Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Comic Book Crap-pile: Lost In Translation

 Herein lies a group of superhero films, adapted to screen from the comics books, that didn't do well, or were critically maligned, or both. As a comic book nerd, I can't help but watch in amazement and/or horror.

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Punisher: War Zone - 2008, d. Lexi Alexander - blu-ray
Fantastic Four - 2015, d. Josh Trank - Netflix
Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance - 2011, d. Neveldine & Taylor - Netflix
Rewatch: Man of Steel - 2013, d. Zach Snyder - Netflix

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Punisher: War Zone was both a critical and financial failure upon release.  It was the second effort by Lion's Gate to make a Punisher movie, this time hewing even closer to the spirit of the comic books.  The first film cribbed a popular Garth Ennis Punisher storyline but aimed to make it more PG-13 audience friendly by toning down the violence and inserting the over-the-top theatrics of John Travolta.  This film went for the brutal gut-punch violence, with a Grand Guinol joie de mort of another Ennis story, which should have appeased the fans even more.  So what went wrong?

Well, to be honest, it's a film that plays to those very same fans, and as a result it doesn't have the broader, more commercial appeal.  By going so over the top, with both the violence and the theatricality, it's jarring and alienating unless one has passion or appreciation for the source material it's derived from.

Were this actually a comedy, in the vein of this year's Deadpool, it probably would have done far better.  But instead, director Lexi Alexander went back to the early days of comic book adaptations -- back to Tim Burton's Batman, Warren Beatty's Dick Tracey, Alexander Proyas' The Crow, and whomever-that-was's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, -- for tone and style, but trying to parlay it into the more extreme 80's action of Commando, Robocop or Rambo.  I can see 2008's audience expecting something a little more grizzled, a little more mature.  Instead it's sort of your common 80's-style action vehicle, with exceptionally familiar beats, and bad guys performed to ridiculously broad extremes.

With the benefit of distance and time, I can see how War Zone has become a burgeoning cult film.  There's a tremendous amount to enjoy when you're in step with the spirit of the piece.  Part of getting into that spirit is accepting all the terrible New Yawk tough guy accents from Ray Stevenson, Julie Benz, Doug Hutchison, Colin Salmon and Dominic West (three of these leads being British).  Stevenson for his part doesn't have a line of dialogue until 26 minutes into the film, while West and Hutchison push their characters so far over the top they can't even see it anymore.  West takes the notable Punisher  nemesis Jigsaw and tries to do what Jack Nicholson did for the Joker and Al Pachino did for Big Boy and pretty much succeeds in emulating the cartoonish nature of those old school actors interpreting what a comic book villain should be (essentially something straight out of the Adam West Batman TV show).

The style of the film is great.  Alexander took pains to make it continually visually interesting, using a three colour palette every scene, which once again gives it a comic-book adaptation vibrancy that screams early-'90's.  She wasn't making a serious drama but a balls-out action movie.  There's more focus on the "gags" than there is most emotional investment (though Stevenson does get a few good turns with a little girl the Punisher is prodecting who reminds him of his daughter).  The film even manages to decently represent the failings of the concept of "killing all the bad guys" as if it's always so black and white.  And yet killing all the bad guys is what it relishes in, and Frank Castle gets all manner of creative ways of killing people.  The fight sequences are good but have been well suprassed elsewhere before and since.  There's a sense of brute force on screen, but Stevenson is so big that nobody poses a credible physical threat to him, and there's never a true moment where you believe Frank is in any real danger.  As well, the fighting isn't very clean... it looks quite noticeably staged at times, and the flow isn't always super sharp, giving it a Robert Rodriguez/Grindhouse/intentional-B-movie feel.

War Zone is actually far from terrible film, but rather a misunderstood one.  Had it been made in, say, 1992, I'd have watched it a dozen times over in the years since, but with a much more mature representation of the Punisher in Daredevil's second season, and a long list of highly enjoyable comic book movies that have a more cinematic feel, this doesn't quite merit continued rewatching.  But if you haven't seen it, it's kind of worth checking out, if extreme uber-violence gives you a chuckle.

