Saturday, May 28, 2022

Eye of the Tiger: Rocky III at 40

As great a film as the original Rocky is, it's not the kind of film that at first glance seems ready made for a franchise. You know, it's a movie about an underdog boxer living in a crummy neighborhood who gets an unlikely chance to hit the big time and it all leads up to that final match and, well, that's kind of it. At the end of Rocky it feels like the story has been fully told. 1979's Rocky II was such a retread of the original that, well done as it was, it only seemed to confirm that the story potential of the series had already been exhausted. I mean, in II Balboa just goes up against Apollo Creed again. I don't know. Kind of seems like we're done here, right? But hold on, because the '80s are coming. Cue up Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger!"

As much as Rocky and its first sequel had been '70s hits, it took the '80s to really make a true franchise out of the series. The appeal of the original Rocky in '76 had been that its uplifting quality represented an antidote to the prevailing cynicism and defeatism of the decade.The '70s wasn't an especially triumphant period of time. America wasn't feeling a lot of big wins back then. In the original, Rocky loses his match, with simply going the full twelve rounds with Creed and winning the love of Adrian being his victories. He earned a more definitive win in Rocky II, officially becoming the champ, but Rocky's wins were only going to get bigger and better in the '80s.

People thought Rocky was a feel good saga before but, man, they hadn't seen anything yet. It's like the series, and writer/star Sylvester Stallone, had been waiting all along for the '80s to happen and when it did, it was the perfect fit of character and decade. 

The Bad News Bears had been another sports related '70s franchise (and, like Rocky, it started in '76) where the protagonists had actually lost at the climax of the original film with the sequels making them into winners but the Bad News Bears franchise sputtered out after two poorly received sequels (ending with '78's The Bad News Bears Go To Japan) and a failed TV series that, post-cancellation, limped its way over the finish line into 1980. The '70s was the time of the lovable loser and The Bad News Bears and Rocky had reflected that. The '80s, however, was reserved for winners only and Stallone's Rocky was more than ready to join that company. The original Rocky was an anticipation of where the mood of the country was headed as we slowly crawled out from under our post-Vietnam, post-Watergate malaise and once the Reagan era arrived and a new morning in America was here, Rocky was primed to meet the moment and become a poster child for the feel good '80s. As the trailer for Rocky III proclaimed, Rocky was "an American tradition."

Rocky III embraced the mood of the times to a (Mr) T. The storyline was no less predictable than that of the first two but III saw the Rocky saga transform from being simple boxing pictures to becoming the equivalent of superhero spectacles, with Rocky not just taking on other boxers but battling larger than life supervillains. Unlike Carl Weathers' slick, erudite Apollo Creed, Mr. T's Clubber Lang was a fucking beast. As Burgess Meredith's Mick says, he's a "wrecking machine." Clubber works out alone in a dank basement with poor lighting and, like, dangling chains and leaky pipes or whatever (I could just be imagining the chains and the pipes but it feels like they should be there) and he says things in interviews like "I'm gonna torture him. I'm gonna crucify him. Real bad." and, of course "I pity the fool." 

In the director's chair again after Rocky II, Stallone immediately establishes Rocky III a product of the MTV era as he sets up the entire movie via an opening montage before the titles even roll. We never get any dialogue or dramatic scenes to set up who Clubber is, where he came from, or to flesh out his conflict with Rocky. No, we get a music video, set to the entirety of "Eye of the Tiger," and that's all we need. As "Eye of the Tiger" plays out, we see Rocky being a big time celebrity, shilling for products like American Express and clowning with the Muppets while Clubber stalks Rocky's matches like a slasher villain, glowering at the champ's bogus wins and steadily annihilating his own opponents. 


In Stallone's most inspired move, he brings back Carl Weathers' Apollo Creed, installing him as Rocky's new trainer after Clubber turns Rocky into paste in their first match, an event so traumatic that it leaves Micky dead. Bringing Weathers back in this capacity was such a smart way to not just keep Weathers involved but to elevate Clubber as an adversary. The fact that Rocky has to team up with his former rival if he's going to have any chance of beating Clubber only makes the challenge of taking down Clubber feel that much more serious. The ensuing friendship that develops between Rocky and Apollo is one of the highlights of the entire series and one of the great bromances in cinema. There just aren't a lot of platonic male relationships on film that feature the two dudes frolicking in the waves together. None, in fact, besides this. There should be many more, I agree, but this is all we've got.

