Snake Eyes and Franchise Filmmaking's Fatal Flaw
I must admit, going into Snake Eyes I knew very little about the media property that is G.I. Joe. — so little, in fact, that I legitimately didn’t know whether the titular character of the unfortunately subtitled film (did we learn nothing from the debacle of X-Men Origins: Wolverine?) was considered a hero or a villain in the Joe-verse. But though my ignorance perhaps muted my enjoyment of Snake Eyes, it did serve to provide me with a perspective I’ve rarely had in recent years, one that entrenches the pitfalls of modern franchise filmmaking.
As a critic who has seen my share of nostalgia products and has read my share of comic books, I tend to pick up on a good chunk of the Easter eggs, fan service, and sequel set-up that permeates IP-driven filmmaking. Though this frequently takes the form of outright pandering, I’m not immune to the tiny thrill that comes with being in the know, in recognizing what’s on the screen and being able to speculate about what comes next — as such, I often don’t feel fully equipped (though I try my best) to understand what the moviegoing experience might be like for someone who doesn’t care about the broader universe.
Well, now I do, and unfortunately Snake Eyes represents one of the most disheartening tendencies of franchise filmmaking — derailing a perfectly serviceable story in favor of late-game worldbuilding, reference-making, and future setup. Star-in-the-making Henry Golding stars as Snake Eyes (who I am now reasonably, but not entirely, confident is a G.I. Joe hero), an action hero with a tragic past roped into a series of events that mostly play like a weak facsimile of Batman Begins: he drifts around, gets into fights, goes and trains with a group of ninjas, and has to ultimately save the world. All in all it’s pretty standard fare, elevated mostly by the intriguing decision to have Snake Eyes be a total asshole essentially from start to finish.
Fortunately Golding has enough charm to pull off the requisite balance, and his ability to generate chemistry with frequent scene partners Andrew Koji and Haruka Abe is what keeps the film engaging — that, and some utterly ridiculous “warrior trials” involving exactly the animals you think it will. Less fortunately, Snake Eyes features some of the worst action I’ve seen in an action-forward blockbuster: I don’t know whether to blame the director, the cinematographer, or the editor (probably all three), but every single fight sequence is shot in close up, with a tumbling camera, and chopped into oblivion, turning what could very well have been expertly choreographed material into completely incomprehensible blurs.
Despite all this, I found myself enjoying the silliness of it all — the film for the most part seems at least moderately self-aware regarding the non-seriousness of its premise. But of course it can’t help but succumb to the ultimate franchise sin (or, some might argue, necessity) of shoehorning in setup for as many potential sequels and spin-offs as it can: from Cobra to Storm Shadow to unironic mentions of “The Joes,” Snake Eyes’ personal arc is ultimately overwhelmed by how he might fit into an IP scheme.
The sinking feeling began to set in when Samara Weaving — a talented actor who gives easily the least interesting performance in the film, a feat that can likely be chalked up to the source material and the script — first appeared on screen playing a character who seemed to be already looking forward to her own standalone feature, and continued all the way through a mid-credits sequence that must have resonated with some members of the audience but left me completely emotionless. Maybe I would have felt differently about Snake Eyes had I grown up with the television series (or perhaps if I had watched the more recent live-action efforts) but as it stands the film crystalizes the fact that a focus on the next project more often than not just undermines any strengths the current film might have. For my money, the best way to get me interested in a sequel is to make the best first movie you can — at points it seems like Snake Eyes thought about going that route, but ultimately just couldn’t get out of its own way.