Flotsam: Various and Sundry Life Things and the Mario Movie

1. I’m beginning to settle in at last as the final few necessary tasks and purchases are being wrapped up. Having a new apartment is like having a giant toy; there are all sorts of things you can do with it and you can’t wait to get the chance to play with it.

2. Internet is up at last, though I have it on a kill switch (via the simple expedient of plugging the router into a power strip) so I can turn it off it becomes too much of a distraction.

On that note, I’m working out a schedule for myself to hopefully improve my (frankly appallingly slow) output. So far setting up has kept on interrupting, but even so I’ve found an uptick in production. Amazing what sitting down and just doing the damn work can accomplish.

3. Part of my schedule is anticipated to include Saturday movie nights (don’t like watching movies during the week, since they eat up so much time), and last night it was Megamind. I’ve probably mentioned it before, but that’s another film I’ve been meaning to do an essay on, since it ranks high on my list of underappreciated gems. It’s an example of the best kind of satire: the kind that provides the genuine thrills and particular joys of the genre it’s spoofing, even as it uses the material for comedy (The Princess Bride and Galaxy Quest are other examples of this sort of thing). In this case it pokes fun at comic book superhero tropes while also providing some excellent comic-book-style action / adventure heroics.

It’s also almost infinitely quotable: “Warming up? The Sun is ‘warming up‘?!”

4. The voice cast was announced for the upcoming ‘Super Mario Brothers’ animated movie (entrusted to Blue Sky of all people), and no one seems particularly happy about it. I like Chris Pratt, but him as Mario? I don’t know about that. And last time I checked, Charles Martinet was alive and well. Granted you might not want the high-pitched Mario voice for a whole film, but I happen to know that Mr. Martinet can do many voices (e.g. he was one of the dragons in Skyrim): all he has to do is tone it down a bit.

I really don’t understand why studios do this (it also bugged me when Roger Craig Smith was replaced by Ben Schwartz for Sonic. Schwartz was fine in the role, but it’s annoying nonetheless). Or rather, I understand, but it makes no sense from a fans’ perspective. Studios figure that mainstream audiences will want to see familiar names in the credits, not the relatively obscure voice actors of the games. Filmmakers, and especially studio people, are notoriously out of touch and so don’t realize that the days of star-driven films are largely in the past. No one is going to go see Super Mario Brothers to hear Chris Pratt and Jack Black: they’re going to go see it to see the Mario Brothers (assuming it looks tolerable from the trailers). Keeping Charles Martinet in the title roles would have been a surefire way to garner immediate fan support, which I think is frankly a lot more valuable these days than star power, especially for an animated film.

I still hope the film is good, and I’m not judging it yet, but this isn’t a good sign. Please, please at least be better than the live action film. That should not be a challenge.

(Though for my part, all will be forgiven if they give John Leguizamo and Samantha Mathis cameos. Or if they bring Lance Hendrikson back as the king / chancellor of the Mushroom Kingdom. Come on, people: he never turns down a paycheck!).

5. By the way, I suspect the above is the reason why My Little Pony: The Movie jettisoned most of that show’s fantastic supporting cast in favor of a bunch of new characters with celebrity voice actors. They probably would have re-cast the Mane Six if they thought they could get away with it (“Starring Scarlett Johanson as Twilight Sparkle”).

6. Also, regarding the Mario movie: Dwayne Johnson should have been Donkey Kong. How does one fail to see that?

Just Because It’s Cool: Donnie Yen vs. Mike Tyson

I found this clip of a fight scene in Yip Man 3 pitting Donnie Yen as the titular (historical) Wing Chun grandmaster Yip Man against Mike Tyson as…well, basically just Mike Tyson. There’s some kind of plot going on (I haven’t seen the film), but the important thing is that we get to see two legit martial artists going at it.

It’s a little cartoony, of course. In my experience, huge megaton punches like that don’t send you flying around the room, they just sort of make you die. But it’s cool and a relatively rare instance of pitting eastern martial arts against western boxing in a way that gives the latter its due as legitimate fighting style.

Bruce Lee, if I’m not mistaken, said that one year of boxing left one about equivalent to someone with ten years of kung fu, or something of the kind. This actually seems to be a bit of a pattern: western martial arts tend to be a lot simpler and more straightforward and thus easier to learn, though no less effective, than their eastern counterparts (personally, I’m a black belt but I tend to resort to more or less boxing most of the time in sparring just because it’s simpler and easier to use in the heat of the moment). Which is why eastern martial arts tend to get played up so much in media: they look cooler, or at least can be more easily made to look cooler. But again, both are as effective as the practitioner makes them, and anything that lets you walk away after a fight as opposed to being carried is a good system.

Though this fight also illustrates one of the key weaknesses of boxing: it has little in the way of defense or offense regarding the lower body.

Anyway, enjoy.

Update: Note the bit where Yen uses his elbows to damage Tyson’s fists. That’s one of the key ways to deal with a bigger, stronger opponent: attacking his weapons.

Flotsam: ‘Coco’ and Such

1. I missed seeing Coco when it came out in theaters, since I was by the disillusioned by Pixar’s deteriorating quality. Last week, upon seeing it recommended, I pulled it up and gave it a watch.

My goodness, that is one of the best films I’ve seen in a long time. Certainly one of the best recent films. Not to mention one of the most Traditionalist / Reactionary films of recent years, being all about family tradition, family piety, recovering lost heritage, subordinating personal desires to obligations, and so on.

It’s also the first movie in a long time to legitimately make me cry. Not just tear up, but full on weeping.

I’m going to hold off on doing a full essay for the time being, because I want to see it again first, but I heartily recommend it.

2. Most of the related thoughts springing from the film and other things that have been on my mind lately are frankly too big to get into in a Flotsam. I want to organize them better and work them out first.

3. One thing that occurred to me while watching, however, was this. Everyone seems to love the Day of the Dead: it’s become the Mardi Gras of Mexico (e.g. the event that people think of when they think of the place and that always seems to brought up). Nothing wrong with this, except that I notice there’s always a particular emphasis on the pagan elements of the holiday, to the exclusion of the Christian ones.

This is what I call the ‘isn’t it interesting?’ approach: “Oh, the Mexicans have a tradition of such and such, and the Japanese say this, and the Irish have a story that yada yada, and isn’t that interesting?”