The most surprising aspect for me in revisiting Rocky III is being reminded that the story hinges on Rocky being past his prime. He might still be thriving as a celebrity but as a boxer, he's pretty much washed up. So much so that Mick keeps putting him up against has beens. Rocky is ready to retire and publicly does so at the unveiling of his statue before Clubber calls him out with a taunt of "Don't give this sucker at statue! Give 'im some guts!" Balboa is said to be 34 years old here, which does not seem all that old from today's perspective where Tom Brady is still a star athlete at 44 (and whose own retirement lasted a blink of an eye!) but this movie is built on the idea of Rocky facing down the end of his boxing career and Apollo being firmly over with his. Incredibly, these two are supposed to be a couple of old dudes fighting off their own impending obsolescence! I always remember that aspect as being key to Rocky IV but I had forgotten that the path to that was already laid down here. I just find it wild that as Stallone was just starting to ramp up into the prime of his own career that his signature character was supposed to be past his best days.

Some will say that this and 1986's Rocky IV were too cartoony, arguably even bordering on parody, and that they erred in taking the series away from its down to earth roots. Stallone himself might, to some extent, agree with that as beginning with 1990's Rocky V, he purposely kept driving the series back to the more realistic vibe of the first two films. Maybe that was the smart move, I don't know. Maybe it was the only viable choice Stallone had at that point because after Clubber and Drago, what non-cyborg adversary could believably top either one of them? If you didn't dial things back, you'd have to have aliens come to Earth to pit their greatest fighter against ours with the fate of the planet on the line. Personally, I do think that would have been the way to go but what do I know? I'm just someone who walked out of Rocky III in 1982 feeling on top of the world and I think the series could have kept chasing bigger and better highs. 

You know, I'll just say this: I remember what the mood of the audience was like in III and IV and, man, it was not the same for the opening night of V. Imagine if after 2011's Fast Five if the Fast and the Furious producers had thought their next move should be to take the series back to its street racing roots. Not an option, right? Of course not. By F9, ten years later, these characters are driving cars in outer space! When it comes to sequels, you gotta always keep leveling up, even if that means that, oh, now Rocky's boxing a werewolf.

A lot of great movies in the summer of '82 missed with audiences but Rocky III was not one of them. It was absolutely a movie of its moment. Released on May 28th, 1982, it landed every punch with precision and walked away a box office champ. You didn't have to train with Apollo that summer to get the eye of the tiger. You didn't even have to work up a sweat. You just had to watch Rocky III.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

It's Not Easy Being Green

From the moment that a She-Hulk series was announced, it was a given that the title character would be a CGI creation. Even though attorney Jennifer Walters' Gamma Goddess alter ego transforms into a slimmer, more human scaled Hulk than her cousin Bruce, she's still a Hulk and putting green make-up on actress Tatiana Maslany wasn't going to cut it for a modern audience. 

This isn't a situation like Zoe Saldana's Gamora. Here there's a transformation that has to take place. Multiple transformations per episode, as Maslany will continually be going between her Jennifer Walters persona and her Hulk mode. And that Hulk mode won't always be the same. Maslany will be fully Hulking out and becoming physically bigger in some scenes so rather than going back and forth from make-up and prosthetic appliances to digital, you have go with consistency. Digital can cover everything that has to be done with the character, make-up can't.

The thing is, we've had almost twenty years of CGI Hulks by now, starting with Eric Bana in 2003's Hulk, then with Ed Norton in 2008's The Incredible Hulk and on to Mark Ruffalo starting in 2012's The Avengers and continuing on through his many MCU appearances since then. So this is very familiar territory by now, with none of these Hulks completely transcending their CGI nature but with fans being fairly cool with that but from the reaction to the She-Hulk trailer, you'd think that fans had been thrust into uncharted territory, forced to wrap their brains around a digital Hulk for the first time. 

While many did greet the trailer with excitement, recognizing that it captures the feel of writer Dan Slott's She-Hulk comic run, and that it displays the kind of light touch that suits the character, the whining about the CGI used to bring Maslany's She-Hulk form to life was immediate, with armchair animators tweeting that it looked terrible, that her face was too uncanny valley and so on. I say bullshit, she looks every bit as good as any of the CGI Hulks we've had. 

Many who did enjoy the trailer pointed out that the show's release is still months away and that the final product would no doubt be improved as animators continued to work on it. While there might be some truth to that, I think the correct response is not to apologize for how the CGI looks in the trailer or to attempt to assure that it'll look better when it's done but to say "Wait, what the fuck are you even bitching about?" Because that is definitely the first thing that comes to my mind: what the fuck are you bitching about?

Watching the trailer, I was not convinced that this was a flawlessly lifelike rendition of She-Hulk. But that's fine. What I care about is the humor, the personality, the general vibe of the show and all of that feels very on point to me. If the CGI is not rendered with absolute realism down to the last frame, I can get past that and enjoy the show. If the performances are appealing, if the scripts are sharp, that's what matters. If they aren't, that will take me out of what's happening far faster than any dodgy CGI. And for the record, I don't think what we see in this She-Hulk trailer is even dodgy. It's freaking fine.

