An exploration of comic book movie double takes.
Superhero movies are making me dizzy. Physically. I find my brain absorbing the visual information from each new entry in Hollywood’s format of choice, processing it through senses, cataloging it in memory banks, and more often than not, hitting the mental equivalent of the “spinning pinwheel of death.”
It’s not the feeling of overdosing on the comic adaptation craze or stomaching another end-of-the-world scenario draped in convoluted geekery. I’ve been stomaching that for nearly three decades.
The problem is sameness, an idea well run seemingly dry from self-imposed standards. The comic book movie itself isn’t deteriorating my insides, it’s the visual deja vu. Particularly with Marvel movies. The breadth of superhero blockbusters is enough to stir up cinephiles pining for a break. This week’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier marks the ninth film in Marvel’s self-contained Cinematic Universe and the beginning of a glut of 2014 comic book movies, including The Amazing Spider-Man 2, X-Men: Days of Future Past, and Guardians of the Galaxy. Between Disney, Fox, and Sony, Marvel properties claim release calendar dates through 2018. That’s not including TV shows, Marvel’s Netflix mini-series, and whatever Warner Bros. is cooking with for its own DC superheros. If you thought there were too many superpowered crime fighters now… well, you’re doomed.
Lots of comic book movies translates to lots of comic book talk and lots of comic book consideration. Part of me couldn’t be happier. I would categorize myself with a demeaning “fanboy” label, the type who grew up on comics, cartoons and trading cards, lost his mind over the ’90s Batman movies, was first in line for X-Men, still defends Superman Returns and Green Lantern, and put Captain America: The First Avenger on his top 10 of 2011. I fall hook, line, and sinker for each new superhero movie, even when the buzz is deafening.
So why are these movies that I’m wired to enjoy on some level leaving me nauseous?
Two instances provoked an epiphany: first, Marvel Universe bigwig Kevin Feige‘s casual prediction that there could be one MCU movie in theaters per annual quarter. Totally plausible with the ever-growing character roster and no sign of Marvel losing the audience’s interest (a.k.a box office dollars). Sony and Fox are taking the same cues, hoping their Spider-Man and X-Men/Fantastic Four will iterate in an equally prosperous fashion.
The second instance was the trailer for X-Men: Days of Future Past that gave audiences their first glimpse of director Bryan Singer’s futuristic Sentinel robot. An explosive money shot sent my brain racing backwards in time. I saw this image before. But where….
I don’t believe that Singer and his X-Men production team intentionally ripped off Thor‘s Destroyer when designing the Future Sentinel. I do believe that there isn’t enough comic book imagery to go around – at least by today’s demands.
With greater interest, there’s an accelerated pace to producing superhero movies that leaves little time for innovation. A creative visionary can inject a used formula with new spark (i.e. Joss Whedon‘s ensemble magic in The Avengers), but turn-around gives designers little time to stretch the possibilities of the source material art to individual heights. Even when a Marvel movie isn’t a Marvel movie, it’s culling from the same source material.
Unless a creative is going to pull a J.R.R. Tolkien and spend years dwelling on intricacies, conjuring fresh, fantastical images is a tough nut to crack. Which is why a spindly Future Sentinel is basically a slimmed down Chitauri warrior.
The critical acclaim and box office success of 2008′s Iron Man set the bar for every superhero venture after it. A mixed blessing; Jon Favreau’s style was purposefully tame and natural, making the technologically-enhanced hero easily digestible by the mainstream and setting up for the eventual crossover of other Marvel heroes. So even when Thor took the MCU into the realm of fantasy or Captain America dabbled with ’50s war film (First Avenger) or ’70s conspiracy thriller (Winter Soldier) genre conventions, a squarely lit, universally designed aesthetic would string them together.
