Tuesday, February 18, 2020

The Ultimate Spin

Living in a time where there's been three actors to date that have played Peter Parker on the big screen, seven solo Spider-Man films and ten films appearances altogether for the web-swinger, we tend to take the idea of cinematic Spidey for granted (and I'm talking strictly live-action here, not including 2018's Oscar winning animated insta-classic Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse). I mean, how could we not? There's a whole generation or two by now who have never known a world without Spider-Man movies.

Older fans will remember, though, that bringing Spidey to the screen was once a web too far for Hollywood. For many years, a Spider-Man movie was just a frequently frustrated dream as one attempt after another failed to get off the ground.

In the '80s, directors like Tobe Hooper and Joe Zito were associated with attempts to bring Spidey to life for Cannon Films and in the '90s, we nearly got to see James Cameron's Spider-Man. But while I would love to know what those adaptations would have been like I think it was ultimately worth the wait for Sam Raimi's 2002 Spider-Man. It's hard to imagine any other adaptation getting it quite as right as Raimi did. Certainly, based on what we know about them, none of the projects that fell through previously would have been anywhere near as reverent to the material as Raimi's film was.

Raimi's first Spidey film is a classic case of the right people on the right project at the right time. In our current superhero saturated cinematic age, where comic book-based films are not just a regular occurrence but (to the chagrin of some) a seemingly permanent fixture of modern cinema, it's hard now to remember the thrilling wave of anticipation that the first Spider-Man rode in on, coming as it did at a time when comic book films were still relative novelties and when the long term viability of the sub-genre was still in question - with many people expecting that the boom in comic book films that began with 2000's X-Men was due to burst .

The fact that this project was in the hands of a fan favorite filmmaker like Raimi, a director with impeccable nerd cred, only made Spider-Man seem all the more like a sure thing. But, you know, nothing's ever guaranteed and many things can go wrong with even the most promising films. But as the film came together and details were announced, like the casting of Tobey Maquire as Peter and the involvement of the legendary John Dykstra as Visual Effects Supervisor, it only became more and more evident how well Spider-Man was shaping up.

The only nagging issue was reports that Spidey would sport organic (eww!) webbing in this rather than the classic home-grown formula that science nerd Peter Parker famously whipped up for himself in the comics, along with building his own mechanical web-shooters. This concept of organic webbing was an idea that Raimi poached from James Cameron's detailed treatment for his aborted Spidey film and it struck fans as a sacrilegious change to the character, one that undermined Peter's scientific ingenuity.

Raimi's rationale at the time - that he believed it would simply be too hard for audiences to accept that a kid like Peter would be so brilliant as to invent his own webbing - seems like a quaint concern now, given that the subsequent Andrew Garfield and Tom Holland Spideys have both had artificial webbing and no one blinked at it.

It also seems absurd, by the way, that artificial webbing of all things was perceived as being a bridge too far when it's way more of a strain on suspension of disbelief that Peter is magically able to create a costume for himself that we know that in the real world costs hundreds of thousands of dollars and was put together by the most skilled designers in Hollywood. We see Peter drawing his Spidey costume and in the next scene, ta-daaah!, he's wearing it.

I mean, come on.

I can totally believe that he made this costume:

But I can't believe this cash-strapped kid, with no apparent skill in any of the many facets of design that would be required to pull this off, went from the sad, bargain outfit above to this slick number:

Nope, don't buy it! Now, I'm not complaining - far better to get something that looks like the comic than not but, if we're talking about "hey, let's keep things within the ballpark of what a regular teenager could pull off," this costume with its sophisticated design and array of highly expensive, complex components (it's got raised webbing!) is way more of an ask for the audience than "oh, this scientifically gifted kid cooked up some webbing for himself!"

But anyhow, organic webbing it was, and as much as it caused some consternation among fans, eventually they came to accept it.

Which, of course, was easy to do when the film came out and proved to be pretty much everything that fans wanted it to be. Raimi had read the original Spider-Man comics as a kid in the '60s and his adaptation is an unabashed love letter to the early Lee/Ditko/Romita Sr. days of The Amazing Spider-Man as well as introducing imagery of its own (like the upside down kiss with MJ) that would instantly become a part of the character's iconography.

David Koepp's screenplay successfully captures the familiar soap opera melodramatics of the comics in which teenage outcast Peter Parker gains the proportionate strength and abilities of a spider after being bit by a radioactive arachnid at a science demonstration and then must find a way to navigate all the complications that brings, even as he has to also look after his elderly aunt, struggle with his love life, and make ends meet as a part-time news photographer - all the while being guided by the hard learned lesson that "with great power comes great responsibility."

Speaking of which, while Cliff Robertson as Peter's beloved-but-doomed Uncle Ben can be credited as being one of this film's many spot-on bits of casting, the moment where he says that famous line to Peter has always rubbed me the wrong way. It's nothing to do with his delivery, which is just fine, but rather with the fact that I don't feel like Ben should be saying these lines in the first place.

