The Art and Musings of Felix Quinonez Jr.

10 Years Ago Marvel Took a Bold Risk That Reshaped the Movie Industry

Avengers: Infinity War  movie poster

Avengers: Infinity War movie poster

Felix Quinonez Jr.

When Avengers: Infinity War hits theaters this Friday, 4/27, audiences will show up in droves, screenings will sell out and everyone will be talking about the movie. By the end of Sunday, we might even have a new opening weekend box office champ. But somehow none of that will surprise anyone.

By this point, we’ve all gotten used to the summer movie season being rung in by a Marvel movie. It’s more or less a tradition by now. The only thing that could be surprising at this point would be if it didn’t make an insane amount of money.

Although the fact that it was moved up one week does seem to signal the growing trend of “Summer blockbusters” taking over more and more of the calendar year.

But the bigger significance is that it marks the 10th year anniversary of what we now know as the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (MCU) In 2008, Iron Man kick started what was then a bold and risky experiment. And since then it has grown beyond what anyone could have reasonably expected or even hoped for.

These days MCU movies come like clockwork. Infinity War is their 19th movie and 2nd of 3 movies for this year alone. The movies can hardly be described as risky since they are all but assured box office dominance.

Iron Man  movie poster

Iron Man movie poster

But it wasn’t always this way. Iron Man kicked things off and its success had a huge influence on the superhero genre and the movie industry at large. But the movie, directed by John Favreau, was by no means a guaranteed success. Robert Downey Jr. was no one’s first choice, or in fact anyone’s second choice for a leading man in a big budget movie. And Favreau was completely untested with this kind of movie.

So, to say that there was a lot riding on the movie’s success would be a monumental understatement. Although it’s hard to picture anyone other than Robert Downey Jr. playing the role, at the time, casting him was a huge gamble. Because of his history of drug abuse, he was basically uninsurable. But the gamble paid off and he became the cornerstone of the MCU. And the movie was the fruition of years of work on Marvel’s part. They had wanted to get into the movie making business for a long time. But these plans were abruptly put on hold when they filed for bankruptcy in 1996.

They were losing a lot of money and had plenty of debt. Coincidentally enough, its biggest debt of $1.7 million was to Disney, who would one day go on to buy Marvel. At one point Marvel had to fire about one third of their employees. But eventually they came up with a plan to license the movie rights of some of their most popular characters. This provided Marvel with an influx of much needed capital which they could use to pay off debt.

The first movie that came out of this arrangement was Blade, starring Wesley Snipes. People tend to leave Blade (1998) out of the conversation in regards to the current era of superhero movies but it was a decent sized hit. It grossed over $130 million worldwide on a relatively modest $45 million budget. But it was Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000) that kicked the genre into high gear. That movie was well received by critics and fans. It was also a very big box office hit and it launched a franchise that is still going strong 18 years later.

Spider Man  movie poster

Spider Man movie poster

But if X-Men was a hit, Spider Man (2002) was an all-out box office smash. Spider Man, directed by Sam Raimi, grossed over $800 million worldwide and demonstrated just how huge these movies had the potential to be.

But the problem, for Marvel, was that these movies were making money for everyone but them. After the initial sales fee, they were only seeing a fraction of the profits. It is said that Blade only earned Marvel $25,000 in royalties. And because of a particularly unfavorable flat-fee negotiation, Marvel saw none of the profits from X-Men.

Because of this, it’s understandable that Marvel wanted to cut out the middle men and release their movies themselves. The plan was to form their own production studio to make their own movies and retain 100% of the profits. In order to do this, they struck a $525 million financing deal to launch Marvel Studios. The deal would give Marvel complete creative control. But in order to attain the financing they had to put up the rights to some of their most popular characters (Captain America, The Avengers, Nick Fury, Black Panther, Ant-Man, Cloak & Dagger, Doctor Strange, Hawkeye and others) as collateral. If their plans failed, the bank would own those rights and the MCU would be dead.

Although Iron Man could be, generously, described as a c-list character. There was a sense that this movie would be something special. The super bowl trailer that preceded its release was genuinely thrilling and it struck a chord with audiences. People were excited for it and waited with bated breath. And those who were paying attention to the behind the scenes action knew that this was an important release for the superhero genre.

Looking back on it now, it’s easy to imagine that writers were equally prepared to report the movie’s eventual failure or success. Had the movie flopped it would have had a very different impact. It could have signaled, if not the end at least the decline in the genre.

So, when it was a hit you could practically hear the sighs of relief from studio executives. And because it was such a success, it marked a turning point for superhero movies. It steered the genre away from the insular, self-contained nature of the most of the movies that came before it.

And it didn’t hurt that the movie was a wildly entertaining breath of fresh air. Critics and audiences loved it. There was even talks of Robert Downey Jr. getting an Oscar nomination for his performance. But he was probably overshadowed by Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight and the academy was more than likely hesitant to give out two acting nominations for movies in the superhero genre.

Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow in  Iron Man

Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow in Iron Man

The movie has a freewheeling energy to it that captivated audiences. It was reported that the movie didn’t actually have a script. And that’s probably why it often feels like they are figuring things out as they went along. Robert Downey Jr’s performance has arguably grown into a shtick or at the very least lost some of its freshness. Repetition can make that happen but, in this movie, he was downright revelatory.

The movie also introduced some of the hallmarks of an MCU movie, for better or worse. The villain in this movie is very forgettable and that is something that most MCU movies tend to suffer from. More specifically they went with the “mirror” villain in this movie and repeated that several times afterwards. The movie also established the trope of killing off a mentor so that the hero could advance. But most importantly the movie established a connection to a larger universe.

