I’m watching Ant-Man. It was last on my list to get me updated on the events of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and I’m enjoying it. Lovable hero, hateable villain and a slew of action scenes that are fun and innovative. I even laughed out loud when the dude who played Avon Barksdale in The Wire sees a giant ant and says “Whoa, that’s one messed up looking dog”.
After watching the obligatory mid-credits teaser, I’m ready to enjoy even more of this multi-billion dollar superhero steamroller that now includes fantastic TV shows and obscure heroes from both Marvel and DC Comics. I knew nothing about Peggy Carter or Star-Lord before jumping into these stories but I came away very entertained. I’m looking forward to the Black Panther movie, Season 2 of Daredevil and Suicide Squad. Boy oh boy, if you had told me fifteen years ago that comic book movies would be the dominant global power in cinema, I would have thought you were as crazy as Lex Luthor. I mean, the first X-Men movie was good but now there’s a TV show with Hawkgirl in it. Academy Award nominee Benedict Cumberbatch is starring in a Doctor Strange movie. In a couple of years, even your nana will know who Thanos is. What a time to be alive.
Sure, there’s been a few dips in the road. Not everybody liked Green Lantern, The Hulk is still having trouble finding his footing in his own movies and despite my own personal taste, Man Of Steel was downright hated by some people. So, while we can’t all be Tony Stark, there’s been something for everybody when it comes to superheroes. With all that in mind, I think most of us can agree there was one point in these last sixteen glorious years (if you count X-Men as the starting point) where this shining armour of successful and critically-acclaimed comic book movies received its first dent. It was a dent by the name of Ultron.
While not a below average film, the second Avengers adventure seemed like the first moment a lot of fans started to unconsciously shift as they sat in the cinema. There was something about it that was…dulled. Like a trusty old knife that we’ve used just one too many times. It was great to see our favourite icons of Marvel back together but after it was all over, the impact wasn’t the same as when Loki tried to destroy New York. To be honest, I can’t quite remember the whole middle section of Age Of Ultron. Andy Serkis was in there I think, doing something. Didn’t we spend like twenty eight minutes with Hawkeye’s family?
It makes no difference, of course. With at least thirty movies and TV shows ready to explode over the next five years, our money is already laid down. We will lap up every new trailer like someone who just crawled out of the desert into an oasis. Our unstoppable thirst knows no limits at this stage. Captain America: Civil War looks awesome and it would be wonderful if that Wonder Woman movie turns out to be good. And yet, in a place we can’t really put our finger on, that twinge of Ultron remains.
When we look back into the twentieth century, comic book movies were almost permanently ruined by Batman & Robin. Before Heath Ledger’s Joker was deemed Oscar-worthy, the Dark Knight had a bat-credit card with an expiry date of FOREVER and every word out of Mr Freeze’s mouth made you want to go home and burn your comics. Marvel movies weren’t even on the horizon while DC Comics were thinking the idea of Shaquille O’Neal in a low-rent Robocop suit was cinematic gold. Things weren’t good. There was a stench around superhero movies and it wouldn’t come off for a few years yet.
Running parallel alongside comic book films were video game movies. A lemon that Hollywood studios had been desperately trying to squeeze money from for years. Perhaps as a result of this money-hungry process, a template was created that most, if not all, of these movies would adhere to. A rushed, haphazard production resulting in a mess of a film that bears little resemblance to the source material. Astonishingly, in the years that followed, nobody was able crack this nut. While comic book movies found their feet in 2000 and became a tsunami of global success, movies based on video games would merely reach the heights of being mediocre at best. Despite a callback character here or a cool action scene there, there has never been a soup-to-nuts, three-act, completely solid video game movie. Certainly none that has approached the level of a Dark Knight or Captain America: Winter Soldier.
Let’s take a moment to study just how bad things have gotten. The highest rated video game movie on Rotten Tomatoes is, believe it or not, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. It sits at a rating of 44%. Not even halfway to a critically acclaimed movie. It’s followed closely by Prince Of Persia and Mortal Kombat, both with 33%. And despite generating over $950 million in box office sales, the Resident Evil series first entry is its best reviewed movie. Rated slightly below the adaptation of Dead Or Alive.
Then there’s the case of Uwe Boll. When you think of video game movies, his name immediately comes to mind. A auteur of awful, his string of catastrophically bad video game adaptations placed an almost immovable stain on these types of movies. Alone In The Dark, House Of The Dead, Postal, Bloodrayne and Far Cry are never mentioned at any lunch table in Hollywood that matters. Boll is still out there though. In 2014, he made a third In The Name Of The King movie (which is still apparently based on Dungeon Siege) starring one of the main actors from Prison Break. He also had a failed Kickstarter movie campaign in 2015 which ended in a Youtube video of him telling anyone who didn’t fund his project to “go fuck yourself”.
Putting Boll’s hilarious train wreck of a career aside, there wasn’t much to cling onto for anyone who wanted video game movies to stand up and be counted. The most vehement defense I’ve always heard from people when trying to claim that one of these movies had any merit was “parts of it were pretty good”. Not ‘amazing’ or ’masterpiece’, just that certain scenes were better than others.
