Interest in Reviews?

Now, keep in mind Mike can’t control when movies begin or end…

Someone asked me last week if I’d be reviewing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I didn’t want to see the movie much less review it. But if you guys would be interested in reading them, I’ll take that bullet.

I’ll try to work more in should you want them. I’ve actually been toying with reviewing Hannibal from the beginning to gin up interest in the show before Season 3 starts in February. I may eventually review Twin Peaks episode by episode, too, but again those projects were meant to be on my own time, at my own pace.

Let me know in the comments (or on Facebook) if anyone would be interested in more reviews, both movies and TV, on here.

 

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Batman v. Superman – Dark Knight Details? (Spoilers)

A storied career

Some details about the characterization of Batman in Batman v. Superman may have come out in a few reports originating on BadassDigest.com and perpetuated on Ain’t It Cool News and IGN.com. They’re encouraging! At least I think so.

Devin Faraci’s reports:

…when BvS opens Batman has existed for close to thirty years, which would place Wayne in his 50s (which is why I expected more grey in Affleck’s hair). In this version Batman is still an urban legend, a creature of the night, and no one has ever taken his picture. But he’s had plenty of adventures, and the Batcave includes a memorial centered around a tattered Robin costume.

It goes on to note similar information about Wonder Woman in that she has also been operating in the world already. There is no timeframe indicated for her, though. It does say that she is known in the world in some way while Batman has been under the radar.

This information gives me hope. I stand by my criticisms of DC and Warner Bros. bungling of its cinematic adaptations, but this report is nothing but good. For years, I’ve argued that we need to stop with all of the damn origin stories for Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man. We get it. Batman’s parents were killed, Superman is from Krypton, but grew up in Kansas, and Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben died because of his carelessness. Established.

Instead, tell good stories about these characters and broaden the universe. Go deeper. Batman is a good example of this. Not all of Batman’s stories need to be a full-blown action-drenched ride with car chases and explosions and the fate of Gotham at stake. Those stories are good, don’t get me wrong, but The Dark Knight can play in a few genres. For example, you could make a psychological thriller where Batman hunts a serial killer like Mr. Zsasz or the Holiday killer. Or you could tell a horror story where Batman hunts a creature like Man-Bat or one of the many supernatural creatures against which he’s faced off. Or you could do a straight-up mystery where Batman’s detective skills get put to good use. Unfortunately, we never see these kinds of stories in movie form because the damn franchise reboots every 10 years.

So, while I recognize that Batman v. Superman is, again, going to be another action-packed, blockbuster, “the world is ending” type story, I appreciate that we’re not starting Batman at “square one” again. He’s been Batman for 30 years and he’s had adventures and fights and investigations. In fact, I rather dig the “urban myth” aspect of his back story. That’s how Batman wants to work–in the shadows, under the radar, as something dark and terrible for criminals to fear.

I’m still not completely sold on this movie, or on DC’s ill-prepared plans, but news like this is more encouraging than not.

Also, in the time it took me to write this post, Warner Bros. announced that Batman v. Superman is moving its release date up to March 25, 2016. That also moves it away from Captain America 3, which is a good idea. The last thing Warner Bros. needs is a black-eye by releasing their massive, franchise-inducing tent-pole movie and having it be defeated at the box office by Marvel’s 13th movie.

Marvel’s “Villain Problem”

I’ve had a vision of a world made free from magic tricks.

*LIGHT SPOILERS AHEAD*

Marvel Studios, for all its great decisions and fantastic vision, is not doing its villains justice. It’s the only area where DC is supreme.

Mike Cecchini at Den of Geek has written a fantastic piece, with which I completely agree, about how Marvel’s cinematic villains aren’t up to snuff. There have been 10 Marvel movies now and, of them, only one memorable villain who headlined in two of those films. I’m referring to Loki, of course, in case you’re blind. Mr. Cecchini even makes the rather damning point that Captain America: The First Avenger wasted Hugo Weaving as Red Skull. He’s right.

Alternatively, the Warner Brothers’ DC films have done its villains justice. Of course, Christopher Nolan’s Batman films were great for their characterization of the man himself, but the villains were also given a great deal to do. Even Man of Steel, which I’ve criticized in another post, has a formidable villain in General Zod played by Michael Shannon. Zod has real motivation and a point of view, that while we don’t necessarily agree with it, we can understand. Plus, since his goal (essentially terraforming Earth into a new Krypton) is something that Superman struggles with as one of the last beings of his race in the universe, the conflict between them takes on added weight.

