Superhero Smackdown Set for 2015?

“Standalone movies? We don’t got to make no stinkin’ standalone movies.”

From the Los Angeles Times, there now exists a strong possibility for not one, but two super hero teams slugging it out for box office supremacy in 2015.

DC Comics’ superheroes can finally team up on the big screen following yesterday’s legal victory for Warner Bros. in its long-running fight over the rights to Superman.

The studio is expected to accelerate development of a planned “Justice League” movie that would join Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman and other characters, according to a knowledgeable person not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

Warner hopes to shoot the film next year and release it in the summer of 2015. The studio already has a “Justice League” script in the works. Next it needs to attach a director and then cast the lead roles.

Had Warner lost its case against the heirs of Superman co-creator Joe Shuster, it would not have been able to make “Justice League” or any other movies, television shows or comics featuring key elements of the Man of Steel’s mythos after 2013 unless it reached a new agreement with the estates of Shuster and co-creator Jerry Siegel.

That uncertainty made it difficult for Warner to move ahead with “Justice League,” which the studio’s motion pictures group president, Jeff Robinov, has long wanted to make as a pillar of its big-screen superhero strategy.

Robinov previously tried unsuccessfully to convince “The Dark Knight” director Christopher Nolan to produce “Justice League.” Nolan is producing next year’s Superman movie “Man of Steel.” Wednesday’s court victory also makes it possible for Warner to make sequels to “Man of Steel” if the picture is successful.

With “Green Lantern” flopping and other movies featuring the Flash and Wonder Woman lingering in development, Warner has lagged behind Walt Disney Co.’s Marvel Studios in profiting from cinematic superheroes. Only Nolan’s blockbuster Batman movie trilogy has succeeded for the Burbank studio.

The studio’s plan is to spin out other superheroes into their own movies following “Justice League.” That’s contrary to Marvel’s successful strategy of teaming up Iron Man, Thor, Hulk and Captain America in”Avengers” (which became a global blockbuster) after each character had his own film.

This is welcome news for Justice League fans who have longed to see their heroes finally make the jump from comic books and cartoons to the big screen, but the news comes with some head-scratching details in the story.  Is DC and Warners so confident they can introduce a brand-new Batman, an unproven Henry Cavill as Superman, surround them with a bunch of other actors and knock off something as eagerly anticipated as the second installment of the Avengers ?

Finally off the bench and out of Development Hell?

It is no surprise Nolan is walking away from the millions Warner is offering him.  He’s already one of the best directors working.  He has to want to be nominated for Best Director at some point in his career and it won’t happen making comic book movies. I’m sure Warner will find a good director and a capable cast. I just wonder what the strategy is if Man of Steel tanks or underperforms. Not saying it will. Just saying it could.

Marvel already has sequels in the queue for Thor, Captain America and Iron Man (with the first trailer for Iron Man 3 next Tuesday) and the Guardians of the Galaxy with all four of them priming the pump for the Avengers sequel.   It’s probable not all four will succeed, but it won’t blunt the anticipation for the next Avengers movie.

For DC and Warner there’s no similar margin of error.  If the next Superman relaunch doesn’t fly high at the box office, there’s nothing left to fall back on until Justice League in 2015. That’s why I think the “all or nothing at all” strategy is high reward and high risk. If it works, DC is set up nicely for their own standalone Green Lantern, Flash and Wonder Woman spin-off flicks (sorry Aquaman).

A failure with either or both of their next two films and those future franchises are grounded leaving DC and Warner back in the same dilemma they’ve been in for over a decade; with only Batman and Superman as their go-to comic book movies, and nothing else primed to come off the bench to fill the void between them.

Let’s be honest.  Warners isn’t making a Justice League movie because of its artistic merit.   They’re making it because Disney made a BILLION dollars with Avengers and even if their super hero team movie is only half as good if it only makes half as much that’s a calculated risk worth taking.

Whatever it cost DC and Warner to secure the rights to keep making Superman movies will be money well spent if the Big Blue flies high at the box office.

 

Is Coming Out Gay Just Another Comic Book Stunt?

Astonishing Gay X-Men?

