What Happens When You Give the Fans Everything?

Batman-v-Superman

by: Matthew J.R. Kohler

There was once a time when movies had boundaries, both in terms of time and money. With every day that passes, we see these boundaries fading with frequent updates on upcoming giant spectacles such as Captain America: Civil War, Suicide Squad, and Avengers: Infinity War.  For me, superhero movies/action films have become so big that they have become uninteresting.  Below, I explain why the less-is-more approach works best in films, and how the more-is-more approach is slowly destroying blockbuster movies today.

1989

            When the 1989 film, Batman, was announced, many comic book fans were excited to see one of their favorite heroes on the big screen.  Then, Warner Bros. announced the star power behind it—Michael Keaton as Batman, and Jack Nicholson as The Joker.  You’re probably thinking, “That’s all?”.  Here’s the thing, a lot of the most successful movies had three stars at most.  Highlander had only Sean Connery; The Matrix merely had Laurence Fishburne and Keanu Reeves; Goodfellas had Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro.  The reason more big name actors are not in these films because they would have cost too much money.  Batman (1989) cost roughly $30 million. With two massive stars and a few set pieces, it’s clear that there was not enough money for a third big actor. That is okay.  In fact, limiting a movie to three stars allows for more screen time for each character, and therefore allows for more character development. It’s not surprising then that Batman is considered by fans and critics to be the best of the four Batman movies from the 1980s and 1990s, and it is the most financially successful film of the four, with a gross of over $250 million.

When watching Batman, Joker and Batman have almost equal screen time, and you see a transformation in both characters.  Sure, there are smaller characters with goals, such as Vicki Vale and Knox, but it is clearly Keaton and Nicholson’s movie.  Now, look at 1995’s Batman Forever.  With $100 million this time round, Warner Bros. could make, or buy anything.  Sure enough, they casted Val Kilmer, Jim Carrey, Tommy Lee Jones, Nicole Kidman, and Chris O’Donnell.  I re-watched this film recently, and I discovered that this film doesn’t actually have a main character.  Each character has only about ten to twenty minutes of development.  Hell, we see Riddler’s origin, Robin’s origin, Two Face’s origin, Nicole Kidman gives her back story, and Bruce Wayne retells his origin.  We received a bigger movie, and, while it was successful, it didn’t even crack $200 million.

2001

So what about a film that actually succeeded at making an ensemble movie, such as The Fellowship of the Ring?  Easy, the director Peter Jackson knew the overarching story belonged to Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee.  How many scenes feature different characters that don’t involve those two?  Not many; only the scenes with Gandalf and Saruman exclude them.  However, by that point we have had six scenes with Frodo to establish his character.  If a movie tries to focus on too many characters, it will fail.  That is why I think The Dark Knight is better than The Dark Knight Rises.  Supporting characters are necessary, in order to help (support) the main character in achieve their goals, which is why The Fellowship of the Ring also has characters such as Aragorn and Gandalf.

Another thing Fellowship did superbly is it took thirty minutes to set up the universe before the action starts.  Sure, it has that awesome action set piece at the beginning, but it is there to enhance the story, and is so brief that it gives the audience a sample of what is to come.  Action scenes in these bigger movies such as The Avengers and Age of Ultron happen so often, and for such a long period of time, that they are merely for looks and fan service, and not to advance the story in a significant way, or to excite you after waiting for 30-plus minutes of character and plot development.

2012

When The Avengers came out, people were blown away by it.  But when you look at the movie as a whole, was it really that great?  Even in ensemble films, there is a central character to the film, but I couldn’t figure out who that was in this movie.  I guess Iron Man is, because he makes the most jokes throughout the film, and gets the final joke at the end.  For these last four years, we have received everything, and nothing at the same time from Marvel.  When The Dark Knight came out, they promised you a grounded Batman vs. Joker movie.  That is what you got. If you don’t like that style, then that is not the movie’s fault.  When a Jackie Chan movie came out, he promised unique fight scenes and crazy stunts.  If you didn’t like that, then why are you watching martial art films?  The Avengers promised The Avengers, and you really didn’t get that.  Instead, you got to see them fighting for no apparent reason, face a sucky villain, and constantly joke around with each other.  No one’s character developed, most criminally being Captain America, who is supposed to be dealing with the pain of being viciously ripped from the love of his life.  A lot of fans may think they are getting everything by seeing a bunch of famous characters team up, but here’s the reality: the more characters/stars you put in a movie, the more the story worsens.  There is a reason that Burton’s Batman is talked about over 25 years later, while 3-year-old Avengers has been thrown to the ground for the subsequent Marvel films that promise everything under the sun (action, jokes, references to other Marvel movies, action, jokes, appearances from other Marvel characters, action, jokes, and a post-credits scene that sets up the next movie).  Sure, Burton’s Batman is very different, but he gave you a couple of good sips, not the whole bottle.  What does the magician do?  He never gives his trick away.  So why do movies now give everything away?  Easy, it’s because they have nothing to offer. They just want your money.

