Sunday, June 29, 2008

Meryl Streep: Superhero Killer?

I've a few minutes before I'm off to work so I'll squeeze in just one more blog post...

Two years ago, 20th Century Fox's The Devil Wears Prada opened the same weekend as the much-hyped Superman Returns in American cinemas, in what is known in Hollywood as a counterprogramming maneuver. The idea was that considering that SR was by and large a male-oriented movie, women were a neglected audience for that weekend and would want to watch something else.

Now, counterprogramming doesn't always work. It didn't work too well for Sony this year, which tried to counter the Paramount release Iron Man with chick magnet(TM) Patrick Dempsey's Made of Honor, only to discover that women liked Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow better than Dempsey and his leading lady. If I could think of more examples of counterprogramming, I'd love to make this post about the phenomenon in general, but none spring to mind right now.

Going back to Streep, the stratagem of opening against SR paid off for Devil. Whether it was because it was a genuinely good movie or because there was absolutely zero romantic chemistry between Kate Bosworth's Lois Lane and Brandon Routh's Superman, the women who went to see Devil paid a total of $27 million dollars during a weekend the Man of Steel had been expected to crush all box office records. Though SR still opened at number 1, it was an underwhelming opening at best and it was observed that Streep had stolen some of its thunder.

Oddly enough, Universal Pictures has decided to pull something similar by releasing the film adaptation of the popular musical Mamma Mia on the same weekend as the massively-hyped The Dark Knight. The adaptation stars Meryl Streep.

I don't see Streep pulling off a similar upset with TDK, which will draw on a solid fanbase due to the success of Batman Begins three years ago. SR was always iffy considering that the last Superman film nearly twenty years earlier had tanked and there was still a question mark as to how much demand there still was for another movie starring the character. (For the record, there was enough for the film to gross $200 million dollars flat, but not enough for it to recoup its nearly $300 million price tag, including production and marketing costs.) TDK faces no such question marks. People definitely want their Batman.

But I find it very interesting that based on the grosses of one movie, a studio seems to think of Streep as the anti-DC hero. This could be coincidence, but then one wonders why Universal didn't try to play its film against Iron Man or Indiana Jones.

Well, arguably, Batman doesn't have any real love interest. Katie Holmes was most definitely one of the weak links of a mostly sublime Batman Begins. Sure, some mention is made of the fact that Maggie Gyllenhaal, has replaced Holmes as Assistant District Attorney Rachel Dawes, but that's never been much of a selling point. So maybe that lack of a romantic angle influenced Universal's choice of release date.

However, the dynamic hyped up in the trailers appears to be that of Christian Bale's Batman going up against Heath Ledger's Joker and this could ultimately be Mamma Mia's undoing on its opening weekend. Ledger's death is something women have most certainly mourned, and the fact that TDK contains his last complete performance may have just provided the movie with some entirely unsolicited and scathingly effective publicity. In short, it's possible to the point of being probable that people who don't give a damn about Batman will line up to see Heath Ledger's last hurrah.

Of course, movies made for women tend to be the kind that play on and on (like Titanic) and don't just depend on an opening weekend bonanza (though the recent Sex and the City, which made a killing on its opening weekend only to plummet in the weekends that followed, seemed to buck that trend), unlike their testosterone-fueled counterparts, so maybe all is not lost for Meryl Streep's latest effort.

However, if the marketplace is broad enough to accommodate both films, as it appears to have been this weekend with both Wanted and WALL-E raking in over FIFTY MILLION dollars apiece in the United States on opening weekend, then maybe fans of both Batman and Streep covering Abba songs will have reason to cheer in three weeks' time.

R.I.P. Michael Turner

I neither personally knew nor was I a fan of the recently departed comic-book artist and creator Michael Turner, but I found myself affected by news of his death just the same considering that at 37, he was barely four years older than me. There's something particularly perturbing about people going well before what appears to be their time. It wasn't a year ago that Mike Wieringo, another comic book artist, a health nut and a vegetarian, suddenly died of a heart attack. Turner, in comparison, had been battling with cancer for the better part of a decade, if not longer, so his may have been a little less of a shock, but is no less tragic.

Whether it's the fact that I suffered my own recent loss, or the fact that young death simply doesn't feel right, I find myself mourning these deaths even though these people, Wieringo and Turner didn't have anything to do with me or vice versa. As a collector of comic books (once and possibly someday again) it's always sad to see the talent pool shrink, especially in the case of Wieringo, as I followed his last regular series, Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man, until his departure in issue 11 or so.

My wife tells me that people have been dying young since the beginning of time, to which I replied that precisely what saddens me is how, in this day and age, with so much medical technology at people's disposal, they can't seem to eradicate things like disease and the death of young people.

