Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Wolverine Vs. Star Trek (Trek Wins)

Within a week of each other, two major film franchises have released origin stories. These would be, of course, J.J. Abrams take on Star Trek and the latest Marvel project: X-Men Origins: Wolverine. ST has earned near-universal (pun intended acclaim) for its fun, energetic take on what was a tired franchise. XO:W did just the opposite, taking an exciting, energetic franchise and making it a tiresome disappointment. It has been more or less panned, labeled "not-unwatchable", but certainly not worth paying full price to see. One of them got so many things right, and the other got so many things wrong. What can we learn from this?

Hire the right director. Gavin Hood has not proven himself in the action-movie sphere. The closest thing he's made to an action film is Rendition, a drama that wasn't particularly well-received. No wonder, then, that parts of XO:W were sloppy and incomprehensible. J.J. Abrams is an action guy--he did Mission: Impossible III as well as the whole Alias. He's also known in the Sci-Fi world for his work on Lost and Fringe and the wildly popular and ambitious Cloverfield. ST, then, turned out to be fun, actiony, and watchable. Huh.

There's a tendency with these franchises to hire unproven directors because people are going to see the movie anyway. Sometimes that works out, as with X-Men. Sometimes all you do is tarnish the brand, as with DareDevil. There's a reason that X-Men spawned three more films, and DareDevil did not.

If you don't pick a title, your audience will. The title of X-Men Origins: Wolverine screams "designated by committee," at least to me. Why did it need to be anything more than Wolverine? That's what everyone is going to call it anyway. There are no other movies by that title. Someone representing the money wanted to make sure that the audience knew this was tied in to the X-Men franchise by putting that word in the title. Someone decided that they could do a whole sub-franchise of origins movies, so it became a title and then a colon and then more title, like this is a chapter in a book or something.

By contrast, there are ten other films with the words Star Trek in their titles. None of them, interestingly enough, were actually called Star Trek (the first one was called Star Trek: The Motion Picture). They could just as easily have gone with Star Trek Origins: When Kirk Met Spock. But instead they picked something clean, concise, and definitive. Someone kindly pass this on to the people behind Terminator: The Sarah Conner Chronicles.

Don't insult your audience's intelligence.  Stryker is bad, we don't know why, but he is.  (SPOILERS) He kills his superiors without (much) reason.  We know better than to believe that.  He predicts that adamantium bullets to Wolverine's skull will give him amnesia.  We could have figured that one out, thanks.  This also goes for glaring continuity issues, like

Respect the canon. You don't have to adhere, but if you're going to break, break for good reasons.  ST established it's place in the canon fairly cleverly.  XO:W threw caution to the wind and just did whatever it wanted.  Hence, there are tremendous inconsistencies, not just with the existing comic literature (what they did to Deadpool is nigh upon inexcusable), but with the existing film canon as well.

Caveat to that: Do a little goddam research.  Cyclops optic blasts are concussive, not heat-based.  Nobody dressed like that in 1979.  Canada wasn't called Canada in 1845.  And it sure looks like Wolverine was fighting in the American Revolutionary War, which would have happened 70 years earlier, and also not in Canada.

Don't overcomplicate things if you don't need to.  ST's plot was hugely complex, but it always came down to good guys versus bad guys.  You didn't have people randomly switching sides throughout.  But XO:W made things just stupid, for no good reason.  (SPOILERS) One major plot point was Silverfox's death, which was faked after her lengthy staged romance with Logan in order to free her kidnapped sister.  Her death was to motivate Logan to find Sabertooth.  Why not just kidnap Silverfox and keep that tension alive throughout the film?  Why do Deadpools blades come out of his arms, making them less wieldable and keeping him from bending his elbows?  Why not sheeth them like he did before?  It's easier.  It makes more sense.

No one actually likes stoicism.  In ST, Kirk and Spock are funny.  They break rules and make mistakes; they are fundamnetally flawed.  Their success is a triumph of ordinary people doing extraordinary things.  Wolverine, by contrast, is an extraordinary person.  Part of his story is that he tries so hard to balance what he is against his desire to live a normal life.  But on film, all of that was stripped away, as Logan was made to conform the usual rules of cinema--characters must be perfect and blameless and only kill in self-defense and must never, ever smile.  Incidentally, Deadpool's brief appearance was one of the best character moments in all of XO:W, because he cracked jokes.  He was, dare I say it, likeable.

Hire the right actors.  I love Liev Schrieber, but he was not Sabertooth.  Dom Monaghan was an underwhelming Bolt and Will.i.am was a cringe-worthy Wraith.  Everyone on ST was well-cast.  Some were brilliantly cast (e.g., Simon Pegg as Scotty), but none of them were poorly cast (the least-awesome was John Cho as Sulu--and he did a fine job, he just wasn't very Sulu).

No CGI is better than crappy CGI.  'Nuff said.

Find the emotional center.  I was getting choked up during ST's opening sequence; I found myself laughing and celebrating with characters.  Abrams drew real drama and joy from what was going on in the action.  Hood tended to try and manufacture emotion.  (SPOILERS) He killed off the love interest not once, but twice.  At one point, Wolverine flatlines.  Seriously.  It's a goddamn prequel, we know he's going to live!!!!!

I could go on, but I'll stop here.  In short, see Star Trek, but give X-Men Origins: Wolverine a miss.