If it's crap ... We'll tell you
Despite the natural conclusions one might draw from seeing my room, I've become bored of superheroes in my (legally) adult years. I recognize that this is more due to the post-Hollywood shift in goals for the genre rather than a shift in overall quality. While the films--and even the comics nowadays--focus the inherent scale increase that comes with super-powered protagonists toward visceral entertainment value, I've always been attracted to the science-fiction aspects that originated heroes like the Human Torch and Namor in Marvel Mystery Comics but have been surgically separated from the genre since.
With the new film trailers for fellow Marvel properties Captain America and Thor, the majority of superhero fans have rejoiced for what seems like Marvel's return to sensible priorities after disasters like Iron Man 2, which couldn't quite balance the stories of the individual films with the studio's franchise-fastened ambitions. While I won't contend with that point, as the trailers do look entertaining in their own right, I still don't feel that Marvel will deliver on thematic potential that I personally look for in superhero stories. The original Iron Man, for example, was set in modern times where Tony Stark's self-made suit served as a metaphor for weapons manufacturing and used Tony's journey to touch on industrial responsibility in this matter. Captain America: The First Avenger, however, is set during WWII, where the eponymous lead's role as a military weapon is less vital because the villains, i.e. Red Skull and the Nazi regime, are as objectively evil as they come; hence the movie will likely concentrate on, as the director himself said, the "flat-out fun[ness]," "great action," and "entertainment value," which is not my cup of tea*, especially for the Captain America character, whom has plenty of alternative, thematically savory rivals, such as the Winter Soldier.
The one recent development that both the general fanboy community and I frowned upon is the departure of director Darren Aronofsky from The Wolverine, the much-hyped--mostly thanks to Aronofsky's attachment--reboot of the character that 20th Century Fox executives destroyed with X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Where I once again part ways with the community is in optimism toward the film, which I retain but they have replaced with collective apathy. In the case of the Marc Webb-headed Spider-Man reboot we switch sides. I'll admit the emerging details of that adaptation, like the finished costume and casting, have been more reassuring than The Wolverine's, but I still couldn't care less about the film's fate when stacked next to that of the X-Men franchise's. In fact, I'd go as far as to equate the decision to reboot Spider-Man with one of Fox's deservedly maligned ones.
There's a reason that I never trust the IMDb to determine which superhero films I should see. At the time of my writing this, X-Men Origins: Wolverine's user score sits higher than Spider-Man 3 (6.7 versus 6.4 comparatively.) I repeat: the LEOG's unanimously declared Worst Superhero Film Ever, X-Men Origins: Wolverine sits higher than Leon's favorite film ever, Spider-Man 3.** The latter film's mistakes which probably led to this travesty have been well-documented, so I'm going to take the next bit to discuss its underrated triumphs.
To start, for a script that has reportedly gone through so many alterations, writing partners/brothers Sam and Ivan Raimi along with Alvin Sargent find the perfect comic book arc from which to extract the most drama for the third film: the symbiote saga. Spider-Man 2 still holds up as a brave effort for taking Peter Parker down to his famous The Amazing Spider-Man Issue #50 slump and also allowing him a happy ending with Mary Jane instead of retaining the darkness that is so common with first sequels following The Empire Strikes Back. While Peter was no stranger to fucking up everything good in his life, I think it was an intriguing, if not rewarding, choice to start Spider-Man 3 with Peter and Mary Jane's relationship soaring, only to have the force that separates the two be something almost out of Peter's control entirely.*** Besides the atrocious jazz dance number, I also think the black suit was handled well. Peter's super powers as a channel for his suppressed animosity were quickly snatched away in the first film, after Uncle Ben was murdered, and have since been associated with responsibility and self-control. The black suit removed such convictions and allowed Peter that same freewheeling feeling he initially had during that inaugural rooftop jump in Spider-Man, thus bringing the plotline back full circle.
More fascinating yet was the unexpected success of Topher Grace's performance as Eddie Brock. I've long held the opinion that he and his That 70's Show co-star Laura Prepon would've made the perfect Peter & MJ (though I realize the corniness of that proposition) so it shocked me that much further that Grace was being cast to play a headstrong**** villain like Venom.***** But Raimi's choice to accentuate Brock's weaselly nature fit Grace perfectly, especially for Venom's limited role in the film. Many argue that Venom felt like a shoe-in because he wasn't involved enough; but I'd argue that Sandman fit closer to that description once you consider with the desperateness of that explanation of his involvement in Uncle Ben's death. Eddie Brock's motivation for wanting Peter dead was weak--as shown by his literally going to church after Peter told him "get religion" if he wanted forgiveness--so killing him off at the end was necessary and totally awesome. While there was a chance that Brock's weakness could be exploited in a subsequent film similar to Faith's heart-wrenching return in Angel, there was an equal risk of him becoming comic relief just as he is in the comics, so I prefer him dead with possibility of the symbiote returning to inhabit Carnage or someone else.
The final factor that sold the film to me overall was the action. As previously mentioned regarding Peter unlocking a hidden self with black suit, the subway fight between him and Sandman really ramped up the intensity that even outmatched the pummeling Spidey received from the Green Goblin at the end of Spider-Man. When you've got mid-film battles that beat climaxes from previous films, you know the filmmakers learned some valuable lessons in the time in-between. In addition, I think the final three-on-three sequence was, hands-down, the most comic book accurate fight put to screen. My problem with past Marvel films has been their lacking in fights that truly feel ripped from the page, with Ang Lee's Hulk pandering to the idea with cheesy panel effects and Iron Man's final duel with Iron Monger being a tease at best. Spider-Man 3's end captured everything I'd been looking for, from the over-the-top damsel-in-distress situation to the hilariously misplaced news reporter that resembled Lois Lane, or more appropriately Betty Brant. And, OK, the punching and stuff was cool, too (seriously, look at me trying not to give into my love of superhero violence this whole article.) Raimi got the style down so brilliantly here that, with the minor addition of visual onomatopoeias ala the Adam West Batman, the fight could've been pulled from the city-spanning Venom fight in Ultimate Spider-Man. *Sigh*... if only Raimi didn't spoil it with that sunrise-set exposition between Harry, Peter and Sandman.