"With great power comes great responsibility" is nothing that Uncle Ben ever says to Peter in Amazing Fantasy #15. Those immortal words only appear in the closing caption boxes of the story, courtesy of Stan Lee's omniscient narrator. In the years since, as that phrase has become part of the popular lexicon, comic writers have, in flashbacks, had Ben utter those words to Peter but I've always felt it was awkward. Specifically in this movie, what "great power" is Ben talking about here? He's scolding Peter for roughing up a bully at school but there's certainly no "great power" at work here as far as he knows. The phrase feels unnaturally shoe-horned in and I maintain that having Ben utter those actual words is just goofy. But hey, it's one of those things that one must accept.

And I do. If only kind of.

In adapting Spidey's iconic origin there are a couple of other decisions Raimi and Keopp make that I also think were missteps. Not catastrophic ones by any means but ones that I wish had been re-thought.

I really feel that they should have followed the comic in having Peter enjoy a brief career as a celebrity before Uncle Ben's murder causes him to forsake fame for crime-fighting. In the film, Peter goes to cash in on the wrestling challenge and that same night the burglar robs the promoter and kills Uncle Ben outside the venue. Everything's over and done with in, like, an hour. In the comics, however, Spider-Man becomes a media sensation after beating wrestler Crusher Hogan, going on to appear on TV and cultivating a fanbase.

In the comic, Spidey appears to packed houses, wins showbiz awards, and even has a possible TV series lined up - according to newspaper headlines seen in the issue. This all fuels Peter's cockiness and his indifference to anyone other than his beloved Aunt and Uncle. While I know that this is a movie and that there's a running time to consider, I feel like this angle could have been explored - even if it was just relegated to a montage of Spidey making his various TV appearances and being hailed as a big deal.

Eliminating Spider-Man's brief career as a celebrity feels like a mistake to me as that rise to the top that Peter experiences, all the new attention that comes with it and Peter's belief that he can enjoy it free of guilt or consequence, is part of the hubris that makes his fall that much more profound. In the movie, the karmic wheel hasn't had enough time to turn in order for the impact of Ben's death and Peter's part in it to hit the way it should. It should be a bitter comeuppance for Peter. Instead, it occurs in such a whirlwind way that it's more like, well, just a thing that happened.

In the comics, because it was some time after Peter originally let the burglar get away that Ben was killed there was an important aspect of it appearing to be this forgotten, fleeting moment that would later came back to crush Peter. In the movie, Peter lets the burglar go - and Raimi and Keopp wrongly let him feel almost justified in doing so, due to the fact that the promoter just screwed Peter out of his full payday - and Ben is killed immediately after.

It's just too soon for it to work quite the way that it should.

I'm also not crazy about the decision to have the burglar die (and yes, I know that in the film he would be more correctly described as "the thief" or "the carjacker" but in the comics this character is just always known as "the burglar" so we're just going with that!).

Going back to Peter learning that "with great power comes great responsibility," I feel that it is a key element of the origin that Peter hand the burglar over to the cops. It was part of the lesson that he learned and the birth of his career as a crime-fighter. In the comic, it's clear that he goes to the warehouse where the burglar is holed up with revenge on his mind. He goes there in a righteous rage, ready to tear the man who killed his uncle apart but the shock of recognizing the burglar's face stops him cold. It's then that he feels the weight of his own accountability in this tragedy and he does the responsible thing by delivering his uncle's killer to the authorities - lowering him down to the waiting group of cops below on a web.

Having Ben's killer accidentally plunge to his death in the film immediately after Peter recognizes him, however, makes it feel like a case of "justice was served."

It becomes more about the burglar getting what's coming to him rather than about Peter learning a real lesson (Spider-Man 3 goes on to screw even that up with its ret-con of the whole scenario). The burglar getting away and Peter not paying the moment any mind (in the comics, he's scolded for his inaction by an elderly security guard who Peter rudely brushes off as opposed to being accosted by the unscrupulous promoter who just ripped Peter off) and going on to enjoy a brief period of fame is what puts a cruel ticking clock in the background on the bitter lesson he's going to learn. And if Ben was ever going to say to Peter "with great power comes great responsibility," and make it sound natural, it should have been when the two are talking (over Aunt May's wheatcakes, of course!) about the feats of this mysterious new Spider-Man who is appearing on TV using his powers simply for money and fame.

I also think that having Ben die at home, protecting May from an intruder, is much more impactful than having him die keeping his car out of a crook's hands (even if it is the classic Oldsmobile Delta 88!).

So as much as this movie was lauded by many fans as getting it right, I actually don't think that Raimi and Keopp nail the origin quite as well as they could have. The basic beats are there but they're just a little off and some key notes are missing entirely. But hey, it's still a mostly admirable effort and at least, unlike the live action Nicholas Hammond TV series from the late '70s, it actually includes Uncle Ben and shows how his death puts Spider-Man on a heroic path. Bottom line is that you can see they tried. The pains taken to honor the overall spirit of the comic, even when the particulars arguably could have been handled better, are apparent.

Beginning with the punishments he cheerfully inflicted on Ash in the original Evil Dead, Raimi has showed a sadistic glee in making his protagonists suffer both physically and mentally, which makes the perpetually downtrodden Peter Parker the perfect hero for Raimi. Peter's chronic misfortunes in regards to his love life, his job, his superhero identity, and his academic career, have been dubbed in the comics as a result of "The Ol' Parker Luck" and Raimi embraces Peter's cursed condition with relish. Sometimes Peter's bad breaks are played for laughs, other times for poignancy but all these moments spring from Raimi recognizing that Peter Parker is the Charlie Brown of the superhero world, forever having the football pulled away at the last second and landing on his back.

