Jaybird and I had a brief interaction over Facebook regarding tomorrow’s release of The Avengers and that led to this post. Let the record show that Jay’s post is independent of this post and this post isn’t entirely polished, but I wanted to get this up before the movie and then go see the movie and then write another post regarding the movie.
So, “here goes!”
In preparation for tomorrow’s release of The Avengers, I downloaded Thor off of iTunes and watched it last night, as the Avengers seems like Thor 2. I’ve now seen all of the “Marvel Movies” except X-men Generations and The Hulk reboot.
In general, I have limited but still enjoyable experiences with super-hero movies, as a genre. There are exceptions to the rule, but my expectation for them is quite low, to be honest, so even the movies that other people find objectionable for whatever reasons (usually good and sound reasons), I find entertaining to a degree that I don’t mind shelling out $10 to see them in the theater, let alone rent or buy ’em as copies to sit in the library.
Disclaimer: I haven’t seen Green Lantern yet, it looks like a steaming pile.
But, let’s talk about the drawbacks of the comic book movie genre anyway. We’re going to start this week with The Villain.
Major Drawback Of Comic Book Movies (as Adapations of Comic Books), Number One: The Villain Portrayal is Bad, or Development is Missing or Broken.
After the jump, there will be spoilers for Thor, Unbreakable (major, major spoilers for Unbreakable), X-men Origins: Wolverine, X-men, and some older super hero movies.
Good examples of movies hitting this mark of badness includes some decent movies, actually, and one really bad one: X-Men Origins:Wolverine, Batman & Superman, X-men, and Thor.
In X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Victor Creed is terrible (Schreiber does okay in the action scenes). Stryker is terrible. Deadpool is terrible. None of the portrayals is particularly good acting, and the movie, itself is just plain bad storytelling. Ugh. This is a movie that was an excuse for lots of fight scenes. Now, I like movies that are excuses for lots of fight scenes. But come on, it’s not that hard to have a bunch of really cool fight scenes glued together with a modicum of story. Beowulf is nothing but fight scenes. The Illiad is nothing but fight scenes, really. They don’t treat the “non-fight-scene” part of the narrative as just glue made with turd, though.
It gets better one step over to the right on the scale: in the original Batman, Jack Nicholson’s “Joker” gets short shrift for character development. Let’s face it, you’re watching Jack Nicholson’s Joker, not the Joker as played by Jack Nicholson. Which is fine, for what it is (I like Jack and all), but it does the comic book character a disservice. The Joker is more than Jack Nicholson. Except in this movie, where the Joker is all Jack Nicholson.
Similarly, in the original Superman, Gene Hackman plays a very watchable and enjoyable Lex Luthor, but there’s no there, there, except for Gene Hackman – quite a bit like Jack and the Joker. You’re watching established actors put forth a great performance, and that’s fine for cinema (and enough for a foil for the good guy), but you know next to nothing about the villain in the context of the original mythos.
Now, both of these movies were really first generation attempts to make a movie about a comic book character that didn’t just stink on ice, so the fact that they were directed and produced by people who made movies but probably weren’t comic book nerds has to factor into the endgame, here, so we give them a pass on effort.
The X-men incarnation just skates past this because Ian McKellen(Magneto) does an absolutely fantastic job of doing 15 minutes worth of character explication every time someone asks him a difficult question just by how he looks at the inquisitor. It’s all tacit, but the story is there, in the quirk of an eyebrow or the furrowing of a brow.
Good examples of movies that avoid this badness: Heath Ledger’s Joker, and Samuel L. Jackson’s Mr. Glass, from Unbreakable.