By now, most people have come to expect after credit scenes from MCU movies. (It’s always shocking to see people leave a theater right after the movie ends.) But when Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) showed up at the end of Iron Man to talk about an Avengers initiative, it was genuinely thrilling. But beyond the spectacle and clever quips, Iron Man had emotional resonance at its center. Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow were great together and helped make the movie truly special.

And the fact that the movie was genuinely fun shouldn’t be overlooked. It captured the joy of becoming a super hero in a way that often gets overlooked in a genre that has often mistaken pessimism for realism. But at the end of the day profit is what allows movies to become franchises. And Iron Man wasn’t just successful, it was an undeniable box office smash. It grossed over $300 million domestically and almost $600 million worldwide.

But even though the movie was a gamble, its commercial potential, and that of the rest of the marvel roster, must have been evident because it didn’t take Disney long to snatch up Marvel studios in December of 2009 for $4 billion. And the fact that they moved in so quickly suggests that Disney must have already been planning the acquisition. It seems they were just waiting to see how Iron Man performed at the box office before making the move.

The movie also catapulted Robert Downey Jr. into the A-list and revived his career. And after Iron Man everyone wanted their own “shared universe.” But so far no one has really been able to replicate the success that Marvel has had.

Avengers  movie poster

Avengers movie poster

After seeing how successful The Avengers (2012) was, Sony didn’t waste one second to kick-start their own interconnected cinematic universe. The result was The Amazing Spider Man 2. Although that movie was still entertaining and had an unique sense of charm, it suffered from being stuffed to the brim. The studio’s attempts to set up more franchises were so blatant that it often forced the actual story to take a back seat. At times if felt like watching a series of interconnected commercials for the spinoffs that never came to fruition.

That movie disappointed fans and critics and was easily the lowest earning Spider Man movie at the box office. Because of this, Sony teamed up with Marvel to bring Spider Man into the MCU fold with hopes that they could bring back some of the luster the character had lost.

And to no one’s surprise it didn’t take long for DC to try to get into the Cinematic universe game. They actually had an earlier attempt in 2011 with Green Lantern, directed by Martin Campbell. But that movie was so reviled that they scrapped their plans altogether.

Their current cinematic universe began in earnest with 2013’s Man of Steel, directed by Zack Snyder. Although that movie’s reputation has plummeted over the years, at the time, it was a—somewhat—promising start. It wasn’t until 2016’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, also directed by Zack Snyder, that the wheels really fell off. Almost everything about that movie seemed to reek of desperation. There was a general consensus that Man of Steel didn’t make as much money as it should have and DC felt the need to bring their star player Batman off the bench.

And if that wasn’t enough, they also added Wonder Woman, Doomsday, and Lex Luthor. Batman fights Superman and they also crammed in the death of Superman story line. Basically, any one of those would be enough to carry a movie but instead DC chose to stuff them all into Dawn of Justice without really making something that was coherent.

It was as if they wanted to desperately achieve the kind of success Marvel had without putting in the work that was necessary. They just wanted to jump to the point that took Marvel years to reach. And their next movie Suicide Squad was a mishmash of tones and it was almost completely nonsensical. Its only accomplishment seemed to be that it wasn’t as bad as Dawn of Justice (Although to be fair there were a couple of pretty good performances in there.)

So far, their only real bright spot has been Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins. It got great reviews and was a huge box office hit. And Gal Gadot’s star making performance was so good that most audiences could forgive its formulaic last act.

But even that wasn’t enough to correct the ship. By the time Justice League, directed by Zack Snyder, (with help from Joss Whedon) came out it seemed that they had already burned through too much audience goodwill and the movie was mostly overlooked. Justice League was supposed to be the payoff where all the heroes finally come together for a rousing event. And it was supposed to be a huge box office success. (Avengers grossed over $600 million domestically and $1.5 billion worldwide) But instead Justice League became the lowest grossing DC movie. And now the DC cinematic universe is, to be generous, on shaky ground. And the less said about Universal’s dark universe, the better.

These days comic book characters are perhaps as popular as they’ve ever been. (Even if comic books themselves haven’t gained much in popularity.) The comic book movies started influencing the comics. And the characters have made their way to the small screen and even Netflix.

MCU movies have become very trusted by fans have garnered unprecedented amount of audience goodwill. Because of this, audiences are willing to follow the studio wherever they lead them. And that success and loyalty allows the studio to bring more and more of their characters to the big screen, no matter how obscure they might be.

Guardians of the Galaxy  movie poster

Guardians of the Galaxy movie poster

Before 2014, very few people knew who the Guardians of the Galaxy were but their first movie was one of the biggest hits of the year. Like Robert Downey Jr. before him, Chris Pratt was turned into an A-List star after his MCU role. All of their success allows them to take chances and because of that we got the first African American big budget superhero movie with Black Panther. And the gamble paid off once again. That movie is one of the biggest hits of all time. It’s already the #3 movie domestically and has grossed over $1.3 billion worldwide.

But like with anything else, the MCU has had its ups and downs. When Ant Man and the Wasp hits theaters in July, it will be the 20th MCU movie. (In 10 years) Because of this, it’d be unrealistic to think that they would all be cinematic masterpieces.

They have their share of home runs that are genuinely fun, exciting movies with emotional resonance: Iron Man, The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Black Panther.

Then they have their second-tier movies that are still genuinely great even if they don’t hold up as well after repeated viewings: Civil War, Avengers, Spider Man: Homecoming.

