Thursday, May 10, 2012

Could Crossovers Save Superhero Movies?

So okay, dig it cool cats.


For at least thirty years, the superhero comic book industry has been a smelly morass of CROSSOVERS! Every year, Marvel or DC does a big thing that involves all the titles where they have to team up to fight a huge baddie or there’s some international crisis that all the heroes have to sit around a table for. It cheapens the writing of the individual books, by having the writers conform to guidelines set up for them by editorial. Stop punching that bank robber, Spidey! Tony Stark would like you to make some political statements and reveal your identity to the masses!

Now, movies don’t have that problem. There’s no continuity to deal with and screenwriters can generally just do what they like to tell the best possible story involving the characters they’ve been given. Now, this generally lead to maybe not a fault, but certainly a personal niggle in many superhero movies of the past decade. The stories were very contained. Very few cinematic superheroes ever saved the world. It was usually just them and a supervillain duking it out over some real or perceived slight the hero had inflicted upon the villain. And honestly? It was getting kinda stale.

This changed when in 2008 Jon Favreau and Kevin Feige decided the first IRON MAN movie could use a little post-credits sting where Samuel L. Jackson showed up as Nick Fury, asking Tony Stark if he knew about the Avengers Initiative. With a $200mil US opening weekend, it’s safe to say most people know who the Avengers are nowadays. In 2008? Not so much. Who were the Avengers? Why has Shaft lost an eye? Why did you make me sit through the credits? It didn’t even have Nickelback over them!

Nerd Alerts went off all over the world. Suddenly, you could identify the real dorks in movie theaters by the guys who would tell their friends/dates about WHAT THAT REFERENCE REALLY MEANT.

Cross-pollination continued with Robert Downey, Jr. appearing in THE INCREDIBLE HULK. Marvel was now steaming full course ahead with making the first ever SUPERHERO TEAM-UP MOVIE. But it was very important that people knew every hero, and knew beforehand that they were all in the same universe. They weren’t entirely sure how to do that, though.

In THOR, this resulted in a complete derail from the main plot when Thor got apprehended by SHIELD agents for a while. Do you remember that acronym and that unremarkable bureaucrat looking guy from IRON MAN?

Well here they are in THOR as we… what? You don’t. God, uh… what are we gonna? Let’s put Hawkeye in there! But we already shot the movie and Chris Hemsworth is doing other shit! God what do we doooo??? We can have him… almost take a shot at Thor? And people will be like… who is that mysterious archer? Why does the government employ an archer? He must be very good indeed if he is hired in an agency where everyone else has guns. This is a plot strand I will certainly remember.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER wasn’t weighed down as badly by needing to remind the audience that HEY HEY HEY this is taking place in a larger universe!!!, but it did end on a less beautiful note than it could have, just to fit Nick Fury’s by-then requisite cameo in.

Cut to: THE AVENGERS (or, AVENGERS ASSEMBLE as it is delightfully called in the UK. Directed by a guy who had mostly done television and one less-than-successful movie, produced by Marvel Studios, an outfit by now renowned for its penny-pinching, and the very first superhero crossover movie in blockbuster history, things were looking unsure.

But they pulled it off! AVENGERS is the best comic book movie since SPIDER-MAN 2 in terms of sheer Silver Age joyfulness. It feels BIG (despite the “localized” final battle) because you have the idea that momentous events are really happening that forces all these disparate players onto the same stage. Everyone has had their own movie(s), so they all come with a certain weight to them, aided by actors who’ve gotten to know their characters over several years. I must add that Mark Ruffalo, first-time Bruce Banner/Hulk, is the best cinematic iteration of the character so far, and it’s also his first outing. Good show! The Hulk is basically a big, angry puppy in this movie; complete with people he likes (Iron Man) and hates (Thor).

(No, seriously, Hulk’s dislike and subsequent treatment of Asgardians in this movie is THE BEST.)

Even the why-are-they-even-there ones (Hawkeye, Black Widow) get great little moments. At one point during the final battle, Iron Man shoots a repulsor ray at Cap’s shield, who deflects it into a Chitauri’s face. In any other superhero movie this would have been the big money shot of the fight. Here, it just happened in a panning shot with a bunch of other cool stuff happening in other places.

Now, I’m not naive enough to think that the very concept of team-up movies is going to refresh the genre. Big part of the reason AVENGERS works is cuz of Joss Whedon, a dyed-in-the-wool comic book guy. But what are the best parts of the movie? The big stars and heroes bouncing off of each other, shooting the shit, making jokes, squabbling. One of the things Marvel Studios really has done consistently well over all its movies is casting. Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, and now Mark Ruffalo all perfectly embody their characters. By getting the best guys from each movie into one movie and putting them in a team dynamic, you’re getting a whole bunch of fun on screen for free, even if the script wasn’t as good as the AVENGERS’ luckily was.

Movies aren’t comic books. There’s a new one every two years, not every month. And the most Marvel Studios movies we’ve had in a year was two, so they won’t be tripping all over each other like with their printed brethren. Now that the public is VERY MUCH AWARE that all these heroes exist in a shared universe thanks to the Avengers’ amazing success, you can focus on telling the story you wanna tell without advertising movies that are coming down the line.

