Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Hindsight: A 2014 Cinematic Retrospective

So I saw even fewer films in 2014 than I did in 2013. Yeah, take that, Hollywood! You're not getting my small contribution! Anyway, let's consider what I didn't watch.

9 Films You Might Have Expected Me to See but I Didn't
X-Men: Days of Future Past
The trailer for this did not inspire me. As much as I enjoyed "X-Men: First Class" and was intrigued by the idea of the new, younger actors being contrasted to the traditional cast of Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen and the like, the trailer made it look like way too much of a monotonous CGI assault on the senses, with loads of CGI Sentinels flying around a CGI wasteland and shit. I'll pass for the time being, but I may watch this eventually.

Update in 2017: I've seen this now and I actually quite liked it.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2
The first one was balls, no way I was watching this one. It's amusing that this attempt by Sony to reboot the franchise is now already dead because Disney has renegotiated to bring Spidey into the Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise. Hopefully they'll make a new version of the character who, for the first time ever in cinema, is actually like the character in the comics.

Guardians of the Galaxy
I was unsure about this because generally I've watched the Marvel Cinematic Universe films but the trailer really put me off: loads of corny jokes seemed to be incoming, and I didn't think I could hack it. Once it was out people were acting like it was the greatest film they'd ever seen. Seriously? A Hollywood action movie is the greatest film you've ever seen? I think you may need to watch more films.

Update in 2017: I've seen this now and I actually thought it was pretty decent. The final battle was a bit unoriginal before the dance-off but everything else was fine.

Interstellar
I am actually curious to see this because as a general rule I like Christopher Nolan's stuff but it didn't interest me sufficiently to cause me to go out of my way to see it. Kinda looks awfully similar to 2001: A Space Odyssey I must say.

Transformers 4
Piss off.

Ninja Turtles
Piss off again.
To go into slightly more detail, a new Ninja Turtles film should eschew the cheesy franchise baggage the concept has accumulated since the 80s cartoon and deliberately set about satirising modern comic-book films. Set it in the 80s and use it to contrast modern superhero cinema's pretense at realism with how absurd it really is. This film did not look like it was going to achieve anything so intelligent. And before you argue, TMNT was originally a satirical concept with a bit of thought behind it, not just a dumb franchise about goofy turtle characters eating pizza and fighting a guy with steak knives strapped to his wrists.

The LEGO Movie
Supposedly this is good. I just haven't seen it.

Robocop
No way in hell was I gonna see this: not because I'm some mortally offended hardcore Robocop fan but because I found the idea phenomenally crass. The original Robocop (the only one I've seen) is probably one of the best action films of the eighties: an extremely violent science-fiction-crime-dystopian mash-up satire which ruthlessly attacked the worst excesses of 80s culture. Not only is Robocop therefore totally irrelevant outside of that context, the only way to reshape that would be for a new film to do the same thing to 2010s culture, ripping the shit out of its plutocratic-authoritarian political structure, monstrous consumerism and cultural deadness. When it turned out this was just going to be sanitised PG-13 bullshit I completely lost interest.

Birdman
I want to see it but I haven't yet. Give me time.

5 Films I Actually Saw in 2014
The Inbetweeners 2
I really like the tv show this is based on, but this film went further than the first in losing sight of its main comedic purpose, I think. I would argue that a large part of the point of the TV show is to specifically highlight the sense of horrendous alienation many people feel as adolescents. Thus they're 'inbetweeners': they simply don't fit in with anyone in their community. This film seemed to just rely on cheap gross-out humour mostly: Will getting shit on his face and spewing everywhere, or Neil pissing on Simon. In the TV series, comedy of this sort derived not from the grossness of, say, Simon spewing on Carli's little brother or Neil pissing the bed at Tara's sister's house, but because of how utterly untenable the situations are socially: it's impossible to fathom how those situations could be resolved. The film also basically rehashes Simon's plot from the first film in bits with Jay and Will. Like the first film, this one also featured far less comic dialogue than the TV series. I was a bit disappointed with this.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier
I have rewatched this film and I'm afraid to say that I just don't think it's that good. My opinion hasn't really changed since my review. The film's plot tries to do too much - it really undersells the idea of Steve discovering that his best friend is still alive, but brainwashed - the action scenes are repetitious and there are way too many main characters, as if they didn't feel that Chris Evans could carry the film on his own (even though he'd to a significant extent managed as a main protagonist in the first one). They needed to focus on SHIELD and the other Marvel characters like Nick Fury a lot less, drop HYDRA completely and focus on the personal story of Cap in my opinion. I would have even probably shunted Bucky into a later film, because his resurrection so soon lacks impact. The satirical content of this film is also rather thin, in my opinion: yes, surveillance is bad, but it's much more confronting to be spied upon by your own government than by a conspiracy of evil people who've infiltrated your government, because it reduces the complexity of the issue. Even if we argue that our politics have been infiltrated by authoritarian nut-jobs, we need to understand why, not just characterise it as an "evil conspiracy." This film could have been much better in my opinion.

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones
More like "Paranormal Activity: The Farked Ones" amirite? Let's just say I... uh... didn't see this one at the cinema. As a general rule it was pretty crap, but the twist ending where they go back in time to the first film was actually quite cool. Not much to say about this one: very far from being essential viewing unless you're a fan of the series.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
You can read my review of this here. It's probably in some respects the best of the three films in my opinion, at least for its first half. The second half is crap. I'm glad it's all over. It'd be nice if they'd stop dicking around with Tolkien's work now. Y'know, I occasionally read defensive film fanboys going "Tolkien would have liked them." Sorry, but regardless of quality, he would have bloody hated them. I don't think he liked cinema in general, and if you read his letters you can see how strenuously he tended to object to even fairly minor deviations from his source material. One thing I'd argue he probably did want was for his work to be taken somewhat seriously as literature, and I don't think the Hollywood adaptation treatment achieves that by a long chalk. Now I'd appreciate if shallow corporate interests would leave his writing alone.

