Wednesday, February 23, 2011

All Star Superman (Liu 2011)

Given the tragic death of All Star Superman (Liu 2011) screenwriter Dwayne McDuffie on Tuesday, February 22 2011, the same day that All Star Superman was released, I considered not reviewing the film like I have the other DC Animated films. In circumstances such as death, the criticism of a person’s work, either positive or negative, can take on a different tone and be misconstrued. Out of respect for Mr. McDuffie, I figured it would be best to avoid such problems.

However, while watching the film last night, a story about facing life and death with strength and dignity, I changed my mind. While flawed, All Star Superman is the final work from the acclaimed writer of comics and animation, and as such deserves to be seen and discussed as much as his other work, not ignored out of a misplaced attempt of respect.

All Star Superman is based on a twelve issue comic series of the same name by writer Grant Morrison and artist Frank Quitely, which focuses upon the final days of Superman (James Denton) as he discovers he is dying from solar poisoning, resulting from a rescue mission near the sun caused by Lex Luthor (Anthony LaPaglia). With his time running out, Superman sets about getting his affairs in order, from finally addressing his relationship with Lois Lane (Christina Hendricks), making sure the world is protected one final time, and trying to save the soul of Lex Luthor.

While many people have referred to the original comic version of the story as a deconstruction of Superman and his mythos, such a description is not fitting. Morrison and Quitely’s comic tale is not interested in breaking down the Man of Steel and exploring the contradictions and instable meanings of the character. Rather, the comic was a love letter to Superman, a tale that explores why Superman endures and is as relevant as ever in popular culture, even when it seems like his time is done. The story takes everything about Superman, from the iconic to the downright goofy, and gives it a sense of power and weight that most comic creators could only ever dream of achieving. Most important however is how Morrison and Quitley bring out of the complexities of the character by embracing his deceptive simplicity and seemingly all powerful nature, rather than trying to mitigate it as many writers since John Byrne have done to varying degrees of success. At times, Morrison’s messianic take on Kal-El is a bit much, but that is about the only criticism that can be held against the comic.

The challenge in adapting the comic into a film is that the source material is epic in scope, episodic in structure, and dense in detail and ideas, carrying the reader from moments of sheer awe, such as the opening rescue of a ship flying into the sun, to touchingly human moments, such as Superman’s visit to Smallville. To do it justice in a single film is likely impossible, or at the very least would require the running length of one of the Lord of the Rings extended cuts. As such, adapting the material into a 76 minute long direct to video film did not inspire much confidence, even with Bruce Timm and Dwayne McDuffie in charge. While their respective work on the acclaimed Batman: The Animated Series, Superman, the Animated Series Batman Beyond, Static Shock and Justice League television series have defined what the DC Universe is for me, the direct to video films have been a flawed bunch at best. While Batman: Under the Red Hood was fantastic, Superman/Batman: Public Enemies and Superman/Batman: Apocalypse were simple dreadful.

Given this, you can imagine my surprise at how well All Star Superman works in the format. Now, the finished film is far from what an adaptation of the source material could be, given the proper running time and budget, and part of me wishes that Zack Snyder would make the shock announcement that his up coming Superman film is an adaptation of this material. Still, All Star Superman is better than the film has any right to be given the limitations the filmmakers faced, as it keeps the heart of the story and Quitley’s gorgeous artwork mostly intact.

The approach taken to adapting the material though is one which I have frequently noted as being one of my least favourite, the cut and past abridged tactic where key scenes and ideas are directly lifted in order to “maintain” as much of the story as possible, while much of the connecting material is dropped. The end result of such adaptations more often than not is a finished film which feels like it is missing huge chunks of story, while never allowing the material that remains to breath. This is certainly the case in All Star Superman, best illustrated in an inappropriately comic moment at the grave site of Jonathan Kent, where Martha Kent kneels down for what appears to be a respectful prayer, only to get right back up and carry on a conversation without missing a beat less than a second later. That said, the strength of McDuffie’s script is that it does manage to identify and keep the most important material from the comics in the film, never losing sight of what the story is about. Only once does the film seem to stray off course by keeping the “paranoid Lois” chapter, a story that worked wonderfully in the comic but seems out of place in this condensed version of the narrative. Simply skipping ahead to Superman giving Lois her birthday gift would have allowed the film to flesh out one or two other scenes to the film’s benefit.

The flaws in the film however are partly smoothed over by the excellent casting in the film, starting with James Denton’s Superman. While I have heard criticism of Denton’s work as being too calm and saintly, I believe that for this interpretation of the character it is entirely fitting. This is a story in which we see Superman at his best and most noble, and Denton manages to project this through his work. Hendricks’ Lois is easily the best animated Lois Lane since Dana Delany, bringing a greater sense of warmth to the character than is usually seen in other interpretations.

