Tuesday, October 28, 2014

50 Articles of THE WALKING DEAD & I

"Four Walls and a Roof," this week's aggressively mediocre, watered-down installment of THE WALKING DEAD, didn't inspire me to write anything about it. Except that. Rather, I thought I'd do something a little different (and probably a lot less interesting!). This is an anniversary of sorts: my 50th article about TWD. As good a time as any, I suppose, to devote a little space to my prolific relationship with this particular subject.

It's a relationship that's been the subject of a great deal of commentary over the years, from both friends and admirers and (mostly) detractors. The former often seem to think it a waste of my time, attention and whatever talent they judge me to have, while the latter dislike my criticism of the series and like to raise the caricature of some odd, obsessive fellow writing so much about a series he hates (that I also praise TWD when it warrants it never seems to figure in this criticism).[1]

I came to THE WALKING DEAD through the comics. A lifelong fan of horror and of zombie tales, I'd read the book for years before the series had appeared; back when it was fairly obscure. I'd been cautiously optimistic when it had been announced; interested to see what would become of the adaptation but skeptical of how faithful it could be given the restrictions that would be imposed upon it. Though the creators had promised it wouldn't necessarily follow the events of the comic, Frank Darabont's pilot film was almost slavish in its adaptation of the first few issues of the book and I was hooked. None of the subsequent episodes, which departed radically from the book, even came close to living up to that first ep, and they had other problems too, but they weren't bad and often had very good moments. A good series could grow from them. A good friend of mine, a fellow horror and zombie fan, fell in love with it. He didn't have AMC or, at the time, even a tv, and, having no other way of seeing it, he'd come over and watch it with me every week.

Unfortunately, it was during that first short season that events in my own life took a turn for the worse. I've alluded to it here, but haven't written much of it, and won't. The short version is that someone who had become very special to me--as special as anyone had ever been to me--very dramatically left me. The fallout from this nearly killed me. Almost 4 years later and in spite of some efforts to mend the mess, it continues to affect me every day. One of the things it took from me was my writing. I am a writer; born with it stamped on my DNA. I started doing it before most kids my age could even recognize all of their letters, and leading into this particular cataclysm my love was my muse and I'd been in a particularly prolific period.

After, I couldn't do anything. I progressively fell into a nightmarish hole in myself, and very soon, there was no question of writing. After a very long time, I began, little by little, to return to life, but the writing didn't return. It wouldn't and I couldn't make it--it was like it had been robbed out of me. For a writer, this was like being dead.

Eventually, I tried to make myself write some things, mostly on political subjects, a few on others. For the most part, I didn't like the results very much.[2]  It was some time shortly before the season 2 opener of TWD that I began to lurk on the Walking Dead board at the Internet Movie Database. I read posts there, learned some of the personalities, and as the season got underway I began occasionally posting short comments. Nothing major. Probably nothing terribly insightful. I wasn't pleased with the radical change in direction the series had undergone, but it was still hard to muster up enough interest to care about it or much of anything, really. Still, my friend was turning up to watch it with me and I watched it every week as its problems continued to grow. I started to write about it on the board more and more often, sometimes setting off heated debates.

It was during TWD's midseason break that year that I finally sat down and began to bang out a more comprehensive article dealing with my thoughts on the show to date. It was, to clip a cliche, like a dam had burst. For the first time in a very long time, the words flowed with ease. That first piece, "Pretty Much Walking Dead Already," became and to this day continues to be the longest article I've written on TWD or on any subject on this blog. And the article proved a hit. People flocked to it, complimented me on it, excoriated me for it--it proved a tremendous source of controversy and debate.

Unfortunately, my success with that article didn't translate into any sort of general return of my authorial mojo. It was over a month before I wrote anything else, and when I was able to write again, it was another article about TWD. Then another. Then another. I'd been a big fan of Lina Romay, and when she died right around this time, I gave her what felt like an entirely inadequate send-off here. Mostly, though, it was just TWD. For a long time, it was practically the only subject about which I could write with any skill (or with what I felt was skill). The articles emerged fairly easily. The depths to which the series had fallen were appalling, and the early articles, after the original, were mostly matter-of-fact laundry-lists of grievances (a straightforwardness that may have contributed to their popularity). They didn't have a lot of overt humor, which, given the subject, is a glaring omission (one that no doubt played into the series' fans caricatures of me), but I wasn't feeling particularly humorous at the time.

Humorless or not, the articles developed an insatiable audience, people who told me they enjoyed my articles far more than the show, people who said they only continued to watch it so they could read my reaction to it, fans of the series who despised me and delighted in pointing it out at every opportunity, chiding me for continually watching and repeatedly writing about something I hated. Points I raised were debated at lengths that seemed absurd,[3] and I jumped into the fray with vigor. I seemed to have tapped into a vein of growing dissatisfaction with the popular show, saying things a lot of people had been thinking but hadn't articulated. By writing what I thought, I became a chief exponent of and spokesman for their views, or was so perceived. I became notorious within the online TWD fan community.

Along the way, though, I'd lost the point of it, which isn't terribly surprising. Were it not for my pal wanting to see it and depending on me for his fix, I would have stopped watching TWD fairly early in the 2nd season and probably would have never written anything about it. Long before that second season had ended, I felt as if I'd said all I had to say about tv TWD. I even began to get the idea that I may have covered everything in my first article and that the subsequent ones were merely redundant appendices. I was repeating myself in a way that paralleled the way the show was so mind-numbingly repeating itself at the time. Noting the obvious, I began to do this intentionally, as a sort of private joke, and found some amusement in how often the series' fans would, short my own sense of the obvious, slam me for it. That some little bit of glee was no doubt some small part of why I stayed with it. As depressing a subject as it could be, I was happy to finally have my mind on something other than my own troubles. As I had also become essentially a captive audience because of my friend, I used the articles and the arguments to vent why I disliked the series, and there was a certain stubbornness to it. "If I have to watch this shit," I'd tell myself, "I'm damn well going to write about why its shit." More importantly, though, I was also clinging to TWD. It was the only thing I could write, my weekly proof that I hadn't entirely lost the most important part of me.

I was still stuck with watching the series--in addition to my friend, my parents had since taken to watching it and were likewise dependent upon me to provide it (I record it for them)--but I really didn't want to continue writing of TWD into its third season. There had been more personal tragedy between the seasons that threatened, for a time, to overwhelm me.[4] There wasn't any big epiphany that led me to continue; I mostly did so for the same reasons I'd continued through to the end of season 2. The third season was to concern itself with the story of the prison our heroes make their home, which was the high point of the comics, and I had a certain curiosity about how TWD's creators would handle it. I expected they'd so so badly (and said so, and was proven far more correct that I'd ever care to have been). I was still somewhat on the fence about continuing my articles until I saw the opener, "Seed." It's a regular practice for fanboys of various pop entertainment franchises to dub a "hater" any critic of their beloved Precious, a practice intended to dismiss a criticism as the product of the malevolent nature of the critic as a means of avoiding addressing it. Contrary to this epithet so frequently hurled my way, I've always held out some little glimmer of hope that TWD could right itself and become something worthy of the source material. Being stuck with watching it, I'd certainly prefer it did so. "Seed" fed into that. Not by being great or even particularly good, but by being something significantly more than just downright godawful. Having seen it, I determined to write of it, and though still assuming the worst for the season to come, I gave it a cautiously positive review.

It only took one more episode for TWD to destroy the good will I'd extended it. The season that followed wasn't just awful, it was tragic, in that it raped, pillaged and wasted the best story arc from the comic. In the course of it, I fell into a routine when it came to my articles. My mood had lightened a bit and I started to have a lot more fun with them and to branch out, covering the series' visual continuity errors, creating a map of TWD's Georgia, imagining a behind-the-scenes look at the TWD writers' room. The season was horrible, but at the end of it, Glen Mazzara, the showrunner who had driven TWD to ruin, was fired. Reportedly, he'd been so terminally underwriting the series--a complaint prominently featured here week after week--that production was repeatedly shut down for lack of material to shoot. I didn't sing "Ding Dong, The Witch Is Dead" at that point, but I did think it offered a chance to significantly improve the show.[5] Scott Gimple, the fellow chosen to replace Mazzara, had been the writer of record for the only relatively good episode of season 3 ("Clear") and another that was significantly less than awful ("This Sorrowful Life"). I'd almost certainly be watching the next season, and I was curious to see what he could do with it.

Gimple significantly improved the show. His gang turned out the first great eps of TWD since the 1st season, several of them. I appreciated Gimple's efforts to refute and demean Mazzara's work, but I thought he took that much too far when he devoted multiple episodes to creating Woodbury v.2.0 and trying to prove he could pull off the end of season 3 better than Mazzara. Watching TWD also became a very frustrating exercise for me during season 4. When Mazzara was running the show, one simply expected every ep to be shit, and one was virtually never disappointed. When, under Gimple, there were suddenly good-to-great episodes appearing, one wanted this to continue, but rubbing shoulders with the keepers were also multiple episodes in which, utterly unnecessarily, the show fell back into the very bad habits of the Mazzara years, brainless and awful. This, it seems, is going to continue into the new season. A killer opening ep, followed by a shitty sequel, followed by a mediocre third installment. "Fear the Hunters," the comic tale adapted by the last two episodes, could, absent the material that was drawn from it and put to use in the previous season,[6] have been covered in a single episode. Instead, it was stretched to two, packed with filler and the brutal payoff watered down[7] until the point is entirely lost, then the whole thing was paved over with a string of clich├ęs and Lifetime For Women demographics-servicing faux tenderness regarding Bob's imminent demise. Just a waste.