Back in the early '90s we almost got a She-Hulk movie with Brigitte Nielsen. It would have looked cheesy as hell but I'm so bummed it never happened. However it came out, whatever short comings it would have surely had, it would have been so cool just to have it exist as an actual film. So am I going to complain now because the incredibly advanced, feature film quality CGI used to bring this She-Hulk to life may not be slick enough to make me forget that it's CGI? Hell no. 

The fact that we're getting a She-Hulk show - one that also will feature Mark Ruffalo as The Hulk and Tim Roth as The Abomination (and it wouldn't shock me if Charlie Cox's Matt Murdock showed up too) is cause for celebration but all some people can do is bitch about the CGI. The CGI, by the way, that is completely on par with what we've gotten in blockbuster movies! I don't know, man. People can be tiring.

I may end up liking She-Hulk, I may not, but the CGI look for the Jade Giantess isn't making me jaded. As long as she's green, we're good.

Saturday, May 14, 2022

What Is Best In Life? Conan at 40

When director Richard Donner was making Superman: The Movie, "verisimilitude," meaning the appearance of being true or real, was the watchword that he issued to every department, intending to ground his adaptation of the Man of Steel in reality as much as possible. As far as we know, writer/director John Milius never uttered that particular word in connection with his adaptation of Robert E. Howard's sword slinging pulp hero Conan the Barbarian but his goals were very much in sync with Donner's as his sword and sorcery epic feels rooted firmly in reality. Abetted by the production design of Ron Cobb (Alien), which imbues the walls and pillars of every tower and temple with the stamp of authenticity, Milius' depiction of Howard's fabled Hyborian Age feels taken from the pages of history more than it does pure myth making.

Released on May 14th, 1982, Conan the Barbarian was not officially considered to be a comic book adaptation but yet Conan had been a long running hit in the pages of Marvel Comics since 1970, headlining the main ongoing title of Conan the Barbarian as well as appearing in black and white magazines Savage Tales and The Savage Sword of Conan. Fans who had never read the original Conan tales from Howard, discovered a love of the Cimmerian through the popular adventures published by Marvel, which had been penned primarily by writer Roy Thomas and illustrated by the esteemed likes of Barry Smith and John Buscema. 

That Milius took his adaptation seriously wasn't just a validation of the pulp fiction it was sourced from but it also helped make the case that comic book material did not need to be a send up in order to appeal to a wider audience. In 1980, Flash Gordon had been an exercise in pure camp (an excellent one that came to be appreciated in time but was widely disparaged by fans then for its arch silliness) and with that film's producer, Dino DeLaurentiis, overseeing Conan, fans had some worries that the same fate might befall their favorite Barbarian so the earnest approach that Milius insisted on was a relief. The fact that Milius opened Conan with a Nietzsche quote confirmed within the first frames that he wasn't going to be playing this material for laughs. And there's no mistaking Basil Poledouris' stirring score as befitting anything other than an authentically epic adventure.

Today, it's hard to imagine that it was initially considered to be something of a gamble to pin this movie's success on whether former body builder Arnold Schwarzenegger could act because all the classic Conan lines here only sound right coming out of Schwarzenegger's mouth. When anyone quotes this movie, they are obliged to deliver those lines with their best Ah-nold impression. It's the only way to say them. For such a big movie, with so much riding on its success, the cast of Conan the Barbarian is an interesting mix of skilled vets like James Earl Jones and Max Von Sydow and largely untrained novices like Schwarzenegger, Sandahl Bergman and champion surfer Gerry Lopez, a buddy of Milius' whose lines were ultimately re-dubbed in post-production by stage actor Sab Shimono. But the mix works. All the components feel linked by Milius' vision. Everybody looks so right and seems completely irreplaceable in their role, even when their role is largely silent, like Valerie Quennessen as King Osric's daughter.

Critical response to Conan the Barbarian at the time was not overly enthusiastic, with much disdain expressed for Milius' violent epic. The most famous criticism being from Time Magazine critic Richard Schickel who described it as "a psychopathic Star Wars." As much as that wasn't meant as a compliment, any '80s teen at the time could have told you it only made Conan sound more metal. Universal should have used that quote in the TV spots. 


Heading into the summer of '82, Universal Studios boldly trumpeted their upcoming slate of films, courtesy of a classy two page ad in the spring issues of genre magazines like Cinefantastique and Twilight Zone that spotlighted everything from Cat People to John Carpenter's The Thing to Conan to The Dark Crystal, dubbing them "the future classics." As each of these films came out, though, only to - for the most part - crash and burn on top of being critically trashed, Universal's confidence looked a little premature. Eventually, the summer of '82 would come to be recognized as the Greatest Nerd Summer Ever but the perception at the time was that these films and many other would-be hits had fallen on their faces. Out of the six movies that Universal hyped, only E.T. had been an immediate critical and commercial success. The others would have to wait years for their reputations to improve.

