Avengers: Age of Ultron - 2015, d. Joss Whedon
(Rewatch) Iron Man 2 - 2010, d. Jon Favreau
(Rewatch) The Incredible Hulk - 2008, d. Louis LeterrierTeenage Mutant Ninja Turtles - 2014, d. Jonathan Liebsman
Ant-Man - 2015, d. Peyton Reed
The Death of "Superman Lives": What Happened? - 2015, d. John Schnepp
It's not that sequels can't be good, but it's a sequel's ability to capitalize upon what made the first film successful without sacrificing story, character or artistic expression that seems to be inherently tricky. Not that I have anything other than a distant observer's impression of how films are made in the Hollywood system, but it seems that studio heads and producers always like to think of themselves as being the smartest people in the room, and also that whatever successes they have had they attribute to their savvy know-how and little to do with the actual talented directors, writers, actors and craftspeople involved. As such sequels seem to get green lit with "more of these things from last time, plus whatever else is hot right now" attitude, rarely with any sense that aspects of cinema generally only work in context, not in a vacuum.
Batman Returns, Tim Burton's follow-up to the first superhero blockbuster in a decade, set an abhorrent precedent for what a sequel should be, creating a template that's continually mimicked but never properly understood. By introducing two super-villains and centering the film on them, almost every sequel in the genre that has followed since (starting with Batman Forever) had done the same: more villains, more heroes, more big name casting, more, more, more, without ever truly understanding that it's actually having a story to tell that makes the endeavor worthwhile. (A story is told in the documentary The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened in which Tim Burton, in preparing for Batman Returns, expressed a strong dislike for superhero films. When asked then why he was making a sequel, he replied that he wanted to apply the lessons learned and knowledge he'd gained from doing the first one to a film and do it right. Batman Returns feels so much more like a Tim Burton film as a result). The most notorious offenders in this light are probably Spider-Man 3 and Batman and Robin but they're far from the only bad ones.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is perhaps the most egregious example in the genre in modern day. Not only are studios trying to make their films bigger while still using a 20-year-old outdated reference point they don't truly understand in doing so, but now they're under pressure to replicate Marvel's success of building a cinematic universe that spans multiple successful franchises while being loosely bound together. The Amazing Spider-Man was itself an attempt to run away from the mistakes of the very recent past by starting again fresh, but it's like whatever lessons Sony had though they had learned were forgotten completely under the weight of having to keep up with the Marvel studios Joneses. If The Amazing Spider Man 2 is watchable at all, it's because it utterly coasts on the charming relationship between Emma Watson and Andrew Garfield, which heralds back to Mark Webb's original success as the indie-rom-com director of 500 Days of Summer.
Everything else in the film is an overwrought, convoluted mess (the poster above kind of sets the tone, don't it?). A storyline set up from the first film, involving Peter Parker's parents and their disappearance, is revisited in the lengthy opening action sequence aboard an airplane that forgets to remind you in any way that this is a movie about Spider-Man, a guy who slings webs and crawls on walls. The film then, busily, introduces Paul Giamatti as a Russian Gangster who Spider-Man stops, Jamie Foxx as a nebbish Oscorp employee Spider-Man saves, and some wholly unnecessary conflict in Peter and Gwen's relationship after the death of her dad in the last movie (the least of which being Peter's post-traumatic stress which he never deals with). There's lots of hiding around Aunt May shenanigans, Peter delving into the mystery of his dad's disappearance, and the sudden reappearance of Harry Osborne and Peter's best friend from childhood (/Peter's best friend from the previous film series, for shorthand).
Foxx is actually quite engaging as Max Dillon, even if he is quite literally playing a character straight out of Revenge of the Nerds. If the film had focused on him as its sole villain and how he intersects with Peter's life, it would have made for a nice point-counterpoint between Peter as a well-socialized nerd-with-a-girlfriend and Max's I-make-people-wholly-uncomfortable-when-I'm-around-type nerd, pitting them as two similar people who make such different choices. But Max, despite being the headline villain, is a minor part of the film. Harry Osborne and his unscrupulous search for a cure for himself (the cure his father failed to find) winds up making him, and Oscorp as a whole, the central villain (there are articles online about how everything, literally, in this film revolves around Oscorp).