All the praise aside, I'll cop to the fact that I haven't really given a solid explanation for why the series shouldn't have been rebooted. Here's the thing, though: I don't know what constitutes a reboot anymore; I can only tell you whether one franchise is more worthy of one than another. Personally, I think that if somewhat more grounded franchises like James Bond: 007 and Die Hard can survive with their mid-series failures, than surely superhero films should be more equipped to handle them considering that, a) comics, especially Marvel's, have dealt with retcons while still forwarding the main narrative since the 60s and, b) most superhero films are marketed toward adult as well as kids, who're more forgiving toward slight mishaps, which is what Spider-Man 3 was, not a colossal failure to the extent that X-Men Origins: Wolverine was.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine's first mistake was bringing Hugh Jackman in without any consideration whatsoever to the Wolverine he portrayed in the previous X-Men trilogy. I don't even have to go into any major plot details since the mere idea of making this film can be debunked with this: Wolverine's hero's journey started in X-Men. When Rogue stumbled upon him in that film, he was a bar fighter. Do we ever need an entire 107 minute movie to explain how anyone, Wolverine included, ended up fighting in a bar? Fuck no, especially not when we were told everything we needed to know about Wolverine's past when Stryker returned in X2 . Hell, his past was virtually recreated with Lady Deathstrike and the adamantium chamber. Since Deathstrike was a more advanced version of Wolverine, who thought we needed to see a primitive version in another 107 minute movie? Also, how is it in any way conceivable that Wolverine met Cyclops before X-Men? Oh yeah, because Cyclops' eyes make cool lights and stuff, so he had to be there!
Sadly, that's writers Skip Woods and David Benioff's justification for bringing everyone, with the exception of Sabretooth, into the film. Gambit served no purpose and had his Cajun background sacrificed for future films all so that he could show up for a few brief minutes. Deadpool was technically a big baddie, but he really served no purpose and had his witty, talkative character sacrificed for future films just so he could be more generic and not talk in this one. And, oh boy, Will.I.Am.!? If anyone even suggests that his purpose was to put a big Hollywood blockbuster on his resumé, a Fox shareholder will get hurt before I close this article. The only entertainment value I could derive from watching this trainwreck was watching Liev Schreiber chew scenery while sporting muttonchops.******
That's right, Will.I.Am. You get the fuck out.
But regarding Darren Aronofsky leaving, the important thing is to ensure the future of the X-Men franchise, the only Marvel property Fox has control of thanks to Disney (seriously, thank you, Disney.) While I do believe Aronofsky would've made a unique film that would've eclipsed X-Men Origins: Wolverine out of sheer effort, I did feel his involvement was a bit risky from the get-go. I think Aronofsky, being a professed superhero geek, would've stayed true to the essence of Wolverine the comic book character, though, I'm not entirely sure if the same applies to Wolverine the film character, whom I believe is pretty different in some respects. Even with Fox's frequently problematic meddling, perhaps enough sense has been knocked into them, as well as an all-too-forgiving Jackman, to know their priorities in preserving the character's integrity for future releases. There's no say at this time whether X-Men: First Class will bend some established details to tell the story that it needs to; but since Xavier and Magneto's backstories are far worthier of a film than Wolverine's, I think any minor changes are justified, especially in the hands of so-far consistently great director Mathew Vaughan. I'm hoping Fox grabs someone equally competent as well as experienced in dealing with franchises instead of gambling on a hot-ticket arthouse director just to make up for the loss of Aronofsky.
In closing, I'd like to point out that many gave up on the Spidey of the comics because, after the abominable “One More Day” story arc, Spider-Man sacrificed his famous mantra of “with great power comes great responsibility” by using an even greater power than himself, Mephisto, to make an uncharacteristically selfish decision that betrayed the character we’ve grown to love over forty-five years. I think even those who perpetrate the theory that director Sam Raimi sabotaged his film after being forced to include Venom can agree that Spider-Man 3, with all flaws acknowledged, made no mistake of such caliber and therefore doesn’t deserve to be rebooted nearly as much as X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which not only betrayed the X-Men franchise's narrative (not even the weaksauce X3: The Last Stand did that) but also ruined Wolverine's legitimacy in the movie universe... and that was the damned point of the film in the first place: to expand our understanding of the character, not obliterate it.
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* I'm pretty sure that makes me the definition of a "Scrooge."
** I kid, I kid, Leon.
*** After all, the second film had her saying that she'll take it all, the good and the bad, in order to be with Peter. So, whatever it is that causes the turmoil that ensues between them in the third film would have to be out of this world, if you will.
**** No, his physicality had nothing to do with my bias. Eddie's strength came from the symbiote, not his own muscularity, fanboys.
***** It was a choice about as nonsensical to me as Hollywood redhead Bryce Dallas Howard being cast to play Gwen Stacy. I mean, look at the below promo pic from Hereafter and tell me that's not a dead ringer for MJ as drawn by John Romita, Jr.
****** Damn, I almost justified the film with that last remark.