Well that was real mature...

Well that was real mature...

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Fall Round-Up, Part 4: Marvel Movies & DC TV

The Bible says "the meek shall inherit the Earth," but seeing how pop culture now turns on anything and everything that was considered "nerdy" when I was a kid, I think it should have read "the geek shall inherit the Earth." Because I'm pretty sure we have.

It's a fantastic time to be alive if you are a comic book fan specifically (and a sci-fi or fantasy geek in general). When it comes to the two big staples of pop culture (television and movies) the technical wizardry of special effects have finally caught up with the imaginations of all the great writers and artists of comic book past. Right now Marvel Comics own the cinemas and DC Comics are cleaning up on the air waves.

Sure, there is the general nerdy stuff that is going great guns. Star Wars will return to theatres next year with the original cast. The last in the adaptation of the classic The Hobbit novels landed recently. Star Trek's reboot is inching toward it's 3rd film in time for the 50th anniversary of that franchise. But comics have taken off. San Diego Comic Con is far more about Hollywood promoting their films than comic anymore and the new all time box office champion is Marvel's The Avengers (which was incidentally helmed by Joss Whedon, who already had the cred of the geek set with Buffy, The Vampire Slayer and Serenity).

My area of comics is the Bronze Age mid-70s to early 80s stuff. It was really the ideal time. Comics were maturing and telling stories more sophisticated than the kid stuff that permeated the Golden and Silver Ages, but it was still safe enough for kids to read. We had not yet hit the mid-80s Dark Age of comics when The Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns would forever make adult comics mainstream. I have nothing against adult comics. In fact, I've penned most of my original stuff as hard "R" which we have toned down for www.adventuresinpulp.com, but (to quote my favorite comic book writer's blog) I digress. I was fortunate, the decade of my childhood was a time when the definitive version of the characters had become part of the culture.  Even adults who never picked up comics, knew who Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man were. My love began with the one-two punch of Saturday mornings featuring the Super-Friends cartoon and a live action Shazam both of which would wreak havoc with my little brain. Re-runs of the 1966 Batman tv show would cement the idea that a cape is synonymous with justice. To this day I still have an affection for the live action stuff of the 70's but upon retrospect it was lacking in a lot of ways. While Bill Bixby, Nicholas Hammond, and Linda Cater would make indelible impressions on my psyche there were still painful to watch adaptations of Captain America starring Reb Brown and a simply awful Dr. Strange tv movie. Even as a kid I knew the Incredible Hulk would appear at specific times because the show was a strict formula and I could see the wires pulling Spidy up the side of the building. Nostalgia is a great love potion but it isn't blind love. The era wasn't a total live action loss, the late great Christopher Reeve would make me believe a man could fly.

But today... things are different. Sure the comic industry has some issues, they are writing more for older audiences instead of trying to gain new readers with all-ages books, and by all ages I mean ALL ages, not simplistic silly kiddie books, but a book an adult can enjoy AND not think twice about handing off to his children. An overall lack of respect for history and continuity by editors and publishers. The almost pathological need to make their characters darker as if that is the only way to make them more relatable. Too many events, too many deaths that don't matter except to short term sales figures. Writing for the trade collection instead of the writing for the need of the story. Yup. Lots of problems with the actual product. But not the adaptations. Since the 70s we had a lot of hit and misses. Tim Burton and Mr. Mom showed us a more accurate film version of Batman than the old tv show and a new animated series that was the most accurate version of any comic to date. Superman got triple pumped for almost two decades with a live action Superboy series and Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman that immediately followed. Each ran four years, less than half a decade later a prequel series called Smallville ran for ten seasons. The Flash got his first live action show with mixed results and comic's first family the Fantastic Four got an ok duology of films with much the same result as did less likeable Ghost Rider. Film versions Punisher, Catwoman and Constantine are best forgotten. While Blade, X-Men and Spider-Man exploded on to the big screen to great success. Daredevil came and went some hated it and some loved it.

