REVIEW: Wonder Woman

Of my numerous complaints with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, one was how that movie altered Superman’s relationship with the public in his setting. In the Christopher Reeve movies, Superman Returns and (to some degree) Man of Steel, Superman’s relationship with the public and law enforcement is ultimately friendly. In BvS, the world seems discombobulated by the appearance of “the Superman” over Metropolis, and reacts on the two extremes of hatred and abject worship, which is itself a form of terror. Realistically – if such a term can be used with superheroes – that kind of makes sense. Marvel’s X-Men series was predicated on the idea that people who are “born different” can still fight to defend a world that fears them. But that isn’t the general tone of Superman stories, and moreover, this premise depends on the shock of Superman being the first superhuman in the world – even though in the DC Extended Universe Batman has been a costumed vigilante for years before Superman became known to the public. Not only that, in the same movie, Bruce Wayne met Diana Prince and discovered not only that she is Wonder Woman, but that she’d fought with a unit in World War One. So going into the Wonder Woman solo movie, my main question was: Why is everyone on Earth so freaked out about Superman when there has been a demigoddess with Superman-level power running around for over a century?

Spoiler Alert: I didn’t find out.

If you are familiar with the original comics or the ’70s TV series, you know the first part of the story: The Amazons live isolated on Paradise Island until American military pilot Steve Trevor crashes and is rescued by Princess Diana, who decides to return with him to “Man’s World” and fight on his side in the war. The difference again is that this is World War One, even though Wonder Woman was introduced in World War Two. I’m not sure why the studio made the change. It could be they felt that WWII was too well-traveled or too closely associated with DC’s competitor hero, Captain America. It’s also important that chemical weapons were central to World War One, and this movie largely centers around the heroes trying to destroy the chemical superweapon of a German chemist code named “Doctor Poison” which is not a good name to put on your driver’s license but a great name for a Golden Age villain.

It’s important to take note of the performance of Gal Gadot as Diana, in that it is necessarily different from her acting in Batman v Superman. In BvS, Diana was a mysterious woman of secrets. Here she is the exact opposite, completely guileless, able to feel wonder at everything from ice cream to a November snowfall. In fact, her main problem is that she is so convinced of humanity’s innate goodness that she honestly thinks that killing one bad guy can stop the world from going to war. Otherwise, Chris Pine as Steve Trevor is a Big Damn Hero and not just a male damsel-in-distress, and the other heroes are fairly minor but all get good lines and good characterization.

The movie has flaws- like, how can such an innocent, even one with hundreds of years to learn languages, pick up the villain’s note book and not only decipher its code but figure out what a hydrogen-based poison is? And again, the movie’s setting isolates it from the established DC movie setting so that it doesn’t have much in common with it in terms of tone. Which is a good thing, though. These heroes rescue innocent people. They cheer each other up. It’s just a breath of fresh air (however stale that term may be) to have a DC Heroes movie that is both heroic and fun, as opposed to the Zach Snyder Superman movies (which were neither) or even the Christopher Nolan Batman movies (which were very good, but grim as hell).

I have to raise the matter of feminism given that WW’s creator, William Marston, saw it as her raison d’etre, and because Wonder Woman as a feminist symbol has been discussed in terms of female characters in movies. Because I didn’t see this particular interpretation as feminist per se. Rather, this Wonder Woman is someone who grew up not knowing sexism, racism, or the other vices of civilization, then gets introduced to the world as it is and asks: Why does it have to be this way? Wonder Woman is important to feminism because the rest of us did grow up in that world. And in terms of that world, a lot of people, not just feminists, were preparing for this movie with a “please don’t suck” prayer in mind, not just because another critically panned movie would have been bad news for the DC Extended Universe, but because despite evidence, a sucky movie with a female protagonist is used by Hollywood executives as an excuse for not greenlighting female-led movies. And that is because Hollywood is essentially conservative. Not in the “we hate abortion and gays” sense but in the sense of being terribly risk-averse. Especially since depending on how much a movie costs, a $20 million opening weekend can be regarded as disappointing.

That doesn’t seem like it will be a problem here. This week’s box-office and fan feedback indicates that Wonder Woman is a huge success. Which only shows that while a movie isn’t necessarily good just because it has a female protagonist, it will not automatically turn off audiences if it has a female lead (something the Aliens and Hunger Games movies should have proven already). What matters is that it’s a good story with good characters. Likewise, Wonder Woman proves that a superhero movie can be good whether or not Zach Snyder had anything to do with writing it. Although arguably despite that fact.

 

Batman v Superman, Zach Snyder and the Malevolent Universe Premise

HBO has had showings of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (or, BvS) in the last couple of months. I had promised Facebook friends at the time of its release that I would review the movie in regard to certain subjects, and with the Wonder Woman movie about to come out (produced, but not directed by Zach Snyder) and with the Justice League movie being promoted (originally being made by Snyder until his daughter’s untimely death caused him to bow out of directing), I thought I needed to go over BvS in terms of how it suffers in comparison to other superhero movies, and exactly why it does, with regard to how Snyder’s oeuvre leaves a lot of fans pessimistic about the overall direction of DC Comics’ movie universe.

First, if you can, I’d recommend seeing the Extended Version/Director’s Cut of BvS. The movie still isn’t that good, but it’s substantially better, giving context to otherwise slapped-together scenes and giving characters like Jimmy Olsen real dialogue. Of course there are at least two reasons this wasn’t released in theatres: the extra stuff added 30 minutes to a movie that was already 2 1/2 hours long, and the extra violence would have gotten it an R rating. (And while the studio didn’t seem to care about the movie being dark and violent, they apparently wanted it just dark and violent enough to where kids could still see it.)

Some random points:

In this movie, Zach Snyder really seems to go for a lot of blurry, out-of-focus shots, which are often irritating but are occasionally used to great effect, as with the scene where a Gotham street cop encounters the Batman for the first time.

As far as the now-famous “surprise” where Batman’s vengeance is stayed when he finds out that Superman’s (foster) mom has the same name as his deceased mother, I thought that was actually a good move. I’m quite surprised that no one else noticed the coincidence of Martha Kent vs. Martha Wayne before, although it wasn’t until now that anyone saw fit to bring it up.