But there is one culture and one tradition that is never given this treatment, that always, without fail, is regarded as illegitimate, imposed, and generally not worth bothering about (even when it’s an integral part of a culture, it tends to be ignored in favor of folklore and pagan stories). Of course, it’s Christianity and the Church. Funny that, isn’t it?

4. This isn’t a criticism of Coco itself, or of Grim Fandango or any of the other works that have used the folklore around the Day of the Dead to good effect (Fandango, I would argue, is probably the closest to a Christian view of things of the one’s I’ve seen, since there the world of the dead is explicitly a transitory state that the good get to cross through almost instantly and the bad have to work and earn their way across, thus being more explicitly akin to Purgatory). It’s a criticism of the cultural attitudes that relegate the Faith to the sidelines and gleefully tries to sever us from our heritage, then regards us as defective when we try to preserve it.

5. One thing I am trying to develop (it’ll help when I get my own place, I’m hoping) is what I call the ‘shopkeeper mentality’. Again, Coco reminded me of this and helped it click in my mind: the mentality of “we have a family enterprise that is keeping us fed and gives us a place in the community. You’re part of this family, so you are going to help in it. Get up, do your chores, say your prayers, help in the shop, don’t complain if you don’t want the slipper.”

Thomas Sowell touched on this as well, describing how successful ethnic groups – e.g. Jews, East Asians, etc. – would practice this sort of behavior: start a commercial enterprise that the family would run, everyone pitch in and work their fingers to the bone to make it a success. Kids do their chores in the morning, then go to school (and they’d better get good grades), then come home and help with the shop.

That’s the kind of attitude I want to have: that this is a trade that gives me and my family a place in the community and supports us, and so it’s expected that we work at it like our lives depend upon it, because they do.

Basically, I don’t want to be a starving artist sacrificing all to his muse, I want to be a shoe shop that happens to make books.

Mauler vs. Black Widow

A melancholy step: I was really hoping this movie wouldn’t be horrible. And I would say that it was still possible Mauler’s being too harsh on it, except…the prison break scene. How the heck did that make it through production without anyone saying “wait, our heroine just condemned hundreds of people to horrible deaths…”? And what does that say about the writers, director, etc. of this movie?

(Also Taskmaster being a girl is stupid, and him being the willowy Olga Kurylenko is stupider: like having Jason Voorhees take off his mask to reveal *gasp* it was Amy Steel the whole time!).

But for a comparative rush job, Mauler’s in good form, emphasizing just how badly the film assassinates and undermines its protagonist (and it takes four hours to dissect this one: twice as long as Captain Marvel. Yikes).

Money line: “Why the **** does Daffy Duck have a better grasp on espionage than Black ****ing Widow?”

No Aspirational Heroes, Huh?

Apparently, the star of the latest Marvel film – Shang Chi and the Ten Rings (yeah, I forgot about that movie too) – claimed that this is something he “didn’t have growing up,” namely an aspirational Asian or Asian American hero.

Ahem:

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Cineplex.com | Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Mulan 1998 Film Characters - Disney S Live Action Mulan ...
Ken Watanabe in The Last Samurai (2003)
Toshirô Mifune in Shichinin no samurai (1954)
“Three weeks top of the US Box Office. I doubt you will be so fortunate.”

Hell, not even going that far:

American Dragon: Jake Long (2005)

And all that isn’t even touching on Anime, video games, most of the Japanese film industry, or the innumerable superhero and fantasy film’s / franchises. Like you may have heard of this obscure little franchise:

Ultraman: Monster Movie Feature (1967) - Posters — The ...

That’s really one of the more obnoxious things about these ‘representational’ films and such: the fact that they’re always trying to ignore or hide the people who have come before. Because everyone today is trying to be Sydney Poitier slapping the racist rich jerk in In the Heat of the Night, because that’s all they know how to value in a film: being ‘socially important’ (neglecting the fact that it was also, you know, a good movie). So they have to keep trying to reset the clock and hide the work of those who came before to give themselves the chance to pretend to be pioneers.

If You’re Looking for Reasons to Go Back to the Theaters…

I just learned that certain services are ramping up their theatrical showings of classic films. Most people already know about Fathom Events, but they seem to be showing even more lately. Their upcoming schedule includes Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Star Trek IV, the Voyage Home (the whales one that is widely considered one of the best), Coraline, and Stripes. Then September includes Labyrinth, Citizen Kane(!) and The Transformers: the Movie (so, book-ending Orson Welles’s film career, I guess), followed by Spirited Away.

In particular, I had never heard of Flashback Cinema, but apparently this is the focus of their business model. Currently, they’re screening The Iron Giant at select theaters on August 11th. After that it’s the 1989 Batman on August 15 and 18, then Back to the Future on the 22nd and 25th. Then in September, it’s the special editions of The Lord of the Rings films one after another.

Remember, just because films today are mostly junk made by mentally ill psychopaths who hate you doesn’t mean you have to lack for quality cinematic storytelling. There are decades and decades worth of classic films to explore, and thankfully it seems some people are offering the chance to enjoy them on the big screen, the way they were meant to be seen.

Flotsam: Fitting Final Lines

To every actor there comes a final performance.

Most of the time, for such is the nature of the beast, they’re pretty prosaic affairs, often obscure, coming and going with little fanfare.

But sometimes it happens that a prominent performer gets to end his film career on a high note, ending his final performance with a line that feels like a fitting capstone to his career: a send off worthy of the actor who delivers it. Here are presented a few notable examples:

1. Pedro Armendariz in From Russia With Love

Pedro Armendáriz in From Russia with Love (1963)

“I have had a particularly fascinating life, would you like to hear about it?…You would?!”

The great character actor Pedro Armendariz only lived to be 51 years old, but he has well over a hundred credits on IMDb. He was a regular with John Ford, as well as one of Mexico’s most prestigious performers, and a frequent collaborator with John Wayne.

Alas, it was the latter that resulted in his death. He was one of the many actors in The Conqueror who ended up contracting cancer from the radioactive set (the location in Utah where the film was shot had previously been used as a nuclear test site. Not only did the film shoot at the site, but truckloads of contaminated sand was shipped back to Hollywood for studio shooting).