The film juggles it's seemingly dozens of plot threads with little success in any of them, exhausting the audience in the process (despite --or because of-- their incredible chemistry, the on-again-off-again Peter and Gwen story is its most aggravating). By the time the big, equally overstuffed climax occurs (why do these films always seem to end with a big, visually cluttered cgi mess of an action sequence?), leading to yet another death on Peter's conscience, the film seems to have lost any sense of clarity on the journey its young hero is supposed to take. All the while the film is setting up more and more Oscorp-created super villains (including Giamatti in a giant, mechanical rhinoceros suit of armor) for both sequels and spin-offs, not realizing that it's "more is more" drove the whole franchise aground.
Despite making $700million plus worldwide, critical reaction was punishing and the audience reaction was a resounding "we're good thanks". Such a brutal reception has driven Sony to it's third reboot of the character in less than a decade, and turning to Marvel studios to help them do it right.
But is that the right thing to do?
Marvel Studios has produced two phases of cinematic universe-building consisting of a dozen films over an incredible 7-year span, and creating some of the biggest blockbusters ever in the offing. But if you look there are some missteps and mistakes, with Avengers: Age of Ultron being the latest example.
Coming out of the massive success of the first Avengers, one would think Joss Whedon would have had carte blanche to do what he wanted with the franchise. Being a supreme geek, creator of fan-favourite (legion-following) television shows, and an expert juggler of action, comedy, drama and character, particularly in an ensemble setting, he proved with the Avengers what every Buffy, Angel and Firefly fan has known for two decades: he's talented and he gets it, so it would make sense that Marvel would just let him cut loose with a second Avengers. But, as noted in my preamble, the studio and executives always know best, and their influence on the end result has created a mediocre picture where another massive blockbuster should have been.
Now, I'm a couple months removed from Age of Ultron and I only managed one viewing in the theatre despite wanting to see it again, so writing this "review" I have to couch it with the context of hazy memories. When I see a big nerd film like Age of Ultron -- where the news and rumours movie sites have been dissecting trailers and reporting on all manner of conjecture and hearsay and fan theories -- the first viewing is always a result of measuring the film against what I've been told to expect. In such regard, where I was looking to it to set up another 5 years of Marvel films, it was a failure, both in what it actually did manage to set up and what it didn't dare to do.
Age of Ultron isn't an awful film, it's actually a quite exciting and enjoyable one, but it features some choice moments of Marvel Cinematic Universe bloat that interfere with it being a great film like the first one. Most notoriously is the executive interference mandating non-sequitur scenes which exist solely to set up future movies. Where a Whedon-driven sequence with Ulysses Klaw adds some international James Bondian excitement that further deepens the MCU and also happens to insinuate some elements for a forthcoming Black Panther feature, it's also a useful part of the movie, providing Ultron with an indestructible body that becomes the Maguffin for the second act. Likewise, Whedon was certainly made aware of the plans for a Civil War sequel for Captain America, and he delivers some beautifully executed sequences putting Cap and Iron Man verbally at odds with each other that will prove prescient to the uninformed upon Civil War's release. However, there's also a studio-mandated sequence where Thor goes off on his own to wade in a hot spring and have some visions which have a story-stunting effect on the film, truly killing the pacing and confounding audiences everywhere. There's little to no purpose of this scene in the movie, beyond setting up the third Thor installment (more than a year in advance).
Whedon has written comics and has certainly read his fair share. He understands the shared-universe conceit intrinsically and negotiates not just the events of one prior movie but a half dozen while still understanding the bigger picture going forward. The producers trusted him to do so, but only to an extent, and then you can tell they started forcing things upon him which he didn't believe in as a writer or director, and the film suffers for it.
