The Avengers and Expendables 2 are two of the summer's biggest movies, and they share a common theme: a band of heroes trying to save the day.
Film buff Murray Horwitz — with some help from Talk of the Nation listeners — suggests alternative movies to watch at home if you like that theme, but don't want to stand in long lines at the box office.
The Magnificent Seven
"What a cast this movie has: Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Robert Vaughn ... Eli Wallach, Charles Bronson. It's just a wonderful movie. We have to say — every time we mention The Magnificent Seven — based ... on the masterpiece by Akira Kurosawa, The Magnificent Seven, with Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura, simply one of the greatest movies ever made."
"Watchmen is a really good movie, and it's an ensemble cast, and it really works. And the only person you've really heard of — well, I shouldn't say that. I insult other actors. But the only person I recognized off the bat was Billy Crudup."
"[My favorite is] a film that was very important to me in my adolescent years, The Professionals, directed by Richard Brooks. Listen to this cast: Burt Lancaster, Woody Strode, Claudia Cardinale — never more beautiful — Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan, Jack Palance. It's amazing."
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan.
You can be forgiven if you detected some familiar themes in this year's summer's crop of blockbusters: the improbable group of unlikely heroes and has-beens that bands together to save the day. I think the Hulk starred in both "The Avengers" and "The Expendables 2." And then there's the hero's return, played rather darkly in the latest Batman film but for last back in 2004 when Mr. Incredible considered his return to glory, and of course, his costume.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE INCREDIBLES")
CRAIG T. NELSON: (as Mr. Incredible) Wait. You want me to make me a suit?
BRAD BIRD: (as Edna "E" Mode) You push too hard, darling. But I accept. It will be bold, dramatic.
NELSON: (as Mr. Incredible) Yeah.
BIRD: (as Edna "E" Mode) Heroic.
NELSON: (as Mr. Incredible) Yeah. Something classic, like Dynaguy. Oh, he had a great look. Oh, the cape and the boots.
BIRD: (as Edna "E" Mode) No cape.
CONAN: Call us to nominate your favorite band-of-heroes flick or the hero's return from exile or obscurity: 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Our favorite film buff, Murray Horwitz, joins us here in Studio 3A. Good to have you back.
MURRAY HORWITZ, BYLINE: Good to be back, Neal. Thanks so much.
CONAN: And I guess, in a way, "The Incredibles" counts in both categories.
HORWITZ: I think so. I think so. You mentioned familiars - and, by the way, I want to thank you for not wearing your cape today. I think it's a prudent choice.
CONAN: Well, the boots, though.
HORWITZ: Yeah, boots are dashing. You mentioned familiar themes, and the truth of the matter is that in big-budget Hollywood movies, there are some familiar themes in the summer. It's almost always about good versus evil.
HORWITZ: Actually, somebody said, let's do your best good-versus-evil films. I said, I think we'll be here for about seven months, yeah. But there are a lot of - I love the films where this, like, all-star team of good guys gets together to do battle. And not surprisingly, as you mentioned, sometimes there has been good guys and they bond together.
CONAN: And these are - well, you know, if you go back in the history of Western civilization that plucky band of Greeks that gathered around the walls of Troy...
CONAN: ...and the other one, of course, is the hero's return, what did it take Ulysses, 10 years to get home?
HORWITZ: It's something like even more, didn't it?
HORWITZ: And the ship was the same but not the same, as they say.
CONAN: Well, he ended up wrecking (unintelligible).
HORWITZ: Right, right, right. But it - no, we like these team things and we especially like, you know, teams with specialists, you know. In "The Avengers," each one of the superheroes has a different kind of set of skills or superpowers, same thing with "The Incredibles." And even in some of the movies that we're going to discuss, you know, somebody's a good rifleman and somebody else is a good explosives expert, that sort of thing.
HORWITZ: I do have to say, there are a couple of ground rules. You know, please, we talk about blockbusters. Blockbusters...
CONAN: That's not a category.
HORWITZ: It's a category, it's not a genre. And nothing is...
HORWITZ: Oh, you can't announce, we're going to have a blockbuster this summer. You don't know that until after the film's released. I mean, witness this year's "Battleship," which you can use whatever verb that's upon - that you would want...
CONAN: That sank quickly, I have to say.
HORWITZ: Tanked - all of those are good. So these are big-budget Hollywood movies, and they all are kind of - want a culinary, sort of, confections that, you know, there are some car chases and motorcycle chases and this and then (unintelligible), they're familiar.