My articles for season 4 reflect the unevenness of its eps. A shift in them I note is that I don't just catalog the inanities of the weaker installments but, instead, begin to try to diagnose, at greater length, the basic nature of the series' problems and to suggest ways it could be improved--treating it as something worthy of those sorts of considerations. Toward the end of the season, by contrast, the series began to wear on me and my articles sometimes became quite cursory. For at least one ep, I didn't even write one (and heard an earful from my readers for it). I don't like writing the kind of reviews one finds all over the internet where most of the text is consumed by a mere recap of the ep's events. If I'm going to write about an ep, I need to have something to say about it. The eps on which I skimped are a mixed bag of mediocre-with-good elements that didn't particularly inspire me. My short take on "The Grove" represented a judgment that it was a great tale I thought spoke for itself.

For a time, Gimple actually had me looking forward to the next week's ep. That's quite a feat and he managed it on multiple occasions. That was worn down over time. After the last two eps of this new season, I'm not looking forward to any more TWD. I doubt I ever will again. I'm sure there will be some more good eps sprinkled throughout this season and through the series for however long it continues. I'll probably even write about it. It isn't something in which I can reliably invest any enthusiasm though. I don't understand why Gimple doesn't just kick free from Mazzara-ism entirely and allow TWD to soar but he won't. He's had every chance. For all his TWD's seeming criticism of it, he lets it continue to drag down the show and it's likely he always will. TWD is probably doomed to remain what it is now--a wildly uneven series that offers up an alternating mix of impressive episodes that raise one's expectations and Mazzara-ist garbage that grinds down the same enthusiasm the former inspires. That's unfortunate but it is what it is, and though some of my readers have suggested it looks as if Gimple, based on some of his reforms, had been reading some of my criticism, changing it isn't really in my power.

I'm no longer clinging to the series as a subject; I came away from that slowly and over time, and last season removed any doubts that may have lingered. My writing hasn't entirely recovered from my personal traumas--it may never--but it's better. Between the TWD seasons, I wrote a few articles here on various unrelated subjects about which I had much more enthusiasm. I didn't think they were bad. I was somewhat disappointed by the minimal reaction to them. Now, TWD is back and my readers want to see my analysis of it; still stuck with watching it, I'll probably keep writing about it, if for them alone. I'm not some crazed obsessive when it come to TWD. I'm not a "hater." I'm not Paul Sheldon in "Misery," perpetually driven by commercial concerns to write of a subject I hate--I don't make a dime from my writing on the subject. I may be a moron for writing about it so much, but I'll let others be the judge of that. And that's where things are with TWD and I.

Postscript: I should, in closing, offer a few words regarding my friend, the fellow who doesn't always like TWD but hasn't disliked it enough to stop watching it; the one whose desire to look at it has, in turn, kept me watching it. Given how little I've said about him here, I fear some readers could have been left with the impression that being forced to keep up with TWD on his behalf is, at best, some sort of resented chore and at worst, some hellish torture. It's neither. The friend in question is a good one and has been with me for many years now. He can watch TWD with me any day. I dedicate this article to him:

To Darren. A jolly good fellow.

--j.

---

[1] I'm not sure why anyone thinks, caricature aside, that's a legitimate criticism anyway. On what planet are critics expected to write only about things they really like?

[2] The pieces in question were typically political commentary written in response to something I'd read somewhere and in retrospect some of them aren't bad but my real-time impression was that they more often came out quite poorly. They are, for me, very clinical, impersonal, matter-of-fact--at the time, I thought most of them rubbish, and maybe more importantly, they were on subjects I didn't enjoy.

[3] On the IMDb board, which was my main haunt, the fights would go on for thousands of posts; frequently, I, rather than TWD, seemed the #1 topic of discussion for the day.

[4] An ex of mine, a fine lady with whom I'd remained very close, killed herself that Summer.

[5] I wrote an evaluation of the Mazzara seasons for the IMDb board. Which was best? Well...

On one hand, S3 had one good episode ("Clear") and two eps that, while problematic at times, still managed to rise above the series' usual rock-bottom standard ("Seed" and "This Sorrowful Life"). This compares to no good episodes in S2. Every episode that year, without exception, was a complete waste of space. Purely on a scorecard, season 3 wins that way.

On the other hand, the IQ of the series, which plummeted in season 2, hit a new low in season 3--TWD S3 is a much dumber show than S2. "Sick" and "Killer Within" were basically full-episode extensions of Lori taking the car to fetch Rick and Glenn, and were a series low when it came to this. If you prize intelligence, you're going to despise both, but if you can appreciate one being a bit smarter than the other, S2 wins. If, on the flip-side, you actually prize abject idiocy and find it one of TWD's endearing traits, S3 is definitely for you.

On a third hand, the second half of S3 was like the first half of S2, in that nearly everything we were shown was simply filler. TWD, in both seasons, has been mostly filler, but those two "eras"--to the extent that they can be cleanly divided (important caveat)--featured the greatest amount of padding. The S2 filler era lasted 7 eps, while the S3 filler era lasted 8. At the same time, though, the padding in the S2 era was far more repetitious--the same scenes and conversations being repeated dozens of times with barely an altered word.

On a fourth hand, S2 is as dull as dishwater. If you prize any sense of pace, there's nothing for you there. S3 doesn't move any faster but it throws in lots and lots of action to confound bumpkins into mistaking it for superior. The special effects in S2 (and, particularly, S1) were excellent; in S3--probably as a consequence of that greater demand for action--a lot of them looked like the effects from a Troma flick. There are exceptions and still some great work here and there, but often you'll find better work in a Toxic Avenger movie.

And on and on. When it comes  to judging such things, lot of it just depends on what you prize. The bottom line about Mazzara TWD is that no matter how many hands you may have, comparing the seasons is like saying this pile here stinks a bit less than that pile over there--it may be true, but you don't want to step in either.

[6] The excellent episode "The Grove" was a significantly altered version of a subplot from"Fear the Hunters."

[7] As I've written here before, attenuating the material for a middle-American whitebred audience has been a problem for TWD from the beginning. In this case, the incredible brutality of the climax of "Fear the Hunters"--our heroes, appalled by the cannibals, spend all night torturing them to death in the same way the cannibals have tortured others to death--is, as always with tv TWD, eliminated. Heaven forbid middle America ever be exposed to brutality in a horror show about the end of the world coming at the hands of flesh-eating monsters. That doing this eliminates the entire point of the story no more occurred to the writers than the fact that cannibalism didn't make any sense in the first place in the the sanitized world they've created in the tv version wherein food is plentiful and never really much of a problem (in the comic, it's nearly always a problem).

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Pace and Consistency Strangers To THE WALKING DEAD

Series television is written by committee. An individual script will usually only have one writer's name on it, but the final filmed version of it will be the product of a large number of people, from the showrunner and the writer's room down to even the individual actors (in series that don't insist on overly rigid recitation of the written word). One of the things that has long puzzled me about THE WALKING DEAD is how Robert Kirkman, who is a talented writer I've read for many years, always ends up as the author of record on so many godawful episodes. If his name appears on a script, it's guaranteed to be a stinker, and tonight's installment, "Strangers," was his sixth turd in a row, a turd that, like the previous five, shows no trace of his influence, much less of his authorship. Not a single Kirmanesque moment, line of dialogue, anything. This simply isn't how Kirkman writes.[1] Are his scripts being dragged down by too much influence from others? Is he choking when it comes time to write a tv script? Is someone of lesser talent ghostwriting for him?[2] It's a mystery I've pondered for a few years now, one that's likely to remain a mystery for the foreseeable future. For our purposes here at the moment, it's enough to note that, tonight, TWD squandered the good will it had earned via its great season 5 opener with yet another Mazzara-esque filler episode.

Once again, we're back to the soap melodrama dialogue wherein no one has a normal conversation about a mundane subject; every exchange involves some preposterous, overblown speech about some Very Important Things that are mostly repetitions of things we're heard a million times already. Let's wallow in how Troubled a character is about something bad in their past by having them repeatedly tell us--regulation hangdog look in place--they Don't Want To Talk About It. The other 9,999 times clearly weren't enough, so let's have Rick give his 10,000th repetition of his speech to Carl about how he must be exceptionally careful in this zombified world. Let's have another speech from Abraham about how we must get Eugene to D.C. so we can save the world.

Other bad habits returned. Bob is suddenly given lots of dialogue, the home of which he's long dreamed, and a romance with Sasha. Longtime viewers of TWD know what that means; he's being set up for a gruesome fate. He isn't dead by the end of the ep, but only, one suspects, because this is a filler episode in which virtually nothing happens. He appears to have been bitten by a zombie on  mission to find food--something at which the episode only hinted[3]--and was then snatched by the remnants of the Terminusians. When they weren't killed, you just knew they'd be back, right? The subject of a Terminusian shish ka-Bob--yes, you may roll your eyes at that--he seems to have been designated by the creators to meet Dale's fate from the comics.[4] Meanwhile, Carol apparently decides to leave the group near the end; she treks to a broken-down car she and Daryl had encountered earlier, gets it running, and is just about to leave when Daryl stumbles upon her. Not satisfied with one such remarkable coincidence, the ep immediately throws us another--at that very moment, the car of whomever kidnapped Beth goes speeding up the road right in front of the car Carol just got running! She and Daryl jump in and take off in pursuit, but, again, this being a filler ep, whatever becomes of that will have to wait until next week.

The pace of the ep is wretched, little of any substance happens, it brings the momentum established by the previous ep to a standstill--overall, "Strangers" was a disappointing fallback to Mazzara-esque crap, an exercise that deepens the mystery of Robert Kirkman's substandard scripts but is otherwise a complete waste of an episode.

--j.

---

[1] Kirkman's first ep, "Vatos," is very Kirkmanesque, a great script with lots of Kirkman touches and great moments, including the best ever last line of a TWD ep, but the big twist toward its end--the "gangsters" who turn out to be guarding a nursing home--was so bad, so ill-advised, and left such a bad taste in viewers' mouths that its merits tend to be ignored and it often ends up listed among the all-time worst TWD eps.

