30 April 2016

Who Is Jason Sudeikis?

This is a question that's been bothering me for a long time. I suppose that I'm actually a Jason Sudeikis fan, although I truly cannot figure out why. I've seen far more Sudeikis movies that any human being should have a right to, and I've been dishing on a lot of The Last Man on Earth recently, where his suave astronaut character has become a big player recently. Even with repeated viewing of what he's capable of, I still have a really hard time determining his comic persona.
This is probably his best work ever.

An actor's persona is essentially their range or public perception. This is The End (2013) did an excellent job of riffing on this concept to the extreme. James Franco is a sexually ambiguous erudite, Jonah Hill is a pretentious narcissist, Danny McBride is a psychopath, and so on. Bringing it closer to Sudeikis' other recent SNL alumni, Andy Samberg is the goofy slacker, Will Forte is the extreme desperate delusional jackass, Fred Armisen is hipster incarnate, and Kristen Wiig is full-blown mania hidden beneath a thin layer of forced social courtesy.

Does Sudeikis have any similar tagline? It's really hard to say. I watch him and am absolutely perplexed trying to understand what makes him funny. Recent movies where he's been a lead include Hall Pass (2011), A Good Old Fashioned Orgy (2011), Horrible Bosses (2011), We're the Millers (2013), Horrible Bosses 2 (2014), and Sleeping With Other People (2015) in addition to bit roles in The Campaign (2012), Drinking Buddies (2013), and Race (2016). Why the hell was Sudeikis in Race? When you think of him do you think socially conscious period sports film? He was also in Tumbledown (2015), which I'm admittedly unfamiliar with.

What is his common schtick or persona? What makes him funny or worthy of following in the footsteps of past SNL legends? I have no idea. But he's addictive and I guess I'm a fan. To some extent I might call him Chevy Chase-lite, because he generally exhibits a suave sarcasm mixed with being a confident know-it-all. He's never as dangerous or as scathing as Chase, though. He doesn't really come close to the edge of darkness, even when he's pushing good taste.

Sudeikis doesn't necessarily display any skills, either. Whether it's the fast-talking of Dan Aykroyd, the pratfalls of Chase, or the endless charming wit of Bill Murray. Naturally it might be unfair to compare him to comic legends, but as the SNL generational heir apparent it's not totally unjustified. He's just kind of there, doing things. While flirting with it, he doesn't exactly commit to depravity in the Horrible Bosses films, nor is he really a memorable stand-out in other flicks. He almost serves better as the straight man in A Good Old Fashioned Orgy and The Campaign amidst the Tyler Labines, Lake Bells, Will Ferrells, and Zach Galifianakises that are more expressive and interesting.

The question comes around again - why, then, do I keep coming back to him? Sudeikis is never exactly funny, even if the properties he leads tend to have interesting premises and funny elements to them. When he's doing his thing it always seems like he'd rather be the one laughing with us on the outside rather than the sly or subtle driving element. He generally knows that he's in comedies rather than existing as a figure to laugh at. There's a distance there that's almost like late-Adam Sandler, who feels more comfortable letting everyone else work around him rather than be the center of goofiness like he was at the start of his career.

At the same time, though, he's filling a gap in headlined comedies right now, and because of that his films have been generally successful. We're the Millers should have been a pretty good showcase vehicle for him, even if it's now mostly remembered for Jennifer Aniston's striptease. It's not like it's a bad comedy, but it's just so damn meh. In what might be the funniest scene, Sudeikis literally stands there, watching. It seems to be what he does best - this smug commentator on the wacky events going on around him. In the Horrible Bosses dynamic, Charlie Day is wound-up and moronic, but relatively adjusted, Jason Bateman is the put-upon straight man he usually plays, and Sudeikis is again, mostly just there to sleep with Kevin Spacey's wife and make jokes about everyone else. It's like he's this floating comic doing nothing in any of these stories.

Maybe that's why I still watch his projects - because in all honesty, even though there's not much narrative or comic substance to whatever Sudeikis does, he is pretty good at it. There's some fulfillment to be had from his commentary talent. It's not exactly as if you're going to get a lot out of his stuff, but he can at least deliver it.

