John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum – Review

The action movie genre goes through peaks and valleys quite constantly every few years.  Often times, audiences are treated to a whole bunch of movies that are standard generic fare that grows tiresome after a while.  And then you have those new fresh take features that act like a breath of fresh air and completely change the game, and sometimes end up changing the genre as a whole as a result.  Think of something like Die Hard (1988), which completely revolutionized the action movie genre, which up to that time in the 80’s had been dominated by muscle-bound types like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone.  In their place we got Bruce Willis, who looks more like the average man and was also portrayed as vulnerable as less bulletproof as his predecessors.  Audiences gravitated to this new type of action hero, because he was more grounded, funny, and relatable, and this example helped to set the standard for years to come.  Of course, as tastes have changed among audiences, so have the ideal of the action movie hero.  Today, we have in a way returned to the larger than life trope of heroes, with Super Heroes of course now dominating worldwide box office.   But, not every hero wears a cape, and some of the most successful action movie stars have been the ones who have shown an incredible ability to transition perfectly based on the changing ideals of the time.  Strangely, whenever the action movie suddenly shifts gears, actor Keanu Reeves always seems to be there at the right time when it does.  He made his own debut into the action genre with his own take on the Die Hard formula with Speed (1995), and then a few short years later, he made a huge impact by appearing in the groundbreaking sci-fi action flick, The Matrix (1999).  Keanu, to everyone’s surprise, has found his niche in the action movie genre, and continues to remain a popular fixture there, which he has further solidified with his recent involvement in the John Wick series.

Up until the first John Wick in 2014, Keanu Reeves was in a bit of a box office slump, struggling to find that follow up after the end of the Matrix trilogy.  His salvation, however, didn’t come from a golden opportunity that fell into his lap, but rather it came from a collaborative venture from two of his friends from the Matrix set who had a daring movie idea they wanted to pitch as a possible starring vehicle for Mr. Reeves.  That movie would of course be John Wick, which is a story about the world’s greatest assassin, with a legendary history, who tries to get out of the business only to be forced back in once a few thug do the unthinkable; they kill the puppy that his deceased wife gifted to him.  The movie was the brainchild of David Leitch (who was a stunt coordinator on The Matrix films) and Chad Stahelski (who was Keanu’s stunt double for many years, including on The Matrix), and their idea was to do an action thriller with the complex fight choreography of The Matrix, but with only minimal CGI manipulation.  It was essentially supposed to be a showcase for pure, physical stunt work on a level we haven’t seen before, and they clearly had no one else in mind for the role other than Keanu Reeves.  It should be noted that Keanu is 54 years old as of this writing, and even though he’s in good physical shape for someone of that age, it’s still a risky thing to ask someone in those advanced years to do the heavy stunt work required without a double that a movie like John Wick requires.  But, remarkably enough, Keanu managed to pull it off and Wick became his first breakthrough hit in years.  It proved so effective that it’s since spawned two sequels, and has introduced something that you would have never expected in a movie series like this; world building.  Chapter 2 (2017) revealed to audiences a whole underworld that Mr. Wick is a part of, and the layers go even deeper in the recent Chapter 3.  The only question is, have the filmmakers strayed too far away from the formula that the series is starting to fall apart, or did they manage to build an even more fascinating mythos that further illuminates the legend of John Wick; the boogeyman you call to kill the boogeyman.

The subtitle of John Wick: Chapter 3 is Parabellum, which is Latin for “Prepare for War.”  And that’s exactly where the movie picks up in it’s opening minutes.  The film picks up immediately after the events of Chapter 2, with John Wick on the run, trying to beat the clock before all hell breaks loose.  At the end of the last movie, John Wick (Keanu Reeve) broke a cardinal law in the underworld society that he serves; he shed blood within the walls of the Continental Hotel of New York City, which is a protected neutral safe haven where absolutely no killing must take place.  Because he committed this taboo, by shooting the film’s villain in cold blood while he was under the protection of the Continental, Wick must be labeled Excommunicado by the governing body of this assassin society known only as the High Table.  Now, John Wick is fair game for all the undercover assassins all over the world, with an enormous bounty placed on his head.  The Continental’s manager, Winston (Ian McShane), who considers John a friend, gives him a one hour head start before dropping the hammer, and then John is on his own.  He does, however, have a couple cards still to play.  One is to call upon the help of a figure from his past, a person known as The Director (Angelica Huston) who can grant him passage, and the other is to call in his one final favor with a former colleague named Sofia (Halle Berry) who runs the Continental in Casablanca, Morocco.  With Sofia’s help, John gets his audience with someone connected with the High Table, who he hopes can lift his Excommunicado, for a price of course.  Meanwhile, the High Table has sent an Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon) to clean up the mess John Wick has left behind, and that includes removing Winston from his position of power at the Continental, as well as punishing the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne), the leader of an army of underworld spies dressed as homeless transients, who also sold the bullets to John Wick that he used to kill his target at the Continental.  And so, John and his associates prepare for an inevitable confrontation with the ultimate power in their world, and because this is John Wick we’re talking about, a lot of bodies are about to hit the floor.