 Unlike some of the others, though, Conan could at least claim to have been a box office success. It actually did perform well enough to make a profit for Universal, if not nearly on the level that, say, E.T. did. The fact is, as fondly recalled as the sword and sorcery fad of the early '80s is by Gen-X nerds who were there for it, it was a trend that never actually caught on, despite how hard studios kept trying to make it happen. The Sword and the Sorcerer, Beastmaster, Excalibur, Dragonslayer, Krull, you name it, it tanked. Conan was by far the biggest success of the bunch and even that was more muted than Universal had hoped for. But Crom cares not for these things. 

Even though Conan the Barbarian ended with the tantalizing promise of more tales to be told, things didn't quite pan out that way, with only one more sequel, 1984's Conan the Destroyer, being made, sans Milius' involvement, before Schwarzenegger moved on to other things. Milius has said that Conan was meant to be the start of a trilogy, which I'm sure would have been great, but I think Oliver Stone, who had penned the initial screenplay that Milius rewrote, really had the correct idea for the series when he said years later that "...The draft I wrote, Conan, the first one, I always undertook it as one of twelve. You know, I was thinking of like twelve movies. But unfortunately, I feel the producers of the movie misunderstood the real goal and that they sold it short. You know, Arnold should have come back every year or two years like James Bond, and done one."

But that, as they say, is another story.

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Strange Days

My main takeaway from Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is that it's a crime Sam Raimi has not directed a feature film since 2013's Oz the Great and Powerful. Some advance concern might have been warranted regarding how much of his own creativity Raimi would be able to bring to the MCU but right from the opening shots, it's clear that this is very much a Raimi film. Yes, of course he is obliged to keep the MCU narratives on track but that doesn't constrain or diminish his style. His visual flair and his prankish sensibilities are in full effect here. If you hear anyone try to spout some garbage about how, oh, this is like only 20% a Raimi film and 70% MCU, please disregard. Take any random minute from MoM and it is impossible to confuse it with a movie directed by anyone else. Early on, when a tentacled one-eyed monster (who looks like Shuma-Gorath from the comics but for some reason is dubbed Garnatos here) is rampaging through the streets, Raimi cuts to the monster's POV and you just know that when he conceived of this shot and tasked his FX team to create it, he described it to them as Monster Vision. It's one brief moment in the midst of a big battle but it's the sort of cool detail that no one else would have thought to include and those kind of instantly identifiable Raimi-esque touches are all over MoM

Storywise, there is a lot of heavy lifting to be done as this continues on from the events of Wandavision as well as carrying through ongoing threads from the original Doctor Strange and elements from the wider MCU. With all that, though, it never feels like there's massive info dumps or reams of exposition. The screenplay by Loki writer Michael Waldron is as fleet with dispensing information as possible while servicing the arcs of Strange and Wanda and newcomer to the MCU, America Chavez (the immediately charming Xochitl Gomez) as well as giving Wong (Benedict Wong) his own crucial part to play (I love, by the way, that Wong still carries the title of Sorcerer Supreme and that there's been no move to return it to Stephen, post Endgame). Is MoM still clunky at times? Yes. Could some of the character beats have landed better and some of the issues that they're dealing with been more fully explored? Also yes. All of which is simply to say, as a story, as a screenplay, this is not perfectly finessed. But it's more than fine, with Raimi's style gliding us over the bumpy parts. 

It should be no surprise that MoM will definitely lose something if a viewer is coming in cold to it, without being current on the MCU. Some will fault MoM for this but honestly, being fluent in the MCU's mythology may feel like homework for some critics but that is not the case for the wider audience. There is a ginormous global audience locked into the ongoing saga of the MCU (these are not niche movies, people!) and that audience has 100% watched Wandavision and Spider-Man: No Way Home and the original Doctor Strange and Avengers: Endgame and all the rest so acting as though there's some onus being put on the viewer to come in already knowing what these characters have gone through up to this point or that some sin is being committed against the integrity of cinema because this functions as new chapter within a larger, ongoing narrative rather than being a pristine, stand alone film is silly. We're way past the point where "how is anyone supposed to keep up with this?!" rates as a valid criticism of an MCU film. Some MCU entries are slightly more independent from the bigger story than others but this happens to not be one of those cases. MoM is not an Avengers level event but it is a sequel to several other Marvel movies and TV shows and so some previous knowledge is expected. You know, we're like fourteen years into this MCU thing now and it's all been interconnected from the start. If you're a fan, this isn't convoluted or alienating to you. No, the complexity is integral to why you're so invested in it.

