Monday, May 6, 2013
The Curse of Superhero Movie Part Threes
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.