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Not So Super, Hero: What Modern Superhero Blockbusters Could Learn From “Akira”…

This Saturday, as part of the annual “Anime April”, I’ll be discussing Akira on The 250, the weekly podcast that I co-host discussing the IMDb’s Top 250 Movies of All-Time. However, I had some thoughts on the film that I wanted to jot down first. You can listen to last week’s episode on Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind here.

Akira is a startlingly influential film.

Even if a person hasn’t seen Katsuhiro Otomo’s animated masterpiece, they have undoubtedly felt its influence rippling through popular culture in various media. In music, Kanye West cites it as his “biggest creative inspiration”, to the point that his video for Stronger is almost a shot-for-shot remake. Rian Johnson has cited Akira as a major influence on his own Looper. Josh Trank and Max Landis’ Chronicle has a number of obvious similarities to Akira. Even outside of these direct references, individual elements of the film continue to have an outsized influence on American popular culture. The iconic red bike pops up in Ready Player One. Even individual shots have been mimicked and imitated, such as the fantastic “Akira bike slide” from early in the film.

Inevitably, there has been much talk of a potential Americanised remake of Akira. After all, there have been other big-budget live action adaptations of cult Japanese projects like Ghost in the Shell or Alita: Battle Angel, and so it is surprising it has taken so long. There were rumours of an adaptation by Albert Hughes that might star Morgan Freeman. (James Franco might have headlined.) More recently, Jordan Peele declined the invitation to direct the adaptation, despite his affection for the source material. The most recent rumours suggested that Leonardo DiCaprio might be producing a version directed by Taika Waititi, which would shift the action from Neo-Tokyo to Neo-Manhattan. There were other significant changes made to the source story.

There are a variety of reasons why Akira has been so difficult to adapt. Most optimistically, it may simply be a case that so much of what made the original film iconic has already been filtered through to audiences in the movies indebted to it, like Looper or Chronicle; this is the challenge adapting John Carter of Mars following the success of films like Star Wars or Flash Gordon. More pragmatically, Akira is a story rooted in a very specific cultural context. It is not an American story, it is a story anchored very specifically in eighties Japan. Of course, this is not necessarily a problem; samurai films like Shichinin no Samurai or Yojimbo could be reworked for American audiences as cowboy films, their cultural context shifted in the journey across the Pacific. Still, it is a challenge.

However, this challenge of cultural translation suggests one of the fundamental issues with adapting Akira for American audiences. It is hard to define Akira in terms of a single genre; it is a coming of age science-fiction deconstruction of masculinity infused with a psychedelic sensibility. However, in terms of visual style and narrative flow, the movie’s closest relatives in contemporary American cinema are superhero films. Superheroes are, after all, the dominant American cinematic mode of the twenty-first-century to date. Indeed, a modern audience approaching Akira might be tempted to read it in the context of that genre. If Chronicle is to be considered “the American Akira”, it is notable that it uses the language of the superhero genre to translate the story.

However, there is something fundamentally different about the way in which Akira approaches the idea of the superhero figure as compared to mainstream superhero films, and this difference might demonstrate why an adaptation of Akira for American cinema might pose such a challenge.

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New Podcast! Scannain Podcast (2019) #14!

It’s time for the Scannain podcast!

This week, I join Jay Coyle and Luke Dunne from Film in Dublin to discuss the week in film.  As usual, we talk about what we watched this week, including an in-depth discussion of Unicorn Store, the charm of Grosse Point Blank, a reflection on the two sequels to The Matrix, the power of Little Woods and the inevitability of remaking Akira. In terms of film news, the big news of the week is the launch of Criterion Channel, which is now streaming classic movie content online. There is also the passing of veteran character actor Seymour Cassel. And a nice bracing dose of tax reform, with revisions made to Section 481.

All of this plus the top ten and the new releases.

The top ten:

  1. What Men Want
  2. Five Feet Apart
  3. The Sisters Brothers
  4. Missing Link
  5. Captain Marvel
  6. Us
  7. Peppa Pig: Festival of Fun
  8. Pet Sematary
  9. Shazam!
  10. Dumbo

New releases:

  • Wonder Park
  • Hell Boy
  • Don’t Go
  • Little
  • mid90s
  • Wild Rose

Non-Review Review: Little Woods

Little Woods is a slow and somber film that never rushes, perhaps because it understands that its characters have no place to go.

There’s a strong central irony built into Little Woods, a story that unfolds against the north-western frontier of Washington State. Ollie lives on what is effectively the edge of the frontier, that great American wilderness. However, manifest destiny has not delivered. The frontier is not as vast as it might seem. Instead, Ollie finds herself trapped on the edges, pressed against the limits of the United States. Little Woods is a story about the boundaries on the extremes of the American Dream. It is no coincidence that Nia DaCosta’s theatrical debut opens and closes at the Canadian border; it is a story of character who are pressed and squeezed against the margins, at the end of everything that they know.

The circumstances Tessa-t her.