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Now this 2015 Fantastic Four film is complete garbage, from top to bottom.  I don't hate the Tim Story Fantastic Four movies, but I recognize that they weren't great.  This version makes them look like Casablanca.  Every minute, every step forward in this film is an utter miscalculation.

I've never had much love for the Fantastic Four comic (even though the Thing is one of my favourite Marvel characters) so you'd think I'd be more than accepting of a film that diverges from the source, but writer-director Josh Trank either fundamentally doesn't understand the characters, or he didn't care in the least about preserving any sense of their source.

Long called "the First Family" of the Marvel Universe, the Fantastic Four has almost always been about bright, four colour adventure, and, of course, family.  The comic's sense of "comic book science" was always larger than life, and, as per its name, fantastic.  Yet, with his adaptation Trank aimed for a science-gone-wrong body horror aesthetic, and I'm sure before the studio took over, trimming it down to a still dull 100 minutes, it bore out as even more of a horror, with grotesque violence and terror.  The last thing Trank was looking to make was a family film (both in the sense of it being about family or being for families).

The least important thing about the Fantastic Four is their origin, and yet the crux of this entire film is about their origin.  The first hour of the film is all about building a transport into an alternate dimension.  When the transport is finally complete, Reed Richards, Johnny Storm, Ben Grimm and Victor Von Doom all get drunk and decide to take the trip (leaving Sue behind, of course, both because she's a girl and too smart to do something so dumb) where things go horrifically wrong.  The results turn Ben into a rock thing, Johnny into a human torch, Reed into a stretchy dude, and Sue, caught in the crossfire, becomes invisible.  Victor gets lost in the alternate dimension, believe to be dead.  Remember, this is an hour into the film.

The following ten minutes is full-on body horror as everyone reacts to their physical transformations.  But through a brutally awkward (but mercifully short) montage, they come to accept their powers and metamorphoses, and become quite adept at using them.  They reunite together when Doom returns from the alternate dimension to destroy the Earth, and they follow him back to the alternate dimension to stop him.  Did I mention that the bulk of this film takes place in two places, a remote government/military facility and the ugly, rocky, barren alternate dimension.  It's perhaps the dullest of dull settings.  The film attempts an ending with the quartet returning to Earth as triumphant heroes, and then takes them to yet another remote government facility to act as their base of operations.  A horrifyingly stilted conversation follows, which attempts to turn this disparate group into some collection of friends with something approximating rapport, and turn this brutally bleak and unforgiving film into something uplifting, inspiring and setting up a heroic franchise that thankfully will not come to pass.

The film never comes close to earning any of its conversations about family, friendship, intelligence, science or heroism, primarily because it barely tries.  Part of that could be because Trank's intention was to diverge from the source material into making a superhero horror film, but so invested in straying from the source was he that Fox realized his vision wasn't at all what they wanted, wasn't anything they could market as a contender or companion piece to Marvel Studios or their own X-Men franchise, and they so obviously edited it in the hopes of fooling someone into thinking it was.  Alas, it's a butchered nighmare of a superhero movie.  I don't doubt that Trank's edit of the film would still be an awful interpretation of the Fantastic Four but I would guess that it's a better, more consistent movie.

If there's a key commonality to Fox's failed interpretation of the Fantastic Four it's Doctor Doom.  Through two previous efforts with a supremely miscast Julian McMahan, and now a terrible interpretation thrust upon Toby Kebbel, Fox doesn't seem to get that next to the Joker, this is the premiere supervillain in comics.  He's super-intelligent, a man of science beyond anything we know, and as a result ego is beyond enormous.  But his hatred for Reed Richards is all consuming, and not because he had feelings for Sue and she chose Reed, but because he recognizes Reed's intellect is superior and he just can't handle it.  He's such a grandiose character that he's very difficult to interpret for the screen.  There's not a lot of nuance, there is only Doom, and it'll take a very special and talented script writer and studio who know and love the comics to get that right.  The relationships between Reed and Sue, Sue and Johnny, Johnny and Ben, and Ben and Reed, those are easy.  But getting Doom right (or ignoring him altogether) is the key to getting a good, if not great, Fantastic Four film made.  (Hell, we already have fantastic Fantastic Four movie in The Incredibles.)