What do you think? Are you on Team Sudeikis or consider him as meh as I do?

29 April 2016

But Why is the Cat Named Keanu?

Today we see the first major comedy event of 2016 (besides Deadpool. And Zoolander 2. Okay, so this is the first explicit comedy film that people are actually anticipating). Here we have Keanu (2016), which comes from the brilliant minds of Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key.
I will admit, though, that this is the cutest thing ever.

Now, the only part of the last sentence that I really agree with is that Keanu is coming out today. I do not understand the appeal of Key & Peele at all. If we're going back to Zoolander (2001), I feel like I'm taking crazy pills. I'm living in a universe full of insane pod people where my opinion doesn't match up with critical or popular consensus at all. So, let's talk about that.

Key & Peele met on MADtv, which ought to explain enough why this kind of humour doesn't really click. MADtv tended to be a more desperate version of SNL, although it didn't convert that underdog mantra into infectious energy like In Living Color or witty surrealism like The Kids in the Hall. It was always a show that never seemed to have anything interesting to say. This has of course plagued SNL at various times in its production, notably recently, but that show tends to be backed by a pedigree that glosses over its inconsistencies. MADtv was stupid without the self-awareness of being stupid vital to create that fulfilling gap which causes a deep enjoyment of a show in addition to spontaneous laughter.

Key & Peele suffered from a different ailment, namely the inability for the principal architects to create a sketch where something happens. I really gave the show a chance, too. I desperately tried to like this show. There's no reason why I should hate it as much as I do. The sketches are just intolerable. They tend to start with a good joke or premise and then pound it into the ground far past its expiration point. Basic writing dictates that a scene needs to have a starting point, a turn, then an ending that demonstrates some kind of change from the beginning. Obviously, this is weirder when applied to sketches. But if you look at some of the more famous sketches out there - "Cowbell" "Dead Parrot" "Rick James" all have some kind of joke build-up, acceleration of tension, and unexpected wit and subtlety even when the parrot joke should no longer be funny.

Key & Peele lacked all that. Half the show seemed to be them recounting other shows without any real critical insight. Now, that sounds pretty damned boring, but pop culture in itself isn't a joke. Jokes need to come from having some kind of spin or commentary, whether explicit or not. There are some sketches that work pretty well. "Family Matters." "A-a-ron." More often than not, though, I can't find any humour in their humour. Instead of penetrating and giving their work some excitement, they seem to find more comfort circling around the same topic until moving on.

Keanu promises to be an awfully weird movie. It's a telling extension of their brand that they'd center around the retrieval of a stolen gangster kitty, but given their common evisceration of black masculinity, it's fair game. It's also a movie that white people should be very comfortable with, which also seems to be a staple of their work.

Everything points to this being a single joke stretched over the course of an entire feature film, and I'm not sure that it'll hold up based on their track record. There's the possibility that the longform version of their humour will succeed, and both have proven themselves to be capable actors in other projects, ranging from Parks and Reaction, Childrens Hospital, to Fargo.

I also don't really understand why the cat is named "Keanu." Is it a John Wick (2014) thing, like it was supposedly-but-not-really spoofing? Jordan Peele has claimed that there wasn't much to it besides a delight in using names that only have one connotation. That whole thing is weird. Pretty goofy and cute, but kind of a weird love letter that's not a love letter to Keanu Reeves.

What do you think about Keanu? Are you on the Key & Peele bandwagon? Can you read more into their writing than I can? Leave it below.

24 April 2016

What Disney's Live Action Resurgence Means for We Mortals

Making a billion dollars at the Box Office has become disturbingly more commonplace than it used to be, which is partly why when Timmy B's Alice in Wonderland (2010) lit it up in a slight re-imagining of one of Disney's animation mainstays, a whole shitload of comparable adaptations followed. Within a few months in 2016 we're seeing the ultimate culmination of this, to a fully developed palpable effect. We're coming off the heels of The Jungle Book (2016), which is doing surprisingly well critically and financially, and just saw the follow-up to Snow White and the Huntsman (2012), although pushed in a slightly different direction. This summer we'll also all get to lay eyes on The Legend of Tarzan (2016), cementing our astounding year.
You know, if it was really realistic, Baloo wouldn't sing.
Or let Mowgli keep his face on his head.

