Dear WB execs: Here’s How You Get From Man of Steel to The Justice League

 

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After depositing an astounding 1.5 billion dollars into Mickey Mouse’s private bank account, we’ve almost reached a consensus amongst moviegoers that Marvel’s The Avengers is the standard on how to make “The Ultimate Superhero Team-up Movie.” While The Watchmen, The X-men, and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen were a little ahead of their time when they landed onto our precious silver screens, The Avengers had the luxury of establishing each of their characters individually in their own solo pictures – thus allowing formal introductions to be over and done with before the movie’s very first frame. It’s safe to say The Avengers would have never experienced such a resonant worldwide success if moviegoers were wondering how Tony Stark built his shiny armor or how Thor grew such amazing biceps.

20th Century Fox realized how important back stories were, and went in reverse mode with their fragile piece of the Marvel Universe after X-Men: The Last Stand by sharing the origins of Wolverine, Professor Xavier and Magneto in following prequels. Which now brings us to our friends at Warner Bros. who must be having one too many sleepless nights wondering how they could possibly top The Avengers. There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that “The WB” needs to catch up to Disney’s prized franchise and is already miles behind at this point in the race. The last scenario they want to live through is to see their first installment of The Justice League getting annihilated at the box-office in the same Summer as Marvel’s The Avengers 3: The Return of Loki.

Jon Favreau’s original Iron Man ended with the surprise after-credits appearance of Nick Fury, thus allowing Marvel to tell the audience they were making an Avengers movie in a few years and to stay tuned for further developments. “Please be sure to catch the next character flicks so that you don’t get confused when the ball drops on Times Square” was the message they sent us. We listened. But since we never got to witness Nick Fury’s DC counterpart appear in either Green Lantern nor The Dark Knight Rises, we’re all left with a tiny shred of hope that there will be some sort of hint about a DC Cinematic Universe being established in Man of Steel. As a self-professed DC Comics fan myself, I therefore present to you my humble summary of how I would like to see each of these iconic characters be approached and developed on the silver screen:

(Fair assumption before we start: The cast will clearly include Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and most likely The Flash and Green Lantern.)

Superman: Cavill. Perfect.

Batman: Bale. Pay him. Pay him lots.

Wonder Woman: Diana Prince has always been rumored to appear on the small screen for the longest time on NBC. Sadly for many of us, the small screen is the only place she’s ever belonged as far as adaptations go and that’s a real shame considering her stature within the DC Universe. However, I would be in support of a high-risk experiment that would develop a TV show that leads into the Justice League movie. Picture this: A whole season of character-establishing back-stories in the Amazon and in Washington only to leave you on a cliffhanger at the end of the season – fade to black and then the promise of a satisfying resolution coming soon within the Justice League movie. The problem aside from being an unprecedented experiment is that casting for TV tends to bring a different slate of candidates than casting for the big screen (Sorry, Tom Welling)… Would we really want to see Stephen Amell as the Green Arrow standing short in IMAX 3D next to Christian Bale and Henry Cavill? Let’s face it: it’s no simple feat to cast someone who works simultaneously well on both screens. I think Jennifer Garner would be a great Wonder Woman, regardless of her portrayal of Elektra, and she would be my pick to carry the lasso and fly the invisible jet. However, WB producers would need to take into account her arrangement with Ben Affleck as they take turns working on projects to take care of their family.

The Flash: Ryan Reynolds was originally attached to a David Goyer treatment that never came to fruition and moved on to become the Emerald Ring slinger a few years later. In my opinion, Ryan’s sense of humor would have made Flash a fan favorite, but there’s no way Ryan can play the speedster at this point in time as it would confuse casual moviegoers significantly. So here’s my pitch instead: Adam Brody plays the role of Barry Allen in a movie titled “The Fastest Man Alive”. We learn that he was born into the speed force and a lightning “accident” catalyzed his transformation into the Flash. Police scientist by day, he’s always been trying to crack the mystery of his mother’s murder, which we will later find out was a result of Reverse Flash trying to stop Barry Allen from being born in the first place, but couldn’t go back in time far enough to kill his mother. Barry begins to study the speed force with a University research team funded by the Wayne Foundation, later realizing the lead researcher is the great grandfather of Eobard Thawne, the Reverse Flash. In this twist filled adventure, viewers are greeted with the special effects and get to experience what the speed force might be like in 3D. The “Avengers-esque” after-credits scene could show Barry running to Gotham City to ask Lucius Fox what he knows about the speed force. I’m getting way over my head on this, but only because the Flash is one of my favorite characters!

