November 09, 2017

Too super for their own good

The big problem with Hollywood comic book superheroes is they're too dang super. All that superness requires that the supervillains to be too dang super too. The combination of the two quickly descends into abject silliness (in terms of the motivations) and massive vandalism (in terms of the consequences).

At least when Godzilla wrecks Tokyo (which he does as less a "villain" than a force of nature, like a typhoon or earthquake), he has to work at it. And you can't help but appreciate all those scale models being crushed underfoot. Somebody actually made them! With glue and paint and balsa wood! Amazing!

Though Godzilla wears out his welcome pretty fast too.

Otherwise, inflicting billions of dollars of CGI property damage on a major metropolitan area simply isn't entertaining. I mean, it really isn't. It's depressing when it isn't dull. The inputs—the millions of dollars and zillions of credits scrolling by at the end of the film—don't come close to equaling the outputs.

In my bubblegum entertainment classroom, getting a passable grade in science fiction and fantasy means the screenwriter has to at least respect the laws of thermodynamics. Okay, he doesn't have to be totally constrained by them. But putting limits on how big, how fast, and how strong forces writers to get creative.

The latest Wonder Woman gets the balance pretty much right, as focused human effort can force her into a literal crouch. I've gained a new appreciation for the old Bill Bixby Hulk series. Even pumped up and painted green, Lou Ferrigno is a real person constrained on screen by 1970s television technology.

Batman and Ironman (supposedly) only rely on technology, but technologies that too often violate the basic laws of motion too. Same problem with giant robots.

Ironman still contributes to large scale urban renewal projects (though mostly because of the people he hangs out with). And Batman still ends up facing off against vaudevillian bad guys with motivations borrowed from the goofier side of the Bond spectrum, except that Christopher Nolan expects us to take them seriously.

Sorry. Can't. No matter how much he underexposes the film (and Nolan actually shoots on film).

Patlabor gets it right too. I usually avoid the mecha genre because of the basic science issues. Patlabor succeeds because 1) it takes a big team to keep one "labor" operational; 2) the batteries run down pretty quickly; 3) they go to great lengths to limit collateral damage; 4) they don't take themselves too seriously.

In other words, Patlabor demonstrates a healthy respect for the laws of thermodynamics. And common sense.

Hey, we're fighting crime with giant robots! How whacked out is that?

One nice point of the original Star Trek was the constant search for "dilithium." The series since have posited that the magical "antimatter" fuel is "free." Which is boring. A big reason for the opening of Japan in 1854 was the need for refueling stations. Lots of dramatic possibilities in that simple requirement.

Despite the scientific silliness, at least Tony Stark works hard on the hardware and isn't stone-faced about everything, which makes him enjoyable to hang with for a couple of hours. The same can't be said for whoever's been cast to play Batman since Adam West retired from the role.

The repartee between Chris Pine's Steve Trevor and Gal Gadot's Diana in Wonder Woman is reminiscent of classic 1930's screwball comedies. Setting the story within a known historical context and populating that world with one superhero also contributed to making it the best in the genre.

On that score, Deadpool cranked the sarcasm and fourth-wall-breaking knobs up to eleven. I'm not sure it's sustainable but Deadpool also demonstrates how "small" budgets make for better movies ("small" being bigger than any other movie studio on the planet). A smart script gets way better mileage than more CGI.

One of the running jokes in Deadpool is that they couldn't afford any of the big superheroes, so all they get is a couple of sidekicks. Ryan Reynolds, who stars and produces, reportedly insisted on keeping things (relatively) small. Here's to hoping he can keep the superness of the sequel similarly in check.

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