Armendariz’s final role turned out to be the second James Bond film, From Russia With Love, where he plays Bond’s Turkish contact, Kerim Bey, a former circus strongman turned businessman with a small army of sons (all roughly the same age). Bey is still one of the most memorable of Bond’s many allies, largely thanks to Armendariz’s effortlessly masterful performance.

Near the climax of the film, aboard the Orient Express, Kerim and Bond capture an enemy agent and Kerim volunteers to stand watch over him. The scene ends with him sitting down with the above line, promising to spend the rest of the voyage detailing his ‘particularly fascinating life’. Unfortunately, both men are subsequently eliminated by Robert Shaw’s Red Grant.

In any case, Mr. Armendariz certainly had a ‘particularly fascinating life’.

2. Sir Sean Connery in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

Sean Connery in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003)

“May this new century be yours, son, as the old one was mine.”

Sir Sean Connery, of course, needs no introduction as one of the premier actors of his generation. His final live action performance (he also did some voice work before his death, including reprising the role of James Bond one last time in the video game adaptation of From Russia with Love) was in the unfortunately pretty poor The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Despite the film’s poor script, the actors are mostly first-rate, and Sir Sean gives a suitably strong final performance in a role with more than a touch of an autobiographical tone as H. Rider Haggard’s Allan Quatermain, now grown old and weary, his adventuring days long behind him. In the end, Quatermain is mortally wounded in battle with Professor Moriarty and dies giving the above blessing to Tom Sawyer, who has become a surrogate son to him.

Whatever else might be said of the film, Sir Sean’s final line is surely a suitable farewell from one of the master actors of his time as he gives his final bow on the screen.

3. Raul Julia in Street Fighter

Raul Julia in Street Fighter (1994)

“You still refuse to accept my God-hood? Keep your own God! In fact, this might be a good time to pray to Him! For I beheld Satan as he fell from Heaven! LIKE LIGHTNING!!”

I spoke about Mr. Julia’s final performance at length in my Street Fighter review, so there’s not much more to add, except to note how fitting his final proclamation is for a great actor ending his career in a blaze of hamtastic glory.

4. Spencer Tracy in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

Spencer Tracy in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967)

“Well, Tillie, when the hell are we gonna get some dinner?”

Spencer Tracy was one of those golden age actors whose talent goes without saying. He exuded warmth, intelligence, and fatherly command on screen, and he was equally capable of being wildly funny in an easy-going, eye-of-the-storm kind of way.

His last film, done while he was terminally ill, was Stanley Kramer’s race-based dramedy Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, where Tracy stars alongside frequently leading lady (and off-screen romantic partner) Katherine Hepburn as two racially tolerant parents who are nevertheless a little blindsided upon learning that their daughter is engaged to Sydney Poitier.

I haven’t seen the film recently enough to comment on its quality, but with such a director and three such performers (not to mention the great Cecil Kellaway as their priest), I think it’s safe to say it can’t be too bad. But in any case, Tracy’s final line, closing out a long speech giving his full support to the young people, is remarkably fitting for a man who so excelled as the American paterfamilias.

5. Orson Welles in The Transformers: The Movie

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Orson Welles in Moonlighting (1985)

“Destiny…You cannot destroy…my destiny!”

What a remarkable figure was Orson Welles. He was an absolute master at radio, film, and stage, as both an actor and a director. He created what is widely regarded as one of the best American films ever made as a passion project before he was thirty, and ever after found his career endlessly hampered by studio interference, so that despite giving some of the best performances of the American movie screen, he never was able to make what he might have of his vast artistic talent.

For his final role, he, in his own words “played a big toy who attacks a bunch of smaller toys”. Whatever he thought of the role of Unicron, the planet-sized, planet-eating dark god of the Transformer universe (and whatever else could be said of the film), he certainly gave a performance worthy of the name of Orson Welles, speaking with all the command that an all-powerful evil being can be expected to posses. Every line that comes out of Unicron feels impactful, like a god speaking, yet with a touch of careless humor that makes him feel all the more commanding (“Your bargaining posture is highly dubious”).

In the end, Unicron is destroyed by the power of the Autobot Matrix of Leadership, and as he’s torn apart from the inside out, he delivers that final, defiant line. In a way, it rather feels like Welles himself casting his final gauntlet at the Hollywood that hounded and tore at him all his life: at the end of the day, no matter what, they still couldn’t take away what he had achieved.

6. John Wayne in The Shootist

John Wayne in The Shootist (1976)

“Mister, this is my birthday. Gimme the best in the house.”

In his swanswong, The Shootist, John Wayne (who had recently been through treatment for cancer and would soon be claimed by the disease) plays John Bernard Brooks, an aging gunfighter dying of prostrate cancer. Rather than suffer a long, lingering death pestered by glory seekers who will not let his rest in peace, he decides to go out in a final blaze of glory by challenging three of his enemies to a final fight in a saloon. As he sits down at the bar, he gives the above order and enjoys one final drink before the fight begins.

For perhaps the greatest movie star of all time, a man whose name is practically synonymous with the western, there surely can be no more fitting line than to go into a saloon and order the best in the house. Nothing less than the best for the Duke.

7. James Stewart in An American Tail: Fivel Goes West

James Stewart and Phillip Glasser in An American Tail: Fievel Goes West (1991)
James Stewart

“Just remember, Fivel; one man’s sunset is another man’s dawn. I don’t know what’s out there, beyond those hills. But if you ride yonder – head up, eyes steady, heart open – I think one day you’ll find that you’re the hero you’ve been looking for.”

You know, there’s something rather tragic about the fact that what may be the single finest American film actor of all time ended his career playing ‘Wylie Burp’ in the sequel to An American Tale. But regardless, the final scene where he looks out at the sunset and gives the above speech to little Fivel is a remarkably fitting curtain call for the legendary Jimmy Stewart.

RE-POST: Why I Love ‘Independence Day’

I missed this 4th of July’s ‘Independence Day’ rewatch due to being sicker than paint, but here’s my yearly post on why it’s among my personal favorites.  

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            When Independence Day came out, it was a huge hit, but ever since then it’s kind of become the poster-child for the big, dumb, CGI-fueled blockbusters of the late 90s. And, yes, in a way it is, but…well, that’s kind of beside the point.

