I spent my Labor Day -- as I do most of my free time -- sitting in a darkened theater, culminating the 2013 summer season with Adam Wingard's terrific You're Next. It ended the summer with a big enough bang that it got me thinking back over the past four months of popcorn pictures. Rather than do a "Best/Worst list" or any of that other played out nonsense -- which would be impossible for me since I didn't see every movie anyways -- I'm going to look back at what I see as a positive trend in this years' blockbuster pictures. This seems to be the year of director-driven blockbusters, for good or ill. While most summers feature one or two outliers that seem to be the result of a strong directorial voice, most Hollywood summers consist of a impenetrable blend of studio-driven pictures -- those films that seem focus grouped into existence like last year's Battleship. This year, the both the great and the terrible films were coming from people with something to say, and an interesting failure will always be more interesting to me that a bland success.
Iron Man Three
The summer kicked off with Shane Black's Iron Man Three. I purposely refer to the film as Shane Black's instead of "Marvel Studios', because this film seems to highlight the first major trend of the summer of auteurship.
The secret to Marvel Studios' success, and the one thing WB/DC hasn't yet picked up on -- and we'll get to that later -- is they have consistently gone after interesting yet inevitable choices for directors. It all started with Jon Faverau, whose work on the first Iron Man is so strong and so important that it defined the entire Marvel Studios tonal output for their next five films. Each film picks a director, Louis Leterrier, Kenneth Branagh, Joe Johnston and Joss Whedon who seem at first like odd choices, but upon second glance fit the material perfectly.
Who better than Branagh to capture the Shakespearean drama and bombast of the Norse Gods, and after The Rocketeer, was there anyone else who could have made Captain America: The First Avenger?
Despite the strong choices, each director was firmly shaped into the Marvel Studios aesthetic. They got to play with the Marvel toys, but it was clearly the studio's sandbox. The films, varying in quality as they do, all seem to exist in a world of a studio auteur over any individual filmmaker.
That all changed with Shane Black.
Let's get this straight. Iron Man Three is not a Marvel movie directed by Black. It is a Shane Black movie that happens to feature Marvel characters.
Everything from the tone, to the structure, to the humor is so distinctly Black's that the film fits slightly uneasily when placed next to the other Marvel pictures, which despite their deviations in plot, all seem to be cut from the same cloth.
The film wastes no time jumping into Black's mind, with some Robert Downey Jr. self-reflexive narration straight out of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang which fades into the studio logos to the tune of Eiffel 65's "Blue (Da Ba Dee)."
These early left field choices let the audiences know that this is a film that's going to abandon the Marvel three-act structure they had established with their earlier films -- literally each film can be broken into three segments with a major battle scene marking the end of each major act -- for something a little more stream-of-conscious. By the time of the mid-movie major reveal, it announces that this is a movie that holds nothing sacred, and anything can happen.
Iron Man Three introduced the blockbuster season with an intimate look at the ways we create and depict our own heroes and villains, and what these creations mean to our society. It's a film of great thematic weight packaged into the most entertaining format possible. Black returns fragility to Iron Man, both in his character and in the action scenes. The reason none of the earlier Iron Man films' action scenes really worked for audiences -- check back at all of those rave reviews from the first one, they all agree that the final Iron Man/Iron Monger battle drops the ball -- is that Iron Man was always evenly matched with his opponents. Two men in iron suits clanging each other isn't interesting because there's no inherent sense of stakes or drama. Iron Man Three rectifies that by overpowering the villains, making the Iron Man suits more fragile -- honestly, the henchmen tear through them like butter -- and trapping Tony Stark in the most compromising situations possible. Every battle begins with Stark at a severe disadvantage: he's handcuffed and out of his suit; he only has one boot and one glove and they've got guns; he's infiltrating the villains secret lair with MacGuyver'ed weapons built out of Christmas ornaments.
