Wednesday, July 19, 2017

A Call to Close the Comic Books

     Someday in the far off future, should the world endure that long, anthropologists will study the current generation and determine that the sheer volume of comic-book based movies between the years 2000 and 2020 have some sort of far-reaching implications on the values or mental health of the era. I won't disagree. Of the top ten highest-grossing films between 2000 and 2009, three were comic book movies: Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, and The Dark Knight; this being a decade that also boasted Avatar, the Passion of the Christ, and all of The Lord of the Rings (IMDB). Of the top ten highest-grossing movies from 2010 to now, three have been comic book movies: The Avengers, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, and The Dark Knight Rises (IMDB)Between the various adaptations of Batman, Spider-man, Superman, Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, the Hulk, Green Lantern, X-Men and its spin-offs, Ant-man, Catwoman, Fantastic Four, and all the movies yet to come, there is no shortage of superheroes in all shapes and sizes. With so much overload on these stories, one has to wonder when it's all going to collapse.


     I want to take a moment to look at the evolution of the trend, particularly as regards the actors. About twenty years ago, comic book movies were so much of a novelty that audiences were relatively forgiving of cheesy writing and mediocre acting, as long as the story was moderately engaging and the visuals impressive. Thankfully, when the trend of comic book movies was still its prime, it raised the bar on multiple elements of quality, acting included. The success of Iron Man, for example, could be attributed almost entirely to Robert Downey Jr's magnetism and charisma. Heath Ledger won a posthumous Oscar for his portrayal of The Joker in The Dark Knight. Marvel and DC alike have managed to use renowned, respected, and popular actors and directors (many of whom are Oscar winners and nominees), which has further driven the point that comic book movies are no longer just cinematic fodder, but a lucrative genre with a broad audience and beautiful stories to tell. At least that's how it was.

     At the time of The Avengers, the comic book trend was at its peak, and the movie not only grossed enough to claim the summer movie season, it scored an admirable 92% on Rotten Tomatoes, and joined the highly-coveted billion dollar club; a group that hosts Titanic and Avatar among its members. By the time Avengers: Age of Ultron rolled around, every main feature character (except the Hulk) had at least two of their own movies, and the second Avengers installment rolled in at an unfortunate 75% on Rotten Tomatoes.

     The Dark Knight continues to be hailed as one of the greatest sequels ever created of any movie genre, boasting performances and plot twists that pushed boundaries in all the right ways and transcended genres with its layered plot. Sadly however, despite grossing over a billion dollars at the box office, the follow-up movie The Dark Knight Rises was widely panned by critics and audiences as director Christopher Nolan's long-expected fall from grace, and a woeful close to an otherwise sterling franchise.

     The Amazing Spider-Man reboot will forever be an incomplete trilogy, leaving the open ends of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 unresolved while yet another actor steps up to be Peter Parker for the third distinct adaptation of the character. Neither of the Thor movies did very well on their own with critics or mainstream audiences. The crushingly bad reviews of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad sent Warner Brothers into a frenzy to replan their launch of The Justice League. For the moment, Wonder Woman may have saved them, but they have a long road mapped out with more potential for flat tires than smooth cruising. 

    In this era of movies, it's hard to say if franchise commitments are job security or career killers. Hugh Jackman played Wolverine nine times before his finish in Logan. Samuel L. Jackson will have been Nick Fury at least nine times by the time Marvel is finished with him. Robert Downey Jr. has now been Tony Stark eight times and counting for upcoming movies. All the main members of The Avengers have donned their respective personas at least two or three times (exception: Hulk). I'm not all that worried about the careers of Jackman, Jackson, and Jr. yet, but not everyone involved in this trend is as firmly established in Hollywood as these men are, and with commitments to a role that can now last over a decade, it stands to reason that some unfortunate actors will be the victims of typecasting. With the current overload of comic book movies, what might have previously been a "breakout role" is now just another superhero. Does anyone but me remember who played Superman before Henry Cavill? And I don't mean on Smallville, although I haven't seen that guy around much either. Cavill is probably the most skilled as Clark Kent that we've seen in recent years, but by the time DC Comics is finished with the Man of Steel, will anyone be able to see him as anything else? Can Chris Hemsworth carry a movie if he's not Thor? Recent Thor-less Hemsworth movies seem to say no. Tobey Maguire's post-Spidey resume hasn't exactly been packed out. Is it that the aforementioned individuals never had much skill to begin with, or is it that typecasting is real? Arguments can be made for both cases, but it still amounts to undesirable outcomes for the individuals.

