What’s the Matter With Hollywood?: The Archive

Hi guys, I’ve been giving you guys a ton of new material recently, and I’ve appreciated the lively comments, but I thought I’d switch things up for a while, in a way that’s going to still be a lot of work for me but less value for you, so yay! Here’s the problem: I need to do a better job archiving my old posts. Though it no longer has a blogspot URL, I still host this site on Blogger, which means it still has their infrastructure. The most annoying part of that, for me, has always been that Blogger archives posts in backwards order, starting with the most recent, so if I create a ten-part series, and then link to that series in the sidebar (by linking to its tag), it’ll start with number ten and count down. One thing I’ve meant to do for forever is to create archive pages that I can link to for each one. The problem is that each of these has to be its own post, so I can’t just go back and do all that in the background. So here I am doing it. Does that mean that this site is going into reruns for a while? Somewhat, but hopefully you’ll enjoy rediscovering old posts. I know I have. On some of these, I have egg on my face: I predict that Netflix streaming might never make as much money as DVD rentals. I predict that the third Hobbit will be much lamer than it was (I later appended an update).  Anyway, these are a ton of work for me, but I’ll try to speed through them for your sakes, or mix them up with some new material.  I thought I would start with a series that I haven’t updated in a long time, since that might be more interesting to revisit...

What’s the Matter With Hollywood: Sociopathic Spec Syndrome

 When I first started this blog seven years ago, there was still a thriving market for spec screenplays. Lots of successful movies were made every year based on scripts bought on the open market. Now those days are long gone. These days, there are very few movies released in any given year based on spec scripts.

For the most part, of course, this is the due to ever-growing stranglehold of pre-established franchises on the business, but let’s face it, there’s another reason for the decline of the spec-based movie: Most of the spec-based movies that do get made happen to suck.

In the last holiday season, there were two movies based on big-time spec sales: Passengers and Collateral Beauty. I didn’t see either one, but my oh my the reviews weren’t good, and the box office was disappointing for each. In some ways the reviews for the two movies were similar, and I think it speaks to why the spec market died: the way the market is set up, it favors callous movies, and the studios seem to be oblivious to how callous they are.

In Passengers, Chris Pratt wakes up early on an intergalactic journey, and realizes that now he’ll die alone of old age while everyone else sleeps. To make his death sentence more pleasant, he decides to also wake up a hot girl, consigning her to the same fate, then claim that he had nothing to do with it and let nature take its course. Nevertheless, we’re supposed to like the guy.
In Collateral Beauty, some ad execs are tired of their partners grieving process, so they hire actors to gaslight the poor guy, going so far as to shoot video and then edit the actors out, so as to convince their colleague that he’s in contact with walking talking abstract concepts. This whole process was supposed to be kinda funny.

Audiences and critics saw these movies and instantly felt skeezed out. What supremely creepy concepts! Nobody wanted to go on these journeys with these characters.

The natural instinct is to look at these movies and assume that the screening process is insufficient, letting in too many bad movies. In fact, of course, the opposite is true: the ascension of these movies was the result of a tremendously strict process, winnowing down hundreds of thousands of entries to just a few lucky winners, after each one was reviews by dozens of gatekeepers. So what went wrong?

Let’s look at another big spec sale or recent years. This rare spec-sale was noteworthy enough that AVClub.com reported on it: A Fred Rogers biopic entitled A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. The chuckleheads at AVClub, of course, just retype press releases and add a few jokes, so the writer of this news item decided to joke that the screenplay would “tell the story of the Presbyterian Church minister who found fame and inspired generations with his children’s show, only to spiral into a hellish cycle of drug abuse and sexual depravity”, before saying “Just kidding: Absolutely none of that happened, and by all accounts Mister Rogers was as soft-spoken and earnest in his personal life as he was his professional. Which means this particular biopic will lack the seemingly obligatory ‘fall from grace’ arc”. But here’s the thing: I read that script, and the writer was right the first time. In the spec script, which is purely fictional, Rogers does indeed fall into disgrace involving both drugs and sex.

It’s hard to admit that you care about something heartfelt and genuine that someone else has written. It’s much easier to say, “Look at how cynical I am! I love this cynical script and you should too.” All those layers of gatekeepers only serve to filter out the scripts that anyone would actually care about, leaving the most sociopathic scripts to squeeze through the process. Then the studios are shocked to discover that the public is not willing to stomach these characters.

