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.

 

Advertisements

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.

Can Agents of SHIELD stand on its own?

MARVEL'S AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.

I’ve written before about my impressions on the latest turns in Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. series. It started off excruciatingly slow, with the mission-a-week plots becoming repetitive and boring. But now we all know that this was simply a ruse, a setup of layering in anticipation for the tentpole movie that is Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. itself began following the aftermath of the “Battle of New York” which happened in The Avengers. So essentially, this series revolves around these major Marvel movies. My question, then, is can Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. stand on its own? It took a major picture like The Winter Soldier to reignite the fires of the show, and the last few episodes of Season 1 are indeed explosive and riveting. But that’s mainly because they’re running off the momentum of the film’s events.

Marvel has the opportunity to revolutionise the television aspect of comic book adaptations, similar to how they changed the game with their Cinematic Universe and the Avengers films. Could Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. become a major Marvel property like the films it supports? Or is it merely relegated to the support-side, to maintaining fan interest in the studio between the major films?

If Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. continues this trajectory of just augmenting, and not significantly impacting, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, then I fear that the momentum of this show will surely decline to the point of non-existence, that the show will return to its Season 1 beginnings…

Screenrant had an interesting post about the possibility of Season 2, and how the creators plan to close-off this current season:

THR spoke with writers and executive producers Maurissa Tancharoen and Jed Whedon about the “growing pains” (Whedon’s words) of the series, the response from fans and critics and the plan going forward now that they are preparing to shoot the season finale. Are the planning for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 2?

“Tancharoen: We have a board going right now. We just don’t have a season two yet. But we are planning on it and at the end of season one, we are tying a lot of things up as well as teeing things up for a possible season two.”

If season one is the all fans see of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., will the finale wrap things up nicely to ensure the story feels complete?

“Whedon: No, you’d be so desperate to see another season and you’d be sad. It’ll definitely be a satisfying season finale but we definitely are teeing up stuff to come.”

So, if they end up with a second season, there is great opportunity to really establish this show as a major player in the overall MCU. With Joss Whedon at the helm of Marvel’s Phase 2, and his involvement in the creation of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. the TV show, we could potentially have a more tightly-integrated television and film experience. I, for one, look forward to seeing characters like Skye, Fitz and Simmons appearing in a major Marvel film. Conversely, Marvel Studios has the opportunity to cement Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. as another impactful asset in their overall MCU. Let’s hope that #ItsAllConnected will continue into a season 2 of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Phase 2 of the Marvel movies.

Let’s Talk About S.H.I.E.L.D.

WARNING: SPOILERS THROUGHOUT THIS POST.

shield_post

I wasn’t an ardent fan of Marvel movies. I preferred the dramatic “seriousness” of the Nolan-era DC films and actually enjoyed Man of Steel. Iron Man and Avengers were O.K. when it came to Marvel, but Captain America: The First Avenger remained my favourite Marvel film of the MCU – probably because I liked the setting; that was an interesting era to have a superhero film set in.

When it came to television, again I preferred DC’s Arrow to Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Like many, I thought that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. lacked the gravitas or substance that would afford it continued watchability. Those “missions a week” setups became tired after the third episode, and the fact that the creators were not drawing from such a wealth of material that is the extended MCU made me lose interest in this series.

That was until I watched Captain America: The Winter Soldier. My entire conception of the MCU changed.

I have recently become a big fan of Marvel, and of the direction the MCU is headed in. Marvel has been known as the studio with the massive special-effects laden films with little story, but right now, they are doing things with the art of storytelling that have perhaps never been done before. Things that are innovative and extremely compelling.

I, along with many others, was very wrong in dismissing Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. as a show that wasn’t connecting well with the extended MCU. Because all along, Marvel was playing us, subtly having the entire universe linked, setting up events for a massive reveal in Winter Soldier and the subsequent episode Turn, Turn, Turn from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Dissolving S.H.I.E.L.D. is probably the best thing Marvel could do to ensure their universe moves forward. Now we have some serious disarray that can really disorient our characters, leading to infinite possibilities of where things could go. Proper conflict. We, just like the characters on the show, don’t know who to trust. Having Hydra infiltrate S.H.I.E.L.D. at its inception means that there are some deep questions about S.H.I.E.L.D.’s actions of the past, and the justification thereof.

