The Ghost in the Shell whitewashing is worse than you think

Hollywood has a fraught relationship with anime. The difficulties of pulling a movie together compound with the slightly boom-and-bust cycle of interest in Japanese animation properties, such that even if a movie gets made, is it in any way relevant to the interest of any potential audience?

A Dragonball movie in 1999 would have been a pretty keen bit of timing. One in 2009 is just asking “why bother?” even before you get to the casting decisions. It’s not that there weren’t Dragonball fans, but many of them were considerably older and had probably moved on to other things. Naruto or something.

So there’s a desire to strike when the iron is hot that’s completely missed. Is there an interest in making a Sailor Moon movie? Probably. Would it be worthwhile to do so? Or is Evangelion still a viable product? It seems that production companies aren’t asking about what’s really big RIGHT NOW that they could get started working on so that it might be relevant to the audience when it hits, but rather are asking about things that were hot five, ten, or twenty years ago, as if that’s the same thing.

But, whatever. Ghost in the Shell is the latest foray, and arguably the most ambitious yet. (The aborted attempts at Akira with Leonardo DiCaprio or whoever might have been bigger, but that pretty much entered development hell from the getgo so here we are.)

To say that GitS has been courting controversy since the initial casting announcement of Scarlett Johansson is to put it lightly. The movie has become something of a flashpoint of the whitewashing nature of Hollywood casting. And that’s perfectly justified criticism. There are a vast number of Asian actresses who could have played the role of Major Kusanagi. It looks especially bad because Johansson already effectively played a role that should have gone to an Asian actress in Lucy.

For a while, I was in the camp that besides the racism of the casting, it was a problem because it undermined the very Japanese-ness of GitS’ story. It was conceived and developed in light of the collapse of the bubble economy in the 80s, and reflects a lot of the economic and political climate of Japan at the time. The strange nature of how Japan had (and has) one of the large military budgets in the world while not, technically speaking, having a military in the sense we’d expect. Or how because of that Japan engaged in militarizing its economy so that it could be a dominant force on the world stage. And further what effects the rapid technological advancement on the Japanese industry had on its culture, with questions of identity and human relationship. While some of these things could be stretched to reflect other societies, taken in whole they are very Japanese at the core. If you start to shift that to another setting, or remove the Japanese people from the story, it doesn’t mean the same thing.

But it’s actually worse than that. Because I didn’t realize until recently what GitS was a literary work. And whitewashing it completely undoes.

I’ve been reading William Gibson recently. Despite being rather into cyberpunk as a genre (Shadowrun has been my RPG jam off and on for 25 years, now), I actually hadn’t sat down and read the godfather of the genre before. So in the past year or so I’ve read Neuromancer, Count Zero, and (just in the past week) Mona Lisa Overdrive, his original Sprawl trilogy that set the stage of almost all our cyberpunk expectations.

And, while I’ve enjoyed all three books, I have some reservations. They’re very well written, no doubt. Gibson has an economy of language that gets across a ton of setting and ideas in a few words, and it’s no surprise that he managed to create a sub-genre with his presentation of the Sprawl. Plus, you know, fun characters and some really neat surprises in plot advancement that would never fly today if you were trying to write a cyberpunk novel.

But at the same time, holy shit is the depiction of Japan really narrow and pretty damn racist. Except for a few scenes here and there, it’s mostly by inference, but you get Japan as this sort of faceless economic superpower that’s a weird conglomeration of business monoliths and yakuza corruption.

In a way, this makes sense. Gibson was writing in the 80s, when Japan’s economy was ascendant. There was a sense that, eventually, everything would be made in Japan. America, at the time, had a sort of love/hate relationship with Japan. There was respect that they managed to make things more efficiently that were cheaper and better than American products of the time, but also this distaste that Japan was going to eventually buy out everything.

This idea that Japan had militarized its economy was inherent in the construction of cyberpunk worlds. So Gibson can be perhaps forgiven for not being precognitive about the eventual bubble crash.

However, the language of the novels is still grating. Several characters, casually refer to Japanese people as “Japs” a cringe-worthy epithet decades before Gibson was writing. (It’s not as bad as Neal Stephenson’s use of Nips in his novels.)

And the use of actual Japanese is of questionable value. At times it feels like Gibson caught on to a few choice Japanese words and decided to run with them as if that gave him complete understanding of the language and people who spoke it. There’s a sequence where one Japanese character recites gomi (trash or garbage) and postulates about how Japan and England differ regarding it. It’s a, frankly, limiting view that doesn’t give the character a sense of being a real person, but rather a caricature, a collection of cultural memes.

So, what does this have to do with Ghost in the Shell?

Well, I think that in terms of cyberpunk, it’s very much an attempt (probably unconscious) to reverse the appropriation of Japanese society that had happened in cyberpunk stories from western writers. By making it a cyberpunk story that is in and about Japan, Shirow (in the manga) and Oshii (in the films) are giving  much more honest and personal take on the concepts of the genre. If the original cyberpunk ideas grew out of this westernized view of Japan’s ascendency, Ghost in the Shell is an attempt to say “hey, now, here’s what you’re really talking about.”

And that’s why the Japan of Ghost in the Shell feels more authentic and real than the Japan of Gibson and so forth: it actually is. It’s not a collection of westernized views on Japanese culture, but a logical projection from people in Japan about how their culture would develop. (Not, perhaps, a correct projection, but a believable one.)

So, the Ghost in the Shell film is pretty much failing on three levels. It took a high profile acting gig away from an Asian woman and gave it to a white woman. By doing so it’s undermined the very nature of the story itself. And it’s subjugated the rather revolutionary cultural reappropriation that happened by Ghost in the Shell’s creation.

So what are we going to get? A nuanced take on Japanese society in an increasingly technical world? Probably not. At best we’re going to get a generic actioner that’s regressed back to the dodgy cultural politics of Gibson’s Sprawl.

If it was 30 years ago, it might be a lot of fun. Today, it just feels tired, lazy, backwards, and racist.

Movie Review: Hardcore Henry

As a technical exercise, this is an interesting film. It has a concept of presentation, and it embraces that wholeheartedly. The film promises to be a first-person perspective endeavor, and it delivers on that. Taken on that level, it’s a film that can be appreciated. It is quite unlike anything that’s come before, except for small sequences here and there. To be so dedicated to a concept is something that can be praised. Oftentimes, a creator will not be fully committed to their concept and will pull back, which delivers weaker experience. Not so, with Hardcore Henry. It is was it is, from start to finish.


The problem, really, is that as a film, it isn’t very good. It has some entertaining parts, but as a whole it’s lackluster, derivative, and threadbare. Except for the gimmick, it has little to stand on that suggests it as a worthy experience.


Really, the problems, are twofold. The first is technical. Or rather, it’s biological. See, our human perspective on how we see and experience the world is not entirely visual. It’s not something that can be broken down into a single sense. If you move about, flicking your view to different things, you aren’t just seeing those things, you’re also getting information from your other senses that affect how you perceive everything. Most importantly, you have an inherent sense of balance which your brain processes along with what you’re seeing. If you look at something straight on, it looks right. If you tilt your head so that it’s sideways, you have all this extra information so that it still looks correct.


Movies are a presentation that’s generally reduced to two senses. You get the visual, you get the audio. And that’s it. THere’s no feeling or smell. There’s no balance. Even if the image on screen shifts so that the view is presented askew, you don’t have that internal adjustment to tell you this. It looks odd. This isn’t inherently a bad thing. An adept filmmaker can use that difference to heighten the effect of the film.


