Friday, July 29, 2011

More Red Shorts Mourning

I popped into Target today, and—as always—hit the action figure aisles to see if there was anything to add to the collection. A bunch of new lines were on display, including the Young Justice figures (none for me), the Batman Legacy line (nope), the Funko Pop Vinyl figures (hmmm… have Superman already, but Batman looks pretty nice), and, in the kiddie aisle, Fisher-Price’s new DC Super Friends HeroWorld figures (an awkward name, that).

I flipped through the figures on the peg, past Batman, the Joker, Mr. Freeze until I saw it, hiding in the back, almost embarrassed. The Superman figure… sans red shorts.

Now, the funny thing about this figure is how transitional it is. Obviously, when this line was first designed, this was going to be the classic Superman model with the old costume. But at some point, DC decided it was time to start introducing the redesigned character to the toy shelves, starting with this little guy.

This figure is half-classic / half-new, with the old boot scallop, yellow belt and regular shirt-sleeves, but the new high collar and all-blue pants (the extraneous texture is irrelevant). But if you look closely at the sculpt, you can see that there are lines where the red shorts and low collar were originally designed to be painted. Even the artwork on the side of the box features Superman in his traditional togs.

I stood in the toy aisle and wept openly, again mourning the pointless demise of an iconic design. After frightening off a small child, I pulled myself together, put the figure in my basket and walked to the cat food aisle.

What, I’m not gonna buy it? Yeah, right.

Smurf the Smurfs! (10 classic cartoons worthy of big-screen adaptation)

Following in the footsteps of fellow Saturday morning stalwarts Scooby Doo, Speed Racer, Yogi Bear, Inspector Gadget and many more, the Smurfs at long last make their big screen debut (only a decade or two after most would really care), begging the question: What other classic cartoons could possibly be left for a live action / CGI movie adaptation? Well, lots, actually, but we’re only listing the top ten (along with some cast and director suggestions).

Before he was a snarky talk show host, Hanna-Barbera’s “Batman in space” fought evil aliens with his teenage sidekicks Jan and Jace and their monkey, Blip (not to be confused with the Wonder Twins’ space monkey, Gleek). A tongue-in-cheek live action version in the vein of THE INCREDIBLES could appeal to both kids and nerdy adults (and, if he wouldn’t mind mining the same territory, could be a perfect fit for director Brad Bird). Bruce Campbell, you’re not too old to don the diaphanous cape and save the galaxy from Brak and Zorak!

A group of living gargoyles in ancient Scotland are cursed to remain stone until their castle rises above the clouds. When a billionaire relocates the structure to Manhattan centuries later, the beings return to life at night, where they battle the evil denizens of the city. Now that Disney owns Marvel, this well-regarded ‘90s gothic superhero cartoon from the Mouse House seems like a no-brainer. Finally, a superhero movie that Tim Burton wouldn’t screw up!


The time is not ripe… not yet (as the disappointing SIMPSONS MOVIE showed). But someday, perhaps a decade after the show finally ends its historic run on TV (assuming that day ever comes), nostalgia is going to demand that Homer, Marge, Maggie, Bart, Lisa and the denizens of Springfield be resurrected, and since replicating an icon is an impossible task, why not try a live version? The big question is, where are they going to find so many actors with jaundice?

There are two ways to go here: A period piece set in the flirtatious flapper’s milieu of the 1930s could deal with the struggling singer’s career aspirations in the midst of the depression (with Dita von Teese in the title role?). OR, bring Betty into the present, as a wacky artist who, along with her eccentric friends (Grampy!), fights a group of corporate real estate developers with their eyes on the loft building they all share (or some David-vs-Goliath tale). Zooey Deschanel, perhaps? Or (dare I even suggest) Katy Perry?

Genndy Tartakovsky’s stylistically groundbreaking 1996 series introduced boy genius Dexter, whose seemingly endless hidden laboratory remained a secret from his clueless parents, but sadly, not his pesky older sister, DeeDee. A live adaptation would be tricky, but could be done, hopefully capturing the multi-leveled humor and sharp satiric quality. Sounds like a job for Spike Jonze!