With as many problems as this movie had, I think it would have been improved by a factor of triple if it did not have Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor. And normally I like Eisenberg. If he had just played the character as a reinterpretation of his Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, it would have expressed the sort of cold sociopathy that Luthor has in the comics. But in terms of both intelligence and emotional stability, this Luthor makes Donald Trump look like Mr. Spock.

Although in retrospect, given that Luthor had surveillance footage of the future members of the Justice League, much of what happened in the film only makes sense if you realize that Lex Luthor knew Clark Kent’s secret identity all along, and probably Bruce Wayne’s too.

The reason I wanted to critique an otherwise disappointing experience is because of something I’d read at the time of the movie’s release, where Zach Snyder had mentioned doing a film adaptation of Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead. Most of what I’ve seen on the subject details a movie that is not yet in production because Warner Brothers is still holding on to Rand’s screenplay, but when you type “zach snyder” in a search, the first thing that comes up is “zach snyder and ayn rand” and the articles it links to are fairly consistently from left-wing sites (like Salon) or from left-wing critics almost choking on their own snark about how bad Rand is and if Snyder likes her work, that just makes sense because he is also technically if not morally awful. As a fan of Rand’s (though not an orthodox Objectivist) I had to react to this assertion, especially since my issue with associating Snyder with Rand turns out to be the ultimate problem with BvS.

For one thing, Ayn Rand never wrote superhero comics, for another, the closest thing we have to such are the comics by Objectivist artist Steve Ditko (including The Question and Mr. A), and Snyder already did an adaptation of Alan Moore’s Watchmen comic story, based largely on comics that the DC company bought from Charlton Comics, including The Question, and in Watchmen, the vigilante Rorschach was basically Moore’s parody of The Question taken to a murderous extreme.

Ayn Rand is now most famous as a radical atheist right-wing philosopher (as opposed to the more religious conservatives) but she had always thought of herself primarily as a fiction author, one who belonged to the “Romantic Realist” school. In Rand’s terms, she was a Realist in the sense that her work did not include supernatural premises (although many of John Galt’s inventions are pure science fiction), and she was a Romantic in the sense that she wanted to write about heroic characters who prevailed over challenges and inspired moral values. The reason for her atheism, and later political involvement, was her sense that traditional altruist morality undermined heroism. This position has made her very unpopular in traditional liberal circles. For instance, Rand’s signature novel, Atlas Shrugged, is considered unrealistic and elitist because it posits a future dystopia in which the last thinking, productive people on Earth are under constant siege from mobs of mindless moochers whose only motivation is feeding themselves. And yet, the Zombie Apocalypse genre is more popular than ever.

Much of this gets into why Rand is now more famous for political philosophy than fiction, and has little bearing on BvS, DC Comics, or Zach Snyder’s film making philosophy. But Rand matters in comparison to Snyder because she articulated two aesthetic ideas that intersected with her political views but are not dependent on them. One is “sense of life” and the other is “benevolent universe premise.”

In the Ayn Rand Lexicon (now online) these two concepts are quoted mainly from Rand’s The Romantic Manifesto. She defines sense of life as “a pre-conceptual equivalent of metaphysics, an emotional, subconsciously integrated appraisal of man and of existence.” In smaller words, one’s sense of life is a mainly subconscious and implicit sense of existence or “how the world works” and in most people is set before they are exposed to abstract philosophy and make specific value judgments on philosophical grounds. Rand explained why sense of life was relevant to art: “It is the artist’s sense of life that controls and integrates his work, directing the innumerable choices he has to make, from the choice of subject to the subtlest details of style. It is the viewer’s or reader’s sense of life that responds to a work of art by a complex, yet automatic reaction of acceptance and approval, or rejection and condemnation. … Regardless of the nature or content of an artist’s metaphysical views, what an art work expresses, fundamentally, under all of its lesser aspects is: “This is life as I see it.” The essential meaning of a viewer’s or reader’s response, under all of its lesser elements, is: “This is (or is not) life as I see it.”

The other concept of benevolent universe premise is not so much that the universe is some animate thing that’s looking out for you, but rather, if the conditions of the universe are such if that human beings can live and find technical and social progress, then a mindset of progress and values is the correct one for existence. This is part of why liberals despise Rand, because this premise goes along with various right-wing beliefs rationalizing the already successful as being more worthy and thus implies that those who are struggling do so because of a lack of values. And yet, this concept that existence is perfectible and that humans are not doomed to tragedy and suffering is inherent to heroic fiction, whether dealing with capitalist “Randian supermen” or the altruistic Superman.

Objectivists contrast this philosophy with “malevolent universe premise” which they hold to be mostly implied in altruism (the idea that lack, disappointment and disaster are the human norm and the goal of existence is to rescue other people from various emergencies) and mysticism (the premise of various religions that the physical world is either unreal or inferior to the spiritual world, and therefore improving material conditions is meaningless). In terms of her literary tastes, Rand identified this overall approach to life as associated with the Naturalist school of fiction, which attempted a scientific or observational view of subjects but emphasized “realism” by focusing on the more grim and sordid aspects of life. Part of this was the attempt to inspect material and social conditions outside the individual, but led to a view that man’s fate is ultimately determined by greater forces than the individual. One of Rand’s objections to Naturalism was based on the sense of life concept: Since the author is the ultimate shaper of the fictional setting (its God, so to speak) then a morally downbeat and grim work says more about the author’s sense of life than about how life “really” is.

In fiction, the malevolent universe premise expresses in one of three ways depending on the author. Either the author arranges things for the hero(es) to fail because the premise of the story relies on them failing, he arranges things to fail because his sense of life disposes him to actually believe that human effort is ultimately meaningless, or he believes that the conditions of the universe are such that they punish honorable behavior and that only rat bastards are capable of doing what it takes to survive in this world (this last could be called ‘the George RR Martin’s Career Premise’).