Then all the movies based on spec scripts fail, reinforcing the studios’ belief that the public has no craving for original material. It’s a vicious cycle.

What the Matter with Hollywood: America’s Vanishing National Resource: The DVD Commentary

As a general rule, the internet is obsessively comprehensive about geeky things, but it’s always had a few baffling blind spots, so let’s address one of those: The DVD commentary. As far as I can tell, there are only two rarely updated sites dedicated to commentaries and both are very cursory. There is no definitive list of DVD commentaries or their quality. Ideally, we would have a massive searchable, ratable, reviewable database of all commentaries on all DVD editions of every movie (Commentaries tend to appear and disappear as movies get multiple releases).

Much of the time, Amazon doesn’t bother to properly differentiate between different editions of a DVD/Blu-Ray, nor to tell you if the disc has a commentary when you order it (Many are listed as having no features that actually do have commentaries, and sometimes vice versa). Even on Bit Torrent, most movies don’t include their commentary, nor are there any collections of commentaries being shared. (Or so I’ve heard.)

The big problem, of course, is that these commentaries are disappearing because streaming services don’t tend to offer them (they certainly aren’t commissioning them), and even if you order the DVD from Netflix just to get the commentary, they tend to now offer the “Rental Version” without the commentary.

This is a problem because these are a huge resource. Many great writers and directors took the time to do amazing commentaries on their movies before they died. John Frankenheimer never wrote a memoir, but before he died he recorded amazing in-depth commentaries for The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May, and lots more right up to Ronin. Even if these DVDs stay in print and/or get translated to Blu-Ray with the commentaries intact, all of that information will still be unindexed and unsearchable. We need some Film Studies MA program to collect every commentary, transcribe them all, and, ideally, make them all available online, especially if they’re out of print. (Of course, one problem is that, with all those commentaries readily available, there would be little reason to pay a fortune for a Film Studies degree)

I know what you’re thinking, “Hey Matt, don’t you care about this and don’t you have an illustrious movie website? Why don’t you do it? Because it’s a lot of work and I don’t wanna! I want you to do it! Any volunteers?

Best of 2014, #1: Boyhood

Of course this movie is #1. I’ve always said that the problem with Cassavetes is that his movies have to either be the worst stuff out there or the very best, because if he can make his “super-long-take unblinking-gaze” device work, then every other movie suddenly looks phony and shallow in comparison. The same is true of Boyhood: it’s so startlingly brilliant and hyper-real that it can’t help but make every other movie look a bogus sham, so it’s hard to do an honest comparison.

It’s also hard to say anything much about the movie. If you’ve seen it, it’s already had its impact on you, and if you haven’t seen it then you should know as little as possible about it beforehand, so as to maximize it power.

The only thing I can say is that this movie powerfully proves a rule that was hiding in a “What’s the Matter with Hollywood” post: Innovation Doesn’t Require New Technology. This movie could have been made anytime in the last 100 years by anyone who had the dedication. It was made on the cheap and on the fly, and yet it shatters all of our assumptions about what a film can and should be.

Writer/Director Richard Linklater suddenly remembered, “Oh yeah, all this stuff we do, all these tried-and-true tricks we’ve built up over the years to cleverly simulate life on the screen, we don’t have to do it that way. If we want, we can jettison all that stuff and try something totally different. We can find a new way to powerfully capture the nature of life on screen.”And so he did.

But then he did something that was terrifyingly bold: he waited twelve years to let the rest of the world in on his flash of inspiration. He worked periodically on this movie while also making School of Rock, Before Sunset, Bad News Bears, Fast Food Nation, A Scanner Darkly, Me and Orson Welles, Bernie, and Before Midnight, never letting on that he also had this other movie brewing totally out of sight.

Note also that none of the movies between Before Sunset and Before Midnight was much of a critical or commercial success, and there was a three year gap in there with no movies at all. Surely he must have felt at times that he was being written off and forgotten, and his last best hope was to simply declare Boyhood to be done and unleash its brilliance upon the world. But no, he would sell no wine before it was time, and he let it continue its slow fermentation, no matter what ups and downs his career might experience in the meantime. That is fierce dedication to art.

