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.