The Culture Beat

July 12, 2011

Movie Preview: The Captain is Coming

Filed under: Comics,Movies,Uncategorized — Alex @ 2:05 am

The summer season film I’ve been looking forward to more than any other is Captain America: The First Avenger, the third 2011 blockbuster based on the red, white and blue Marvel superhero and the second this summer produced by Marvel Studios’ brilliant team working since the first Iron Man film to create a cinematic Marvel universe of interrelated movies, mirroring the comic books’ continuity.

I read Captain America’s adventure as a boy when in the 1960s Stan Lee and Jack Kirby resurrected the World War II star spangled avenger that had been created by comics’ art king Kirby and Joe Simon during World War II. Then, in comics’ Golden Age, Kirby’s graceful, dynamic style (pictured at the top) had Cap’s lean figure literally bursting out of the panels as he took on Nazi scum including his chief nemesis, the terrifying Red Skull. One of the top titles of the era, Captain America and his young sidekick, Bucky Barnes, gave the Nazi’s heck, but after the war ended, so did Cap’s essential reason for being and a long twilight decline would finally end his run in the early 1950s.

The genius of Lee and Kirby’s revival of the Sentinel of Liberty, was that, in 1964, during creation of the Marvel Universe, having the newly formed Avengers (Iron Man, Thor, Ant Man and the Wasp, and the Hulk briefly), discover Cap’s frozen body and his quick defrosting meant that Marvel suddenly had given itself a new anchor in history and the previously uncomplicated Cap was now newly able to fit into the comics company’s new world of complicated heroes. A man out of time, Cap’s need to find a purpose became his complicating factor. Even as a kid, reading about a supremely athletic hero who didn’t fit in made Cap more interesting. He wasn’t the strongest, fastest or strangest of Marvel’s growing staple, but he was the noblest and most experienced warrior who had the gravity of having served his country and lost his young partner, Bucky, on their last mission. Guilt, combined with a drive for justice made Captain America both a metaphor for American virtue and a very human, relatable character.

Putting Captain America into live action has proved daunting. During the 1940s, Cap’s popularity had earned him his own movie serial, but the more one watches those cliffhanging chapters, the more you see how little the producers kept of the character. For one thing, he’s not even Steve Rogers, the result of a secret Super Soldier experiment, working with our armed forces–he’s a stateside adventurer, District Attorney Grant Gardner, and there are many other departures. The costume is also changed in several ways as this trailer indicates. There were a couple of cheap TV movies in the 1980s that tried to do live action versions of the hero but are best left forgotten. A 1990 theatrical film, made for about $49 further disgraced the Living Legend of WWII and showed what a direct translation of Cap’s colorful costume would look like in live action cinematography–embarrassing. Something like the Universal Islands of Adventures cast member I took a picture of.

So the new movie, debuting the 22nd of this month, looks like Hollywood, with Marvel’s enabling, has licked the adaptation challenge with heaps of production values fueled by what once source said was around $140 million to recreate the halcyon days of the 1940s and to design a believable costume that honors the original but is realistic about how a functional costume would work. The flag’s colors are muted yet quite recognizable with a paratrooper built-in harness to motivate the red vertical stripes. This appears to be the final stage of the progressive development, throughout the film, of the WWII era costume. Cap’s uniform always had what looked like a chain nail shirt and the pads strapped around the shoulders functions similarly. Overall, it looks like this will be a successful adaptation that meets the challenge of translating what could have been a hopelessly cornball character into a believable live action superhero.


June 28, 2011

Movie Review: Cars 2

Filed under: Movies,Uncategorized — Alex @ 1:50 am

After an unprecedented string of 11 hit films, produced by a company celebrating its 25th birthday, Pixar’s Cars 2 will be sure to be enjoyed by the many small children who love Lightening McQueen and his friend Mater the tow truck so winningly introduced in Cars. That paean to the virtues of communitarian life in the slow lane in the small towns far off from the interstate is one of my favorite Pixar films. The sequel plunges the main characters into an automotive version of a James Bond film, which turns out to be as much of a gimmick as the many built-in gadgets employed by one of the new characters, Finn McMissile, an Aston Martin DB-style British spy voiced by Michael Caine. In fact, for the first time in its history, to my chagrin, we see a serious narrative misfire from Pixar as it opts for blockbuster bloat instead of heart, smart, and charm.