[2] Certainly a possible scenario. Though Kirkman has always described himself as intimately involved in the creative end of the show, he made numerous public comments in interviews during its 2nd and 3rd seasons that were wildly inaccurate and suggest he was only minimally aware of what was happening with it and was merely trying to fudge his way through questions regarding it to which he didn't know the answers.

[3] He's attacked by a zombie during one of TWD's patented ridiculous zombie setpieces. The group wants to collect food from the lower level of a building that is waist-deep in water. There's a hole in the floor above it; the flooded lower level is teeming with zombies. Instead of simply spearing the zombies from above, which could be done with no risk, the team descends to the lower level to battle the zombies in the waist-deep water. At one point, one of the creatures grabs Bob and drags him under. When he's rescued, he claims to be all right, but something is clearly bothering him, and later, after the group returns to home base--a church--he's shown standing outside alone crying, perhaps over being bittern, perhaps only to make viewers familiar with the comics think he was bitten.

[4] It wouldn't surprise me if Tara eventually ends up wanting to marry Glenn and Maggie either. As sometimes happened last year, Gimple likes to try to mine some of the material from the comics that Mazzara pissed away during his reign as showrunner.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Ze State of Z NATION

Just watched the first three eps of Z NATION, the new SyFy zombie series. Given the perpetually duplicative complexion of television, I assumed that, in the wake of the remarkable ratings success of THE WALKING DEAD, everyone in the biz would soon be purloining its premise and delivering up a plethora of living dead-plagued landscapes populated by bands of ragged roustabouts just trying to survive. As TWD sank into the baleful depths of Mazzara dullardism, I even fantasized that someone would build a better zombie-trap, throw it against TWD, and bury that series, which I'd really come to hate. For whatever reason, this hasn't materialized, neither the trend nor the fantasy. A tv adaptation of ZOMBIELAND made it as far as a pilot film, but it apparently went over poorly and was dropped. Only this year--5 seasons into TWD--did SyFy partner with the Asylum to produce the next ongoing televised zombie apocalypse. I'm only a little late to that party, but last night I did finally get around to taking in the first three eps of its fruit, Z NATION.

Z NATION is a bit of a party. Karl Schaeffer, its showrunner, tells us that "every week, you’re going to see our zombies doing something different, that you haven’t seen zombies do before. Our goal was to put the fun back into zombies." A clearer focus on that goal would have certainly aided "Puppies & Kittens," the series pilot. It delivers some humor along the way, mostly toward the end, but overall, it takes itself way too seriously, and, combined with its other sins, almost led me to forgo the rest of the series. It indulges in one of my least favorite tropes of genre productions in having characters spout faux-"futuristic" language. Zombies are called "Zs," killing them is called "granting them mercy," dates are recorded as "A.Z." (After Zombies), there's militaristic techno-babble ("Delta-Xray-Delta, this is Northern Light. Operation Bite Mark, do you copy?"), and so on. In one of the early scenes, a group of people are throwing a going-away party for their sick grandmother, who is then given "mercy" via an "eight sacrament"--ritually murdered by one of our heroes. This is treated as a joyous event.[1] In my view, such tropes are the waste-products of feverish nerdish circle-jerking, and they only tend to alienate viewers from material that, set in a world only divorced from our own by three years, shouldn't be so alien to them. Following contemporary b-movie trends for better or worse, the cinematography favors the hand-held and a fairly restricted color palette. The latter is a huge mistake; while the pilot is often fairly dull, the tone adopted by the subsequent episodes would be much better served by a vibrant, even over-the-top expressionistic use of color. The production design is dirt-cheap, and it often combines with the scale of the piece to give the impression of simply trying to do too much with too little.

Much of this is emblematic of the work of the company that produced Z NATION. I'm an ordained minister in the Church of the B-Movie, but it's exceedingly rare that I've felt compelled to preach a sermon on behalf of a product of the Asylum. Over the years, I've slogged through more of its execrable filmography than I'd care to recall  The company's bread-and-butter is grinding out "mockbusters"--dirt-cheap knock-offs of whatever huge-budget blockbuster Hollywood is currently pimping. Hollywood makes TRANSFORMERS, the Asylum has TRANSMORPHERS; Hollywood remakes THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL; the Asylum counters with THE DAY THE EARTH STOPPED. Hollywood offers THE HOBBIT: the Asylum gives us AGE OF THE HOBBITS.[2] The company makes its money by using such titles to separate credulous Redbox renters from their entertainment dollars by making them think they're getting the current upbudget Hollywood schlock.[3] One can admire their initiative. Admiring their schlock is much harder. A lot of schlock can be endearing; the Asylum's schlock one more typically finds oneself enduring. Their movies aren't so bad they're good; they're mostly just bad. There have, in my experience, been a few exceptions. SIR ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE'S SHERLOCK HOLMES--released to ape the Robert Downey Jr. SHERLOCK HOLMES--had a good b-movie take on Holmes, and was entertaining enough. It fell on its face only insofar as it, like so many other Asylum projects, simply tried to do too much with too little. SIX GUNS, the Asylum's rip on JONAH HEX, ended up being a better Jonah Hex movie than the one that bore the name. And, of course, the Asylum's biggest catch--and likely its biggest hit--was SHARKNADO. A riff on Roger Corman's weird critter movies for SyFy, the flick about a tornado full of sharks is schlock done right, and--no other way to put it--an absolute blast.[4] These bright spots are definitely the exception. That the Asylum was behind Z NATION is one of the reasons I was initially disinterested in the series.

I finally looked into it because I kept coming across internet chatter from the following it has developed, raves about it being a fun little show. The clincher was when a comrade from the Internet Movie Database boards threw some kind words its way and said she hoped I was going to be checking it out (thanks, Helen).

As I sank into the couch and started watching, a lot of the pilot fed my own initial prejudices. A lot of it looked and felt a lot like the Asylum. There was borrowing from THE WALKING DEAD. The central plot of the entire series, in fact, is a straight lift from the previous season of TWD: a "package"--a fellow with a potential cure for zombie-ism--must be delivered to a lab across a long, dangerous stretch of the zombiefied U.S. Initially, the "characters" barely qualify for the word. In the pilot, only Citizen Z (DJ Qualls) and, in particular, Doc (Russell Hodgkinson) bring any real life to the proceedings.[5] While most of the others were just presences, Harold Perrineau was terribly unlikeable as Hammond, the needlessly prickish, order-barking soldier assigned to escort the "package." Thankfully, he ends up as Zombie Chow before the end of that first episode, and the way ZN handles the events surrounding his demise is what made me, rather unimpressed up to that point, decide to give it another shot and continue to the next one. Our heroes find a cute baby in a wrecked vehicle, and suddenly the show finds its sense of humor. Holding the child at arms length as if horrified by it: "Whoa, it's a real live baby--I haven't seen one of these in years... What do I do?" The characters have just shot several zombies but when the baby cries, "Somebody better shut that kid up before he attracts Z's like flies." And another character agrees. There follows the usual argument over what they're going to do with an infant in a zombie apocalypse. Rather than reveling in the angst, TWD-style, though, Hammond dramatically declares "God, I hate moral dilemmas!" Which made me laugh. Shortly after, the proceedings are interrupted when the baby itself abruptly turns into a zombie. Not a helpless baby zombie. No, the hellish tyke gets up out of his carrier like a little gremlin and chases our heroes out of the building, angrily pounding at the door as they slam it in his face. The "moral dilemma" talk then shifts to how we can't possibly leave it running around like that--it would be inhumane. Hammond volunteers to go inside and kill it and, instead, ends up being eaten by it and another zombie. Z-Baby is too small to even have any teeth, but there he is, chewing big, meaty chunks out of Hammond.

As Z NATION continues beyond this initial outing, its efforts at "drama" remain fairly low-grade--nothing of any real seriousness is handled very well. It has little in the way of internal logic--zombies sprint or shuffle at a glacial place depending solely on the momentary needs of the plot; they're driven by a ravenous lust for flesh yet ignore live humans within arms reach in order to follow distant sounds. A lot of it doesn't make a lick of sense--Citizen Z is able to remotely tap into cameras, tvs, phones, radios everywhere in spite of their being no power; the other characters go into a large city like Philadelphia that's swarming with millions of zombies yet are able to walk around the open streets while talking, yelling and even shooting with minimal attempted molestation or even interest by the flesh-lusting corpses. But what ZN does deliver after that initial mixed bag of a pilot is a typically black sense of humor, which takes center stage and becomes its saving grace. This is a show wherein a guy driving a truck pulls over thinking he has a flat and it turns out he has a ground-up zombie stuck in the wheel-well. "Well, I guess that explains the pull to the left." Some of the laughs are as cheap as the production design, others more pricey, a lot of them may not even be intentional, but together they do work, and while they don't make Z NATION great and may not make it any more than disposable entertainment, they do make it a goofy, gory, fast-paced bite of fun. An amusing diversion I'm going to continue following for a while.

--j.

---

[1] The soon-to-be-deceased is toasted while a chorus sings "Shall We Gather At The River," and it's possible the entire scenario was meant as a joke, but if it was, it falls utterly flat.

[2] The Asylum was sued over that one and lost.

[3] Exploitation flicks have always knocked off popular Hollywood product. The Asylum takes that practice to a whole 'nother level.

[4] A sequel was recently released; haven't seen it yet.

[5] Thankfully, this improves with the subsequent episodes. Doc finds a worthy foil in "10,000," a cocky young sniper, and Cassandra (Pisay Pao, one of the most beautiful women on television) begins to get some moments (both characters appear in the pilot but are given virtually nothing to do there).

Sunday, October 12, 2014

No Sanctuary From THE WALKING DEAD 2.0

Not much to say about tonight's WALKING DEAD season 5 opener.[1] Featuring some very welcome brutality and ugliness, it was a very solid episode--by TWD standards, outright great.

