B-Movie Summer

The end of summer is almost upon us, but before it arrives, let's pause for a moment to acknowledge something truly unexpected: the movies this year have been good.  I'm sure I'm not the only one who's gotten used to checking her brain at the door of the movie theater between May and September, to the extent that Thor, one of the silly season's earliest harbingers, was able to win me over with little more than charismatic actors and a few funny scenes.  Had I known what was coming, I would have been a lot less forgiving.  Sure, we've had our Green Lanterns, our Transformers 3s, our Cowboys and Alienses, but alongside those turkeys the summer of 2011 has also delivered a crop of solidly entertaining, well-crafted action flicks that a thinking person can enjoy without hating themselves in the morning.  What makes this whole thing even more surprising is how implausible all of these successes are.  X-Men: First Class is the fifth film in a never-too-great series that went sour in its third installment.  Nobody had any business expecting good things from this film, but despite its many flaws, it has turned out to be the most thought-provoking comic book movie since The Dark Knight, and a lot of fun to boot.  Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 is a film whose very title inspires ennui, especially if you've suffered through the previous seven overstuffed, lifeless chapters.  But the film itself works so well and is so engaging that it retroactively validates the entire series preceding it.  Somehow, in the magical summer of 2011, the more unappealing a film seems on paper, the better it works on the screen.

Take Captain America: The First Avenger, for example.  Stacked against it are: that Marvel has been churning out superhero films at a rate of one or two a year and that that haste and factory line mentality have told in the final products; that all of these films are but preambles to next year's Avengers movie; that the film's period setting only seems to emphasize its role in getting its particular playing piece to its correct position on the board; that Chris Evans didn't exactly endear himself to audiences the last time he played a superhero; and most of all, that this is Captain America we're talking about, a character whose very name suggests an offputtingly cheesy and jingoistic ethos.  Some of these potential pitfalls do manifest in the movie.  The villain of the piece is so obviously there purely to get both Captain America and an important McGuffin where they need to be for the Avengers story that even a scenery-chewing Hugo Weaving and some impressive CGI that turns his face into a red skull can't make a memorable presence out of him, while the plot is barely even there.  But that hardly seems important when you realize how deftly Captain America deals with the problems inherent in its title character.  Even more than X-Men: First Class, the decision to set the film in the past (in both cases, the period when the respective comics were created) serves Captain America well.  It allows the film to avoid the jokey, ironic tone with which most present-set superhero films try to defuse their vague but unmistakable embarrassment at the story they're telling.  By laying its scene during the second World War, decades before the age of irony, Captain America is free to be earnest.

That earnestness is embodied in a surprisingly low-key Evans, who plays Steve Rogers, a 90 pound weakling with a champion's heart, with a steadfastness that short-circuits the unease we might feel at the Captain America concept.  We may not believe in America as the kind of force for good that Captain America embodies, whose moral authority to make right in the world he mirrors, but it's very easy to believe that Steve believes in it, to sympathize with that belief, and to believe in him because of it.  The film contrasts that idealism with the realism of the people around Steve.  The recruiting station doctors repeatedly classify him as 4F because of a host of illnesses and infirmities.  His best friend Bucky (Kings's Sebastian Stan, who very nearly walks away with the film), who has been saving Steve's chivalrous but skinny ass from bullies since they were kids, can't imagine how his friend will fare against the Nazis.  Colonel Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones, who does walk away with the film), the head of the experimental unit that finally recruits Steve as a test subject for a supersoldier program, views him as nothing but a proof of concept, a stepping stone towards creating a supercharged army; when the experiment succeeds but the technology to augment other soldiers is lost, he dismisses Steve as irrelevant--one soldier, no matter how powerful and determined, can't change the course of the war.  The best use to which the US army can put its supersoldier is as a propaganda tool, as the Captain America moniker and costume are invented as part of Steve's bond-selling tour.

