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Archive for December, 2012

Marvel Movies Project: Spider-Man

Spider-Man (2002) movie poster

Who am I? You sure you wanna know? The story of my life is not for the faint of heart. If somebody said it was a happy little tale, if somebody told you I was just your average ordinary guy, not a care in the world … somebody lied.

So begins Spider-Man (2002), the absolutely excellent first film about Marvel’s flagship costumed character. But let me assure you: this film, like most superhero films worth watching, is all about the man behind the mask. In this case, that man is Peter Parker, played by Tobey Maguire. Peter, aside from being a superhero, is also a nerdy high school student who lives with his elderly aunt and uncle. One day during a school science field trip, Peter is bitten by a genetically-enhanced spider and develops many spider-like abilities. After inadvertently causing the death of his beloved Uncle Ben through inaction, Peter decides to use his powers for good. Uncle Ben’s words — “With great power comes great responsibility” — become Spider-Man’s crime-fighting mantra. Meanwhile, Peter must also deal with more normal problems, such as the fact that he’s in love with the girl next door. That girl, Mary Jane Watson (oh, boy), is unfortunately also admired by more popular and less geeky guys like the school bully Flash Thompson and Peter’s best friend, Harry Osborn, whose father Norman is not only a billionaire scientist, but also Peter’s arch-nemesis, the Green Goblin.

Spider-Man was easily Marvel’s biggest hit to this point — in fact, it is still the third-highest grossing Marvel movie ever: it made over $800 million worldwide, more than double X-Men‘s gross. And yet, despite the massive success that seemed inevitable given the character’s status as one of the most universally-known superheroes in the world, the movie took a long time to get made.

(As an aside, I wonder which superheroes have the greatest name recognition among the general, non-comic-book-reading public. I have always considered Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man to be a sort of “big three,” with Wonder Woman and the Hulk likely rounding out the top five and Wolverine floating just at the edge of the list. I hesitate to put him in the top five only because my mother, who is probably a pretty good representative of the average person who knows superheroes from their work outside comics, saw a picture of him and had no idea who he was. But of course, the Marvel movies may have changed some of these rankings. You’d have to think Iron Man is pretty well-recognized by now, possibly eclipsing the dormant-outside-comics Wonder Woman among a younger audience. Anyway.)

Like the story of Peter Parker’s life, the story of how Spider-Man came to the big screen is not for the faint of heart. There’s an interesting summary of all the drama at io9, but here are a few of the main points: Marvel had sold the film rights to the character as early as the 1970s. Roger Corman bought Spidey’s rights in 1982, then James Cameron was involved in the early 90s. A few years later, there were lawsuits over which of the several companies who thought they owned the rights actually did: ultimately, it was Marvel. But they sold the rights again — for good, this time (so far) — to Sony in 1999, at which point production finally got started.

I have a book called Spider-Man Confidential: From Comic Icon to Hollywood Hero by Edward Gross. Gross has put together a timeline of developments during the production of Spider-Man, which includes the names of the many actors who were at various points rumoured to be up for the role of Peter Parker. It is a mind-boggling list; some of the possibilities open up a whole world of “what if?” scenarios. A few examples: Jason Schwartzman, Wes Bentley, Nicholas Brendon, Freddie Prinze Jr., Heath Ledger (who was offered the role and turned it down), and Leonardo DiCaprio. In Daredevil #16 from May 2001, Peter Parker looks uncannily like DiCaprio; I’ve often wondered if this was a consequence of the casting rumours. Maybe not, though, because Tobey Maguire was confirmed to have been cast in July 2000. Kirsten Dunst, cast in December 2000, was the last piece of the main cast to be put in place, and filming began in January 2001. The movie was released at long last in May 2002.

This isn’t a perfect movie. The fact that both the hero and the villain wear masks takes away somewhat from their early confrontations. The film also doesn’t do a good job of showing Spider-Man’s wisecracking side.