To be a man in your fifth decade and still reading comics is slightly embarrassing and that was reinforced when sitting next to my 13-year-old nephew at The Avengers and realizing I’ve forgotten more about every major character in the movie than he will ever know (or care) about.

I gave up comics this year.  I didn’t give up buying them every so often.  Old habits do die-hard.  I just took myself out of the never-ending cycle of 52 Wednesdays a year burning up gas and spending money to bring home another $20 to $40 worth of four-color funny books that after being read once or twice end up in filling storage bins in my basement.    Throw in the ridiculous cost ($3.99 for something that used to cost 12 cents) and giving comics up wasn’t a tough call.

I still read comic books.  Most of them are my brother’s “New 52” line from DC Comics.   Last year, fueled by desperation as much as inspiration, DC zeroed out its existing universe and rebooted their line with  brand new Number One issues, new costumes for Superman and his other super-friends and in doing so generated a buzz that garnered a ton of favorable coverage from the mainstream media and the interest and excitement of fans.

That’s how you create a buzz about comics.  You come up with a stunt.  Kill Superman and bring him back.  Kill Captain America and bring him back.  Kill Batman and…are you starting to see a pattern here?

Anyway,  The New 52 worked great.   DC knocked industry leader Marvel on its backside and out of the top spot, which for as minimal comic books have on pop culture is like being the tallest pygmy.   Movies based on comic books are big business.  Comic books themselves struggle to sell 75,000 copies a month, but DC is owned by TimeWarner and Marvel by Disney and they could give a shit if Superman sells in the thousands or in the dozens.  What their comic book companies contribute to ledger sheets of  their corporate masters wouldn’t pay for a week’s worth of office supplies.

What Disney and TimeWarner care about are the comic book properties.  You think they give a toot in a tornado about a damn comic book when one Friday evening of The Avengers puts more cash in The Mouse House’s pocket than 40 years Avengers comic books.

“Dick, have you ever been in a Turkish prison?”

The New 52 was a great hook, but it wasn’t a revolutionary concept.  Many of the same artists and writers whose lousy stories ran the company into a ditch were now being tapped to pull it out.  Zeroing out their universe and starting from scratch liberated DC from decades of confusing and convoluted comic continuity .   Continuity is important to the educated in comics lore fan base, but their numbers are too small and the demographic too old for Hollywood to give a shit if a geek gets upset because Superman no longer wears his underwear on the outside.  The purpose of comic books are to provide concepts that can be mined by movie studios and turned into movie franchises. DC has failed to successfully follow Marvel in making the transition from comic book company to feeder system for million-dollar movies.

It no longer matters what happens in comics.  Not that it really ever did, but particularly not now.  Spider-Man, Batman and Iron Man generate millions in ticket sales and that second life on the silver screen means whatever happens to them in their paper and staples form don’t mean a thing.

What’s left for comic books?  Stunts.  Tricks.  Big cataclysmic events that shake up the status quo, shatter worlds, and change everything as we know.  Then six months later someone comes along and changes it all back.

The newest stunt:  Make someone gay everyone thought was straight or take a second or third-string hero and marry him off.   To his boyfriend.   HEY KIDS! GAY COMICS!

Marvel is allowing Northstar, their French-Canadian mutant speedster to marry his Black boyfriend.  Gay and interracial marriage?  Two taboos broken for the price of one.

DC’s response?  Follow the leader and announce a “major” character will come out the closet as a gay man.

Gay supporting characters and even gay heroes aren’t new.  Northstar has been out for years.  DC’s Wildstorm imprint featured a openly gay couple named Apollo and The Midnighter who were overt Superman/Batman stand-ins.   But their love affair ended when they were incorporated into the DC mainstream.  Odd that there weren’t many protests from the continuity-obsessed fans about that reboot.

Not Superman and Batman, but just like them.

Who will come out of the comic book closet?  It could be Batman.  It should be Batman.  But because it’s both so obvious and so perfect it won’t be Batman.  Batman is now on his third or fourth Robin.  He just keeps picking up young boys to be his “partner.”  What would you call a billionaire who’s never married, only uses women as props, enjoys dressing up head to toe in leather and prefers the company of athletic youths?