     I would present that until the last decade or two, cinematic technology was too limited to believably portray superpowers as comic books portray them. For this reason, the advent of special effects has, in a way, birthed a genre that could not have existed previously under lesser technology. While there were always a few movies here and there over the years, it wasn't until CGI that the fullness of what a superhero could do was able to be adequately explored onscreen. All that to say, the comic book movie surge that we have seen, especially over the last decade, is largely a result of a completely new genre bursting onto the scene. Once the ground was laid and a few bold films proved that Batman and Iron Man could be taken seriously, comic book movies began dominating every summer box office. Yet for that nuclear boost of quality, it seems that the genre has faded back into a realm where "serious" actors and stories are harder to find, yet the movement as a whole is desperately trying to prove that they can still do serious. However, as Batman v. Superman proved, hype is a pretty flimsy umbrella to bank under, and with the onslaught of Marvel and DC movies dominating shelves, theaters, and upcoming releases, it seems that hype is starting to wane.

   
     Why is that? Well, how many origin stories can you really have before they all start to look and feel the same? Within currently established characters, there are only so many plot avenues that haven't been explored. Because so many of these movies overlap their companion films in some way, surprising character turns are forced to be limited in order to avoid repetition. For example, let's say that suddenly Tony Stark went on a quest to save his best friend (Rhodey, I guess) from dark brainwashing. We'd shrug and say "Steve Rogers already did that." While I know that there's no way that any studio is NOT going to keep capitalizing on the revived interest in comic book characters and stories, the relentless overload is starting to sour. And while I'm sure that for Marvel or DC to take a break would be missing an opportunity to exploit a heightened mainstream acceptance of what was previously a narrow field of loyalists, this exhaustion of superhero films is sacrificing otherwise good stories on the altar of hype.

     Every time I think to myself that the pool is about to dry up, one of the two major distributors pulls another one out of their hat, like Captain America: Civil War, Logan, or Doctor Strange. As I write this, DC and Marvel have sent forth their best efforts to face off at the summer box office in the forms of Wonder Woman and Spider-Man: Homecoming. We already had Logan and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 earlier this year, and still have Thor:Ragnarok and Justice League yet ahead before Christmas. And yet, is there not some sense of fatigue over it all? Does not some part of me recognize that obligation is beginning to preside over interest? With a few exceptions, movies are beginning to become billion-dollar episodes, with every other movie being the pilot episode of some "new" story that really isn't all that new, no matter what color the spandex is.


     Analysts have argued that the superhero genre saved Hollywood in an era where movie interest was seriously waning in favor of gaming movements. Perhaps the adrenaline shot the genre has offered explains why A-list actors like Will Smith and Robert Downey Jr. are willing to jump on board. But true to the nature of the evolving entity that is the audience, it simply can't be satisfied for too long on the same diet. Steven Spielberg predicted two years ago, "there will be a time when superhero movies go the way of the Western" (Chitwood, 2015); a forecast that seems ever closer as box office numbers spike and fall with dizzying abruptness.

     It's been fun to watch Tony Stark strut his way through his many quests, inspiring to see Steve Rogers grasp what being Captain America means, and certainly engaging to see Bruce Wayne finally be an interesting character. But when will even the strongest of these finally have no new stories to tell, no new tricks up their sleeves, and go the road of the over-visited Captain Jack Sparrow? Surely that time is coming, but not before every character has had their own trilogy plus ensemble trilogy, and a few cameos in one another's stories. No matter what kind of impossible odds have been overcome to save the world, there is always another post-credit scene to remind us that the stakes will be even higher in the next movie. To quote Rolling Stone "When every movie is a can't-miss one-of-a-kind event, nothing is" (Bramesco, 2016).


