ThePageBoy

Writing, Reviewing and Criticism In The Internet Age

Tag: Marvel

Double Barrelled Shotgun Review – Avengers vs. Amazing Spider-Man

Right,

First off, the bright eyed and bushy tailed that no doubt make up the majority of my traffic will notice that this is not a usual Page Boy adaptation.  In a wonder of tautological truth that is simply because this is SOMETHING DIFFERENT! In the most roundabout sort of way I’ve decided that whenever I find two films, or in some cases two books, I’m going to load up the double barrelled shotgun of reviewing and do a little side by side review. I’m not going to make this a regular thing but if I find a couple of films or books that lend themself to a particular theme or topic that’s been on my mind then you’ll see the DBS reviews up here.

So for the first double barreled shotgun review let’s talk about genre movies; namely, as the title gives away The Avengers and The Amazing Spider-Man, two of the big three superhero movies coming out in summer 2012.

First up The Avengers, this has been the climax of Marvel Studios on-going attempt to bring comic style continuity to the big screen, starting with Iron Man and that now ubiquitous post credit teaser scene with the sudden appearance of Samuel L Jackson.  Looking at how popular that scene is now in the superhero genre it is easy to forget the huge gamble that this represented. Outside of the comic community these Marvel characters were as well-known and would certainly not qualify as household names. Now, half a decade on Marvel studios have done something that many believed to be impossible. The movies succeeded in Taking little known and often complex characters to the paradigm of the simple action movie – the good guys who save the world and get the girl. What made the films so great is that they weren’t dependent of viewers being familiar with the entire Marvel universe, sure it helped, but the interdependence of the films means that Marvel can build their universe at the own pace. The plot of all the Avengers movies is basically the same thing, a unique individual is required to use their abilities to save the world/town/nine realms of space/whatever and become the hero they were all along. What sounds initially unpromising is made to work through top-notch understanding of who these people are – their arc may be the same but the way they come to it means that none of these characters feel samey, all the characters drawn deeply enough to bring flesh to the bones of their archetypes.

The Avengers was the culmination of this project and was a colossal success not only commercially but interestingly, for a genre movie, critically. So here’s where we come to it – yes, technically every film is a genre movie but the distinction I’m trying to draw here is the difference between “films” and “movies” and unquestionably The Avengers is a movie with a capital “M” – designed for opening night bonding and popcorn munching. So what made the Avengers able to be acknowledged by critics who would normally ignore something so unashamed-ly ‘blockbuster-y.’ To try to answer this in terminology I have used before – the Avengers does not suffer from cool shit syndrome. Yes, there are loads of cool things that happen in the film, but all of – EVERY SINGLE THING – happens for an incredibly good reason. Nothing is superficial – action is there, not for its own sake, but to further either character or plot development, which is what action is for. All of this is down to one simple thing, the quality of the writing and the directing from Joss Whedon. The well-drawn characters and interesting dialogue allows the film to make the audience care beyond the spectacle. Yes, you can enjoy the stuff blowing up, but it is more involving when the characters being blown up are ones we relate to and like. Plus the fact the film is incredibly funny in places allows for dramatic juxtaposition  – a character we like and laugh at his jokes gets murdered and we feel much more invested in what is happening. In short, the rules of the genre work well together to involve the audience and bypass whatever limitations of the superhero genre might be.

What this allows is for the film to operate within the limits of its genre but not to be trapped by it. Do you want to know what you get when a film is trapped by its genre? Transformers 2. That’s what you get. Messy, loud, annoying spectacle and that is it –and that just isn’t a bad genre movie, that’s a bad movie full stop.

Let’s Move on to the Amazing Spider-Man, which I just got back from seeing. And this, quite obviously, fits in the super-hero genre perfectly. Almost too perfectly and this might well be why I left the cinema feeling that ‘Amazing’ was hyperbole. Rebooting the franchise, clearly for no other reason than to hang onto the intellectual property the film does have some very good points – so lets deal with the good bits before talking about my problem with it and why I think this film shows the limits of the generic movie.

