The Current State Of Comic Book Movies, And Thoughts On The Future

Some time into Avengers: Age of Ultron, I came to the realization that the comic book movie genre is going to go through major, major changes in the next several years.

I am going to share a lot of varied opinions on the genre here, some complimentary and others negative. Because of that, I’m going to come outright and say this; I fucking love comic book movies. Love them love them love them. I look forward their releases, and more often than not I have a fun time watching them. Speaking frankly, as someone who grew up as a comic book fan and also vividly remembers the pre-Iron Man era of the genre, I couldn’t be happier that they have reached such a level of popularity and, for the most part, consistent quality. Because, not long ago, comic book movies as a whole were simply awful. They were either MTV-reject dreck such as Daredevil and Ghostrider, unbearably corny offerings like the Fantastic Four series, or overly stylized music videos like 300 (if you’ve never seen 300… please, do yourself a favor and do not watch 300). The genre has grown tremendously since 2008, with Marvel offering a cohesive cinematic universe of fun popcorn movies, Fox giving out some truly exciting and emotionally resonating films with X-Men: First Class and last year’s excellent Days of Future Past, and DC giving us The Dark Knight. Even some of the missteps, most notably the fascinating mess that was Man of Steel, still offer some glimpses at the potential of director-driven superhero blockbusters; just imagine if DC had given the same amount of artistic license to an actual visionary director, and by that I mean someone who is not Zack Snyder. The point is, we live in a time where comic book movies are more often than not good movies, a concept which was unheard of ten years ago.

Avengers: Age of Ultron, a movie that I saw with friends on opening day as a birthday present to myself, is indicative of what I believe the next wave of superhero movies will be. I personally found the movie to be great silly fun, which is certainly Joss Whedon’s strong suit, but not without its flaws; and how Marvel (and, subsequently, the other major studios) reacts to both its merits and its drawbacks will strongly influence the coming tide of superhero titles. I will start with what the movie does well – character, team dynamics, memorable quippy dialogue, and action with clear regard to collateral. The characters are all portrayed very well here, and many of the minor Avengers get some much-needed development (most notably Hawkeye, who is fleshed out much better here than he was in the film’s predecessor, and ends up being the unexpected heart and soul of the movie). The teammates all have great interplay and interactions, showcased best during a party sequence early in the film which I believe is the best scene altogether. A majority of the jokes land, and the movie’s sense of humor keeps it from taking itself too seriously for its own good. Finally, something which was a major relief to me, the climax does not forget that superheros are supposed to save people firstpunch bad guy second. Perhaps as a response to the oft maligned destruction-without-consequence that made up the last 45 minutes of Man Of Steel, the Avengers are clearly shown to be taking the safety of citizens as their top priority, focusing on evacuating the city before concentrating all their efforts on stopping RoboSpader.

However, this movie is not without its faults, and I bring them up because some of them point to trends in the genre that stand in the way of overall growth – overstuffing action at the expense of character, over-reliance on outside media, and problematic story elements. While there are quite a few excellent character moments throughout the film, it often feels like those moments are struggling to share screentime with the Big Bombastic Setpieces; and it is easy to see why that would be the case, since the rigid formula that Marvel movies (successfully) adhere to essentially calls for a Big Bombastic Setpiece every 20 minutes. Whedon has gone on record that about an hour has been cut from the film, most of it being character scenes, in order to keep the movie under 3 hours and make room for all the action; this is problematic because, while I am a big fan of athletic actors punching face, ultimately it is character that drives story forward, not action. The movie begins and ends with exciting, elaborate action sequences, and I cannot help but feel that there could have been action in between those parts that could have been trimmed down in favor of more character development; I look forward to seeing the Extended Cut that is supposed to be released with the Blu Ray, to get a better grasp on what exactly was sacrificed for the action. Beyond that, the major problem that specifically Marvel Studios suffers from is their reliance on outside media to patch up and explain story elements in their movies; to name a specific example from Avengers, apparently the Hellicarrier that Nick Fury resurrects in the finale is explained on an episode of Agents of SHIELD. I do not watch Agents of SHIELD. I do not have an interest in ever watching Agents of SHIELD. I should not have to watch Agents of SHIELD to get background information on a moment that should have been explained in the movie that it occurred in. A cohesive cinematic universe of movies and television series is a fun idea, but these projects should all work as standalone stories without having to rely on outside stories to explain other elements.

The third big problem in the newest Avengers, and a problem with the genre as a whole, is the aforementioned problematic story elements. I am not going to devote the rest of this article to feminism – no, that is a conversation for a different day. I am, however, going to touch upon it briefly, because feminism is: A) Important to quality storytelling, character development, and the future longevity of the superhero genre, and B) Something that this genre, and Marvel Studios in particular, has had problems with. I will start off by saying that, for the most part, Black Widow is a very engaging, fun, and well written character in this movie. Joss Whedon is not perfect in his representation of female characters despite his good intentions, but he remembers one thing that many, many screenwriters forget: Women are human beings, writing human beings as well-rounded characters is essential to writing a good story, therefore writing women as well-rounded characters is essential to writing a good story. However, he still includes two instances in the film which are problematic in their representation of women; the first is the now-infamous “Monster scene”. While revealing to Bruce Banner that she cannot have children, a moment that was otherwise a very sobering and effective piece of character development, Black Widow ends her revelation with the sentence “So I guess you’re not the only monster here,” a line that is absurdly offensive and ends the scene in very, very poor taste. Do I think Whedon actually believes that sterile women are monsters? Of course not, that would make him a horrible man, and in my experiences he is a very well-intentioned person who would never view women through such an antiquated and frankly misogynistic lense. But Whedon’s personal views do not detract from the fact that this scene comes off as abhorrently sexist, nor do they absolve him from writing it. This line pushes the age-old belief that women who are unable to carry children are “incomplete” or “not real women”, and it completely sours the scene by taking a moment that could have been very empowering toward women who cannot have children, and turning it into a scene that instead looks down upon them. This is why I look forward to seeing the extended cut; perhaps there is a scene at the end of the film where Black Widow comes to terms with her sterilization and realizes that not being able to have children does not make her a monster. I dearly, dearly hope there is such a scene.

