Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Best of Marvel, Post-Blade

            Some motherfuckers are always trying to ice-skate uphill…

             The year was 1998… Just a year previous, the superhero film reached its nadir, with the unholy trifecta of Spawn, Steel and Batman and Robin all but signaling the death of the genre. But just a year later, another movie slipped through unnoticed - a superhero movie in disguise. Blade was the first real success for Marvel, and bolstered the studio to expand further into filmmaking with X-Men and Spider-Man, and that was all she wrote: in the years since Spider-Man’s release, Marvel has had at least one property released in theatres for each subsequent year, bringing them from bankrupt comic book company to a profitable IP farm that Disney would later buy for $4 billion dollars. The post-Blade landscape of superhero films is important for many reasons, but the most significant change it brought about was the focus on staying true to the source material, bringing the story and characters to the forefront. As you’ll see, they weren’t all successful in that aim, but the fact remains: we’ve gotten far more good ones than we have bad.  

25. The Amazing Spider-Man 2

            The first sequel to a Spider-Man movie wound up being one of the very best super-hero movies ever made. I don’t know what you’d call this trainwreck; I’m not even sure the term “movie” can apply. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is bad in a way that even most bad movies get right--a visual concoction that is so appallingly awful, it single-handedly ended the reboot series and gave Marvel Studios enough leverage to broker a deal with the desperate Sony to coproduce all future big-screen outings with the wall-crawler. I look at this film, and just can’t help but feel bad for Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, two supremely-talented actors who get not a single damn thing to do throughout these films’ two-plus hour runtimes. Some of the Raimi films may not have been perfect, but they at least got the central core of the character right in each of their installments, a core that’s so simple it only took Stan Lee and Steve Ditko sixteen pages to establish in the character’s debut all the way back in 1962. However bad superhero movies have been or may get, I don’t know (and sincerely hope) if they’ll ever wind up any worse than this.

24. X-Men Origins: Wolverine

            Being the breakout star of the series, it was all-but guaranteed that Hugh Jackman would eventually get to strut his stuff in a solo movie all about the character that made him famous. And while there is a wealth of material to draw upon from the comics, X-Men Origins: Wolverine takes only the most basic stuff, cramming the film with so many characters we start to forget that we’re actually watching a Wolverine movie. The overwhelming breadth of characters means that the majority of them pose rather than emote, with only Liev Shreiber as Sabretooth looking like he’s having any fun at all. Making it all even worse is the god-awful script, which even for a big summer movie is riddled with mind-boggling ineptitude (Wolverine loses his memory because of Adamantium bullets? Really?). I don’t know why it was so hard for the filmmakers and studio to whiff so hard on a surefire character like Wolverine, but fortunately they got it right the second time.

23. Ghost Rider

            I don’t know how Mark Steven Johnson tricked his way into directing both Daredevil and this, but Ghost Rider almost certainly guarantees he’s not likely to ever get his hands on a superhero property again. Nic Cage gets to live out his lifelong dream and get a superhero role all to himself, but the movie doesn’t seem to know what to do with him. It seems like it’s pretty hard to fuck up a movie where a dude with a flaming skull rides a motorbike and fights demons, but that’s exactly what happens here. The Ghost Rider effects are impressive, but the way they’re staged show the limitations of what is not exactly a small budget, with one lifeless set-piece afer another. Even worse are the Twilight-reject villains (Twilight wasn’t even a thing yet!): in a movie-world where Ghost Rider could fight any type of villain, for some bone-headed reason the filmmakers’ make the Rider’s adversaries super-lame elementals (there’s a water demon, a gas demon, an Earth demon, etc.). And in the middle of it all is totally lost Cage, eating jelly-beans out of a martini glass, ‘cause hey, why not? 

