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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Gunslinger – A Western Illustration

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This is an older painting that only a small number of my cohort have correctly identified.
I never had much of an appreciation for the Western genre of film-making. My father was raised in an era in which westerns were incredibly popular, and he tried to share his love for ‘Have Gun, Will Travel,’ ‘Gunsmoke,’ and some of the old John Wayne classics like ‘The Cowboys.’

Admittedly, I liked ‘The Cowboys,’ but there was always something about the genre that never really gripped me.
Well, all things in good time, I suppose.

I pretty-much accidentally rented disc one, season one of ‘Deadwood’ from Hollywood Video, back in the day when Hollywood Video and Blockbuster still existed. At the time, rental houses were just starting to feel the strain that Netflix had been putting on the rental industry, and Redbox was just around the corner. I had a cheap-as-dirt membership that allowed me to have any three movies I wanted for any amount of time I desired. Derelict that I was, I would pick up three discs on my way home from work, rip the content, and then swap them out for three more the next day; this was before the whole RealDVD debacle and I was, for that brief window of time, actually ripping the content legally (read about it here).

This unchained freedom to stockpile media led to me watching a lot of content I probably would have passed over otherwise, including almost all Westers. But I devoured the Sergio Leone films, ‘Shane,’ ‘Unforgiven,’ ‘3:10 To Yuma,’ and dozens of others. And when I found ‘Deadwood,’ it was all over. I was astonished by the writing, the set design, the costuming, the music and texture and magnitude of the whole thing.

And I started making illustrations with a western theme, occasionally hybridizing the theme with Dia de los Muertos imagery – skeleton cowboys, sugar skulls, and the like. The illustration above is inspired by a lesser-known Western that captured my attention a few years ago – let me know if you can tell what it’s from in the comments!

Have a great day, everybody!
-joe

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

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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The Joker – Why So Serious? (pt.1)

The Joker, A New Illustration From LenseBender Studios

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The list of complaints about last years’ ‘Suicide Squad’ is a long one. The machined-gunned roll-call character introductions, the underdeveloped personalities, the ethnic stereotypes, and the ‘walk like an Egyptian’ Enchantress – and this is just to scratch the surface – earned across-the-board negative reviews and a deeply conflicted audience.

One of the biggest complaints I’ve been hearing? The prison-tatted goth-juggalo Joker. And while this version of The Joker has earned such disdain, Jered Leto’s performance has simultaneously garnered some of the film’s highest praise. In fact, many moviegoers are hopeful for a ‘Joker & Harley’ stand-alone movie(although this is looking less likely with the announcement of ‘Gotham City Sirens‘). Audience responses to both the film and this new iteration of the ‘ganagster’ Joker perfectly illustrates how polarized audiences are.

What many moviegoers aren’t aware of is that The Joker has undergone several transformations over the last seventy-five years. After Batman was given his own stand-alone comic title in 1940, creator Bob Kane needed to introduce a new villain. Interestingly, The Joker was initially supposed to die in the first issue – with a knife through the heart – but the decision was ultimately made to keep The Clown Prince Of Crime on deck as a recurring character.

It’s easy to assume that the earliest depictions of The Joker would more closely resemble the 1960s television series – whimsical and cartoonish, rather than sociopathic and violent. The truth is, in his earliest story arcs, The Joker was a ruthless killer similar to more recent cinematic portrayals. It wasn’t until editor Jack Schiff was hired that The Joker’s persona was softened in order to market the Batman comics to a younger audience. After the establishment of the Comics Code Authority in 1954, The Joker was nothing more than a puckish, thieving trickster.

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Editor Julius Schwartz took the reigns in 1964, leading to the near-abandonment of The Joker character altogether. Evidently, Schwartz wasn’t a fan of the character. If it wasn’t for the 1966 Batman television series, The Joker might have faded into complete obscurity. The show was a hit, however, and actor Cesar Romero provided the first ever live (non-comic-book) performance of the iconic character.
romero-blogAfter the end of the television series – and despite its success – comic sales were flagging. The Joker was reintroduced in 1973, after a four year hiatus and a decision to change formats. Editors wanted to begin telling more mature Batman stories and shed the whimsical camp of the 1960s. This reincarnated Joker was brought back to his original concept: a ruthless serial killer on equal footing with The Caped Crusader. He was also, for the first time ever, depicted as being completely and undeniably insane.
joker-70sIn 1975 The Joker was granted a stand-alone comic series by DC Comics – this would be the first time that a villain would be portrayed as the protagonist in a comic book serial. The series was short-lived, but The Joker’s popularity expanded rapidly. This would culminate in some of the most iconic graphic novels of the 1980s, spawning feature-length animated films, a reinvigoration of comic book culture, and one of the most ambitious films based on a comic book intellectual property, Tim Burton’s 1989 release of ‘Batman.’