Foxcatcher
Although I didn't see this in 2014, it's a 2014 film. Read my comments on it here. It was a pretty dark and confronting film, taking an extremely bleak view of the America equivalent of the "idle rich" and those who fall through the cracks in American society. Observed curiously through the lens of Olympic wrestling, the film represents a fundamental awkwardness and sense of discomfort in the American dream and ideal and how badly that dream can fail or disguise far deeper problems. It's not a film I'll be rushing to see again, but at least it had something to say, unlike most of this trash.

Thus, my top film of 2014 must be:
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Another 2014 film I didn't see in 2014. It's good. Read my thoughts here. It's an amusing and well-performed film which questions our romanticised perceptions of Interbellum culture and different decades and time periods in general. I'd heartily recommend it. It makes most of this other stuff (apart from Foxcatcher really) look like the brainless nonsense it is. I still haven't quite escaped Hollywood, but I've at least well and truly escaped bad action films as being the extent of what I see. If you're going to watch any one of the films I've mentioned here, watch this one.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

"Avengers: Age of Ultron"

Joss Whedon's accommodation, provided by Disney.
I once attempted to give the first "Avengers" film the OCBW treatment but I gave up because I got bored writing it. Put simply, I think "The Avengers" is... eh... an okay ish film, with lots of emphasis on the "ish," which I described in my 'Why You Shouldn't Be Excited About the Casting of Doctor Strange' article as
a bland and badly-paced film where Iron Man and Captain America spend about ten hours sitting around frowning at each other in a flying conference room and then they have a giant Transformers battle at the end which is resolved in the same manner as the invasion of Naboo in Star Wars Episode I.
"Age of Ultron" is arguably better paced and has a severely reduced amount of conference room frowning, and in some respects it's superior to "The Avengers." In other respects it is not superior to "The Avengers." I'll sum up my grievances here, spoilers beware:
  1. Ultron is introduced too quickly and his characterisation is rushed.
  2. Black Widow in general is used badly.
  3. Elements of the plot are too similar to "Iron Man 3".
  4. Other elements of the plot rely too heavily on the plot of "The Avengers."
  5. It feels like a middling instalment killing time before the third Avengers film.
  6. Quicksilver's death is meaningless because he's only just been introduced.
  7. The film is visually uninteresting because of the overdesigned costumes.
"Iss my ahksent conveenssing enough, do you zink, Ultron?"
So the team has reassembled offscreen, and they're in some fictional Eastern European country which definitely isn't Latveria hunting down a HYDRA base belonging to Baron Strucker, who was also seen in the post-credits sequence of the second Captain America film. They're trying to recover Loki's sceptre which apparently slipped through their fingers after the last film. How did that happen? Anyway, Strucker's used it to create Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, who can't be mutants in this film because Marvel Studios don't have the rights to the characters as mutants, just to the characters in general. So in this they're "enhanced," given powers by Strucker because they want revenge on Tony Stark because his weapons killed their parents. Just for your information, in the comics their parents are actually none other than Magneto himself and his wife Magda, but obviously they can't reference that either. In any event I believe their parentage was a retcon made in the Eighties so it doesn't really matter: while they were originally created as mutant allies of Magneto in X-Men in their original comic appearances, they later joined the Avengers before it was ever established that Magneto was their father. In any event they serve to muck up the Avengers' plan: Hawkeye gets injured and Iron Man has a traumatic vision of failing to save the world.
It's the mayor I feel sorry for.
I thought this sequence was okay, although I took some objection to the sequence where Black Widow calms down the Hulk and gets him to transform, because I thought it was pretty crap that they took the route of making Black Widow, who so far has been a mostly practical-minded character, take on what felt like a weirdly maternal role: "she's a woman so she can calm down the big raging man." Seemed kind of cliché to me and a bit sexist: why does the only female member get put into that spot? I also didn't really like the fact that they were hunting down the sceptre and HYDRA were using it, because I feel like that plot line has been done to death - it wasn't even that good in "Captain America: The First Avenger" in my opinion, using alien artefacts to fuel "super science." In any event back at Avengers Tower everyone gears up for a massive party and Tony Stark and Bruce Banner discover that the core of the sceptre contains an extremely advanced, alien artificial intelligence. Then Iron Man springs on us that this could be used to run "Ultron."
"...did you just fart?"
Well that was quick. The film goes down the route of having Iron Man conceptualise Ultron already. He doesn't come up with the idea now, he already had it. He wants "a suit of armour around the world" or equivalent in case aliens and their ilk return. I found this quite similar to "Iron Man 3": wasn't the whole point of that meant to be Tony Stark learning that he couldn't do everything through technology? Obviously in this film it's motivated by the vision Wanda put in his head, but it still seemed repetitious to me, especially because after making a big show of destroying all his suits in "Iron Man 3" he now has a small army of suits working for him. In any event they put JARVIS to work on the AI and go off to have a party.
"Uh... it was you."
The party is essentially the "let's remind everyone of who's in our Marvel Cinematic Universe" scene. In addition to Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, the Hulk, Black Widow and Hawkeye we see appearances from Maria Hill, War Machine and Falcon. The last of these gives us also a small reminder of the ongoing search for the Winter Soldier, which I fear will dominate the rest of Cap's narrative. There's also a Doctor Cho introduced in a confusingly prominent role early in the film. Then there's all this flirting between Bruce Banner and Black Widow which is our weird romantic subplot. Hulk and Black Widow? No thanks. The other thing which bothers me about it is that the first Avengers film didn't have this element, and no other character in this film really has one. "Black Widow's a woman, better pair her up with one of the male cast members." Or maybe don't? I didn't like this element. Besides, what happened to Bruce Banner's love interest from the Hulk film which no one really counts as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Another issue with this of which I was just reminded was that in this bit Cap saunters over to make some ambiguous remarks towards Banner about Black Widow. I also didn't like this element because it made Cap seem like a dick, and the whole point of Cap is that he's not a dick.
"It wasn't me."
Once things are winding down we get our humorous moment as everyone tries to lift Thor's hammer. I liked that it moved a little bit when Cap grabbed it, because in the comics as we know Captain America can lift Mjölnir and has done so on at least one occasion. Meanwhile something's gone screwy in the lab because a deformed Iron Man robot arrives speaking with James Spader's voice. A bunch of psychotic robots fight them and fly off with Loki's sceptre. So this plot is still going. Ultron "escapes through the internet," whatever that means, and builds himself a fancy giant body back at Baron Strucker's castle. He then recruits Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver - although I wasn't sure how he did this - because he knows they want revenge on Iron Man. Iron Man really drives the plots of these films, doesn't he? I'd even go so far as to say that they're over reliant on him. One thing I will give this film credit for is that they established firmly that the real "boss," aka the proper leader of the Avengers, was Captain America, because he's actually a tactician.
