Slave to the Source

Doug Liman’s “The Edge of Tomorrow” is probably the most most fun I’ve had at a movie in a long time.

Using a not-too-original high-concept that mirrors (as many many many  many writers have already noted) Harold Ramis’ “Groundhog Day,” Liman — and Tom Cruise, who really is irreplaceable in this movie — has created a big, noisy blockbuster thing that is actually worth everyone’s time. That isn’t easy to do, and it isn’t the first time Liman’s done it.

In the film, Tom Cruise’s character, Lt. Col. Bill Cage, is unexpectedly gifted with the power to relive the same day every time he dies. He gets this power by something to do with alien blood, but it really isn’t important. After finding out that Cage is, as Bill Murray’s character put it in “Groundhog Day” “an immortal,” Emily Blunt’s character, the big shot Rita Vrataski, decides to use his power to the military’s advantage. They train and learn the tactics of the alien invaders, known as “mimics” and of course dabble in a love side plot.

All of this is fair and good, but the film would not have worked had the filmmakers not embraced the potential for lightheartedness that the plot brings. Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt have great chemistry and there are some A-grade sight gags (watching Tom Cruise try to waddle away from the conflict in on of those clunky battle suits may be my favorite moment of the film).

Another aspect of the film that struck me, like it did Jon Stewart and probably many other reviewers, is how much this film reminded me of a video game. Not just because of the aesthetics, which really do look like they came straight out of the mind of an Activision developer, but because the premise forces Cage to live like a video game character. Every time he screws up, he just starts the level over until he learns how to get past the next obstacle. There’s even a final boss they are working toward (the “Omega,” which is basically like a hive queen.)

So they’ve finally done it. They’ve finally done a good job turning a video game into a movie. Only the source material isn’t a game, but a novel. It’s the approach, the feel that is influenced by the gaming world. Not the story.

I’ve noticed a similar trend among another genre of films. Having recently watched both “The Amazing Spider-Man 2”  and “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” I’m beginning to believe that studios — likely influenced by the new wave of Marvel Studios productions — are becoming less interesting in adapting comics into movies, and more keen to the idea of turning movies into comics.

You see, the thing about comic books is that there are a lot of them, and most of them really aren’t that great. Comics are serial stories, meaning their ultimate goal is to convince the reader to buy another issue, and then never stop having issues for the reader to buy. Because of this, most comic threads morph into confusing stories with too many characters and more than enough false melodrama. To combat this, standard practice in the comic book industry is to periodically hit the restart button, which hey often do by using other dimensions/planets etc. They just wipe everything clean. Also because of this, the best stories in comics typically (but not always) come out of shorter self-contained story arcs that serve as special issues. While the true definition of a graphic novel is actually just that, a novel that uses the storytelling techniques of a comic book, many of these special runs in comics get compiled and sold as, essentially, graphic novels.

For most of the history of comic book movies, the idea has been to replicate the graphic novel idea. Tell gripping self-contained stories, largely focused on character development and resolving whatever conflict is at hand. Depending on the film, maybe even tease toward the next movie. It was an approach that worked well: Essentially taking the best of what comics had to offer and then try and translate it to the medium of film.

In fact, graphic novels, or the shorter story arcs that typically packed more narrative power, were often inspired by film to begin with. Take Jeph Loeb’s “The Long Halloween.” TLH was a 13-issue series that served as a major influence to Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight,” but it itself was inspired by, among other things, “The Godfather.” By focusing on the cinematic aspects of what comics had to offer, comic book film adaptations were always playing principally by the rules of cinema, just as TLH took story elements from film and adapted them to comic panels.

Now, flash forward to 2014, and it seams every film based on a comic is almost nothing more than a big expensive set up for the nex movie. Kind of like a comic. The truth is, as far as Marvel Studios and Sony and 20th Century Fox are concerned, there will never be an end to X-Men movies, or Spider-Man movies. There certainly will not be an end to Avengers tie-ins.

Why are they doing it this way? Because even if the films are kind of lousy, by providing major tie-ins and cliff-hanger endings (and after credits sequences) there will always be enough people who want to see the next one. It’s the same basic strategy of monthly comics: It doesn’t have to be great, just give them a reason to keep reading.

To be fair, “X-Men: Days of Future Past” was actually quite good. In fact, it was possibly one of the best X-Men movies up to this point. But that is only the case for two reasons: Bryan Singer is a great director who understands how to make a great X-Men movie (but not a great Superman movie) and the X-Men franchise already had a built-in storyline that would allow 20th Century fox to play with the franchise and basically ruin it, only to be virtually rebooted with little difficulty.

But even though Singer managed to pull the whole thing off, the idea that they will continue on with “X-Men: Apocalypse” only feeds into my suspicion that these studios are taking their strategy points from the comics industry. With DOFP, the X-Men timeline has been mangled and plot-holes abound (actually, some of the biggest continuity holes came about because of “First Class,” but DOFP only deepens them) so the trick here is how Singer and company will be able to dig themselves out of some these problems.

I’m far less optimistic, however, of the future of Spider-Man on film than the X-Men. “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” was not just a terrible film, it was a terrible setup to whatever atrocities Sony has planned for the future, which from the looks of it will be a Sinister Six film (or, more likely, films). ASM2 seemed to embody the notion that quality doesn’t matter when you know quantity is on your side.

So even though “The Edge of Tomorrow” and “X-Men: Days of Future Past” made good by adapting to the techniques of their source material (or, in the case of EOT, more like source inspiration) I’d be willing to bet they will prove to be the exception to the rule. The best films are those that know what the strengths and weaknesses of cinema are, and play to those. “The Godfather” isn’t great because it reminds you of reading a novel. It’s great because the filmmaker knows how to make movies, and he did it well.

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JJ Feinauer

JJ writes stuff occasionally.

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