Monday, May 6, 2013

The Curse of Superhero Movie Part Threes

And does Iron Man 3 break it?

Has there ever been a really satisfying Part Three in a superhero series? The conventional wisdom is that the first movie sets up the character and tells the origin story. With that out of the way, the second movie can explore the world and tell an actual story about the characters. Many superhero sequels are superior to the first movies: Spider-Man 2, X2: X-Men United, Blade II, The Dark Knight. But by movie three, outside interests take over. Things get out of control.

Let's make this clear: Iron Man 3 (or Iron Man Three as its referred to on screen) does not suffer from the same franchise fatigue as most superhero sequels. Yes, it does add more characters than it knows what to do with (coughRebeccaHallcough) -- a common problem with Part Threes -- but it does a good job of balancing the characters and the stories. It doesn't just throw elements into the mix for fan service and, in fact, subverts that whole idea in a way that some will consider brilliant and will make the purists furious. It's one of the best Part Threes of any superhero series. Probably THE best. But it does get me thinking about the curse that has plagued so many comic book threequels in the past.

Turns out it's not really a curse, by the way. Nearly all of the problems in superhero Part Threes can be boiled down to a) money, b) studio interference and c) fan service. It's all avoidable.
The problems start with 1983's Superman III, the first superhero Part Three and the first to present the kinds of problems that would plague nearly every part three that would follow. With two Superman movies out of the way, it was clearly time to start MIXING IT UP, and someone figured out that what was missing from this franchise based on one of the most beloved and iconic comic book characters of all time was Richard Pryor. Superman! Richard Pryor! What could go wrong? Pretty much everything. There were two paths that the third Superman movie could take: the sincere, straightforward approach of Richard Donner's original movie, or the campy, silly tone of Richard Lester's contributions to the follow-up. Superman III takes the latter approach, bringing Lester back for a movie that's more comedy than superhero story. Pryor's involvement makes no sense and feels like the kind of stunt casting that was popular on TV shows in the '70s and '80s. It's the Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan's Island. It's The Three Stooges on Scooby-Doo.

And, yet, because it's a genre movie from the '80s, there is one thing in it that is FUCKING TERRIFYING. Annie Ross getting pulled into the giant computer and turned into a robot is one of the scariest things I've ever seen in a movie, and really the only thing that I can now remember about Superman III. Maybe that's for the best.
Next up was Batman Forever (1995), and things hadn't changed much in the decade-plus since Superman III. Forever suffers from some of the same problems as Superman III -- an increased reliance on humor and an overall "more is more" mentality -- but the real reason it takes such a departure from the previous two Tim Burton installments is the change in director. Gone was Burton, and replacing him was set dresser-turned-director Joel Schumacher, the man responsible for such beloved favorites as St. Elmo's Fire and The Lost Boys. Everything about his filmography SCREAMS "Batman."

Batman Forever has a horrible reputation, only some of which is deserved. Yes, Joel Schumacher takes things in a campy, cartoonish direction (what he describes as "more toyetic," via a studio edict), and yes, Tommy Lee Jones gives one of the worst performances not just in any superhero movie, but in any Hollywood movie PERIOD, especially for an actor who has won at least one Oscar and been nominated a couple other times. The bat suit has nipples! This has become shorthand for everything that's wrong with the Schumacher Batmans, even though it's NOT THAT BIG A DEAL, EVERYONE. There are plenty of other problems with the movie -- chiefly, there are too many characters. The Batman series is almost mathematic in the way that adds at least one major character for every sequel. In the first movie, you had Batman and The Joker. Batman Returns has the Caped Crusader fighting two villains: Catwoman and The Penguin. Forever keeps the "two villain" approach, but wrongly decides to add another hero character with Chris O'Donnell's Robin (the fourth movie would have THREE heroes and THREE villains). This is where these movies go wrong: someone decides that at some point in the series, the filmmakers HAVE to include something popular or recognizable from the comics to please a fanbase that is probably not asking for it, instead of considering what is right for the story that they are trying to tell.
Having said that, the addition of Robin is probably the best thing about Batman Forever. I'm no fan of Robin as a character (or even Chris O'Donnell as an actor, even though he is FINE), but the screenplay does a good job of tying the character's origins into the themes of the movie -- is revenge worth the cost of your soul? It's about as tired a theme as there is, but that's the stuff in Forever that works. Schumacher keeps thing energetic, which undoubtedly infuriates the fans of Burton's "dark" Gotham, but the character had been through so many incarnations in the comic that there is room for more than one interpretation of Batman. I'm not sure this is a very good one, but it's not the worst, either. Many shots in the movie could be frames right out of a comic book, and the exploration of Bruce Wayne's psychology give this installment more weight than the sequel that would follow, Batman & Robin, a film so hated that Forever catches fanboy shrapnel just by association. Forever does a much better job of straddling the line between the Burton universe and the Schumacher one. It's messy and it's silly, but there are things to like. Fire away.

