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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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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Watching The World Burn

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Heath Ledger’s performance isn’t anything to be overshadowed by his untimely passing. Comic book film adaptations, even today (in the golden age of comic book feature-length films), have never been taken seriously. They are relegated to “special effects-driven extravaganza” status among Hollywood elites and film critics. Box office numbers are good, but even as revenues climb, most of the world doesn’t take Marvel and DC properties very seriously. They’re just comic books. They’re fun rides. They’re cash in the bank.

Christopher Nolan, while not the lone savior of the comic book film adaptation, certainly spear-headed this new wave. After the monumental failure of “Batman and Robin” and the forgettable bombs of “Daredevil” and “Green Lantern,” even moderately successful comic book properties like “The Crow” and “Blade” couldn’t take the stink out of Hollywood executive’s nostrils. And hell – who could blame them?

Alongside Bryan Singer’s take on the X-Men franchise and Jon Favreau’s infinitely accidental smash-hit success with the first “Iron Man” feature, the age of the Hollywood comic book feature has truly arrived. Part of this has to do with technology – the digital effects that make the extraordinary subjects of these films come to life – and part of this has to do with genuine investment in storytelling and world-building, something that graphic novels have done for decades and Hollywood executives have failed to do for an almost equal number of decades.

Well, the ‘Marvel Cinematic Universe’ has arrived. Actually, it arrived about two months after “Iron Man.” And DC has been struggling to catch up with it’s own cinematic universe ever since, re-booting Superman not once, but twice, in the interim. Most of these stories are old-hat, but known largely to comic book collectors and fan-boys. Most of us, even knowing the stories, don’t decry these film adaptations, but rather look forward to seeing how the material will be interpreted and adapted for the screen.

We’ll be seeing the Caped Crusader (the world’s greatest detective), in not one, but two feature length films in the coming months. The chances are very good that the upcoming iteration of the Batman character will be somewhat different from the Christopher Nolan films that helped breathe life back into the character over the past ten years. If anything, it appears as though the upcoming films will adhere more firmly to the comic book origins of the character, which should make a lot of ‘true believers’ quite happy – but it may alienate fans of the Nolan-verse, who have little or no attachment to the Batman character before “Batman Begins” and it’s two sequels.

The problem with the DC properties is that the focus seems scattered. From the carnival and neon-light camp of “Batman and Robin” to the Christopher Nolan “Dark Knight” trilogy, the shift in tone is undeniable. The Marvel camp has found a way to swing from the early expression of Bryan Singer’s “X-Men (2000)” into “Future Past (2014)” and “Apocalypse (2016)” without skipping a beat and without a radical change in tone. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is much more cohesive, while the DC Cinematic Universe is still struggling to find it’s identity.

Only time will tell if DC will be able to compete with the other heavy hitter on the block. For all we know, “Suicide Squad” and “Batman Versus Superman” will be the great wins of the year. Based on what we’ve seen from the two camps, and despite how powerful the characters from them are, my money is still on Marvel.

Excelsior!

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Movie Review – Deadpool

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Marvel and DC have mapped-out a half-decade of comic book movies. The market is saturated. Superhero movies are way overdue for self-satire and tonal variation. And that is precisely what we get with “Deadpool,” an incredible breath of fresh air in a crowded arena.

Mainstream reviews of Marvel’s recent release have been mixed, but this isn’t a shocking revelation. The titular character in “Deadpool” isn’t the most accessible – at least not to a broad audience. With self-referential humor, endless threads of inside jokes and constant forth-wall breaks, it takes a genuine fan to fully appreciate this cinematic gem. But a gem indeed it is. Regardless of what the naysayers have published, first-time director Tim Miller has cracked the code of the R-rated comic book movie in stunning fashion. The numbers speak for themselves.

While we have other R-rated movies like “Watchmen,” “300,” and “Sin City,” those are all dark horse examples, and their success remains somewhat questionable. “Deadpool,” on the other hand, is the first R-rated release in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and this is significant; the success of “Deadpool” will determine whether or not Marvel Studios will roll the dice again. The production is already famously stalwart for facing-down pressure from Twentieth Century Fox to make a PG-13 cut. Larger audiences and a boost to box offices sales is the primary pressure of adventure properties like this (can you imagine what an R-rated “Star Wars” movie could accomplish?), but an R-rating gives directors much more latitide. Tim Miller & Co stood their ground and the gambit is paying off handsomely.