Wednesday, July 5, 2017

LOGAN

     The story is over.

     "There are no more guns in the valley."

     When you come to the end, how do you process the fullness of the book that has now closed with a resounding thud? How do you grasp, appreciate, and grieve the illusory relationship that has now ended?

Spoilers throughout. 

     When Logan begins, there is an undeniable sense that we have reached the final page. It's clear that a great deal has happened. The world couldn't stay mutant-friendly, and Logan himself is back to trying to live under the radar and just get by. In his care is a fragile and often dementia-ridden Charles Xavier, stripped of his once-dignified manner by age and disease, reduced to a wizened and crass old man. Whatever honors and prestige they once had from their heroic deeds is now gone. They are the heroes that the world forgot, the saviors that have been turned on. There are no more missions to save the world, just a few more lethargic and exhausted breaths before the metaphorical sunset.
   
     Unlike X-Men movies past, Logan is painfully inglorious. No one is battling advanced technology, dodging oversized robots, or fighting vigilante mutants with frightening superpowers. No cities are falling or terrified populations fleeing. There is no league of heroes swooping in to save the day in grandiose displays of teamwork and camaraderie. Here, there are just rolling tumbleweeds and uncouth thugs in the dusty town hiding a few surviving mutants. Maybe the last surviving mutants.

     Hugh Jackman brings a calloused fatigue to Logan that adds weight to every movie appearance prior-- suddenly all of those fights and losses feel cripplingly burdensome; the consequences of being hitherto immortal are coming due. In many ways this isn't the Wolverine we've watched over the last seventeen years, and yet Jackman's tired and outraged Logan is in every way faithful to the character he has carefully crafted over the course of several movies. Throughout this harrowing final chapter, Jackman unleashes Wolverine's primal fury while still making Logan sympathetic in the quieter moments, and ultimately heroic. Logan never wanted to join a fight for something greater than himself when we met him all those years ago, but he was drawn in because a girl needed help. And so it comes full circle with Logan, the Wolverine, once again resisting getting involved, but finding he can't avoid it, because a girl needs help. While Jackman's final performance as Logan is impeccable throughout, no moment shines forth his talents as an artist more acutely than when he stands by Charles' grave. Struggling to find words, each subtle movement of his expression is riddled with anguish, remorse, devastation, and anger, yet somehow restrained behind his tall and muscular exterior. At least for a moment, and then the dam breaks.   


     Patrick Stewart as a now degraded Charles Xavier is particularly effective, if difficult, to watch. The man who once established sanctuary for mutants and spent his life lobbying for mutant equality is now frail and broken, his once brilliant mind now deteriorating under the effects of a mutant-type Alzheimer's. Though it's unlikely that Stewart would garner an Oscar nomination for this role, it would be well-earned. His perfectly balanced depiction of mental disintegration, end-of-life regrets, and occasional comic levity weave flawlessly with his ability to respect the effects of age without mocking them. Seeing the once distinguished Charles now reduced to a discarded senior is painful, but executed with immaculate sensitivity. Consistent with the oppressive injustice of how Charles' twilight years play out, is the manner in which he exits this world. Charles should have quietly met his end on his beautiful estate, surrounded by the many mutants he helped over the years, and his old friend Erik nearby. But this is not the world of the X-Men anymore. Instead, just as his mind opens to allow him to absorb the fullness of all that has happened, he is brutally murdered in his bed with scarcely the chance to impart last words. There is only Logan and Laura to mourn him now and to stand by his unmarked grave and weep. 

     The combination of absolutely flawless performances by Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart, and the history behind these two characters are what make Logan the difference between a visceral but truly beautiful valediction, and a tasteless indulgence in graphic violence. Make no mistake, Logan unleashes its violence in a way that no X-Men movie has ever been allowed, and the up-close camerawork ensures that no pierce of flesh or shatter of bone is hidden. And yet in all of the literal heads rolling and blood-spilling, every burst of action feels appropriate and organic rather than obligatory, which sets it apart from your average action movie. At no point does Logan feel like its scenes are merely fulfilling an expectation for the genre, but uses even the limb-slicing, skull-puncturing moments to serve its story. For example, just how dangerous is Laura? One action scene will answer that question and simultaneously reveal how hardened she already is.

