REVIEW: Justice League

When I was on vacation back East, my brother took me to see Justice League for its special Thursday night premiere on November 16. However I didn’t have access to my computer to post a review until I got home. So by now it’s hardly a secret that in this movie Superman comes back to life.

After Clark Kent’s funeral in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck) and Diana/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) form a working partnership, ending their retirement from superheroics and using Lex Luthor’s files to recruit additional metahumans to form a team against a threat that Batman is convinced is just around the corner.

The first two metahumans are surly drunk Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and the nervous-but-eager Flash (Ezra Miller). The third is Victor Stone (Ray Fisher), whose genius father used cybernetic parts to rebuild his body after an auto accident that maimed Victor and killed his mother. However this turned Victor into an inhuman cyborg with vast control over technology that sometimes controls him in turn. Moreover, the reason Doctor Stone could perform this operation is because he was using an alien artifact he called a “Change Engine” that turns out to be tied to Batman’s impending threat: Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds), an alien warlord who is so powerful that in an ancient age, he could only be driven off by a coalition of gods, Amazons, Atlanteans, at least one Green Lantern and a troop of humans who look suspiciously like the Men of Gondor. Steppenwolf’s power is tied to three Mother Boxes (including Cyborg’s Change Engine) that were dormant on Earth until Superman died, at which point they reactivated and beckoned Steppenwolf back. (While Steppenwolf has Mother Boxes, boom tubes and an army of Parademons, his connection to Darkseid is mentioned only once.)

Justice League brought back a couple of things that irritated me about Batman v Superman. The first was angry-yet-stupid Superman. After Steppenwolf beats up the team in their first encounter, Batman deduces that Cyborg can hook his Mother Box up to the Kryptonian biomatrix at Luthor’s lab in Metropolis, and put Superman’s corpse in to revive him. And in one of his best lines, Flash muses whether the revived Superman will be cool and back to normal or whether this will be like “Pet Sematary.” Well, the plan works, and sure enough, the result is more like Pet Sematary. Until Batman uses an unusual tactic to get Clark (Henry Cavill) back to his senses, Superman kicks ass on the entire team, not coincidentally destroying what’s left of his own ruined monument. It sort of makes sense that Superman is not in his right mind after revival, after all he’s been mostly dead all year. But still, it ties into the idea that people are supposed to be afraid of Superman. And that conflicts with a larger theme that is implicit in Justice League: Why do these guys NEED Superman, anyway?

I mean, Batman is the brains and the bankroll, Flash is at least as fast as Superman, Wonder Woman is about that strong, Aquaman is almost that strong, and Cyborg can do things with technology that haven’t even been quantified yet. There are a couple of good scenes that get to the heart of the matter. At one point Bruce tells Alfred (Jeremy Irons) that Clark was a better human than him. Clark had managed to fall in love, get a job, and live alongside regular people, something Bruce had never done. That and the influence of his foster parents made Clark more grounded than the antisocial Batman. Later there are a couple bits of dialogue where Diana confronts Bruce and brings up the notion that he is (in a passive-aggressive way) trying to get her to take over the team. And he responds that after Steve Trevor died, she withdrew from the world. She didn’t act as a public superhero, and basically hid her light under a bushel while Superman became a public figure. And she responds in so many words that when you’re placed in a position of leadership, and have to make decisions that could get people killed, at that point everyone is Steve Trevor.

Wonder Woman is the closest thing to a morally perfect character in the DCEU, but even she doesn’t see herself in Superman’s role. Superman is specifically referred to as a beacon of hope in Justice League at least once. The problem is that that description could fit Superman in almost any other DC movie before BvS (including Man of Steel) but it’s at odds with the themes of BvS, in particular the idea that Superman is an alien, godlike being who is a figure of fear, or at best awe. This is why the government in BvS had plans to stop him (and Doomsday) with a nuke, and why in Suicide Squad Amanda Waller and her allies were able to present their project on the rationale of being able to stop Superman (or a similar threat) in case he kidnapped the President. The best analog to Superman in Marvel Comics in this regard is Captain America, the Golden Age hero that every costumed hero since has tried to emulate. And that’s because Captain America always does the right thing, even if it means going against the authorities. In Captain America: Civil War, the movie makes it clear that world governments would have good reason to monitor and regulate metahumans, but it also makes it clear that if the US government is against Captain America, then it’s the government that’s in the wrong. Whereas in the Snyderverse, Superman isn’t the world’s greatest hero because of his spirit or inspirational presence. He’s the greatest hero because he is the most powerful being on Earth who hasn’t decided to become a supervillain, apparently because he lacks the initiative.