But the filmmaker needs to be adept. They need to understand what the limitations and advantages of their presentation will be when contrasted to the actual human experience of watching the film. If they aren’t doing that, then the experience becomes a burden on the viewer. In many cases, this isn’t so much of an issue. Movies (and other experiences) are pretty culturally embedded. We start seeing moving pictures at a very early age, often before we can even talk. The standard TV viewing is so normal that we have learned and take it as a given about how it will work. So this gives some leeway


But for newer tech, that’s less of the case. We haven’t learned and internalized how to process such things. And so a filmmaker could easily misstep. During the 3D boom you could see this a lot. Some filmmakers took the tech into account. They realized that some things you can do in traditional 2D presentations aren’t always going to work for a 3D presentation and would make adjustments. Others wouldn’t. They would film as they always had and you’d get a jumbled mess of rapid cuts which undermined the depth of field and led to a jarring amount of perspective shifts that left the eyes (and brain) tired from the viewer.


The makes of Hardcore Henry have done the same. They haven’t accounted for the lack of balance. They haven’t really done anything to allow the viewer extra time needed to process the images. As with 3D, it’s somewhat necessary to slow it down. Do away with the rapid cuts. Or at the very least, take into account the perspective lines so that when there is a cut, the viewer’s eye won’t need to rapidly shift to account for what’s being seen. (The latter, of course, what done masterfully in MMFR, which does have many, many rapid cuts, but also isn’t a burden, even in 3D, because they account for where the viewer is looking.)


Because of all this, I didn’t find that the film was something that took a little bit to get used to and then it was fine. In fact, it was the opposite. The early parts of the film were easy enough to take in, but as my eyes and brain became tired and strained, that was less of the case. About halfway through I was more disoriented, and by the end I even felt a bit queasy. Mostly I was struck by how lackluster an effort had been made to account for possible issues. If you need to avoid rapid cuts, for instance, why not tell a story that can mostly be told in the timeframe of your film runtime? (Another gimmick, but also one that’s been done several times before.) Instead what we’re left with is a film that repeatedly cuts out “boring bits” to speed things along, which mostly just gives the viewer visual confusion.


Still, if that was the only sin of Hardcore Henry, it could perhaps be forgiven. New tech and all, so it’s possible that the creators aren’t completely clear on what needs to be accounted for.


But the story. Oh, god, the story. Characters are paper thin. Motivations are absent and unexplained. Plot developments just happen without rhyme or reason. This isn’t to say that the film needs to be layered and complex. Thin, simple stories that exist as the vehicle for the action are perfectly fine, but this is mostly non-sensical. Almost every development raised questions that aren’t answered.


So as the film went on, I began to just wonder about things that were never given an explanation. Why did the bad guy care about making a cyborg army when he had super telekinetic powers? Why did he have telekinetic powers in the first place? When would the love interest backstab Henry, because it was an obvious “twist” from the beginning? Actually, I’ll come back to that last one in a moment.


Mostly, if you are doing a thin story as a vehicle for the action, make sure your action is really top-notch. And other than the FPS gimmick, there isn’t really much here to recommend the action besides the volume of violence. Henry fights guys and kills guys and the ways he does so aren’t particularly novel or interesting, except we’re seeing it from his perspective. After a while, there isn’t a whole lot of wow factor. After more of a while, I was just confused about what was going on? Did Henry start to rip the bad guy’s hand in two? I don’t know, it wasn’t clear enough to tell. But more than that, I just didn’t care anymore.


But going back to an earlier point. The love interest. Or rather, women in general. This film is terrible for its portrayal of women. Beyond the early realization that the love interest would backstab Henry at some point (and that such a twist wouldn’t be a satisfying character development for anyone), there was also a sense of deep misogyny about the film. Women were objects. They exist entirely for the consumption and use of men, both the characters and the assumed viewer. None of them have depth. None of them have agency. (Why is love interest lady really with the big bad guy? We never know.)


One standout moment came in the middle of a car chase sequence. Henry blows up a van with a grenade and is thrown into the air. He lands on the back of a motorcycle being driven by one of the femme fatale characters who just shows up for no explained reason. As he settles down, his hands run along her sides and then rest on her hips. Then he reaches forward and down, between her legs. It’s a moment that purely exists for titillation. And then he grabs a gun that’s there, pulls back and starts shooting. It’s a little twist, but the entire framing was unnecessary. Why is the gun between her legs and not, say, on her hip? Because they wanted that possessive, sexual grab.


Soon after, Henry leaps from the motorcycle. The femme fatale is discarded as a character. Whether she died or just disappeared isn’t really clear, but it makes little difference either way. She existed for the adolescent pleasure of the creators and the viewer in her skintight catsuit. Once she served her purpose, there was no reason to keep her around.


Mostly, the film as a whole felt like a video game. It had a video game plot, video game characters, video game fetch quests with maps and goals. It had a final boss who just exists for no reason except to be a final boss. Hardcore Henry is a low-grade sci-fi first person shooter that you’d expect to find in the bargain bin in three months. The only notable thing about it is it’s a video game that was shot as a movie and projected on a movie screen. And when it did that, it removed the one thing that makes even poor video games palatable: the mechanics. Without the ability to control Henry, the viewer is just a passive observer.


Which isn’t very interesting.


2/5, but mostly because they did try had on the gimmick. And Sharlto Copley is entertaining when he hams it up.

Review: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Here there be spoilers.

Now that I’ve had a night to think about it, I’m not actually sure if I liked the movie or not. And I don’t think it’s a case of really disliking it and being in denial. I really, honestly don’t know. To be fair, though, after I saw Man of Steel the first time, I was unsure about the movie.


Part of this, I think, is the presentation seemed to be very poor. The theater house lights never dimmed entirely. The sound mix seemed off. I think they had the aperture on the projector on incorrectly, which slightly cut off the top and bottom of the screen. (Noticeable in the scenes of news shows, where the bottom of the text was cut off.) And maybe they had the 3D grate down or something, because it seemed dim, especially compared to trailers I’d seen previously.


So, fighting against a sub-par movie experience. And I don’t want to hold that against the film itself.


Still, this was an acknowledged mess. I came away mostly thinking that they did have a pretty strong idea of what they wanted their characters to present as… but had no real clue how to get those ideas across the best. Many of the scenes felt like they were sketched out without a clear beginning and end, and we’re left with a feeling of a larger whole where we’re only seeing a few random middle bits. It’s not that the character motivations are lacking, just that the elements shown aren’t what drive those points across.


In a way, this is confusing, because when you strip it down, the plot of BvS is pretty great: Lex Luthor has a problem with Superman, so he sets up a Xanatos Gambit to put him in conflict with Batman. Eventually, they realize their error and team up.


Unfortunately, in order to get this across, you need a strong bifurcated storyline: Superman’s heroics need to progress in contrast with Batman’s investigations. The two should advance in a way that feels like they’re converging on the same point. Then you get the twist: instead of working separately against a common goal, they’re actually at odds against each other. This is how you get the fight that feels both surprising and organic. Also, this should come to head at the end of Act 2. Act 3 is the team-up.


The problem arises rather early. The entire Africa plotline feels needlessly busy and extraneous, especially since MoS already presented a very good reason for people to question Superman already. Then as the movie progresses, it seems to be too early when we’re seeing Lex’s gambit in action. Thus it isn’t a surprise about what happens. Thus we get a confusing selection of character actions that are clearly leading somewhere, but the film itself doesn’t seem clear on what that goal actually is.


So here’s what I think happened. I think David Goyer wrote a Man of Steel sequel. It was a Superman plot through and through. You can look at the throughline of Supes and Lex and see that it’s pretty clear that exists. In this context, Lex’s plan is entirely put public doubt in Superman, make him the blame of things going wrong (that are Lex’s doing), and then when that doesn’t work, bring out his ace in the hole, Doomsday, to kill Superman.