As for the rest of the cast: Miles Teller is ok as Reed... he can give off the impression of dismissive hyper-intelligence, but the script narrows his genius to one specific topic of dimensional transportation and thus it fails him as a character.  Kate Mara is also okay as Sue... the film gives her a good intellect of her own, which was nice, but again she's the love interest for Reed and Doom and a daughter and an adopted sister and her character is at odds defining herself by her own abilities versus who she is in relation to all the men in the picture.  Michael B. Jordan was said my many to be the only bright spot of the picture, but there is no bright spot to this picture.  He's fine, but Johnny's pretty much a non-entity.  His only real relationship is with his father but it's such a nothing element to the picture that it feels shoehorned in.  Finally there's Jamie Bell, the unlikeliest of Things.  At once the film seems to try to make Ben Grimm exactly like he is in the comics while also nothing like he is in the comics and it's just a mess.  Portraying one of my favourite Marvel characters, Bell does pretty good, but the character design is godawful (yeah, he's supposed to be ugly but jesus it's just unappealing...we're supposed to like this guy, not want him to get off the screen because we can't stand to look at him).

If the Fantastic Four are going to return to the big screen, they need to do so within the Marvel Cinematic Universe and in media res.  No origin story.  In fact, Reed and Sue should be married already and Franklyn and Valeria should already be born.  The whole aspect of family needs to firmly be in place.  The Fantastic Four should be revered for both their contributions as heroes, scientists and explorers, and the film should be adventurous, not reactive.  It needs to be bright, heartwarming, exciting and PG-rated, not solely for kids, but not exclusive either.  Either Fox has another reboot in the next few years paired with Marvel Studios  (ala Sony and Spider-Man), or the leave it to Marvel to get it done right.

This was just embarassing.

(David's Take)

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Like Fantastic Four and the Punisher, Ghost Rider is another character I have no real fondness or affection for.  Unlike Fantastic Four or the Punisher, I don't even know what a good interpretation of Ghost Rider would look like.  I can tell, though, that this certainly isn't it.

The film opens trailing a motorcycle along a european highway into a monastery.  The rider takes off his helmet and, holy shit, it's Idris Elba.  The monk he meets is Giles from Buffy The Vampire Slayer.  There's some talk of a chosen one/demon seed, the monastery gets raided.  Chase sequence, followed by badass Idris Elba moments and then credits.  Things immediately go downhill when Nicholas Cage's voiceover pipes in over his tongue-in-cheek retelling of his origin from the first film.

Neveldine and Taylor work in extreme angles and frenetic editing, even when it's just a talking heads conversation.  As such, any attempts at building story, character or drama are undermined by the visuals on screen.  The camera's constantly swaying to the point of distraction, it's like Neveldine and Taylor just can't settle their impulses down enough to let a story play out (many sequences work better just listening to the performances than watching what happens on screen).  Their over-the-top sensibilities that made the Crank films infamous seem tailor made for Nic Cage's penchant for bug-eyed melodrama, but it's far too much for one film to handle.  Cage loves comic books but he doesn't seem to get that comic books are already larger than life, and going big takes things too far.

For all the drawbacks of the directors and the lead actor, Ghost Rider and his bike look absolutely amazing.  The occasional chase or fight sequence really bring the comic book imagery of the Ghost Rider to life.  And it absolutely works better when Ghost Rider is all CGI than when it's Nic Cage with some CGI superimposed over.  Unfortunately there's not enough investment in actually telling a story to make it worthwhile.