If there's any comfort I can take it's that these guys lived and died doing what they loved; they were comic-book creators, and both of them had stuff in the pipeline right up until the time of their death. They were, in that sense, at least able to live life on their own terms.

And who knows, with no end to the oil price rise in sight, maybe they're the lucky ones...

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Horserace Syndrome

I'm not entirely sure, but I think the first time one major Hollywood franchise collided with another in the same year was the summer of 1989, when the first Batman went up against Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Sure, 1984 had seen the release of three major studio films, Ghostbusters from Columbia Pictures, Beverly Hills Cop and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom from Paramount, but the concept of the franchise hadn't quite evolved into what it is now (although there had already been three Star Wars films and E.T., the idea of using movies to move enormous amounts of merchandise was not nearly as widely used as it is today). Besides, the only place where one could read about Batman trouncing the third Indiana Jones film at the box-office was in the trade paper, Variety, or in the occasional story the mainstream media would run on the subject.

These days, however, with the internet offering people all around the world instantaneous, real-time, daily access to box-office receipts, suddenly everyone can find out how this year's Batman installment (the sixth, although it amounts to a "reboot" of the 1989 version which featured the first Batman/Joker showdown) fares against this year's Indiana Jones. And suddenly, for some strange reason, it suddenly matters to fans how much money their movie will make in relation to another movie, even if they won't receive a single cent of it.

I've written derisively about fanboys here and elsewhere so I'm not particularly interested in flogging that particular dead horse right now (at least, not till I get some momentum going). What I would like to offer is my own personal opinion on the whole horserace phenomenon when it comes to predicting and even just following box-office results.

The first time I was exposed to a box-office horserace in the internet age was when the inaugural Spider-Man film pulled off a major upset against the second Star Wars prequel, Attack of the Clones. I was just happy to see Spider-Man on the screen for the first time in the many, many years I'd been following his adventures, and didn't care at first how well his movie fared relative to another one, except of course that I wanted the film to succeed.

That's what I'm about: box-office results of a movie in their absolute sense, and not relative to the earnings of other movies. Monitoring such results has been my hobby, my addiction, for as long I've had hobbies. Thanks to the internet it's one I'm able to enjoy free of charge nowadays. In the pre-internet age I can even remember following the weekly grosses in issues of Variety that I read off the rack ;) way back in 1990, if not earlier.

Before too long, though, I found myself genuinely irked that a lot of fans on the internet even in the mainstream media were "shouting down" Spider-Man, saying that there was no way it could possibly gross more revenue than the latest Star Wars installment. None of the makers of either film was trying to sell one movie as an alternative to another (there were interview statements to this effect, in fact) but for some reason fans and wags had just seen the need to make their more-or-less simultaneous release as a boxing match of some kind, or, like I said, a horse race, one that Spider-Man eventually won. For my part, I was gratified, but when I think about it, I probably wouldn't even have cared if none of the Star Wars diehards had started shooting off their mouths (or keyboards).

Since then, franchise showdowns have been a fairly regular thing at the multiplexes, but most studio execs are smart enough to space their releases because they realize that if they try to open against a big movie, everybody loses, including them. So, they're not really being diplomatic by saying "we'd love to see both movies succeed;" to an extent it's sincere.

It's not the studios, whether Paramount, Sony, Universal or Warner Brothers that are contriving these ridiculous contests, it's the twelve-year-old (actual or equivalent, sorry, I couldn't resist) fanboys who are stirred up by trashy magazines/websites like Entertainment Weekly or into creating this whole mentality.

2008 is yet another year for a horse race, it seems. The Dark Knight, the sequel to the successful 2005 reboot of the Batman franchise, Batman Begins, is arguably the season's, if not the year's most anticipated movie. Iron Man, the long-awaited adaptation of the popular comic book character, is what kicked the summer season off. Dark Knight comes out in July, Iron Man opened in May to stellar grosses and reviews. Judging by their release dates, these movies were intended to co-exist rather than compete. What the makers of Iron Man, a character relatively unknown to non-comic book fans, achieved is genuinely impressive: sustained box-office revenue over an eight-week period and really good reviews, which is rare in this day of first weekend bonanzas and second weekend dropoffs and critical panning. Whether or not TDK earns the highest grosses this summer, Iron Man is still an unqualified success. Still, articles on the internet pointing out this feat are invariably met with cries of "TDK will own" or worse, "TDK will pwn." It says something about the intelligence quotient of these people that they adopt typographical errors as their catchphrases.