The first two John Wick movies are prime examples of how to perfectly balance action with dark comedy as well as an incredible eye for style and precision for the stunt work.  It’s clear that the filmmakers put effort into making every set piece in their movies feel fresh and free from repetition.  But, it’s also interesting how over the course of three movies that they’ve managed to add new layers to this narrative; almost creating a world that exists on it’s own, tied by it’s own set of rules.  The first John Wick gave no indication of what was to come next, as it was just a straightforward action flick where John goes to war with a Russian mafia boss (played by the late Michael Nyqvist).  Chapter 2 is where the world building really started to manifest, showing a whole network that operates behind the scenes, governing the world in which John Wick lives and operates.  It really helps to have seen the first two movies before watching Chapter 3, because they all blend together, and if like me you already have done the homework beforehand, this will be an enormously enjoyable sit.  The movie wastes no time in ramping up the mayhem, as it goes from one action set piece right into another.  The first 20 minutes or so of this movie, where the Excommunicado goes into effect, are some of the most insane and hilariously violent action scenes that I have ever seen.  Remember, John Wick killed a man in Chapter 2 with nothing but a pencil, just showing how lethal he could be.  There’s no pencil deaths in this movie, but John makes use of weapons just as ridiculous.  And by continuing the momentum carried over from the other movies, Chapter 3 manages to retain the sense of character that the movie clearly knows it has.  The filmmakers know exactly what the audience wants and it sees no reason not to deliver on that promise.  In a sense, the answer that the film gives you is that more is better, and with this film, we get everything we’ve seen before, just more so.

I do have to say that the opening act of this movie is almost too good, in a way that it kind of takes away from the rest of the movie.  By immediately plunging the audience right in the middle of the mayhem, you’ve primed them for an expectation of all the crazy things that might happen next.  However, once the movie gets into it’s second act, when John makes his way to Morocco, the movie begins to deflate a little bit, slowing down in order to progress the plot ahead.  None of it is bad per-say, it’s just that the opening came on so strong that it’s hard to come back from that and not have the movie feel uneven.  Chapter 2 had a similar problem where things also dipped a little in the second act, but in both cases, they never ruin the experience as a whole.  But, given that this is the longest John Wick movie to date, you do feel the run-time a bit more due to this lull in the middle.  Thankfully, things ramp up again towards the end, with more satisfying action providing a satisfying climax for this movie.  The only other nitpick that I have with this movie is that by expanding the world building over the course of these movies, it almost kind of takes away from John Wick’s own personal story.  We don’t see much character building for John this time around, as he remains the same all the way throughout.  It’s something that’s been steadily lost over time in these movies, as the first film gave us the best window so far into the psyche of the character.  The first John Wick showed a whole lot more of the cloud of pain and anquish that defined his character, which manifested because of the loss of his wife and his puppy.  As he states constantly, it was more than just about the puppy, but we see less of that understanding as this series goes along.  Even still, everything else has been uniformly consistent in this series, including it’s sense of humor and it’s focus on trying to one-up itself at every turn.

It cannot be understated how crucial Keanu Reeves is to the success of these movies.  John Wick is, in my opinion, the greatest character that he’s ever played, and that’s largely because it’s the only character that has best played to his strengths.  Keanu is an actor of extremes, meaning that he only works best when taken to the opposite ends of performance.  His best work is found in him playing the part either very broadly (like Ted from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure) or very stoically (like with John Wick or Neo from The Matrix).  He never works well in between, which is probably why he never worked out well in other genres like romance or historical drama.  With John Wick, you get the combination of all his talents; stoicism and humor, all rolled into one.  He’s a man of few words, but even still those few words can be hilariously delivered and oftentimes pretty badass.  It’s also astounding how much he throws himself physically into the roll too.  Of course the movie gives him stunt doubles for the most dangerous moments, but for most of the movie’s run time, you can see that it is clearly him on screen, since most of the fights have to done in camera and with little editing in between.  It’s almost like Keanu is trying to compete with Tom Cruise in the category of 50-plus year old actors still doing the majority of their own stunts on screen, and he’s doing an admirable job of it.  The stunt team as well should be commended.  Just like with the Mission Impossible series, John Wick is turning stunts into an art-form, and it really reinforces the case that there should be an Oscar category for stunts.  The casting for these movies is also getting more and more impressive, with heavy hitters like Angelica Huston and Halle Berry joining the fray.  Returning cast like Ian McShane and Laurence Fishburne (who also followed him here from the Matrix series) are also great to see again, especially with the latter really chewing the scenery in his brief scenes.  But the real scene-stealer is an actor named Mark Dacascos, who plays a ninja named Zero, sent to kill John Wick by the Adjudicator.  His character is not only an interesting foil for John Wick, but it’s later revealed that he’s also a fan, which makes for a real interesting character interaction.  A great movie character is only as strong as the ones he shares the screen with, and this film gives you plenty to enjoy.

