Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Musing Pictures: The Incredible Hulk (2008)

Comics, the Internet, and the New Lateral Narrative

I came out of the movie theater after seeing "The Incredible Hulk" with one dominant thought: the very idea of a narrative thread is changing in Hollywood.

The film, based on a Marvel Comics narrative, tells the story of Bruce Banner, a scientist with a mysterious self-induced problem -- he turns in to a gigantic, enraged green monster if his heart rate goes up too high. The story is told in the usual fashion, in three structured segments, with an opening that introduces the characters, their dilemmas, a long central unit comprised primarily of cat-and-mouse (or carrot-and-stick) scenes, and an action-packed resolution in which characters mature, face their inner demons, and find the willpower to smash the true enemy, which reveals itself at long last.

This is all very standard, very entertaining stuff. Hollywood has been at this task for a century, building story-after-story on this structure.

But "The Incredible Hulk" doesn't begin with Hollywood. It begins elsewhere, in a very different industry, with a very different medium.

Marvel Comics introduced The Hulk to its readership in the 1960s, along with numerous other characters that have become icons of the industry. Each character had a story, an emergence in to the "Marvel Universe". In 1963, The Hulk joined other characters (Iron Man, Thor, Ant-Man, Wasp) in a superhero team known as "The Avengers". This may seem trivial at first, but it exemplifies something revolutionary -- "The Avengers" is a convergence of several entirely different narratives. Characters which had been conceived independently of one another, and which were written in to worlds of their own, were brought to share the same page with one another. Instead of the "Avengers" story having a linear structure, with one beginning leading through a series of connected plot points to one end, the story has numerous beginnings -- the beginnings of each character's story -- which parallel one another, and which only rarely intersect. The "Avengers" narrative is actually multiple narratives woven together.

This is not like the simpler convergence one might see in such films as that 1987 novelty piece, "The Jetsons Meet the Flintstones". In that example, characters from one narrative leave their world (via a time machine) and enter in to the world of the other narrative. There is no implied continuity between one and the other, except for the rough, self-contradictory link between distant time periods. It is also not like those Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes in which characters from the Enterprise interact with the likes of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Moriarty. There, science fiction allows Captain Picard, Data and the others to create imagined versions of those characters -- they meet recreations, not the characters themselves. Holmes in Star Trek is a reflection of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's character, but he is not a continued version of Holmes himself.

If anything, it is more akin to the way that three Star Trek shows are presented as contemporaries of one another -- The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager all take place at around the same timeframe, within the same narrative universe. Of course, this is television -- the rules are different.

For some reason, the sort of intermingling of narratives seen in the world of comics has not made much of an appearance in films. Even in films based on comic books, an individual character still drives the franchise. There is a reason for this.

In the past, if a Hollywood studio wanted to make a Superman film, they'd buy the rights to Superman from DC comics, and they'd make films with and about Superman. If they wanted to make a Batman film, they'd buy those rights, and make a film with and about Batman. Often, the films would be produced by different companies, with entirely different production teams creating entirely different worlds. The world of Richard Donner's "Superman" in 1978 could not be more different than Tim Burton's 1989 "Batman", even though both are Warner Brothers pictures.

"The Incredible Hulk" marks the beginning of a very different approach to these kinds of stories. An astute observer might note, early in the film, that the company that sponsors Dr. Banner's research is Stark Industries. The name of the company, and its logo, appear briefly in the film. Amazingly, the logo is identical in design and format to the logo of Stark Industries as it appears in last month's "Iron Man" (another excellent comic-based film).

The convergence of one small production design element might not seem like much, but it is significant. In a different context, this would never have happened. The typical Hollywood production stands on its own. Whoever works on "Iron Man" works on "Iron Man", and whoever works on "Hulk" works on "Hulk", and even if the same production designer goes from one film to the other, the artwork for each is expected to be unique. Each film is designed by its own team, is made to have its own individual 'look' and 'feel'. Each production team is hoping to create its own franchise, its own recognizable brand image.

"The Incredible Hulk" and "Iron Man" were marketed this way -- they were presented to us as two entirely un-related films, with entirely un-related stories. Except for comic book afficionados, who among us would have noted that both films are being released by the same production company, or that they share key personnel (such as producers Kevin Feige and Avi Arad)? But they are, in fact, part of an intertwining series of films that the production company, Marvel Enterprises (yes, the same Marvel that first published these stories half a century ago) is planning to roll out over the next half-decade. Plans are in the works for films about Ant-Man, Thor, and Captain America, and in 2011, Marvel will release a unifying work, "The Avengers", which unites all of these characters.

It is only natural that this sort of cinematic web-weaving is being born of the comics. It is also not surprising that the first company to successfully introduce this multi-tiered super-franchise to Hollywood is Marvel, which only recently began to undertake the process of producing its own films. But why now? Superheroes have been featured in movies and television for many years. Aside from the limitations of rights-management and the risks involved in planning such an extensive series of films, why hasn't Hollywood attempted to create a franchise around a world (rather than around a character or team)?

I think that this has more to do with the audience than with the business of filmmaking. When these stories were introduced in the '60s, they were presented on the printed page. Comic books could be flipped through, referenced. There was a certain level of interactiveness associated with buying, reading and trading comic books that allowed people to follow the stories they liked, to pass on the narrative threads (or characters, or whatever) that they weren't interested in, and still get a sense of the larger picture. There was a universe, and you could pick who you were going to follow through that universe. Movies typically don't allow that kind of flexibility. A movie unravels itself one frame at a time. It's orderly and linear. But media is changing dramatically these days. I think that we're looking at things differently in part because of the way that we look at information. These days, everything seems to be hyperlinked. If you read a wikipedia article, and come across an unfamiliar term, chances are, you can click on the term, and be instantly presented with a new article about it. We can be studying about Ancient Rome, and link to an article on the Acropolis, which sends us to a page on ancient architecture, which sends us to a page on US government buildings, which links to a page on the cold war, which links to an article on ICBMs, which links to a page on Nuclear Physics, and then to Marie Curie, and from there to... Instead of taking in information linearly, in a fairly straight line from question to answer, we are offered (and increasingly take) the opportunity to follow divergent and convergent paths to the answers we seek. It does not disturb the natural flow of our thoughts to be on a news website, and seconds later, to find ourselves on YouTube, or browsing the results of a Google search. We are much more used to the idea that entirely separate, entirely different things can be connected in some way -- via this aptly named World Wide Web -- and as such, a webbed super-narrative is much more palatable.

At the end of "The Incredible Hulk", Robert Downey Jr. makes an appearance in the character of Tony Stark (of the fictional "Stark Industries" which figures lightly in this film, and which figures heavily in "Iron Man"). His appearance in character cements the interconnectedness of the two films, but has the brevity of a simple hyperlink. Each film stands on its own. Each tells a full, well-wrought story. But there are links, and the links promise to lead to more links, as new films emerge about this corner of the Marvel universe.

"The Avengers" promises to unite these disparate stories, but if the next decade of Marvel films follows the pattern of the comics, we may see the day when "The Avengers III" comes out months ahead of "Iron Man V", with the same actor playing the same character in both films, with complementary production design, and with the clear sense that each film takes us on its own narrative journey, but that they are all journeys within the same sphere.

I am very curious to see this develop, and to see how Hollywood reacts. Will there be attempts to create super-franchises outside of the pre-existing comic book worlds? Will this remain the realm of science fiction, or might it seep in to other genres as well? Since this kind of strategy is enormous in scale, it will probably be at least a decade before we know for sure whether these new kinds of narratives take root in Hollywood. In the meantime, it'll sure be interesting to see how Marvel paves the way.