So, the good points, which has to start with the cast. Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone as the teenage leads are both very good, the fact that they are a real life couple making them the chemistry between them palpable. In the hands of Marc Webb, responsible for the indie rom-com 500 Days of Summer, the scene with Peter and Gwen are probably the best in the film. The new world of the inevitable franchise is skilfully rendered, leaving the somewhat cartoonish Rami vision for something more realistic. The ensemble works well – Martin Sheen being a highlight, because, well he’s Martin Sheen. Furthermore this re-imagined Peter Parker is more complex and the scenes of him and his adopted family working through his issues are very strong. And by and large the rest of the supporting cast do a good job. What’s to the directors credit is that he has talent at conversation and character able to deal with scenes of emotional weight.

When we move to the action part of the movie problems do creep in. Starting, sadly, with the bad guy played by Rhys Ifans unfortunately burdened by some frankly god awful make up and terrible CGI. Yes, Ifans is a good actor but how can an audience be invested or scared of a lizard monster who makes me want to laugh. Whilst this sounds like a minor niggles, it leads into a bigger problem; in short, this would be a great movie if it wasn’t a superhero movie. The actions scene are good, but spectacle wise it isn’t anything new and feels bland and predictable. You’ve seen these scenes a thousand times before, and the final fight can be predicted beat for beat by anyone with an understanding of action movies.

Yes, the same could be said of the Avengers but Spider-man doesn’t make the effort to rise above meeting our expectations. Everything about this film is fine. Just fine. Not bad. Not amazing, but just good. The dialogue? OK. The good guy? Good. The action? Action-y. But that is all. Maybe it might be that a re-boot of Peter Parker just isn’t possible as pretty much everyone already knows the major beats of his character already and if you make the bold choice to mess with it, then it isn’t really the same character anymore.

Now some people will defend it saying this is just the first part of a new franchise and that we need to wait to fully get the vision that is being articulated. Now, there are two reasons why this is rubbish. Firstly, films are not trailers for other films. They are films! If a film cannot stand on its own merits then what I am I doing watching it? The first two Christopher Nolan Batman films stand up well on their positives. For proof that a franchise can operate individually as good films, look at the Avenger’s movies, (maybe not Iron Man 2…)

To conclude then, the two seen side by side show the genre at its very best and at its most basic, when operating within the confines of a genre, creators have a clear choice. they can either use the rules as the Avengers does to try to tell a story of quality or use the rules of the genre as a substitutes for the ambition that this takes. Following the rules of the genre won’t necessarily give you a bad movie, just one that misses ‘amazing’ by quite some distance.

Thanks

ThePageBoy

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Marvel Month III: ‘Spider-man, Spider-man’, or, Why puberty sucked for Peter Parker

Right,

A while back I had an idea for a hero. A hero for our time. A hero for the little guy. A hero that me, as someone trapped in the gulag of teenage angst would be able to relate to. This hero was going to change comics for ever, and, make me very rich indeed. Ready? Here it is. THE MAN-SPIDER! A spider, bitten by a radioactive man develops the proportional speed, strength and agility of a man, and hiding a tortured past dons a secret identity to battle crime and injustice. His nemesis? A giant bath-tub and of course, the deadly glass trap!

Thankfully though, Stan Lee has been alive for a lot longer than me and before I could unleash this horror upon the world, he decided to put out Spider-Man in August of 1962. Following on from my column on Thor, (please see last weeks if you haven’t read it, you’ll entertain yourself and increase my views. We both win!) I decided that I needed to review something a little more grounded, something that everyone had heard of – something core to the Marvel brand, and they really don’t come anymore core than Peter Parker – Spider-man.

Do I really need to explain what Spider-man is about? I mean, really? Then OK, for the few readers who have recently emerged from vegetative states lasting the last 50 years; firstly, congratulations and secondly pay attention. Peter Parker is your average down on his luck, angst-ridden teenager; through a freak accident he is granted his powers and tragedy strikes to make him come to terms with the responsibilities and costs of power.