The assumption of many fans is that Superman is like this in the DC Extended Universe because Zach Snyder is a devotee of Ayn Rand (his production company is called Atlas Entertainment). I have addressed this subject at great length. In any case Snyder, along with scriptwriter Chris Terrio, wrote the original story for Justice League and was directing the movie until the tragic death of his daughter forced him to quit work on the film. Somewhere in this process Joss Whedon got put in (allegedly because test audiences found Snyder’s first run film unwatchable) to co-write the script, and ended up taking over direction as well (even though Snyder is still listed as sole director). As most other reviewers have pointed out, this has resulted in a disjointed and uneven film. It’s sometimes hard to tell where Snyder ends and Whedon begins, but for the most part Justice League is very much a Zach Snyder film- ponderous direction, muted colors, overcast skies and way too much CGI. There is however one scene that seems unquestionably Whedon’s: in the Big Boss fight, Superman has to help Cyborg contain an energy explosion, and when it throws them back, these two characters – who up to now have been MORE grim and serious than Batman – lie back and laugh. And they joke about it. I just couldn’t imagine something this relaxed and good-natured in Snyder’s work up to this point.

Moreover, the earliest previews for Justice League (mostly released before Whedon stepped in) showed Jason Momoa and Ezra Miller having so much fun playing their characters that it gave me the impression that DC was trying to change the direction of things.

At least once in Justice League, Batman says that his drive to form the team (and later, to revive Superman) is an attempt at redemption on his part: Batman almost killed Superman because he had the wrong idea about him. I get the impression that Justice League is a similar quest for redemption on the part of DC’s movie team. It doesn’t exactly work, because the script makes clear that Zach Snyder (and/or Chris Terrio) still doesn’t get Superman. Ultimately, though, Justice League is in the same class as Suicide Squad:  a grim and muddy Snyderverse project that, thanks to bright performances and some last-minute script doctoring, ends up as a patchwork monster that somehow manages to live.

Oh, and I mentioned that Justice League brought back two of the things that irritated me about BvS. The first was Mean Superman. The second was Jesse Eisenberg’s irritating dingbat version of Lex Luthor. Fortunately he appears only very briefly and at the very last scene after the credits. So teasing the next movie with an end-credits scene is one of two things that the DCEU learned from Marvel Studios. The other of course, is hire Joss Whedon to write and direct your movies.

REVIEW: Thor: Ragnarok

Much of the action in Thor:Ragnarok has already been given away in the previews: Thor (Chris Hemsworth) must fight the evil goddess Hela (Cate Blanchett, looking like Marilyn Manson as designed by Jack Kirby) to defend Asgard, and is defeated, losing both his hammer and his hair.  While Heimdall (Idris Elba) leads a resistance to Hela’s occupation, Thor and his brother/rival Loki (Tom Hiddleston) wind up on an alien planet where Thor is enslaved to a gladiator master who’s played by Jeff Goldblum, because why not.  And in his first match, Thor must fight The Hulk, “a friend from work”, setting up what might be the greatest mismatched buddy-cop movie of all time.

It’s slightly more complex than this, but Thor: Ragnarok is a very straightforward, ass-kicking movie, and the fight sequences are spectacular, even if they’re obviously CGI.  The principals are given a fun supporting cast including Tessa Thompson as the last of the Valkyries and “Korg”, an animated pile of rocks (voiced by Taika Waititi, the movie’s director).  And while a lot of the cute touches in this film are on par with other movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there’s also a bit of character growth.  Thor has always been a big lunk who is often the comic relief in his own stories, but he is a good deal more intelligent than he has been depicted in previous movies.  I liked where Thor was able to see through Loki’s deceptions, at least twice.  He is able to do this because as Thor tells him, Loki doesn’t want to be anything other than what he is.

Although if anyone knows about the original Norse myth, the title Ragnarok sort of gives away what could be a major change to the setting.  Even so, for the most part, everything works out for everybody.  Until the end-credits sequence.

 

 

The Weinstein Rebranding

People are still wondering what to do about Harvey Weinstein.

CBS’ James Corden mentioned the issue – after late night hosts were taken to task for NOT mentioning the issue – at an October 13 event in Beverly Hills, by opening with ““This is a beautiful room, it’s a beautiful night here in L.A.   It’s so beautiful, Harvey Weinstein has already asked tonight up to his hotel to give him a massage.”  And later: “Harvey Weinstein wanted to come tonight, but he’ll settle for whatever potted plant is closest.”

This did not go over well.  Rose McGowan, who was at the forefront of this issue, called Corden a “motherfucking piglet” and said that he was a friend of “HW.”  Anthony Bourdain, whose girlfriend Asia Argento has (like McGowan) accused Weinstein of rape, ripped that much deeper into Corden, saying “NOONE stood up and said, ‘fuck you, Pop’n Fresh!'” and “Mr. Corden is free to tell whatever jokes he likes.  As he should be.  I’m free to suggest he’s a porcine, pandering tool”.

