Written by Beau DeMayo and Stephen Bell
The Smackdown. Disney owns Marvel (or soon will)! Once complete, this means that Disney, responsible for the genre-brand “Disney movie,” will finalize the creation of a new genre-brand: the “comic book movie.” And as Disney proved: genre-brands don’t last for years; they last for generations. So once this corporate marriage makes Mickey Mouse and Captain America step-brothers, what’s next? What does Magneto do against the government’s new Wall-E Sentinels? How does Prince Beast handle Belle’s come-hither glances at The Hulk? Can Tony Stark out-charm Prince Charming? In the spirit of comic books, we have a special crossover Smackdown event, over a half-century of history duking it out to see which genre-brand will be best? Marvel or DC…well, we mean, Disney….
Round One. “The Fantastic Four” (2005) must have been pretty sore when Pixar unveiled “The Incredibles” (2004). In this Pixar adventure, two retired superheroes, now married with children, must dust off their costume and fight the disgruntled groupie threatening their family. To do this, Mr. and Mrs. Incredible help their two unruly kid learn their superpowers, becoming not only a superhero team…but a family. This is pretty much “The Fantastic Four,” at least if it the film had been written by Stan Lee. Tim Story’s film adaptation left too much wanting, tossing the family vacation dynamics that “The Incredibles” honored so well. Reed Richards is an over-aged clutz instead of The Smartest Man Alive whose ego causes a freak accident which alters the DNA of those closest to him. Susan Richards goes from a smart, confident soul to a hyper-sexualized nudity joke who can’t decide on a man. The Thing…well this rock monster is made of foam in the movie. They did at least get Johnny Storm right. But in the end, Story forgets that “The Fantastic Four” is a metaphor for building a family beyond just blood, set against bombastic globe-trotting fun. “The Incredibles” had their heroes soaring across the world and back, fleeing natural disasters, fighting giant laser-wielding robots, and outrunning hovercrafts and whirling blades. “Fantastic Four”…had a deadly game of Marco Polo against CEO Doom.
So we’re gonna say when Marvel’s First Family moves to Disneyland, they’re gonna have to get used to their new neighbors, “The Incredibles”, having a bigger lawn, bigger house, and a bigger box office profit.
Round Two. In the “X-Men” (2000) a gruff loner with metal claws joins a school of mutants to fight a militant mutant hellbent on humanity’s destruction. In Disney’s “Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs” (1937), Princess Snow White escapes into the forests after The Queen orders her murdered. Snow is taken in by seven eclectic dwarfs, who she begins to care for daily, until The Queen returns Snow and the dwarfs unite to fight her.
Both films are “fish out of water” stories, with a protagonist centering a groups battle with the antagonist. Both have “magical devices” that allow characters to locate others (Mirror, Mirror and Cerebro) and both feature “outcasts” in the mutants and the dwarfs. But when it comes to a showdown, the dwarfs just don’t stack up. Unlike Magneto, the evil Queen succeeds at poisoning Snow White despite the dwarfs best efforts. In “X-Men,” the team and Logan foil Magneto’s plans through skill. While Logan and the X-Men scramble to stop Magneto, Snow White becomes the dwarfs' housewife as they whistle, working the mines. It’s really no wonder The Queen came in so quick, poisoned Snow White, and had to be taken down by a random act of nature (lightening) in order to be stopped from owning the dwarfs completely.
After the final showdown, both films’ “fish” ends up near death, only waking to their true love. Snow White wakes to her Prince, and Logan to Jean Grey. But Logan comes around on his own, healing himself. Snow White would not have survived without the kiss of her Prince, a fact that makes her rather passive and only reinforces that the dwarfs are inept outcasts who don't measure up.
