Thursday, August 5, 2010

Who's a Hack?

Over on Ain't it Cool News, they put up a version of the Avengers "teaser" from SDCC. I can't say I'm overly impressed.

Now, before somebody crawls down my throat in regards to my blog on Tuesday, conceptually, this is a fine teaser. It gets the idea across, and, while visually it's kinda dull (even the stock footage of flying through clouds in the Superman: The Movie teaser has more visual punch), it's a perfectly acceptable tease to show before bringing out the cast. What else are you gonna show, right?

My issue is with the voice over.

I mean, look...Samuel L. Jackson is a great actor, but it seems that whenever he gets involved with one of these properties he's supposedly excited about (Star Wars the other prime example), the bottom falls out. He suddenly becomes this caricature of himself, and you get the overwhelming feeling he's absolutely not engaged in the process at all.

I can kinda accept that in Snakes on a Plane, because that's the whole joke, but when you talk about how excited you are to be Mace Windu, or Nick Fury? I expect something more than what we've been getting. Jackson's voice-over on this clip is just flatline, phoned in, and, lets be honest, his whole performance in Iron Man 2 wasn't much better.

Anyway, that's not really what I want to talk about today. What I want to talk about is the way superior filmmakers can get maligned and pushed aside because...I don't know...They try to make films outside the "geek strata"

This comment from "loserguy3000" really struck me, specifically the point I've highlighted in bold:

...Forget that the one stumbling block of every major comic book embarrassment (looking right at you, Batman & Robin) is overloading characters into one movie, the unknown element of practically requiring people to have seen EVERY Marvel movie (which Hulk proved isn't happening), two unreleased Marvel movies of questionable quality (Captain America is being directed by a known hack), a potentially embarrassing Thor movie (let's be looks uneven), and most of all, Mr. Whedon hoping to reign all this in while proving himself against all evidence to the contrary that he can handle such a thing...

Now, loserguy makes some decent points, especially about the multiple characters issue. However, Captain America: The First Avenger (**sigh**...can we let the film stand on it's own, before we start the crossovers, please?) is being directed by one Mr. Joe Johnston. I'd like to invite you to look at his page.

Now, look, Johnston hasn't directed a ton of stuff, seven major motion pictures, but I wonder how many "loserguy3000" has under his belt? That aside, take a look at the films Johnston has done. All are pretty old-style "Classic Hollywood" in scope, but also embrace modern film technology. He's also proven that he can adapt his visuals to the style required for the film in question. The Wolfman, good or no (and a troubled production before Johnston ever stepped in to take over), literally drips with gothic horror detail. Hildalgo positively glows. You can feel the coal grime in every frame of October Sky (a personal favorite).

He can also handle action beats, Jurassic Park III is the Jurassic Park sequel that Spielberg couldn't make himself. There are moments when I think it works better than the original. I know, heresy, but whatever.

Still, I'm convinced that Johnston is the absolute best choice I could imagine to direct a World War II-set Captain America movie. When his name was announced, I literally told everyone, "well, they got that one right." Why? Because Johnston has already made a film that's, essentially, everything a movie about Captain America ought to be...

Yeah, I'm talking about The Rocketeer from 1991. A movie that would still, to this day, appear on my "top 5 comic book movie adaptations" list. I mean, look at this:

"I may not make an honest buck, but I'm 100% American." Folks, that's the kind of stuff that a Captain America movie needs, and when Cliff is about to lift off from the observatory, the pose, the "go get 'em kid," it's exactly right. What does it tell us about Johnston? That he understands how to portray that golden age comic book feel on screen.

Yeah, I'd hope he goes a little grittier. I'd like battle sequences to reflect a PG-13 version of Saving Private Ryan, remind the young audiences of today just what was going on and what ordinary men were doing for their country. Is there an element of cheese? Oh, sure...but if you don't embrace what Captain America is, what he represents, the movie will fail. If you go for "cool" instead of "heartfelt," the movie will fail.

Captain America's the living embodiment of everything that is good, and everyone knows is good, about America, like Bruce Springsteen, and, like Bruce Springsteen, a lot of that is pretty damn cheesy. Cheesy in a way that is un-ironic and not sarcastic. It's not Team America, with "America, F*CK YEAH!!," no, it's America as the place with an open hand for those who need it, and strong enough to stand up and say "no" those who would exploit the needy. It's Chris Reeve as Superman, and, unless you go there, it's an utter failure.

