A month or so ago, my editor threatened severe repercussions if I made good on a threat to put Kong on my Best of 2017 list.
I relented, because I didn’t want to have to go through repercussion protocol (again), and also I was willing to concede that as much as I liked it, maybe it wasn’t such a great movie (although John C. Reilly was hilarious). But it did have great special effects and was nominated in that category.
Well deserved. When I go to a monster movie, I want to see Skull Island stuff. I want to see a 10-story gorilla throw a palm tree at a helicopter or wrestle with a giant squid and then bite its head off. I want to see a guy sitting in a wooded glen whose trees turn out to be the legs of a giant spider that gores and kills him.
I want, in other words, somebody in the effects department to come up with something halfway original and cinematic.
And the time should be ripe for this.
Never have effects artists had more tools and technology available to them. And yet, conversely, at no time have the creations of effects artists been so infernally similar.
I speak of the fiery monster.
In 2017, if you were watching an FX spectacle, chances are excellent it concluded with a large smoldering demon, a couple of devil horns sprouting from his head or his helmet or helmet head. He’s either composed of fire or he’s on fire.
[This should go without saying, but: Spoiler Alert.]
Exhibit A: King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. One minute good guy Charlie Hunnam is talking to bad guy Jude Law, preparing for what we hope is an awesome sword fight (remember, it’s called Legend of the Sword) and the next thing you know, Law has doubled in size, sprouted horns, and is wearing a cape of fire.
The creature turned out to be dreadful bore, but at least it was the first time in 2017 that I had seen him.
Not two months later, I’m watching Wonder Woman, which takes place during World War I. She’s dealing with a couple of mad scientists and the German army, and the denouement occurs at an airfield. Oh, good, I thought. Biplanes, triplanes, zeppelins.
But again, one minute Gal Gadot is talking to David Thewlis, the next he’s three stories high, he’s sprouted as many as four horns, and he’s wreathed in fire.
This is not only redundant, it’s poor dramatic strategy. When you hire capable pros like Jude Law and David Thewlis to be villains in your movie, in the tradition of plummy British villains going back to Basil Rathbone, you’re paying them for their continental air of contempt, their aristocratic, arrogant disregard for lumpen humanity.
You don’t want to swap them out at the moment of Peak Bad for a CGI body, a helmet with ram horns, and a digitally altered voice.
As the year went on, I began to feel especially bad for Wonder Woman. She subsequently turns up in Justice League, a movie set a century later, on an entirely different continent, facing a creature from what we are told is an entirely different part of the universe and — what a coincidence — he’s got a helmet with horns on it and he’s wielding a scythe with a blade of fire.
Gadot gives us her trademark furrowed brow, only this time it has context: Wait … didn’t I already kill this guy?
At this point, folks who prefer the Marvel universe may be overcome with schadenfreude, cackling at the creative bankruptcy of DC movies.
Well hold on.
I sympathize with effects artists to an extent. If you’re drawing from the DC and Marvel canon, you may want to create something thrilling and new, but you’ve got this vast militant Taliban army of comic book fans that insists on orthodoxy.
So, you’re on the horns of a dilemma.
Or perhaps there is a financial motive. Watching the parade of fire monsters, I remember what a Pixar animator once told me: The expense comes in creating the computer language for an original character. Once that’s done, it’s very cheap to replicate that character in subsequent movies.
Part of what’s depressing about the fire monster is that he’s been around for so long. He can be carbon-dated to at least 2001, when he was known as Balrog, the cave demon in Lord of the Rings. Comedies were already making fun of him in 2013. When the post-apocalypse engulfs James Franco’s house in This Is the End, he’s there.
These days, you can even see the fire monster hawking Dell computers.
What does the coming year hold? Too early to tell, but Avengers: Infinity Stones clips show the main villain is just a larger-than-usual bald guy.
In 2018, I don’t want to see any old flames.