Monday, May 20, 2013

Riske Business: Five Requests for Marvel Phase Two

I have a complicated relationship with Marvel movies – more specifically, the movies with the Avengers. This is the group that has completed the studio's Phase One and have begun Phase Two with Iron Man 3. I like most of the Marvel movies to some extent. They are entertaining and energetic. But they are starting to bug me. These movies are not going away anytime soon. They’re too big to fail. They print money. I’m not saying tear them down. I’m saying they need to step it up for Phase Two. Here’s how.
Make the Best Action Sequences of All-Time: Superhero movies have replaced most of today’s action movies. For every traditional action movie, we seem to get two movies starring one of the DC or Marvel superheroes. The trouble is that the action in the superhero genre is mostly lacking. The special effects work is state-of-the-art, but they are not keen on practical effects and old-fashioned stunt work. It is those tangible qualities that lend excitement and an 'anything can happen' feel to the action movies of old. In superhero movies, ANYTHING can happen; as a result, the stakes are lowered (e.g. we know Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark is never going to die in one of these movies because he’s too valuable $$$ in this role) and we’re watching special effects reels instead of fights driven by brute force. They have the budgets. Why aren’t these the greatest action sequences of all time? For example, shouldn’t the fight for the fate of the world in The Avengers be at least as exciting as any of the 100 hand-to-hand fights from The Raid: Redemption?

Comment on Society/Have More Meaning: Shouldn’t the Marvel Avengers movies be more ambitious? The X-Men series is about tolerance and civil rights and Christopher Nolan’s Batman series commented on terrorism. The Avengers' series of movies are just entertainment in my eyes. Why can’t they just be entertainment? My answer is because they are the summit of pop culture right now. They make the most money, they have the widest audience and they are directly affecting creative decisions for the most powerful form of art there is: movies. In the words of Uncle Ben, "With great power comes great responsibility."

Marvel movies have themes, but they are self-contained themes and not commenting enough on today’s society. But before we get to that, let me say this: I work in an office and people often want to have "film conversations" with me about Marvel movies. I do it, but I’m often disinterested within a minute because it’s like talking about cotton candy. Sure, it’s good when you have it, but it disappears quickly from your senses and leaves you still feeling hungry. Marvel movies are like that to me. These movies reach the biggest audience globally of any other movie series – they need to stop squandering that opportunity. Have more on your mind, Marvel movies!

Why not delve deeper into some of these?

1. The Military Industrial complex
2. The responsibilities of corporations and the one percent
3. Mental health and wellness
4. Performance enhancing drugs
5. Immigration
6. Nationalism
7. Disabilities
8. Equality
9. Xenophobia
10. Globalization
More Resolutions; Less Continuations: Continuations or serializing works great in comic books or television shows, but not so much in movies. Marvel wasn’t the first outfit to be more invested in having serials than stand-alone stories, but they sure are reinforcing that it’s a good business decision. This is a bad, bad trend for geek culture. I like stand-alone movies. Why should I care about the first Avengers movie, for example, if I know Loki is still around and a bunch of aliens in outer space can pounce at any moment? What was really accomplished in the first movie? Maybe I’m a moralistic fuddy duddy, but I want to see good defeat evil -- not just withstand it multiple times.

Have Iconic Scores: The Avengers need hummers! Not those kind of hummers, but memorable theme songs. I would argue that not one of the Avengers characters has their own identifiable theme music a la Batman, Superman etc. Isn’t it a no-brainer for filmmakers to make sure that’s included? How do the Marvel movies have the audacity to feature such generic music?
Hire Better Directors: Jon Favreau is a director-for-hire. Same with Joe Johnston (to more consistent success). The Incredible Hulk was directed by Louis Letterier, who is not great. Then you’ve got Kenneth Brannagh and Shane Black, who are unusual, interesting choices but not necessarily great action directors. Joss Whedon (here it comes) is a fanboy and I’d argue too reverent to the material. I don’t get the appeal at all, but I’m in the vast minority on this. So what I’m saying is, Marvel is not swinging for the fences in these director choices. In fact, it strikes me as Marvel hiring directors they know will toe the company line or that they can control/override. Until they take some additional chances with more ambitious directors (Ang Lee aside) who aren’t known for geek properties, these will all pale in comparison to the home run cuts Christopher Nolan took with the Batman series. We live in a world where those are the new benchmarks. It’s not 2002 anymore; Marvel superhero movies can’t JUST be diversions.

What would you like to see from Marvel in Phase Two?


  1. I know you asked me a question, but I'm going to ask YOU a question, Adam. If you could see any director tackle any particular Marvel franchise (or maybe even superhero franchise in general) who would it be? I'll be honest that I don't really have my own answer for this, but since you brought it up, I would be interested to read if you have any specific ideas of your own.