There is a compelling stillness to Little Woods, anchored in a fantastic central performance from Tessa Thompson. Little Woods works well in several different modes: as a character study, as a crime drama, as a frontier story. The film is suspenseful when it needs to be, capable of making the audience squirm when it wants them to. However, it is most effective in its relative stillness. Little Woods never feels sensationalist or absurd. It never feels exploitative or stylised. Instead, there is something very effectively grounded and mundane in the portrait that the film traces of those people trapped on the margins. There is something very matter-of-fact about the way in which Little Woods portrays the choices (or, more importantly, the lack of choices) afforded its characters.

Little Woods is an evocative, effective and atmospheric about characters living in a liminal space.

Sister act.

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Non-Review Review: Little

Little overcomes some big problems.

There are a number of very obvious flaws with Little. On a very superficial level, the film suffers from the problem that affects a lot of comedies. Little is simply not as funny as it thinks that it is. The jokes are not bad, and don’t fall flat, but also don’t land as efficiently as they might. Even beyond that, Little suffers from some very serious structural issues. The film has a short attention span, often allowing its focus to wander without a clear sense of purpose or motivation. More than that, Little often struggles to decide which of its two primary plots (and leads) to focus upon.

A Little goes a long way.

These are serious issues, and they prevent Little from working as well as it might otherwise. However, the film works much better than these issues would suggest. There is something surprisingly endearing about Little, a genial quality that prevents the film from ever crashing too hard. It isn’t just the relatively simple (bordering on simplistic) central thesis about childhood and playfulness, it is also the empathy that the film feels for most of its cast, especially those introduced as comedic fodder. Little is a very pleasant film, particularly by the standards of studio comedy.

However, the film’s ace in the hole is its fifteen-year-old star Marsai Martin, perhaps best known for her work on Blackish. Martin produced Little as a vehicle for her talent, and it is an effective showcase. Martin carries a surprising amount of the film with a surprisingly nuanced performance for what is a deliberately broad comedy. Martin is not only game for the film’s jokes, but also capable of handling the broad emotional range (and swift emotional transitions) that the script demands of her. Little might just be Martin’s big break.

Somebody’s assistant could use a pay bump.

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125. V for Vendetta (#153)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, The 250 is a (mostly) weekly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users. New episodes are released every second Saturday at 6pm GMT, with the occasional bonus episode between them.

This time, James McTeigue’s V for Vendetta.

Accosted by “finger men” for breaking curfew, Evey Hammond is rescued by a mysterious stranger who only introduces himself as “V.” As Evey finds herself drawn deeper into the world of this violent vaudevillian figure and as she discovers more and more of his plot to topple the country’s totalitarian regime, Evey finds herself wonder whether this masked figure is a vigilante or villain.

At time of recording, it was ranked the 153rd best movie of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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New Podcast! Scannain Podcast (2019) #13!

It’s time for the Scannain podcast!

This week, I join Grace Duffy, Ronan Doyle and Jay Coyle to discuss the week in film. There’s a lot to cover this week, most obviously the passing of Agnès Varda, who was something of a patron saint of the podcast. However, the film news also covers the United States Justice Department’s intervention in the row between Netflix and the Academy, big announcements from Cinema Con, news about Disney’s purchase of Fox, the Newport Beach Film Festival, and the Celtic Media Awards.

All of this plus the top ten and the new releases.

The top ten:

  1. How to Train Your Dragon III: The Hidden World
  2. Die Walkure – Met Opera 2019
  3. The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part
  4. Green Book
  5. Instant Family
  6. Lucifer
  7. What Men Want
  8. Captain Marvel
  9. Us
  10. Dumbo

New releases:

Non-Review Review: Unicorn Store

Unicorn Store is, appropriately enough, a strange beast.

Brie Larson’s feature-length directorial debut, adapted from a screenplay by Samantha McIntyre, struggles to manage its tone. What is Unicorn Store? Who is the target audience for Unicorn Store? The stylistic sensibilities of Unicorn Store evoke the modern American mid-budget indie film; the listless title character stuck in arrested development, the cast populated by distinguished character actors like Joan Cusack and Bradley Whitford, the use of shaky handheld camerawork to create a sense of grounded intimacy and authenticity. However, the narrative itself aspires towards something more surreal and strange, the sort of abstract stylised magical realism associated with directors like Michel Gondry or Tim Burton.

Painting a perfect picture.

Similarly, the story itself never seems to figure out at what level it wants to pitch itself. Is Unicorn Store meant for children, with its empowering story about the importance of pursuing one’s dreams in a world that expects too much adult responsibility too quickly? If so, the narrative is too rooted in adult fears and anxieties to really land, the whimsical wonder often eroded by more mundane realities that are of little interest to a young audience. Is Unicorn Store aimed at an older audience then, people like the lead character Kit, who never grew up despite society constantly telling them that they needed to? If so, the story is too light and fluffy, too superficial and too simplistic in its outlook.

Perhaps, like the mysterious “Store” featured in the film, Unicorn Store is trying too hard to be all things to all people. Indeed, the climax of the film hinges on the idea that the eponymous “Store” cannot satisfy all of its customers. While the Unicorn Store attempts to put an optimistic spin on this, there is a sense in which this is true of the film itself. Unicorn Store seems so eager to be everything that anybody could want it to be that it never figures out what it actually is.

Making her mark.

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