Below that level are the movies that are entertaining and have genuinely moving moments but don’t quite reach the level of greatness: Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger.

After that come the movies that are superficially fun and sometimes genuinely exciting but ultimately forgettable: Guardians of the Galaxy 2 and Thor Ragnarok

They also have movies that are basically well-done retreads of the first Iron Man: Ant Man and Dr. Strange

 And of course, even the MCU has their share of duds: Iron Man 2 and 3, Incredible Hulk and Thor the Dark World

 Age of Ultron seems to fall under its own category. Although the movie didn’t quite come together it does have its moments of greatness. The movie was unfairly written off by most audiences but at least part of that has to do with the unrealistic high expectations it had to meet.

And although its climactic finale is yet another case of the heroes battling a faceless army it does have a lot of genuinely thrilling action along the way. But more importantly it is a movie that raises interesting philosophical themes that audiences forgot over time.

The movie ponders humanity, the beauty that comes from its frailty, our place, as humans in the world and the nature of war. And the vision/Ultron meeting at the end is one of the most heartfelt, moving scenes in any MCU movies. The movie also ponders the nature of heroism and it makes an intriguing point that every triumphant victory is a devastating loss when seen from the other side.

But even their duds aren’t all out terrible movies. And fans are able to overlook them or at least forgive them because they are part of a larger universe that they have become invested in.

Although Infinity War is being advertised as a conclusion of sorts, the MCU will not be ending any time soon. Instead it seems that it's about to evolve into something different than what came before it. What that means exactly is still a mystery. But one thing is for sure, whatever form the MCU takes next, fans will be lining up to see it. 






On Nostalgia

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Felix Quinonez Jr.

What is it about Nostalgia that is so intoxicating? Why are we so obsessed with revisiting our past?  

Judging by the movie posters plastered on billboards, the TV shows on the lineup, and even the bands touring, it’d be hard to know what year it was. It seems like everything old is new always.

Movies like Blade Runner and Star Wars are products of our past, and yet they’re also slated to return to cinemas this year. The remake of It recently hit theaters and quickly became an unqualified success, grossing over $300 million domestically in just under a month.

The Last Jedi Poster

The Last Jedi Poster

And nostalgia is also taking over the small screen with TV shows like Will and Grace, Twin Peaks, X-Files, Full House, Gilmore Girls, and MacGyver, all returning, in one form or another. Twin Peaks was one of the most popular TV shows and a cultural landmark almost 30 years ago. But even before going off the air it had lost its luster. After the central mystery of Laura Palmer was resolved, viewers lost interest and changed the channel. And without its once fervently devoted fan base the show was unceremoniously cancelled.

But now enough time has passed that people are reassessing the show. As usual, we choose how to remember things, often rewriting the past in the process. And because of this, the show's drop in quality is overlooked by fans hoping to revisit an old favorite.

The rose colored glasses used to evaluate the past has convinced people to only remember the first season, and that's what was zeroed in on when people decided the show needed to return. But we also didn’t just forget about how terrible Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me was. As think pieces populating the internet show, it's become fashionable to retroactively label the flop as a misunderstood or overlooked gem. 

At the same time, the Will and Grace revival was renewed for a second season before it even aired. But it isn’t just our TV shows and movies that are stuck in the past. So much of our popular culture is an amalgam of childhood signifiers. Even once popular drinks are being brought back to satisfy the nostalgia bug that bit everyone.

It’s like everyone’s childhood is being brought back simultaneously to satisfy our collective need to relive the "good old days." It seems the past continues to haunt us, not because it refuses to leave but because we can’t let it go.

Still from the Twin Peaks opening 

Still from the Twin Peaks opening 

The reason why we hold onto nostalgia is because it's addictive, and it triggers both negative and positive emotions. It’s a longing for something from our past to return. There's nothing inherently wrong about wanting to remember sweet and innocent experiences. But nostalgia is a bittersweet because it also produces feelings of loss and sadness because those moments are gone.

The older we get, the more we start to see doors closing. One day our lives stop being defined by all the things we will do and what we will become. Instead they're defined by our acceptance of the many things we will never get to experience. We start to realize that we won’t ever be rock stars or movie stars. The older we get, the more the past starts to look brighter. And the more we start looking to it for comfort.

And according to Psychology Today, “When people get nostalgic, they are living in the past. In those moments, the past seems rosy, and often more positive than the present.” Not surprisingly, many times nostalgia comes at moments when we are feeling low or even just bored. When we’re unhappy about the current states of our lives, we yearn for the innocence of youth and to return to it.

That’s why we find ourselves constantly looking back. We long to relive the past that we’ve romanticized. We want to return to the time when our lives were full of promise, and it seemed like we could do anything. But most importantly, we want to feel the way we did.

Maybe living in such commercial society has trained us to associate those feelings with the products and entertainment we used to consume. We imbue importance on the toys and video games of our past. We look to them with the hope that they can transport us back to more innocent moments in our lives.

We think that if we bring back the clothes, movies and TV shows of our childhood, we can go back to that time. But we ignore the fact that those things were only a part of why that time of our lives was so special.

Hordes of people line up and log on, hoping against hope to be the so-called “lucky” ones who get their hands on whatever piece of limited edition nostalgia is being marketed this season. But ultimately they find out that the magic of youth can’t be recreated by buying a Super Nintendo classic edition.

In the memories we have of the Super Nintendo, or whatever system you chose, the video games themselves were only a fraction of what made those experiences so special. The real reason why we cherished those times was because we were young, carefree, and shared those experiences with the people we loved. It was our friends and siblings who helped make those the “good old days”. We stayed up all night with them, and that minor act of youthful rebellion was a big part of the fun. It seemed like there was no world outside of the walls of our houses. But as the world got bigger, the smaller our places in it became.

