"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Friday, April 27, 2018

Comic Book Movies 'R' Us

I have only one thing to say about "Avengers:  Infinity Wars," and it isn't about the movie.  It's about the reception to the movie.  And that one thing is:  "Star Wars."

I don't recall a great deal of criticism, then or now, to how "Star Wars" was serialized.  The first movie (now canonically the "third," but come one, that 9 movie trilogy of trilogies is never going to happen) ended with fanfare and celebration, all of which is wiped away at the beginning of "The Empire Strikes Back," which Vox notes almost in passing "and the next film more or less reversed all of that over the course of its running time."  The key to this is what keeps serialized movies going, and T.V. shows, and comic books.  Again, per Vox, but worth setting off as the key point here:

Most serialized television involves setting up big, epic changes that are then almost immediately reversed.
And I gotta say, that's more or less been accepted about "Star Wars," despite the clear problems of the continuity of the first three films, and the crap of the next three (I gave up after "Phantom Menace", which my daughter, then the age for those films, fell asleep in).  Characterization is terrible in "Star Wars" (it always has been; as Harrison Ford reportedly said to George Lucas during the first film's creation, "You can type this stuff, but you can't say it!"), and frankly continuity is not much better than in the MCU.  It seems there's always a big-bad to fight in a "Star Wars" movie, and whatever jubilation there is (as at the end of 1 and 3) is erased again by the next film (yeah, partly because of the discontinuity of the next three films, but it's also pretty much the way each film goes.  And don't get me started on the "Star Trek" movies after the cast of "TNG" stopped making them.  CGI has made it so easy to destroy the "Enterprise" it's become standard practice in every film.  How many of those massive ships does the Federation have in dry dock for the next movie's destruction?).  But the MCU gets the rap for it, rather than reviewers saying "Meh, that's how it is."

Because, especially in comic books but also in serialization, that is how it is.  The main difference is, the MCU is trying to make a slightly coherent universe (so the ultimate deus ex machina of Franklin Richards restoring the universe won't show up on film; then again, some god of the machine is going to have to, now.) and make the characters a bit more like real people (while keeping them, even the human beings, as super heroes).

Which, okay, there is a problem with the character of Tony Stark, who seems to be determined to quit saving the world at the end of each film, only to do it all again by the next film.  On the other hand, I still can't figure out how Leia is a princess and Luke is not a prince, and both have Darth Vader as a father, who is neither a prince nor a king.  What the hell?

While we're wandering away from the subject, frankly Thanos is one of the most interesting villains in the MCU (which reportedly has a villain problem; and they do dismiss villains with a vengeance, something more to do with movies than comic books.  In the latter, neither villains nor heroes ever die; in movies, ya gotta move on (the exception that proves the rule so far is the Joker at the end of "The Dark Knight," who is captured by the police.  Sadly, Heath Ledger could not return to that role, so the exception seals the rule, too, in a horrible way.)  I find him more sympathetic (if no less insane) than Killmonger in "Black Panther," whom reviewer after reviewer told me I'd sympathize with, even as I knew he was wrong.  It's interesting, because Thanos' ability to kill is on a scale Killmonger could never imagine.  Making villains on screen for comic book movies seems to be a problem no one has solved.  Zemo in "Captain America-Civil Wars" was one of the most interesting, but he died at the end.  Dr. Doom is one of the great comic book villains, but no one has found a way to bring his character to the screen and make him half the villain he is in print.  Then again, I can't figure out the praise and adoration for the screen version of Killmonger, so....*