Next up was Blade: Trinity (2004) almost 10 years later. While flawed, the first Blade did a lot of heavy lifting: it introduced Wesley Snipes' badass daywalking vampire character, established his world and helped make superhero movies viable after Batman & Robin shit the bed. While X-Men is credited for launching the current wave of superhero movies, people often forget that Blade was actually Marvel's first attempt to bring one of its characters to the big screen (in a real way, which discounts the Roger Corman Fantastic Four and Albert Pyun's super low-budget Captain America). Guillermo del Toro ignored the aesthetic that Stephen Norrington had established in making his 2002 sequel, instead making a del Toro movie that just happens to have Blade in it. He turned it into Shakespearean tragedy, and it's one of the very best comic book sequels and the best in the Blade series.
For the third movie, screenwriter David S. Goyer was given the reins as director and proved to have no real flair for the job. Blade: Trinity has no style, no tone, nothing to distinguish it from dozens of other bad sequels. What it does have is one good idea -- that Blade would fight Dracula -- torpedoed by a total lack of interest in making Dracula a compelling villain and Dominic Purcell's generic performance. But just in case that isn't enough -- and in Part Threes, it NEVER IS -- Trinity adds in extra villains like Parker Posey and wrestler Triple H as her henchman, plus scores of generic vampires. It ALSO adds new characters on the hero's side (because no one goes to see a Blade movie to ONLY see Blade): Jessica Biel as thrice-dead Whistler's daughter and Ryan Reynolds as smart-ass Hannibal King. In retrospect, it's a good thing he did; the production of the movie was such a nightmare and Goyer has such conflict with crazy Wesley Snipes that Biel and Reynolds wound up being his salvation. Reynolds, making his debut as a super-cut action hero, is maybe the only good thing in the movie...depending on your tolerance for sarcasm and smarm.
Two years later came perhaps the most notorious part three (at least until the following year) with X-Men: The Last Stand (2006). Wrongheadedly rushed into production, The Last Stand lost original director Bryan Singer, who went off to go prove he knew how to make Superman really boring. He was right! Matthew Vaughn was brought on to direct, making a lot of interesting casting choices and getting things set up before walking off the movie because of the ridiculous production schedule Fox was imposing. That left the studio with a franchise goldmine and an announced release date but no director. Enter Brett Ratner.

Ratner is a douche, no doubt about it, but he is not what's wrong with X-Men: The Last Stand. He gets all of the blame, of course, because he makes for an easy target for fanboys and because his public persona makes it impossible to like or sympathize with him. His movies tend to be well-made but generic, because Ratner is little more than a decent director-for-hire. Marvel movies have, for the most part, been successful because they couple beloved properties with specific directorial visions. Ratner doesn't have that. But he almost didn't need one, because he just decided to try and match the aesthetic that had already been established by Singer in the first two movies. He's mostly successful, too. What Ratner lacks in originality, he makes up for in being a good mimic.

Ultimately, it is Fox that's to blame for the mess of The Last Stand. The movie is frustrating because it dares to try and tell the Dark Phoenix story -- one of the best-known and beloved story arcs in all of comics -- and completely whiffs it. Characters are killed off for no reason than because their contracts were up or because they had to go off and make a movie with Bryan Singer. Most of the character work established in the first two movies is ignored, as is the political subtext. Scenes change from day to night with no sense of time passing. It's a sloppy, sloppy movie. That's not really Ratner. That's Fox being determined to release a movie before they made sure it was close to being ready.
There are actually things to like in X-Men: The Last Stand. A few setpieces still work, and the movie is the first in the series to really cut loose and provide huge, mutant-on-mutant action that fans of the comic had been reading for years. When characters start throwing flaming cars at one another, it finally feels like something on the scale of the pages of Uncanny X-Men. And while the movie manages to botch both the Dark Phoenix story AND the "mutant cure" storyline from Joss Whedon's run on Astonishing X-Men, what could have made The Last Stand work better is if there was a sequel that actually had to deal with the mess made here. Explore the X-Men universe not led by Professor X or Magneto. Explore a universe in which many mutants had been cured, either voluntarily or otherwise. Instead, Fox recognized they had fucked up and hired Matthew Vaughn back to "reboot" the franchise with X-Men First Class.

As if to distract from the mess made by The Last Stand, Marvel made an even bigger mess of a beloved franchise with Spider-Man 3 in 2007. Once again, studio interference crippled the movie, with Marvel's Avi Arad insisting that the villainous Venom be included despite the fact that director Sam Raimi wanted no part of the character. Spider-Man 3 suffers from franchise bloat as much as any superhero sequel since Batman Forever; now there are two villains, two heroes (if you spoiler count Harry Osborne's turn at the climax) and even two love interests. Bryce Dallas Howard shows up as Gwen Stacy for NO REASON other than someone said "Hey, this is the third movie, we should throw Gwen Stacy into the mix." It's exactly the kind of thinking that tends to derail these superhero series in their third outings.
Spider-Man 3 is a big, big mess; having turned into a moneymaking machine with the success of the first two films, it's clear that too many hands, too many suggestions and too much money made the thing spiral out of Raimi's control. There are flashes that work; much of the series has been about how it's hard to be Spider-Man, and 3 certainly continues that trend, but too many characters and too many tone problems sink the movie. Despite the presence of recognizable characters like Sandman (a well-cast Thomas Haden Church) and Gwen Stacy, no one has any personality. Venom/Eddie Brock (Topher Grace) is probably the best-drawn supporting character in the movie, and he's the worst. Grace was clearly cast because of his resemblance to Tobey Maguire -- Raimi wants to explore the idea of an evil mirror image of Peter Parker. Then why do an entire subplot when Peter Parker himself turns evil? The movie needs TWO goateed Spocks? The most frustrating thing about Spider-Man 3 is that it's just one or two rewrites away from being...maybe not "good," but much, much better. And no, the problem with the movie is NOT the dance scene. That's just become ignorant fanboy shorthand, like nipples on the batsuit. The problems run deeper.