Having a tentpole movie introducing the Hydra threat shows the large-scale catastrophe caused, and then the following episode on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. brings things into perspective on a smaller, more intimate scale – of just how these events have impacted the unassuming operatives of S.H.I.E.L.D. – ordinary humans without superpowers to defend themselves (albeit badass fighting skills). This is truly innovative storytelling, where we get to experience a major event from different angles on different formats so close to each other.

This is what I think many fans expected going in to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. It’s this specific move that has made the slow-burn of the first half of Season 1 worth the arduous watch,

The way I see this, S.H.I.E.L.D. is central to everything that is currently happening in the MCU. This entity is the pivot point upon which Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the extended MCU have been held precariously, and with Hydra’s re-emergence, that balance has been broken and the two have cascaded into each other – just the thing us viewers have been aching to see for so long now.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is finally the Marvel show I want to watch – it doesn’t just have flash-bang-action, but a genuine storyline that is compelling and that makes it a strong force within the broader arc, actually able to hold its weight with the larger films that surround it.

Agent Ward’s actions in the cliffhanger at the end of Turn, Turn, Turn, and the use of the Hydra logo instead of the S.H.I.E.L.D. one to end-off the episode, leave so many questions that, coupled with the conclusion in Winter Soldier, makes us as the audience actually feel like a character in the MCU.

I can’t wait to see what they’re up to next.

Well played, Marvel. Well played indeed.

2014 in Film

It’s a new year, and a new set of exciting films are waiting in the wings. Keeping in tradition, here’s my pick of films to watch in 2014.

This year is going to be an epic one for cinema, from sequels to franchise reboots, to the return of some old favourites (I’m looking at you, The Hobbit: There and Back Again and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1). Release dates provided are international ones, but since Ster-Kinekor has upgraded to a full digital cinema system, they’ve said that we in South Africa should be getting these releases parallel to international dates. Let’s hope that remains true!

Without further ado, I give you 2014 in Film:

Films marked with an asterisk (*) are my must-see most anticipated picks.

