Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Let's Talk About - The Marvel Cinematic Universe


Good day and enough of the bollocks,

            I’ve been putting off posting on I’ve A Nuke because of some misplaced sense of duty to my work. Little did I know that maintaining this piece of webspace is also a part of my work and that I am, as a writer, obligated to keep it alive. Hence, I’m back with a vengeance. Hopefully.

            So. Operating a film franchise of any scale is hard work. Setting them up is already a gamble, but how do you keep them afloat? Whether you leave it all in the hands of a single director or scores of them, it’s a mad endeavour. Sticking to one director for an entire project is ideal for the sake of tone, but it’s hard if the director gets involved in other projects.

            Risky as switching directors can be, it can have its benefits. Here’s where I want to point to Marvel’s big blockbuster film series as an example of how to do it right. If you’ve been away on some grand four-year adventure in the Himalayas and have no idea what’s happening, let me refer you to Google. All read up? Good, let’s talk.

            I am in love with these films. They’re the kind of superhero movies I enjoy seeing. Yes, The Dark Knight Trilogy is a fun dark romp, but you need to be silly when dealing with cape comics most of the time. What I enjoy about the Marvel films in particular is that they consistently embrace the insanity of the Marvelverse by director-hopping from project to project. You’re dealing with astonishing tales starring diverse characters whose stories employ a range of tones, so snagging multiple directors to capture that variety is ideal.

            Now, to show you what I mean, I’m going to drop all pretenses and rant about these films, because I’ve wanted to for about a year and I finally have the chance. This bus will be short-turning into Spoilerville now and again, so beware.

Jon Favreau’s Iron Man is one of the strongest of the First Wave because it adheres to cartoon logic, running on convenience, obvious villains and ridiculous physics right from the get-go. On top of that, Robert Downey Junior plays the socialite warmonger turned vigilante hero well and has a great double-act going with Gwenyth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts, who is all at once Tony Stark’s assistant, friend and nanny. This is an ideal premise to introduce people to this universe as well, because it’s insane and silly but also grounded enough to be plausible.

Then we had The Incredible Hulk, where shit got stranger, especially with Edward Norton turning into a big green dude and beating up everything in sight. One decision the movie made won me over. Too many superhero flicks labour over who our hero was before some “incident” transformed them. Some back-stories are incredibly basic, too, so spending too much time on them can be hurtful to the plot. The Incredible Hulk took the smart way out: throwing the origin story into the opening credits and giving us Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde meets The Fugitive instead. Tonally, it prepares audiences for the future films by saying that, yes, this is a bizarre universe but it is no stranger to drama and tragedy, and the loss of one’s humanity is tragic indeed.

It hurts me to write this, but Jon Favreau’s Iron Man 2 is one of the weaker ones. I had high hopes for this film and it only delivered enough to simply pass. One big reason is because it has eleven-thousand plot threads stapled to the script. All at once, we have to concern ourselves with Tony Stark becoming a douche again, Justin Hammer and Ivan Vanko trying to kill both each other and Iron Man, Pepper running Stark’s company while he tries to keep his heart from giving out, some subplot about Black Widow making Tony’s trousers tighten to Pepper’s dismay and Samuel L Jackson reminding the audience about the Avengers movie. No sane human being can put up with that for two hours.

In spite of that, I forgave Iron Man 2 on certain grounds. First, it appealed to the part of my brain that unconditionally loves Mickey Rourke. Second, I felt that all of the plots were connected to a single concept: Stark shooting himself in the foot over and over again. Seriously, everything is rooted in Stark’s inability to see past his own ego. The plot is chaotic because his life is chaotic, and the clutter and maniacal pace is actually representative of Tony’s own incoherent and self-righteous mind. And third, because things went boom and I went “Yay” when they did.

Speaking of weak: Thor. Now, I liked Thor. For all its shortcomings, it’s a fun action film with great actors and decent aesthetics, and introduced the Marvelverse’s cosmic side well. It’s just flawed on many levels; namely with the romance. A friend summarized the (pretentious ahem) relationship between Thor and Jane Foster well: “He fell from the sky, broke a mug, then they looked at the stars and kissed.” I also felt the relationship between Thor and Loki was flimsily developed. I say that, though, because I saw this deleted scene that would have built on their dynamic a bit more. Sadly, on the surface it contrasted with Loki’s sinister silver-tongued nature and so it was pulled. A regretful decision, I say.

Captain America, meanwhile, blew my face off. Acting, special effects and writing aside, what I enjoyed about it was that the story was not merely about someone becoming a superhero. It’s about regaining humanity. Steve Rogers starts off as a wimp who is incredibly human. Then Science happens and he becomes a monster-man. America’s answer to the super-soldier conundrum is to turn him into a propaganda piece, and it’s not until he’s sent overseas to watch his countrymen struggle that he remembers he’s a man first and a symbol second, that men make mistakes and necessary sacrifices that symbols are not meant to make.

Come of think of it, lots of Marvel’s heroes deal with rediscovering humanity. Bruce Banner battles his Hulk side daily, Steve Rogers tries hard to be an Average Joe and adjust to a future he hardly understands, and so many others – Iron Man, Luke Cage, Doctor Strange, Spider-Man – is a troubled man who paid the price for arrogance and foolishness and redeems himself through costumed vigilantism. It’s like becoming a superhero is some form of community service, or the unspoken thirteenth step in an AA recovery program.

Anyway, all this brings us to Avengers, the movie that made a billion dollars in a week. God knows why. Maybe it was the stellar reinterpretation of Avengers Issue One, the well-rounded cast, the incredible blend of writing, action and humour, the forty-minute fight sequence, and the mid-credits teaser featuring THANOS THE MAD TITAN. This is how you pull all these mad ideas together. This is what the payoff for build-up should feel like. It should feel like a two-and-a-half-hour nerdgasm. And that was Avengers for me.

If this was too long and you didn’t read it, here’s a summary: Iron Man, Captain America, and Avengers are keener kids with incredible charisma, The Incredible Hulk is the quick-thinking jock who avoids talk about his past, Thor secretly reads both “The Sword of Shannara” and “Twilight” in class, and Iron Man 2 shoves pencils up his nose for a good cause.

Apparently DC’s planning to make a Justice League movie in much the same way Marvel made Avengers. Should be encouraging, seeing as they’ve had such a great track record with oh wait no. Well, maybe if they look at this model they’ll have some luck.

See you next time,

-RWI

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