This premise worked for Zach Snyder in his adaptation of Frank Miller’s 300, which was supposed to be an over-the-top, gory last stand movie. It worked for Watchmen, which was was supposed to be a deconstructionist take on superheroes from the get-go. It even works to some extent with Batman (dark cave, wears black, no parents) which might be why the Batman sequences of BvS work better than the Superman ones. But it doesn’t work for Superman, and it might work even less well for Wonder Woman, because if you want your story to express certain values (like ‘violence is a reliable solution to all problems’) then someone like Superman undermines those assertions by his very existence in your setting. In Watchmen, the Dr. Manhattan character is a great deal more powerful than Superman, but he’s not a hero. Whereas in the Marvel Studios movies, Captain America is simply a human being tuned up to the highest level of performance with no fancy powers of his own, but the Captain America movies do a much better job of presenting the comicbook superhero ethos- and what Rand would call the benevolent universe premise- because despite going through trials that are at least as much psychological as physical, Cap still maintains his convictions and prevails over his enemies.

Go back to Man of Steel for a bit. Clark’s foster father Jonathan wanted Clark to conceal his powers. He was willing to keep this secret even to the extent of letting himself die for it. Why? Because he was scared of what might happen to Clark if he were found out. What the government might try to do with him. This version of Pa Kent didn’t grow up in a universe with Superman comics and cartoons. He didn’t grow up with that role model. He grew up in a universe presented much as the cynical world of today, without even that fictional alternative. He was operating on malevolent universe premise.

And unlike some people, while I didn’t object to Clark killing the Kryptonian General Zod at the climax of the movie – because he was clearly left with no choice – the reason he was left with no choice, in “meta” terms, is because that’s how the script was set up. Superman didn’t have access to a Phantom Zone projector or some means of removing the villain’s threat without killing him. Which writers for Superman comics have been able to do for almost 78 YEARS. This is of a piece with all the property damage and mass casualties Superman and Zod caused by their battle within Metropolis, which was another thing that comic fans objected to. Almost as if they’d been reading comic books for years longer than Zach Snyder and expected a comicbook movie to play out LIKE a comic book. But apparently the idea of the producers (including Snyder, and also his co-screenwriter, David S. Goyer of The Dark Knight movie trilogy) was that in order to be believable you have to present superheroes “realistically” in terms of the consequences their powers have and how people would react to them. To the extent that this argument has merit, it’s been better presented in other superhero and science fiction movies, including Watchmen. But it also misses the point. Stories like Watchmen pose the question: what if people with strange abilities and colorful costumes acted just like everybody else? Traditional superhero comics ask the question: What if they didn’t?

In any case that grim approach to how people would “really” react to a superhero carries over to BvS, where events play out as direct consequence to the Kryptonian battle over Metropolis. The city builds a giant statue to Superman but others call him a “false god.” The standoff between the government and Superman in Man of Steel seemed to have been resolved at the end of that movie but is re-intensified, for no obvious reason other than Superman attacking a warlord in a Third World country (mainly to rescue Lois) whom the CIA was going to take out anyway. And nobody cares what the CIA does in the Third World, so why would they care about Superman? The other factor is that the collateral damage in Metropolis also destroyed one of Bruce Wayne’s buildings and killed most of the staff, and with this version of Bruce somewhat resembling the Frank Miller version (semi-retired from crimefighting and embittered by the Joker killing Robin) he’s inclined to outright kill Superman, even as his investigations reveal something more sinister going on with Luthor. Just as this world didn’t grow up with 70-plus years of Superman, it also didn’t seem to have anything like the spectre of the 9-11 bombings. Rather than having public and government insecurity over terrorists blowing up skyscrapers, we have paranoia over superheroes blowing up skyscrapers. Which might explain why this world doesn’t care about protection against bombers.

Luthor sees the confrontation coming between Superman and the government, and decides to escalate by blowing up the Capitol as Superman comes in to testify. Let’s not even dwell on the point that blowing up the Capitol is just another example of postmodern cynicism towards government in particular, where Congress is destroyed largely because it’s a convenient target for audience wrath (much better expressed in Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks: ‘We’ve still got two out of three branches of government, and that ain’t bad!!’). What was the guy’s wheelchair made of so that site security was unable to detect the explosive? Would Superman’s X-Ray vision have worked any better? Not like it matters. As my friend Jason Tondro says, he didn’t fucking look.  In fact, Clark actually said this to Lois the first time he saw her after the explosion. Well, not the “fucking” part.

Retreating back to the Arctic, Clark has a vision of his dead father Jonathan, who talks about how as a boy he and his family blocked a river flow during a storm to save a farm, only to find out that the diverted flow ended up ruining the Lang family farm instead.

In the movie, Luthor reveals himself to have been abused by his father (as Lex was in the most recent comic iterations). In this, Luthor’s atheism is not so much a rationalist philosophy as a “mad at God” stance, and once he has Superman in his clutches, he makes it clear that he regards him as a substitute for the absent creator he blames for his trauma. (So if we’re supposed to believe that Snyder and Goyer are apologists for Randian atheism, there’s a mixed message here.)

Blackmailed into fighting Batman, Superman tells Lois Lane, “no one stays good in this world.” No one who understands Superman would have written that line. But no one who understands Ayn Rand would have written it either.

To some extent, the fact that someone like Superman doesn’t use all the capabilities at his disposal is an example of what Siskel and Ebert used to call the “idiot plot,” as in, the plot advancement depends on the principals being idiots. And as other critics have discussed, many of the movie’s plot holes, or plot sinkholes, plot crevasses and plot canyons, are best explained if you assume the producers went with the premise “let’s have Batman fight Superman” and worked backward from there, as opposed to Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, where the fight between the two was inevitable considering Bruce’s actions, but not actually the point of the story, and where small details were introduced explaining why that confrontation would be inevitable and not contrived. But what we’re discussing with Snyder’s movies, the Superman movies in particular, is more broad and abstract. The forces of the universe, as shaped by the producers, actually work against heroism. In Pa Kent’s example, this is explicit. Even when you try to do the right thing, it blows up on you. So why try?

