Super (under)powered Cinema

So I’ll be honest at the start of this: I was a huge fan of superhero films. Browsing Life in Pixels’ archives will testify my adoration of the genre. But recently, I’ve become tired of these films. They’re formulaic (which is sometimes not such a bad thing… but, you know). Netflix does a great job of producing some actual substance in this field, but for the most part the television side of the genre leaves much to be desired.

I would watch, week in week out, the latest episodes of Arrow, The Flash, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., … until it all just got too much. How much of my life was I willing to invest in this? There comes a point where entertainment becomes a chore, and I think I’ve reached that. In its response to mass-consumption, itself a product of the success the genre has felt since the first Iron Man hit theatres, superhero films and television have since departed the gravitas that once underscored the category.

Now, I’m not saying that I’m a voice with final-say in what people should be watching or consuming. We live in a free(ish) society; we can do what we want. But I’ve since become uninterested in this genre, a part of pop culture that at one time was a powerful critique on society, and that formed a big part of my own life.

Take Nolan’s Batman films. Yes, I know. It’s a cop-out whenever a critic of contemporary superhero cinema brings out Mr Nolan and his work. But with this succinct trilogy, he crafted a piece of cinema that is both powerful as a work of art, a strong series of examinations on our society – a society that is plagued by fanaticism, crime, terror, rogue ideology and fear. The Batman becomes the lens through which we examine what it means to live in such a world. Tom Hardy’s Bane represents that strong, terrifying faction that can, at any moment, shake the very foundations of our civilisation. Ledger’s Joker, of course, just wants to see the world burn.

The point is, these films carried substance. Gravitas. And Nolan knew when to stop. He set out to tell this legend, this mythos of the Batman, and he achieved it through those three films.

Superheroes are, I believe, a potent vehicle for exploring very human issues: politics, race, culture, power… historically, they have been used as a critique on society. But in the commodification of the genre, as Hollywood’s prying fingers tear through the metaphor to mine the cashflow, I fear we’re losing that very essence. Yes, on the print side, things still seem to be alive and kicking. But I’m arguing from the cinematic perspective, and the state of things in that arena leaves much to be desired.

 

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Could DC Make “Superman: Red Son”?

2493286-Superman_RedSon_Hardback_cover_by_DevilpigSuperman: Red Son is a curious rendition of the Superman tale. It provides an alternate reality, where Superman lands on Earth a handful of hours earlier, ending up in a collective farm in Ukraine rather than Kansas during the reign of the USSR. The story aims to answer a simple, intriguing question: What if Superman had been raised in the Soviet Union? He grows to become Stalin’s golden son, spreading communism throughout the world and becoming the United State’s chief enemy. This plot is, of course, in direct contrast to what we know the “normal” Superman to be. However, it makes for extremely compelling reading, and at times is quite fun to notice how this alternative tale diverges from the orthodox rendition of the Man of Steel.

DC is about to breathe life into their highly-anticipated cinematic universe. And whilst we know that it will draw inspiration from some interesting sources – for example, the new Batman is inspired by Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns book – wouldn’t it be incredible if they chose to make a film adaptation of this particular Superman tale?

Superman is seen as the colourful contrast to Batman’s monochromatic portrayal. He provides hope, serves as humanity’s beacon and supposedly guides us into a more enlightened future. Red Son, by contrast, still maintains Superman’s powerful moral compass whilst set against the backdrop of communism, an idea that is incredibly controversial in contemporary society.

Yet Red Son makes for an enthralling story, one where there’s plenty action, suspense and ambiguously sketched characters that provide varied interpretations and thus depth. Perfect ingredients for great story-driven cinema, wouldn’t you say?

The idea for a Red Son adaptation came when I was recently discussing the DC Cinematic Universe with a friend of mine, a veritable comic-book guru (incidentally, he introduced me to Red Son). We talked about how this film could end up being a slight departure from the overall arc of the DCCU, providing an alternative reality – perhaps even a completely standalone film separate from the DCCU. Sure, we need to get audiences acquainted with DC characters, but once that establishing is done, these deeper, darker story lines could be explored.