There were a few problems. The exposition between Carol and Tasha Yar was very poorly executed--Carol is on a rescue mission where every second may count and she stops right in the middle of it to listen to Yar fill her in on the backstory of those at Terminus. Rick wanted to go back and kill the rest of the Terminus gang but everyone else balked, ham-handedly setting this up as something that will return to bite the group in the future.

My major regret regarding "No Sanctuary" is about something really obvious that the writers didn't quite sew up. The episode is bookended by flashbacks showing what happened to the Terminusians in the past, the subject of that ill-placed exposition. Their story is that a group with guns once took over the Terminus and raped and brutalized them, but they were eventually able to take it back. And then, of course, they became monsters themselves, going so far as to take up cannibalism, mirroring the living dead monsters outside. In the flashbacks, their conquerors are raping women, and we hear the victims screaming in the distance. Back in the present, one of the same women chosen for rape is, at one point, shot by Rick, and we see zombies devouring her in a moment very reminiscent of a rape, as her screams echo those we heard in the flashback earlier. There are, in fact, multiple zombie attacks on women in the "present-day" portions of the ep, and the staging always echoes rape. A stronger association between all of this would have been welcome--I suspect the point will be lost on most TWD watchers--but it would be stupid to complain; this kind of complex, multi-layered, even--gasp--subtle storytelling is light-years ahead of anything TWD has ever managed. Considering the source, I was very impressed. All of this brings me to my regret though. The story of the Terminusians is, in part, a cautionary one, a glimpse of the depths of barbarism to which people can descend in such trying circumstances unless there is serious commitment to retaining their humanity. In the course of tonight's ep, Rick and co. free one of the prisoners the Terminusians had taken, probably a remnant of the renegade band that had captured the complex and had so tormented them. As he's released, he dances around maniacally changing "we're all just alike now!" When the Terminusians captured Rick and co. at the end of season 4, Rick's final line, after he and the others had been locked in a train car, was something like "they don't know who they're screwing with." In the final flashback showing the tormented Terminusians also confined to a train car--maybe even the same one--their final line (and the one that closes out the ep) should have also been, "They don't know who they're screwing with." That would have been as good an ending as it could have had.

While this was definitely one of the best episodes of TWD ever produced one would like to receive it as an avatar of things to come, some caution is advisable. Last season also began with two great eps, also among the best TWD, and it still fell back on the bad old Mazzara habits as it went along, becoming very uneven. Hope for the best, I suppose.

--j.

---

[1] My initial comments were maybe a bit too brief, so I've expanded them slightly.

ADDENDUM (13 Oct., 2014) - Lebeau points out something really obvious--this ep should have been the season 4 ender. It's what half of season 4 built toward, and everything about it would have worked better as a finale. In any event, this quick disposal of the Terminus storyline is a tribute to the Gimple Gang too and another example of how far TWD has come. Is there any doubt that, if Glen Mazzara was still showrunner, the same story we got from this one episode would have been made to fill more than 8 and would have concluded only after the mid-season break? If then?

Sunday, August 31, 2014

It's WALKING DEAD Time Yet Again

One of the most popular items on this blog is a piece I wrote nearly 2 1/2 years ago regarding timeline issues with THE WALKING DEAD. It ended up being updated so much that the appended material was significantly longer than the initial article, and TWD's continued problems in this vein eventually spawned a sequel. Since TWD's sophomore year, a new season has always been accompanied by the release of a series of webisodes, and season 4, concluded earlier this year, offered up a three-parter entitled "The Oath" which touches on some of the timeline issues I outlined in those previous articles. It must be acknowledged, of course, that webisodes are generally not considered canonical, which may render this a pointless exercise, but an ongoing discussion over on the "Walking Dead" board at the Internet Movie Database has conspired with a rather slow Sunday afternoon and a shortage of content for the blog of late to entice me to hash out the matter here.

In the "Walking Dead" comic, Rick, after being shot, was in a coma for about four weeks. Frank Darabont's TWD pilot film virtually replicates the first few issues of the comic--it's about as close an adaptation as one ever sees--and when it was written, this is probably the amount of time the creators had in mind for how long Rick spent in a coma. As covered in my original article, both Glen Mazzara, the TV showrunner for season 2 and 3, and Robert Kirkman, creator of the comic and listed as an "executive producer" of the series, said Rick's coma had lasted "3-4 weeks."

Here's where things get tricky.

In the comic, Lori, Carl and Shane packed up and left for Atlanta about a week or so before the hospital fell. When creating the TV pilot, it was probably Darabont's original intention to replicate this. The pilot suggests the survivors in the camp outside Atlanta where Lori and co. landed have been there for a while. There's a scene in which Lori says "I've been saying for a week we ought to put up signs" on the freeways going into the city to warn people. Even allowing for some hyperbole, that does imply they've been at the camp something near a week or more, at least. The series has also repeatedly implied the Lori/Shane affair, which only began after Lori believed Rick had died, had been going on for at least a while, not just some quick thing of a day or two.

And all of this would have worked if they had left for Atlanta a week or so before the hospital fell, but the writers then came along and created a flashback scene in the 6th episode that placed Shane at the hospital at the very moment it was being overrun. It is, of course, impossible that Rick slept in an untended coma for a week or more after this. He was in a sealed room without air-conditioning in the midst of the Georgia Summer--he'd be dead from loss of liquid in 2 or 3 days and virtually unable to move from same before that. There's no more room in the timeline. Rick had to awaken within a few hours of the hospital's fall, a day at the absolute most. He went home, met and spent the night with Morgan, then went to Atlanta the next day and was reunited with his family.

And there are other problems. The series establishes that the entire zombie apocalypse has happened while Rick was asleep. He knows nothing of it. Morgan has to walk him through what's happened. So when did it start? The clues have been all over the board. Rick is, as noted, supposed to have been in his coma for 3-4 weeks, but Morgan tells Rick "[The] gas line's been down for maybe a month," implying the zombie problem had been going on longer than that.[1] Three days after Rick awakens, the scientist Jenner at the CDC records a video log stating it had been 6 1/2 months since zombie-ism had appeared and been identified and 63 days since it went global. Seven days after Rick awakens--5 weeks, at the most, since he was shot--he and the other survivors encounter a traffic snarl made up of cars full of mummified corpses, dried up husks that would have required months to degrade to such a state. And so on. Nothing can be made to match anything else.

These problems have been outlined, argued over, wrung out at great length across the internet. I've written about them for years, and my own observations have traveled far and wide. Having far too much time on my hands a few years ago, I fought a series of pitched battles over them with TWD apologists, battles that became legendary. As "legendary" as something can get on the IMDb's "Walking Dead" board anyway.

My most persistent critic--or, more to the point, TWD's most uncritical apologist--was, throughout those little wars, perpetually pestering me with the notion that Rick could have had a "mystery caretaker" at the hospital who looked over him after the facility fell. The source of this moronic midrash was, of course, my opponent's own ass. Nothing in the series even suggested it--it was merely his means of trying to get TWD out of the mess its writers had made of it. And while I joke about the "legendary" status achieved by our battles, it seems someone beyond the regular gang of nuts at IMDb may have been paying some attention. In my view, TWD's creators now owe my prolific foe a royalty--"The Oath" webisodes are built around his idea. They tell the story of a lone lady doctor (Gale Macones) who remained at her post at Rick's hospital after its fall. She tells another character it has "been a few months" since the facility was overrun. The implication is that she cared for Rick and therefore a long period elapsed between the fall of the hospital and Rick's awakening. We know Rick comes around after the events in "The Oath" because its last installment provides the origin of the warning-sign painted on the doors of the hospital cafeteria, one of the first things Rick sees after he awakens.

If this is to be accepted as canonical, it only creates more problems.

We know Rick was in the hospital for some time before it was overrun. Shane brought him flowers at some point. In the flashback wherein Shane tries to remove him, still comatose, from the facility, he's sporting maybe 2 weeks growth of beard. While the hospital was fully operational, Rick would have been regularly shaved; the beard growth implies the increasing chaos of the zombie uprising has led to some neglect when it comes to such non-essentials.[2] When he awakens, though, he's sporting the same growth of beard. Acknowledging the absolute impossibility of Rick remaining in a coma absent food and water for anywhere near long enough to grow that much beard, are we to accept that he'd remained in a coma for months under Dr. Macones' care and that she'd been regularly shaving him for all that time but had inexplicably stopped doing so about two weeks prior to his awakening while continuing to otherwise care for him so that, by some mad coincidence, he could grow exactly the same length of beard for his awakening that he had when the hospital was overrun?

The idea is as bad as that sentence.[3]

It is, of course, entirely impossible that Rick had been in a coma for "a few months," as Dr. Macones would have it. The idea he would have been in a coma for more than 6 1/2 months, as Jenner would have it, is a non-starter. Apologists for the series have, based on nothing, suggested zombie-ism could have somehow been kept secret after it first appeared, only becoming known to most of the world when it "went global," as Jenner put it, but that strains credulity beyond all reason, and when it comes to Rick, even a coma of 2+ months post-"global" is entirely out of the question. Dr. Macones' "a few months" implies three or more, and is, likewise, impossible. When Rick awakened, his wound was still open and his bandage "rank" (Morgan's description). He had to continue to keep it covered right into season 2. This suggests he'd been asleep for less than 2 weeks. Had he been out for four, the wound would have been closed and mostly healed, as it was in the comic, so even buying the 3-4 week coma requires viewers to grant some major leeway. If he'd been asleep for over 2 months, the wound would be closed, healed and not even a factor. And it wouldn't need to be because after 2 months, Rick would have been a dried-up stick, showing massive weight-loss, sores, and he would have been unable to even get out of bed on his own, much less walk and perform so complex a physical task as riding a bicycle (which he does in the pilot). Rick's condition when he awakens absolutely precludes a total hospital stay of any more than a few weeks.

