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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.

Marvel Movies Project: Blade

Last week I started talking with one of my co-workers about Marvel movies, from the early days when Sony was making big money off the X-Men and Spider-Man to the birth of Marvel Studios and the very impressive feat they’ve been able to pull off with the creation of the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” and the buildup to The Avengers. I started thinking back to how much I’ve enjoyed some of the Marvel movies, and wondered how many there were and whether I’ve seen them all.

An idea was born: wouldn’t it be fun to go back and (re)watch all 27 — it turns out there are 27! — of the modern Marvel movies? I say (re)watch because in fact there are three films (Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, Punisher: War Zone, and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance) I have never seen.

Yes, I concluded! It would be fun! And what would make it even more fun would be to write a blog post about each movie as I go! So, I started this project on Saturday evening by watching Blade, which I was able to purchase in HD from the iTunes store for the low, low price of $6.99.

Blade (1998)

It’s true that there had been a few Marvel movies before Blade was released in 1998, but other than multiple Razzie Award winner Howard the Duck (1986) and The Punisher (1989), which was never released theatrically in the US, nothing had made it to the big screen since the 1940s film serial starring Captain America. Blade, which cost about $45 million to produce and made $70 million at the box office, was the film that really brought Marvel to the movie industry’s attention. In his book Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, Sean Howe quotes former Marvel CEO Avi Arad as saying that it was the fact that Blade the film succeeded despite Blade the character’s relative lack of popularity which really helped sell the Marvel brand: “Blade was the least likely to succeed … That was the first time it seemed clear to Hollywood that the Marvel franchise was something special” (p. 396). It’s a lesson Hollywood seems to have absorbed: post-Blade, at least one film featuring a Marvel character has been released to theatres every year except 1999 and 2001.

The title character in Blade is played with a humourous intensity by Wesley Snipes, who rocks an intriguingly geometric haircut for the role, or maybe that’s just Wesley Snipes’ normal hair. Blade has certain supernatural abilities brought on by the fact that his mother was bitten by a vampire while pregnant with him. His vampire side gives him accelerated healing and elevated strength, but he has escaped most of the vampires’ weaknesses: he is immune to garlic, silver, and sunlight — hence, he is called the Daywalker. Unfortunately, he does have a thirst for human blood which he controls by means of some kind of serum administered by his mentor and co-vampire fighter Whistler (Kris Kristofferson). The villain of the piece is Deacon Frost (Stephen Dorff), a young upstart among the leaders of the vampire world who is frustrated by the undead establishment’s desire to maintain a low profile. (The elite ruling class Frost is in conflict with is kind of like the Volturi in Twilight that way. Dammit, I try not to think about the fact that I’ve read those books.) Frost wants to make a splash by awakening La Magra, the blood god, who will help the vampires claim their rightful place at the top of the food chain. Mixed up in all this is Dr. Karen Jenson, played by N’Bushe Wright, a hematologist rescued by Blade at the beginning of the movie. She teams up with Blade and Whistler to stop Frost and perhaps develop a cure for vampirism.

I had not seen Blade since around the time it was first released. Although it is the forefather of all Marvel movies, it’s also very different from most of them in the level of violence and gore portrayed, not to mention the swearing; if it were a comic book, it would definitely be published by Marvel Max. It seems ridiculous to comment on the presence of blood in a vampire movie, but Blade really is drenched in the stuff right from the opening vampire rave “blood bath” scene to the very disgusting exploding vampires in the final battle. Visually, the film has a dark and gritty yet clean and modern style that is similar to the still-filming-when-Blade-was-released The Matrix, but without the greenish tint and innovative effects.

The other pop culture favourite I thought of while watching Blade is the greatest vampire slayer story ever told: Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Nikki Wood, one of the Slayers who preceded Buffy, is rather Blade-like: obviously, they’re both vampire slayers. They both wear long black leather jackets. And they’re both associated with the 70s: Blade’s first appearance in the comics was in Tomb of Dracula #10, published in July 1973, and Nikki is shown in the Buffy episode “Fool for Love” to have died in 1977. Plus, according to the Buffy novel Blackout by Keith R.A. DeCandido, she was called to be the Slayer in February of 1973 — perhaps a reference to Blade’s debut that same year. The Nikki/Blade similarity was also referenced in the Buffy comics: artist Georges Jeanty’s variant cover for issue #6 of Buffy season 9 is an homage to the cover of Tomb of Dracula #10. There’s a bit of Blade in Nikki’s son, vampire-hunter-slash-high-school-principal Robin Wood, too. Just as Blade’s mother was killed by a vampire, so was Principal Wood’s. Though he has no special powers, Wood was trained to fight vampires by his mother’s Watcher.

Spike and Nikki Wood in "Fool for Love."