Round Three. The Prince from “Beauty & The Beast” (1991) is a sad fellow. Cursed by his cruelty to forever be a beast, The Prince waits solemnly in his castle for a lover to break his curse. Enter Belle, an innocent (and hot) village girl who initially is repulsed by the beast…but soon begins seeing something that wasn’t there before. Now, Bruce Banner’s no prince in “The Incredible Hulk” (2007). He’s an awkward, scientific genius who has some serious anger problems in the form of this hulking green monster he mutates into whenever he’s ticked off. Banner’s “curse” can only be calmed by the love of his life, Betty Ross — who is conveniently the daughter of the army general determined to use The Hulk as a weapon.
Both of these films have men plagued by past mistakes. But whereas Banner loses his love due to his mutation, The Beast awaits a love to turn him from beast to man. “Beauty and The Beast” is essentially a redemption tale played as one of the greatest love stories of our time. There’s emotion here. Beast is a tragic character whose arc goes from selfish grump to selfless lover. Banner, on the other hand, just made one mistake and is now living the consequences for the rest of his life. And unlike Beast where the curse can only be cured by him actually changing, Banner simply searches for a cure and its his mind, not his journey, that'll get it for him. There’s no emotion to it.
You’d think Edward Norton would add some gravitas as Bruce Banner. He does…somewhat. But the difference is how each film handles their “Beauty.” In “The Incredible Hulk,” Betty Ross exists only as a sad reminder of Bruce’s past life. The film never sets up that Bruce Banner envisions a future with Betty; he just wants to be cured. However, Belle is the key to saving Beast. If Betsy dies…so what? If Belle dies…The Beast is screwed, and not in the way that’ll save him.
Just take two scenes. In “Beauty and the Beast,” an elaborate montage begins with Beast and Belle having an awkward breakfast, goes on to an endearing snowball fight, and climaxes with Beast offering Belle his vast library in his first true act of love. With “The Incredible Hulk,” The Hulk and Betty abscond to a nearby cave and share “a moment.” After that, it’s back to Banner caring only about Banner and Betty along for the ride.
So Bruce Banner can go look for a cure. When it comes to Disneyland’s “Humungous Monsters And Their Petite Beauties That Make You Wonder How They ‘Fit’ Together” contest, “Beauty and The Beast” takes it home to…er, do whatever they do however they…do it…?
Round Four. In Marvel’s “Iron Man" (2008), Tony Stark, a brilliant, arrogant, alcoholic, womanizing, multi-billion dollar inventor and arms dealer realizes the error of his ways and decides to fight the violence he once profited from by reinventing himself as a walking, talking, flying man-tank. In Disney’s “Wall-E” (2008) a garbage-collecting robot stuck on a destroyed Earth centuries in the future falls in love and goes into space to find his destiny. So what do these two films have in common?
Both films are big, special-effects loaded sci-fi-actioners and both use a global threat for their stories’ backdrops. In “Iron Man,” arms-dealing greediness threaten to blow the world to kingdom come. In “Wall-E,” humanity’s unchecked excess and laziness have rendered the world uninhabitable.
But while these dangers loom, it is what each film chooses to focus on that makes them different. “Iron Man” is very simple and straightforward. Good guy takes out bad guys. Explosions and one-liners ensue. Awesome. “Wall-E,” in contrast, is a love story. Boy-robot meets girl-robot, boy-robot loses-girl robot, you know the rest. It is Wall-E’s unwavering love that drives the space opera.
Now, Iron Man dog-fighting two F-22 fighter jets is one of the coolest aerial-combat sequences on film (think Top Gun meets Superman Returns) and the few moments of eye-popping action are what really make “Iron Man” a must-see. However, all the excitement fizzles by the third act, when Iron Man and what appears to be the Iron Giant square off in a contest of who-can-smash-who-into-random-shit-harder. In a piss-poor effort to raise the stakes, Gwyneth Paltrow (as Stark’s assistant Pepper Potts) bumbles about as the classic damsel in distress, stumbling between danger zones as a Looney Tunes character might haplessly approach a giant X painted on the floor. Despite an abundance of flirting, “Iron Man” doesn’t do much in the way of its love story and the stakes surrounding Potts really only amount to Stark having to find a new secretary.
