Marvel and DC have taken comic books for kids and turned them into an unstoppable machine, designed to entertain the masses while making massive profits.
When all the pieces fit together, it’s memorable and magical.
When they don’t, as in SUICIDE SQUAD, everybody notices. (Warning: this is packed full of spoilers.)
It’s like making chocolate chip cookies: Marvel and DC have well-known, well-liked ingredients that people have loved consuming for decades.
Mix it up, put them in the oven and serve them warm and hot. People are going to eat them. It’s not rocket science.
HOWEVER: your average person has eaten a lot of chocolate chip cookies, and seen a ton of these comic-book movies. They’ll know, right away, if Marvel burns the whole batch or DC forgets to add any chocolate chips at all.
In my sacred quest to watch Every Decent Thing on Netflix, I’ve seen a lot of quirky movies that make fun of the action and superhero genres.
All good, right?
Let’s watch three trailers, then take apart two movies with huge promise that both fall flat and one film that nails it.
Spoiler Alert: This entire post is one giant spoiler. Sorry. Can’t help it. Palpatine told me, “Do what must be done.”
First up: TURBO KID
Good trailer, right? And it seems like it’s not trash, since critics apparently blessed it.
Rainn Wilson and Ellen Page are the best. Come on. This should be amazing.
This is a production with no-name actors and virtually no budget. But the trailer looks funny.
Dissecting all three movies
TURBO KID and SUPER both suffer from trying to be two things: they both want to be cartoonish and child-like while subverting the whole comic-book genre with massive amounts of gore, violence, nudity and profanity.
You expect blood, bullets and every one of the FCC’s Seven Dirty Words in an R-rated action movie. No big deal.
These two movies are trying to be two things at once, though. You can be innocent and fun or you can be gritty and gross. Pick one.
The worst B movies splatter you with f-bombs and blood. The best pick their shots.
How you end a movie also kinda sorta matters, if you care about the audience.
TURBO KID jumps the shark in the end when it turns out not only is his sidekick / girlfriend a robot, but so it the bad guy, despite there being no hint of this at all. The bad guy just isn’t believable as an evil machine. I can completely buy a friendly robot that’s programmed and designed to be a companion. I can’t buy a bizarre, twisted villain actually being a robot beneath all that flesh. How did he get to be that way? It doesn’t fly as a last-minute revelation with no setup.
SUPER lost me in the climax when Ellen Page, playing the sidekick, Boltie, gets shot in the face and killed. She was the heart and soul of the movie, the best part. This film felt like a French existentialist number, with the hero killing the bad guys and saving his wife, but not really winning. It’s not a true a tragedy, either.
You can do stories with mixed endings, if you do them right. A hero can get what he wants, then decide he doesn’t want it. A boxer can lose the championship while earning self-respect and a girlfriend named Adrian.
You can do it. But it has to be carefully constructed.
TURBO KID and SUPER both felt weird for the sake of weird.
KUNG FURY is happily retro, cheesy and creative. There’s still swear words and nuttiness, but it remains fun instead of weird or sad.
With TURBO KID and SUPER, there was a mix of cartoonish surrealism and gritty realism, as if the writers and directors couldn’t choose which direction to take. KUNG FURY has the same tone throughout, but it still surprises you again and again.
VERDICT: Go ahead and fast-forward through the boring bits of TURBO KID and SUPER, if you’re curious about either, but skip the stupid endings so you don’t throw things at the screen. Watch all of KUNG FURY.
We live in the Golden Age of comic book movies, with Marvel and DC pumping them out as faster than you can swipe your VISA for $14 tickets to IMAX 3D and $9 bags of popcorn.
Here’s the secret recipe for mediocre superhero movies and its two sequels, each of which will costs at least $250 bazillion to make and $150 gazillion to market, and no, those insanely high numbers are not why you have to pay so much for tickets and kernels of dried corn that have been exploded. That’s a coincidence.