But the Woods aren’t the only Buffy characters who have a lot in common with Blade: there’s also Spike, the vampire who killed Nikki. Like Blade and like Nikki, Spike wears a long black leather jacket — a jacket he stole from Nikki Wood after killing her; also like Blade, Spike controls his thirst for blood by artificial means (although in Spike’s case, this is involuntary). Blade, Spike, and Robin Wood are further linked by the fairly serious mother issues they share. Wood’s issue is that his mother never loved him quite enough: she prioritized her Slayer mission over her son and left him behind in order to go fight vampires. Blade discovers late in the film that SPOILER! the mother he thought dead has actually been living as a vampire all this time, having abandoned him when she turned. Even worse, his enemy Deacon Frost is the one who bit her, which results in a very unsettling extended family situation where Frost is essentially the “father” of Blade’s vampire side. When Blade encounters his vampire mother, it makes for rather uncomfortable viewing as she behaves in a creepily sexual manner towards her son. The Buffy episode “Lies My Parents Told Me,” which shows parallel flashbacks of Spike and Robin Wood’s pasts with their mothers, reveals that Spike went through a very similar situation: he turned his own mother into a vampire and once her demon side took over, she rejected him cruelly before making some extremely inappropriate advances towards him.

One other thing Blade and Nikki and Robin Wood have in common: they’re all black. Blade was the first and is still one of only three non-ensemble Marvel movies to feature a black protagonist (the other two being … Blade II and Blade: Trinity, so that’s still just the one guy then). Blade includes a veritable plethora of important non-white characters by comic book movie standards: the female lead, Karen, is also black, as is Blade’s mother, Vanessa. Karen is noteworthy, too, for being quite a satisfying example of a strong female character. She’s presented as smart and accomplished in her career, she shows very little fear when dealing with vampires, and she gets herself out of a few difficult scrapes without having to wait for Blade to rescue her. It’s nice.

All in all, Blade is a very entertaining movie with good characters played by a solid cast, a stylish look that has aged well, and a decent script. It’s definitely not the best ever Marvel movie, but it was a strong start to the modern era of Marvel on film.

Next up: Hugh Jackman dons Wolverine’s claws for the first of five (so far) times in X-Men.

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?

This weekend I saw Terrence Malick’s latest film, The Tree of Life. I knew the response to this movie had been quite polarized, with glowing reviews on the one hand, and people walking out of screenings and demanding refunds on the other. The only other Malick film I’ve seen is The Thin Red Line, which I liked but wasn’t blown away by, but I think that plus the reaction from others probably gave me a pretty good idea of what to expect this time: something not very linear, kind of long, and likely rather meditative. And that is indeed essentially what I got. I enjoyed it very much, but I also completely understand why so many people have hated it.

Surface impressions: The Tree of Life is a very beautiful film. The images on screen may at times seem random, but they are almost always visually stunning. The music, too, is gorgeous, both Alexandre Desplat’s score and the numerous classical pieces used throughout.

But now to go a little deeper and tackle the big question: what is it all about, anyway? I don’t know what Malick intended, but I can tell you what I took from it. The movie opens with an epigraph, a quotation from the Bible’s Book of Job. I’m no biblical scholar, but I know Job is about a good man who suffers greatly. The main event that drives the story (okay, “story” may not be the right word here) of The Tree of Life is the death of the main character’s brother at age 19; although it’s never explicitly stated, it seems reasonable to assume that the boy was killed in Vietnam, given the time period. The entire film, I believe, is the main character, Jack, played as an adult by Sean Penn (although it seemed to me Penn only appeared in the film for about 20 minutes, and all he did was walk around … I don’t think there’s an Oscar nomination in the cards this year), meditating on the Book of Job’s central question: why do bad things happen to good people? The film is Jack’s stream of consciousness on this subject. In considering that question, his thoughts take him all the way back to the creation of the universe — yes, there are dinosaurs. It is bizarre, to be sure, that a movie which is about a family living in Texas in the 1950s includes a sequence involving dinosaurs, but it also makes sense. We humans do occasionally think about these big ideas; the train of thought goes to some strange places sometimes, and I can well imagine that a man angry at God for taking his brother’s young life, wondering what it all means, might end up in contemplation of the cosmos. Jack also remembers incidents from his own childhood, including a longish sequence in which he remembers the sins he committed as he started coming of age, perhaps wondering if his bad behaviour somehow led to his brother’s death. The reference to Eden in the movie’s title also seems linked to this idea: Adam and Eve, of course, are banned from Eden and denied the bounty of the tree of life after they sin by eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Yet, even those who do not sin, like Job, may suffer.

Jack’s parents, played by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain, are presented as embodying the two different ways of life outlined at the beginning of the movie: the way of nature (the father) and the way of grace (the mother). Grace, according to the mother’s voiceover, “doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries.” Nature, meanwhile, “only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it.” Jay Michaelson has an interesting analysis of nature and grace in The Tree of Life at Religion Dispatches. (I’m sure there’s probably room for a more complete analysis of the Book of Job and The Tree of Life in this context, but I’m also sure I’m not the person to do it.) I’m not 100% on board with this nature vs. grace dichotomy, partly because I think the mother is closely associated with nature and wildness, while the father seems intent on civilizing it: for example, he’s strangely obsessed with having a perfectly neat front lawn. Then again, I suppose this could be his way of lording over nature itself, and we are shown in the film that there is sometimes grace in the natural world. I’m still not quite sure I buy the nature vs. grace argument as it’s presented, but this may be because I think of civilization as nature’s true opposite and I just can’t wrap my head around what Malick is trying to say.