So, before we go any further let's get a few things out of the way. You ought to know by now that I am assuredly on top of my pop culture, and it's true that Disney has nothing to do with The Legend of Tarzan, which is produced by Warner Bros and based on the same Edgar Rice Burroughs character who has been chilling in the public domain for a while now. The Huntsman: Winter's War (2016) is also a Universal Studios production, but its combination of Snow White and Frozen (2013) really seem to scream Disney adaptation, although it's a bit dark.

We always need to get back to the concept of cultural interest, though. In the race to adapt any and all properties that might have a recall factor that studios conceive will spark interest, where is that disparity between IPs that capture zeitgeist and those that fail? Alice in Wonderland and The Jungle Book certainly struck their respective nerves. The Lone Ranger (2013) and Dark Shadows (2012) not so much.

It's no accident that I listed two Tim Burton efforts to illustrate that this doesn't really have anything to do with the director in charge. In fact, under the current studio blockbuster system it's arguable that the director really has anything to do with the property under development, with the exception of the serious auteurs like Chris Nolan or Zack Snyder, which for better or worse, have enough cache to do whatever they want.

But back to the point at hand, I want to focus in on The Jungle Book and The Huntsman: Winter's War in particular, because neither are films that I'd necessarily expect to do well, yet one of them has had an excellent opening, and the other is looking a whole lot more mild, if not exactly an outright failure. Of course, it's really to hard to tell after only a day, although as of now Winter's War is sitting at $7 mill and about half of The Jungle Book's take in its second week.

So let's dissect this shit. The Jungle Book (1967) is beloved, which could be mostly because it was Walt Disney the man's last film, because of its rollicking songs, or artful story construction. There is certainly some muddying as to whether or not the original short story collection by Rudyard Kipling is super-racist, and you can read a lot into King Louie the Orangutan being a jive-talking blackvoice who wants to be human, but as a cultural force alone, it's fairly prevalent. Most people have a good knowledge of the characters, even if it's just like "the evil tiger", "the evil snake", "the goofy bear", and "that panther that I forget if he was good or evil." And of course the "weren't there wolves, too? Did the wolves or the panther and bear raise that little Indian motherfucker?" These are all obviously artifacts that lead to strong recognition and desire to revisit that world. But we all have reasons to become invested at some point.

Also, TaleSpin. We don't make enough about TaleSpin. How was it completely accepted in stride that all these characters were just placed in a completely new setting and genre and everyone was totally down? Not to phrase it negatively like that, but could we ever have like, the entire cast of Frozen appear in a Sherlock-Holmes murder mystery with no reference to Arendale or frost powers? This is just amazing to me. How has this not happened more often? Will we get a Jon Favreau TaleSpin movie with photo-realistic animals? Damn straight we better.
The cold never bothered me anyway.

More importantly, though, our current incarnation of The Jungle Book retains a lot of what was special about the original while pushing the effects forward in a big way that beefs up the core thesis of the story. Retaining what made the original IP special while adding new elements that actually advance the viewing experience is a critical component to revitalizing old franchises. This incremental adjustment has provided mind-bogglingly huge dividends across the box office.

Now, on the other end of the spectrum we have this new Snow White series, which isn't really Snow White at all, but tries harder to use the Huntsman as its connective tissue, even if Charlize Theron's Queen Whatever is probably the stronger selling point. The series continues to throw out the only reason why using the IP would be worthwhile, even if it favors shit that's really cool and creepy that's like a Lars von Trier scene in a major blockbuster.

Ultimately at the intersection of good films and commercially successful films The Jungle Book is doing quite a bit better than The Huntsman: Winter's War, even if the latter is a bit more out there, which ought to be encouraged. This is only so good to a degree, though, because no matter what, a movie that actually rests on its own merits will rise to the top eventually.

07 April 2016

Stop Posting About Superheroes


It's no revelation to me that four out of my previous six posts had everything to do with Superheroes. Mostly complaining about them. In the wake of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Just Ass (2016), though, it seems like that's all the Internet has really cared about. At the same it's mostly just full of griping and crotchety criticism. So, what's going on here? Why have superheroes dominated not only the box office, but our critical conversation, even when there's widespread hate for the genre? That statement even supposes something else - where does that hate come from at all?
There's obviously only one truly great superhero film.