And you know what you can do now?

Well, not with Spider-Man, cuz the movie rights to Spider-Man are with Sony and not Marvel/Disney, but Team-Ups man! You really think people will come to see a Black Widow/Hawkeye movie? It’ll just be a Bourne rip-off! But put in the Hulk and you’ve got people’s attentions AND a hell of a co-star.

Marvel Studios now has that power. They basically have a stable of celebrities. It’s up to them to realize that they can make superhero Rat Pack movies or just continue to have heroes cleaning up their own messes in climactic fights in nocturnal warehouses.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

In which I tune mine Lyre to Kratos

Born of ashes and forged in war, the Spartan Kratos sought to become the greatest warlord the ancient world had ever seen. Savage after savage fell under the steel of the Spartan’s phalanxes. Until one day, the barbarian hordes united and brought destruction to Kratos’ armies.

As the would-be conqueror drew his last breath, time stopped. Ares, the god of war himself, had descended from Olympus with a proposal for Kratos. The Spartan would get demi-godlike powers to vanquish his foes, if he became the agent of Ares in the mortal realm.

Kratos agreed. Not only the barbarian armies, but those of Hellas fell to the resurrected warrior as well. Little did Kratos know what cruel hubris Ares had in store for him.

The fires of Olympus burning within Kratos’ soul, he set upon a city like so many others that had resisted him. Ignoring the warnings of an old crone that his doom lay in this very city, he defeated its forces and sacked it. But as he came out of the warrior’s frenzy after murdering two shadowy figures in a temple, he knew he was damned; for at his feet lay his own wife and daughter.

As the temple burned to the ground, the ashes of their burning bodies seared themselves into Kratos’ skin, making him like unto a man deceased. He became the creature known as the Ghost of Sparta, swearing to destroy Ares, whatever the cost.

In this, he was aided by Athena, who secretly sought to overthrow her out-of-control brother, but was forbidden to do so directly by Zeus, who abhorred Olympian in-fighting.


And here’s where I’m gonna stop the faux-bro video game style epic-speech. That is, in a nutshell, the basic premise of 2005’s PS2 game God of War. The basic gameplay then consists of you, as Kratos, imaginatively dispatching all manner of mythological beasties until you meet the big cheese himself. Whom you then murder, obviously.

Kratos then wants to toss himself off a cliff, as he has nothing to live for anymore. Unfortunately for him, it was all a big set-up! Athena saves him from crashing against the rocks below, and Zeus sets him up as the new god of war. The credits show imagery of war throughout the centuries, with a downcast Kratos presiding over it all.

Now, Kratos is a bit of a jerk in this story, but nothing out of the ordinary for Greek mythology. He does bad shit, overreaches, and pays for it.

It was while playing 2007’s God of War 2 (also on PS2) that I realized just how fucking hilarious Kratos was. You see, Kratos is a very shitty god of war. He just starts random shit because fuck everyone he’s depressed. When his armies are besieging Rhodes, Zeus himself puts a stop to it.

That’s right, the king of the Greek gods comes down from Olympus to stab you for being such a huge warmongering aggressive prick. Zeus, the guy who turns into a bull to go score with teenage girls. He thinks you are just too much. Let that sink in.

Descending into the Underworld, Kratos is rescued by the titan Gaia, who infuses him with the omg WRATH OF THE TITANS. The Olympians cast them down into this hellhole eons ago, and they’d love to get their vengeance on those smug white-clad sons of bitches and obviously Kratos is just the guy.

Sent back to Earth once more, Kratos’ mission is simple. The plot is perhaps the most pure distillation of “video game story” I’ve seen since the days of Pong and Frogger.

You are at the foot of a mountain. There is a man at the top. Kill him.

Kratos takes to this assignment with… some gusto.

The last guy is Helios, the sun god. After ripping off his head, you can use it as a lantern in dark areas. It screams EVERY TIME you equip it.

So basically throughout 2 and 3, you just violently murder everyone who even puts a little toe between you and Zeus. And why? Because Zeus thought you were TOO SHITTY AND VIOLENT AT YOUR JOB OF WAR GOD.

Anything Kratos does after the first game is essentially just a whiny toddler with super strength getting back at his dad for taking his toys away. He stabs, punches, yells and kicks his way to the top of Olympus to get his vengeance. Everything he does is so incredibly CRANKED UP TO 11 that it’s impossible to take seriously.

Check out the first few minutes for TC Carson lolling his way through voicing Kratos. Bonus: Linda Hunt, Harry Hamlin and Michael Clarke Duncan!

Kratos is essentially the quintessential personification of the entitled, impotent, privileged male. Kratos IS gamers.

Neil Gaiman could probably write a very interesting tale with the premise “Whatever happened to the Greek gods?”, and the answer would probably be fascinating, enchanting, whimsically dark, and ultimately kind of moving.

God of War answers that question with “A crazy guy stabbed them all a million times.”