Matt Seneca is a cartoonist responsible for many fine comics (some available here, the currently ongoing Affected available here) who writes for CBR, TCJ, CA as well as his wonderfully intoxicating Death to the Universe who was kind enough with his time to cover the Marvel Movie beat for TFO, thus extending his grip over websites with three letter shorthand names beyond all reason.
Marvel Movies -- is there any more recognizable commodity at today’s box office? In comics the time when “universe building” was an achievable task seems to have well and truly left us, with every company that’s placed an emphasis on constructing a shared story space for their properties to interact in either decayed into something else or gone belly-up entirely. There are worse testaments to just how much the average comics reader isn’t-a-child-anymore than that: it was easy to accept that Sal Buscema’s Avengers and Herb Trimpe’s Hulk and Gene Colan’s Dr. Strange all hung out, easy even to keep on accepting it as time went on because hey, you were twelve when you first read that stuff. And you were only five when Kirby first imagined it that way. But these new attempts, the ones undertaken when you were already a grown-up, they were just insults to your intelligence. Tell me why the WildC.A.T.S. and Spawn were allowed to bump up against eachother without explanation. Or why the stars of both Sojourn and Scion both had glowing ying- yangs tattooed on them. But we’re talking about movies here, people. Ahem.
All I’m saying is, the fact that Marvel Films has managed to build a coherent, believable shared universe for their characters the same way the comics built one half a century ago is nothing short of a conceptual/marketing miracle. I’m tempted to call it yet another proof of the power Jack Kirby’s imagination held -- “that stuff can translate to any medium!” -- but the cynic in me wonders how many people would also think Star Trek and Transformers were part of some giant unified crossover scheme if they both bathed everything in the same sterile blue-gray lighting and featured atmospheric cameos by Samuel L. Jackson. Even if the by-now unmistakable Marvel aura is really only a bland sense of uniformity, the fact that it’s been successfully cast over so many actors, bad and good, so many directors, mediocre and slightly more mediocre, and just so many damn movies, is impressive in the abstract.
Is it impressive on the silver screen, though? Does anybody actually get sucked into these flicks, obsessed with them the way the comics have managed to make people obsess from the Kirby days right through to the present, when the conceit of a shared universe still binds a perplexing spell over a hundred thousand acolytes of Brian Michael Bendis? Well, I mean -- speaking for myself here -- hell yeah. I went and bought a ticket to Thor at eleven last night and when it was over I was so pumped that I was positive it was a good idea to sneak into the X-Men First Class showing that didn’t end until well past three. Then again I’m not a movies person, I go to see maybe one or two a year, so if you put something on a giant screen and the big multiplex subwoofers in front of me I am basically guaranteed to get bowled over by it, an easily entertained infant in the face of the sheer novelty and romance that is The Movies. Especially the kind where people fight each other.
I grow ever more certain that I am the perfect audience for these things, an uncritical viewer with an embarrassingly encyclopedic knowledge of the “source material”. (Boy, if that doesn’t sound like a Kirby term!) I mean, we were late to Thor by a couple minutes so I had to describe what the general situation was going to be for the uninitiated -- without having seen a preview even, mind you -- and whoops! I ended up describing the entire movie! Maybe that’s another aspect of these films’ success. They understand that one of the key tenets of the action blockbuster is an aspect of familiarity. The preordained formulas of body count in relation to perceived threat level, the ratios of interrupted kisses to explosions that mysteriously don’t go off, the precise amount of time for which to cut the sound off during an action scene before bringing it back in at full blast.
Marvel Films, though, does familiarity plus. Thor has all the classic big- budget fight movie beats, but it’s also got a backstory that was literally ancient knowledge back when Kirby first put pencil to paper on it. And there are just so many more things we know to expect from these particular blockbusters. The “hidden” Jackson cameos, of course (credits roll and nobody even makes a move to get up because we’ve all seen Iron Man, or maybe Hulk, unless it was Iron Man 2, and we’re excited for that little cherry on top the folks behind the red and while logo love to throw at us), but let’s not forget the way the visage of Stan Lee is ingrained somewhere on the print of every one of these movies like Christ on a Mexican pancake, or the “NEW MEXICO: JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY” tourism-bureau billboard placed in the corner of the screen for those of us who’ll know what that means, or the haphazard mentions of Dr. Hulk Banner, who despite his ostensible status as a recluse hiding somewhere in the Canadian wilderness is apparently road dogz with every member of the American theoretical-science community up to and including Natalie Portman.
