Nothing But Memory
Archive for March, 2013

Marvel Movies Project: Punisher: War Zone

Movie poster for Punisher: War Zone (2008).

Like The Incredible Hulk, Punisher: War Zone (2008) is a reboot. Thomas Jane is out as Frank Castle, replaced by Ray Stevenson. In The Punisher, Castle was an undercover cop whose entire family, including his wife and son, was killed in revenge for the death of a mobster’s son; in this version of events, Castle’s wife and two children are murdered after the family witnesses a mob execution during the worst family picnic ever.

Also like The Incredible Hulk, though, Punisher: War Zone largely skips over its protagonist’s origin story, only providing bits and pieces through explanatory dialogue and some brief flashbacks. Again, we get the feeling we’re supposed to come into the movie with prior knowledge of who this guy is and an understanding of his mission statement. That mission, of course, is killing criminals — specifically, the members of mafia crime families.

Enter Dominic West doing a very bad Italian-American accent as “Bobby the Beaut,” an extremely vain mobster who falls into a vat of broken glass; due to the resulting facial scarring, he renames himself Jigsaw. He and his brother, Loony Bin Jim (Dough Hutchison, who will always be Tooms from The X-Files to me), are the cartoonishly horrible bad guys in this film. First Omar shows up in The Incredible Hulk, now we’ve got McNulty in this movie: The Wire fan in me is loving this trend. Speaking of classic HBO, I’ve been having a bit of a Sopranos marathon lately, which made the mobsters in this movie feel even more exaggerated than they already are.

In a raid on one of Bobby/Jigsaw’s hideouts, The Punisher accidentally kills an undercover FBI agent. He feels immensely guilty over this and tries to make up for it by protecting the agent’s wife and daughter when Jigsaw’s crew goes after them. In an interesting bit of casting, Julie Benz, known to many as Rita from Dexter (and also Darla from Buffy and Angel), plays the wife. Dexter Morgan, the serial killer who only kills criminals who escape justice, is of course very similar to The Punisher in a lot of ways. (Ray Stevenson has also appeared on Dexter since this film was made.)

My main complaint about the first Punisher movie was that it made almost no attempt to deal with the character’s moral ambiguity. Punisher: War Zone does a slightly better job of at least raising the issue, but ultimately it pretty much lets him off the hook, with Benz’s character telling him he’s “one of the good guys” and an ending that seems to compare Frank Castle to Jesus!? Right then. It occurs to me that Dexter might provide a good model for any future Punisher-related projects. The show is masterful at making the audience think of Dexter as the hero while also reminding us how messed up it is that we think of him that way. Both Punisher movies have leaned too close to the side of glorifying him for my taste.

This one is also a little too violent for me. Never before have I seen a movie with so many exploding heads in it. I am generally not that bothered by violence, but this was excessive to the point that I felt a little sick to my stomach. I also feel this film suffers from the same mixed tone issues that sunk Daredevil. On the one hand, Frank Castle is the dark, broody, stoic hero. On the other hand, the villains are all totally outlandish. It doesn’t quite gel.

Apparently, the movie rights for The Punisher are now back with Marvel and there are plans to put him on screen in some form again, or at least there were in 2010. Call me crazy, but I think it would be possible to do a really excellent, high class Punisher movie or TV series. I’d use Dexter as a model, and I’d go with a more serious tone: No Country for Old Men comes to mind as something to emulate. (Ok, maybe I really am crazy.)

Alternatively, get Quentin Tarantino to direct the next one. That’s a match made in heaven right there.

Marvel Movies Project: The Incredible Hulk

Movie poster for The Incredible Hulk (2008).

The second Marvel Studios project is The Incredible Hulk (2008), starring Edward Norton as Bruce Banner, Liv Tyler as Betty Ross, William Hurt as General Thunderbolt Ross, and Tim Roth as Blonsky, a soldier who eventually turns into something even more … abominable than the Hulk. This film has no connection to Ang Lee’s father-focused Hulk from 2003, which we have already discussed. Marvel reacquired the film rights to the character around 2006 because Universal failed to start production on a sequel to Hulk on time.

So The Incredible Hulk is a reboot of sorts, though not quite: it seems to work on the assumption that the audience already knows the main characters and therefore doesn’t spend time introducing them. It also mostly skips over the Hulk’s origin in a science experiment gone wrong, showing it quickly in the opening credits.