But those small flaws aside, it’s pretty awesome. Right from the opening credits, featuring Danny Elfman’s excellent score, to the closing credits with the only semi-decent song Chad Kroeger was ever involved in, it is a thoroughly entertaining and satisfying experience. The script has a great balance of comedy and more serious moments, plus it includes some fun stuff like the montage of New Yorkers talking about who they think Spider-Man might be with the nod to the “Spider-Man, Spider-Man” theme tune. Peter’s crush on the unattainable Mary Jane makes for an engaging love story, and the pair’s upside down rain kiss has of course become legendary (even being re-created on one of my favourite TV shows). Sam Raimi’s direction is spectacular: he and the visual effects team bring Spidey to life perfectly in all his webslinging glory.

The early part of the film where Peter is discovering his new abilities is one of the most irresistibly fun sequences in the history of movies; the scenes of Peter chasing down the man who killed his uncle are also excellent. The film so effectively portrays the euphoria of his first climb up the building, and then later, the fear mixed with excitement as he goes after the thief. It also captures the kind of hokey 1960s tone of the early Spidey comics very, very well. It is a completely earnest movie about a good kid who just wants to be responsible. Aunt May and Uncle Ben are like a wonderful pair of kindly, good, old-fashioned grandparents. Peter and Mary Jane’s romance is sweet and innocent, and some of their dialogue is, uh … “corny” seems like an understatement — but it works with the tone of the movie. The purity (for lack of a better word) of their young love is juxtaposed against the ugly and rather disturbing back alley attack on Mary Jane and Norman/the Goblin’s disgusting sexual comments about her.

Willem Dafoe was a solid choice to play Norman — he plays the crazy well. The entire cast is great: James Franco makes Harry pathetic but still likable; Rosemary Harris and Cliff Robertson as May and Ben are the salt of the earth; J.K. Simmons is J. Jonah Jameson from the old 1960s Spider-Man cartoon brought to life; and Kirsten Dunst brings a lot of depth to Mary Jane, whose party girl persona is clearly a cover for the serious low self-esteem issues arising from her home life. I am also a huge fan of Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker. He was basically typecast in “wide-eyed innocent” roles at this point and it serves him well here, in portraying both a hero trying to find his way and a young man whose unaffected admiration makes the girl he loves feel good about herself. Plus, he’s superbly geeky, and much closer to what I’d expect Peter Parker to be like than Andrew Garfield was in The Amazing Spider-Man this year.

I must admit, it’s been a pet peeve of mine that people seem to be so very dismissive of the original Spider-Man now that the completely unnecessary remake “reboot” is out. We all loved this movie for good reason when we first saw it and it has aged well, too. The effects still look good, Sam Raimi is still a great director, and Spider-Man is still the best, most amazing Spider-Man origin movie.

Though, it’s not quite the best Spider-Man movie ever — we’ll talk about that one in a few weeks.

Since I’ve been blogging about Marvel movies …

Marvel tweeted about the “epic” new poster for the upcoming The Wolverine today. All I can say is:

Spider-Man 3 vs. The Wolverine

Really? Someone thought this was a good idea?

Marvel Movies Project: Blade II

The third film in the Marvel Movies Project is also the first of many Marvel sequels: Blade II (2002), in which we rejoin Blade and Whistler in a new adventure.

Blade II movie poster

Yes, Whistler, thought dead at the end of Blade, actually sort of survived his self-inflicted gunshot wound. Sort of, because Whistler is now a vampire and being held captive by some other vampires. Blade’s first order of business in Blade II is to find him and administer what I assume is the cure for vampirism developed by Karen in Blade. Once Whistler is back in action, he, Blade, and their new ally Scud — who, in Whistler’s absence, has taken over as Blade’s weapons guy, but he’s younger so he knows more about technology — are approached by a group of elite vampire assassins called the Bloodpack who want to join forces with them in order to defeat a new breed of super vampire called Reapers. Why are these vampires interested in killing other vampires? Well, because the Reapers feed on regular vampires. A further twist: the Bloodpack was formed with the purpose of killing Blade himself. Awkward.

