Sunday, May 28, 2006

Superhero movies: why can't Hollywood learn?

Had to happen: the much-awaited X-Men 3 came out, and I was determined to see it. I'm a big X-Men fan from the 80's, and comic book fan, overall. I wanted to see this one, and have even had the Konfabulator Widget for it counting down. The preview? Stunning. The clips I've seen? Looked to be the right stuff. A winning franchise, a winning formula right?

As usual, Hollywood grows complacent with their success. X-Men 3, on paper, was great: great action, lots of characters, and a really interesting story line (the government finds a "cure" for mutants; do they want to be cured?). Add in an even bigger budget, Oscar winners, and a huge effects scene. But this time, Brett Ratner directs. What does it add up to? A fun night, but no real winner.

Why can't Hollywood learn? When it comes to superhero films, it's a hard enough balance to suspend disbelief. What have been the elements of the truly successful ones? Think about it: the director, who comes from a proven success in independent film making to give a whole new vision.

In most of the above, the director helped write, cast, and set the visual tone of the film. They come from a world of no rules, so they cast aside preconceptions. X-Men 3? Brett Ratner, who's fame comes from music videos and the Rush Hour Jackie Chan/Chris Tucker vehicles. Yes, he's made some gems (Red Dragon was good, as was After the Sunset), but X-Men 3? The lack of risk showed: all the requisite ingredients, with not a good cook, do not a great meal make.

Contrast that with what was playing on HBO when I came home, Batman Begins. Christopher Nolan, of Memento fame, took a whole new look at Batman and made it an incredible film. When I saw it in the theater, I said it was the only thing that could make Tim Burton's Batman look like the Adam West series: it was that original.

Now we have Ghost Rider coming. Previews look great, but Mark Steven Johnson is directing. I know Daredevil was not a commercial success, but I thought he did a great job with the character, the effects, and the movie...but again, hard to suspend disbelief. And don't get me started on Electra...even though my old classmate wrote it, it was still hard to watch. With Ghost Rider, it's a hard character to bring to the screen. It needs more than just a formulaic director. Why not reach into the indies, and get a director who can tap into the evil contract of this character? I can hope it's good, but...

Hollywood needs to learn: these characters are already bigger than life. Adding more explosions or effects will not make this be the film it needs to be. Look at Bryan Singer's upcoming Superman Returns; that focuses on Superman, the man, not the cape and boots. Get a great innovative director, surround them with a world-class character actor team, and get a script that works. Don't be afraid to risk it; Frank Miller brought comics Batman, Daredevil, and Sin City; when Hollywood had him write Robocop 2, they cut the edgy parts that had made Robocop such a success. When he was given free reign in Sin City, the results were box office gold.

Look, Hollywood: we have endless entertainment choices today. After years of parody and neglect, you are finally focusing of characters and stories ripe for the big screen: superheroes. Do it right, take the risk, and watch it payoff. Don't give us Catwoman or Electra: give us passionate directors who feel the characters, and let them work.

We want to like you; let us.

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