If ever there was a superhero Part Three that seemed destined to break the streak, it was 2012's The Dark Knight Rises. Christopher Nolan's follow-up to The Dark Knight -- one of the most beloved superhero movies of all time -- does some things right, but still succumbs to some of the same problems as other Part Threes. There are a lot of characters, including Bane, Catwoman, Talia al Ghul and even a passing mention to Robin, plus Batman, Alfred, Commissioner Gordon and the rest. Where Nolan's movie succeeds and others have failed is that the inclusion of all these characters isn't about fan service; he make most of them matter, and they're on board as a way of building and expanding the universe he creates. Where The Dark Knight Rises falls short is in its themes, which are a confused mess complicated further by how well Nolan had teed himself up in the previous two movies. Rises should have knocked it out of the park. It doesn't. Of course, plenty of fans disagree, claiming that it's the best in the series. Maybe that argument works in comparison to other superhero sequels. As Part Threes go, The Dark Knight Rises is pretty good. As a Christopher Nolan Batman movie, though, it's a mess.

There is one very, very good thing about it.


  1. Amen to that Adam. X-Men 3 > X-Men by 5 touchdowns.

    Wow, has that 1st X-Men movie aged badly. The lousy CGI, poorly executed action scenes (Singer, like Burton in his 1st Batman movie, had no idea how to film action), & a lot of characters that have no personality (Singer also proved he could make Rogue boring too). The only positives in there are the performances of Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, & Hugh Jackman. I know Singer had to worked on a limited budget & a rushed schedule, (I believe X-Men was originally scheduled for a Winter 2000 release) but he wasn’t ready for a big action movie yet.

    I think superhero fans set their standards so low after the Batman & Robin/Spawn/Steel debacles of 1997 that they would gush over any superhero movie that wasn’t campy & had some decent acting in it. If X-Men was released today, it would get laughed off the screen & bashed relentlessly.

    There are a lot of problems with The Last Stand but most of the effects work was solid & at least Ratner could deliver with the mutant-on-mutant action in the Alcatraz finale.
    As for The Dark Knight Rises, I don’t think it’s the best in the series, but I already gotten into this argument before with Patrick & I won’t be able to change how wrong he is about TDKR like Roger Ebert’s 2 star review of Die Hard was.

    The Dark Knight > The Dark Knight Rises > Batman Begins

    As for Spiderman 3, I need to know what rewrites or changes Patrick would suggest to improve it. (Maybe in another podcast?) I would’ve dumped the whole script & start from scratch. It still amazes me how the 90’s Spiderman cartoon completely got the Venom character right while a $250+ million blockbuster movie just totally botched it.

    1. I still think there's a lot of things that the first X-Men does right (just taking the characters and the world seriously felt like a revolution after the '90s), but I agree that it has aged badly. The effects weren't even that good in 2000, much less 13 years and MANY advancements later.

      There are too many things to say about Spider-Man 3, but here's one example. One of the most derided parts of the movie is when Harry's butler (Bill Paxton's dad!) reveals the truth about what happened between Osborne and Peter, and THAT'S when Harry jumps in to help. Not only is it a laughable scene because of bad acting, but it retcons a very significant moment in the series. So why not just have Harry finally decide that he believes Peter? Make it his choice, and not just new information presented by a character that shouldn't have it? It would make his (SPOILER) decision to "go good" at the climax that much more effective and close the loop on his friendship with Peter. A small change, but one that changes a whole lot. Stuff like that.

  2. This tends to be a problem with a lot of film/tv series too, by the time one reaches the third chapter.

    Lethal Weapon 3, Jurassic Park 3, Alias season 3, Once upon a time in Mexico, Spy Kids 3, Naked Gun 3, etc.

    Personally, I like Godfather 3, even though I know its flaws well.

    1. Agreed, but you're talking about the law of diminishing returns. Superhero movies are a unique case because the second movie is often superior to the first, and THEN there's a huge dropoff in quality.

  3. It seems that the aspects you point out as the cause of the third film failures: a) money, b) studio interference and c) fan service, were all present in Iron Man 2.

    Its almost like they felt that Iron Man was unbreakable by Part 2 (usually the mentality when a studio gets to Part 3), so the great story set in the world established in the first part didnt happen til Part 3.

    1. That sounds right! Iron Man 2 and Iron Man 3 seem to have switched places.

  4. Darkman III: Die, Darkman, Die! totally bucks the trend.