"Well you can't have heard me all the way over here in this field."
The Avengers go through a bunch of old files they have lying around and somehow figure out that Ultron is after vibranium, the miraculous metal from which Cap's shield is made. As such they both head off to track down Claw, in this "Ulysses Klaue," played by Andy Serkis as a typical "never met a nice" South African who's stolen tonnes of it from Wakanda. So they're foreshadowing the introduction of Black Panther here. Klaue even gets his arm cut off in a nod towards his claw arm in the comics. So then they have a big fight with Ultron in a ship for the vibranium, but the Avengers get taken out when Wanda gives them all visions. I thought this part was okay, although I most liked Cap's vision, probably just because Cap's my favourite. Hayley Atwell has a brief cameo as Peggy Carter, and Idris Elba gets one as Heimdall in Thor's vision, which also looks towards the Infinity Stones and later Marvel films. We also get a nod towards Black Widow's origin, which has otherwise gone largely unrecorded in the films save for her informing Loki "I'm Russian" in an American accent in the previous Avengers outing. Then in a largely offscreen moment Wanda also traumatises Hulk, who goes berserk.
Avengers Diving Board: $99.99 from Hasbro.
What follows was probably one of my least favourite moments of the film: a now-stock CGI urban brawl where Iron Man in the Hulkbuster Armour, which he deploys from orbit, fights against Hulk. They leap all over the place wrecking everyone's property and knocking buildings down. Man of Steel already took this kind of urban mayhem as far as it could possibly go, and there's nothing to see here which we haven't already seen. I always just end up feeling sorry for the people who would have to organise all the cleaning up and repair work, and the probably scarred-for-life civilians. Ultimately Iron Man pummels the Hulk into submission and they all piss off to lick their wounds. It kind of feels like a waste of time, especially with the back-to-back "vs Ultron" and "vs Hulk" action sequences, both of which are frantic CGI extravaganzas.
The bank's about to break.
Needing somewhere to "lie low" as they say, Hawkeye leads them off to a farmhouse in the country which turns out to be where his wife and kids live. So Hawkeye has a family. It's a vaguely clever twist but in all honesty despite spending a bit more time with him I didn't really find Hawkeye any more interesting in this film than the one before. Thor immediately leaves again so that Stellan Skarsgård can get his cameo, somehow being able to immediately lead Thor to some underground pond where he takes a dunk to recover his dream. Captain America and Iron Man argue with each other like the last film while chopping wood, and then Nick Fury comes back. Ugh. He gives them a pointless pep talk, Black Widow and Bruce Banner continue to experience awkward sexual tension, and they head off to track down Ultron. Obviously this is meant to show them being proactive, as opposed to what Ultron accuses them of being: reactive and static. Then again, Captain America argues that people start wars by trying to prevent them. So what is it, let the bad guy go first, but then hammer him as much as possible? I guess so.
Release the Kraken.
In any event Ultron and his "enhanced" chums have tracked down Doctor Cho and mind control her with Loki's sceptre: more reptition of the previous film. They get her to use her super duper advanced cellular technology with vibranium to create some kind of 'ultimate body' for Ultron. I wasn't really sure why this happened, but in any event they do it, using the stone from inside the sceptre. What does he want this body for? I wasn't really sure, but in any event he does. Nonetheless the organic brain of the new body is getting Ultron's mind transferred into it, and thus Wanda is able to read the mind, discovering that Ultron intends to destroy all life on earth. She's naturally concerned, so Ultron and a couple of his Iron Man cronies chuck the new body in a lorry and they head off, but not before Cap shows up and has a fight with Ultron where he's repeatedly zapped off the roof of the truck and onto the windshields of the cars behind, apparently consistently forgetting that his main gimmick is that he has a shield he can raise to defend himself.
"My wig doesn't match my eyebrows."
Nonetheless Black Widow recovers the body but is captured by Ultron: damsel in distress much? Logically in my opinion it should have been (somehow) Tony Stark who gets captured. Back at the tower Iron Man and Bruce Banner decide to put JARVIS' AI into the body instead, and while Cap turns up with Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, now enemies of Ultron, to stop Iron Man from constantly building killer robots that go mental and try to destroy the world, Thor arrives and uses his hammer to put in enough juice to complete the process, thus forming classic Avengers character, the android known as the Vision, here played by Paul Bettany. He was a welcome character to have introduced and I would have actually liked him earlier. Thor also reveals that the stone from the sceptre, now in Vision's head, is the Mind Stone, one of the six Infinity Stones. Well there you go then. Vision says he wishes to protect life and encourages them to go fight Ultron, so off they go, after a mild gag where he is shown to easily lift Thor's hammer.
"They didn't get theirs finished in time."
Now we're back in Eastern Europe again as Ultron enacts his diabolical plan to lift a huge chunk of the countryside off the face of the earth. He wants to slam it back down like a meteor, believing it will encourage "evolution" on the planet, which has become stagnant because of humanity. Later he says that afterwards only metal will survive. So what does he want, evolved humans or a world of robots? I have no idea. In any event he has some bollocks device to achieve all of this, so when the Avengers show up they have to get to that, which is very, very similar to how they had to get to that thing which Loki was using to open the wormhole in the first film. What's more, the landscape Ultron's rendered airborne is partially city, so they have to evacuate as many people as they can and protect civilians from an army of Ultron's killer robots, which is also extraordinarily similar to what happened with the alien Chitauri in the first film. In fact this whole plan reminded me a great deal of an issue of Fantastic Four from the Eighties which I read recently which featured Galactus' rogue herald Terrax lifting the whole of Manhattan from the surface of the earth, and I almost wonder if, had they not used Manhattan for the climax in the previous film, they would have used it here.
1080 Waterboarding.
So Bruce Banner rescues Black Widow, she rather oddly forces or tricks him into becoming the Hulk, they have a big fight with lots of Ultron robots, the flying conference room from the first film shows up with Nick Fury, Robin Scherbatsky and War Machine on board to rescue the civilians, and Iron Man comes up with some bullshit method I didn't catch to negate the whole "Ultron dropping a huge piece of rock back onto the earth" issue. In horrific Joss Whedon post-modern fashion we have it extremely heavily, unsubtly foreshadowed that Hawkeye is going to die now that we've met his long-suffering family, so of course he doesn't - instead Quicksilver does to save his life and that of a small boy. It's basically the postmodernity singularity: it's a Joss Whedon "thing" that a main character dies in his films, but he plays upon that so that we expect it's someone else. The problem is, we've only just met Quicksilver, and because of this film's enormous ensemble cast, we haven't had that much time with him, so his death has very little impact. They wreck Ultron and his robots, Iron Man does... something which causes the "meteor" to explode into apparently harmless fragments, and they all go home for tea.
"So at 'Opinions Can Be Wrong' they say that 'Captain America:
The First Avenger' was the best Marvel film. What have you got to say to that?"