I'll start by immediately admitting my sublime addiction. I could be posting more about indie films or small dramas or other films that are actually worth something substantial, but superhero films seem to draw the most attention right now. It's not like I even care about getting hits or anything, although that's clearly a motivation everywhere else. It's tough for even old school action revivals like London Has Fallen (2016) to gain enough notoriety to make cultural waves in the landscape we're in right now.

For me, I think this stems from my childhood. Of course it does. As a kid I was heavily into comic books and enthralled by these stories that took me out of my shitty existence and into a world were anything seemed possible. This sort of wish-fulfillment is cliché, but accurate. The world of comics seemed niche and private, which created this nerd against the world mentality that a lot of us still hold today.

It's obviously a big shock then, to see the heroes that we once clutched to our breasts in nerd-filled drool and yearning suddenly these major Hollywood forces. At once they're the savior and destroyer of an industry that can't seem to find a better way to put asses in seats. The cynical question, though would be, at what cost of cultural dignity?

This is an interesting proposition because superhero movies are more a replacement for action films, which weren't necessarily any better, despite what our nostalgia might tell us. For every Total Recall (1990) we had plenty of Timecop (1994). Alongside Die Hard (1988) we had The Last Boy Scout (1991). It's not like we are supplanting the prestige of action films here. Memory tends to be selective, and I'm confident that in twenty years we'll remember Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) a lot more than Green Lantern (2011).

This obviously spurns a debate, because I actually watched Green Lantern playing on FX yesterday morning. And for a dude for whom Hal Jordan may be his favourite superhero, that's a rough fucking picture. Five years down the road no one is really eager to re-visit the film, no one is nostalgic, no one is thinking "It was really bad but this one scene was good." There is nearly no redeemable qualities. But it was on TV and I still watched it. Has this addiction become seriously bad for my cultural health?

I'm not convinced that every superhero film is terrible. There are in fact, plenty that stand up perfectly great against any other genre, while most are generally in the serviceable range. I don't think we need to necessarily begin a cultural panic claiming that we've lost all art at the cinema. These aren't really the best films of the year in any year (with a handful of exceptions), but then again, my definitions of such things tend to be drenched in proletariat rather than snobby pretentious arthouse loves. Ultimately, a film needs to be judged on its own merits, no matter what or where those merits come from. I'll gladly sit through Battleship (2012) the same evening as Frances Ha (2012) and judge the work of both.

Speaking of Battleship, the easy answer I suppose is that innocuous non-thinking blockbuster entertainment goes down smooth. And honestly, at the end of the week on a Friday night, Iron Man 3 (2013) goes down a lot smoother than Queen of Earth (2015). And there's nothing wrong with that. There isn't a need to be challenged all the time and strive for a culture of constantly high art because frankly, it's exhausting and alienating.

Of course, we shouldn't really strive for a culture of low art, either. Part of my major goal here at Norwegian Morning Wood is to elevate the low and jokify the mighty, mostly providing analysis for the mundane and showing that any work of art can have its place in the cultural conversation. This has recently slid pretty damn well into constant superhero territory.

Why is that a bad thing? Why is the genre so maligned? I suppose it is the inherently juvenile association along with the delusional male boy wish fulfillment I mentioned earlier. At some point we need to mature and gain an understanding about life and truth outside of fantasy.

On a more practical note, it's also readily apparent that the major studios are becoming more polarized. In a more risk-adverse setting there are fewer mid-range films released and more effort placed in to the distant ends of the spectrum. Studios will either throw a few bucks at a small budget film or pour all of their resources into major motion picture tentpoles. There is a fallacy here, though, because there's roughly a 37% chance that film is going to be a huge bomb anyway.