Then WB got nervous and decided to add Batman into the mix. And all hell broke loose. Because by adding Batman, you need to account for his motivations. And while there is a disagreement plot to be had, it wasn’t in the original script. So Goyer (and later Terrio) were doing the best they could with the plot at hand, but it was a confusing, tacked-on selection of motivations and character impetus that ultimately sets the original plot on a wobbly course.


In fact, if you look at the film, the interactions between the two characters is pretty sketchy prior to the final fight. They meet at Lex’s party (and in Batman’s dream), but that’s about it. It really feels like two different movies that more or less are happening at the same time. Or, perhaps more appropriately, this is a Superman movie that seems to star Batman for reasons that are not entirely clear from the film itself.


It’s entirely possible that the director’s cut, with ample time to explore the motivations and plots, will clear up the confusion. It’s not that they necessarily needed that extra time, but if they didn’t have a clear plan from the get-go, it could help work through all the excess they were dealing with. We’ll have to wait and see. Unfortunately, even if the DC is a vast improvement, it’s not going to help. Most of the audience will see it in the theaters, and their opinions will be pretty firm. I doubt many are going to give it a second chance, especially if it’s longer.


With all that, what did I like?


Well, I do like the cast. They’re all pretty great, especially given the weirdly limited material they have to work with. Affleck makes a great Batman. Irons a great Alfred (in fact, he had most of the best lines in the film). Eisenberg is weirdly compelling at Lex. Adams as Lois continues to give me heart eyes. And Cavill continues to sell what is a difficult role.


And, of course, Gal Gadot is glorious as Wonder Woman. Messy as the film is, it isn’t confused at all when she’s on screen. When she shows up for the final fight, everything just sort of clarifies. Even the entire tone of the music changes, as if to say, “This is what we are here for.” And it is. The criticism of the DC films is that they’re afraid of letting their heroes enjoy themselves. That’s entirely absent with Wonder Woman. She fights and has fun at it. She alone is enough reason to be excited about what the DC films will bring in the future.


I doubt I’ll see BvS again theatrically. That’s mostly for financial reasons, though. I really would like to give it a second shot in a presentation that isn’t marred by the theater itself. I wonder if, like Man of Steel, it’s something that I warm up to over time and begin to love. I’d also like to see the director’s cut to see if that smooths out some of the story issues. Maybe if there’s another $10 blu-ray at Best Buy.


Still, I honestly don’t know if I like it or not.



Some Oscar Thoughts

So the votes are in. Or at least the preliminary votes. The Academy has spoken and selected the three-to-five Best whatevers of 2015 films. Now the real betting can begin to determine which is the best of the Best.

In general, it’s not a bad Oscar lineup. There are some things I’m very happy with. There are some glaring oversights. For starters:

Best Song

When I woke up this morning, this was actually the first category I checked. And I was crushed. See You Again didn’t even warrant a nomination. That’s criminal. No offense to Sam Smith, who I’m sure is a perfectly fine musician, but I don’t think I even remembered his song for Spectre even right after the movie, much less months later.

In contrast Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth put out a heartspoken entry that shot to the top of the charts (ousting fantastic earworm Uptown Funk) and managing to be memorable even months later. Go ahead, try and listen to it and not tear up a bit. I dare you.

So my initial thought was “Fuck these Oscars”. But I kept looking around and there were some bright spots.

Mad Max: Fury Road

What seemed like a dark horse candidate for many categories even a month ago managed to secure an amazing ten nominations, second most of any film. And it wasn’t just for the technical stuff. George Miller himself is up for both Best Director and Best Picture (along with Doug Mitchell).

Arguably, it should have had even more. Charlize Theron’s performance as Furiosa had a depth of anger and focus that was among the best performances of the year, man or woman. And Nicholas Hoult’s turn as Nux gave us one of the best and touching character arcs ever seen. Junkie XL’s score is a piece of brilliance and not getting a nod is criminal. Finally, while it’s not anything close to standard for screenplays, the process that Miller built up the story of the film is key to making the whole thing work, and should have been acknowledged.

Still, there is good news. It got noms for all eight of the technical categories (Cinematography, Costume Design, Visual Effects, Editing, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Production Design, and Makeup.) It should manage a handful of wins from those.



The presence of Inside Out among the Best Animated Feature nominees was not a surprise. The fact that all of the other four nominees were much lower profile was, and that’s welcome. It’s become apparent that the animation branch in particular doesn’t generally follow the lean of popularity in their choices. One has to look no further than The LEGO Movie‘s surprising snub last year to see that.

Even so, the lack of anything from a major studio besides Inside Out could indicate that the branch is going even further in that direction. While Shaun the Sheep and Anomolisa are fairly expected (the animation branch LOVES stop motion), and When Marnie Was There is a beautiful piece of traditional animation (another love) that also has the distinction of being the final feature from the legendary Studio Ghibli, the presence of Boy & the World is a shock. Mostly because you haven’t heard of it. It’s grossed a total of $17,580. No, that’s not missing a few digits. It’s earned less in total (domestically) than Inside Out did in an average theater over its opening weekend ($22,919.)

So, nice selection that will hopefully drive the profile of some of these films higher.

But let’s talk about Inside Out. It’s basically guaranteed to win the award. Now that the voting is going to the entire Academy, the trends will take hold, and it’s become apparent that whatever grosses the most domestically will probably win the Oscar. But Inside Out also managed to snag a writing nomination, for Best Original Screenplay. This isn’t an unprecedented feat. Pete Docter’s last film, UP, managed do to the same.

Where the two differ, though, is that despite easily being one of the best films of the year, Inside Out didn’t get a Best Picture nomination. The reasons for this are because after expanding the field to ten films in 2009 (which allowed UP to get a nom), the Academy changed the rules in 2011 (after Toy Story 3 got a BP nom), so that there’s a threshold of first place votes required to get a choice. This has led to there being a selection of eight or nine films, not ten. Whether this was done to keep animation out (and in its preferred ghetto spot of Best Animated Feature) or something else, I don’t know.

Acting (and other whiteness)

Here’s where we get to the ugly. For the second year in a row, all twenty nominees for the four acting categories were white people. And for the second year in a row, that’s a highly questionable selection.

It’s not that the nominees aren’t great. I’m sure many of them are, but when you have the likes of Straight Outta Compton and Creed, both of which garnered critical praise and seemed well poised to get some recognition. Both films came away with but a single nomination (Best Original Screenplay for Compton and Best Supporting Actor – for Sylvester Stallone – for Creed). Both films should have had more, in acting, directing, and picture recognition.

Besides those two, where is Will Smith? Where is Idris Elba? Where is Samuel L. Jackson? Their presence wouldn’t make up for the astonishingly offensive snub of David Oyelowo last year, but it would be a start.

I mean, how is Eddie Redmayne there? By all reports, the only bright spot in The Danish Girl is Alicia Vikandar’s performance (she’s had a hell of a year). Did Redmayne get in because the voters were like “Oh, he won last year so this must be good?” I suppose he just has that right combination of “Most Acting” that the Academy seems to adore. (I like Jupiter Ascending, but his cheesy over-the-top-ness in it doesn’t really indicate he’s a man who knows how to act in moderation.)

So we’re looking at two straight years where many actors (and directors) of color have put up virtuoso work and not been acknowledged. It’s great that Mad Max: Fury Road got the recognition it deserves, but it’s only a weird blip in the otherwise ongoing out-of-touch-ness that the Oscars display.

And I don’t mean popularity, here. Understanding that diversity in awards and other recognition is as important as being diverse in the products themselves. The whiteness of the acting nominations is anomalous, even for an institution as old, white, male as the Academy. In every year from 2013 at least as far back as 2001, at least one non-white person got an acting nomination. Several of them, such as Denzel Washington, Lupita Nyong’o, and Javiar Bardem even won.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

So, Star Wars wasn’t shut out, earning five nominations, but it didn’t get a Best Picture nomination. And this is a little anomalous.