The second moment occurs in the third act, wherein Black Widow is taken hostage by Ultron and Bruce Banner comes in to save her. Not only does this scene feel  completely unnecessary due to the fact that Act 3 has a perfectly fine amount of action without it, it also pushes the Damsel in Distress trope, another sexist storytelling device that paints women as helpless victims who need men to save them. In addition, it’s so weirdly out of character for Black Widow, who has always been portrayed in these movies as being more than able to hold her own and certainly able to escape a metal cage without the help of her boyfriend. These two moments are very frustrating because, if they were taken out, Black Widow would have otherwise been a very refreshingly well-written female character; by all accounts, throughout the rest of the movie she is just as engaging, likable, and fun as the rest of the team. I bring this up because this inconsistent treatment of women – which, to be clear, is also a major problem with blockbusters and movies as a whole, so it is not just specific to comic book movies – is something that, if not improved going forward, could be a severe danger to the overall longevity of the sub genre. Women make up approximately half of the audience for superhero movies, and if these inconsistencies in their representation don’t improve as time goes on, these films might very easily lose that audience. Perhaps this is the optimist in me shining through, but I feel we are definitely heading in the right direction in regards to women in superhero movies; characters we have now such as Black Widow and Gamora from last year’s Guardians of the Galaxy are much better written than the women in older superhero movies (just compare Gwen Stacy in the recent Amazing Spider-Man series to Mary Jane in the Spider-Man movies from ten years prior; Stacey is leaps and bounds better as a character), and between the announcement of upcoming female-led superhero movies like Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman, plus the fact that Selma director Ava DuVarney is currently being tapped to direct an upcoming Marvel Studios project, I believe the future of the genre bodes well for the cinematic treatment of women.

Moving on from the newest Avengers outing, the not-too-distant future of comic book movies is going to face another obstacle to overcome; overcrowding. Marvel’s Phase 3 bracket is already packed, with a whopping total of 10 films planned between now and 2019. In addition, we have DC jumping into the fold, putting their own cinematic universe into full swing next year with David Ayer’s Suicide Squad and Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, a movie that I don’t have to come up with a dumb sarcastic title for because it already did that for me. On top of that, we’ll have Fox putting out more X-Men movies, Deadpool coming in 2016, and whatever the hell Sony’s doing. That’s roughly 5-7 comic book movies per year. That’s a lot. This will either end two ways: A) All of these studios continue with their successful formulas and story structures and visual aesthetics and the general public gets burned out by around 2018 and the genre implodes, or B) The increase of products forces each studio to take more risks, switch up their familiar formulas, and we get 5 more years of truly different and exciting comic book movies. The comic book fan in me wants this genre to continue as long as possible, but the film fan in me knows that in order for that to happen we absolutely need more diversity, more genuine risks, and more legitimate attempts at making these movies grow rather than remain stagnant.

Perhaps it’s the optimist in me speaking again, but I genuinely believe these studios will pick the second option.

Billy Zabka and the Spiders From Mars

People who willingly have soul patches should never be trusted.

That is one of the basic truths of existence that my experiences have taught me; don’t eat after brushing, never order from Papa John’s, and most importantly, no fucking soul patches. That was the thought repeatedly streaming through my head like a 3 AM infomercial as I stood in the Vice Principal’s office.

As I’m sure you have figured out, the Vice Principal has a soul patch.

His office looked like the wet dream of a man who reads The Family Circus on a daily basis. Knick-Knacks hanging next to a novelty mounted fish that probably sang if you pressed a button, volumes of reading materials like The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens that adults read to understand their teenaged offspring as if everyone between the ages of thirteen and eighteen are all part of a collective hive mind, and topped off with a poster of a milky white cat hanging from a tree with an oh-so-clever caption saying “Hang In There!”

This office was like the physical manifestation of the word impotent.

I prefer a simpler method of fashion statements. And by simple, I mean the charcoal hoodie that I’ve been wearing on a near daily basis since Freshman year, stained with god knows how many remnants of Cheetos and discarded droplets of Mayonnaise. I’m a Hellman’s man; Miracle Whip makes me sad. I ran a hand through my dirty blonde hair, which naturally points upward. Everyone accuses me of using hair gel to get it like that, but gel would destroy the kitten-esque softness that it naturally maintains. There’s no way in Hell I’d let a handful of glorified bacon grease take my head-blanket away from me.