CONAN: Hmm. You mentioned that team. This is an email from Brandon in Wyoming: "The Avengers" is the culmination of years of hard work and dedication. As a life-long comic book fan, it's a childhood dream come true for me to see all those characters on screen together. Joss Whedon's sense of humor, an eye for action, not to mention the acting abilities of some of that ensemble cast make this the ultimate superhero flick. Well done, Joss.
HORWITZ: Yeah. And I think one of the things that our listener in Wyoming points out that's important is in the comic book - now, I don't know if there's a genre or a category, but the comic book literature - there's years and years of work went in with, you know, Bob Kane and Stan Lee and these other, you know, masters of the genre. And now, the current crop of comic book writers have had years to develop their characters. And that's why you can really kind of have two Spider... You know it's only - you know, 10 years ago we have the first Spider-Man movie and now we have been sort of recapitulating the whole thing over again.
CONAN: And how many times have we seen the origin of Batman already in a movie?
HORWITZ: And Batman, right. That's right. That's right.
CONAN: So here's an email from Dan, who says his favorite band of heroes movie is "The Magnificent Seven."
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN")
STEVE MCQUEEN: (as Vin Tanner) Home: none. Wife: none. Kids: none. Prospects: zero.
YUL BRYNNER: (as Chris Larabee Adam) No enemies?
MCQUEEN: (as Vin Tanner) Alive.
CONAN: Steve McQueen.
HORWITZ: Steve McQueen, that wonderful, wonderful star who's probably equally fascinating and attractive to men and women. What a cast this movie has: Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Robert Vaughn - I think that might have been - I think that was Coburn in that scene - Eli Wallach, Charles Bronson. It's just a wonderful movie. It is - we have to say every time we mention "The Magnificent Seven" - based...
CONAN: Everything. Yeah.
HORWITZ: ...on the masterpiece by Akira Kurosawa, "The Magnificent Seven,"(ph) with Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura, simply one of the greatest movies ever made.
CONAN: And there are so many great scenes in that movie, but it - and so...
HORWITZ: What's your favorite, Neal? Come on, tell us what...
CONAN: Well, no. Well, I was just going to say that that is the ensemble cast, putting together all of these people...
CONAN: ...who were stars in other movies. And that is the formula, it seems to me, for success that, well, even "The Avengers" is based on.
HORWITZ: Yeah. I think, you know, that's a very, very good point. And as a result, you know, there are these, like, sort of little mini-star turns. My favorite that I'm happy to tell you...
HORWITZ: ...when - oh, golly. Now, I'm going to completely blow it. Who's the marksman? It's Bronson, isn't it? And he - or Coburn. Anyway, he's...
HORWITZ: ...Coburn, the guy who was riding away on the horse, and he shoots, you know, miles away, and the horse falls. So then he kills the guy. The guys falls off the horse. He says, that was a great shot. It's a terrible shot. I was aiming for the horse, you know.
HORWITZ: But they have these little mini, sort of, almost set pieces in these films, and they're just great.
CONAN: But the other category, the heroes coming back.
HORWITZ: This is what happens in "The Dark Knight," right? We see Batman. He's just - he's had it. He's out of it. He's a recluse. He's out of shape. And he gets back into shape in extraordinary - extraordinarily fast, quick time. And, you know, you're rooting for him already, because he's already the underdog because he's not the Batman that he once was. And there are a lot of movies - and I'm waiting for our listeners to call us with the names - about the down-and-out hero or the guy who's retired, who's pressed back into service. It's a great theme.
CONAN: Or exiled and returned...
CONAN: ...to regain his rightful place on the throne, or whatever.
HORWITZ: Right. He's been shamed, you know. That happens, too.
CONAN: Here's an email from Lawrence: The Doom Patrol, he says. They predate the X-Men by a few months. They were a band of unlikely heroes from DC.
And this from Eric in Southfield, Michigan: Toss up between "Kelly's Heroes" and "The Wild Geese" by Richard Harris and Richard Burton.
HORWITZ: That's - those are really good ones. I hadn't thought of them, and they're great. "Kelly's Heroes," a lot of fun. And the...
CONAN: Donald Sutherland...
HORWITZ: Donald - and we didn't mention...
CONAN: ...the wacky tank commander.
HORWITZ: Beware of a wacky tank commander. But what we didn't mention is teams of bad guys, too...
HORWITZ: ...which we're not dealing with today. You know, this is not "The Dirty Dozen," folks.
CONAN: All right. Let's see if we get a caller in on the conversation. We'll start with Melissa, Melissa with us from Paducah.
MELISSA: I really loved the last adaptation of the "Three Musketeers" movie, "The Man in the Iron Mask" with Leonardo DiCaprio.
CONAN: I think it was a wonderful film. It was not the last "Three Musketeers" movie, no.
HORWITZ: No, no.
MELISSA: Well, the last one I saw.
