Remember Chris Rock’s 2004 stand up special, NEVER SCARED, when he says, "Remember back in the day when we all would argue over who's better, Michael Jackson or Prince?". Then, after citing more than a few of Jackson's at the time personal and legal conflicts and problems, he declared, "Well, Prince won!". In a few years we think people may be saying the same about the D.C. comic-book-to-film adaptations over the Marvel ones.
“ARE YOU OUTTA YOUR EFFIN’ MIND!”, you say, “Didn’t you see MAN OF STEEL or BATMAN V. SUPERMAN?”. Yeah, we saw ‘em. That’s why we’re saying it. Oh, and for the record “back in the day” we actually dug both Prince and Michael Jackson. That is possible, … and kind of the point too. It doesn’t always have to be “Sushi or Cerviche”, “Stromboli or Calzone”, “Conservative or Liberal”. To borrow another Rock-ism (I mean, the guy’s both hilarious and common sense at the same time, is he not?) “No normal, decent person is one thing, OK? I've got some shit I'm conservative about, I've got some shit I'm liberal about. When it comes to crime, I'm conservative. With prostitution, I'm liberal”.
Welcome to the latest installment of our THE INHERENT POWER OF GENRE series, wherein we sprint through the cinematic history of the horror, science fiction and fantasy genres; taking note (and giving them the props they so often fail to receive) in relation to how they, more times than not, can be a more accurate barometer of the angst, mores and general leanings of contemporary society then those films considered more “serious” and “important”. A prime example we’ve used in earlier installments – how say back in 1968 the original PLANET OF THE APES was able, in a far more subversive manner, to make comment on many of the same topics which caused films such as THE DEFIANT ONES and GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER to be protested and banned in many cities.
Other examples? Look at how Stephen King / Brian DePalma’s CARRIE (1976) was a terrifyingly accurate depiction (and warning) of the pressure cooker of abuse, repression and bullying / hazing leading to a mass act of school violence decades before Columbine. And most recently – do a double take on BATMAN V. SUPERMAN and CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR. And notice how both films deal with terroristic acts (both foreign / alien and domestic) which leads to normally decent people turning upon one another in an ideological conflict of how to best address the problem. Now, if that doesn’t sound like the 2016 American Presidential primaries (and the citizenry wading through them), then you just haven’t been paying attention. Take a look at the two theatrical trailers embedded below to see what me mean. Chillingly "spot on", aren't they? At any rate …
Some might call this installment of THE INHERENT POWER OF GENRE “the Minority Report” as we may be taking a position most consider that of a loony. But we learned long ago to stick to our guns because, … well, because sometimes it just takes the rest of the world a little time to catch up is all. Is that arrogance or hubris? Nah. It’s just age combined with (lets call it) long-term cinematic memory.
You’ve seen BLADE RUNNER and John Carpenter’s THE THING, right? They actually opened on the same day – June 25th, 1982. And both at the time were savaged by critics, and ignored by the general public to such an unholy degree that they crashed and burned miserably at the box office, and within two weeks were doubled-billed together in many theaters. We caught ‘em both at such a double feature one Saturday afternoon in Delran, New Jersey.
Derided in 1982 by many as “style over substance”, “needlessly dark, violent and nihilistic” and more, we saw BLADE RUNNER and THE THING as not only brilliantly made from a technical standpoint, but wonderful examples of the irony of “Kafka-esque optimism”. To a certain degree Terry Gilliam’s BRAZIL (another brilliant film which bombed at the time of its release) falls into this category as well.
To this day one of the most memorable “freak out” movie-going experiences of our entire lives (the energetic audience helped big time), we left the theater both dumbfounded as to how and why both films were so ripped apart by the media of the day, and determined to talk up both to friends, family and like-minded film fans in the hope that neither of these two amazing movies would disappear from memory all together. Imagine our delighted amazement when within a year we started hearing Art Institute classmates going back and forth about how they’d “discovered” this awesome film called “BLADE RUNNER” the night before at a local art house revival theater.
“Kafka-esque optimism” (our own term there, by the way – it’s not copyrighted, so you can go ahead and use it if you want) is where the environment in which the story takes place is so bleak and arguably without hope, that the faint beams of humanity which do exists shine that much more brightly. Not to jump off track during what is essentially an introduction, but BLADE RUNNER isn’t still fascinating today simply because of the brilliance of its art direction, but rather more because the story is about characters desirous of, and covetously clinging to, the concepts of humanity, emotion and love at a time when in their world these commodities are rapidly becoming extinct.
BLADE RUNNER (1982)
I recall and love how one article (I don’t remember which, it’s definitely buried in that pile of 30 yr. old magazines up there – probably STARLOG) pointed out that as the created Replicants of BLADE RUNNER continue to gain human emotion, the human Blade Runners themselves – those charged with hunting down and exterminating the Replicants, are rapidly losing theirs. That’s powerful thematic stuff.
Believe it or not the same “sense of humanity” flows through nearly every blood spattered, shape-shifting frame of THE THING. Though, not unlike with the recent BATMAN V. SUPERMAN, many are too distracted by other things (no pun intended) to notice. John Carpenter at the time essentially said his movie was about “the beginning of end of the world”. But, after the most intense examination in personal paranoia since the McCarthy era , THE THING ends with the last two survivors – Kurt Russell’s “MacCready” and Keith Davids’ “Childs”, deciding to trust one another, even if it means one of them may be a “thing”. They do the unthinkable (or is it “unTHINGable”? heh! heh!, cue the Crypt Keeper’s laugh!) – lowering their weapons and drinking from the same bottle of scotch, full well knowing that even the tiniest of DNA exchanges (in this case the “backwash” of saliva in the bottle) could be fatal. So (to us at least), THE THING ends on something of a “hopeful” note wherein if the human race will indeed physically become extinct, … it’s spiritual humanity never will. Anyway, ...
