Monday, February 26, 2007

Bad Super Hero Entertainment

I write too much and too long, a point brought home to me after reading my father-in-law's punchier, newsier style on his "Blog of Ages" site. So here's the short version (with thanks to my friend John for forwarding the original "Ain't It Cool News" story to me):

It's so easy to make bad super-hero entertainment that sometimes I want to ban Hollywood from ever trying to do so again. As just one truly painful example to prove the point, I give you this pilot for a live-action "Justice League" television show, which is so awful it makes me want to gouge out my eyes with a spoon:

The long version is after the jump, but really, that clip about says it all: few things are as bad as bad super-hero entertainment.

I didn't go to see "The Fantastic Four" live-action movie when it came out, which shocked a friend of mine who knows my love for super-heroes. "Why wouldn't a fan want to see everything in the genre?" he asked incredulously.

But that's the point -- I love super-hero stuff so much, it's painful for me to watch it when it's done poorly. It's like loving Bruce Springsteen's music and refusing to go to a "Celine Dion Sings Bruce Springsteen's Greatest Hits" concert -- when you love something, you don't want to see crappy versions of it.

Creating good super-hero fiction, either in comics or on film, is hard. Really hard. It looks easy because hey, it's just guys in tights beating up stuff, but that's exactly where the studios and comics publishers so often go astray -- if you treat it like silly kids' stuff, it's going to suck. Period. The super-hero movies that have succeeded -- "Batman Begins", "Superman: The Movie" and "Superman II", both "Spider-Man" movies, "X-Men" and "X2" -- have done so because they take themselves seriously. You have to understand the genre, you have to love it, and you have to treat it for the unique art form it is.

Classic George Perez "Justice League" style (pencils -- Alex Ross painting)
While the live-action "Justice League" movie referenced earlier hasn't even been written yet, I dread its production exactly because I loves me some "Justice League". I collected the comics series when I was a kid and George Perez gave it his amazingly detailed, action-packed, unbelievably busy style. I even TiVo the animated series, one of the high-water marks in the franchise's history.

As hard as it is to do good super-hero entertainment, it's exponentially harder to do good super-hero TEAM entertainment. Off the top of my head, only the live "X-Men" movie series and the animated "Justice League" have gotten it right. There are a couple of others that didn't suck, but they weren't exactly good either ("Teen Titans", I'm lookin' at you).

X-Mean, a team

Justice League, a team-up
I think the reason "X-Men" succeeds is because "X-Men" was a team book from the very beginning. These weren't established characters artificially thrown together, the very franchise is predicated on their being interdependent. The universe these characters inhabit is hostile to their very existence, and alone they are victims of persecution and hatred. Banding together isn't a fun thing they do on the weekends over a few beers, they do it for basic survival. That's a compelling reason to have super-heroes team up, not on a one-time basis but as a genuine, persistent group. It's not an afterthought or a clever marketing gimmick; in their world, the "X-Men" team exists because without it, its members might possibly end up dead.

Not so with "Justice League", which is more of a social club and branding concept than it is a real team. Trying to invent a reason for Superman to need Batman is crazy -- he's freaking SUPERMAN! Why would Batman, a character whose very core is that of an anti-social loner, spend time in the company of those he would consider to be fools? Green Lantern already HAS a super-team in the Green Lantern Corps, millions of galaxy-spanning heroes of all different alien races who bear the Guardians' rings of power. What the hell is he mucking around with Aquaman for?

"Justice League" is a series not about a team, but rather about a team-up. Team-ups are by nature ephemeral, temporary affairs, which makes it even harder to get a movie-going audience to invest enough emotionally in the characters to accept the fact that they're wearing spandex and capes. Team-ups are based on marketing, teams on need. Team-ups take established characters and bring them together on some pretext, but a team is its own pretext.

Team-up comics were invented by publishers who thought it would be a great marketing idea to put all of their most popular characters in the same book, each established figure brining its own fan base to the table to plunk down their ten cents. It's the "If one is good, ten is better" school of thought, and one that is as irresistible to Hollywood as it was to the original comic books companies who applied the "All Star" concept to their lines.

But sometimes, more is bad. I hope the producers of the new live-action "Justice League" project understand this, and do the hard work necessary to overcome the limitations inherent in the concept. Done well, team-up stories can be extremely entertaining. But done poorly ... well, let's just say I'll have my spoon ready, just in case.


John said...

One's impulse is to dissect the sheer gawdawfullry of that one clip alone ("If anyone can do it, you can, sir!", "Coffee break's over, boys", "Whiskers!", "Allow me, ma'am!"), but one would be driven to gouging out one's eyes with said spoon. I will comment instead that the lameness of that show can be further demonstrated by the heroes that are involved: where'd you find that image of the main characters? Does anyone else recognize the uber-lame duo of Fire and Ice? They were dredgin' the bottom of the barrell for this concept. Thanks be to the Ghost of Jack Kirby for not allowing this turd to see the cathode ray light of day.

John said...

(oh, and I'm always pleased when I can make the front page of the Nerd Country Journal. Thanks for the props!)

Anonymous said...

I submit two "successful" superhero video productions. The key word is successful when viewed by their intended audiences. Hold your snide remarks until I present my case. First- "Batman Begins." A success for anyone who is willing to follow the science fiction rule- you get to break one rule of science (Time travel, faster than light space travel,etc.) and THAT'S IT! All else must be true. To me, the broken rule is that there is a Batman, just like in the comics. Complete suspension of belief on that one. All else has to hold true, and treat it in complete seriousness. NOW you have a story that appeals to people who love comics as well as science fiction lovers. People who just can't "get" the whole concept, as well as young kids, will probably not enjoy it (Kids need more fighting- too much talking and deep looks into each others eyes) Which brings me to my second successful show- "Power Rangers!" Yes, I hate it, but having watched my grandchildren watch it makes me tip my hat off to the producers, directors, et al. They know their audience, and they deliver for them. Lots of action, violence without blood,(watch two children play fight- it's the SAME MOVES!)and you know who the good guys are and who are the bad guys.
Agree or disagree?

(By the way, my son loved Ultraman in the same way his kids loved Power Rangers- man I am old!)

Jeff Hebert said...

John, I think if you look at the source code for the page you can get the URL for the image I used -- it was a nice writeup of the show and he made some good points. Apparently they only used the characters they could afford the licensing fees for, which is why no Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, etc. And the costumes are soooooo bad, it's truly embarrassing. Blech.

Jimmy, I agree with your One Rule, that sounds perfectly reasonable. I loved the first Batman movie, and Batman Begins of course was great. I haven't honestly ever seen a Power Rangers episode, but I'll take your word for it.

DKBats said...

I think its funny that you say the Justice League is just a team-up, a temporary thing but yet they have been around as a team longer than any other team and are currently the most popular team of heroes on the planet. We are talking about a team that has been around for 40 plus years now.