After four racing victories, Lightening is back at Radiator Springs taking it easy and, though he enjoys hanging out with Mater, the hick truck buddy sometimes monopolizes his time when he’d like to be with Sally, the pretty blue Porsche. When McQueen accepts a challenge to compete in an international three-race tournament he reluctantly allows Mater to come with his crew. But soon Mater is unknowingly caught up in an international plot involving spies and the undermining of a renewable automotive fuel source. It’s here that Mater become the actual lead, an innocent doofus abroad who winds up recruited by McMissile who thinks his hayseed behavior is his misleadingly effective front. As the plot rolls from Japan to Italy to London, the more-dense-than-ever production design finds many funny ways to show what a planet of vehicles would look like.

As ever, Pixar’s wizards create gorgeous set designs and clever characterizations but this may be the most characters ever in the studios film and with the heavy plotting for the intrigue and action, it may also be the hardest for small kids to follow. In past films like Monsters Inc. and Wall-E, environmental/energy themes stayed in the background of the narrative, here they jump to the front, trotting out [SPOILER ALERT] the worn out and simplistic device of evil oilmen intent on preventing alternative fuels in order to ensure their control of energy reserves.

By the climax of the film, symptoms of sequelitis have set in, the chief of which is the layering on of far more action sequences than necessary, apparently motivated by the supersizing mentality that has sunk so many sequels, like Spider-Man 3 or Pirates of the Caribbean. Pixar’s unique scripting process involves the freedom of anyone on the production team to put on the brakes and criticize the narrative construction, which is why every film has been a gem–until now. And that this was directed by Pixar’s creative maestro John Lasseter is even more discomfiting. I trust the many negative or critical reviews of the film will be a wake-up call for the team to ignore whatever pressures from Disney to churn out blockbusters to enrich their coffers and draw kids to the Pixar attractions at theme parks. Last year’s beautifully realized Toy Story 3 showed what a sequel should be, story in the service of character and theme, not sensation and spectacle.

June 26, 2011

Movie Review: Green Lantern

Filed under: Comics,Movies,Uncategorized — Alex @ 9:00 pm

This won’t take too long–most critics found Warner Brothers’ latest attempt to exploit another character from their DC Comics’ stable into a franchise that would earn them lots of, er, green, to be too conventional and comic book fans found it bad storytelling with messed up motivations and arbitrary plot moves. I wasn’t expecting much since the trailers didn’t successfully intrigue and Ryan Reynolds in the lead seemed like bad casting. More about that later, but the real reason I was cool to the idea was that Green Lantern doesn’t translate well to blockbuster mode.

Let me explain: I’ve read the Green Lantern title and others over the last two or three years in order to follow two epic narratives by Geoff Johns: “The Sinestro Corps. War” and later, “Blackest Night.” The first story was pretty great comic book storytelling with beautiful art telling of an intergalactic war started by classic bad guy Sinestro using fear as his driving force behind his army’s yellow power rings. The Blackest Night storyline was basically a DC Zombies epic as members of newly discovered multi-colored ring corp representing other emotions strove mightily to get through what was to me a very convoluted story. A few months after the event, I gave up on the Green Lantern titles; I discovered that all that time spent with this large cast didn’t make me care about them any more.

The biggest problem I think is that, when it comes down to it, the idea of an army with power rings who can fight evil by forming giant fly swatters or cannons belongs more to a young boy’s imagination than to a popular blockbuster film designed for a broad audience. When my wife and I finished watching the movie, she said, “This idea of green power rings is great if you’re an eight-year old boy.” Uh-huh. I’m afraid the biggest problem though, is the main character, Hal Jordan, the Green Lantern from Earth and the main character. Since his beginning in the DC Universe’s early Silver Age of the late 1950s, Hal greatest strength was his character design. Drawn by comic book artist legend Gil Kane, who had used the young Paul Newman as the basis for Hal Jordan, his simple, elegantly designed green corps uniform (with white gloves, by the way) and super science origins, always looked cool as he flew in a way no other superhero did. But Hal, essentially, a space cop, never had much of a personality and thus, after Marvel’s revolutionary injection of conflict into their stable of characters, Hal Jordan looked sort of bland. In fact, DC realized this in the 90s and had Hal, driven over the edge by the destruction of his home town, become a power mad supervillain which eventually resulted in his destruction. And as we know from experience, no hero in comics stays dead for long. A few years ago, Johns came up with a resurrection scheme to bring back Jordan, much to fans’ happiness. But though Johns added a more complex backstory to Jordan’s life, he’s still the stoic, and sometimes brusque cop on the beat–but as drawn, he looks cool, if dull.