It was better than the 70s but there were as many misses as hits. Since then, things have gotten even better, and today, TV and film versions of our favorite heroes are really clicking along. That may be the understatement of the year.

Four color heroes have virtually taken over cinema. With Disney, Warner Bros., Fox and Sony announcing 28 films over the next 6 years and 6 new tv shows in the works, the comic book geeks of the world can declare, "we came, we saw, we conquered." And it is not just that the films and shows are being made. It's not just that they are making ridiculous amounts of money. They are actually good. Sure, with that many landing, there will be some dogs but the overall outlook is good if we look at where the winners are now.

Let's start with Marvel, because their success is what has spawned this current influx of live action super heroics. Marvel comics decided that they were really unhappy with what was being done with their properties and decided. Let's just do it ourselves. With X-Men and Spider-Man rights tied up with Fox and Sony, they decided to take a C-list character and a director know for small independent films and comedies and put forth a great comic book movie that just happened to be a great film. Iron Man is now considered an A-list character.

Iron Man kicked box office ass and took names. Immediately they started planning ahead with a sequel and three sister films, Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger each established the founding members of The Avengers, while Joss brought them together for that record breaking film I mentioned to wrap up "phase one" of their collective universe. Hit after hit after hit. Only Incredible Hulk struggled at the box office and that was probably due to the fact not enough effort was made to let movie goers know it was completely unrelated to the previous box office disappointment put out by another studio. General audiences loved the movies. Comic fans loved the movies. Critics loved the movies. They kicked into high gear with "phase two." Iron Man 3, Thor 2: Dark World, Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy and the first two seasons of the tv series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (with only Avengers 2: Age of Ultron and Ant-Man left to wrap "phase two") have all landed with big box office (or high ratings). In the middle of every thing the house of mouse upped the anti by buying Marvel. Now, beyond their pedigree they have the considerable power of Mickey behind their films. The only stumbles seemed to be Iron Man 3 which disappointed some fans with too much emphasis being on series star Robert Downey Jr. rather than Iron Man and new director Shane Black choosing to over look a library of classic tales to settle on the recent "Terminus" story and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. which premiered to such fan fair that absolutely no show runner in the world could have put out 22 satisfying episodes. The former made enough money that any criticisms are laughed at and the later ramped up the action in the run up to the spring finale and hit like gang busters the following fall with a heck of a batch of episodes to start of the second season. They are not just pumping out capes and tights tales either. The subject matter is varied. The second Captain America (also a much too recent a tale in my opinion) crushes it as more of a spy thriller than a super hero flick and my personal favorite Guardians of the Galaxy shocked all the nae-sayers by taking D-list characters and turning in a sci-fi adventure that is possibly the greatest since the original Star Wars. Marvel has no signs of slowing down with "phase three" ramping up. We have Captain America 3: Civil War, Thor 3: Ragnorok, Guardians of the Galaxy 2, Black Panther, Doctor Strange, Captain Marvel, Inhumans and the two part Avengers 3: Infinity War all in the early stages. (Of course that doesn't even count the next wave of X-Men and Spider-Man sequels from Fox and Sony)

On the flip side Marvel's distinguished competition: DC Comics which is owned by Warner Bros. has owned cinemas for years with Superman and the Batman franchise both of which petered out with less and less enjoyable sequels. Both got reboots. First Superman with Superman Returns helmed by X-Men superstar director Bryan Singer. It was a good film that really would have worked better two decades earlier as an alternative to Superman III with an aging Christopher Reeve in the title role, but as a reboot seemed, predicable and out of place. They would try to launch a Green Lantern franchise which was stillborn with unfairly horrid reviews hampering the box office (although I still say Ryan Reynolds would have made a better Wally West version of The Flash and Nathan Fillion should have worn the ring as Hal Jordan). Next Christopher Nolan dusted off the Dark Knight for a stunning Batman trilogy.