That said, the origin story does have serious plot implications, and it’s rather different this time around: in Hulk, Bruce Banner is working on independent research on regeneration of cells for medical purposes; in The Incredible Hulk, the military was attempting to use Banner’s experiments to re-create the super soldier serum that produced Captain America, although Banner himself was not aware of the true purpose of the project. This idea of the dangers of military application, or perhaps appropriation, of superhero-related research ties in to what we’ve just seen in Iron Man via Tony Stark’s ideological conflict with Obadiah Stane.

Mostly, though, The Incredible Hulk is a monster movie which recalls classics of sci-fi like Frankenstein (Mr. Blue refers to his scientific research as “Promethean fire,” an image which goes back to Mary Shelley), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (incidentally, the last movie I saw before I watched this was the 1931 version of Jekyll and Hyde starring Fredric March — appropriate), and Godzilla. At least, I for one thought of Godzilla as I watched Abomination rampaging down a New York street. (The other thing I thought as I watched that scene is, hey, was that Omar?

It IS Omar!

Yep, that random bystander in the brightly-coloured shirt is in fact Michael Kenneth Williams. Huh. “Abomination! Abomination is coming, yo!”)

The Incredible Hulk is a decent enough movie — better than Hulk, which, granted, doesn’t say much — but nothing earthshattering. I thought Edward Norton was a good choice to play Bruce Banner, but I was actually a little disappointed with his performance and I suppose with the direction of the film. It would have been interesting to see Banner as a man constantly on the edge of snapping — a type of performance I think Norton would have done great things with; instead, this Banner is a scared weakling, and I don’t know that we ever feel his rage.

To me, this movie’s place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe canon became a bit questionable when Edward Norton was booted from The Avengers and replaced with Mark Ruffalo. Now it’s sort of the awkward movie that’s still part of the continuity, but somehow doesn’t really count. If they do another Hulk movie, presumably they’ll recast Betty and General Ross again, too.

Whether they’re going to do another Hulk movie at all is still up for debate: Mark Ruffalo tweeted about it a few times last week, noting that while there are currently no plans to feature the Hulk in anything other than Avengers 2, there are no concrete plans not to do another solo Hulk movie either. Ruffalo apparently signed a six movie deal with Marvel. That seems to suggest something will happen … at some point. Joss Whedon seems to have big things in mind for the Hulk in Avengers 2, but has also noted he feels the character is “the most difficult Marvel property” to build a movie around.

The big green guy can be pretty awesome as a supporting character, though, as we shall see in a few movies’ time.

Marvel Movies Project: Iron Man

For this project so far, I’ve watched 16 movies, all of which were produced by other studios which had purchased the movie rights to Marvel characters. These 16 movies combined for a total worldwide box office gross of almost $5.5 billion, but only a tiny portion of their profits went to Marvel: for example, according to Sean Howe’s book Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, Marvel earned about $75 million from Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2, which made $1.6 billion at the box office. This article from Fortune has more details on how little money Marvel actually saw from these films.

So. You’re Marvel. You see everyone else making a crapton of money off your stuff. Not to mention, it would be nice to have more creative control because, let’s face it: nobody knows these characters better than you. What do you do? Well …

Marvel Studios Logo

You make your own darn movie studio of course! It’s actually a pretty interesting setup they’ve got. As I understand it, in 2004, Marvel essentially received a loan of $525 million to make, over a period of 8 years, 10 movies based on characters to which it still owned the film rights. These movies would be distributed by Paramount. If the movies failed and Marvel was unable to pay back its loans, the film rights for 10 Marvel characters — specifically: Ant-Man, The Avengers, Black Panther, Captain America, Cloak & Dagger, Nick Fury, Hawkeye, Power Pack, Shang-Chi, and Dr. Strange — would go to the insurance company which agreed to cover the debt. (There are more details on the arrangement here.)

Quite a bet to make. Although you can argue that maybe characters like Cloak & Dagger and Power Pack aren’t among Marvel’s most valuable intellectual property, losing Captain America and The Avengers would certainly have been a blow. Marvel has quite a lot riding on the success of this venture.

In May 2008, the first Marvel Studios project was released:

Movie poster for Iron Man (2008).

