Gun to my head, I might be able to say something positive about 300: Rise of an Empire. In a vacuum, I suppose I'd call its aesthetic appealing, its production value impressive, or its giant rhinos kind of cool. But these elements cannot be taken alone, embroidered on a gigantic patch of joyless pain that infests your conscious mind from its inceptive moments on.
It's not so much that the 300 sequel fails at its desired conceit — it gives you exactly what it promises: gore, swordplay, angry sex, halfwit maxims about honor and manliness and the love of the fight. It's simply that its desired conceit is dehumanizing agony. Holding too hard and too long to its mission statement to top its Zack Snyder-helmed predecessor in scope, scale, and spilled pints of blood, Noam Murro's Rise of an Empire doesn't put any energy into filtering its spectacular mayhem through whatever semblance of a humanistic touch made the first one feel like a comprehensive movie.
Now, it's been a good eight years since I've seen 300, and I can't say that I was particularly fond of it. But beneath its own eye-widening layer of violence, there was a tangible idea of who King Leonidas was, what this war meant, and why Sparta mattered. No matter how much clumsy exposition is hurled our way, all we really know here is that there are two sides and they hate each other.
When Rise of an Empire asks us to engage on a more intimate level, which it does — the personal warfare between Sullivan Stapleton (whose name, I guess, is Themistokles) and Bad Guy Captain Eva Green (a.k.a. Artemisia) is founded on the idea that she likes him, and he kind of digs her (re: angry sex), and they want to rule together, but a rose by any other name and all that — we're effectively lost. With characters who don't matter in the slightest, material like this is just filler between the practically striking battle sequences.
But when the "in-between material" is as meaningless as it is in Rise of an Empire, the battles can't function as much more than filler themselves. Filler between the opening titles and closing credits. A game of Candy Crush you play on the subway. Contemptfully insubstantial and not particularly fun, but taking place nonetheless.
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Without even a remote layer of camp — too palpably absent as Rise of an Empire splashes its screen with so much human fluid that "The End" by The Doors will start to play in your head — there's no victory in a movie like this. No characters to latch onto, no story to follow, no joy to be derived. Yes, it might be aesthetically stunning (and really, that's where the one star comes in... well, half a star for that and half for the giant rhinos), but the marvel of its look shrinks under the shadow of the painful vacancy of anything tolerable.
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Warner Bros via Everett Collection
There's a saying: Good things come to those who wait. That probably won't apply to the Batman and Superman movie that Warner Bros. and DC just pushed to 2016. There's a very good chance that this would put the franchises even further behind those of their most direct competitor: Marvel and Disney.
Sure, Batman has made a good amount of money in the movie theaters, though the most recent installment was somewhat disappointing. Add the fact that there is a somewhat hasty feel to all of these movies being made to tie into a Justice League of America film, it just feels like DC is forever going to be playing catch-up. This is definitely a marketplace where constantly playing from behind is not good.
If they wait until 2016, there's a very strong chance that Marvel will have managed to get an even stronger foothold in the whole Superhero movie genre, what with Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain America and a likely Hulk movie all on the way, along with something called Avengers 2: Age of Ultron that will probably take over the world.
Henry Cavill did a great job as Superman - and his last movie made over $290 million. The last Dark Knight movie made over $448 million domestically. The Avengers made nearly that alone with ONE MOVIE. There's a pretty good chance that Age of Ultron will just completely obliterate that. Then you have a real wild card: Ben Affleck as Batman. The reception to this announcement was ... mixed, to say the least. Many people pointed to his turn as Daredevil as a negative mark in his ledger. Add that he's playing another brooding character with horns and people are ready for this to full-on stink. Affleck has made a good turn lately being a movie director and there are those who wish that he had decided to stay on that side of the camera.
The other possibility is that by the time that 2016 rolls around, comic book movies will have taken a backseat to Star Wars again. Oh yes, Episode VII will have come out and even the Avengers may have fallen by the wayside to the Force. Oh yes! Another Disney project. So, this movie might come out and ... nothing. Sure, it'll probably make $100 million, but for such a huge possible blockbuster, that would be nothing short of a disaster.
So, this is a gamble and as with anything with gambling, there is a chance that lightning may strike and this turns out to be the best move. But then again, as is often the case, everything could go wrong and the people involved could all be left stumbling home, having lost a lot of money and wondering what the heck just happened. We'll see the results in two years.
Warner Bros via Everett Collection
Congratulations, Marvel Comics, you have inspired DC Comics to tank a potentially good idea for a film franchise.
Marvel's The Avengers killed it at the box office (more than $1.5 billion, third best all time) and two of its characters, Iron Man and Thor, parlayed that success into more money this year. Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World were just OK films, but the afterglow of The Avengers shines bright.
Now DC Comics wants to try that same success with an untitled Batman vs. Superman movie. Caution: this is hard to do. Especially if DC plans to throw in a ton of characters without developing them in their own movies.