The film is an exploration on the nature of male vulnerability, a rarity in a genre that is defined by its devotion to wish-fulfillment and power fantasies. It takes the central conceit of Iron Man, a man whose super power is literally a physical vulnerability, and extrapolates that to his ego and emotional state. By emphasizing Tony Stark's smallness in the wake of the cosmic battle of The Avengers, Black and co-writer Drew Pearce recast Stark's super hero identity as a hollow shell -- intentionally visualized in the way the suits crack open and spill out their users -- a defense mechanism designed to patch a broken man. Time and again, black returns to visualizing this metaphor in both hero and villain -- when Tony stares down his faceplate and declares "I'm not scared of you," to the way Killian repairs and designs his body to mask his inadequacies, a body which later literally breaks apart into camera.
The film argues for a holistic form of masculinity; one that is based in both accomplishment and empathy. It's a movie about a man who has to come to terms with the fact that he is not the center of the universe -- both on the macro in terms of Norse gods and alien warriors and in the micro in terms of his relationship with Pepper as she moves into his mansion and invades his space.
Die Hard is a similar film about masculine inadequacy which culminates in McClane's speech to Powell, "She's heard me say I love you a thousand times, but she's never heard me say I'm sorry." McClane's admission is the emotional climax of the film, which is then unfortunately undercut by the action climax of the movie where he reinforces his role as the dominant hero and savior.
Iron Man Three intelligently sideswipes this disconnect between the needs of the genre and the themes its trying to discuss by removing Stark from the climactic moment of the film. Instead of asserting his traditional masculinity and saving the damsel, Stark lays helpless while a newly superpowered Pepper Pots saves his butt and defeats the main villain single handedly. This moment is immediately followed up with Stark's rejection of the suits as an alternate persona as he destroys them.
In the closing moments of the film, Tony Stark, now without his toys, without his armor, with nothing but his brain and his true love declares over black, "I am Iron Man."
Star Trek Into Darkness
The next flick and the film that goes along with the Summer of Auteur theory -- for better or worse -- was Star Trek Into Darkness. The film is undeniably the work of J.J. Abrams, the director/producer who has managed to establish a name and a credo for himself based largely on marketing over quality. Star Trek Into Darkness embraces all of Abrams' worst tendencies, from a meaningless mystery that only confounds the films clarity, to conflicting character and thematic arcs, to homaging the tangible details of his favorite filmmakers without ever understanding what made their films work.
STID is a frustrating film with charismatic actors, a beautiful design and well-purposed action, stuck into a film where the plot chugs along without taking into account why its going where its going. Each scene follows the previous not through any character or dramatic throughline, but because it is necessary for the plot. Abrams' mystery box technique of plotting implodes in upon itself here, the central mystery of the identity of "John Harrison" is completely moot, because the reveal -- he's Kahn -- means nothing to any of the characters or within the greater narrative. STID is a straight-forward film with a mystery structure forced down upon it, bending all of the scenes until they fit into a narrative that they have nothing to do with.
Like other films written by Alexander Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, Into Darkness seems reverse engineered from individual moments. The logic that transitions from scene to scene is so dependent of coincidence and convenience that the film ends up with absolutely no flow. But again, just like Iron Man Three, it is an Abrams film. It looks great -- when you can see it past the lens flares -- it's charismatic and it has almost enough energy to race past the script that is frankly...illogical. Unfortunately with the Kahn reveal, the entire film falls apart.
Abrams' insistence of recapturing the past leads the final half hour into a worse retread of Star Trek 2: Wrath of Kahn. Much like Super 8 attempted to recapture the aesthetic of Spielberg's '80s output without ever understanding the careful balance of tone and intention that makes his movies so compelling, Abrams tries to recapture the emotion of Wrath of Kahn without the context of 20 years of adventure. By cutting an original narrative in half and providing the Cliff's Notes version of Stark Trek 2, Abrams does neither story justice. A series of entertaining scenes that never quite gel together, Into Darkness indulges all of Abrams worst tendencies without ever really engaging in his strengths. In all though, it's still an intensely Abrams-y film.
For those of you who jumped off the Fast and the Furious train by Tokyo Drift, or who were never on the train to begin with, I don't blame you. The first three films in the series, though not without their guilty pleasures, are entertaining solely to a very specific subset of 12-year-old boys.