Now, as I said last week with Thor, (seriously, go read it…) the problem I had was trying to find the defining run on the comic; THE story that defines the character like nothing else. This is a little difficult when the character is nearly 50 years old. When it comes to Spider-Man, the problem is a little more pronounced. Here’s why, Peter Parker is, in comic terms, a huge deal. Seriously. Here’s a little list of just how many Spider-Man titles that have, at one point or another, been monthly ongoing since the early 1960’s…

– The Amazing Spider-Man

–  Marvel Team Up

– Web of Spider-Man

– The Spectacular Spider-Man

– Spider-Man

– Sensational Spider-Man

– Untold Tales of Spider-Man

– Spider-Man Unlimited

– Spider-Man 2099

– Friendly Neighbourhood Spider-Man

– Spider-Man’s Tangled Web

– Amazing Spider-Man Family

– Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man

And that isn’t even all of them. At one point Spider-Man had five monthly ongoing titles. That is, to use a touch of understatement, a hell of a lot of comics. So, in order not to get swallowed by a tsunami of titles, continuities and general geekiness that I just couldn’t cope with I decided upon focusing on a rarity in comics – the complete storyline, Ultimate Spider-Man – by Brian Michael Bendis. Now, if this isn’t the run you think I should  have chosen – please, let me assure you that this wasn’t a choice I took lightly, plus doing a little research I found that Ultimate Spider-man was a big influence on the look and style of the first of the Spider-Man movies.

From the horror of Spider-Man 3, (and don’t worry – I’m getting to it)  some of you may have forgotten just how good the first film was. Even when considered in strictly financial terms this was a blockbuster in the truest sense of the word, being 2002’s highest grossing movie and even today it is the 30th highest grossing movie of all time. EVER! In terms of plot, this is the Spider-Man story that everyone knows. Peter Parker, the nerd we can all relate to gets bitten by a radioactive Spider and fights evil and get the girl, kind of.

Whilst the film is really very good there are a few things that really start to stand out now I have re-watched it. the design of The Green Goblin is dreadful. The dialogue is clunky and as cheesy as a teenager’s socks in places and the CGI often leaves a lot to be desired; though at the time it was quite impressive. What made it such a success is, in my opinion, the performances. Especially the two male leads, Toby Maguire as Spider-Man and James Franco as his best friend Harry Osbourne. These two carry the film – Maguire especially as the teenager forced to deal with something vastly beyond what he’s used to. I’m not wild about the other cast members, though that being said Willem Defoe hams it up as the bad guy and Mary Jane and Parker’s aunt and uncle aren’t really as fleshed out as they should be. Regardless, it was a huge success so as night follows day, the franchise was soon upon us.

Spider-Man 2 was in the world two years later, and let’s be honest, the warning signs were already there. Yes, Maguire and Franco are as good as ever, and it was fun to see them show the struggles Peter Parker has trying to balance his normal life and his life as Spider-Man. Even the CGI had taken leaps and bounds forward. And yet…The whole film suffered from some major problems of tone – whilst Spider-Man as a character has always been slightly more light-hearted than others this film failed to pull it off. Poor Alfred Molina as Doc Ock suffers here, as he looses his wife in one scene then starts building a GIANT DEATH MACHINE in the next. The film feels crowded and emotionally cramped as they desperately try to squeeze enough cameo’s and pointless ‘zany’ scenes in to keep cinema go-ers and fanboys alike happy. But it made even more money than the first and then…along it came; Spider-Man 3.

Spider-Man 3…Now, to be honest I was really excited about the idea of the third film. The trailer looked amazing and I was really excited to see Venom on the big screen. And it all went so, SO wrong. If the second film was crowded then the third is standing room only. The goofy fun moments started to stack up and the whole thing felt almost schizophrenic. Yes, that’s right – I’m talking about “EVIL PETER!” There have been plenty of criticisms of this whole thing which have been made already, but I will just say this. Milk, cookies and jazz dancing in the club is not a subtle or dramatically consistent way to articulate the tortures of the hero. NOT EVEN A LITTLE BIT!

