The Hangover Part III: a franchise in its death throes

Another installment of the second-unfunniest comedy franchise in town.

The Hangover Part III (15)
dir: Todd Phillips

It’s impossible to pinpoint the precise moment when the movie sequel became degraded (Jaws 2? Superman III? Rocky IV?). A strong contender must be the release in 1982 of Trail of the Pink Panther, stitched together from out-takes of its star, Peter Sellers, who had died two years earlier. The atmosphere in the cinema where I saw it was so maudlin it would have been fitting if the concessions counter had laid out funeral meats instead of popcorn for the duration of its run.

None of the main participants of The Hangover Part III died before the film was in the can but it’s difficult to imagine that a grisly on-set fatality could have cast more of a pall over the experience of watching it. This is a franchise in its death throes – unless you happen to be a Warner Bros executive, that is, in which case it must resemble a chorus line of dollar signs high-kicking across the screen. There’s not even a hangover in The Hangover Part III, at least not until the final seconds, but it would take more than a detail such as that to impede the progress of a series that has grossed over $1bn to date.

With its then unknown cast and conspicuous lack of special effects, The Hangover was a surprise hit in 2009. It took off from the idea of a night of bacchanalian excess so severe that it was impossible for the protagonists to know how they came to find themselves the next morning in a wrecked Las Vegas hotel suite with a tiger in the bathroom and a baby in the wardrobe. The film touched on various genres –buddy movie, road movie, gross-out comedy, even action thriller – but its chief pleasure came from the gradual piecing together in flashback of the events that led to such a spectacle; if you were feeling generous, you might liken it to a frathouse Memento.

Even viewers resistant to the laddish larks of this series (guilty as charged) might still respond to the actor playing the reckless child-man Alan. Zach Galifianakis, a rampaging baby with a Brian Blessed beard, possesses a combination of mania and naivety that evokes the essence, if not the daredevil spark, of John Belushi. The childlike obliviousness he brings to the chaos Alan causes is amusing even when the situations (which include, in the new film, the accidental decapitation of a giraffe) manifestly are not. Alan’s faith in his propriety is as unshakable as it is deluded.

The first Hangover sequel used the popular tactic of dispatching the cast to a foreign country (Thailand, in that case) for some comedy xenophobia (see also: Sex and the City 2, Bridget Jones: the Edge of Reason). The Hangover Part III begins with Alan’s friends pledging to check him into rehab. Alan is touched that he will be accompanied on the journey by his pals – the uptight Stu (Ed Helms) and the slick, handsome Phil (Bradley Cooper).

“You’re coming, too, Phil?” exclaims Alan gratefully. We are as surprised as he is. After all, Cooper has progressed to great things since handcuffing himself to the Hangover films four years ago. He’s a dramatic performer now, with an Oscar nomination (for Silver Linings Playbook) and a genuinely sophisticated performance (in The Place Beyond the Pines) to his name. At best, Cooper’s participation here has “contractual obligation” stamped all over it. I imagine his co-stars huddling around him between takes for stories of what it’s like out there as a real actor, where they give you awards and flattery rather than drunkenly yelling your catchphrases at you when you’re sitting with your family at TGI Friday’s.        

The friends never make it as far as rehab. They are sidelined by a gangster (John Goodman) demanding that they track down their old criminal acquaintance Chow (Ken Jeong), who has stolen from him millions of dollars’ worth of gold bullion. Alan may be the capricious toddler of the Wolfpack, as the friends style themselves, but Chow out-ids him by some margin. Chemically frazzled and polymorphously perverse, Chow has a special fondness for men, which renders him a transgressive presence in a film that sees boundless merriment in the sight of Alan stroking Phil’s face or Stu dressed in lingerie.

It’s an odd thing about comedy that pretty much anything can be justified if it’s funny. None of the snickering at gay sex or the romanticising of prostitution or the general misanthropy of The Hangover Part III would register harshly if there were three or four distinctive laughs or a handful of scenes that felt written rather than muddled through. Some series achieve a level of success so incommensurate with quality that their very existence feels like an indictment of audiences. The Scary Movie spoofs (five abysmal films and counting) are the current frontrunners in that regard but the makers of the Hangover movies shouldn’t see any glory in being responsible for the second-unfunniest comedy franchise in town.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, You were the future once

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Defining The Defenders: the long history of the superhero team-up

Netflix's new show draws on an established traditon of bringing together disparate characters.

Today Marvel’s The Defenders dropped worldwide. It’s the culmination of Marvel Studios’ interlinked series for Netflix, and all episodes will be available simultaneously as is the streaming services’ wont.

The Defenders, and the Netflix series that have preceded it, seem modelled on how the Marvel Cinematic Universe films have worked in multiplexes. At least superficially. Characters get their own solo films/series, which become increasingly interlinked over time, before all featuring together in an onscreen ‘team up’. Here, they combine against a threat greater than any they could plausibly win against on their own, sparring and generating alliances, friendships and even enmities in the process.

This structure, of course, is Marvel’s film and TV projects aping their source material. Marvel’s comics, and superhero comics more generally, have long relished the "team up" and the "super team". The use of this approach by Marvel’s other media ventures is intuitively right, allowing the mass audience for film and television to experience one of the specific pleasures of how superhero comics work in the characters’ new medium.

The concept of the super team goes back a long way. The Justice Society of America, from Marvel’s Distinguished Competition, is usually considered the first. They debuted in All-Star Comics #3 (1940) and the team consisted of the Flash (the Jay Garrick version, Flash TV fans), Green Lantern, Hawkman, and now lesser known characters like Hour-Man, the Sandman (not the Neil Gaiman one), the Atom, The Spectre and Doctor Fate. Within a few issues Wonder Woman would join: as secretary. Because it was the 1940s.

