Monday, August 24, 2015

See formula for success, copy formula for success

The latest D.C. comic book movie news trickling out this week is one of the most egregious examples of Hollywood doing something that Hollywood obviously does: Try to fit a square peg into a round hole, because that particular square peg was so successful in its square hole.

To put a finer point on it, Hollywood steals what it thinks is hot and tries to spread the heat -- even if its application of that heat is not particularly logical.

What other explanation for Australian visionary filmmaker George Miller -- who has really only been called a visionary for about the past three months -- being rumored to direct the next Superman film?

That's right, Man of Steel 2 is supposed to in the hands of the director of Mad Max: Fury Road, because the only message Hollywood has gotten from the success of Fury Road is "We need to make movies that look like this."

Which, to be fair, is a great message to take from the movie, and not only because it could actually be a financial boon to the company. We should want to see more movies like Mad Max: Fury Road.

Assuming, that is, the movie would benefit from a Mad Max: Fury Road style approach. And it's not entirely clear that Man of Steel 2 would. (I'd argue that not any style of approach would probably put Warner Brothers in a position to make a better Superman movie, but that's another discussion.)

To understand why George Miller is a square peg to Man of Steel's round hole -- though maybe he should be the round one and Superman the square one -- you need to look no further than the reason everyone thought the latest Mad Max was great: It had almost exclusively practical stunts and used digital effects only when (rarely) necessary.

I'm sorry, how again do you make Superman fly without the use of a computer? Unless, that is, you're borrowing one of those human cannonball cannons from a 1930s circus.

And then you've got the fact that in these "darker" D.C. movies, many if not most scenes seem to take place at night. At least in the Batman movies, they do. (And isn't Batman probably going to be in Man of Steel 2 anyway?) Who do you want to get to direct a great night scene? Oh yeah, how about the guy who doesn't have a single action scene at night in his currently hot film, and in fact seems to revel in the very clarity of action provided by the blinding whiteness of the desert?

Seems like a great fit, yeah?

I'm sure this news has geeks salivating, though. Even if Mad Max wasn't necessarily in the wheelhouse of most comic book nerds -- though it was probably close enough -- few of them would have failed to recognize a certain greatness in the film. (I say "a certain greatness" only because I have some qualms about that movie, ones that are ultimately unimportant to the current discussion.) Those comic book nerds can just imagine how someone making a movie like that could redeem Superman's tarnished silver screen image.

But the only reason Miller could make a movie like that was because he was largely free from studio meddling. His heart and soul pulses through every frame of the film, and takes the physical form of the grit in the camera lens. Give him something like Superman, and he won't be able to do the things he did that made Fury Road what it was.

Oh sure, the studio will tell him he has carte blanche, in the hopes of tricking him into that headspace where his colossal gambles end up making great art rather than great trainwrecks. And they might think they're actually giving him carte blanche, because they might be hip enough to know that their own meddling is the kind of poison that kills lesser movies. But once the first sign of that possible trainwreck, the type of trainwreck that worked out great for Fury Road, rears its head, they'll be meddling like they've never meddled. And some outlandish use of risky and expensive practical ideas will be immediately replaced by digital images and mouse clicks.

Don't forget, Marvel tried this already when they hired Edgar Wright to write and direct Ant-Man. Remember how that turned out? Yeah, Wright felt so pinned in by concessions to the studio's creative direction for the project and for its intertwined universe that he left the movie, and a much more pliable director was brought in to churn out a hack job. (A hack job with some enjoyable moments, but a hack job that I have nonetheless basically already forgotten.) What makes them think Miller would bend any more agreeably to the constraints of the D.C. universe? If he doesn't, he'll walk off just like Wright. And if he does, they won't get the Miller they hired to make a special kind of movie. They'll get the Miller who made Happy Feet. (Okay, Happy Feet is not that bad. But I don't like it very much.)

Miller is accustomed to making his movies adhere to a universe, but it's a universe he created and he has overseen. And he's willing to deviate from the particulars of story and plot that are in other parts of his universe in order to keep the essence of the universe intact, which is what made Fury Road what it was. Give him someone else's universe of scowling superheroes and he'll wonder what he's gotten himself into.

So we can all superficially applaud Warner Brothers for trying to do right by its most famous superhero property, for its attempt at really "getting it" -- really hearing the audience feedback and trying to make a better movie.

But check back with me two years from now, and when Brett Ratner's name appears on Man of Steel 2, you'll know why.

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