Iron Man tells the story of Tony Stark, genius billionaire playboy philanthropist arms manufacturer who gets a taste of what his company has wrought on the world when he’s attacked during a visit to Afghanistan by terrorists using Stark weapons. The attack leaves Stark badly wounded, with pieces of shrapnel in his blood and only a magnetic chest plate keeping him alive, and imprisoned by the terrorists, who demand that he build them their own version of his latest high-tech missile. With the help of his fellow prisoner, Yinsen, Stark instead builds a suit of body armour which allows him to escape his captors. His experience leads him to turn over a new leaf: he halts production on his company’s weapons, and instead dedicates himself and the company to working on clean energy sources as well as a better version of the body armour he built in Afghanistan. He faces problems from inside the company, however, as his partner Obadiah Stane is not on board with Tony’s new vision.

In the current context of debates about the US’s use of unmanned drones, Iron Man feels rather topical: at one point Tony hears his friend Rhodey discussing whether the future of air combat is with manned or unmanned planes. Rhodey doesn’t believe a drone — a plane without a pilot — could ever match a pilot’s instincts; in response, Tony muses “Why not a pilot without the plane?” Indeed, that’s pretty much what he builds with the Iron Man armour, which places the wearer in the centre of combat, unlike drone controllers, who may be thousands of miles away controlling things via satellite. As demonstrated when Tony returns to Afghanistan to fight the terrorists who abducted him, the suit allows its pilot to have an incredible level of control over its targeting systems. No collateral damage here.

Thought-provoking commentary aside, Iron Man is, at its arc reactor powered heart, basically a movie about a guy building a cool metal suit. And it’s awesome. All the scenes of Tony Stark planning and testing and building and rebuilding work really well. This is largely thanks to Robert Downey Jr., whose energy and personality make the whole thing seem like an incredible amount of fun.

Downey was the perfect choice to play Tony Stark (I’ve always thought he’d be a decent Dr. Strange, too, but this is better) and he gives one of the great comic book movie performances here. Tony is arrogant and childish, but RDJ makes him seem like a charming rogue whose change of heart is totally believable. He has great chemistry with Gwyneth Paltrow — whom I don’t normally like, but she’s quite good as Pepper — and he’s very funny. Marvel owes the guy a huge debt of gratitude: if Iron Man had failed, it could have been disastrous for the whole Marvel Studios venture. But it did not ($585 million worldwide box office), and it owes much of its success to Robert Downey Jr.’s excellence.

Tony Stark in Iron Man (2008).

Iron Man also boasts a killer ending: rather than going with the prepared story that Iron Man is a bodyguard, Tony goes off-script during a press conference and reveals “I am Iron Man.” The end. It’s a good thing they ended the movie there because I’m not sure I could have taken anymore awesomeness.

Except: “I’m here to talk to you about the Avenger Initiative.” Wait, WHAT!? Does that mean … are they really … ????

Oh … holy … CRAP!!

Marvel Movies Project: Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer

Movie poster for Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007).

Well, this is something of a milestone in the Marvel Movies Project: Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007) is the first one of these movies I had never seen before. I’m not sure why I didn’t go see it at the time, but it’s possible my disappointment with Spider-Man 3, released just a month earlier, had something to do with it.

We rejoin the FF an unspecified amount of time after the first film. The people all seem much the same, but relationships have progressed: Reed and Sue are trying (repeatedly) to get married, Ben and Alicia have become a serious couple, and Reed, Sue, Ben, and Johnny have settled into the routine of being the Fantastic Four and saving the world on a regular basis. They are truly a team now; even Johnny, once the rebel of the bunch, is committed to the group identity.

When Johnny overhears Reed and Sue talking about giving up the superhero life after their wedding to try to raise a family, he takes it hard. There isn’t much by way of character development in this movie, but Johnny has the closest thing to a character arc as we see some cracks in his bravado and get indications that the Torch may actually be growing up. Although this is somewhat interesting, the downside is that it makes him a bit less funny. His humour was Fantastic Four‘s main asset and Rise of the Silver Surfer suffers from a lack of it.

The film’s plot sees the Fantastic Four recruited by the government to help deal with the threat posed by the mysterious Silver Surfer, who is flying around the planet creating bizarre weather and giant craters and also making Johnny’s molecules unstable, causing him to swap powers hilariously with other team members when he touches them. The team eventually discovers that, despite all the chaos he causes, the Surfer is not himself the threat: he is merely the herald of Galactus, the devourer of worlds, who is on his way to consume planet Earth.