The Story: On July 2nd, a massive alien craft appears in orbit around the earth and sends out an armada of city-sized flying saucers that take up position above several of the world’s major cities, including Los Angeles, New York, and Washington D.C. We then see the unfolding war of the worlds through the eyes of four American men and their families: underachieving New York cable company technician David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum), Los Angeles-based Marine pilot Steven Hiller (Will Smith), drunken Californian crop duster pilot Russell Casse (Randy Quaid), and the youthful President Whitmore (Bill Pullman).

So, is this movie pretty stupid? Sure. This is light science-fiction pulp, of the kind you might find in Amazing Stories, or in a drive-in theater in the late 1950s, only given a massive budget and an all-star cast. Granted, a lot of those classic films were better than this one (The War of the Worlds in particular does many of the same things while being an overall superior film), but none achieved the same sense of scale and grandeur as this one.

As for me, I’m glad we have it.

This is the movie that Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, or Invasion of the Saucer Men, or those 1940s serials dreamed of being. It’s pulp sci-fi done as an epic: national and world-spanning in scope, drenched in apocalyptic dread and patriotic defiance, with implacably hostile collectivist aliens pitted against scrappy, courageous, freedom-loving humans. It tackles big ideas of freedom, heroism, faith, family, and patriotism in a simple, but solid fashion. This may or may not sound appealing to you, but to the film’s credit is unambiguously knows what it’s trying to be and doesn’t make any apologies for it.

There are a lot of things to like about this movie. In the first place, it’s huge. Four main characters, each one carrying a small cast of supporting characters, a world-spanning plot involving a large-scale alien invasion targeting the major cities of the globe, huge airborne battles…it’s just a grand, glorious spectacle. Yet, amazingly enough, the film still manages to keep the focus largely on the people involved: we see these events through their eyes, and the real story of the film is how it affects them. It’s not done brilliantly, but it works. We very rarely leave the perspective of one of our leads, and then only briefly to illustrate things that they are talking or thinkings about. For instance, late in the film we have a brief glimpse of various armies around the world receiving and responding to the President’s call for a united counter-attack, but we quickly cut back to where the President and his military aids are receiving the answers.

At the same time, though, the four interconnected storylines make the film seem anything but constrained. On the contrary, the multiple-perspective format gives the story an epic feel that few subsequent blockbusters (Armageddon, Transformers, etc.) have successfully imitated. This is in stark contrast with Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, which though in some ways a better film was rendered all-but unbearable by the fact that we spent the whole thing welded to three boring and unpleasant characters.

The leads here, by contrast, are all charismatic and likable (though some might find Jeff Goldblum’s stammering speaking style annoying), as are most of the supporting characters. They’re not especially original, but they all have personality and serve as pleasant enough company. I particularly like Robert Loggia as the President’s right-hand general and Judd Hirsch as Goldblum’s father. It helps that most of them are played by veteran supporting players and character actors (including a pre-Firefly Adam Baldwin as the commander of Area 51 and a very young, pre-Avatar: The Last Airbender Mae Whitman as the President’s daughter). Even the SETI boss who only shows up in the opening scene is invested with life and character, thanks in part to old-pro Eric Avari. This is really one of the most impressive ensemble casts I can remember seeing in a 90s blockbuster.

More than that, though, it’s just a really good story and well-done adventure. It’s grand and epic, but also keeps focused. Appropriate for a film about the Fourth of July, the theme is pitting freedom and the American way of life against the encroaching forces of collectivist aliens backed with all-powerful technology. When, after the opening salvos, we see the Statue of Liberty lying broken in New York harbor we understand what the battle is really about.

The film’s theme plays out in the lives of its characters, who all start off having forgotten what’s really important, which they rediscover throughout the film, even as they have to fight against the implacable hostility of the alien menace. Levinson and his wife have divorced due to their divergent career paths, with her working on the White House staff while he wastes his talents at a dead-end cable job. Whitmore’s caught up in politics and has lost his authority. Hiller dithers about marrying his girlfriend for fear of how it will affect his military career. And Casse is a drunken wreck who can barely take care of his family, while his adult son sees him as an embarrassment. All the characters are then forced to reexamine their lives and ‘re-center’ on what really matters: family, faith, and country.

The four leads provide an interesting cross-section of American society about the mid-nineties: blue collar, white collar, military, politics; Black, White, Jewish; married, single, widowed, divorced. The film is thus about as representative of the American way of life of the time as could be asked for. We see that the characters in the opening don’t appreciate what they have, being lost amid their petty concerns and self-destructive behavior. It’s only when their world is threatened that they begin to re-orientate their lives around the things they’ve neglected for so long, and it is this that gives them the power to strike back.

On the other hand, the aliens prove to be the reverse of American values; they’re a kind of hive-mind, with little or no individual personality, each subject to the collective. They have no home and no land of their own: they simply move from planet to planet taking whatever they need like locusts and moving on when they’re done. When asked if there’s any possibility of the two species co-existing, they bluntly respond that there isn’t: the trademark American skill at integrating different cultures is not going to work here.

In this context, it’s significant that the film explicitly describes the aliens as having bodies ‘just as frail as ours.’ All men, and aliens, are created equal; the aliens just have better technology that allows them to impose their will upon the earth. Once mankind figures out a way around that technology, the fight becomes more even.

The specifics of that method have justly been called out as ridiculous, but, again, that’s not really the point. All they needed was a semi-plausible excuse to bring down the alien shields, and a computer virus works as well as any other (the fact that the aliens were previously established to be using the Earth’s satellites to coordinate their attack lends it just enough pseudo-validity to work in context). The important thing was how the idea was given (amid a heart-to-heart between Levinson and his father about the need to have faith even in the face of disaster) and what it leads to (a last-ditch battle for freedom).

There are so many things that, looking back, the film does really well. The motives and backgrounds of the characters are established very quickly and concisely. For instance, we meet Levinson talking with his father over chess, who urges him to move on after his divorce. The scene establishes at once 1. their respective personalities and close relationship, 2. Levinson’s divorce, 3. his intelligence as he smoothly checkmates his father, 4. his environmentalist principles, 5. his reluctance to move on with his life, suggesting both his continuing attachment to his wife and his unambitious, lethargic personality. All that in one scene that lasts maybe two minutes (these key points are  reiterated and expanded on in equally efficient subsequent scenes). A quick moment of Hiller receiving a rejection letter from NASA establishes his dreams of flying in space, which he achieves at the end, as well as establishing the reasons for his inner conflict over marrying his girlfriend. Considering how many characters the film juggles, it’s remarkable that it manages to develop its leads as well as it does.