Our final sequence is basically just a set up for what's going to happen next: Captain America and Black Widow are going to run a new "Avengers facility" to seemingly train and coordinate their new set of Avengers: War Machine, Falcon, Scarlet Witch and Vision. Iron Man pisses off to probably go build even more killer robots or something and Thor heads off to the nether regions or what have you in order to figure out what's going on with all the "Infinity Stones" that keep showing up: one in Vision's head (formerly Loki's sceptre), one inside the Tesseract, one in that corruptive black and red stuff Christopher Eccleston was using in "Thor: The Dark World" and one I haven't seen that's apparently in "Guardians of the Galaxy." Meanwhile Hulk has deliberately sent himself off to the Pacific, Banner believing that he and Black Widow shouldn't be together or whatever. Yawn. So ends "Avengers: Two Hours and Twenty Minutes of Ultron."
In my article on the "Age of Ultron" teaser last year, I mused that
The thing is, apart from Ultron I can't help but feel like this is just the same old song and dance. Our heroes are shown in a comfortable place, something goes wrong, they have a big punch up with the bad guy and it ends. So the real challenge, then, is for 'Age of Ultron' to not live up to its teaser, to do something different, to surprise me.
Studio execs confuse the villain and the female lead.
I'm afraid to say that "Age of Ultron" didn't surprise me, at least any further than superficial elements like Hawkeye's family and Quicksilver getting killed. I argued that "Age of Ultron" needed "to not live up to the teaser where it seems to be a generic angsty action film" but I think it lived up to the teaser very well. We've got the Avengers doubting their purpose and fighting amongst themselves, plus some navel-gazing introspection on behalf of Hulk and Black Widow. Even Ultron didn't serve too great a purpose as a reflection of the heroes, really just being a nutcase who wants to destroy the world. The problem with adapting Ultron to a film is that Ultron, as the character was originally invented, is part of a very personal story: the story of his creator in the comics, Doctor Hank Pym, the original Ant-Man, who isn't even going to be in the Marvel Cinematic Universe until the film after this one, and even then not in the role of Ant-Man. Otherwise this just seems to be fairly run-of-the-mill. Despite the fact that there are several geniuses on the team, no one ever intellectualises what's wrong with Ultron's argument, either philosophically or scientifically: that "evolution" has no mutual relationship with peace - if anything it has an antagonistic one - and that "evolution" is not about a species becoming better per se, simply more competently equipped to survive in its environment. This is of course confused by the fact that it's not actually very clear what Ultron does want, and I think in its efforts to make Ultron amusing and foibled, the film makes him seem ineffectual and non-threatening. Ultron ultimately seems too facetious and confused to pose a serious challenge, and as a result I didn't find him very interesting.
"How dare you claim 'Thor: The Dark World' was
'even more forgettable than 'Iron Man 2'!'"
In general I felt like the plot was rushed and didn't make itself abundantly clear a lot of the time. I didn't like the way Black Widow, as the only female Avenger, was given a very trite "emotional" and "romantic" role. I thought the battle between Hulk and Iron Man was a waste of time. I felt that the plot, rather than being a logical continuation of what's come before, seemed simply like a re-hash of it. The death of Quicksilver had no impact. Hawkeye's character is developed awkwardly. Like the first film, Thor's role felt very perfunctory. There was also some dreadful technobabble, with absurd concepts mentioned like some place in Oslo which is supposedly "the hub of the internet" or something equally ridiculous.
¡Arriba!
That being said, I liked the Vision and I thought the film kept up a reasonable pace. I didn't think they did too badly of including Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver up until the end. There were some decent lines and action sequences and stuff to appeal to a Marvel comics enthusiast. One thing I will take issue with, as I did in my list at the beginning, is the design. I think it was this film which really forced me to acknowledge something I find very objectionable about modern superhero films in general: I don't like the way they look. Captain America's costume in particularly is horrible, with an ugly Avengers logo on the shoulder and in a weird shade of deep blue which looks almost purple. Incidentally, whose sneakers did Quicksilver nick from Avengers tower before the final battle? The stupid glowing lights on Black Widow's suit were fairly risible as well, almost evoking the DC Comics New 52 style "let's stick big contrasting lines all over everyone's costumes" aesthetic.
The last thing seen by whoever mandated all this egregious
exploitation shots of Black Widow in this film.
Y'know what one of Marvel Comics' main strengths was back in the Sixties when the majority of these characters were either invented or, in Cap's case, revived? They had artists, particularly Jack Kirby, working on them, who had a talent for distinctive appearances. Give me Cap in swashbuckler boots with little wings on his head, Black Widow with a bright yellow belt, Quicksilver with light blue spandex and pointy hair, whatever. Superheroes don't need to look "realistic" because they're not. As I get older and more cynical, I come to believe more and more than superhero comics always work better when they're "fun" and embrace the absurdity of the premise: not because I'm happy for them to be meaningless, but because I think it makes them more meaningful, a more effective contrast to reality which helps to highlight the issues they raise and the eras they represent. Drab HYDRA goons, gunmetal-grey Ultron robots, the Vision covered in blocky lines, hairy, sallow-green Hulk: they're boring to look at, and make their narratives correspondingly boring. Sadly I think Superman Returns was the last we'll ever see of that kind of film for a long time (and even that one was a little overdesigned, what was with that weird dimple pattern on his costume).
"I really don't want to go back to the gym."
"Age of Ultron" is just a workmanlike piece of product, as I so often describe these things, "well-presented mediocrity" as I called them in the Doctor Strange article. Other than that it's just part of the Disney/Marvel money printing machine, treading water before Phase 3 and "Infinity War" where maybe something interesting will happen. It's not a film I can see myself rushing to see again, not particularly memorable nor especially effective. I wonder if Joss Whedon is sick of this rigmarole, because he's said he's not coming back, and to me at least I felt like in this film he must have already been mentally exhausted. If you want Avengers, read the original comic books - it was pretty groundbreaking, at the time, to run a comic featuring multiple heroes with their own books in a team setting. If you want to watch Avengers, I heartily recommend The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes, the 2010 cartoon series, and particularly its first season. For what is notionally a children's cartoon it's got a pretty complex ongoing narrative and rich characterisation, along with more characters (especially Ant-Man and Wasp, who I feel are badly missed in these films) and its own take on Ultron. Maybe it's because I'm such a devotee of that cartoon that I felt like "Age of Ultron" was showing me something I'd seen before and therefore it didn't especially grasp me, but it's worrying to think that that show achieved in two twenty-minute episodes of a cartoon what this big budget Hollywood film struggles to do in nearly two and a half hours. In less time than this film takes the cartoon series even established Ultron over several episodes as an initially benevolent force, which this film doesn't have time to do. This leads me to wonder how constrained Joss Whedon's vision was, if you'll pardon the pun, a fear I raised in my article on the teaser. No strings? Only the purse-strings, Ultron.
"I phase through your bedroom walls at night."

