Movie, Movie

I saw the Spider-Man movie again yesterday which is on tour as a double bill with Men In Black 2, acting as sort of a cinematic version of the old Marvel double books, you know, like Captain America and Iron Man, S.H.I.E.L.D. and Human Torch, etc. These two films also demonstrate the polar opposites of how comic book movies should be done.

I loved the original Men In Black. We all knew, although the general movie going public didn’t, that the movie was based on creator Lowell Cunningham’s original black and white comic, published Malibu Comics. I had never read the original book, and though Lowell tells me they made a great number of changes in it for the film, all the essential concepts where right in Lowell’s original. Although Lowell didn’t originate the concept of the Men in Black – it’s part of the mythic folklore of UFO aficionados - he created the entire framework for the characters and concepts that the movie folk used.

So, yeah, I loved the first film despite the fact that you couldn’t find the plot with an electron microscope and a map. In fact, if you buy the DVD, you’ll hear that the filmmakers themselves knew they hadn’t included a plot. On his commentary track, Director Barry Sonnenfeld reveals that once they realized the film wasn’t working in its initial form, they went back in editing and added in whatever little plot there was in two very short sequences, and they accomplished the feat without having to anything new. In the first sequence, when we saw the two aliens in the restaurant, Sonnenfeld simply changed the sub-titled dialogue the aliens were speaking.

The original conversation was about something completely different, but because it was done in subtitles, it was incredibly easy to turn it into a plot point conversation. The second part of the plot was revealed by simply re-recording new dialogue for the talking dog. They didn’t even have to worry much about what is called lip-flap, synching the sound to the dog’s mouth movements. Adding in the plot in this fashion was incredibly inexpensive as well as ingenious. It provided just enough story for us to feel we had a full movie plot experience.

Of course, the first M.I.B. worked primarily because the character relationship between Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith worked so well. They caught lightning in a bottle there. We cared about the movie because of them. Smith’s character, Agent Jay, was young and brash. Jones’ character, Agent Kay, was older and jaded. Their differences made us laugh. Smith’s outgoing personality played perfectly against Jones’ deadpan expressions.

But there was something else, too. Jay, despite being funny, was totally competent. Even before he met Kay, he was a good policeman. No, I’m wrong. He was a great one. Where other cops stood by, he leapt into action, chasing his perp and finally cornering him atop the Guggenheim museum. His skills were unmatched, which is why he was recruited into the M.I.B. organization. And Kay, despite his jaded demeanor, was his equal in every way. Kay may have known more about aliens on Earth, but, when you stripped them down to their basics, they were both the best there is.

Then there’s M.I.B. 2. It should have worked. Same actors. Same Director. Same fascinating world. Yet, somehow, in the five years between the two movies, the film makers forgot why the first film sizzled. The characters didn’t work together. They didn’t even act in character. They set up the story with Smith’s character, Jay, in the absence of Kay, burying himself in his work. Sitting in the audience I thought this was a great beginning. Jay had, in the intervening years, become Kay. A logical progression as he obviously couldn’t keep his wide-eyed look of surprise after meeting his six millionth alien. Other characters even commented on his relentless obsessions. This was great. We have a character arc going on here. Something to let our character grow from the first film.

Then everything went to hell. Jay went to find Kay and brought him back into the fold. Fine. But to do so for some reason they invalidated the longing Kay had for the love of his life from the original film. Yes, that love interest was revealed late in the first film, but by introducing it, it also helped create an instant back story for why Kay acted the way he did. Not only did he have to save the world from aliens week in and week out, but to do so he had to give up the woman he loved. He had to make the extreme sacrifice for the sake of the world at large.
Simply saying the two split up was the first sign that something was wrong with the sequel. There would have been no problem to have let him stay married and still bring him into the field. Heck, that would have added a small, yet easily solvable problem to deal with. Rather than deal with the character and make him grow, the filmmakers just decided to split Kay from the woman he loved so he could rejoin M.I.B. without outside entanglements. They took the simple road instead of using his situation to give life to the character. It wouldn’t have taken much, but it would have added a helluva lot.