The one thing that I will say this movie improves over it’s predecessors is it’s visuals.  This is a gorgeous looking movie, with some often stunning cinematography.  The opening scenes of this movie, which take place at night and in the rain feels especially inspired by the look of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), with this beautiful neon glow casting itself over the action.  The movie also makes incredible use of it’s locations as well.  It’s clear that over the years, the filmmakers have been given more substantial budgets to work with, and that is apparent on screen.  When John Wick goes to Morocco, the movie actually shoots on location in Morocco.  We see him walking on the sand dunes like he’s Lawrence of Arabia, and it’s clear that there was no green screen involved.  I also have to praise the production design of this movie as well.  We see a lot more of the Continental Hotel this time around, and the architecture of the place has it’s own character that really stands out.  It’s here where we see the underground society start to take shape fully, as it seems to retain an old-fashioned aesthetic that exists alongside our modern amenities.  The Continental also has it’s modern touch too, with a stunning room made of glass becoming a central setting for the film’s climax.  It’s amazing to see the filmmakers refining and improving on their craft over the course of these movies, as the visuals are becoming bolder and more ambitious.  The first John Wick, though still visually inventive, was constrained by it’s smaller budget.  Thankfully, these guys do not waste the extra resources they’ve been allowed to use, as Chapter 3 represents their boldest artistic statement yet.  It’ll be interesting to see how much more refined they continue to get in the future, because with this movie, they have set the bar even higher.

It’s pretty amazing that we are here celebrating an action movie series with the name of John Wick.  It’s such a bland sounding name that you would think it’d be impossible to find anyone with that name intimidating.  But, as these movies have shown, it’s not the name itself that makes the man a legend, but rather the man and what he does that brings legend to a name.  That’s true in all things really; we’ve managed to make a movie star out of someone named Benedict Cumberbatch after all.  John Wick is a action hero that stands shoulder to shoulder with the John McLanes and Rambos of the world, and maybe even puts them to shame.  It’s also just incredible how resilient Keanu Reeves is as an action movie star.  Just when you thought he was done, he managed find a way back to the top, and with John Wick, he may have just found his peak as a performer.  The one thing I will say is that you must watch this movie with an audience.  Just like with Avengers: Endgame, part of the entertainment is just in experiencing the audience reactions while watching this movie.  The audience I saw it with were wincing, laughing and cheering all throughout the movie, and it felt very good to join along with them.  I had a smile on my face throughout most of the movie, and I laughed out loud more than once.  John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum is not an absolutely perfect film, but it is an enormously satisfying bit of escapist entertainment.  Anyone who has been eagerly anticipating the next chapter of this series will not be disappointed.  The only question is how many more foolish assassins will have to die before the message becomes clear; don’t mess with John Wick, or his dog.

Rating: 8/10

Tinseltown Throwdown – Iron Man vs. Man of Steel

Of all the things that Marvel has changed over the last decade in Hollywood, perhaps it’s most influential would be the concept and execution of a shared cinematic universe.  There have been serialization in movies before, but never to this magnitude, and with this many seperate franchises involved.  And the experiment has become on of the most astounding success stories in cinema history, with Avengers: Endgame currently on it’s way to the all time box office crown.  Because of Marvel’s success with it’s shared universe, the last decade saw many more studios try to build up cinematic universes of their own; all to varying degrees.  Some proved surprisingly successful (The Conjuring universe), while many others fell flat (GhostbustersThe Amazing Spider-Man), and some failed in the most spectacular of fashion (Universal’s Dark Universe).  While Marvel’s example was largely the blueprint for many of these wannabe cinematic universes, few of them could ever figure out exactly how to harness it and make it work for them.  What most didn’t realize is that the Marvel Cinematic Universe succeeded both by it’s superb organization, but also by sheer luck.  It came at the right time, when audiences were willing to follow along with a large arcing narrative that’s pieced together through multiple films.  And because they came at the right time, they created a foundation that has helped to support everything that has followed after, and with seemingly no competition.  It’s that foundation that more than anything has become responsible for it’s success, and to see how it stacks up with another like minded cinematic universe, it helps to take a look at where things started to determine what makes and breaks such an endeavor.

If there was any cinematic universe that could compete with the likes of Marvel for cinematic dominance, it would be it’s own competitor on the comic book shelves; DC comics.  Before Marvel began it’s rise to box office dominance, it was DC who had long been the standard bearer when it came to comic book adaptations.  Richard Donner’s classic Superman (1978) was for the longest time the quintessential super hero movie, showing for the first time how stories and characters from the comic book page could be translated faithfully to the big screen.  A decade later, Tim Burton introduced Batman to the big screen with his 1989 film, which further increased the box office appeal of comic book characters.  It wouldn’t be until the turn of the millennium that Marvel finally jumped in with their first entry into the genre, naturally focused on their most popular character from the comics, Spider-Man.  Sam Raimi’s 2002 broke all sorts of box office records at the time, and ushered in an era of box office dominance that continues to this day.  For much of the 2000’s, DC and Marvel were equally competitive at the box office, with Raimi’s Spider-Man films and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy trading places constantly atop the box office charts.  But, one thing that Marvel didn’t have was the organizational support that DC had with their parent company Warner Brothers.  So, in comes producer Kevin Feige who established Marvel Studios, with the intention of not only giving the publisher more creative control over it’s characters, but also to create a shared cinematic universe where all of them could coexist on the big screen.  An idea like this seemed natural, since it’s largely what goes on in the comic books themselves, but what shocked most people was the fact that Marvel planned to launch this with the most unlikely of characters; Tony Stark aka Iron Man.  Iron Man is an icon now, but a decade ago, he was largely viewed as second tier compared to the likes of Spider-Man.  But, it was a gamble that paid off and in many ways it was the key to the success of everything that followed after.  Iron Man was the pivotal foundation and it becomes all the more apparent when you stack up where his place at the start of a cinematic universe compares to another, with DC beginning it’s own universe on the back of it’s most iconic character; Superman.

