#312. Crossovers

Popular culture has created a lot of memorable characters over the years. Most of the time, these characters exist in their own, unique universes. However, every once in a while these universes are shown to be part of a larger, more complex universe. In combining these realms, the characters are allowed to cross over into the domains of other famous figures. Usually, these crossovers are possible because an overarching company owns the rights to the characters at large. From Marvel and DC’s respective cinematic universes to Disney’s Kingdom Hearts and Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros. video game series, fans love to see their favorite characters interacting together. Even the Hannah-Barbara universe (which gave us The Flintstones meet The Jetsons (1987)) knew this back in the day. This week’s two films look at some character crossovers.

Van HelsingVan Helsing
Year: 2004
Rating: PG-13
Length: 131 minutes / 2.18 hours

During the first golden age of cinema in the 1930s, Universal found success in bringing some of the world’s monsters to life. All the popular Halloween staples like Frankenstein (1931), Dracula (1931), The Mummy (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), and The Wolfman (1941) are part of the Universal Studios repertoire. It’s no wonder these characters spawned numerous sequels and crossovers back in their time. Even today, films like Hotel Transylvania (2012) capitalize on their shared universe. Of course, while this animated film is more comedic, Universal brought out their monsters almost a decade earlier in the action-packed Van Helsing (2004), tying them all together via the titular character, who himself was based on the vampire hunter found in the Bram Stoker novel, Dracula. With the current popularity of cinematic universes, look for these monsters to be rebooted soon.

After Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) neutralized the threat of Mr. Hyde (Robbie Coltrane) in the bell tower of Notre-Dame Cathedral (likely also a reference to another famous hunchback), he is sent by the Vatican to Transylvania to kill Dracula (Richard Roxburgh). Intel they have received from Igor (Kevin J. O’Connor) informs them that Victor Frankenstein (Samuel West) is collaborating with Dracula to bring a horde of dead vampire children back to life. Upon finding Frankenstein’s monster (Shuler Hensley), Van Helsing learns the reason Dracula’s experiment failed was due to the missing monster. The werewolf (Will Kemp), one of Dracula’s lackeys, also learns this information and runs off to tell his master where the reanimated monster has been hiding. Unbeknownst to Dracula, the Vatican has just learned how to defeat the immortal vampire and lets Van Helsing know before their final showdown.

The Brothers GrimmThe Brothers Grimm
Year: 2005
Rating: PG-13
Length: 118 minutes / 1.97 hours

Much like Shakespeare in Love (1998) revealed the fictional inspiration for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, The Brothers Grimm (2005) delves into a potential origin story for the famed fairy tale founders. Both the TV shows Once Upon a Time and Grimm have taken the numerous Grimm fairy tales and combined them into their own shared universes, the former of which did so via their Disney interpretations. Stories like Snow White (1937), Cinderella (1950), Sleeping Beauty (1959), and Rapunzel (via Tangled (2010)) all received their Disney treatment over the years. These films don’t even touch on Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, and Rumpelstiltskin, all of which reside within the same Grimm fairytale universe. With these stories in mind, seeing their potential origins in The Brothers Grimm helps to give an idea of the brothers’ inspirations.

Con artists Wilhelm (Matt Damon) and Jakob (Heath Ledger) Grimm soon find themselves out of their depth when they discover that an actual supernatural threat has been causing the girls of a remote village to disappear. An immortal Queen (Monica Bellucci) has been stealing the girls’ youth via an enchanted mirror. While she cannot leave the tall tower where she lives, a werewolf huntsman (Tomáš Hanák) does her bidding. In helping to rid the huntsman of his werewolf curse, Will becomes entrapped by the Queen’s magic, leaving Jake to shatter the magic mirror and releasing the youthful energy trapped within it. Even with the Queen defeated, the girls of the village remain trapped in a state of slumber. It’s up to Jake to kiss the last of the 12 girls to wake them all up and break the final piece of the curse. With the adventure over, the brothers mull over the idea of writing down their experiences.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 conglomerations of characters

#198. Jeremy Renner

Have you ever noticed that some actors just appear out of nowhere? One year, they’re doing minor roles, then the next they’re on the red carpet, nominated for an acting Oscar. Depending on how long they’ve been acting before they break onto the A-list scene, their career will often flourish and grow from this point forward. The visual recognition of someone really helps to bolster their involvement in bigger-budget films, thus propelling them further into stardom. The trick then remains of maintaining that visibility in cinema. Some can do it well and eventually win the awards they were nominated for when they arrived on the scene. Others burn out and aren’t seen much after a few years. Jeremy Renner is definitely the former of these two scenarios, and this week we will highlight two of his leading roles.

