Friday, 29 June 2012

Spiderman Returns: In Defence of Reboots

The Amazing Spiderman is out on Tuesday, and while it continues to receive mainly good reviews, currently scoring 79 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes, a central problem that many have had leading up to its release is its similarity to Sam Raimi's 2002 take on the origin of Spidey. Reboots have become a regular fixture of blockbuster season, with Mark Webb's new Spiderman next month, followed quickly by Christopher's Nolan's concluding chapter of his Batman reboot (which is sure to be rebooted itself within the next few years), before a new version of Total Recall is released in August. 2009 saw a re-worked version of Star Trek, which with some time-travelling trickery managed to tick the boxes of sequel, prequel and reboot, ensuring big bucks at the box office. Next year we'll get to watch Zack Snyder butcher Superman in The Man of Steel, Supes' second reboot in six years after Bryan Singer's underrated Superman Returns, and there are rumours of a Green Lantern reboot following last year's disappointing effort. 

With Zack Snyder at the helm,
can the new Superman possibly be any good?
As The Amazing Spiderman  demonstrates, reboots are often greeted with wearied groans and accusations of creative laziness and inertia. In many instances, this is true: do we really need another Spidey origin tale so soon after Raimi's version? Why do we need to see Superman fight Zod after he already beat him in 1980's superb Superman II? However, I argue that many reboots are full of new ideas, or at least improve upon old ones. Possibly the best example of this is the film that in many ways is responsible for the term reboot: Batman Begins. Batman Begins is a reboot rather than a remake, in the sense that it tells Batman's origin story without replicating the plot in Tim Burton's 1989 version. Of course, those films share unavoidable story beats, like the murder of Bruce Wayne's parents, and recurrent themes like fear, obsession and trauma. But their stylistic approaches and overall narratives are wildly different. The same can be said about JJ Abram's Star Trek reboot, which is successful for the singular reason that it distances itself so greatly from the rest of the franchise. Abram's approach really did mean that this was not your father's Trek. Rather than stifling creativity, Abram's and Nolan's films were two of the most original and exciting blockbusters of the last ten years, precisely because they were reboots. Moreover, who would complain at the 2008 reboot of The Incredible Hulk? Flawed, yes, but a vast improvement on Ang Lee's tedious 2003 attempt at bringing the Hulk to the big screen. In this instance, the reboot serves as a pseudo-sequel, clearly set in a different continuity, but continuing and expanding upon Bruce Banner's story, rather than simply repeating it. 

Without a reboot, this horrifying spectacle would have been the last Batman film.
What I find particularly interesting about the main objections to reboots is that they are the same as those levelled at remakes, which despite their similarities, are very different beasts. By definition, a remake attempts to tell the same story over again, either with minor or major modifications. In contrast, reboots often (though not always) try to tell new stories using characters and scenarios that already exist in the popular consciousness. Comic books have been at this sort of thing for decades, so it's no surprise that it's comic book adaptations that are the franchises being rebooted seemingly ad infinitum. I think a lot of the disapprobation levelled at reboots stems from a confusion over reboots and remakes: there continue to be plenty of rushed, badly thought out remakes that are for some reason labelled as reboots. Last year's Conan the Barbarian is one example, as is the above mentioned Total Recall. Neither of these are really reboots because they are essentially telling the same stories as their originals. Clearly, rebooted franchises are just as susceptible to poor writing, generic direction and stunt casting as any other type of blockbuster, but if reboots are poor it's not because they're reboots: it's because they're crap, just like loads of other crap films that weren't reboots. With tripe like Battleship or Transformers: Dark of the Moon clogging up multiplex screens, it can often feel as if creativity in Hollywood has ground to a halt, but this is not the result or fault of the modern reboot. In fact, reboots frequently offer opportunities to inject vitality into otherwise moribund franchises: we only need to look as far as Star Trek, not to mention the brilliant Bond reboot, Casino Royale, to see the staggeringly positive effects they can have on film series. If we abandon reboots, we have to abandon Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, Star Trek, the best bond since Sean Connery, and while we're at it, the best parts of The Avengers. At their best, reboots do what remakes can't by offering new stories and perspectives on familiar concepts. In one respect, reboots conceptually function as an ideal cinema, by making the familiar unfamiliar. Of course, reboots don't necessarily always attain that level of originality, but to level accusations of creative narcolepsy at a film simply because it's a reboot misses the creative potential of reboots altogether. When Spiderman opens on Tuesday, if it fails (and fail it might), it won't be because it's a reboot. If anything, it's got that in its favour.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Where Does He Get Those Wonderful Toys: The Magnificent Tramp Returns!