Besides doing right by Peter, Raimi, Koepp, and the cast all nail the supporting cast that has always been so important in the comics.

No comic character has such a well-loved supporting cast as Spidey and his extended universe of friends, family, and co-workers are all brought to life here in fine form.

Rosemary Harris and J.K. Simmons are ripped right from the '60s comics, embodying the classic versions of Aunt May and J. Jonah Jameson respectively. The late Bill Nunn (Do The Right Thing) is an excellent pick as Daily Bugle editor Robbie Robertson, although I wish he'd been given more to do - not just in this first film but in the whole Raimi trilogy. Kristen Dunst's MJ is literally the girl next door and while I don't think she quite matches the glamorous image of MJ from the comics, her chemistry with Maguire - especially in this first film - is undeniable. And James Franco as Harry Osborn adeptly walks the line between being a believable best bud to Peter and as well as being Norman Osborn's spoiled son.

As Norman himself, Willem Dafoe is every bit as good as Jack Nicholson was as The Joker in Batman (by the way, how great would Dafoe himself been as The Joker?) and his performance is cut from the same cloth, indulging in hammy, over-the-top villainy.

Defoe's Goblin cheerfully cackles at his own wicked deeds and mercilessly taunts those he has at his mercy, whether it be Aunt May or a bunch of helpless school kids. I wish this type of scenery chewing arch-villainy hadn't gone out of fashion because, well, it's just fun to watch.

I mean, even Thanos seems low-key next to Defoe's Goblin.

Defoe's performance aside, some complained about the design of his Green Goblin outfit, comparing it to a Power Rangers uniform but I think it's totally fine.

Even though the Green Goblin is Spider-Man's #1 foe (as much as Doc Ock might object!) he's kind of problematic to translate to the screen. For starters, the costume doesn't really lend itself to being realized to the letter.

I mean, when it comes to trying to dress a real person like this...

...You've got to cut anyone charged with that task some slack.

More difficult, though, is that when the Goblin was introduced in Amazing Spider-Man #14, his identity was a secret. It remained so until way down the road in Amazing Spider-Man #39 and once it was revealed that wealthy business man Norman Osborn was behind the Goblin mask, Stan Lee had to figure out how to explain exactly why this member of high society chose to dress up in a goofy Halloween costume, hurl pumpkin bombs that he stored in his purple purse, and zip around on a mechanical broom or bat.

As it turns out, Stan didn't really have much of an explanation to give on that count. Sure, he explained how a chemical accident gave Norman his powers but as for why he concocted the Green Goblin identity specifically, about as close he comes to giving a reason is that, well, Norman's favorite color was green. So let's just say that Norman reason for being the Goblin was always kind of thin. That puts a burden on anyone adapting the Goblin to other media in that they don't have much of an actual base from the comics to go on.

Given that, I think Keopp and Raimi did a perfectly fine job of giving us a Green Goblin that is as close as can be to the image of the character that readers have from the comics while coming up with a semi-plausible rationale for him to dress as he does, just through planting the background detail of showing the collection of tribal masks that Norman displays in his home that all echo the fear-instilling visage of the Goblin.

With its combination of action (which, by the way, still holds up great here - Raimi delivers some top-shelf fights between Spidey and the Goblin, particularly their brutal final showdown), humor and pathos, Spider-Man proved to be a culmination of everything that Raimi had learned as a director up to that point. It marked his graduation from cult favorite to a true blockbuster filmmaker.

While he'd made a comic book style film in 1990 with Darkman it wasn't until afterwards that Raimi started to really focus on developing his skills as a director of actors and on incorporating more genuine emotion and depth in his films with movies like A Simple Plan (1998). Had Raimi made Spider-Man years earlier, it would have been a much different film than the one we got in 2002. I don't think the Raimi of the Evil Dead II/Darkman era would have been as ready to take on the emotional aspects of Peter Parker.

Eighteen years later (how crazy is it that we're now within shouting distance of this film's twentieth anniversary?), Spider-Man still holds up well, even though the comic book genre has evolved dramatically since then. To be sure, there's a lot that's dated in Spider-Man. In most ways, that's not a bad thing (the only negative would be how shockingly white this movie looks to today's eyes - no big film now would be so lacking in diversity). Primarily, it should be considered a happy blessing that this movie got made when it did as it got in just under the wire as far as being able to do a Spider-Man movie that takes place in a world where newspapers are still a big deal and where a young Peter Parker can believably make money selling exclusive photos of Spidey to the Daily Bugle.

To watch Spider-Man today is to be reminded of a world where newspapers rather than Twitter feeds were still the way that most people received their info and where taking pictures was something that people still had to do with cameras with actual film in them.

Even though it's from 2002, which on paper doesn't seem so long ago, the world has changed so dramatically since then that much of Spider-Man seems downright old-timey. I mean, Peter webbing his automatic camera to a light pole to snap pictures? It's so out of date with the way things are now it's hard to believe that it was even in this century. Today, by the time Peter schlepped his photos to the Bugle, Instagram and YouTube would already be flooded with pics and videos of Spidey so I'm happy a movie portraying the Bugle as a central facet of the comic book's mythos was able to get made before that aspect became, if not obsolete, then noticeably dated.

