Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Hollywood's Problem With Comic Book Movies

Doom is not pleased.
Welcome back to the internet's most sporadic comic book blog! I know I haven't written much on here this year, and I'll be honest that that's probably not going to change, but every once in a while I see something so phenomenally great or something so phenomenally dumb that it gets my brain whirring and I have to write something or blood's going to come shooting out of my nose. Today's post is brought to you by the announcement that in the new Fantastic Four film, Dr. Doom will not be named Dr. Doom, nor will he be a Latverian monarch nor even a businessman. He's a computer hacker that goes by the handle DOOM. Take a guess as to whether I regard this as phenomenally great or phenomenally dumb. Go ahead. Guess.

Here's the thing, I can understand how this came about. I can even sympathize with why it did. I mean, I can see the thought process of this change. I used to blame the suits at studios for things like this, but I'm rapidly beginning to understand that a lot of this kind of dumb can be laid at the feet of the creative types, and I think I've finally figured out why.

While it's true that executive types hold the purse strings for a film, they will generally give the
Except that Brainiac MUST wrestle a polar bear
director a fair amount of latitude. After all, they picked the director for a reason, and there are a lot of repercussions, both financially for the studio and for the careers of the executives, in reining in a director on something that the executives may not personally like, or worse yet, pulling the director if they think he's going in the wrong direction. It's often better to have a bad film make its way out and then put the blame on the director for the decisions they made after the fact, from the executive's point of view. It's vitally important to match the director to the movie, and not just go, "This guy has directed another successful genre movie," and let them at it. Which, frankly, seems to be what's happened with Fantastic Four.

Let's say that you have a new, young director. They're a film nerd, in the same way that Bendis or Busiek are comics nerds. They want to make movies like the kind that inspired them when they were younger, just like Bendis and Busiek love to work with older characters or styles of stories from their youth. In some cases, that means that the director wants nothing to do with genre movies, and instead want to make "serious" movies about real world situations. Even in the case that they do want to make genre movies, they want to work on something that fires their imagination. But they're also a young director, and someone has given them a superhero movie to direct, and, well, they want to make their mark, but more importantly for our purposes, they're probably not comic book fans. If they are, it's almost certainly because of the visuals, not the story.

Even in the case that the director has written other genre movies, even if they were comic book movies, even if they were superhero movies, for that matter, that's not a great indicator. Snyder did a great job with 300 and a serviceable job with Watchmen. Goyer wrote the hell out of Blade and the Nolan Batman movies. These were both experienced, successful creative types, and they ended up being responsible for arguably the worst Superman movie ever made. Nether of them got Superman as a character, to the point where Nolan was arguing with them til near the end about whether Superman should kill. (Hint: he should not.)

Pretty sure you shouldn't do that in a
high oxygen environment, Johnny
A similar problem seems to be happening with FF. Josh Trank directed Chronicle, which is a pretty gritty examination of what would happen if a few people got superpowers in the real world and what the repercussions would be. That seems, if you know nothing about the Fantastic Four, to be a good fit. Unfortunately, the arc of the characters is wildly different, as are their interactions, their relationships, and the expected tone of the story. Fantastic Four stories tend to be centered around the family of adventures exploring the cosmos together, arguing at times, but always with a sense of wonder. It has next to nothing in common with Chronicle, which is fairly grounded, even grim. Josh Trank has proved himself a capable director, in the same way that Snyder has, and Goyer has as a writer. But the FF movie is on a similar path, and it's too late now to prevent a gritty movie where the Fantastic Four are wearing containment suits in order to deal with their disabilities. He has tried to make a movie that imagines "what would happen if the Fantastic Four existed in the real world" instead of asking "what are the elements that make the Fantastic Four great, and how can I make them work in a world that can seem realistic?" It's a subtle but important distinction, and one which almost every bad superhero movie has gotten tripped up on.

When Edgar Wright was picked as the director for Ant-Man, fans rejoiced. He had done so many great genre movies, infusing them with fun and humor that it seemed like a natural fit for a character like Ant-Man. But then he was let go from the picture earlier this year, because he and Marvel couldn't see eye to eye on how to proceed. It was, frankly, a pretty brave move for the studio, but they understood that they had picked the wrong director for their film, and they needed to do something about it. As much as I have complained in the past about comics being by fans for fans, having folks that are comics people first and movie people second running their productions has been incredibly important in preventing a Daredevil, Man of Steel or X-Men: The Last Stand from making it out of the studio and damaging their brand. The other studios need to be willing to do the same.
We don't deserve this, Hollywood.

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