One of Bats current writers, Grant Morrison, fessed up in Playboy  the Dark Knight”s antenna isn’t picking up the wavelength of the opposite sex.

“He’s very plutonian in the sense that he’s wealthy and also in the sense that he’s sexually deviant,” Morrison said. “Gayness is built into Batman. I’m not using gay in the pejorative sense, but Batman is very, very gay. There’s just no denying it. Obviously as a fictional character he’s intended to be heterosexual, but the basis of the whole concept is utterly gay.”

“I think that’s why people like it. All these women fancy him and they all wear fetish clothes and jump around rooftops to get to him. He doesn’t care — he’s more interested in hanging out with the old guy and the kid.”

As someone with no skin in the game, I’m all for gay fans of comics being represented with gay characters they can relate to   An openly homosexual hero isn’t going to corrupt a kid’s mind anymore than most of the other crap DC and Marvel poop out every Wednesday.

Just don’t stop there.  Let’s see what happens when a gay superhero faces discrimination from a straight superhero who doesn’t want to team up with him.  Instead of fighting alien invaders, let’s have the Justice League or Avengers take on a homophobic hate group.

There have always been gay themes in comics as long as there have been comics.  It was just nodded and winked at and never spoken of in a serious way.   This feels like the latest in a long line of contrived stunts the major companies engage in passing it off as being socially conscious.   We’ll see if DC and Marvel are as seriously committed to their “evolution” as gay couples are to getting married.

Don’t look for the happy couple in the next X-Men movie.

Super Heroes Occupy the Summer Box Office

"Okay guys. Drop your weapons. The Avengers isn't until May."

I didn’t see enough films in 2011 to do a proper Top 10, but I did see four out of the five superhero flicks released last year (sorry, Green Lantern,  but as soon as I saw that first terrible trailer, I knew I wasn’t coming anywhere near a theater where you were playing and The Green Hornet starred Seth Rogan. ‘Nuff said.).    Though Super is to superhero flicks what a McNugget is to a piece of fried chicken.

This is what I thought of the 2011 crop of super hero fantasy flicks and each and every one of them will be completely forgotten once The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises open.   Unless they’re bad in which case a billion fanboys will kill themselves but only after running riot and burning down the theater.

"This armor is great. Except when I need to scratch."

THOR starring Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins, Idris Elba, Tom Hiddleston.  Directed by Kenneth Branagh

Budget:  $150 million  Gross:  $181,030,624

Verdict:  Three hammers out of five

The first super hero of the summer was potentially the most problematic.  Thor is a big shot in the Marvel Universe, but hardly anyone who has never read the comic book has any idea who he is.  To a layman, Thor is the guy they studied one day when they covered Norse mythology and even then he was some burly redhead, not a blonde surfer hunk.   Thor seemed like a tough sell to me and if director Kenneth Branagh couldn’t pull off the scenes where Thor throws his hammer the possibility of failure seemed imminent.

I shouldn’t have worried.   When the hammer strikes, Thor is pretty bad ass.  Unfortunately, it soars in the scenes in Asgard and snores when Odin (Anthony Hopkins) kicks Thor (Chris Hemsworth) down to earth so he can take off his shirt and make Dr. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) all hot and bothered.

Thor is two movies.  A balls-out action story and a clunky love story with some pretty lame stabs at comedy.   I remember everything about the battle between Thor and the Frost Giants and have forgotten nearly everything  when he’s earthbound.   There’s an okay battle with The Destoryer after Loki (Tom Hiddleston) sends him  to finish off the powerless God of Thunder and a gratuitous cameo by Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye and a lot of scenes of Hemsworth and Portman sniffing each other’s butts like two dogs in heat.

Okay, not really, but it would be more interesting if they had than all the yakking they do about nothing.  Branagh  made his bones directing Shakespeare stories and I wish he would have cut back some of the dialogue and exposition and pumped up more scenes of Thor hitting things with his hammer.