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Topic of the Week: Have Movies Become Too Big?

by: Matthew J.R. Kohler

I just watched the trailer for Independence Day 2 (I know you’re asking, why?).  While watching it, I thought to myself, this movie looks like the guy who is desperately trying to find a date—it’s trying way too hard.  Jeff Goldblum’s character, at the end, literally says about the ship that we can clearly see, “that’s definitely bigger than the last one” (referring to the mammoth ship from the original film).  I thought, is going bigger actually necessary?  Is that all the filmmakers could come up with?  Then, I asked myself the most important question of all—have movies become too big?

So what do I mean by big?  Simply put, every acton scene is so crazy that you cannot comprehend it.  The last big action movie I was able to watch and enjoy was Return of the King.  The set pieces of blockbuster action movies after that point became progressively chaotic, to the point where, for the first time in 2009 with Transformers 2, I did not care about any of the action happening.  So many equally crazy things were happening, one after another, that my senses became numb halfway through.  Fellowship of the Ring is one of my favorite movies, mainly because there are only two amazing action sequences.  Neither of them is massive, but has enough to satisfy the audience.  Sure, the Balrog is big, but it’s not like there are five of them.  And yes, each action sequence is at least eight minutes, but that’s nothing compared to ones that last twenty-minute-plus nowadays.  Fellowship was not a blockbuster that tried to outdo anything before it, unlike modern blockbusters.  It simply set out to do its own thing.  Alien is another great example of such a film.  Released two years after Star Wars, and also a sci-fi film primarily set in space, Alien did the noble thing of not trying to compete with Star Wars.  Instead, the filmmakers made it a small film by setting it in one main location; plus, they added a great deal of suspense and horror.  As a result, it became one of the best sci-fi films, alongside Star Wars, on its own merits; it didn’t try to copy and one-up Star Wars.

Today, it seems that we are under the impression that bigger makes the movie better.  In the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles films, Shredder looks fifty times bigger than what he was in the original, yet he is much cooler in the original.  Why?  Less is more.  The most iconic monsters are hardly in their best movies: Michael Myers in the original Halloween, the shark in the original Jaws, and the Terminator endoskeleton in The Terminator.  Yet, the idea to show MORE MORE MORE is actually hurting movies.  Why does the T-1000 still work today?  What makes him so menacing compared to most threats?  The answer to both questions is that when we see him change into other people, form his own weapons, and rejuvenate from being shot, we only see it in a small dose, and it doesn’t happen every time we see him.  Also, he seems threatening because he is virtually indestructible, and we feel afraid of him because we see how frightened the human characters are of him.  You don’t need a billion scenes to show the audience that a villain is awesome.  In a lot of ways, Terminator 2 set both a good and bad example for future action films.  It showed that a movie can be full of action, but also full of character and plot development, tension, emotion, and anticipation for the next action sequence.  Unfortunately, a lot of action directors misinterpreted the film as merely a giant action movie that was successful because it one-upped its predecessor by including more action and visual effects.

What filmmakers should learn from films such as T2 is that set pieces only work if the audience has had a chance to wait a while for it, and be given context for the scene in the meantime.  Also, filmmakers must understand that a set piece should have only one big thing that happens (most of the time).  In the Cyberdyne take-down scene, the big moment is the minigun attack; in the first chase scene with the T-1000, it’s the truck blowing up; and in the final chase scene, it’s “Hasta la vista, baby” with the shattering of the frozen T-1000.  Yes, a lot happens in this movie, but all of it makes sense and does not last for thirty minutes.  Granted, in Act III, there are three action sequences, but each one is, at most, eight minutes, and are broken up long enough for the audience to catch their breath, and are interspersed with moments of build-up.  Now, I just talked a lot about Terminator 2, but make no mistake that my favorite genre is martial arts; so, the type of action sequence that I love most is a good long fight scene.  But even I get bored with a fight scene that runs too long (The Raid final fight, for example).  Even Mortal Kombat (1995), a movie about fighting, takes breaks in between a thirty-minute-long scene that shows all of the tournament fights.  If a mediocre movie can do it, then why can’t we do it today?

Topic of the Week: What Happened to Taking Risks?

by: Matthew J.R. Kohler

When the new X-Men: Apocalypse trailer was released, I cringed at the mere thought of watching it, after the bad taste that Days of Future Past gave me.  But, because I am a masochist, I watched it anyway.  And Holy Cannoli, did this not only look bad, but it was also emotionlessly bad.  For the first time, I had no feeling whatsoever from watching the trailer to a superhero movie.  It was that blah.  Make no mistake, feeling nothing is worse than even the most negative feeling when watching a trailer for what is supposed to be an epic, emotionally charged story.  Why were my emotions absent?  The trailer gave me the impression that the filmmakers did not want to do anything original.  Movies such as Apocalypse and Star Wars Episode 7 make me ask, do big movies take risk anymore?  The answer is no, and here are my reasons why.