“Wall-E,” like “Iron Man,” does get a bit confusing in its third act and the love story between Wall-E and Eve is threatened by the plight of the obese human caricatures that Wall-E is fated to save. While it could easily turn into a heavy-handed Green Peace lecture, “Wall-E” manages to regroup and remember what’s most important: robot love. The fact that we care about the love between two inanimate objects more than the relationship of Stark and Potts is impressive. Despite Robert Downey Jr.'s talents, it is impossible to bring real life and depth to Iron Man. As cool as all the action and explosions may be, they have a shelf-life. “Wall-E” know this and so works hard to remain a small character piece about a boy falling in love. The light-years he travels to do so and the action that ensue come off not as sci-fi excess, but as a measure of that desire and love.
With “Iron Man,” the man is inside the robot. In “Wall-E,” the robot is the man, and we love him for it.
Title Bout. Both Spider-Man and Peter Pan are, in essence, coming of age stories. In “Spider-Man” (2002), Peter Parker is a clumsy, self-doubting high schooler who gains super powers and is forced to learn that “with great power comes great responsibility” while fighting the psychotic Green Goblin. In the “Peter Pan” (1952), Peter Pan, the “boy who never grew up,” welcomes the beautiful Wendy Darling to NeverLand, a fantasy world full of fairies, Indians, mermaids and other figments of children’s imagination. Together, Peter and Wendy fight the insane pirate, Captain Hook.
The hero/villain relationships in both “Spider-Man” and “Peter Pan” are very similar, each revolving around a wise-cracking youth and an aging madman obsessed with their respective hero’s demise. What makes the films stand apart is how this dynamic affects the heroes’ perceptions of themselves. Both Peter Parker and Peter Pan start out as children refusing to grow up and take responsibility for the powers they’ve been granted. As they face their nemeses, they are forced to face that responsibility and decide what to do with it. Peter Pan is able to defeat Captain Hook with the help of Wendy, but he largely learns no lesson, instead choosing to discard maturity and remain at play. Peter Parker confronts the Green Goblin and chooses to accept the responsibility, sacrificing personal freedoms to become Spider-Man, learning that evil wins when good men do nothing.
Both heroes are also aided in their journey by a love interest. Wendy Darling, comes from the outside world to NeverLand and helps Peter Pan fight. But its Wendy who learns something from her time in NeverLand: that you must grow up even if there is value in youth. This lesson flies well over Peter Pan’s head. Peter Parker has Mary Jane. And while MJ doesn’t aid Spider-Man in the demise of the Green Goblin outside of some shrill “Look out!”, it is Parker’s love for MJ that allows us to measure his growth as he finally confronts Green Goblin. Does he abandon his Spider-Man persona and get the girl? Or does he sacrifice love for the greater good?
The focus on these bigger questions makes “Spider-Man” a much more layered and engaging work than Peter Pan could ever hope to be. Fantasy is fun, but its collision with reality makes it fun and revelatory about human struggles. And "Spider-Man" strikes a wonderful balance, mixing just the right amount of drama, tension, and magic to simultaneously wow its audience while leaving them with relevant lesson.
Disneyland’s got a new hero sailing – or swinging rather – around Cinderella’s Castle. Peter Parker chooses to lose the girl in a decision to accept his responsibility. Peter Pan loses the girl because he just couldn’t grow up. He also loses the Title Bout.
Plus, c’mon, its f*@!ing “Spider-Man.”
The Smackdown Champion. This is non-bias tallying here. Spider-Man and X-Men kill in this crossover, dispatching their Disneyland opponents with ease. But Wall-E crushes Iron Man in his trash compacter, and The Beast tears Hulk to shreds while The Incredibles force The Fantastic Four into some family counseling. So in the end, looks like Disney bests Marvel, proving The Magic Kingdom is the Happiest Place on Earth. ‘Nuff Said!