Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Joe Johnston

Man and supermen

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Man of Steel

I’m starting to come to terms with an uncomfortable realization: I don’t much like The Avengers. Watching it again recently on Netflix, I was impressed by how fluidly it constructs an engaging movie out of so many prefabricated parts, but I couldn’t help noticing how arbitrary much of it seems. Much of the second act, in particular, feels like it’s killing time, and nothing seems all that essential: it clocks along nicely, but the action scenes follow on one another without building, and the stakes never feel especially high, even as the fate of the world hangs in the balance. And I don’t think this is Joss Whedon’s fault. He comes up with an entertaining package, but he’s stuck between the need to play with all the toys he’s been given while delivering them intact to their next three movies. Each hero has his or her own franchise where the real story development takes place, so The Avengers begins to play like a sideshow, rather than the main event it could have been. This is a story about these characters, not the story, and for all its color and energy, it’s a movie devoted to preserving the status quo. (Even its most memorable moment seems to have been retconned out of existence by the upcoming Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.)

And while it may seem pointless to worry about this now, I think it’s worth asking what kind of comic book movies we really want, now that it seems that they’re going to dominate every summer for the foreseeable future. I’ve been pondering this even more since finally seeing Man of Steel, which I liked a lot. It has huge problems, above all the fact that its vision of Superman never quite comes into focus: by isolating him from his supporting cast for much of the movie, it blurs his identity to the point where major turning points, like his decision to embrace his role as a hero, flit by almost unnoticed. Yet once it ditches its awkward flashback structure, the movie starts to work, and its last hour has a real sense of awe, scale, and danger. And I’m looking forward to the inevitable sequel, even if it remains unclear if Henry Cavill—much less Zach Snyder or Christopher Nolan—can give the scenes set at the Daily Planet the necessary zest. At their best, the Superman films evoke a line of classic newspaper comedies that extends back to His Girl Friday and even Citizen Kane, and it’s in his ability to both wear the suit and occupy the skin of Clark Kent that Christopher Reeve is most sorely missed.

Joss Whedon on the set of The Avengers

If nothing else, Man of Steel at least has a point of view about its material, however clouded it might be, which is exactly what most of the Marvel Universe movies are lacking. At this point, when dazzling special effects can be taken for granted, what we need more than anything is a perspective toward these heroes that doesn’t feel as if it were dictated solely by a marketing department. Marvel itself doesn’t have much of an incentive to change its way of doing business: it’s earned a ton of money with this approach, and these movies have made a lot of people happy. But I’d still rather watch Chris Nolan’s Batman films, or even an insanity like Watchmen or Ang Lee’s Hulk, than yet another impersonal raid on the Marvel toy chest. Whedon himself is more than capable of imposing an idiosyncratic take on his projects, and even though it only intermittently comes through in The Avengers itself, I’m hopeful that its success will allow him to express himself more clearly in the future—which is one reason why I’m looking forward to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which seems more geared toward his strengths.

And although I love Nolan’s take on the material, it doesn’t need to be dark, or even particularly ambitious. For an illustration, we need look no further than Captain America, which increasingly seems to me like the best of the Marvel movies. Joe Johnston’s Spielberg imitation is the most credible we’ve seen in a long time—even better, in many ways, than Spielberg himself has managed recently with similar material—and you can sense his joy at being given a chance to make his own Raiders knockoff. Watching it again last night, even on the small screen, I was utterly charmed by almost every frame. It’s a goof, but charged with huge affection toward its sources, and I suspect that it will hold up better over time than anyone could have anticipated. Unfortunately, it already feels like an anomaly. Much of its appeal is due to the period setting, which we’ve already lost for the sequel, and it looks like we’ve seen the last of Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull, who may well turn out to be the most memorable villain the Marvel movies will ever see. Marvel’s future is unlikely to be anything other than hugely profitable for all concerned, but it’s grown increasingly less interesting.

Written by nevalalee

July 9, 2013 at 8:54 am

American exceptionalism

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I didn’t want to see Captain America. The trailer wasn’t great, Joe Johnston wasn’t exactly my idea of a dream director, and most of all, I was getting a little tired of superheroes. The fact that we’ve seen four major comic book adaptations this summer alone wasn’t the only reason. Ten years ago, a movie like Spider-Man felt like a cultural event, a movie that I’d been waiting decades to see. Today, they’ve become the norm, to the point where a movie that isn’t driven by digital effects and an existing comic book property seems strangely exotic. At worst, such movies come off as the cynical cash grabs that, frankly, most of them are, a trend epitomized by Green Lantern, a would-be marketing bonanza so calculated that an A.V. Club headline summed it up as “Superhero movies are popular right now. Here’s another one.”

Which is why it gives me no small pleasure to report that Captain America is a pretty good movie, and in ways that seem utterly reproducible. This isn’t a film like The Dark Knight, which seems like an increasingly isolated case of a genius director being given all the resources he needed to make a singular masterpiece. Captain America is more the work of talented journeymen, guys who like what they do and are reasonably skilled at it, and who care enough to give the audience a good time—presumably with the kind of movie that they’d enjoy seeing themselves. Joe Johnston is no Chris Nolan, but in his own way, he does an even more credible Spielberg imitation than the J.J. Abrams of Super 8, and to more of a purpose. If this is clearly a cash grab—as its closing minutes make excruciatingly clear—it’s also full-blooded and lovingly rendered.

As a result, it’s probably the comic book movie I enjoyed most this year. While it doesn’t have the icy elegance of X-Men: First Class, it has a better script (credited to Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely), and it’s far superior to the muddled, halfhearted, and overpraised Thor. Part of this is due to the fact that it’s the only recent superhero movie to manage a credible supervillain: in retrospect, Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull doesn’t do much more than strut around, but he’s still mostly glorious. And it’s also one of the rare modern comic book movies that remembers that the audience might still like to see some occasional action. As Thor failed to understand, special effects alone aren’t enough: I’ve had my mind blown too many times before. Yet it’s still fun to see an expertly staged action scene that arises organically from the story, and Captain America has a good handful of those, at a time when I’ve almost forgotten what it was like to see one.

What Captain America does, then, isn’t rocket science: it’s what you’d expect from any big studio movie, done with a modicum of care, aiming to appeal to the largest possible audience. So why aren’t there more movies like this? Perhaps because it’s harder to do than it looks: for one thing, it requires a decent script, which, more than anything else, is the limiting factor in a movie’s quality, and can’t be fixed by throwing money at it. The more movies I see, the more I respect mainstream entertainment that tries to be more than disposable, an effort that can seem quixotic in an industry where Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides earns a billion dollars worldwide. Like it or not, movies are going to look increasingly like this, which is why it’s a good idea to welcome quality wherever we find it. Because it isn’t enough for a superhero to be super anymore; he also needs to be special.

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