So, how does this compare to the comics? Well, actually, the place I think it all went wrong is when the films stopped being influenced by the comic books. The first film, for its slightly corny moments is a really solid hero movie. It’s fun when it needs to be, but it also takes the time to keep a tone that is…well, good. As a medium, the novel is a slightly slower paced one than the film and I think this holds true even for comics. The comics are action packed and do keep things consistent by not over doing it. Whilst it’s true that even now some of Bendis’s dialogue isn’t quite as hip or zany as it might have been when it first came out the writing is generally of a very high standard, and the influences to the first film can clearly be seen. Regardless of the criticism I said previously I really do like this run and I struggle to come up with any real substantive problems with it. The art is bright, dynamic and very clean and the stories the creative team come up with made me remember why Spider-Man can be so much fun to read. What I really enjoy about the comics is that it manages to balance the tone between fun, light-hearted banter and some kick ass action scenes. I think that maybe one of the most enjoyable scenes in the run is Spider-Man’s first battle with the Kingpin, who beats Spider-Man, tears off his mask and throws him out of window. Spider-Man’s comeback? A stream of fat jokes. It’s funny, it’s active and it just works.

Maybe I’m being harsh or unfair but I think that if this run had carried on influencing the screen writers then maybe the second and third films would have been better. Maybe the power and success of the franchise went to Sam Rami’s head and he wanted to see how much he could get away with. But again, the question has to be, as a franchise just how good an adaptation are these movies. The more I’ve thought about the more difficult I’ve found it to honestly answer, so there comes the best thought I could really muster…Ready…?

The three films, considered as a whole seem to come off as the product of someone who read the comics, but didn’t really pay that much attention to things like structure, or tone. Or emotional consistency. Or how to write dialogue. Or how to design a villain costume. Whilst I think, solely as films, these films are good fun entertainment, as an adaptation I really don’t feel like they do Peter Parker justice. Well, they almost do, they come so close to pulling off the tricky combination of Spider-Man as the everyman and the avenging superhero. I like the films, I do, but I don’t love them as the closer something gets towards being really good, the more disappointing it is when it falls short.

Look, maybe if I read a different run, (and believe me, I will be) I would have come to a different conclusion. Reading Ultimate Spider-Man has made me want to check out the classic runs from Stan Lee and Jeff Loeb and Gerry Conway and Dan Slott. Maybe these films have taken elements of other parts of the Spider-Man canon and maybe, if I read some more comics I’ll get the films.

This trilogy could have been great. It’s good but massively flawed and as an adaptation it takes some elements of this great run but somehow doesn’t quite come off. So, an ambiguous ending to this week’s column and I know it sounds like I haven’t quite managed to get to grips with the entire thing. But honestly, when I had this much source material to deal with, I’m just impressed I managed to get this column out within three years!

It’s never easy when dealing with a character as big and as omnipresent in comics as Peter Parker and if you think that I’ve missed something important, then please let me know and enlighten me as to what you think.

Thanks

ThePageBoy

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Marvel Month II, or, ‘Why I love Kenneth Branagh’

Right,

Marvel month kicks off properly here, and I’m sure I can’t be the only one who, when thinking about the Marvel Comics films, immediately jumps to a middle-aged Irish-man with a burning desire to be Lawrence Olivier. Ah, Kenneth Branagh – good old Kenny; big Kenny B, a man who has been nominated for an Oscar in five different categories, a man who was married to the wonderful Emma Thompson and decided to have an affair with Helena Bonham-Carter as well as playing the title role in five different films/TV shows. In short, this man is the ultimate classically trained and RADA educated LAD. (not in the misogynistic, horrific rape culture endorsing way, mind you – that wouldn’t be cool..)