The result is a masterpiece, and a reminder that we have barely scratched the surface of what this medium can do, if we stop focusing on post-production innovation and devote more time to pre-production innovation.

Best of 2014: #8: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Make the Sequel Totally Different: What I liked most about this movie was something that was equally true of Apes: It was sequel that bore almost no resemblance to the original.

Where do they get this notion that we want a retread? As I wrote about with Pacific Rim, setting the dial back to zero before the credits roll sabotages the first movie and the second one.  This movie, I’m glad to say (as opposed to Iron Man 2 or Thor 2) doesn’t have the slightest bit of retread to it.

The previous movie created a pure hero for a pure war, and it must have been very tempting to inject cynicism or subversion into that narrative, but instead, they set themselves the challenge of playing it totally straight, and knocked it out of the park. When I heard that the first movie was going to be set entirely in World War 2, I was baffled, because that would miss half of the appeal of the character: the “man out of time” aspect.  But as it turns out, that was exactly the plan.

Marvel plays the long game, and by devoting a whole movie to half the appeal, they guaranteed one hell of a sequel once they finally cashed in all of that potential energy three years later. This movie mercilessly plucks that idealistic hero out of his place, time, and comfort zone, thrusting him into a new world that makes his code, his methods, and his beliefs appear to be totally obsolete.  Refreshingly, the goal is not to impeach or degrade those ideals (as many modern movies do) but to put them to the ultimate test, which makes it all the more thrilling to see the hero win. It’s hard enough to fight true evil over there, but it takes so much more courage and cunning to fight true evil over here, which made this the ultimate escalation.

Tomorrow: A movie that really, really should have sucked. 

Best of 2013, Part 1: Hollywood in Review

It was the best of years, it was the worst of years. Last, year, as you’ll recall, I was feeling apocalyptic, in that the blockbuster movies were worse than ever, and, for the second time in my lifetime (2003 was the other) I felt that there wasn’t a single true classic American movie released, and many of the “critical darlings” were actually horrible. This year, however, while the blockbusters were worse than ever, the critical darlings were much better, with several movies that were great without the sort of asterisks that affected last year’s top movies.

But let’s start with the bad news: the blockbusters. I’ve already thoroughly covered my complaints about Pacific Rim, Oblivion, Man of Steel, The Hobbit 2, Star Trek Into Darkness, etc. Since then, I saw Elysium, which was more of the same. As I’ve made thoroughly clear, these movies were not only bad, but offensively bad.
As for comedies, I wasn’t even tempted to see one this year. Identity Thief? Grown Ups 2? We're the Millers? The Hangover 3? No thanks. The best Hollywood comedy was supposed to be This is the End but I couldn’t rouse the interest, because it looked like the in-joke-to-actual-joke ratio would tip in the wrong direction.

There were exceptions: I liked Thor 2 more than most people did, though it had big problems. The one blockbuster that I unreservedly enjoyed was Iron Man 3, but I don’t have much to say about it, for whatever reason.

(Of course, by all accounts, the best Hollywood movies of the year has apparently turned out be Frozen, which I haven’t been able to get out to see, but I’m greatly looking forward to on DVD.)

That leaves one more blockbuster to discuss, one that I just belatedly saw. If this was the best of years and the worse of years, then Fast and the Furious 6 was the best of blockbusters and the worst of blockbusters.

I have a tremendous amount of affection for this series, which has maintained a persistent joie de vivre and eagerness to please without the grimness or pomposity of modern action movies. (Though I’m the first to admit that the series also exemplifies many of my problems with my modern Hollywood, especially the frequent lapses into “CGI physics” that make no sense.)

But the latest one was especially fascinating: For most of the runtime, I flat-out loved this silly-fun movie…until it belatedly caved in to two of the trends that I’ve already complained about this year, to the extent that it made me laugh out loud.
I’ve complained about how so many movies this year (especially Pacific Rim and STID) seemed to be totally over at the 90 minutes mark, only to drag on for another 40 minutes. But that was so much more true of this movie. Every plot thread had been tied up neatly, we’d had just had a truly epic, totally cathartic action sequence that resulted in the bad guys being totally defeated and all of our heroes had achieved satisfying emotional closure. This movie was over. I kept checking my DVD countdown clock in disbelief: how on earth can there be 40 minutes left??

