Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Animated Is Smarter Than "Live" (CGI) Action

Having sat through Man of Steel and a host of other recent superhero movies, I can definitely come to one conclusion: the cartoon films starring these superheroes are much better than the live action versions. And the reason for this is, strangely, that the cartoons are aimed at smarter audiences.

I finally realized this as I looked around for something to use to slit my wrists during the two hour CGI fight-scene that finished Man of Steel: this movie was made for retards. And no, I’m not retracting that. This film was nothing more than a pointless CGI fight that lasted close to two hours combined with CGI disaster porn. That’s it. There’s no story. There are no characters. Even worse, if you felt the least bit tense during the fights, then you’re an idiot because both sides are invincible and cannot be hurt!! Seriously! Neither Superman nor Zod could get hurt, so what’s the point in fighting?
As an aside, this is what ruined The Matrix sequels. In the first, there was a very real danger that Neo might get killed before he solved the movie, thereby trapping humanity in the matrix forever. In the sequels, we learn that neither Neo, nor the agents, nor Smith can be killed. So all those twenty and thirty minute actions scenes are a total fraud.

Anyway, the problems with films like Man of Steel are these: (1) they substitute endless CGI fight scenes for plot or characters, and (2) they dumb the stories down to a level that everyone should be insulted, and as a consequence they create tension free, interest free films. By comparison, the cartoons are surprisingly smart. In fact, the two things the cartoons do right are the very things the live-action versions do wrong.

Consider the mindless plots. The live action films are generally a series of waaaaaay overly long fight scenes strung together with a few cliché moments wedged between. The cartoons are not. The cartoons are plot heavy. They involve a villain who has some scheme and sets that scheme into motion. The superhero must first discover what is going on and then must stop that scheme. In the process, the superhero typically discovers the involvement of someone they considered a friend, they encounter traps set for them by the villain, they are put into moral dilemmas, and they struggle just to get to the final battle.

Will there be fights along they way? Absolutely, and they last about a minute at the most before the villain escapes. As for the final fight scene, you’re talking about maybe a maximum of five minutes, depending on how many superheroes are involved, and even then you get a variety of action... it’s not just two morons beating on each other as the building around them collapse.
So what do the cartoons use as filler if they don’t pack themselves with horrifically long fight scenes? Well, they use things like plot, character, and morality. Yes, indeed. These characters, despite being animated, debate right and wrong. They talk about their beliefs. They engage in complex relationships with others around them.

What’s more, they don’t dumb any of this down. When they talk about human nature, they hit the issues head on. They talk about all the good and the bad, the rational, the irrational. They allow that people hold different views. They point out that not everyone can be won over. They also address realistic issues. None of this is true with the live-action films, which substitute mindless platitudes for issues and seek not to offend anyone: “People fear what they don’t understand.” Talk about a shallow and safe “thought.”

I find it amazing that a film aimed at children (in theory at least) would trust its audience so much more than a film at an adult audience (in theory at least). But there is a reason: the competition.
I think what’s really going on is that the cartoon makers know they need to compete with the comic books, which are often written at a fairly complex level. They know that fans won’t accept a copout like a long fight scene (especially one between two invincible forces), so they go in knowing they need to win their audience with their story-telling prowess. By comparison, the live-action guys are competing against other mindless blockbusters, which are the province of morons. These are people who don’t use their brains and can be wowed with “ideas” like “people fear what they don’t understand” and “how would people react if they knew a person like Superman really existed?!” All they want is the veneer of having used their brains (which is why “spot the pop reference” is such a popular ploy in these films), and then the big shiny. Cartoon readers apparently demand more.

Thoughts?

Oh, and the answer to the question that was brought up with agonizing regularity in Man of Steel (not that the film bothered to ever explore this issue) is that the same public that flocks to movies and documentaries about aliens, who tell pollsters they believe in life on other planets, and who have reacted to every other human discovery or invention calmly and with excitement is that they would be thrilled to learn of Superman’s existence.

40 comments:

Kit said...

One thing that annoys me about X-Men in all its mediums is that it always strawmans the humans. You have a few non-mutants who are wise and progressive (read: liberal) enough to understand that mutants are for the most part good and decent. Then you have 90% of the country that are knuckle-dragging bigots who hate mutants because "humans always hate what they don't understand" who want to force mutants to register. (Except the progressive, enlightened ones)

Of course, you have mutants engaging in brawls that could easily destroy a city block, thus killing not a couple of humans but dozens. Magneto could kill hundreds and someone with Xavier's powers could become America's worst serial killer (forcing people to commit suicide).

But these arguments are never given credence or combatted. They are ignored because "BIGOTRY!" and X-Men is a clunky attempt at a gay/race allegory.