Going back at least as far as Jaws every film that has managed to break the all-time domestic record has managed to get a nomination for Best Picture. So why didn’t it happen this time? Another sign that the Academy is out of touch with the general public?

Well, in a sense, it seems that the Academy is less likely to favor huge box office grossing films than they were in the past. It’s not that they dislike such things, but the biggest films of late tend to be franchise vehicles and sequels, which isn’t something favored by the Academy. In fact, only five sequels have ever gotten a BP nomination: two Lord of the Rings films, two Godfather films, and Toy Story 3. 

Besides that, all those previous All Time Domestic Champions were very much director driven films. James Cameron was the guiding vision for Titanic and Avatar. Steven Spielberg is entirely behind Jaws and ET. And George Lucas perhaps had so much of a vision for Star Wars, that he spawned the biggest franchise of all time.

In contrast, Star Wars: The Force Awakens feels like a committee vehicle. JJ Abrams may have been the director, but he’s not the only one driving this train. The Academy likes to reward a singular vision, and that’s just not in evidence this time around.



The MCU Shuffle

The news of the moment is the addition of a new film added to the ever impressive Marvel Cinematic Universe lineup. This time around it’s a sequel of sorts to this summer’s Ant-Man, and will be entitled Ant-Man and the Wasp.

I’m going to assume that this will be the Scott Lang Ant-Man played by Paul Rudd and the Hope van Dyne Wasp played by Evangeline Lilly who was teased at the end of the film, and not some Hank Pym played computer-de-aged Michael Douglas led vehicle. (Although an entire film set in the 80s would be kinda cool.)

The selected date for this film is almost three years from the first: July 6, 2018.

But wait, you think. Wasn’t something already in that date? Yes, yes there was. The Black Panther movie starring Chadwick Boseman had been slotted in that prime summer moment and now has to vacate it for the… higher profile (?) sequel.

Also on the move is the Captain Marvel movie, leaving it’s November 2018 release date.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen these two films on the move. A year ago, they were originally announced for November, 2017 (Black Panther) and July 2018 (Captain Marvel). Oh, for those heady days when we were all excited about a CM movie in a prime summer slot. Those plans were torpedoed once Sony and Marvel got to an agreement to fold Spider-Man into the MCU. Spidey’s a huge character, of course, and he needs a huge character release date. Like that prime July 2017 slot, which had been held by Thor 3. So Thor moved to the November slot held by Black Panther, BP moved to the July slot held by Captain Marvel, and CM moved to the November 2018 slot held by… nothing.

(Unaffected in all these shuffles were GotG 2, Avengers 3 and 4, and Inhumans.)

This time, there is some supposedly good news. Black Panther is actually moving forward in the schedule. Not quite as early as its original release date, but now it’s slotted in February, 2018, just in time for the President’s Day weekend. It’s also primed to capitalized on Black History Month!

I say that news is supposedly good, because, well… February’s a bit of a down month. It tends to be a bit cramped, filling up with mid-tier releases, and while some do gather a fair amount of success, true breakouts are few and far between. Only two films, ever, have earned more than $200 million domestically after opening in February: The Passion of the Christ, which, well, had a number of other factors at play, and The LEGO Movie.

What this shift says to me is that Marvel feels more confident in a sequel than in an original property. It feels like preemptive damage control. Why waste a prime slot when you can just give it an acceptable one. The holiday weekend can be quite good for business, but after that it’s kind of a long haul, as March tends to fill up with high profile releases that take audience attention. Plus, besides that one holiday Monday, there’s little to otherwise bolster it. Easter and spring breaks aren’t until over a month later.

So that’s BP, which we get earlier, but doesn’t really speak of any faith the studio has in the property.

What about Captain Marvel? It’s jumping four months later to March of 2019. If it’s moving, surely something is going into its slot.

However, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Last time it moved it was because BP was taking its place. BP’s going in the other direction, so why is Captain Marvel moving?

As best I can tell it’s for some balance. With the AM&TW jumping in the schedule and the moves, the MCU now has three films a year from 2017-2019. They also announced three untitled for 2020, so that seems to be what they want their output to be at.Had Captain Marvel stayed November 2018, that would have had four films hitting that year. (Avengers 3 is hitting in May 2018 and isn’t going to be affected by any changes.) That’s too many, I suppose, so CM abandons the November slot for nothing.

Its new March date has been pitched as a good thing. It speaks of confidence because now it’s starting the blockbuster season, whatever that means. It’s also on International Women’s Day.

So how is the new date? Well, it’s okay. The new date is probably on par with the old one. I’ve tended to feel that the early November release dates are overrated. The films that are big for them are because of the film, not the calendar. They’re too early to get a bump from both Thanksgiving and Christmas, and the huge films that hit later in the month take away their thunder. It’s possible Marvel agrees. With this shift of CM, they don’t have any late year releases after Thor 3.

March doesn’t really have that problem. There is the capacity for big films, but they tend to spread out. Easter is a mobile holiday, so it can help, but it could also be a wash. Spring breaks hit at different times, but provide some boost.

In contrast, early November tends to be facing really light competition, much as early May does. October’s becoming a stronger month, but it tends to be from one standout rather than a glut. February, as noted above, sees a glut.So really, for CM, the shift is probably a wash for potential. November and Holiday sounds sexier, but March is good enough. But the surrounding message is unsatisfying. This is a film that originally had that prime July slot. That was the slot that held Dark Knights and Pirates and Harry Potters. You’ve got some studio oomph in that Mid-July slot. Now this film has been bumped nine months later. It’s gone from Hoo-Rah! to sexy! to …okay?

On one hand, I get it. Schedules are going to change. Things will happen and hiccup and a studio needs to adjust. But last October when Marvel did their big release announcement, they were met with universal praise. “This is how you do announcements,” people said. “Look! We’ve got Black Panther and Captain Marvel!”

A few weeks earlier, WB had more or less revealed their DC movie schedule in an investor call. The contrast between the two was highlighted. Marvel showing, yet again, that it does things the right way.

Now they’ve basically squandered and ruined all that goodwill. The excitement over Black Panther being the first POC lead remains. It was going to come out three weeks before the Jason Momoa led Aquaman, and now it’s going to have a few more months lead time.But Captain Marvel, oh. She has a fierce and dedicated fanbase They were excited and have now seen two release date shifts. Now they get to rationalize how this is a good thing. All while wondering how long it’s going to be before the part is even cast. Boseman is suiting up with the Panther tights next summer, prior to his own film, but we may not see anything of Captain Marvel before March of 2019.

Perhaps that’s by design. The original announcement may have been entirely to get people fired up, but the production heart may not be in it. Something, anything, could happen and they may quietly bump the release date again. Or perhaps cancel it entirely.

This wouldn’t be a surprise. Fans have been clamoring for a Black Widow movie for years, but there’s no indication of any interest from the studio. Kevin Feige has highlighted her supporting spots in various films, but that’s not the same thing. Feige has also said that they have a grand plan for the MCU, and they can’t just force something into the lineup, like a Black Widow movie. But now we’ve seen two films forced into the lineup. The grand plan is all smoke and promises.

Those promises are empty.

(WB, it should be noted, never did a full announcement of those release dates. They had previous selected various untitled film dates, and we could match them to the announced titles, which have mostly been confirmed at this point, but it was just a little bit looser and gives them the option of deniability. If something happens to cause a shift, they don’t really have egg on their face because of it.)

My 2015 movie summer (part 3)

So what is the best movie of the summer?

This shouldn’t be a surprise.

Mad Max: Fury Road

In a world that’s chock full of regressive sequels and reboots, Mad Max: Fury Road is a breath of fresh air.

Wait, that’s not quite right.