I was struck that while both McGowan and Bourdain were trying to strike out to stop women from being objectified, neither felt qualms about making fun of Corden’s weight.  Now I love Anthony Bourdain, but: He’s on CNN.  Not only that, he’s a chef, and should be a little more sensitive to the fact that weight gain is a possible hazard of gastronomy.  I could ask Bourdain if his ability to eat without getting fat is a beneficial side effect of his former heroin addiction.  But that would be mean.

I can understand the resentment somewhat.  Harvey Weinstein is simply one very obnoxious example of something that has been tolerated in management-labor relations for longer than anyone has reported, and the culture is getting to a point where people want to do something about it.  So they want comedians to bring it up.  But then when comedians tell jokes about the subject, they go, “how DARE you!  This has been made light of for far too long!  The time for tasteless jokes about sexist millionaires is OVER!”

Oh, of course.  When all the tasteless jokes and sexist millionaires have monopolized the Republican Party, there should be no place for them in our sense of humor.

But this is a serious subject.  When Harvey Weinstein’s own brother says their relationship was so poisonous that he could barely deal with him on a professional level, the brand of the family name has gotten to the point that the future of The Weinstein Company – which produced the Lord of the Rings films and award-winning works by Anthony Mingella and Quentin Tarantino – is almost certainly limited.  And it struck me: How does the rump organization survive when people still know it was associated with the lowest form of sexist, bullying boor?

Have Donald Trump buy it!

After all, he has much the same reputation, and he actually got elected.

And it’s no secret that Trump craves media attention and respectability.  He tried to make himself an Atlantic City casino mogul in direct opposition to the industry in Las Vegas.  And ran four casinos into the ground.  He became a major owner in the spring-league USFL.  And ran it into the ground.  Then he lent his name to NBC’s The Apprentice.  Which got cancelled in its first iteration after steadily declining ratings.  So if anything happened to the (former) Weinstein Group under Trump, at least it doesn’t have much to lose.

And it is testimony to how surreal and reality-threatening this Administration is that just after I came up with that idea, I saw this article while web-surfing:

Close Trump Associate Invests in Weinstein Company, Will Presumably Also Pursue Cosby Partnership

“On Monday, the Weinstein Company announced that a financier named Tom Barrack has agreed to provide it with “an immediate capital infusion” and begin negotiations regarding ‘a potential sale of all or a significant portion of the Company’s assets.’  … In other words, it appears that Tom Barrack is bailing Harvey Weinstein and his enablers out.

“What are some of the other items on Tom Barrack’s professional résumé? Let’s hear from CNN:

It was 1994 and the land once known as “Trump City” was an embarrassing boondoggle, crumbling at the feet of an erratic namesake who took out $400 million in loans and seemed all too willing to default on more. Chase realtors could not see a path to black for debt king Donald Trump.

Tom Barrack could.

“Barrack, the network writes, then traveled from “New York to Los Angeles, Taiwan, London and Saudi Arabia, begging billionaires to buy the loans and keep the bankers from Trump’s throat.” And it worked! Barrack would go on to become a major fundraiser for Trump’s presidential campaign and chair Trump’s inaugural committee. Trump, of course, has been accused of sexual assault by 15 women.”

Truly, birds of a feather.

One has given lots of money and media attention to Bill and Hillary Clinton.  One has been known to be violently abusive of his male associates and underlings, in public.  One has an unproven but well-rumored reputation of of philandering, sexual harassment and even physical abuse and rape.  And such rumors never get anywhere because said person has always used his legal and media connections to crush any individual victim’s attempts at exposure.

What’s the real difference between Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein?  Clearly, the difference is that when one is a Democrat, Republicans actually care.

That’s the key.  Republicans are clearly willing to tolerate the exact same things in Donald Trump that they would never tolerate in any other person.  Not even any other Republican.  Why?  Because Republicans are good Christians.  Because you have to have faith.  And faith is trust in things unseen.  Such as, Donald Trump’s intelligence, competence, and moral integrity.

Weinstein, or more directly, his company, needs a rebranding.  Trump desperately craves legitimacy in the media.   He can get it by attaching his brand to an equally desperate institution that used to have success and prestige and is now just trying to survive.  Like he did with the Republican Party.

Trump.  Weinstein.  It’s a match made in Heaven.

That is, if you, like me, are an atheist.

Twitter Is Too Aptly Named

Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely.  A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible.

-George Orwell, Politics and the English Language

This week, one of the biggest news stories was the sudden and cascading decline of movie producer Harvey Weinstein as testimony about his history of sexual harassment continued to reach the media. Things have gotten to the point where The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voted to expel Weinstein from the institution “well in excess of the required two-thirds majority”.

There’s not too much more I can add except to touch on two points people have already made. One, Harvey Weinstein resembles nothing so much as a bowl of oatmeal with a beard on it. Second, Republicans cannot accuse feminist liberal Democrats of hypocrisy in supporting fundraiser Harvey Weinstein if they’re going to continue to enable Donald Trump, whose sexist behavior is that much more thoroughly documented and whose bullying and vengeful temperament is that much more publicly obvious.