On the one hand Age of Ultron is utterly over-stuffed with too many characters to give them all their due. Suffering the most are the newest characters, Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, who have the unfortunate circumstance of not being established characters already. With the film bringing almost all the major players (minus the noted absences of Jane Foster and Pepper Potts, and the no-place-for-him Loki) back together, anyone new beyond the central villain, is getting the short shrift. Even the established characters at times feel slighted by the edit as is (knowing there was an earlier edit of the film running an hour longer doesn't help the film feel like it's missing scenes any less), but Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) has a funny adversarial relationship with Hawkeye but has nothing more meaningful in the way of characterization than that. Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olson) doesn't get much more than a pep talk. What's more, they're supposed to be Eastern European which leads the actors to have uneven, awkward accents which help none (not to forget that X-Men: Days of Future Past had its own Quicksilver who was showcased in the film's standout sequence, something this film didn't even deign to try and top...it seemed to concede the better Quicksilver to Fox)
Much has been said of Black Widow's speech revealing her past, and the horrors she faced as a trainee in the Russian spy program, leading up to her being rendered sterile so that family wouldn't interfere with her espionage priorities. There was a notable outcry damning the scene, but in a film that features parenting as a heavy narrative thrust (a major point is Tony Stark's role as father to Ultron), exploring this side of Widow is largely problematic because there are no other female characters on the team to represent anything else. If that scene shows any weakness in the character, it's a vulnerability she's willing to present only to a person she loves. But also, remember, this in a scene where her romantic partner was showing his vulnerability as a byproduct of science-gone-wrong. In a film where Widow needs to placate the Hulk in order to keep him from going out of control, Natasha once more needs to placate the man in order to keep him from just walking out (but it didn't work ultimately). Many, many fans did not like the Black Widow/Bruce/Hulk relationship in the film (because it's one that's never existed in the comics, and fans are like that) but I thought the end result was quite fascinating, unexpected, and showed something intriguing in both of them. My personal thought was that given how intensely her first encounter with the Hulk shook her in the first Avengers movie, she made a play for a relationship with Bruce as a means of taking control of her own fear.
Age of Ultron is not as direly messed up a sequel as so many other superhero films, but it's the first product of the Marvel Studios design that requires full buy-into the Marvel Studios design. If you've not invested in at least some of the MCU up until now, and aren't ready to get excited about what's to come, this movie will make little sense or be of little interest. Where one could step into The Avengers or even Captain America: Winter Soldier and be tremendously entertained, you have to want to see Captain America, Hawkeye, Black Widow, Thor and the Hulk together as your driving thrust to see the picture. You have to want to see multiple new heroes come on the screen (and I didn't even talk about Vision). You have to want to be teased for more films down the pipe. You have to care about all these maguffins that will form the Infinity Gauntlet and give a crap about what it all means. I'm a huge big comic nerd and this is long been my dream of how films should be, but now that films are like this, they're perhaps a bit too much inside their own little world to be completely accessible. A film should be entertaining on it's own, and Age of Ultron is, but only too a point. It seems like a slippery slope these films are going down, becoming accessible only for those who have poured over the whole back catalog multiple times and get the set up and pay off that's happening.
Taking a step back, there's Marvel Studios biggest mess, Iron Man 2, which makes Age of Ultron look like Citizen Kane. That's a tad hyperbolic. A more apt comparison, if Iron Man is the Godfather, Iron Man 3 would be the Godfather 2 while Iron Man 2 would be the Godfather 3.
This is textbook sequel-gone-wrong, still looking at the Batman Returns model of "more more more". There's two new villains, taking a suddenly hot commodity, Mickey Rourke (coming off his career reviving The Wrestler) and putting him in a central role as Ivan Vanko, aka Whiplash, a Russian gangster/inventor whose father got cheated by Tony Stark's father and now he's looking for revenge. Meanwhile Sam Rockwell plays a corporate head who is not as smart or talented as Tony Stark and suffers in his shadow. Using every angle possible (including bringing in Whiplash) he steals Tony's technology, and threatens to commoditize it, not realizing how determined or resourceful his new partner is.
Rourke's Vanko is a scenery chewing nutball who makes for an interesting incidental character at best. It would seem that Vanko was non-existent or only a minor character in the initial draft of the film but bolstered tremendously when Rourke was wooed aboard. There's a comedic bent to the entire picture (much like the first one) but Rourke plays everything so sternly, even his weirdness is more intimidating than amusing, completely out of place. Rockwell nails the tone perfectly and was likely intended to be the main villain, but seems unintentionally overshadowed here. Too much time is spent on Vanko, and it's Tony Stark that suffers for it.
The story gives Stark two plots too many. There's a heavy-handed living-up-to-his-father's-legacy story that finds him resurrecting the Stark Expo (an exhibit for great minds), which also has a hidden mystery from Howard Stark to be discovered (just like Amazing Spider-Man 2, a mystery from dad!). He's also struggling to keep the American military at bay as the political system (including an unexpected cameo from Garry Shandling) attempts to force him to relish his technology, and then there's his massive ego which seems to be getting in his way of actually doing the good he wants to do. And then there's a whole lot of business with S.H.I.E.L.D. for the sole purpose of seeding the Marvel Cinematic Universe leading into The Avengers, which puts Black Widow into the picture (not an unwelcome presence, but an unnecessary one thoroughly). Not to mention Tony and Pepper exploring whether their relationship actually works, and also his friendship with Rhodey is strained because of Rhodey's military commitments.