On paper, leading into the year, Fury Road seemed like yet another sequel for a long dormant franchise. True, Mad Max was never a blockbuster series, but it has fans and has carved a rather enduring niche into the public consciousness. “Two men enter, one man leaves!” is regularly quoted, even by people who haven’t seen the film. (Ironically, the line is from the oft-maligned Thunderdome film.)

There are at least seven franchises that are seeing their fourth or later film this year. Three of those are hitting at least seven installments. One hit twelve. Established IPs are the name of the game, and Hollywood has begun to trawl around for anything with some name recognition to slap on the screen.

So in that sense, Fury Road is another of the pack. If Hollywood had a formula, you could foresee how it would go: string together enough recognizable references to the original films, slap on some prettified computer effects, and amp up the bass line of the soundtrack. $150 million later, and you’ve got a brand spanking new film.

The big question with these sequels is whether there’s an audience. Or rather, whether the fans of the original won’t be alienated by the changes while younger viewers are intrigued enough to come along for the ride. And going into the summer, it seemed that it might not work. Much like Terminator franchise, Mad Max was one of those that had seen its time come and go, with only older fan nostalgia to keep it going.

Except it wasn’t QUITE the same. Terminator had seen creator/director James Cameron move onto (much) bigger things. Steven Spielberg had stepped back to executive producer duties for the dinosaurs. George Lucas sold off his entire company to Disney has nothing to do with the new film (for good or ill).

In the case of most of these franchises, the IP are held by studios or passed around between holding companies or somesuch. Thanks to our frankly absurd copyright laws, they will remain as such until the heat death of the universe, so we’re going to be subjected to franchise iterations until then, with only a few exceptions. (One notable: Back to the Future. Zemeckis and Gale got a good contract there.)

But Mad Max is an exception. The rights aren’t held by Warner Brothers, but by Kennedy Miller Mitchell. The Miller in the name refers to George Miller. The same George Miller who wrote and directed the original Mad Max films. So if a new film was going to happen, it was only going to be with his involvement.

Actually, Fury Road pretty much only got made because Miller had an interest. Hollywood’s normally gung-ho franchise mining nature was unusually tepid about another post-apocalyptic car chase. Miller spent over a decade pulling together the story and doing the storyboards before he got a green light.

That time taken is apparent on the screen. The thought that went into the construction of Fury Road is meticulous. Not just the sublime choreography of the action sequences, but also the details that were considered to build the world and characters without getting didactic with the dialogue. In fact, the dialogue is largely irrelevant to the film. Miller has in effect married the planning and foresight of Alfred Hitchcock with the visual presentation of classic Hong Kong. The story is one that is perfectly told in the visual, filmed medium, and not any other.

It’s a bit disappointing that much of the narrative surrounding the film has been harping on the practical stunts. They are amazing, to be sure, but it somewhat misses the point. It’s not as if Miller came in to show how things were done better, old-school style. There are numerous computer effects in the film as it stands, and it was shot digitally. Originally he wanted to shoot it natively in 3D. Plus his two previous films were completely computer animated.

Rather, what Fury Road shows is that to get a great film, the director needs to know his tools and to use them properly. It’s entirely possible for a director to return to a franchise well after the fact and to stumble. George Lucas did that with the Star Wars prequels, which even if you accept that he planned everything ahead of time were not especially well executed. Lucas possibly tried to push things too far, too fast, and it didn’t work.

Miller, instead, has shown that he’s comfortable to get any piece of technology to do what it can for his needs. Fury Road works in ways that many other films don’t because it is immersive. With few words and actually little explanation, the world on the film is fully believable. It’s one of the greatest examples of “show, don’t tell” ever put together.

While there are small nods to the previous films in the series, Fury Road is remarkably forward thinking. Too often franchises will rest on the work of previous films in the series. Whether because of continuity, limited vision, or just plain laziness, later entries will feel like empty husks with bigger budgets. Perhaps because of Miller’s desire to build a mythological figure rather than a cohesive plot, he’s made a film that stands on its own. Connections to the past provide enjoyment, but are not required.

By freeing himself from the constraints of the past, Miller instead has managed to craft a remarkably subversive and innovative film. Even as Furiosa joins a list of spectacular female action heroes, the entire craft of the film is cutting edge feminism.

Whatever genre you apply to it, whether action or science fiction or what have you, it isn’t hyperbole to claim Fury Road’s near the best in that genre, if not the best. In fact, while it’s surprising to consider, a film with a flame-throwing guitar is among the best the medium has ever produced.

Even if there is no such thing as a perfect film, Mad Max: Fury Road is close enough that we can say that it’s perfect in every way.

My 2015 movie summer (part 2)

Last time I ran down my picks for the 11th through 7th best films of the summer. Conveniently enough, you could group those films as “the bad and the ugly”. Even if I kinda liked parts of them, they are all movies that have questionable construction. None of them deserve to be on anyone’s best-of lists at the end of the year.

For the remaining films, they are mostly good to great. 6th place is borderline.

6. Ant-Man

So, on one hand, Ant-Man has a lot of questionable choices in its production. On the other, I really had a fun time watching it. Do I lean toward “why the hell did they do this” or toward “this is a good movie-going experience”? In the end, it’s a bit of both.

Like, never in the context of the film was there a satisfying reason for why Hope wasn’t the hero instead of Scott. Even when they tried to give a reason, it fell flat. And given the business and schedule for Marvel films, it seems unlikely we’ll see a sequel with Hope in the costume anytime soon.

And why, oh WHY, does Marvel do such a consistently terrible job with its villains. Outside of Loki, none of them are great. I’ve honestly forgotten what the bad guy’s non-Yellowjacket name is here. He was so bland and uninspired. He’s also dead, which is pretty much what Marvel does.

But still, the cast is pretty great, the jokes click, and there’s some pretty good action. Even with the problems, I’d mark it as an upper-level Marvel effort. It’s the second best of the Phase Two films, easily.

It really would have been nice to see Edgar Wright’s version, though.

5. The Man from UNCLE

There’s style and then there’s STYLE. If nothing else, Guy Ritchie’s films deliver on the latter. UNCLE is no exception. It positively oozes style from the stylish pores of its very stylish actors. It has style like it’s, well, going out of style.

Which, in a sense, it kind of is. I have to feel bad for stars Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer. They feel like actors who are working in the wrong decade. They both a stoic, understated demeanor that is coupled with unearthly good looks, and that doesn’t seem to be an appreciated combination. Audiences seem to want their actors beautiful, yes, but they also want the humor and action to be very overstated. So if you watch The Lone Ranger or Man of Steel, their performances feel a bit out of time.

Still, slot them in a period piece, and it clicks together almost perfectly. The humor is easy-going. The action is fun without being overbearing. Everyone, yes EVERYONE, is pretty to look at. Sure, the plot’s a little light, but the breeziness helps make UNCLE a pretty perfect late summer movie.

One particular point of amusement: just about everyone isn’t using their normal access. Cavill (English) is playing American, as is Jared Hess (also English). Hammer (American) is playing Russian. Alicia Vikander (Swedish) goes German. And Elizabeth Debicki (Australia) is an Italian. The only exception is Hugh Grant who is playing, well, Hugh Grant.

4. Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation

After Ghost Protocol, there was probably some question as to where the Mission Impossible franchise would go. It’s always been a bit of an odd beast, just trucking along and doing what it does very well. While there are other, older franchises that are currently relevant, Mission Impossible has been around for close to twenty years without any sort of hiatus. Perhaps the trend of taking 4-6 years to develop a film (about twice as long as most other ongoing series) each time means that it always remains somewhat fresh.

Still, after Ghost Protocol, where would it go? The Dubai sequence in that film is legendary, and if you’re going to make a sequel, you need to go bigger or just not even bother, right?

Rogue Nation didn’t hide the fact that it was going to have a big set piece in the advertising. Tom Cruise, hanging off the side of a plane! It’s the logical step up.