“They say that the best weapon is the one you never have to fire.  I respectfully disagree.  I prefer the weapon you only have to fire once.”

Iron Man had long been in development for years, with few people ever seriously interested in making the film, or playing the character.  For a while, Tom Cruise expressed interest in playing Tony Stark, but the movie never materialized, and ironically Tom ended up being the foundational face of one of the most embarrassing launches for a failed cinematic universe ever, with his remake of The Mummy (2017) which was supposed to begin the Dark Universe.  The newly formed Marvel Studios finally took the character seriously, and knew right away that to make the character work, it needed people who were the right match.  Luckily they struck upon the likes of Jon Favreau, who as a director brought a unique sense of mixing action and humor that in many ways perfectly suited the wise-cracking character from the comics. But Favreau’s greatest decision would end up proving to be his casting choice for Iron Man.  You would think that the original inclination would be to go with a movie star of Tom Cruise’s caliber, but instead Favreau sought out Robert Downey Jr. for the role.  It’s true that Downey does bear a natural resemblance to Tony Stark as he’s been envisioned on the the comic page, but at the time, casting him in the role was seen as a huge risk.  After years of struggling through a crippling drug addiction and spending time in prison for multiple violations, Downey’s career as an actor was pretty much dead, so casting him in anything was a huge risk.  But, Marvel saw it Favreau’s way and took the chance, and it proved to be the beast choice they could ever make.  The reason for this is simple; Robert Downey Jr. was the only choice to play Tony Stark, because he is Tony Stark.  Stark himself is a self-destructive, arrogant character who seeks redemption and a chance to better himself, and that turn for the character closely mirrored Downey’s own spiral and climb back out of the abyss.  Both him and Favreau knew that it wasn’t the iron suit that made the hero, it was the person inside, and for the movie to work, you needed to faithfully capture that aspect of the character.  Downey’s contribution became the example that all future casting choices had to follow, and from the Marvel side, their continued success comes from knowing that you cast based on the person and not on how well they’ll look in the costume.

“Born on Krypton and raised on Earth, you had the best of both and were meant to be the bridge between two worlds.”

That has in many ways been where most other cinematic universes have fallen apart.  For DC, they have had a mixed result from their casting choices.  Some have worked out really well, like Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman or Jason Momoa as Aguaman, while others failed miserably, like Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor.  But where DC found itself at a disadvantage was not merely in how they cast the character, but in the lack of insight into knowing who these characters really are.  This was apparent in the movie that was meant to launch their own cinematic universe, titled Man of Steel (2013).  Steel was their relaunch of the Superman mythos, using their most iconic hero as a the foundation on which they would build the universe.  But one thing that we’ve come to learn from building a cinematic universe with already established characters is that if you are going to start from scratch, you need to find a way to make the character feel fresh again.  Marvel managed to do that successfully with both the Hulk and Spider-Man, largely by ignoring all past character development and just having the characters already established with their powers.  Man of Steel, however, opted to go right back to the beginning and show us Superman’s origin story again, which only made the movie feel superfluous, because it’s a story-line we already know and are not surprised by.  Not only that, but the movie lacks any real insight into Superman as a character, instead putting every development in his life up as a mark of destiny; that he was always meant to be this hero, and none of it feels earned in the end.  Actor Henry Cavill is fine in the role, and does indeed look the part, but his Superman doesn’t inspire us as well as past Supers like Christopher Reeve.  There never is that moment where he makes the choice to be Superman; to be that crusader for good in the world.  Iron Man devotes half it’s movie to watching Stark build and refine his super suit, showing how he’s devoting himself to becoming an ideal, using his skill set towards a greater purpose.  Man of Steel’s Superman just exists because the universe needs him to.

