Saturday, 8 December 2018

Endgame

This piece is not really about Big Story spoilers for the Marvel superheroes movie Avengers: Endgame (2019). I have not seen a script, so comments here are purely speculative and based upon some recent comics I’ve read, and expectations for a conclusion to the greatest franchise of movies the 21st century has produced, so far. It seems that, plot-wise, the two directors of Avengers: Infinity War have painted themselves into a corner. Ending Marvel's epic sci-fi and fantasy narrative with a darkly contrived failure for teams of heroes fighting space tyrant Thanos means that few compelling, or even quite satisfactory and clearly logical, story options remain available to be explored in the 2019 sequel, especially since an obvious requirement of next year's movie is to present an example of superhero cinema with something not already seen in the comic-books.    

With just a snap of his fingers, cosmic serial-killer Thanos used his Infinity Gauntlet to exterminate half of all life in the universe. How can a surviving fifty percent overcome a loss of such magnitude, and maintain their sanity in the aftermath? If the next movie is going to use time-travel as the final solution to this cosmic slaughter, where do the original Avengers draw the line in carrying out their vengeance? Do throw-away jokes at the very end of Deadpool 2 offer hints about the genre plot of Avengers: Endgame?

In typical SF plots about time-travel, a common thought-experiment asks: would you kill Adolf Hitler before WW2 and so prevent the Holocaust? This might be the ultimate moral dilemma of superheroes: whether or when to kill the villain - and is the prevention of evil better than any cure? Will the Avengers travel back in time to fight Thanos just before his galactic crime-spree (stealing the six Infinity stones), or could they go back even further in time to avert his attack upon the young Gamora’s planet, or to stop the destruction of Thanos’ own home-world of Titan? What about simply killing Thanos just after he’s born?

Thanos has not fought the main four original Avengers (Thor, Hulk, Iron Man, and Captain America) all at once, so that battle might well fulfil one requirement of the sequel for many Marvel fans, but if the movie’s climax is all about stopping Thanos before his genocidal action even begins, that becomes a classic sci-fi example of revising an entire timeline, something that is wholly consistent with the ret-con practice for a shared universe in superhero comics. Does it mean that the complete Marvel franchise could be re-launched with a clean slate after Avengers: Endgame?


Since Disney bought 20th Century Fox, and now own both the X-Men and Fantastic Four movie franchises, perhaps that’s what Marvel is planning to do next. Can the Avengers timeline be re-written to merge with the X-Men prequels? Is an ‘Avengers vs. X-Men’ movie (or a trilogy?) going to be the next major project from Marvel?

Sunday, 25 March 2018

Indefinite Avengers

After watching the various trailers for Avengers: Infinity War, it seems to me there are good reasons to hope that Anthony and Joe Russo will direct this (penultimate?) Avengers sequel with the same tone of generally quite serious drama that they brought to their two Captain America pictures in the vast sprawling multi-verse of Marvel’s superhero-cinema franchise (MCU). Although moments of humour appeared in Winter Soldier and Civil War, both movies offered a largely sober variation of Marvel themes. Counter-balancing the outright comedy and/ or inane jokiness that's spoilt (like Thor: Ragnarok), or even ruined (see Deadpool), other Marvel movie adventures, especially since the company was acquired by Disney, is the main challenge for Infinity War.


This is a curse upon many faithful genre adaptations of Marvel adaptations. Comic-book movies as epic and varied as Ang Lee’s Hulk, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, or Zack Snyder’s Watchmen and Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice have all proved that comics can be taken seriously and turned into screen drama. This also demonstrates that mannered approaches like parody and superhero spoofs by other directors merely owe a debt to the men-in-tights legacy of Adam West’s (agreeably?) farcical Batman: The Movie and TV series of the 1960s. The point here is that comicbook-derivative comedy has been done, and lazily repeated, so often that it’s about time for some more radically impressive and melancholic/ darker forms of cinematic adventures for classic superheroes.         


As a cosmic villain who represents death, the arrival of Thanos on Earth should launch a killing spree, not simply a threat of defeat in combat for the established teams of heroes. One of the problems with Civil War is that none of the main characters died, and that weakened the impact of its drama. Thanos is the bad guy who spoils everybody’s fun. If he’s not going to kill any heroes, he is likely to fail as a dangerous or effective opponent for the most powerful Avengers. Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor have all enjoyed a trilogy of cinema outings each, and so perhaps their characters, along with Hawkeye, Black Widow, and the Hulk should be ‘retired’ from the current Avengers roster. In a worst-case scenario, Thanos could kill all of them in his efforts to acquire infinite powers, and this would leave a newer team of Avengers primed and eager for vengeance in the next movie. Doctor Strange and Captain Marvel should lead the Vision, Scarlet Witch, Falcon, Black Panther, Spider-Man, Valkyrie, plus Ant-Man and the Wasp, as the (final?) Avengers line-up. To be honest, I don’t really care much about War Machine. He was always just ‘Iron Man lite’, anyway. And, likewise Cap's buddy Bucky Barnes. Even when Bucky is reformed/ re-purposed from Winter Soldier to White Wolf, he’s only a super-soldier knock-off.   