Before The Avengers, Marvel spent years pumping up their super heroes. Iron Man came out in 2008 (it even spawned a sequel before the gang got together last year). Thor and Captain America also got their own films so by the time all of them teamed up in 2012, we knew the universe, characters, sub-plots and expected a cohesive mash-up. Director Joss Whedon delivered.
No such patience exists in DC’s eyes. Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman? Jason Momoa gets thrown in there as a potential villain or Justice League member? Why? WNy not?
Where is this all going? The only continuity in this movie is director Zack Snyder and Superman (Henry Cavill). Snyder is an extremely capable director who will deliver eye-popping action sequences. But if DC wants its own epic in the form of the Justice League, then it needs to establish these new heroes slowly. And ditch Ryan Reynolds as Green Lantern. Reynolds is consistent: he consistently underperforms, DC doesn't need that in its movies.
We aren't likely to see another movie come out this year that will stir up as much excitement as Man of Steel. As pumped as fans might be for Brad Pitt's forthcoming zombie epic World war z, the second chapter of Peter Jackson's The Hobbit trilogy, or Katniss' next go at survival in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Superman reigns supreme among fanboys worldwide. And it is this passion that not only results in devoted attention to and conversation about the new film, now in theaters, but also tons of half-cocked creative exploits and harebrained theories — you know, the fun stuff. The stuff that even the top bananas on the Man of Steel set love. Producer Charles Roven, for instance, is totally on board with all of the trailer mash-ups and off-the-wall predictions we can muster.
Responsible not only for Warner Bros' latest Clark Kent feature but also each of Christopher Nolan's Batman films, Roven is no stranger to an adamant fan base. And while some filmmakers might grow weary of the rumor mill that inevitably engulfs movies like these, Roven champions the passion. "I love the interest. Because of the interest, you have these fans who really make the film this big, huge cultural phenomenon," Roven tells Hollywood.com. "You need fans like that. You need fans who hang on all this stuff. I'm happy that they take our trailers and make their own. I love the fans."
But this doesn't mean that Roven is participating in every Internet conversation about the comic book characters, like Batman and Lex Luthor, suspected of making appearances in Man of Steel. "Quite frankly, if you responded to every rumor, you'd be non-stop responding. The one thing we didn't want to do, we didn't want the rumors to influence what we were doing. So we responded to none." Roven also considers this closed-mouth approach a service to the fans. "I want them to be happy. But part of them being happy is them not knowing everything that's going to happen before they walk into the movie theater. That makes it easy, also, to not respond."
Despite his stoic attitude, it can't be easy for Roven to face the sea of fervor that surrounds Man of Steel. After the mixed reception of Bryan Singer's Superman Returns in 2006, Man of Steel has a pretty big weight on its shoulders: the recreation of Superman for the modern era. "My interpretation of Superman Returns ... is that it was really an homage to Superman: The Movie, the Dick Donner picture." Roven adds, "[Singer is] a really smart filmmaker ... But that did leave the door open to reimagining the character, which we felt that the character needed. And that's how we approached the movie. We talked about it amongst ourselves, and said that if we were going to do this, we'd just need to play it like there's never been another Superman movie. Even though we were all raised on Dick Donner, and love the Dick Donner movie."
According to the producer, the Superman of today needs to serve a different purpose than that of eras past. "The '50s were a rather calm period in the world. Things were really black and white, and relatively simple. So the character Superman could be that and still be relatable," Roven says.
He continues on this theme: "Things are more complicated [today]. So you have to have a character, if he's going to be relatable to the broad range that you want, he has to not necessarily have everything clear cut for him. He needs to get there. He needs to have choices that he has to make. He needs to have emotional ground that he has to cover. At least that's what we felt."
Those unsure of how Superman's evolution will translate have looked to Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, which revamped Batman for sophisticated modern audiences. But Roven promises there will be a distinction between his Bruce Wayne movies and what we'll see with Clark Kent. "We tried to make sure that we didn't take the character in the Bruce Wayne dark direction. Because Bruce Wayne is completely different from a character standpoint," says Roven. "Even if you're talking about the comic genre, he's a completely different character." Roven continues, "With Bruce Wayne, Chris focused on having the character develop from that personal tragedy that happened in his life. Clark really didn't understand the personal tragedy that happened in his life. He was trying to figure out where he came from. That's also completely different."
"But still, being true to the character, we wanted his choices to be emanating from whatever life experience he had," Roven says. "It was only natural that he would want to know who he was. And go on a trip, soul searching to discover who he was, what his purpose was. And then we loved the fact that he had a very complex decision to make. Because who he was and what he needed to be were in conflict."
So to tally up all of Man of Steel's goals, as elucidated by Roven, we have: the illustration of this internal turmoil, the evolution of an iconic American character, and the preservation of all the passions inhabited by countless fans? No defecit of marks to hit. But with creative forces like the passionate, fan-loving producer, Batman mastermind Christopher Nolan, and comic aficionado director Zack Snyder, Superman might have that fighting chance in his newest go at the big screen.
Follow Michael Arbeiter on Twitter @MichaelArbeiter | Follow hollywood.com on Twitter @hollywood_com
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