I actually believe, given the buzz and some early reviews, that TDK will be every bit as successful as fanboys anticipate it to be, but that's not really the point. I doubt I'll be able to have that silent moment of gratification I had when Star Wars: Episode II failed to match the grosses of Spider-Man, but one thing I will be able to take solace in is knowing that the makers of Iron Man have made more money than most, if not all of those idiotic fanboys will ever make in their lifetimes, for all their harping about the as-yet-non-existent grosses of The Dark Knight.

It's as if fanboys want the products they love to monopolize success, not having the brains to realize that in a four-month summer movie season, there's more than enough of it to go around. It was the case with Star Wars, and was the case with The Dark Knight. If Marvel has its zombies, well I guess DC now has its drones who, without even receiving a red cent from Warner Brothers and without even being asked to, are slavishly marketing a film they haven't even seen yet. It doesn't help that the media, online mainly, contrives a competition when there is none.

Yes, the horserace mentality is really and truly stupid, but I guess entertainment "journalists" have to have something to write about every season besides the latest starlet's trip to rehab.

Still, I could be wrong about saying that it's the media who whips them up into a frenzy; for all I know, these stupid people have been around since time out of mind, and are only finding their voice now thanks to the internet, where stupidity and inanity can at last make itself heard, as witnessed by the fact that I devoted so much time to the topic on this blog. Hehehe

Sunday, June 08, 2008

One More Time Now...HULK SMASH!

I realize I've been writing about this topic nearly ad nauseam, but with less than a week to go I confess I'm on the edge of my seat to see how The Incredible Hulk will fare at the box office.

Unlike nearly everyone I know, I actually liked Ang Lee's take on the Hulk in 2003. It was principally about repressed anger and pain, which is very much in keeping with the spirit of the character. I know of people who've excoriated the take for not being in keeping with the "Jekyll and Hyde" aspect of the character but in truth the Hulk was never just about that gray-skinned, Peter David-penned run. The movie had its missteps, and it DID take the Hulk a bit too long to finally appear, but Lee's heart, to use the cliche, was in the right place. And the ILM-generated giant looked a lot more impressive (albeit too large) than some ridiculous, latter-day Lou Ferrigno would have. I've said before and I say it again: I liked it, but I totally get why everyone else didn't. The movie did miss a lot of important marks.

The greenlighting and production of a second film has left a lot of non-fans/casual moviegoers (who are the real moneymakers for movies, no matter what fanboys may claim) scratching their heads, saying why make another one when the first one was so bad? This was not, after all, a franchise that had jumped the rails, like Batman had in 1997 before getting back on track in 2005 with Batman Begins. This was a property that stalled right out the gate.

Well, there's more than one answer to that, and fans know them. First of all, the Hulk is a Marvel property that's just too important to let die with one misguided adaptation. In the hierarchy of publicly known Marvel characters, i.e., those whose appeal stretches beyond comic-book geeks, he is second only to Spider-Man in terms of name recognition, thanks in large part to the 1970s TV show which played in syndication all around the world many, many years after it had run its course. Considering Marvel reacquired the rights to this truly beloved character it makes sense that they would want to erase the terrible impression Ang Lee left on most audiences five years ago.

Second, and this is clear from the events in Iron Man, Marvel is attempting something incredibly ambitious that goes far beyond the casual and rather limp references to Gotham City and Metropolis made in the Superman and Batman movies: they're looking to achieve a cohesive Marvel Universe and a movie that ties it all together with The Avengers. No, this is not the rancid adaptation, starring Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman, of the old British TV show but a realization of one of the most important comic books in Marvel's publishing line. As a founding member of the original Avengers' team in the 60s and as a critical story point in the 2002 re-imagination of the Avengers' story, The Ultimates, Bruce Banner/Hulk is integral to the telling of the Avengers' origin. THAT is why his story must be redone, and done right this time.

It's not likely that non-fans will understand this imperative, which is why Marvel are working overtime to sell the fact that Robert Downey Jr., still basking in the runaway success of Iron Man, so far the year's biggest box-office hit, appears in The Incredible Hulk as Tony Stark. They bided their time with releasing footage due to concerns over the computer-generated imagery, but now they've pulled out all the marketing stops, with one trailer and internet clip after another. If the responses over at are any indication, Marvel and effectively banished the memory of the negative buzz building up to the first Hulk movie that followed its infamous "tank throwing" superbowl ad. The fanboys, as seems clear from the messageboards, are pumped for this.