Something interesting started happening after that point though. Justin Lin, an up-and-coming director making films about the Asian-American experience was tapped to direct The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (better known as 3 Fast 3 Furious 3). The film didn't turn out so hot -- minus a charismatic performance by Sung Kang as Han -- so the studio begged Vin Diesel to make a cameo appearance. Diesel, who skipped out on the second installment because of his rising star, agreed on the condition that the rights to the Riddick series be turned over to him. Diesel makes an appearance that is too brief to save "Tokyo Drift," but this sparked a conversation between Lin and Diesel about where the franchise needed to go.
Until that point, each installment of the Fast and the Furious series was more standalone than the last. By Tokyo Drift, it seemed like it would become a direct-to-video chain of unrelated sequels much in the vein of the Bring It On franchise.
Diesel, a huge Dungeons and Dragons nerd, told Lin that what the franchise needed was its own sense of mythology. Because each film had so little to do with the previous, they had amassed this huge wealth of characters. It would be interesting to play on that sense. Fast & Furious (Four Fast Four Fourious Four) reintroduced all of the main characters from the first flick and essentially set the stage for Fast Five.
Fast Five despite all appearances, is a masterpiece of pop filmmaking. It somehow subverts its own existence as the fifth entry in a critically derided franchise and becomes a legitimate action classic. "Fast Five" is so good, so entertaining that it retroactively makes the first four films more enjoyable. The film brings together characters from every installment of the Fast and the Furious series, creating a proto-Avengers and then adds in the magic charisma-bomb of the Rock as Vin Diesel's foil.
Fast Five plays with the real world context of the series, playfully flirting with the idea that the franchise had been active for over a decade. Just as the 12 year olds who loved the first film, were growing up and settling down, so to were the characters. It acknowledges its place, and instead of shying from it, or barreling forward obliviously, it embraces the over-the-top fun that the series could be. What once was a simple series about car racing has turned into a franchise about a group of meatheads attempting to pull off an Ocean's 11 style heist -- spoiler, their plan boils down to driving fast. The film even shows the beginning of a The Fast and the Furious-style street race, just to completely skip over it, as if to say "Yeah, we know this is where this franchise got its start; we're over that phase. Let's get to the cool stuff."
The banter, though painfully stupid, is so playful and fun that you really start to embrace the fact that these actors are legitimate friends in real life -- not a huge leap of logic, considering that actors in the Fast and the Furious films seem only to act in Fast and Furious films.
Furious Six takes everything that's enjoyable about Fast Five and amps it up as much as possible. Though not quite the pop-masterpiece that Fast Five is, namely because it lacks the novelty of bringing these disparate characters together, "Furious Six" turns the F&F crew into legitimate superheroes.
This time, the Rock enlists the aid of six of the main characters from "Fast Five" to become the Furious Six -- no they're never called that in the movie, and no that does not make them any less of a superhero team -- to battle a team of their evil dopplegangers who are using their crazy driving skills to try and steal a superweapon.
At this point, I would just like to remind you that the franchise started out being about idiots street racing.
With a ton of clear, confident action directing, Lin sets up action scenes where the stakes are always clearly defined, character related and exhilarating. The characters have become superhuman -- check out Vin Diesel's 500 foot leap from one raised freeway to another -- but they're still vulnerable.
Lin has transformed what was an embarrassing footnote to teenage-aimed films into the preeminent action series of the 2010s. From the wonderfully racially mixed main cast, to the integration of insane stuntwork and minimal CG enhancements, The Fast and Furious films truly feel like action films for a new generation. It's the kind of film that studios are always trying to make, but takes a talented filmmaker to pull off. It seems foolish to say this, but Justin Lin has truly become the auteur of the Fast and Furious franchise. I'm sorry to see him go for part 7, but am super excited to see James Wan come on...more on that when we hit The Conjuring.
Check back in two weeks as we discuss the second half of the summer, from Man of Steel and Pacific Rim all the way to The World's End.