Ayn Rand was rather infamous for her humorlessness, but one reason for that was that she thought that heroism and heroic virtues should not be mocked. And in terms of her literary position, she saw that mockery taking place throughout a popular culture influenced by Naturalism that saw optimism and virtue as “unrealistic.” Superman, as the most famous altruist next to Jesus himself, is not the sort of character Rand would have championed. But neither would she have tried to make him seem stupid or impotent. And that’s what BvS does. It does this to a lesser extent with Batman, whose investigations of Luthor are distracted by his mad-dog obsession with Superman, but the contrast between what the comic fan knows about the character and what Snyder’s movie presents is not quite so insulting. Batman as a violent and obsessed vigilante is a simplistic interpretation, but it’s not entirely inappropriate. Superman, as a near-omnipotent character who tries to use his power judiciously while causing as little harm as possible, is a character concept that Snyder and Goyer don’t seem to get. BvS, much more so than Man of Steel, seems intent on pushing every “cool kid” conception of Superman as being useless and stupid in comparison to edgier heroes, and given that Superman has that image problem, the challenge in storytelling terms would have been to make that Boy Scout hero both inspiring and believable.  It would also have been a challenge for Ayn Rand to do so, but then, she would not have tried, rather than make a genuine hero look like a tool.

All of which is why I don’t think Zach Snyder is a Randian, or if he is, he’s not setting a great example. Most likely if he did get to do an adaptation of The Fountainhead it would end up with Howard Roark as an obscure architect who resorts to terrorism in order to compensate for his failed life, with Dominique as not merely masochistic but outright delusional, acting out a cycle of childhood conditioning and abuse a la Sucker Punch.

And if you want “gritty” superhuman movies that show all the ugliness and vulgarity of real life but are also entertaining and even heroic, you’d be better off with Logan or Deadpool.

Especially Deadpool.

 

REVIEW: Star Trek Discovery Trailer

Notice I refer to the preview of Star Trek: Discovery and not the actual show. For one thing, the first episode isn’t out yet, and for another, the show is on that stupid CBS All Access network which would require me to pay for a service when I can barely afford the pay TV I have now.

But there was a certain level of controversy over the preview, partially because of the perceived political correctness of casting the two stars, China’s Michelle Yeoh and Sonequa Martin-Green (late of The Walking Dead), who are not only women but minorities. This sort of thing doesn’t concern me. We should all be aware by now that the real “sensitive snowflakes” are the cultural conservatives, and it’s not like this is the first time they’ve bitched about new media.

The idea of two strong female characters who are “of color” is in my opinion one of the more interesting things about the show. (Although I prefer not to use the phrase ‘people of color.’ One, to me it sounds too much like ‘colored people.’ Also, Donald Trump is technically a person of color.) The two stars are the main reason I’m interested. It’s the rest of the trailer that is turning me off. For various reasons.

For one, the uniforms and spaceship sets look newer and spiffier than the Original Series Trek and even the JJ Abrams old-Trek-with-modern-production movies. This was one thing that the Enterprise series, with all its problems, got right from the get-go. That show looked to me like the characters were the precursors of the Starfleet crews in the very first episodes of original Star Trek (like ‘Where No Man Has Gone Before’ and ‘The Corbomite Maneuver’ where the uniforms were even more bland and utilitarian than Enterprise).

The use of Sarek and Spock. Why are they really necessary? Especially given that the Discovery storyline is supposed to be taking place ten years before the start of the original series, and to the extent that Spock is seen in the trailer, it’s as an adolescent.

The Klingons. They look that much more alien than they did when re-introduced in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and it took them until 2005 to explain THAT.

Apropos of nothing, but has Doug Jones EVER done a role without full makeup?

Let me put this another way. I’d mentioned recently that I’d seen the new Ghostbusters reboot (the one where the principals are all women), and I liked it. However, the female casting seems to get some fans’ undies in a bunch, to the extent that the hostile reaction may have affected the movie’s box office success. Unfortunately the movie, while it had good elements, undermined itself. Namely, it started with the premise of a reboot or re-imagining with no continuity to the previous series, and yet most of the actors from the original movie did appear playing different characters. This somewhat defeated the purpose of starting fresh and made it that much harder to judge the movie on its own terms. It raised the question of exactly what the producers were trying to do.

Continuity is always an issue when you’re using established intellectual property, because while it defeats the purpose of creating something new if you don’t go off in a new direction, it defeats the purpose of saying that X is X when the new thing departs from the setting of X to begin with. It would be less irritating if Star Trek: Discovery had simply taken the parallel-universe of the J.J. Abrams series, or set the show within the past of that timeline. But the implication is that this is the universe of the original series, which already has quite enough problems with “retcon.” It’s not quite so bad with comic book properties, where a superhero series gets rebooted from scratch every decade or so and nobody questions this.. But even then, continuity matters. You can say that your Superman has no continuity with the Christopher Reeve Superman, but if you want to say that he IS Superman, don’t act surprised when people wonder why he needs to kill somebody.

The politically-incorrect grousing about casting is a red herring in comparison to the other issues with Discovery. I remember that when the first trailers for Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens came out, some guys were pitching a fit over John Boyega and Daisy Ridley being the stars. The fact that the new heroes were a black man and a white woman was immaterial to me. What sold me on the movie was that it FELT like Star Wars. Granted, some critics would say it feels TOO MUCH like the first Star Wars movie. But it got the job done.

Now granted, the actual series may explain some of the issues. (IF I see it.) The Sarek scenes with Spock might be flashbacks. Some fans are already claiming that the “new” Klingons are a nearly extinct subrace trying to save themselves. But to me the Discovery trailer, much more than The Force Awakens, seems like the producers’ attempt to slap a bunch of by-the-numbers elements together, even where they don’t fit, and market it under a well-loved brand name in the hopes that no one will notice or care about the difference. And the problem there is that with this particular intellectual property, fans DO notice the differences. As witnessed by all the little details I just went over, and I’m not as big a Trek expert as some people I know.

REVIEW: Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2

It is fair to say that Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 is basically the same movie as the first one, only more so.  And given how fun the first Guardians of the Galaxy was, that is enough recommendation in itself.

What’s surprising is how deep the movie is.  The first movie actually did a good job establishing the dynamics of each character, where the principals with the possible exception of Groot are all survivors of trauma: Rocket is a victim of animal experimentation, Gamora was forced to fight Nebula for the sake of Thanos, Peter Quill lost both his parents and Drax lost his entire family.