My eyes found themselves wandering over to Ralph. The fluorescent light glistened off his adeptly conditioned auburn hair, contrasted with perfection against his pale complexion. Eyes as dark a brown as the bottom of a Tijuana toilet during Spring Break laid dormant, unfeeling, like the glint of a stained-glass church window. A lily white T-Shirt with the name BOWIE imprinted across the front hugged his ruggedly sculpted torso.

He smelled like apples. I like the smell of apples.

Ralph’s face was frozen in the same portrait of unadulterated apathy that he has worn for the past 18 years, and yet I could still make out faint scribblings of pure disdain for the monument to 1970s Brady Bunch wholesomeness that was this office.

The Vice Principal took a loud swig from his flask before speaking, “Okay, boys, here’s the deal. You probably think I called you in here to discuss last week’s…incident.”

I scoffed, “C’mon, chief. It was a minor infraction at best.”

The VP and Ralph threw me looks as if I had just defecated on the antique rug beneath my feet.

VP spoke first, after a silence too uncomfortable for my liking, “Billy. A member of the faculty was murdered in cold blood, and you two went off playing Batman on your own investigation instead of doing the sensible thing and, you know, calling the police.”

I shrugged, “True. But we did solve the murder, did we not?”

Ralph monotonously chimed in, “You slapped the suspect to death and left the body in the rec room.” He said this with perfect detachment, as if he was reading aloud the mundane exploits of some 16th century hootenanny in our World History class.

I turned, indignant, to Ralph, “Well excuse me, Schooly McCool, for laying down the cold hand of Justice.”

The VP lit a cigarette, which was all kinds of illegal on school grounds.

His voice strained, as if he got no sleep and started the day with decaf, “I didn’t bring you two in here to discuss how…murder-y your last case got. I called you in because we need your help.”

Ralph said, “Did someone go Number 2 in the Biology Wing urinal again?”

The VP shot back irritably, “As much as it pains me to say this, I wish. During his rounds last night, the janitor stumbled upon a corpse in the dumpster behind the cafeteria. Given that, despite his eccentricities, he’s a human being gifted with a rational sense of good judgement, he actually alerted the police. Because that’s what smart people do.”

I felt the sudden urge to urinate.

As he talked, I realized he bore an uncanny resemblance to Steve Guttenberg, “The police think it’s an open-and-shut case; probably homeless, since he wasn’t in our student database and was also, y’know, found in a dumpster. But let’s just say I’ve ripped my nipples on enough Band-Aids to know a cold-blooded murder when I see one.”

Ralph politely raised a finger, “What does that even mean?”

VP ignored this valid inquiry, “I want you two to get to the bottom of this. You’re loose cannons, but you get the job done.”

Ralph piped up, “No offense, but we normally investigate crap like stolen lunch money. Students sitting on photo copiers and printing pictures of their butts. Mundane stuff like that. Murder isn’t exactly our forte.”

The VP glared, “You mean, besides that other murder that you illegally investigated, which we literally just talked about?”

Ralph replied, “That was different. That was personal. I don’t think this will be–”

I slammed my fists onto the VP’s desk with the vigor of a ramaging hippo left alone during mating season. The VP’s eyes widened; I think he was under the impression that I was going to hit him. Ralph’s eyes flashed a dancing glint of surprise, which, by his standards, is about the same as soiling his briefs.

I flashed a wide grin, “We’re on the case, chief! This nefarious fiend will soon taste the sting of our moist, sweaty justice.”

Ralph rested his face in his palm, “Billy, I swear to god, that’s not going to be your new catch phrase.”

I shot back, “It’s been decided, Macchio.” I grabbed his hand and practically bounced out of the office.

There’s something sinister about freshly waxed floors the day after a murder.

It’s difficult to put into words, but I imagine it’s similar to the feeling an employee at the Watergate Hotel had when they used a paper shredder the morning after the break-in. Innocent enough, but given the macabre happenings that transpired the night before, even the most mundane act of janitorial cleanliness reeked of suspicion.

Ralph and I were following a trail of breadcrumbs to pin down the Janitor. No, literally, the man leaves a trail of breadcrumbs everywhere he goes. I asked him about it once, but he simply shrugged and said “Ghosts,” as if it were as obvious a question as “Hey, what’s 2+2?” or “Hey, what’s better, Short Circuit or Short Circuit 2?”

The answer is clearly Short Circuit 2.

The Janitor was a curious man. At first glance he looked young, maybe 28 at the oldest. He bore an uncanny resemblance to Donald Glover if Donald Glover had a mustache.

I like mustaches. They’re inherently hilarious, and more heartwarming than soul patches.

The Janitor will often pop up whenever you need him, but don’t quite know it yet. Like when you drop a banana peel on the floor unknowingly, or when an underclassmen vomits in the hallway because they just learned about anal tearing in health class and you’re about to step in it. One time I spilled taco grease on my hoodie and felt a light breeze. I turned around and discovered that he took my hoodie off without me noticing and started scrubbing it with OxiClean.

The Janitor was a curious man.

We found him on the roof, playing a harmonica. The tune sounded familiar, something distantly recognizable that tugged at the edges of my memory like a reflection hidden in the ripples of pond water.

It was the theme song from Space Jam.

I spoke up first, “Excuse me, Mister…Janitor?”

He ceased playing that beautiful tune, “I swear to God, if someone left a dookie in the Bio Wing urinal again–”

I interjected, “No no no, it’s not that. Although you never know, it is Flu season. But we’re here about…erm, Ralph, help me out. What’s a nice way of saying murder?”