The film also does a good job of conveying the impact of the events; a minor, but established character dies in the destruction of each city, then more characters die in the subsequent counter attack. At least one character who survives the initial bombardments later dies of her injuries simply because she couldn’t get medical care soon enough. And we see things like the President agonizing over his failure to act more decisively, or Hiller making his way to Area 51 only to learn that he’s the only survivor of his entire Marine base. The film keeps moving, but it does allow the characters to react to the disaster.

I like the humor in the film a lot as well. Many of the jokes turn on the fact that, in the course of the disaster, normal social barriers have been eliminated, leading to unexpected situations, like when Hiller’s girlfriend sheepishly admits to the First Lady that, “I voted for the other guy.” Or when Levinson’s father unexpectedly finds himself about to meet the President…and discovers that his son once punched him in the face.

I’m also impressed at how well the effects have held up, probably because (like many of the best early CG-driven films) the movie actually uses a large amount of model work and practical effects and only supplemented with computers where necessary. The destruction of New York, Los Angeles, and Washington was mostly done with models and real fire effects filmed at low speed (so, the exact same techniques pioneered in the original Godzilla), the fiery clouds surrounding the ships as they enter the atmosphere were done with models in smoke-filled tanks, while the aliens themselves are glorious animatronic costumes. On that note, the sheer fact that the film manages to make flying saucers frightening and otherworldly again after so many decades of parody and over-exposure is impressive in itself. The featureless, almost motionless ships hovering ominously over the cities convey a distinctly alien atmosphere, especially contrasted with the more familiar planes and buildings of our own world.

I could go on about it, but suffice to say, I think it’s a really good movie. Yes, it’s kinda stupid, yes it’s cheesy and overblown, but at the end of the day it succeeds in being exactly what it sets out to be, which is a big-budget, large-scale version of a classic sci-fi b-movie. It has pleasant characters, great visuals, and tells a simple, but solid story. All in all, it’s one of my favorites.

Compare – Contrast: ‘Street Fighter’ vs. ‘Mortal Kombat’

The two biggest fighting game franchises of their time (and ours) were adapted into feature films one after another: first Street Fighter in 1994, then Mortal Kombat in 1995.

The question is, why did one work and the other didn’t?

The Structure:

The first and, I think, the most important factor is how the two films are structured, particularly with regard to their characters.

Mortal Kombat has eleven characters drawn from the first two games of the series, plus two cameos (Jax and Shao Khan). Street Fighter has fifteen characters from its game’s roster, plus one who is sort-of based on the sixteenth. On paper, that’s not a huge difference (a matter of two to five, depending on how you want to count), but consider how they are deployed.

In Mortal Kombat you have a structure that looks like this:

We have our three protagonists: hero, secondary hero, heroine. These three join forces pretty early in the film and from then on they spend almost all their non-fighting screentime together. There is a fourth hero in the form of their mentor, Raiden, and a fifth in Kitana, who is kept in the background for most of the film for plot reasons. We see almost the whole story through the eyes of those three characters. If they need to talk with someone, they talk with each other, meaning that when Johnny Cage has some dialogue, Liu and Sonya naturally get some development as well by dint of being the ones who have to react to him. The rest of the cast are aligned with the villain and serve as his henchmen or tools to challenge the heroes.

The structure is thus designed to maximize each character’s role by putting them as close to the center of the story as possible. It’s clear and easy to keep track of. Some of the characters still get marginalized, but everyone has a purpose and often more than one. You couldn’t really cut anyone, even Scorpion and Sub-Zero, without damaging the story.

On the other hand, Street Fighter’s structure looks like this:

Rather than the two camps of the other film, here we have five or six (depending on whether you want to count Dhalsim as separate from Bison). The main heroes are Guille, Chun-Li, and Ryu and Ken, but of those four only Ryu and Ken spend any degree of screen time together. Guille and Chun-Li each have their own duo of supporting characters to talk to, except that said duos are both almost completely extraneous to the story and receive little to no development, meaning that those scenes basically do nothing except to move the plot around and sort of develop the leads, but without the reinforcing feedback of working off of another relevant character. Each of the protagonists, therefore, more or less exists in their own little story independent of the others and has to develop more or less on his own. And since they only rarely interact it creates a disjointed and extremely shallow effect.

This structure is designed simply to shove as many familiar names in as possible, without necessarily providing them an actual role in the story. If Balrog, E. Honda, T. Hawk, Dee Jay, and/or Cammy were cut, nothing whatsoever would change, story-wise. The same could be said of Blanka (though he at least personalizes Guille’s motivation somewhat), Dhalsim, and Zangief.

One partial solution might have been to keep Chun-Li’s game background as an interpol agent rather than a journalist and have her partnered with Guille, allowing them to build off of each other and form a genuine relationship. That would have left no clear role for Cammy, Honda, T. Hawk, or Balrog, but, again, they don’t really have a role in the film to begin with except giving the protagonists someone to talk to, which would have been better served by having one of the other protagonists filling that role.

Another issue is how the characters are deployed in each film. In Mortal Kombat, we have eleven characters, but they’re not all present throughout the story. They are all established by about the half-hour mark, but then Goro and Reptile remain off-screen ‘in reserve’ for most of the second act while Kano, Scorpion, and Sub-Zero are eliminated one-by-one. Only once they’ve been removed from the story does Goro take an active role. Reptile, meanwhile, is established in two scenes: one where Shang gives him his assignment and one where he performs it by ambushing Liu to prevent him from making contact with Kitana. The point made (that the heroes can’t just go up to her and ask for help or vice-versa), he disappears from the film until it’s time for his fight scene. This also serves to keep Kitana largely ‘in reserve’ until close to the end, after Raiden has dropped out.

This makes sense given the nature of the story and characters: it’s a tournament, so characters will be eliminated and other characters will be waiting until they’re ‘called up.’ This keeps the active cast to a manageable level, even when there are actually a fairly large number of characters in the film, because at any given time we only have about five or six whose actions we have to keep track of.