Unlike Age of Ultron, which endeavors to have only one plot (with a couple of thematic through-lines and related character-driven sub-plots), Iron Man 2 has too many plots and too many sub-plots pulling Tony Stark in multiple directions. Abandoning the Howard Stark mystery would have slimmed the film down a fair bit, as would have trimming the Vanko role to something smaller and scaling back or eliminating S.H.I.E.L.D. altogether. It's actually not badly done, it's just overdone, overstuffed sometimes to the point of tedium. It unfortunately sunk Jon Favreau's involvement in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (he did reprise his role as Happy Hogan in Iron Man 3 so there was obviously no ill will in the separation), which is too bad, considering as how he practically launched the thing from his shoulders. Iron Man 2 seemed like it was guided by the studio into its unfortunate shape, a lesson they learned for a time, but seem perilously close to repeating.
The second film from Marvel Studios was a rapid relaunch of their Hulk franchise after both a critical and audience drubbing of the Ang Lee rendition earlier in the decade (I still quite like it, though I know I'm a very small minority). After the success of Iron Man and the very popular post-credits sequence with Sam Jackson as Nick Fury intoning a bigger universe to come, Marvel quickly made sure that this new Hulk feature would start building their new cinematic universe, making reference to Captain America, and featuring its own post-credits sequence that found Tony Stark stumping for the Avengers initiative. Though changing some of the details of the Hulk's origin (making it a part of an attempt at recreating the super-soldier serum that gave Captain America his abilities), the film doesn't outright negate the Ang Lee movie. Though all the actors are different, the film picks up in a way that could ostensibly follow the events of the first movie (Bruce is on the run, Ross is on the hunt, Betty has moved on).
Whether it was the fact that audiences had been so recently burned by a Hulk movie, or that Ed Norton wasn't exactly the action hero people could get behind, or because the Hulk of the film frankly looked like a Rob Liefeld illustration come to CGI life, or because the film unironically looked to the 1970's TV series for inspiration, it remains the most modest performer of the MCU movies thus far. The fact that Norton and the Marvel producers didn't see eye-to-eye on the future direction of the character led to him dropping out of the Avengers (replaced with the warmer, more charming Mark Ruffalo) quickly made The Incredible Hulk an outlier, and until recently, abandoned as part of the MCU (it was recently announced that William Hurt would reprise his role as General "Thunderbolt" Ross in Civil War).
My thoughts upon rewatching the film haven't changed since I first saw it. The opening act, which follows Bruce as he tries to escape the military and his past, by hiding out in Rio, is great, leading to a terrific chase sequence through the streets of Rio after they discover his location. The leader of the squad is Emil Blonsky (a terrifically miscast Tim Roth) who agrees to undergo a new super-soldier trial (extracted from Banner) in order to go toe-to-to with the monster. The middle act works well as drama and romance as it finds Bruce returning home, at first avoiding Betty (who's shacking up with Modern Family's Ty Burrell in the role of psychiatrist Leonard Samson), but then requiring her help. The military, as they do, track him down and Blonsky gets to test out his new strength against the Hulk, only to find he's lacking. The Hulk flees with Betty, and Bruce is back on the run, but with company this time. They track down the anonymous scientist that had been helping Bruce try to figure out a cure for himself, only to once more be found out by the military and Blonsky, further mutated as the Abomination starts to wreck New York. This leads to an exceptionally tedious, unimaginative, poorly rendered animated fight between two behemoths on Yonge Street in Toronto (failing poorly as an imitation of Harlem) that just drags on. This third act fight is such a bore that it kills the film almost in its entirety.
I want to like this movie more than I do. I think \Norton is genuinely interesting as Bruce Banner, and conveys his struggle in a unique way. Although I actually find the references charming, I still think it was a bad decision commercially to look to a television show from over two decades past as a means to revitalize a stalled franchise (particularly after Schumacher tried the same thing to less success). The influence of the Bixby/Ferrigno TV show slows the film down and really makes the human character the focus, where I think audiences wanted more Hulk Smash (especially coming out of the Ang Lee film). Why else did people love him in The Avengers so much? I still wonder what a sequel with Tim Blake Nelson as the mutated, big-headed Leader would look like.