Between Nolan's success and Marvel's virtual appearance of unstoppable hit parade Warner Bros. turned to Zack Snyder (who had adapted The Watchmen to mixed responses) and Nolan to reboot Superman again this time with an eye toward building toward a Avengers-esque franchise for the Justice League. Man of Steel met with mixed reactions. It was a good solid story, but the take on the iconic character was too dark. There was a lot to like and a lot to build on, but it was not near the level of success as Marvel was putting out. That's hard to admit since I have always been more of a DC guy, but DC is showing confidence and they are moving forward on the Man of Steel sequel titled Superman vs. Batman: Dawn of Justice which is filming back to back with a two part Justice League film. Putting Superman and Batman in the same movie is in essence a license to print money. Regardless of the actual quality, it will break records opening weekend. If it's good it will break a lot of records. If it's great, watch out Avengers. Warner Bros. does have one advantage: They can use their A-list characters. Justice League with Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Flash, Green Lantern and Cyborg (I love Cyborg but I am sorry, he should be in the Teen Titans not the Justice League). If they just threw in Green Arrow, Hawkman and the original Shazam Captain Marvel. it would be a clean sweep, where as Marvel can't even use their super-star characters Spider-Man and Wolverine in the Avengers since their rights remain tied up with other studios.

On the small screen however, DC has been kicking but and taking names. While Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was struggling with unrealistic expectations, DC took a show they benefited from lowered expectations to build a little empire. Arrow, based on DC's Green Arrow, started out as a guilty pleasure. The show initially suffered from CW mandated young love BS that boiled down to I-love-you-I-hate-you-I-slept-with-your-sister-I-love-you-rise-and-repeat-another-variation-at-nausem. The flashbacks were too much like the cult classic, Lost. They didn't even use the characters' name in the title or on the show (Green Arrow) opting for "The Hood." There wasn't even a mask. The lead seemed cast for his abs and ability to do the salmon latter and parkour. But there was something there and it was a hit. The higher the ratings the more control the showrunners had so it became more comic book-ey and less CW-ey. Toned down was the over emphasis on love triangles and built up were the super-heroics. Gone was "The Hood" moniker for the hero and he even got a mask. It went from a guilty pleasure to a show I tout as my favorite currently on tv. They launched a spin-off, The Flash, with just a few episodes on the air so far it has hit the ground running (pun intended) and may even supersede its parent show as my favorite on tv. While Arrow gets better each season, the success of that show let the showrunners have virtual free reign with the scarlet speedster and thus has dodged a lot of the initial growing pains Arrow suffered through. Arrow didn't just spur a spin-off, but a lot of interest in DC properties. Gotham premiered on Fox, to great reviews and ratings. A little uneven at first, they had problems deciding on tone, over the top campy at times and hard core gritty NYPD Blue-like police procedural, but is settling in nicely. Constantine made a late debut on NBC and reminds me of an attempt at a blending of Supernatural and Doctor Who. I'm enjoying it, but it feels a little familiar. CBS is in talks to do a Supergirl series and TNT is reportedly working on Titans (based on Teen Titans) so it doesn't look like DC tv is slowing down anytime soon. The last time I was stoked about a TNT show was when they did a spin-off to my favorite tv series ever: Babylon 5 called Crusade. Network interference and pre-premiere cancellation still has me bitter toward the network. Ironically, DCs Teen Titans (particularly the Marv Wolfman/George Perez era of The New Teen Titans) remains hands down my favorite comic ever. If TNT screws that one up too, my siege on Atlanta will make Sherman's look like a square dance.

Marvel isn't content with DC ruling the airwaves, the Captain America/Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. period piece spin-off mini-series Agent Carter will premier in January and they announced the Netflix exclusive series Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist and The Defenders mini-series. Likewise, Warner Bros. is not content with just the small screen and has ramped up films for Cyborg, The Flash, a Green Lantern reboot, and Wonder Woman to spin out of the Justice League movie.

I haven't even mentioned Image Comics/Robert Kirkman's success with The Walking Dead adaptation as it dominates ratings. Like I said, it's a great time to be a comic book fan if you like to see live action super heroes. We have inherited the Earth and the future is bright.

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