Familarity breeds predictability, however, and predictability breeds boredom. (Who’s got the energy for contempt when they’re sitting in a multiplex?) But somehow these movies manage to stay engaging, to keep the eyeballs stuck to the screen even when the face turns to the next seat over and mutters “that Black Swan chick would never kiss a man she believed to be homeless.” With Thor, the secret is one that the less talented harsh-noise bands have been using for years: make it hit hard enough and it’ll be like they’ve never been hit there before, even if they were less than five minutes ago. In the comics the thirty days’ wait between instances of Loki bamboozling the all-knowing Odin with a few tourettic proclamations is always just enough to force you to suspend disbelief, somehow. It doesn’t have that going for it when it’s happening all at once on a screen the height of my apartment building at the volume of a low-level volcanic event, lubed up by the combined efforts of a few hundred tricked out MacBook Pro’s, but polished to such a sheen it’s left the behind all logic for the realm of pure experience now: instantaneous. Immersive. And that fool is pure fucking evil up there with his watery eyes and his leather pants! Look at how much skinnier he is than everybody else! He’s wearing a scarf! The complete and utter bastard.
As with Kirby, when the amplitude of the packaging forces the critical eye to retreat and beats the audience down into passive receptors, the images alone hold more than enough meaning. And Thor as played by what’s his name is a gigantic blonde man with a winning smile and a Gap t-shirt that I have a copy of too. I would follow that guy into battle. I love that guy. I am that guy. And then even when the credits roll, I don’t sit back and say “no I’m not” because I’m waiting for the Jackson cameo. MAKE MINE MARVEL.
As a movie? As art? I mean, do I really have to type the words it was wack? I can barely remember the thing it got me so high! If I had to explain I’d say that there was only one extremely puny fight at the end, that Kenneth Branagh can’t choreograph an action scene to save his life, and that Anthony Hopkins as Odin reminded me a little too strongly of Rory Root. Yes, this was a fiercely unoriginal action movie, the least transcendent film about gods to come out in a good long while. That’s the point, though. Branagh filmed an all-time great autocritique in the scene where the goddess Sif and the immortal Warriors Three (one of whom is played by Tadanobu Asano) show up full-armor in a small Southwestern town crawling with federal agents. “Call it in,” one faceless suit says to another. The walkie goes to the mouth, and the words come out: “Uh, we got Xena Warrior Princess, Jackie Chan, and Robin Hood.” Would that all filmmakers possessed such crystal-clear knowledge of exactly what their product is.
Most of all though, Thor was a Marvel movie where the blue-gray (and alternately, black-gold) lighting was ever so occasionally shot through with full- spectrum sparkles of CGI rainbow, and I just wanted way, way more of those. On, then, just down the scarlet scurf of trampled multiplex carpet, to X-Men First Class. Here is an entirely different visual environment, a Jello bath for eyes scoured to the veins by Thor’s ascetic vigor. Sizzling pinks, waves of yellow, clean grass-green, and shot after shot of a thick, glabrous blue, a hot one far from the typical brushed steel tones, suffusing out over everything. It sounds like a triviality, but the colors are the most immediate part of a movie, the first thing any of our senses perceive -- out in front of our comprehension of spoken words or figurative images. They are the first determiners of what we feel. And the chroma of this new X-Men movie is closest to the kind of stuff you might fail to change the channel over on Cinemax, or maybe the Austin Powers movies. Farcical, sure; gaudy, no doubt… sexy? That too, definitely.
In fact, the most striking thing about First Class is how pervasively the aura of sex hangs over it, by turns the product of typical comic book movie repression (there are far less involved contortionist acts than Matthew Vaughn’s continuing refusal to just show nipples already) and look-what-we-can-get-away- with liberation, which the very presence of the ever-hypnotic sexpot Emma Frost character attests to. X-Men III blew up the idea that these films had to carry a consistent narrative momentum half a decade ago: this one is another collection of loosely strung bits, its overall success dependent on how many of them you can remember after stumbling back into the real world. I can remember like… six? Or maybe seven? Of those, a majority have at least an angle of the erotic to them -- Vaughn isn’t much more of a superpowered-battle choreographer than Kenneth Branagh, but he can make his sexy scenes stand out from the dreck like a Bruce Lee roundhouse. Chris Claremont’s eternal nerdy girlfriend Moira MacTaggart, recast here as one of those compassionate CIA agents that all seem to be stationed in Hollywood, kicks the movie off by stripping down in her surveillance vehicle and wandering over to a swanky burlesque party in lingerie and garters to swipe a few Russian state secrets. There are a few leaden jokes about Professor Xavier and Magneto double-teaming the Grant Morrison female version of Angel when they first meet her in the gogo bar where she works. Rebecca Romijn-Stamos makes a five-second cameo as a sheet-sheathed nude body, a definite aesthetic evolution from her role in the previous films as a paint-and-scale-covered nude body.