While The Incredible Hulk was a quasi-reboot/quasi-sequel, the Michael Bay-produced Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie was a full-on re-imagining. Or at least that was was was rumoured ahead of the film's release with certain reports stating the Turtles would be aliens, rather than mutants. Things got out of control especially once the insanely awkward new appearance of the Turtles was leaked. Monstrous, hulking 7-feet tall turtles with noses, and overly-ornate samurai-inspired armor and decorations over their shells, these were not faithful representations of a much beloved franchise. Plus putting the often oversexualized Megan Fox in the role of April O'Neil seemed immediately demeaning to the character, and rumors that beloved character actor William Fichtner would be playing Shredder (a Japanese character in the comics and cartoon), had the fanbase old and new writing off the film.
It's well established I'm not a big fan of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but I've seen my fair share of comics, cartoons and motion pictures that I know what's up with them. So, that said, this wasn't altogether that dishonest a representation of them, with only a few exceptions.
The Turtles act pretty much in character as we've come to know them. Leonardo is the one who respects Splinter's teachings the most and thus acts as the de-facto leader, though his brothers don't see him as such for much of the film. The petty bickering of the Turtles remains. Donatello is the smart, nerdy, tech-geek of the group, while Raphael is the angry rebel. Mikey is, as always, the dumb one, the partier, the goofball. The archetypes are fully at play here, in fact they're utterly relied upon as there is little to no characterization or character development happening here. This film depends on advance awareness of who these characters are in order to care about them, because their relationship dynamics and individual personalities don't shine through all that much.
Fox does a respectable job as April (even if she does start the film out doing a news report puff piece on a trampoline), and she is the central figure of the film. The film does that Hollywood thing where it needs to create a throughline for all the characters stories and it ties the origins of the Turtles to her (they were like her pets at one point, though they lived in a lab run by her father and Ficthner's character). April is eyed and ogled by the Turtles, and her cameraman/driver (played by Will Arnett) has a deep crush on her, but despite the character objectification I don't recall the camera actively objectifying her (not like Bay's Transformers did anyway).
Fichtner turns out to be an associate of the Shredder's, working on a plan to release a disease upon the populace so that they can cash in off the cure. There's an inkling that the writers wanted to inject some sort of commentary here, but either didn't commit or were told to abandon. It's a kids movie afterall, and it does play like one. My daughter is a big Turtles fan and she quite enjoyed it (though, like everyone, she wasn't entirely sold on the look of the characters). It's bright and colorful (unlike the 90's film version which piggybacked off the shadows-and-neon aesthetic drawn from Tim Burton's Batman) with a few decent action set pieces and it's largely inoffensive, heck it's even mildly enjoyable if not exactly memorable. It definitely could have been a lot worse. (I hope the sequel goes for broke and does the Kraang invasion, as it's really the Turtles story everyone's been waiting to see on the big screen).
Ant-Man as a character was surely not high on anyone's list of comic book superheroes needing big-screen translation. He's a C-list character (despite being an Avenger) at best, he's never held his own highly successful comic, at least three different people have held the mantle, and the original Ant-Man, Hank Pym, has a troubled publication history of spousal abuse, insanity, and numerous superhero guises. If anything was getting cinephiles excited about the idea of the film during the decade it was in development, it was the fact that Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrim) was the man at the helm, writing and directing it.
Wright makes smart, savvy, funny, unique movies that are blockbuster concepts executed in an avant garde fashion (and on respectable budgets). He started Ant-Man before Marvel Studios was the record-breaking blockbuster machine it is today, so for a long time it felt like it could very much be the first big-time Edgar Wright film, one that played with the Marvel Universe but didn't feel so much a product of the usual Hollywood system.
Well, as is so well known, Wright left the project, after such a lengthy development, deep into pre-production. He had already cast Paul Rudd in the lead role (Rudd's an unlikely heroic figure, and known primarily for his comedic sensibilities, so it was telling already as to what kind of film it would be), and his departure came after reports of numerous rewrites and studio demands changing the nature of the story he wanted to tell. The cinephile response was doom and gloom, the Marvel Studios machine had finally gone off the rails, and the film without Wright at the helm would be a trainwreck (no, not the Judd Apatow film that also opened the same day).
New director Peyton Reed (a noted comedy director for TV and film) came on board quickly and Adam McKay (Anchorman director and co-writer) was brought in for re-writes, which seemed to indicate that Marvel was looking for its first action-comedy, and though the desire to see Wright's vision come to fruition still dominated the conversation, things weren't perhaps as dire as initially thought.