Alternatively, for starters, I’d like to see Thor get his hammer back. Perhaps Doc Strange could put the broken metal together and restore its magic? Thor without Mjolhir is like Dr Who without a Tardis, or James Bond without a gadget-car. Infinity War appears likely to establish that, without his ‘signature’ shield, Steve Rogers is no longer Captain America. So, basically, he has become Nomad (an alternative identity for Rogers from the comics). It follows that the god of thunder really does need a hammer because, along with his red cape, it’s a traditional and fundamental part of his character in Marvel comics lore. Thor’s hammer is canonical, his new axe is not. If Mjolhir is gone forever, Marvel might as well get rid of Thor... and so I return to my suggestion that killing off all the original Avengers (the main quartet of Cap, Shellhead, Goldilocks, and Hulk, in particular) might be such a great idea for Infinity War. It would fulfil hypnotised Stark’s premonition from Avengers: Age Of Ultron, and sets up the next response team to do some proper avenging, directed by the Russo brothers, in the still-untitled concluding Avengers movie.

Monday, 12 March 2018

Mythica

Watched the MYTHICA series of movies. The first two were directed by Anne Black, and they both offer Tolkien-inspired fantasy tropes, with a serious tone that elevates the material from low-budget familiarity to a level where characters emerge from the shadows of genre clichés. 

The later pictures by other (male) directors, tend to lapse into 1980s styled genre adventures that are charming with plenty of witty fun stuff going on. Enemies of the heroes range from giant monsters like dragons and ogres, to scenery-chewing villains like pirates or zombies. 

Sometimes,  cheesy qualities of the later movies lack the mythical import of Black's more traditionalist, yet wholly original, efforts. Melanie Stone is nearly great as the magic, ultimately tragic, heroine Merak.


A fight to the death at the end of the world!

Mythica: A Quest For Heroes (2014)
Mythica: The Darkspore (2015)
Mythica: The Necromancer (2015)
Mythica: The Iron Crown (2016)
Mythica: The Dragon Slayer (aka: Mythica: The Godslayer, 2016)


Friday, 2 March 2018

Thor 3

Thor: Ragnarok is not all that bad, but the movie has plenty of shitty bits in its stew of genre clichés. Right from the start, it makes feeble jokes about superhero cinema and pokes fun at its main characters, especially the god of thunder, who is ridiculed and belittled throughout, and not just by the villains. I was dubious after seeing that trailer with its ridiculous sitcom line: “He’s a friend from work,” which suggested the producers had simply abandoned any pretence that Thor might talk like he usually does in Marvel comics. Here the Asgardian heir chats and banters with his bromance co-stars, Loki and Hulk/ Bruce Banner, and even begs for mercy from his enemy’s barber (Stan Lee’s ill-advised cameo). Thor loses his magic hammer in the obvious castration metaphor, and acts just like a 1980s’ fantasy movie barbarian in this adventure’s gladiatorial sequence rather than the formidable caped superhero of Kenneth Branagh’s Thor (2011), which now seems even more cod-Shakespearean, in its tone and style, than it ever did before, if compared to the sadly crappy humour of this second, very disappointing, sequel.


Jeff Goldblum’s space villain Grandmaster is played as a campy glam-rock showman, reduced to the cosmic equivalent of hosting TV circus routines. Cate Blanchett hides behind her equally campy smirks while Hela effortlessly slays the supporting players - Volstagg, Fandral, and Hogun, in her unfortunately pantomimed conquest of Asgard. This movie’s version of the Hulk talks far too frequently and lapses into a comic-book sidekick role largely at odds with the monstrous city-wrecker as depicted in Avengers movies. It is a betrayal of the character seen at his very best in Ang Lee’s Hulk (2003). Karl Urban is wasted as conflicted executioner Skurge, and Tessa Thompson is clearly too Californian to play Norse warrior Valkyrie.


Hulk wipes the floor with Thor, while previous victim of such indignity, Loki, cheers. Director Taika Waititi’s voice for farcical stone-man Korg is quite appalling to hear in a $180 million budget production that could afford Sam Neill and Matt Damon for its throwaway exposition in an Asgardian theatre scene. Almost lost in witless references to, and repeats of, Marvel movies’ comedy classics, and grotesque displays of Z-grade talent-show acting, the best sequence in this knockabout buddy-movie's regrettably dismal failure of space-opera imagination is the flashback to valkyries on winged horses, flying into combat against Hela. Looking like something created by Zack Snyder, this battle boasts a magnificent artistry, and mythic grandeur, a cosmos away from all the stupid gags at the expense of Thor. 


