Actors and Audience Shorthand - Blockbusters Today

I caught up on the first two summer blockbusters for 2014 this weekend. Well technically The Lego Movie came out in February in the rest of the world, but it has only made it to Australia last week because of timing of the school holidays. Just don't mention that the school holidays in Australia do not start until the third week of April so that reason makes no sense and it opens on the same weekend as Captain America - The Winter Soldier, which makes sure it is buried by the Marvel marketing team, also defeats the object of making any money off of this film in the Australian market. So putting aside the fact that Australian film distributors don't seem to have an idea about how kids under 18 years old consume movies and entertainment these days (the target audience for blockbusters) and we accept the reality that the northern hemisphere 'summer' season starts in April and that the rest of the world below the equator follows that logic of programming (branded seasonal changes overcoming actual geographical seasonal changes), we will say these are the first two summer blockbusters of 2014.

I enjoyed both movies, but I was not blown away by either of them. I had deliberately kept away from spoilers/sneak peeks/interviews et el that is now seen as typical marketing for movies nowadays to ensure that I could come to the movies as fresh as possible. Captain America was a great middle movie. It has to make sense within a bigger world of storytelling as well as stand on its own two feet. It did this very well, but you also have to like the characters that they are focusing on in this story. These Marvel movies are just a season of TV on the big screen spanning years with massive budgets that make loads of money. The universe has been built well and we are in the middle of the season where the main characters and their relationships are established and now we bring in new characters to challenge that status quo and move the story along. The middle of the season is always the hardest part of a TV series as it can become overwhelmed, at its worst, and a little bit bloated, at its best. However, as a viewer, you know by the end of the month you are usually through this phase and well onto the end game and the weaknesses do not really stay with you that much if the ending works. With this structure translated to movies leaves us with plenty of time to focus on every bit of what is put up on the screen before the next instalment comes along. 

Does Captain America The Winter Soldier hold up to this scrutiny? It does to the most extent because it brings in enough new characters and revisits other ones to ensure that the audience has enough new information to talk about. By not having Hawkeye in this movie and giving Black Widow a necklace that is a silver arrow has caused more conversations on the internet than anything else. Having the SHIELD agents crossing over all the movies makes SHIELD the glue that holds the universe together and then upending that in this film, has been the subject of many an article in the last 48 hours. Introducing The Falcon and Agent 13 adds to the speculation of future stories and how the characters will fit together going forward. Like any series, the plot is the mcguffin to allow us to invest in characters and their relationships, and Marvel understands this very well. They also know that the best way to have an audience invest in a character who will most probably have very little overall screen time but needs to have some gravitas is to cast the right actors. If this series was tried 10 years ago, we would be wading through movies with very expensive 'movie stars'. It would be star driven and the cost of making the movies would echo that. The star would come it their persona, for example, Tom Cruise or Sylvester Stallone, and the audience would connect with the persona and then the story. Marvel has been able to take advantage of this shift away from the star system and the resurgence of great storytelling that has been part of the TV landscape for a number of years and have cast actors from TV who bring familiarity and a character type rather than a persona. For example Alan Dale, who plays one of the World Security Council Members, is known for playing a powerful, sometime shady and machiavellian type of character. Each actor chosen for that council is chosen for the short hand they bring to those scenes. Agent 13 is played by Emily VanCamp who is the star of Revenge. In Revenge she is the hero who is scheming to get revenge for her father's death. Her character has grey areas, but is ultimately who you should trust. She has some great James Bond skills as she is glamorous and can kick some butt. Seems that is exactly what they wanted to get across about Agent 13.  

It will be interesting to see how The Guardians of the Galaxy expands this second phase of Marvel movies. Here is hoping that it stands on its own a little bit better than the Captain America sequel. It looks like it has that same formula of casting with Chris Pratt as the most the human looking everyman who is in over his head, Peter Quill. Chris Pratt played Bright Abbott, the sister of Emily VanCamp's Amy Abbott, the female lead of the Greg Berlanti TV series Everwood from the early 2000s. Bright Abbott is the good looking, not so bright, lovable and unintentionally funny guy in the series and Chris Pratt has been playing a variation of Bright Abbott in most of his big roles since then, see Parks and Recreation and The Lego Movie. The Lego Movie is fun and clever as it knows what it is. Lego as a product is its own toy (you can build anything using Lego) and it interprets great popular culture characters and stories (through its Lego minifigures) and this movie shows this very well. The mixture of original Lego minifigures such as the construction worker and the 1980s spaceman with the minifigures from popular cultures such as Batman and Han Solo exemplifies that the story of the everyman over his head character believing in himself and solving the mcguffin is a story that has been told many times before. But that does not mean we cannot enjoy it. The way they cast The Lego Movie was very similar to Marvel's approach. Match the TV actor and their typical character type with the character that they are playing on screen such as Will Arnett as Batman and Alison Brie as Unkitty; and actors who are more known for movies or character acting to be the shorthand for the audience. For example, Morgan Freeman as Vitruvius and Elizabeth Banks as Wyldstyle. The movie does a great job of commenting on corporatisation, conformity and the information saturated Western culture but it is also delivered to the audience in exactly the way it mocks on screen - but that is for another blog post.

However, overall these two movies are good but not great. I liked them but felt a bit empty by the end of the films. I trust that they will get the casting right, but I can't help wanting to watch something a little bit more original and surprising in my blockbuster fare. Will that happen this year? This is the list, it does not look promising, but maybe they will surprise us and Bryan Cranston from Breaking Bad will turn out not to be a greedy drug king in Godzilla:

Divergent - the first movie based on a trilogy of books
Rio 2 - animation sequel
Transcendence - science fiction 
The Amazing Spider-man 2 - superhero sequel 
Godzilla - remake
Dawn of The Planet of the Apes - remake and sequel
Blended - romantic comedy
Ninja Turtles - remake
Jurassic World - sequel
How to Train Your Dragon 2 - animation sequel
Transformers 4 - sequel
Maleficent - remake of fairy story
Fast & the Furious 7 - sequel
X men: Days of Future Past - sequel
Hercules - remake
Jupiter Ascending - science fiction
Guardians of the Galaxy - part of the Marvel universe series of films
The Expendables 3 - sequel.