Red Son is indeed controversial material. Communism seems to be a touchy subject in popcorn cinema, but I feel that a story of this caliber could transcend mere popular cinema and launch a niche in the superhero film obsession – one where there’s a deeper sense of story permeating the flashbang nature of these sci-fi-action-fantasy flicks. Red Son would seriously challenge DC’s prime competitor, Marvel. It would provide the battleground for the serious era of superhero films.

In reality, could Red Son be made? Could we seriously see Ben Affleck as “Batmankoff”, Henry Cavill as a Russian Superman, Jessie Eisenberg as a positive Lex Luthor trying to fight the spread of communism that’s accelerated by Superman’s rise to power? In today’s world, realistically, no. DC is laser-focused on getting their Cinematic Universe started-up, and such a film would be a sidetrack, with too limited an audience appeal at this stage. Hopefully in the future, when we’ve exhausted the conventional story lines, producers will begin to delve into these fascinating conceptions of some of our most beloved heroes.

David S. Goyer on Screenwriting

David S. Goyer is one of the most influential writers in film and television today. He’s responsible, along with Christopher Nolan, for reinvigorating the comic-book film adaptation scene with Batman Begins, and is the creator and writer for Da Vinci’s Demons (one of my favourite series on at the moment).

Goyer is a brilliant screenwriter. His stories are compelling, action-packed and filled with enough gravitas to ensure dramatic tension befitting the nature of his iconic characters, whether it’s Batman, Leonardo da Vinci or Superman.

In this lecture and interview with the British Academy of Film and Television, he talks about the craft, about his start as a young screenwriter, and his process on the Batman films, Man of Steel, Blade (for which he got his big break as a writer in Hollywood), Da Vinci’s Demons (and why writing for television is becoming more attractive for writers over films), and writing for video games.

It’s an excellent video, very informative and entertaining. A must watch for anyone interested in the craft of screenwriting, films, comic books and television.

The Next Cinematic Universe: Batman, Comic-Con and Beyond

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Comic-Con San Diego is next month, and even though I’m not attending (since I live on the other side of the world…) the inner nerd in me is going mental with excitement. Warner Bros. and DC are expected to make the biggest announcement in superhero cinema history since the reveal of the Avengers film.

Shooting for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is currently underway, and there are rumors abound of a possible clip from what’s been shot that might be shown at the Warner Bros. panel. This would be the first time we see Superman, Ben Affleck’s Batman, and possibly Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman sharing screen space.

The other major rumoured reveal will be a staggering three-film-a-year announcement, stretching from 2016-2018, including the fabled Justice League ensemble film, as DC plays catch-up to Marvel’s spectacularly successful cinematic universe.

For us cinema fans, this is welcome news. It means we’ll get more superhero movies released, and a wider variety of heroes, settings and story lines. For Marvel, it will finally be serious competition, and they will be forced to up their game as we enter Phase 3 of their Cinematic Universe, helmed by Lord of the Nerds Mr Joss Whedon.

DC’s possible cinematic universe will not be the first time that a studio other than Marvel attempts to craft a successful, shared-story arc that binds multiple films, characters and creative talent. Fox has attempted this with the X-Men franchise to a large degree of success, and there’s talk of Sony expanding the Spider-Man world. However, whilst Marvel has split licensing agreements across various studios, only being able to craft their Cinematic Universe with Avengers heroes (and why we won’t see any X-Men or even Spidey show up in a MCU film), DC has the advantage of owning some heavyweight titles – Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman – that, if put together thoughtfully in a shared story world could be potentially amazing.

What’s remarkable, if the rumour is true, is the incredibly tight time frame that DC plans to unleash this plethora of films chronicling the adventures of some beloved heroes and villains. They’re not doing a slow-burn build-up to an ensemble film. Batman v Superman, the next outing with our new Henry Cavill Superman, already has the three heavyweights sharing screen space. Dawn of Justice will undoubtedly build to the next possible film, Justice League. This is unlike Marvel’s process with Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America preceding Avengers. I guess Warner Bros. is feeling the heat, and needs to get their “DCCU” up to speed as soon as possible. I just hope they don’t rush things – the last thing we want is for the highly-anticipated Justice League to be a total let down.