Having decided that the Reapers are a worse scourge on humanity than the regular vamps, Blade teams up with this squad of people who want him dead. One of their leaders is Nyssa (played by Leonor Varela, the original Marta from Arrested Development), a scientist vampire who is the daughter of a vampire nobleman. Nyssa, it turns out, is pretty nice for a vampire. She’s also pretty pretty, and she becomes the closest thing Blade has to a love interest this time around. Nyssa is a fairly interesting character; she’s a scientist, she’s a good soul, and she makes a daring decision to go against her father and sacrifice her own life at the end of the film. But, she’s no Karen Jenson from Blade. I don’t understand why Karen didn’t make it to the sequel. I liked her.

Anyways, Blade and the Bloodpack discover that sunlight is the only conventional vampire-killing method that works on the Reapers. With help from a sunlight bomb developed by Scud, they start taking out the super vamps. There is a very long sewer battle sequence, and then it is revealed that the Reapers are actually a creation of Nyssa’s father Damaskinos, who has been conducting genetic experiments with the goal of creating a vampire without weaknesses. (Another result of his experiments: a bunch of vampire fetuses in jars. Ewww.) Blade’s blood, naturally, would be of great use to Damaskinos in this project so, just as he did in Blade, our hero finds himself being bled. After being rescued by Whistler, Blade takes a dip in a blood pool and emerges even more awesome than before. Carnage ensues, the Reapers are defeated, and Blade goes back to killing regular vampires. Bonus: the elite squad of killer vampires specifically created to kill Blade has been completely eliminated through a combination of Reaper activity, suicide, and being killed by Blade.

Maybe it’s just the fact that I love Buffy, but I spotted some Buffy similarities in Blade II, just as I did in Blade — the main one being that the super vamps are quite similar to the uber vamps in Buffy‘s regrettable seventh season. Blade II came out in March 2002; Buffy season seven started in September of the same year. Perhaps Blade II provided some inspiration for the Buffy team. In what may be a gesture of solidarity between slayers, Blade II seems to pay tribute Blade’s little sis: I can’t help feeling Blade’s sword-grabbing power shot is a nod to the almost identical shot of Buffy from “Becoming, Part 2” (an episode which also features a character named Whistler).

Blade and Buffy take matters into their own hands.

But it could be my imagination.

The other thing with obvious ties to Blade II is Hellboy: Guillermo del Toro directed both movies; Ron Perlman, who played Hellboy, also plays Blade’s Bloodpack nemesis Reinhardt (he’s the one holding the sword) in Blade II; Hellboy creator Mike Mignola was a concept artist on Blade II; and Scud wears a B.P.R.D. t-shirt throughout the movie.

I didn’t think Blade II was quite as good as Blade, but it has its moments of greatness. The last half hour or so, after Blade regains his full strength and starts kicking ass again, is the best part. Wesley Snipes, it must be said, is a total badass, and his performance is definitely one of the highlights of the Blade films.

By contrast, there is very little badassery involved in the performance of the lead actor in our next Marvel movie, which came out less than two months after Blade II in 2002: it’s Spider-Man, the first film to feature the wall-crawling character who is probably Marvel’s most popular creation (and my personal favourite).

Marvel Movies Project: X-Men

In my first Marvel Movies Project post about Blade, I noted that it was partly Blade the character’s relative obscurity that made Blade the film’s success such a positive step for Marvel on film: if even Blade, 1970s Vampire Hunter, could sell tickets, surely some of Marvel’s really popular characters would do even better.

Enter the X-Men, dominant characters in the world of comics — according to Marvel, they were selling about 30 million X-Men-related comics every year by the time the first film based on the characters was being produced — and beyond: a very popular animated series based on the X-Men comics ran on Fox Kids from 1992 to 1997. According to Wikipedia, it was at least in part the success of the cartoon that inspired 20th Century Fox to buy the film rights to the characters in 1993.