In its role as a follow-up to Wandavision is where MoM is likely to be most problematic for fans, specifically for fans of Elizabeth Olsen's Wanda. Olsen's performance is excellent but as well played as it is, the reveal that Wanda is the villain Strange must defeat, rather than a fellow Avenger that he's partnering with, will not sit well with everyone. For what it's worth, Olsen makes Wanda a splendidly fearsome, complicated villain, as dangerous as any of the heavy hitters of the MCU (and the closest we've come to seeing a Dark Phoenix style threat in the MCU, which for comic book nerds adds a cool layer to her encounter with Xavier). Waldron's screenplay makes it clear that Wanda has been corrupted by the Darkhold and that, coupled with the agonizing losses she's suffered, that her soul has been twisted. 

I think the fact that Wanda was the star of Wandavision and that Olsen was so good at letting viewers feel Wanda's pain and putting them on her side throughout that journey just made it easy for many to ignore or to not even realize how explicitly her heel turn was established there. Before that show even starts, she's already a villain. She's the protagonist but she's never a hero. Her actions are not the actions of an Avenger. She's holding an entire town prisoner, warping the reality of innocent people against their will. Life in Westview is idyllic only for Wanda. It is hell for its other inhabitants. Even Vision comes to be tormented by the facade. As much as viewers may have sympathized with her, Wanda was a monster in Wandavision and her actions in MoM are fully in line with the events of the show. Wanda caused an enormous amount of pain in Wandavision (a whole show could be done on the PTSD impact on the residents of Westview) and she never paid a price for it. She inflicts a cruel punishment on her primary adversary and flees, not to reflect on what's she's done but to develop new plans to reclaim what she lost. MoM is where Wanda finally faces real consequences. Given where Wanda's story ends up here, things look pretty final but, you know, I think it's safe to assume that it isn't. What her next step in the MCU will be, who knows, but in the comics Wanda has gone from hero to villain and back to hero a time or two so it's easy to believe that redemption is in the cards for her. Especially when her motivation going back to Wandavision is not wickedness but grief and rage.

As much as it might agitate Wanda fans to see her consumed by darkness, with them feeling that Doctor Strange has been let off easy in comparison, it seems clear that her descent provides a prescient glimpse to what Doctor Strange himself will have to contend with. In his efforts to save America Chavez and the multiverse, he takes steps in this film that, while seemingly necessary in the moment, put him on a path with dark implications. Strange does not come out of this with clean hands (he's arguably already dirty going in as his Infinity War decision that led to the Blip is called into question - was that really the only correct path to take in that moment or was it an example of Strange's unchecked arrogance, with him making a life or death choice on behalf of every living being?) and it's evident that, in time, his fate could mirror Wanda's. We see in MoM that Strange's standing as a hero is not so clear cut at all - whether in the 616 or across the multiverse - and that it is only going to become further complicated.   

Between Wanda and Strange, we see that employing magic solutions can easily corrupt and compromise their users. Beneath Raimi's giddy spook-a-blast hi-jinks, there's a sobering portrayal here of two beings who are powerful enough to change the fabric of reality but who are incapable of conjuring real happiness or healing for themselves. Strange is asked early on by the newly married Christine (Rachel McAdams) if he's happy and even though he answers in the affirmative, the movie is ambiguous right to the end as to whether he really is. It's a bold choice for a blockbuster entertainment to make, where both its hero and villain walk away from the film's events unsatisfied.

 Wanda pointedly asks Strange why, when he breaks the rules, he's seen as a hero but when she does it, she's a villain. Her question lingers over a discovery later in the film as we see that Strange's heroism in one corner in the multiverse is purely an act of myth making. Wanda is not privy to this information but it only further validates her question and underlines the unfairness of the judgement against her. While not condoning her actions, MoM does address and condemn the double standard she faces. In a reality where Strange is known by an inner circle to have gone bad, we see how that inner circle chooses to publicly perpetrate the myth of Strange as a selfless hero, making it bitterly clear that societies have no qualms about vilifying females who threaten the order of things while simultaneously providing cover for the similar crimes of men. 

The multiverse angle may not be as indulged as some would have wanted or expected (to be fair, for some fans nothing short of the appearance of every single character owned by Disney/Marvel and encores from all past MCU stars would have satisfied) but it does allow for one particularly cool sequence that is a buffet of cool cameos as the group of overseers known as the Illuminati are introduced. It may not feature every character under the banner of the Marvel Universe but the ones it does include are awfully neat to see. At its core, though, this movie is steadfastly a Strange and Wanda story and does not over-indulge in MCU Easter eggs. You get what you get but what you get is pretty awesome. The MCU has really spoiled comic book fans so some of this stuff gets taken in stride these days or met with an indignant huff of "that's all?" but it's worth appreciating just how wild some of the character appearances in MoM are (including a surprise introduction in the mid-credits tease). We truly live in a gloriously nerdy time. 

