From the dawn of time, humans have told stories. We’ve done this for many reasons, to teach morals, to pass on societal norms, to instruct the youth of the culture in the ways of the world, to remember our history and where we come from. And, of course, we tell stories to simply pass the time…just something to do between eating and pooping. Lately it has seemed…that’s the only reason we tell stories anymore.
I had a little agreement with myself (and possibly the universe) at the beginning of the summer, that I would not see any sequels this summer. I decided I would devote my time to interesting and fun things while living in another country, instead of patronizing the same old, recycled, glitzy movie garbage that has, in the past, taken up so much of my summer schedule. Unfortunately, as previously mentioned here, and examined in further detail over at the other blog: I am a creature of habit, and sitting in a dark room and letting moving pictures dance for me is pretty deeply ingrained into my psychological makeup. Also, it rains a lot in Germany during the summer, and you can only say, “I don’t care if it’s raining, let’s go out and do something anyway!” so many times before changing your tune to, “Movie…fun…dry.”
So…I broke my own oath a couple times, but that lead to an interesting realization: there weren’t as many sequels this summer as I had originally thought there were, HOWEVER (big however), they were vastly less interesting than any actual “sequels” I’ve ever seen. It seems pretty clear at this point that very few movies that are produced are actually interesting or necessary in the classical sense; they are actually designed very specifically to extract as much money as possible from “target” audiences. Apparently whoever these targets are, they are extremely easy to hit…it seems to take no thinking or creative effort whatsoever.
So, I was completely bored and unimpressed with the movies I saw this summer (with the exception of Bridesmaids, which, maybe I’ll talk about it later, or maybe not, but that is the funniest movie I’ve seen in years). So bored, in fact, that I found myself checking out of the movies I was actually watching, doing some post-mortem punch up in my head, wondering what these movies might look like if they were actually centered around a solid story, an interesting story, a story that serves a purpose other than sucking away a couple hours of my life while redistributing my money into the pockets of ridiculous movie producers. Here are some things I came up with.
(Probably no one cares but me….but I care a lot.)
I see Jack Sparrow as a modern take on a really traditional character-type. Captain Jack is a trickster; he is amoral, his only purpose is to do what suits him best, and because of this he is always hilarious, entertaining and vastly interesting. That’s how you know you have a fascinating character worth telling a story about: You always know exactly what he’s going to do, but you’re simultaneously wondering if he will change, if he will rise up and become a hero. You should be able to tell endless Captain Jack stories, and they should always be at least fun and at best fascinating morality plays. The first three movies fit that paradigm beautifully, as everyone BUT Captain Jack (and possibly the other pirates, but they all tend to fall in broader categories, none of them retain Sparrow’s incessant amorality) finds themselves having to wrestle with their sense of right and wrong. Sparrow always gets the action started, and then entire universes of meaning pop up around him while he is, like Wile E. Coyote, on his singular quest to fill his belly.
So, Stranger Tides should have been a pretty easy sell: sailing to the new world to find the source of eternal life. Boom. It is a magical, 16th or 17th century arms race. Who will have control over eternal life, and with it, a new continent, the British, the Spanish, Captain Jack Sparrow? Jack’s just out to live forever, everyone else has to wrestle with morality and consequences, and we get to explore vicariously along with them. Unfortunately…it didn’t really come together. And I think this is primarily for two reasons:
1. The characters that surround Sparrow have to be as complex and compelling as Sparrow himself is not. In the first films you had a wide range of characters that all had various levels of motives working within them–patriotism, love, family loyalty, self respect, compassion for the oppressed–maybe someone like Orlando Bloom was entirely good, the guy in charge of the British Navy was entirely bad, and everyone else fell somewhere in between. Awesome. In this movie…we didn’t have that. If anything, you just had a bunch of amoral pirates all being careless and amoral together because it’s too difficult to come up with anything else to do. Penelope Cruz should have been the person we’re interested in watching struggle with her own mixed up emotions, but her main foil was Black Beard and as soon as Ian McShane took that roll, you knew there was nothing complex about the character, he was just going to be bad-ass and deliciously evil. Without a cast of complicated characters who have to constantly struggle with the messy situation they’re getting into, it’s just silly accents and weird naked mermaids.
2. Jack Sparrow did become a hero. He throws away his own desires, for no particular reason, to save a woman he didn’t really care about. Boring.
