By Michael W. Harris
I really wanted to love Pacific Rim. Like, unabashedly, giggling like a little kid at a silly joke, deliriously love it. And the trailers set me up for such a love! I mean, the plot was something that two eight-year-olds playing with their toys would dream up on a weekend: giant robots fighting giant monsters. It was a live action anime. It was every nerdy “what if” conversation you would have as an undergrad when you finally found “your people.” And that line from the trailer was perfectly hammy yet earnest: “WE ARE CANCELLING THE APOCALYPSE!”
So what happened? Why didn’t I have that complete rush of joy when I left the theatre? I liked it, sure. I even enjoyed it. But the giddiness I felt at the first trailer didn’t materialize. And the “apocalypse” speech fell flat. It was too short and didn’t earn its tag line, like “TODAY IS OUR INDEPENDENCE DAY!” did during the summer of 1996. And I think that is a good point of comparison, as I view both films similarly as to what I wanted: a fun, goofy, science fiction romp that doesn’t take itself too seriously. That is what Independence Day is and what I thought Pacific Rim was going to be. So where did PacRim go wrong where ID4 went right? Well, the latter went for broke with the goofy one-liners and tongue in cheek remarks, whereas the former played it too safe and didn’t lean into its silly, kids playing with toys premise.
Don’t get me wrong, Pacific Rim was a good film. It was even a fun film. I mean, it did still have a giant robot using a cargo ship as a club in a fight with a giant monster in the streets of Hong Kong.
However, it also didn’t risk failing and thus didn’t risk soaring either. It was good enough and wasn’t awful. It was passable.
To echo what Evan “The Nerdwriter” Puschak states in that video: we should be asking more of our films. We should demand more. That is why I felt slightly let down as I walked out of Black Panther. It was a really good film, but it was also very safe in many ways. While Killmonger was an interesting villain and a rather pointed critique of American military and racial politics, not to mention Western colonialism writ large, and Shuri had some of the single greatest one-liners of all-time (“Great! Another broken white boy for us to fix!” and “Don’t scare me like that, colonizer!”), it didn’t go far enough. It still played it very safe. The core story was ripped from the Marvel playbook, and Killmonger, in so many ways, is just Loki with a twist—bastard prince whose very existence is founded on a lie decides to lay claim to the throne at a moment of transition but does not know how to effectively govern once he gets there. (Steven Thrasher does a much better job in Esquire of unpacking the reasons why I felt that Black Panther plays it safe than I ever could.) Todd VanDerWerff writing for Vox sums the problem for Marvel writ large as: “every single one of these movies loses its nerve when it comes to truly exploring these thematic questions, but that they’re even interested in asking those questions is a big step up from a lot of superhero cinema.”
But here’s the thing, Marvel has done something amazing in building out their movie franchise and it does make sense that they don’t want to risk it. The Marvel films are an amazing accomplishment from both a storytelling and financial standpoint, and Black Panther is making serious bank so maybe the safe approach pays off! And, just to make clear, I love the Marvel Cinematic Universe films and try and catch every new film within a week of release, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t appreciate a really daring film from them once in a while. Something that pushes the superhero genre the way The Dark Knight did. And this is where I have to say that I would appreciate an utter failure from Marvel on the level of Man of Steel or Batman v Superman once in a while if it meant we could also get a Dark Knight. Because, while those former films are truly awful in so many ways, at least they had an interesting idea and ran with it only to be let down by a truly incompetent director and script.
Disclaimer: I don’t think Man of Steel is truly “bad,” it is really closer to passable than bad, but it still failed in many ways. Also, I have also not seen all the films in the DC Extended Universe, namely Suicide Squad and Justice League, so I cannot judge them.
So why would I rather have something like BvS in the MCU rather than another passable film like Ant-Man or Thor: The Dark Word (truly, the most “passable” films in the MCU)? Well, because at least Man of Steel and BvS tried to do something with the typical superhero narrative.
Check out this synopsis for those two films, stripped of all specific characters:
An alien child is sent to Earth by a dying race, a race that has been doomed by its own short-sighted exploitation of its natural resources. The child’s parents knew that, because of the unique properties of their own biology combined with this new planet’s sun and atmosphere, that he would have certain abilities. They hoped the child could be an example and lead this planet and people on a better path than the one their own race took. But the child’s adoptive parents instead teach him to fear being different and hide his true nature because their race is suspicious of others who are different. In the end he is forced to reveal himself or risk the destruction of his new home.