Also marking Spider-Man as a product of its era would be the kind of then-current elements that now tie it to its particular cultural moment, like Macy Gray performing in Times Square (if only they could have gotten J Lo - it would still seem right at home in 2020!) or the blatant nod to post-9/11 sentiment with New Yorkers pitching in to help Spidey in his battle with the Green Goblin, hurling garbage at the flying menace ("You mess with one of us, you mess with all of us!") which was well-intended but now seems a bit on the nose, a snapshot of its era. Even the final shot of Spidey with the American flag waving behind him (a shot much more naturally suited to Superman than to Spider-Man) also seems clearly informed by the then-fresh sense of post-9/11 spirit.

These dated elements, though, aren't a detriment to the film. Unlike Bryan Singer's X-Men, which was hailed as a benchmark comic book adaptation upon its release in 2000 but now has dated to the point where it's borderline unwatchable, Raimi's Spider-Man has, in most ways, held up remarkably well. Its dated aspects generate nostalgia more than derision. Most importantly, Raimi's love of the material always shines through. Spider-Man isn't perfect but it reflects a love of the character and a determination to do right by him. Throughout the film, Peter suffers moments of doubt, angst and disappointment that feel lifted directly from panels of the original comics, where the burden of his double life often prompts Peter to ask, in a thought balloon hanging over his head, "...is this the price I must always pay for being Spider-Man? 

I do wish that Maquire had been funnier in the role. He and Raimi nail the melancholy side of Peter (better than other adaptations have) but aren't quite as successful in translating the character's trademark humor to the screen. Maquire's Spidey typically comes across as morose rather than as quippy and wisecracking. And that organic webbing thing, well, it's still a slight bummer. Also, while I applaud that this first film established that sticking to the original costume design was important, there's a stiffness to this version of the suit, with its underlying sculpted musculature that prohibits much acting (Danny Seagren was more successful in conveying a "spider-y" body language in The Electric Company). But in most every key aspect, this feels like the quintessential Spider-Man. As the first cinematic venture for Spidey, the one that had the most to prove and the one that had to establish his validity as a big screen superhero on the level of Superman and Batman, Raimi crushed it.

Sony's ad campaign touted Spider-Man as being "the ultimate spin," and in the summer of 2002, for the legions of fans who had waited years to see the web-head on the big screen, it really was.

Most critics and fans hail Raimi's sequel as being the high point of his Spidey trilogy but, as good as that film is, my affection remains strongest for the original. It simply has something that no other Spider-Man film can ever usurp or lay claim to - it will forever be the first. There can be any number of reboots and recastings (and to be sure, there will be those on into eternity) but even if subsequent films represent improvements in one way or another, they can never quite capture the particular magic this first film delivered. Just by virtue of having no predecessors, there's a purity to Raimi's original Spidey. Better Spidey installments, by Raimi and Jon Watts, would follow but none of them would be possible without this first film accomplishing what it did. While the character would go on to swing to even greater heights, none of that happens without this first film being so successful in making Spidey learn how to crawl.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Running Down A Dream

Back when Zack Snyder was put in charge of spearheading the DCEU, the higher-ups at Warners must've thought Disney/Marvel wasn't going to know what hit them. I certainly believe that Snyder, as someone who was able to convince Warners Bros. to put all their considerable eggs in his basket, must've thought that.

I imagine the thinking prior to the making of Man of Steel was that the DC cinematic universe was going to be driven to unimaginable heights by a visionary filmmaker with an eye for epic visuals.

In short, they had this.

And I bet that confident line of thinking lasted all the way up until Man of Steel was released in 2013.

Now, we all know how things went after that. No sense in rehashing all the sad details. But now, two years since Joss Whedon's JL cut hit theaters, the demand to see Snyder's version has had its greatest push, with calls to Release The Snyder Cut going out across the internet, with the film's cast all throwing their support behind it.

The thing is, it's not going to change a damn thing. Snyder's version of Justice League is never going to see the light of day.

Now, I'm not privy to any inside information. I'm just another nerd with access to the internet. But I do have a fair amount of common sense and that's all you need to know that Snyder's JL is finished.

I mean, finished as in nothing else is ever going to happen with it. 

When DC Entertainment President Diane Nelson says on Twitter, when asked about the Snyder Cut, that "If Zack feels he had the time and resources to finish a cut to his satisfaction and he would like fans to see it, nothing would make me happier than for him to have that opportunity," that's a polite way of saying that Warners isn't going to invest any more of their own money into this.

When Snyder calls upon fans to ask Warners to release his cut, what he's really wants is for Warners to feel pressured into giving him money to finish the movie. And that's not going to happen.

Would it be cool to see Snyder's cut of the movie? Absolutely. Whether it's good or bad (odds are on the latter, but whatever), it would be a fascinating artifact. No question about it. But there is no incentive for Warners to fund this. Zero. None.

"But think of all the money they'll make!" some fans will say.

Really? What money? From a theatrical release? I don't think so.

What idiot would think that a movie that originally failed at the box office - and failed fucking hard - would suddenly be a hit if it came back out in a revised form? A revised form, by the way, that might be every bit, if not more, disliked than what hit theaters in the first place. But we'll get to that. First, let's just agree that there is no way in hell that Justice League would ever make its way back to theaters.