Well, turns out, Ant-Man is pretty great. As I watched the film I could see Edgar Wright's hand at play (he and Joe Cornish still get screenplay and producer credit) but it feels like a Marvel bastardization (meant in the nicest way possible) of a Wright film. The obvious changes made stand out, the ones that tie Ant-Man into the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe. They're fun, but they're distractions, asides almost, that impact the flow of the film's story. They make it feel like a Marvel film, which is honestly great, but it's also quite apparent that a full on Edgar Wright film would have stood out from the pack, and perhaps not in a complimentary way (if Wright had made it his way in 2009, between Iron Man 2 and The Incredible Hulk, it probably would have felt more at home).
The plot of Ant-Man is two-fold: first there's the heist, as Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) enlists ex-convict Scott Lang to help break into his own technology company he was forced out of and sabotage or eliminate the particle shrinking technology they're on the cusp of mastering...using particle shrinking technology Pym created decades before. Second, there's the story of redemption for both characters, particularly in the eyes of their respective daughters. Hank's daughter Hope (Evangeline Lily) feels like she was abandoned by her father after her mother disappeared, while Scott doesn't want to be a criminal in his young daughter's eyes. Where I think the tone of this, a Marvel movie, differs from what would have been Wrights movie is the thrust of turning Scott Lang into a superhero. I suspect Wright would have settled for just "hero" where here Reed and the Marvel Studios producers seem intent on making him Avengers-worthy (a showdown between Scott and Anthony Mackie's The Falcon from Captain America: Winter Soldier on the new Avengers facility grounds certainly works hard to prove this point).
As a heist movie, it's decent. As a superhero movie, it's alright. As an action movie it's okay. As a comedy, it's fine. But put all together it's really great, tremendously enjoyable. It doesn't do anything so good that it overshadows everything else, it all just works quite well together. The casting is tremendous, Rudd's Lang isn't particularly tough or overly special. He's smart enough, has a particular skill-set, and is a little fearless. Rudd provides the comedic chops, but also the emotional weight as well that you believe he's really ready to what needs to be done so that his daughter (and, well, everyone, including himself, can be respected). Douglas, whom I've never been much of a fan of, honestly seems to be having fun in this film. His Hank Pym is often cold, with a hint of rage and an equal hint of sadness just underneath. Douglas has screen gravitas which gives the impression of great intellect without having to frequently demonstrate it (in actions or words). He fills the mentor role well. I loved Lily as Hope Van Dyne. She played the duplicitous role, exceptionally well, working with the villain, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), while secretly working for Hank, though still harboring deep resentment for her father. She wants so desperately to wear the Ant-Man suit, and probably could any time she wanted to, but doesn't because she's hoping to rebuild her relationship with her father, not damage it further. Michael Pena is wonderful as the chief comic relief as Scott's fast-talking, highly excitable, surprisingly competent colleague-in-crime. The film manages to navigate him as a funny character without making him pathetic or a joke. Even Stoll, as the bad guy who ousted Hank from his own company, who seeks to use Hank's daughter against him, who seeks to uncover dangerous technology Hank intentionally hid away for profit, still has a narrative drive. He's still stinging from Hank rejecting him as a pupil after mentoring him for some time. Though spiting Hank's wishes to keep the technology buried, he still seeks to impress.
The film deals with my all-time favourite superhero concept, that of legacy. It gives brilliant glimpses of Hank Pym in action back in the 1980's and deals with the weight of his actions from a prior era. The element of legacy stems more from Hope than it does from Scott. Her desire to take on the role, to be a part of her father's history seems very important, whereas Scott wants to respect it (as much out of respect to Hank as out of respect to a seething Hope). The film also sees Scott pushing the capabilities of the suit even further than Hank was willing to go (part of the superhero legacy is to surpass the mentor). Even Darren Cross is part of Hank's legacy, just an unwelcome one. I love the sense of history the film has to build instead of being yet another origin story, and that it weaves into existing and builds new Marvel Cinematic Universe history is both fun and exciting. There's all that, plus it heavily and knowingly manipulates its audience with more than a few sentimental father-daughter moments, all of which I absolutely loved and responded to (for obvious reasons).