    Actually, I take that back, there is one I'm super interested to see: Edgar Wright with Ant-Man.

  2. Good question John!

    Avengers sequel - Brad Bird

    1. Great call! If we can't see Brad Bird take on Star Wars, then I wouldn't mind a Brad Bird superhero movie.

  3. Not sure who else they're bringing in to direct during Phase Two, but with entries helmed by Shane Black, James Gunn, and Edgar Wright I'd say they've addressed your fifth point pretty darn well (in theory anyhoo).

  4. Erich, I agree with you somewhat, however, they some lightweights for the Thor sequel (The Sopranos and other TV, The Emperor's New Clothes) and the Captain America sequel (Welcome to Colinwood, You Me and Dupree.)

    1. I think that the directors for Thor and Cap should be given a chance before they are automatically dismissed as "lightweights." Favreau was unproven as a fantasy/action director before Iron Man (unless you count Zathura, but since virtually no one saw that, I won't) and everything seemed to turn out pretty okay.

    2. Point taken and thanks for commenting Albert. I chose the word 'lightweights' more out of frustration with Marvel than to begrudge the directors of the Thor and Captain America sequels.

      Just my opinion but I think Favreau got lucky with the first Iron Man based on the rest of his directing resume.

  5. I would be happier if they were focusing on new properties instead of the sequels. Here's an idea: make short films for each of the Avengers instead and put them in front of the new character movies. Or make the first non-horror comic book anthology movie to fill the gap between Avengers 1 & 2.

    1. I like the short film idea. Am I crazy, or were there rumors that Marvel wanted to make short films for lesser characters (like Doctor Strange) to play before films like Iron Man as a way to introduce them to people?

      Also, Adam, I couldn't agree more about the scores. As I sit here I can't think of a single one.

  6. Thanks Adam, for pointing how flat-out weak and unmemorable most of the scores for these Marvel movies are. When I think of the "X-Men" movies (the first two mostly) I totally remember John Ottman's score. For Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man" flicks the last-minute soundtrack by Danny Elfman might screen 'generic' but it's at least catchy and memorable. And John Williams' score for the original "Superman: The Movie" pretty much sets the template for epic score matching an epic movie.

    The scores that have disappointed me the most, personally, were the scores for "Captain America: First Avenger" and "The Avengers" by Alan Silvestri. So got damn generic and forgettable (except for the Captain's music montage when he was selling war bonds, which stands out but it's not soundtrack music), not worthy of the awesome premise and execution of it that you're witnessing.

    1. I think the lack of a "memorable" score in the latest comic book movies speaks more about how modern film music is percieved in movies these days.

      It sort of started around the time of the Dark Knight (and Inception) where Hans Zimmer stated in an interview that he's "not interested in massive heroic tunes anymore". He started to focus on minimalist ideas - in his words "emotional not sentimental" or dignity over "bullshit heroic".

      As a result, later movies went with this trend - Magneto's theme in X-men: First Class was pretty much a bassline. Watchmen, Green Lantern, Kick-Ass all have pretty anonymous scores.

      A recent exception to this dampened approach would be The Amazing Spiderman, but most people I know hate the score (e.g. those piano strikes when Gwen is hiding in the closet, the chanting when Uncle Ben dies, the finger snaps during the basketball scene). It seems that modern audiences/directors don't want film music to be overbearingly obvious (look at the backlash the great John Williams recieved over War Horse).

      That being said, in the lead up to The Avengers, each Avenger had their own "sound" if not their own theme: Thor had the Remote Control sound, Captain America had the old fashioned symphonic score, Iron Man had the rock sound, The Incredible Hulk had the primal classical horror sound. From what I read, Whedon chose to not use those established sounds for the Avengers movie because he felt that they couldn't be combined seamlessly. But check out the "Captain America March", or "Thor Kills the Destroyer", or "The Avengers" tracks - they have themes, they're just not overtly used in their movies.

      What I'm saying is that if the music you hear in the movie sounds generic (and I don't disagree with you), I'd put forth that it's more about the director's choices rather than the output of the composer.

    2. I'll take your word for it and pass some of the blame to the directors not caring enough about their movie's soundtrack to push their composers (like William Friedkin did with "The Exorcist," though that's an extreme example). Still, a good composer can work within the limitations imposed on him/her by a director and deliver reasonable and musically sound BGM. Zimmer & Co. aren't delivering "Superman"-quality music for "The Dark Knight," but the music in that movie has a presence and identity (like a living, breathing backdrop to the ongoing proceedings) totally MIA from the Marvel movies.