22. Elektra

            One of the few unquestionably successful elements of the 2003 Daredevil was Jennifer Garner’s Elektra, so it made since to spin the character off into her own movie. But that’s about where it ends for Elektra, which is so uber-serious it never once pauses to let its main star - who is quite charismatic when she’s allowed to be - do anything other than be dour and fight magic ninjas in high-class lingerie. This is the type of movie where the line “She whispers in your ear when she kills you” is uttered with a straight face. Couple that with the tiring subplot of the young teen girl and her hunky father, and we wind up with a movie that drains every last bit of whatever excitement it manages to build in fits in starts right out of each scene. The film was so reviled that it pretty much ended Rob Bowman’s career as a film director, and killed the idea of “Jennifer Garner, Action Star” virtually overnight.

21. The Punisher (2004)

            I’ll say this for Jonathan Hensleigh’s ill-advised Punisher film: it has its heart in the right place, taking the tough-guy action cinema of the seventies as a guide-post for Frank Castle’s war on crime. But as much as he seems to enjoy said cinema, Hensleigh just doesn’t have the chops to bring that type of movie to life believably, and so we end up with this thudding bore of a movie, in which the Punisher’s master-plan to bring down crime-lord Howard Saint involves… convincing him his wife is cheating on him with his second-in-command? Yep, it’s just that kind of movie, where nothing seems to go anywhere interesting and the tone is all over the place. “Cliché” is this movie’s middle name: would it surprise you that Frank Castle’s trademark skull T-shirt was a final gift from his young son, who claims it’s supposed to ward off evil spirits? Would you be at all shocked to find the emotionally-disconnected Frank sharing a tenement building with sitcom characters who all teach him the importance of sticking together? Would you be baffled to see the scene in which a country-western hitman serenades Frank in a diner before trying to kill him? It’s all so stupid and trite, made worse by the fact that Thomas Jane does a pretty awesome job as the lead here. Jane’s Castle is pitch-perfect, his deadbeat delivery of the line “You shouldn’t play with knives” after slicing up a thug’s nose being a standout scene. But he’s surrounded by ineptitude on all sides, including the decision to bring the quintessentially New York character into the sunny skies of Tampa, Florida.

20. Man-Thing

            You’d be forgiven for never having seen (let alone heard of) this SciFi channel reject. Taking the most basic pieces of the unfortunately-named Man-Thing horror character, the only sign that this is a Marvel movie is the flipping page logo up at the very top. It’s a pretty standard B-movie, what with its opening scene featuring couple of horny teenagers getting it on in the swamp, only to be viciously murdered by the Man-Thing. I’ll be honest: the movie has its charms, whether it’s the slasher gore or Rachel Taylor’s shifting Louisianan/Aussie accent, I found myself somewhat enjoying the trashy cheapness on display. But Man-Thing definitely wears out its welcome before its hour-and-a-half runtime is up, with barely enough story to get the film across the finish line.

19. Blade: Trinity

            David Goyer steps behind the director’s lens for the final installment of the franchise he helped launch, and the results are pretty middling. Although his take on the character was what helped launch the series, Goyer is quite obviously not the best writer in town, and his scripts were always the weak point of the Blade movies. Without a stylish visualist like Steven Norrington or Guillermo Del Toro to distract from the comic book plotting and tin-eared dialogue, this last Blade movie becomes dead in the water real quick. A shame, as Goyer sets up the pieces for what could have been a cool movie. Blade got his start in Marvel’s old Tomb of Dracula comics, and the big bad himself shows up to be Blade’s final adversary, but Dominic Purcell’s “Drake”  ranks just below Richard Roxburgh’s from Van Helsing as the worst cinematic Dracula. There is some life through new characters Hannibal King and Abigail Whistler, played by effectively by Ryan Reynolds and Jessica Biel, but it comes as too little, too late. Thus, Wesley Snipes wraps up his tenure on Blade not with a triumphant bang, but a half-hearted whimper.  