What’s interesting about this initial super team is that half of these characters were published by All-American Comics (who actually published All-Star) and half by DC Comics themselves, making this an inter-company crossover. (The companies would later merge). It also used to be claimed as the first example of characters created separately, and with no intention of them being connected, interacting. It isn’t. There are countless examples in the pulp fictions of the late nineteenth century, but the claim stood for so long because it felt right that the original super team should be the source of such meta-fictional innovation.

The Defenders were created much later in comics history and first appeared in 1971’s Marvel Feature #1. The team, though, had its origins in the "Titans Three" an informal grouping of heroes who appeared in a three part story serialised across Doctor Strange #183 (November 1969), Sub-Mariner #22 (February 1970), and The Incredible Hulk #126 (April 1970).

All three of those comics were written by Roy Thomas. Caught on the hop by the sudden cancellation of Doctor Strange (#183 was the final issue), he wrapped up ongoing plotlines from the cancelled comic in other series he scripted, bringing the now title-less Strange into those other series in the process. A couple more appearances of the group together followed, before the team was formally named in the aforementioned Marvel Feature #1.

Dr Strange. The Sub-Mariner. The Incredible Hulk. It’s quite likely that anyone reading this who is only familiar with the publicity for Netflix’s The Defenders would be surprised by that roster of headline characters. (And that’s assuming they’re even familiar with Namor the Sub-Mariner, a character of 1939 vintage who has not yet reached the MCU.) This is a radically different group to Daredevil, Jessica Jones (a character not even created until the 21st century), Luke Cage and Iron Fist, the stars of the current TV series. None of the telly team are characters a Marvel zombie would associate with The Defenders, although Iron Fist has been a very occasional member of the team’s roster, as has Luke Cage. (In which context, it’s unfortunate that Iron Fist has been the least liked of Netflix’s series, with a mere 17 per cent approval on Rotten Tomatoes.)

The complete absence of all three of the original Defenders from its television incarnation could be seen as an odd decision. Neither Benedict Cumberbatch’s Steven Strange nor Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner are expected to turn up, even for cameos. Marvel Studios has policed a strict division between its Netflix series and its cinematic outings, despite announcing them as being set in the same "continuity". The fourth "classic" Defender is even less likely to turn up. The Silver Surfer (who joined the team in 1972, less than a year after it was formed) is, due to some bad deal making in the 90s, off limits to the MCU. His film rights sit with Fox, who utilised him in the rightly all but forgotten Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007). 

One of the reasonably consistent features of previous incarnations of The Defenders is that the characters have generally faced mystical threats. They first teamed up to fight monsters from HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and generally their antagonists have operated on that kind of scale. With Stephen Strange in the gang, that makes sense. You don’t need the sorcerer supreme to take out organised crime. But organised crime is largely what you’d expect Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist to take on, especially based on the Netflix versions of the characters. All four are "street-level" heroes, operating in New York, interacting with characters like murderous vigilante The Punisher and Kingpin of Crime Wilson Fisk. Perhaps splitting the difference, their team up series will see them take on The Hand. This is a ninja organisation, with mystical origins, that is nevertheless involved in organised crime and can be presented, as it has been so far for Netflix, within the context of crime stories.

Marvel’s Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada has defended The Defenders being The Defenders by pointing out that the original team are largely unknown outside comics fandom, and their name means nothing to the public at large. (Although they have, of course, heard of all three of its constituent members.) Of course, for some this might sensible provoke the question "Why use it then?" What is this series called The Defenders at all?

The (original) Defenders were seen as a "non-team", a phrase occasionally used in the pages of their appearances. There was something deconstructive about this kind of team up. It was the pairing of characters who were unsuited to working, even to appearing, together and who would really rather not. (They had, after all, been brought together in the first place simply because Roy Thomas happened to write their separate titles.) The stories told with the group in some ways challenged and confronted the cliches of the decades old form that had begun back in All-Star Comics #3.

The line-up, and tone, of Netflix’s Defenders more resembles that of another, deliberately slightly interrogative non-team, that of the short-lived Marvel Knights book of 2000-2001. This did share The Defenders somewhat abstract definition of "team", featuring characters who didn’t like each other and didn’t want to work together, albeit without any mystical element to how they were brought together. Marvel Knights was also, in theory, the flagship of the line of the same name, at the time edited by... Joe Quesada. Hmm.

In recent years, Marvel have frequently cheerfully remodelled their comics - the original medium for almost all their characters - in order to incorporate changes and innovations pioneered as part of their film and television projects. Remixing their characters and the way they are grouped together in response to the success of their screen empire. The Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, have become more prominent in the comics, while characters whose film rights lie with film companies other than Marvel’s own, such as the aforementioned Fantastic Four, have been pushed to the margins. Accordingly, this August sees the launch of a new The Defenders title, featuring the lineup of characters from the television series.

Some loyal comics readers see this a case of the tail wagging the dog. Others might like to take notice of the metaphor used by comics writer Grant Morrison in his 2011 book SuperGods: Our World In The Age Of The Superhero. There, Morrison argued that comic books, while the medium in which these characters were created, was essentially the discarded booster section of the rocket in which they had been fired into the public consciousness, reaching vastly greater audiences in the process. 

“That’s not The Defenders,” commented a friend of mine on seeing a publicity photograph for the series a few weeks ago. It is now, mate. It is now.