The new movie makes explicit this previously implicit theme.  So while it brings up the “Sam and Diane” attraction between Quill (Chris Pratt) and Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the real emotional confession of the movie is between Gamora and her archrival Nebula.  Drax (the hilariously deadpan Dave Bautista) develops an emotional range that he hadn’t had before, but can only reach his deepest sorrow second-hand through the empath Mantis (newcomer Pom Klementieff).  And the main character, Quill, finally meets his long-lost father (Kurt Russell) whose plans for him present an emotional temptation he may not be able to resist.  To say much more would spoil the movie.  Except that the producers took the character concept of “Ego, the Living Planet” and ran as far as they could with it.  And as others have pointed out, the best acted scene in this movie (other than the Nebula-Gamora confrontation) is between a guy in blue alien makeup and a CGI raccoon.

Which isn’t to say that Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 isn’t an action blockbuster movie with a budget bigger than the GNP of a developing nation, because it certainly is.  But a lot of movies coming out this summer will make literal tons of money, and how many of them will be worth saving in your video collection years from now?  Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is funny, exciting, and at one point, intensely moving.  Hopefully Marvel Studios will be able to maintain this standard into their planned “Infinity War” phase of films.

 

 

 

REVIEW: Logan

The previews for Logan made it look like a road trip/buddy movie starring Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart, which would have been worth the price of admission with no superpowers involved whatsoever.

In promotions, Hugh Jackman (now along with Stewart) has said this will be his last movie playing his “X-Men” character. In a way, the X-Men movies are victims of their own success. See, years ago when Marvel Comics was in financial straits (and producing truly sucktastic movies), they sold Sony Pictures the movie rights to their most prominent superhero characters – X-Men/Wolverine, Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four. But shortly after the first X-Men movie, Marvel created its own movie studio and made a very successful run of films using Iron Man and other titles. And for every very good Sony superhero movie (like X2) there was at least one “whatever” movie like X-Men: Apocalypse that didn’t improve the reputation of the brand. This is important because of intellectual property rights; not only are the X-Men movies in a different setting than the Marvel Cinematic Universe, legally, any new characters Marvel creates for its X-Men comic books will be owned by Sony Pictures for movie purposes, meaning that Marvel has no reason to create new characters and storylines for what is now a rival studio. So even though X-Men comics have made a TON of money for Marvel Comics, in recent years they eliminated most of their X-Men titles and killed much of their mutant lineup, including Wolverine himself, who has since been succeeded by his female clone. This roughly parallels the situation in this movie.

Logan is set several years in the future, after an unexplained event has killed off most of the mutants on Earth. The X-Men are a distant memory (ironically, now used to sell comic books). Logan, no longer calling himself Wolverine, has started to lose his healing factor, which means he is finally starting to age and feel the effects of injury. He supports himself as a limo driver in Texas, but is basically killing time. However, his old mentor Charles Xavier (Stewart) has learned of the existence of the first mutant child to be seen in years, who must be rescued from those who would exploit her. However, Xavier’s own advancing age is causing his psychic powers to malfunction, with tragic results.

Logan was directed by James Mangold, who also directed the other stand-alone Logan movie, The Wolverine, which actually had a similar premise where Logan loses his regeneration power and has to face the idea of being vulnerable. However in that movie, Wolverine’s power loss was temporary and a plot device driving the story. Here it is part of the overall theme. The movie’s depiction of old age and decline is that much more heart-wrenching when Logan is compared to Xavier, given that Professor X was always the father figure and conscience of the X-Men.

But if you see this movie, you won’t have time to be depressed by the tragedy, because it is violent and foul-mouthed AS FUCK. That’s right, you will get to hear Captain Picard say the word “fuck.” In various conjugations. And there was one chase scene where I could have been watching the next Mad Max movie.

Now, again, it isn’t explained whether this is the true future of the movie X-Men universe, and given that that future has been retconned at least once, it doesn’t particularly matter. Superheroes are corporate property: If the studio wanted, they could just recast these characters and start the story over, as Sony has done with Spider-Man no less than three times by now. But it’s clear that Hugh Jackman, as a real person living in the temporal universe, realized he couldn’t play an immortal warrior forever. So if you’re going to go out, go big. And fortunately Mangold has given us both a very exciting and very affecting movie as a literal burial of the X-Men movie series.

And the moral? Sometimes guns DO solve all your problems.

REVIEW: The Lego Batman Movie

My friends were still not ready to see Logan this weekend, so we went to the other movie we were interested in: The Lego Batman Movie.

This is of course, a spinoff of 2014’s mind-altering The Lego Movie, where for some reason Batman was made into the romantic rival of the lead character.  And this was one of the better parts of the movie.  Because Batman, as voiced by Will Arnett, is not much like the character as presented in recent movies or comic books.  The joke is that rather than ask the question, “What would Batman do?” this version presents the question, “What would YOU do if you were Batman?”  Because as it turns out, being trained to physical and mental perfection AND having practically unlimited wealth can make life a lot of fun.

The thing is, however much fun it may be to be Batman, this character doesn’t want to be Bruce Wayne,  to the extent that he avoids removing his mask except when absolutely necessary.  Because when he isn’t being Batman, Bruce Wayne doesn’t have much of a life, is mostly alone except for his butler Alfred, and is so invested in being uber-competent that he has to do everything by himself, because at core he is still an abandoned orphan.  So even in this weird interpretation of the character, the producers “get” Batman at least as well as more recent DC Comics movies.

And of course, Batman’s isolation eventually becomes something he has to grow out of with the help of the supporting cast, ironically including The Joker (Zach Galifinakis).  This is also a kids’ movie in other respects: not only are the guns non-lethal energy weapons, but gunfire is actually replaced by the actors making “pew-pew” noises.  And the final crisis ends up being resolved by what can only be called “Lego physics.”

The Lego Batman Movie is a good choice for a family movie that was also clearly made for adults, in that it includes a LOT of fan service and in-jokes that would require an in-depth knowledge of comics in general and Batman in particular, making reference to all the phases of Batman’s history, including “that very strange period in 1966.”  But like The Lego Movie, it’s something that might actually be better in a DVD release, since the special effects and sight gags come so fast and furious you would probably need to freeze the screen to catch them all.