18. The Amazing Spider-Man

            Sony scrapped plans for Raimi’s Spider-Man 4 for this reboot, a two-film series that will go down in history for being nothing more than an oddity. Although it has a leg up on its unbelievably bad sequel, there’s no question that all involved here deserved much, much better. The able cast is game, but they’re constantly let down by a piss-poor script that drops whole plotlines with nary a concern for story logic or clarity (Peter’s parents? The guy who killed his Uncle Ben?) The effects of Spidey swinging and doing battle with the Lizard are impressive, but really are just playing from the same toolbox Raimi invented ten years prior, and - considering this was released the same year as The Avengers - just can’t hold a candle to what we expect out of our current superhero movies. Even worse, the film completely misses the character of Spider-Man, turning Peter into an edgy, punk skate-boarder type that is in direct opposition to the meek nerd who learns the value of possessing great power and responsibility -  a line that isn’t uttered once throughout either of the Amazing films! Andrew Garfield would have been a fantastic choice to play Spider-Man/Peter Parker. Too bad he never got the chance.

17. Fantastic Four (2005)

            I’m not sure what there is to say about the Tim Story Fantastic Four movies. On the one hand, they have a nice, breezy fun tone that captures the playfulness inherent to the “World’s Greatest Comic Magazine.” On the other hand, they’re pretty soulless and mechanical, with an uneven cast that doesn’t seem completely right for their respective roles (outside of nabbing a pre-Captain America Chris Evans). But probably the greatest sin of this first one is its complete lack of imagination. The Fantastic Four came out of the Space Age, an time of unlimited imagination and possibility, and with this movie they become just another super-team, fighting to save New York from some threat or other. The movie we got isn’t that bad, but it’s certainly bland.

16. X-Men: The Last Stand

            We’ll get this out of the way: this is not the worst Marvel movie ever made. Many were ready to write off the film once Singer left (and Matthew Vaughan shortly thereafter) It has many compelling elements competing for screen-time (a cure for mutantkind, Phoenix, etc.), but none are given the proper time to breathe. Perhaps the film’s most egregious sin is the haphazard throwing away of major characters like Cyclops and Professor X, causing many continuity problems later on down the line when the X-series attempted to continue the storyline. But it’s not all bad: Kelsey Grammar’s Beast is one for the books, and the final confrontation between the mutants goes big in a way the previous two films never did. It’s undoubtedly a mess, but not as much as its reputation would suggest.

15. Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer

            Better than its predecessor, this second Fantastic Four movie still doesn’t quite hit the mark. Since the hiring of Bryan Singer for X-Men, Marvel have proven themselves more than willing to go outside the box and nab filmmakers not necessarily known for big-budget movies, but Tim Story just doesn’t have a handle on how to make these kinds of movies in a way that services both character and spectacle, with both elements being muddled in the process. It’s a shame, as this film continues the fun tone established by its predecessor, upping the stakes to bring in Galactus and his herald, the Silver Surfer. And while the Surfer is brought to life in a faithfully exciting way (courtesy of Doug Jones and Laurence Fishbourne), the filmmakers wimp out when portraying the unstoppable Galactus as a giant cloud of dust - robbing us all of what could have been the most epic sight yet seen in a superhero movie.

14. X-Men

            Bryan Singer’s X-Men film was a giant step forward for the superhero movie. Whereas previous filmmakers took the concept as an excuse to drape production design over paper-thin scripts and wildly-overacting movie stars, Singer took the focus off of the spectacle and put it squarely on the characters - a spark that started the fire we’re currently living through, where the MCU films succeed not because of their dizzying effects or thrilling set pieces, but because they’ve crafted their entire franchise around the backbone of character. For that aspect, X-Men is one for the history books… shame that little else about it has aged very well. The focus on character really only extends to Rogue, Magneto, Xavier and Hugh Jackman’s star-making turn as Wolverine - the rest of the cast is there to show off their powers and little else, in a climax atop the Statue of Liberty that’s about as exciting as watching paint dry. X-Men is an important film, culturally - doesn’t mean the actual movie is all that great.   