The first rule of holes is that, when stuck in one, stop digging. It's a rule the creators of TWD should, at some point, start to heed.

--j.

---

[1] If it was Darabont's intention to have Rick's coma be about four weeks, as in the comic, it's possible this was lost in the scripting shuffle at some point, as has often happened with TWD.

[2] When, in "18 Miles Out," Shane explains how the zombie outbreak began, he says it happened, from the first stories in the press to a dire situation, in about 2 weeks, which suits that 2 weeks of beard just fine. And entirely coincidentally.

[3] When Rick awakened in the pilot, there was a gurney against the door of his room. The season 1 flashback shows Shane putting it there, so apparently Dr. Macones also made a regular (and utterly inexplicable) practice of removing then replacing it too.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Revisiting BATMAN BEGINS And Ends

Shared in various internet forums, my article on "Comic Book Movies & What Ails 'Em" drew a variety of responses. One item of marginal significance to the overall piece that nevertheless persistently elicited a strong reaction was my identification of BATMAN BEGINS as one of the stinkers in the current comic movie boom. This wasn't any surprise, of course. The cult of the Christopher Nolan bat-flicks has always been strong, and I've been the subject of its criticism ever since I first suggested that the original film is significantly less than the greatest thing since sliced bread and that its director doesn't walk on water. Every time I've ever raised the issue, I've gotten pushback, and looking over it now, my original article on BATMAN BEGINS is rather sketchy, more like a series of impressions of the film assembled immediately after having watched it the first time. I've seen it again since then. The subsequent viewing only hardened my initial impression of it--I think I was originally too kind to it. I've also seen most of the third Nolan bat-flick, which is even worse than BEGINS.[1] The reaction to the comic movie article seems an opportune moment to revisit and expand upon my original evaluation.

Adam West's uber-campy '60s television Batman casts a very long shadow over both the character and comic-based productions in general. Its popularity catapulted it from an amusingly stupid diversion to a thing that, in far too many quarters, defined a screen adaptation of a comic book as some cheap, way-over-the-top, insultingly stupid piece of shit that was not to be treated seriously as drama or, indeed, regarded as anything more than dumb, shallow, entirely disposable fun for those who find such things fun--a coffin-shaped box for the genre. Even the appearance, years later, of quality items like SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE and the INCREDIBLE HULK tv series couldn't exorcise this particular demon, which stood as an obstacle to quality comic adaptations--to comic adaptations, period--for decades, and, in fact, continues to haunt them to this day.

The Batman was particularly haunted by it. Tim Burton's BATMAN (1989), which was based on the original Golden Age comics, was very good, still the definitive live-action treatment of the character, but the franchise it touched off immediately collapsed into full-blown, full groan Adam West-ism with BATMAN RETURNS and never looked back. Every entry went further in this direction than the last, every entry was far worse than the last. I've always believed a lot of the accolades poured over BATMAN BEGINS were a consequence of its moving away from this. It didn't quite move as far from it as its fans pretend, though.

Conceptually speaking, Marvel's major characters have always been much stronger than those of DC Comics. The Batman is the exception. As a child, Bruce Wayne sees his parents gunned down by a mugger in a bad section of town and from that moment forward dedicates his life to an endless crusade against crime. He is the avatar of vengeance--crime had created what would become its greatest scourge. His years to adulthood are spent singlemindedly honing his mind and body to the task. To strike fear into his enemies, he becomes a bat, and the bat, rather than Bruce Wayne, is his true identity. With the fortune inherited from his parents, he launches his private war. From here, his tale takes a new turn. Over the years, he encounters an entire rogue's gallery of villains who are like twisted reflections of himself, also obsessively devoted to making over the world in their own image. The question is raised as to how much their appearances are a consequence of his own. It's simple and brilliant; a powerful modern myth and a goldmine for any storyteller.[2]

And, of course, BATMAN BEGINS pretty much abandons all of it. The film is as entirely uninterested in and unengaged with the source material as was the later (and also dreadful) MAN OF STEEL. BEGINS was released after the first two SPIDER-MAN films had become successful, and it tried to ape those pictures by making Bruce himself somewhat responsible for his parents' death and having him blame himself, rather than the criminal element. Instead of dedicating his life to a crusade, Bruce seems to entirely waste his youth. He's directionless, overly emotional, and goofs off enough to be kicked out of half a dozen colleges. In the comics, the murderer of his parents was unknown until years into his crusade as the Batman, which was a significant part of the myth--the murderer's anonymity meant that crime, rather than just a man, had killed them. In BEGINS, the killer--a hood named Joe Chill--is apprehended immediately after the murder and sent to prison. He's killed in a mob hit when Bruce is 23, at a time before Bruce has even started down the path that will lead him to becoming the Batman. The film's central character is entirely severed from his origin myth by that point--it's a completely different story about a completely different character, not the Batman. For five years, Bruce takes to wandering around the world, lost and without purpose, studying crime and "fear" for reasons he, himself, says he doesn't even understand. In my original piece, I wrote that the babbling about "fear" never comes across as overly pretentious; upon rewatch, I feel as if I understated the pretension factor, but my real objection to it, then as now, was that it's used to fill the vacuum created by abandoning the character's backstory. If one can come up with something better, one can sort of justify this kind of thing. The creators of BEGINS couldn't come up with anything better--they just abandoned the story of the Batman and threw out a cloud of pretentious squid's ink to try to cover that fact. The result is a new "Batman" with no core, lost in a production as unfocused as the character.

In the film, the nomadic Bruce is eventually recruited into the League of Shadows, a secret society of ninja with a hazy anti-city ideology headed by the mysterious Ra's Al Ghul. He spends two years in extremely rigorous training with the League without, apparently, ever even bothering to ask what the League is all about. His time with it abruptly ends when the man he takes to be Ra's Al Ghul looks him in the face and says the order's goal is to "destroy" Gotham and other cities. The reason offered is that cities are "corrupt," which is, of course, no real motive at all. The real reason is because those in the League are the designated villains in the film and designated villains need something villainous to do, whether it makes any sense or not. Delivered deadpan, this big "reveal"--if it can be called that--is the sort of thing one immediately expects to be followed by one of the dramatic "shock" music cues from the old Adam West Batman. Upon first watch, I laughed and shook my head in utter disbelief that the film had gone in this direction. It didn't improve upon rewatch.

As with a lot of old films of camp value, BEGINS wasn't in on the joke--it presented that moment as something we're supposed to take entirely seriously. In explaining the film before its release, Nolan was ever so serious and how ever so serious his movie was to be. From Variety (8 Feb., 2004):

"Batman will be more realistic and less cartoonish. There are no campy villains... Humanity and realism, says Nolan, is the crux of the new pic. 'The world of Batman is that of grounded reality,' he says... 'Ours will be a recognizable, contemporary reality against which an extraordinary heroic figure arises.'"

This sentiment was dutifully picked up and parroted by many reviewers (which can't help but make one wonder if they ever even saw the picture). Holding to this as a goal is another way in which Nolan's project was fundamentally misguided, and had the director rigorously pursued that path, one could legitimately say it was yet another way in which the film is fundamentally at odds with the source material. The Batman is a blatantly romantic fantasy awash in heaping helpings of glorious expressionism. What Nolan actually did, though, was, as I noted in my original review, try to paste together two diametrically opposed strains of story, great and solidly grounded Batman material like Frank Miller's "Batman: Year One" and the sort of shallow, overcooked, and silly kid's stuff one got from DC comics--and Adam West Batman--decades ago. The two destroy one another; every element of the latter in the film is ludicrous, yet it's treated with the same humorless gravity as the rest of the story.

"Year One" had presented a dark and utterly corrupt Gotham. Throughout, there was the theme that this was a town that badly needed a Batman. In its first act, BEGINS taps into that again and again. The film is missing a Bruce that needs to be a Batman though. After leaving the League, Bruce doesn't really have any reason for becoming the Batman. Rather than following an urgent psychological need to wage a war on crime after a childhood trauma led to a lifetime spent preparing for it, BEGINS' Bruce takes up the fight idealistically, simply deciding Gotham needs him. That this radical change renders extraneous and irrelevant everything leading up to that point never seemed to occur to the filmmakers. Following "Year One" and "The Long Halloween" (another tale of the early Batman), the film sets up Carmine "The Roman" Falcone as Gotham's biggest crime boss, a guy with a massive criminal empire, with his fingers in every crooked pie and protected on all sides by corrupt officialdom. Invincible to everyone but a costumed vigilante who doesn't play by the rules. Unfortunately, having spent a lot of time setting up Falcone in this way, the film immediately disposes of him. The Batman roughs up some thugs (in an exceptionally poorly directed action sequence),[3] chains up Falcone, hands over to officialdom some evidence that wouldn't be admissible in any court in the U.S., and that's the end of the Roman. It takes only a few minutes of screentime. So much for Gotham's profound corruption and its need for a Batman.

This, of course, entirely discredits what little motive there was behind the big villain plot, to which the film then returns. Gotham was said to be irretrievably corrupt, yet the Batman decimates its central crime figure with near-effortless ease (Falcone is only ever seen again in one brief scene). As that central villain plot plays out, it proves to be an incredibly elaborate, impossible, completely ridiculous motive-free scheme--a meaner, more dour version of the sorts of things the giggling no-goodniks of the Adam West Batman used to do twice a week.

Ra's Al Ghul's plan to "destroy" Gotham is to fill the city's water supply with a chemical that, whenever vaporized, drives people insane and makes them kill one another. He isn't introducing it by poisoning the reservoirs; he's having it poured from drums into a pipe leading into the city. No, that's not a joke. Not an intentional one, that is. His henchmen have been pouring it in for weeks. To note the obvious, water in such a system doesn't sit in a pipe; it's constantly rushing into the city in the way we're shown because it's being used. New York, the comic model for Gotham, uses a billion gallons of water a day. Even if some idiot could introduce enough of a chemical into the system in this way to matter--and he couldn't--everyone who has a hot shower or who boils water should have been going insane for weeks. To activate the chemical, which has magically stayed in the lines all that time, the villains have stolen a microwave device that, when placed on a hijacked train, will, we're told, vaporize the city's entire water supply. No one apparently informed BEGINS' creators what makes up most of the human body. No one apparently informed Ra's Al Ghul that the easiest way to destroy a city would be to simply set off a big bomb or a few big bombs.