On the other hand, in Street Fighter, every character is active and ‘on the board’ at all times in the story, meaning that the audience has to keep track of what every one of the fifteen characters is doing. They are all established as quickly as possible and then by and large just sit around contributing nothing for the rest of the screen time until it’s time for one of them to punch out a random goon, like freeloaders camped out on the couch. The result is an inescapable impression of empty bloat.

Again, a solution might have been to simply have some of the characters come and go throughout the film: have them fill temporary roles and then drop out of the story once the role is completed to make way for another character. So, you could have T. Hawk play a role in the beginning, get killed off or invalided out and replace him with Balrog (or something).

The Plots:

Mortal Kombat kept to a very simple, straightforward plot based on a venerable movie template that fit closely with what story the game had. In this case, it’s Enter the Dragon with fantasy elements: there’s a martial arts tournament that will decide whether an evil emperor from a dimension of magic will be allowed to invade the Earth. The premise is goofy, but imaginative and makes a certain intuitive sense (evoking the idea of trial by combat). Each character has a clear, simple reason for being there and taking part in the plot. Most importantly, it’s easy to grasp and to follow and it provides for a lot of martial arts duels.

Street Fighter took on a much more convoluted plot featuring a civil war against a power-mad dictator in a fictional country that superficially resembles Vietnam. There’s a hostage plot that doesn’t really affect anything except to provide a ticking clock (except that all the characters are already motivated to go after Bison, so…what was the point?), a plotline of Bison wanting to create an army of super-soldiers, which sort-of personalizes the battle for Guille, but otherwise only exists to create Blanka (and again unnecessary since Guille’s already motivated to go after Bison), a plot of Ryu and Ken going undercover with a local crime lord to try to find Bison’s hideout, and a plot of Chun-Li trying to get revenge on Bison for her father’s death. Of these the only ones that really tie together are the Guille’s and Ryu and Ken’s (since he’s using them to get to Bison), and none of them have much of a payoff. Chun-Li’s quest for revenge is simply forgotten about after she ambushes him and gets re-captured. The hostage plot again, doesn’t actually affect anything one way or another, and Blanka doesn’t do anything except electrocute one guard and look sad before apparently dying (why not have him join the fight against Bison to save Guille from the villain’s sudden-onset superpowers?).

At any point it isn’t really clear just what Bison’s resources and capabilities are: we’re told he has high-tech weapons that he uses to make up for his comparatively few troops, but we never see them. He has a bunch of faceless henchmen, but then so does Sagat. It isn’t clear why Guille needs Ryu and Ken at all, and the plot as a whole has very little weight to it.

The Characters:

Mortal Kombat had eleven characters to adapt: the seven playable characters of the first game, the two boss characters, one hidden character, and one character from the sequel. They solved this by choosing to focus on the three most heroic, relatable characters as their three protagonists, casting another character in a mentor role (which simultaneously serves to temper what should be his overwhelming power), and working the remaining three in as supporting antagonists to allow for the kind of duels one would see in the game. The two boss characters of course play the main antagonist roles, while the remaining two – Kitanna and Reptile – are worked together as a potential ally to the heroes and the monster assigned to guard her, respectively. You also have one more character – Jax – in a cameo role, and another – Shao Khan – as an unseen presence and then as the ‘stinger’ to end the film. This meant that some of the characters – especially Scorpion and Sub-Zero – got far reduced roles, but it gave more time to focus on the three leads and the plot with the villain.

Street Fighter had fifteen characters to adapt, since the studio insisted on including the enitrety of the game’s large cast. Trouble was that, as noted, the film’s framework didn’t intuitively allow for that many characters, so they were squeezed in to whatever roles there were or could be made for them. You have of course Guille as the hero, Bison as the villain, and Chun-Li as the heroine. So far so good. Though this leaves the two protagonists of the game, Ryu and Ken, without a place, so they become supporting characters and comic relief. Sagat as a secondary villain allied with Bison makes sense, as does having Vega as his subordinate. Likewise Zangief as Bison’s enforcer and Cammy as Guille’s second in command. But then we start running off the rails: we need an excuse for Blanka. He’ll be an abortive super-soldier experiment. That means we need a scientist, so Dhalsim becomes Dr. Dhalsim. Chun-Li’s a reporter now, so she can have a film crew. Shove E. Honda and Balrog in as her sidekicks (no, we don’t care that Balrog was a villain in the game). T. Hawk can be another soldier under Guile. And Bison needs a computer guy, so make that Dee Jay because Theo worked in Die Hard.

See, in the latter they’re pretty much just dropping names into whatever roles they have available or that they can force into the story, like they’re casting a play and need everyone to participate, while in the former, the characters all fit the story and serve it.

Ironically enough, though it follows the game much more closely, Mortal Kombat is much less dependent upon it. People can (and do) enjoy it without knowing anything about the game (I know this for a fact since I first saw it with almost no prior knowledge of the game, on the recommendation of a critic who likewise knew nothing about the source material). Street Fighter is almost wholly distinct from the game in every way, but a good chunk of its cast only exists because they were in the game. Someone who had never heard of the game would watch that movie and find himself wondering why half the cast even exists and why it makes such a point of letting us know who they are (not to mention wondering why it’s called ‘Street Fighter’).

This makes sense when you think about it: these characters were originally designed for a certain context. The closer you can stick to that context, the more sense they will make, while the further away you get, the more you have to struggle to justify them.

The Villains:

Raul Julia’s M. Bison is an over-the-top caricature of a mad dictator; truck-loads of fun to watch, but utterly unconvincing as a threat. He lets Guille bait him, gets outwitted or put on the back-foot more than once, and even his own allies and subordinates seem to regard him as little more than a lunatic most of the time. Julia was no martial artist, requiring a lot of strategic camera and editing tricks to allow him to fight Jean-Claude Van Damme, and even then he’s on the ropes for most of the fight, and that’s after he gets thoroughly trounced by the heroine half way through the film.

Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa’s Shang Tsung is played on a more restrained, if still hammy note, conveying an air of sophistication and chess-master-like control of the situation. He rarely loses his cool, covers almost every base he can, and is convincingly dangerous throughout. He’s able to get away with taunting a god and successfully outwits and manipulates the heroes on more than one occasion. His underlings, even the monstrous Goro, treat him with fearful respect. Tagawa is fairly big and well-muscled, and he’s skilled enough to go toe-to-toe with Robin Shou in the climax with some very fast and fluid martial arts. Before that it’s made very clear that none of the others have a chance against him, and he in fact tries to take advantage of this by challenging first Sonya and then Johnny to the final bout.