13. Daredevil

            Mark Steven Johnson comes from a pure place in attempting to adapt Daredevil to the big screen, but once again the filmmaker just isn’t up to the task of an effects-driven blockbuster. The movie clearly started life as a darker, very R-rated adaptation of Frank Miller’s seminal, grim take on the character, but with the film following so closely on the heels of the ultra-successful Spider-Man, there seemed to be an attempt to lighten up the proceedings and fashion a superhero movie more in the vein of the Raimi film’s romantic heroism. Thus, we have Daredevil, a tonal mishmash of parts that work very well and others that fall flat on their face. Johnson was inexperienced in the world of big-budget effects movies, and while there are some beautiful visual moments (the overhead tracking shot with Daredvil hiding amongst the gargoyles being a standout), the movie more often than not has a slick, hollow emptiness that the ten-year-old CGI doesn’t help in the slightest. Jennifer Garner and Colin Farrell are standouts amongst the cast, both of them seeming to have a blast playing larger-than-life characters, and even Ben Affleck isn’t all that bad, when everything’s said and done. There was a Director’s Cut that came out a few years later, which admittedly does fix many problems the theatrical release had, but not enough to where I could count it as an actual “good” movie. 

12. X-Men: Days of Future Past

            I feel like this one’s not going to age very well. It has a lot going on in its favor, what with it combining the excellent casts of both the original series and their younger versions seen in First Class, along with some really stand-out set-pieces, but the script is a bloated mess. If you want to get good and drunk, take a shot every time Michael Fassbender’s Magneto changes sides for no other reason than its convenience to the plot. The film is filled with such hacky screenwriter gems, not to mention a way-too-convoluted set up that is at the very least true to the X-Men comics in how unforgivingly oblique it is to those who haven’t been paying attention to the series otherwise. And while it is nice to see all these familiar faces in one place, the sheer amount of characters means that most are relegated to little more than cameos. But still, bad script or no, it is a great showcase for all the leads, with James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence and the old standby Hugh Jackman getting to strut their stuff in a big, showy comic book movie. As such, it isn’t the worst X-Men movie… but that ain’t exactly high praise.

11. Spider-Man 3

            Everyone thought this was the worst Spider-Man movie possible at the time of its release; eight years on and two middling attempts at a reboot series later, and we can now see that that is far from the case. Spider-Man 3 is a flawed installment, no doubt; a patchwork movie made up of disparate elements that seem studio-mandated into an expensive package that just can’t hold all of that weight. The black suit and the Ninja Goblin and that damn Venom are certainly enough to bring the film crashing down in a pile of half-realized rubble, but the central story of Peter Parker holds it all together, and combined with Thomas Hayden Church’s exemplary work as the Sandman, we get a film that closes out Tobey Maguire’s run as the character and more or less completes the arc he started in the first film by showing forgiveness to the man who killed his Uncle Ben. And damn the haters: the infamous musical scene is one of the most fun in the entire Marvel movie canon.

10. Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance

            While the visual of a flaming, skull-faced motorbike rider is inherently metal, this movie is pure punk rock - an angry, irreverent shout that gets on pure energy. The Crank mastermind duo of Neveldine and Taylor take up the directorial reins for this second go round with the Rider, and prove to be a match made in hell - the filmmakers’ OTT, cocaine-fueled, “let’s tie ourselves to a moving vehicle while on rollerblades to get the shot” style is entirely appropriate for something as juvenile and silly as Ghost Rider. Gone is the tepid story about lost love and fathers and sons, replaced instead with a barebones ripoff of Terminator 2, with Nic Cage’s Johnny Blaze this time tasked with protecting a mother and her young son that may be the Antichrist whilst on the run from the Devil himself. It’s not subtle or affecting, but it is loud and in-your-face, with a Nic Cage that’s playing at his “Not the Bees!” best. It’s not much to write home about at the end of the day, but it’s probably the best we’re going to get from a Ghost Rider movie.