It will also be intriguing to see whether they choose to integrate their existing television shows into the new universe. Arrow and Flash will be sharing a common universe next season, and there’s the premiere of Gotham that could provide a back story to the events of the DCCU.

Other rumoured films to round-out this other Cinematic Universe will be a standalone Aquaman film… and the film many have been waiting for for a long time: Wonder Woman. It is said that the Dawn of Justice release date was pushed back to 2016 to allow for script adjustments to accommodate a proper cinematic universe that would see this Wonder Woman film delve deeper into Diana Prince’s backstory and build-up to her famous super-guise. This, along with the Justice League ensemble feature are what I’m looking forward to most in the new DC Cinematic Universe.

We’ll have to wait until San Diego Comic Con next month to truly find out what Warner Brothers and DC Comics have up their sleeves. One thing’s for sure: it will be super.

An interesting perspective on Superman

Bill: As you know, l’m quite keen on comic books. Especially the ones about superheroes. I find the whole mythology surrounding superheroes fascinating. Take my favorite superhero, Superman. Not a great comic book. Not particularly well-drawn. But the mythology… The mythology is not only great, it’s unique.
The Bride: [who still has a needle in her leg] How long does this shit take to go into effect?
Bill: About two minutes, just long enough for me to finish my point. Now, a staple of the superhero mythology is, there’s the superhero and there’s the alter ego. Batman is actually Bruce Wayne, Spider-Man is actually Peter Parker. When that character wakes up in the morning, he’s Peter Parker. He has to put on a costume to become Spider-Man. And it is in that characteristic Superman stands alone. Superman didn’t become Superman. Superman was born Superman. When Superman wakes up in the morning, he’s Superman. His alter ego is Clark Kent. His outfit with the big red “S”, that’s the blanket he was wrapped in as a baby when the Kents found him. Those are his clothes. What Kent wears – the glasses, the business suit – that’s the costume. That’s the costume Superman wears to blend in with us. Clark Kent is how Superman views us. And what are the characteristics of Clark Kent. He’s weak… he’s unsure of himself… he’s a coward. Clark Kent is Superman’s critique on the whole human race. Sorta like Beatrix Kiddo and Mrs. Tommy Plimpton.

Superman is arguably the most recognizable hero. This is one of my favourite monologues from Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies. It challenges the conventional notion that the superhero is a kind of apotheosis of mankind. It suggests that the mask is a facade that represents humanity’s cowardice, contrasting it with Superman’s alienness that distinguishes him from the rest of his super-brethren. Superman is inherently alien, yet his upbringing by humans instills in him a strong moral focus that guides his later adventures as guardian of our species. Here, we explore an idea of how the Man of Steel perceives the human race, contrary to what preconceived notions are of his übermensch-like conception.

I’m curious to see how Zack Snyder and co. will continue to represent him in the ever-expanding DC Cinematic Universe.

4 Future Box Office Giants

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Every year I compile a list of film releases that I’m looking forward to seeing. So this is a mere interlude (I’ll still write the 2014 list either at the end of this year, or early next year), but I felt compelled to write it since there have been some major announcements for franchises that I enjoy, many of them remakes that I’m curious to see the modern interpretations thereof.

These movies are also sure to be box office smash-hits, given that they’re from existing (and successful) franchises. Whether they’re going to be cinematic masterpieces (highly doubtful in this realm of popcorn cinema) doesn’t matter: because they’re going to be damn fun to watch. I can’t wait.

Batman vs. Superman, or Man of Steel II

Starring Ben Affleck (aka Batfleck). ’nuff said. Also, it’s going to be the first time Batman and Superman share screen time together. I’m not expecting  Christopher Nolan-eque quality here, but I did enjoy Man of Steel and a sequel is much appreciated from this blogger.

Jurassic World

I’ll admit I was terrified of those CGI dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. But I was just a kid then. And the news that a new film in this franchise is under way is great news; it gives me a reason to re-watch the old ones (and marvel at how far we’ve come in CGI tech… and how inaccurate our ideas of dinosaurs were back then. Granted, they still won’t be 100% scientifically accurate in Jurassic World, but they’re sure to be 100% better animated this time round).