And that’s not enough to carry a movie, even with Reynold’s charm and the artificial imparting of a reluctant hero arc in the movie, he’s not the compelling character you need to carry a franchise that DC, despite the film’s disappointing debut, still plans to continue with a planned sequel–which sounds like backwards logic. So, maybe it will take place on Bizarro World.

June 13, 2011

Movie Review: Super 8

Filed under: Movies — Alex @ 1:46 pm

J. J. Abrams newest film has been widely publicized as an homage to Steven Spielberg’s early science fiction films that made the director’s reputation for startlingly original evocations of benevolent visitors from the stars with humans, children and adult, gazing in awe and amazement at the cosmic wonders shining before them. Super 8 in many ways attains to these signature ingredients, yet lacks the magic that distinguished Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T.

Co-produced by Spielberg himself, the story marries the film geekdom that formed the teen years of both filmmakers to the plot involving a small group of teens shooting a zombie movie with the director’s Super 8 millimeter camera. One night, having sneaked out to shoot at the old train station, they witness the horrendous crash of a freight train followed by the loud pounding sounds of something breaking out of one of the cars. This much you may know from the circumspect trailers, and I will try to refer only generally to the plot but it won’t be entirely spoiler-free. Joe Lamb, who’s part of the film crew has lost his mother in a terrible factory accident four months earlier and his silently grieving deputy sheriff father, Jackson (Kyle Chandler) can barely handle being the sole parent and Joe receives the brunt of his emotional preoccupation. Joe is sweet on Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), who’s agreed to play a role in their movie and their scene when Joe’s applying Alice’s make-up is one of the best falling-in-love teen scenes in recent memory. Like Joe, Alice has father issues as well, a recurrent theme in Abrams’ work (Star Trek, Lost). The young actors, diverse in characterizations (like The Goonies, another Spielberg production), are the heart of the film and the closest approximation to the Spielbergian formula. My son said afterward that the film was like Stand By Me meets Cloverfield and that captures the youthful dynamic Abrams achieves.

It may surprise no one that there is indeed a scary creature on board and that a government entity, the Air Force in this case, is trying to contain discovery of said creature, led by a domineering officer played by Noah Emmerich, going to nasty lengths to cover up any evidence. This is when the film starting feeling more derivative than inspired-how many times have we seen this? As the plot crescendos to a climax, at a certain point (okay, seeing the creature upclose) I finally found myself less inside the movie and instead comparing it to Abrams’ last creature feature, Cloverfield, whose monster appears to be a distant relative. At the end as both the action plot and characters arcs converge on and above the streets of the town and the shocked citizens gaze upward, though the plot wrapped itself up neatly, I felt none of the astonishment or heartbreak the master himself brought to his films of his youth, just a sincere checking off of all the components needed to make a heartfelt, entertaining but less than equal accomplishment honoring the films that inspired Super 8. It’s hard but to say what was missing but John Williams music comes to mind–think what a difference it made in Encounters and E.T., but I don’t blame the composer, Michael Giacchino, one of Williams’ true successors; the screenplay didn’t have the passionate themes of those films to play to musically. If I was giving it stars, it would be 3 out of 4. Added value for the closing credits sequence so don’t rush off afterwards.

June 5, 2011

Mad (X-)Men

Filed under: Comics,Movies — Alex @ 10:08 pm

(After a hectic several months of Spring semester, I’m a little freer to post again-it’s good to be back. Is anybody there????)

