Deadpool 2 – Entertaining But Nothing Too Special

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It’s easy to lambast a sequel, especially a sequel to an unexpected runaway hit like ‘Deadpool.’ Low-budget success stories almost always lead to bloated, high budget follow-ups. You’d think lessons have been learned, but this is the trend and things don’t change very swiftly in the Hollywood circuit. With a fifty million dollar budget, ‘Deadpool‘ walked away with more the three-quarters of a billion dollars at the global box-office. This makes it one of the most successful R-rated films of all time and, when we consider investment-cost versus return, ‘Deadpool‘ is one of the most successful comic book movies of all time. Of course there was going to be a sequel.

Consider, for just a brief moment, ‘Avengers: Infinity War.’ It’s likely to break the billion dollar tape, but production costs (before advertising) are rumored to be around three-hundred-million dollars. Speaking dollars and cents, ‘Deadpool‘ is a hum-dinger of a smash-hit compared to the likes of this season’s most aggressively promoted and widely talked about blockbuster. Spend fifty and make a thousand, or spend three hundred and make a thousand? The math is pretty simple, isn’t it?

Bloated budgets lend themselves to bloated features, and that’s really the only problem with ‘Deadpool 2.’ After it’s initial success, nobody was surprised that the studio green-lit a follow-up with an increased budget, increased scope, increased scale, and increased ambitions; in some ways (not all) it’s hard to deny that the money was spent wisely – on excellent action set-pieces, extraordinary visual effects, and surprising cameos. But the cast size has more than doubled and, as a predictable consequence, the narrative is less focused.

I grant the follow-up to ‘Deadpool‘ one thing: it’s a film that knows exactly what it is.

I know we don’t like to give much credit to goofball comedies and comic book movies – we don’t expect them to earn awards for screenwriting or acting or find a seat at the film archive at the library of congress – but what separates a good film from a bad film isn’t genre. Self-awareness is what separates the wheat from the chaff; nobody spoke of ‘Dumb and Dumber‘ as an award-worthy feature, but it’s still considered a contemporary classic because it wasn’t ever trying to be anything other than precisely what it was. There’s nothing worse than mediocre Oscar-bait trying to be something more than it is – consider ‘J. Edjar,’ ‘Seven Pounds,’ ‘The Soloist,‘ ‘Stop-Loss,’ and even successful scam-jobs like ‘Crash‘ and ‘The Hurt Locker.

I’m not much into spoilers, which makes it hard to talk about ‘Deadpool 2.’ Hidden jokes in machine-gunned dialogue, background easter eggs, and at least one major (and hilarious) cameo, this is a film that is less about being high art and more about being a carnival ride, a roller-coaster, a treat to the senses that appeals, let’s face it, to our baser selves. Severed limbs, creative visual effects, and the occasional fart joke never hurt anybody. And ‘Deadpool 2‘ is worth the price of admission.

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The Wounded Cowboy

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This is one of those old illustrations that sat, untouched, for years at a time. I’d eventually get around to it, do a little bit of work on it, get discouraged, and set it aside for another year. Just one of those projects that, at the very beginning I thought had some promise and I eventually lost my passion for.

But my passion for taking these orphaned, unfinished projects and finishing them? Definitely stronger.

Forcing myself back into this piece – inspired, as many of my illustrations are, by the cinema – I thought about the tradition of Western Films in American cinema, and how these themes have begun to resurface in movies like Logan, which intentionally and overtly borrowed from movies like Shane and The Cowboys. This piece, in fact, is a study from James Mangold’s 3:10 To Yuma – James Mangold also happens to be the same man who directed Logan.

This didn’t feel like work. It wasn’t a headache trying to finish it. I found a good flow and I’m glad to close the chapter. I hope you like it.

Deadpool

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In the spirit of finishing old illustrations that have been abandoned – and in the spirit of the Deadpool sequel coming out in about a month – I decided to finally polish this one off and call it done.

Sure, there have been rumors of production problems, but those stretch way back to last year when we learned that director Tim Miller was leaving the project. There are always rumors that circle these productions and yeah, it’s never good to hear that a director has either left or been excused from a project; the Han Solo film has endured similar scrutiny and they’ve brought Ron Howard in to “fix” the movie.

Evidently, test audiences haven’t responded well to the initial cut of ‘Deadpool 2′ and the studio has been scrambling to re-shoot scenes and cobble together another edit in time for the premiere. Whenever I read a story about test audiences, I remind myself that if test audiences got their way we wouldn’t have hits like ‘Seinfeld’ or cult classics like ‘Bladerunner,’ ‘Apocalypse Now,’ or ‘Fight Club.’

Test audiences are unreliable, at best.

To be fair, though, sequels almost always suck. From ‘Wayne’s World 2′ to ‘Dumb and Dumber Too,’ there aren’t many good sophomore titles in any franchise of any genre. Save for your rare instances like ‘Terminator 2’ or ‘Aliens,’ it’s predictably challenging to recapture the magic of a hit film. I don’t expect ‘Deadpool 2‘ to be as fun or surprising as its predecessor, and it likely won’t perform as well at the box office, but I’m pretty confident I’m still going to enjoy the ride.