Wouldn’t it have made Kay a more compelling character if he was still torn between the woman he loved and the world he had to save? Wouldn’t it have been stronger if there was something real to lose even as he had to save the world? In a movie like this we know up front he’s going to save the world, so that in itself brings no tension to the story. We needed that extra personal story. There was a melancholy note in the original film as we passed over the tabloid newspaper and saw the headline that said Kay had come out of his amnesiac coma and found his love. We felt he deserved his moment. The second film invalidated that feeling rather than use it to flesh out one of our heroes.

But that wasn’t the only problem. Did I miss the moment Agent Jay became an idiot? Was I paying more attention to my popcorn than the screen when Jay decided he no longer had to be intelligent? Ultra competent in the first film, once Kay was back in the picture, Jay became “the stupid side kick,” more Chris Tucker in anything than Will Smith. Jay was now the comedy relief character. Jones somehow knew more about the M.I.B. weapons than Jay – hadn’t they been improved in the intervening five years? Jones was more competent on the field. He instinctively knew exactly what to do – even before he got back his memory. Meanwhile, Smith’s character instigates nothing and instead follows dutifully behind, cracking a few lame jokes.

Lots of critics said the problem with the film was too much reliance on glitzy special effects. I think that’s a convenient whipping boy. If the character story was good, if we cared about what we were watching, then it wouldn’t matter how many special effects – and they all were excellent, by the way – there was in the film. Clearly, the problem with M.I.B. 2 is not in the plot, either – it’s as frivolous as the plot of the first film. No, the main problem is in the way the characters were handled. Character has to lead any story. Character has to move the plot forward. By not understanding what was done in the first film, the filmmakers undercut the reason they had first succeeded.

Another clear problem was the film’s lack of imagination. Yes, we saw all sorts of great aliens, snake tentacles, incredible visuals, and more, but instead of pushing the franchise, they simply repeated what they thought worked in the first film. If the worm guys were great for five seconds before, using them for five minutes would be that much funnier. If one talking dog sequence got us laughing, let’s make him a regular character. If it was funny to blow away Tony Shaloub’s head once, this time let’s blow it up twice.

Instead of simply repeating the first film, a movie franchise should introduce us to new wonders. We loved M.I.B. because we hadn’t seen those things before. Let’s see some new stuff. Oh, the dog should probably be in it for a moment or two, but let’s focus on something to make us want to see M.I.B. 3. Hadn’t we learned from the all too many appearances of that idiot Sheriff or Jaws from the James Bond movies, or the second appearance of Slimer in Ghostbusters 2? Did we forget how much we hated Joe Pesci’s character returning time and time again in Lethal Weapon?

Do we ignore how great The Empire Strikes Back was because they not only moved Luke, Leia and Han’s emotional stories forward but introduced so many new ideas at the same time? Sequels are difficult, but they shouldn’t simply replicate the same experience we’d already went through. It should remind us why we liked the first film, but then move the story and characters ahead. Sequels should make us realize there are so many new ideas in the franchise that we really want to see more stories set in that same universe. As it is, M.I.B. 2 revealed that they said all they had to say in M.I.B. 1. That shouldn’t have been the case.

Since the movie made a fortune it’s a foregone conclusion that there will be an M.I.B.3. Let’s hope they learn from their mistakes and work hard to take us in new directions and, at the same time, let these characters grow.

On the other hand, I’ve now seen Spider-Man three times. I don’t see many movies more than once these days. At least not in the theater. This film worked on almost every level.
Yes, the plot was light. But movies aren’t really about plot, they’re about emotion. So the fact that there is no specific plot in the film doesn’t really hurt the film. During the first half of the movie it’s about the Goblin wanting revenge, but once Osborn kills his board of directors, there really is no reason for him to continue. So for the second half of the movie, the plot changes to killing Spider-man. Why? Because why not?

Again, what made the original Men In Black work also works here. The characters are strong. Sam Raimi is a long time comic book fan. Specifically, a Spider-Man fan. I remember meeting him about ten years ago when the very thought of using the director of Evil Dead on a big budget movie would have gotten you laughed out of the room. But I liked his work. A lot. Especially on the third E.D. film. I also absolutely loved Darkman, which I thought was one of the best (non) comic book movies that had ever been done. Based on Darkman, I kept pushing DC to get him to direct the next Batman film. Imagine what Sam Raimi could have done with Two-Face?