Rather, I want to use this issue to touch on something that has been bugging me for a while and ties into it in several ways.

During this week, former actress Rose McGowan has been increasingly active on social media, especially Twitter, in regard to the Weinstein case. Eventually she stated that she was not merely harassed but actually raped by Weinstein. But on Thursday October 12, Twitter suspended her account, which caused McGowan to respond on Instagram asking concerned people to boycott Twitter over the matter. Twitter stated – after the fact – that the reason for McGowan’s suspension was that she had posted someone’s private phone number. They also said, “We will be clearer about these policies and decisions in the future.”

But as Vox.com pointed out, the miscommunication led to intense controversy for Twitter, along with accusations of inconsistency. “Because the offending tweet that included the phone number had been deleted, it wasn’t initially clear from McGowan’s Instagram post or a perusal of her Twitter feed which of Twitter’s rules she had violated. McGowan didn’t appear to have threatened anyone, and she wasn’t sharing graphic content or engaging in hate speech or violent speech.

“The industry veterans McGowan had been discussing in her tweets, however, are all powerful public figures in Hollywood. This fact, along with the lack of initial clarity about why she was suspended, led to rampant speculation that she was being silenced for being too aggressive about calling out the many men who allegedly stood by while Weinstein continued his pattern of assaults on women for years. ”

On Saturday, the ABC News site released a story about Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s official response to the issue.  And reading this piece I was struck by two things. One was that the platform was going to be clarifying new rules: “New rules around: unwanted sexual advances, non-consensual nudity, hate symbols, violent groups, and tweets that glorifies violence. [sic] These changes will start rolling out in the next few weeks. More to share next week.”

I’m not sure if anybody else finds it odd that such a public platform would need to add strictures about non-consensual “advances” and displays of nudity, not to mention glorification of hate and violence. But then when someone like Milo Yiannopoulous gets banned for violating Twitter’s “terms of use” I think the implied joke is that Twitter has any.

Secondly, for Dorsey to make his statement on Twitter, he had to release it in multiple posts. This is an increasingly common usage of the platform known as a “tweetstorm.” In this case, the article shows an excerpt starting with post 6: “We decided to take a more aggressive stance in our rules and how we enforce them. 7/ New rules around: unwanted sexual advances, non-consensual nudity, hate symbols, violent groups, and tweets that glorifies violence. 8/ These changes will start rolling out in the next few weeks. More to share next week. ” As in, the quote that I just gave from the news article had to be posted as two separate posts in Twitter, within a larger announcement.

This phenomenon has started to develop some criticism within Twitter. One article on Buzzfeed implied that much of the need for the tweetstorm could be solved by just getting a blog. But it went further and mentioned complaints that the tweetstorm violates Twitter etiquette (‘Twitter etiquette’ being an oxymoron that ranks up there with ‘gaming journalism’) in that the “stormer” is making a multi-post statement with no indication of when it winds up, although there are some exceptions. This already shows signs of escalating: “Imagine, for a moment, a future version of Twitter where the tweetstorm™ convention spreads, bleeding first through the tech venture capital and entrepreneur community. Then the tech reporters catch on, issuing long monologues on the future of the industry/a given product. Tweetstorms™ are rebutted by other tweetstorms™, which is manageable and contained in a niche media sphere until Politics Twitter catches on. Always on the lookout for a new broadcast platform, the tweetstorm™ spreads from reporters to pundits and think tanks and then to the politicians themselves. Once a frenetic but followable place, your timeline is now virtually destroyed by an avalanche of soliloquies. ”

But the tweetstorm is simply bringing up both the deliberate and practical limitations of Twitter. When the press interviewed Dorsey in 2009 about the origins of Twitter, he said that at the time (2006) he and the other developers were working with the constraints of the instant-message (IM) format for mobile devices, where basic phones were limited to 160 characters before they split the message. Limiting a username to 20 characters and the main text to 140 was where the concept developed. They worked with that format precisely because it allowed the user to update from anywhere. Dorsey said the “twitter” name came from that idea: “We wanted to capture that in the name — we wanted to capture that feeling: the physical sensation that you’re buzzing your friend’s pocket. It’s like buzzing all over the world. So we did a bunch of name-storming, and we came up with the word ‘twitch,’ because the phone kind of vibrates when it moves. But ‘twitch’ is not a good product name because it doesn’t bring up the right imagery. So we looked in the dictionary for words around it, and we came across the word ‘twitter,’ and it was just perfect. The definition was ‘a short burst of inconsequential information,’ and ‘chirps from birds.’ And that’s exactly what the product was.”

