Wednesday, June 18, 2008

From the Archive: "Superhero Mania! Part Two - Patrick Stewart Kills Mr. Fantastic!"

Welcome to The Archive, a comprehensive collection of reviews dating back to 2007, originally written for The Denver Post’s YourHub.Com website and print edition!  In the archive, you’ll find hundreds of movie, DVD, Blu-Ray, and TV reviews, along with other special features.  You can access the complete Archive Collection by clicking here, and read about the archive project by clicking here. 

This is a four-part Special Feature from the summer of 2008 where, for four weeks, I put two superhero movies head-to-head to see which one was better, or if I could even make it through both of them. 

Continue reading after the jump to access “Superhero Mania! Part Two – Patrick Stewart Kills Mr. Fantastic!”

From the Jonathan R. Lack Review Archives:
“Superhero Mania!
Part Two”
Special Feature Article originally published June 18th, 2008

2008 is the summer of the Superhero.  Yes, every summer has its share of superhero movies, but this year has the best assortment of comic book heroes in a long time.  Iron Man, Incredible Hulk, Dark Knight…it’s going to be a good summer.

But not all superhero movies are good.  In fact, many of them are God-awful abominations of man kind.  Some of these bad superhero flicks take nerves of steel to sit through, and when I thought about this, I wondered if I myself have the willpower to revisit some of these terrible superhero movies.

So here’s my challenge to myself—for 4 weeks, I will watch one good superhero movie, and one bad superhero movie, write about the experience, and post it here on YourHub.  The rules of the challenge are as follows:

1. I must designate one movie as “Good” and one as “Bad” before viewing; If I’m mistaken about the designation, I’ll fess up to it.
2. I must watch all of the movie designated “good,” but I can stop watching the “bad” movie if I can’t tolerate it any more, as long as I record how far I made it through the movie.
3. The must not have viewed the chosen movie in the past six months, so that my memories of the chosen films aren’t too vivid.
4. The two films chosen weekly must have a thematic and/or stylistic relationship with one another.
So without further ado, here’s Superhero Mania: Week 2.

THE BAD; Part 2:

STARRING: Ioan Gruffadd, Jessica Alba, Chris Evans, Michael Chiklis
HOW FAR I MADE IT: Didn’t Watch

I’ve seen this movie twice; once in theaters for reviewing purposes, and once on DVD for reasons I don’t quite remember.  However, memories of the film are burned vividly in my mind.  Why?  Because it sucks.  Fantastic Four isn’t the worst superhero movie ever made, but it’s among the most boring.  Nothing happens until the end, and then its just an incoherent mess of a brawl. 

When I chose it for my column this week, I saw that it was on TV and recorded it via DVR.  Problem is, I knew I would be in for a boring two hours.  And I have a short attention span where bad movies are concerned.  Plus, I just got my hands on a copy of Donkey Kong Country for my classic gaming console, the Super NES.  I chose the latter.  And I must say, Donkey Kong Country was ahead of its time; 3-D visuals, a huge soundtrack, lively, funny characters, etc.  Donkey Kong is one awesome ape.

But if you’re reading this, you probably want to hear about Fantastic Four.  I wrote a column last summer for the NextGen portion of YourHub that reviewed the predecessors of movies having sequels that summer; as it happens, one of the films I wrote about was Fantastic Four.  Here’s an excerpt from that review.

The problem in reviewing this movie is that I have to ponder if I would rate it on the level of normal movies, or on the level of superhero movies.  Superhero movies allow for a certain leniency in the camp department, while if I grade it on a scale of all genres, I have to take more points off for camp.  But even if I do decide to go ahead and grade it like a superhero film, I have to remember films like Spider-Man 2, which is technically a superhero films, but it one of my all time favorite movies.  Hmm.  The dilemma here could go on, but the bottom line is that no matter how I grade it, Fantastic Four is just a very mediocre film.  It doesn’t work as a regular film, and it doesn’t work as a superhero film. 

After an accident in space, four scientists gain superpowers.  Reed can stretch himself to any length, Johnny can turn into fire and fly, Sue can become invisible and make force fields (because, you know, those things naturally go together) and Ben becomes a giant...thing.             

And now they all have to live together under one roof!  Sounds like a great sitcom, right?  Well, no, not exactly, but that’s how Fantastic Four approaches its source material.  It quickly sets up that these characters must stay in the same “laboratory” at all times so they aren’t hounded by the media, and the vast majority of the film is these four trying to deal with their issues about themselves and each other.  Maybe they were trying to do a character study piece like the Spider-Man films, and I suspect Sam Raimi and his team could have pulled it off.  But with Fantastic Four, it just feels like a bad sitcom, or a relatively good soap opera.  I really expected a cheesy, 60’s theme song to start playing in the middle, introducing the title as “Life With the Fantastics.”

The thing is, under a competent filmmaking team, this could have been really cool, and fairly deep, like the Spider-Man films.  But sadly, the writing is awful, the acting is beyond wooden (with one exception) and the pacing is atrocious (it’s 98 minutes without credits, and feels close to two and a half hours).  Pairing bad acting with bad writing is like mixing Mentos and Diet Coke...the result is pretty messy

Michael Chiklis (the star of the TV show “The Shield”) is the only one of the bad cast that does a great job; he plays Ben Grimm.  Grimm becomes the Thing, and due to his horribly disfigured appearance, he is abandoned by his wife and can’t go out in public without inducing fear and ridicule.  You really feel this guy’s pain due to Chiklis’ performance.  If the rest of the acting had been this good, the film probably would have worked.