This has been a very good start of the blockbuster season. Thor, Marvel Studio’s opening volley in a double feature along (with this July’s Captain America: The First Avenger), has made over $400 million. Last week’s Kung Fu Panda 2, though not spectacular at around 85 million thus far, was still a worthy and great looking sequel to the Dreamworks animated film. And the hits continue with the revival of the Marvel mutant franchise, X-Men: First Class, which takes a risk by resetting its continuity by doing a team origin story beginning in 1962, or actually earlier if you include the 1940s, when we see the future supervillain Magneto, a teenage Eric Lehnsherr, in a replay of the 2000 X-Men scene when the victim of the Nazi regime is separated from his parents and his mutant magnetism manifests itself. And in a safer locale, young Charles Xavier makes friends with another young mutant who thinks herself alone. Both Eric and Charles are beginning paths that will define two approaches to dealing with mutant persecution, Charles by seeking peaceful co-existence and Eric by learning to hate and attack his persecutors. The film is a splendid origin story and remixes the themes of the earlier X-Men films into an epic and stylish period piece set in the Cold War, coinciding with the era when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby first created Marvel’s Merry Mutants.

This is the best X-Men film yet as it balances three major characters, Charles, Eric and Sebastian Shaw, energy wielding leader of the horrific Hellfire Club, who plots humanity’s destruction to make way for the mutant homo superior species. Lehnsherr watched Shaw kill his mother, an act intended to release Eric’s rage and thus his powers and has sought revenge ever since. Charles seeks a more peaceful way and functions as Eric’s conscience as the two work together to discover more mutants and recruit them for the CIA. Here the title of the film comes into effect, as one-by-one, teenagers, secretly aware of their powers but terrified of being different find a (temporarily) refuge with the US government.

The film’s period setting is even more amusing with Shaw’s associate, Emma Frost, a telepath like Charles, played by Mad Men‘s January Jones, who didn’t have to change her hairstyle for the part, but seems to have stepped out of a Victoria’s Secret catalogue,if they had existed then with her skimpy white costumes. The well-structured script allows various characters to smoothly soar through their dramatic arcs as each must wrestle with which path they will take toward humanity. There are several effective moments of warmth and poignancy that ground the story in what made Marvel stand out from traditional superhero comics in the 1960s “Silver Age,”characters readers could relate too because these superpowered beings had essentially the same problems they did. Yes, for years, “mutant” has functioned in X-Men as a floating metaphor for all kinds of prejudice and alienation and the dialog’s repeated chorus of “Mutant and Proud” underlines these themes.

By the end of the film, the stage has been artfully set for further X-ventures, new recruits on both sides and a powerful jolt to several acting careers, particularly Michael Fassbender, who marvelously evokes one of the comics best supervillains, Magneto, who almost makes being a mutant terrorist justified.

January 16, 2011

A Tour Through Decades of Disney History

Filed under: Movies — Alex @ 11:42 pm

The Walt Disney Company is uniquely tied to family entertainment and is thus as closely protected by armies of public relations troops, this despite having for decades produced R-rated films and other adult entertainment by subsidiaries such as Miramax and Touchstone studios. Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse are icons of wholesomeness and the company’s protectiveness of its family friendly image makes the release of three recent surprisingly honest documentaries that are about periods of the company’s history and the gifted people who worked in it. They cover decades from the 1940s, into the 1990s and shed bright light on the sometimes tortured creative process that has resulted in so much brilliant entertainment.

Walt and El Grupo (2008) As the US inched toward involvement in World War II, the government asked Walt Disney to undertake a goodwill tour to South America which was being wooed by both the Allies and Axis countries. With his wife Doris and a small group of his most talented artists, Disney embarked on a months-long tour starting in Brazil and continuing on to other countries including Argentina and Chile. Made with the cooperation of the Disney family and including an artfully woven together collection of color film footage, stills and other artifacts, the film evokes the “grupo’s” immersion in the Latin culture and natural beauty of the continent. Letters sent to and from the group’s family members describe experience of cross cultural discovery and the missing of separated husbands, wives and children. At the center of course is the charismatic Disney, whose arrival at various countries was a cause for excitement and celebration. The man who created Mickey Mouse and other internationally beloved characters brought his down-to-earth American personality and his curiosity about their countries to a tour that really was beneficial in strengthening relations with Latin American neighbors. Two animated films eventually came out of the tour, Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros, the uneven nature of which reflected the difficulty of the group’s translating their own immersion in the colorful cultures in a way the Disney animators at home could understand. Though it lags in pace at times, this is an important story about communication across borders and cultures and how American entertainment could serve an ambassadorial purpose at a crucial historical moment. Available on Netflix streaming.