Note: I strongly deny the theory that this post is suggesting movie studios spend more than 1 percent of the budget on the actual story, because diverting that amount of money would eliminate the CGI budget for the skyscraper that explodes and falls down in the middle of the seventh fight scene, the one in that city that sort of looks like Vancouver, B.C. after the villain kidnaps the love interest and has a creepy dinner with her in his lair, but not the explode-y fight scene where the villain crashes the mayor’s birthday party to announce his plans for doomsday.
Secret Ingredient #1: A hero is born, which means Mom and Dad better have life insurance
Sorry, moms and dads of the world: if your son or daughter is destined to put on a mask and cape to fight evil, there’s a price to pay. Which means you’ve got to go.
Superheroes with dead parents are incredibly common, for these good reasons.
Here are those reasons: (a) any villain with a brain in their noggin could simply kidnap mom and dad whenever they wanted something, forcing (b) every movie or comic book starring a superhero with actual parents to spend precious time explaining exactly how mom and dad are hiding and surviving, (c) dead parents are an easy way for writers to give their superhero their motivation to fight crime and evil and (d) how else would you get Superman to fight Batman except by leveraging his human step-mom?
The list of superheroes with dead parents is so long I don’t even have to start, but I will: Batman, Superman (his real parents, not Martha), Iron Man, Captain America, Black Panther—you get the picture.
Secret Ingredient #2: Our hero is a total loser
This is a necessary step to the first movie, which tells the hero’s origin story.
You have to show how lame the hero is before he gets his powers. The bigger the contrast, the better the story.
Peter Parker is a nerdy little high school kid who gets bullied.
Steve Rogers is so small and scrawny, they won’t even accept him as a volunteer to fight in World War II.
Tony Stark is a billionaire playboy who invents and sells weapons when he’s not busy trying to poison his liver and catch every STD known to man.
Finally, here’s an example that shows how going halfway doesn’t work AT ALL.
Oliver Queen (Green Arrow) is a billionaire playboy who’s totally not a copy of Batman, and though Arrow’s rich father is dead, his mom is still alive, and living with him (?) and his kid sister (??) in the same mansion, even though he’s a grown man. Yeah, that’s the setup. It is as soap-opera-ish and stinky as you could imagine.
Secret Ingredient #3: Power up
A superhero needs talents and powers, whether they come from (a) a science experiment gone wrong (Spiderman, Hulk), (b) a science experiment gone right (Captain America, Ant Man), (c) years of training and (Black Widow, Falcon, Arrow) or (d) being a playboy billionaire genius who invents his own suit and arsenal of gadgets (Batman, Iron Man and a dozen other copycats not named Arrow).
Then there are weird powers that we do not, cannot and will not accept, like gills to breathe underwater combined with the ability to get whales to act like underwater taxis whenever Batman and his buddies in the Justice League don’t feel like using in the Batsub or Wonder Woman’s invisible plane.
Secret Ingredient #4: An old mentor who eventually MUST DIE
Sorry. It’s a thing.
The same clause in Sean Bean’s contract that requires him to die in every role is included for any actor playing the mentor to our superhero.
This is also necessary, because eventually (a) the screenwriters will write themselves into a corner and need the ultimate motivation for the hero to go beserk or the aging actor playing the mentor will (b) get sick of being a glorified sidekick and do other roles or (c) demand insane amounts of money to be in the sequels.
Before he dies, the mentor needs to be wise, charming, helpful and funny.
This is almost always a male role, whether we’re talking about a hero or heroine. Sorry. That’s how the Bad Superhero Blockbuster rolls.
Our old and grizzled mentor also needs to own many hats, because he’ll be wearing them all: sidekick, martial arts trainer, tech support and father figure.
But his death serves another purpose, because it opens up the way for five different sidekicks to pick up those hats, dust them off and put them on in the sequels.
Secret Ingredient #5: A dash of young love
Didn’t expect this in a movie with capes and explosions, did you? But it always happens.
Captain America had Agent Carter and now her niece.
Iron Man has Pepper Potts when they can afford Gwyneth Paltrow.