As of this writing, “Deadpool” has already outperformed the previous Thursday box office record for an R-rated feature. In fact, “Deadpool” blew the top spot out of the water. The previous record holder was “Fifty Shades Of Gray,” banking $8.6 million on its Thursday release. One year later, “Deadpool” managed to rake in $12.7 million. This is a coup that nobody predicted. The weekend total is expected to top $123 million, a tall margin ahead of Fox’s $60 million projection.
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“Deadpool” is, at its heart, the smart-ass teenager too clever for his own good, filled with fits of irreverence that hinge on nihilism. He’s been described by some as that kid “who pretends to be too cool to care, but wants you to like him so badly it hurts.” This isn’t an entirely unfair description, and it identifies where the film character is separated from the print character. The comic book anti-hero is a sharp-tongued mercenary anti-hero. The film character is, more or less, a sarcastic hero-hero. He tickles our reptilian brain with slaughter, but he only slaughtering bad guys, and he’s made sympathetic and accessible by the love story that drives the plot forward. These are perfectly acceptable concessions – unavoidable, even – in the superhero movie marketing system. If we elect not to split hairs, “Deadpool” is an incredibly fun movie that brings a larger-than-life personality to the screen with a deep sense of respect for the source material.

The film establishes its irreverent tone straight at the open, with title cards that intentionally mock Hollywood (“Directed By: An Overpaid Tool,” “Produced By: Some Asshats,” “Starring: A Gratuitous Cameo,” “Starring: A CGI Character,” and on and on, to wonderful comic affect), as well as thumbing its nose at The Director’s Guild of America, which has famously sued directors like George Lucas for not crediting the director of “Star Wars” (himself) and “The Empire Strikes Back” (Irvin Kershner).*

After an action sequence opening, most of “Deadpool” plays out in flashback. We learn that Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) used to be a mercenary named Wade Wilson. We’re introduced to his girlfriend Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) and his best friend Weasel (TJ Miller). Wade and Vanessa are veritable quip-machines, whose quirky and fast-paced humor seem to be the linchpin of future marital bliss. They’re both crazy, and both crazy in love with each other. Then, an unexpected late-stage cancer diagnosis burns the Happily-Every-After to the ground.

A mysterious recruiter gives Wilson an offer he can’t refuse: enlist in the Weapon X program (the same program that created Wolverine), and cure your cancer. Distraught by how his illness is affecting Vanessa, Wilson reluctantly agrees. He is experimented on, and tortured ruthlessly, by a man who calls himself Ajax (Ed Skrein) and his masochistic partner Angel Dust (Gina Carano). He becomes a mutant, with strength and regenerative powers, but is left horribly disfigured. When Ajax leaves him in a burning building, Deadpool begins preparing for his revenge.

Debut director Tim Miller is the head of Blur Studios and is well-equipped to tackle a project like “Deadpool.” His background in animation led to the dazzling title sequence to “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” and an astonishingly effective TV spot for the video game “Batman: Arkham Origins.” With a pedigree like that, he has created an energetic movie that vacillates between serious romance/tragedy and humorous (albeit violent) superhero antics. Some may find this manic pacing off-putting, but it effectively balances the action with the slower (and necessary) narrative beats.

Die hard fans may criticize how the film handles the forth-wall breaks, and a sense of humor that could have been more intelligently satirical of the comic book genre. Instead, the humor opts for the faster-paced machine-gunning of smaller meta-jokes. This is a stylistic choice that I think serves the film adequately. More sophisticated satire is better left on the printed page. Some jokes miss their mark, but they’re thrown around so rapidly that it barely matters. Ajax isn’t the most memorable villain, but this, too, is no surprise in a Marvel property; superhero movies seem constitutionally incapable (or unwilling) to spend the necessary time to flesh-out a compelling bad guy.

Weasel is a wonderful pace-shifting character that gives breathing room to the narrative. TJ Miller seems to strike the perfect balance of calm in his scenes, which serve as punctuation marks throughout the story. That being said, Reynolds flat-out owns this film, from beginning to end, leaving little room for the other characters to shine. This isn’t a bad thing; it plants the seeds for future iterations of the “Deadpool” story.
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If you knew who Deadpool was ahead of this weekend’s release, you’re going to love the film. It constantly makes fun of the X-Men franchise that gave birth to the Deadpool character, so it’s fair to say that fans of the franchise are going to “get” the humor. The famously bad Deadpool origin story that was shoe-horned into “Wolverine: Origins” is directly addressed during the film’s opening moments. When dragged away by Colossus (a beautiful motion-capture performance by Stefan Kapicic) to visit Professor X, Deadpool shoots a quick look to the camera and says “McAvoy or Stewart?” referencing the two actors – James McAvoy and Patrick Stewart – who have played the Charles Xavier character in previous X-Men movies. These nods are continuous, warranting multiple viewings, and the post-credit scene at the end of the film (which I will not spoil here) is worth the price of admission all by itself. Anybody outside of the bubble may not understand why the auditorium is erupting with laughter so frequently, and may walk out of the theater scratching their heads.

If you’re a comic book freak, step away from the computer and head straight to the multiplex. It’s worth it.

*George Lucas was fined $250,000 for his transgression, which ultimately led him to resign from the Directors Guild of America. Something tells me Lucas got the last laugh.

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January 17 – The Good Book

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“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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