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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January 17 – The Good Book

01-17 Bibliophile post

“Good friends, good books, and a sleepy conscience: this is the ideal life.”
~Mark Twain

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I have a massive collection of books. A massive collection.

Like many of my ilk, I’ve looked back and realized that I have always been a collector. My younger self collected a wide variety of useless things, from wall posters and semiprecious stones (every family vacation had me on the lookout for rock shops) to previously-viewed VHS tapes and pogs (when  those were in fashion – yeesh, how embarrassing). I continue to collect music, but the most obvious thing I collect, quite naturally, are photographs.

Thinking on it, I collected baseball cards even though I was never, ever a sports fan. Things went pretty sideways once I discovered that trading cards existed for comic books. Heck, my obsession even took me down the path of outright criminality; I got caught stealing Marvel Ultra trading cards at the local supermarket when I was probably twelve or thirteen. I was absolutely terrified by that experience, and painfully ashamed. I also survived and would you believe it, I didn’t steal cards any longer. Instead, I started collecting actual comic books.

The early 1990s were a wonderful time to get into comic books and, for twenty years, I’ve been waiting for those lovely creative people in Hollywood to tell some of those stories on the silver screen. The first major series I got into was an X-Men story-line called “Legion Quest,” in which Professor Charles Xavier’s son travels back in time to execute Magneto, thus preventing all of the damage Magneto has done in his lifetime. It’s another iteration of the “if you could go back in time and kill Hitler” thought experiment. I have always loved this about the X-Men stories. They’re thoughtful, and thought-provoking. Initially, the X-Men were a vehicle through which the authors discussed American prejudice, mirroring the experiences of ethnic minorities. Today, stories of exclusion and oppression also reflect the marriage equality movement. The world is always so quick to point at a group and shout “freaks!” And the X-Men, in these stories, are the freaks. It takes the anguish of real-life problems and de-contextualizes them, allowing us to think about these issues from a fresh perspective. It’s brilliant.

Hero stories are all morality plays in the end, and they’re infinitely more sophisticated than they might appear to be on the surface. It has been fun watching media like graphic novels and video games achieve the mantle of high art and experience legitimacy in the eyes of the wider public. Once upon a time, comic books were for kids and video games were nothing more than a waste of time (and yes, they still can be, so don’t get me wrong). The video game industry has now surpassed Hollywood in generated revenue, and graphic novels are now being made into feature length films.

Progress, ladies and gentlemen. The nerds have won, world. Deal with it.

The “Legion Quest” story-line was jam-packed with the what-if’s of time travel tales, and it laid the foundation for an even larger and monumentally engaging story: “The Age of Apocalypse.” I’m venturing to guess that this is what the next movie, “X-Men: Apocalypse,” will be presenting. It’s an exciting time to be a fan-boy, indeed!

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Needless to say, graphic novels also led to plain-old books. Large-print illustration books, art history books, some first-edition Steinbeck novels, throwaway Vampire Chronicles and Stephen King tomes, and hallowed American classics from the greats like Conrad, Faulkner, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald. Every move, from dorm room to apartment, apartment to house, city to city, has seen me lugging impossibly heavy twenty-eight gallon Rubbermaid containers stacked with books. I can’t seem to let them go, and I often will pluck a book off the shelf and thumb through it for inspiration. Hell, I rarely even sold my textbooks back in college.

The picture above is a studio photograph of a pocket bible. On the University of Arizona campus, probably my sophomore year, there was a day when a group of missionaries stood on damn-near every street corner, every intersection, and every entrance to the student union handing these things out. Green vinyl covers and tissue-thin pages. I took every single one that was offered to me as I crisscrossed the campus on my way to class – until there wasn’t any room left in my backpack. I probably made off with about thirty copies. I went immediately to task making art projects out of them, and a series of photographs like the one here. In retrospect, it was probably a little scandalous that I collected all of those books, but I don’t think the world is in short supply of King James Bibles.

I guess the jury’s out, but I’m banking on the Good Lord being as forgiving as they say.

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