Reason #1. – Lack of diversity

There was a time when superhero movies took risks—the early-to-mid-2000s.  For me, this was a fun time to love superhero films because there was something for everyone.  Bryan Singer’s modern look and depiction of X-Men, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, the ultra-violent and depressing revenge tale that is The Punisher, and the dark, grounded look of Nolan’s Batman.  Sure, there were stinkers (Daredevil, Hulk) but before Iron Man there was diversity.  Filmmakers were willing to be make movies that were 100% serious, in that they were devoid of self-aware humor, and were about well-developed characters struggling with personal conflicts.  Even the bad ones had memorable characters (see Harry Osborn in Spider-Man 3; it’s pretty glorious).

I don’t feel the emotion from any of the newer superhero/blockbuster films, mainly because all of them are ripped straight from preexisting comics.  There are no new takes on characters, such as, “what if Mary Jane was the first person Spider-Man fell in love with?”  Instead, the modern superhero/blockbuster film tries to do certain stories and situations that we’ve seen before.  I remember when I saw Amazing Spider-Man 2 (don’t ask); I had no investment when Gwen died because her death was the most talked-about Spider-Man comic book shock of the last forty years.  And if the problem’s not “oh, I’ve seen this before”, it’s “wow, they expect me to be emotional when a certain “shocking” event happens?”.  Case in point: Bucky in Captain America: The First Avenger.  In the comics, he is Cap’s best friend; in the movie, he is criminally underdeveloped and appears in a handful of scenes.  Yet, apparently we are supposed to care when he dies.  Now, when Ben Parker died in Spider-Man or when Cyclops died in X3 (I know, not a good movie), I either felt sad or pissed.  Why?  Because 1) the characters were developed to be likable and/or interesting and 2) the deaths were not done for shock value.  This leads me to—

Reason #2 – They don’t want you to invest in characters

Marvel’s films are the worst at one-dimensional characters, because none of them evolve or even have dramatic scenes.  In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, they could have talked about Captain America being the man out of time.  Instead, they give us jokes that he has seen Star Wars, and doesn’t want to date anyone.  What the hell!  They have one of the best characters in one of the best stories and they screw it up!  Another character that criminally has no character is Iron Man.  One minute he tells us that he is a changed man and the next he is being a dick.  Iron Man has switched from being nice to a dick more times than a WWE wrestler.

Everything these characters do feels like they are going through the motions.  You get more emotions out of Peter Weller as RoboCop than any of the Avengers, especially the biggest idiot of them all—Thor.  After the first Thor came out, everyone was saying that the chemistry between Portman and Hemsworth was awful.  Yet, nothing improved for the sequel.  Their romance was a “driving force” for both of those films, but why should I care when their relationship is basically, “Hey, we think that each other’s hot, so let’s have children who will follow in our shallow footsteps!”  I’m sorry, but the relationships in these movies are as bad as Twilight.  It just doesn’t seem that way because right now it’s not cool to make fun of Marvel movies.

Reason #3 – The fans rule movies

I was listening to Chris Jericho’s (wrestler, singer, and actor) podcast, in which he stated, “If the fans rule the match, the match is not exciting.”  In my opinion, this rule also applies to movies.  After Godzilla (1998) tanked, fans clamored for a simple monster movie with a non-lizard Godzilla.  What they received in 2014 was a Godzilla movie that tried mightily to service them with not only a non-lizard and bigger Godzilla, but also two other monsters, PLUS major stars Bryan Cranston and Ken Watanabe.  The movie was also a direct sequel to the 1954 original (and it even showed footage from that movie).  Sure, fans got what they wanted and what they knew they were going to see, but they forgot to demand one thing—authenticity.  A movie is authentic when the filmmakers are making their own decisions and not servicing fans with a bunch of bells and whistles.

Reason #4 – Sequels

Nowadays, you don’t even need to see the movie, because the Internet and media bombard you with news about the sequel(s) before said movie even comes out.  Let’s look at Avengers: Age of Ultron.  I haven’t seen it because there is no point; based on the news that all of the stars are going to appear in future films, you know that they all live.  You also know that nothing earth-shattering happens, 1) otherwise people would actually be talking about it and 2) because we already know that Civil War directly follows this film, and the only notable consequence of it is that Ultron’s destruction has caused the government to enforce superhero registration.  Do I really need to watch Ultron to find out anything else, when I already know the aftermath?  Movie news nowadays spoils the movie as badly as a Wikipedia synopsis.  Why should I be invested when I already know who’s going to live or who’s going to be in it?  Don’t you think The Force Awakens would be more exciting if we did not know for sure whether or not Luke Skywalker is coming back for the eighth one?  Or that there will be a new villain in the eighth one?  Studios have become so franchise-crazy that they have robbed moviegoers of the true movie-viewing experience.  Franchises are not made to tell an engaging story; they are simply a safe way to keep people coming back to the theatres, and relieving all writers, producers, and filmmakers of their true purpose—generating new ideas and original ways to tell an old story.

Maybe one day moviegoers will be tired of spoiled, fan-servicing, and shallow cookie-cutter movies, and demand ones that actually take risks.