As a result of its archly contrived comedy content, Thor: Ragnarok probably qualifies as just a spoof movie. It contributes nothing of interest or value to the franchise.

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Captain Actor vs. CGIron Man

Watching the excellent computer-animated movie Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV got me thinking once again about some of the faults and problems of superhero cinema. I keep on wondering if the forthcoming wave of DC pictures and current Marvel phases are doing the mixed genre (of sci-fi and fantasy that comic-books have often combined so well), a gross disservice. As seen in last year’s super-team epics - Captain America: Civil War, Batman v. Superman: Dawn Of Justice, X-Men: Apocalypse, and pictures with related themes, like Gods Of Egypt - the main spectacular action is entirely or, at least, largely CGI. So, for digital artists, actors become a liability when physical reality is shoehorned into virtual scenes. If we pause to consider the contractual fudges that might undermine genre narratives on screen, and the logistical nightmares of using actors - never mind big-name Hollywood stars - in superhero movies, the problems faced by filmmakers today seem a burden that could easily be avoided if Marvel and D.C. were to follow trends established by Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001), and Robert Zemeckis’ stylish Beowulf (2007), and continued by the aforementioned Kingsglaive. Simply abandon the practice of live-action, and make the new superhero movies entirely with photo-real animation.  


A standard measure of potential for spectacle in genre movies used to be counting the picture’s special effects shots. Nowadays, the gauge is far more likely to be how many special effects companies have worked on the production. If cinema product depends, so blatantly, upon digital visuals, what’s the point of maintaining a system supporting the arguably narcissistic tendencies of American superstars and human actors? Is this an example of artistic cowardice on the part of studios? Are a majority of the cinema-going public too easily put off by the prospect of watching animated features (are they ‘just cartoons’?), and/ or perhaps so unhealthily emotionally-invested in following the career trajectories of their favourite thespians, that watching fully-animated movies is unacceptable as entertainment? “Must there be a super man?” What’s wrong with the end products of motion-capture becoming the focus of attention, instead of the quick-ageing actors lending their faces (or increasingly, only their voices) to superhero roles that can most effectively be depicted (and often are, anyway!) by digital animation?


Since the millennium, we have seen three live-action versions of Bruce Banner, three Peter Parkers, and, if we look back further to 1989, there have been five actors cast as Bruce Wayne. These examples, and various cinema or TV incarnations of Clark Kent, all indicate that even iconic actors are not indispensable. And despite the possibilities for definitive superhero portrayals (Chris Evans’ popularity as Steve Rogers is wholly based upon his Captain America trilogy, something none of the previous TV or movie Captains had), any individual’s contribution to screen mythology building, that might span generations for these franchised characters, seems rather inconsequential. Some of these comicbook heroes can boast a lifetime’s worth of history and fantastic lore, so most of them are not simply larger-than-life, they are legends in the very best sense of modern SF-fantasy. Since it’s impossible for any actor to live up to the expectations of all fandom (of comics or movies), why continue bothering with actors? 


If audiences/ viewers can suspend their disbelief enough to cross the ‘uncanny valley’, then photo-real animation is clearly the option most likely to succeed - when it comes to presenting superheroes as something more-than-human. So, whether these movie characters are intended to be role models, or inspirational figures, only CGI is able to showcase the various powers of Superman, Silver Surfer, Vision, Hulk, Iron Man, and especially the likes of Dr Manhattan. Masks that conceal stunt performers, who make the actors redundant in busy action scenes, are one reason to abandon the constraints that expensive star-names bring against artistic progress. Another aspect, of arguably bolder creative idealism, the advent of digital costumes (like Green Lantern, and new Spider-Man) uses animation effects instead of physical suits. When so little of what is on screen is real and so much is made by computers and virtual cameras, what do the actors have to offer compared to the increasingly superior contribution of CGI artists?


As several thought-provoking comic-books (from the seminal Watchmen, to Alex Ross and Kurt Busiek’s Marvels onwards) have shown us, if superheroes existed in the real world, none of them would survive public exposure, or government scrutiny, whether they are aliens or not. So, unless the whole point of any new movie is clearly frivolous, or vaguely satirical, entertainment values (am I the only comics fan-boy disappointed by Tim Miller’s dumb Deadpool?), instead of accepting the much greater challenge of serious screen drama, then visualising superheroes for the 21st century’s cinema calls for freedoms from the shackles of theatre and the burdens of reality, as we saw in The Matrix trilogy and the Transformers movies, before the current Marvel and DC super boom started. For such an Art form, with its long history of being dismissed as merely juvenile reading, comic-books deserve fully artistic adaptations of the medium’s finest works - without all of the inevitable limitations that actors bring to the movie-making process.