Unlike most origin story films, Captain America isn't concerned with doubt and self-discovery.  Steve starts the film knowing, despite the entirely reasonable arguments of everyone around him, that he can contribute and that it is therefore his duty to do so, and the film is mainly concerned with showing us how, when given the chance and a dose of fantastical, comic book "science," he proves himself right.  This can have the effect of flattening his character, which unlike his body doesn't change over the course of the film.  But that changelessness is also the source of Steve's appeal.  It drives home the point that it is his character, not his muscles, that makes Steve heroic.  Even after he becomes a musclebound Übermensch, he remains as thoughtful, soft-spoken, self-deprecating and utterly determined as he was when he was a sickly twig, and besides the fact that it is very refreshing to see a superhero character who doesn't default to the quip-happy, irreverent and irresponsible type we've grown accustomed to and maybe a little weary of, these qualities sell Steve's heroism in a way that other superhero films simply haven't.  "Hero" is a word that gets bandied about a little too often in popular culture and the public discourse, but what it originally meant was someone who was fundamentally different from ordinary people--more determined, less selfish, less bothered by the minutiae of everyday life.  A lot of superhero stories try to bring their heroes down to earth, and with good reason, but the ubiquity of this approach can leave one wondering why you'd ever root for this person, and why they deserve superpowers (it's arguably the greatest strength of the Iron Man films that they lean into this question and in fact ask it outright).  In Steve Rogers, Captain America gives as a definitive, and ultimately entirely convincing, answer to this question.  What's interesting and compelling about the film--despite the stock villain and forgettable plot--is watching all the characters around Steve come to that conclusion along with us.

As impressive as Captain America, X-Men, and Harry Potter's triumphs over the odds have been this summer, if there's one film that wins, hands down, the title of most unexpected and pleasant surprise, it must be Rise of the Planet of the ApesHarry Potter, the X-Men films, and the various Marvel comic book movies, after all, are series that have only been disappointing and underwhelming audiences since the turn of the century.  The Planet of the Apes movies have been delivering diminishing returns for decades, and that includes one ill-advised attempted reboot already that, unbeknownst to us at the time, heralded the decline of a once prominent artist.  As many positive reviews of the film as I read, I just couldn't make myself believe that it was actually as good as the reviewers claimed.  Which was a lucky thing, because Rise is not as good as all that--though everything having to do with the apes is very good, the human characters, and their half of the story, are flat and cliché-ridden.

You see this most prominently in the film's villains--the ones who try to curtail scientist Will Rodman's (James Franco) attempts to create a cure for Alzheimer's, and the ones who abuse Ceasar, the test subject Will rescues and adopts after his project is shut down, whose intelligence has been vastly accelerated by Will's drug.  Will's boss (David Oyelowo) is a stereotypical evil Big Pharma executive who treasures the bottom line and doesn't give a damn about saving lives.  The manager of the ape sanctuary where Will is forced to place Ceasar after the ape, defending Will's senile father from an irate neighbor, is declared dangerous, and his son (Brian Cox and Tom Felton) cheerfully abuse their charges, feeding them swill, encouraging them to fight, and tormenting them with fire-hoses and electric shockers.  Perhaps most egregious is Will's neighbor (David Hewlett) whose entirely reasonable anger at what he perceives as Will's dangerous, untrained pet trying to "play" with his children, and later when Will's father wrecks his car, is expressed in such extreme ways that he comes across, as Jonathan McCalmont says in his review, as a psychotic.  Even more problematic than the villain characters, however, is the film's treatment of Will.  Over the course of Rise, Will ignores all the rules of medical ethics in order to save his father, unwittingly creates a new species, raises a member of that species as his son but fails him in every possible way, and brings about the destruction of the human race.  He's a character whose grand ambitions are outstripped only by the magnitude of the catastrophes, both personal and global, that he causes.  And yet the character as written is entirely blank, only rarely showing any emotional response to the consequences of his actions, perhaps because he's entirely blind to them.  Will could have been a magnificent tragic character, a modern-day Victor Frankenstein, whose shortsightedness and selfishness the audience could marvel at.  But the film isn't interested in him as a human being, only as an engine for the plot's events.