"But they can put it on HBO Max! It'd be a huge selling point!"

Really? For who? For all the people who would already be getting HBO Max anyhow? Those people? If you're a fan of the DC brand, there's no way you're not getting HBO Max. They're going to have everything you want. All the films, all the animated features, all the animated shows, all the live-action shows.

They don't need to entice these fans or sweeten the deal with the promise of the Snyder Cut. They've already got their money. And there's no one else besides hardcore DC fanboys who give a shit about the Snyder Cut. No one who's on the fence about getting HBO Max is going to think for a second that, "Oh wait, they've got the Snyder Cut of Justice League? In that case I'd better sign up!"

People are enticed to sign up for these services not just for the catalog material but also for access to new, exclusively produced product. To get people on board who might think about skipping it because, well, they've got all the DVDs and Blu-ray's already, Warners is going to be spending their money on developing new series. It's smarter for them to develop, say, a live action Green Lantern series than it is to pour more cash into Justice League.

And to properly finish the Snyder Cut of Justice League, I imagine it would take a substantial investment on Warners' part. It wouldn't just be a matter of tossing a few bucks at it. It would cost real money to get to the point where it's a film that can be shown to the public. That's real money that would be better spent elsewhere.

And before anyone says "But what about the Richard Donner cut of Superman II? Why did they spend money on that?" Well, for one, I imagine it was much easier and less costly to put that back together according to Donner's original plans.

Also, unlike Justice LeagueSuperman II was a box office hit, recognized as a classic, with a dedicated fanbase that has endured over decades.

And the mythic reputation of the Donner Cut was based on how much Donner's original Superman is revered among fans and critics, not based on "well, he screwed it all up before but maybe if he gave him another shot, this would be better." Also, when the Donner Cut was released on DVD in 2006, physical media was a much more viable revenue source in a pre-streaming age so Warners stood a good chance of recouping their investment.

I'm sure, too, that restoring the Donner Cut seemed like a smart way to capitalize on the summer '06 release of Superman Returns, which would be arriving on DVD around the same time as the Donner Cut. Of course, the move to restore that cut was put in motion long before anyone knew that Superman Returns would tank but that's neither here nor there now.

But anyhow, back to the Snyder Cut...

If Snyder was still leading the DCEU and his vision was still what was driving it forward, it might seem like a good investment on Warners' part to fund the Snyder Cut. But that isn't the case. Snyder is done making DC movies. With the success of Aquaman, Shazam! and Joker, Warners has moved on. They're doing better without him. There's no reason to put good money into helping him realize a vision of a film that no longer has any bearing on the future of the DCEU. The Justice League as it was is dead. There's no more Ben Affleck Batman. There's no more Henry Cavill Superman. There's not going to be a Justice League 2. Certainly not with Snyder's cast.

Will Warners make another Justice League movie one day? Maybe.

But if they do, it will have no connection to what Snyder did. Maybe if someone like J.J. Abrams or James Gunn were to be put in charge of driving the DC cinematic universe forward, another Justice League might happen but it would be with a clean slate. From Warners' perspective, there's no upside to restoring Snyder's vision in order to lay the groundwork for anything lying ahead.

The sad fact is, Snyder's Justice League was a troubled production and the final product was largely unsatisfying. Would it have been a better movie if he had been able to see it through according to his vision? Maybe, maybe not. Given the track record of Man of Steel and BvS, there's every reason to think that Snyder's Justice League would have been every bit as poorly received as those two films.

Aside from unhinged Snyder bros, there's no one who thinks that his Justice League was some masterpiece that was cruelly snatched away.

I think most fans are curious about what Snyder's cut looks like without actually thinking that it has a chance of being good. And I'm sure that all the higher-ups at Warners really feel that way because they saw for themselves what Snyder's Cut was shaping up as. If they had any confidence in Snyder's vision, they wouldn't have recruited Joss Whedon to make so many changes to it.

Even if Snyder couldn't have been there to see the movie through due to tragic personal circumstances, if they liked the direction he was going in, Warners would have made sure that anyone stepping in to finish the film would do so according to Snyder's wishes. They didn't.

As much as Warners keeps saying that they have no plans to release the Snyder Cut, I know Snyder's fans will not relent in the face of reality. They'll keep chasing this quixotic dream of the Snyder Cut until the end of time. That's their prerogative, of course. It seems like an especially fruitless goal to pursue but, you know, whatever.

But sometimes not getting what you want is really a good thing.

When it comes to the Snyder Cut of Justice League, I think the vision that exists in fan's minds is far better than what the reality could ever have been, even under the most ideal circumstances. 

Monday, November 18, 2019

How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Joker

Up front disclaimer: I don't actually love Todd Phillips' Joker. Additional disclaimer: I have not seen Joker, nor do I plan to. I have, however, stopped worrying about it.

Let me explain: 

From the moment it was announced, Joker looked like a hard pass to me. The only Joker origin that I care about is writer Bill Finger's "The Man Behind The Red Hood," from Detective Comics #168, in which we find out that The Joker was originally a criminal known as The Red Hood and that, during a desperate escape after robbing the Monarch Playing Card Company, he swam through a vat of chemical waste (falsely believing his hood would protect him) that turned his complexion and hair to the familiar visage of The Joker.