And then it throws a curveball. You sit down to watch it and it’s like Cruise and writer/director McQuarrie tell you “yes, we know you’re here for this action sequence, well here it is.” Boom, done in five minutes. It might be risky for a film to blow its wad so early, but it makes a lot of sense. You get the spectacle, but you also don’t feel like the advertising spoiled anything.

From there, it rockets along at a great clip, with all the fun, action, and intrigue we’ve come to expect. But then Rogue Nation does something pretty amazing.: it actually nails the third act.

Previous Mission Impossibles can be justifiably criticized for not really coming together in the end. Notably for the second film (which is two very entertaining acts followed by a bunch of WTF), but all except the first are pretty flabby at the conclusion.

Not so here. McQuarrie has crafted a great conclusion that brings the whole arc of the film back to a neat, satisfying close.

It’s not a stretch to say that Rogue Nation is the best in the series.

3. SPY

For all the recent talk about the overwhelming presence of superhero movies, it’s actually the spy genre that’s been omnipresent this year. Along with the aforementioned UNCLE and Rogue Nation, there was also Kingsman back in February. And then there’s the latest in the granddaddy of all spy franchises this holiday season, with Spectre.

Somewhere in all this, Melissa McCarthy’s latest endeavor to set herself as THE go-to name in comedy came out. And it’s a spy movie. Now, it’s a comedy, but it’s not a spoof. The film tweaks with conventions, with hilarious results, but it doesn’t ridicule them.

The comedy here is a bit of a slow burn. For the first act or so, I was smiling and nodding along, but it was like funny and enjoyable, not gut-busting. And then it just clicked. I’m not sure what the moment was exactly. It might have been Rose Byrne delivering a perfect upper crust obscenity. It might have been the moment when it was suddenly clear exactly what Jason Statham’s character was like. Regardless, at a moment, SPY went from a fun romp to a comedy great.

The cast is perfect. Each member can deliver the funny, but does so in different ways. Statham and Byrne are standouts, but McCarthy continues her quest to establish one of the best comedic resumes in history. And supporting efforts from Allison Janney, Bobby Cannavale, and Miranda Hart round things out. Several times I had a thought of “I hate this character” followed by “but they’re so funny!”

In addition to McCarthy, director Paul Feig has been delivering a consistent string of hits after cutting his teeth on TV work. So far, he hasn’t been a standout technically, but his efforts are solid and with SPY and The Heat, he’s shown he has a good eye to blend action and comedy.

McCarthy and Feig team up again with Ghostbusters next year. Personally, I can’t wait.

2. Inside Out

Pete Docter is the best director working in animation today. He’s one of the core people in Pixar’s brain trust, and among them all he’s remained as the stalwart at the studio. John Lasseter is now in charge of all Disney creative endeavors, and he always struck me as better on the production rather than directing side. Andrew Stanton and Brad Bird are both fine directors, but they’ve taken forays into live action that have not been entirely successful. Both have returned to Pixar.

But Docter has remained throughout the entire history of the studio. And in so doing he’s delivered three of the best animated films of all time. While discussions can be heated when you talk about the output of a studio that has as high bar for quality as Pixar, Inside Out is arguably up there for best Pixar film ever.

For all the doubts levied against Pixar’s recent output, Inside Out shows that the studio can still deliver on its strengths. And Docter’s storytelling choices are probably the most perfectly suited to Pixar. He makes his films funny and exciting, but he also has an ability to home in on the heartfelt expression that makes Pixar stand out.

Tears are not an uncommon feature of his films. And personally, none of the other Pixar films hit quite so hard as Docter’s. And even Inside Out is a step above the rest, with three huge gut-punch moments.

Ultimately, what Inside Out and Docter deliver is a commodity so few films truly deliver: satisfaction. At the end, we’re given a film so complete that it’s profound. And then we realize how rare that feeling is, so we want to see it again.

Well, I’ve gone on for about 1500 words this time. I think I’ll cap it there and then I can really go long next time while I talk about my favorite film of the summer.

My 2015 Movie Summer (part 1)

So, we’re past Labor Day. The summer movie season is at an end, even if the season itself doesn’t end for another two weeks.

The movie summer season currently runs from the first weekend in May* through Labor day. That’s a good four months or so, which dwarfs the other three movie seasons, all of which clock in right around two months apiece.

*A notable exception should be given for 2011, when Fast Five opened over the final April weekend and was a much stronger summer starter than Thor.

(For the curious: Winter runs from the post-New Year’s weekend through the final weekend in February. Spring from the first weekend in March through the final weekend in April. Fall from the post-Labor Day weekend through the final October weekend. And Holiday from the post-Halloween weekend through the New Year’s weekend.)

Since it’s a big movie season, I tend to see a fair number of films each summer. Due to some viewing choices and life events, I may have seen fewer than average this year. But even so, I’d like to rank all the ones I saw from worst to best.

11. Jurassic World

God, this movie was such a disappointment. For a film that everyone apparently went to see and mostly enjoyed, it’s just a turgid slog. The action is lackluster, the science is deplorable (more on that in a bit), and the humor is lacking. Even the parts that I was excited about, like Chris Pratt’s presence, were underwhelming. I should make a special note for the score, which had one of the least inspired efforts from the usually fantastic Michael Giacchino and also used the cues from John Williams’ brilliant original in egregiously terrible moments.

Beyond that, it was especially galling that the science was so bad. When the original Jurassic Park came out, it used most of the best paleontological information of the time in its presentation of the dinosaurs. Jurassic World is entirely beholden to the image of the original film while betraying the spirit. In fact, the presentation of dinosaurs is WORSE than the original.

I’m not going to lie. Trevorrow’s selection as director of Star Wars Episode 9 has dampened my enthusiasm for the entire franchise, including the incredibly hyped The Force Awakens.

I’d go so far to say that Jurassic World is the worst film I’ve seen this year, but not by a huge margin, because…

10. Avengers: Age of Ultron

A few years back, in the middle of Phase 1, I posited that Iron Man may mark the high point of Marvel’s cinematic endeavors. After all, Iron Man 2 had, despite a larger opening, not even been able to match the first in the domestic box office (to say nothing about the quality) and Thor and Captain America had done strong but not spectacular efforts. Incredible Hulk was, even at that early date in the franchise history, mostly forgotten. Despite the selection of geek golden boy Joss Whedon to direct the promised team-up film, it certainly felt like there was a ceiling on the properties.

Obviously, I was wrong about that. Avengers exploded in a way nobody predicted, and Phase 2 films Iron Man 3 and Guardians of the Galaxy both eclipsing any of the earlier films. Marvel has gone from interesting movie experiment to industry trendsetter. EVERYONE is getting in on the cinematic universe game, even if their properties don’t allow it.

Of course, while the success is sky high, the quality has been taking a hit. The Phase 1 films felt fresh and interesting. They had a system, of course, but you could feel that there was some original voice. In Phase 2, they started to feel like a formula. There were the quips, the action beats,  the pretty standard directing, the actors named Chris.

Age of Ultron feels like the film where the wheels finally came off. Even if I didn’t particularly care for the first Avengers, it worked as a Whedon vehicle, because it did all the things he does well. Ultron, in contrast, felt like all those things getting sanded down, leaving just the formulaic shell. Despite the quips, the characters felt largely out of character. Despite the action, it felt like a yawn.

It’s not quite as infuriating as Jurassic World, but it’s still a shrug of a film. What happened during it? I don’t really remember, but worse, I don’t even care.

9. Fantastic Four

The story about Fantastic Four has pretty much moved well beyond the film itself. The behind-the-scenes rumors. Director Josh Trank’s implosion just prior to release. The absolutely awful box office response. There’s really no good way to spin this.

Yet, despite all that, I kinda liked it.