Their introductions provide an illustrative point of contrast. Both villains are introduced killing minor characters: Bison takes out two random soldiers in a stiff, blatantly staged manner, snapping their necks in two moves (though accompanied by the great line, “You came across the world to fight me, soldier. Now is your chance!”). He then sees Guille on a news broadcast giving him an off-color hand gesture and is infuriated into challenging him directly.

Shang has a nightmare fight with Liu Kang’s brother, delivering smooth blocks and bone-breaking blows to illustrate his legitimate skill and power (as well as being more emotionally effective – seeing a young man being beaten to death while calling for his brother, instead of two randos dying with little fanfare – despite the hammy acting). He then tells Liu “Your brother’s soul is mine! You will be next!” before transforming into a skull and ending the dream.

The Bison scene is fine in concept as a way to establish his ruthlessness and physical prowess as well as to set up the conflict between the hero and villain. Though it falls apart in the execution and again, I don’t like that he lets himself be rattled so easily. And the interaction between Bison and Guille is both unnecessary (Guille’s whole mission is to fight Bison and so he is already motivated to take him down) and ridiculous (that Bison can somehow talk to him through a television camera).

The Shang scene is cheesy, but effective, again establishing the villain as a dangerous and brutal opponent, while also setting the hero’s motivation, as well as suggesting right at the beginning of the film that Liu doesn’t really believe he can defeat Shang, as shown by Shang turning into a skull right after promising to take his soul. So, right there we have “the hero must fight the villain, but he doubts he can triumph.”

Even apart from the execution (for all his acting talent, there was no way Raul Julia would be as convincingly dangerous a fighter as Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), the Street Fighter scene makes Guille and Bison equals at best: Guille can rile Bison, and Bison can taunt him right back (I really wanted to find something that rhymed with ‘Bison’ there). Guille clearly isn’t the least bit intimidated by Bison, which means there’s no tension regarding the outcome of their battle. The Mortal Kombat scene portrays Shang Tsung as literally Liu Kang’s worst nightmare, to the point that he sees him as his own death incarnate.

The former tries to establish the credentials of both the hero and the villain at the same time. The problem with this is that it means the villain can’t be allowed to overshadow the hero, so we aren’t really worried about whether the hero can prevail. The latter focuses entirely on establishing the villain as a dangerous threat and setting up the hero’s motivation, trusting that a). they have the whole rest of the film to establish Liu’s badass credentials and b). the audience will naturally assume he’s a badass once they see him (writing short-hand again: “you know you’re watching a martial arts film. Here’s a handsome, muscular young Asian guy. You can do the math”).

The Action:

Both films are based on fighting games, but as noted, Street Fighter has very little fighting in it: the action is mostly fairly generic, underwhelming gun fights, explosions, and standard war / action movie fare. What fights it does have are mostly filmed in quick close-ups (partially to disguise the lack of training in key cast members – most notably Raul Julia – and partly because the film’s chaotic schedule meant that many of them had to be improvised or choreographed on the fly).

Mortal Kombat has quite a few showpiece fight scenes, including a sequence of four or five in a row mid-way through the film. The fights are mostly filmed in fairly lengthy long-shots interspersed with close-ups, allowing us to clearly see the actors performing extended sets of fast and fluid martial arts. Most of the cast are trained martial artists of one description or another, and it’s clear the fights were a high priority for the filmmakers (the release date was actually pushed back to allow new fight scenes to be filmed when test audiences didn’t think there was enough of it).

(The one exception, as noted, is Bridgette Wilson as Sonya, whose few fight scenes are filmed more in quick individual cuts, where they filmed her doing one or two moves at a time and edited them together. By contrast, almost every fight in Street Fighter, including every fight involving the main villain, is done this way. What is a sparingly-used expedient in one film is the norm in the other).

The result is that Street Fighter’s action is mostly forgettable boilerplate stuff when it isn’t laughable (e.g. trying to pass off the ravaged Raul Julia as a master fighter on par with Van Damme). There are a small handful of decent fights, but all pretty short and not filmed particularly well. Mortal Kombat boasts some really solid and excellently filmed martial arts, as well as having much more of a distinct ‘style’ to its action scenes.

(As a point of contrast: Guile and co spend as much time running around with guns as they do engaging in martial arts. Sonya’s the only one who uses a firearm in her film, and her gun gets almost contemptuously destroyed as soon as the main plot gets going, leaving bare hands and simple weapons the only recourse for the rest of the movie).

The Behind-The-Scenes:

There are also some interesting points of similarity and contrast in how their respective studios and filmmakers approached the movies, and how the shoots went. A few of which include:

  • Both films had fledgling directors, though Stephen de Souza had worked in the industry and built up a stronger track record than Paul Anderson at that point. De Souza had written some of the biggest action hits of the past decade (this is one of the guys who wrote Die Hard, for goodness sakes!). Anderson had only made a low-budget crime film.

De Souza explicitly had no interest in making a martial arts or tournament film, instead opting to base his script off of a storyline he had seen being considered at Capcom for future entries, involving M. Bison as a dictator trying to take over the world. He figured he could re-cast the game’s colorful lineup of characters into an original action-sci-fi film, rather than a straightforward adaptation of the game.

De Souza wanted only seven characters, and initially Capcom agreed (persuaded by his argument that audiences can only really follow seven characters at a time). But then, as pre-production went on, Capcom kept insisting he add more characters to the cast. Then more. Then more. Until by the end he had exactly the problem he had warned them about.

Mortal Kombat had at its helm not just Paul Anderson, but more importantly producer Lawrence Kasanoff. Kasanoff, upon discovering the Mortal Kombat arcade game, immediately saw the potential in the premise. The blend of martial arts and weird fantasy, he thought, was potentially a billion dollar franchise, extending to movies, books, TV, anything you cared to name. Kasanoff fought hard to get the film made and enthusiastically promoted it all the way, keeping in close touch with Ed Boon, the game’s co-creator (and voice of Scorpion in the movie) to make sure they were matching the spirit of the game.

In short, the people behind Mortal Kombat really believed in the potential of the property and meant to translate it to the screen. The people behind Street Fighter saw it more as a jumping-off point for an idea they thought would be more interesting.