X-Men (2000)

The resulting film was released in 2000. And Fox definitely got the bang they expected from their buck: the world’s most beloved team of mutants’ first foray onto the big screen grossed $54 million on its opening weekend, making poor old Blade‘s previously impressive $70 million total US box office look like a pittance. Ultimately, X-Men brought in about $296 million worldwide, which, okay, doesn’t even put it in the top 10 Marvel movies anymore. But at the time, it was a big deal.

The movie, directed by Bryan Singer, presents the ideological conflict between two mutant leaders who are also old friends: Magneto (the awesome Ian McKellen) and Professor Charles Xavier (the also awesome Patrick Stewart). Magneto, much like Deacon Frost in Blade, wants to see humans subjugated to a superior race — in this case, mutants. He believes regular humans will never accept mutants, so mutants must claim their rightful place in the world by force. Professor Xavier, meanwhile, remains hopeful that someday mutants and humans can coexist in peace and wants to to work with human leaders to achieve that goal. Professor X runs a school for “gifted” (mutant) children, where the teachers include X-Men team members Scott “Cyclops” Summers, Jean Grey, and Ororo “Storm” Munroe. Wolverine and Rogue come to the school after the X-Men rescue them from an attack by Magneto’s crew. Eventually, the team realizes that Magneto has a plan to turn many world leaders into mutants — and that Rogue is the key piece in his plan.

I re-watched X-Men last week for this project, but — unlike Blade, which I hadn’t watched since it first came out — I’ve seen the movie several times. In fact, X-Men was one of the DVDs I bought on the day I bought my first DVD player (along with The Matrix and season one of Buffy), which is to say that I really like this film. I think it does a great job of introducing the viewer to the world of mutants by showing Magneto and Rogue’s frightening origin stories. The furtive look that passes between Rogue and Wolverine at the bar in Alberta when the story about mutants is on TV also tells us a lot about the kind of secrecy and shame mutants have to deal with. I like the relationship between Rogue and Wolverine as it’s portrayed in the movie. Anna Paquin and Hugh Jackman have good chemistry and both do some nice work with their characters.

Speaking of Hugh Jackman: he has to be considered one of the best Marvel movie actors. I can’t prove this, but I’m going to go ahead and say everyone loves Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. Why? Because despite being a full foot taller than Wolverine, and despite doing a lot of musical theatre, which I can’t help feeling Wolverine would disapprove of (I, on the other hand, can’t wait to see Les Mis), and despite not actually being Canadian (a serious flaw) — despite having all those obstacles to overcome … he’s bloody fantastic. Plus, he’s played the role five times so far (including his best-part-of-the-movie two-second cameo in X-Men: First Class) with two more projects in development, according to IMDb (The Wolverine, which is in production now, and the First Class sequel X-Men: Days of Future Past). That, my friends — that is dedication.

Thumbs up for Hugh Jackman.

One of the truly interesting pieces of X-Men movie trivia is how close we came to being deprived of this extended run of cinematic excellence. Russell Crowe, soon to be seen as Jackman’s nemesis in Les Misérables, was originally offered the role of Wolverine, but he wanted too much money so they went with Dougray Scott. From Entertainment Weekly:

Singer […] was set to roll last summer [1999]. Then came the monkey wrenches. First there was Fox’s decision to move X-Men from Xmas 2000 up to July 14, putting pressure on Singer to get the film into postproduction as quickly as possible, since it required more than 500 special effects. Complicating matters was actor Dougray Scott, originally cast as Wolverine, whose availability became increasingly doubtful as shooting on M:I-2 ran long. Singer was forced to start filming in September without him, and ultimately Scott had to drop out. It wasn’t until late October that Singer got Scott’s replacement: Hugh Jackman, a charismatic Aussie coming off Trevor Nunn’s acclaimed London stage production of Oklahoma!

There is probably some horrific, Fringe-like alternative timeline in which Fox never moved up the release date and now Dougray Scott is playing Jean Valjean.