As with Iron Man, the warm reception this movie is getting from fans appears to stem from the fact that there was no attempt to sanitize it for kids. This is a movie that makes full use of its PG-13 rating because its makers know that's where the core audience lies, and the story is much better for this lack of artificial and unnecessary restraint. A PG or (gasp) G-rated Lord of the Rings would have been completely inutile, and the same goes with the stories of the Hulk, who in his Forty-six years of publication has cut a huge swath of destruction across the Marvel Universe and who, it has long been established, is neither hero nor villain but just a misunderstood man who wants to be left alone. If the reviews I've read are to be believed, the new crew responsible for this movie had understood this concept a lot more than Lee and his crew did. And the fans are cheering in the streets.

The big fat question mark, however, remains; what do the non-fans think of this? It's the non-fans who spell the difference between one-weekend wonder and sustained box-office smash. It's the non-fans who made sure Iron Man was more than just another superhero movie that does all of its business in the first fifteen days or so. Having won over the fans (or at least their anointed representatives), with their advance screenings of The Incredible Hulk, Marvel now faces the task of winning over the people who are still wondering (and I've met them) why there's a second Hulk movie in the first place. It won't even be enough for a good opening weekend, to show that this movie's truly exorcised the demons of its predecessor it's got to show some legs.

I'm still holding my breath, because I dearly want this new movie to be GOOD.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Hollywood's Summer of the Forty-something

It's funny how, this time six years ago, journalists were talking about how the actors chosen to lead big-budget Hollywood films were getting younger and younger, with stars like Tobey Maguire, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck headlining some of the summer season's biggest movies. This trend was presaged as a sort of "passing of the torch" with Hollywood's traditional rugged action stars like Stallone and Schwarzenegger basically making way for a much younger and much less...masculine set of action or cinema heroes.

Youth was the catchphrase of many a writer about the future of Hollywood, with twenty and thirty-something stars, directors and writers being tipped to inherit moviemaking in general from the aging stars of yesteryear, including old fogeys like Tom Hanks and Cruise and Harrison Ford. Considering that among the up-and-comers included some pretty awful excuses for actors like Paul Walker, Elijah Wood, Hayden Christensen, Jessica Alba and Shia LeBeouf, that future didn't seem particularly bright.

2008, therefore, comes as a huge sigh of relief to those dreading the takeover of these pseudo-performers as it seems that audiences aren't quite as youth-obsessed as Hollywood once thought they were.

Three of the year's biggest opening movies are headlined by stars all over 40, with the lead actors of Iron Man, Indiana Jones and Sex and the City Stars all having passed the big four-zero at the least two years ago, and in Indy's case many, many years ago. In stark contrast, movies centered around young heroes like Speed Racer and the Narnia sequel, Prince Caspian, have conspicuously floundered at the box-office, in the case of the latter, despite the very healthy grosses of its predecessor. There's no real science to my analysis but I can say categorically that it should be clear to studio execs that audiences don't gravitate towards a given movie based on the age of its stars. There's no need to cast a twenty-something unknown as Tony Stark when a forty-something Robert Downey Jr., baggage and all, is available and perfect for the role. There's no need to re-cast Indiana Jones just yet (pay attention, George Lucas) when everyone still likes Harrison Ford just fine in the role. And there's no need to flog us with useless romantic comedies, which are now a shadow of what they used to be, starring Jessica Simpson, Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan (though I honestly wouldn't mind seeing more of Katherine Heigl) when Sarah Jessica Parker, horseface and all, and her menopausal or almost menopausal cohorts can still sell their movie like hotcakes.

I've nothing against movies with young people; heck at 33 I'm still within the demographic that is still pleased by a younger-skewing cast. But lately I've found myself extremely disheartened with Hollywood's tendency to go young, which is basically dictated by sequel math, i.e., how much older the actor will be by the nth installment of a potential blockbuster franchise, and not by the actual talent the actor has. Had this math been strictly applied, the 43-year-old Downey Jr. would surely have seen his chances of snagging the role of Stark dwindle, with the film's director Jon Favreau already declaring he wanted to find the next Brandon (shudder) Routh.

Of course, there are some roles that need actors of a certain age (the Harry Potter gang and even Spider-Man come to mind) but for a while Hollywood apparently figured its future lay in casting young actors no matter the role, and no matter how bad the actor. Iron Man would have been a perfect example of that logic, and thank God it isn't. Thank God Superman Returns now must suffer that ignominy.

Incidentally, I cringe at the thought that Captain America, whose movie has the potential to be the next Spider-Man, has already been cast based on the alleged actor's looks and not on his talent or resume. Someone posting on some messageboard claims to already know (though he wasn't telling) and said only "he has the physicality to pull it off" which basically sent a chill down my spine.

Marvel, and every other moviemaking outfit out there, should take down notes about how this summer is going; pandering to sequels and future installments is NOT the way to go, while casting actors who are RIGHT for their parts, WHATEVER their age, IS.