Ghost Rider isn't like Superman, Batman, or Spider-Man, he's not even Iron Man or Ant-Man.  He's not easy to explain logically.  Why does he exist?  What are his motivations?  What can he actually do?  These aren't things that are generally known or that simply answered, but the film's efforts to do so fail, in part because of Cage's idiosyncratic performance.  He seems uninterested in making Johnny Blaze or Ghost Rider sensible beings, nevermind heroic ones.  Cage's interpretation absolutely resists the desire to paint the character as a hero, or even as likeable.  Knowing he's a comic fan, I believe he has more investment in this movie than most of his post IRS career, but even then it's like he doesn't remember how to perform with anything approaching relatable.  Johnny Blaze is a manifestation of Cage's offbeat mind, and as such isn't even close to being an understandable character, nevermind a likeable one.

With another actor (like, say, Idris Elba...this film really needed more Idris Elba, but less of his terrible French accent) bringing nuance and some sense of logic to the character, this actually could have been a good movie.  Okay, scratch that, it could have been a passable movie.  It's not unwatchable as is, but it's not the so-crazy-it's-fun picture many were hoping from Neveldine, Taylor and Cage, instead it's kind of both tedious and exhausting.

Unlike Fantastic Four or the Punisher, I don't think there's really a need for another Ghost Rider film to get it right.  He's such a niche character that doesn't fit into the cinematic superhero universe(s) that exist, there's not a whole lot of point to even trying again.  I don't know of any seminal Ghost Rider stories dying to be reinterpreted to the big screen (or even the small one).

Also, we need to seriously stop David Goyer from writing any more comic book movies.

(David's take)

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I didn't rewatch Man of Steel purposefully in advance of Batman v Superman, it was more to do with Sunday boredom and the desire to watch something big and superheroy.  In my original review of Man of Steel I said it was " a solid -- above-average even -- summer blockbuster, but a largely terrible Superman movie" and you know, I hold true to that statement.

Going into the rewatch of it knowing the events about to transpire, I found the film a lot more palatable the second time around.  Whereas I was angry with the mishandling of Superman during the first viewing, with the second viewing I was able to extract some things which they got right, or did well, such as the best interpretation of Krypton on screen so far, and some decent soul searching on Clark's part as to his place in the world.  I still have a hard time accepting the mismanagement of Superman in this film, mainly his inattention to the safety of civilians and property, but I have accepted the story's mismanagement of Jonathan and Martha Kent as explanation as to why this Superman is not as heroic as he should be.  It still sucks though, I'm just less angry about it.

I like Amy Adams as Lois, and Laurence Fishburne as Perry White, and I even like Russel Crowe (an actor I'm not terribly fond of) as Jor-El.  Michael Shannon makes a decidedly dangerous and complex Zod while Antje Traue is kick-ass as Faora, even if she has no real character.  Henry Cavill should be the definitive Superman, he's a likeable actor and undoubtedly pleasing to look at, impressively powerful and filling out the costume nicely.  Yet, he's not given a character worth liking all that much, which lies the problem in both films in which he's starred.

Once more, as I watched Man of Steel, I found it somewhat enjoyable and likeable, but time and distance and rumination and context tend to diminish my appreciation for it, especially in the wake of Batman v. Superman.   Once more Zack Snyder completely mishandled and misinterpreted the character, and instead of Man of Steel being a early misstep, it becomes the start of a pattern, a pattern of abuse put upon this character.  Snyder plays the abusive stepfather to the Superman legacy, forced to love it because he married into the Warner Brothers family, but he doesn't see in Superman a reflection of himself, and so he mistreats it, trying to force it to be more like him even though it resists, just trying to be itself.  Superman isn't his baby, and it's obvious he has trouble accepting the character for who he is.

Also, we really, really need to stop David Goyer from writing any more comic book movies.