Even if I allow that as constructed and presented, Fantastic Four is pretty terrible, I do appreciate the interesting ideas it was trying to tackle. We may never know what the film Josh Trank wanted to make was like, but for those few bits in it where those efforts shone through, I was captivated.

And that alone sets it above the lazy, by-the-numbers efforts of Trevorrow and Whedon.

8. San Andreas

I could probably flip this with Fantastic Four. There really isn’t anything interesting here as far as premise, but The Rock is pretty damn entertaining, even if he can’t quite lift the film beyond passable. Still, in the context that I saw it – a summer night at a drive-in – it grabbed me.

The science is notably bad, but the big destruction scenes are quite enjoyable. It probably just needed to feel a bit more perilous. The advertising made it feel a bit more doom-worthy than it actually was.

After I saw it, I said that if they do a sequel (likely, given the success), they should set it in the Pacific Northwest, which has a subduction fault and has the potential for much bigger earthquakes than California. Then a few weeks later we got that article about how much damage could happen if such a quake did happen and everyone was abuzz about the danger to Seattle.

The article was a bit scare-tactic-y, but I felt exonerated.

And, hey, if they do it, they can keep the same Spanish naming convention. Juan de Fuca is right there.

7. Tomorrowland

Sometimes I get a story idea and think “this is going to be amazing!” It’s got setting and action and character and a whole heap of potential. But then I sit down and start trying to work out a plot and find that it’s just not there.

Tomorrowland feels like that, except someone spent $200 million dollars. It’s got potential up the wazoo, but ultimately it’s half baked.

The setup is actually pretty good. For a couple acts, Tomorrowland runs along at a good, enjoyable clip. The acting is fine. The visuals are amazing. But then it hits the third act and things just start screeching to a halt.

I don’t know exactly where in the process things went wrong. Maybe Brad Bird just never figured out what makes the concept click. Maybe Damon Lindelof really can’t write a third act to save his life. I don’t know. Something didn’t work, and that’s readily apparent on the screen.

If nothing else, Jurassic World showed that you can make a complete mess catch on if you’ve got one great moment in the third act for people to latch onto. (Even if everything surrounding that moment was stupid as all getout.) Tomorrowland is like the polar opposite: impeccable craft and decision-making ruined because there’s never a moment to fist-pump.

It’s hardly the worst film of the summer, but it’s possibly the most disappointing. Bird’s given us some absolutely great films. And after Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol it really seemed like Tomorrowland had promise. Bird wasn’t going to completely fumble and pull a Stanton, right?

Well, now it looks like Pixar is 0-2 in getting their directors to transition to live action. The screwups are so bad they’ve basically killed any effort at Disney to make original live-action fare. The studio is completely in the established franchise tentpole game at this point.

I think movies as a whole are worse off because of it.


Well, I’ve gone over a thousand words, but I’m only about halfway through. This is a good point to take a break, though. I’ll get the finale up in the next day or two.

Box Office Awesome: Go Big or Go… Home?

The general consensus, at least business-wise, is this year has been a great summer for movie business. And, um… is it? Really?

To be sure, the top end for 2015 has been great. Jurassic World shattered expectations for the second biggest first-run of all time. I don’t know anyone who was even predicting $400 million domestic, much less edging into the mid-600s. And even if Avengers: Age of Ultron didn’t do the gonzo business expected, it’s still an extremely solid performer in abstract. Beyond those two are the animation over-performers of Inside Out and Minions. If the biggest films are doing that well, doesn’t that mean it’s great overall?

Well, maybe.

See, there’s going to be a neat trick when all is said and done. The gulf between the 4th place film (Minions) and the 5th place film (Pitch Perfect 2) is already almost at $140 million, and will probably be close to $150 million when all is said and done.

Pitch Perfect 2 is “only” at $183 million. (It’s a vast over-performer relative to expectations, but bear with me for a moment.) The gap between them is huge. In fact, this summer will be the first in twenty years that no film has grossed between $200 and $300 million. (Assuming, of course, that Straight Outta Compton doesn’t have some crazy late legs to get over the mark.)

It’s not just the summer, either. Except for Cinderella, which barely limped over the double century mark thanks to efforts by Disney to pair it with Age of Ultron and Inside Out, no other film this year has hit in that $200-300 million range.

Again, the last time that happened was 1995. The trick was in 1995, the highest grossing film the entire year was Toy Story which did not even make $200m. We’re in vastly different territory for what films are capable of. Ticket prices have nearly doubled in that time, and the population of the US and Canada (the Domestic Market) has increased some 65 million.

Our hit films, are really big hits. We’ve already got 5 films that have made at least $300 million. And that’s not including American Sniper which had an extremely limited Christmas release before going wide over the MLK weekend, which technically means it’s a 2014 film, but it made almost all its $350 million in 2015. For the rest of the year, there will be at least two more films that also get that big, the final Hunger Games film and, of course, Star Wars: The Force Awakens. So this year is going to be huge for the top of the line success.

Oh, yeah. The previous record for $300 million grossing films, is 4.

But paired with that is near complete absence of the mid-level blockbuster status. The hits have gotten hittier, but they’ve apparently sucked the life out of everything else. Movies like Mad Max: Fury Road and Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation. Have done acceptably solid local business, but nothing spectacular. That’s in spite of absolutely glowing reviews.

This brings to mind the comments in recent years about the future of blockbuster films. Steven Spielberg and his blockbuster-creating brethren have posited that there’s an end on the horizon. The status of budgets getting bigger and bigger is going to doom blockbusters because people have so much gosh-darn distractions.

Except that doesn’t seem to be the case at all. The blockbuster will survive, it seems, but only in an increasingly branded status. If you like cinematic universes, you’re golden.

But it feels like anything not aiming for the broadest possible audience is doomed to relative mediocrity. Much like the turn of the century changes to the industry spelled doom to the $50 million budget mid-level studio efforts, it seems that this decade has been pruning back on anything that doesn’t have a really well-established brand.

This isn’t exactly new. Hollywood has long been in the franchise business and branding is part and parcel of the game. But the budgetary requirements mean that even to have a chance at success, you need to have an established brand from the get-go.

If you’re playing with the shared worlds of Marvel or DC or already established franchises, that’s good. But the likelihood of getting anything new off the ground is looking like a harder and harder sell. There’s a catch 22 going on: you to be successful to have a shot at a franchise, but you need a recognized brand in order to get that success.

Blockbusters are here to stay, but “originality” for whatever definition you apply to it, is out the window.

The trials and tribulations of Dreamworks Animation is pretty much a pinpoint example of that. For the past several years, the studio has been trying to get new franchises off the ground. They’ve tried several times to get a new series started, to replace their Shrek and Madagascar lines. And except for The Croods, they’ve all been pretty much whiffs since the first How to Train Your Dragon, which was over 5 years ago. All these original property attempts, and many, many commercial failures.

Even Home, which turned out to be a massive spring surprise, didn’t quite get the return from international markets that would let them say “this is a success!”

The DWA brand, it seems, isn’t quite enough to get audiences to come just because. A marked contrast to Walt Disney Animation and Pixar.

DC’s Movie Future

The big news for comic book geeks right now are the DC changes. The company is dissolving Wildstorm and presumably every other imprint besides Vertigo. All non-publishing operations are moving from New York to SoCal. There are a number of questions up in the air, but for the most part, that’s just a bunch of businessy things to think about.

The reasons for these changes make a lot of sense. DC’s had a problem for a while, lagging behind Marvel for a number of years and often playing copycat to try and catch up. The company has had a broader scope of comics printed, under a number of different imprints, but nothing’s seemed to catch on.

Step one, it seems, is to remove a lot of dead weight. I imagine that in the next few months, they’ll announce how they’ll handle the various creator-owned properties, whether it’s by moving them under the Vertigo banner or something else will remain to be seen.