The Green Lantern: Warner Bros. ended its disappointing Green Lantern movie with a premature, nay, completely awkward introduction of Sinestro and his shiny yellow ring. I’d say the best thing to fix this mess is to make a Green Lantern sequel (Yes… I actually just uttered the words “green”, “lantern”, and “sequel” back-to-back) and use it to introduce John Stewart to the DC Universe so he can effectively become the actual Green Lantern of the Justice League. Picture this, movie geeks: Sinestro kills Blake Lively (why thank you good Sir!), which drives Hal Jordan mad with the fear of losing all of his loved ones. Parallax (let’s say he infused himself in the battle with Hal Jordan) and Sinestro go on a killing spree and destroy the Corps, but the Guardians were able to deliver one last ring to John Stewart: Hal Jordan’s. Ultimately, Jordan’s willpower overcomes Parallax for a few moments in the final battle where he helps John Stewart defeat Sinestro (Darth Vader/Luke Skywalker/Emperor Palpatine redux?) and dies from his battle wounds. Stewart, who could only be played by the suave and deep-voiced Idris Elba, knows he won’t be able to defend the universe on his own without the rest of the corps and therefore decides to enlist in the Justice League so he can help defend sector 2514. This will most likely garner a lot of cheers from the fans as Martin Campbell’s Green Lantern will be successfully wiped off our collective subconscious and we can begin the process of rebuilding the Corps (symbolism of the Green Lantern movie franchise). Too violent, perhaps? It all depends on who directs it and more specifically how the death scenes are portrayed on the big screen.

Five iconic characters to properly “kickstart” the Justice League franchise seems like a spectacular launch to me. Those are all storylines that come directly from the comic books, but that have been effectively twisted in order to fit the silver screen. Whatever happens inside WB’s stress-induced executive boardrooms, let’s just hope that Man of Steel makes enough money worldwide to start building the kind of momentum we need to propel our beloved Justice League and ignite a questionably mature sense of glee within fanboys and fangirls alike.  – The Silent Shark

Is There Something Wrong With Pixar?

 

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As a child growing up in the 90s, I have nothing but fond memories associated with Pixar Animation Studios. Every time a new Pixar film was about to enter its theatrical run, the collective anticipation for the iconic studio’s next installment was already palpable; each subsequent story was radically different from its predecessor and consistently kept millions of moviegoers of all ages on their toes. Perhaps it had something to do with Steve Jobs, but for the longest time everything Pixar touched was destined to turn into gold.

From feature-length films encapsulating epic adventures in alternate universes to five-minute shorts about mischievous desk lamps, each film would irrevocably go on to become both a critical and commercial success. In a time where animated movies were too often relegated to cheap pop-culture references and clichéd slapstick humor, their winning formula of unique settings, quirky characters tied together with a firm emotional core would constantly set them leagues apart from the competition.

Fast forward to present day. Monsters University – a prequel to one of their most endearing creations – is opening this Friday to moderately polite reviews (at the time of publishing, it currently holds a good but not great 71% fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes). The studio is coming off Brave and Cars 2, which many would consider to be their two least well-received films since the animation powerhouse’s inception back in 1986. After having been emotionally invested for close to two decades, the mere thought of Pixar going downhill is barely imaginable, let alone endurable. How could anyone dare think something like that? To entertain this idea seems ungrateful – almost derisive – considering all the great classics that they have offered us throughout the years.  All feelings aside, however, the question remains: Is there something wrong with Pixar?

Many critics have identified Disney as the potential culprit their recent string of disappointments – and for a good reason. During the production of Toy Story 2, John Lasseter and his uber-talented team of animators were combining all their creative efforts to provide the most satisfying sequel imaginable to their iconic first feature-length film. Sadly, as history recalls, the dictator known as Disney stepped in midway through production and demanded that they churn out a rushed, direct-to-video style sequel, which famously brought the two companies at an impasse.

Pointing fingers at Disney is all too easy – the enormous, evil media empire known for its conservative fiscal decisions vs. the “little lamp that could” that is Pixar – it all makes for the quintessential David vs. Goliath scenario. Despite that, the real underlying issue is much less romanticized and significantly more textbook. In any case of mergers and acquisitions, the corporate values and culture of the acquiring company inevitably supersede those of the other company. While it took several years for them to manifest themselves, the telltale signs of Disney’s high-turnaround, quick-profit culture were bound to become ever-present within Pixar’s yearly summer offerings.