Based on where MoM leaves off, things are only going to get crazier for the MCU with the mention of "incursions" teeing up the MCU to incorporate material from writer Jonathan Hickman's massive Avengers run. How that storyline, which in the comics culminated in Secret Wars, will play out and what part Strange will play in it is something we'll see unfold over the next few years. Whereas the first three Phases of the MCU were very linear, almost rudimentary in getting us to Thanos and Infinity War, Phase 4 is already laying down multiple tracks, any of which could keep these characters busy for years to come. For awhile, it was relatively easy for comic fans to stay ahead of where the MCU was going but not anymore. While some of the storylines they're developing now can be identified, trying to anticipate how they'll advance or how they'll dovetail with each other (if some of them even will) is impossible at this point. But I think that only speaks to how Kevin Feige has become more confident and more ambitious with the MCU. The success of Phases 1-3 has only given Marvel Studios the confidence and experience and the storytelling tools to push everything further. 

Whatever is coming, a third Strange movie is absolutely going to be part of the future plans of the MCU and it would be very cool if Raimi could come back for it. I don't buy the lazy, demonstrably false complaint that there's a sameness to the MCU but I will say that few directors are able to put a such a distinctive personal stamp on any film quite like Raimi can so more of him in the MCU can only be a good thing. There's a battle sequence in MoM between Strange and one of his multiversal counterparts involving dueling musical notes that is so visually clever, so creative, and so unlike what anyone else would have conceived of that it shows (even more than the horror elements) what you gain by having Raimi as a director. Whether or not he jumps back into the MCU, I hope he finds another project to direct soon. For a filmmaker this gifted and so clearly still at the top of his game, he needs to pick up the pace from here, not slow down. MoM serves as a joyous reminder that there's no one else like him. When it comes to making movie magic, Raimi is still the sorcerer supreme.


Wednesday, May 4, 2022

A Day Like No Other

Once upon a time, the idea that an Avengers movie could even happen seemed like a crazy pipe dream. That's quaint to consider in light of where the MCU has gone since but at one time it was far from a guarantee that an Avengers movie would ever come together. When The Avengers was released ten years ago today, on May 4th, 2012, it was a major milestone. As they dramatically proclaimed in the comics about the founding of The Avengers, it was "a day like no other."

For anyone who thinks that successfully piloting the course through Phase 1 of the MCU was insignificant or that those movies just sold on the basis of special effects or whatever, just look at how singular Marvel's achievement is. Everyone wants to do what Marvel does but no one else has cracked that code. No one else has even come close and it's sure not for lack of trying. Creating successful movie franchises is hard. There's no foolproof formula to it. And it's not just about creating and launching a franchise but to keep it going and hold on to an audience year after year. 

I mean, where's that last installment of the Divergent series? They got through three films, made the first part of a two part finale and then just let it go when no one showed up to see Allegiant. The Chronicles of Narnia sputtered out after three movies. And the Dark, they had so many plans for that! All of which, by the way, I was very excited for. And of course, Marvel's main rival, DC has struggled to follow Marvel's model. 

To put into further perspective what a feat producer Kevin Feige and his collaborators pulled off, you have to remember that when Marvel Studios started, it was widely perceived that they were already operating at a disadvantage before they ever shot a single frame of film. Fox owned the X-Men and The Fantastic Four and all that came with them and Sony had the rights to Spider-Man - the crown jewel of Marvel - and the rights to his extended universe of characters while Marvel Studios was left with the likes of Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, Captain America, and Black Widow. These were not thought of as the kind of characters that anyone could build a successful studio with. No household names in that bunch, except maybe for the Hulk. But the Hulk was still no Spider-Man. And the rest were only known primarily among comic book nerds. They were perceived as also-rans. That is until Feige and co. proved otherwise. Today everyone knows these characters. Everybody knows who Iron Man is. Not just that, they know his civilian identity of Tony Stark every bit as well as they know that Bruce Wayne is Batman. You see people walking around with Captain America T-shirts all the time. And that's only because Marvel Studios made films that successfully sold these characters to the public. 

Had Jon Favreau's 2008 Iron Man not succeeded, nothing after would have come to pass. We'd be living in a world without the MCU. But it clicked and that first MCU post-credit tease with Nick Fury alluding to a bigger universe made a mind-blowing promise of what could happen if there was enough of an audience to support it. It's odd now to remember how every step of the way leading up to the Avengers, there was an element of uncertainty among fans with the release of each Marvel movie where we genuinely worried, oh no, what if this next one tanks? What if this all falls apart? 

There was every chance that a Thor or Captain America movie could have fallen on their faces. It was very possible that audiences would just not show up, whether the movies were good or not. But when they came out and they clicked, especially Thor, it was clear that, yeah, The Avengers is really going to be a thing. 