Now when you buy the game now and you plug it in, that's all you get. You’re not suddenly going to be a kid again. Your job and problems won’t disappear. Your friends won’t sleep over and play the new video game with you until late at night or early into the morning. They all have their own lives to lead.

And stripped of all those other external factors, it’s just a video game. It entertains us for a while but it’s ultimately a hollow shell of the experience we had as children. Eventually it winds up on the shelf, collecting dust, leaving us feeling empty and searching for the next relic of our past that we hope will make us feel young again.

Although it’s nice to see old TV shows return, that’s not really what we’re trying to recover. We want to bring back the way we felt when we watched those shows. We want to relive those moments. But we can’t recreate the magic that comes from youth.

Part of the reason we loved a lot of the shows we watched as kids was precisely because we were kids. Just because an old TV show returns doesn’t mean we can become the viewers we once were. We can’t view it through the same eyes. And what we see is no longer filtered through the same outlook we had as children.

And sometimes it’s the actors themselves that played a big role in our enjoyment of the shows. Some of those actors became our first crushes. And watching the shows through the eyes of a kid with a crush can shape the level to which we enjoyed them.

Larisa Oleynik as Alex Mack

Larisa Oleynik as Alex Mack

But when shows come back we often times don’t see the actors the same way. Maybe it’s because we’ve learned things about them that changed our opinion of them, or maybe just the simple fact that they and we got older. 

As much as we love those old shows, sometimes they are relics of a bygone era and are better left in the past. All the constant revivals and reboots also stifle creativity. It makes it harder for original property to get made because everyone is more interested in making movies or shows that come with a “built in” audience.

Just as it appears that 80s nostalgia is finally starting to subside, people are now longing to return to the 90s. The window for nostalgia is getting even smaller.We barely get the chance to miss things before they come back.


Can You Enjoy a Movie You Don’t Fully Understand?

Stills from  The Fountain, Inception,  and  The Tree of Life

Stills from The Fountain, Inception, and The Tree of Life

Felix Quinonez Jr. 

We all experience movies in our own ways. There’s certainly no right way to enjoy a film. Still, most people would agree that the story is a very important cinematic element. But is it possible to enjoy a movie if you don’t really understand the story?

Some movies don’t offer clear-cut stories that get neatly wrapped up in a bow. They are instead thought provoking and make you work for the payoff. Often times, they require a second viewing. But in order for us to commit ourselves to re-watching something, we have to enjoy it at least somewhat. Except, how can we enjoy something we don’t really understand?

We all have certain movies that we enjoy even if we don’t fully grasp what they’re trying to say. We enjoy them even if we can’t fully articulate what it is about them that we love. For me, Shane Carruth’s work is a perfect example of this. Although I love both of his directorial efforts, Primer and Upstream Color I can’t necessarily say that I fully “get” them.

Primer, which was made for a mere $7,000 is one of the most complex time travel moves ever made. It’s a cerebral puzzle that all but requires multiple viewings. It’s almost painfully short on exposition and littered with scientific jargon. The movie does not hold the audiences’ hands but even at its most confusing it’s at least equally captivating.

Poster for  Primer

Poster for Primer

The movie is about two friends, Abe (David Sullivan) and Aaron, (Shane Carruth) who inadvertently make a time machine. The two had been working on experiments in Aaron’s garage when they realized that one of their creations had an unexpected side effect. The machine was intended to be used reduce an object’s weight but it instead created a sort of A- to- B time loop for the objects inside. The objects could travel from point A, when the machine was turned on to point B when it was turned back. But more importantly it could go back from point B to point A.

Abe modifies the machine to allow a person to fit inside of it. They initially plan to use it to make money on the stock market. But predictably enough, it doesn’t take long for things to go wrong. And before you know it there are multiple timelines and doubles involved.

One of the most refreshing things about the Primer is the time traveling elements of it. The movie’s time traveling has an almost “workman” like approach to it that isn’t usually seen in movies. But that makes sense because usually when people discover things, they are the more basic version of it. They are only refined over time and gradually. In Primer time travel is discovered in a character’s garage and by accident. Because of this it makes perfect sense that the movie essentially uses the 1.0 version of time travel.

The machine can take the passenger back in time but only to the time it was turned on at. They turn the machine at 9am and then they hide away somewhere private for 6 hours to be away from the world. They also use this time to read up on the stock market to see what stocks to invest in. At 3pm they go into the machine for 6 hours and come out back at 9 am.

It’s a very refreshing version of a time machine. And its somewhat rudimentary function works to make the movie more grounded. The dialogue is another great asset of the movie. So often movies are afraid that audiences will be confused so they have characters speak expository lines to explain things to the viewers. And it usually feels very contrived.

But in Primer the characters speak in a more organic way. People who could conceivably create a time machine wouldn’t stop to explain things to each other. So it might be confusing but it’s also more natural. It feels less like you’re watching a movie then witnessing a genuine moment of genius happening.

The movie trusts that audiences will be intrigued enough to watch it a second time to better understand it. And those that do will be rewarded for their patience. Watching Primer a second time is almost like seeing a completely different movie.

His second movie Upstream Color didn’t generate as much buzz as Primer but it was no less intriguing. The movie is about a woman named Kris (Amy Seimetz) who is kidnapped and drugged by a mysterious thief. He forces her to ingest a larva that contains a potent mind control substance. While under his control, she is persuaded to sell her house and transfer all of the funds to him.