The Boys: The Sherman Brothers Story (2009) Disney animated features had, from Snow White on, featured musical numbers that became classics. Two men, Robert and Richard Sherman, or Bob and Dick, became the studio’s in-house composers during the 1960s and beyond. Their greatest achievement, the songs of Mary Poppins, were the soundtrack of a generation of pre-teen Baby Boomers. Son of a songwriter who told his sons to make their music “simple, singable and sincere,” they fit perfectly in the Disney vision of all ages appeal. Younger brother Dick, the instinctive composer of merry music was balanced by Bob’s more adult and downbeat personality and his lyrics were often characterized by a romantic longing and just a streak of melancholy that kept the music from becoming too saccharine and sentimental. Though their composing was often quickly produced, it was also characterized by conflict that eventually resulted in Bob’s separating himself from his brother-partner, not unlike the breakups of rock band members who are too close for comfort. Watching the film was both a revelation about the creative process in this era of Disney’s final decade and a bit of trip through my childhood’s best movie memories. Available on Netflix streaming.

Waking Sleeping Beauty (2009) After Disney’s passing in 1966, the company soldiered on without its namesake visionary and creative sparkplug, producing live and animated features that raised the question of whether the legacy of its founding genius could be perpetuated beyond his death. The dwindling animation department’s output needed a charge and the documentary tells the tale of how the right people were hired to turn the company around and revive the brilliant animation by, ironically, giving up on trying to guess “what would Walt think of this?” that kept the studio backward looking instead of creating for a new day. The main players in the film are Roy Disney, Walt’s nephew and keeper of the family heritage who knew that a change was necessary to return the company to greatness. The hiring of Michael Eisner from Paramount as CEO and Jeffrey Katzenberg to oversee filmmaking signaled the slow turnaround of the ship that would result in Disney’s becoming one of the world’s largest media companies and a series of acclaimed animated films. Starting with The Little Mermaid, and continuing onto Beauty and the Beast, Alladin and The Lion King, the Disney brand was restored as the premier animation studio. But as with the Sherman brothers, brilliant art arose out of conflict and the film doesn’t stint from tracing the acrimony, jealousy and human pettiness that eventually brought an end to the creative era. Beyond the film’s scope lies the next chapter, of how Pixar inherited the mantle of Disney’s creative vision (told mostly in The Pixar Story and available as part of the special features on the Wall-E DVD ). Available as disc rental from Netflix.

The three film’s candid stories, rather than taint the Disney image, provide a more rounded and realistic perspective on the hard work and difficult human struggles that were part of achieving the Disney “magic.”

November 28, 2010

The “New” Hollywood Reporter

Filed under: General Pop Culture,Movies — Alex @ 9:16 pm

For years I’ve subscribed to Entertainment Weekly in order to keep up with popular culture’s offerings. If you’ve ever read the magazine, a product of the Time-Warner media giant, you know it’s a mix of up-to-date news, gossip, some show biz analysis and plentiful reviews–usually mixed with heaping portions of snark–an attitude that says, “We don’t take show business that seriously, and we’re a little smarter than most of this, that is, when we aren’t swooning over Lady Gaga or Ryan Reynolds.” But after the fall of Premiere magazine several years ago (now only a website), it was about the only general interest entertainment magazine on the market. But that was before the “relaunch” of The Hollywood Reporter, several weeks ago. The 80-year old publication, a close competitor with Variety, changed from a daily publication, covering the entertainment industry, to a newly designed large weekly the size of the old Life magazine and stuffed with articles about every aspect of show business.

I recall leafing through issues of the magazine as it was a few years ago and found it of interest only if one needed to know who had just signed what deal to make which new movie/television show or other entertainment form–very insider, as you would expect of a business publication. The new version is much bigger, and designed to broaden the publication’s appeal to a mainstream audience interested in entertainment as a business. So there have been roundtable discussions with critically acclaimed actresses, noteworthy film producers or profiles of individuals such as Chuck Lorre, producer of The Big Bang Theory. One article offered a fascinating analysis of the success of Marvel Productions in adapting their comic book characters to the big screen. The second issue, pictured above, had an insightful feature, found here on their website, showing that most big television hits require Republican viewers to succeed.