I prefer to imagine that Sparrow drank from the spring of eternal life, and we can tell our grand kids the story of how Jack Sparrow tricked two of the world’s most powerful countries and Black Beard, the most feared pirate on the ocean, and that’s why, to this very day, Captain Jack sails around the world, looking for freedom and happiness just beyond the horizon, and oh the adventures he has.
I looked forward to movies based on comic books for the first 18 years of my life…it took only half that long for me to get bored with the whole thing. Some of them are great, I have hopes for the future, but most of them just bore me to tears. And this has to do with adaptation. Comics aren’t JUST super powered people having crazy super power adventures. Those of us who read them did so because the best stories they tell are modern equivalents of Greek mythology, exploring what it means to be human through the lens of the super human. Most comic book movies don’t take advantage of this, they just like to blow things up and get people wearing tight clothes. Sadly, if I sat down and thought about it for a minute, I think i could actually put together an exact outline that pretty much all these movies follow from opening to closing credits. There’s no surprises, just the same special effects we’ve seen since the Matrix.
So X-Men First Class…not only did it follow the same formula, but it was also meant to be a prequel…it takes place before the other X-Men movies. As far as I can tell it only existed to answer questions no one cared enough to ask: Why is Professor X in a wheel chair? What do you mean Professor X and Magneto used to be friends? How long have mutants been around anyway? Boring.
The fact that the story takes place in the 1960s is potentially interesting, or at least it would have been if anyone had actually been interested in adapting the material. Because the X-Men comics first came out in the 60s, which as we all know was a pretty tumultuous time in American history, and as fewer of us understand, that was particularly true for African Americans. So how interesting would it be to look at how mutants, the ultimate embodiment of “the other” who is eternally outcast in society, how they were treated during one of the most violent and scary decades in our country’s history? Apparently, not that interesting. Which is unfortunate because even in the comics they have direct parallels to real life events from that time. In the comics, Iceman is a fifteen year old kid when Professor X finds him and invites him to be an X-Man. But before that happens, the people in his hometown find out he’s a “freak” and they form a lynch mob and set out to kill him! Yeah, that’s right, lynch mob…right there in the “funny books.” If you’ve read Isabella Wilkerson’s book The Warmth of Other Suns, then you know that physical violence toward African Americans, including lynchings, have only recently been a thing of the past. This movie actually did a decent job inserting super heroes into a real life crisis…but how much cooler and interesting would it be to play up the fact that these people are saving a world that HATES and FEARS them? It’d be more interesting than January Jones’ performance in this movie, I’ll tell you that right now. Turning figures of prejudice and intolerance into heroes worthy of praise and adoration…what more important story could we tell, what more interesting themes could we wrestle with in America right now?
I have a joke somewhere in my head…I’m still working on it, but it would go something like this: Hey, did you hear that the creators of The Hangover 2 are doing the next Star Trek movie? Yeah, it sounds awesome! I guess what happens is that it starts before Captain Kirk is even born, and his mom is pregnant with him on a ship his father is serving on. Then there’s this big attack from a Romulan ship and they kill everyone aboard the ship, Captain Kirk’s mom barely makes it out alive. And that starts this whole chain of events that change history, and, get this, Data, you know the robot Data?! Data goes back in time to help out! And everybody’s young and hilarious and Harold from Harold and Kumar is there. It’s awesome.
Or something like that. I mean…it’s not even worth talking about. It’s the same movie as the first one. With very superficial changes, it is the same exact movie. And it’s the biggest grossing comedy of all time. It’s like Laurel and Hardy coming out with an album called “What’s on Second?” I don’t know why this exists. It’s like that joke from the first Simpsons’ Tree House of Horror, when Lisa is reading Bart “The Raven” and she says that “nothing was at the door.” And Bart says, “You know what would be more scary than ‘nothing’? ANYTHING!” What’s more interesting than Hangover 2? Anything that’s not The Hangover. The studio that produced this movie could have selected a script at random from the libraries of scripts they own but will never produce, they could have put the exact same people from the Hangover in that movie and I bet it would have made almost, if not exactly, the same amount of money and it would have been something new on the earth rather than the same movie I saw two years ago.
Although, I guess there’s a more interesting meta-narrative that goes with Hangover 2: Rather than try something new and interesting, America throws their money, brazenly and willingly, at something they know, love, and trust. What happens when we let go of the old and familiar and try something totally new? Now that would be interesting.