Celebrating the expansion of comic book sensibilities in J.D. Dillard’s ‘Sleight.’
The last thing the internet (aka the world) needs right now is another hot take on the box office dominance of superhero movies in contemporary cinema culture. They’re here, don’t fear, get used to it. This past weekend, Marvel Studios had yet another massive success with the global triumph of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and there is no reason to predict their downfall after a string of fifteen successful interconnected movies. And why would you!??! All grumps, please direct yourself to my previous celebration on all Marvel movies, including Howard The Duck.
It’s been seventeen years since Bryan Singer’s X-Men, and in that time we’ve seen nearly every variety of comic book character adapted to the big screen. From Spider-Man to Hellboy to Kick-Ass, the Hollywood desire to franchise has never been more rabid or lucrative. Sure, for every Avengers assemblage you get three or four Jonah Hex wannabes, and those pathetic attempts certainly leave a bitter taste in both fan and muggle alike. I’m not sure if anything can stop the Merry Marvel Marching Society, but enough dullard Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle sequels could squander our desire for accepting others beyond the House of Ideas.
True Believers need not be afraid. While an endless stream of origin stories could certainly result in our eventual boredom/rejection of the genre, we have just witnessed a new stage in the evolution of superhero cinema that will undoubtedly sustain it for a few more decades. Released the weekend before Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, J.D. Dillard’s Sleight quietly reveals its four-colored genesis over its succinct 89-minute runtime. Not as packed with Marvel bombast, Sleight basically presents the Spider-Man story from another point of view and excites its audience through repackaging 1960s heroics into a sincere morality quest.
Jacob Latimore plays Bo, a high school over-achiever with one of those big Peter Parker brains that placed him on a path to academic scholarship before his mother died, and he had to transition into the role of parent to his younger sister, Tina. With his life now consumed with feeding and housing his sister, Bo makes his money busking as a street magician and selling drugs for small time gangster, Dule Hill. Just a few minutes into the movie, it is revealed that Bo has mechanically enhanced his body to help aid him in levitation tricks, and obviously, this comes into further play when his drug dealing side-hustle turns horrific.
Like the very best Marvel movies, Sleight knows that its genre elements are not nearly as interesting as the scenes rooted in character. Our anticipation for the inevitable violent clash is only strengthened by scenes of Bo and Tina reflecting on the loss of their mother, or Bo and his neighbor, Sasheer Zamata, debating the ethical quandaries of dealing. We don’t love Peter Parker because he’s great at smashing The Vulture in his big, dumb head. We love Peter Parker because he loves, and is loved by Aunt May. The Vulture punching is certainly an essential element, but truly secondary to the familial love.
With a production budget of just 250,000 thousand dollars, the real wizardry of Sleight is just how J.D. Dillard crafted a saga worthy of the MCU. The one-time receptionist for Bad Robot did not have the budget to utilize heaps of CGI; instead, Dillard went old school with a thin strand of invisible string to pull off the levitating ring gag. Such ingenuity caught the attention of Jason Blum during 2016’s Sundance, and in partnership with WWE Studios, the two micro-budget production houses brought Sleight to 565 theaters in April.
The film did not crack the Top 10 opening weekend (slot 14 actually), but with a per screen average of $3,012, Dillard has found himself in that unique spot once occupied by Josh Trank and Jon Watts. Here you go indie darling, how do a few hundred million dollars sound to you? 20th Century Fox has tapped Dillard, and his writing partner Alex Theurer, for the second remake of The Fly. While I’m personally not sold on this studio tactic, I still fear the Fantastic Fours and Jurassic Worlds of our future, I am 100 percent on board for anything J.D. Dillard.
Sleight shows where a generation of filmmakers raised on comic books and comic book movies could lead. Similar to how J.J. Abrams revels as a child of Spielberg, Dillard stands on the shoulders of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and their MCU, and proudly proclaims himself as their decedent. Nothing seems to be stopping the charge to Infinity War, but J.D. Dillard illustrates an alternative in tone for those looking for more than Easter eggs.