Thursday, October 4, 2012

We See Your Joss Whedon and Raise You a Mark Millar

It's no secret that Fox, Warner Bros., and Sony were watching very closely as Marvel/Disney sailed uncharted waters with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Nothing like it had ever been done before and no one was really sure if it even COULD be done. But now it's proven that not only CAN it be done, but it can result in some rather overwhelming success.

"The Avengers" as a stand-alone film is not all that great. I mean, I love it, but it's not really anything more than a straight-forward action romp with superheroes. It's about as good as you can get in that regard, but a really good cheeseburger is still just a cheeseburger. But the fact that this otherwise standard action film killed in the box office and is still carrying its momentum into the future is a testament to the experiment that made it possible.

So it's unsurprising that Fox and Warner Bros. have been spending the last couple months in scramble mode.

"Justice League"

Over the past few months, tons of rumors have been circulating about the inevitable "Justice League" project that's down the road for Warner Bros. It's still very much in the early planning phases, so we don't really know anything for certain except that it will almost definitely happen.

We know that they're finishing up "Man of Steel", which reboots Superman and potentially will set it up for "Justice League". Of course, people assumed that this was what they were doing with "Green Lantern" as well, but other than a half-assed introduction of Amanda Waller, we really got next to nothing.

One rumor that appears credible is that they don't intend to do another Batman movie until after "Justice League". This is definitely a really smart move. At this point, everyone knows who Batman is. Just throwing him into the mix should be fine. And enough people have played him by now that no one will care that he's not Christian Bale.

While not terribly credible, I did find this particular article amusing. It basically reports that at an anonymous comic book shop, some undercover marketing plants went in to gauge fandom reactions to a series of subtle and not-so-subtle questions regarding a "Justice League" movie.

I really hope that this article is false because if WB is this inept and clueless, there's basically no chance that this movie would succeed. If this article is to be believed, they aren't taking the slated "Ant-Man" film seriously, they don't necessarily take Aquaman seriously, they aren't aware of how hated "Green Lantern" and "Jonah Hex" were, and they are considering getting Frank Miller involved in some capacity.

OK, where to begin?

The Iron Man Principle

The biggest mistake a lot of studios make is assuming that a comic book movie will only succeed if the character is well-known. Of course, when "Iron Man" came out and kicked box office ass, this premise was soundly defeated. However, initially Fox and WB took the wrong lesson from this.

It's fairly obvious that "Green Lantern" and "Jonah Hex" were attempts to replicate the "Iron Man" success, and since they failed, they probably assume that "Iron Man" was a fluke.

This is a big mistake. They assumed that any comic book movie, regardless of how popular the character is, will succeed so long as a well-liked celebrity is filling the role. From WB's narrow perspective, this might make sense. After all, "Superman Returns" was a (relative) failure, and they probably assumed it was because they cast a nobody in the lead role. Similarly, "The Dark Knight" was a huge hit, largely because of the buzz surrounding Heath Ledger's unparalleled Joker performance. So they put it to the test. "Green Lantern" with the ever-popular Ryan Reynolds and "Jonah Hex" with the critically acclaimed Josh Brolin. Both attempts failed, and they probably assumed that it was because of the characters.

No, it was because those movies sucked. I'm sure that "Green Lantern" would have been a huge hit if it were a decent movie. "Jonah Hex" might have been a sleeper hit, but given its timing, I somehow doubt it.

"Iron Man" was a huge hit because it drove comic fans insane with the inclusion of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Nick Fury and because mainstream audiences loved RDJ's performance.

Of course, to be fair, even Marvel Studios didn't completely understand what they pulled off at first. You can see this in "The Incredible Hulk" and "Iron Man 2". Now don't get me wrong, I like both of those movies, but it's clear that even Marvel Studios wasn't entirely sure what exactly clicked so well with "Iron Man". I mean, "The Incredible Hulk" actually follows the "Iron Man" formula pretty closely. They hired a well-liked actor, allowed him to be a creative driving force for the movie and define the character in his image, they followed a similar story structure that built up to a big showdown with an evil version of the main character, and for some reason it didn't produce the same magic. With "Iron Man 2", they essentially tried to do the same thing that they did with "Iron Man", but it ultimately felt like they were playing it way too safe.