This story was later referenced in writer Alan Moore's and artist Brian Bolland's one-shot comic (or, if you prefer, graphic novel) The Killing Joke from 1988 which purported to tell the full origin of the Clown Price of Crime.

Even then, Moore muddied the waters a bit as to the verity of this story. For DC characters, especially in the post-Crisis universe of the late '80s, continuity was selective at best. What past stories now "counted" - especially ones from the Gold and Silver ages - was rarely consistent and often in question. As The Joker says at one point in The Killing Joke, "If I'm going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!"

So, while DC house ads may have trumpeted The Killing Joke as "definitive," this could well have taken place entirely outside of mainstream DC continuity. It wasn't so much meant to fill in the official blanks of The Joker's past as much to be a speculative "what if." Or, in the parlance of DC, a possible Elseworlds tale. 

The Joker is a character who doesn't need a backstory. In fact, I think he's better off without one - at least in regards to laying out his psychological motivations. Finger's origin offered an ingenious, satisfying explanation as to how the Joker came by his macabre appearance, wrapped up in an entertaining mystery, but didn't have anything to say about the deeper motivations of the man.

It was a simple story for a simpler time. It explained the how of the Joker and not the why because the why wasn't important to readers at the time.

The Joker as originally conceived was simply a criminal with a penchant for perpetrating crimes laced with deadly humor. That Moore referenced "The Man Behind The Red Hood" in The Killing Joke was a way to weave this naive origin into a much darker tale.

By the late '80s, comics had become much more adult so having The Joker simply switching gears from one criminal identity to another by dint of a whim of fate that disfigured him wouldn't do.

No, now this change had to drive him absolutely mad.

Moore has expressed his misgiving on The Killing Joke in years since, saying "I've never really liked my story in The Killing Joke. I think it put far too much melodramatic weight upon a character that was never designed to carry it." I agree with Moore on this. Bolland's art is stunning in The Killing Joke but it's at the service of an ugly story that leaves Commissioner Gordon's daughter - and one-time Batgirl - Barbara sexually violated and paralyzed from the waist down. It's a story that, to my mind, never should have been given the ok - especially not for the cheap cause of giving The Joker an origin.

The Joker is a character whose appeal is primarily visual with his white skin, green hair, red lips, snazzy purple wardrobe, his array of deadly, outwardly innocent (often oversized) props and he works as perfect contrast to another brilliant visual - The Batman. You have a character who is outwardly jolly but lethal set against a character who is brooding and cloaked in shadow and mystery.

Putting these two together on a comic book page is always going to work. The genius of them is in their design, not their psychological complexity. Trying to burden them with layers of emotional depth and dragging them into the real world has always felt like a mistake to me. Batman should never feel like an episode of Law & Order: SVU, you know? When you have to break out the rape kit in a Batman comic, I feel like mistakes have been made. And the criminals that Batman pursues should not be so purely despicable.

Specifically with The Joker, I feel like Batman: The Animated Series writer/producer (and creator of Harley Quinn) Paul Dini hit the nail on the head when he said, when talking about Mark Hamill's celebrated portrayal of the character, that "...So often The Joker's been played as sort of like a harmless clown or a total raving, psychotic madman, which actually defeats the purpose doing the character because then he becomes totally unsavory...with Joker I think we struck a nice balance between the clown and the killer."

Others, of course, will strongly disagree. I mean, despite Moore's regrets, The Killing Joke is generally regarded as a classic and, gee, certainly audiences have embraced Joker. There is a large segment of fans - comic readers and moviegoers alike - who love to see the Batman and everything within his larger world be depicted as dark as it can be. A lot of people prefer seeing these things taken to an unsavory extreme. For me, that approach is always a turn off.

I feel it always smacks of embarrassment towards the source material and a belief that it has to shout "This isn't for kids, you know!" in order to validate its existence.

The kind of "magic realism" that Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams practiced during their stint on the Batman comic in the '70s and that others emulated (at least until Frank Miller got his hands on the character) always seemed like the right way to go for me. It was dark, it was mature, but it didn't just shovel on nastiness in order to appear more grown-up. It wasn't insecure about what it was.

From the start, Joker just wasn't going to be for me. I thought it was wrongheaded, creatively lazy, and that it appeared to pander largely to a crowd inclined to see this movie as a vindication for their own anti-social bents. Literally nothing about it, save for Joaquin Phoenix's performance, looked good to me. But, as we see, it's a massive hit that clearly struck a chord with a lot of people. Incels alone don't put a movie over a billion at the box office.

So the joke's on me, right?

Well, you can't argue against what the public wants. If something isn't for you, it's not for you, even if everyone else seems to love it.

Rather than try to demean the popularity of something that you don't connect with or try to rage against it, you can only accept it, try to understand it, and hope its success will lead to good things.

My hope with Joker's success is that the lesson that Warners/DC learns from it is that every movie based on their comic properties can be its own thing. My hope is that it will confirm that they're better off not pursuing the kind of shared universe that Marvel has a knack for and instead let every movie stand as its own entity.

That's my hope and I'd like to see that hope be proven right.

I don't love Joker but I have learned to put on a happy face about it. 

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Face Front, True Believers!

It's the topic that just won't go away. Some journalists started asking aging auteurs their thoughts on Marvel movies and it just opened up a whole can of worms. Because, for some reason, some people were shocked to find out that Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola weren't hyped for Black Panther II. Personally, I don't think this was the stuff of headline news.