Disney’s business model is elementary: establish a great original brand that the audience will respond to and squeeze every dollar of profit from that venture through sequels, prequels, squishy toys, cheesy decals and every cheap plastic gadget and gizmo imaginable. While this tried and tested strategy earns mounds of profit for Disney and its hungry shareholders, it comes at an arguably higher cost: a lack of creative integrity in times of crisis where making something fast, safe and cheap is at the opposite end of making something wonderful and innovative. If you’re in need of concrete examples on how Disney is starting to tarnish Pixar’s image, look no further than Disney’s Planes, a deceivingly Pixaresque production coming to grab the cash of unsuspecting parents across North American theaters this August.

Another interesting observation would be that perhaps Pixar’s decline is a misconception because it’s the non-Pixar offerings that have kept improving over the years. As far as technical sound and quality of animation, Pixar has always been the indisputable industry pioneer and leader, far surpassing the competition. Or at least, it used to be that way. For the past several years, “Non-Pixar” animated movies have been slowly encroaching on their territory, poised to challenge the artistic dominance that Pixar holds over the whole industry. As other studios have become more proficient with their animation techniques, their movies are becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish from Pixar films.

Take Dreamworks for instance – after years of churning out generic, unmemorable duds like Flushed Away, Bee Movie, and Shark Tale (to name a few), they suddenly unleashed How to Train Your Dragon – a movie that could arguably be Pixar’s first viable contender. While some of their previous efforts did showcase a strong penchant for charm and artistic detail, How to Train your Dragon was their first offering to come with the whole package. Co-directed by ex-Disney talent Chris Sanders, it felt just like a Pixar Movie – full of heart, wonder, fantasy, and equipped with stunning animation to boot. One could almost wonder if some of its cleverly-written supporting characters didn’t inspire Brave’s mediocre scenes of clumsy medieval decorum.

Perhaps it is somewhat of an overstatement to say that Pixar has literally gone downhill, but it remains difficult to dispute that they have dabbled into the pool of mediocrity. But is that really so bad? Is it unreasonable to expect their success to be 100% sustainable? In my opinion, the answer should be a resonant ‘no’. Pixar has become a pillar of unbridled imagination and youthful creativity – a cultural standard that has set the benchmark for every animated films we have today. Being in this esteemed position, it becomes nothing short of a responsibility to deliver high-integrity material.

And yet, I realize that a shadow of my younger self might be holding Pixar on a pedestal – an impossibly high standard that is overly idealistic, to which new material could never surpass regardless of how hard it tries. The hard truth is that great things never last and people – especially great talents – inevitably leave, drawn by the prospect of achieving even greater things. Fifteen straight years of magic, from Toy Story to Toy Story 3 should be considered a good run. A really, really good run.

Despite all my misgivings about Pixar’s recent performance, I remain optimistic about their imminent future at this point. Their promising new line-up has already been chalked up to be wildly daring and ambitious – a much needed beacon of hope for secretly desperate fans who have grown nostalgic of the days when the lights went dark in the theater and we were about to discover their latest classic. I can only hope that the Pixar I fell in love with (the little lamp that could) is still alive and bright; a non-complacent Pixar that doesn’t tell empty stories for the lucrative promise of merchandising, but stories that can instill warmth and wonder within the minds and hearts of countless generations to come.  – The Skeptical Sloth

The Future is Global: On Will Smith, the Power of Movie Stars, and the Rise of the International Audience

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It looked like a pretty good idea on paper: Will Smith, the star of summertime sci-fi blockbusters like Independence Day and Men in Black, teams up with his real-life son Jaden in a sci-fi action film from the director of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable.

Over the last 10 years as movie stars have become an increasingly endangered species, Smith has stood tall as one of the last of a dying breed. Put his name on a poster along with that $20 million smile, and watch the dollars roll in (case in point: 2005’s Hitch). Not to be outdone by his dad, Jaden showed some real acting chops in 2010’s Karate Kid remake, which was also a box office hit. And although M. Night Shyamalan hasn’t had a bona fide smash since Signs in 2002, he’s still a director of undeniable skill – now is a good time to remember that the American Film Institute has voted The Sixth Sense one of the 100 greatest films ever made. Combine Will Smith’s savvy at giving audiences what they want with Shyamalan’s raw filmmaking talent, and a hit seemed likely to result.