They did eventually discover that what worked was essentially making the movies about the characters. That's what made "Iron Man" work better than "Incredible Hulk". The simple truth is that "Incredible Hulk" didn't make Bruce Banner a central character. He had no driving conflict, no choices to make, at least not until the very end. Similarly, "Iron Man 2" gave Tony Stark a death sentence and daddy issues, and neither of those things really shaped his character in any meaningful way.

Fortunately, the movies that followed were steps in the right direction. "Thor" was very character-focused without being actor-dependent. The actors were definitely encouraged to play and bring their A-game, but the writers knew how they wanted to characters to grow. Granted, they did it rather quickly, but it still made the movie interesting and it made Loki a stand-out villain (which the MCU sorely needed). Then "Captain America: The First Avenger" also focused on the main character, but rather than force in some standard character development, they simply embraced who Cap was and let that drive the movie forward. Finally, "Avengers" was 2/3rds character interaction and 1/3 action set-piece, and that's why it connected so well. Not just because of the established continuity, but because these characters all felt consistent and their interactions were compelling. The only major concern going forward for the MCU is whether or not the need to have the movies stay consistent with each other will put too much of a burden on certain films, but so far things have been good.

Anyway, going back to WB, it seems like they've gone back to assuming that they can only succeed with big, well-known characters. The idea that they would underestimate Ant-Man and Aquaman shows that they might still be operating under serious misconceptions.

The Joss Factor

Another risk that seriously paid off for Marvel/Disney was the inclusion of Joss Whedon. While many fans rejoiced and thought it was a no-brainer and couldn't help but wonder why no one had tapped Joss sooner, it's easy to forget that Joss didn't have the best track-record. While "Buffy" was a major success and "Angel" did OK, literally every other TV show he made got canceled. With rare exception, the films that he wrote for were critically underwhelming and his directorial debut was equally underwhelming in the box office. While everyone knew he was talented, no one was sure if he was too geeky for mainstream audiences.

Obviously, that turned out to not be the case. Whedon injected enough cleverness into the script for "Avengers" to keep the first 2/3rds alive and interesting so that the final act would be a half-hour long payoff. He knew exactly the right approach to make the experiment work.

It is unsurprising that Marvel/Disney has since decided to make Whedon the de facto consultant for the next phase of MCU films as well as the writer/director for "Avengers 2" and the producer (or something) for a new S.H.I.E.L.D.-based TV series.

So as WB and Fox are trying to figure out how to replicate Marvel/Disney's success, it's also unsurprising that they are reaching out for geeks of their very own.

Which of course brings us to the interesting rumor of Frank Miller having some kind of involvement with the "Justice League" film. If true, it seems like WB is definitely trying to pull a similar stunt. After all, Frank Miller is a geek icon, he has worked with movies in the past, and he's primarily known for his work in the DC universe. From WB's perspective, he would probably be a really good choice.

But from anyone who actually knows Frank Miller's body of work (especially from recent years) will know that giving him any kind of executive control would quickly result in a gigantic mess of a film.

Obviously, Frank Miller probably wasn't WB's first choice. They probably asked Christopher Nolan to be involved in some capacity, which he most certainly refused. So now they're trying to figure out other options. 

Meanwhile, Fox has recently announced that Mark Millar would be their Joss Whedon, consulting on their "X-Men" and "Fantastic Four" films.

While I certainly have my misgivings about Mark Millar, he's definitely a better choice than Frank Miller. I will say this, even the comic books that he has written that I strongly dislike turned out to be rather good movies. "Wanted" was a much better movie than a comic book, mostly because it dialed the cynicism back a lot and chose a more consistent tone. "Kick-Ass" was also overall better than the comic it was based on, again thanks to the reduced cynicism and a more interesting take on the characters of Big Daddy and Red Mist.

Additionally, Millar has worked with director Matthew Vaughn in the past and the planned "X-Men: Days of Future Past" could serve to clean up the scattered mess that the X-Men franchise has become and possibly also set the stage for a FF movie that takes place in the same universe.


However, the most worrying aspect of the involvement of Mark Millar and the potential involvement of Frank Miller is that it seems like Fox and WB are aiming to make their movies as "dark and gritty" as possible.