I’ll see you at the movies, guys.
Cheers.

-joe

‘How ‘Bout A Hug?’ (Dumb and Dumber Is A Damn Classic)

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Working long hours swinging hammers outdoors – assembling scaffolding and hauling materials, scraping elbows and climbing ladders – has oddly taught me a few things about being an artist. The strangest thing is a deeper appreciation for the books, comics, movies, podcasts, and newscasts that are a part of my day-to-day life. Music, above everything else, helps me push through the sweat and bruised skin, the ache in my back and knees when quitting time is still hours away. The other thing I’ve noticed is that it’s incredibly hard to sit down and work on my own personal projects when I get home at the end of the day. It’s hard to ignore the siren’s call of the couch and the television, hard to shake the dust from my shirt and put some effort into my personal passions.

Maybe some of you’ll get this one (but maybe not): when I sit down to start working on something, I like to put on an album I’ve heard a million times, or a movie I know inside and out. I like something in the background that I can ignore. The familiar sounds dampen outside distractions, help me focus on the details of whatever I’m tinkering with. I’ve heard that people with tinnitus find comfort in background noises that drown-out the ringing in their ears; it’s like that.

Well, I was on a road trip with my family – my parents and my sister – when I was twelve years old. My sister had a softball tournament in Omaha and, I remember distinctly, we stayed at the La Quinta. It was a weekend of soft-drinks, nachos, popcorn, and the clank of aluminum bats against underhand pitches. Thankfully I was old enough to be trusted alone in the hotel room and only had to endure a few hours at the baseball diamond. Junk food and cable television were just fine by me. Bored to tears by the whole situation – a twelve-year-old, marooned in Omaha for his sister’s softball league? – I was lucky enough to find ‘Dumb and Dumber’ on the television. It was love at first sight.

When the local video store in Lenexa, Kansas, Flicks and Discs, had ‘previously-viewed’ movies on sale, I was there to scrape them up. I maintained a reasonably healthy addiction to VHS throughout my middle- and high-school years. And let me tell you, ‘Dumb and Dumber’ was quickly one of the most watched tapes in my collection. I should be embarrassed how effortlessly I can recite lines from the film, but I’m not. I’m mesmerized by how this film just doesn’t seem to grow old (at least not to me).

But I’m rambling.

I was tired after a long day at work a few days ago. My body hurt. I found myself sifting through half-finished little projects and I was clicking through distractions on the internet – YouTube ‘this’ and Facebook ‘that.’ I was awake enough to seek out some mindless entertainment, but too exhausted to push anything creative out. I put ‘Dumb and Dumber’ on not even sure if I wanted to watch it. While the movie was playing, I found an old file on my computer – a half-completed illustration that I’d lost interest in years ago. Not caring too much, I started working on it. I was too tired to overthink anything; that was just right, for that moment, for me. Not working on anything grand, not feeling compelled to make something perfect, I was able to just draw, color, shade, and mess around in digital finger-paint.

So here’s a totally unimportant illustration of one of my favorite, ‘I don’t care if you don’t like it’ movies. And hell, even if you don’t like it…how ’bout a hug?

Cheers, guys,

-joe

 

Logan (Soaring Character Development – Low Budget)

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The struggle between ‘art’ and ‘commerce’ is a real one. Content is regularly stripped of complexity to make stories more accessible to more people. Films are also regularly stripped of violence and profanity to achieve a PG-13 rating, making stories more accessible to the widest possible audience. Material is dumbed-down, focus-grouped, and manufactured ‘by committee,’ and the result is often a muddled, boring, effects-driven dumpster fire.

Wolverine Origins is a good example. It had stunning visuals and a magnificent opening montage to illustrate Logan’s near-immortal status and battle-hardened personality, but it also bastardized many beloved characters and fell flat to a passionate fan-base. More recently, we have the Suicide Squad and Batman V Superman debacles, films that spent a tremendous amount of money only to insult hardcore fans. Sure, these films performed okay at the box-office and appealed to casual fans, but they were roundly dismissed by critics and didn’t perform as well as the studio had hoped. With huge up-front costs, large action set-pieces, and remarkable visual effects – not to mention monumental marketing campaigns – these films ultimately did not pass muster.

Films made by committee, that attempt to appeal to the lowest common denominator, never endure. Marketing may contribute to successful opening weekends, but the numbers predictably dropped-off as the word spread. Home video sales take a huge hit in these situations, and movies like this quickly become bargain-bin offerings at Wal-Mart.

We’ve had a couple of wonderful object-lessons in recent years. Deadpool‘s monumental success is often cited as the only reason Logan was allowed to have an R rating. Both films were made with a modest budget compared to other films of the genre and both films performed exceedingly well at the box office. With smaller crews, practical effects, and lower budgets, the film-makers were given more freedom to execute their vision without interference from the studios.