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Another completely viable response to the Star Wars: Episode VII trailer

Have you seen this comic implying that Star Wars Episode VII trailers bring out one's inner child?

I did an alternate take for those of us who aren't so easily appeased:

All credit to whoever created the original image (a cursory search failed to reveal this information).
(actually the signature in the lower corner reveals completely obviously that it's political cartoonist Rob Tornoe, doesn't it? What can I say? I was drunk when I put this together)

Thursday, April 16, 2015

The 'Sherlock is Overrated' 1500 page views special

Whoa. Look at that! 1500 page views for 'Sherlock is Overrated' and 1600 for 'The Empty Hearse'! I know in the world of the internet that isn't really that many, but by Opinions Can Be Wrong's usual standard (given the regularly esoteric content) it's completely unprecedented. 1500 people who think that Sherlock is Overrated - or want to know why people think it's overrated, I suppose. I daresay some of them are repeat views and there's probably a bit of link jacking in there, but still. Still!

Now the 'The Empty Hearse' review doesn't count because it was linked on Twitter by a TV presenter here in Australia to whom it was shared by a friend of mine (quite without my knowledge) so it garnered a lot of views that way. 'Sherlock is Overrated' has succeeded purely on its own merits, I think by being an article with a title a lot of people were thinking but hadn't written about yet.