The most memorable bit in this one -- or any X-Men movie -- is also the most sexually avant-garde set piece I can remember seeing in a superhero film. Logic, always a tenuous presence in the Marvel mutants’ saga, is completely out the window here, as in I can’t even remember how it got led into, so maybe it’s best to just describe it. Emma Frost, diamond-skinned, blonde and beautiful in a bra and thigh-highs, gets bound to the front of a bed by the metal bars of the frame itself, courtesy of Magneto’s powers. A Russian general reclines on the mattress above her, absorbed in the psychic illusion that he’s having sex with the woman sitting fully restrained a few feet in front of him. Magneto bends a bar around Emma’s throat. We watch from straight on as the breath whooshes from her lungs, her diamond shell subtly flickering between the white of precious stones and the pink of the velvet skin beneath it. The image is one of pure, utterly erotic strangeness, a soft and decadent surrealism on par with anything Bunuel could have dreamed up if they’d handed him the X-Men. Domination and submission in one, the same person directing and receiving malevolent sexual force. Bondage and choke sex thrown in for good measure. This movie is serious, and no amount of asinine plot maneuvering can possibly erase that one picture from memory. It’s one of the more incredible sections of film I’ve ever seen, an exquisite torture that would have done Pasolini proud.
Even the muck they throw on to cover such a shining moment back up again has a strange, uncomfortable edge, though. The other bits that stand out are the Hugh Jackman Wolverine cameo -- an attempt at the same kind of familiarizing Thor pulls off so well that ends up as an utter failure, sticking out like a sore thumb for its most prominent use of the word “fuck” ever in a Marvel movie -- and the death of Darwin, a character whose existence I had no previous knowledge of. He’s the one black guy, so yes he dies first, but more striking still is the sudden cut to a closeup of his face a few moments previous as the nefarious Sebastian Shaw asks the group of young mutants Xavier’s assembled if they really want to be enslaved. Not an undropped jaw in the theater, folks. But then, subtlety was never there to begin with.
First Class is farce -- mistakenly hilarious, campy, overblown farce that manages a kind of majestic sleaze, a transcendence via banal degradation that outshines any feat of godly power on display in Thor. Notably, it’s the first Marvel flick not to feature the reassuring presence of Stan Lee, the semi-estranged godfather of this whole shambolic media empire. Maybe it’s just because he pulled out after he saw the dailies on that Emma Frost asphyxia scene, but this is also the first Marvel film to be co-produced by an outside studio since the company’s merger with Disney. As I understand it, at this point Fox is basically holding the X-Men hostage, pumping out whatever works in order not to lose such a lucrative license. We’ll be seeing a lot more of these a lot quicker is my guess, each more lo- fi and logic-light and riddled with the ridiculous than the last. Mutant movies about mutants: there are worse things. And hey, thank god I don’t have to watch Halle Berry trying to act anymore.
Fascinatingly, this film’s final two big emotional beats are Xavier lying on a Cuban beach whimpering “I can’t feel my legs,” and Magneto finally first getting his Kirby-helmeted badass on for realz: moments that get you jacked as fuck to see more and then drop you right off into a wacky, Pink Pantherish credits sequence with the greatest of ease (no Sam Jackson cameo afterwards, obviously). You want more? As we all know, it’s to be found in the first through fourth installments of the series, and the only real question after that is whether this prequel is the serpent’s head chomping away or the bloodied bits of tail sliding down its gullet. X-Men III is still my favorite superhero movie of them all because with its gaps in rationality, its kid-language bombast, its propulsive sense of self importance, it most closely approximates the actual experience of reading a superhero comic book. This one is every inch a worthy successor. If you don’t like the sound of that then maybe you should think about learning to embrace trash a little more fervently. After all, if you’re watching these things you’ve already got the gist of it.
Thor: Thumbs Up
X-Men First Class: Two Thumbs Up
-Matt Seneca, 2011