When it was released, The Avengers was a vindication of both the creative efforts that had brought Marvel Studios to that point and also the nerd culture that had believed in and embraced these characters for decades and who had always known how cool this could all be if it was taken onto a bigger stage. 

As much as an Avengers film was unlikely to happen in the first place, actually getting there was still no guarantee that the final product would be satisfying - in fact it would have been pretty easy to screw it up. So as much as he might be out of favor today, writer/director Joss Whedon really deserves credit for making a movie that lived up to an impossibly high level of anticipation and that proved that these diverse elements could work together. If it turned out they couldn't, that would have been an immediate game over for the MCU. 

It's taken for granted that Thor and Iron Man and Black Widow and so on can crossover into each other's adventures in the comics on a regular basis and that those interactions don't seem weird or require any explanation but that didn't mean that the same would be true in a movie. Because it worked so well here, though, and because these team-ups went on to be the cornerstone of how the MCU operates, no one thinks anything of how trying to service the narratives of all these characters could have easily fallen apart. It's not quite the kind of thing they hand out Oscars for but what Whedon accomplishes here is a far more impressive feat than it's given credit for being.

The Avengers gets off to a slightly wobbly start in its first act but once Thor enters the picture and he, Captain America and Iron Man square off for the first time and we have that moment when these characters are finally sharing the screen together and these worlds collide, the movie jumps to another level and it keeps escalating all the way through to the sprawling third act battle with the Chitauri, undeniably one of the greatest action sequences in a comic book movie, if not arguably the greatest. 

As in the comics, Loki is the catalyst to bring the group together and Tom Hiddleston is still the most entertaining adversary that Earth's Mightiest Heroes have faced. 

Ultron and Thanos may be scarier and more dangerous but Loki is just fun. It's great to have this team go up against a Trickster, not just for their power set but for the mix of personalities where you have characters who communicate with sarcasm or with rage or with square sincerity, all of which interact with Loki so well. Yes, the stakes are still high and still serious but there's a level of levity inherent in tangling with Loki and also such an enjoyable certainty in knowing that Loki will suffer a humiliating comeuppance. We know Ultron and Thanos will be beaten when they go up against The Avengers but there's a different sort of anticipation in knowing that the smug, eternally pleased with himself Loki will not just lose but will suffer a real indignity by the end. 

Some would say (probably even Whedon himself) that Whedon should have walked away after The Avengers rather than returning for Age of Ultron but I like Ultron quite a bit and feel it's an underrated MCU entry. The thing is, The Avengers is just a tough act to follow. "Getting the gang together" is always a foolproof narrative whether it's a western or a heist film or whatever the genre may be and in the case of The Avengers, watching these particular characters come together for the first time - and the added novelty that came along with it here because no one had seen this kind of multi-movie crossover before - is so much fun that the next step was inevitably going to feel slightly warmed over in comparison. And of course, by the time of Age of Ultron the whole landscape of the MCU had changed from where we had left things at the end of The Avengers. After Captain America: Winter Soldier, S.H.I.E.L.D. was no more. We do get the return of Fury and the Helicarrier at the end of Ultron but it's not the same as where we left off in Avengers with S.H.I.E.L.D. as a still-functioning unit and with Fury and Hill monitoring trouble spots across the world, ready to call on The Avengers whenever a danger might arise that no single hero could withstand. So The Avengers is special in that despite seeming to set up a reliable formula for ongoing adventures, things were shaken up very quickly in the MCU and so this first time was also the last time for this particular style of Avenger film. 

If only Disney+ had been a thing back then. It would have been so cool to have, say Avengers: The Series, taking place between the first movie and AoU with a short season of episodes with this team going up against second tier Avengers foes like Count Nefaria and the Grey Gargoyle. Yes, I know that would have never happened anyway with it totally not being worth the time and money for Disney/Marvel to pay their feature film cast to do like six mini movies between installments of their actual blockbuster movies which are exhausting, incredibly costly efforts on their own but hey, it's fun to imagine. What If, am I right? 

It's perhaps too easy to regard The Avengers as merely a step on the way to even bigger things because as fans we've been so conditioned to keep chasing that next MCU high (and The Avengers did have one of the MCU's best post credit scenes with the introduction of Thanos) but ten years later we should pause to appreciate what a crazy, singular achievement The Avengers actually was. Marvel successfully scaled the top of that particular mountain before anyone else. As prevalent as superhero films already were by 2012, The Avengers was a movie like no other.  


Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Spider-Man at 20


The fact that when Spider-Man was released on May 3rd, 2002, I was already a full grown adult who had waited their whole lifetime for that movie to exist makes the idea that twenty years have gone by since feel a bit weird. But even though twenty years have passed, a significant chunk of time, the majority of my life so far has still been spent in a world sans Spider-Man movies so, you know, even twenty years later and eight movies in I don't take them for granted. The thing is, I remember what it was like when they weren't around and, let me tell you, it sucked. 