9. Hulk

            Unfairly maligned at the time of its release, Ang Lee’s Hulk is a movie worthy of deeper examination. Too pop for the critics and too arty for the masses, Lee’s film is an odd duck for sure, but what the filmmaker accomplishes with a big-budget summer film is worthy of admiration, at the very least. What we have here is a comic book blockbuster all about emotional abuse, Freudian psycho-sexual familial ties and repressed urges, and that’s before you take the giant green rage monster into account. Eric Bana plays a Bruce Banner who is very convincingly a man with deep, emotional issues… even before the gamma-irradiated accident occurs, this is a dude who always seems one hair’s breadth away from blowing up, giant green rage monster or no. He’s surrounded by the talented ensemble of Jennifer Connelly, Sam Houston and Nick Nolte (who literally chews the scenery), all of whom add a layer of emotional reality to the melodrama. And make no mistake: this is pure melodrama, pitched at such a level it threatens to become comical, but Lee keeps things mostly out of that realm (give or take a Hulk vs Hulk dogs fight or two) by focusing so intently on his characters and their relationships. The CG hasn’t aged terribly well, and the design of the Hulk himself looks all wrong when viewed now, but Ang Lee’s Hulk will always have a spot high on my list just for how oddly bizarre and beautiful it is.

8. X2: X-Men United

            It’s fairly timid now in our post-Avengers world, but when this movie came out, it seemed hard to fathom how anyone could capture that comic book tone as right as X2 does here. With the benefit of hind-sight we can see that what this movie promised for the X-series never even came close to fruition, but oh, what a promise it was. With a bigger budget and a surer hand, Bryan Singer crafts the very first successful superhero movie with a team dynamic. Wolverine is still the sexiest, and thus gets the bulk of the screentime, but each character here gets a moment, and that’s all we need. Whether it’s the quiet scene between Storm and Nightcrawler, the fantastic bit with Magneto and Pyro (“What’s your real name, John?”) or the moment Bobby Drake comes out to his parents as a mutant, the movie makes time for all its (still far too crowded) cast to shine. Couple that with some of the best on-screen uses of superpowers, and the excellent Brian Cox in the villain role, and you’ve got another in the long line of second installments in superhero franchises that outdo the original in nearly every way.

7. The Wolverine

            It took a wretched first time out to bat to do it, but the X-filmmakers finally succeeded in crafting a good solo outing for their most profitable character. Darren Aronofsky was originally tapped to helm the film, and while we can only assume the movie he would have delivered would’ve been way more esoteric and weird than this, the movie we got still has that sheen of authenticity to differentiate itself from the rest. James Mangold was instead given the task as director, and admirably delivers a solemn, quiet character study that has more in common with a low-budget martial arts film than the typical superhero movie… up until the very end, where the film’s relatively low-key tone explodes when Wolverine has to fight a giant, robo-samurai. But everything leading up to that is pretty stellar, with a phenomenal cast including Rila Fukushima, Hiroyuki Sanada and the always-reliable Hugh Jackman at the film’s center. Plus: Wolverine fights ninjas! I can’t believe it took them five films to get to that.

6. Blade

            Marvel’s first real big-screen success is also still one of its best movies, an action-horror hybrid that manages to entertain almost fifteen years after its original release. Screenwriter David Goyer takes an almost-forgotten character from the seventies and refashions him into something that felt truly original - a high-tech vampire hunter who fights his prey not with crosses and wooden stakes, but rather silver-laced, hollow-point bullets and a bitchin’ samurai sword. To be honest, the script doesn’t offer much more beyond that, but director Steven Norrington frames it all with a violent, blood-soaked style - The Matrix gets all the praise for popularizing Hong Kong action in Hollywood, but Blade also deserves some of the credit, with its nonstop, balls-to-the-wall style that would make Tsui Hark and John Woo proud. Also key to the film’s success: Wesley Snipes, who here gets the role he was born to play.  