But it was not to be.

When the box-office estimates rolled in on June 3, After Earth finished at #3, behind the 6th installment of a car racing franchise, and a magician heist movie starring Jesse Eisenberg and Woody Harrelson. The verdict appeared clear: After Earth was Will Smith’s first summertime bomb in almost 15 years.

When you look at the numbers, it seems like Will Smith’s star has been on the wane for some time. Since 2008, Smith has top lined just 3 films: Seven Pounds, Men in Black 3, and After Earth.

Seven Pounds was Smith’s second collaboration with director Gabriele Muccino, who had previously worked with Smith on 2006’s The Pursuit of Happyness. Happyness was a major success for Smith, generating about $170 million at the domestic box office, and garnering Smith an Oscar nomination in the process. However, Seven Pounds opened to mixed reviews, and made a mere $70 million in Canada and the US.

When MIB 3 came out in May 2012, it was Smith’s first starring role in 4 years. Although not exactly original, MIB 3 was a well-produced slice of summer box-office junk food. It was certainly better than 2002’s MIB II, which had been little more than a charmless rehash of the first film. Nevertheless, audiences weren’t enamoured with MIB 3. Whereas MIB II had made $190 million domestically in 2002, MIB 3 made about $180 domestically, despite inflation and the advantage of 3D ticket prices.

Now that After Earth has crashed and burned, it seems a fit time to declare that the man who played Ali is no longer a box office heavyweight. That’s the conventional wisdom, anyways. But conventional wisdom has a way of being wrong.

Seven Pounds reportedly cost $55 million to produce, although that figure likely doesn’t take into account marketing costs. The film topped out at $70 million domestically, but the worldwide figures tell a different story. Seven Pounds made about $100 million outside of North America, for a worldwide total of $168 million. That may not be ID4 money, but it was more than enough to make Seven Pounds substantially profitable for Sony Pictures.

The worldwide numbers for MIB 3 change the story even more drastically. Internationally, MIB 3 took in $445 million, making it the highest grossing installment of the series outside of North America to date (and making MIB 4 all but assured).

So in a year that included Batman, Bond, Bilbo, and the Avengers, Will Smith still managed to star in one of the top 10 films of the year. And unlike Batman and Bilbo, Smith’s success had nothing to do with wildly popular source material. No other actor could play Agent J, because Agent J’s only identifiable quality is Being Will Smith. While North American audiences may be growing tired of Smith’s cocky hero shtick, internationally, “being Will Smith” still counts for a hell of a lot, and Sony banks an international dollar just the same as an American dollar. The message from the international box office is clear: don’t write the Fresh Prince off just yet.

The recent reporting of the supposed demise of Smith’s star power shows how oddly myopic and North American-centric coverage of the weekly box-office horse race can be. Despite its post-2008 financial decline, America, and Hollywood in particular, remains the untouched leader in exporting popular culture around the globe. Global audiences also have their own quirky tastes that are sometimes out-of-sync with their North American counterparts. For one thing, they still like star power. Take a few recent examples:

With a domestic gross of $67.3 million, Bruce Willis’s 5th turn as John McClane in A Good Day to Die Hard looked like a bad day for 20th Century Fox. Well, not exactly. Although the back-to-back domestic disappointments of Jack Reacher and Oblivion suggest that Tom Cruise is in need of yet another comeback, internationally he never left. And while the domestic take for 2011’s Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides suggested that Jack Sparrow had lost some of his lustre with audiences, Johnny Depp managed to sail Sparrow’s 4th voyage to the highest international total in the history of the franchise.

It’s nothing new to see Hollywood blockbusters make more money internationally than domestically, even though they appear to cater primarily to a North American audience. Back in 1993, for example, Jurassic Park was a domestic juggernaut, but it made over 60% of its $924.5 million worldwide total abroad. What is somewhat new is Hollywood’s willingness to make explicit overtures to the global film community in order to maximize the bottom line.

Generally speaking, major Hollywood franchise films (with the notable exception of U.K.-centric James Bond) have been released in North America first, and then gradually roll out overseas over a period of months. This format allows buzz to build, and gives stars the opportunity to promote their films around the world (in 2005, Smith himself was entered into the Guinness Book of World Records for attending 3 premieres of Hitch in the U.K. in one day). However, there are signs that this format is changing, and perhaps permanently.