I liked Thor, but I didn’t love Thor.  Tom Hiddleston made Loki both interesting and surprisingly sympathetic.  I kind of was on his side for a while because Hemsworth played Thor as an arrogant, swaggering prick for most of the movie and was a bit more believable than his “these mortals are worth fighting for” change of heart of the last 30 minutes.    As the battling siblings Hemsworth and Hiddleston are perfectly cast  and Hopkins makes a sufficiently omnipotent Odin.  I didn’t even mind Idris Elba as Heimdall, but if all the clunky scenes on Earth with Thor and Portman were taken out, nothing would be lost by the omission..  Since Marvel had to give Thor a reason to come back to earth to appear in The Avengers, the prospect or a future booty call as motivation.

 

“Hey Peggy. My shirt come back from the cleaners yet?”

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER   Starring Chris Evans, Hugo Weaving, Tommy Lee Jones, Hayley (sigh) Atwell, Stanley Tucci, Samuel L. Jackson.  Directed by Joe Johnston

Budget: $140 million Gross:  $176,654,505

Verdict:  Four shields out of five.

You have to give director Joe Johnston and the screenwriters credit.  They took perhaps the corniest superhero in the world –a dude wrapped in the flag—and told his entire origin in a way that was completely involving.    There’s a lot of set-up with Steve Rogers before you ever get a chance to see Captain America throw his might shield , but I was never bored by the decision to take the time to establish why there was a need for a super solider and how Captain America had to grow into the role.

Chris Evans as the Human Torch was supposedly the best thing about the two Fantastic Four movies I have successfully avoided watching and if this third bite of the apple had tanked his next stop might be in some terrible police procedural  on CBS.  He nails both Rogers and Captain America and like Christopher Reeves as Superman and Clark Kent, it’s very important to get both the super hero and the secret identity right.

Tommy Lee Jones and Stanley Tucci add veteran gravitas to the essentially silly concept and Hugo Weaving as the Red Skull is the best he’s been since Agent Smith (and much better than he was hiding behind a Guy Fawkes mask in V For Vendetta).    The introduction of The Howling Commandos (minus Nick Fury as Sgt. Fury) didn’t do much for me and Bucky getting greased so fast was a blink and you’ll miss it moment, but I bet he’ll return for the inevitable sequel.

"^Yoo hoo, Captain. I found your shirt."

The revelation was Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter, Cap’s soon-to-be-long-lost-love interest.   I’d never seen Atwell in anything prior to Captain America, but every time she’s on the screen is a homina homina homina moment.    She’s the kind of woman that makes me happy to be a straight man.  If DC ever wants to get a Wonder Woman movie made, cast Atwell and I’m there on opening night and I don’t even like Wonder Woman.   Yeah, her British accent is veddy thick, but Warner Brothers should lock her up in a contract and then lock her away in a room to watch a marathon of House until she can conceal her accent as well as Hugh Laurie.

"Did you just see the Golden Gate Bridge go lfying by?"

X-MEN:  1st Class  starring James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender,  Jennifer Lawrence, Kevin Bacon, Rose Byrne.  Directed by Matthew Vaughn

Budget: $160 million Gross:  $146,408,305

Verdict: Three and ½ “X’s” out of five

This is the Marvel super hero movie that falls outside of the control of the Mighty Marvel Studios, but harkens back to than the preceding X-Men movies and Kick-Ass too (but not Wolverine ‘cause that movie never happened).

Bryan Singer directed the first two X-Men films, abandoned X-Men: The Last Stand to direct Superman Returns, which may be why both underwhelmed me so, but returned to produce 1st Class.  Matthew Vaughn directed it and fresh off of the dark, but hilarious send-up of super heroes, Kick-Ass, turned in a movie with a lot of serious intentions going on.

When the idea was floated for a solo Magneto movie, nobody could conceive how 72-year-old Ian McKellen could carry a movie about a mutant super villain.   After watching Michael Fassbender  do Magneto as a relentless Nazi-hunter, I could totally buy it for two hours in the dark.

James McAvoy is just okay as Charles Xavier.  Nothing more and nothing less.  I can find a dozen more charismatic actors that could have stuck the landing better.   McKellen and Patrick Stewart inhabit the yin-yang of Magneto and Xavier so thoroughly, but McAvoy is pretty drab compared to Fassbender who takes Magneto and turns him into a screen test for the replacement of Daniel Craig when he gets too craggy to play James Bond (any minute now).

Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique is pretty, sexy and more interesting in her scenes with Fassbender than McAvoy (whom the more I think about his performance the more I dislike it).  The rest of the first class of X-Men are mix-and-match, though the guy who plays The Beast is light years ahead of Kelsey Grammer’s  version in The Last Stand.

Hunger games? I can think of some games I'm hungry to play.

The movie is good, but it’s not a lot of fun even with the Hugh Jackman cameo.   It takes itself very seriously in a way a parody like Kick-Ass doesn’t try to be.   I give Vaughn credit for taking things in a completely different direction from his previous movie.   First Class was popular with the critics pulling down a 87percent “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes compared to 79 percent for Captain America and Thor’s 77 percent, but domestically it didn’t recoup its budget, though it did bring in over $355 million worldwide.   I guess  after the American non-comic book audience realized there was no Wolverine and an all-new cast of X-Men, they weren’t feeling the love.

"Come see my movie or I'll beat you to death."

SUPER  starring Rainn Wilson, Ellen Page, Liv Tyler, Kevin Bacon: directed by James Gunn

Budget:  $2.5 million Gross:  $324,138

Verdict:  Two and a half pipe wrenches out of five

Super qualifies as a super hero movie in the same way Kick-Ass qualifies as one:  Just barely   Iit’s just as violent and even more graphic as anything in Kick-Ass.  But unlike Matthew Vaughn,  James Gunn doesn’t want anyone to laugh at the sad sack Crimson Bolt because  Rainn Wilson plays him as a disturbed psychopath who is no better than the criminals he’s beating up.

I’m no fan of Wilson.  Never watched The Office, but if he’s as big a creep there as he is here that was the right call.  Wilson plays Frank, a schlub fry cook whose wife (Liv Tyler) is seduced and strung out on heroin by the nefarious Jacques (Kevin Bacon).  Unable to free her by conventional means since the police are always useless in these kind of films, he gets divine inspiration to become a costumed vigilante.

No super powers?  No problem.  As the Crimson Bolt, Frank hunkers down by a dumpster and waits to brain drug dealers and cretins who jump the line at movies with a big honkin’ pipe wrench while screaming his motto, “SHUT UP CRIME!”  It’s not exactly going for realism.

Along the way he picks up an unwanted sidekick, Libby, a comic book geek girl, (Ellen Page) who turns out even more of a hard core crazy than Frank is as she creates her own costume and anoints herself “Boltie.”  Soon she’s sitting next to Frank behind dumpsters waiting to commit acts of ultra-violence and extremely  discomforting sexuality.

How extreme?  Let’s just say if you ever wondered what it would look like if a horny Robin raped Batman, you won’t have to wonder again.  This is quite a rape-y movie.  Wilson’s inspiration to try super-heroing comes via tentacle rape.  Bacon rapes Tyler.  Page rapes Wilson.  Rape. Murder. More rape.  James Gunn likes rape.

This was a hard movie to figure out.  Is it supposed to be a tongue-in-cheek send-up of superheroes, a graphic violent and profane put down of the genre, a gross-out black comedy or none of those things?  It’s hard to tell.  Wilson has limited range as an leading man and Gunn’s script is too muddled to make his point.  Even at 96 minutes, Super feels long . Boltie/Libby is twisted as a pretzel and Page has a lot of fun with the role.  It’s as far as she can get from Inception or Juno which is what probably appealed to her.  That, and the chance to moan, “It’s all gooshy.”

I only wish I could have had as much fun with Super.   It’s got a nasty streak mixed in with the humorous aspects, but even though I like strange cinema as much as the next freak, I can’t totally recommend this one.  It’s worth watching once to judge for yourself, but it’s numerous flaws and scattered story ultimately don’t engage.

Happy New Year.  2012 is going to be a huge year for super heroes if you like that sort of thing.  If you don’t there’s always the second part of Twilight: Breaking Dawn.

Crazy things come in small packages.