In hindsight I think the article is pretty imperfect, largely because it never actually explains how Sherlock is 'overrated,' just what I think is wrong with it. I suppose the logical conclusion is simply 'if it has this much wrong with it, it can't be as good as people say' but I ought to have made that more explicit in the article. In any event it's purely subjective, although I do think more and more people are admitting to themselves these days that the Emperor is walking about unclad. I just wish people would recognise that of a few more of the apparently unimpeachable touchstones of popular culture.

I sort of intend to compose 'Sherlock is Overrated 2; or, Sherlock is Still Overrated' but I haven't managed to do it so far because that would mean actually having to think about the show more, as well as trawling back through the episodes for screen grabs of Benedict Cumberbatch in the middle of sentences so he looks like he's pulling a funny face, and I simply could not be arsed at this point in time. Nonetheless it's good to see that I'm getting to someone or other out there who might otherwise be thinking "Why on earth does everyone think this show is so good?"

It's the same problem with current Doctor Who, really, especially given that they're co-written by the same man. These writers/producers have got good actors and a solid concept on their hands (even if both Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Who are completely irrelevant in the modern day because they're products of radically different contexts to now). But they need to start realising that having a solid, substantial plot is just as important as characterisation. The problem with both of these shows is that they're so obsessively focused on character development that they don't achieve anything. Without both plot and character, they go nowhere, because pure characterisation doesn't work. It doesn't do anything. These elements should work towards some kind of thematic goal. Character studies only function within a broader text in service of themes. Otherwise you're just exploring fictional characters, and who cares about that? They're fictional characters, not real people.

But I won't bother getting into all that here. The point is, Sherlock is overrated. Actually, maybe it isn't anymore because people are starting to realise that it's a bit arsey. But we'll see what happens at the time of the next series. In the meantime, why not read the original novels and short stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle? They're actually good. Well, most of them are.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Supervillain Rushmore

Have you ever seen this? It's, as you should be able to tell, a piece of humorous-style artwork depicting Mount Rushmore but with the faces of Darth Vader, Megatron, Cobra Commander and Doctor Doom. It's been floating around on the internet for a few years.

Now I know it's just a piece of amusing artistry. But there's a missed opportunity here which will never be able to be rectified without looking like a rip-off of this work. Let's consider the four faces.

Darth Vader: central character of the Star Wars films, antagonist or co-antagonist of the Original Trilogy, franchise figurehead and marketing bonanza.

Megatron: main bad guy from the Hasbro toy line Transformers, and specifically as seen here the version from the 80s glorified commericals known as the cartoon series.

Cobra Commander: main bad guy from the Hasbro toy line G.I. Joe, and specifically as seen here the version from the 80s glorified commercials known as the cartoon series.

Doctor Doom: supervillain from Marvel Comics, archenemy of the Fantastic Four.

Notice something? Film villain, 80s toy/cartoon villain, 80s toy/cartoon villain, comic book villain.

This should totally be the "80s toy/cartoon villain" Rushmore.

"Who else would you put there?" I hear you ask. Easy. Firstly, get rid of Doom and Vader. They're both odd ones out.

80s toy/cartoon villain 1: Skeletor. Obvious, really. He's the bad guy from Masters of the Universe. Masters of the Universe is an 80s toy line that was adapted for television as a series of glorified commercials presented as a cartoon series. Put him on the far right.

80s toy/cartoon villain 2: Shredder from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Okay, so TMNT was originally a comic book which was then adapted as a children's cartoon from which a line of toys derived, but in my opinion it's the closest equivalent. Put him on the far left.

I've now found a picture which was Cobra, Megatron and Skeletor but they had Mumm-Ra. I guess that could work, but I know nothing about Thundercats - it was one of those things that didn't seem to make it into Australian childhoods - so I guess if you prefer, take that one. Surely of all these things Thundercats is the most obscure.

In any event we would have:
Shredder
Megatron
Cobra Commander
Skeletor

Ah, consistency of theme. The only other option which comes to mind is Doctor Claw from Inspector Gadget and part of his schtick obviously is that you never see his face so he'd hardly work unless you used the MAD logo or something.

This has been bugging me for ages. I don't mean this as an attack on the original piece, just a commentary on how I felt like it could make more sense. I don't know why I care. I don't like 80s cartoons and I've never even seen Masters of the Universe or G.I. Joe. It just seems like one of those missed opportunities (although I realise that wasn't the point of the original artwork).

Feel free to make this if you wish and put it on Twitter or somewhere tagged with "opinions can be wrong," I might stumble upon it.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Concerns before the 2015 "Fantastic Four" film adaptation

Fun fact: in Portugese, Doctor Doom is called 'Doutor Destino.'

Apart from the fact that it simply doesn't look like it's going to be very good, I'm reasonably convinced that the next attempt to realise Marvel's First Family on the silver screen is going to be little more successful than the one before. We already know that the reason this is going ahead is largely so that Fox can avoid losing its film option, which makes this 2015 production in some respects a high-budget reiteration of the 1994 ashcan copy which, if anyone's seen it, occupies an uneasy space between "so bad it's good" and "actually just very bad." The best thing that can be said of that rare cinematic experience is that Doctor Doom's costume is quite good, although the actor, Mister Joseph Culp, is partially muffled by the mask. Did they not put a microphone inside? Anyway, it's Doom I wanted to talk about.

Sorting out the Fantastic Four themselves is never going to be a huge stretch of the imagination for filmmakers. Inevitably, Reed will be the stretchy smart guy who lacks certain social graces or takes life too seriously, Sue is the strong core of the group who can turn invisible and project force fields, Johnny is a hot head who can fly and set himself on fire and Ben is the tormented one who's been turned into a monster. I'm not saying that's all there is to the characters, but that's what filmmakers are going to see.