The other main problem is the widespread acceptance that plots of video games can’t be translated to the medium of film. Hence the need to change so much of the source material in almost every adaptation. Characters, settings, story points and pretty much everything else is consistently skewed to fit a director’s vision rather than an already established universe. This theme seems ludicrous in 2016 when placed next to the slavish adherence that comic book movies have for their heroes. Iron Man is inherently Tony Stark but Paul W.S. Anderson decided on the newly-created character of ‘Alice’ rather than Chris Redfield and Jill Valentine in Resident Evil. You couldn’t imagine Batman not fighting the Joker in Gotham City and yet M.Bison is a white American man who wants to consolidate real estate in Street Fighter: The Legend Of Chun Li. And since when does Max Payne see flying demons or have a boss that looks like Ludacris?
The argument that you couldn’t directly take the story of a video game and make it into an interesting movie has never held true to me. While the length of the plot would obviously require trimming, how is it that a story of a team of special forces police trapped in a spooky mansion is considered unfilmable? There’s a secret laboratory underneath the house, a zombie conspiracy threatening the nearby town and one of the team is a traitor. Sounds like a summer blockbuster to me. So why introduce an evil computer hologram girl? Were evil computer hologram girls testing well with audiences that week? I don’t understand and I don’t think I ever will.
After the stink of Hitman: Agent 47 has faded (7% on Rotten Tomatoes, by the way), there may be some light at the end of this rancid sewer tunnel for the first time ever. This year, there’s two video game adaptations on the horizon being made by directors who already have commercially successful and critically-acclaimed films on their resume. While this isn’t new (Prince Of Persia was directed by Mike Newell, after all), there seems to be some rejuvenated life that has been injected into these adaptations that could prove to break the spell. Duncan Jones’ Warcraft and Justin Kurzel’s Assassin’s Creed are the best chance video game movies have ever had to crawl out of the hole of eternal contempt. Jones directed the cerebral thrillers Moon and Source Code and Kurzel’s resume includes Snowtown and Macbeth. Obviously, if you’ve seen the brutal true-crime saga Snowtown then an Assassin’s Creed movie made by the same person would at least raise an eyebrow. If not drop your jaw.
But the key to bring it all together is Ultron. That first hint of shaky ground presented by the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a perfect opportunity for video game movies to strike a decisive blow in the realm of no longer being crap. An open door for people who have had just about enough of superhero movies to step through. Starting to think all these Marvel movies are cut from the same factory cloth? There might be a new kid in town.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Video game movies have a LONG way to go if they ever want to even have a chance to play in the big leagues. They are still considered laughable trash any way you cut it. On top of that, the amount of games that have been optioned by movie studios only to lay in the squalor of development hell is substantial. Currently, there’s tentative plans to make movies based on Asteroids, Gears Of War, Watch Dogs, Five Nights At Freddy’s, Joust, Dead Space, Myst, Tetris, Space Invaders, Dante’s Inferno, Rampage, Mass Effect, Dead Island, Mega Man, The Last Of Us, Bioshock, Deus Ex, Minecraft, Temple Run, Sonic The Hedgehog, Uncharted, Sly Cooper and Dragon’s Lair. There are no doubt a lot more sitting around gathering dust but that’s plenty to be going on with. Will any of these be made? Will they be any good? I guess we’ll know more after Jones and Kurzel deliver their work to our movie screens later this year. Maybe then the ridiculous notion of a Myst movie might seem viable.
It’s a strange thing to imagine. Comic book movies drying up and being replaced by video game adaptations. Can you picture an award winning actor as JC Denton? Or a live-action version of Wrex walking around the Normandy? These ideas seem insane right now but just keep in mind that Kenneth Branagh directed a Thor movie. A concept so mad that it could only be matched by…Michael Fassbender starring in an Assassin’s Creed movie. Which is a real thing that is actually happening.
The first Silent Hill movie is where any faith I had in video game movies being made with any sort of success finally disappeared. While the movie looked like Silent Hill, the characters were different, the story was different and it was clear nobody involved really wanted to make this movie into something memorable. Pyramid Head showed up a couple of times and he looked great but the constant vibe of apathy throughout the film was far too strong. Since then, any announcement of a video game movie is immediately met with disdain. Why bother? No good will come of it. Which is bizarre when you sit down to think about it. No matter what, when this particular source material is mined for a movie, it never turns out the way anybody wanted. And certainly not to a point where it’s poking its nose into awards season. An entire genre of films that are, for the most part, artistically worthless. It’s a really strange sensation and one that is so generally accepted that even when “serious” directors or actors get involved, our initial thought is they might be either crazy or simply completing some awful contractual obligation.
Will this circus of perpetual mediocrity turn it around and become worthwhile? It’s too early to tell but 2016 has the first glint on the horizon of a better future for this particular brand of entertainment. But then again, why does anybody want this? The games we play and cherish are right there anytime we want. What purpose does a live-action version serve? Is it really that important that we should keep bashing our heads against this wall in the hope that quality will finally fall out?
I bet Jessica Jones fans asked themselves the same questions.
This article was first published by Kotaku Australia on 1st February 2016.