I have little doubt that Wright would have made a better overall standalone film, however it wouldn't have been the same franchise-starting, universe-complimenting film this is. In what was as big a gamble as Guardians of the Galaxy and possibly even bigger potential disaster given the behind-the-scenes activities, Ant-Man sort of restored my faith in Marvel Studios ability to produce the hell out of a movie. Though interference in the creative process to satisfy the needs of another project can prove problematic (Age of Ultron), Marvel has shown that when you combine the right talent who can work with the system, that it works rather well. (I suspect the big test will be Guardians of the Galaxy 2).
Producer and studio interference happens with almost everyone but the most elite of filmmakers. It comes from people who become successful off the backs of other people's creativity and vision egotistically thinking that it's their influence that resulted in success. Producers get to be in that enviable position of having money and thus having say, satisfying a creative itch without really having to do any of the work to see it to fruition. The Kickstarter-funded documentary The Death of "Superman Lives": What Happened? isn't meant as an exposee of this behaviour and yet it quite clearly highlights why some movies are really truly awful in the face of strong creative vision, or never even get made at all. The amount of hands at play in a major studio film, particularly one that features a tentpole, iconic character, would naturally be numerous, but this documentary really expounds upon how much of a collaborative effort it is, and just how hard it is to get a film of this scope made.
Director John Schnepp proves a passionate narrator and solid interviewer for the film. Through his successful Kickstarter campaign, he managed to draw enough attention to land key figures in the film's production as interview subjects, including producer Jon Peters, director Tim Burton, various screenwriters, studio heads, and various effects talent. With his own collection of memorabilia and new access to test videos, photographs, concept art and more, the documentary does an excellent job of giving the viewer a feel for what might have been, and not just for the end product, but what it could have been at different stages, from a joke to a nightmare to ultimately something that would have actually wound up resembling something recognizable as Superman.
What marvels me most about this documentary is how few people involved in the project have any reverence for the source material. Unabashed fanboy Kevin Smith wrote the first two drafts, admittedly as fanfic, which were thrown out when Burton came aboard. Burton himself expresses little connection to the character, which led to him really wanting to explore the alien and alienation that Superman and Clark must feel. It was obvious producer Peters, in securing the rights to Superman, was less interested in doing the character justice than just making money off the big red S. His take on the character was to strip Superman of so much of his iconic nature, such that at the onset his desire seemed to be making a Superman movie in name only.
As Schnepp peels back the layers, focusing in at first on the long publicly available imagery that has long made the endeavor the ridicule of message boards, he start to unveil some intriguing concepts and ideas that are both direct-from-the-page as well as new ideas that would have made wonderful visuals (Christopher Walken as Brainiac was the first such reveal to make me lament the film's loss). Even without much history with the character, Burton doubtlessly had passion for the project, and a definite vision of what he was hoping to accomplish. The costume test footage with Nic Cage slowly reveals that despite not being an obvious choice, he had a definite take on the character (and we know Cage is a massive Superman fan, so he was likely ecstatic to take on the role), particularly pulling a Clark Kent who would have been far more awkward and nerdy (he likened him to being one of the San Diego Comic Con nerds) than any past. There's no real insight into Sandra Bullock as Lois Lane or Chris Rock as Jimmy Olson (both as startlingly miscast as Cage, at first blush) but Kevin Spacey was revealed as being the first choice for Lex Luthor (and wound up playing him in Bryan Singer's Superman Returns).
By the time the film was pulled, Warner Brothers had been on a tremendous losing streak at the box office, they had sunk tens of millions into pre-production and never felt comfortable with the Superman film before them. But Schnepp makes a strong case that what was lost would have been at the very least an interesting Superman movie, if not necessarily a successful one.
The documentary itself feels under-produced, hindered by limited budget and even more limited experience. Schnepp manages to tell a wonderful story through his interviews, even if they don't necessarily look great: camera positions are awkward, second-camera transitions are often jarring, and Schnepp is too often in frame (this isn't about him or his journey so he doesn't need to be so present). There are live action and animated sequences, both which look terrible, but in a charming way. They adequately capture an idea, sequence or effect without over-selling or under-representing what the final product might have been. It gives the viewer just enough to let the image escape into the imagination and embolden it.
It is without a doubt a worthy documentary. Clearly everyone interviewed still has, over 15 years later, distinctive memories, hurt feelings, strong emotions and fondness for what they were attempting to create. Had this been a documentary where only Schnepp's passion was conveyed and the creative team behind it was less enthusiastic, it would be a failure, but it's quite the opposite. Intriguing, delightful, insightful and fun. A genuinely good watch.