BEGINS, like so many other comic adaptations, suffers from epic-itis. The Batman has been through as many versions and permutations as any character in comics, but while in various forms, he's certainly tackled his share of population-threatening menaces, his finest moments tend to come as a street-level crimefighter. It's hardwired into the character by virtue of his origin, and reinforced by most of his rogue's gallery. In that respect--as in so many other respects--the BEGINS project was fundamentally at odds with the nature of the character. The Batman isn't just some ninja. He's a scientist, a criminologist, a master detective, among the many core facets of the character entirely excluded from BEGINS. To the others in his world, he's a very mysterious figure, which is impossible to portray on film if, as happens with BEGINS, we're constantly following his every move, in on his every trick. And for all the talk of "fear" in BEGINS, we're never allowed any sense that the criminal underworld ever develops any real fear of him, the point of his becoming a bat in the first place.[4]

As a Batman film, BEGINS is an utter failure. As a standalone film, it's insultingly idiotic. Like the event that makes up its climax, it's a train-wreck. Like MAN OF STEEL, it's a film whose creators had no real interest in the character or his world and who didn't show the material any respect. And like train-wrecks, MAN OF STEEL and most adaptations-in-name-only, it sucks.

--j.

---

[1] I still haven't seen THE DARK KNIGHT, the most hyped film of the run. The first film left me with no desire to see it, and the third did absolutely nothing to spur my interest either.

[2] It must be said that DC Comics, the Batman's owners, have often been terrible stewards of this myth. In the Batman's earliest days, he was entirely unconcerned with preserving the lives of the scum with which he tangled. As his primary readers were children, DC editorially imposed a mandate that the character wouldn't kill anyone anymore (the same as happened with Superman). Initially, this was carried out by simply not putting the character in a position where such a thing was necessary. Later writers, unfortunately, grafted the no-killing parameter on to the personality of the character itself, which simply can't be done in any logical manner. Worse, they made the Batman very self-righteous about this, then made a regular practice of rubbing readers' noses in it in such a way as to make a joke of the character. Several years ago, there was a story in "Action Comics" (#719, "Hazard's Choice") about the Joker poisoning Lois Lane. She's dying. Superman and Batman go to see the Joker and ask how they can save her and he tells them that they can inject him with a chemical that will mix with one already in his blood and provide an antidote. The rub? Injecting him will kill him. Back in the good ol' days of the early Golden Age, the only question that would arise next is whether the two of them would have injected the Joker before they killed him. The meek, pathetic characters DC has made of them, though, won't even consider it--they simply slink away, returning to Metropolis to watch Lois (Superman's wife at the time) slowly die while mouthing self-righteous platitudes. The writer then chose a cop-out ending wherein the Joker's joke was that the poison wouldn't kill Lois after all, but even that helps make the point. Characters who think that decision amounts to a "moral" one are pathetic and useless, and bereft of any real sense of morality.

A Batman who, when placed in such situations, becomes a principled advocate of the health-and-safety-at-all-costs of mass-murdering animals like the Joker and self-righteously denounces anyone who doesn't share his enthusiasm for their continued-existence-at-all-costs--and this happens all the time in the books--is violating one of the most basic rules of the archetype. Given the circumstances of his creation, it's literally impossible to imagine the Batman making the argument that the lives of Thomas and Martha Wayne (his parents) are no more valuable than that of the thug who shot them down in cold blood. If he really believed that, he wouldn't be the Batman. Yet that's exactly the argument his writers routinely have him make.

[3] All of the action sequences in the film are poorly shot.

[4] Underscoring the terribly unfocused nature of the production, the film, as noted, spends a great deal of time on the theme of "fear," includes the Scarecrow, a villain primarily associated with fear, then does basically nothing with him. He's given almost no screentime and no opportunity to do much of anything.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Comic Book Movies & What Ails 'Em

For comic books fans, the last 16 years have been a pretty plum time for screen adaptations of our beloved sequential artfom. There have been comic book movies almost as long as there had been comics but it was the success of BLADE in 1998 that established comic movies as a major A-list genre, one that shows no sign of fading away in the near future. Since then, we've gotten a few great movies (HULK, X2, THE AVENGERS, SIN CITY, WATCHMEN, etc.), quite a few good ones (SPIDER-MAN, THOR, X-MEN, IRON MAN, PUNISHER: WAR ZONE, etc.), and a whole pen of turkeys (V FOR VENDETTA, DAREDEVIL, CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER, BATMAN BEGINS, MAN OF STEEL, SPIDER-MAN 2, etc.).[1] That's pretty much the pattern with any other genre, but comic adaptations have so far managed a better record than most. Sturgeon's Law says "90% of everything is crap," and I only depart from it in thinking the number closer to 99%, but the comic pictures have somewhat bucked this trend.. The crap probably still dominates, pound-for-pound, but the good-to-great stuff occupies a much larger percentage of the whole, which is remarkable in itself and positively extraordinary when one considers that most of these films are huge-budget Hollywood tentpole features (a category that, these days, generates almost nothing but crap). Even if I wasn't a lifelong comics fan, the significantly better-than-usual success rate of these pictures would make them something I'd want to see continued.

There are still some things missing from this boom, though. Pretty noticeable things. Things I would argue this genre needs if its going to survive and thrive. I've been rattling on about them in various forums for years now, haranguing friends, spinning out posts on internet message boards, etc. And for all the years, they're still missing from the films.

The first big omission, one I'm far from alone in noticing, is the women. Lady superheroes, or even lady supervillains. They aren't entirely missing in action. They feature in the team movies, but they're often barely even a presence. Storm in the X-Men films is probably the most glaring example. In the comics, Storm--Ororo Munroe--is an excellent, well-drawn character. She's a Kenyan princess, the daughter of a witch priestess and an American journalist. Her parents were killed in a bombing when she was very young, and, buried alive in the resulting rubble herself, she became terribly claustrophobic, a condition that plagues her for the rest of her life. She becomes a child thief in Cairo and when her mutant powers manifest at puberty, she uses them to set herself up as a goddess among an isolated native tribe in the Serengeti, which is what she's doing when Charles Xavier recruits her for the X-Men. She could carry a film or even a series of films by herself. In the X-Men movies, all of that is stripped away and she's barely even given any lines. A viewer who only knew her from her screen representation wouldn't know much more about her than her physical appearance (in the films).

Given the volume of comic movies we've seen since BLADE, the lack of big, prestige comic pictures with women as the principal stars is astonishing. To date, there have been only two: ELEKTRA and CATWOMAN. The first, spun off from the awful DAREDEVIL film, was almost unwatchable. The second had some good ideas, the right star, and wasn't as bad as its reputation suggests,[2] but it certainly wasn't a very good movie.

A particularly dark gaze of disapproval must fall upon DC (Warner Bros) in this matter, as it holds the rights to the best-known, most iconic lady superhero ever created. Wonder Woman is a princess of the Amazons of Greek myth, a tribe that, in the comic telling, was once enslaved then, when freed, retired from the world of men to immortal lives on a mystical island. Wonder Woman--Diana--was created from a clay effigy of a baby crafted by her mother Queen Hippolyta and given life via supernatural means. She grows up to become a powerful warrioress and eventually a kind of ambassador to the outside world, dedicated to combating injustice.[3] The character has been revamped several times since, with both good and bad results. Any potential film project has a rich vein of mythology 70 years deep from which to draw. A WW feature was announced a few years ago then fell through. A new WW television series made it as far as the pilot stage in 2011 then was rejected. The CW tinkered with the idea of a new series as well, a sort of prequel called AMAZON, then, in January, dropped it. Israeli model Gal Gadot has just been announced as the new screen Wonder Woman.[4] She isn't going to star in a WW movie, though. Rather, she's been relegated to a guest appearance in the upcoming MAN OF STEEL sequel pitting Superman against Batman, a project each new piece of information suggests has as its goal becoming the world-champion turkey of the comic movie canon.[5] The lack of a Wonder Woman movie so far into this boom is an absolute scandal, one that shows no sign of being redressed in the near future.[6]

The list of supergals who would translate well to the screen is quite lengthy. Everyone has their favorite picks. Marvel has already established the Black Widow in their cinematic universe, and, essayed by the most excellent Scarlett Johansson (who can certainly carry a picture), she seems an obvious choice. Dazzler, a mutant whose body converts sound into energy; is arguably better suited to the screen than to the page. The villainess turned sort-of heroine Emma Frost appeared, while still villainous, in X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, but, as usual, was barely even a presence. She would be a great subject for screen treatment. Supergirl is a young, petite girl who battles overwhelming forces of evil--what's not to love? She was used to often good effect in SMALLVILLE; I definitely want to see her return to the big screen in a film that does her justice. I've long thought a Tigra flick would be a worthy project for the right filmmaker. That seems, at first blush, a
somewhat odd choice, but when it comes to great, endlessly quirky movie material Tigra has everything. It’s a Jekyll-and-Hyde story, it has magic and super-science, a banished race, an ancient legend, odd sexual fetishism (when it comes to her dealings with Kraven the Hunter, who would almost have to play the villain of the piece)--a great, conflicted character who was a superhero cat (The Cat) before she ever became a superhero cat-woman. For a project willing to veer a bit off the beaten track, she's a goldmine. And, of course, the big one in Marvel's stable--or at least the big one as far as I'm concerned--is the She-Hulk. Jennifer Walters, the shy and reserved cousin of Bruce Banner--the Hulk--is gunned down by vengeful mobsters and to save her, Banner must transfuse her with his own gamma-irradiated blood, a process that eventually transforms her into a big, green Amazon with super-strength. Unlike her cousin, though, she doesn't become a raging brute. She retains her full faculties in her Hulk form and her real transformation, it turns out, is more personal than physical. Becoming the She-Hulk makes her shed her shyness and gain confidence in herself. A lawyer, she comes to love being a superhero on the side, and to prefer the She-Hulk to her own form. Being a Marvel character, of course, she's far from perfect. Those old insecurities can creep back in, her life can become quite complicated, and she doesn't always make the best decisions when trying to sort it all out. Her writers have given her a great deal of depth over the years--she's probably the best-realized, most human superheroine in the Marvel stable, a great, great character who is long overdue for feature treatment.[7]