I teach on film and television at Palm Beach Atlantic University and am finding the magazine very useful in helping to understand the way things work in Hollywood. Today I was at my local Barnes & Noble and was pleased to see that it is available on newsstands. If going a little deeper in entertainment news, beyond the latest Lindsey Logan antics, appeals to you, check out the new Hollywood Reporter.

November 21, 2010

Movie Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Pt. 1

Filed under: Books,Movies — Alex @ 11:43 pm

When it was announced that volume 7 of the mega-selling magical epic by J. K. Rowling would be produced in two parts, there were accusations that Warner Bros. was merely milking the top film franchise for yet more millions. I was relieved that the studio that had adapted the previous, often very large books, leaving piles of characters and subplots on the screenwriting floor had finally given the writing its due by allowing the last book, with 759 pages, to unfold more faithfully with plenty of time to tell a rather complex story. Indeed, this is the first film since Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, to pretty much move at the pace of the book.

And as the last volume, the filmmakers no longer feel the need to do much exposition for latecomers. You’ve got to come to the film having seen or read the story up to now to understand what the significance of the horcruxes are that Harry and his friends Ron and Hermione are seeking. As he did in the previous film, Half-Blood Prince, director David Yates has employed a very muted color pallet to create a sober and fearful tone as the evil Lord Voldemort’s army triumphs over the Ministry of Magic, making Harry and friend fugitives while they search for the horcruxes containing parts of Voldemort’s soul. The near monochromatic design began to wear on me after a while; what is described in a book is easier to tolerate than over two hours of dim lighting that may actually be bleaker than The Dark Knight. Part 1 ends with Harry more isolated than ever and Voldemort gaining one of the powerful objects that give the story its title. There’s no good place to leave off in the middle of the story, but fans will be satisfied by the end, knowing what powerful conclusion lies in Part 2.

More than in the past films, most of the story is carried by the three young actors Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint. Besides carrying the normal weight of their characters, they must also undergo the stresses of suspicion and self-doubt brought on by their arduous exile from friends and family, trying their years of companionship. All three actors show how far they’ve grown in their art, especially Radcliffe.

Despite the greater room for narrative, I still noticed that the script left out a crucial moment from the book where Harry and Hermione see an important scripture engraved on a tombstone, a glimpse at author Rowling’s Christian underpinnings in her storytelling–alas no surprise these days. Another reminder that the best place to enjoy this epic story is in the many pages of the original books.

August 29, 2010

Instant Documentaries

Filed under: General Pop Culture,Movies,Uncategorized — Alex @ 10:16 pm

Following up from my last post on how Netflix’s streaming video on demand (VOD) had transformed my home video experience, I can now report on several titles available from their instantly viewable library. All three are documentaries that I would have trouble finding at a local multiplex and might not even want via Netflix’s mail order service, since they would compete for attention with other titles I’d watch downstairs with the family. I’ve watched most of these films upstairs while on the treadmill, delivered via my son’s PS3 game console using the Netflix disc, similar to what they provide for the Wii console, except the picture is larger and not cropped. In order of viewing:

Welcome to Macintosh, a history of Apple’s innovative personal computer, told by those who were in some way involved in its invention and development. It informs a lot about the maverick nature of Steve Jobs and his compatriots as they sought to create a computer with a semblance of a soul, which would encourage creativity and how this resulted in a “cult of Apple” that has only grown over the last 14 years with the development of the iMac, iPod, iPhone and now the iPad.

Tales from the Script Hollywood’s Boulevard of Broken Dreams is littered with careers of would-be screenwriters who were crushed between the cruel wheels of feckless studio executives, and their own shortcomings at mastering the art of cinematic storytelling. This film is filled with interviews of those who have had some degree of success including Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption), Shane Black (Lethal Weapon) and master scribe William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Princess Bride, among others) whose famous maxim, about what succeeds in Hollywood, “Nobody Knows Anything,” captures the unpredictable nature of the business. It includes course language but is essential for anyone hoping to write and pitch their way into selling a script.