At any rate, I met with Sam, ostensibly to pitch my comic book, The Man Called A•X. Having just moved to LA, and not knowing the Hollywood concept of a “meet and greet’ in which producers meet with you, not to hear a pitch but to see if they may want to work with you some time in the future, I followed my then agent’s advice and tried to talk about A•X. Sam, on the other hand, only wanted to talk about my run on Spider-Man. He had loved it and wanted to know how I saw Spidey, etc. So yes, Sam was a Spider-Man fan long before he would ever have been given the opportunity to work on any possible movie.

The movie Spider-man works because every character is compelling. Sam was able to walk the delicate line of doing a film about real people and yet maintaining complete fidelity to the inherent silliness of the comic. Hell, he even improved some of the stupider ideas from the original. I always had a problem with the Burglar Spidey meets at the wrestling match going from midtown Manhattan to Forest Hills, Queens in order to kill Uncle Ben. That somebody who would try to rob Madison Square garden would then take the F or E train to Forest Hills, wander the streets until they came to the Parker house and try to rob it, never made any sense to me. Fact is, it bothered me so much that I tried to explain it in my story for Spider-Man #200. I didn’t have the leeway to do what the movie people did –change the entire idea – but I did my best with what I was allowed to do.

The movie, however, made it work. Ben was only a few blocks from the Garden, sitting in his car, waiting for Peter. The burglar was running from the cops, saw Ben’s car idling in front of the library and he carjacked it to get away. That the car had Ben Parker in it is coincidental, yes, but it works. There is no major leap of logic here.

I also never bought that Peter could A: build the webshooters he made and design a super glue no corporate scientist could have come up with and B: design his costume. I could never fix either of those problems, but, frankly, I think the idea of bio-webbing works better than his webshooters anyway. There are so many silly things in Spider-Man (as well as with any super-hero) that it’s best to eliminate as many of those eyebrow raising moments as you can. Get into the story as fast as possible.

Spider-man works because we immediately care about Peter. Raimi has us care before we even see him because Peter’s voice over tells us the entire story we are about to see is about his love for Mary Jane. We are told up front that we’re not about to see a super-hero story, but a love story. It’s not about the incredible powers Peter Parker is about to get, it’s about a girl. It’s about his emotions.

Raimi and company hit that theme running (literally, since Peter’s racing for the school bus as we hear his voiceover) and he never lets us forget it. We care about Peter. We care about Aunt May. Uncle Ben.

And, for the first time ever, we even care about Mary Jane. Let’s face it, outside of being drop dead beautiful (thank you, Johnny Romita), why did we actually ever care about her? We only care about her because Peter was blown away the first time he saw her. But there was never anything inside her that actually make us care. We never saw her being a great person. Or an understanding person. Or even a funny person. She was just the pretty girl that Peter, for some reason – hormones probably – liked.

In the film, however, we see she is someone who is gorgeous, yes, and always smiling, of course, but her real life, her home life, is, simply put, terrible. She is every person who has had to pretend things were good when they weren’t, and because we see how bad her life is, we understand why she goes after all the jerks she gets involved with. We care about her, even in an underwritten part, because she is real.

Yes, Spider-Man the movie blows us away because Sam made us believe Spidey was actually web-slinging through the city. Every pose was directly out of Steve Ditko’s original (and I do mean original) portrayal. Hell, even having Green Goblin’s mask hanging from the chair was out of the original comics. Sam Raimi truly made the comic come alive in a way we have never seen before. But Spider-man works because we care. Because for whatever faults the plot itself may have, they didn’t short-shrift the emotional story. I’ve seen the film three times and I can’t wait for the DVD.

There were several other comic book films out this year. A good year for the industry, actually. Road to Perdition was not the hit it should have been, but I think poor marketing was responsible for that and not the film itself. It was sold as an art film instead of a character driven crime movie. Going genre would have helped, I think. All I can say is the movie is the Max Alan Collins graphic novel. When I asked Max about it he said he was hoping for a good movie but he got a great one. I completely concur. If you haven’t seen it and it’s still playing in your neighborhood, find the time and see it. It’s a strong story about a father and son caught up in a tragic situation that brings them together and us with them.

