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Superhero Blandness
#1
Patrick Willems just posted a new video about "Learning To Appreciate Schumacher's Batman", and it brought up something that is too specific for the Film Critic thread and broad enough to touch on more than either the DC or Marvel-centric threads, so let's just do a new one.  The video is fine, nothing much that we around here have not seen tossed around a bunch already; basically, now that we have so many other and more serious superhero movies to contrast them with, the garish silliness of the "Schumacherverse" feels like less of an outrage than a frivolous, oddly refreshing, novelty. 

Which okay, it doesn't make me actually want to watch them any more, but the reevaluation once the "threat" of this one very goofy take defining the idea of Batman or superheroes generally in the eyes of the public/Hollywood has passed makes sense.  But Willems also leans heavily on the bromide about superhero movies being generic studio product, and therefore any distinctive stamp a director is able to put on one is a blessing to be celebrated, but...are they, though?

Putting aside whether a unique mess is really preferable to well-executed formula*, as I saw all the clips of movies the video was referencing, I was struck by how few of them were actually bland formulaic exercises.  Burton's Batman movies obviously came up, but those are definitely Tim Burton movies.  Nolan's trilogy is obviously in its own mold, even if it's one that became immediately imitated in a lot of other contexts.  As dreadful as BvS is, it is Zach Snyder's disaster through and through, even moreso than Man Of Steel. Ang Lee's Hulk obviously has a lot more on its mind than pushing shamrock shake tie-ins. Raimi's Spiderman films are colorful tonal mash-ups that bear his distinctive stamp for better and occasionally worse.  I never saw Suicide Squad, but it's purported badness looks neither bland nor generic from a distance.  The X-Men franchise has sort of slouched over into blandness on two separate occasions, but both Singer's original duology and Vaughn's First Class represented fresh takes at the time of release.  Even the MCU, the widget factory that forces every qualifiied filmmaker to bend to its tyrannical, Mouse-Approved design, has still found room for 1) a full blown Shane Black movie, 2) a more-or-less full blown James Gunn movie or two, 3) Coogler's afro-futurist breakthrough, and 4) Taika Waititi turning in a Thor movie that is almost as much of a spoof as Batman Forever (while being much funnier).  On top of which, even the voice that has become so familiar as the "MCU's" is really pretty much just Joss Whedon's, who was more of a cult figure when he was tapped to shape what would become, in hindsight, THE TEMPLATE.  

That's not to say that there aren't plenty of listless Daredevils and Green Lanterns and Thomas Jane Punisher and Fanastics Four out there, but there are also Punisher: War Zones and Blade trilogies and again not having seen it, I don't think The Phantom looks all that generic from a distance.  So I guess the question is, where did the idea of superhero movies being anathema to artistic expression take root?  And is it actually harder to make a distinctive superhero flick than a distinctive disaster movie, or romcom, or buddy cop movie, or space opera or musical biopic or slasher or whatever other genre that has a particular formula?


*which I think is a matter of taste, largely determined by how much time you have to devote to a particular genre, and thus become bored with its defining tropes
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#2
I’m pretty sure the “superhero movies are bland” thing came about with marvel’s success with the genre as a whole making such movies so non-stop plentiful (at least creating the perception of such product saturation)

and no matter how much different voices one tries to apply to these movies, they all end up being pretty similar because there are the usual checklist of beats that need to be hit with a few touches of individuality here and there.

Basically, what the last line of your post says

Though, I think a lot of the movies you listed (Burton’s Batmen, Ang Lee’s Hulk, Raimi’s Spidermen) were actually movies Willems was praising for NOT feeling like ‘template cinema’
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#3
I've usually assumed the "bland" charge comes from, primarily, the flat house visual style* that infects much of the MCU post first Avengers, and from the MCU's struggle to provide many of its heroes (and "solo" films) with memorable, hero-defining villains. Both of these things detract from any distinctiveness the director brings otherwise. ANT-MAN AND THE WASP seems like a perfect example of this: visually uninspired and villains that leave no impression (despite casting Walton goddamn Goggins as one of them).