In the movie, Galactus is portrayed as a sort of giant cloud-like thing. Comic book readers may be familiar with him in a rather different form. Apparently, the filmmakers made him this way to preserve the impact of revealing Galactus’ true appearance for a future Silver Surfer spinoff movie, which of course never happened — at least, not yet. J. Michael Straczynski had written a script at one point, but it was abandoned, and as far as I can tell there’s nothing concrete in the works in terms of a Silver Surfer movie right now. However, we know from reading the Marvel Movies Project post about Daredevil that Fox declined to trade the rights to the Surfer and Galactus back to Marvel in exchange for keeping the rights to Daredevil, so it seems a future Silver Surfer movie shouldn’t be ruled out.

Anyway, the Surfer, who never tried to stop Galactus before but wants to this time because Sue reminds him of his one true love, turns out to be an ally against Galactus. Unfortunately, Victor von Doom does not: after shocking the FF by being still alive, Doom completes the evil comeback by stealing the surfboard which is the source of much of the Surfer’s power. The only way the Fantastic Four can defeat Doom is by taking advantage of Johnny’s unstable molecules and giving him all their combined powers. With that boost, Johnny takes Victor down, thus paradoxically demonstrating the power of teamwork through solo action. The Surfer gets his board back and defeats Galactus, and Sue and Reed finally have their wedding.

I didn’t dislike this movie, but I can’t say that I enjoyed it as much as I did the first one. The humour is not as strong and the team doesn’t have quite the same dysfunctional energy that made them so fun to watch the first time around.

It seems this was the last big screen go-round for this particular Fantastic Four team; Chris Evans has obviously moved on to bigger and way better Marvel pursuits, and Fox’s so far castless upcoming Fantastic Four franchise reboot is scheduled to be released on March 6, 2015. That one’s been in the news lately: last week it was reported that Seth Grahame-Smith, author of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, has completed a “polish” of the film’s script. Mark Millar, who is working on the reboot as a consultant, has been hyping the project:

“What I wasn’t expecting actually was just how funny and likeable he could make this as well as getting the more awesome moments on screen — I use awesome in the traditional British sense and not the California sense awesome, you know? The Ridley Scott moments, and the Fantastic Four really are jaw-dropping in the same way you feel when you saw Alien for the first time. There’s some moments in this — not to be specific — that are actually gonna be phenomenal on screen and stuff you haven’t seen in a superhero movie before.”

He probably doesn’t mean the Fantastic Four reboot is going to be a terrifying space horror movie featuring a pointy-toothed alien monster and creatures bursting from the FF’s chests, but that’s all I can imagine now.

Marvel Movies Project: Spider-Man 3

Movie poster for Spider-Man 3 (2007).

Given my extreme love of/obsession with Spider-Man 2, I was just about ready to burst with anticipation for Spider-Man 3 back in 2007. I’m sure I drove everyone around me crazy talking about it, counting down to it, analysing the trailers and ads … oh boy. My excitement took a hit when I first saw the ad which revealed that it was actually Flint Marko, the Sandman, who’d killed Uncle Ben, and not the thief we saw in Spider-Man. A major retcon like that screams trouble. Still, I really wanted to love this movie. Unfortunately, I do not. There are things I like about it, but it has so many problems.

First of all, they try to introduce too many new characters. Eddie Brock. Flint Marko. Gwen Stacy. Captain Stacy. The weird-ass alien symbiote. The big issue for me is: why did they bother introducing Gwen and Captain Stacy at all? They’re both such iconic characters that anyone who knew anything about Spider-Man comics would hear their names and think, wow! And then neither one of them does anything very interesting. Captain Stacy is barely there. Gwen is more important to the plot, but she could have been replaced with literally any other girl in the entire world and Spidey’s upside down kiss with her right in front of Mary Jane would have seemed just as cruel.

A related issue is that Spider-Man 3 has too many villains. Not only that, two of these villains are new characters with new backstories that have to be explained. Harry’s turn to the dark side makes sense; it’s something the filmmakers had been building towards since the end of Spider-Man. I can accept the addition of one new villain on top of Harry, but two is excessive, especially when Peter himself is fairly villainous for a large part of the film. The Sandman, although I hate almost everything about his backstory in this movie, is the more developed of the two new villains. Eddie Brock and Venom are completely shoehorned in. Venom does not even appear until 104 minutes into the movie, and he’s dead 20 minutes later. What was the point? There isn’t one.