A novelist doesn’t hire a crew of people to change his story in order to make it more palatable to wider audiences. Why is this model so routinely employed in Hollywood? The most celebrated films of all time are typically the realization of one person’s singular vision. The rise of the writer/director in the 1960s and 1970s is our evidence. Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino are two recognizable names, and they are notorious for their relentless control over their productions. I would shudder to imagine what Pulp Fiction would have been like if Bob and Harvey Weinstein had insisted on focus groups and a rating reduction.

We certainly wouldn’t be revering the film today.

Director James Mangold spun some magic with Logan, borrowing the tone from the ‘Old Man Logan’ comic book series and allowing the titular character to be exactly what he has been on the written page for the past several decades. The budget was modest and the set-pieces weren’t heavily glossed over with digital trickery. The film was concrete and character driven, something that’s difficult to do with a large ensemble cast. The gravitas of a specific character’s arc is difficult to illustrate with an Avengers-style film, with over a dozen major players to consider. Logan focuses mainly on two characters, Logan and Charles Xavier, and the minimalist approach leads to meaningful and emotional character arcs.

Being smaller is a good thing for super-hero and comic-book properties. The source material is serialized story-telling anyway, and we’ve seen several new comic book properties being adapted for the small screen. Daredevil and Luke Cage, Dirk Gently, Preacher, The Walking Dead, and many others have proved to be successful adaptations of comic book stories, capturing the imaginations of not just children, but adults as well. This is where the R rated film comes into play. Comic books aren’t just for kids, as television networks and Hollywood executives have assumed for an entire generation. Comic books are our modern mythology. We’ve all been raised on comic books and there are plenty of 18+ viewers who want to see these stories told in an adult, mature way.

Logan effectively closes the chapter on the Wolverine story, passing the torch to a new Wolverine. It lays the groundwork for a whole new set of stories without overwhelming glitz and glamour, without throw-away exposition and forgettable characters. The film relies on character and story, not effects. It respects its audience, rather than insulting the audience’s intellect. It did something that few of these superhero films has been able to achieve – it has a heart. It has grounded characters whose struggle we can identify with on some level. In over fifteen years of playing Logan and Charles Xavier, Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart ended the saga in a beautiful way, paving the way for new stories.

After the success of Deadpool and Logan, let’s hope that the message has been read loud and clear. Audiences aren’t only ready for more mature stories. They want them.

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Game of Thrones – Viserys Targaryen

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Viserys Targaryen, the white-haired menace whose political ambitions outweigh any shred of compassion or decency, is the youngest son of Aerys II Targaryen. For those only familiar with the television series, Aerys – whose name bears a marked resemblance to the Greek God of War, Ares (or Aris), is better known to audiences as ‘The Mad King.’

Thirteen years before the events of the television series, Viserys and his sister, Daenerys, were forced to flee the continent of Westeros in order to escape certain death at the hands of the war-hammer-wielding rebel, Ser Robert Baratheon. Viserys is depicted as an almost inhuman twit, with an appropriate level of arrogance and cruelty to match. He is an ambitious political creature, given to unpredictable, violent mood swings. Although it is merely subtext in the television series, he doesn’t just arrange to marry his sister, Daenerys, off to Khal Drogo – he sells her. The reason for this arrangement is to secure Drogo’s allegiance – and the might of Khal Drogo’s army – with a means toward reclaiming the Iron Throne of Westeros.

Frustrated with the wild and unpredictable ways of Drogo and the Dothraki people, Viserys does ultimately receive the golden crown that he demands, the he believes is his birthright – but it isn’t the crown he had anticipated.

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Game of Thrones – Eddard Stark

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“The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword.”

In this modern world of long-form story-telling on television, the quality of ‘virtue’ almost always proves to be a death sentence. Although “Game of Thrones” is based on a series of novels that were initially published in the mid-1990s, this new age of “literate programming” has brought audiences a greater depth of character development and a newfound fearlessness on behalf of networks, writers, and show-runners to visit harm on beloved characters.

If audiences don’t care about the characters on the screen, audiences won’t feel anything if a terrible fate befalls them. That’s why we are seeing fewer and fewer “immortal” characters (central characters that audiences know will never ever die). With “Game of Thrones,” the show-runners established, during the climactic moments of season one, that absolutely nobody is safe. This ramps up interest in the story and multiplies the value of the drama.

Eddard “Ned” Stark is the enduring symbol that expresses how dangerous the continent of Westeros actually is.

In the series, Ned Stark is arguably the most honorable character, ruling over the northern kingdom of Winterfell, patriarch of House Stark. He is the moral compass of the story, inherently compelled to remain away from politics, courtly intrigue, and deception. Literarily, the family name, Stark, serves as a clever indication of his resistance to moral compromise.

After being appointed the “hand of the king,” he is duty-bound to travel to the capital city of King’s Landing. After the accident death of King Robert, we watch as Ned becomes increasingly entangled in the political upheaval of the city. He begins to struggle as his own sense of honor draws him into corrupt dealings at court. Near the end of his story arc, he is forced to choose between his family’s safety and his own sense of honor.

This is one of many paintings I have made in my ongoing series, “The Portraits of Westeros.” I hope you enjoy the work, and implore you to tell me who you would like me to paint next!

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