? For this reason, my Marvel movie viewing won’t abate any time soon, as the Disney company well knows. Perhaps anticipating this future, my adult self has developed an astronomically high tolerance for shoveling down mediocre action/adventure shlock. As for poorly made action/adventure schlock I tend to decide whether it is worth my time only after it has taken up a considerable amount of it. But for my wife’s sake if not mine, I have at least grown to expect some compensation of quality from superhero films and unfortunately, this summer did not quite deliver.

Despite some effort on Joss Whedon’s part, Avengers: Age of Ultron cannot quite overcome the narrative tangle of foreshadowing that Marvel’s higher ups seem to demand from their pictures. It’s helpful to remember that these aren’t exactly movies. They ought to be thought of as serials like the classic Flash Gordon series of the nineteen forties and fifties, where the villain is never quite defeated and the hero never quite done. Still, there was a reason why these old serials were shorts that played before the feature, rather than being the main attraction. Marvel has hyperserialized the serial, flaying their scripts open into connections and tie-ins. This treatment leaves Avengers 2 in a mushy, undramatic tangle. 

It’s hard to blame Whedon for that, but the movie contains even deeper, well, if not flaws then banalities, than could not have been solved by trimming the fat. The fatal one is the villain’s unimaginative plot which (spoiling absolutely nothing) is to converge his forces on a specific geographic location and carry out some action that involves a significant amount of time in setup and execution. It seems to me that this is just the sort of thing the Avengers were made to thwart, and thwart it they do. Though Whedon should be credited for injecting some pathos into the finale which superhero movies have been sorely lacking lately–that is scenes in which superheroes actually save innocent people–the end sequence somehow manage to come off as sanctimonious and dour. Maybe it’s because it’s set in some sort of Eastern European urban jungle where, one imagines, a legion of killer robots descending on their apartments is only the latest in a long line of tragedies and disappointments.

Though a much better film, Marvel’s peculiar narrative requirements seemed to haunt Ant-Man even worse than the Avengers’ second outing. The film was conceived and written by one of my favorite directors Edgar Wright, responsible for the finest action-comedy ever made: Shaun of the Dead. Despite working on the project for two years, Wright departed Ant-Man over creative differences, chief among them, most likely was Marvel’s ordered rewrite of Wright’s script, a piece of work that Joss Whedon called the best Marvel script he’d ever read.

The fallout is not a bad movie. It’s actually mildly enjoyable, though lacking in charm. Wright’s signature frenetic editing style is sadly absent from the film’s gags and action scenes. What’s left is a by-the-book origin story that, on the plus side, is kid friendly and unafraid to be silly. The stakes are appropriately high without needing to level entire cities, and the tale is character-driven, despite the fact that the characters are not given much room to be interesting. It’s a “good” film. Not great.

This all left me more than a little sad, and I spent the movie speculating on what Wright’s film might have been like and what elements of the theatrical version came from him. Ultimately, I have a hard time believing the story that Wright was thrown by Marvel’s demands to tie in their broader universe. This is a guy who was perfectly comfortable including a Bollywood song-and-dance number featuring flying demon hipsters for Scott Pilgrim vs. the World simply because it was in the source material. The film’s plot seems right along the lines of Wright’s vision: a zany heist film featuring flawed characters who save the world and find healing along the way.

A more plausible theory is that Wright’s tone prompted the falling out. Wright is a filmmaker who, does not always make great films, but always writes memorable characters who get into predicaments of their own making. The World’s End, though not a good film by any stretch, features sharp characters with clear and distinct motivations. Wright’s films are devoid of everymen. Marvel’s films are peopled by everymen–their characters may feature quirks, but their motivations are elastic enough to serve whatever function the latest tale needs. Tony Stark will always be an irascible and quick-witted, but he may in one film be selfless, and in another, selfish and hubristic. Whatever the plot calls for. Basically, Marvel’s characters need to be up for whatever, and like the guy in your friend group who is up for whatever, though he’s pleasant to be around he’s not terribly interesting. This is not how memorable characters are written. I believe Wright had to leave because he overperformed. Wright’s Ant-Man was probably a movie that didn’t fit neatly in with Marvel’s brand vanilla and it needed to be more generic. The extant film corroborates this. Ant-Man features love, family, tragedy, and comedy, but it is all played very glibly. Funny jokes are safely repeated. Rudd’s Scott Lang features the surface-level motivations to care for his daughter, but the content of his character is left nebulous enough to fit him easily into the next Captain America movie. In short, Wright was too interesting for Marvel.

Roads not taken: Fantastic 4

I decided not to see Fantastic 4 after watching the trailer. This is because I love Fantastic 4. Memories of my cool uncle passing me comics and action figures of a rock man, a fire man, a stretchy man and an invisible woman are too precious to me to waste on what appeared to be a movie about a creepy science experiment. Here’s the thing: any attempt to make Fantastic 4 “serious” must first pass through its crazy-cosmic, Jack Kirby aesthetic who dressed up space aliens like Babylonian kings and created a giant man that eats planets. Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy came closest to realizing Kirby’s aesthetic onscreen, and it was immediately apparent to me upon watching the preview that Fox and Josh Trank went a completely different direction. That’s fine, I thought, but it’s not for me. Apparently it wasn’t for anyone else either and it wasn’t fine. As it turned out Josh Trank’s Fantastic 4 reboot may be the most epic super-flop since John Carter. My advice? If you’re making a movie about a rock man, a fire man, a stretchy man and an invisible girl, do it for the kids.

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