Yes, I know that he has got his fair share of dross on his CV but you know something, I don’t care. I think Kenneth Branagh is simply flawless, and yes, that does include his version of Hamlet which is about five days long and earned him the honour of being one of three people who make a punchline in Blackadder. (A shiny penny to the first person to get the other two and no using Wikipedia! That’s cheating!)

So Branagh, (*swoon*) was the man brought onto the juggernaut that is the Avengers franchise to direct Thor. I will admit, however, that at the news I wasn’t delighted. I was distinctly sceptical. Branagh seemed too cerebral a choice, someone reliant on dialogue and character to really handle, what I assumed would be a big noisy blockbuster. Now this attitude, I freely admit, was based on a shocking lack of knowledge about Thor’s comics and a little snobbishness about the kind of work I thought was beneath King Kenny.

Thankfully the film soared over my expectations. It was one of the biggest blockbusters of the year so I won’t waste too much time re-hashing plot, but suffice to say it involves the Gods of Asgard and the war with the Frost Giants, a sibling rivalry between Thor and his brother Loki worthy of the greatest tragedies and, of course, scientists.  In keeping with all Marvel movies there is the inevitable build up towards the Avengers nerd-gasm coming this year but even considered as a separate entity rather than a 120 minute trailer for another film, this is a very solid movie. To a large extent the strength of the movie comes, in my opinion, from Branagh’s direction and the cast. The gods of Asgard are old school in the theatrical sense of the word – these are Gods of wrath, violence and all the worst traits of humanity with the power to destroy the entire world. The relationship between Thor, Odin and Loki has more than an echo of King Lear to it; helped considerably by the thespian legend Sir Anthony Hopkins chewing through the CGI scenery as the Allfather and the hulking presence of Chris Hemsworth as the adolescent and powerful Thor.  Tom Hiddlestone deserves all the credit one can heap on him as Loki and I am delighted beyond words he’s returning as the villain for the Avengers. Idris Elba adds another touch of gravitas as Heimdall, as well as stirring up some cheap publicity by having the gall to be a black actor in an action film!

As the previous paragraph may have given away, I think the films strongest scenes are the ones that focus on the realm of Asgard and the power dynamics of the Gods. Also of note is the sequences where Thor rashly plunges into a fight with the Frost Giants and his final confrontation with Loki really adds to the grand, Shakespearean themes the film is trying to aim for. That said, I’m not a huge fan of the scenes here on Earth, as to keep the films running time down, it feels rushed, (especially the love interest with Natalie Portman) and personally I never get the impression that Thor’s exile on earth is a real struggle to overcome. That being said, the film succeeds for the most part in marrying grand themes of betrayal, power and jealousy with an action packed story.

So, a good movie. But a good adaptation? Well, this is where the whole thing becomes a little more complicated…

As I said in the last column Thor has been around since the early 1960’s in comic form, and his legends have been around for literally thousands years. This is, not just a literary story – Thor is a cultural juggernaut, it surely isn’t possible to fuse Nordic legend into a comic form without being not just crass, but hugely insensitive.

Or so I thought. And then I started reading what I consider to be one of the finest comic runs I have ever read – The Mighty Thor Volume 1 337-382. Written and drawn by Walt Simonsen and lettered by John Workman it is an incredible piece of work. The look of the comic is like nothing else, thanks to Simonsen’s wonderful art style and the sense of scale and grandeur is done so well thanks to the jaw-dropping lettering from Workman. The dialogue too,  is just as good as the film’s and in some respects, much better. This Thor feels even more Shakespearean than the film thanks to the sometimes archaic syntax and tendency of the characters to think or say what is actually happening mid scene! What I love  about this run is the sense of cosmic scale that the creative team has achieved; whilst there are times where the dialogue feels clunky everything is given the time and the space to breathe, all of the action feels like it has a sense of great importance and the characters are given the page space to be given depth and characterised to an astonishing degree. Loki, especially, is shown to be an incredible villain, one who will happily destroy someone’s entire life just for the fun of it.

