Sunday, May 4, 2014

From the Angry Old Man Department - Instant Franchise, Just Add Brand

Why yes, this is another largely useless department here at the Third Row. I'll be honest with you- It mainly just exists as another excuse to horde office supplies.

You laugh now, but when you find yourself hard up for a stapler, you'll remember me and my citadel of them. Then who will be laughing?

...Okay, I promised angry old man, not delusional.

Anyway, this has been an interesting few weeks in the film circles as far as comic book films. Actually, this time of year is shaping up as an interesting one. For one thing, DC confirmed the inevitable moment we all knew/dreaded coming - yes, a Justice League movie WILL happen, and they have Zack Snyder locked to direct. Whether or not this is because Snyder managed to make Man of Steel profitable for them (...well, Snyder and an ad campaign that was the PR equivalent of carpet bombing) neither DC nor Warner Brothers has said. For another, over the last few weeks, we have seen/will be seeing the continuing installments in not one, but three different comic book franchises.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier opened a few weeks back to probably some of the best reviews Marvel has gotten since The Avengers came out (and deservedly so. This will likely see a writeup in the near future here, even though it's a bit late for its release.) In another few weeks, Fox will be rolling out its next X-Men installment, Days of Future Past, which will either solidify their comeback or bury it, depending how things proceed. Finally, this weekend, Sony released their follow-up to their Spider-Man reboot, The Amazing Spider-Man 2. This, in particular, is the one that's inspiring my angry old man grumblings.

The Amazing Spider-Man brand hasn't been sitting particularly well with me for a while now. The first film was...okay. Not awful, but not really as amazing as its title would suggest either. The arbitrary retread of the Spider-Man origin story felt rather forced at the time, but given Sony was trying to hang onto their license of the character in response to the building steam of the Marvel money train, I was willing to let them have a quick brand lock and trust they would at least try more the next time around.

This was also around the time The Avengers happened. With a wave of strong reviews and audience response, Marvel's big gamble paid off with a vengeance. It was pretty safely locked for one of the biggest hits of 2012 and the entire effort was seen as a game changer for how comic book movies would be made.

...and Sony took the absolute wrong lesson from it.

Of course, I can't say it's JUST on Sony here, seeing as DC/WB has also been pretty openly trying to jump-start their own super franchise in light of the movie's success. When they went from a standalone Superman movie to announcing its sequel would also feature Batman, Wonder Woman, and even Cyborg with the intent of turning this into a Justice League project, it was no surprise that people read this as a pretty bald-faced attempt to ape Marvel's success.

Which is particularly unfortunate since, as I've said before, Man of Steel wasn't a bad idea for a movie. Doing a film that tried to break from the Richard Donner mold was a great idea, and actually playing more with the idea of the possible mistrust Superman would face as an outsider was a concept with a lot of potential to build from. Even some of what Snyder and Goyer gave us was decent, if flawed. I left the film thinking what they had left this one off with could be salvaged with some more thought and work on a sequel. For a couple of weeks after its release, I was even willing to go to bat for them on the idea that this could be growing pains. Then they made the fateful announcement that the sequel would be Batman vs Superman and I was willing to concede I'd backed the wrong horse. They weren't interested in trying to fix up the flaws in their new Superman - they'd gotten a profit out of it and that was enough. Now they were gonna take this sucker to the big leagues as hard and as fast as possible.

I could make all manner of tasteless analogies for what they're doing there, but you get the idea.

Not ones to be outdone, Sony is now busting their humps to turn their Spider-Man license into its own super franchise as well. It was actually pretty striking that, in the months ticking down to ASM 2's release, for every announcement about what the movie itself would contain, their would be at least one, often more, announcements heralding Sony's plans for the overall Spider-Man brand - including announcements of spinoffs already in the works for supporting characters like the Sinister Six and Venom. The former of these also resulted in some criticisms towards the current movie, care of the fact Paul Giamatti's four minutes of screentime seems to amount to little more in the film than to set up the next movie. Even up to the week of the movie's release, Sony was rattling off more of their future plans than having anything to say about the film itself - they even made announcements about the ASM 2 Blu-Ray release before the film was even in theaters. It was like a Mel Brooks gag come to life.