     The villain of Logan is not who you would think. While there are despicable humans that pursue Laura with no qualms whatsoever about putting her to sleep like a terminally ill dog (a fate that many of the other children suffered), they're just humans. The true force that Logan and Charles are fighting against is time itself. It was once said, "Time is a cruel thief to rob us of our former selves."  With the effects of age creeping up on Logan and Charles, their mortal time is running out. Charles can't be left alone or he might have a mental episode that could cost lives. Meanwhile Logan's eyesight is fading and his wounds aren't healing like they used to. With only a brief window to get Laura to the Canadian border, time is running out for her as well. Even if everything goes according to plan, Logan and Charles can never go back to how things were; their best hope is to set themselves on a boat and succumb quietly to time's assault. The battle will be lost eventually, the question is just how long they can delay the inevitable surrender.

     The unfolding tale is not really of two superheroes ending, but an achingly familiar tale of regret, failure, and age. Due to an erasure of memory seen in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the Logan we know has never held a hope of a normal life. The history that Logan has lived through and the looming end that he faces touch on a particularly tender and personal heart-string that no one wants to acknowledge. Logan forces us to reckon with not only the fear of failure and the inability to fulfill the most important promises, but living with that failure, and having no more chances to fulfill those promises. Example: "Well...it's near the water."

     Logan himself has lived a life of bloodshed, and though he's never been the fatherly type, his final words to Laura are "don't be what they made you." They made her to be him. Laura has already been a killer, but it's not too late to get off that path, which is Logan's final hope for her; to escape the life of pain and regret that he has lived. Just as so much of Logan addresses fears, regrets, and failures, Logan's final moment touches on the fear of so many parents: that their child will be like them. Laura's final words over Logan's grave seems to indicate that she understands his words as she quotes Shane in a poignant eulogy: "A man has to be what he is, Joey. Can't break the mold. There's no living with the killing. There's no going back. Right or wrong, it's a brand. A brand that sticks." 

     At its heart, Logan is a farewell. Rarely has a character of such longevity had such a perfect departure. In an age where franchises wear out their characters so thoroughly that it becomes hard to care anymore (ahem, Pirates of the Caribbean), Logan faces the end with unflinching boldness. Logan pays great respect to where the story has come from, but maturely abstains from hand-holding in terms of backstory. A few broken lines about "the Westchester incident" vaguely reference a cataclysmic event that presumably precipitated the end of the mutant era, but Logan doesn't reveal it outright. Very little dialogue is dedicated to referencing previous X-Men movies, and yet Logan still manages to be a perfect finale to the saga of the character. Storm, Rogue, Magneto, and others have already been reborn as the franchise spins into new adventures, but Logan ends the arc of Wolverine with such perfect closure, that there is not only little hope of ever seeing Wolverine again, there is no desire; such a revisiting would cheapen this final opus. 

     The heartbreak of Logan is complex, manifold. A character spanning seventeen years of cinema is decidedly finished. Logan, the Wolverine, could always come back from anything, and he always did. Part of Logan's tragedy is that he was always destined to watch everyone around him succumb to mortality while his body spat the bullets back out. Part of the attraction of superheroes is the fantasy that people with a little extra gifting could accomplish extraordinary things that normal humans would shrink away from. And so the heartbreak of Logan is not only in the conclusion of a loved and enduring character, but in the death of a dream. Logan takes that childhood fantasy that some characters are untouchable and constant, and forces that child within to acknowledge the all-too painful reality that even our most revered heroes must one day walk a road from which there is no return. Logan, the Wolverine, is gone, and with him, the childish dream that he never would be.

     And yet, how strange that such a heartbreaking swan-song should be so exquisite.