Saturday, July 16, 2011

Talking Movies: No stopping the superheroes

“You think I won't recognise you because I can't see your cheekbones?” the superhero's girlfriend asks him, when he alights mysteriously on her balcony in masked — and computer-generated — green regalia, for a bit of wooing after saving her life. The dialogue between Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively in “The Green Lantern” — the latest superhero movie in a summer-ful of costumed crusaders — is unlikely to win screenplay awards. However, it did spark off some deeply philosophical queries of my own.
Did Lois Lane, Mary Jane and other superhero love interests never know whom they were kissing — really? Can I too now make a superhero movie, assembled like a BitTorrent file, from every superhero movie that ever existed? Are computer-generated costumes the new spandex? Do we not have superhero movies in India because Bollywood heroes refuse to cover up in a mask?
Well, no trace of anything covering Shah Rukh Khan's face, at least in the snazzy trailer of “Ra.One”, Anubhav Sinha's superhero movie whose release is now pushed to October. It certainly looks better than the previous Indian outing in the genre, “Krissh”, which was more a disaster – of a – film than a superhero fantasy.
Fans might embrace other Indian variants of the superhero film before “Krissh” such as “Mr. India” — where Anil Kapoor got invisible, and Amrish Puri memorably chewed the scenery as super-villain Mogambo. However it's “Ra.One” that's got people asking: could this be India's breakthrough superhero hit?
Considering superstars are the norm here, it's sort of surprising we don't have superhero movies. One reason is the absence of a strong lexicon of Indian superheroes derived from comics. Our myths do offer a plentiful supply of beings with superpowers, but in these culturally sensitive times, few filmmakers would risk mining this hoard.
The other obvious reason is technology, with Bollywood producers unwilling to spend the kind of loot required to conjure top-notch special effects. It's relatively recently that Indian films have embraced high-grade f/x at all, with Rajinikanth's “Endhiran” heading the list. Its success suggested to Indian filmmakers that technology might translate into good box office business.
As business plans go, “Green Lantern” is widely seen as the — unsuccessful — stratagem concocted by Warner Bros, to replace the concluding Harry Potter franchise with material from its DC Comics unit, whose superhero properties include Batman and Superman.
Richard Donner's “Superman” (1978) is considered the first major superhero feature film. Actor Henry Cavill will star as the Kryptonite-phobic hero in Zack Snyder's reboot of the franchise next year. Will Cavill's Man of Steel fare better than Brandon Routh's “Superman Returns” (2006), the last tepid rebooting? The most positive sign yet is that Christopher Nolan is one of its producers.
Like the Superman movies, the Batman franchise too had become a parody of itself; it was Nolan's now-famous reinvention — “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight” that earned some US$1.3 billion globally — which took the tone back to what made the comics so potent. And why I sneakily preferred the gritty darkness of Batman comics to the wholesome apple-pie appeal of Superman.
A decade into the new Millennium, it's clear that our tastes in superheroes have changed from plain vanilla to complex chocolate. What seem to work best are either the all-out machismo and wizardry of Wolverine and his cohorts, or the irony of Iron Man or the blackness of Batman. Humour is okay, if underpinned with self-awareness; “Green Lantern's” chirpy one-liners failed to ignite viewers but Marvel Studios' “Thor” earlier this year raked in some US$440 million.
Marvel Comics, DC Comics' great rival, has had several lucrative screen versions of their superheroes; past film productions based on Marvel characters include “X-Men” (2000), “Spider Man” (2002), “Iron Man” (2008) and “The Incredible Hulk” (2008).
While I enjoy the guilty pleasures of superhero movies, undeniably, the genre faces many challenges in today's crowded superhero film-market. The best properties — such as Batman — are already taken. But endless sequels of even the best franchises run out of steam — which necessitates repetitive rebooting.
That is coming on faster. I can't get my head round the fact that just five years after “Spiderman 3”, we'll be offered an all-new Spidey in 2012. The most tempting thing about “The Amazing Spider-Man” is not its latest nerdy actor (Andrew Garfield), but it's casting of Irrfan Khan as Proto-Goblin.
If not reboots, the studios must turn to lesser-known superheroes — a gamble that worked with “Iron Man”, thanks to Robert Downey Jr. “Iron Man” was also smart about updating: the Cold War threats of creator Stan Lee's world were now revised into terrorism and evil corporates.
It's hard work for a superhero to stand out, as well as tick certain boxes: internal/external conflicts he must resolve, a pretty love interest from whom he must ideally conceal his identity, a dastardly villain to defeat while saving a planet or universe. It doesn't help that this sort of mayhem just keeps getting costlier — “Green Lantern” came with a price tag of well over US$100 million, with some reporting it as high as US$200 million.
But Hollywood ain't giving up yet. Marvel, for example, looks to expand the Marvel Cinematic Universe — a fictional world populated by crossover superheroes and plot lines — with movies such as “Captain America: The First Avenger” later this month, “The Avengers” (2012) and “Iron Man 3” (2013). I'd thought of 2011 as the Year of the Superhero, but the trend only looks to intensify in the long hot summer of 2012. It's a spandex bird, it's a digital plane, it's another superhero who is a bit of both.

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