But I had forgotten about the other terrible trend of 2013 blockbusters hadn’t I? After all, they hadn’t defeated the bad guy…they had done the opposite of defeating him: They had arrested him. The fools had put him in prison, which is (say it along with me, folks) exactly where he wants to be!

As soon as I saw that shot, I busted out laughing for five minutes. Every damned movie!

What’s the Matter with Hollywood in 2013, Part 5: Hollywood vs. The Hobbit

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a more extreme example of some of the trends we’ve discussed this week, especially contempt for the original source material.

J. R. R. Tolkien’s novel was written in 1937, and expresses the antiwar sentiments prevalent at the time, which were informed by memories of World War I. In the book, a bunch of petty and short-sighted kings want to gobble up as many resources as possible, until the moment that all of their fragile truces fall apart. At that point, our Hobbit hero nobly betrays his side to the others in the name of peace, but he’s unable to stop the oncoming war, so he hides from the pointless fighting until it’s all over, shaking his head at the folly of it all.

The novel was quite successful and highly acclaimed, but then World War II came and went, and Tolkien, along with many of his antiwar contemporaries, began to see things very differently. All of a sudden, war had been ennobled again. The world had finally met a villain powerful and evil enough to justify total war, with no regrets afterward. (In fact, after the war was over, they discovered the bad guy was even worse than they had assumed, which is not what usually happens!)

Tolkien decided that it was time for a very different follow-up story. In “The Lord of the Rings”, the rise of a huge new evil causes those squabbling kingdoms to finally unite in a righteous cause, and our Hobbits gravely shed their pacifism and march to the front.

There were other pointed contrasts: In both stories, a Hobbit joins the cause of a long-exiled king and helps restore him to his throne, but in the first, the exile lies, cheats and steals his way back to power, and our Hobbit comes to regret his role in restoring the kingdom, while in the follow-up, the exiled king retakes his throne only reluctantly, and proves to a paragon of honesty, wisdom and valor.

Not surprisingly, the two stories, with their contrasting morals, tend to attract different sets of fans, despite being two parts of one huge epic. Fans of the first find the second to be too long and dark, fans of the second find the first to be too light and frivolous.

Director Peter Jackson has never hidden the fact that he is squarely within the latter camp. While making his original screen epic, he happily skipped over the first book, and frequently spoke dismissively of it. When he had run out of later books, and the fans demanded more, he tried for years to find someone else to direct The Hobbit so that he could retreat to a producer role, but that didn’t work out.

In the end, Jackson decided that, if he had to adapt that damned book, he would do it the way it should have been done: He would turn it into another long, dark slog with pure good on one side and pure evil on the other. In other words, the opposite of what it was intended to be.

(This is the exact same thing that happened with Man of Steel: Christopher Nolan ran out of Batman movies, so he reluctantly came back around to DC’s original superhero on the condition that he could inject the bleakness and misanthropy of the latter into the former, even though that would totally betray the source material. In this case, however, he did manage to hand off the directing duties and restrict himself to producing.)
The first thing Jackson did was inject the Hitler character, Sauron, back into the original story. In addition to all of the scenes from the original, he’s added a lot of new scenes in which the Hobbit and dwarves fight a running battle against Saruon’s army of orcs, who were nowhere to be seen in the book.

Of course, as anyone who’s ever read the internet knows, the one sure-fire argument against non-violence (or de-escalation of any kind) is always: “Oh yeah? Well what about Hitler??” Hitler is the best thing that ever happened to violence fans, the trump card they always have up their sleeves to win every hand.

So what happens when you inject Sauron into The Hobbit, but still have the same people doing the same stuff? The whole thing now seems disturbingly frivolous, which is exactly Jackson’s point. “Why are you people having adventures and singing?? Don’t you know that the worst evil ever is rising??” This version of The Hobbit is an argument against the existence of “The Hobbit”.

But what really kills the story is Jackson’s determination to transform bad exile-king Thorin into a carbon copy of good exile-king Aragorn. Thorin’s quest to claim that mountain of gold has been transformed from a greedy folly into a righteous restoration, and all of the other squabbling kings who stand in his way have become monstrous villains. In this version, our Hobbit forms a deep bond with this noble dwarf-king as they share the burden of his crusade against evil.