Side note: in order to get that figure I took a look at the budgets and worldwide grosses of every film that's ever cost over $150 million, which was 138 films (which I got here, obviously with the caveat that budget reporting is insanely sketchy), then determined the profitability by the logic that true costs would include budget in addition to marketing costs, estimated at 70%, and then understanding the theater take, which by rough go at it, figures a studio keeps 80% in the first week, 55% in the second, 45% in the third, and 20% from there on out. Totaling this take using The Avengers (2012) as a model, that's about 56% of the total, with some variation and the conceit that foreign theaters generally take less than domestic, I bumped that up to 70% as well. So budget plus 70% of budget subtracted from 70% of worldwide gross should equal profitability in this rough estimate. Here's some data! Now, this is clearly very unscientific, but for the purposes of this essay, it gives us some kind of idea as to what Hollywood's general failure rate is. And it's about 37%.

Now I know you're curious about the superhero failure rate, and I figured it out - using that same spreadsheet's clearly infallible logic, out of the 22 superhero films with budgets over $150 million, only five of them failed to turn a profit, which is a rate of 23%. That's a significantly lower than the normal blockbuster fail rate. Business is business.

I'm not sure if that exercise has a point in understanding the cultural dialogue of the genre, the juvenile vapidness of the source material, or our shameless addiction to men in tights. Starting next year also an Amazon in a metal skirt of some kind. But nevertheless it's good to have perspective. That perspective should also include the fact that 22/138 films with budgets over $150 million is a paltry 16% over the past twenty years. Even looking at every movie since 2011 (the past five years - 65 films with huge budgets), only 14 of those are superhero films. Sure that's 64% of the total, but still only 22% of stupid monster blockbusters.

Is that enough of a combination of anecdotal data for you? The point is, I'm not actually sure if this is a problem or not. It would seem, however, that despite the relatively low amount of superhero films being released, they tend to dominate the cultural conversation as if there were one coming out every weekend. For my money this is the reason why efforts such as The Lone Ranger (2013), Jupiter Ascending (2015), and Tomorrowland (2015) flop hard. There really isn't enough people around to care about them. And if you're going to use the argument that none of these were particularly great movies, well, the only words I have for you is Batman v. Fucking Superman.

05 April 2016

On Second Thought, Those Nolan Batmans Weren't That Dark

Obviously, the topic on every single movie site out there this week is Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016). I haven't seen the thing yet, and don't necessarily plan to, if only because I'm not all that interested in the investment, even if my inherent nerdiness is trying to override that. After reading oodles of article and spoilers it also seems like a really bad movie in nearly every way. But I don't truly want to judge something I've never seen, and I have some history enjoying and defending blockbuster films that history has not been kind to, such as Daredevil (2003) and The Lone Ranger (2013). I'm loath to merely add an homogeneous opinion to the Internet's pile-on, especially because it seems more and more like this was a film doomed from the start. I agree with the pessimistic view associated with Zack Snyder but every film deserves assessment on its own merit.

But we're not here to talk about Batman v. Superman. Instead I'd like to make another contention. The tonal signature of the film and in general Warner Bros' core premise (despite surface pleads otherwise) for their upcoming slate was "no jokes", ostensibly creating thematically and aesthetically serious renditions molded upon the great success of Chris Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy, which of course won the studio and the genre a tremendous amount of respect in addition to a lot of dollars. To some extent this mantra also exists to differentiate the studio's offerings from rival Marvel Studio's penchant for candy coated fluff.
Two words: HI - LARIOUS

I'll make the argument that this double-standard is inherently flawed. The Dark Knight Trilogy wasn't actually that dark, or "grimdark" as it's come to be known. I'd also argue that the best Marvel film out there, Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), lacks the colorful joy of something like Thor (2011) and especially Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). The latter, by the way, after subsequent viewings, surprisingly doesn't hold up - I think because so much of it relied on subversive surprise that's actually not that subverting in a narrative sense and ends up a little deflated once the joke is out of the bag.

Let's get back to Batman. Naturally part of this weekend's Bv.S tie-in, almost every Batman and Superman film found its way on TV somewhere. That's an impressive feat. There have been six Superman movies in the past 38 years and seven Batman flicks since 1989. This doesn't even count all the serials in the 40s and the Adam West film in 1966, which no one cares about beyond camp. Considering that both of these have always been owned by the same studio it's truly amazing that it both took the studio that long to get these guys together and that they bungled it so bad.