In the sequel, everything that the alien’s adoptive father fears comes to past as his new planet openly questions what he means to them, and the optimism of the alien is countered by the pessimism of another who has the means and ability to possibly counter him. Given the level of the alien’s powers, as demonstrated by the destruction caused by his last battle, is it not right that we should fear him? What is to keep him from either destroying us or subjugating us? However, in the course of their clash of ideologies, they discovered a shared set of values and instead decide to work together for the protection of the planet and their collective people.
Or, put more simply: Superman is a freaking ALIEN who is also a weapon of mass destruction, and given our society’s fears of immigrants, other religions and cultures, and global terrorism, wouldn’t it be interesting to explore that via the quintessential All-American hero?
Right? Those sound like pretty good films? The exploration of the ideas of inclusion and exclusion, the proper exercise of power for the benefit of others via the lens of Superman is inherently interesting. Probing the question of how to deal with the existential fear of mass destruction led to probably BvS’s best philosophical musing: “He has the power to wipe out the entire human race, and if we believe there’s even a one percent chance that he is our enemy we have to take it as an absolute certainty.” I’m not saying I agree with the statement, but it is a provocative one, and a position that, throughout human history, has led to countless atrocities and clashes of culture. It needs to be explored and deconstructed. It demands it.
I won’t go into exactly what went wrong in Man of Steel or Batman v Superman, but a lot of blame can and should be heaped upon Zack Snyder and his inability to actual craft a story on screen. But for as bad as those films are, and they are bad, I am glad they exist and applaud the ideas that are at their core. They had the seed of a good idea. I just wish they had been competently nurtured and allowed to grow via a half-way decent gardener. Say what you will about Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, which was a mess of ideas at times, at least it was a well-made mess with good ideas. It may be a flawed film, but it was also good film that reached for something.
Dark Knight Rises didn’t play it safe and was mediocre when compared to The Dark Knight, but it also managed to be meaningful. Batman v Superman didn’t play it safe either (though by the time it rolled around, it did stick to the established formula and was “safe” in terms of the DC film style), but was so incompetently made that it fell on its face trying to be meaningful. However, Pacific Rim, Ant-Man, Spider-Man Homecoming…all of these films did play it safe and were something less than they could have been because they didn’t try to be anything more. And in the case of Black Panther, I feel like it really wanted to be something more, but wasn’t allowed to take the extra risks that would have sent it into Dark Knight levels of filmmaking. It had the ideas behind it to be the MCU’s Dark Knight, but was held back by the studio because they would rather play it safe.
As a point of comparison, I can think of two recent films that did go all in on their (admittedly wacky) concepts and, in my opinion, succeeded. Sure, they did not make a lot of money, and they were a bit messy at times, but they were actually fun to watch, unlike most of Pacific Rim: Jupiter Ascending and Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. When I saw those films, I had that stupid giddy feeling that I wished I had had when I walked out of Pacific Rim. These films were exactly what they set out to be and were better for it, flaws and all. Also, in the same vein, I would include The Wachowskis’ Speed Racer as a similarly hidden gem.
Honestly, everything the Wachowskis’ have directed post-Matrix is gold in my opinion and you should totally watch them.
Anyway, I am not saying that every movie has to be The Dark Knight or Blade Runner 2049 (shame on all of you who did not go see it) or even the 2017 Ghost in the Shell (another deeply flawed film that at least tried to be interesting). However, if we are truly living in a golden age of genre filmmaking with sci-fi and superhero franchises abounding and standalone films like Arrival and Get Out being made and nominated for best picture, shouldn’t we ask that at least some these franchise films try a bit harder?
When you have a director like Ryan Coogler helming a film that has topics in play like Black Panther did, why not let him take a few more risks and break away from the well-trod Marvel story formula and tone? You already have a multi-billion dollar franchise of nearly twenty films under your belt, so one film, if it fails while trying to expand the aesthetic of the franchise, is not going to sink your bottom line. Or are you so invested in having a consistent tone that you won’t allow Coogler or anyone else to deviate from it?
But, at the end of the day, I am at least content with having passable to good films in the MCU. I enjoy the hell out of them and am pleased to see elements of my childhood on screen. Now if only I could get a passable Fantastic Four film then I can probably die happy. Geez, those films were either boring, uninspired, or unmitigated disasters. Not even noble failures, just failures…
Well, the first 2/3rds of Trank’s film was at least interesting, but talk about your third-act problems…
Okay, I’m going to go rewatch Nolan’s Batman trilogy and try to once again parse out the difference between “the hero we need” versus “the hero we deserve.” Cheers.