5. Punisher: War Zone

            Another unfairly-maligned “failure,” critics and audiences got it all wrong when this movie came out, it’s satirical nature flying right over their heads. Lexi Alexander takes the extreme violence and self-seriousness of the source material and mines it for comedic gold, filling the frame with colorful action and way-overacting caricature to result in a concoction that can only be described as the Adam West Batman series on acid. Ray Stevenson plays the titular character as a gruff, monotone force of nature, and he’s paired with a frenzied Dominic West who’s going big in the great Frank Gorshin tradition. It may not be for everybody, but it you’re in on the joke, it’s hard to not to have a hilariously good time with Punisher: War Zone.

4. Spider-Man

            The big one; the game-changer. The film that is almost solely responsible for kicking off our modern superhero blockbuster dominance, and all because it takes the time to make us care about the lead character. Before Spider-Man, the cinematic superhero was little more than a glorified action figure, but here, the titular superhero doesn’t show up until halfway through the film. Instead, we get to know Peter Parker, we’re endeared to his character, so when the spectacle starts, it hits with all the more effect as a result - putting the “special” and “effect” back into special effects, if you will. Subsequent superhero movies have taken this approach to even greater heights, leaving this first Spider-Man movie somewhat quaint by comparison, but Sam Raimi’s film is still a testament to not only Spider-Man, but the superhero as a whole.

3. X-Men: First Class

            The great mistake of superhero fiction was turning it into a genre in and of itself. And once it became its own genre, it became constrained by the self-imposed “rules” that genre requires: what was fresh and invigorating all of a sudden become stale tropes that the form must follow. No, the superhero works best when it is instead a concept that can be fluid in how it’s presented… which is why X-Men: First Class is such a refreshing breath of air. Matthew Vaughan takes the X-Men back to their beginnings in the sixties, and bringing the swinging sense of style that such espionage classics like James Bond and The Avengers (no, the other Avengers) excelled at during the same period. The cast is still overpopulated with characters who don’t always get enough to do, but have more than enough talent to make up for limited screen-time. The political and social climate allows the inherent “Other” themes of the source material to come out, all placed together in a fun spy movie package of turtlenecks and secret lairs.

2. Blade II

            Blade II is one of the best evocations of a comic book transplanted to live action. There's not much to the story, which sees a new strain of vampire called Reapers unleashed upon the world, who feed not just on humans, but also on other vampires, but the joy in this movie lies in the style, amped up to 11 from even the previous film. Director Guillermo Del Toro takes David Goyer’s sparse script and hangs upon that simplistic framework a dazzling array of comic book action and atmospheric horror. This is a film for true comic book aficionados, with compositions recalling the work of famous artists like Frank Frazetta, Jack Kirby, Frank Miller and more, but even without that frame of reference, Blade II is an absolute blast of action filmmaking, with just enough character and personality to distinguish itself from the rest of the pack - a brilliant showcase for Del Toro’s superior talents.

1. Spider-Man 2

            Ten years on, and Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 is still the gold standard by which all other superhero movies must be measured. Raimi takes everything up a notch for the sequel, increasing the pathos of the characters to a level that these ultra-mainstream movies rarely achieve, let alone even attempt. With a bigger budget and the clout of the previous film’s success, Raimi is free to cut loose a bit, bringing more of his trademark, madcap style to the fore, with shots like the zooming out of Doc Ock’s glasses being a standout. It's a crowd-pleasing effort in the Spielberg tradition of blockbusters, with the elements of spectacle, character and theme firing on all cylinders and showing the potential of what these summer movies can be, when done right. The love story of Peter and Mary Jane is given more depth and nuance, and is juxtaposed nicely against the amazing Alfred Molina as Otto Octavious, perhaps the most sympathetic and well-realized super-villain yet put to screen.All in all, Spider-Man 2 succeeds by providing in a wonderfully human core to the superhuman spectacle.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...