Unfortunately, Twitter is too aptly named. Tweets are exactly that, short bursts of inconsequential information, but that very informality has exploded the popularity of the format such that people are using it in ways that just don’t work. Thus, the tweetstorm. The tweetstorm is for people who are trying to express complex, paragraph-length arguments in a format that is deliberately hostile to the complete sentence, let alone the paragraph.

But the popularity and convenience of Twitter ties into the other issue, namely that the tweetstorm implies the question, “why not just start a blog?” Twitter and other social media like Facebook are designed for immediate transmission and feedback. They are impulse media. I believe that if you are going to have a social media presence, you should know the right tool for the right job. I don’t need a blog to share cute animal videos to friends. For that I have Facebook. I don’t post to this blog every day or even every week because I don’t always have time to elaborate on my ideas, whereas I can usually find the time to post something on Facebook. But I decided to create my own blog not only to post essay-length pieces but because I could control the content to a greater degree than something I posted or liked on Facebook. I had already mentioned that this blog has no comments option because I had noticed the same problem on Facebook that critics are finding with Twitter, the capacity of people to hijack the thread with their own opinions which end up becoming bitter debates that crowd out the original post.  Just as the posting format affects the content, so does the larger context of the medium. Just as Twitter is built around the “short burst of inconsequential information” to an even greater degree than other platforms, that is the way its reply/comment function works. In that respect, for the Buzzfeed writer to complain about the extended reply is to miss the point. To be worried about such a thing is to believe that the other person’s opinion is consequential and worth respecting. That’s not what Twitter is about. Twitter is not about considered opinion. Twitter is about hit-and-run posting.

Which brings us to the most problematic Twitter abuser. Liddle Donnie Trump. The Harvey Weinstein of presidents.

There’s usually a recurring theme in Washington DC’s assessments of the “president”, even from Republicans who have always supported him. It’s words to the effect of “somebody needs to take away his phone.” That is, someone on Trump’s staff needs to make him stop tweeting. The most glaring recent example of this problem was when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced indirect efforts to talk to North Korea and Trump tweeted, “I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man”. This is not the sort of thing that a president does if he cares about his Secretary of State and his position as a representative. But that’s not the sort of thing that you do if you care about actions, period. And yet every time the subject comes up,  Trump and his shills defend his use of his personal account to blur the line between personal and political statements, saying that it is how he speaks “directly to the people.” Trump would not be the first president, especially in the Republican Party, to try to bypass the media gatekeepers of information. But as with everybody else who uses Twitter, his choice of platform both shapes and becomes the message. Analysts have noted that a lot of his tweets take place at 3 am or some other time when he is in bed or sleep-deprived, which only increases the likelihood that the posts are impulsive rather than deliberate. Or perhaps, Trump’s actions are deliberate only in that he has just enough concentration to be impulsive. Given that Trump was caught on tape in 2000 saying he couldn’t support Pat Buchanan’s presidential campaign because it was supported by David Duke, there is evidence that Donald Trump once had a brain. But Trump, like his party, has since become prone to unsubtle, unconsidered opinion to the exclusion of serious thinking. Before social media, you had AM radio concentrating “conservative” positions down to emotionalism. Now on the Internet, the medium of expression is that much more prone to opinion that is literally reactionary.

The concepts that George Orwell referred to in Politics and the English Language were developed in setting for his novel 1984 with Newspeak, the Party’s official version of the English language. Characters in the book mentioned that Newspeak was the only language in history whose dictionary got smaller with each new edition. In the book’s appendix Orwell stated that the language was deliberately constructed by the Party for specific goals: “The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. … Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought, and this purpose was indirectly assisted by cutting the choice of words down to a minimum. ”

Orwell’s legacy is full of ironies. A defender of cooperative anarchism, he has become the right-winger’s favorite critic of socialism. More ironic than that, his concept of language control is being best realized not by a state socialist program but by a capitalist endeavor.

In this context, Aja Romano’s Vox article is worth reviewing in that it emphasizes the political element of Twitter’s inconsistent enforcement of policy. “The suspension of McGowan’s account neatly illustrates what has become a pattern in terms of how Twitter deals with harassment and abuse on its site. That is, while victims of abuse and marginalized users who deal with harassment are frequently censured over strict readings of Twitter’s abuse and safety rules, like McGowan, users who are widely seen as perpetuating real ideological violations of those rules are rarely censored.” Milo Yiannopoulous is only one famous example. Donald Trump himself is considered above censure on his Twitter account on the ground that his position makes his posts “newsworthy.” Of course threatening national security by threatening regional nuclear exchange over North Korea is going to be newsworthy. Romano continues: “McGowan’s suspension makes clear that Twitter’s abuse policies, or at least its inconsistent and confusing enforcement of those policies, do not protect abuse victims. In particular, women like McGowan who have experienced harassment and attempted to speak out about it on Twitter can be silenced at any time using the same inconsistent policy that Twitter refuses to levy against a Richard Spencer, a David Duke, or a Donald Trump — men who take advantage of the vagueness of Twitter’s abuse policies to perpetuate racism, violence, harassment, and fear.”