Kit said...

"You can't have heroes and villains when the wrong side is making the best sense."
—Roger Ebert, on I Am Sam

Anyway, Superman: The Animated Series was a good show. I enjoyed Man of Steel but felt it was a bit too clunky. I still prefer Superman: The Motion Picture. Though, I did like Amy Adams. Of course, I always like Amy Adams. ;)

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, I see X-Men as an advocacy comic rather than a superhero comic. To me, it's like Doonesburry and I have come to expect straw men arguments and forced platitudes passing as morality all with the intent of pushing "acceptance."

Outside of that, however, I find all these animated comics to be quite intelligent and even when they are liberal, they typically involve some decent moral dilemmas without easy answers. You never see that in the live action versions.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, Ebert is wrong. We are not mono-issue-beings who are either pure evil or pure good. There were good Nazis and bad priests, noble slave owners and rotten philanthropists. You can have the wrong view on many things and still act heroic and noble, just like the bad guys can be right about certain things. We are complex beings who are capable of being both right and wrong, good and bad all at the same time.

What he should have said is, "You can't have morally correct film when it presents the wrong side as correct." But I don't think Ebert would have grasped that point.

Kit said...

I think The Dark Knight did a good job exploring moral dilemmas. Or at least a better job than most.

AndrewPrice said...

I would agree with that. But that film truly stands out in so many ways compared to all the other superhero films these days.

shawn said...

Budget. The animated stuff just doesn't have a comparable budget and so it can't provide as much spectacle. So how do you keep the viewers interest without a large budget? Story-telling.

Kit said...

The cartoons also had this awesome scene between Superman and Darkseid.
LlNK

AndrewPrice said...

Shawn, I don't disagree with that at all. But isn't that sad? You would think that with a bigger budget would come a greater responsibility to do it right, but apparently not.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, Notice in the clip how much talking there is rather than punching. They probably throw one punch every 30 seconds and fill the rest with an ongoing discussion. That keeps it both interesting and tense.

Compare that with something like the ending of The Green Lantern or Man of Steel where you're looking at 4-5 minutes with only a few words strewn about as they just blow things up. Your brain just shuts off during that stuff.

Kit said...

I'm going to admit, sheeply and humbly, that I enjoyed the slugfest in Man of Steel. But Damn, it was fun to watch Supes and the three badguys smash the crap out of each other. Mainly because

Not as fun as that clip but still fun.

Kit said...

Mainly because Zack Snyder can make fistfights, even dumb ones, look awesome.
See, Watchmen opening fight scene:
LINK

AndrewPrice said...

I thought it was entertaining at first, when they first starting squaring off and when the A-10s attacked. But then it dragged on... and on... and on... and on. And then it became disaster porn, and it still dragged on.

tryanmax said...

Shawn already said what I was thinking. I couldn't help but think of Stan Lee when I read Andrew's reply. "With great budget comes great responsibility."

The reason comics brim over with intelligent dialogue is that several (not all) early comics publishers paid their artists by the WORD. Not the cell or the page or the spread, but by the word. Crazy, right? Anyway, that's why comics continue to feature heroes and villains exchanging verbal jabs as they trade physical blows, it's the established norm. There's no reason films couldn't do this, too, except laziness.

ScottDS said...

A friend compared Man of Steel to "flat soda" which was a new one for me. It's a joyless movie, devoid of heart and wit and any sense of fun. That might work for Batman but it doesn't necessarily work for Superman. And while I understand the need to shake things up, the non-linear storytelling didn't amount to anything - it's not like we learned something specifically because of the way the story was told. It'd be interesting to see someone re-edit the film in order.

Henry Cavill was great when he was actually allowed to do stuff. I like Amy Adams but their "love story" seemed tacked on. The rest of the actors were fine, but I think they made the mistake of having a villain that was almost sympathetic - Zod is just following his programming.

Anyway, I've never seen any of the animated movies but it might be a combination of smaller budgets and demographics - I imagine most of the direct-to-video stuff is aimed at the dedicated fan and not the general public. (In other words, no need to dumb anything down with 'splosions.)

NONE of this bodes well for Batman vs. Superman or the Justice League movie.

Jason said...

There were things about Man of Steel I did enjoy. For one, the casting of Amy Adams as Lois Lane was light years better than Kate Bosworth in the previous Superman Returns, who looked like she should still be in high school. And I absolutely loved that Lois tracked down all of the clues Superman left from his journey back to his family home. She’s actually smart enough to puncture Superman’s identity all on her own! I do agree the love story was tacked on. The two seemed like they could become good friends, but lovers was jumping the gun.