(L to R) Keith David, John Carpenter and Kurt Russell on the set of THE THING (1982)
Today both BLADE RUNNER and THE THING are considered cinematic classics, and examples of genre film making so influential as to continue to be emulated today both stylistically and thematically. But it isn’t difficult to see, in the context of the world into which they were released, why they initially proved unpopular that filmic summer of 1982. Notwithstanding a few darker films which did prove moderately successful that season (THE ROAD WARRIOR, CONAN THE BARBARIAN and AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN among them) the majority of 1982’s warm weather hits were throwbacks to “more optimistic” times where within the span of three months neighborhood and drive-in movie screens were dominated by an incessantly impressive week to week lineup of titles such as E.T., STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN, POLTERGEIST, ROCKY III, TRON, FIREFOX, FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH, the musicals ANNIE and THE BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS, the animated THE SECRET OF N.I.M.H. (perhaps the darkest of that lot) and more.
"It's Your Thing" - 1969 (The Isley Brothers)
Marvel's lighter ANT-MAN (2015)
The years have proven that BLADE RUNNER and THE THING weren’t “bad” films as much as they were perhaps out of synch with the current zeitgeist of their era; and the judgements against them based primarily upon popular subjective perception of the day rather than on what would ultimately prove to be objective observation eventually reached via the always more fair leavening agent of the passage of time. Which brings us to the whole “MARVEL VS. D.C. – is it too dark and / or too pretentious?” debate.
D.C.'s very dark THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)
If you wanna save yourself time, we’ll cut things short right now and say it’s our intent to here expose the whole MARVEL Vs. D.C. competition as an apparition; as a fantasy construct which doesn’t really exist except within the fevered minds of a few over-imaginative fans, and perhaps a few more film critics who should know better, … or at the very least do their homework. Those familiar with the histories of both companies and their catalogs know that over the years a great many artists, writers and more have crossed the street (both literally and figuratively) to work for both. Another “for example”: did you also know that over the last 25 years the films based on Marvel and D.C. comic book properties have taken in a combined $16 billion dollars?!
Impressive to be sure. But more impressive is the fact that the tally is pretty much evenly split between both companies right down the middle – with each raking in approx. $8 billion of that sixteen. Hmmm? This would seem to indicate that both companies have learned how to work their respective sides of that aforementioned street most effectively, and that neither "schooled" nor "owned" (or the present equivalents of those words) the other, wouldn't it? Hey, it ain't just our opinion. Look at the numbers. The math doesn't lie. This falls under the unfortunately increasingly rare rubric of "doing one's homework", as opposed to social media (and modern day "journalism")'s more common contemporary habit of sloppily passing off personal inclination and opinion (of which each person is surely entitled) as indisputable gospel fact (of which each person is not entitled).
These numbers also rather succinctly lend credence to our belief that there's more than enough room on said street for both lighter and darker takes on a genre. Therefore, before diving into this nifty little shindig, how 'bout we first agree to do away with that mythical "verses" shit from the git go, huh?
Cool beans! Now that's outta the way …
To those familiar with the Marvel and D.C. films, but perhaps not so familiar with the specific source material from which many of the newer (“darker”) movies are taking plot elements (i.e. BATMAN V. SUPERMAN integrating Frank Miller’s THE DARK KNIGHT RISES graphic novel; CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR doing likewise from Mark Millar’s AVENGERS: CIVIL WAR series, etc.), consider this a primer to gear you up for Marvel’s upcoming “PHASE 2” films – including the aforementioned CAPT. AMERICA, along with DR. STRANGE, ANT-MAN & WASP, THOR: RAGNAROK, BLACK PANTHER and AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR. Also consider it an outline to help guide you through D.C.’s similarly evolving cinematic universe which, kicking off with BATMAN V. SUPERMAN, will also include WONDER WOMAN, JUSTICE LEAGUE, AQUAMAN, THE FLASH and CYBORG.
On the other hand, if you’re already well enough familiar with the rich heritage of the Marvel and D.C. literary lines (and make no mistake, many of the award-winning publications of both companies over the years have been referred to as such by literary critics), then consider this a nifty retrospective, or a trip down memory lane with a few old friends we’re introducing to a new generation. Whichever is "'yo' thang", we say …
From the lite satire of MEN IN BLACK, to the nightmare urban-scape of Chris Nolan’s DARK KNIGHT trilogy. And from the socio-political analogy of X-MEN, to the deconstructionist intent of THE WATCHMEN, whether one is intrigued or put off by the lighter or darker themed nature of current comic-books-to-film, we remind you that (as was the case with BLADE RUNNER and THE THING) often it is less a matter of said adaptation being “good” or “bad” or “too light” or “too dark” per se, and usually more a matter of how they are individually filtered through the societal temperament of the day.
Or, as Stephen King might say, HOW CERTAIN THINGS ARE FILTERED THROUGH ONE’S OWN MENTAL MESH.
Let’s take a look-see.