With all of these new characters, the movie ends up feeling extremely cluttered. So why would they try to cram all these people into this movie? According to Sam Raimi, it was the producers’ idea. Thank you for that, Avi Arad and Laura Ziskin.

But we can’t blame everything on the overabundance of characters. There are plenty of other problems. Harry’s venture into supervillainy starts out looking like a promising plot development and the first fight sequence between him and Peter is an excellent action setpiece. Unfortunately, the fight ends with a bump on the head and one of the world’s most cliched soap opera plot devices: amnesia. Argh! They spend all that time building up Harry’s hatred of Spider-Man and then undo it with a single blow. Making things worse, it’s a pointless case of amnesia because Harry later gets his memory back. Here’s what I suggest if they ever decide to re-edit this movie and make it not suck: Harry pretends to forgive Peter, but actually works against him through the entire movie. See? Isn’t that more interesting?

I also don’t like that they use Peter/Spidey’s sudden success as the main source of conflict between him and Mary Jane. The ending of Spider-Man 2 set up that the couple would have problems, but I think the suggestion was that Mary Jane would simply find the stresses of being a superhero’s girlfriend — worry, constant danger, always being left behind — hard to handle. That alone could have worked to create drama (as it has in the comics) and it would have been very natural; adding this new dynamic of Peter high/MJ low feels overdone.

Speaking of overdone, Peter’s out of control ego is the most overblown thing about this film, and leads to its most cringe-worthy moments. There are a couple of interesting articles in defense of this aspect of Spider-Man 3: Devin Faraci’s Badass Digest post on the movie’s dance scenes is a good read, and it makes a lot of sense; Entertainment Weekly picks up the same theme. Both argue that “Dark Peter” is so ridiculous because the concept of “Dark Peter” is simply ridiculous: emo hair and douchey dance moves are about as evil as dorky, decent Peter Parker gets. It is possible that with Spider-Man 3, Sam Raimi was almost trying to parody the idea of the gritty superhero movie. I can see that, and it makes sense especially given that we know Raimi didn’t particularly want to make a movie about Venom.

If this was in fact Raimi’s intention, I can relate to it: I also don’t much like gritty superhero movies (except in cases where the character’s nature calls for it — Daredevil, for instance, wasn’t gritty enough), and I am particularly annoyed by the fact that for many people, gritty equals good. A big part of the reason I love the first two Spidey films is that they are not gritty. They are heartfelt movies based on fairly normal, everyday life emotions: Peter’s guilt over his uncle’s death, his simple desire for Mary Jane to love him back, and his anxiety about finding his true path in life are things I think many people can relate to. This everyman quality is and always has been pretty much the entire point of Spider-Man.

Peter’s sudden superstar status takes all that away. And this is my major problem with the whole Dark Peter storyline. Even if it is an intentional parody, in doing it, the filmmakers destroyed everything that made the first two movies good.

As the Entertainment Weekly article I linked above points out, with Peter off making public appearances and becoming totally absorbed in his own hype, Mary Jane becomes by far the most sympathetic character in the film. I like her storyline in Spider-Man 3, probably because it’s the most in keeping with what these movies had been up to this point: she’s a young woman struggling fairly realistically in her chosen career.

Imagine if they had had Peter continue on a similar path as well: Peter and Mary Jane, now in a relationship but both struggling to make ends meet, on top of Mary Jane’s uncertainty about the whole Spider-Man thing, plus Harry working against them in secret, and (even though I don’t like this storyline) Peter discovering that the man who killed Uncle Ben was still out there … sounds like a pretty good movie to me. If they really had to include the symbiote, there’s enough potential for darkness in that scenario without turning Peter into a raging narcissistic megadouche: instead of making him even more of a self-centred jackass, the symbiote would play off Peter’s insecurities and anger about the Sandman. Rather than introducing and immediately killing Venom in this film, they could have waited and shown him right at the end. This is an awesome setup Spider-Man 4, and shazam. Franchise saved. You’re welcome.

Ah, what might have been.

There’s so much other bad stuff I could discuss — the massive amount of the plot that relies on coincidence (symbiote on a scooter, convenient butler), the terrible Greek chorus of TV reporters at the final battle, the questionable CGI, the misuse of the Daily Bugle staff, the failure to make the most of the Sandman — but I will leave it here. If Raimi and co. had stayed on the course they laid out for themselves with Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2, they could have made the best superhero trilogy (or maybe even quadrilogy) of all time. But they didn’t. It’s a real shame.