The whole premise of the X-Men – human populace at large fears mutants as metaphor for bigotry against minorities - if you think about it, doesn’t work. They inhabit the same comic book universe as other superpowered heroes like the Fantastic Four, the Avengers, Spider-Man, none of whom are regarded with suspicion or hate or fear among the public. So why would the mutants in the X-Men universe be looked at any differently?

PikeBishop said...

I liked your point about two beings who can't be killed engaging in fights. Made more than a few of my teen age students stop and think about a dozen years ago, when they were all agog about how cool and awesome the Matrix sequels were.

"Why do beings who can't be hurt or killed engage in physical fights?" I asked. "

PikeBishop said...

Kit: Totally agreed with you on X-Men. I read the books religiously from about 82-89 and that "Anti Mutant Sentiment" act really, really got old. After so many times Xavier's special kids proved themselves, saving the planet, and even getting the credit at times, we still pull out the old "Anti Mutant bigotry" card.

Humans as strawman? I like that. Great analogy.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, I didn't know that, but that would explain a lot! Maybe we should start paying directors by the word too? Or at least put a minimum word limit on them.

In any other field, I would think that the bigger the budget, the greater the responsibility to achieve something great-- hence the adage "you get what you pay for." In fact, could you imagine a luxury car being more sloppily built than a budget car? Or an expensive house being built shoddy compared to an el cheapo house? Or even paying a big shot lawyer and getting slipshod work?

Yet, in film making, it apparently goes the other way: the bigger the budget, the lazier you are allowed to be.

That's backwards.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, That's how I felt about the film. The actors were fine and the costumes were great and when something plot-wise actually happened, it was entertaining enough. But it was a joyless film that devolved into a two hour boring as hell fight scene.

You should check out some of the animated films if you enjoy superhero stuff. They really are quite good. They are well-paced. They have solid plots. They are creative. The characters have depth. And they keep you guessing how things will turn out. They are everything films are supposed to be, but aren't anymore.

AndrewPrice said...

Jason, There were some things I like. The casting in particular was very good. I especially liked Zod, and I thought Adams was quite good. It's just that the film barely used them.

Interesting point about the mutants.

AndrewPrice said...

PikeBishop, Exactly. It's stupid. It's the equivalent of soldiers deciding to toss pillows at each other.

In The Matrix sequels at least, I was able to kid myself to a degree and I assumed that the fist fights were some sort of proxy for them engaging in a programming struggle. Hence, each punch represents them throwing 1s and 0s at each other. But that was small comfort as the hours ticked away with them still throwing pointless punches that obviously couldn't hurt the other guy.

In the animated films, by the way, when two people who can't beat each other physically meet, they always find ways around that, and that is what constitutes the plot. This film never did that. They just kept punching and punching until about a minute before the ending when they suddenly realized the solution.

Kit said...

"Yet, in film making, it apparently goes the other way: the bigger the budget, the lazier you are allowed to be."

Because being innovative means taking risks and risks means possibly losing money and WE CAN'T LOSE MONEY!!!!

So let's just go with what is safe.

tryanmax said...

Andrew, according to one documentary I watched, it was the debut of Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. that put the absurd practice to rest. (I don't remember if it was issue #1 of his solo mag, or his first appearance in Strange Tales.) Jack Kirby opened the story with three or four full page illustrations of Fury skulking around without dialogue or monologue. His boss at the time told him it was great work, but that he couldn't pay him for it. Kirby had a justifiable tantrum, Stan Lee took his side, and the rest is history.

Tohokari-Steel said...

So, that's why I consider "Superman vs. The Elite" to be a great Superman film. It presents an interesting and unique dilemma: with a world full of morally gray heroes, is there a place for someone with Superman's ideology, especially when the public supports them more than him? Granted, some parts feel more like unsubtle jabs (there's this obnoxious character who sounds almost exactly like Rush Limbaugh...which I think was intentional, but he only shows up about twice), but it's still a good flick. It's about being a good person and reinforces Superman's beliefs. To me, that pretty much sums up the best version of Superman in a nutshell: kind, compassionate, and able to take down his enemies without killing them.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, That's it. Movies have been taken over by a corporate mentality that screams caution. It's like GM in the 1980s when they took no chances and watched everyone else pass them by. So far at least, there isn't a genuine competitor to trip up movies, but television and video games are getting close.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, LOL! That's funny. Why am I not surprised? In any event, they definitely do seem more interested in story in comic books than they are in films.

AndrewPrice said...

Tohokari-Steel, I haven't seen that one. I'll have to look for it!

"kind, compassionate, and able to take down his enemies without killing them" is a great description of Superman. Sadly, in films like Man of Steal, he's best described as "conflicted, repressed, angry, scared, morally uncertain, and quick to violence."

wulfscott said...