A prop from Iron Man would fit in Captain America. Six years later, the totality of the Marvel’s vision begins to suffocate the stories. The Iron Man franchise ran into the problem almost immediately. Tony Stark battled enemies he could handle with a robotic suit, who likely derived from his own designs. In Iron Man, Jeff Bridges in the Iron Monger (a.k.a Bigger Iron Man) suit. In Iron Man 2, it was Mickey Rourke in basically the same outfit along with an army of Iron Man-ish robots. In Iron Man 3, Robert Downey Jr. took on flaming Guy Pearce with his own fleet of Iron Man-ish robots. Good or bad, they look the same.
Oh, and one of Stark’s friendly robots is basically Iron Monger…
…which apparently returns in the upcoming Avengers: Age of Ultron….
Marvel’s consistency and ferocity ensures that each movie sticks in the back of a viewer’s mind as they take in the subsequent installments. Despite spreading the episodes out over half a decade, the MCU is like television: the storytelling can rely on the audience to recall details from the first episode when they’re recalled in episode nine.
That type of small-scale writing is more forgiving on repurposed visuals – we know walk and talks will operate like most other walk and talks. Major set pieces are a different story, and it’s where Marvel loses sight of its own television-ness.
I had a difficult time separating Falcon’s aerial maneuvering in Captain America: The Winter Soldier from most of the Iron Man franchises daytime sequences. They’re so similar, I was expecting Iron Man to fly in and help his buddy out. Falcon’s day in the sun makes perfect story sense. Executed, it reeks of been-there-done-that.
These are nitpicks without a doubt, but they’re nitpicks I can see building up as Marvel gains more and more traction. How many times can a Helicarrier plummet from the sky, even while logically snapping into the framework of the film?
Same goes for portal usage.
I am aware of the fact that these two portals stem from completely different multiverses/space. But Thor: The Dark World is both a sequel to Thor and a sequel to The Avengers, making it a visual do-over.
In hopes of latching on to the momentum, Fox and Sony have conformed their Marvel properties to appear like the MCU films. If the Iron Man franchise retreading its designs wasn’t enough, The Wolverine – a film struggling to be itself – hopped on the metal suit train.
Perhaps it won’t register this way in the finished film, but Amazing Spider-Man 2 trailers suggest the film carries the torch.
The more striking acts of emulation trigger the subconscious to pick up on subtler motifs, the kind of camera, lighting, and stunt design that one would find all over the action movie spectrum, but are turning the Marvel mega-franchise into movie-going malaise.
The studio’s story connectivity is so strong, the imagery so driven home by trailers, commercials, and the finished products, that even these moments recall the past.
The Western, a revered genre with a lengthy list of notable classics, survived this problem. In 1950, over 100 traditional and B-movie Westerns were released in the States. The films of Sergio Leone, George Stevens, John Ford and Sam Peckinpah embraced consistent iconography, molding it around whatever thematic undercurrent they saw fit. How can comic book films do the same?
Grandiosity is a problem. The epic size of the blockbusters and their money shot effects means the stories must treat overused tropes as significant. In the Westerns, the man on the horse or the six-shooter or the ten-gallon hat or a lady tied up on the train are all afterthoughts. They’re ingrained, not exalted. I want Amazing Spider-Man 2‘s Electro to be a great villain, but when I’m told why he’ll be great, it’s using the language as its predecessors, not something story driven and personal.
I’ve already seen a Spider-Man movie where the web-slinging hero battles the Green Goblin. So what makes ASM2‘s different?
Even with the explanation director Marc Webb’s movie will offer, it’ll be hard to understand, considering he looks just like the first version.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is another winner for Marvel, who recently set Captain America 3 for May 6, 2016.
It’s a welcome sequel to a format running on visual fumes. With decades worth of paperbacks to draw from, the studio won’t run out of stories and it won’t slip up in weaving them together to craft the cinematic equivalent of “Must Watch Thursdays.” What could kill off the comic book movie – and at a more rapid pace then the Western – is homogeneous eye candy.
If we get back to the Iron Man reboot without taking a deep breath, then the distraught cinephiles will know what overkill really means.
Originally published at filmschoolrejects.com on April 7, 2014.