Shulkie became a subject of some controversy earlier this month. David Goyer appeared, with a few other screenwriters, on a podcast called Scriptnotes. At one point, the discussion turned to the She-Hulk and got pretty ugly. Host Craig Mazin said "the real name for She-Hulk was Slut-Hulk. That was the whole point. Let’s just make this green chick with enormous boobs." Goyer joined in, among other things calling the character "a giant, green porn star" who was created to sexually service the Hulk. The response from Stan Lee, comics' Allfather and She-Hulk co-creator, was swift and to the point: "Only a nut would even think of that." Alyssa Rosenberg, writing in the Washington Post, more extensively unloads on Goyer in a piece that mostly hits the mark. Goyer's comments could just be dismissed as juvenile dumbassery (which is what they are), but it's also rather telling that, prompted to randomly bullshit over a subject about which he clearly knows nothing and to which he's given no real thought at all, this is what comes out of him. And Goyer is the fellow who is going to be writing the new screen incarnation of Wonder Woman.

It was heartening to see the furious reaction to this incident on the internet--pretty much outrage all the way around. It must be acknowledged that, in the overly Puritanical U.S., bringing any lady superhero to the screen involves (or can be seen as involving) navigating a sort of minefield of sexual politics. If a superheroine is sexy or shows any hint of libidinous impulses, there's an unfortunate tendency in some quarters to find this exploitative and unacceptable and in others to find the character slutty and unadmirable. Either attitude is pretty much indifferent to superheroes as a fantasy of superbeings who are still recognizably human, and neither seriously engages with it. One stems from unvarnished sex-is-bad Puritanism, the other from a range of other concerns having to do with the portrayal of women in a distorted, inappropriate or negative way, the reduction of women to commodified sexual objects, a media culture that presents only such women as models, and so on. And there's a lot of crossover between the two.[8] The She-Hulk is a character that definitely brings all of this to a head. In addition to everything else, she's also sexy and she knows it, and, as Rosenberg writes, "a swashbuckling heart-breaker." If someone portrayed her as some "brain-dead courtesan" (also Rosenberg), there would be outrage,[9] and when Goyer and Bazin go Beavis-and-Butthead on her, there is outrage. There are still knuckle-draggers and Puritan tight-asses in the world, but most people usually come to the right conclusions on such matters.

An obstacle in getting the ladies to the screen in feature roles is no doubt the perception that they fail at the box-office, but, to point out the obvious, they've never really been given anything remotely approximating a fair chance. The very few efforts there have been in the past bombed because they weren't any good. I've made getting comic-book-style supergirls to the screen a sort of mission within my own film work, but my micro-budgeted productions are certainly no solution to this vacuum. They do, however, point in a possibly useful direction and provide a segue to the other missing ingredient in the current superhero boom.

Behind the comic adaptations, there is, unfortunately, an increasingly entrenched tentpole mentality at work. Everything has to be some huger-than-huge, mile-a-minute effects-laden epic with the fate of the world resting on the outcome, and each new picture has to top the last one on this score. And we need the huge-scale epics, to be sure, but they need to be supplemented with smaller projects that give the characters room to live and breath. The ability to tell such tales in the comics and develop the characters at length is what has made them survive and thrive over the years. When an epic tale came along, readers had a good understanding of the characters and it gave the story more meaning and greater impact.

On the other hand, the focus only on huge epics in the cinematic adaptations does real violence to the source material. Le Beau and partner-in-blog Daffy Stardust recently began a regular podcast over at Le Blog, and their second, which deals with comic-book movies, involves a relevant discussion of CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER. As they (Daffy, primarily) note, Cap, in the comics, blamed himself for the death of his sidekick Bucky during the war. It was a psychological scar that gnawed at him for years, constantly showing up in the background. When it turned out Bucky was still alive, that long history gave the revelation a real impact. The movie comes in the midst of a series of films that have done absolutely nothing to establish that Cap feels any guilt over Bucky's death, and in trying to cut that corner in the service of scale, sacrifices that impact. A smaller Cap project, tucked between THE FIRST AVENGER and AVENGERS or between AVENGERS and WINTER SOLDIER, could have been used to lay the necessary groundwork (it wouldn't have hurt to delay tackling the Winter Soldier story until later, either). In the pages of "Iron Man," the conflict between Obadiah Stane and Tony Stark was an elaborate tale full of twists and turns that went on for about two years and involved Stane ruining Stark and taking over his company while Stark gives up his Iron Man identity and ends up reduced to an alcoholic shell of his former self. He has to put himself back together from almost nothing and confront Stane in what becomes an epic duel to the death. The first IRON MAN feature, while good, wouldn't even qualify as a Cliff's Notes representation. One of the worst examples of this sort of harm is the handling of George Stacy from THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN. In the comic version, Peter Parker becomes paranoid that Stacy, a police captain and the father of Peter's girlfriend Gwen, is starting to suspect he's Spider-Man. Over time, Stacy even drops hints to that effect. It goes on like this for a while then, one day, Spider-Man is battling Dr. Octopus atop a building and a big section of brickwork is knocked loose and falls to earth. Stacy, on the scene below, charges in and rescues a child from the falling debris, but he's crushed beneath it. Spider-Man swoops down, pulls him out of it and tries to get him to a hospital. It plays out like this:

As with all the rest, the moment is dependent upon all that preceded it. In the movie version, it's all just thrown away. Stacy is a rather unlikeable Dennis Leary who, only appearing in parts of one film, never develops any real history with Peter, unmasks Peter then, as he's dying, extracts from Peter a promise to stay away from his daughter. Not only do the filmmakers sacrifice what could have been a powerful moment, they have Stacy use his dying words to be a prick.

Spider-Man is ill-suited to epic-ism in general. He's primarily a street-level character. He doesn't often face potentially earth-shattering threats. His bread-and-butter involves dealing with much more down-to-earth problems. His rogue's gallery is mostly made up of street criminals who have gained extraordinary powers--Electro, Mysterio, the Vulture, the Kingpin, the Sandman, Shocker, the Enforcers (who I'd love to see on film). The same is true of the Batman. It's especially the case with Daredevil, whose finest moments usually involve entirely mortal adversaries. Among the legion of things the 2003 DAREDEVIL film got terribly wrong was the decision by the studio suits, in the aftermath of SPIDER-MAN's mega-success, to turn it into a huge-scale, effects-laden blockbuster picture--totally out of character for the material. Daredevil is film noir. Daredevil is crime-stories full of bad luck and savage ironies told in smoke-filled rooms with light filtering in from outside through venetian blinds. It's THE USUAL SUSPECTS and CHINATOWN and ROMEO IS BLEEDING and DRIVE. You don't need $78 million in bad wirework and CGI to do Daredevil. You find a Jet Li and put him in a red suit.

One could, in fact, theoretically do a great Daredevil movie in which Matt Murdock never even puts on that red suit. One of my favorite DD stories is "Badlands" from "Daredevil" #219. It's a sort of modernized HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER in which Murdock, dressed just like Brando in THE WILD ONE, wanders into a dingy little town in New Jersey, rights a wrong that had been done in the past, then leaves. Not only does he never don the uniform, he never even says a word. He's never identified as anything other than some drifter. That's not, by itself, a feature, but it has the right spirit.

One of my favorite Hulk stories is a simple little Bill Mantlo tale from "Incredible Hulk" #262. It's almost like a Twilight Zone episode about a mysterious woman who lives in a glass house by the sea and almost looks as if she's made of glass herself. She finds Bruce Banner washed up on shore and takes him in. She's an artist who works in glass--her entire home is filled with her sculptures. She says she wants to sculpt him. He stays for weeks and becomes her lover. By the end, it's revealed that her "sculptures" are real people she's turned to glass. She has the power to do so, but only by the light of a full moon. She lures Banner into her studio and not only wants to turn him to glass but to capture him in mid-transformation to the Hulk. Needless to say, things don't go as she planned. The final image is a wonderful ghost.

That same issue features another great, small tale, also written by Mantlo, called "Foundling." Banner, after the business with the sculptress, seeks a job at a research institute. When he arrives, he sees a fleeing hysterical boy ran down, tackled and sedated by a fellow in a lab coat and a woman. The boy is screaming about how they're not really his parents. The man explains the boy is his son, who has severe psychological problems and must be kept heavily medicated. He's the doctor who runs the research institute and Banner goes to work for him. Banner learns from others at the institute that the boy has had problems since hitting puberty. One night there's a ruckus on the grounds and it's revealed that the boy is a Dire Wraith, a shape-shifting alien monster who fell to earth years ago and was raised by the doctor and his wife as their own son. Since hitting adolescence, he's begun realizing he's different in some way--a realization the couple have tried to repress--and when he assumes his Wraith form he begins to remember his programming. He attacks Banner, who becomes the Hulk and the two fight it out. The alien is no match for the Hulk, but just as the jade giant is about to put him away the doctor rushes between them. He says the boy is still their son and insists the Hulk back off. When the Hulk notes the boy is nothing but a a monster, the doctor angrily throws it in his face that he is nothing but a monster and has no right to pass judgment on them. With a look of anguish at the doctor's words, the Hulk leaps away, leaving the couple nursing their now-re-sedated "son."

