By Paul Sawchuk
Think back to 1996. How old were you? What did you like? Were you a young pup, green to the world? Were you a teenager, one of the many into comic books, dying to get your hands on a copy of the wildly touted Death of Superman in comic stores across the nation? Imagine if they were going to make a movie loosely based on The Death of Superman comic book, written by Kevin Smith, Directed by Tim Burton and starring Nicolas Cage.
It almost happened.
Released last month, The Death of Superman Lives is a documentary which recounts the production hell that Superman Lives went through in 1996 and 1997. The film’s green light was eventually pulled three weeks before production was to begin due to a rough season of blockbuster flops at Warner Brothers Pictures, including comic property Batman and Robin among others.
Since the box office flop of Batman and Robin and the halted development of Superman Lives, we are now arguably in the perfect climate for the type of grand scale cinematic storytelling that would befit Smith and Burton’s large scale film.
And arguably we are seeing some of the most expansive cinematic experiences right now. Where comic films only adapted characters and comic book visuals for their films, now filmmakers and studios are wholeheartedly adapting the narratives of these comics, nearly unheard of in the 90s, and had it been made, Superman Lives may have been a pioneer here. It wasn’t until last year’s X-Men: Days of Future Past that the X-Men franchise actually took on one of the stories already written in another medium with pride. Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films only borrowed in part from several sources, paying homage to multiple stories instead of doing a straight adaptation, yet Zack Snyder’s upcoming Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice seems to be taking a majority from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. Pride in comic storylines is at an all time high.
Further, today’s special effects and CGI can create anything — though there is much disdain for that uncanny valley — but practical effects are still held near and dear to our hearts. When a director says they’re utilizing practical special effects and 35mm film there’s a collective audience that turns their heads in interest. Practical effects and 35mm film are expensive, but also highlight a form of filmmaking that is (incorrectly) associated with artistry over commercialism. Keanu Reeves spearheaded the documentary Side by Side where he discussed the merits of film over digital production with Hollywood directors, and while it appears that it is an artistic choice to shoot one way or the other there are commercial reasons to each as well.
But artistry aside, if we dig deep into the well of films coming out it’s not hard to see the well of comfort-food like nostalgia that we’re digging into, but also how unsubstantial this well is.
Interestingly, film’s serialization is likely a response to the increased attention serialized television is now getting. With HBO’s Game of Thrones, True Detective, AMC’s Breaking Bad, Mad Men and The Walking Dead among cable and Netflixs countless contemporary programming the new ‘Golden Age’ of television comes with a preference for larger narratives that can’t be told in a 90 minute or two hour timeframe. Serialization requires more engagement from viewers and a larger time commitment, but both have easily been met.
I call this “McMovies” because it’s a production strategy that plays safely with it’s stories. A majority of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films, from Iron Man and last month’s Ant Man, struggle to stand out. Individually each film tends to follow the same narrative path: Intro, conflict, large final battle with explosion, ending with a scene that connects everything to the grander MCU. Add to this safety the fact that no major characters have died in the films and you have a safe, no-risk commercial venture that audiences have been clamouring to see.
The recent vat of nostalgic sequels like Jurassic World or last year’s Godzilla are part of this strategy as well. On the positive side, young filmmakers like Colin Trevorrow and Gareth Edwards (directors of the previously mentioned films), have a shot at Hollywood glory – both are rumoured to have upcoming Star Wars films on their project list.
Critically, Rotten Tomatoes (RT) scores favour these films with positive scores, but let’s not forget that a large percentage of fans disproportionately write reviews for large scale comic/nostalgia based films on the Internet that are aggregated into those scores. These same reviewers often neglect smaller films or over-saturate comic properties with positive reviews. Take Trevorrow’s career as an example. His debut film, Safety Not Guaranteed has a score of 90% on RT, aggregated from 138 reviews. Jurassic World has a current score of 71%, aggregated from 254 reviewers (and counting). The deck is impossibly stacked in favour of a film’s popularity to receive a larger amount of reviews.
We can’t forget the vast increase in industry gossip. For all the film and television characters with plot-armor, who will never die in their films until their very public contracts are up, there’s a strange relationship between a show’s story and our knowledge of production. Kit Harrington’s recent cat and mouse with with fans of Game of Thrones keeps us on our toes and rattle our emotions weekly, yet his recent spoilerific event on the show has already been both qualified and debunked. When else has external media influenced the content of the show so much? When were our expectations really toyed with by a show or movie alone? We know when contracts are up, or we can speculate endlessly, perhaps to an unhealthy and obsessive degree.
We’re drawing from a large well of what’s popularly called “content” in media discussion, but it largely lacks substance. I won’t argue that audiences want originality (we don’t), yet real, thought provoking films that deserve our attention are being pushed out and new talent is being absorbed into McMovies in favour of the indie gem they may have made subsequent to their Hollywood breakthrough. Call it old man griping if you will, but too much of a good thing might be making us sick if we’re mistaking complexity, narrative breadth and “gritty” tones for quality.