Okay, more than one thing, or more than a few words, anyway.  But I'm detecting a pattern here.  I got married the year the first "Star Wars" movie dropped, and I never took it as more than a fun movie that had worn out its welcome by the third movie.  I've been watching the MCU movies (most of them) for 10 years largely because I grew up on Marvel Comics characters (though my favorites were SpiderMan and the Fantastic Four, and most of those movies have, frankly, sucked, especially for the latter group).  But the young adult reviewers now dissecting the MCU movies grew up on Luke Skywalker and Han Solo and Yoda and Jedis.  They seem to have a blindspot for them that doesn't apply to the MCU; or maybe it's because the MCU has struggled so hard to connect these movies into a common universe, and "Star Wars" has just established a mish-mosh galactic government where princesses and senators are both elected officials (huh?) and there's an Emperor to be the bad guys, and magic and swords and ray guns and space ships, and frankly the emotional underpinnings are really not much better than this:

It’s when you step back and take a look across the studio’s many movies that they start to feel a little more hollow, a little more like an adolescent understanding of complex emotions that a teen would just barely be starting to grasp (which may be one reason the character of Peter Parker has been handled genuinely well across several different movies).

But in one set of movies its the emotional underpinnings they grew up with, and in the other set of movies it's CGI that made them possible (well, that and acting).  Then again, how many action movies do engage "little more than an adolescent understanding of complex emotions"?  How many Hollywood movies do that, to be frank?  I saw "Phantom Thread" and it engaged all manner of complex emotions, but it was not an action movie and it didn't involve comic book characters.   And it was a rarity for the emotions it did evoke, or at least try to.  Besides, I can name several MCU movies that give more play to complex emotions (within the action movie limits, admittedly) than almost any of the "Star Wars" movies.

I mean, honestly.

Comic books love to develop massive crises that involve cosmic conflicts and massive conclusions, and lots of inside stuff, which made "Avengers: Infinity Wars" almost inevitable (and let's be picky and note the only "war" in the film is at the doorstep of Wakanda).  I'm listening to a podcast on Slate** where they talk about the title card "SPACE" showing up in the movie when the Guardians of the Galaxy appear, and that's meant to be a joke.  The joke is that each Guardians movie uses title cards to identify the planets the action is about to take place on, usually with some numbers meant to represent coordinates.  If you haven't seen those films, you miss that; then again, if you haven't seen the films, you miss the story here altogether.  But if you haven't seen "Star Wars" you've been living under a rock not to recognize "Han Solo" and "Luke Skywalker" and "Darth Vader" and "C3PO" (At least I know those; I've been under a rock since).  So where's the rub, again?

Now in comics there already was an "Infinity War", twice apparently, one ending with half the universe destroyed and that restored by the child of Reed and Sue Richards (or so I read somewhere).  Then there was the death of Superman (covered in "B v. S" and "Justice League" in the movies), which created six different heroes to replace the Man of Steel, one of whom proves an enemy to the resurrected Superman.  Following that, Batman's back was broken by Bane (again, "The Dark Knight Rises") and he had to spend lots of comic book time recovering.  Villains and heroes can't die, however, so the conflicts go on forever. Movies can't do that, and so you get comic book movies where villains die and heroes don't; although some do, when they get tired to playing that character.

And there we are.

But really:  is the MCU that much more disjointed and poorly drawn than the "Star Wars" universe?

*SPOILER, so I'm gonna put it down here; but is no one (I listened to an hour long Slate podcast, and no mention of this) gonna talk about the scene where Thanos does snap his fingers to fulfill his mad dream, and he's transported to a place rather like where Harry went when Voldermort killed him, but Thanos meets his infant daughter Gamora (whom he sacrificed for power, or a stone, anyway) and she asks him what his victory cost:  "Everything," he replies, and she says "Good."  I think the story of the whole movie rests in that tiny space (he is snapped back to Wakanda, where his wish starts to come true, so it was a vision, not an alternate reality).  No, really.