The reason why Doom works in the best of the comics, and the reason why he's never worked in a film, is because he functions most successfully as a dark reflection of the Fantastic Four: a Jungian shadow or nemesis figure, as attested on the website The Great American Novel which analyses the comics from the 60s to the 80s. Doom is never used this way in the films, and as such he doesn't work at all. To be specific, Doom reflects each of the four heroes individually and as a whole:
  1. Like Reed, Doom is an intellectual, but he is not a purely rational character. He supplements his scientific expertise and technological resources with magic, injecting an element of superstition into the framework. The fact that Reed does not dwell on his own genius is also reflected by Doom's arrogance and pride.
  2. Sue's conviction and strength of character are reflected by Doom's stubbornness, obsessive nature and warped code of honour.
  3. Johnny's extroversion and passionate, energetic behaviour is shadowed by Doom's grandiosity and his short temper (as well as his showy costume).
  4. Like Ben, Doom is deeply insecure about his appearance, but while Ben tends to confront the world openly and dares the world to react, Doom hides behind a mask and an elaborate costume intended to inspire dread and awe.
  5. The Fantastic Four are intrinsically a family. Doom is ultimately alone, emphasised by his tendency to surround himself with robot duplicates made in his own image. His closest confidant, his seneschal Boris, fears him, his adopted son Kristoff is forced to become him in case of emergencies, and his childhood sweetheart, Valeria, rejected him when she discovered what a tyrant he had become as an adult.
  6. The Fantastic Four are something of a capitalist-democratic success story, embodying how hard work, talent and a little luck could allow one to achieve prosperity, freedom and happiness (apart from all the villain-fighting). Doom is an autocrat who used his skills to seize control of his homeland and rule it. How benevolent Doom is seems to depend very much on the author, but Doom contrasts to the Four in that while their lives are about gaining power over themselves and their own lives, Doom is interested in power over other people.
I'm not claiming to have some particular insight into the character of Doctor Doom that other people lack, but I think that gives at least a sense of why Doom is so successful in artistic terms as the archenemy and sometime begrudging ally of the Fantastic Four. Obviously the reason he's been a villain in other comics, the Avengers and the like, is because he looks cool, is powerful and has reasonably clear motivations, but that's why Doom works in the best Fantastic Four comics.

The reason why Doom doesn't work in adaptations is because they always change him to such an extent that he becomes irrelevant. In the 1994 ashcan he wants the FF's powers because he believes that the cosmic radiation, which he was studying in the film with Reed, should have been experienced by him but the accident got in the way. In the 2005 film he's made similarly irrelevant because, like his form in the Ultimate Comics, he actually gains powers in the same way as the FF, in the same incident, which means that instead of being a reflection of them, he just is one of them, but evil. One facet of Doom's character which also makes him an effective foil to the Four in the comics is that he doesn't have powers, but has gained power through his study of science and magic. As a combatant, Doom is basically the same as Iron Man, a human being in a powered suit of armour that can fly and shoot lasers out of his hands. The FF are about dealing with and managing the powers they received by accident, while Doom is focused on giving himself more power intentionally.
Approved by the Comics Code Authority.

Doom also doesn't work in the 2005 film because he has no motivation beyond revenge. While Doom in the comics is partially motivated by transferred self-loathing which manifests as resentment towards Reed, a major part of his characterisation is that he desires rulership, initially over the world and later merely over Latveria so that he may order it. In the 2005 film I suppose you could say that Doom represents, however blandly, the corporate world which only values profit while Reed represents purely scientific academia, but it's hardly borne out through the film. He is also motivated in the 2005 film by a lust for Sue, which means that he fails as a foil for the team: Doom in the comics is a loner by choice because he has such contempt and mistrust for the world around him.

So what does any of this have to do with the 2015 film, I hear you ask? Well let's take what we know about Doom in the new film, derived from some websites I saw: supposedly Doom is a "very anti-social programmer" who is known on blogs by the username "Doom."

Right.

Y'know, I don't want a big fanboy about it, because they're just film adaptations. Fantastic Four is a comic. That's kind of an issue with this whole superhero film market at the moment. Comic book characters work best in comics because that's their medium. And there are a bajillion good comics with good, proper Doctor Doom in, many of which I have read. But the thing is, I'm very sceptical about this being a good direction in which to take Doom.

Doom is the shadow of the FF. He's the fifth member of the Fantastic Four. He needs to reflect them, to be like and yet unlike them. If he's doing that, then he's doing his job, and it doesn't matter if he's a programmer or whatever. But the thing is, this situation seems to me like they want Doom to be "modernised," and I think this isn't the way to go.

One of the important elements of the Fantastic Four is that they embody forward-looking attitudes, optimism and futurity. Doom is a monarch, and represents a different kind of society. He's a scientist who also uses magic, which suggests something both old-world and new-world about him. This is also embodied in the fact that he is European while the Four are American. A good example might be in the classic "This Land Is Mine" issue of John Byrne's run on the comic, in which Doom is simultaneously the enemy of the Four (who represent capitalism), the enemy of Zorba, the King of Latveria who seized the throne from Doom by claiming inheritance from his brother, and the enemy of the Soviets - one of the reasons he wishes to rule Latveria is to better protect it from being absorbed into the Eastern bloc. So Doom is an anti-capitalist, anti-communist and anti-traditionalist. Possibly this makes Doom a fascist, if anything. At the same time Doom is Romany, and therefore naturally an enemy of racist fascists like the Red Skull.