There truthfully is no comparison between characters, since Tony Stark is a mere mortal man who builds himself into a hero, while the other is a god among men who must learn the best way to use his gifts in life.  One starts as a hero, while the other grows into a hero.  But there is plenty of similarities that both movies share, and it mainly has to do with how they establish themselves as the bedrock of their cinematic universes.  Again, Marvel establishes it’s cinematic universe much better, but one can almost argue that they do it a bit too much in the movie.  For instance, there are Easter eggs thrown about all over the movie, that for some eagle eye viewers hints at movies that would be coming in the future, like seeing Captain America’s shield subtly placed on Tony Stark’s workbench in his underground lab.  The introduction of S.H.I.E.L.D. is also executed well as a part of the movie, with Samuel L. Jackson’s end credits appearance as Nick Fury now becoming the stuff of legend.  But the movie also sets up threads that never followed through in the MCU, like the introduction of the Ten Rings terrorist group, which was meant to allude to Iron Man nemesis The Mandarin, and we all saw how disappointing that thread turned out to be.  Marvel sometimes falls into the trap of planting too many seeds that never fully take root, and that’s apparent in Iron Man, where it seemed they got too carried away sometimes with their fan service.  Man of Steel by comparison plays it a little closer to the chest with their hints at a larger universe.  For the most part it sticks closely with Superman’s story-line, and only throws in the barest sampling of Easter eggs, like a brief glimpse of corporate logos for LexCorp and Wayne Enterprises.  With those, they could easily tease the things that we knew were coming next in the pipeline, namely Lex Luthor and Batman, and not have us distracted with universe wide elements known only to those who had read the comics.  Of course, they would blow it with the Easter Egg heavy Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, but at least Man of Steel knew to remain focused solely on Superman for the time being.

“Mr. Stark, you’ve become part of a bigger universe.  You just don’t know it yet.”

The other advantage that Man of Steel carried with it is the fact that Superman has a far more legendary rogues gallery.  Because of this, the stakes feel a little higher in Man of Steel than it does in Iron Man.  For someone as over-powered as Superman to feel vulnerable, you need to have him face a threat on an equal level, and Man of Steel does that with the character of General Zod, played by Michael Shannon.  A surviving Kryptonian like Superman, Zod matches the same power level, but combines this with a merciless, genocidal ambition for conquest.  General Zod seeks to make Earth the new home for his people, and that means wiping out the native human population in the process, which Superman has lived among and been raised by since he was sent there as a child.  For Superman, the fight with Zod is a confirmation of his duty to be Earth’s protector, and the movie does go out of it’s way to show that the confrontation with Zod is going to be the test of his full potential.  Even the much maligned death blow that Superman uses to stop Zod has a purposefulness in the story, because it places doubt in Superman’s mind if he did the right thing or not; which despite being out of character compared with the comics, does show a crucial development in his character that shows that he still is capable of being vulnerable.  Sadly, it didn’t help that director Zack Snyder made the baffling defense of this choice by saying that he believed Superman had to kill in order to learn that killing is wrong (???).  By contrast, Iron Man’s first nemesis is just a rival seeking to outshine his accomplishments out of pure pettiness, personified in the character of Obediah Stein.  Sure, they got an acting legend like Jeff Bridges to play the part, who does have a menacing presence in the film, but Stein’s whole plan is just to build another Iron Man suit, only bigger, becoming the Iron Monger.  Overall, he’s a weak villain that keeps the stakes pretty small in the original Iron Man.  And that has been the case with most of the Iron Man films, where the hero far outshines the villains, despite having excellent actors filling the roles like Mickey Rourke and Ben Kingsley.  In the end, Man of Steel benefited from a stronger villain, who almost made up for the lack of personality found in the hero himself.

For the most part, I did find more to like in the movie Man of Steel than dislike, but at the same time, it’s hard to ignore that it’s many flaws put the DCEU on such a rocky footing to begin with.  A lot of that falls on the clearly miscast choice of director with Zack Snyder.  Snyder was never a good fit with the character of Superman, because his style is so morose and devoid of light.  He makes a fine choice for stylistic and gritty comic adaptations like 300 (2007) and Watchmen (2009), but not for a character as inspirational and good-natured as Superman.  The biggest complaint about Man of Steel usually falls on the film’s muted color palette, which drains the joy out of the movie.  It’s a far cry from the lush, bright colors of Donner’s original, and for comic book fans especially, it probably felt like a betrayal to see the blue and red of Superman’s costume be so de-emphasized.  Man of Steel almost feels like a holdover from another era, where filmmakers almost felt ashamed of presenting a superhero dressed in brightly colored tights and a cape, and instead chose to make the costumes a little more modern and edgy.  Marvel on the other hand, not only has chosen to faithfully translate their comic character’s looks to the big screen, but they seem to celebrate it as well.  In Iron Man, during the process of building his final prototype for his suit, he decides to add a little “hot rod red” to the color scheme, matching the gold and red colors that the character model is famous for in the comics.  This example has follow through with every Marvel character since, with Spider-Man returning back to his tights and Captain America proudly donning the red white and blue across his armor.  More than anything, this brought the super hero genre out of it’s misguided tilt toward gritty make-overs and instead showed that it indeed was worthwhile to embrace everything fun about the characters, even their campy looks.  Only now are we seeing DC finally adopt that ideal as well, with the light-hearted Shazam being the most recent example.  Unfortunately, the Snyder style stuck to DC for far too long and hampered any chance of it striking the same chord with an audience that Marvel managed to achieve.

“I was bred to be a warrior, Kal.  Trained my entire life to master my senses.  Where did you train? ON A FARM?”