To me, I would have thought this was a no-brainer. I can't imagine these movies being their thing. And, you know, it's cool. But the dismissive tone of their comments really irked some people, like to the point of them being actually offended. I just don't get the anger in this regard. Do I agree with Scorsese's or Coppola's comments? Not at all. But don't we expect the elderly to be a little out of touch and grumpy? Do we want to give them shit about it and yell back at them? I don't think so. Let them be cantankerous about whatever.

We'll all get there eventually, if we're lucky.

But because we live in the internet age where nothing can just be said and forgotten, I guess Scorsese has been hounded enough where he felt he had to clarify his feelings on Marvel in an opinion piece in the New York Times. Which, honestly, is hysterical to me. If you had told anyone back in the '70s or '80s that one day Martin Scorsese would be forced to clarify his thoughts on fucking Ant-Man in the pages of the New York Times, they'd wonder what kind of insane future we'd come to live in one day and, of course, you'd have to tell them "Oh man, you don't even know the half of it!"

But now that he's gone ahead and said what, one would hope, would be his final piece in the matter, and everyone can read it away from the potential distortions of the headlines, can we say that Scorsese has a point? Well, he has an opinion and some will agree with him because they share his outlook and, like Scorsese, probably look at the Marvel Cinematic Universe from a distance and just, well, don't get it.

Is he right, though, about Marvel movies or comic book movies not being "cinema?" No, that's still just elitist gatekeeping. Has that ever worked out? Has any popular form of entertainment been shit on by the elder set and then just gone away?  No, just the opposite.

Whether it's monster movies, or EC Comics, or rock and roll, or Hammer Films, or heavy metal, or slasher films, punk or rap, or whatever, if it taps into a hunger in the public, if it excites an audience, then it becomes permanently entrenched in the culture.

"Yeah, but just because something's popular doesn't make it good! It doesn't make it art!" I guess would be the response back to that.

Hmm, sure. Many things - movies, music, TV shows, novels - can be popular without satisfying the definition of "art." And often times popularity and quality don't necessarily go hand in hand.

But making blanket statements and knee-jerk dismissals is not helpful. It shows a lack of understanding, and an unwillingness to concede that, hey, there might be more to this than you're willing to admit.

When Scorsese talks about the "sameness" of Marvel movies, or superhero movies in general, it's the perspective of someone who - obviously - isn't a fan and for who all this looks alike. Reading his words, I think about being a teenager in the '80s and my mother complaining that all the heavy metal and rap I listened to sounded alike and that it was all "just noise," with one song completely indistinguishable from the other. To someone older, to someone who finds it alienating and abrasive, it does sound "all the same."

To the ears of an older person, it's not "real" music. But, of course, it is and to anyone who is a fan, it's easy to hear the differences and understand the value of the music and the respective skills of the different bands and groups involved. Similarly, all superhero movies or comic book adaptations are not the same. Someone who watches these movies and enjoys them can tell you that Captain America: Winter Soldier is not the same as Guardians of the Galaxy which is not the same as Doctor Strange which is not the same as Shazam! or Wonder Woman and so on down the line. They are not this uniform lump. They’re different movies, with different flavors and they are not interchangeable from one to the other.

To the issue of cinematic “risk,” or the lack thereof, that Scorsese talks about in his Times piece, well, if you don’t think trying to make Ant-Man, of all characters, into a successful movie franchise isn’t a crazy gamble, I don’t know what to tell you! But seriously, the history of cinema is littered with big budget failures, would-be franchises that stalled out of the gate, or once successful ones that eventually made creative mis-steps and lost the attention of the audience. The movie going audience, as much as some would like to portray them as an undiscerning mob, actually do make their own decisions, even if they're not the decisions that Scorsese wants them to make. Now, Scorsese is really talking about emotional risk here, of course, and I'll get to that, but I think the issue of commercial risk is worth talking about because I think the perception from Scorsese and others is that Marvel movies are just a "safe bet," requiring no vision to succeed, and that's not the case.

Throwing the latest, greatest special effects on screen is not a guarantee of success. If it were, we wouldn’t be talking about how the new Terminator is likely going to be the final nail in that franchise’s coffin. If it were, Mortal Engines wouldn’t have tanked. If it were, we’d still be seeing further Chronicles of Narnia movies. If it were, we’d still be seeing new installments of Star Wars anthology style films on the big screen. If it were, Ryan Reynolds would be on his fourth or fifth Green Lantern movie by now rather than being known as Deadpool. If it were, Zack Snyder’s Justice League would have been every bit as successful as Joss Whedon’s Avengers rather than a failure. Making a movie that audiences respond to is hard, period. Especially ones that need to - given the enormous financial stakes involved - appeal to a wide audience. It's difficult to do that even once. It's never an easy layup. So for Marvel to do it over and over for a decade, with success after success, you can't dismiss that kind of record and not look out of touch.

Every Marvel movie has had the potential to fail. Every one, starting with Iron Man. They've been so successful with their franchises for so long, though, that some take that success for granted and the considerable skill and the creative instincts behind it tends to be dismissed.

But hey, these movies don't make themselves, you know.