(stay tuned for our exploration of The Joker’s depiction in the 1980s though Suicide Squad)
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How Long Was ‘Batman v Superman’ In The Works?

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From the ‘Wilhelm Scream’ to things like Hitchcock’s cameos – often little inside jokes between Hollywood director friends and family – so-called “Easter Eggs” have always been a part of cinematic storytelling. In the age of the internet and the renaissance of the film trailer, super-fans and comic-conventioneers now fill YouTube with theories, frame-by-frame analyses, and share the fun details they’ve uncovered in highly anticipated IP’s. In many ways, fandom has exploded, and audiences are enjoying greater inclusivity in the cinematic worlds they love.

Before this practice really took off, though, audiences really had to look. Sometimes clues were right out in the open, and sometimes they were menacingly hard to identify. But you can rest assured that the comic book fan – not unlike science fiction fanatics – are the ones who search the longest and the hardest. Consider “I Am Legend,” a film that was released in 2007, almost ten years before “Batman V Superman” hit the silver screen. It’s in an establishing shot in the early minutes of the film, as Robert Neville (portrayed by Will Smith) walks through the post-apocalyptic ruins of Times Square.

As clear as day, what do we see at the top of the frame? A “Batman V Superman” billboard.

I discovered that a few people, obviously, have already noticed this and it’s been making the rounds on social media, but this sure was news to me. According to the sources that I trust (namely comicbook.com and collider.com), ‘I Am Legend” screenwriter Akiva Goldsman wrote an early draft “Batman V Superman,” although that draft was later rejected. This Easter Egg was an early concept of what Goldsman and director Francis Lawrence thought a “Batman V Superman” promo piece ought to look like.

It’s always fun to be a fan.

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Breaking Bad – How Does It Hold Up?

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It’s mid-summer. We’re in a lull. Spoiled by this, the ‘Golden Age Of Television,’ there’s a lot to look forward to, but not a whole lot to indulge in, other than second viewings of our DVR’d favorites and bingeing on Netflix – and ‘Mr Robot,’ of course. Recently, I’ve started burning through all of the old ‘Breaking Bad’ seasons, not only because I’m a fan of the show, but because I’m curious as to how well, even just a couple of years after its finale, the show really holds up.

‘Breaking Bad’ raised the bar, but it definitely does feel a little dated, which I hadn’t really expected. Coded character archetypes and narrative patterns that have been emulated by countless television series, the treads on ‘Breaking Bad’ are surprisingly thin. It’s still an enjoyable show, but I suspect it will fade quickly, as did other hit shows like ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘The Shield.’ It broke new ground, but it isn’t a stand-alone triumph. Rather, it raised the stakes and motivated other series to ‘up’ their game, raise their standards, and push forward.

When all is said and done, only period pieces manage to capture an ageless, timeless quality. ‘Rome,’ and ‘Deadwood,’ and ‘Downton Abbey’ aren’t anchored in contemporary culture and modern life, so they will never age so terribly as many other stories. Flip phones are already a thing of the past – sorry, ‘Breaking Bad,’ but your age is showing. And there was a three-season story arc in ‘The Shield’ revolving around the protagonist’s child being diagnosed with autism and a class-action lawsuit against an MMR vaccine that his daughter’s autism was blamed on – but the science is in on that one, too.

For anybody looking for a fight: the MMR vaccine doesn’t cause autism. Hit me.

It’s risky, trying to anchor story-lines in the present; things in the present change very quickly. Dangerously so when you’re a screen-writer.

The music-video jump cuts of ‘Breaking Bad’ are also slowly disappearing. Audiences recognize these montages for what they are: near-effortless attempts to kill time and compensate for a script that doesn’t quite fill the forty-two minute run-time of the episode.

‘Breaking Bad’ broke new ground, along with a few other of its contemporaries. It will be forever remembered as an innovative leap in long-form television story-telling. And I will always be a fan. But watching the shift from ‘Breaking Bad’ to ‘Better Call Saul’ has been interesting. The deliberate pace of ‘Saul’ has alienated some viewers, but it demonstrates how the show-runners and executives understand the medium, and the changes the medium has undergone. I’m very much looking forward to what Vince Gilligan & Co. have up their sleeve for seasons three.

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