The problem is, of course, that the film adaptation has to be something unique to the Marvel comic as opposed to a slice of cultural appropriation in the obligatory cape and big hammer get up. To an extent I wouldn’t say this is what the film is; it certainly encouraged me to actually pick up the comics and see what Marvel writers wanted to do and the stories they wanted to tell. In a way, Thor’s problem is one I feel could be repeated by the rest of these films in Marvel Month. Thor is so well-known that, in a way, the adaptation is always going to fall short. We all know the name of Thor and many of us are familiar with the legends and mythologies of Nordic culture – the Norse gods have even named the days of the week.

Many people might think that there are so many different stories that could be told with  these characters and just as with Batman and Superman there will be people who demand different tales be told. The problem is, of course, that it simply isn’t possible to adapt what is a continuing narrative, you can’t adapt Thor in the traditional sense of the word, as the source material is still being generated. However…what you can do it take the original concepts, and they clearly are the original concepts from Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and add to the ongoing narrative that is being told. Strictly speaking, this is a transposition of the original mythos, world and characters into a new medium. And it’s done well. Really well. It makes the world of Thor accessible to a huge new market.

The more I think about this, the more exciting I think comic movies are – it adds to the story and the characters in a way that traditional narrative couldn’t. Roll on next week, as Marvel Month continues!

Thanks

ThePageBoy

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Marvel Month I: An Apology, or, ‘I’m not really a big enough geek for this.’

Right,

First off, let me expunge the first reaction you may be having. This isn’t an apology for me beng too busy to update regularly because I’m out doing things that the internet doesn’t approve of; like having friends who aren’t pixels and talking to girls, (joking! A bit…) This post wasn’t even supposed to be an apology – it was intended to be a huge announcement of the first ever theme month.

This was where I was going to be proud to announce the commencement of…MARVEL MONTH! That’s right, a whole month of me assessing the Marvel movies and the source material they came from. A month of superheroics, kick-ass action, bad guys and saving the world. A whole month of geek awesomeness.

And that’s where I hit just a couple of really small snags. The first one came when I was looking for which comic should be the first one to be reviewed. It should have been obvious, it really should have been but all I can say is that I was so grateful for getting past The Da Vinci Code I just wasn’t thinking straight. Then it hit me. The first comic I wanted to read has been going since 1963. That is a really long time. Really – a loooooooooooooong time. So, there’s 49 years of comics to read. I can’t do that, nobody can. Not in a week, where I also need to watch the movie!

Then, I hit upon the obvious and simple solution. I don’t need to read it all, because the people who wrote the movie probably didn’t, and if its been going since 1963 the law of averages says that a big chunck of these comics aren’t going to be worth reading. sorry to be harsh, but that just seems to be the way things are.  If you don’t believe me just try to read some of the Batman that was churned out in the 1960’s and try and tell me seriously that it  meets any definition of the word good.

So, this is where I hit my second snag, and to be honest, this one I don’t see a way through, so here’s why I need to apologise. Again. Here we go…

I am not an expert on comics. I read them for a bit but didn’t have the money or the dedication to keep up the habit. But some people do. Some people must have read every comic, are familiar with the mythology of the comics, the lore, the references, the jokes even. Sorry, but that isn’t me.

Here’s what I can do though, and maybe what I should be doing. I’m going to spend the time looking into each character and find the run that helps shape and define the character and then treat that as the source material. If it isn’t the run you would have chosen or the writer you love then, sorry… But surely the success or failure of the film shouldn’t hinge on me having read Journey into Mystery #92. Maybe I’ll get round to it, but in the meantime this is the best way I’ve found.

The more eagle-eyed and comic loving may have picked up on the one or two clues in this article, the first film in ThePageBoy’s is Thor directed by Kenneth Branagh, after a little research I decided on the jaw dropping run by Walt Simonsen Vol1 #337-382.

Right, I’m off. Got comics to read.

Thanks

ThePageBoy

Oh, don’t worry; there will be more jokes in the next column. Promise.