It’s hard to think what Marvel’s Cinematic Universe might have been like had Iron Man had not been it’s starting off point.  Jon Favreau’s deft and well-intentioned approach is what Marvel needed for the launch of their ambitious plans, and it is remarkable that it was all built around an actor who once was considered to be un-hirable in Hollywood.  The tables have certainly turned, and not only is Iron Man now an A-List super hero in the same league as Superman and Batman, but he’s even carried Spider-Man under his wing.  Robert Downey Jr.’s on-screen charisma no doubt endeared the character to fans around the world, and it’s clear why he gave it his all over so many years.  You could say that the life that Iron Man saved above all was that of the actor playing him.  The movie saved his reputation, has kept him clean and sober for over a decade now, and has made him fans all over the world, something he certainly indulges as he promotes the movies worldwide in a fashion not all that dissimilar from the persona of Tony Stark.  Hollywood loves a redemption story, and the real life one involving Robert Downey Jr. has been just that.  Sadly, Superman’s most recent big screen outing hasn’t carried that inspiring story along with it.  Henry Cavill, a talented actor in his own right, felt burdened by the lack of direction with his character and after a while, he felt that it just wasn’t worth continuing, so as of right now, Superman’s future on the big screen is once again in limbo.  If DC had put more effort into the character, and given him a story arc as inspiring as that of Iron Man, they may have been able to hold onto their actors as long as Marvel has managed to hold onto theirs.  The saddest part is that Cavill’s Superman doesn’t get the closure that he deserves, which is especially unfortunate considering how satisfying the departures in Avengers: Endgame turned out.  It all shows that when you plan to build a major cinematic universe, it helps to make sure that you are getting it right the first time, and that involves a little bit of risk, a whole lot of luck, as well as embracing what made these characters beloved in the first place.  That’s why Marvel are the kings of Hollywood right now, because they gambled and won, whereas DC tried to put their best horse forward and had him stumble out of the gate in a race he shouldn’t have started in the first place.  All the more remarkable is that all of this, the MCU and this era of cinematic universes, was all started by a once disgraced actor playing man who built a suit of iron in a cave with a box of scraps.

“I…AM…IRON MAN.”

Enjoy the Show – The Audience Experience and the Impact of Appointment Viewing

It’s difficult to quantify just how enormous last weekend was in pop culture.  Within the span of just a couple days, we saw two of the most highly anticipated culminations in two of the most popular franchises in media finally premiere; one on the movie screen and the other on television.  For the big screen, we saw Marvel Studios’ Avengers: Endgame not only break box office records, but crush them, grossing $357 million domestic in three days, as well as an astounding $1.2 billion worldwide.  And then, a short two days later, the popular series Game of Thrones premiered it’s much anticipated climatic episode titled “The Long Night,” which presented a much hyped showdown that has been teased ever since the very first episode back in 2011.  Though one was wrapping up it’s story-line while the other was hitting it’s apex, the thing that they had in common was that these were moments that had been building up among their fan bases for nearly a decade, and it’s just by coincidence that they coincided on the same, late April weekend.  And the reactions to both were intense, becoming the most talked about points of discussion for the entire week that followed, and will most likely continue for months after.  But the other thing they have in common is that they show the power of communal viewership in helping to drive up the success of each film or show.  People came to the movie theater and tuned in to HBO because they wanted to be there right at the beginning to experience this moment in time with others who share their fandom.  Most likely, the biggest driving force is that people watched so that they wouldn’t be exposed to spoilers, but there’s also the fact that watching something together as part of a crowd experience has it’s own kind of appeal.  And that fan experience is something that Hollywood has tried hard to manage as the habits of movie goers and the demand for content has changed dramatically over the years.

The industry has given a term to the kinds of movies and shows that generate the kind of fan anticipation that we saw from this last weekend; that term being the “water cooler shows”.   This refers to the expected interactions that people have at their workplaces talking to their friends or colleagues about what they watched the night before on television or at the movies, usually taking place around the office water coolers.  They are just casual discussions between everyday people, but those water cooler talks do impact the hype built around event movies and TV episodes, with “word of mouth” becoming it’s own valuable tool.  The industry surprising relies heavily on these kinds of interactions to help get their products the right amount of exposure, but because they can’t influence every single viewer out there to say the right thing, it’s also can be an unreliable resource for building hype as well.  Social Media has helped give studios a better inlet into helping guide the fan to fan interactions; as evidenced by Marvel’s “Don’t Spoil the Endgame” hashtag that went around the internet prior to the film’s release.  And remarkably, fans responded in unison to the demands from the filmmakers to not spoil the details of the movie; even to the extreme extent like what happened to a poor fan in Hong Kong.  But, even with the tools that better allows for coordination within fan communities, Hollywood is still finding itself having to work at a disadvantage when it comes to bringing new eyes to their products.  Audience viewing habits, as they have always done, have changed from generation to generation, and right now we are witnessing yet another shift in that flow, and it’s one that is starting to entirely change the way we watch media in general.  This is the beginning of the streaming era in entertainment, and on demand entertainment is starting to bring an end to things like appointment viewing, which has been a staple of the industry for most of it’s history.  And now, the movie industry is beginning to wonder if it’s even worth putting so much money behind these kind of big events anymore.  The sad truth is that in order to make these colossal fan experiences happen, whatever production company behind it has to pour in a lot of money, and fewer of them are able to take that risk anymore.  But, by understating the appeal of sharing a moment of fandom with other people and stating that this kind of appointment viewing is the only way to experience it, it may be the only way to save the traditional movie-going and television viewing experience from going away in a world dominated by streaming content.