Then the movie came out, with all the mixed reception, the speculation was confirmed. Even now the film is currently the most critically roasted Spider-Man movie. Yes, even more so than the infamous Spider-Man 3 from the Raimi years. One of the big reasons for this - as many people pointed out in reviews, was the fact the movie devotes more of itself to hyping up future releases than it does to making the movie it has here and now good. In fact, a friend of mine over at MoarPowah probably put the problem best when he described the film as not a movie, not a trailer, but a two and a half hour long power point of Sony's plans for the next ten years.

Not that this is necessarily a shock at this point. Between the Giamatti confirmation happening months before the film's release, and even ASM 2 teasers containing blatant hints of upcoming villains care of gear for the Vulture, Sony has been pretty clear this film is being made with one eye on the camera, the other on the business plan.

While I have concerns for Fox's actions here, I'll admit, I'm inclined to give them a half pass on this one. Not because I necessarily thing DoFP will be good - it could go either way at this point. Rather because they've been building up X-Men for a while now. I mean, they've been at this brand for a good ten years off and on now. While it's not at the same level of work and dedication as Marvel's shown on the Avengers project, they've at least paid their dues so far. Whether this marks a continued rise or fall is all on the individual film now, but at least it feels - for now at least - like they're focusing on just making this film work first before they start jumping on future projects.

Which brings us to where the old man in me is bitter and rambling. The reason Sony and DC/WB are annoying me as much as they are - especially in Sony's case, is because of the utterly blatant the attempts to piggyback off the success of The Avengers. In both cases, they're essentially operating as though a big cross-media franchise will be a given, rather than a possibility. It's like they forget just how much of a roll of the dice the first Iron Man movie was years ago, given that was the film that would ultimately make or break Marvel's chances at the Avengers effort. Prior to its release, they'd played those plans close to the chest, and even after its release, they were pretty careful. It wasn't until after the success of The Avengers and its follow-up features that they decided to announce plans for the next fourteen years of movies.

I feel a fourteen year plan might be a bit excessive - but Marvel has paid their dues here, so for now, they can do as they will. By comparison, DC and Sony have each had two relatively successful, if not particularly memorable, films to their names and were following them up with plans for a big industry on the spot. This wasn't even a matter of taking a slow road to get there - it's again worth pointing out that DC intends to use their Superman movie to bus in Batman and Wonder Woman. They're in such a hurry to get to the Justice League that they don't even want to give two of their brand's vaunted 'big three' chances to stand on their own, which is particularly damning given just how little representation Wonder Woman has had so far. On the other side of the coin, rather than going for the big event film, Sony is already convinced with two movies they have enough ground laid to spin off films for supporting characters and villains that, at this point, have really had little to no screentime.

Maybe I'm finally just that bitter old man I joke about. Maybe the industry's changed and I just have a hard time keeping up. All I know is, looking at this model, I just keep hearing the old Yoda line:

This one a long time have I watched. All his life has he looked the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was. Hmm? What he was doing. Hmph.”

I wouldn't mind this approach if the films being made in the present were good. Unfortunately, it feels too much like they're so caught up in the dream of pulling in Avengers money that they're not actually bothering to see if the films they're making now are even worth a damn. It also gets harder to shake the concern that, if this keeps up, we'll see audiences lapse into a state of comic book film burnout within the next few years, causing even Marvel's thought out plans to take a hit.

Granted, this isn't a new observation, and other, better people than me have likely already made this same observation. Still, sometimes it helps to just get something out of the system.

Or, for those who want me to be more succinct:
Sony, Warner Brothers -

...sorry. I can only play it polite just so far. Either approach, I think the point is clear. A franchise needs at least some quality before you can make with the quantity, guys.

Got a review coming your way in the next couple of days to make up for this (no, it won't be CA just yet.)

Till then though!

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