You don't need Michael Bay or Zach Snyder, with heart buried under slickness and "cool." You need someone who'll have a gangster toss aside his self-interest when he realizes he's working for a Nazi, and stand as an American. You need a filmmaker who understands that's what this character is about, and can make you believe it. The character is named Captain America, you cannot absolve yourself of the political implications of that, even if Marvel has kinda tried to in the comics over the last decade, or so.

A similar story. I remember when George Miller was going to make a Justice League movie, and there was a kid, probably mid-teens, on one of the message boards I frequented, who kept talking about how they didn't give the film to an "action director," like they should've, but "a guy that made kids films." Obviously, the kid only looked far enough on Miller's imdb page to see Happy Feet and Babe.

Not an action director? He only made...

Which, I think we can all agree, is one of the greatest action films of all time.

People need to take a long, good look at the work people have done in the past (Yes, kids, even from before you were born), and understand exactly what kind of skills and sensibilities they are bringing to table. Sure, you can debate the merits of their work, and if it lends itself to what you, personally, would like to see. Calling Johnston a "hack" is just lazy, and incorrect. It puts him on a level with the likes of Uwe Boll or Albert Pyun (and, really...his Captain America isn't a total loss). Joe Johnston is not a hack.

Marvel found the right guy, I think. If you've been too wrapped up in the idea that Johnston isn't "hot," and maybe you haven't seen his movies, maybe you ought to go check a few out before you start calling the man a hack.


  1. I can honestly say I've never not liked a Joe Johnston movie and the man has some serious credentials, it's not like he just appeared out of nowhere. It's a good call.

    I also have a soft spot for Albert Pyun, yeah he's a low budget auteur and he makes 'em quick, but some of his stuff has style. I love Nemesis, it's one of those so bad it's good movies that you don't admit to liking but you watch anytime it's on. And, of course, The Sword and the Sorcerer is a legend of B movies. I'm looking forward to the sequel nearly thirty years in the making.

    Uwe Boll... introduced me to Erica Durance and that's all I can really say about that.

  2. We're going to the woodshed on this one. I like Johnston just fine as a director- I think we've talked about this. But everything you're using from the Rocketeer?
    That's Dave Stevens, the writer and artist who created the character. The tone you mention was written into the character from the first appearance. The scenarists who worked on the movie- Bilson and Dimeo- were not only fans, but worked hand in hand with Stevens to write the screenplay with maximum possible fidelity to that very old fashioned American heartland hero feel you respect. And when Johnston shot the movie- from preproduction through editing- Dave Stevens was right there with him. Actively assisting and insisting.
    Stevens had a hand in design, props, casting. He gave all of his research material to the production so they had the appropriate reference. He helped fight off Disney's more egregious efforts to tame the material. He insisted on- and got- fidelity to concept throughout.
    He even designed the prop helmet- which Disney was trying to replace with a more realistic flight helmet- because the look from the comic was deemed too bizarre.
    Johnston did terrific work here. But you give him far too much credit for someone else's work- and I'm pretty certain he'd agree with me. He worked in partnership with Stevens- to the point of threatening to walk when Disney tried to kick Stevens off the set. His skill was in knowing how to translate Stevens' ideas and art into believable and dramatically staged movie scenes. His skill was in, essentially, understanding the concept, and in directing so that the heart and soul of Dave Stevens' work came through.
    This- to me- supports him as an ideal choice for The Avengers... because it shows that he's not some maniac, trying to force a visual or editorial style onto existing material. Because it shows he has an affection for verisimilitude and for collaboration.
    But I think there are clearer reasons. For one- he knows how to work with illustration and effects. He did that kind of work on Star Wars and Galactica. He was an effects art director for the last two movies of the original Star Wars trilogy, and the first two Indiana Jones movies. For another- he loves genre stuff and true life adventure stories that might as well be. He directed October Sky- about a kid who wants to escape his coal minier destiny to build rockets, inspired by the space race- and Jumanji. He directed the Pagemaster and Hildago. Third... he left no footprints in any of that material. He directed the stuff in a clean, clear way- and didn't get in the way of the story.

  3. Nobody wants to slight Dave Stevens. Certainly not me. However, it is Johnston who kept Stevens in the loop. Disney had the rights, and could've gone with plenty of filmmakers who would've thrown the creator out of the picture. Johnston was the guy who understood that keeping Stevens involved would create a better picture.