I would assert that the “vagueness” that Twitter’s critics observe is in fact consistent with the site in operation. Twitter is intended to be used in haste. It is intended to change the terms of debate to favor snark, insult and negativity. The positions of users like Richard Spencer or (pre-election) Donald Trump were less provocative to Twitter management than those of a Rose McGowan because whether Twitter’s users or management admit this or not, people like Donald Trump are the ones using the platform in the manner it was designed to be used.

I cannot say that this is a deliberate position on the part of the site developers, given that Jack Dorsey has apparently only now been made aware that such antisocial behavior needs to be discouraged. But that very fact indicates it was not something he was concerned with up to now.

This is also a cautionary example. Twitter became very popular with the liberal pop culture because of its wide access and ease of use, but as with much of liberal culture, it has become co-opted by the authoritarian Right, which is that much more committed to a mindset of whim and irrationality.

In the Vox article, media critic Matt Zoller Seitz was quoted (from Twitter) saying “I’ve said it before, and I’ll repeat it now: if a superior alternative to Twitter appeared tomorrow, I’d be gone from here in a heartbeat.” My advice to Seitz would be to get together with like-minded people and come to a consensus about what “a superior alternative to Twitter” means, and then find people of means to finance it and experts to create it. My personal goal is to make enough money to where I can buy out Twitter with the specific purpose of destroying the website. Either that, or use the space for something more ennobling, like bumfights or fetish porn.

REVIEW: Star Trek: Discovery

I had already posted my impression of the first preview of Star Trek: Discovery, and having finally gotten to see the pilot episode tonight (Sept. 24) I think that based only on the first show, Discovery is pretty good for what it is.  My problem is with what it is.

The good part is that the lead character, Michael Burnham, is very good and very well-played by Sonequa Martin-Green.  At the series start she is actually the first officer aboard the USS Shenzhou but is supposed to be transferring to the ship in the show’s title.  First however, the Shenzhou has to survive a confrontation with a particularly fanatical sect of Klingons.  And apparently Burnham was raised by Spock’s father Sarek after her parents were killed by Klingons, so this may be a bit personal for her.  In the course of the episode, Burnham’s relationships with other bridge crew including Science Officer Saru (Doug Jones) and her captain, Phillipa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) are established, and another strong point of this show is the chemistry between the crew that is obvious even at this point.  Said chemistry helps to heighten the tension when Burnham attempts a pre-emptive strike on the Klingons and everyone else (especially the captain) is warning her against it.

As I said in my other post, I like the relationship between the Burnham and Georgiou characters.  But I have problems.  If I could boil them down to one point, it would be that the producers are trying to make their own material with a tangential connection to Star Trek, without even resembling it as much as the retro-Trek of JJ Abrams’ movies.  This is especially important given that this show, like Enterprise, is supposed to be set in the main timeline (specifically, ten years before the Original Series).  And yet, the overall look, from the blue suit uniforms, to the darkened bridge, to the heavy use of lens flare, makes the show resemble AbramsTrek (specifically the scene on the USS Kelvin) more than the deliberately old-school Enterprise.

To quote the relevant part of my last piece, “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.”

So again, given that this is supposed to be the same setting as Enterprise and TOS, you have stuff like Abrams lens-flare scenes, and you have the Klingons who have been retconned to look more alien YET again.  Continuity in Doctor Who is easier to keep track of.  And then it turns out that the scenes with Sarek were not with a younger Spock but with a child Burnham (the relationship between the two not being clear in the previews).  The use of Sarek seems gratuitous; it’s not as though another Vulcan elder couldn’t have been substituted without giving this character the baggage of being associated with Mark Lenard’s character.  Because he isn’t.  He’s played by James Frain.  And when you’re playing a Vulcan, there’s a difference between “unemotional” and “creepy.”  When I think of James Frain, I think “creepy.”

As a side note, I am thinking there might be a practical reason that future episodes of this show are only going to be accessible on the CBS All Access streaming site.  A practical reason other than greed, that is.  Streaming services like Netflix allow the production of original programming with “adult” language and concepts that wouldn’t be possible on a broadcast TV show.   The pilot of Discovery doesn’t have anything that I would see as “mature” or objectionable.  However the publicity for this show has had a lot of articles in liberal outlets like Vox making much of the fact that this is the first show in the Trek franchise to have a regular character (played by Broadway star Anthony Rapp) who is openly gay and in a committed relationship with another crewman.  However, these characters were not in this pilot, presumably because they’re on the Discovery and not the Shenzhou.  It could be that some people at CBS, especially its Standards and Practices department, thought that such a concept might damage people’s fragile eggshell minds.  This is my speculation.  But again, I don’t see much reason why this program needs to be on a premium source outside broadcast TV.  Besides greed, that is.