HORWITZ: The last one has yet to be made, Melissa. We...
MELISSA: Oh, OK. Anyway, but I loved it. The musketeers were older and, of course, they had been abolished, basically. And they pretty much came out of retirement and - but one of the best things in the movie was at the end of the movie when they were burying - Aramis?
MELISSA: OK. And when all the other musketeers, the younger ones, raised their swords and they all kind of straightened up as they were walking away. You know, they were - kind of regains their glory in that respect. It made them all straighten up. And I just thought that was a wonderful scene in a...
HORWITZ: Proud again, right.
CONAN: Their pride restored.
HORWITZ: Right. And you - and I'm glad - thankful to you to remind me that. In a way, a hero who is counted down and out, nobody ever thought he would be alive, but he comes back is "The Count of Monte Cristo," which is...
HORWITZ: ...just a wonderful movie a few years back.
CONAN: Yeah. Thanks very much for the call, Melissa.
MELISSA: Thank you.
CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Reese(ph), and Reese with us from Laramie, Wyoming.
REESE: Hey. Great show. Love the summer movies series. So...
HORWITZ: Oh, thanks.
REESE: I was just going to say, it's interesting you guys are talking about Steve McQueen and James Coburn earlier, because I would like to suggest "The Great Escape."
HORWITZ: What - that's a very novel choice, Reese. Thanks. I'm glad you said that. It's terrific.
REESE: Fantastic movie. It started Steve McQueen's career pretty much, right?
CONAN: Oh, no. Steve McQueen...
HORWITZ: No, no, no.
CONAN: ...was already established by then.
REESE: He's a superstar, though, right?
CONAN: Oh, he became a superstar.
HORWITZ: He became a superstar with - yeah - but he's actually...
REESE: Yeah. But long movie, awesome movie, though.
CONAN: I think it was the James Garner's real movie success, of course, "Maverick" on TV.
REESE: Indeed, yeah.
HORWITZ: He had been on TV a lot, but this is the one for James Garner. And Donald Pleasence as the forager who loses his eyesight. It's just - with a lot of these movies...
CONAN: Richard Attenborough...
HORWITZ: Richard Attenborough.
REESE: Richard Attenborough.
CONAN: ...(unintelligible), come on.
HORWITZ: Right, right, right. And Reese points something out that there are - in so many of these movies, there are killer casts because you have all these importantly strong individuals sharing the dramatic duties. You know, all these characters have - so you have to have strong actors. And as a result, we got some great, great, great ensemble performance.
CONAN: OK. And the crossover between "The Magnificent Seven" and "The Great Escape."
HORWITZ: Oh, and it give what?
CONAN: Charles Bronson, the tunnel king.
HORWITZ: Oh, the tunnel king. That's right, tunnel king.
HORWITZ: That's right.
CONAN: I saw that movie a few times.
HORWITZ: The minor from Pennsylvania, right, right, right.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call.
REESE: Thank you.
CONAN: And the - it's interesting. You have - there are different kinds of hero-return movies. In the 1994 film, "The Lion King," Simba, who...
HORWITZ: That's right.
CONAN: ...disgraced, exiled, returns home.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE LION KING")
JONATHAN TAYLOR THOMAS: (as Simba) Timon, Pumbaa, what are you doing here?
ERNIE SABELLA: (as Pumbaa) At your service, my liege.
NATHAN LANE: (as Timon) We're going to fight your uncle for this?
THOMAS: (as Simba) Yes, Timon. This is my home.
LANE: (as Timon) Talk about your fixer-upper. Well, Simba, if it's important to you, we're with you to the end.
HORWITZ: It's a New York accent in deepest Africa. It's funny. When I mentioned the hero who's been shamed, I mean, I was really thinking of Simba in "The Lion King," whom, you know, Rafiki inspires and Nala convinces to return to the Pride Lands and face the evil Scar.
CONAN: The evil Scar, boy - and this is not merely the band of great actors. It's a band of great voices.
HORWITZ: Right. Terrific voices. It's a great cast. And you mentioned "The Incredibles." And, you know, there is one of the best voice cast movies I've ever heard. Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Sarah - public radio's Sarah Vowell and Samuel L. Jackson. It's - and they clearly have fun with it.
CONAN: We're talking, of course, with film buff Murray Horwitz at our summer movie festival. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
And Ray's on the line, Ray with us from Rancho Cordova in California.
RAY: Ah. Awesome. Hello.
RAY: Thanks for having me on the show.
CONAN: You're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RAY: So I'd like to say my favorite misfits superhero movie has to be "Mystery Men" with Ben Stiller, Janeane Garofalo, Hank Azaria and William H. Macy. They're the quintessential misfits in my mind.