Well, it's been almost three whole months since I last updated, but here I am, with about a dozen things I want to talk about. And when I say a dozen, I mean two. Can you guess what they are? Well, one of them is a science fiction film full of Freudian psycho-sexual imagery, and the other one's about Alien. This one will be a clearing away of some of the things I've wanted to post about since April but haven't got around to. It won't be one hundred per cent cohesive, but that's okay because it will all be one hundred per cent fascinating:

1) Prometheus
Prometheus: I GET IT RIDLEY
I suppose this is the big one (and by one, I mean disappointment, and by big, I mean baffling). Everything relevant about Ridley Scott's latest has already been said at this point, particularly herehere, and especially here, so I'm not going to waste time repeating the same observations. Suffice it to say, as it's a Ridley Scott sci fi film it looks gorgeous, but the plot doesn't make a lick of sense, the characters are too numerous and for the most part terribly written and developed, the ending was stupid, and the score was generic, out of place and boring. There has been debate over whether Prometheus' incoherence is the fault of Scott or with the film's writer, Damon Lindelof, but I think they're equally culpable, and many of Scott and Lindelof's recurring problems with narrative coherence and focus surface in this film. To the film's apologists: I really couldn't care less about your lists of  classical and religious references that the film makes. Yes, everyone knows who Prometheus was. Yes, we've heard Ridley say that Jesus was a space jockey (seriously, check it out). I don't care. References to other texts without context or internal logic are meaningless. Grafting cultural imagery on to a film which is fundamentally broken (and boy, is Prometheus broken) will not fix its problems, nor will it imbue the film with any Deep Meaning if there's no meaning in the first place. References only work to enhance meaning in texts, not to add it where it is otherwise missing, and any sense of internal logic or cohesive sub-text is sorely lacking in Prometheus. And to the feeble defence that the sequel will answer all the unanswered questions I say simply this: that's too late for me - I go to the cinema to see a complete film, not an extended trailer for a sequel that may never arrive anyway. Even if it does, will it explain why nobody seems to care when people die? Or that Shaw violently cuts out a horrible squid-monster baby? Or why Charlize couldn't run left? Or a bazillion other crazy behaviours the 'characters' of Prometheus exhibit? No, no it won't so please just admit that it was all a big disappointment and get on with your lives.

2) Batman!
Joel Schumacher:
The bane of Batman's life, geddit?!
And by get on with your lives I mean career with reckless abandon into a new swirl of excitement and anticipation over the other most-hyped film of the year, Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises. I initially wanted to do a retrospective on all the theatrical Batman movies leading up to TDKR release, but since MovieBob has reached into my mind and nicked my wholly original and not predictable at all idea, I'll just do this little paragraph instead, and maybe something in a couple of weeks on some of the lesser-known / celebrated Bat-flicks. If Nolan pulls this one off, he'll be the first director to have ever made a good superhero / comic book threequel. Spiderman; Superman; er, Batman: all have stumbled at the third block, despite their strong first and second outings. Sure, Matthew Vaughn's X-Men: First Class means that we now have three good X-Men films, and despite a mixed reception I've always liked Bryan Singer's problematic but interesting Superman Returns which acts as a sort of alternative Superman III but with less Richard Pryor. But no one has yet managed to make three consecutive, quality superhero films based on the same character and the same universe. There are multiple reasons for this, but the major one is the studios changing a good director for a shit one in the third instalment. This happened with Superman III (Richard Donner to Richard Lester), the 90s Batman Forever (Tim Burton to Joel Schumacher), and X-Men: The Last Stand (Bryan Singer to Brett Fucking Ratner). I call this phenomenon the Third Movie Dick Move, or TMDM for short. Interestingly, Warner Bros. seems to have pre-empted the TMDM by giving the director's chair in their new Superman: Man of Steel franchise to the Boy Who Never Grew Up, Zack Snyder, whilst relegating old man Chris Nolan to Producer.

My emo sense is tingling: A silly fringe doth not a conflicted hero make
Spiderman 3, although retaining Sam Raimi as director, repeated the other faux pas of the comic book prequel: cramming. What is especially frustrating about Spiderman 3 is that there is a good movie in there somewhere, but it is clogged up with unfunny humour, adolescent whining (admittedly a hallmark of the franchise as a whole), pointless romantic sub-plots, wasted villains and a baffling soap-opera amnesia gimmick that disable the most interesting and well-developed character in the whole fucking franchise for almost the entire running time. And it's these sorts of problems that I worry about for next month's release, The Dark Knight Rises, particularly with regard to the glut of characters. Not only do we have the returning players of Bruce Wayne, Alfred, Lucius Fox, Commissioner Gordon and new villain Bane, but also rookie cop John Blake, Catwoman and Marion Cotillard. Cotillard is listed as playing a character named Miranda Tate, but is widely rumoured to have really been cast as Batman's long-time love interest / antagonist Talia Al Ghul, daughter of Batman Begins' R'as, who was played by Liam Neeson in that film, and who, by the way, is also rumoured to return in TDKR. Phew. So that's a roster of nine, if not ten, major characters, on top of an extensive supporting cast. Admittedly, Nolan is very good with ensemble pieces; his last effort Inception, did a superb job of juggling a large central cast, and his ability to cast actors for the right roles is one his major strengths. Still, those niggling fears of an overstuffed script linger at the back of my mind, and I worry that Cotillard's (not to mention Neeson's) presence in particular may just tip the scales a little too much.

It's unrealistic to expect TDKR to repeat the magic of 2008's The Dark Knight. That film was one of the best action films since Raiders of the Last Ark, one of the best crime films since Heat, and without question the best comic book film ever made. The problem is escalation: Batman Begins gave us a great origin tale; The Dark Knight came back with a great villain in Heath Ledger's monumental Joker. The one mistake that the third film must avoid is to attempt that escalation. Rather, while keeping up the excitement, it absolutely needs to retain the examinations character that underpin, and beautifully conclude, both BB and TDK. The Dark Knight Rises can't possibly hope to replicate the exhilarating success of its predecessor, but if we're lucky it might, just might, be able to follow it with a full and satisfying conclusion. Here's hoping.