SUICIDE SQUAD is quite bland: every element in the movie (visual, plot, character beat, etc.) is wholesale borrowed from other films and never repurposed with a life of its own, right down to the WE MUST CLOSE THE GLOWING PORTAL IN THE SKY ending.


*Which Willems himself has discussed and recognized!
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#4
(07-26-2019, 01:12 PM)Nooj Wrote: they all end up being pretty similar because there are the usual checklist of beats that need to be hit with a few touches of individuality here and there.

Bingo. How many times have we seen Peter Parker bitten by the spider, or Martha Wayne's pearls hit the concrete?
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#5
WHY DID YOU SAY THAT NAME?!

(07-26-2019, 12:31 PM)schwartz Wrote: And is it actually harder to make a distinctive superhero flick than a distinctive disaster movie, or romcom, or buddy cop movie, or space opera or musical biopic or slasher or whatever other genre that has a particular formula?

In theory it shouldn't be - formula is formula, and making it fresh is essentially challenging regardless of the specifics. I suspect it's more challenging only in terms of the stakes (every studio wants their funny book movie to earn a billion dollars) and technical aspects.

I suspect if it is more difficult, it's not because of the formula itself or the story elements. I suspect it's because of studio fuckery and the above elements.
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#6
(07-26-2019, 01:12 PM)Nooj Wrote: and no matter how much different voices one tries to apply to these movies, they all end up being pretty similar because there are the usual checklist of beats that need to be hit with a few touches of individuality here and there.

I don't see why supehero movies are (or should be) any more rigid than other genres, though.  Although the thing about the floor of "success" being so many hundreds of millions higher than a slasher or biopic's probably does lead to more rigid studio oversight.  Although...


Quote:Though, I think a lot of the movies you listed (Burton’s Batmen, Ang Lee’s Hulk, Raimi’s Spidermen) were actually movies Willems was praising for NOT feeling like ‘template cinema’

He was, but it just got me thinking about just how many easy counter-examples I could rattle off without thinking about it.  And between Burton and Nolan's (and even Schumacher and Snyder's) Batmen, Raimi's Spiderman, the original X-men, even Blade to a degree, it seemed like almost all the major touchstones of genre actually do have distinctive styles and artistic imprimaturs, which led me to wonder where exactly this idea that the opposite is the norm sprouted from.

Is it just the MCU?  I still find that a bit odd, since I think there is a fair bit of diversity within that sphere (First Avenger and Black Panther and Ragnarok are very different looking and feeling movies), and at a minimum a handful of movies that bear their director's creative stamp to a greater degree than, say, the average Bond or Fast And Furious entry.

Also, for as much as Marvel is known for endless homogeniety, the Netflix series had their own look and feel that was very different from the films, and they also have their name on Legion, which is the most wildly (often obnoxiously so) creative "superhero" story you can put on a screen.
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#7
Phase 1 of the MCU was anything but bland. IRON MAN, CAPTAIN AMERICA, THOR, and THE INCREDIBLE HULK all had distinctive palettes and tones, though they didn't (for the most part) feel disjointed or disconnected. (And yes, TIH isn't much of a movie but nonetheless contains striking visuals and isn't all concrete and flattened colors.)

IRON MAN 2, while part of Phase 1, was the herald of things to come; WINTER SOLDIER and DARK WORLD solidified it. ULTRON does nothing to distinguish itself visually or tonally. (And that's with me personally ranking WINTER SOLDIER as one of the best MCU films. It's competently shot but not distinctive.)

We talk about GOTG, RAGNAROK and BLACK PANTHER for a reason; they're the exceptions/anomalies. (I'm leaving out GOTG2 here because while it's certainly colorful I don't think it has the panache or visual coherence of the first film.)

INFINITY WAR breaks away from the Russo's grey and flat color schemes with a lot of beautifully composed and colored scenes and shots.
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#8
Seems like blandness isn’t the issue as opposed to something like “staleness”. Even the DCU is the same, it was all gritty now it’s just off cycle MCU. The Netflix shows were all similar to each other if not the MCU.

