As if it isn’t obvious, I’m a pop culture nerd.
I think I’m just about done. I don’t have a lot of confidence in today’s industry to make good adaptations of those characters I love. In fact, most of the time I feel insulted.
What’s happened? Why has it changed so drastically? Why are these blockbusters so often style without substance?
It wasn’t always this way.
Superman’s a good example. The original two Richard Donner movies – Superman (1978) and Superman II (2006: this is the year the official Richard Donner version was released) – are classics. Donner knew Superman. He loved Superman. He created a vision of Superman faithful to the source material. The effects might be dated, and some scenes in the movies campy (remember, Donner was pioneering superhero filmmaking), but those two movies stand up today because Donner understands who Superman is, and portrayed that in his stories.
Tim Burton’s Batman isn’t necessarily a faithful adaptation of Batman, but tonally it’s a faithful interpretation, as well as a template for every Batman that would follow. Burton also updated the character in ways that are logical. Visually, Batman was stunning at the time of release. Everybody scoffed at the casting of Michael Keaton – well known back then as a comic actor – as Batman, but his contained manic intensity brought something to the Dark Knight. Keaton’s Batman arguably remains the cinematic Batman.
Sam Raimi did a wonderful job with Spider-Man. Again, Raimi wasn’t entirely faithful to the source material, but he was faithful to the interpretation of the character. He also didn’t fall into the trap of casting actors who were hot as villains – as Batman Forever (1995) and Batman and Robin (1997) did. Instead, Raimi cast … actors. I think he showed a new generation that just because the property was extraordinary, it could still be treated with respect. Spider-Man (2002) and Spider-Man 2 (2004) are great. Spider-Man 3 (2007) is muddled, with some excellent moments. It feels like a story the studio has meddled in. Hmmm. Let’s remember this.
When it was announced that Batman would be rebooted, I was dubious. The corpse of the original franchise was still fresh. Now they were rebooting the character? And the production shots – especially of the Batmobile – looked awful. This couldn’t be good. This wouldn’t be good.
But Christopher Nolan‘s Batman Begins (2005) was a pleasant surprise. Nolan grounded the character in reality, and extrapolated a narrative that justified how Bruce Wayne became Batman – living on the streets to learn the criminal mentality, training with the League of Shadows, and cannibalising Wayne Enterprises military technology. It totally worked – for Batman. The Dark Knight (2008) built on this solid foundation and is now considered an iconic superhero film. The Dark Knight Rises (2012) is a mess, but at least Nolan was ruining his own property.
I didn’t even know who Iron Man was when the movie came out. But Jon Favreau has since showed a faithfulness to character-driven stories. They cast great actors in Robert Downey Jr, Jeff Bridges, and Gwyneth Paltrow, and they told a story particular to that universe which worked. They didn’t rely on marquee. They couldn’t. Who the hell is Iron Man? They had to tell a good story to sell this character to a movie-going public who weren’t familiar with him. To this day, I still think Iron Man (2008) is by far the best Marvel movie.
But then things started going wrong.
While DC’s the Green Lantern (2011) isn’t a great movie, at least tonally it feels like a superhero movie that belongs in that DC universe. (I actually didn’t see this until a couple of years ago. By this time, I’d seen DC’s other efforts. Using them as the grade, Green Lantern is a masterpiece.) Green Lantern was meant to launch DC’s cinematic universe. It flopped. They scrapped their plans, and decided to start over.
Man of Steel (2013) is awful. Zack Snyder tried to ground Superman in reality, as Christopher Nolan grounded Batman. But Batman is a mortal who can exist in reality as we know it. Superman is an alien who can fly. How real do you think you can make that? Tonally, Man of Steel is dark and gloomy. This was explained as a contemporary updating of the character. I explain it as a crock of shit. Superman isn’t meant to be gloomy. He isn’t meant to be dark. That’s not to say he can’t have problems – the Richard Donner Superman has problems – but this interpretation is so far removed from who Superman is, it never should’ve been green-lit.
Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) is worse. If you could’ve written a story that featured Christopher Reeve’s Superman against Michael Keaton’s Batman, you’d have an amazing contrast. Instead, two gloomy characters do battle, while a caricature of Lex Luthor concocts the most convoluted plan in the history of on-screen superheroes to kill Superman. But it gets better – actually, it doesn’t. Batman and Superman connect in one of the most farcical (if not the most farcical) superhero scenes ever filmed.
I don’t think Wonder Woman is a great movie. It’s not offensive, like its predecessors (and appreciates, because of that). The first fifteen minutes are brilliant. But from the point the Germans storm the beach, the movie becomes bland. A bigger problem is that Wonder Woman isn’t the hero of her own story. All she does is decide she’s not going to lose a fight, so wills herself to win (sigh – they also did this in Man of Steel). Steve Trevor is the actual hero. He’s just a mortal who gives his life to fly the super-mustard gas to a safe altitude and destroy it. That’s heroic. (Great to see it looks like they’ve undone this in the sequel.)
The rebooted Spider-Man, The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) was a travesty against Spider-Man and superhero movies. The sequel, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) is, unwittingly, one of the funniest movies I’ve seen. The public weren’t impressed either. It wasn’t long before this incarnation of Spider-Man was flicked, and then he was rebooted again in the Marvel universe through Captain America: Civil War (2016) – although not with any great panache. Perhaps to distinguish themselves from their Spider-Man predecessors, Marvel’s Spider-Man effectively becomes Iron Man Lite. Ew.
Star Trek (2009) was rebooted into an alternate timeline. Visually, the movie is stunning. The casting is mostly excellent. And the filmmakers perform an exceptional job of reinterpreting the aesthetic of the The Original Series (1966 – 1968) into something gorgeous but functional. It’s a pity they didn’t spend one/millionth of that time on the story.
Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) is a crime against storytelling in which director JJ Abrams and the writers break death in the universe (because genetically engineered characters have super-blood that can resurrect the dead), as well as the need for starships (because now everybody can just transport from one planet to another, regardless of what systems those planets are in). JJ Abrams also relies on the marquee of a character from the original movies (Khan) to do the heavy lifting for him in this universe, when the point of this universe is start from scratch. I sure hope he learns from that mistake. Oh wait …
Have I written enough about Disney’s Stars Wars? Alarm bells rang immediately because JJ Abrams was involved, nobody seemed to have a plan for all three movies, and from the moment The Force Awakens screened it was obvious this trilogy was going to be derivative. Who cared? It plays like one of those sequels that Hollywood churns out as a cash grab, has nothing original to say (and thus rehashes its predecessor), and which you’ll forget five minutes after seeing it. (To their credit, these films are hard to forget. Unfortunately, it’s because they’re so bad.)
The James Bond series is meandering tremendously after a hard reboot with Casino Royale (2006). Everybody was thrilled with this grounded Bond – a throwback to the original Sean Connery adventures. But they took it nowhere. The resurrection of SPECTRE – SPECTRE is to Bond, what the Joker is to Batman – would’ve seemed a positive in Spectre (2015), and they blew it spectacularly. The other adventures ranged from terrible to adequate. Surely it’s not that hard to make a good spy thriller that relies on tension rather than unbelievable stunts and over-the-top set pieces.
There have been some good movies throughout this period. Good. Marvel has released a number of strong movies, although I don’t know if any of them are iconic. Also, their overarching arc held together the narrative and sustained interest, which appreciated whatever self-contained stories were going on. Leading into Avengers: End Game (2019), it felt as their cinematic universe was beginning to splutter. It’ll be interesting to see how they go as they move into their next phase. I’m surprised with Robert Downey Jr and Chris Evans outgoing, Marvel didn’t sit the next phase of the franchise on the shoulders of Scarlett Johansson, who is a genuine A-lister, a talented actor, and played an established character in the universe.
