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A Super Cinematic Pocket Universe

Saving the Day

Remember that whole Dark Universe thing? Just sort of flamed out cause Universal didn’t really know what they were doing and made every possible wrong decision and no one with any power ever told them to stop? And sure enough it didn’t work at all? And The Mummy was bland and boring and no one really gave a shit about it? That was pretty weird, huh?

At the time of The Mummy’s release I was working as a projectionist. The big discussion in the booth in those days was the question of why Universal was trying so hard to make a cinematic universe happen in the first place. Certainly, this question popped up everywhere. But when your day job of twenty-plus years involves thinking and talking about nothing but movies all day while sitting in dark cramped little rooms staring through tiny windows trying to detect the slightest flaws in the light being bounced off a screen fifty feet from your face, your mind starts to crumble and you tend to obsess over things like this. And while we came up with some funny answers outside of the obvious “money” and “everybody else is doing it” variety, it eventually led us somewhere more interesting. Because, in the end, The Mummy sucked but so did a lot of movies. This wasn’t really worth all the thought we put into it. 

What became more interesting to us was the way horror simply wasn’t suited to this type of team-up atmosphere. They were always more interesting on their own. More than that, we were seeing a pretty solid string of smaller films hitting every year that were telling better stories than could ever be squeezed from the groupthink marketing boardroom mentality responsible for most big budget action franchises. That’s another thing – the Dark Universe was supposed to be an action franchise. Horror didn’t seem to be factoring into it at all. So we had to look (as usual) outside the more traditionally mainstream offerings to get what we were looking for.

There would be The Blackcoat’s Daughter and Raw and The Babadook with their weird familial stress stuff going on. A Ghost Story pulled its goofy imagery from its supposedly scary origins and turned it into something that was actually haunting in every sense of the word. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night was a vampire story that didn’t need any of the easy more popularized Dracula-inspired trappings to be compelling. Ari Aster and Robert Eggers made movies about the isolating effects of grief and the grief that comes from isolation. And they could all more or less be called Monster Movies if they had to be. And as much as I loved The Invisible Man, my fear is always that studios will learn exactly the wrong lessons from success. Blumhouse seems to be down to try things out and see what works, though, so I hope I’m proven wrong there and Universal sticks to more stripped-down character-based stuff. I guess we’ll see.

The point is that for all the financial might behind these tentpoles, good movies aren’t made of money. They can be, but more often the money people are after successful movies, not good ones. If they happen to be both, that’s just bragging rights. But at every level, the better stuff is made by a few people at a time with clear visions and the right resources to make their scripts work. Nothing groundbreaking to any of this, but these conversations eventually bled over into discussions of superhero cinema. 

The rise of the cinematic universe has been such a pain in the ass. I can’t imagine they’re all that creatively fulfilling. There are directors here or there who have somewhat cracked the code and injected some life and personality into their individual installments, but with the burden of having to connect back to some larger narrative that’s ultimately outside of your control… it all just sounds exhausting. And an unfortunate byproduct of that creative blueprint is that they’ve also become equally exhausting to sit through. The MCU went about their version somewhat honestly, but was inspired even at that level by rights issues and IP constraints. Warner Bros.’ DCEU tried jumping right in and crashed it within a few years, and only now seem to be learning their lesson and backing off of this angle. At least it appears that way.

But just as with horror, there have been other, smaller films coming out all along in the background of all this using superpowered beings as dramatic devices. It’s of course likely that we only got these independent superhero movies because the bigger ones brought the genre back into the public consciousness and made these stories less of a potentially losing proposition than they otherwise might have been. But up in the projection booth, we fantasized a movie landscape where all these films were connected, little origin stories popping up every couple of years separated only by the fact that they were all more or less happening at the same time. You don’t get a Justice League or Avengers-style team-up movie when all the heroes are discovering their powers all at once. So we talked a lot about this idea and identified what we thought were the best and, if not the worst, maybe the less successful attempts at this pseudo-worldbuilding. And I promised that I’d write this all out someday.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be covering what I consider the key entries that inspired this idea. I’ll be starting with a couple of studio heavy-hitters that brought this all into being, with the ‘66 and ‘89 Batman films and Donner’s Superman getting the project going. From there I’m jumping way ahead to the present day and will talk about those tinier one-offs. From the most current slate of Marvel and DC releases, Logan and Birds of Prey have been the most interesting and will stand in for the rest, since those are the films that show how these bigger and smaller releases have interacted with and influenced each other. 

In between, the roster will include Hancock, Chronicle, Birdman, Midnight Special, Fast Color, Glass, and Brightburn. Following that, we’ll be dropping a sort of… finale? Curtain call? Nail in the superhero movie coffin? This project is going somewhere, is what I’m trying to say. But that’ll be a surprise.

For now, I’ll just share this thought and hope it’s at least a little illuminating as to my point of view on all these movies: I like superheroes. I like comic books. And I like comic book superhero movies. But this like and appreciation for all these as abstract concepts has always superseded any kind of “love” for them in any more concrete sense. I have a similar reaction to Star Wars. This has always felt natural to me, but over the years I’ve struggled to put it into words. The thing is that I feel zero connection to any of this stuff, but am also sort of obsessed with all of it. Part of that is just a normal reaction to having grown up when I did. I was eight years old in the summer of 1989, so Batman was a big deal. I had a cousin who loved Superman and we’d routinely watch all four Superman movies at sleepovers. But when it came time to decide what movie our moms would take us to that summer, I freaked out because I just could not believe we’d have to go see Batman and not Ghostbusters II. Because I never cared about Batman, but I was interested in Batman. I begged for Batman comics. But at the same time I was always much more interested in reading the books on Batman’s history than in reading the comics themselves. I had books of Batman trivia and the 50th Anniversary collections and all the rest. When my aunt came over and brought me my very own copy of The Greatest Joker Stories Ever Told, I just about lost my mind. I needed to know the history, how all these stories connected to all the rest and how it all came to be. But I was never interested in reading new issues week to week. It was all about cumulative effect for me.

I was likewise more into The Making of Star Wars and other behind the scenes documentaries than the actual movies. It was the aesthetics of it all, the music that I’d tape off the tv and listen to over and over. But when it came time to talk about these things with other kids, I could never hope to keep up. As an adult, what I realized is that it was the ideas of all these things that I connected with. I never wanted to be Luke Skywalker, but I loved watching the footage of Frank Oz working underneath the Dagobah set. And when I stood in the back of the auditorium with my fellow projectionist and watched the Lucasfilm logo and crawl of The Force Awakens with that opening Thursday 7pm crowd, that was the feeling I had been chasing. It was all about that one moment.

My favorite part of the first Superman was always the opening minutes, the black and white footage and voiceover introducing the story while the score slowly tinkled in the background before blasting off into space and that big, overpowering John Williams theme knocks you over. And while I loved the fact that the film spent about an hour in dreamy, Rockwell meets Wyeth Smallville before that hard cut to the gritty 70s Manhattan version of Metropolis, what I loved more was thinking about the overall effect of doing that. I liked the method behind it, and always wanted to know how a director could actually achieve that. 

This is the real draw for me. And more than that, how directors tell these types of stories without those built-in components that make for an immediate audience draw. So this series will try to dig in and see what these stories are really all about, why they mean so much to us and where it could all go from here. Like I said, that big “finale” entry will spell this out more clearly. The film being discussed at the end of all this won’t be a superhero movie, but one that I feel serves as an effective explanation for how these movies do what they do and the potential consequences of letting them stand in for something larger than they are. But that’s off in the distance for now.

I hope you enjoy it.

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