Art and Copy Contemporary advertising began a “creative revolution” in the 1960s as the formerly separate divisions of copyrighting, the dominant element upon which the artwork was based, gave way to a creative marriage of the two (which is what the AMC series Mad Men is currently depicting ). This documentary describes some of the brightest lights in the ad world who find ways to touch the deepest parts of our sometimes unspoken desires in order to sell cars, candidates and computers. Recommended if you want to begin to understand how commercial art is, like it or not, the highest creative achievement of the modern age.

Lest this come off looking like a plug for Netflix, it’s really just my way of expressing what I’ve found in this new VOD world that more and more of us will soon be enjoying–greater freedom to program the media of our lives.

July 29, 2010

Are Superhero Films Past Their Prime?

Filed under: General Pop Culture,Movies — Alex @ 8:56 pm

That was the question being asked last week as this year’s San Diego Comic-Con launched another festival of all things pop culture including of course, comic books, wannabe blockbuster movies, video games, television and other attractions. Entertainment Weekly‘s Jeff Jensen traced the last ten years of ever more lucrative superhero movies and wondered if the viability of the genre was on the wane. Hollywood studios with mammoth budgets for next year’s Green Lantern, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger and X-Men: First Class are betting that there’s still plenty of power in those spandex tights. Comic-Con displayed the casts of several movies due next year and in 2012’s The Avengers which combines the Hulk, Iron Man, Captain America and others in a Marvel extravaganza to dwarf earlier films.

Jensen is right to ask the question about how upcoming films can resonate with audiences now quite familiar with such characters–we relate to these characters on some level because we can relate to Batman’s quest for rough justice, Spider-Man’s struggle for a normal life, the X-Men’s societal rejection or the giddy fun of imagining ourselves in a cool metal suit. But what does Green Lantern speak to in the mass audience, or for that matter, the Green Hornet? Is the appeal of Thor or Cap limited to hardcore comic book geeks, the essential audience the Comic-Con panels were reaching out to but not the average moviegoer?

I think it will probably all come down to the story and the attitude of the production toward the character. If it takes an ironic stance toward the “star spangled sentinel of liberty,” Captain America, a character whose red, white and blue costume is hard to imagine in live action (see the picture I took at Universal Studios Marvel attraction) then the audience will mostly stay away. The new movie’s version of the costume, shown above, successfully adapts it to a live action practicality. As a character, Cap’s alter ego, Steve Rogers, a man of the 1940s patriotic spirit, was always at odds with his latter day resurrection into a more cynical and knowing culture–it was his quiet insistence on his American values that made him Marvel’s moral compass, what Superman is to DC Comics. I think it’s quite possible to pull it off if the director an script believes in the classic rendering of the character.

Thor, an actual Norse god, banished to Earth from his mythical home of Asgard by his stern father Odin, would, in big screen translation, have to avoid the attraction to wink at the material and pull a campy Wagnerian spectacle needing only Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny from the class cartoon “What’s Opera, Doc?”

This still from next summer’s release already reminds me of a scene from Das Rheingold or another of the Ring Cycle operas, missing only Brunhilda in a breastplate, helmet and spear. And Green Lantern’s tactic of using his power ring to create a giant boxing glove or fly swatter in combat has always seemed pretty cartoonish even for comics.

So success will all be in the tone and identification of the human drama of each character. Comic book characters only work because there’s something about the hero, other than their fantasy appeal, that attracts readers and makes them care about them. So, Cap is a man burdened with living up to the best ideals of his country–perhaps a metaphor for anyone serving in the armed forces, or with any duty to a higher national cause. Thor is a a golden boy who has never mastered himself or risen to the responsibilities of a royal household and must now learn to serve protect mere mortals, sort of a mythic rich kid who must do community service. And Hal jordan’s Green Lantern preceded and perhaps inspired George Lucas’ Jedi Knights, as an Emerald Warrior, a space cop keeping order on his assigned space sector. These are all types that, if adapted intelligently, will appeal to that desired blockbuster audience the same way Marvel second stringer Tony Stark’s Iron Man hit paydirt by showing that superheroes are always, after all, human.

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