Now, don't get me wrong, Mark Millar isn't really one to take himself too seriously, but he DOES have a reputation for scoffing at classic superheroics or referencing them ironically. While this can result in some cool stuff like the first couple "Ultimates" books, it can also result in disgusting messes like "Wanted".

Probably the biggest problem that Fox has had with its superhero movies is that they've often been afraid to embrace the source material. The X-Men always have matching leather uniforms (though this improved a bit in "First Class"), Galactus was turned into a sparkly cloud, "Daredevil" was packed with Evanescence music, and Deadpool was turned into a Mortal Kombat character.

I really don't expect Millar will try and push them away from that trend. The worst-case scenario that I'm imagining is if he and Josh Trank made a "grounded and realistic" Fantastic Four movie. Sorry, but if there's ANY property that should wholeheartedly embrace its wackiness, it's the Fantastic Four.

As for Frank Miller... I don't think I really NEED to say what could go wrong under his supervision. Wonder Woman would become a whore, Superman would be a moron, Batman would fix every problem and have all the best moments, and everyone would angst and monologue constantly. And that's not even scratching the surface.

I'm not saying Frank Miller COULDN'T do a good job. After all, he was more or less a consulting director on the "Sin City" movie and I still love that movie. But again, that's kind of the problem. The only thing decent that he's done since the turn of the century was related to "Sin City", which many consider to be the turning point in his career.

I'm just saying that if I were in charge, I wouldn't like the look of Frank Miller's resume.

But more importantly, I don't really get this obsession with making the DC superheroes more grounded. One of the bigger differences between DC and Marvel has always been that DC's characters were more lofty and archetypal. Their problems aren't generally down-to-earth problems. They're mythological figures. Trying to make them relatable will just seem forced like how it did in "Green Lantern".

In terms of templates, I think "Man of Steel" should use "Captain America: The First Avenger" as a template and "Wonder Woman" should use "Thor" as a template. Superman should be treated as a symbol of the best of humanity. Making him go through pointless character arcs for the sake of making him "relatable" will just come off as forced. As I mentioned, "Captain America" pulled off this sort of movie very well. As for Wonder Woman, she's often been written horribly because they focus too much on how her Amazonian world view clashes with our patriarchal society. This turns her into a mouth-piece rather than a character. "Thor" is a great example of how to have a character that has "fish out of water" moments without making it the entire thesis of the film. Thor threw coffee on the ground, we laughed, we moved on. A movie about Diana needs to make her character and her story the driving force without burdening her with the annoying tropes that hacks think make her "empowered".

Will It Pay Off?

Much like the serum that turned Steve Rogers into Captain America, the formula that turned "The Avengers" into a mega-hit will be studied and replicated for many years to come, and similarly, I doubt it will ever pay off, at least not in the same way.

The Justice League has the added benefit of already sitting in the public consciousness, but it's hard to deny that WB is more interested in a cash-grab than actually building a franchise that deserves success. I'm hoping that WB isn't as incompetent as they seem. I'm hoping that they've learned from their mistakes and that the "Justice League" movie will be every bit as excellent as it ought to be. But I don't have much confidence there.

As for Fox and Mark Millar... well, I think Fox has learned what works and what doesn't. There was this great interview after "X-Men: First Class" where some executive at Fox said something to the effect of, "We've learned that the key to making a good superhero movie is to have a good script." What a novel idea!

Anyway, hopefully that's what's motivating them. I definitely think "X-Men: Days of Future Past" could be the best in the series. Imagine if the shitty futures in "X-Men 3" and "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" were examples of aborted timelines that "could have been"? Imagine if the REAL Deadpool could get involved in some capacity at some point?

I think Fox has a better chance to turn things around than WB does, but I definitely think that having a sort of consultant position overseeing all the franchises is a good move for both of them. If they want to make a continuity work, it's a good first step.

What Marvel/Disney has over both of them is the fact that they didn't need the promise of billions of dollars to motivate them. They just genuinely wanted to make some good movies out of deserving characters. And they haven't stopped taking risks since their success. "Ant-Man" and "Guardians of the Galaxy" are HUGE risks, and the biggest problem with having a big continuity is that if one movie is a failure, it has the potential to drag the rest of the universe down with it.

In any case, it's interesting to see how this will shape the future of comic book movies.