In 2012, at the culmination of literally years of hype, audiences in 39 countries got to see Marvel’s The Avengers before American audiences did. This year, international audiences were similarly first to see Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness. In the age of instant communication, not being first has implications for North American audiences – how many North American Trek fans do you suppose went into Darkness already knowing Benedict Cumberbatch’s true identity because they had seen it discussed on a message board, or mentioned on someone’s Twitter feed? If studios are willing to give this kind of crucial information to international audiences before domestic audiences, the message is clear – studios don’t hold domestic audiences in any sort of special esteem, and are just as likely (if not more likely) to make creative decisions with a Beijing audience in mind as they are with a Kansas or New York audience in mind.

China is a particularly interesting case. Despite restrictions on content and on the number of foreign films that are permitted to be exhibited in the country, China has become one of the largest film markets in the world, and Chinese audiences are willing to pay premium prices for a 3D movie experience. Marvel recently took the unprecedented step of creating a special version of Iron Man 3 that was produced specifically for Chinese audiences. The Chinese version, which contains about 4 minutes of extra footage, includes an expanded role for a minor character in the regular version of the film, as well as appearance by Chinese actress Fan Bingbing.

Marvel isn’t the only studio casting local international actors in supporting roles to boost the international appeal of their films. Bollywood legend Amitabh Bachchan can currently be seen on screens around the world as Meyer Wolfsheim in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. Although Bachchan performs well in the role, from a purely creative standpoint, it’s not a role that cries out for a Bollywood star – in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, Wolsheim was allegedly based on the real-life Arnold Rothstein, a Jewish-American gangster. However, as a major Indian film star, Bachchan gives the film an undeniable level of appeal to a significant global audience.

In addition to populating their works with names from the global films community, studios are expanding their global reach by using tentpole films as opportunities to showcase international locations. When the Fast & Furious franchise began in 2001, the films were steeped in urban American street racing culture. Fast Five moved the action to Rio de Janeiro and became the biggest installment of franchise – that is, until Fast & Furious 6 came out, and moved the action to London. This July, The Wolverine will chronicle the adventures of Hugh Jackman’s Logan in Japan. Wolverine’s Japanese storyline is one of the most revered storylines in the character’s history, so this decision is an easy sell artistically – but it also happens to be good business.

And when one thinks about good business, the strange, mechanical joylessness of After Earth starts to make sense. While North American critics are busy writing Will Smith’s movie star obituary, I can’t help but wonder if, like those magicians who so ignominiously defeated Smith and Son at the domestic box office, he’s playing the long game. Smith has publicly discussed his belief in the power of patterns. The story goes that early in his career, Smith and his manager sat down to devise a path to Hollywood superstardom. They looked at a list of the highest grossing films of all time, and saw a pattern: a majority of films on the list were sci-fi action films that had been released during the summer. Smith went on to star in films like Men in Black and I, Robot, and became the biggest star in the world.

Whereas the elder Smith had carefully mapped out a path to Hollywood dominance, After Earth plays like a similarly calculated attempt to make a global star out of Jaden. In After Earth, the two Smiths are presented as members of a futuristic melting pot society; they are nationally, ethnically, and culturally ambiguous. The action takes place on an Earth that has been overrun by nature, so as to look foreign but slightly familiar to any viewer on the planet. The film isn’t heavy on dialogue, and the dialogue bounced between father and son is terse, stoic, and short. This ain’t Kevin Smith – the story is told by the images of Jaden Smith fighting CGI creatures. Anyone can understand it.

And perhaps most importantly, Will Smith is in it. Though that may no longer mean what it used to in North America, North America is just one piece of the pie. The fact is, if a person sat down and tried to design a film for the specific purpose of appealing to the broadest, most inclusive global audience possible, it would look a lot like After Earth.

While internet movie talkbackers chortle over a perceived failure for the former king of Hollywood, Smith will be rolling out After Earth to a global audience of fans who have come to pay tribute. After almost 20 years on top, Smith is still seeing the patterns that others are catching up to. This time, the pattern shows that being the king of Hollywood is overrated – because who wants a kingdom on the Pacific, when the entire world awaits?  – The Sarcastic Squirrel