In theory, this might have worked, but there’s just one problem: none of the events of the novel make sense in this context. In the book, the dwarves are assholes, who keep attempting to send Bilbo to his death while they keep themselves safe, and he only puts up with it because he’s being paid for his time.

In the movie, they’re treated like a band of brothers, but they still send Bilbo off alone to fight the humongous trolls and, later, the dragon! They do all this after they already fought valiantly side-by-side against Jackson’s orcs! It’s utterly bizarre. Here is how Tolkien, as omniscient narrator, describes the moment when the dwarves send Bilbo in alone to face the dragon:
  • “There it is. Dwarves are not heroes, but a calculating folk with a great idea of the value of money; some are tricky and treacherous and pretty bad lots; some are not but are decent enough people like Thorin and Company, if you don't expect too much.”
This doesn’t fit Jackson’s characters at all ...and yet he presents the scene as written.

Jackson could have solved these problems easily. If he was going to take away original motivation (greed and cowardice on the part of the dwarves, salary and a resulting desire to be a good burglar on the part of Bilbo) then he would have to rewrite those scenes only slightly…

Instead of having the dwarves send their good friend off to fight those trolls alone, Bilbo could have simply run into those Trolls accidentally. As for the dragon, by that point in the book, the dwarves know Bilbo has the ring so that’s an easy fix: send him alone because he’s the only one who can do it invisibly. How hard is that? Just fix it!

But here we run into something I call the Wikipedia problem. I’m a huge Wikipedia fan, but I’ll be the first to admit it has a big flaw. None of the writers want their stuff to be edited, and they get an instant notification every time somebody tries, so second-guessers have settled on a different method, resulting in many sentences like this one (which I made up): “In 1921 he became the first man to reach the summit except for this other man who had reached the summit the previous year except he wasn’t the first one either because someone else had done it the year before that.” Nobody tries to delete each other’s facts anymore, they just tack something on afterwards that contradicts it. That way, the original writer never gets an email notification that they’ve been edited, and they never start an edit war.

Peter Jackson’s Hobbit plays out like an extremely-contested Wikipedia page. He feels that he has no right to rewrite Tolkien’s scenes, so he just intercuts them with scenes that totally contradict them in terms of motivation, tone and theme. The result is an incoherent, unpleasant mess.

I do have some morbid interest in seeing how he handles the third movie. Will he finally switch over to the book’s point of view and portray Thorin as foolish for hording the gold and starting the war? I doubt it. After all, the orcs have now been introduced into the equation, so I suspect that the war will be seen as righteous from start to finish, which will be the ultimate slap in the face to Tolkien and his fans.

ONE YEAR LATER UPDATE: As you might have guessed from reading the above, I was pleasantly surprised by the third movie, which did mostly revert to the book’s morality, finally portraying Thorin as a greedy dick, and presenting Bilbo’s betrayal of him as totally justified. This doesn’t fix most of the problems in the previous two movies, and the third movie is still way too bloated and tonally inconsistent, but it’s definitely the best of the three and I’m glad to be proven wrong about Thorin.

What’s the Matter with Hollywood in 2013, Part 4: Villains are Dehumanized and Lionized at the Same Time

Update: Upon re-reading, rewrote it a bit.
Yesterday, we were talking about modern heroes’ love of killing. I should note that Star Trek Into Darkness, unlike the first movie in that series, does pay some lip service to the idea of avoiding vengeance, but it does so in a ridiculous way: they solemnly conclude that it would be wrong to kill the villain, so instead they re-freeze him and use him as a paperweight.

Even when the heroes don’t explicitly kill the villains, there’s never any sense that society deserves to see a trial for these atrocities. After all, wouldn’t these criminal masterminds feel shame and humiliation if arrested and imprisoned? And wouldn’t justice be served by convicting them? Wouldn’t that trial tell the world what happened, and bring closure to their victims? Actually, according to these movies, the answer is just the opposite...
After the success of Dark Knight, we’ve had not one, not two, but three more movies that have slavishly copied its then-unique structure, in which the villain is imprisoned for the middle of the movie: Skyfall, The Avengers, and Star Trek Into Darkness. In each of the four, the villain strutted around the prison with a smug smirk, making it clear that this is exactly where he wanted to be, injecting his evil directly into the heart of civilization. The jailers who attempted to get them to cooperate were shown to be naïve fools.

