Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Shall We Compare Notes?

A few months back I found myself in a rather interesting conversation about the film X-Men: First Class. I was at one of our local Toronto Blogger pub nights and conversation was flowing about numerous film related topics. Somehow I ended up defending the latest X-Men film. Now while I enjoyed X-Men: First Class, it is not necessarily a film I would usually go out of my way to defend. However, I found myself championing the film nonetheless. Like all good discussions about film, the conversation evolved into an even greater debate in regards to objectivity in film. This raised several interesting questions such as should a film like X-Men: First Class be praised for succeeding where the last two X-Men related films failed? Or should it be judged on its own unique merits? Can it truly be judge on its own merits if the film is consciously trying to link itself with what came before it?

I started thinking about that discussion again recently while watching Rise of the Planet of the Apes for the first time. Similar to many of the recent remakes, prequels, reboots, and reimagining that studios are producing these days, Rise of the Planet of the Apes wants to be viewed on its own terms. However, it also wants to align itself to the films that came before. While I really enjoyed the film, I could not help but wonder if my reaction was based on my previous experiences with the franchise or the fact that it was simply an entertaining film. I would like to believe it was solely the latter, but I cannot deny the fact that I had several “I caught that reference” moments. Although made forty-three years after the original, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is only ten years removed from the Tim Burton remake. So I guess it was inevitable that both versions would be in the back of my mind.

The problem I have with new franchises trying to tie into the old franchises is that studios create an unbalanced safety net for themselves. If the film is a success, like Rise of the Planet of the Apes was, then studios can pat themselves on the back for finding a middle ground between pleasing the existing fans while creating something to bring in new ones. However, if the film is a flop, such as the latest edition of The Thing, then studios complain that audiences did not see their vision in striving for something new. While I know I will get around to seeing The Thing reboot at some point, everything I have heard about the film leads me to believe it will be exactly like what John Carpenter’s 1982 remake of the 1951 original had to offer. Similar to Rise of the Planet of the Apes, The Thing reboot tried to skate by on the fact that is a prequel to Carpenter’s film, but audiences did not seem to buy in as the similarities between the two films were too great.

Of course comparison is a common thing for all cinema lovers to engage in. It does not only apply to franchise films, but to all aspects of filmmaking really. Where the comparison is often most apparent is when film lovers discuss their favourite directors. If you follow any blogs, or film message boards, then you will know that dissecting a director’s filmography is a heated topic. It is obvious that a new film from a director like Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino will be compared to many the films that the director has made in the past. However, at the end of the day, films like Hugo or Jackie Brown will be dissect on their own merits.

It will be interesting to read the reviews on The Amazing Spider-Man when it is released next summer. Unlike X-Men: First Class, this film is clearly trying to break any ties to the films that came before it. Regardless of whether or not you agree with the studio rebooting the series so soon, the fact that they are starting from scratch is good. Sure it will undoubtedly be compared to the Sam Raimi films, but at least it gives itself a fighting chance by being its own entity. When franchise reboots/remakes try so hard to align themselves with the films that came before they only set themselves up for comparisons that may not always work in their favour.


  1. I can't say from reading this that I'm 100% sure on what stance you are trying to take, but no matter. My personal opinion, and I've written it several times before, is that all films should be self sufficient and be able to be enjoyed by anyone coming into to it. Similarily, you shouldn't have to be familiar with a filmmakers entire body of work in order to be able to enjoy one of their films.

    The thing about favourite directors though I think is different and maybe it's that you're trying to argue two things that aren't really related in this post (that being series' vs someone's body of work).

    If a new Scorsese movie comes out, the expectations are raised. As one of my favourite filmmakers I expect him to make great films and anything less than a great film feels, in a way, like a let down. Of course films like Cape Fear of Kundun are still good on their own accord. They just aren't Scorsese good. They need to just judged on their own merits and nothing signals bad criticism than someone who condems a film for not living up to it's hype or the prestige of it's filmmaker. That's criticism of it's laziness.

    With a series it's different. One can see just exactly how Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins was succeeding in light of where the previous 4 films failed: they didn't try to understand or define Batman. Therefore, although great on it's own terms, Batman Begin added extra value in taking what failed about the other films and making it better. That's exactly where Bryan Singer's Superman Returns failed, it didn't have any of the qualities that made the first couple so special. You can seperate Scorsese from the movie but you can't seperate Superman from himself.

  2. @Mike - I agree with you that all films should be self sufficient. I was merely using directors as an example of how comparison, when it comes to film, is inevitable to a certain extent. I think the problem with series reboots is that they will already be compared to originals. Which puts it at a disadvantage to begin with; it is especially worse when the reboot knowingly aligns itself with the films that came before it. Both Superman and Batman are perfect examples what reboots should and should not do. Superman Returns attempted to pick up where Superman II left off instead of being its own unique story. It wanted to be viewed as both a reboot and a sequel. The problem is that it is essentially trying to get the best of both worlds. Did Superman Returns fail because it was a bad film in general? Or was it because the film did not have the same magic of the first two? I would argue it was the former, but I know many who would argue it was the latter. If you argue in favour of the latter, then are you really judging a film as it own self sufficient entity?

    Batman Begins on the other hand worked because it is its own self sufficient story. Nolan has told the film as if the other never existed. Sure there are traits inherent to the Batman character that will be in every film, but you never think “that was reference to what happened in Batman & Robin”. I can still enjoy Tim Burton’s Batman without comparing it to Nolan’s version and vice versa. I can rate those films on their own merits. However, if the film is something like Superman Returns you cannot help compare it to the originals. One of my biggest complaints with X-Men: First Class was that it tried too hard to tie in with the other films. The film works better when you watch it as if the other never existed.

  3. I pretty much judge movies on their own, be they sequels, reboots, or "original" stories. While I like pop-culture references probably more than the average, they still don't cause me to compare what I am watching to what has come before.

    The only times I have been bothered by a reboot/remake were Superman Returns and Alice in Wonderland. In both cases it was because the director couldn't decide if he was doing a sequel or a remake, and ended up trying to do both. In the case of Alice in Wonderland, there was at least a rationale for the repeated events (Alice's memory loss), so I was able to overcome my initial negative reaction. Superman Returns had no such explanation for what we ended up seeing.

  4. @Chip Lary – The whole "am I a sequel or am I a remake?" bothers me as well. I guess in a roundabout way it is what lead me write the piece. Alice in Wonderland is another good example, sure they use the memory loss angle to justify things a bit but ultimately the film seems lost in regards to what it wants to be.


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