**MORE SPOILERS, if you're really interested in the movie and don't want any.  Not for the first time do I wonder about critics and what movies they see, v. the movie I've just seen.  No, not that scene at the end after Thanos snaps his fingers; but at the beginning.  The movie opens with a voice-over distress call, which we soon see (without seeing anyone sending the message; maybe that's the problem!) is from a ship full of dead people, which we soon figure out is the ship with the Asgardians from "Thor: Ragnarok" (which means two great comic characters are dead!  Korg and Meek, we hardly knew ye!).  They are dead because Thanos has arrived, looking for an Infinity Stone  Later, the G of the G enter the story, responding to that distress call, where they pick up Thor (after we've seen Thanos blow the Asgardian ship to smithereens, as we said in my feckless youth).  The "critics" on the podcast think it a great hole of a plot point that the G of the G just happen to show up where Thor is floating in space waiting to smash on their windshield (space ships have windshields?) like a bug on the freeway, and they can't figure out how Thor got there or why Thanos didn't kill Thor outright.

Although no one apparently survives that explosion except Thor, and the G of the G are there because of...the distress call!  Coming from the ship that has since blown up, leaving one survivor!

No, it's not genius plotting, but it is pretty clear how A gets to C, and yet....

These things that pass for knowledge I don't understand.


Blogger The Thought Criminal said...

I think they should do a movie about people who buy the things they used to advertise in comic books. Though maybe they don't sell x-ray glasses and sea-monkeys in them now. Haven't seen once since the early 1960s, they weren't allowed in our house so I only saw them at the barber shop. I moved on to looking at the newspaper about 1962.

I still wouldn't go see it but the lack of special effects might force them to come up with a story about characters. I saw clips of Black Panther, not tempted to see it.

It makes me think of what Groucho said about the educational potential of television.

9:37 AM  
Blogger Rmj said...

Alright, I had to look that one up:

"I must say I find television very educational. The minute somebody turns it on, I go to the library and read a good book."

These movies are candy, no question about it. I'm fine with that, just annoyed at the lack of consistency in what passes for movie reviews. If you don't know Luke Skywalker is Vader's son and Leia's brother, how do you watch "Star Wars"? And yet it is assumed EVERYONE knows that. But if you don't know the movie story of these characters, that's one movie's fault? Huh?

I'm not sure why books can exist in a universe where characters are effected by previous stories (lots of examples of that in pulp fiction and mystery novels, etc.), but movies can't. Unless we ALL know about Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot and Philip Marlowe.

I really don't mind some stories depending on a complex of stories to be comprehensible in one movie. The worst part about movies can be exposition, especially in super-hero origin movies. How many times to do we need to see Krypton blow up or Bruce Wayne lose his parents?

It's always something, isn't it? Especially about things that don't really matter.

I have a good book around here somewhere.....

10:34 AM  
Blogger rick allen said...

So long as you've mentioned Star Wars, I will raise what I consider a world-historical outrage (this from one of the five or six movie-goers who actually liked Jar-Jar):

One of my favorite scenes from the series was the (admittedly soon-forgotten) Ewok celebration scene at the end of The Return of the Jedi. We actually had the record and would play what we called the "nuk-nuk" song, a classic tune beginning with the unforgettable line, "Nuk-nuk! Ewok ee whoa-ho-o-wah!"

Enter the age of DVD, when we purchased a special three-DVD set of the first three (Oh, I forgot, episodes four through six) movies, and whoever produced them felt compelled to "improve" these movies with a few additional scenes of CGI (the first Star Wars was done, amazingly, with miniatures and models). Well, grind teeth and put up with it.

But then we get to the end of Return of the Jedi. AND THE NUK-NUK SONG IS GONE!!!! (sorry for shouting). It apparently wasn't serious enough for someone. I was so dazed I hardly noticed the substitution of a different Garth (no, no, DARTH) in the final Affirming Ghosts scene.

6:03 PM  
Blogger Rmj said...

Yeah, they've mucked about with scenes in ST:TOS, too, "improving" the special effects and destroying an important record of my childhood. Not as bad as messing with the Ewoks song (for that I have to go to the songs added to JCS in the NBC live show, all of them BAD!), but I feel your pain. Me and Bill, we both do.

6:36 PM  

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