In Batman Begins, Ra’s Al Ghul wasn’t just a monologue spewing evil machine — he had real objectives and beliefs and the threat of force behind his actions that challenged Batman physically as well as philosophically. In many ways, Ra’s and Batman have the same objective. They just have radically different methods for attaining it. The drama of their conflict is borne out of their similarities and, indeed, the bond of mentor and student shared at the beginning. It also doesn’t hurt that Liam Neeson is amazing.

So much has been said about Heath Ledger as the Joker in The Dark Knight that I can hardly say anything new. He was brilliant and terrifying and funny. It was the ultimate depiction of the character on film because everything he did, he did through action and motion and violence or the ever-present threat of violence. You cringe to watch him in some scenes while not daring to look away. Performance aside, the Joker is the yin to Batman’s yang. And in The Dark Knight that was literally true because, thematically, the Joker was a consequence of Batman’s escalation against criminals. The Joker even thanks Batman for it. While he claims to have no motive and no goal, that’s not true and we see it play out over the course of the film. Perhaps the best thing that can be said about Ledger’s performance as Joker and of his role in The Dark Knight, is that a truly good villain truly shows us the hero in a new light. The Joker tests Batman and tests the police and forces them to stand by their morality or not. Because of Joker, we learned a great deal more about Batman’s character and his resolve than we did in the previous film.

Finally, in The Dark Knight Rises, realizing that no one could compare to Heath Ledger’s psychological performance as Joker, Nolan and team went a different way: position Batman against a foe that’s not just a philosophical threat, but one who can physically match and surpass him: Bane. While lacking some of the thematic value of Ra’s and Joker, Bane’s presence as a physical threat played into the idea of a Batman past his prime who could no longer cut it. Bane was young, muscle-bound, and powerful, while Batman had been off the streets for years, walked with a cane, and was unbalanced. Again, it was another prism through which to see Batman and bring out more aspects of his character. The film is not nearly as perfect as The Dark Knight, but still a pretty satisfying portrayal of Batman as well as a villain with real menace.

Unfortunately, none of the Cinematic Marvel villains have the weight of the DC villains — even Loki. He’s a great foil and is a good villain, but Tom Hiddleston’s performance is 99% of the reason that is the case. What does Loki tell us about Thor or the Avengers? Nothing, really. He’s just a foe, presenting a challenge, which the heroes must defeat. It’s a shame because in the comics Marvel villains are usually more nuanced and human than their counterparts in the DC Universe (Batman’s rogues aside, of course).

I can hardly fault Marvel for putting so much love and attention into their protagonists because we are seeing some really good comics-to-screen adaptations. But I can’t help but think that Iron Man and Thor (as well as the actors who portray them) would be better served by facing off against fully-realized villains that challenged their very souls as opposed to just some scheme or plan or MacGuffin that everyone is after.

Mr. Cecchini gave faint praise to Captain America: The Winter Soldier for its villains. I’d like to respectfully disagree and say that those villains were worthwhile foes that presented a genuine threat to Captain America as not just a challenge to overcome, but they made him confront who he is, what he is doing, and in what he believes. I suppose that the overall situation provided this threat, but even still, Captain America is a “white bread,” boy scout. He’s immovable in his honor, courage, and beliefs, so to wring drama out of him you need to put him against a philosophical threat that doesn’t neatly slot into “good” or “bad.” Plus, the Winter Soldier provided a physical challenge to the Cap that not many villains faced thus far have as well as emotional resonance in his relationship to him. Think of how successful Captain America: The Winter Soldier was — I would argue that it was great for its rich story and compelling villains as much as the spectacle of its set pieces.

Overall, Mr. Cecchini’s article is spot-on. Marvel is clearly building towards Thanos as the super villain our heroes will have to face either en masse or through proxy battles (probably both) and he deserves respect. They’ve already cast Josh Brolin to play him–which is a good start to invest in talent–but if all Thanos is going to do is make menacing faces and give monosyllabic responses, Marvel may be building up to its first genuine disappointment in an otherwise masterful cinematic adaptation of its properties.

Guardians of the Galaxy: Another Marvel Win

“Real” heroes.

I won’t bury the lede: Guardians of the Galaxy was everything I wanted it to be and more; it’s a solid, good, enjoyable movie. It’s a contender for the best Marvel Studios movie yet — and yes, I realize that pits it against Iron Man, The Avengers, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It doesn’t matter because Guardians can take the heat.

Guardians of the Galaxy grabs you right at the start, with a surprisingly emotional scene, and is pure joy for every moment afterward. In fact, was this Marvel’s first “cold open?” I don’t think any of the movies before Guardians started before the Marvel Studios logo. Feel free to gut check me on that.