Ralph spoke up, “We’re here about the murder.”

Ralph always had a poet’s grasp on the English language.

The Janitor lit a cigar, “Oh, Dumpster Bait. What about him?”

I rubbed my stomach because talking makes me hungry, “The 5-0 dismissed the case, but the VP thinks there’s something suspicious about it.”

The Janitor blew out a puff of thick grey smoke, “Really? He thinks there’s something suspicious about a human corpse in a public high school’s dumpster?”

Ralph spoke again, “Yeah. Imagine that.”

I chimed in, “You were the one who found the body. Did you see anything suspicious? Like a lone figure in Victorian garbs slinking into the shadows?”

The Janitor gave me a quizzical stare, “If you’re asking me if I saw Jack The Ripper, the answer’s no.”

Damn. One of these days.

He continued, “But I did see a few shifty folks wearing trench coats. They shuffled off toward the gymnasium by the time I got to the dumpster.”

Ralph said, “People who wear trench coats are generally up to no good. That’s, like, the universal sign of being up to no good.”

For a man as eerily emotionless as Ralph, he sure was adept at observing human behavior.

The Janitor took a long puff from his cigar, “You boys be careful out there. Nameless bodies found in dumpsters spell out nothing but trouble. And the sketchy tall kid is right; people don’t wear trench coats if they don’t got something to hide. Storm’s brewin’ off in the distance. Keep your wits, and don’t wander headlong into it.”

We thanked the Janitor for his time and left him be, where he could resume his melancholy rendition of the Space Jam theme. The words flooded my mind as the sound of his harmonica edged away into the distance.

Come on and slam

And welcome to the jam

I sent Ralph on dumpster duty. We could cover more ground if we employed the Scooby Doo tactic of investigation, and I’ll be damned if I have to sort through discarded homework and used condoms and empty boxes simply labeled “Mystery Meat”. The gym sounded much more promising, and less prone to potential STDs.

I’m not sure what I expected to find in the alley behind the gymnasium. A sinister gang of murderous basketball players would be a plus. Not every day you get to catch the Harlem Globetrotters in the act of murder. Maybe we could settle our differences in a high-stakes basketball match?

No. The Globetrotters are too pure of heart to be capable of murder. And I still refuse to rule out Jack The Ripper as a potential suspect.

A dense layer of fog rolled into the alley, the kind that would normally be accompanied by melodramatic piano music. I felt cold, the kind of cold you feel when you get out of a lukewarm shower on a mid-December morning, only this time accompanied by the universal sensation of Oh Dear God I Need To Pee. And underneath all of this, beneath the fear and the cold and the wet spot slowly forming in my pants, lay the shivering suspicion that I was being watched.

This was because I was actually being watched.

Five figures stood in a circle, surrounding me. They all wore the same shabby trench coat, like the ones you’d see on homeless Vietnam veterans or suspects on 10 PM re-runs of To Catch A Predator. Their faces, while humanoid in nature, were gaunt and peeling, as if they were just decrepit gray rubber pulled over a human skull that was put together by someone with only a vague concept of what a human being is supposed to look like. They were the kind of people you would probably notice if they surrounded you like some twisted Open Circle therapy group.

A sharp blast of pain mated with the back of my head.

Tire iron.

The bastards hit me with a tire iron.

I saw stars, and then there was Nothing.

So let’s say you’re in Outer Space.

You’re surrounded by a sea of stars and nebulas spattered like droplets of multi-colored paint against a pitch black canvas. No wind. No weight. Just you, and the infinite Nothing.

Then imagine you have to pee like a racehorse.

So the stars get wider, and the black between the stars gets edged out into infinity until there is nothing but white.

White, and cold.

Let’s say you were never in space.

Let’s say you were in a snow-covered Canadian tundra, buck-ass nude.

You don’t know why you thought it was space. Maybe it took a while for your eyes to adjust to all the white, and you saw the outer limits of the cosmos instead. Maybe you took too many hallucinogens a few hours ago and they just wore off.

Maybe you have a pretty bad drug problem.

But it doesn’t matter now because you’re cold, you’re naked, and you have to urinate. So you pee in the snow. Maybe while you’re relieving yourself, you decide to write out your name in cursive. No, that’s too obvious.

You draw a dragon with your own urine.

Let’s say you have less-than-stellar art skills and your dragon ends up looking like a person. A person made of concentrated liquids released through urethral expulsion. Maybe the person looks like you.

My god. That pee-person is gorgeous.

But the person moves; the urine shifts its form in the snow, growing a bulbous abdomen and a head the size of a small tennis ball. Eight spiny, decrepit legs extend out from its abdomen.

Maybe it wasn’t emerging from the snow at all.

Maybe it was emerging from your stomach.

Maybe you want to wake up now.

Maybe I want to wake up now.

I woke with a jolt.

Too much of a jolt. I didn’t take into account the seismic earthquake pounding in my head that tends to happen when you get knocked unconscious with a tire iron.

Really regretting waking with a jolt right about now.

The smell of old basketballs filled my nostrils. Every slight squeak of my orange sneakers against the waxed floor sent echoes reverberating through the room. All the lights were off, save for one solitary flood light glaring down on me.

Gymnasium. These malevolent bastards took me to the gymnasium.

A familiar monotonous voice echoed beside me, “Billy?”

My head perked up, “Ralph! Bro hug!”