  • Ironically, Universal and Capcom loved Street Fighter and were very enthusiastic about it, while New Line frankly hated Mortal Kombat and had very little faith in it (Kasanoff tells a story of the studio head yelling at him for an hour about how much he hated the script before concluding “go ahead and make it”). This actually might have helped things, as Kombat didn’t have the problem of the studio trying to force changes upon the production (other than the PG-13 rating) or demanding an early release date. Street Fighter was forced into a rushed production to be in theaters by Christmas in order to push the merchandise that had been enthusiastically churned out for it, no doubt exasperating the films myriad other problems. Studio enthusiasm isn’t always a positive.
  • Much of Street Fighter’s $35 million budget went to hiring Jean-Claude Van Damme and Raul Julie (Van Damme alone cost $8 million: over a fifth of the film’s entire budget!). Van Damme, then at the height of his stardom, addicted to cocaine, and coming off of a very bitter divorce, was by all accounts a nightmare to work with, refusing to rehearse, showing up late to the set (if he showed up at all), and being an absolute diva when he did. This on top of demanding an expensive private hotel room for his own use (Julia on the other hand was a consummate professional respected by everyone on the set and often accompanied by his children).

Mortal Kombat had a budget of $20 million, part of which went to hiring veteran star Christopher Lambert. Money was so tight that they originally thought that they’d only be able to use him for a few days of shooting on an LA soundstage and resort to long-distance body doubles for the Thailand shoot. Lambert, however, liked the role and wanted the film to succeed, so he volunteered to pay his own expenses to come down to Thailand and film more scenes. There he helped keep the production going smoothly with his laid-back, helpful, professional attitude, setting the tone for everyone else (he also proved himself an absolute mensch by buying a wrap party for the cast and crew out of his own pocket when filming concluded with nothing left in the budget).

  • As noted, Moral Kombat cost $15 million less than Street Fighter. Yet they clearly spent the money much more wisely, focusing on the elaborate sets and any necessary special effects (e.g. Goro) over hiring big name actors. The cast was mostly relative unknowns, with veterans Christopher Lambert and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa filling in the heavy lifting. Some characters were simply played by stuntmen since they wouldn’t have any lines anyway.

Street Fighter spent a good chunk of its budget on its somewhat-bizarrely strong cast: in addition to Van Damme and Julia, we have veteran dramatic actors like Wes Studi, Roshan Seth, and Grand L. Bush, not to mention Australian pop sensation Kylie Minogue (who, incidentally, was very well liked by the rest of the cast for her sweet, professional behavior on set and supportive attitude off it). Since the film also included a lot of extras, numerous locations, and a fair number of special effects and explosions, the remaining budget ended up being noticeably stretched thin, with the result that the film looks considerably cheaper than Mortal Kombat, despite costing almost twice as much.

The short version of all this, it seems to me, is that Mortal Kombat is a much more focused film: the filmmakers knew what they were aiming to achieve, knew what the particular appeal of the film would be, knew the effect they were trying to create. They concentrated all their effort on the things that would contribute to that effect and tailored the story and characters to the film they meant to make.

Street Fighter seems to have been cobbled together from multiple conflicting visions, not only different ideas of what would happen in the film, but even what kind of film they were making. The most basic elements – the fighting and characters – are mostly done half-heartedly in favor of large dollops of shallow plotlines and out-of-place action scenes. Half the crew seems under the impression they’re making a comedy (e.g. the goofy reactions to the impending truck bomb), the other half thinks they’re making a serious action movie (e.g. Guille contemplating the home videos of his friend, Blanka).

Kombat succeeded on a combination of faith in the material, solid writing, a wisely-spent budget, a cooperative cast, and a clear sense of priority. Fighter failed on a blend of doubt in the material, weak, haphazard writing, a poorly spent budget, a chaotic shoot on a hard deadline, and a general failure to prioritize.

Some of these things are just a matter of bad luck (it would have been hard to predict Van Damme’s absurd diva behavior for instance), but there are a lot of things here for those who are writers to try to keep in mind: understand what you are trying to achieve and what i necessary to create that effect (and what isn’t: do you really need a first-class dramatic actor as the generic scientist in an action movie based on a fighting game?). Consider the structure of the story and character interactions and whether it uses them efficiently. Keep an eye on what each scene is doing and what it says about each character (e.g. is a character who is supposed to be intimidating being undermined?). Ask what role each character plays and whether the story really needs them, or needs them to be present at the moment. Ask how many characters the audience has to keep track of at each given moment and whether there is a way to shuffle them around to keep the active cast down to a manageable level.

And above all else: have faith in the material you’re working with and commit to it.

Thought of the Day: Blaming Audiences

I notice that audiences always seem to get blamed for Hollywood’s attitudes: people say things like “audiences wouldn’t have accepted an actor like this in a lead role before such-and-such, but the country was more mature now.” I remember seeing a clip from a Film Noir documentary where someone was saying: “The Bogarts and the Alan Ladds and so on would never have been accepted as leading men by audiences prior to World War II, but the country pretty much grew up during the war.”

Except (ignoring the patronizing attitude) no one tried casting people like Bogart, Ladd, etc. in lead roles before then. It was Hollywood that judged them to be secondary players at best, not the country as a whole. So who can say whether audiences would or would not have accepted them in such a position? The fact that audiences took to them at once when given the chance implies that they might have been just as successful before the war.

Now, maybe audiences wouldn’t have accepted someone like Bogart as a leading man in the 1930s, or maybe they wouldn’t have gone to see a Charlie Chan film starring an actual Chinese man. But the thing is, we can’t say that for sure because no one tried it. And no one tried it because the filmmakers thought it wouldn’t work or were against the idea.

We see this all the time: filmmakers will preen themselves over having ‘the first Black-led superhero film’ or ‘the first female-led superhero film’ or say things like ‘audiences are finally ready for an Asian-led blockbuster’, apparently forgetting that they and not the audiences were the ones in control of whether such films would be made all along.

(Of course, these days when there are very few such ‘firsts’ left available, this sort of thing is even more obnoxious, but that’s another story).

Audiences, by and large, don’t much care, and I frankly don’t think they ever did. It’s Hollywood that worries about that sort of thing, because apparently in all this time they haven’t figured out that all people really want is a good story told well by talented and / or charismatic performers.