Poster for  Upstream Color

Poster for Upstream Color

When she comes to, she has no memory of what happens and is understandably shaken. At this point, she meets Jeff (Shane Carruth) who may have also been the victim of a similar experience. They slowly become close and start a relationship as they attempt to rebuild their lives and get to the bottom of this traumatic event. And as they get closer, their lives and memories begin to inexplicably blend together

But that’s obviously only scratching the surface of the movie’s story. Upstream Color tells a love story that is fractured and confusing but also captivating. It doesn’t so much feel like watching a movie but more like being trapped in someone else’s dream.

And like primer, it is almost impossible to fully grasp in one sitting. But not being able to understand these movies is also part of their appeal. They both draw you in but always leave the payoff slightly out of reach. Sometimes it even feels like scenes cut away too early leaving you scratching your head. It forces you to rewind or watch the movie again to see if you missed something.

And both movies are loaded with style, emotion and great performances. But Shane Carruth is hardly the first director whose work leaves audiences scratching their heads. And there is clearly a demand for thoughtful movies that make the viewer work for the payoff. Inception, directed by Christopher Nolan, was the rare cerebral movie that was also a huge blockbuster. It grossed over $800 million worldwide. And movies like The Tree of Life, directed by Terrence Malick, attract audiences and have gotten plenty of awards recognition. And while The Fountain, directed by Darren Aronofsky, didn’t captivate audiences or critics, it still has its fans.

Viewers can enjoy the big picture of the story even if it’s hard to fully grasp all the details. And they are intriguing enough to make you come back to them to try to unravel the whole thing.

These movies make you feel like you are in a maze that you can’t help but enjoy getting lost in. You want to navigate its mystery because they are entertaining enough that it makes the effort worthwhile.












Why is Hollywood Obsessed With World War II?

From Saving Private Ryan, Directed by Steven Spielberg

From Saving Private Ryan, Directed by Steven Spielberg

Felix Quinonez Jr.

It’s been over 70 years since World War II ended but on the screen, the fight goes on and on…and on. It’s no secret that American viewers love war movies but among all the military conflicts, World War II stands apart from the rest. It seems to be the one war that filmmakers and audiences are always ready to embrace.

Like most countries, The United States of America was born out of war. Our History is often defined by the wars we fight. And we frequently talk about different time periods in relation to the wars they are most close to. (Post WWI, during the Vietnam War, etc.)

We have been in wars or involved in military conflicts almost constantly, even now. Wars are always a tragic thing; there is really no such thing as a “good” war.  As John Steinbeck described it, “All war is a symptom of man's failure as a thinking animal.”

The loss of human life is always tragic. And by design, wars can’t happen or end without death. It’s especially tragic that so many of those killed are soldiers so young they’ve barely had to chance to really experience life. So many of them died and will continue to die for what are often nothing but abstract, stubborn ideals. Or even worse, complete fabrications that hide the real motivations. Many soldiers are sent to their deaths to defend a country that they’ve barely had the chance to see outside of their small hometowns.

A scene from Saving Private Ryan at Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial

A scene from Saving Private Ryan at Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial

But why does World War II stand out among all wars? It was by no means the only large-scale war the US was involved in. World War I was dubbed the war to end all wars and was one of the largest conflicts in history. It had wide ranging and long lasting impacts on the world. And there were other wars that lasted longer than World War II.

And the attacks on 9/11 happened not only on mainland American soil but at one of our major cities. Almost 3,000 people were killed, over 6,000 were injured and billions of dollars worth of damage was caused.

9/11 had a huge and long lasting impact on this country. And yet unlike Pearl Harbor, the Japanese attack that resulted in the US entering World War II, there are no Hollywood movies that lionize the events. And the movies that do deal with 9/11 are usually somber, often controversial and don’t attract a lot of audiences. Needless to say there is no Michael Bay directed “9/11 meets Titanic” summer blockbuster.

But there is something different about World War II. There’s no doubt that it was a huge war and that its impact is still felt today but why is it so popular on the big screen? While other wars make us want to look away, moviegoers very often embrace World War II movies. So, why is it so popular with Hollywood and audiences?

A lot of that has to do with the war itself. World War II was the last war to really unite us as a country. Since then, just about every military conflict and War the US has been involved in has inspired just as much protest as support. But in World War II, there was a clear delineation between the “good” guys and the “bad” guys. The term “good vs. evil” was something that was easily applied. And the impact of the war on the US is something that greatly impacts how we look back on it.

The fact that most of the fighting happened away from us plays a pivotal role in how we remember World War II and why many refer to it as the “good war” It also helped bring the nation out of the great depression.

But during the war, the soldiers had to live with the possibility that they might never come home again. Death was a constant presence. And because of this, many came home with a new appreciation for life.

They wasted no time getting married and starting families. This led to what is referred to as the “baby boom.” Having missed out on so much because of the war, the soldiers were eager to make up for lost time. They bought homes and went to college.

They have been often referred to as “the greatest generation” not only because they helped win the war but because they helped the country’s economy reach new heights in the late 40s and 50s. Having defeated the Axis Powers, there was a general sense of optimism in the country. There was a belief that there was nothing Americans couldn’t do. And the economy thrived as well.

In the eyes of the world, America had emerged as, not only a leader but also a global superpower. During the war, Over 60 million people were killed, which was about 3% of the 1940 world population (est. 2.3 billion) But America’s losses were minor in comparison to the other Allies and to the Axis powers. And unlike most of Europe, The US didn’t need any rebuilding and was the only nation that had the atomic bomb.