What I Learned From Watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer

  1. You can never be too thin, too pretty or have too many weapons.
  2. Having a teenage sister can be a real drag, especially when she didn’t exist three years ago.
  3. There is no such thing as a happy ending.  If you have a boyfriend, chances are he is a monster who can’t control his evil side (Angel, Oz, Spike) and he will have to leave.  If you get a stable partner (Riley), chances are you will get bored and push him away, and he will get pissed off and join a black-ops unit in Central America.  If you have a girlfriend, chances are she will get killed (Jenny, Tara).  If you get a stable partner (Anya), chances are you will chicken out of marriage at the last minute, and she will get pissed off and (re)join the Vengeance Demons.
  4. Coming back from the dead is EXTREMELY overrated.

Milo vs. Maher and the Logistics of Trolling

“In this world, every act is a political act.”

-Andrew Sullivan, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

This weekend’s episode of Real Time With Bill Maher created a bit of controversy when Maher decided to have a one-on-one feature interview with writer and Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos, a professional provocateur or, in more prosaic terms, a troll. Yiannopoulos is an Englishman of Greek descent who has his hair styled and frosted in such a way that he resembles David Bowie, specifically Bowie just before he realized that endorsing fascism was a terrible mistake.

Yiannopoulos had already been a controversial figure for his “alt-right”, anti-feminist and pro-Donald Trump statements, to the extent that his planned speech at Berkeley got cancelled after violent protests. With regard to this interview, Maher’s other guest, left-wing journalist Jeremy Scahill, refused to appear on this week’s show specifically because it would give Yiannopoulos attention – which of course only gave him more attention. This was something that Maher himself pointed out to Milo when he said, “You are so helped by the fact that liberals always take the bait.”

But in the body of the interview, Maher went over the issue of Yiannopoulos’ provocative stance and “I’m just kidding” demeanor. He said, “I think a lot of people miss your humor, and I’m a guy who always defends jokes- right up to the point that they pointlessly hurt people.” Maher went on to say that he DID hurt some people intentionally, for the sake of the truth, and Milo concurred that “I hurt people for a reason.” But then Milo got to explain his perspective: “The reason (the Left) want to police humor, which is very important to both of us, is that they can’t control it. What all authoritarians hate is the sound of laughter.” And Maher responded, “And also because when people laugh, they know it’s true… laughter is involuntary.”

Which is actually a good measure to start with when examining good humor versus bad humor and “good” trolling (what Yiannopoulos would call ‘virtuous’ trolling) from bad trolling.

For instance, along with Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift was famous for writing the essay, “A Modest Proposal”  in which he proposed that babies be sold and eaten as food. This was NOT ACTUALLY MEANT as an endorsement of eating babies. It was rather an attack on the contemporary culture of the English-occupied Ireland where Swift lived: “I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.”  In other words, to “get the joke” you have to have a finely developed sense of sarcasm, which, to take Maher’s implication, means a sense of how the joke contrasts with reality.  But in the 4chan culture of the alt-right, irony is so overused that one’s sense of sarcasm is burned out, since most participants don’t have much engagement with the real world of consequences to begin with.

So when you are capable of getting the comparison between satire and reality, your satire works.  If you have to explain a joke, then it’s not very funny.  Likewise, if you have to explain why your offensive statement is “just kidding” then either it’s not a very good joke or you were being disingenuous about something you really believe.  One of the reasons Milo creates such disgust (and often creates sympathy for his targets) is not only that his jokes are often unfunny, but that he is taken as inspiration by people who are not joking at all.  Last year, when Saturday Night Live stars Leslie Jones, Kate McKinnon and former star Kristin Wiig did an all-female reboot of Ghostbusters with Melissa McCarthy, this attracted a lot of ire from a mostly male section of the fan community who acted like this very concept ruined their childhood.  (I’ve seen the movie, and while it’s not going to make anyone forget the original, it’s actually pretty good in itself.)  But this hate got that much worse towards Jones, who is black.  Several Twitter posters compared her to Harambe and other gorillas.  As it happened, Milo (under his Twitter handle ‘nero’) had not only egged on the anti-Ghostbusters campaign but had posted Jones’ Twitter address so as to get his fans to let her have it.  And because that was not the first time that “nero” was reported for violating Twitter’s terms of service, the medium banned his account permanently.

That is impressive in itself. Getting kicked off of Twitter for being an insensitive troll is like Dave Mustaine getting kicked out of Metallica for drinking too much.

But then you see the difference between “good” trolling and bad trolling. Calling Leslie Jones a gorilla isn’t necessarily “punching down” when, as Milo points out, she’s a fairly successful celebrity. The question is, what’s the point? This isn’t a punchline where you tell the joke and everybody gets it. Unless the punchline you want to convey is “(I think that) Leslie Jones is an ape.” Which means the punch line is “I’m a racist and I expect that to be socially acceptable.”

I have already mentioned how normalizing bad behavior only serves to make that the standard, and how that point USED to be a conservative argument. Encouraging the fellow travelers of actual fascists like Richard Spencer is not only dangerous in terms of who you let into government, it is immediately dangerous on a street level. It is that much more dangerous when you’re a flamboyant Brit who repeatedly brags about getting fucked by big black cock. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) It doesn’t matter whether you’re in the racist Right or the Stalinist Left. With collectivists, it is far more dangerous to be their friend than their enemy, because you would expect your enemy to stab you in the back.

I cannot put this point any better than J.K. Rowling did. See, the week before the Milo interview, Real Time With Bill Maher previously made news when Maher had Australian comic Jim Jeffries on a panel with British “journalist” and professional twit Piers Morgan, talking about Donald Trump’s order against immigration from seven Muslim countries, and when Morgan insisted to Maher that “there is no Muslim ban,” Jeffries responded, “Oh, fuck off.” And then Harry Potter author Rowling got on her Twitter account to say, “Yes, watching Piers Morgan being told to fuck off on live TV is *exactly* as satisfying as I’d always imagined. ” To which Morgan sniffed that he’d never read Harry Potter books. (When it turned out that he had.)  Rowling responded,  “.@piersmorgan If only you’d read Harry Potter, you’d know the downside of sucking up to the biggest bully in school is getting burned alive.”