Sorry, sorry, let's stop bashing Batman v. Superman. But seriously, all the old Supermans (except Quest for Peace [1987]) were on SyFy, Man of Steel (2013) on FX, and Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012) were on TNT. I wanted to watch these with a close eye to sort of figure out past interpretations of the characters and see if anything could hold up. And don't get me wrong - all the original films with these guys are pretty bad. Even Superman II (1980) which has typically been the gold standard among superhero films has a lot of really weird moments and inconsistencies, this being chief among them. I've never really dug the Burton Batmans either, and consider Batman Returns (1992) to rival Batman & Robin (1997) in roughness. I mean, it's at least equally campy. There's a whole penguin dynamite army!

Moving on, it's very clear that Nolan's attempts at creating serious interpretations of these characters resulted in the most critically and commercially successful iterations. The key here though, is that although these are serious movies in the sense that they're carefully constructed with logical story beats, relevant themes, and strong production, I'm hesitant to call them "realistic" or "dark" as much as they've received that denotation in the past.

In fact, after re-watching a few of these, it's amazing how downright jolly and light-hearted they really are. First, considering DC's current moratorium on jokes, it's surprising how many are actually packed in here. Often these are cheeky scenes with Alfred or Lucius Fox, but there's other classic moments from Jim Gordon chiming to himself in his best Will Smith, "I gotta get me one of these!" to the perfect pause as the police officer calls in Bruce's "Black....tank...." Even in peril, this is apparent. One of my favourite lines still is Alfred's "What's the point of all those push-ups if you can't even lift a bloody log?" as Bruce is trapped in his burning mansion. Bale gives this annoyed look that's a great break in tension. Batman Begins is full of these little bits of levity, but the other sequels shine this way as well.

For fuck's sake, one of the characters here is named the Joker. There are jokes. Dark, twisted jokes, but there's also little moments of perfection like Heath Ledger's subdued reaction when his last hospital bomb momentarily fails to detonate. There's also plenty of cheeky bits in The Dark Knight (2008) like Bruce's riff with Harvey Dent and Rachel Dawes, and especially the little party he has, which is full of sly humor.

The Dark Knight Rises, which you might suggest would turn the most towards the darkness actually has some of the greatest levity, from the introduction to Selina Kyle, to the nuttiness of Lucius Fox wanting to "show some stuff anyway" to Bruce, even though he says he's out of the game. Bane even gets some bits, although they're lines that are perhaps more clever and witty than they are funny. His whole introduction fits this. "It would be extremely painful. For you." Often the way the characters intone little lines becomes really memorable, often because they're pretty damn funny.

But sure, you say, even though the film makes a few solid jokes, there's far too much darkness and brooding here to really call these films light, right? Re-examining the color palette, though, Batman Begins is often shrouded in browns, and while there's the muck of the finale, most of the film is shot if not vibrant, then at least realistically, with mostly natural light. The Dark Knight trades a lot of this for more blues, but it's telling that the famous first five minutes that introduce the Joker are in stark daylight. The trilogy ignores the serious-minded desaturated look for something more steeped in naturalism, and while there's nothing necessarily bright on display, the colors are clear.

"You have my permission to cry."
The Trilogy as a whole seems to keep striving to bring Batman out of the shadows and into the day. Batman never makes a day appearance in Batman Begins, and it's especially noted that all the mobsters meet during daylight hours. This runs counter to a lot of superhero films that display their characters fighting proudly during lunch. The Joker is at his most menacing in the day, as if to say we can't hide our greatest fears and enemy in the shadows, rather he'll strike when we're comfortable.

This culminates in The Dark Knight Rises, which ends with a Batman vs. Bane duel in daylight, which is almost second to the mass of cronies vs. cops war that engulfs them. It's the perfect way for Batman to symbolify himself enough that he's fighting alongside the representatives of justice rather than as his own agent of the night. Like the Joker, almost all of Bane's antics are fueled by daylight, and he even flies a white plane in his introduction. Sure he's got a shady lair in the sewer, but Bane operates his violent schemes without fear in the cover of sunlight.