A sharp pain shot through my arms as they struggled against the ropes binding them.

Chair. These malevolent bastards tied me to a chair. In the goddamn gymnasium.

I sighed, “Okay, no bro hug. They caught you too?”

Ralph responded, “Yep. They were waiting for me in the dumpster.”

I flavored my voice with a sprinkle of sympathy, “They got you with the tire iron?”

Ralph looked up, “No. Chloroform.”

Our attackers seemed to be incredibly inconsistent. If you have chloroform, logic dictates that you use it for both parties. A tire iron? That’s a safety hazard and an angrily worded lawsuit waiting to happen.

Five trenchcoated figures shambled into the flood light.

Time for me to work my Zabka magic.

“We got you right where we want you!” I said with confidence that was, in retrospect, severely misplaced, “You are under arrest for the murder of Dumpster Boy.”

The figures stood there, ten dead eyes staring at us without seeing.

“Erm,” I stammered, “Okay, technically a citizen’s arrest, but an arrest nonetheless.”

They continued to stare.

Sufficed to say, I was beginning to get a serious case of Weirded The Fuck Out.

I shot out one more attempt at diplomacy, “Look, large shambley murder men, if we’re going to go through the whole Silent Imposing Kidnapper routine, can you at least give my friend and I something to keep us busy? Yahtzee, perhaps?”

One of the kidnappers opened their mouth wide, detaching their jaw like a snake about to go to town on one big bastard of a mouse, and let out a howl. The pitch was jarring, like some ungodly, inhuman love child of baritone and soprano. The sound filled every corner of the gym, sneaking its way into every crevice and orifice, making my pants grow tight and my ears bleed.

I shouted over the howl, “Okay, we get it! Not a Yahtzee fan!”

The second kidnapper joined in. Then the third. Fourth. Fifth.

It was turning into the most disturbing acappella warm-up I had ever seen. As they howled, they shook, and as they shook, they came undone. Their skin peeled like old paint on a humid 80 degree afternoon, their forms melting and contorting into some nightmarish performance of Cirque Du Soleil. Chests split apart as bulbous abdomens the size of large bean bag chairs emerged from within. Vibrantly crimson blood splattered across my face as eight spiny, decrepit legs shot out from their sides.

I suddenly felt the urge to urinate.

They stood before us, five grotesque spiders, the size of Ralph and I.

There is no word in the English language for the feeling one gets in a situation like this. Besides maybe a handful of curse words, but only if they are yelled at a high volume and in rapid succession of one another.

Just when I was getting used to the sheer ridiculous size of these bastards, one of them spoke.

Billy Zabka of the Humans, its voice flowed like Willy Wonka’s chocolate river.

This fellow could have an amazing career in radio broadcast with a voice like that. Too bad most radio stations have a strict No Giant Murder Spider policy.

I answered tepidly, “…That is me. What can I do for you, Mister…erm, Spider?”

Another answered in a similar chocolatey richness, We want to put our babies in you.

For a moment I forgot how to speak.

A different spider spoke up, Our tactless friend Maurice is right, despite his lack of etiquette. We want you to bear our offspring, Billy Zabka of the Humans.

When I regained my grasp on the English language, all I could muster was,“Um. No?”

Ralph chose this moment to speak up, “I’m just going to address the elephant in the room here; why do you want to make my friend pregnant with tiny spider children?”

A fourth spider answered, Because our race lies teetering on the brink of extinction, Ralph Macchio of the Humans. We were driven from Mars by the Skeleton People of Beetlegeuse.

A fifth spider chimed in, Bastard skeletons.

All five grumbled in agreement.

I piped up, “You’re from Mars?”

A spider answered, We were from Mars. The crimson soil was once rich with the egg sacks of our people. The orange skies glared bright upon the monuments of our civilization.

The spider called Maurice added, Then The Skeletons drove us out of our land to use it for harnessing clean energy and promoting gender equality.

Spider #3 grumbled, Bastard skeletons.

The rest murmured in agreement.

Ralph said, “That actually sounds like a great time.”

It really did.

Maurice replied irritably, Their parties are overrated.  And as a result, our species rests on the final steps toward the Infinite Nothing. The five you see, are the Five That Remain.

Spider #4 picked up, Unless you comply. Your name is legend across the galaxy, Billy Zabka of the Humans, for reasons you cannot begin to comprehend.

Spider #5 spoke, Only your loins are sturdy enough to bear the fruit of our offspring. Our one disappointment is how predictably easy it was to ensnare you. The murder of a nameless nobody, and you came running like a hungry dog to a pile of raw meat. You even brought your friend as a bonus; his blood will make excellent lubricant.

The other Four echoed in unison, Excellent lubricant!

A flash of panic danced across Ralph’s eyes, “I want it to be known that I do not consent to this.”

I stammered, “And… just let me make sure I’m following this. You decided to use, what I assume to be, the last of your resources to travel to Earth. Then, you murdered a man in cold blood to get my attention, when really all you require to do that is to offer me a free screening of Three Men And A Baby.”

Ralph chose this moment to add, “You think he’s joking, but he’s really not.”

I continued, “You dumb bastards. Did you really think that William Balthazar Zabka, the world’s greatest under-age detective, would fall prey to a trap this easily? I wanted to get caught! And now I’ve heard all I need to hear.”