It helps to look back and see how Hollywood has developed it’s interaction with audiences over the years.  In the early years of the industry, studios not only produced the means of creating movies, but also the means of presenting them to the public.  Fox, Paramount, Warner Brothers, RKO, and other major studios all owned movie theaters across the country, and through this they were able to manage exactly what was going to be available to see in every market across the country.  It didn’t matter what was being shown, just as long as people were buying a ticket every day at one of their theaters.  Because of this, audiences would never stay and watch an entire program at the theater.  It was a more casual come and go as you please place to escape for people, and audiences were there more to see the movie stars and less for the stories, though this era did produce it’s fair share of great movies.  The advent of television and the breaking up of the studio system ended the monopoly of studio owned theaters caused the studios to rethink their strategies dramatically for the first time, and that led to the addition of gimmicks to bring audiences out of their homes for something that could only be experienced on the big screen.  Some of those gimmicks took hold, like widescreen, while others didn’t, like 3D and Smell-o-vision.  But, even though they helped bring viewers back into the theaters, audiences still behaved the same way as they did before, coming and going as they pleased.  It wasn’t until Alfred Hitchcock made his ground-breaking thriller Psycho (1960) that this audience behavior began to change.  Hitchcock demanded that every theater showing Psycho had to put up a warning for audiences stating that if they didn’t watch the movie from beginning to end, then they wouldn’t have gotten the authentic experience; referring of course to the movie’s famous mid-film  twist where the main character played by Janet Leigh is killed in the shower.  Word got around and audiences took Hitchcock at his word, and it turned Psycho not just into a box office hit, but a culturally significant moment.  And, because of it’s example, audiences began to change their viewing habits at the movie theater, making sure to arrive before a movie begins in order to experience the whole thing in one sitting, just in case it had a mid-film twist like Psycho.  Over time, this became the norm, and audiences have never returned to that original casual viewing in theaters ever again.

Though Psycho changed the way we watch the movies in the theater, it was really the era of the blockbuster that cemented the theater going experience as something paramount to the fan experience.  There were movies released over the next couple decades that demanded to be seen in the theaters, like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) for it’s visuals and William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) for it’s ability to scare audiences to death.  But it would be George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977) that would change the movie going experience completely that still has it’s ripples felt throughout the industry today.  Borrowing inspiration strangely enough from the serials of Hollywood’s early years (you know, those years when audiences came and went as they pleased) Star Wars built it’s narrative over multiple films, leading to the formation of a fanbase that not only kept returning to the theaters to watch movies over and over again, but also could be relied upon to return whenever they had something new.  Star Wars became the template for all future franchise building in the decades that followed, and you can see it’s influence in everything from The Lord of the Rings, to Harry Potter, to even the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Game of Thrones.  All these monster franchises succeed on their own merits, but the one thing that they all took from Star Wars is the notion of treating the audience as an integral part of it’s existence.  These franchises don’t just create movies or shows, they create communities, allowing fans to discover one another and bring them together.  And most importantly, they know how to satisfy and prepare it’s fan base for what’s coming next.  Star Wars in particular has accomplished this to remarkable effect, as evidenced back in 1998, when people bought tickets to a movie just so they could view a teaser trailer for Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999).  Couple this the fact that people would camp over several nights outside a movie theater just to get the best possible seats just shows how pivotal fan bases have become to building a franchise’s power within the industry.

But, there is something in the industry that has changed the way we watch movies and television, and part of this has stemmed from the many drawbacks that going to a movie theater has.  When we go to the movies, we have to accept the fact that we are going to be in a dark windowless room with a bunch of strangers, and not all of them are going to have the same kind of movie theater etiquette that you do.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had my viewing experience spoiled because the people behind me decided it was appropriate to carry on a conversation while the movie is playing.  Not only that, but there are all the other pet peeves like noisy kids, people kicking the back of your chair, a cell phone ringing during a quiet scene in a movie or worse somebody turning their phone on and the bright glare flashing right back in your eyes.  Also, not every theater has the best level of upkeep, and you often might find yourself walking through aisles with sticky floors and stray pieces of trash all around.  I myself had to work as an usher in a movie theater, and though I tried my best to be thorough, there’s only a short window of time to get the job done between showings, so some things would often fall through the cracks during clean-up.  Over time, the movie going experience has more or less become commonplace in our culture, and it no longer has the allure of being something special in our lives, especially in an era when multiplexes have put the old ornate movie houses out of business.  Because of this, more people are just content to stay at home and watch a movie from the comforts of their living room, with theaters reserved only for special occasions.  For a time, Hollywood could manage with this decline in audience satisfaction, because the movie theaters were still the only place that first run movies could be seen.  But with the recent increase in original content coming from the likes of Netflix and Hulu, with Disney and Apple about to take the plunge as well later this year, multiplexes are finally being confronted with the possibility that they may lose their audiences for good.