The Bourne LegacyThe Bourne Legacy
Year: 2012
Rating: PG-13
Length: 135 minutes / 2.25 hours

One way to maintain your popularity with audiences is to become involved with a franchise. This way, you will always have a role to fall back on if your other projects don’t pan out. After Jeremy Renner hit the scene in the late 2000s, he was picked up on two long-running and popular franchises. These two franchises put him alongside some famous actors, which means he’s still in a supporting role for now. In the Mission Impossible franchise, Renner portrays William Brandt, the chief analyst to the IMF Secretary, whereas, in The Avengers (2012), he portrays Clint Barton (codename: Hawkeye), an archer agent for S.H.I.E.L.D. These two roles fit in nicely with his involvement in another action franchise: the Bourne series. Instead of a support role, he takes on the main spotlight in the fourth film for this franchise that relied on Matt Damon for three movies.

In the world of covert government operations, the Department of Defense has its own “super soldier” program in “Operation Outcome.” This is a different program from the Treadstone and Blackbriar initiatives run by the CIA, the very same of which created the titular Jason Bourne (Matt Damon). One of Operation Outcome’s best agents is Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), who is in Alaska for a training exercise. Even though the DoD program uses chemical enhancements of its soldiers, the fact that the CIA programs are now under increased scrutiny causes them to shut down Outcome. After surviving a drone attack on the Alaskan cabin where he was staying, Cross soon finds out that the “chems” he uses for his job are the only thing keeping him alive. He’s addicted and must now carefully find his way back to society to get more of his pills, all the while evading government detection.

The Hurt LockerThe Hurt Locker
Year: 2008
Rating: R
Length: 131 minutes / 2.18 hours

Before The Hurt Locker (2008), Jeremy Renner was in a lot of films that didn’t do very well, critically speaking. Most see his involvement with this Best Picture as his arrival as a movie star. The nomination he received for Best Actor in this film was also evidence to this as well. It wasn’t long before he was nominated again, this time for Best Supporting Actor in The Town (2010). Even though he wasn’t nominated for anything in American Hustle (2013), the fact that he is regularly cast in films that are seen as award-worthy shows he has figured out how to prolong his career. The strategy is twofold: act in “fun” films to get audiences to like you, while also making sure to act in “serious” films to get the critics to like you. I look forward to seeing if this strategy will pay off for him as he continues his career.

A fitting match to the aforementioned The Bourne Legacy (2012), the opening quote of The Hurt Locker is quite apt, “The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug.” William James (Jeremy Renner) is a Sergeant First Class who is assigned to Iraq to lead an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) unit for the U.S. Army. After a series of close calls and diffused bombs, it becomes clear James does what he wants, regardless of the consequences to him or his team. Unfortunately for his team, he gets results. The thrill of adventure soon disappears as he is sent home to his wife, Connie James (Evangeline Lilly). Raising their infant son together doesn’t provide nearly enough excitement, so William decides to go back to Iraq to do what he loves: diffusing the bombs that threaten the safety of everyone.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 remarkable Renner roles

Bacon #: 2 (American Hustle / Robert DeNiro -> Sleepers / Kevin Bacon)

#048. Robert Downey Jr.

Robert Downey Jr. is one of those actors who has been on the screen for almost his entire life. And while much of his early work isn’t really remembered (he did manage to get an Oscar Nomination for playing Charlie Chaplin), his meteoric rise in recent years has come with the apt casting of two iconic roles. What is probably more impressive is that, after battling drug addiction around the turn of the century, Robert Downey Jr. has cleaned up his act and has managed to get back on his feet as an actor. Even though the characters he tends to play really end up eating the scenery, like in A Scanner Darkly (2006) or Tropic Thunder (2008) (another Oscar-nominated role), when the characters are supposed to be smug and elitist, magic happens. This week’s two films highlight two of Robert Downey Jr.’s most recent powerhouse performances.

The Avengers
Year: 2012
Rating: PG-13
Length: 143 minutes / 2.38 hours

When the time came for Marvel to make a live-action version of their comic book superhero, Iron Man, Robert Downey Jr. was chosen by director Jon Favreau because there were a few parallels between the actor and character’s lives that Favreau wanted to tap into. What resulted was pure genius. Starring in another sequel two years later, Iron Man soon became the most popular Marvel superhero since Spider-Man. Two years after Iron Man 2 (2010), Downey Jr. reprised his role as Tony Stark / Iron Man in the superhero collaboration, The Avengers (2012). As shown clearly on the theatrical poster, Iron Man is front and center due to the popularity of the franchise that he helped create.