A live version of Hanna-Barbera’s modern space-age family has been bandied about for years, but as with so many cartoon and comic book movies, it took time for filmmaking technology to reach the point where it could do the concept justice. The opportunity is there to make the movie a smart commentary on our ever-increasing reliance on technology and gadgetry, which would require a smart, seasoned filmmaker like John Landis or Harold Ramis… with Stephen Colbert as the beleaguered employee of Spacely’s Sprockets, George Jetson and Christina Hendricks as Jane, his wife?

Here’s a thought: Instead of repositioning MTV’s cynical cartoon heroine of the late 90’s as a live action teenager today, why not imagine Daria Morgendorffer as a woman on the cusp of 40, wallowing in the kind of tough self-analysis that middle age brings upon the lifelong nonconformists (Hello, Janeane Garofalo)? If Judd Apatow makes the movie, she’ll endure painful laser tattoo removal treatments, throw away her record collection, marry an accountant, have lots of babies and live happily ever after! Aw, nice!

It seems as if next year’s Spider-Man movie reboot is aimed more at the TWILIGHT set than the older fanboys who ate up Sam Raimi’s unabashedly retro superhero flicks. But if that film flops, why not go even younger with a live action adaptation of this ‘80s kiddie cartoon, featuring Spidey (Daniel Radcliffe needs a new franchise) teaming with the flaming hot Firestar (comeback for Lindsay Lohan, perhaps?) and the wisecracking Iceman (Frankie Muniz, your trainer awaits). They could even use that stupid poodle or whatever Aunt May’s annoying dog was in that show. Nah, maybe not.

H-B’s swingin’ sixties series pitted a diverse group of racers in eleven crazy, souped up cars against each other in road races across the country every week. Would the evil Dick Dastardly in his Mean Machine win by any means necessary? Or would the trophy go to Professor Pat Pending in his Convert-a-Car? Lazy Luke and Blubber Bear in the Arkansas Chug-a-Lug? Or what about the goth Gruesome Twosome in their Creepy Coupe? Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, here’s your chance to make up for LAND OF THE LOST!

I guess. I can’t stand anime, but I know lots of you folks love it, so I just picked a popular anime series at random. Hey, it’s got teenage ninjas and it’s fast paced and there’s colors and stuff! Win-win, right? What’s that? THE LAST AIRBENDER was based on an anime series? Oysh… next.

Of all the classic Looney Tunes / Merrie Melodies characters, the short-tempered schlub with the speech impediment is the most viable for a live action translation. And while it may seem like a fool’s errand, think about the possibilities of a black comedy set in a world that’s recognizable, but not quite real; Alexander Payne or Wes Anderson could meld the anarchic, surrealistic sensibilities of the classic Warner Bros. cartoons with a postmodern pathos to possibly create the first cartoon adaptation to screen at Sundance. Paul Giamatti, get to work on that rhotacism!

Okay, that was eleven, but the Naruto entry doesn’t count. Oh, and I know Miss Lion was a Lhasa Apso. I have the Internet, too, you know. The point is, as with comic books, the cartoon well is nowhere near empty, at least as far as Hollywood producers are concerned. Whether or not Internet reports of HONG KONG PHOOEY: THE MOVIE are true or not is beside the point; The fact is, it’s possible.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Summer Superhero Movie Recap: What Worked, What Didn't, What Comes Next

Now that Captain America has slung his mighty shield across the cineplexes, 2011’s summer superhero quadrumvirate—Thor, X-Men: First Class, Green Lantern and Cap—is ripe for a recap (SPOILERS WITHIN, PROCEED WITH CAUTION): What worked, what didn’t, and most importantly, what comes next? (Oh, and even though they bested all four DC and Marvel characters at the box office, I'm not counting the Transformers or Harry Potter, okay?).

Released: May 6. Worldwide box office to date: ~$444 million. Rotten Tomatoes rating: 6.7/10
Marvel Comics’ God of Thunder kicked off the superhero summer in a film directed by the Shakespeare-bred Kenneth Branagh, successfully introducing another lesser-known Avenger (ala “Iron Man”) to the general public.

