Thursday, 31 January 2013

John Carter and the Threequel Test

I recently watched Andrew Stanton's John Carter for the second time. When I saw it in the cinema I remember enjoying it, but thinking that something was missing, or that the pieces didn't fit together quite right. I knew something was off, at any rate, which kept me from enjoying the film as much as I wanted.
If you'd asked me last week what my issues were, I would have been more specific. I might have been able to point out some of the moments that didn't quite work - notably the stuff with the Therns, and maybe the River Iss sequence - and that John himself is not massively likeable, or even relatable, for much of the movie.
But on my second viewing these problems just melted away and I had an absolute blast! This means that John Carter is what my brother David and I call a Spider-Man; and a strong one at that.

Let's start with the basics: There are Good films and there are Bad films. There are Ok films, too, but that's just a subcategory of Good. You look at most films and you know which kind they are. But there is also a fuzzy grey area in between where movies sometimes get caught. Films you found disappointing but couldn't pin down why - or films you enjoyed but feel guilty about enjoying. Sequels, quite often, that didn't live up to the original's promise.
Usually you'll subconsciously label these movies Bad, because you don't have anywhere else to put them. But do they actually deserve that fate, and how can we tell?

A friend of mine has something she calls the Catwoman Test. Essentially you compare any film to Catwoman - an objectively Bad movie - and, if it's better than that, then it's not truly as bad as you thought. It makes sense, but I've never been a fan of this approach.
My issue is that it's too binary - it assumes "better" and "worse" are quantifiable, when there are so many factors involved in whether or not a film works that it's a difficult thing to judge. Look at something like Prometheus. Compared to Catwoman it's clearly a superior film... but it's not necessarily better. I'm not saying it's worse, either. But it does a few things so horribly wrong, compared to Catwoman's bland failure on all fronts, that it's very hard to tell.
Putting together my Top 5 last year was a nightmare because I was comparing a bunch of films that were all spectacularly good at entirely different things. The same applies when different films get different things wrong, too. Comparing movies is not an easy thing to do, so I don't think it makes a decent yard-stick.

What David and I do instead is to compare films to themselves. I've only just realised how pretentious that sounds - but it works!
It's a phenomenon we first identified in 2007, following the disappointing release of Spider-Man 3, and X-Men 3 the previous year. These were both films that fell into that grey area - disappointing but still enjoyable; not living up to their predecessors, but not necessarily bad on their own terms.
Then we saw them both again.
We were surprised to find that Spider-Man 3 was much better than we remembered! The problems were still there, but they were diminished somehow - they were now just annoying instead of crippling. We were also surprised to find that X-Men 3 was somehow much much worse. The film had been disappointing the first time, but now it was falling apart - the problems were magnified, multiplied, and on fire. When we first sat down for the second viewings we'd have said they were roughly of equal quality, but now that was clearly ridiculous.
We were even more surprised to discover that this effect continued beyond a second viewing. The third time around, Spider-Man 3 was really enjoyable, where X-Men 3 bordered on unwatchable!

The effect isn't isolated to these two films, either. It's common to the vast majority of grey-area movies - we haven't found one yet that doesn't reveal its true nature over time.
Presumably this works because multiple viewings remove expectations and preconceptions - forcing you to accept the film for what it is. Or maybe (as I believe is the case with John Carter) weird narrative choices don't seem so strange the second time, because you already have all the information. Sometimes this can liberate a movie and you'll realise that it's actually pretty damn good; but if it still disappoints you - if it's somehow even worse than you remember - then it must be an awful film indeed.
A film doesn't have to be worse than Catwoman to be truly Bad - it only has to be worse than itself.

This has since become mine and David's standard metric: Is a film a Spider-Man 3 or an X-Men 3? We've never formally named it, but the Threequel Test will do for now, in honour of its two defining movies.
The downside is that it requires watching films that may well be Bad twice, or even more; but chances are, if you can't bring yourself to watch it a second time, then you know already that it's genuinely Bad. Otherwise, for every X-Men Origins: Wolverine that becomes increasingly toxic over time, you might discover an Emperor's New Groove - the strongest Spider-Man of all time - which turns from thudding confusion the first time into purer and purer gold with each viewing.

Emily's example of a film that's often called Bad but which passes the Catwoman Test - Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull - also passes the Threequel Test. It's an easy Spider-Man: much better the second time around.
Looking at another series that's often labelled Bad, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is a potent X-Men - truly a Bad film - but Dark of the Moon is actually a decent Spider-Man. The original Transformers is, of course, just an outright Good movie.
More recent grey-area examples include The Dark Knight Rises (a weak Spider-Man) and Prometheus (a solid X-Men).
And I'll begrudgingly admit that my brother's favourite example, GI Joe, is a Spider-Man - just don't tell him I said that.

Essentially, I've just used a thousand words to say "watch films more than once". It seems obvious, but it's all too common to judge a film immediately. I was disappointed, so the film must be Bad. I do it; you do it; but to do it is to miss out on the likes of John Carter. I'd have been apprehensive about recommending it a week ago, but now I can confidently say that it passes the Threequel Test easily and is actually a Good film. Better than that, it's actually kind of brilliant.
The next film I'll be testing is Wanted - an unashamedly stupid film that I got for Christmas and was shocked to discover I really enjoyed. It's sat squarely in the grey-area - an oh-so-guilty pleasure - and I'm really looking forward to discovering what kind of Threequel it is.