Thor has Princess Leia’s mom.
Batman has Rachel, or he did for a while, though I’ve always said it’s a lot like Harry Potter winding up with his best friend’s sister instead of Hermione: wrong, wrong, wrong. Batman should be forever linked to Catwoman, who rocks.
The new Wonder Woman will have Captain Kirk, which is pretty cool. Great actor. Good choice.
Arrow has–actually, I don’t really care about Arrow’s paramour, and don’t even make me think about what Aquaman does on Friday nights.
Back to our recipe: Preferably, this relationship should (a) start as early as possible, maybe even childhood, and (b) it should be a love triangle, with the third person also a friend from childhood.
That third person, ideally, should be our next ingredient.
Secret Ingredient #6: A delicious nemesis
Not a villain.
No, a villain is common and boring.
A nemesis last. He or she endures.
But this takes time. Like fine wine and good whiskey, a nemesis must ferment. Because they start out good before turning sour.
The hero and nemesis were once friends, if not best friends. Maybe they both wanted the same girl, the same achievements, the same powers and status.
A true nemesis is the flip side of the hero, showing what happens if you take the path less travelled.
Or you could take the easy way out and cast an aging Hollywood has-been as the villain, somebody who used to be box office gold. Give them a terrible foreign accent, a little backstory and let them chew up the scenery until the hero punches them into oblivion and locks them inside a chamber that gets flooded with radiation from the superweapon our big baddie intended to use to nuke LA.
Also: a quick, Cheaty McCheatypants way of creating your nemesis is to give him or her the same powers or power source as the hero.
This so lazy and bad, it rarely happens except for Iron Man 1, Iron Man 2, Thor, Man of Steel, Batman Begins, Arrow and fifteen other movies and TV shows I won’t look up right now.
It’s not enough for your villain or nemesis to steal every bar of gold from Fort Knox or crown himself Lord of Canada after unleashing his army of mind-controlled badgers with steel-tipped claws and industrial lasers strapped to their heads.
To be a truly clichéd superhero movie, the villain must threaten to destroy planet Earth, or at least nuke Gotham or Metropolis, which is the same thing for DC movies.
You can blow things up however you like, though nuclear warheads were only used as a plot device in every other Bond movie, spy film and TV show since 1953.
What gives you enough pop to make the third rock from the sun go bye-bye? Here are your choices: (a) an bio-engineered super virus, (b) alien invaders, (c) an army of killer robots / sharks / zombies or (d) manipulating or mind-controlling a hero so the other heroes have to fight them, especially if the hero is somebody unstoppable like Superman.
Secret ingredient #7: Clean up the kitchen and start prepping for sequels
To be a truly Bad Superhero Movie, you must follow the recipe exactly. To the letter.
That means Movie #2 has two villains, two sidekicks and two love interests.
It also costs twice as much. Batman Returns, Spiderman 2 and The Dark Knight all follow this formula.
Movie # 3 has three villains and three sidekicks. The number of love interests is your choice. Spiderman 3 and The Dark Knight Rises are good examples. We’re not even going to talk about the Batman movies starring Val Kilmer and George Clooney. Not gonna do it. Wouldn’t be prudent.
The budget for Movie # 3 is also triple the original.
Despite all the big name stars and big budget for explosions, the story is a mess and entire thing collapses under its own weight, with the only hope of bringing it back being a reboot with a new actor and director.
What’s hard? Ice skating uphill. What’s impossible? Flying to the moon in a Cessna or making people love a character who’s about as inherently lovable as AquaMan, which is saying, not lovable at all.
Batman is easy to love. Captain America, not so much.
Never read his comics. Never liked him.
So more than anything else, I’m impressed with how Marvel has turned Captain America into one of the most likeable and enjoyable characters on screen today.
This is just about impossible. Robert Downey, Jr. is an incredible actor playing a great part. Iron Man is far more fun on paper. I’m pretty sure Chris Evans hasn’t been nominated for Oscars and he’s a pretty good bet to never be seen as a Serious Actor.