Now, this is obviously a mostly cosmetic analysis so far. Even though the jokes and coloration of the Trilogy have plenty of light in addition to the darkness Batman typically operates in, the series of films also pioneered the self-serious, brooding, contemplative hero that oodles of films since then have attempted to mimic.

I tend to go back and forth on this, because I've named these films as the "Intense Brooders" before. Now I'm kind of doubling back on that assumption, but that's ultimately due to context. In 2012 when I wrote that in the wake of The Avengers (2012), yeah, these Nolan films seemed to take themselves way too seriously. Now, in comparison to Batman v. Superman, they appear downright jolly.

More than that, though, there really isn't a ton of room for long contemplative brooding, especially in a film as tight as Batman BeginsThe Dark Knight probably has the most of this, although its scope remains large and the action on screen is compelling enough that there isn't a ton of time to show the lone warrior thinking about what it means to be a hero in the darkness. Things happen more than they don't happen. In terms of the self-seriousness treatment of pulp material, that's still there, although there are some legit points to be made about the insanity required to maintain this lifestyle as well as the physical, emotional, and personal toll. That statue at the end of Rises might seal the deal in zaniness, though.

I might consider these films not so much explicitly dark as more just thoughtful, serious about their narrative, and thematically sound. On the heels of Schumaker's duology, and even the Burton films, which played up Batman's camp with a level of explicit goofiness unparalleled in major motion picture making, I think if we again take them in cultural context, our reaction was strong towards wunderstanding these as the prototypical dark, gritty reboots.

That being said, Batman Begins, even though the narrows is rocked, ends pretty positively. The Dark Knight is certainly more of a downer, although Batman ostensibly accomplishes his goals, which is reflected in the beginning of Rises, which causes more problems. "Victory has defeated you!" Finally, the end of Rises is a near perfect send-off for Nolan's characterization of Bruce Wayne, fully containing the saga of the Batman living out his days banging Anne Hathaway in Paris.

It's hard to picture the current characterization of Batman doing the same thing. In general, the desire for the grimdark, pessimistic overtaking of modern superhero films seems to miss the point and ovetake what the Dark Knight Trilogy was doing, which is simply a serious treatment of the construction of a superhero saga with conscientious attention paid to narrative, themes, and precisely established ideologies. Their critical acclaim in this case is directly tied into its bankability, which is also fueled by its wit, constantly iconic imagery, memorable distinction in a land of otherwise banality, and the extremely high pedigree of its actors, most notably in Rises, which starred five Oscar winners and three more nominees among its principal cast. That's good for any movie ever.

So there's obviously some debate here, and these films sure show signs of brooding darkness, but they're not quit on the extreme level that we remember them. They're not all that much darker than any other classic action film. Most importantly, they're just good movies, which is shocking enough that we label them as overly serious, which is different from Snyder's Superman films, which are serious first and good movies second.

What do you think?

04 April 2016

X-Men vs. Deadpool: What Happens When Your Kid Makes More Money than You?

A very curious thing happened this past weekend - Deadpool (2016), which was famously batted around 20th Century Fox for years and years struggling to get funding at all, finally passed X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) to become the highest worldwide grossing X-Men movie of all time. Considering there's actually eight of these films, with a ninth coming up shortly, that's a significant feat.

Domestically, Deadpool has well-surpassed the previous highest-grossing entry, X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) long ago, even adjusting for inflation. It's also at this point almost doubled the previous bastard incarnation of the character seen in X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009), while also blasting part the other solo outing for that character, 2013's The Wolverine. Got all that?

One more thing - the film seems irrevocably poise to shoot past American Sniper (2014) and has an outside chance at taking down The Passion of the Christ (2004) to become the highest-grossing R-Rated domestic film of all time. It of course already has this distinction worldwide, surpassing The Matrix Reloaded (2003) last weekend to do it. Let all that sink in for a second and realize that fucking Deadpool has earned this accomplishment, zany irreverence and meta-in jokes and all.