(One thing I liked about Thor 2, by contrast, is that it dared to imply that its villain, even though he was the same one from The Avengers, might actually dislike prison the second time around.)

Of course, I realize that the idea of killing villains isn’t new –James Bond has never once brought a bad guy in for trial, and that’s fine– but what makes modern movies so unpalatable is their hypocrisy. In all four of those movies the villain was more appealing than the hero, and that that is new. These villains dominate every scene, even in prison, because the screenwriters are pretty much on their side. In fact, in each of the three copycats, the villain tipped the heroes off to the fact that their bosses were up to no good. 

In each of these movies, our side is human but naïve, and their side is inhuman but lionized. That’s a very bleak dichotomy.

Of course, this isn’t just Hollywood’s problem. Why was Seal Team Six ordered to assassinate bin Laden? Why didn’t they arrest him? Why not put him on trial, like Eichmann, and humiliate him in front of the world? Why not contrast his lawlessness with our law?

Perhaps it’s because we convinced ourselves he was a monster, not a human, and you can’t humiliate a monster. The way we conceive of our modern villains, both onscreen and off, they’re as incapable of shame as an AK-47 would be. You can’t humiliate an AK-47, you can only smash it ...Or perhaps the real answer is indicated by these movies: we were afraid that, if we got him in our docket, we would prefer his nihilistic vision to ours.  Neither possibility is very pretty.

What is the way out of this? Can we rediscover our humanity? If that’s possible, will Hollywood show us the way or come trailing behind?  Intentionally or not, they’ve done a pretty good job of showing us the problem, but can they now start to explore any solutions? Can they finally create new compelling heroes, now that the old franchises have soured so badly? I can only hope so.

Next time, we’ll bring a lot of these trends together for a more in depth analysis of one of the worst movies of 2013: The Hobbit 2...

What’s the Matter with Hollywood in 2013, Part 3: Filmmakers Despise Their Idealistic Source Material

This was the year of movies that were made by people who viscerally despised the source material, most notably Man of Steel, The Hobbit 2 and Star Trek Into Darkness (I haven’t seen The Lone Ranger yet, but I suspect it will fall into the same category)

All of these were based on idealistic source material, and in press interviews each of the filmmakers were quite vocal about their contempt for the tone of the original. Needless to say, that contempt permeated every frame.

One of the screenwriters of Star Trek Into Darkness actually took the time to log onto a fan site after the movie came out just to tell devotees to “FUCK OFF!”, but nobody needed to wait that long to get the message--It was already loud and clear in the theater.

Let’s pick up where we left off on Monday with that movie’s plot: After getting blown up by all those bombs, our villain somehow manages to pull a 9-11 (another thing that has to happen in every recent Hollywood movie) and crash his ship into a civilian-filled city. Our heroes don’t stop him, of course, because that’s not what heroes do. Heroes don’t stop crimes anymore, they merely hunt down the people who blow up our buildings and beat the crap out of them.

And of course, it’s not Kirk that gives the beatdown, it’s Spock. That’s the whole point. The filmmakers are clearly fed up with Spock: “Gee, at what point will Spock realize that thinking is for dopes, and finally use all that alien strength to start running, jumping and punching?? Let’s finally create an atrocity big enough to break down his foolish civility and get him to man up!”

This is really easy to do. Any writer can concoct a situation in which their heroes’ morality looks foolish. But is that our job?

To a certain extent, the decline of American humanism can be dated back to that moment in 1988 when Bernard Shaw asked Michael Dukakis in a presidential debate “Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?”

Given how inappropriate the question was (No man wants a national TV audience to suddenly picture his wife getting raped), it’s hard to blame Dukakis for his inarticulate answer (basically, “Um, I’m opposed to the death penalty, so I guess not”), but his failure to offer a rousing denunciation of lynch-law had disastrous consequences. Support for the death penalty soared...and stayed high even after DNA tests proved that a huge number of those awaiting execution were innocent.

The rise of American bloodthirstiness is all-too-evident in modern Hollywood filmmaking, where they’ve developed quite a hero crisis. The idea of creating new heroes is too embarrassing to modern screenwriters, so they feel that they have to keep recycling the old heroes, but those old heroes are even more embarrassing, because they date from a time when most writers were old-school liberals, and thus they seem “hokey” today.