A silence far too long and uncomfortable for my liking rolled in. I began to suspect that, perhaps, I should have had an actual escape plan in place before busting out my triumphant monologue.

Ralph leaned over, “Was something supposed to happen just now?”

I whispered back, “I was kinda hoping someone would miraculously come in, deus ex machina style, and save us at the last second.”

Ralph nodded, “You’re an idiot, Billy.”

Maurice intervened, Enough stalling! Prepare your sturdy abdomen for the Life Eggs of a dying race.

The Spiders From Mars approached, their pincers salivating with lust. I leaned back and closed my eyes, reluctantly awaiting to be fertilized with tiny arachnid babies who will grow up to have smooth voices with the richness of dark chocolate. I wondered if Martian Murder Spiders were required to pay child support, because I’ll be damned if I have to put these eight-legged beauties through school all by myself.

My eyes bolted open as a loud crash rang out from the other end of the gymnasium. The doors were kicked open by a shadowed, imposing figure wielding what looked to be some sort of flamethrower. As the figure stepped out into the floodlight, his sharp cheekbones and brilliant dark skin and warm mustache were illuminated.

The Janitor always shows up when you need him, but don’t quite know it yet.

His weapon, which I confused for a flamethrower at first, was a long pipe connected via tube to a gargantuan box strapped to his back.

Spider #2 looked back, What is the meaning of this? What are you doing here?

The Janitor grinned, “Just taking out the trash.”

That was the most badass thing I had ever heard.

The Janitor pulled a trigger on the bottom of his device and proceeded to spray pesticide all over the Spiders. They writhed and contorted as it burned like acid through their exoskeletons, the smell of boiling guts filling every inch of the gym. The sound of their collective screeching was like a million forks and knives scraping against the most ludicrously large porcelain plate in existence.

The Spiders were reduced to a seeping pile of cartilage and sinew on the freshly waxed gym floor.

I was not pregnant with millions of arachnids that I would have to raise on my own.

Ralph’s blood was not used for lubricant, however excellent it would be.

The Vice Principal took a long swig of whiskey from his flask. I was beginning to suspect he was an alcoholic.

I wiped my hands triumphantly, “Well, gang, looks like we solved another mystery!”

Ralph and the VP looked at me with indescribable disdain.

The VP spoke, “I am still so confused.”

I replied, “Hey, we took care of the murderers, right?”

The VP shot back, “You mean The Janitor took care of the murderers. By basically committing genocide.”

Ralph shrugged, “I’m just glad my blood was never used to make excellent lubricant.”

I echoed, “Excellent lubricant.”

Ralph pointed at me sternly, “Don’t.”

The VP rubbed his eyes, “Ugh… I’m not even sure what the hell we learned from all this.”

I raised my finger with confidence, “We learned that anything can be accomplished with the power of friendship and collaboration, sir.”

The VP glared, “Get out of my office, Zabka.”

But where were the spiders?

As the flies tried to break our balls?

-David Bowie

A Tale of Sin Cities

I have been mulling over my experience watching this summer’s Sin City: A Dame To Kill For in my head for the past week and a half. I didn’t feel comfortable writing a review until now because, until very recently, I wasn’t sure whether I liked the movie or not. Although my viewing was marred by a disconnect towards what was happening onscreen, and a simple lack of care I had toward any of the characters, I didn’t leave the theatre angry; disappointed, yes, but not angry. After giving it much thought, I realized that every ounce of confusion or uncertainty I had towards the new film was partnered with a desire to compare it to the original; almost as if A Dame To Kill For was simply part of a larger puzzle, and not its own independent film. Judging it accurately could simply not be done in my mind without the inevitable comparisons to the original.

Which presented me with a challenge, given that I have not seen the original Sin City since I was in middle school.

Most of the memories I have for the 2005 movie were vague, but for the most part complimentary. I remember how distinct the cinematography was at the time I saw it; I remembered that Clive Owen’s Dwight McCarthy was my favorite character; I remembered the brutality of such scenes as Mickey Rourke dismembering Elijah Wood’s serial killer Kevin, and Bruce Willis flat-out ripping off That Yellow Bastard’s genitals. After a quick re-watch a few nights ago, the movie has held up for the most part. All the positive aspects that I remember from those late-night HBO viewings during my teenage years were still there; Owen was still my favorite, the cinematography was still great, the genital scene was still so absurdly brutal that I just had to admire it. But all the flaws that had slipped from the edges of my memory came rushing back, and are now much more obvious to me as an adult. Benicio del Toro gives a much more irritating performance than I remember; Michael Madsen now seems so much more obviously inebriated; Jessica Alba’s performance as Nancy, in particular, is now ridiculously flat and distracting to me. Sin City is still a very fun and visually daring comic book movie, but it is not the balls-to-the-wall piece of awesome that middle school me loved so much. It’s very much like Donnie Darko or Zack Snyder’s Watchmen adaptation; a good movie, but the kind that loses much of the appeal after you grow older and experience more of what cinema has to offer.

Because of that, I can honestly say that the biggest crime co-directors Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller have committed with Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is the nine year gap between it and the first movie. A Dame to Kill For is honestly not a steep fall off a precipice from the quality of the original, and in many ways it’s very similar. The problem is that a nine year wait was not worth the end result of simply another movie like the first one; a near decade of absence should warrant something different, a movie that respects the original’s aesthetic but goes into new directions with it. It is my honest opinion that A Dame to Kill For would have been just as enthusiastically received as the original if it were released in 2007, when the first movie was still fresh in the public’s mind and before Miller killed the visual aesthetic with his uninspired version of The Spirit.