Yet he’s perfect as Captain America.
Instead of taking a role that could easily come off as self-righteous, he makes it human.
WINTER SOLDIER was the darkest and deepest Marvel movie, yet it still had humor and joy. And of all the Marvel movies, it had the most developed relationships. They didn’t feel like cardboard characters reciting lines before more things exploded.
More than the fights, I remember moments like Cap doing laps around Falcon in the beginning, and driving with Black Widow in a stolen truck. The whole thing was beautifully done.
With CIVIL WAR, the Russo brothers out-did themselves.
It would’ve been easy for a movie with so many Avengers to fall apart from the weight of all those characters. Everybody got their time on screen, with interweaving setups and payoffs.
And the relationships are the strong point. Any film or TV show can have amazing special effects today. But can you make us care about the characters?
I cared about all of them.
And one of the best moments in this film is a kiss, I kid you not. That’s an achievement.
CIVIL WAR brought up big questions that don’t have easy answers. It was surprising, fascinating and fun.
Fun is the most important part. As a huge fan of the Batman movies, I have to say Marvel beats DC in the fun department. Every single Batman movie (except for the George Clooney disaster) has been dark and grim.
WINTER SOLDIER and CIVIL WAR prove that you can mix dark moments, tough choices and betrayals while still having an incredibly fun movie.
It’s an impressive achievement for what’s really an Avengers movie, since everybody except Thor and Hulk are in this thing. And I liked it better than either of the Avengers films.
Verdict: A+. I’ll buy it on Blu-Ray and would happily watch it again tomorrow.
After hearing about all the reviews, I expected Batman vs Superman to stink up the joint, to be Gigli with capes and masks, somehow worse that George Clooney’s turn as Bruce Wayne–which would be very hard to top.
I enjoyed it far, far more than Avengers 2: James Spader Chews Up the Scenery, But Never Makes You Care.
In fact, it’s better than the last of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, which I saw in the theater and own on Blu-Ray with the rest. Batman Begins is actually the most solid and rewatchable of the Nolan’s films.
The Dark Knight has an amazing beginning, and the first five scenes with Heath Ledger rock, but it gets weird toward the end with the random Wayne employee trying to out Batman and the two ferries that are supposed to blow each other up. Meh.
The acid test for any movie is very simple. Would you pay cash money to see it in the theater again? I’ll go see Batfleck in the theaters at least one more time, then buy it on Blu-Ray.
Gal Gadot rocks as Wonder Woman, setting up that solo movie. Batfleck reportedly wrote a script for the solo Batman film he may direct. Aquaman was, for the first time in history, not entirely lame. And I’m crazy stoked for Suicide Squad, which has the best trailer in the history of trailers that don’t feature wheels.
Batman vs Superman performs a minor miracle: though I love Bats and dislike Supes, it made me feel for Superman during their fight. Believe me, this is just about impossible, and Zack Snyder pulled that off.
So yeah, the movie worked, both as a fun time and as a setup for the whole DC Universe to compete with the Marvel Machine to see who can gather the most dollars from us before the Antarctic Ice Sheet melts.
Verdict: Go see it in the theater with popcorn and such.
You can’t escape the marketing blitz. Superhero movies have targeted your local multiplex and they WILL. NOT. STOP.
Ever since Hollywood took a risk by turning Tim Burton and Michael Keaton loose on BATMAN, studio execs in Hollywood figured out yes, you can make mountains of money on superhero movies–if you do them right.
Marvel perfected the formula of interlocking movies, and now DC is trying to copy it with BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN leading up to 5.6 bazillion movies with Batman, Wonder Woman, Superman, Aquaman (what?) and 16 other superheroes only fanboys would know.
Here’s a look at the six comic book films I’m aware of so far. Somebody will point out strays I’ve missed. By the year 2019, every weekend there will be a new Marvel or DC movie opening up, competing with Star Wars and Pixar sequels. All other movies will be relegated to Netflix.