One of the scenes I absolutely hate from Man of Steel is Clark Kent in the restaurant with the truck driver bully that he declines to fight against, 'cause, you know, standing up to a bully is WRONG. Then the truck driver goes out and sees his truck bent and suspended from some telephone poles. Really? That just seems lame and cowardly, a strike back, not like a real deterrent for the bully. Superman/Clark has learned NOT to use his strength, or there'd be a lot more damage everywhere he went, so why not confront the bully directly?
Compare the fight scene between Superman and Zod in Man of Steel and Superman II - in Superman II the graphics are comparatively awful, but Superman realizes that a) neither side is really accomplishing anything except b) destruction and endangerment of bystanders - and that is part of the plot! Superman realizes he has to find a different way to defeat Zod, leading to a nice little plot twist at the end. Much more intelligent writing, and respects the moviegoers - makes people like and remember the film.

wulfscott said...

Oops, mangled a sentence - graphics were awful, but the plot was better - Superman realizes...
The larger point, though, makes me wonder if any large budget blockbuster can have intelligent writing, or is the genre so poisoned that it's all Michael Bay all the time? Nothing personal against Michael Bay alone, but against Bay and the others who put out this crap.

AndrewPrice said...

Wulfscott, I agree about the restaurant scene. The whole thing struck me as wrong from start to finish. First, this is Superman. He stands for good, and for standing up to bullies. He should have backed this guy down. Instead, he runs away leaving the impression with everyone that the bully has prevailed.

Then he goes outside and lashes out at the truck. This is (1) cowardly, (2) way too disproportionate compared to having a drink poured over his head, and (3) makes him come across as petty and out-of-control.

On Superman II, exactly! Superman is a brilliant man. He knows he can't beat Zod in a fight. All he will do is cause damage. He needs another strategy. So he comes up with it and pulls it off brilliantly. The Superman in Man of Steal just keeps punching until his dad's computer ghost tells him how to win the fight. The first is excellent writing, the second is stupid and "coincidental", i.e. what happens if his dad doesn't tell him this? Does the movie never end? It's bad writing when your story depends on a coincidence to resolve itself.

wulfscott said...

It is truly sad a film that has a 30 year technical advantage and the example of the earlier film cannot even get close to the level of of the earlier film.
I so want an intelligent blockbuster film. Man of Steel, Green Lantern, John Carter of Mars - all have a large and devoted fan base, and are well enough known to pull in a llarger audience - but all were disappointments. (If I've left out anyone's most disappointing movie, I apologize, there's just too many to list).
So what would it take to make a smart CGI film? (First one to say Brad Bird gets a raspberry). Maybe restrict the CGI to no more than 15 minutes, and that has to be spread to at least 3 scenes? Death penalty to the first writer who uses "Maybe (blank) saw something in you that you didn't see in yourself?" Any ideas?

ScottDS said...

wulf -

With John Carter I'd say the biggest problems were horrible marketing (which seems to be affecting Tom Cruise's Edge of Tomorrow which everyone tells me is much better than the ads suggest)...

...and a concept that's been stolen by every other filmmaker (Lucas, Spielberg, Cameron, etc.)

CGI is just a tool and too many filmmakers (and/or the studios) use it as a crutch. The best filmmakers know how to use it wisely.

Jason said...

Edge of Tomorrow may also be suffering from audience burnout of CG spectacles. This summer’s been frontloaded with them.

AndrewPrice said...

wulfscott, It is a shame. When you have the advantage of hindsight, a public willing to swallow absolute theft as "an homage" and a massive technological advantage, you should at least be able to do as well as the original. But this one didn't even come close.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Let's be honest. The problem is that they just didn't make a good film. They didn't start with a good story. They didn't write worthwhile dialog. They didn't care about their characters. And they thought that 2 hours of CGI explosions would be sufficient. There's no mystery here.

AndrewPrice said...

Jason, Let me also add that I don't think Cruise and whatshername have any chemistry whatsoever. They were horrible together in Oblivion and people probably didn't feel like seeing that film over again this time.

ScottDS said...

Andrew -

Well, yeah. :-)

AndrewPrice said...

I mean, let's face it, CGI and poor stories aren't forcing themselves on directors who are powerless to stop them. These guys make these guys are making stories that they think are good... and they just aren't. And the fact they are all making the same mistakes tells me that they probably are deluding each other and are saying that this is how modern films are supposed to be made.

Kit said...

I think the reduction in dialogue minimums might have been a good thing, at least in part. In the old comic books you would have a guy standing on a wall saying "I am standing on this wall!"

Or a guy shooting a machine gun at Spiderman saying "I'm shooting my machine gun at you Spider-man!"

The result is more than half the dialogue is a character stating the obvious.

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