The story is very simple — a decidedly good approach — and I’ll save major spoilers for a later post, perhaps. Peter Quill, aka: Star Lord (his self applied nickname), played by Chris Pratt, is a “ravager,” essentially someone who hunts down and finds (or steals…) valuable items for payment via the network of ravagers that abducted him from Earth as a boy. He’s after an orb on a beaten down, faraway planet. Think: sci-fi Indiana Jones, but without the moral compass. Bad guys are after the orb, too (because it’s part of a significant piece of Marvel canon), and they try to take it back from him. He escapes with the orb and the rest of the film is, architecturally, a “chase after the MacGuffin” story leading to a final confrontation. But really, it’s just a vehicle for Writer Nicole Perlman and Director James Gunn (who also wrote a script draft) to spend time with our main characters, Star Lord, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), Groot (Vin Diesel, collecting an easy paycheck), and Drax (Dave Bautista).

The script does a fantastic job of giving every character numerous chances to shine. Quill is undeniably the film’s lead, but the ensemble runs the show. And how often can you say you watched a movie where a walking, talking Raccoon and a tree are a movie’s emotional center?

There is so much to like. The pace is perfect. The movie is laugh-out-loud funny consistently throughout. This is certainly Marvel’s most comedic movie yet, but that doesn’t downplay the action, adventure, or the threat behind the villains and their motivations. The character, gadget, and set designs are all superb — they give this world a vibrant, lived-in feel very much like Star Wars though I’m not the first to make that comparison.

The heart of the Ghostbusters.

I was surprised by how much I responded to Rocket and Groot. Rocket is a lot like a more aggressive, violent raccoon George Costanza with a heart (so, maybe not like George Costanza). Groot can only say “I am Groot,” but he gets a lot of mileage out of it and he’s an endearing character for a tree voiced by Vin Diesel. The movie invests a lot of time with them and their relation to the rest of the team and it all works. I don’t know how James Gunn did it, quite frankly — having Rocket and Groot be weird and schlocky was the more likely outcome. Bradley Cooper deserves a fair share of the credit because his performance imbues the animated creature with real personality and emotion.

All of the characters are out for themselves, Rocket most of all, and the movie does a great job of putting everyone together and working together in an organic way. In fact, the story makes getting all of the characters together look easy. The MacGuffin is what everyone wants and the story wastes no time putting everyone after it and mixed in with the others.

From a writer’s perspective, I’m impressed with how stories unfold. In my own writing, I’m always concerned with showing all of the setup to events. It’s just how my mind connects. This movie makes it look easy. The characters’ actions and motivations all come from real, natural places and yet the pace never lets up. Plus, since this story takes place in the same Marvel Universe that all of our other heroes inhabit, there might have been a concern with establishing alien world and situations, but no — Guardians dives right in. Aliens exist. There are other worlds and spaceships and crazy gadgets and powerful enemies; this is the world our heroes inhabit and that’s how it is — accept it. And we do! The Thor films and The Avengers only hinted at the larger universe that exists elsewhere and Guardians makes it real, lived in, and matter-of-fact. Given how Tony Stark had a nervous breakdown over the Chitari and the Tesseract portal in The Avengers, I wonder how he’ll react to what’s really out there?

I’m dressed in black and I have a deep, terrible voice. I’m the bad guy.

I had to look hard to come up with a criticism. It’s actually a familiar Marvel complaint — the chief villain, Ronan, is not very compelling. He’s got reasonable motivation, I guess. He’s pretty tough and menacing and gives our heroes a good fight. In fact, given how capable they made him, I genuinely wondered how the Guardians would actually defeat him (not that I ever thought his defeat was in doubt, of course). Other than Loki, Marvel films have had a recurring problem creating good villains that aren’t just seething, stomping, fonts of evil, and unfortunately, as good as Guardians is, it didn’t clear this hurdle either.

I can’t wait to see Guardians of the Galaxy again. I’m excited about what I hope it means for the Marvel Cinematic Universe and by that I mean I hope the films only get bolder, brighter, and more daring. This film is unabashedly open about what it is — and that’s a comic book superhero movie which is also a comedy, an adventure, and a science fiction saga.

I’m not sure what problem Edgar Wright had with Marvel Studios regarding Ant-Man because Guardians of the Galaxy is unlike any Marvel movie you’ve seen before and is full of James Gunn’s spirit — and is the better for it! I wish Wright luck, but I think he made a bad miscalculation in dropping out of Ant-Man because he and us missed out on a unique experience. I’m always suspicious of creative people who won’t compromise (see George Lucas) because out of process and feedback ideas only get better.

In any case, go see Guardians of the Galaxy and have a really good time. It’s fun, entertaining, and inspires me to create something great just like it.