All Hollywood screenwriters have now become Bernard Shaw, saying, “Surely there must be some situation that I can create for these sanctimonious goody-two-shoes saps that will finally force them to man up. Hey, I know, what if Zod was just about to destroy some oddly passive bystanders with his eye-lasers, and Superman had absolutely no other way to stop him? Then will he finally be allowed to kill, puh-leaze??”
The big problem, of course, is Superman actually had a million better options in that situation. He could have flown Zod up, up and away, or he could have said, “Hey, you guys, get out of there while I’m holding this guys head!” (For that matter, the fact that Zod had seen that those people were there, at a time when lasers were shooting out of his eyes, should have meant that they were dead already, right? How can you look at something while firing your eye lasers and not automatically zap that thing?)  The whole situation was inane.

But Man of Steel just blew past that problem because outsmarting your villains is for pansies. Our heroes today have ball sacks, dammit! They live in Bernard-Shaw-ville! The villains can never be thwarted, never be outsmarted, never be sent to prison…they can only be executed or let go, even if the writers have to twist the plot into conniptions in order to place the hero in that position.

The whole plot of these movies has been engineered to pin these heroes down and forcibly strip them of their heroism, leaving them degraded and humiliated. “Those old-school heroes thought they were so proud, so smug, so cool...they thought that they were better than us! Well, we’ll show them!”

Tomorrow we’ll look at the consequences of this worldview in other recent movies, then on Friday we’ll look closer at how this phenomenon plays out in The Hobbit 2...

What’s the Matter with Hollywood in 2013, Part 2: The Golden Geese are Dying of Exhaustion

2001 marked a radical turning-point for Hollywood filmmaking. For years, it had been gospel that adapting fan-favorite characters wasn’t worth the effort, because those movies cost too much, didn’t make enough money, displeased existing fans (who thought they had changed too much) and baffled non-fans (who just couldn’t get it.)

When they did try it, they would always try to distance themselves from the pre-existing fans (who were, after all, smaller in number) and chase after the non-fans by fundamentally re-conceiving the project until it “felt like a movie,” instead of like the original. In fact, Hollywood preferred to adapt an unsuccessful short-lived comic book like “Men in Black” because it had no fans, leaving them free to change it as they saw fit. Tackling a higher profile comic like “Iron Man” was seen as more trouble than it was worth.

But in 2001, (okay, technically mid-2001 to mid-2002) the perfect storm arrived. Three sets of filmmakers all decided to break the rules at the same time, creating huge-budget adaptations that were made to please the fans, not the fickle. And all three hit huge: Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, and Spider-Man. It would go down in history as “The Year of the Wildly-Successful Ultra-Faithful Franchise Adaptation”

Now all the rules had changed. Hollywood had discovered a secret: fans were hard to please, yes, but if you hit the bullseye they would become ecstatic. So ecstatic, in fact, that they would drag their non-fan friends to the theater and force them to like it, too. Please the fans and the rest will come.

Soon the floodgates opened, and dozens of old franchises were dusted off and given big-budget deeply-respectful adaptations. In many cases, it didn’t work, but every one that did work was instantly turned into its own factory, churning out sequel after sequel. Soon there weren’t enough weekends in the summer to host them all.

But that process has now been going on for thirteen long years, and the well is almost dry, which has sent Hollywood into crazed desperation. The first step was split up the final movie in each franchise into two parts, first Harry Potter and Twilight (which did admittedly have oversized final books) then Hunger Games (which didn’t). This culminated in the ultra-bloat of The Hobbit, parts 1, 2, and 3, which is the first of these to leave even the fans feeling exhausted and exploited. (Much more about those movies later.)
Meanwhile, Hollywood invented something new: the insta-reboot. It was once considered sketchy to reboot Batman Begins a mere eight years after Batman and Robin, but now we get a new Spider-Man just three years after the last one Peter-ed out.

But that leaves one more option: tapping the franchises that, for one reason or another, they didn’t want to touch before. That brings us to 2013, which shall always be remembered as “The Year of the Adaptation Made by Filmmakers Who Openly Despised the Source Material”. We’ll get to that tomorrow...