That’s what it comes down to. At some point there is a line to draw. And that is why, whatever my issues with the Left and the moribund Democratic Party, I do not endorse Trump, Trumpism and what calls itself “conservatism”, not even in an antinomian, punk rock, “Belsen Was a Gas” kind of way.  Because some of the people cheering the joke don’t think it’s a joke.

But maybe I’m overthinking this. See, I’ve done some online research into Milo’s history with a website he co-founded, called The Kernel, now owned by The Daily Dot, and it turns out Yiannopoulos has a dark past. No, not his status as openly gay AND openly Catholic and guilty about his own sexuality and “lifestyle.” I mean his dangerous brushes with tolerance and liberalism. Specifically, he wrote an essay for The Kernel in 2012 called: “The internet is turning us all into sociopaths.”  And in it, he writes, among other things: “There has always been abuse on the internet, but, before the social revolution, it was largely restricted to anonymous comment threads, message boards and chat rooms. Any site owner who allowed anonymous comments could reasonably be held responsible, morally and legally, for the content appearing on his site.

But now there is a disturbing bleed from anonymous hatred to defamatory and spiteful language being posted under the authors’ real names using their social networking profiles. It’s as if our usual moral safeguards are being broken down by a terrifying new online landscape in which the default mode of communication is a form of attack. … It’s as if a psychological norm is being established whereby comments left online are part of a video game and not real life. It’s as if we’ve all forgotten that there’s a real person on the other end, reading and being hurt by our vitriol.

 

At which point, my response to Milo would be: “So… what happened?”

Suck It, 2016

In memoriam, here is a partial list of the many, many, many important deaths in 2016:

David Bowie

Prince

Kenny Baker

Alan Rickman

The last remaining shred of the Republican Party’s sense of shame

Ted Cruz’ political career

Al Franken’s sense of humor

Keith Emerson

Muhammad Ali

Arnold Palmer

Leonard Cohen

Greg Lake

Fidel Castro (and if there is no Hell, let one be created for him alone)

Zsa Zsa Gabor

George Michael

Carrie Fisher AND Debbie Reynolds

The entire city of Aleppo

And the American people’s faith in a constitutional republic

Review: Rogue One

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story strikes me as being an example of fan fiction that just happens to have been produced by the owners of the intellectual property. I say this as the highest form of compliment.

Fan fiction started off with the Star Trek community, as authors (mostly female) distributed “slash” stories (like Kirk/Spock) detailing gay relationships between principal characters, and other salacious ideas that would never have been approved by producers or censors. But as fandom became more popular (and respectable), fanfic evolved to a more professional quality, and fans even got to making their own video productions, like James Cawley’s Phase II (creating new adventures for the original Star Trek characters years before J.J. Abrams’ 2009 film).  But the main thing these productions had in common is that they were creating original stories for established characters (or an established setting) that the owners of the property didn’t want to produce themselves. But Paramount Pictures, the owners of Star Trek, seem to have reversed their tolerance for such things, quashing the recent fan project Star Trek: Axanar with a lawsuit.

Which from a fan perspective is too bad, because these ideas help expand the concept of what is possible in a fictional setting and ask questions not answered in official “canon.”

For example: What happened in the nearly 20 years between Star Wars Episodes III and IV?

The Star Wars prequels established that Palpatine had been planning to build his Death Star years before he became Emperor, and before Luke Skywalker was born. Rogue One is the story of how the new Rebel Alliance plotted to gain the plans to the space station, hoping to learn its structural flaws. (‘Spoiler alert- they found one.’ -Jimmy Kimmel) It centers on former Rebel Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) who, like Rey in Episode VII, is a strong, likable heroine who is at the center of the action rather than being a support character or damsel in distress. She is recruited by Rebel intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), who wants her to find her father, an Imperial scientist, but doesn’t tell her exactly why. Their mission goes south but they learn that the Empire has just completed its “planet killer” space station, and when the Rebel Alliance refuses to organize, Jyn resolves to find the plans to the base herself. As such, the movie takes cues from those old World War II movies where commandos have to perform a secret mission in occupied Europe, and you know someone is getting killed, you just aren’t sure who and how.

This greater realism (relative to Star Wars) is increased by the fact that apart from Darth Vader (voiced by James Earl Jones!), there are no Jedi in the piece, although martial arts star Donnie Yen plays a variant of the Blind Master archetype, who was a monk at one of the last temples of the Force. This shift in emphasis is important in at least a minor way, given that while you did have a vast universe to explore with the Star Wars setting, the stories so far have mainly been about the journey of a prospective Jedi into mastery – while Luke (and Rey) had a large group around them with their own stories, once they developed their powers, they started spending more time away from the team. The prequels, meanwhile, were almost entirely about the Jedi Order.

So that in itself makes Rogue One, as launching point for Lucasfilm’s “anthology” concept, very valuable.  It ISN’T really stand-alone, given that the story ends almost exactly at the point where Star Wars (Episode IV: A New Hope) begins. And again, we know how that worked out, and it isn’t too hard to guess what happens to these characters. But they are given a certain level of depth that the main series (especially the prequels) were not known for. Put another way, if you have an acquaintance who for some reason can’t stand Star Wars, you might ask them to see Rogue One with you. It works as a Star Wars story, and it works outside of being a Star Wars story. I hope it is a sign of things to come.

Review: Doctor Strange

Doctor Strange is the latest film in the Marvel Studios series of comicbook adaptations, in this case featuring Benedict Cumberbatch as Marvel’s “Sorcerer Supreme”.  The character is probably lesser-known than Iron Man and Spider-Man, but still has a serious following as the Marvel Universe’s primary mystical hero.  When the character was first introduced (by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko in the anthology comic Strange Tales #110), he was a vaguely Chinese-looking mystic with a Tibetan guru (The Ancient One) and a four-color morality in keeping with a superhero dedicated to fighting supernatural evil.