Of course given that CBS All Access is a streaming service, Star Trek: Discovery doesn’t really have to worry about ratings.  But as much as this show intrigues me, I’m not sure if I’d shell out $5.99 a month just to see how it develops.  Which is another point of ironic contrast between this show and The Orville, a broadcast series on Fox, which is notoriously fickle about SF shows.  The Orville is basically old-school Trek with the serial numbers filed off, but despite having to be different for copyright purposes, it “feels” like the same spirit.  Star Trek: Discovery is official Trek product- and again, pretty good for what it is- but what it is goes out of its way to NOT feel like Trek.

REVIEW: The Orville

This is a follow up on my preview of The Orville coming out of its panel at the San Diego Comic-Con, now that the series has premiered on Fox tonight (September 10).  The details aren’t too far removed from what has been shown so far in the previews; the pilot opens with Seth McFarlane’s character Ed Mercer, an officer in the “Planetary Union” forces, walking in on his wife (Adrienne Palicki) having sex with an alien.  A year later, an admiral approaches him with an offer to captain a mid-level ship, making it clear that he is performing below his potential, especially given his “personal issues” over the prior 12 months, and he is getting the post only because the fleet is short of commanders.  Mercer sets out on his maiden voyage but then finds out that Kelly Grayson, the ex-wife, is the only first officer available.  Hilarity ensues.  Sorta.

What surprises me is that given that McFarlane invented a space alien modeled on Paul Lynde, an R-rated teddy bear, and the entire Griffin family, The Orville is probably the closest thing to a family-friendly production he’s ever done.  (Though not entirely, given the sight gag in the opening scene.)  This confirms my impression from Comic-Con that McFarlane and his production team (including former Star Trek The Next Generation producer Brannon Braga) are trying to make something that would actually appeal to Star Trek fans and not insult their intelligence, which several McFarlane productions could be accused of doing.  Then again, so could the final episode of Enterprise.

The results are fairly mixed, because while there is good humor, the execution is a bit low-key and feels muted.  Moreover, while it’s always good to see Palicki in something, and the pilot makes it clear just how much her character is the ultimate brains behind Mercer, the idea of the two leads being bickering exes is so done that it’s going to take some more skill than I saw in this script to keep it going, unless future episodes just put this hook on the backburner as a background element.

Even so, I was dismayed that a lot of the reviews I’ve seen for this show have treated it so negatively.  It could be better, but it is a lot better than they’re saying, and I’m willing to give it a chance if only because it is clearly written by Star Trek fans for fans.  For instance, Mercer manages to get out of a confrontation by taking advantage of the fact that starship shuttles in this genre never have seat belts, which you’d have to be a real fan to appreciate.

 

REVIEW – Spider-Man: Homecoming

My friends and I finally got to see Spider-Man: Homecoming this weekend, and I think it’s testimony to the word of mouth on this film that the theater was still packed on a Saturday morning a month after the premiere.

While much of it has been spoiled by now, this movie is basically about the teenage Peter Parker and his largely unsuccessful attempts to be a “real” superhero with the aid of the fancy high-tech costume Tony Stark gave him to use in Captain America: Civil War.  In the process he is also trying to negotiate his life as a high-schooler and get to his school’s homecoming dance.  But in his patrols, Spider-Man encounters an organization using technology captured from the Chitauri aliens in the first Avengers movie, and is forced to deal with their leader (Michael Keaton), who was the head of a salvage company that got removed from the Chitauri cleanup by a government contractor owned by none other than Tony Stark.  In this way there’s a certain symmetry between the hero and main villain, in that they’re both talented engineers, but operating on a small scale compared to Stark and other major movers, and they’re both end-users of someone else’s advanced technology.  Eventually Peter is forced to deal with this fact and take stock of his own resources.

I really liked this movie, but as Marvel movies go, it didn’t have the same impact on me as the two Guardians of the Galaxy movies.  My friends and I discussed this and came to the conclusion that the pacing was a bit… rushed.  There was just so much action going on it was a bit much to keep track of.

Even so, the human elements of the movie are where it worked.  Peter (Tom Holland) is given a strong supporting cast in best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), potential love interest Liz (Laura Harrier) and not-quite-love-interest “MJ” (Zendaya), characters who intentionally don’t resemble their inspirations from the original Marvel comics.  Keaton’s villain is in some ways sympathetic, and unlike some other comicbook movies, the solution doesn’t necessarily lie in killing him.