The scene stealer however is Anthony LaPaglia as Luthor. Morrison boiled Luthor down to his essence in this story, a man driven by his own ego and an inferiority complex that he tries to deny. LaPaglia captures the nature of the character perfectly, particularly towards the end of the film when he is required to deliver an emotion laden speech built entirely out of complex science terminology. With any luck, if Luthor appears in future DC animated films, LaPaglia will be allowed to reprise the role.

(One thing to do while watching: listen carefully for a surprise appearance by Michael Gough in a rather small and peculiar part.)

On the animation front, the work here is stellar as usual from this crew. Quitely’s artwork has been simplified down in order to better translate to animation, but little the awe and emotion captured in his work has been lost. Indeed, the animation crew seems to have gone above and beyond their usual efforts with this film, and while it never quite hits the level of a theatrical feature film, it comes close.

Unfortunately, for all of these positive points about the film, I think the word “close” is the defining term for the finished film. All Star Superman is a film always on the verge of hitting its true greatness, but never quite makes it all the way. It is a film which perfectly illustrates the constraints in which these films are produced, the constraints which hold back these filmmakers from making films that fully achieve their ambitions. Warner Brothers needs to give these people the resources they need to make a truely epic piece of superhero animation, because what they have here in All Star Superman is a good film, when it could have been great.

Still, if the DC Animated films are to continue as a series of DTV releases, perhaps it is time to find a Superman story that is brilliant, but manageable in the format of 76 minutes. A story that many fans would love to see.

A story like "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?"…

Sunday, February 20, 2011

So...Where have I been?

Short answer: two jobs, one online course, and a short trip out of town. So, my plannned reviews for the month went to hell in a hand basket.

On the plus side, it looks like things are clearing up, so my goal is two have two reviews up this week covering three films, all of which are direct to video.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Steel (Johnson 1997)

I did not plan this. I really did not. After reviewing the 1997 comic book failure Spawn (ok, after using the film as an excuse to talk about Roger Ebert and his critical practice), I had not planned to review another of the three bad comic book film from the same year.

Yet, here I am reviewing Steel (Johnson 1997), perhaps the most forgotten about film ever based on a superhero comic. Based on the DC comic book character created by Louise Simonson and Jon Bogdanove in the aftermath of Superman’s “death” in the early 1990s, Steel was a last ditch attempt to try and launch basketball superstar Shaquille O’Neal’s acting “career.” The end result was dumped into theatres in August of 1997, and I was one of the few people to actually pay to see the film in a theatre (it was a birthday gift to my younger brother who was a fan of the character, before you ask). It was out of theatres about a week later and on video not too long after that, where it was promptly forgotten. Deservedly so.

Except, there is a historical value to Steel, though we need to look back a decade or two previous to the film, and to the medium of television. In the late 1970s and into the 1980s, a surprising number of comic book superheroes made their way onto television either in TV movies or full fledged television series. These programs, however, were often generic action series and/or crime shows that treated the concept of the superhero as little more than gimmick to liven up an otherwise tried format. The villains were common criminals rather than super villains, the actual moments of super heroics were limited in scale, usually being saved for the final act, and, like most American television of the time, the plotting was episodic and repetitive. Most of these attempts were terrible, such as the live action Spider-Man series and the horrendous Captain America TV movie starring Reb Brown. Often, the very best of these shows were not based on actual comics, such as the cheesy-but-charming Greatest American Hero.

The best known and arguably best of these programs was The Incredible Hulk series starring Billy Bixby and Lou Ferrigno. Taking the basic concept of the comic, that of a scientist who in an accident gains the ability to turn into a raging green beast when he becomes angry, the series combined it with the framework of the successful television series The Fugitive, with David Banner (Bixby) on the run, looking for a cure and helping the people he meets along the way, often assisted and/or hindered by his monstrous alter ego (Ferrigno). The series was goofy and formula driven, but Bixby made (and still makes) for a compelling lead, and the core concept was strong enough for the series to be engaging on a weekly basis.

The man behind bringing The Incredible Hulk to television, along with The Bionic Woman, was Kenneth Johnson, who also wrote and directed the original V mini-series in 1983, and directed the 1988 film Short Circuit 2. Johnson is also the writer and director of Steel, and to the production he brings pretty much the exact same approach to the film as he did to The Incredible Hulk. As such, Steel’s creative and financial failings are take on a symbolic dimension, providing late close to an era of comic book superheroes on film and television, an era in which filmmakers actively tried and suppress what superheroes are in an attempt to make them more “palatable” to mainstream audiences.

The story of Steel is that of John Henry Irons (O’Neal), a military weapons designer who resigns after his latest weapon cripples his friend and colleague Susan Sparks (Annabeth Gish, The X-Files) in a demonstration mishandled by weapon co-designer Burke (Judd Nelson, The Breakfast Club). Returning home, Irons is shocked to find his weapons are now in the hands of gang members, thanks to Burke. When the military decides not to intervene, Irons decides to take matters into his own hands. Reuniting with Sparks and teaming with a wise old junkyard owner (Richard Roundtree of Shaft fame), Irons builds himself a suit of armour and takes to the streets as Steel.