HORWITZ: You know, Ray, I - it just goes to show you put everything in. I left it off the list, and I saw it, a it's a movie I don't know, but people have told me great things about it and...
RAY: Well, it's action and - yeah, go on. Sorry.
HORWITZ: No. Just - that's all. I mean, I should've kept it on the list, and I would've been able to say - pretend to have seen it and said all these great things to you.
RAY: Oh, yeah, no. Absolutely. And, you know, there's super car, the Herkimer Battle Jitney and, of course, Smash Mouth's hit, "All Star," before it was used on the "Shrek" soundtrack.
CONAN: Hmm, OK.
HORWITZ: We'll look for "Mystery Men." Thanks so much.
RAY: Yeah. Check it out. It's the quintessential misfits.
CONAN: Several emailers also called to suggest that. Here's - this is from Tim. And he suggests: How about the biggest disappointment? I'm a dedicated fan of Ridley Scott's early movies and two later ones. I'd anticipated his prequel to "Alien," "Prometheus." Wow, what a disappointment. Poor scriptwriting, silly premise, not-so-good acting and a mystery or fear factor. My wife and I found ourselves laughing at what's supposed to be its scariest moments.
HORWITZ: Yeah. And it disappointed a lot of people. You know, we didn't talk about - well, you talked about a little bit of Batman and the different origin stories.
HORWITZ: Origins are also - with Spider-Man, and a little bit less so with Batman, it makes an appearance in "The Dark Knight Rises" - a theme of this summer. And "Prometheus" is, in a way, an origin story that, as I say, it's souffle(ph) that - not souffle, but a disappointment to a lot of people. But I'm not sure it's the biggest disappointment of all time in this genre. "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" is a candidate.
CONAN: This is another one where they have to spend so much time getting the band back together...
CONAN: ...that there's hardly time for a plot.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I thought I was special. You're invulnerable to harm.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I don't like to boast.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: What happened to Mina?
SEAN CONNERY: (as Allan Quatermain) Oh, she's probably hip-deep in some sort of trouble.
PETA WILSON: (as Mina Harker) Don't be such an alarmist, Mr. Q. And my hips are none of your business.
CONAN: Ah, well, yes. That was Sean Connery in there, and a very good comic book and a really bad movie.
HORWITZ: Really bad. You know, it was Tom Sawyer and Wyatt Earp and Sherlock Holmes. I mean...
HORWITZ: ...it was a great idea...
CONAN: Captain Nemo. Captain Nemo.
HORWITZ: Captain Nemo, but it didn't work out.
CONAN: And as you go through these formulas, yes, that - well, Marvel formula now, I guess, we're going to call it, of getting the good actor...
CONAN: ...to play Iron Man or something like that. And then Robert Downey, Jr. can come back in the ensemble cast in that great bickering scene with Captain America and all that.
CONAN: But, you know, these are not-so-easy to predict they say. And even...
HORWITZ: They aren't. And sometimes when it's not stars, even. There was a movie in 2009 - you know, I mentioned Bob Kane and I mentioned Stan Lee. But, you know, the contemporary writer Alan Moore has done amazing...
CONAN: "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen."
HORWITZ: Right, exactly, the original comic book. And "Watchmen," which was directed by Zack Snyder in 2009, done by Alan Moore and his partner Dave Gibbons, Billy Crudup is only...
CONAN: Also "V for Vendetta."
HORWITZ: Right. "V" is another one of his efforts, I was going to say...
HORWITZ: ...in the comic book realm. But "Watchmen" is a really good movie, and it's an ensemble cast, and it really works. And the only person you've really heard of - well, I shouldn't say that. I insult other actors. But the only person I recognized off the bat was Billy Crudup.
CONAN: Well, who gets to Murray?
HORWITZ: I have to say, if there's one masterpiece in this whole thing, it's got to be the "Seven Samurai." But the Murray goes to a film that was very important to me in my adolescent years, "The Professionals," directed by Richard Brooks. Listen to this cast: Burt Lancaster, Woody Strode, Claudia Cardinale - never more beautiful - Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan, Jack Palance. It's amazing.
CONAN: "The Professionals."
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE PROFESSIONALS")
RALPH BELLAMY: (as Joe Grant) Your job: a mission of mercy. Raza. Captain Jesus Raza. Jesus. What a name for the bloodiest cutthroat in Mexico.
CONAN: The bloodiest cutthroat in movies will be back next week with another edition of our summer movie festival. Murray, always good to have you on the program.
HORWITZ: Great to be on. Thanks, Neal.
CONAN: Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. Ira Flatow will be here. We'll talk to you again on Monday. Have a great weekend, everybody. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.