Yet, the film’s biggest problem is not its mediocre acting; it’s the fact that there is no action until the very end of the film, and when it finally happens, it’s really, really, really, really lame.  The Spider-Man trilogy showed that you can easily balance great character development with oodles of edge-of-your-seat action.  Superhero films need to be one thing if nothing else: exciting.  The lack of action makes Fantastic Four lose this crucial component.

Then there’s the special effects.  Wow.  If I didn’t know better, I’d say this was made in 1992.  Actually, strike that; Jurassic Park came out in 1993, and those dinasaurs look so much better than anything in this movie.  When Mr. Fantastic stretches himself like rubber, the switch to CGI would be visible to a blind man.  The problem is the lack of texture.  When you look at early versions of some CGI films, texture and lighting hasn’t been added; this is just like that.  It never looks like the body part it’s supposed to.  When Johnny turns to fire, it looks pretty darn good, until you see his face.  Once you see the parts of him as fire that are supposed to look like real body parts, it hardly looks like fire at all.  I could go on and on.  

If the creators had cut the sappy soap opera stuff in favor of more (lots more) action, and had some realistic and heartfelt character moments, this could have been much better.

Fantastic Four was awful, but the sequel was actually pretty good.  The acting improved a bit, as did the effects, and the story was fast paced with fun action and a great villain.  The chemistry between the four improved greatly, and it was a genuinely entertaining summer flick.  I’d recommend it, but on no accounts should you torture yourself by watching the first film.

And if you can find a way to play Donkey Kong Country (through Wii’s Virtual Console maybe) I recommend that too.

Film Rating: D

THE GOOD; Part 2:
X2 (2003)
STARRING: Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, Hugh Jackman

People often say that a sequel being better than the original is a rarity.  That certainly isn’t true, especially with superhero films.  I have trouble thinking of a superhero franchise where number 2 doesn’t outclass number 1 (entries past 2 do tend to suffer, however).  Spider-Man 2, Batman Returns, Fantastic Four 2, and of course, X2, a movie so awesome that the official title is actually an abbreviation.  I’m not abbreviating it to X2—that’s the officially registered title.

You’re all probably aware of my affection to Spider-Man 2; it’s a sequel that took the groundwork laid down by the first film and ran with it.  X2 is very similar in this regard; the first film is just exposition so we can get to the main event, and what a huge event it is.  In the same way Spider-Man 2 is the all-time definitive Spider-Man film, X2 is the definitive X-Men film.  

X2 deals with the escalating tension between humans and mutants, and the villainous William Stryker’s attempts to turn it into an all-out war.  Stryker plans to exploit the telepathic abilities of his son and of Charles Xavier to kill all mutants on the planet.  Wolverine and the X-Men must team up with Magneto to save mutant-kind, though Magneto has his own hidden agenda.           

The element of X-Men that makes it so popular is that has always been an ensemble story; it’s not about a singular superhero, it’s about many teaming up.  X2 truly embraces this, and not only gives all the mutants ample screen time (Cyclops not included, but he sucks anyway) and they all work together with spectacular results.

There are some new characters as well, the best of which being Nightcrawler, portrayed by Alan Cumming.  His teleportation powers are awesome and his devotion to God adds a much-needed touch of humanity to the proceedings.  Bryan Singer shows his talent as a director with fast-paced, intense action and a real flair for visuals.  John Ottman’s score develops some awesome musical cues that get the blood pumping.   

The plot is really well developed, especially for a superhero movie.  Plenty of different sub plots are set in motion that ultimately combine in the final hour of the picture when the X-Men arrive at Stryker’s base.  The end result is immensely satisfying, and sets up a multitude of plot elements that were to be resolved in the third film.

The third film took four years to finally come out, and ended up being more or less a disappointment.  Yes, there are some great new characters, and yes, the action is incredible, but the first two films promised us a war between mutants and humans and the third film really doesn’t resolve that in a satisfying manner.  While X1 and X2 both utilized the whole cast, X3 neglects everyone but Wolverine, Storm and Magneto.  Magneto is awesome, as is Wolverine, but Storm is boring.  When the rest of the cast does appear, they all get killed off or stripped of their powers pretty quickly, and its hard to imagine a fourth film.  That’s sad, because a fourth movie could have resolved it all in a much more satisfying manner.  Instead, we’re getting a Wolverine spin-off.  That’s like having a Batman spinoff about Bruce Wayne.

In the end, the X-Men trilogy is flawed in the same way the Spider-Man trilogy is, though to a much greater extent.  Spider Man 1 and (especially) 2 set expectations ridiculously high for a grand finale, and no matter what, Spider Man 3 couldn’t have reached those expectations.  In the same way, X1 and X2 in particular set up a grand war that will decide the fate of humans and mutants alike.  X3 probably couldn’t have lived up to expectations, but while Spider Man 3 did as good a job as it could have done under the pressure, X3 really fumbles the ball; this is probably because Bryan Singer left and took the crew with him to do Superman Returns, leaving the finale in the hands of newcomers.

In the end, the X-Men trilogy is definitely flawed, but overall a fun series of flicks; X2 is the highpoint, and a fine example of a great superhero movie.  If you haven’t already seen it, I recommend it; it’s certainly a better super-team movie than Fantastic Four.

Film Rating: B+

We’ve only just begun…next week, we’ll take a look at the birth of the modern superhero flick, along with one of the most lambasted superhero films of all time.

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