Logan (2017) and Joker (2019) are the two great movies – both atypical stories that are still tonally consistent with their source material. While it’s not exactly born from some superhero franchise, I’ll also give credit to the Mission: Impossible series. Mission: Impossible (1996) is good. Mission: Impossible II (2000) is close to a franchise-killer. Mission: Impossible III (2006) is very good. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011) and Mission Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015) are great, and Mission Impossible – Fallout (2018) very good. Credit to Tom Cruise, who’s been the driving creative force behind the franchise.
The Mandalorian is solid. That’s the biggest praise I can give it at this time. It doesn’t offend, as the Disney Star Wars movies do.
The Marvel incarnations I did see – two seasons of Daredevil (2015 – 2018) one of Jessica Jones (2015 – 2019) were good (although David Tennant as the villain in season one of Jessica Jones is magnificent). But I never felt as if they were must-watch television.
DC’s The Flash (2014 – ) was an excellent show for a while, but has suffered from trying to balance too many characters. Supergirl (2015 – ) is a relationship show trapped in a superhero framework. I can only vouch for one season of Legends of Tomorrow (2016 – ), but that was fun. I’ve never watched Arrow (2012 – 2020), but it must’ve at the least been competent to go so long. The same can’t be said about Batwoman (2019), which is currently sitting on a rating of 3.4 over at IMDb. At least tonally, the DC universe has a better balance on television. Perhaps DC’s filmmakers took note, as Aquaman (2018) and Shazam! (2019) were a contrast to early DC Snyder-driven fare.
Star Trek: Discovery is an abomination. It is my worst show ever. Every episode exists simply to outdo the previous episode’s stupidity. This isn’t some malformed or underdeveloped universe. We’ve had ten movies and five series that have established how this universe works. While there’s been licensing issues that have forced changes (but this pertains to the way things look), they haven’t forced the changes the writers have imposed, e.g. rewriting canon, reinventing technology, departing from intelligent science fiction stories for the latest bland action romp, disregarding their own continuity, and dumb plotting.
Star Trek: Picard (2020 – ) comes out later this month, and scuttlebutt is that it’s awful. I want to say I’m disappointed. I want to say I’m surprised. But I’m not. How can I be, given the overwhelming slate of evidence that tells me that Hollywood is leaving behind intelligent, thought-provoking, compelling storytelling for a diluted, committee-driven, paint-by-numbers approach that can only spawn pale, coloured-outside-the-lines imitations that best resemble that splatter of vomit inside a toilet bowl following a big night out?
Hollywood needs to discard the instant gratification as a gauge. Star Wars: The Force Awakens didn’t draw numbers because it was good. Nor did Star Trek. Or other movies and series of their ilk. Initially, audiences came to see these properties revived following a hiatus, or to see their favourite characters adapted to the screen. At this point, audiences flock to the brand, not the content.
I know this is an idealised (and unrealistic view) but I would love if studios knew and understood their properties (as Kevin Feige oversaw Marvel’s development), then got somebody in with a vision to tell an original story, and let them do that. It won’t always work. No creator succeeds every time. Even a masterful storyteller like Alfred Hitchcock had his misfires. But at least their stories will stand for something. Too often now we hear about studios meddling in a production, or firing a director due to ‘creative differences’ and appointing somebody new, or re-cutting a movie behind the director’s back. Then we get these nothing stories, like Fantastic Four (2015), Suicide Squad (2016), Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019), etc.
Give creators the license to swing for the fences. It seems most of them now swing for the infield.
I shudder to think how people who pioneered the blockbuster – such as George Lucas and Steven Spielberg – would’ve progressed in this era had they been trying to tell the stories that made their careers.
While the gloss of characters and sparkle of brands might draw audiences, it’s the stories that keep them hooked, and coming back again and again.
It’s not that difficult an equation.