What’s considerably more fascinating, to me, is a quote by DC head honcho Diane Nelson where she says that they aren’t Marvel. Obvious, of course, but upon consideration, it’s a very smart move.

Marvel’s approach to movies is well understood to be building a universe that will culminate, of sorts, with the Joss Whedon Avengers film in a couple years. I imagine that, if it’s a successful experiment, it won’t stop there, but I don’t get the sense that they’ve got a plan that extends much further until they see how it goes. This eggs in a basket strategy is probably driven by necessity. Due to a number of financial issues Marvel had over a decade ago, the company sold off the rights to a number of characters. They can’t do anything, film-wise, with the two biggest characters under the company’s publishing banner: Spider-Man and Wolverine. (Held by Sony and Fox, respectively.)

In fact, given the attempts under Avi Arad to license out the over 6000 characters in the Marvel universe, many of the more well-known characters are effectively gone for good. (It’s entirely possible that the rights could lapse, but I believe that’s only happened with Hulk. All other major properties have some sort of film in production.) This is a big issue because the money is made on the big screen (and subsequent DVD sales) rather than in the monthly issues. Marvel does the latter very well, and the former was elsewhere. (This last point is what makes the Disney purchase seem so odd.)

Enter the Avengers. Take the remaining characters, most of them second-tier, and hand them off to good directors and such to create a movie universe unlike anything that’s been done before. It’s great branding and gets the word out that this is the Next Big Thing. So long as the films are good, then everything will be hunky-dory. Luckily for Marvel, Iron Man was very good, so things are getting rolling. The Avengers seems like a dream come true: a real superhero team-up film on the big screen. Awesome, right? And not a little bit lucky that they still had Cap, Thor, and ol’ Shellhead in-house.

DC doesn’t have that problem. For the most part, any character under the DC banner has the film rights in-house under Warner Bros. While Marvel’s been all over the place, the dream of a JLA movie has been kicking around at least since the late ’90s. Nothing came of any of those, partially because DC never seemed to be able to do anything besides Batman or Superman, and partially because getting a large cast of superheroes together gets unwieldy. Seriously, when you have too many characters, it’s not good cinema. Just one of the many problems that plagued X-Men 3.

So Marvel may have found the magic formula, however: individual films for a series of characters, then bring them together for the team-up. You don’t need to worry about backstory. And DC’s got a couple of Bat-films in the current series, a Green Lantern film out next year. Just need something new for Supes, work out The Flash and Wonder Woman, and you’re there, right? Easy enough to copy Marvel’s playbook… again.

However, Nelson’s quote indicates that (as of right now) they have no plans to do that. For a couple of reasons, this is probably the best decision. First, there’s the creative side. DC doesn’t have the same necessity. The movie studio isn’t force to use the second tier characters because their big guns are right there, and (at least in Batman’s case), extremely profitable and visible. When the third Batman film comes out, it’s going to do just fine. And Christopher Nolan’s also at work on a Superman film, which has a lot of justifiably high expectations.

However, Nolan’s indicated that he doesn’t really want to push Batman into a bigger group. The stories he’s filming work well on a closed level and I’m going to guess that Superman is going to get a similar treatment. Given that those two are likely tied up and unavailable because of that, it would leave any potential JLA movie in one of two problematic situations: either you film it without Superman and Batman, which doesn’t really scream JLA anymore. Ever since Grant Morrison started on the title back in the mid-90s, it’s been a team that’s the biggest heroes in the DCU, as it was when the team started. Ironically, Marvel’s gone with a similar strategy of late, by pulling Spiderman and Wolverine into the Avengers. However, they can’t match the lineup in the films.

To remove Batman & Superman leaves the league feeling a bit… Justice League International in feel, which is dating back 20+ years.  And unlike the Avengers, there’s a very important tone that needs to be set here. I really doubt any casual viewer is going to know that Wolverine and Spiderman are Avengers. In fact, I’d guess that seeing them in the line-up on the screen would be very jarring. But JLA has had a few seasons of cartoons in the past decade that were very well received and built naturally from the Batman and Superman animated series. Casual audiences, even if they weren’t regular viewers, are likely to assume any similar line-up.

The other option would be to make a JLA film without any connection to the series for the single characters. WB did try this, actually, even getting to the point where they had a cast including Common as Green Lantern and they had George Miller signed onto direct. For a number of reasons, that fell through. If nothing else, it would have been confusing to any audiences. Why wasn’t Christian Bale Batman there?

Well, that brings up the business reasons for avoiding a build-up to the JLA. Ultimately, any film is all about the money. The studio wants to get the best return for the smallest outlay. When you’ve got a multi-franchise series, those costs can build up. Marvel is famous for playing hardball with actors to keep those costs down. Terrence Howard was ousted for Don Cheadle apparently over a contract dispute between the two Iron Man films. The vast majority of the other actors have signed onto multiple picture deals at a relatively low cost, in order to make sure the later films in the Avengers franchise won’t see things spike. Samuel L. Jackson signed a nine film deal after Iron Man.

However, in order to do these things, there needs to be a clear plan ahead of time. WB had no such plan for Batman when they brought Christopher Nolan on board to revamp the character. While trying to do the team thing would have caused some creative issues, it would have also meant needing to negotiate with Bale and the other actors involved after they’d already been in one or two very successful films. This raises the costs considerably. Moreso if you consider that they’d likely have to placate Nolan in some way. (Note that WB seems very strongly inclined to placate him. Even his odd, experimental fare like Inception does very well for them.)

The flipside of the business is even more important. While JLA would be a fan dream film (my friends and I had a game of dream casting it over a decade ago), much as the Avengers film is, what’s the payoff overall. Batman by himself can do half a billion in the US. Superman in a good film can probably clear the triple century mark easily. Other DC heroes are likely at a lower tier. Sure, Green Lantern might have about the same public appeal as pre-Robert Downey Jr. Iron Man, but that doesn’t mean he’s guaranteed for $300m US.

DC is already able to look at Marvel for a template on what may happen. As I noted in my last post, the prognosis for the Avengers is… mixed. If it looked like the Marvel properties were building interest, then I think Diane Nelson would be less inclined to defiantly say they aren’t Marvel. But that hasn’t happened with Iron Man, and while we’re a Thor and a Captain America away from getting the Avengers trifecta, what’s the real expectation for those films, regardless of quality? $200m? $250m if they take off? Superheroes aren’t a guaranteed sale anymore. Iron Man was a right-place, right-time, lighting-in-a-bottle moment of everything coming together and hitting perfectly.

Maybe Green Lantern can do that, too. Martin Campbell is a very accomplished director, and has set the tone for the James Bond series twice, now. Ryan Reynolds has a ton of talent and charisma. And even so, that can’t guarantee it’s going to be huge. Big, sure, but not huge.

If the payoff isn’t a guarantee, why would DC even want to try and pull off a JLA film? It’s going to be more difficult, more expensive, and probably more uncertain than Marvel’s current effort. More than that, it’s going to feel like a bit of a copycat. Given that the DC publishing has been playing that game for most of the past decade and losing, why would they want to do the same for the films, when the stakes are so much higher.

No, carving out their own path is much smarter. While at the moment, there doesn’t seem to be anything really innovative at play than a typical franchise, that could change.

Consider the Green Lanterns. They’re already a super team of sorts built into the mythology. More than that, there’s a chance that they could go for something really unique and have a space-faring superhero adventure. Imagine some world building on the level of Avatar as a backdrop of warring Lanterns? Not saying it will happen, but it’s something that Marvel couldn’t easily replicate unless they decide to try and film the Annihilation saga.

And there’s no way they’re going to try and introduce the characters to do that. In that area, at least, DC’s got a head start. Go cosmic. But don’t go superteam. It’s not the smart play.