The global economy suffered heavily from the war but the nations involved were impacted differently. In stark contrast to many of the other countries, the US emerged with a very healthy economy. By 1950 its gross domestic product per person was much higher than that of any of the other powers.

Between 1945 and 1949 the United States was the most powerful nation in the world. And its dominance was unlike any other seen in history before. That's what World War II did for America.

Another big reason why World War II is the war we have no problem revisiting is because as, Stephen Ambrose, one of America's most respected historians, explains it, World War II gave birth to “the American spirit.”

Only 20 years had passed since World War I was dubbed “the war to end all wars.” But that certainly didn’t turn out to be the case. And Because of that, many people believed that the US should stay out of the war.

And as Ambrose pointed out, about 40 % of the American people were against entering the war. That is, until December 7th 1941. But after Pearl Harbor, public opinion about the war changed drastically. December 8th, 1941 had more enlistments than any other day in American history.

Because the war was no longer something happening overseas that could be ignored, Americans faced a common enemy and suddenly local problems didn’t seem so important.

Ambrose explained that, “World War II "strengthened us as a country "We were much more committed to the idea of country, rather than region. People didn't speak of themselves any more as being, 'Well, I'm a rebel, I'm from Mississippi.' 'I'm a Yankee, I'm from Wisconsin.' [It was], 'I'm an American.' That would always spring first to their lips."

The Omaha Beach Scene from Saving Private Ryan

The Omaha Beach Scene from Saving Private Ryan

And another reason why they make for such effective movies is the simple fact that Hollywood loves to tell large stories with big themes and in broad strokes. And the sheer scope of the war allows for that. The war can be used to tell stories about the “triumph of the human spirit” that movies like The King’s Speech, directed by Tom Hooper, embody.

The atrocities of World War II are so inhumane and shocking that they allow filmmakers to show the darker side of humanity in a way that screams “serious film!” without exaggerating or resorting to sensationalism. And the scale of human suffering works well with “Prestige storytelling.”

There is an almost unanimous agreement about the war. And it invites reductive story telling that eschews nuance in favor of simple truths. Movies like Saving Private Ryan propagate the belief and branding of World War II as “the good war.” That’s not to say that Saving Private Ryan isn’t an incredibly well done film. Most people would agree that its many merits outweigh any of its flaws.

But it and many other World War II movies depict American involvement as perhaps more crucial than it really was. They portray Americans as the heroes that stepped in and saved the day in a way that is very appealing to American audiences and critics alike. Most people talk about the realism of Saving Private Ryan but overlook the fact that it’s patriotic in such an uncritical way that the movie borders on propaganda. And if that movie was about any other war, more people would have called it out for the jingoism it, at times, resembles.

And audiences are so used to seeing World War II on the big screen that few people even think twice about the fact that Inglorious Basterds, directed by Quentin Tarantino, essentially turned one of the most heinous events in human history into a comedy. Again, that’s not a comment on the quality of the movie. But the audience reaction is very telling. It shows that audiences have become, if not desensitized, at least comfortable enough with World War II that it can be used as entertainment. 

Poster of Inglourious Basterds, directed by Quentin Tarantino

Poster of Inglourious Basterds, directed by Quentin Tarantino

But ultimately, the fact that World War II is the war everyone can agree on gives these movies a bit of a pass. Filmmakers can approach a project with a sort of safety net that comes from knowing that these movies are usually viewed through a less critical lens than movies about other wars.






With Watchmen, Zack Snyder Crafted a Love Letter to a Story He Didn't Seem to Fully Understand

Felix Quinonez Jr.

Watchmen  movie poster Warner Bros.

Watchmen movie poster Warner Bros.

2009 proved to be a momentous year for comic book fans. 23 years after the comic book series, Watchmen debuted; a movie adaptation finally hit the big screen. This wasn’t the first time a film was attempted, in fact there had been efforts to get it on the screen before the series even finished.

It was a long and arduous journey from the comic book pages to the big screen. Some efforts had gotten further than others. But every failed attempt seemed to cement the comic’s reputation for being unfilmable. In fact it’s a small miracle that it finally got made at all.

But after the game changing The Dark Knight, directed by Christopher Nolan, it seemed that the world was finally ready for a celluloid version of the medium’s most lauded work.

And when the dust settled, it was Zack Snyder who got the intimidating task of directing the beloved book’s big screen adaptation. But even after the movie was completed and close to being released another obstacle popped up. Fox sued Warner Bros. for copyright violation. It turns out that, producer; Lawrence Gordon didn’t pay for the buy-out that allowed him to develop the movie at other studios. Fox tried to block the release but eventually a settlement was reached in which they received 8% of the grosses.

Not surprisingly, when the movie finally arrived, it immediately became lightning rod for controversy. It was as polarizing as one would expect. Since then, almost all of Snyder’s movies have been divisive. Watchmen was actually the last movie he directed that was labeled “fresh” at Rotten tomatoes. In the end it didn’t make much of an impact at the box office. The fan anticipation and unrealistic expectations set the movie up for failure almost from the beginning. Needless to say the movie didn’t have a similar impact to the comic books.

Watchmen  Art by Dave Gibbons and John Higgins

Watchmen Art by Dave Gibbons and John Higgins

The comic book series, written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons, ran from 1986 to 1987 but its conception began in 1985. DC comics had recently acquired a line of characters from Charlton Comics. And Alan Moore wanted to write a story starring a revamped version of these characters.