Throughout the '80s and '90s the chances of a Spider-Man movie getting made at all seemed incredibly slim. Plans to make it had collapsed so often, the property seemed cursed. Now, of course, there's a generation of full grown adults who never have lived in a world that didn't include Sam Raimi's genre-defining take on the web-spinner. For older fans, the release of Spider-Man was a long deferred dream finally realized. Now it's like, oh Spider-Man movies have always been with us. Of course there's Spider-Man movies, why wouldn't there be?

It's easy to forget, though, how long it took Spidey to swing onto the big screen. While Marvel's flagship character languished in development hell for years, with even James Cameron not being able to make a Spider-Man movie a reality, DC was essentially the only game in town when it came to supplying the world with big screen superheroes. 

The Superman movies with Christopher Reeve were iconic, the ones that first proved that comic book heroes could work on screen as legit big budget, A-list entertainment. Even if the third and fourth films had derailed the success of that franchise, the first two films were undeniably the gold standard of superhero cinema. And the original Tim Burton 1989 Batman was a triumph of its own, establishing a darker take on the character that was more in line with the comics and that successfully transformed the public's perception of Batman as being more than a relic of '60s camp. The sequels were a mixed bag but in terms of box office, Batman was undeniably the superhero of the '90s. Even though 1997's Batman & Robin had temporarily tanked the franchise, those four films still made Batman a cinematic superstar for the better part of ten years. 

As far as superhero films went back then, there was Batman and nothing else. The Caped Crusader's comic book movie competition was the likes of Tank Girl and Spawn. You might have a surprise cult hit like The Crow but the Crow wasn't competing with Batman to sell any Happy Meals. Even Warners/DC wasn't able to have anywhere near Batman levels of success with the rest of their catalog, putting up tepid offerings like Steel

In the meantime, Marvel wasn't even in the game. Adaptations of their characters were dismal direct-to-video offerings like 1990's Captain America and 1989's The Punisher (which I would argue was actually pretty decent). It wasn't until 1998 and the release of Stephen Norrington's exceptional Blade that finally there was clear proof that, hey, if you do a Marvel adaptation right, you can have a hit. Then Bryan Singer's original X-Men followed in 2000 and achieved even bigger success. And unlike the action/horror hybrid of Blade, X-Men was a true Marvel superhero movie. In the wake of X-Men's success, any comic fan would have told you, if someone does Spider-Man and they get it right, it's going to crush everything else. At the very least, it's going to be freaking huge. 

As it turned out, Raimi and his collaborators did so well in getting Spider-Man right that it's hard to imagine the movie being anything other than the success that it is. But it shouldn't be taken for granted how, all down the line, that the right choices were made - from the casting, which was so dead on with everybody from Tobey Maguire to J.K. Simmons to the script by David Koepp to the visual effects design of special effects legend John Dykstra. Even the most controversial aspect at the time, the organic web-shooters, quickly became a non-issue in light of how thrilling the overall movie was and how faithfully the film translated the trademark pathos of the comics.

Given all the Spidey spectaculars that have come along since, the original seems practically quaint now. In some respects, though, I believe it's still unbeaten. I don't think the series ever captured the romance angle quite as well since - the upside down kiss between Spidey and MJ is so iconic that there's been nothing else to top it - and it should also be said that Willem Dafoe's Green Goblin remains the true Spidey villain GOAT, even twenty years later. Dafoe's Goblin operates on a level of pure wickedness that none of Spidey's other foes, great as they are, can really equal. 

Along with that, I would also say that the final fight between Spidey and the Goblin is arguably still the best battle of the series. It's a given that no matter who had ended up directing this movie, the climax would have been a fight between Spidey and the Goblin but I don't believe that anyone other than Raimi would have chosen to make it as brutal as he did. Leave it to Raimi, who had made a career out of heaping abuse on Bruce Campbell, to not go soft on Spider-Man.  

When Spider-Man came out, it was so long ago in pop culture terms that no one even thought of it as a "Marvel Movie." But even in the MCU world we live in now, Spider-Man holds up remarkably well. Other Spidey films may have gone on to outdo the original in terms of box office and sometimes in terms of critical success and fan reaction as well but there is a singular magic attached to that first outing. We've become accustomed to the sight of Spidey web-swinging through NYC and elsewhere by now - there's nothing novel about it anymore - but to see it on the big screen for the first time, courtesy of the most sophisticated FX of the day, that was pure elation.  

The original Spider-Man is so good, such a love letter to the character that Stan Lee and Steve Ditko co-created, that it could have been the only Spider-Man movie we ever got and it would have been enough.