What this means is that in a sense Doom embodies that idea which lurks inside of many people which is a form of introspection bias: "I can see how the world should work, but no one else seemingly can. If only I was in charge, everything would be put right." In that sense it might be appropriate for Doom to be an "anti-social programmer." But the point of Doom is that he's anti-everything, except Latveria and himself. For this reason I think putting Doom into this modern mould risks rendering him irrelevant, because it makes him part of an existing cultural structure - internet culture. Another reason Doom is the shadow of the Four is because the Four are about forging a path, and about freedom, while Doom achieves this not in his actions but in his attitude: while he achieves a great deal, he is interested in rejecting, denying and belittling all existing structures. This is obviously represented in how regularly Doom tends to abuse his diplomatic immunity when he's in the United States.

"Only one of us has enough fanboys to triumph!"
On the website I mentioned previously, The Great American Novel, it's argued that Doom's fundamental motivation is simply that he wants to feel important. Now this again seems like a reasonable idea to be applied to an online figure, given the notion that many trolls and online commentators do so because yelling uselessly into the void of cyberspace is the only way they can deal with their crushing feelings of unimportance and irrelevance (the irony is not lost on me incidentally). This is a fact borne out every day, of course: the people at the top of the chain in most online "controversies" - that is, multinational corporations and their decision-making bodies - have probably no knowledge and certainly no interest whatsoever in the demands or arguments of online nobodies. But Doom is not a character ruling over a petty little online kingdom of misery but a man who wishes to impose himself upon the world in a public and spectacular way.

Now I might be proved wrong by the characterisation of Doom in the film. I might be, although I highly doubt it. I suppose my point in the end is this: Doom is the archetypal super-villain. One of the biggest problems in my opinion is that Marvel Studios don't have the rights to the character. I'm not one of those people who thinks that everything Marvel Studios does is gold - in fact I think a lot of it is well-presented mediocrity - but I think they would have got Doom right. I mean, he's so hard to get wrong. He's a tyrant in power armour who calls himself 'Doctor Doom.' You can basically put him in anything and he'll work - as long as you keep him that way. But I don't think many modern Hollywood studios are too interested in the subtlety which can be derived from a character like Doom. It's a mistaken impression, obviously. Look at the enduring popularity and cultural resonance of Darth Vader, a character partially modelled on Doom. I haven't even touched on another part of Doom's characterisation in this, his relationship with his parents, which is another effective element of his characterisation which remains untapped onscreen. I think it's a shame that there's all this interesting stuff happening in source material which has never survived the adaptation process, and continues to not survive. Why not try Doom in his original state? The only time it's ever been attempted is in the 1994 ashcan which was never intended to be seen by anyone.

Compelling villains have been all the rage since The Dark Knight and Doom could easily be no exception, even from a bottom-line marketing point of view: a grandiose antagonist in a fancy costume who could be the subject of any number of t-shirts, toys and internet memes. It's actually something Marvel have generally bungled in my opinion. The only villain they've come up with, across Fox, Sony and Marvel Studios who has gained any mileage is Loki (the only other memorable one is Ian McKellen's version of Magneto, and that mostly works because Ian McKellen is a very good actor). Doom needs to be evil, but also visually impressive and charismatic, the kind of guy people will quote as they're leaving the cinema. He needs to be the guy who you kind of want to win.

At the end of the day though, comic books are comic books, and not movies. One of their failings in the modern day is that they're trying to be movies, which they aren't. Doom works as a comic book villain. He especially works as a comic book villain in the 60s, 70s and 80s - these days he's practically a good guy half the time. His value could extend outside that, but only if filmmakers and the like recognise why the character is so distinctive and effective, which they rarely seem to do. It's not about treating comics that only a handful of people these days read with "respect"; they're not sacrosanct and only the fanboyism of naïve consumers treats them that way. It's about the fact that these ideas were assembled originally in good faith for an artistic reason, and for an adaptation to succeed it really needs to be making similar artistic decisions to its source material. One of the reasons adaptations so regularly artistically fail (even if they succeed commerically because the average consumer neither recognises nor cares about this problem) is because they are simultaneously trying to be one thing (the source material) and another, different thing, usually in another medium (the adaptation). But one thing is not necessarily another thing, and altering the first thing can easily mean that none of it makes sense after the alterations are made (it's one of the reasons Peter Jackson's Hobbit films don't remotely function at all as any kind of story).

If you want good Doctor Doom, read any of the following: Lee/Kirby era Fantastic Four featuring the character (you'd be surprised how much was introduced straight away: Doom went to college with Reed, he was injured in a magical experiment, he likes living in castles, he has a time machine), John Byrne era Fantastic Four featuring the character (like Chris Claremont with Magneto I'd argue he was more interested in the villain than he was with the actual main characters of the comic he was writing), the one shot "graphic novel" (more correctly known as a 'long comic book' - "graphic novel" is marketing speak for men in 80s business suits) Emperor Doom, and if you want something more modern, Ed Brubaker's Books of Doom if you want a sympathetic view of the character, or Mark Waid's run on Fantastic Four if you want a really unsympathetic view of the character (he murders his aforementioned childhood sweetheart and makes a suit of magic armour out of her skin). There's also Super Villain Team-Up from the 70s but while that's essentially Doom's comic (he was the main character for most of it) it's mostly just him acting like a moustache-twirling villain and most of the "teaming up" actually involves him having slap fights with other villains with whom he can't get along. Maybe that was the point.

Long story short, "Fantastic Four 2015" probably won't be very good and their modern take on Doom, whether it's good or bad, will probably never be as good as making an attempt to actually use the original character as he is, which has never been done and has more artistic relevance and merit. How am I able to write an article this long about a comic book character? What am I doing with my life?
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iWxo1VV3QyY#t=0m47s
The only good 'Doom' moment ever in live action.
'Nuff said.