In this regard, the interesting thing about Doctor Strange was his origin story, which wasn’t revealed until five issues after his debut.  As it turned out, Stephen Strange was a doctor, in fact one of the top surgeons in New York, but was consumed by ego and greed, refusing to see patients who couldn’t pay his fees.  (Cumberbatch has a history of playing arrogant geniuses, so this was great casting.)  But Strange’s career ended when he got in a car accident that caused nerve damage to his hands which prevented him from doing surgery again.  Such was his reputation that he still could have made a decent living as a consulting surgeon, but his pride refused to let him work under another doctor.  He wasted his fortune on fruitless leads until at the end of his rope he traveled to the Himalayas in pursuit of “the Ancient One” and a miracle cure.  It was also at this point in the comics that Strange met his future archenemy, Mordo, who was the Ancient One’s main student.  Strange refused to believe in magic until he discovered that Mordo was using spells to try to murder the Ancient One, and when Strange tried to warn the old man, Mordo used another spell to silence him.  Strange realized that he would be helpless against Mordo unless he learned magic himself.  So he petitioned the Ancient One to become his new disciple, and at that point the archmage revealed that he was aware of Mordo’s evil but preferred to keep him at his monastery where he could watch him.  But from that point, Doctor Strange became the Ancient One’s new pupil, and eventual successor.

The movie changes this story significantly.  Not only did Marvel Studios famously “whitewash” the Ancient One from an Asian man to the Caucasian Tilda Swinton, Mordo (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a polite, low-key disciple who ends up being Strange’s main friend in the monastery as he begins mystic studies.  The relationship between Strange, Mordo and the Ancient One is complex and changes significantly over the movie.  In the meantime, Strange gets involved as the mystic community has to defend against Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), an evil ex-pupil of the Ancient One whose exposure to the Dark Dimension has given him the worst case of pinkeye in the Multiverse.  Other characters include Benedict Wong as… Wong (who in this version is not Strange’s butler but one of his tutors) and Rachel McAdams as Dr. Christine Palmer, Strange’s colleague and ex-lover, who doesn’t really figure into the main story but is symbolically significant in being Strange’s only emotional connection to the human world, even when he was still a surgeon.

The movie is not especially original – the fabulous “space folding” effects were more famously used in the movie Inception, although not so extensively.  And the story is a bit familiar in being a Hollywood version of “the Hero’s Journey” where an arrogant person is brought low, forced to adapt to a new environment, and then turns out to be a Chosen One who learns great abilities that take other students many years to master.  But it’s all very well done and very well-acted.  And in terms of the broader universe, just as Guardians of the Galaxy introduced a whole space-faring civilization of humans and other races that the people of Marvel Earth are totally unaware of, Doctor Strange introduces the mythology and magical elements of the Marvel Comics to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which of course means that in the end the movie ties into the larger narrative that will lead to Marvel Studios’ “Infinity War.”  So as both an action movie and a comicbook movie, I highly recommend it.

 

And remember: Driving while distracted can be hazardous.  Please drive responsibly.

Jack Chick, RIP

Another apropos-of-nothing post, but out of the many, many famous and semi-famous people who have died in 2016, Jack Chick died on Sunday October 23.

Chick was famous, or semi-famous, for being the author or at least publisher of a vast number of little cartoon booklets printed very cheap and en masse and laid around at various places so that people would pick them up and maybe learn the Gospel, or at least Chick’s version of it.  These tracts varied wildly in artistic quality between fairly realistic comic-book style and childish-attempt-at-velvet-painting style, but the tone was always very consistent: Repent and accept Jesus (the REAL Jesus, not the fake Catholic or Episcopal Jesus) or Burn In Hell.  Not only did this tone, along with the childish art, undermine the evangelism, it also demonstrates the main flaw of so many evangelists’ approach: Not that Jesus is a loving God, but that people must be scared into submission by telling them that if they don’t obey orders in this life, they will spend Eternity in a roasting pit filled with thieves, drunkards and prostitutes.

I live in Las Vegas.  It’s not THAT bad.

But I figured I should at least share the particular Chick tract that made the strongest impression on me.

A few years ago I’d gone to the South Point hotel to attend an event, only to find that the admission line was so damn long that I couldn’t attend and still get up in time for work the next morning.  So I walked back out to my car in the parking lot, and nearby my car, on the ground, I found a Chick tract, “on the ground littering the parking lot” being the place where most of us find Chick tracts.

This particular tract was called “Who Is He?”  If you want, you can follow along.  It’s one of the free samples on Chick’s website: http://www.chick.com/reading/tracts/1049/1049_01.asp  But I read it, and here’s the part that got me thinking:

Look at the power Jesus holds… IT’S AWESOME!

“For in him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible or invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: All things were created by him, and for him.”  (Colossians 1:16)

What keeps the universe from flying apart?  IT’S JESUS!

“And he (Jesus) is before all things, and by him all things consist (are held together).”  (Col. 1:17)

Jesus is in complete control.

And this really explained a lot to me.

I realized why the universe works the way it does.

You remember, when you were a kid, and you prayed that you would get a puppy on Christmas?  And you didn’t get one?  And later, you remember praying to God so that your Daddy wouldn’t lose his job so that you wouldn’t have to leave your nice home and go to a cruddy apartment, only he did lose his job and you did have to move?  And you remember years after that, when your Mom was dying of cancer, and you prayed and you prayed and you bargained and pleaded, and finally screamed for God to save her?  And she died anyway?

Well, as it turns out, there’s a reason that God didn’t answer your prayers.

It’s because He was busy keeping the universe from flying apart.

And that’s a tough job.

I mean, you know how hard it is to multitask.

Like, you’re working at your cubicle on Monday and you have to catch up on the backlog over the weekend, and you’re trying to concentrate on that, and one of your co-workers comes up to your desk asking you to look into a request he wants you to forward to HR, and you can’t handle both things at once, and you get thrown off.

Now, imagine that you’re up in Heaven, and you’re doing your job, holding the universe together, keeping all physical phenomena in maintenance, and on a stray impulse, you pick up on some frightened Yazidi girl praying over and over again that ISIS won’t capture and enslave her, and all of a sudden- WHOOPS! There goes Alpha Centauri.

So on this somber occasion, I would like to look back at the life of Jack Chick and thank him for giving Christianity some necessary perspective.