The big question, then is what the hell will X-Men: Apocalypse (2016) do now? It has to do better than Deadpool, right? I mean, this is the build-up to that Universe's Omega-level Boss that's the equivalent of Thanos and Darkseid that the Avengers and Justice League have been building to for years / this whole week respectively. Days of Future Past was their decades-long build-up movie for sure, smashing two disparate casts together for lots of fun with the series' mythology, and while that was a success both financially and culturally (I'm tempted to call it the best or second-best X-Men film), it seemed to also prove that this series has a ceiling that's well underneath the lofty heights that Marvel reaches. Obviously, referring to the Marvel Studio here, folks, don't patronize my knowledge of nerddom.

All this is to say that Deadpool should have been this weird X-Men step child - a spin-off film from a spin-off that wasn't really a spin-off film at all (it certainly wasn't this character, and absolutely wasn't the tone). It only tangentially references the X-Men, and if you take away Negasonic Teenage Warhead, who is virtually unknown, you basically just have Colossus. This twists the knife even more considering they abandoned the Daniel Cudmore Colossus who never really did anything in favor of this comic book-accurate portrayal, and it works so damn well. That's mostly because his do-gooder personality bounces off Wade Wilson while remaining a huge and visually pleasing force on screen. It's the same reason why he usually pairs so well with Cable.

Getting back to Negasonic Teenage Warhead, actually, it's important to note that her character was completely changed, but nobody cared. On some level she also seems like she was included as a meta-joke about not being able to include many real X-Men. She was thrown in largely because of her name and how her powers spiced things up, but it's also this middle finger to the rest of the X-Men films that they can pick a random-ass New Mutant and make her a very impressionable character. There's no need to shoe-horn in cameos by the Blob or Multiple Man or other ridiculous crammed-in mutant. Deadpool just beat everyone with only Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead.

Underneath this is a multitude of other reasons for success. Deadpool didn't rely on the X-Men branding, it relied on its own meta-ness (super hitting right now, from Community to 22 Jump Street [2014]), its hilarity, and unique commentary on superhero films in general. Everything about it burst with must-see funness.

Now, let's watch the latest Apocalypse trailer again:

Soooo - a few things. First, there's nothing all that compelling about this that differentiates it from anything else we've seen every summer since forever. Now, out of all the wacky blockbusters coming out this year, I held out for this one being pretty good, and I still believe that, because I think Bryan Singer really knows these characters, is a masterful director of this kind of material, and will do a nice job putting his final stamp (...for now, obviously) on this franchise. But after Deadpool helped to show the stupidness of this whole mess, is it really going to land with enough sincerity for us to care?

It may just be the Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) left in me, or the rapidly approaching Captain America: Civil War (2016), but I'm also struck by the fact that Apocalypse seems to largely feature our beloved heroes clashing against each other. The trailer shows a bit of Cyclops vs. Storm, Beast vs. Psylocke, Archangel vs. a bunch of them, and Magneto being all moody and whatever. Now, some of this is odd, because we haven't had Storm in a film for a while, and haven't  had Cyclops even longer. We saw bits of Angel in The Last Stand and have never seen Psylocke before - so it's not wholly like Civil War where all the pieces have been laid out and now they're duking it out - but this is still largely a battle between people we often know as friends. Magneto notwithstanding, although he's worked alongside our heroes plenty, notably fresh off Days of Future Past.

It's also odd how Mystique has sort of become this de facto leader, and you have to believe that has everything to do with Jennifer Lawrence becoming a megastar more than anything else. I don't have a problem with that, although the movies have always emphasized her much more than I think her place was in the comic book pantheon. I mean, no Mr. Sinister, ever? OR CALIBAN?! Alright, she's probably more significant than Caliban. But based on her box office appeal, it's no surprise that she's front and center in this marketing. And don't get me wrong, J-Law has made that change in the mythos so worthwhile. She's a compelling screen presence that is probably toe-to-toe with Fassbender and eclipsing McAvoy right now.

The X-franchise has always been interesting to me because it's the grand-daddy of all these current superhero films. Across nine films and sixteen years it's also had a (somewhat) consistent mythology, and as such it's been at the forefront of trends that are becoming more popular. The period film. The team-up film. The Omega-threat film. The movement towards comic-real costumes. It's fascinating and rewarding to follow. And now Deadpool has beaten all of them at the Box Office.

What do you think? Can Apocalypse manage to either culturally or commercially surpass its annoying stepson, Deadpool? Find out in a few months!
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