From start to finish, Steel is little more than a late 1980s/early 1990s TV movie that somehow found its way into cinemas, written and shot in the most perfunctory manner possible by Johnson. It is a film peopled by caricatures and stereotypes instead of characters, in a tale that is not engaging either emotionally or intellectually. It is a passionless project where almost everyone involved are working only to collect their cheques, and the lack of care shows in every single frame.

Were the film merely bad on that level, it would simply be forgettable. What makes Steel particularly awfully is just how much contempt for the intelligence of the audience is visible on screen, particularly towards its supposed target audience: children. Steel is a “family” film of the worst kind, preaching a clich├ęd message of believing in ones self and the value of hard work in the most condescending manner possible. Characters frequently stand about and make speeches that spell out the morals of the film, enough so that by the time Roundtree makes a comment at the end of the film about what one can do when they “really put their mind to it,” I was ready to put on Crank 2 in order to see something entirely amoral. Worse, the film frequently draws in the most superficial manner possible on then popular youth culture, just so it can condemn it in an idiotic fashion. For example, Burke’s post military weapons development is financed by a videogame CEO, if you can believe it, while a child character finds himself in danger because he takes what he believes to be a legitimate job at the same company.

(Note to filmmakers who are determined to make message films for children: it is unlikely kids will buy into your message when you are constantly telling them how bad their culture is. Please keep in mind.)

However, as much contempt as the film might have towards its youthful target audience, it is nothing compared to the contempt the film shows towards the superhero genre. While Johnson’s previous effort The Incredible Hulk may not have held much interest in grand scale science fiction and fantasy, it took the concept of the Hulk seriously, never asking the audience to laugh at the premise. As bad as the Spider-Man television series was, even it never actively sought to have the audience laugh at the very idea of Spider-Man. And while The Greatest American Hero might have been a piece of light comedy action television, its humour was born out of a love of superheroes. The series knew superheroes could be ridiculous, but damn it, they were still a ton of fun.

No such love or respect exists in Steel. At the best of times, the film is merely uninterested in the superhero concept, never bothering to make John Henry Irons in his superhero outings impressive or dignified. In fact, Irons spends most of his time being beaten badly or getting by on sheer luck over the course of the film. Even his “support” team proves to be more effective at fighting crime than Irons ever is during the course of the film. The only effort put in to make Irons seem imposing is in the way Johnson and director of photography Mark Irwin try to emphasize how tall their star is.

Which brings us to Shaquille O’Neal. To be fair to O’Neal, he is clearly trying with all his heart to give a good performance, but the man simply is not an actor. Irons is supposedly a great weapons designer, soldier, and a decent man. Of these, O’Neal is only able to pull of the decency of Irons, never managing to project the intelligence or disciplined mind that we could reasonably expect of a solider or someone who is scientifically inclined. Worse, Irons is motivated by an anger at his work being misappropriated, but O’Neal’s attempts at acting angered and outraged are limited to him barely raising his voice.

The unimpressive nature of the title character is highlighted all the more by his equally unimpressive opponent in the form of Judd Nelson’s Burke. A standard issue villain who merely wants power, casting Nelson as Burke is the biggest piece of miscasting in the film, even more so than O’Neal. While Nelson is a solid actor, there is nothing particularly threatening about him, and certainly nothing to indicate a criminal mastermind. His performance turns Burke into little more than a weasel-like midlevel thug, which makes Irons look all the more pathetic when Burke seemingly defeats him at every turn.

Given how poor a hero Irons is thanks to Johnson’s failings, the moments of unfunny humour in the film fail to be gentle ribbings on the character, and function more as an all out assault on the concept of superheroes. Were the film an intelligent deconstruction and/or comedy of superheroes, I might have been willing to go along with this total attack on superhero fiction. Instead, Johnson seems to be trying to shame fans of the genre and laugh at them, repeatedly yelling at them through Steel “Really? This is what you are a fan of?” Johnson only succeeds in revealing his misconceptions and misunderstanding of the genre, as well as its fans.

The thing about this is that in tearing down superheroes and heroics, Johnson is pretty much undermining his own supposed message at the heart of Steel. It is a film ostensibly about what can be done with determination and hard work, but the truth of the matter is that the film is about a man who dreams big and fails, made by a man who dreams small and fails. As such, Steel is an oddly cynical work for a family film, peddling messages that its own filmmaker does not even seem to believe in, in a genre that he admits to not even liking. As bad as Spawn is, it at least seems to be made by people who enjoy working in the genre, and were trying their best to make their film work even as it failed.

Of course, having now established that Steel is worse than Spawn, it would only be logical to see where the third terrible comic book film of 1997 ranks with these two. So come back soon as I tackle the notorious, and perhaps most hated film in all of comic book fandom, Batman and Robin (Schumacher 1997).