Star Wars Episode 7

Probably the most-contested film on this list, Star Wars Episode VII will be the first film produced under the Disney banner, without Lucas directing. There’s so much that could go wrong here (and as the picture above notes, “It’s a Mouse Trap”). But there’s also a lot to look forward to: J J Abrams, director of the reboot of Star Trek is, in my opinion, a good choice – as long as he lays off the lens flares. Lucasfilm is still involved (albeit with heavy steering from Disney this time), and hey – more Star Wars! That’s a good thing, right? I recently read that they’ve chosen to film it on 35mm film, and use physical models in lieu of CGI, in attempts to keep this sequel trilogy as visually consistent with the original trilogy. That’s a bold decision, but one I’m sure many fans will welcome after the smorgasbord of wham-pow! effects in the prequels. Whatever transpires, one thing is certain: this particular Star Wars film will be one of the biggest releases of 2015.

Godzilla

The kaiju to end all kaijus is coming back. And this time it’s set to be even better: this film will tell the origin story of the famous monster as a “terrifying force of nature.” Set to release on May 16, 2014, we can be sure to expect spectacular CGI. According to Legendary Pictures:  “An epic rebirth to Toho’s iconic Godzilla, this spectacular adventure, from Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures, pits the world’s most famous monster hero against malevolent creatures who, bolstered by humanity’s scientific arrogance, threaten our very existence.” Sounds like fun.

So those are the films I’m really looking forward to in the long run. Be sure to check out my “2014 in Film” list, which I’ll post on Pixelated Thinking around December 2013/January 2014.

The Superhero Movie Obsession

I’m a huge fan of superhero films. And recently, us fans of these particular films have been treated to a flurry of great (and terrible) adaptations of our favourite heroes. I guess my interest in this genre really began when I watched Batman Begins; it was the first superhero film where I saw a different side to the hero, the darker, the more complex, brooding hero that is the Dark Knight. Since then, Batman has become my favourite superhero (well, he was always kinda my favourite, I just rekindled interest in the DC character with Christopher Nolan’s brilliant rendition).

But with the recent torrent of these films, it’s got me wondering: how long will Hollywood’s obsession with the superhero genre remain?

Superhero films are the perfect money spinner. They have the perfect setups for high-octane action, in-your-face special effects, the easy ability to market them in Hollywood’s latest love affair – the 3D format – and their comic book roots make them the ideal merchandise spin-off tools that take the money beyond the movie house.

But as the universe (and our good old friend Mr Newton) have proved to us, there’s a limit to everything. And I fear that, with the conclusion of Nolan’s Dark Knight saga, we’re fast approaching that point, that singularity for want of a geekier phrase.

Let’s face it: the latest Iron Man was a flop. Weak story line (in fact, I saw a YouTube video that drew parallels between it and The Incredibles plot), over-the-top action sequences and a failed attempt at trying to make the franchise seem “serious and dark” like Nolan’s trilogy all contributed to my disappointment in this film. (I still maintain that the first Iron Man was the best on in this series).

Man of Steel was a great approach at rejuvenating the ultimate superhero, the Übermensch himself. However, it too fell into the trap of including more flash than substance in its extended and dubious action sequences. Sure, I get it: superhero films need the action to justify their genre, but as Nolan displayed in his interpretation of the Dark Knight tale, you can achieve a subtle balance that makes a trilogy a brilliant one.

Perhaps in questioning how long the superhero obsession will prevail, we should investigate why we revel in these films in the first place.

The surface answer is obvious: to see our favourite comic book heroes on the big screen. But then there’s the deeper aspect: the escapism, the retreat to a world vastly different than our own, the offering of entering another dimension where these heroes exist, and where the problems of our own world can, just for a few hours, fade into the background.

With Batman done, and now Superman entering the fold, and with Marvel’s heroes still chugging away at fighting crime and saving the world in generic CGI ways, I wonder if we’re reaching the point of these films becoming repetitive, mundane, and contrary to the mission they initially set out to achieve. I think that, if the studios are to continue their superhero fixation (and there’s no doubt they won’t – the box office takings certainly speak for themselves) then we need more innovative storylines, more engaging drama, and a return to the initial excitement that drew us to these films in the first place.