That said, the sequel does have some distinct flaws that the original does not. As good as Josh Brolin is as the pre-surgery Dwight McCarthy, the film creates a major continuity flaw by not bringing back Clive Owen for the post-surgery scenes, instead opting to put a black wig and bad facial prosthetics on Brolin; as a result, I would not be surprised if a casual fan unfamiliar with the history of McCarthy were to get confused and possibly not pick up on the fact that Brolin and Owen were playing the same character. The visual style, which seemed so fresh and innovative in 2005, has also grown stale after its use in The Spirit to the point where it feels less like an aesthetic and more like a gimmick because Rodriguez and Miller are not doing anything new or interesting with it. The best story in this one is The Long Bad Night, following Joseph Gordon-Levitt as cocky gambler Johnny, but even that one manages to end in spectacularly anti-climactic fashion that elicits nothing from the audience but a feeble “So what?”

The titular story of A Dame to Kill For should have been far better than it was. They had excellent source material in what was one of the most stand-out tales in the comics, a perfect protagonist in Dwight McCarthy, and what was easily the best performance in the entire film from Eva Green. But despite the cool, Mirrenesque demeanor that Green brought to the character of Ava Lord, the story instead feels lifeless and devoid of any real passion or personality. Nancy’s Last Dance is even worse, anchored entirely off an almost fascinatingly detached and soulless performance by Jessica Alba, whose attempts to be dark, brooding, and intimidating fail spectacularly. What every one of the stories in this movie truly do wrong, however, is their unfortunate misuse of the Marv character. Clearly responding to Marv’s status as a fan favorite, the directors shoved him clumsily into all but one story, to the point where he seems like a lazy addition to the film as opposed to being an organic part of the world.

In the end, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For comes off as nothing more than an unnecessary film, an afterthought to the first one. It does not come off as the same work of passion and ambition that the original undoubtedly was, but instead every uninspired frame feels like Rodriguez and Miller conveying to the audience, “Shit, we forgot to make a sequel to that one.” Had this film been released in 2007, I am sure it would have felt like an organic continuation of the original. But because Sin City is so far back in our collective memory, the sequel is instead a feeble reminder that these characters exist, and nothing more. It is not insufferable like Miller’s The Spirit, it is not visually ugly like Rodriguez’s Machete Kills, and it is not obnoxious like his Spy Kids sequels. It is just utterly, forgettably unremarkable.

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES and the Importance of Character

DOTPOTA-6

I have seen Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a movie that has been resonating strongly with audiences this summer, twice in theaters. More often than not, I will see a movie only once during its theatrical run, for no other reason than the fact that most movies only require one viewing for me to soak everything in. I saw both Expendables movies one time each, not because they are necessarily bad, but because they are movies where everything that the filmmakers are trying to say is pushed to the surface; to put it bluntly, there is not much to them beyond what you see. Sometimes there are exceptions; 2007’s Shoot ‘Em Up is similarly shallow, and yet I saw that twice in theaters and own it on DVD because that movie is immensely entertaining and thus has fantastic replay value (whereas the aforementioned Stallone action series is only moderately fun, in my eyes). Besides rare exceptions like that Clive Owen masterpiece of pulp, the only times I will see a movie more than once theatrically is if I think there is more to be found and dissected under the surface. I saw The Dark Knight three times in cinemas to fully appreciate its themes of morality and corruption; I saw Scott Pilgrim vs. The World twice during its run because of director Edgar Wright’s meticulous attention to detail; just this spring I saw X-Men: Days of Future Past four times because of how taken aback I was by its rich themes of depression, substance abuse, and loneliness. What makes my multiple viewings of Matt Reeves’ sequel to 2011’s Planet of the Apes reboot significant is my reason for doing so.

I saw Dawn of the Planet of the Apes twice in theaters because I don’t see what everyone else sees in it.

To be fair, I enjoyed it. Both this and its predecessor, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, are fine blockbusters with exciting cinematography, a sense of love and admiration for the original film series, and some of the best motion capture performances I’ve ever seen. But I’d be lying if I said the utter enthusiasm and praise logged at this series doesn’t surprise me, simply because, as a whole, neither of these movies particularly stuck with me. Rise was a decently fun watch to which I never gave a second thought after I left the theater; I was planning to skip Dawn altogether due to lack of interest, until the enthusiastic reviews and audience reactions began to pour in. While I didn’t get a bad movie in any sense of the word, I got more or less the same experience I had with the first movie; moderate fun for 120 minutes without any heavy investment. The difference this time around was that, because of the universal praise it got, I felt as if I missed something on my first viewing. A week later, I went back to my local cinema to see it again, this time with two goals in mind: to see what literally every other moviegoer saw in this one, and to figure out just what exactly was the source of my emotional disconnect with these movies. After this second viewing, I more or less figured out the answer to the first problem, and completely solved the second.