Blade 2 also came out this year. Since I created the original character, I get asked all the time what I think of the Blade movies. Yes, it’s great seeing my name up there filling a 70-foot movie screen. Yes, I believe I, as well as all those other ignored creators, should at least get royalties when our creations are turned into successful franchises (hi, Len). At the very least, the studios should have the courtesy to invite the creators to see a film that wouldn’t even exist, let alone make them millions of dollars, had we not created all the basic concepts in the first place. But, beyond that personal grievance, I actually can pay my nine bucks like everyone else to see something like Blade (or the upcoming Daredevil movie which prominently features my Bullseye character) and enjoy it on its own merits.

I loved the first Blade movie. It had problems at the end, but, if you see the DVD, you’ll know they had a different ending in mind that back then they couldn’t make work in special effects. Still, that Blade is 97% my Blade and I’m damn proud of it.

Blade 2 is different. I am very proud of it, yes. In many ways it’s a better movie than Blade 1. It’s a great kick-ass action/horror movie that doesn’t stop. Frankly, it may be one of the best vampire movies I’ve ever seen. But…

…what I’m about to say may sound like a creator complaining, but I assure you it isn’t. Blade 2 is a really good film, but it’s not a Blade film because the story was not about Blade. Blade didn’t have a personal stake (no pun intended) in the story. It wasn’t about him. He had no personal interest in it. He was simply along for the ride.

I happen to like David Goyer’s writing. A lot. Dark City rules! His first Blade was sweet. His comic book work is really great. And though I don’t know him well, in every conversation I’ve had with him he has always been encouraging as well as a supreme gentleman. I wish I knew him better. But I think David missed the mark here by not making Blade vital to the story and making the story vital to Blade.

Goyer, and Director Guillermo Del Toro, chose to do a Dirty Dozen story about a team rather than one man. They wisely elected not to repeat what was done in the first film (see my comments on M.I.B. 2 above) and instead explored new territory. But I think the movie needed to be about something that was important to Blade on a personal basis. Blade went along for the ride not because the super-vampires introduced in this story affected him in any way – he didn’t even know they existed - but because they were new vampires to kill.

I don’t think it would have taken much to give him a personal motivation that could have driven the film beyond the incredible action. As it is, the story is about the plot and not about the character of Blade. If there’s any weakness in it, I think a film called Blade should be about Blade. If it had been called “Vampires Attack,” featuring Blade, I would have no reservations about it at all.

I do have a minor quibble with the story because it’s a plot I had done myself. I’m pretty positive Goyer never saw my Spider-Man/Blade team-up (I don’t think anybody did), but that story was about Blade discovering a coven of vampires trying to create super-vampires who could walk in daylight. I, too, tried to combine gothic horror and science fiction and I failed, miserably. The main difference between the movie and comic (and there are a lot of differences, believe me) is that the super-vampires needed Blade to make their scheme work, because they needed his half human / half vampire blood to turn them into super-vampires. That story has the distinction of hands down being the worst Blade story I ever did, but, if I can say anything good about it, at least Blade was absolutely integral to the concept. That story hinged on Blade being there. The movie story, when it comes down to it, didn’t.

On the other hand, as I said above, Blade 2 is, in many ways, a much better film than Blade 1. The story really rocks. The direction is excellent and controlled. The look is sharp. Ultimately, if you don’t think of it as a Blade movie, then it easily is one of the very best vampire movies ever done. I’m proud to have my character in it, and Goyer and Del Toro made a wonderful film. Even if I don’t get a penny from it, I urge you to see it on DVD.

Speaking of which, Guillermo very kindly sent me a copy of the Blade 2 DVD. Thanks, Guillermo. I, along with Wolverine and Swamp Thing creator, Len Wein, had dinner with Guillermo and Mike Mignola a week or so before Comicon International. Guillermo and Mike were going to be heading off soon to Prague to scout locations for their upcoming Hellboy movie. Guillermo is a great guy and he absolutely loves comics. I think he went out to make a big, fun, comic book movie with Blade 2 and though I can find fault with the film in some places, I believe he succeeded completely in his goal. Blade 2 is fun. I can’t wait to see Hellboy.

***

For those asking about the focus group questions, tallying them is taking longer than I anticipated. I’ve been bogged down with work lately – editing graphic novel ‘bibles’ for Platinum Entertainment – but I will finish it off soon as I can.

That’s it for this week. See you all in seven.
-Marv Wolfman

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