Moore wrote a treatment for a murder mystery story and submitted the unsolicited proposal to, then managing editor, Dick Giordano. Although he liked the story idea, Giordano was worried that it would render the characters unusable. Because of this, he encouraged Moore to use original characters.

At first, Moore was hesitant, believing that in order for the story to work, the characters would need to be familiar to the reader. But eventually he realized that if he wrote them as analogues, representing the superhero archetypes, it could still work. And the rest, as they say, is history.

The story takes place in an alternate reality that closely mirrors our own world as it was in the 1980s. However in Watchmen, superheroes exist. And their existence has had a big impact on the world, causing its history to diverge from our own. One of the main differences in the Watchmen universe is that the US won the Vietnam War and eventually turned the country into the 51st state.

The original team of masked crusaders was called The Minutemen. They had their 15 minutes of fame and for a while, they became the nation’s pastime. But eventually they gave way to a second generation of masked heroes on whom the story mainly focuses on. However the younger heroes aren’t met with the same enthusiasm and a bill eventually gets passed that outlaws vigilantes and forces all but a few of them to retire.

The Minutemen Image via Warner Bros.

The Minutemen Image via Warner Bros.

Things kick off in October 1985, as police are investigating the murder of Edward Blake. The murder captured the interest of costumed vigilante, Rorschach and he decides to take the investigation into his own hands. He soon discovers that Blake was actually the civilian identity of The Comedian, a former vigilante turned paramilitary agent. Rorschach believes the murder of the comedian was just the beginning and that there is a plot in motion to kill the rest of the costumed heroes.

Because of this, he goes about warning the rest of his old teammates who are predictably skeptical of his theory. But eventually they uncover a sinister conspiracy and are forced out of retirement to stop it. 

The series was an instant smash, selling out and receiving wide praise. And when it was eventually collected in the trade paperback it really took off. It reached new audiences, helped kick off the graphic novel/Trade Paperback market and received even more acclaim. Watchmen was the only graphic novel on Time's 2005 "All-Time 100 Greatest Novels" And it gave readers something they could point to as proof of the medium’s artistic merits.

But its sales were far from its only impact. Along with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, it helped reimagine the super hero and how we looked at them. It deconstructed them and made the readers appreciate the characters in new ways. Watchmen focused on the human side of superheroes. And it revealed their clay feet.

Watchmen also had a huge impact on the medium and industry. And it cast a long shadow over just about everything that followed. It encouraged other creators to explore dark and complex themes in their own stories. And it also proved that comic books could appeal to older readers.

However it did also inspire a lot of copycats. And as is so often the case, the imitators mostly missed what made Watchmen so special to begin with. They didn’t focus on the nuance, the social or Meta commentary, or the humanity that was an intrinsic part of Watchmen. Instead they only saw the violence, the blood and the sex. This led to a prevalence of so-called grim and gritty comic books. A lot of them were basically hollow, superficial attempts to copy Frank Miller and Alan Moore.

Another impact Watchmen had was that it played a big part in Alan Moore’s decision to break ties with DC. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons had an agreement that stated that once Watchmen had been out of print for over a year, the rights would revert to the creators. However DC never planned to let it go out of print so the agreement was basically worthless and Moore and Gibbons would never get the rights back to their creations.

Because it was such an influential work, it’s no surprise that there was a desire to make a big screen adaptation of it. Directors like Terry Gilliam, Darren Aronofsky, and Paul Greengrass were all, at one point, set to direct the movie.

Zack Snyder on the set of  Watchmen

Zack Snyder on the set of Watchmen

But in the end it was Zack Snyder who got the job. Snyder got his start directing TV commercials. His first movie, the Dawn of the Dead remake was well received and very profitable. He followed that up with 300, a big screen adaptation of Frank Miller’s influential comic book series of the same name. That movie proved to be an even bigger hit, grossing over $450 million worldwide, on a $65 million budget. But more importantly, it impressed producers Lawrence Gordon and Lloyd Levin. And they approached Snyder to direct Watchmen.

Things began promisingly enough for the movie. After the first trailer debuted at the 2008 San Diego Comic con, interest in the Watchmen collected edition was rekindled. Although it has always been a steady seller, the movie ramped up sales astronomically. DC had to print more than 900,000 copies and wound up selling about a million copies of Watchmen that year

But as the reviews started to come out, it was clear that the critics were split. It has a 65% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which is a passing grade, but not by much. And audiences were equally split. The movie opened to $55 million on its opening weekend, down from the $70 million some were forecasting. And it made almost half that number on Friday night. In its second weekend, it dropped 67.7% to less than $18 million. That big drop shows that the movie didn’t connect with audiences and people weren’t seeing it a second time or recommending it to loved ones.

The thing about Watchmen, the movie, is that it’s hard to judge it objectively. The source material is undeniably great and almost universally beloved. People have wanted to see a movie of it for decades. And because of this, some, including me, have a tendency to grade the movie on a curve simply because it finally brought Watchmen to life.

Patrick Wilson as Nite Owl II in  Watchmen  via Warner Bros.

Patrick Wilson as Nite Owl II in Watchmen via Warner Bros.

Seeing the characters and world brought to life on screen was thrilling. And there is something undeniably wonderful about seeing Nite Owl’s ship, ARCHIE, in action. There was an enormous amount of attention paid to the details and it shows. The movie did a great job of capturing the look and feel of Dave Gibbons’ artwork. At times the movie literally recreates panels from the comic book.

It’s clear that Snyder loves the source material and has a lot of reverence for it. But unfortunately his worship of the comic is ironically also the movie’s downfall.