WHAT WORKED: The scenes in Asgard are beautifully majestic, and the casting is pretty spot-on (with a few exceptions). Chris Hemsworth is suitably godlike, and the scenes of him learning his way in Midgard (uh, Earth) are pretty funny. Tom Hiddleston embodies Loki’s jealous conniving with abandon, never veering into caricature. Idris Elba as Heimdall, the Asgardian gatekeeper practically steals the show. And for the fanboys, Jeremy Renner’s cameo as Clint “Hawkeye” Barton was a nice “Avengers” tease.

WHAT DIDN’T WORK: Well… a lot, actually. Natalie Portman adds to her already substantial geek-film résumé while lacking any true gravitas as astrophysicist Jane Foster (Why exactly does Thor fall so hard for her? I can’t tell). Kat Dennings’ wisecracking Darcy is a grating rom-com stereotype who adds nothing to the story. But Thor’s biggest problem is one of scope: The Destroyer (a simple, mindless automaton) as a threat just doesn’t feel big enough, especially as the scene is confined to the tiny New Mexico town (it’s kind of like if the Phantom Zone villains had been defeated in East Houston, Idaho in “Superman II”). And alas, verily do I wish the Mighty Thor wouldst have spake in the regal Shakespearean dialect of the comics.

WHAT COMES NEXT: “The Avengers,” of course, and the post-credits scene teases that Loki is going to attempt to gain control of the Tesseract / Cosmic Cube, a Marvel Comics artifact that grants its possessor unlimited power (see the last film on this recap). After that, Thor is scheduled to return in another solo adventure, only this time without Kenneth Branagh at the helm.

Released: June 3. Worldwide box office to date: ~$345 million. Rotten Tomatoes rating: 7.4/10
Marvel Studios’ mutant prequel had maybe the lowest profile of the four films, making its wide critical success a pleasant surprise for the fanboys (it was the film I was anticipating the least, but enjoyed the most). 

WHAT WORKED: The 1962 setting allows director Matthew Vaughn to mine some new territory for the genre, and tying the public emergence of mutants to the Cuban Missile Crisis is a hoot, even if I wish they’d have milked the MAD MEN-milieu a bit more. Leads James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender both shine as the pre-Professor X and Magneto, and Kevin Bacon does some superb scene-chewing as the all-powerful Sebastian Shaw. The action is fantastic and that little cameo by a certain established X-Man is great fun (regardless of the profanity that offended so many delicate parents).

WHAT DIDN’T WORK: Sadly some of the supporting cast is either forgettable (Riptide, Housefly—er, Angel Salvadore and a sadly underused Banshee) or just plain bad (January Jones… Emma Frost is supposed to be diamond, not wooden). But the biggest beef with First Class is that it confusingly contradicts some of the continuity established by previous X-Men movies (such as when Charles ended up in a wheelchair and the presence of an adult Emma Frost, who appears as a teen in “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”).

WHAT COMES NEXT: Reportedly, First Class is supposed to be the first in a prequel trilogy, but with so many of the most popular X-Men used in the modern-day first three movies, they’re going to have to settle for some more mutant B-listers. My guess is that if Hugh Jackman weren’t still strapping on the adamantium claws for another Wolverine film, First Class would’ve been a simple reboot, allowing more of the comics’ original X-Men besides Beast (Cyclops, Angel, Iceman and Jean Grey, aka Marvel Girl) to be the founding members of the team.

Released: June 17. Worldwide box office to date: ~$146 million. Rotten Tomatoes rating: 4.6/10
The only DC Comics entrant in the superhero sweepstakes this year was a critical clunker and quickly fizzled at the box office, putting a serious damper on Warner Bros.’ attempt to build a successful cinematic DC Universe beyond Batman.

WHAT WORKED: The Green Lantern Corps has a vast mythology in the comics, a unique hybrid of science fiction and superheroics, which is actually captured pretty well in the film—as far as it goes. The planet Oa, the blue-skinned Guardians and the many otherworldly ring-bearers all look great. The special effects team did a really good job of bringing the different manifestations of the rings’ power to life. And Mark Strong makes an absolutely perfect Sinestro.