If every studio could do what Marvel does, they would. But they can’t. It's not as simple as following a formula. Warners/DC tried and failed to mount a shared cinematic universe and they had to re-think their strategy (and did so successfully). In years to come, people will – for lack of a better word – marvel at what Marvel was able to achieve. It’s unprecedented. Shared universes existed on screen before – such as the Universal Monster Series and the ToHo Godzilla films – but never like this. Never on this scale and never with this many moving parts. It's like spinning plates while balancing on a tightrope and the fact that they’ve done it over the course of ten years with twenty-three movies so far without all of it crashing down is astonishing. To wave it off with a "meh," like "oh, they're just giving audience empty spectacle" or that "oh it’s just theme parks” is some small-minded, sour grapes bullshit.

If it’s so easy and if it takes so little skill and if it involves no genuinely artistry, everyone with at least half a brain in the movie business should be able to follow Marvel’s blueprint. The fact that they can’t says that what Marvel does is something special and unique to them. What their success is really built on is that they’ve made audiences care about these characters. Audiences are invested in Steve Rogers and Tony Stark and Natasha Romanoff and Clint Barton and Scott Lang and Carol Danvers and T’Challa and so on.

These characters aren’t just a collection of computer codes in CG action scenes, they have a personality and a life to them that viewers respond to. That’s why people keep coming back.

But, as someone like Scorsese would say, how can we care about them if there’s no real risk, if we know they can’t really die? Well, first of all, you could apply that same complaint to any film in the action genre. You might as well throw your hands up at the latest James Bond movie and ask “Ugh, why does anyone even care? You know he’s not going to die, right?” And, of course, it’s true. No one ever goes to a James Bond movie, genuinely wondering whether Bond will fail in his mission and die at the hands of a master criminal. No one ever went to a Die Hard sequel or an Indiana Jones movie thinking that the end credits might roll over a shot of the hero’s still, lifeless body. Does this the lack of genuine risk to the characters make these movies not cinema? Of course not.

As far as superheroes go, this is an issue that goes back to the comics themselves. In the comics, characters like Batman and Spider-Man are essentially immortal. They often bleed but they don’t die. They might appear to die at times, as pretty much every major hero has in the comic world by now, but they don’t stay dead. There’s always a resurrection to come and a heroic return. It might involve time travel, or genetic science, or magic, but they’ll come back. With characters like this, it’s not about having a fear they they’ll perish for good. And it’s not even about wondering whether they’ll prevail in whatever conflict they’re involved in. Of course they will. It’s not a matter of whether they’ll win but how.

The 'how' is the fun part. It’s why people keep reading the adventures of these characters. It’s not because anyone wonders if this is finally going to be the issue where Batman is stumped by, say, the Riddler and fails Gotham. No, it’s because they want to see how Batman will find a way to prevail once again and how cleverly the writer of the issue will find a new way to surprise within that formulaic framework. That’s where the ingenuity and the creativity lies. How will the hero out-smart their opponent, how will the hero find a way to turn the tables when all looks lost? More importantly, how will they do it and still retain the values that make them heroic in the first place? The risk in these stories isn’t about life and limb so much as it is about maintaining moral integrity in the face of adversity. How can you win without compromising who you are?

In the movies, it’s the same way. It’s about wanting to see how the hero will find a way to win. Seeing a character pull it together in the clutch never gets old. Seeing them beat the odds never gets old.

Unless you watch mysteries honestly thinking that, well, they probably won't solve this one or you watch romantic comedies thinking, eh, things probably won't work out between these two or you watch sports movies thinking that a crushing loss is in the cards, don't complain about the sameness or the lack of "risk" with superhero movies. In the case of all these genres, the audience has a clear idea going in what the outcome, in general terms, is going to be. It's how the movies arrive at those expected outcomes and what obstacles are placed in the protagonist's way is what makes them interesting, despite all of them trafficking in well worn formulas.

As to whether Marvel movies are cinema or not, there is no debate. They are an evolution of genre cinema and deserved to be discussed as such. Going back to the serials of the '30s and '40s, superheroes have been adapted to the screen and seeing how that corner of cinema has evolved from what it was to what it is now should be interesting - in strictly academic terms, if nothing else - to anyone who cares about movies. It's as valid to the study of the art of film as tracking the evolution of westerns or comedies or musicals or horror films or war movies. It's all under the umbrella of cinema.

As to the Chicken Little cries that Marvel movies are crowding everything else out and extinguishing cinema as we know it in the process, well, that’s frankly just hysteria. It says more about some people being pissed about what other people like and trying to be bitter scolds about it than really addressing the reality of the situation. I mean, the last Marvel movie in theaters was Spider-Man: Far From Home back in July. The next one, Black Widow, isn't out until May of next year. Seems pretty spaced out to me. Plenty of room for other films to exist. Avengers: Endgame didn't keep Midsommar, Ad Astra, Us, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood or The Lighthouse from getting made and into theaters, you know?

The fact that Martin Scorsese isn't into movies about talking raccoons and wall-crawling teenagers and Russian-bred super-spies and that he doesn't give a flying fig about finding out who The Eternals are or that he can't find Wakanda on a map (wait, it's not on a map?) shouldn't be a big deal to anyone. The fact that it's been made into one seems silly to me.

Then again, I also find it silly that someone as brilliant as Scorsese would waste his time harrumphing about popular entertainment.