The genre could use a shake up that is organic to film. Hopefully The Joker rocks the boat. But if it just pushes the genre into edge town you’re just shuffling deck chairs.

Maybe classifying Superhero’s as a genre is bad? It’s kind of like calling Westerns cowboy movies. That might not make sense but it’s my post! Could you just have superheroes without the tropes/baggage? Seems like Marvel might try that with their Disney+ shows.

Superheroes also have some of the worst stubborn mule fans around so good luck innovating.
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#9
(07-26-2019, 02:36 PM)schwartz Wrote:
(07-26-2019, 01:12 PM)Nooj Wrote: and no matter how much different voices one tries to apply to these movies, they all end up being pretty similar because there are the usual checklist of beats that need to be hit with a few touches of individuality here and there.

I don't see why supehero movies are (or should be) any more rigid than other genres, though.  Although the thing about the floor of "success" being so many hundreds of millions higher than a slasher or biopic's probably does lead to more rigid studio oversight.  Although...

pretty much what you said

the willems guy made a video about how stale/rigid the music biopic is as well

people brush off (or glom onto) lots of 'traditional action movies' for the same reason too.  if the 90s Disney renaissance had happened today, it would get a similar kind of blowback to its basic fairy-tale-musical template.  I think the saturation of CG animated movies also has a similar response.

I think the paradox is that while there are so many different kinds of superheroes, when it comes to making big budget live-action versions of them, the way Marvel has succeeded is through a very smart mix of template and superficial dressings of various colors.  But the basic armature on which all of it rests is still the same.

Which is what makes Black Panther so frustrating for me.  It's a compelling drama on top of being a massive leap in terms of superhero representation in front of and behind the camera... but it's still obligated to have a fairly generically executed three-pronged action finale that oversimplifies the villain's stance.  And almost all of these movies end up needing to end that way regardless of the work done to create a 'compelling villain' or not.

Lots of these movies do make attempts to feel different from one another, but the end result usually just ends up feeling about the same to me.  And that is obviously, partly by design.  And then highly publicized stories about directors like Edgar Wright and Patti Jenkins being hired and then fired exacerbate the narrative.

Superhero movies currently being the world-beaters also just makes them a much bigger target... and hindsight and the lack of expectations gives us the leeway to be 'kinder' to the Schumacher movies, which have a look that people may not like, but certainly haven't forgotten.

And then there's my general disappointment with the professional but very generic look/feel/construction of modern studio movies (and not just superhero movies) to begin with.  Most of the fancy stuff ends up looking like it's all VFX.  The actual footage of actors on location often feel very samey in their bland/muted aesthetics even when they're trying to look colorful.  I can watch THOR RAGNAROK and GUARDIANS and see that there's a lot of colorful work in it... but in the end it doesn't FEEL particularly colorful in actuality.

(I've already made posts with screencaps from various marvel movies before to make this point)
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#10
I'd say that THE PHANTOM belongs to the now-dead "fedora fantasy" cycle of the 1980s / 90s, which includes THE SHADOW, Burton's BATMAN, DARK CITY, DARKMAN, THE MASK, WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT, CAST A DEADLY SPELL, BLADE RUNNER, ROCKETEER, and its last gasp, SKY CAPTAIN & THE WORLD OF TOMORROW. Y'know, period film noir trappings mashed into science fiction. Most of 'em took a crap at the box office, with a couple notable exceptions.
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#11
What about the first Thor movie?

With all those Dutch angles?
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#12
I've long suspected that the narratives about blandness, or of there being something uniquely generic about works in this specific genre, were largely being pushed into the dialogue by people who were still waiting for their big break into directing movies that pay as much these do. The studios either want a proven hand or they want a greenhorn who they can control, and despite the flood of content in the genre right now there's still a finite supply of opportunities for each. The role of the frustrated filmmaker (we all knew a few here, when the board was busier) in shaping the discourse is a part of the story that we shouldn't overlook if we want a complete picture, I think.