My problem with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is that I don’t care about any character besides Caesar. Before I delve into the supporting cast, I will say that I think the element that is the source for this movie’s adoration is, without a doubt, Andy Serkis’ simian protagonist. Caesar is not only an example of how spectacularly performance capture can be used to give humanity to computer generated creatures, but more importantly is an incredibly likable and fleshed out protagonist who reaches that perfect balance of being noble and entertaining. The problem I’ve consistently had with characters like, for example, most interpretations of Superman, is that there’s an enormous emotional detachment for me; Superman is an incredibly noble character with many traits that I would find admirable in any human being, but there is so little charisma or depth beyond his dignity (with a few notable exceptions) that I don’t find him entertaining to watch. Caesar is the perfect response to that character flaw, wherein he shares many of Superman’s nobility and honor, while also having a clearly defined personality and humanity to him. Caesar is, by all accounts, an exceptionable blockbuster protagonist.

What takes away from the film is that literally everyone around him is almost painfully uninteresting. Koba is about as bland as an antagonist can be, with nothing more to him than the anger that lies on his surface; this would be fine if he was a minor character, but as the overall villain, it substantially takes away from what should be an enormous aspect of the film. Imagine Heath Ledger’s Joker without the poignant sense of anarchy and irresistible charm, or Hans Landa without the sharp menace softly boiling underneath his charismatic demeanor; if your movie has an uninteresting villain, then the film as a whole suffers considerably. The human element, which is a substantial aspect of Dawn, is given an even more halfhearted treatment. While Koba at least has some recognizable personality traits on his surface, what does Jason Clarke’s character have? Or Kerri Russell? Or Kodi Smit-McPhee? These three characters are the human leads, and yet none of them have any distinct personality. The biggest stretch I can make is that Clarke is…trusting? McPhee is…quiet? This is a two hour movie wherein these characters are given a majority of the screen time, and yet we know next to nothing about them. The only human character with any semblance of actual humanity is Gary Oldman, who makes the most of his criminally limited screen time with a few truly touching moments of emotion and one hell of a speech. If Oldman was the human lead as opposed to Clarke, this movie would have roped me in far more, but as it stands we have one phenomenal ape protagonist surrounded by one dimensional characters whom I couldn’t care less about.

What I feel the screenwriters don’t understand is just how integral the characters are to the central conflict of a story. The heart of the movie is the friction and eventual battle between the apes and the humans, but if one side is comprised entirely of characters that I have absolutely no investment in, and the other side only has one fully fleshed out character, then how am I, as a viewer, supposed to have any interest in any of this? When the characters have rising tension between them, the audience should feel that tension by caring about the characters; if we are given nothing to care about, then why should we feel what the humans and apes onscreen are feeling? There should be great emotional stakes felt by the audience during the finale, as hordes of apes and humans are slaughtering each other; instead, during this sequence I felt an aching sense of boredom. The battle was beautifully shot, but because I did not care about most of the apes or any of the humans, the entire third act of the movie was nothing more than a series of images to me. Compare it to this summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy; while the characters are not strictly speaking original, they are given endearing personalities and backstories rich with tragedy and pathos. Because the audience is made to have a connection to them, by default we also have made a connection to the central conflict. Without character, there can be no conflict, and since Dawn is a movie that is entirely about conflict, its lack of interesting characters creates a colossal flaw that is literally impossible to overlook. A two hour movie cannot be sustained on the back of one protagonist; there is a reason why the supporting cast is called a supporting cast.

I did not hate Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, nor did I even dislike it. I was moderately entertained by it, and was able to sit through the two hour run time because of Matt Reeves’ energetic direction, Michael Giacchino’s immensely enjoyable score, and Andy Serkis’ layered performance as Caesar. Because these three elements were executed so expertly, I can see why the movie has resonated with audiences the way it has. But I found it to be lacking in what is arguably the most essential element of a story; character.

Billy Zabka Saves The Universe

This was my final film project for my Literature To Film class, in my senior year of high school. We were assigned to read a short story (in this case, The Moonlit Road by Ambrose Pierce) and adapt it into a short film. My partner-in-crime Bobby Whitehouse and I decided to make it a very loose adaptation, incorporating science fiction and comedic elements as well as changing the names of the characters, and adding in a (rather beautiful) musical number.

Bobby’s performance is a testament to his talent at improvisational comedy, and the amount of injuries her sustained while filming the action scenes showed just how much of a trooper the man is.

Out of all the short films I made during high school, this one was my favorite.

When their beloved teacher is brutally murdered, teenage detective Billy Zabka and his sardonic friend Ralph Macchio attempt to bring his killer to justice amid a web of corruption, seances, and Papa John’s.

The Janitor: A Horror Odyssey Through Time & Space

This was my final film project for my TV Production class in my junior year of high school. We had to make a film about a real experience, and after some liberal fact-smudging, my group produced this very loose adaptation of a somewhat sketchy encounter I had with a school janitor in freshman year. With green screen work and visual effects done at my town’s public access TV studio, the final product ended up looking fairly decent for a no-budget student film shot on handheld cameras (sadly, the heavy-duty Panasonic was taken by another group).

I would also like to say that my friend Freddy’s performance as the titular Janitor gives me chills to this day.

Learn, Don’t Burn: The Lost PSA

This is an old PSA I co-wrote and directed for my 20th Century Film class in my junior year of high school. The assignment was to make a public service announcement about anything – anything at all – so my friend and I decided to make a parody of blatantly homophobic and severely misinformed 1980s propaganda videos such as Rock: It’s Your Decision.

Our teacher’s exact comment was, “Well, that has to be one of the more interesting student films I’ve seen”. We ended up with an A-.