Here’s the conundrum for audiences going into this new era of film-making.  Streaming content has opened up a wealth of new things to be excited about, as platforms like Netflix are putting their money behind bolder and more risk-taking projects, the kind that movie theaters tend to shy away from because it brings uncertainty of box office returns.  At the same time, there is something that gets lost when people have all their content available whenever they want.  Appointment viewing is something we’ve taken for granted over the years, not really realizing just how instrumental a part it played in making someone a fan.  The water cooler talks that we would have at work, school, or wherever were all about sharing experiences and shaping a bond with others through a shared fandom.  But, that fandom usually built over time through anticipation for what was going to come next.  In the case of TV shows, you could have a week’s worth of hyping yourself and others up for what was going to come next, all of which was creating the result that more and more people had to watch the next episode all at the same time, or they would be missing out.  That’s why so many of these fan bases are so devoted, because for many of them, this has been a shared experience that becomes so much of their life.  But that’s starting to change now that we’ve moved from an appointment viewing culture to a binge watching culture.  Now people are watching all their shows and movies in big chunks, which while it still allows the person to appreciate the quality of the film or show, it takes away the feeling of anticipation that would usually come between episodes, when audiences were left to wonder over several days about what’s going to happen next.  It’s that down time to process the story that helps to give an extra amount of appreciation that we’ve seemed to take for granted.  Sure, Orange is the New Black and Stranger Things have their fan bases to be sure, but you wonder if Netflix had mandated a longer roll-out of their programming like you see on traditional TV for their shows that they may have grown even more audiences over time.  The Netflix model has also taken away some of the shared audience experience as well, as binge watching has become a far more solitary experience for people since they are doing it all on their own time, and not when the platform says they should see it.

For some, this is an acceptable change, because they were never happy to watch a movie in a theater nor a show at a time that was inconvenient to them.  And those audiences have finally found their ideal form of content consumption with streaming entertainment.  But, there are many fans who prefer the in theater experience more than anything else, and that has many people concerned that streaming platforms are causing the industry to abandon the traditional forms of presentation that have been so crucial in bringing fan communities together.  This is more so a problem with television than with movies, because TV shows are definitely skewing more in the direction towards satisfying binge watchers rather than appointment watchers.  It almost makes Game of Thrones feel like the last big hurrah for appointment viewership, because there really isn’t another TV series on any network or cable channel that has continually grown it audience to this kind of level.  In time, we may see an end to the idea of the water cooler show, as more and more people watch their television at different speeds, either all at once or over the course of a long period.  And that could result in no show ever reaching that same Game of Thrones level ever again, which could change the fan making communities that Hollywood relies on into something very different.  In order for the industry to retain a little bit of that traditional sense of fan appreciation, they should look at the things that Game of Thrones did right for so many years, which is build an anticipation of unpredictability over time.  When the infamous “Red Wedding” episode premiered, it shook the industry like never before, but what really worked in the show’s favor was that it let the moment simmer over a week before the next episode, allowing audiences to absorb the shock.  Now, Thrones fans know to not take anything for granted and to watch every episode from here out just in case something even more shocking happens.  That’s what each show should really understand, that every episode matters, and each one should have just enough time down time in between to let the story sink in.  With binge watching, you really appreciate the narrative, but with appointment viewing , you appreciate the moments in between even more.

The last thing I think that the industry should consider when reaching it’s audience is to make them excited that they are all discovering a thing together.  What really stuck out to me when watching Avengers: Endgame at the movie theater last week was just how intense the audiences reactions were.  It becomes even more than just about getting ahead of spoilers; it’s about feeling the excitement in the room with your fellow fans.  I know that there are some out there that hate it when people cheer in a movie theater, but when the film earns it and is specially formatted to allow for cheering audiences like Avengers is, then it works to enhance the experience overall.  There’s one part in Endgame that I won’t spoil, but it led to an almost continuous two and a half minutes of cheering from an enthusiastic audience, and it felt good to join in with them.  That’s something that I wish was spotlighted more when it comes to promoting these kinds of movies, because the level energy from an audience creates it’s own kind of entertainment.  Game of Thrones likewise is able to do that.  If you watch reaction videos on YouTube, you can see a wide variety of live responses to what happened in each episode.  Last week’s episode in particular, “The Long Night” has a moment at it’s conclusion where a character makes their big move, and some of the reactions online to this moment are just as dramatic.  There were some videos taken from bars and even theaters reacting to this episode, and people reacted to this character moment like the person had just scored the winning goal in the World Cup.  If HBO, or any producer for that manner, wants to find a way to create another show or movie that has the same impact, just look at what these large gatherings of people respond to.  Fan communities are a powerful force in generating the direction of entertainment, and finding exactly what makes them all stand up and cheer at once is the key to finding your biggest successes.  The past weekend showed us why it’s important to understand the role an audience plays and that appointment viewing is a necessary part in letting appreciation for an art-form grow over time.  Movies and shows are there to make us laugh, cry and cheer and it’s better to do it together than by ourselves.  Sometimes an audience just needs to let go and  trust that the wait will be worth it in the end.