Thanks to one of my readers, I'm giving a quick review of another movie seen since my last post from April: Star Trek. It was a great movie with excellent characters and actors to portray them, a smooth-yet-fast plot, and incredible special effects and action sequences. I do NOT agree with the reader's assertion that I "forgot" to mention the movie, in fact I think its omission was an act of brilliance. Seriously, anyone who has seen these movies would acknowledge that Star Trek is far too good to be listed with the movies I reviewed yesterday. It'd be a grievous insult to Star Trek, and now that I think of it I'll spend the rest of this blog entry insulting Star Trek in exactly that manner.
(In all fairness, I'm making Angels & Demons seem terrible when it's not, it's a decent movie... just NOT when compared to Star Trek.)
In fact, perhaps the only thing all four movies (Star Trek, Wolverine, Angels & Demons, and Terminator) have in common is that they are all franchise movies, single stories involving settings and characters established elsewhere. Franchise movies are beloved be Hollywood these days because, among other things, you don't have to work as hard to find an audience. They already know the property, maybe better than anyone involved in the new movie, and need much less effort in order to get them into the theater. Within the story, you have more freedom in regards to introduction, like you can introduce less and add more time to the meat of the story.
This works against creators when they're not careful. The audience that already knows the property has also come up with their own opinions of what the next story should include, and they probably LOVE the story they came up with before even hearing about the official one. It's the job of the team behind the next official production to create a story that blows away any possible idea the audience came up with, at the same time without disrespecting the views of the characters or setting the audience may have. This point is what makes the difference between a great franchise movie and a poor one.
Let's take Star Trek: the producers made it clear in their promotions that this was the crew from the original series, so fans right away know pretty much which characters are going to be in it and where they'll spend a lot of their time. This is a franchise decades old, so people have had a long time to imagine the story of how these characters got together. Seems like a Kobiyashi Maru - no story could satisfy everyone's expectations build on years of obsessive study and speculation; hell, even a small fraction of that demographic would be a lofty goal, so the creators need a way to tell THEIR story in a way that gives them an escape in case the audience doesn't like it. Solution: time warp to an alternate reality. They didn't tell the origin story of the original crew, they told the story of their versions of the original crew, meeting the goals set before them without putting their views above ours, and it was a brilliant way to do it.
You can note that this is one of the rare rare RARE occassions where I will praise the use of time travel in a story. These guys did it right.
Another thing they did right was focus on the characters rather than the ship or one story from the series. I always thought of Star Trek (TOS) as an anthology like The Twilight Zone, as a vehicle for zany science fiction stories. The difference between Trek and Twilight is that Trek had characters that tied each episode together, and I'd argue that Trek's greater commerical success comes from the love the fans had for the characters. All the central characters in the new movie have great moments that give a nod to the original series without being ruled by them - Kirk gets in fights and scores with ladies, Spock arches eyebrows and pinches neck, Bones insists that he's a doctor, they all assert their connection with the classic characters while making them their own.
For the counter-example, I'm going to use Wolverine. This franchise started from the comic book continuity, but also had to pay respects to the movies in the X-Men series. There was an origin story to the character in the comics, but by now the movie continuity is established as seperate, so they could have done whatever they wanted. What happened was they took the comic-based origin, something like six issues worth of material, compressed it into a ten-minute sequence with massive changes, and spend the rest of the movie covering the story of Wolverine's adamantium skeleton and missing memories.
The movie is supposed to be an origin story, it says so in the full title, but it doesn't tell the character's origin. His beginnings, both in the comic and in the movie, take place in a mansion where young Jimmy Howlett makes his first kill, setting him on a fighter's path. The comic book took its time in connecting the dots from this moment to Wolverine's defining characteristics: his sense of justice, his desire for peace, his struggle to retain a sense of humanity. While the comic series didn't receive the widest popular or critical acclaim, it did something very right that the movie missed, and it fact it wasn't until I saw the movie that I appreciated this aspect.
The Wolverine everyone loves both in the comics and the movies began AFTER having his origins wiped from his mind.
Think about that, and then think about the movie. The movie ENDS with his brain getting blown apart, and all his memories leaking out. That origin story we just watched was rendered pointless, and where they could have spent the time showing how Wolverine's personality in the movies might have been formed, they instead had a bunch of action sequences than introduced a school full of different characters. They did a better job introducing half a dozen different characters than the one they promised to introduce.
So I've been griping this whole time to make a point, and that point is: Stories disappoint when they don't follow through on the promises they make. "But Ryan," you may say, "no one actually promised anything. You're being a judgmental prick!" Screw you, person that's actually me! Any product makes a promise the instant it steps into public attention, and in the case of movies they usually make the same promise five or so different times in 30-second montages.
And just like in real life, it hurts when someone breaks a promise.