Will's flatness, however, helps to draw attention to Rise of the Planet of the Apes's actual main character, Ceasar.  The second half of the film downplays Will's presence in order to show us Ceasar's experiences in the ape sanctuary, where he first encounters fellow apes, and hatches a plan to uplift them and escape into the wild.  The CGI and motion capture work are stunning, but they're also in the service of a meaty character arc--the radicalization of a super-intelligent ape.  Raised by humans, Ceasar sees himself as one, though even before he leaves Will's home we see him begin to question his place within it--the restrictions placed upon his movements, the unthinking assumption of outsiders that he is a pet, the dark history of his creation of which Will has told him only few self-serving details.  In the sanctuary, confronted with Will's abandonment and the cruelty of his keepers, Ceasar begins to see himself as part of an underclass, and to plan a rebellion.  The beats of this story, a classic prison narrative with undertones of racial prejudice, are in their own way as hackneyed as the film's construction of its villains, but the material and the performance are powerful enough that in the Ceasar-focused portions of Rise this predictability matters less and even works in the film's favor by making Ceasar and the other apes more sympathetic and recognizable despite their inhumanity.  It helps, of course, that this half of the film is also more action-heavy, as Ceasar first establishes his place in the sanctuary/prison hierarchy, then engineers a mass breakout and a mad dash to the wilderness, and that all of these scenes are tense and pulse-pounding, but at its core the film works because it gets us so thoroughly on the apes' side.  It's interesting, in fact, to compare Rise with X-Men: First Class, another film about a persecuted underclass trying, on the one hand, to live among humans, and on other hand, to fight them.  Rise cops out at the very end when it reveals that the apes aren't the direct cause of humanity's demise, but the sympathy it extends to the underclass and to its anger over its mistreatment is heartening.

So what happened this summer?  More importantly, what lessons--beyond obvious ones like "don't be dumb"--can be learned from it and hopefully applied to future films?  If I allow myself a moment of starry-eyed optimism, I'd like to believe that the summer of 2011 shows us a Hollywood that has finally figured out how to make remake- and sequel-mania work for it rather than against it.  If there's one quality that the successful B-movies of 2011 have in common, it's that they have a strong sense of what they are, what kind of world they're set in, and what kind of story they're trying to tell--even, in the case of X-Men and Captain America, to the extent of telling a period story.  If you manage to convey that sense to the audience--if you preserve your story's uniqueness instead of watering it down by trying to be just like everyone else--they will respond, and you can use your inevitable sequels and prequels to explore and deepen that sense.  I don't want to say that plot doesn't matter--though none of the films I enjoyed this summer had particularly strong or coherent plots--but it may come second to the integrity of the film's world and characters.  This summer's films possessed that integrity.  Here's hoping they're not just a blip.


Anonymous said…
This is on a different subject entirely, but I've emailed you several times recently and wanted to make sure there isn't a snag in transmission.
E M Pedersen said…
I've yet to see a film you've listed without laughing hysterically at all the wrong moments. I'll give Rise a shot, though.
William B said…
Great write-up. I agree on "Rise," though I found Will at least a touch more interesting than you -- particularly the way he recognizes his divided loyalties at the end of the film, sides with the apes, and realizes with a start that he has already failed Caesar too much -- or at least, that he is already distant enough from Caesar -- that his loyalties lie primarily with humans. I thought in theory at least, Will made sense as a figure of the privileged class who forms a deep bond with a member of the underclass, even a familial bond, but who ultimately can't break far enough from the expectations of his society to really treat the underclass member as being the full person he wants to view him as. He raises Caesar like a son, but he also ultimately accepts the idea that he should be taken away, and doesn't try nearly hard enough to get Caesar out despite what he knows about Caesar's sentience. Nor does he extend his views on Caesar's personhood to other apes, whom he continues testing on.

On Captain America, I found the first half of the film delightful. But the flatness of Steve's character became overwhelming for me in the second half. Yes, it's nice that he is essentially heroic and doesn't find himself particularly corrupted by power, though there is a slight hint that it will happen (when he's flirting with one of the secretaries) -- insofar as it is a change of pace. But with that gone, and Steve invincible, and the villain uninteresting, and few of the other characters developed enough, there was very little tension. A lot of things blowed up real good, I guess. I found the death of Steve's friend particularly ill-handled -- I realized with a start that I simply didn't care. Same, indeed, for the entire howling commando squad, who were essentially not even characters. I do like the film's unironic treatment of the superhero material, and the way Steve's patriotism gets contrasted with the reality of American life and American military, as you say -- but it didn't sustain the film for me. We'll see how Steve fares in The Avengers -- if he remains somewhat frozen and unchanging in that film, at least there are other protagonists who have flaws that they need to overcome, so there sohuld be other character arcs even if he he stays static.

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