Regardless of what you think of the movie, it’s hard to argue Snyder’s good intentions. The movie is the way it is because the filmmaker felt that was the best way to adapt the story. It never feels like choices were made to keep it more commercially viable or to set up sequels and spinoffs.

There are stretches of the movie where everything seems to come together and the result is undeniably thrilling. The scene where Rorschach is set up and ambushed by the police is easily one of the film’s highlights. It’s the kind of scene that makes you sit up in your seat and hold your breath.

And the scene that details Dr. Manhattan’s origins is another delight. It is one of the few times when the movie at least attempts to recreate the narrative complexities of the book. But as great as these scenes are, they highlight the sharp contrasts between the movie’s highs and lows.

Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach in  Watchmen  via Warner Bros. 

Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach in Watchmen via Warner Bros. 

And although the cast was uneven, it did have some standout performances. Jackie Earle Haley as Walter Kovacs/Rorschach was spot on in his role. He nailed the character’s mannerisms and even the way he talked and walked. It really felt like the character was brought to life on screen.

Patrick Wilson as Daniel Dreiberg/Nite Owl II was also great. Although Wilson doesn’t really look the part, he does capture sadness and loneliness that defines the character. There is definitely something missing in his life. And Wilson does a great job of portraying the regret that weighs the character down.

Billy Crudup, who portrayed Jon Osterman/Dr. Manhattan probably, had the hardest job. And at times his performance seems to get lost behind the CGI. But he really sells the alienation that came from Dr. Manhattan essentially being a god. And there is a subtlety to Crudup’s performance that really works for the character.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Edward Morgan Blake/The Comedian perfectly captures the cynicism of the character.

Carla Gugino as Sally Jupiter/Silk Spectre is a bit underused but still very good. She does a great job at portraying the disappointment in her life. She longs for her glory days and wants to relive them through her daughter.

Stephen McHattie as Hollis Mason/Nite Owl has great chemistry with Wilson and even though he doesn’t have a lot of screen time, he makes the most of it.

Unfortunately not all the performances were great. Matthew Goode as Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias comes off as boring and bland. And he does actually seem like the “Comic book villain” that he claims he isn’t.

Malin Åkerman as Laurie Juspeczyk/Silk Spectre II is just plain bad. She almost ruins every scene she is in. She comes off as vapid and whiney. The character is a lot more interesting than this. And Åkerman sounds like she’s reading her lines off a cue card that she is squinting to make out because it’s too far to see clearly.

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

And it might seem like nitpicking but the makeup on some of the characters were laughably bad. Richard Nixon, portrayed by Robert Wisden, was probably the worst. But the make up used to age Carla Gugino was so distracting that at times it took away from her generally strong performance. And although there were some good choices, the movie’s soundtrack was annoying at times. The more annoying song choices ranged from cheesy to nail on the head obvious.

As stated before, Snyder’s slavish adherence to the source material was, at times, detrimental to the movie. And it’s very telling that one of the best parts of the movie wasn’t in the book at all. The opening montage was brilliant.

It was not only great because it did a marvelous job of condensing a lot of background information about The Minutemen. But it was also visually inventive. And it had a different tone that was more fitting for the first generation heroes. In a sense they represent the “golden age” of the Watchmen universe. And it’s fitting that it feels a bit more lighthearted. There was a sense optimism, at least at the beginning, for them.

Another place the movie strays from the source material is with the ending. The original ending was good for the comic as it was a sort of commentary on the silliness of comic book villains but the change for the movie was great.

One of the earlier attempts to adapt the comic book for the screen would have been set in the present. But Snyder’s film moved the movie back to the 80s. It was no doubt an attempt to stay “true” to the source material. But obviously the irony was lost on them. Since the comic books were actually released in the 80s it was set in the present.

Because of this, the comic touched on real world anxieties. And in doing so, it became much more than just a comic book. Like Animal Farm, by George Orwell, Watchmen has the initial appearance of being a strictly fictional story with characters that some might describe as silly. But closer inspection reveals the allegorical elements that comment on very real issues. 

In the end Watchmen’s biggest legacy might be the army of imitators it spawned. Unfortunately, too many people seemed to think that the violence and “grittiness” were what was important to Watchmen’s success and, at times, it seems that Zack Snyder is one of those people.

Snyder revels in the violence and seems to fetishize it in a juvenile way. And the movie bends over backwards to expertly capture every blood splatter and the sound of bones cracking. In the comics, the violence was used more sparingly and is almost beside the point. But for Snyder, the violence itself is the point.

And watching all of the prolonged fight scenes with supposed “regular” people punching through walls like Supermen and jumping 20 feet into the air can be genuinely head scratching. Did Snyder read a different version of Watchmen or just not understand it?

Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan in  Watchmen  Warner Bros.

Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen Warner Bros.

His love for the source material is undeniable but it seems that he’s a shallow fanboy who tends to miss the point of Watchmen. During the marketing of the movie, Snyder was described as a “visionary” but his approach to making this movie does not support this claim.

His slavish devotion to the comic led him to recreate it as close to its source material as possible, at least on a superficial level. And that seems about as far as one can get from being a “visionary.” It’s ironic because a real “visionary” director would have seen that straying from the source material could have resulted in a movie that is actually more faithful to the story.

Instead, by trying to essentially photocopy the book, Snyder gave us something that certainly looks like Watchmen but really isn’t.  

Watchmen used a superhero story as a sort of Trojan horse to deliver a much larger, more interesting story about life, humanity and the very idea of heroes. But Watchmen, the movie, despite all of its self-aggrandizing posturing is just another superhero movie, and not a particularly good one at that.