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.

 

Superman: Modern Day Socrates

In Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill vol.2, Bill has a very interesting monologue. Perhaps the most famous monologue in the entire two-part saga.

The essence: he slices through the very nature of Superman, and argues for the idea that Clark Kent is the image Superman perceives of us, as a species, as the human race.

Here’s the speech:

(edited to remove spoilers)

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.

[…]

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.

–Bill, from “Kill Bill vol.2” (2004)

Originality v Hollywood: Dawn of Mediocrity?

A curious phenomenon is occurring in the centre of society’s entertainment universe. Perhaps it’s a sense of potential failure casting a net of fear around what was once a creative powerhouse. Perhaps it’s a descent into mediocrity as our collective society has embraced a sense of complaisance, where banality passes for acceptable quality. Whatever it is, there can be no denying it: Hollywood appears to be running out of fresh ideas.

Instead, we’re being treated to the wonders of rehashed entertainment. I’m reminded of a sentence Nick Offerman’s character, Deputy Chief Hardy, says in 21 Jump Street (ironically, a reboot of a popular television series)

“We’re reviving a canceled undercover police program from the ’80s and revamping it for modern times. You see the guys in charge of this stuff lack creativity and are completely out of ideas, so all they do now is recycle shit from the past and expect us all not to notice.”

I feel like this is exactly what an executive-led creative industry is doing. I can almost picture the suits in their corner offices somewhere in Los Angeles, cigar in hand, smug grin on their faces, signing-off another reboot, knowing that our pop-obsessive society will eat this all up and fatten the studio’s bottom line. How stupid do they really think we are?

There will come a point, hopefully soon, when cinema audiences will tire with this. When we will finally open our eyes to the fact that it’s the same movie, with the actors-du-jour fitted snugly in to a predictable plot.

Look, don’t get me wrong. I’m just as excited about the new Star Wars as the next fan. Likewise, I can’t wait to see what Marvel has in store with Avengers: Age of Ultron. I’m an (obsessive?) follower of their Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. series, and an ardent watcher of both Arrow and The Flash, two of DC’s darling television spin-offs. These are all properties based off existing source material, whether it’s comic books or one of the most famous cinematic franchises of all time.

However, I feel that there are talented writers out there with exciting, fresh stories yearning to be unleashed from their paper bounds and brought forth onto the reflective-silver screens of our cineplexes. These stories are being marginalized when studio execs opt to “play it safe” with rehashes of recently-completed rehashes (I’m looking at you, Spider-Man), with bloated adaptations of beloved source material (The Hobbit) or the hope of capitalizing on unexpected, explosive success. In the case of this last example, I’m of course referring to the recent news that Lionsgate, boon of the young adult dystopian fiction adaptation fad, is considering continuing the Hunger Games stories beyond the book. As a fan of the series and its cast and wonderful director, I sincerely hope this will not materialize. Whilst it would be great to see more of the world that Katniss inhabits, and the fact that the last book left much to be desired in terms of an ending, the stories should just be left alone. Hollywood needs to learn about a story’s limits. They need to learn how to let go.

At the end of the day, we as cinemagoers make the final decision. We have a choice about what we want to watch. That’s the great thing about cinema: we live in an era when there are so many possibilities; were spoiled for choice, essentially. We can choose whether we feel like watching an inventive story like Birdman, or rekindle some nostalgic feels with a viewing of a Godzilla (or Ghostbusters or Robocop or Terminator) reboot. The thing I truly wish for, through, is for original stories to receive the same level of care and treatment that these existing, beloved properties are currently getting.

The DC Television Universe

Continuing this week’s theme of DC superheros (read this, this and this), today I’d like to talk about the DC Television Universe. Because this coming television season, we’re going to be treated to a plethora of superhero-inspired television – and it’s not just from Marvel. Indeed, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. took its sweet time to get its momentum, whilst DC’s offering, in the form of the CW’s Arrow, had a riveting second season with a welcomed mid-season teaser of their upcoming offering, The Flash.

So what exactly is on offer next season? Along with Arrow season 3, we’ve got Barry Allen’s standalone debut as the Flash in, you guessed it, CW’s The Flash. This show and Arrow will be tightly integrated into what could potentially be a television universe – a rather unique idea considering the current surge in shared arcs for big-budget features by the studios. We’ll get to this later, though. The other offerings are Gotham, an origins tale of sorts for the villains of the Batman world. Incidentally, Bruce Wayne won’t be prominently featured in this series; it’ll revolve around a young Commissioner Gordon and seems like a crime-noir tale, rather than a vigilante/superhero one like Arrow.

Gotham isn’t going to integrate with Arrow and Flash. It’s a standalone series. But with the tightly-connected arcs of Arrow and Flash, here’s what I’m hoping for: that this is just the beginning of a much wider, richer television universe. One where other DC characters (perhaps minor ones) begin to populate the world. Arrow has proven that DC can make a decent television series with their properties. And with an established fan base for the show, there’s an existing market that would be eager to consume more of this world.

What’s interesting to see is how these shows react to the emerging DC Cinematic Universe. Will we see Stephen Amell’s Green Arrow join the Justice League alongside Ben Affleck’s Batman and Henry Cavill’s Superman? I, for one, would welcome this. I think it’d be awesome to see these minor JL characters fight the bad guys alongside these superstars.

We’ll most likely find out how the current television universe fits into what seems like a rather comprehensive cinematic universe from DC, at this month’s San Diego Comic Con.

Along with The Flash getting his own show, and interacting with the Arrow universe, I’d like to see a Nightwing series adaptation. Arrow, Flash and Nighwing could form a potent triad of heroes that cement the DC flag in a medium fast-outpacing the cinematic facet of the entertainment world.

Next season will be the reign of the superhero series. Based on how it fares with audiences, we could very well be on the brink of seeing the television landscape becoming saturated with the superhero obsession much like what’s currently happening in film.

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.