  • I, Frankenstein [24 January] – a retake on the chilling horror story, starring Aaron Eckart and Bill Nighy.
  • The Lego Movie [7 February] – Lego Batman on an adventure. ’nuff said.
  • 300: Rise of an Empire [7 March] – Zack Snyder produces this follow-up that takes place before, during and after the events of 300.
  • * Noah [28 March] – Darren Aronofsky, he of the famed psychologically-driven character films, directs this Biblical interpretation starring a star-filled cast including Russel Crowe and Emma Watson.
  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier [4 April] – Steve Rogers and the Black Widow team up to take on a mystery that may endanger the entire world. Set two years after The Avengers, the duo soon encounter a powerful adversary – the Winter Soldier.
  • * Transcendence [18 April] – Wally Pfister, longtime cinematographer for Christopher Nolan, makes his directorial debut in this sci-fi thriller starring Johnny Depp, and Morgan Freeman. The story is very compelling: Dr Will Caster strives to create a machine that possesses sentience and collective intelligence. Like any good sci-fi film that doubles as a “thinking man’s action movie” (á la The Matrix), many philosophical implications and questions shall inevitably be brought up when discussing this film. One of my highly anticipated picks for the year.
  • Amazing Spider-Man 2 [2 May] – Eduardo Saverin – I mean, Andrew Garfield – is back as Spidey, shootin’ webs and takin’ names. The trailer hints at the possibility of a Marvel villain team-up movie following this. Looks really good too.
  • Godzilla [16 May] – the kaiju to end all kaijus is back in all its 21st Century CGI 3D glory. It stars Bryan Cranston and Ken Watanabe.
  • * X-Men: Days of Future Past [23 May] – The first trailer looks insanely epic. A time-travel story arc that brings the characters of the original and new X-Men movies together for the first time, this one stars Jennifer Lawrence, The Wolverine (aka Hugh Jackman), Michael Fassbender, Ellen Page, Sir Ian McKellen and most of Hollywood’s other A-listers.
  • 22 Jump Street [13 June] – Jencko and Schmidt are back, this time going undercover in college. I loved the first movie, and this one promises to continue that fun. Plus, you can’t go wrong with Jonah Hill in comedy.
  • Dawn of the Planet of the Apes [11 July] – the apes are rising against man. Will be interesting to see how they play the sympathies here. Enjoyed the first one, and looking forward to more. Starring motion capture expert Andy Serkis (aka Gollum) and Gary Oldman.
  • * Jupiter Ascending [18 July] – Mila Kunis stars in this sci-fi film by the inimitable Wachowskis (of Matrix and V for Vendetta fame). Jupiter is an unlikely hero who must fight against the Queen of the Universe to claim her birthright as the universe’s next leader. Also, did I mention Mila Kunis is in this? 😛
  • Guardians of the Galaxy [1 August] – Marvel’s Phase Two is wrapping up, and GOTG starts taking us intergalactic. With characters like Rocket Racoon (played by Bradley Cooper of all people), you know this is going to be a riot – of laughs, action, and more CGI than your brain can even comprehend. Sounds fun.
  • * Sin City: A Dame to Kill For [22 August] – Frank Millar and Robert Rodriguez direct this much-anticipated sequel. It packs an ensemble cast including Jessica Alba, Mickey Rourke, Bruce Willis, Eva Green and Joseph Gorden-Levitt.
  • Jane Got a Gun [29 August] – Natalie Portman is Jane, a good girl married to one of the worst baddies in town. She decides to take matters into her own hands when her husband returns home with eight bullets in his back. A classic western movie starring Natalie Portman – what more is there to say?
  • * Interstellar [7 November] – Christopher. Freaking. Nolan. One of my favourite directors returns. This time, it’s a haunting sci-fi tale: a wormhole is discovered that can connect widely separate regions of spacetime… and a team of explorers embarks on the greatest voyage of mankind. According to The Hollywood Reporter: “The plot is beleived to involve time travel and alternate dimensions.” The teaser trailer is chilling, and builds intense expectations for a Nolan movie. He’s teaming up with his brother Jonathan Nolan on this – much like when they worked on Memento together. It has the complete Chris Nolan package: Hans Zimmer music, brilliant actors like Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Matthew McConaughey. And of course, it includes a dash of Michael Caine to round it all out. This one’s going to be epic indeed – it’s being filmed with a combination of anamorphic 35mm film and IMAX photography.
  • * The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 [21 November] – It started with a spark in Catching Fire, and now the rebellion is searing into a blaze with Mockingkay Part 1. Jennifer Lawrence stars as Katniss Everdeen as she prepares to take on the Capitol – but not before discovering some harrowing secrets buried (Hunger Games fans – excuse the expression :P). If it’s anything like Catching Fire, I’m certain this one’s going to be another blockbuster. Julianne Moore also enters the franchise as Coin with this, so they’re certainly taking things up a notch.
  • * The Hobbit: There and Back Again [17 December] – Bilbo and the band of dwarves finally made it to the Lonely Mountain in Desolation of Smaug. But that film had one of the best cliffhangers I’ve ever seen, and it only builds up the expectations and anticipation for this final instalment in Peter Jackson’s prequel trilogy (yes, there, I said it like it is). This one will definitely include the Battle of the Five Armies – and the tragic consequences of it. We’ll get to see more of the glorious Smaug. And it’ll be interesting to see where they go with the Tauriel-Kili-Legolas triangle (Tauriel was a new character introduced by the filmmakers, played by the brilliant Evangeline Lily). It’ll certainly take on a darker theme as we slowly transition into Lord of the Rings territory. What I’m most looking forward to in this one: Gollum! Missed that guy in the second film. Let’s hope he returns. PJ has proven himself to be capable of interpreting the mighty Tolkien’s work, so let’s hope he manages to stand on his own with this third movie that will indeed have to draw on additional materials, given that the story arc of The Hobbit begins to dwindle now that we’re onto film three.

So there you have it: the movies I’m looking forward to watching this year. Be sure to visit Pixelated Thinking to read my reviews and thoughts on some of them. Follow me on Twitter to get the latest, too: twitter.com/RahulDowlath

4 Future Box Office Giants

4BoxOfficeGiants

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.