Compare Heath Ledger’s Joker to Jack Nicholson’s. Jack’s is crazy: he shoots his right hand man for no particular reason, really. Who would work for this guy? Heath Ledger’s Joker, on the other hand, is diabolical. He would torture his right hand man to death, but only if torturing his right hand man to death furthers his plan (whatever it is). Heath Ledger’s Joker is engaged in serious N dimensional chess, and while some of the steps are decidedly far-fetched, it still is the case – in the end – most viewers will walk out with the impression “Well, hell, I don’t know what that guy’s plan was, but he sure did”. The plan doesn’t have to make sense or be accessible to the viewer, they just have to believe that it makes sense and is accessible to the villain, if you get the distinction. You know Jack Nicholson’s Joker’s backstory, but you don’t care. You don’t know Heath Ledger’s Joker’s full backstory, but the not knowing, itself, is fuel for the diabolical. It’s a case where the lack of character development is, itself, a decision about the character that informs the audience about the character. You don’t know all the ins and outs of why Ledger’s Joker is crazy. You don’t need to know. He just is.
You can’t get away with that very often and have the story work. Of course, doing it the “right” way leads to a movie that most people don’t like.
Samuel L. Jackson’s portrayal of Mr. Glass in Unbreakable, and the development of the character as the supervillain, is downright excellent. I know a ton of people that *hated* that movie, including a bunch of people who are fans of comic books, but I loved it and the way it explored the nature of the archnemesis-hero relationship, a feature of all comic book heroes.
Come to think of it, the only archnemesis that I can think of that doesn’t really get as much play in the canon as his superhero counterpart is The Red Skull. And Cap (for reasons I’ll get to some day in another post) is a very unique hero in the mythos of comic book characters, so that’s… hey, that’s the exception that proves the rule.
Now, getting back to Thor and tomorrow’s
Thor 2 The Avengers, I get the feeling that the writers had a fairly decent idea or three during the cycles of tossing ideas around, but nobody paid any attention to Loki while they were editing chunks of the story together, and thus in the end, he’s totally muddled. They do nothing – nothing! – to encourage the idea that he’s fundamentally a trickster. They move the plot along, but the plot is centered on Thor. When they need Loki to do something, he does it, even if the motivation for whatever he does seems lacking at the point in the movie where he actually does whatever deed he’s doing that moves the story along. There’s no “fundamentally flawed person who slips into evil by a series of missteps”, there’s no coherent “evil manipulator is evil” theme. They can’t seem to decide if he’s a brilliant supervillain engaged in N dimensional chess a-la Moriarty, or a slighted boy who honestly thinks his brother is something of a boob. There’s no “becoming”, there.
Tom Hiddleston is a pretty good actor, and I’ll give him props at playing all the scenes the way they need to be played to move the plot along, but the character itself isn’t glued together in a decent narrative. He’s more like a collage of impulses that were necessary to have the movie finish on time. (That said, I was expecting the movie to bug me just when it came to the Asgardian scenes and since it didn’t, I enjoyed watching it anyway.)
Now, tomorrow, they have a chance to fix all that. I don’t expect it. If they don’t pull some ridiculous plot mechanism to save the day at the end, I’ll probably overlook most of its problems.
I suspect that The Avengers will be primarily about watching lots of action scenes involving the tanks on the team (Iron Man, Thor, and the Hulk) bashing the snot out of giant war machines and buildings and throwing cars and lightning bolts or repulsor blasts around… or the skill players (The Black Widow, Hawkeye, and Cap) performing cool looking martial arts scenes while deftly dodging huge chunks of landscape that come flying their way. Villain backstory and/or coherence is probably tertiary. From the previews, I think there will be a “Thor vs. Iron Man vs. Cap” skirmish to establish who is the leader of the Avengers (spoiler: it will be Cap), but given the results of Thor and Iron Man I & II, it’s unlike to jibe with that well. Both Iron Man and Thor will have to be less developed than they were at the end of their respective movies for it really to make sense.
I am a forgiving sort of cat when it comes to this. Comic books, on the whole, suffer from unbelievable character regression all the time. Spiderman went through it about once every 12 issues during the 80s. So, while I consider it a weakness, it’s a weakness that is pretty popular in the parent medium.
Actual thoughts about the movie after it happens.