After being told that he wouldn’t fit in well with a group of other superheroes, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is nevertheless drafted to become part of the Avengers initiative when the Norse trickster god, Loki (Tom Middleton) arrives on Earth, ready to cause trouble. With the help of Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and other operatives of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson)), the threat of annihilation is eventually met head-on. The unique traits of these superheroes cause much discord between them at the beginning, but soon they learn that they must put aside their differences to save the world. And if they can’t save it, you’d better believe they’d avenge it!

Sherlock Holmes
Year: 2009
Rating: PG-13
Length: 128 minutes / 2.13 hours

After the amazing success of Robert Downey Jr.’s role as Iron Man during the previous year, he was once again tapped to play another iconic character. This time, the smug superiority was successfully applied to Sherlock Holmes, the quintessential detective from the literary works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Just like the Iron Man franchise, Sherlock Holmes is in its own franchise as well. As a result, Robert Downey Jr. is now playing the lead in two successful franchises. While I’m sure this means he can’t act in many other roles, due to the multitude of sequels these franchises demand, I’m also sure that he enjoys playing these characters, as his portrayals tend to be light and fun.

At the start of this film, Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and Dr. Watson (Jude Law) have just finished up another case, resulting in the imprisonment, conviction, and hanging of Lord Blackwell (Mark Strong). And yet, the real mystery has just begun. When it appears as though Blackwell has risen from the dead, Holmes delves deeper into what was actually being planned. As more people are killed in mysterious ways, soon it becomes evident that the handful of incidents were mere triggers for a larger plot to adjust the political landscape of England. Can Holmes solve the mystery in time to save the day, or will he be a few steps behind in a battle of wits?

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 great Robert Downey Jr. roles

Bacon #: 2 (The Avengers / Clark Gregg -> The Air I Breathe / Kevin Bacon)

#047. DC vs. Marvel

Similar to the rivalry I wrote about earlier between DreamWorks and Disney, the two comic book powerhouses, DC and Marvel are also competing for your box office money. Around the turn of the 21st century, the comic book movie really started to take off. Granted, there had been films in the ’70s and ’80s about comic book heroes (most notably, Superman (1978) and Batman (1989)), but the entire genre of the comic book action film really didn’t hit its stride until the new millennium. Films like Spider-Man (2002) and The Punisher (2004) pushed Marvel into a field that had only been successfully covered by DC heroes. And yet, with more and more heroes being covered with their own individual films, a shift began to occur. This week’s two films highlight the jewels in their respective comic book competitors’ crowns.

The Dark Knight Rises
Year: 2012
Rating: PG-13
Length: 165 minutes / 2.75 hours

When someone asks you to name a superhero, the majority of people will say one of two names: Superman or Batman. These two icons of the comic book world are serious powerhouses for DC, as shown by the plethora of sequels and reboots these franchises have been given. Not only have we had Christopher Reeve as Superman, but next year we’ll see yet another attempt at rebooting the Man of Steel franchise (ironically enough, with Christopher Nolan playing a key role in its production). And while the Batman franchise started out well with Tim Burton’s vision of a dark, but less silly Batman (far removed from the Adam West version), eventually the franchise lost control and arrived back at its silly roots.

Christopher Nolan changed all that with perhaps the best reboot the series has ever seen. Taking the caped crusader into a darker, grittier, and a more realistic direction, Nolan pulled Batman away from the ridicule that it had been given by the time George Clooney played the role. To cement his rulership of the Batman franchise, Nolan created not one, not two, but a whole trilogy masterfully tied together with depth and psychological intrigue. I can only hope that many decades will pass before they try to reboot the Batman franchise because the Dark Knight saga stands as the ultimate testament of a masterfully crafted adaptation.

The Avengers
Year: 2012
Rating: PG-13
Length: 143 minutes / 2.38 hours

While Marvel may not have the silver bullets of incredibly famous superheroes, they do have a multitude of good stories to draw from. This is where I think Marvel has taken the lead in the last decade. Especially with the botched handling of lesser-known DC heroes like the Green Lantern, Marvel has shown that they can take any of their characters and hold it to continuity, not only within its specific franchise but also against other franchises as well. The sum of the parts ends up being greater than the whole. As DC tries to re-invigorate their Superman franchise to match that of their Batman dynasty, Marvel is pulling out all the stops with an entire arsenal of comic book characters.

Part of the appeal to me of Marvel’s The Avengers (2012) is that it was a movie built on the backs of previous films. Granted, this film marked the appearance of the third actor to play the Hulk in a single decade, but the unique stories of these superheroes having already been covered in their own individual films opened up The Avengers to be an action-packed adventure. Of course, you really have to hand it not only to the casting department over at Marvel but to the movie’s director, Joss Whedon, who could have ended up with a fractured and cobbled-together story involving some very different superheroes. Instead, the unique characteristics of the entire team add a rich depth to the natural comedy that’s created in an earth-ending crisis.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 great comic book blockbusters.