WHAT DIDN’T WORK: Almost everything else. Casting Ryan Reynolds as a smart-alecky Hal Jordan (the opposite of his personality in the comics) may have worked if they didn’t tack on his pointless crisis of self-doubt. Blake Lively is yet ANOTHER too-young, too-thin, too-inconsequential, forgettable female lead. Peter Sarsgaard is a great actor, but Hector Hammond is a dull, pointless villain. The film should’ve been a cosmic adventure taking advantage of its sci-fi pedigree, with numerous Green Lanterns battling Parallax as he cuts a destructive swath through space, heading towards Earth where the newest member of the Corps proves his mettle alongside his ring-wielding brethren. Ultimately, “Green Lantern” feels like a compromised product, a movie that could’ve been great until executives started worrying it wasn’t going to appeal to a wide enough audience and demanded more romance! More angst! More jokes! More toes on the costume! Yeesh.

WHAT COMES NEXT: The big difference between DC and Marvel is that Marvel has its own studio, and thus more autonomy in how its characters are depicted onscreen. DC Entertainment merely serves in an advisory capacity to the filmmakers who adapt their properties, and it’s rare that they end up in the hands of a visionary like Christopher Nolan. If a Green Lantern sequel is, uh, green-lanterned by Warner Bros., here’s hoping they have a little more faith in the source.

Released: July 22. Worldwide box office opening weekend: ~$66 Million. Rotten Tomatoes rating: 6.8/10
The final piece in the Avengers puzzle starts in WWII and ends in Times Square today, setting the stage for next year’s superhero epic.

WHAT WORKED: Sadly, not a whole heck of a lot. The evolution of Cap from USO monkey to super soldier is a nice embellishment of the origin. Tommy Lee Jones and Stanley Tucci are great, as always, and Hayley Atwell sure is pretty. But other than that, the best that can be said of “Captain America” is that it’s a serviceable final lead-in to “The Avengers.”

WHAT DIDN’T WORK: There’s a lot of wasted time and potential in this two hours (I’m guessing deleted scenes on the DVD will help). Like Ryan Reynolds in GL, Chris Evans was okay, but lacks the kind of emotional heft necessary to portray the “man out of time” he’ll be in future films. The Howling Commandos (as they’re called in the comics) are barely introduced, indicative of the lack of character development in this movie. Hugo Weaving’s Tesseract-wielding Red Skull is more cartoony than the version in the Avengers animated series. And, as predicted, the downplaying of the Nazi threat in favor of the fictional Hydra neuters any historical weight to the drama (a real missed opportunity). Ultimately, the entire film feels like an extended trailer for “The Avengers.”

WHAT COMES NEXT: Did we mention “the Avengers?” After that, of course, plans are for the star-spangled superhero to tackle modern day tyranny in his own sequel.

Four superhero movies in three months is certainly testing the tolerance for an oft-maligned genre, but those suffering from DC/Marvel fatigue will only have the rest of the year to recover. 2012 is going to be the biggest superhero movie year ever. Aside from Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, the Black Widow, Hawkeye and the Hulk teaming up in Joss Whedon’s “The Avengers,” there’s “The Amazing Spider-Man” reboot and the conclusion of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, “The Dark Knight Rises.” (Zack Snyder's "The Man of Steel" was just pushed from December 2012 to June 2013). And that’s not mentioning The Lone Ranger, Judge Dredd, Men in Black 3, John Carter (Warlord of Mars), Underworld: New Dawn…

In short, there’s still a lot of evil to defeat. The problem with superhero movies isn’t really that there are too many of them (after all, it’s just a genre… few people decry romantic comedies or horror films or police dramas based merely on their ubiquity). The problem is that the studios are often afraid to take creative chances, resulting in movies that feel like rote retreads (again, “The Dark Knight” being an enormous exception to the rule). Let’s keep our fingers crossed that when the Avengers assemble and Superman re-returns, there’ll be some true creative super-vision behind the films.