Come to think of it, that last thing seems very likely. The Tree of Life: I have no idea what it really means, but it was beautiful and oddly powerful. To celebrate it, here is a piece by Bedrich Smetana called “My Country – Vltava (The Moldau)” — it’s a very grand piece of music that plays toward the middle of the film. Enjoy!

127 Hours & The Bog People Moment

Movie Review: 127 Hours
Directed by Danny Boyle. Starring James Franco.

WARNING: This review contains spoilers!

If you’ve heard anything about 127 Hours, then you know it’s not like most other movies. Based on the true story of Aron Ralston, who went for a hike one day in the canyons of Utah and came back minus his right arm, 127 Hours is basically a one-man show: there are other actors in the film (including Amber Tamblyn, Kate Mara, and Clémence Poésy), but it’s James Franco as Ralston who fills most of the screentime. Franco does a great job of keeping the movie interesting with no one but his character’s video camera to play off of for large chunks of time.

The most talked-about part of the movie is no doubt the scene in which Ralston finally decides to amputate his own arm in order to escape. I heard those Exorcist-type rumours about people fainting because the scene was so graphic; however, I didn’t have a problem with it. Oh, it was definitely graphic, but unless you have a very low tolerance for gore it shouldn’t scar you for life. By the time he started to cut, I was almost too impressed by the determination he showed to overcome the many difficulties of his situation to be grossed out.  To me, the most difficult scene to watch was one in which Ralston becomes overwhelmed by the sound of his own rapidly beating heart, which the audience also hears. The sound really helped to create the sense of claustrophobia and panic Ralston must have felt at that moment.

Although I didn’t care for Slumdog Millionaire, I have liked just about every other Danny Boyle movie I’ve seen. Slumdog was described by a lot of reviewers as “kinetic,” and the bulk of 127 Hours is definitely not that. It is largely stationary, as of course the main character spends almost the entire movie completely immobilized. But we also see glimpses of Ralston’s inner life — the hallucinations and memories that keep him going while he’s trapped — so it doesn’t end up being just an hour and a half of a guy stuck in a cave. Having said that, Franco is engaging enough that an hour and a half of a guy stuck in a cave would probably have been quite entertaining in this case.

Of the other Danny Boyle films I’ve seen, 127 Hours shares the most in common with The Beach, which was in my opinion a very underrated movie. It’s also about a young man who goes into nature expecting something idyllic and finds something very frightening instead. One other movie that seems like an obvious point of comparison is 2007’s Into the Wild, directed by Sean Penn. Into the Wild was also based on a true story: that of Chris McCandless (played in the movie by Emile Hirsch), who gave up on civilization to go live in the wilds of Alaska, took almost no food or supplies with him, and — unsurprisingly — ended up dying of starvation. I was not a fan of Into the Wild. I felt the movie portrayed McCandless’ foolishness as admirable, turning someone who was essentially kind of an idiot into a hero. 127 Hours takes the opposite approach, making a big deal out of the fact that Ralston could have avoided his entire situation had he simply told someone where he was going. The movie even includes a funny scene in which Ralston conducts a fake interview with himself and mocks the series of idiotic decisions that led him to his predicament. To me, this made Ralston a much more sympathetic figure than McCandless could have been.

The Bog People Moment

You know how sometimes you’re watching a movie or a TV show, and something happens that makes you think of something else completely unrelated? Then the connection makes you laugh, and the thing  you’re watching suddenly becomes hilarious, even if it’s in fact very, very serious. I call this the “Bog People Moment,” after an incident that occurred when I went to see The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. There’s a scene early in that movie where Frodo and Sam pass through the Dead Marshes, and Frodo sees the bodies of dead warriors just under the surface of the marsh. When I saw the movie, the Museum of Civilization was heavily advertising and exhibit called “The Mysterious Bog People,” which featured, among other things, the bodies of ancient people which had been preserved in bogs. When Frodo saw the bodies, I turned to my friend and said “Bog people!” And from that moment on I could not take the movie seriously.

127 Hours also featured such a moment at the very end, when text on screen presented an epilogue telling us how Aron Ralston’s life changed after his accident. One change: now when he goes out climbing, he always leaves a note. I could not help thinking of Arrested Development and J. Walter Weatherman, the one-armed man George Bluth liked to use to scare various lessons into his children by suggesting that their failure to do certain things had caused this man to lose his arm. One such lesson? “And that‘s why you always leave a note!” I always thought George Sr. was exaggerating with this stuff. Now I know better.

While I do feel like a horrible, insensitive person for thinking this way about a very serious thing that actually happened to someone, I’m fairly sure any Arrested Development fan would have had the same thought — completely involuntarily, too. That’s the insidious nature of the Bog People Moment: you can’t help thinking it and once you’ve thought it, it can’t be unthought.