Not that I want to derail the conversation by dwelling on just that. Bringing up the western/cowboy genre is an apt point, given how the low cost of location shooting in Arizona, Nevada, and southern California allowed that genre to completely dominate TV and film at one point. It was a genre that quickly developed a lot of tropes as successes would get imitated, and there was a lot of crap churned out over the years, but odd pieces of genuine art would still crop up from time to time. We could possibly have the same conversation about rom-coms or musicals.
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#13
(07-29-2019, 10:53 AM)Reasor Wrote: I've long suspected that the narratives about blandness, or of there being something uniquely generic about works in this specific genre, were largely being pushed into the dialogue by people who were still waiting for their big break into directing movies that pay as much these do.  The studios either want a proven hand or they want a greenhorn who they can control, and despite the flood of content in the genre right now there's still a finite supply of opportunities for each.  The role of the frustrated filmmaker (we all knew a few here, when the board was busier) in shaping the discourse is a part of the story that we shouldn't overlook if we want a complete picture, I think.

Not that I want to derail the conversation by dwelling on just that.   Bringing up the western/cowboy genre is an apt point, given how the low cost of location shooting in Arizona, Nevada, and southern California allowed that genre to completely dominate TV and film at one point.  It was a genre that quickly developed a lot of tropes as successes would get imitated, and there was a lot of crap churned out over the years, but odd pieces of genuine art would still crop up from time to time.  We could possibly have the same conversation about rom-coms or musicals.

That's a whole can of worms on its own, but I do have very little patience when "reviewers" are clearly coming from a place where their own frustrated ambitions are the driver of their reactions.  Not because they aren't entitled to their own perspective, but because they so rarely seem to acknowledge the effect it so clearly has on that perspective.  It crops up in movie podcasts fairly regularly, and I'm not going to take personal shots at posters that aren't here anymore, but yeah we've had a few that came off less as refined cineastes fed up with Hollywood blandness than jilted lovers that couldn't bring themselves to unfollow the Instagram of the popular girl they dated for a minute like seven years ago.
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#14
Having now actually watched the referenced video, I think my responses above weren't really on point (though still valid).

Going back to the final question of Schwartz's original post:


Quote:And is it actually harder to make a distinctive superhero flick than a distinctive disaster movie, or romcom, or buddy cop movie, or space opera or musical biopic or slasher or whatever other genre that has a particular formula?

I think my answer is no, it's not any harder. 

But I think the key is whether a studio allows a film to be its own thing, without being overly (or at all) beholden to an ongoing continuity and franchise.

I think one of the reasons that LOGAN and DEADPOOL stood out, aside from their R rating, was how different they felt from the MCU or many of DC's attempts. Same for films like SIN CITY, SCOTT PILGRIM, CONSTANTINE, WANTED, and DREDD. (And I'm trying to give examples of films made either during the reign of the MCU or close to it.) 

Hell, even Nolan's Batman films differ significantly from each other. It was a common talking point of the contrast in tone and world shown in BEGINS vs TDK.

That blandness in the MCU of course is considered a feature, not a bug, as the dependable sameness is comforting to mass audiences who can get something new that's actually more of the same. (And I say that as someone who really likes a hefty chunk of the MCU, including little-loved entries such as DOCTOR STRANGE and ANT-MAN.)

Nothing new or brilliant here - but if we're talking about blandness over and above surface-level visual style and presentation, than the real culprit seems to be the desire to create and sustain an ongoing cinematic universe with fairly consistent tone and content.
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#15
I really don't see the Marvel sameness as blandness but then, I'm a simpler creature. Considering the amount of fealty these movies have to have with each other to maintain continuity, I think these movies actually get away with a lot more flair than they're given credit for.

But if I was Kevin Feige, I'd make John Carpenter an offer he couldn't refuse to come out of retirement to make Doctor Strange 2. That kind of thing is my dream..
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#16
I'd always wanted John Carpenter's CLOAK AND DAGGER.

"Thanks a bunch, Freeform."

(I actually hear it's good, though?)
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