And while Sony/Columbia Pictures still owns the movie rights to Spider-Man, Homecoming is for all purposes a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie, with the principals from the Iron Man movies appearing along with a running gag featuring Captain America.   Holland is apparently signed for a six-movie deal that includes not only two more solo movies but three other movies where he will do more crossover appearances.  Which would be great.  Even in his short appearance in Civil War, it was clear that the new team got Spider-Man in the way that Patty Jenkins got Wonder Woman, whereas the previous Sony movies were each incomplete in their own way.  The Tobey Maguire movies were great at conveying Peter’s earnest heroism but not Spider-Man’s wit, while the Andrew Garfield movies were pretty much the opposite.  (Plus, any comicbook movie that ends with the superhero fighting Paul Giamatti is by definition anti-cimax.)

In comparison, Tom Holland is the total package, with the physique to portray Spider-Man’s look and powers and the skills to portray all sides of his personality.  Plus, he’s young-looking enough to where he could be convincing as a teenage superhero for most of that movie deal.  Given what I’ve seen so far, Marvel will probably have no problem making Holland the star for their next phase of movies.

 

 

 

PREVIEW REVIEW: The Orville

 

My sister and I were at Comic-Con this weekend, and given that the crowds were somewhere between a North Korean May Day parade and Brigham Young’s family reunion, we didn’t get to see a lot of the big-time preview panels (like the Marvel movies panels) because of the lines.  However, I did want to go to the Saturday afternoon panel for Seth McFarlane’s new project, The Orville.  The panel host was David A. Goodman, a former writer for Star Trek: Enterprise who is now a producer for McFarlane’s cartoon, American Dad.  He set the tone with introductions like “next is (Mark Jackson) who plays our racist artificial life form… he’s British, so he follows in a long line of great British SciFi robots like C3PO and- that guy who’s playing Superman now…”

The Orville is McFarlane’s first live-action vehicle for TV, where he plays Ed Mercer, a mediocre officer of a galactic navy, who is assigned command of a brand new starship.  While it’s not exactly Down Periscope, Mercer’s professional reputation is such that he is assigned a “minder” as his executive officer, and this XO turns out to be his ex-wife, played by Adrianne Palicki.  Which makes this at least the second time that she’s been cast as the tough ex-wife who gets on the ex-husband’s case.

Basically the setting is Star Trek: The Next Generation with the serial numbers filed off, much like Galaxy Quest (one guy in the audience said that the drive section of the Orville looked like an open toilet seat).  And the theme coming from McFarlane’s team comes across to me like “If you were in Starfleet, what would YOU do?”  For example, when Mercer needs a navigator for his ship, he looks up his old friend Gordon (McFarlane alumnus Scott Grimes).  Gordon is in a holodeck combat scenario much like the ones Worf came up with in NextGen, with an exotic location, fighting a brutal ogre with lethal weapons.  Except that Gordon programmed his ogre with a bright voice and friendly personality, and the three of them have a happy conversation until Gordon needs to leave with Mercer, so he distracts the ogre long enough to cut off his head.  Which is half the premise of Westworld right there.

Yet, this series has some decent production values (about on par with Galaxy Quest), and serious Trek cred: in addition to Goodman, the show has Deep Space Nine actress Penny Johnson Jerald and NextGen producer Brannon Braga (who also worked with McFarlane on the Cosmos revival).  The panel frequently described The Orville as a mix between comedy and drama or a “dramedy.”  The dramatic aspect was not too obvious in the preview reel shown, but clearly the production is trying to create its own in-depth universe, one that clearly is inspired by the Star Trek properties but is meant to stand on its own.  So while you could do disconnected absurd comedy scenes like the Marx Brothers or Monty Python (or Family Guy), that would defeat the purpose of a project with this much creative depth.  It was emphasized that there would be an attempt to make the series work with both the comedy and serious elements, in a way that respected the genre.

That’s a tall order, but I’m impressed with what I’ve seen so far.

Now, earlier in the day, I had seen the panel for Star Trek: Discovery, and I was also impressed with their producers and crew, including star Sonequa Martin-Green.  And I don’t think it should be such a big deal that the star of the show is a black woman, or that there is an openly gay crewman in a relationship, or whatever.  That sort of thing was baked into Star Trek from the beginning.  Of course you had Uhura, and Sulu, and you had Geordi LaForge as a character with a disability.  But you also had Chekov.  I mean, half the reason they cast Walter Koenig was that they wanted somebody who looked like the lead singer of The Monkees.  But the reason why they cast Koenig as a Russian was that Gene Roddenberry wanted to show audiences of the 1960s that in the future, Americans and Russians would be working together.  And look- it’s 2017 and we have Russians and Americans working together now.  Progress!

But while as a Trek fan I may want to see Discovery, CBS has decided to put it in their stupid “All Access” channel which is All Access only if you’re willing to pay for it.  I’m paying too much for satellite as it is, and I don’t want to spend $5 or whatever for a network when I only want to see one program on it.  So I am most likely going to lean towards The Orville for my (pseudo) Star Trek fix, since it not only has some respect for the genre but also gives it an attitude adjustment that I think it’s needed for quite some time.

 

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.