The comic Hulk is hated and hunted, constantly tormented by a world he can't understand. Another Hulk favorite of mine, this one widely recognized as a classic, is "Heaven is a Very Small Place" ("Incredible Hulk" #147). Authored by Gerry Conway, this is about as stripped down as stories come--only a few pages. In the story, the Hulk is leaping through a desert and sees a town form before his eyes. The people seem friendly and at first, the Hulk thinks this kindness is directed toward him. The town is like a ghost, though. No one seems to see the Hulk. He realized they're immaterial. Eventually, through, he comes upon a little girl in a wheelchair who apparently does see him. They chat, they get along, she calls him a friend and then she and the rest of the town abruptly vanish. The Hulk is anguished, screams for the town to come back. There remains nothing but empty desert, though, and he strikes the ground with sufficient force to generate a minor earthquake.

Another stripped-down gem is "The Kid Who Collects Spider-Man" ("Amazing Spider-Man" #248). Authored by Roger Stern, it's about a meeting between Spider-Man and his biggest fan, a kid who has collected everything he can about the wall-crawler. The two have a nice little chat--the kid seems to know everything about Spidey's career.And then the boy asks him who he really is. And Spider-Man unmasks and tells him! He tells of how his inaction led to his uncle's death, how this led him to do what he does. The two part on good terms and the big reveal at the end is that the boy was gravely ill and dies from leukemia a few days later.

Still another keeper: Tom DeFalco's "Time Runs Like Sand" from "Marvel Two-In-One" #86. An exhausted Flint Marko, the Sandman, wanders into a bar and orders a drink. The nervous bartender, recognizing him, calls for the Fantastic Four, reaching Ben Grimm, the Thing. Grimm rushes to the saloon, bursts through the door and calls out Marko. But the Sandman doesn't want to fight. Instead, they have a seat, order drinks and Marko relates to Ben the story of his life. He's tired of being a hood and just wants to leave that all behind. At the end he surrenders to Ben and volunteers to go quietly, but Ben, now finding him sympathetic and impressed with his willingness to reform, decides to cut him a break and lets him go free.


(Like Mantlo, DeFalco could sometimes spin offbeat stories with haunting endings. His "An Obituary For Octopus" from "Spider-Man Unlimited "#3 is such a tale, and, by my estimation, the second-best Dr. Octopus story, behind only Mantlo's Owl/Doc. Ock war from "Spectacular Spider-Man" #72-79. Read about it here.)

I could spin these into infinity. Most I've rattled off are particularly stripped down, but even the standard-issue superhero material typically takes place on a much more intimate level than the epic features allow. Such stories are what comics have been doing for decades and what helped make them popular enough to jump to film in the first place. The movies rarely even touch these kinds of tales though.

To me, the most exciting news about upcoming Marvel projects isn't ANT MAN (particularly since it just lost Edgar Wright) or the second AVENGERS picture or any of the other features that have been discussed. It's the Netflix material Marvel is developing. A 13-episode Daredevil series, followed by a series devoted to Jessica Jones ("Alias"), one for Luke Cage, one for Iron Fist (whose story could be a feature epic), and then a miniseries teaming all of the above. With competent people at the helm, the street-level heroes can be done well and on what, by Hollywood tentpole standards, are microscopic budgets. Hopefully, the series format will scale back the productions to something more closely approximating the comics and allow the characters and storylines to breath and to develop at a more natural pace.

There needs to be a place among the features for the smaller-scale, more intimate productions as well. The first X-Men movie is what made me begin to think about this, then the second one cinched it. If the tentpole epics leave Storm's background on the cutting-room floor, put her in a movie of her own. Hers is a story that can definitely carry one, and at a minor fraction of the cost of a full-blown X-Men epic.[10] Lower cost means less risk, and such films could be used as a way to get the ladies into starring roles. A regular schedule of smaller pictures could also act as a more general proving-ground for some of the lesser characters. BLADE is the point of reference here. It took a fairly obscure character, dropped him into a film of, by Hollywood standards, medium budget ($40 million) and not only turned him into a massively bankable property but kickstarted the current comic movie boom. The bigger-name characters should, from time to time, be put into these smaller productions too.[11] The opportunity to build better, longer, more detailed narratives and characters of greater depth doesn't just enrich the bigger projects, it lets filmmakers tell the kind of great smaller stories that make up the bulk of the comics that built these properties but that aren't being told at all via the huge-scale tentpole pictures.

I hope some of what I've written points to what I see as the third necessary but absent element: a more ambitious and varied approach to the material. When it comes to comic adaptations, Marvel leads the pack by a mile--other than WATCHMEN, DC hasn't really done anything worth the time during the present boom. But Marvel tends to be rigorously conservative, mainstream, and safe with their films. No edge, PG-rated content, very little quirkiness or anything that wanders too far afield, and they're all basically the same kind of story told in the same way. The other studios who handle Marvel properties do the same, and this really needs to change. The comics on which these films are based have told every kind of story there is to be told. Dramas, horrors, swashbuckling adventures, comedies, spy stories, love stories, war stories, political thrillers, coming-of-age tales, Twilight Zone-ist fantasies--you name it, the books have done it, and the films need to start better reflecting that diversity.[12] Broaden the field. Mix it up a bit. Take some chances. The recent departure of Edgar Wright from ANT MAN doesn't bode well. Wright has exactly the kind of quirky vision one wants to see applied to such a character, and after having worked on the project for 8 years and with filming imminent, he's fired over "creative differences." Is there any doubt a far more conventional product will emerge in his absence? It's just not healthy. Conservatism in such matters is a path to stagnation, eventual box-office failure then death. The comic adaptations work from too rich a field to allow that to kill them.

A rather long post. A short version for the "tl/dr" crowd:

Women, damn it!
Bigger isn't better; better is better.
Smaller can be better.
Innovate, damn it!

'Nuff said.

--j.

---

 [1] Parenthetically carving up the individual films in this way tends to smooth over the differences in their quality in a way I dislike. To note the obvious (in the service of my own neurosis on this point), each of those categories represent a broad group of films of often wildly varied quality. I feel I should offer examples, if just to lay my cards on the table).

 [2] Certain films (like certain actors) achieve, in the critical press, a sort of official designation as a turkey, and bashing them becomes a fad. CATWOMAN fell victim to this.

 [3] Wonder Woman was originally a project of William Moulton Marston, a psychologist and one of the co-inventors of the lie-detector test, who believed that women would one day rule the world and created the character as "psychological propaganda" for this eventuality. He intended her to be a living embodiment of all that is great in Woman. His early stories are a fascinating stew of fairy tale narratives, odd symbolism and bondage and domination themes.

 [4] About that choice, I'll say only this: This is the comic book version of Wonder Woman, laying a no-doubt well-deserved smackdown on a certain boy in blue...


...and this is Gal Gadot, chosen to be the new screen Wonder Woman:


 [5] Starting with the fact that it's a sequel to MAN OF STEEL, an abomination ground out by people who seemed to have no interest at all in making an actual Superman film and who didn't. MOS is a cretinously stupid, noisy, explosion-filled sci-fi action picture--the epitome of upbudget "blockbuster" trash--about a war on another now-extinct planet carried over to Earth. A tale in which the alleged central character is virtually a guest-star in his own movie. Henry Cavill, who has a great look for Superman, probably doesn't have half a dozen lines in the whole of it, and the utterly inappropriate efforts to darken his backstory at the expense of that backstory leave nothing of the original character. Certainly nothing worth continuing in follow-up films.

 [6] After THE AVENGERS made over $1.5 billion worldwide, the suits at Warner Bros. decided to try to ape that success but without putting in the work on the individual characters as Marvel had. They wanted to use the MAN OF STEEL sequel to immediately set up a future "Justice League" movie, again guest-starring Gadot as Wonder Woman.

 [7] I've long found her second solo book, "The Sensational She-Hulk," to be a particular delight. John Byrne, who had written her in the Fantastic Four for a few years, made her aware of her own existence as a comic book character. She breaks the fourth wall and talks to her creator and her readers, and the series became, among a great many other things, an endlessly fun rumination on the nature of the medium-- in my view, some of the most wonderful comics ever published.

 [8] The latter stems from legitimate concerns with which I'm sympathetic within reason. It's unfortunate that I feel compelled to add that "within reason" caveat there, but those concerns are often based on a very unrealistic and unfounded evaluation of the overall culture, and in their more extreme forms--the forms that, for example, condemn any hint of sexuality in superheroines--are anti-human, and not worthy of serious consideration. As for the Puritans, fuck them. I couldn't give a shit about anything they had to say if I ate an entire package of Ex-Lax

 [9] This actually happened to Supergirl. By the end of the '60s, DC started trying to revamp and "Marvel"-ize many of their major characters, and Mike Sekowsky, who had just lent a hand to the revamp of Wonder Woman, was given Supergirl, then the featured attraction in Adventure Comics. Under his guidance and that of later writers and artists, Supergirl became a mature, well-written character and went through her most creatively rich period. It lasted 26 issues (minus some reprints), and became popular enough that she was given her own title for the first time. Then the new title debuted and nearly everything that had made the previous title work had been dropped. Supergirl was suddenly written as a witless Barbie-fied airhead involved in an increasingly ridiculous series of adventures. The reaction was swift and furious--after only 9 issues, the book was cancelled.

[10] Nearly all of the other X-Men have been given similarly short shrift.

[11] It looked as if Fox was going to do this with the X-Men Origins series. Then, instead, their efforts in this vein all became upbudget tentpoles again. The life of Magneto project grew into the much bigger X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, which wasn't bad, but I would have preferred the project that was originally discussed. The Wolverine Origin movie, starring a character who had already been a featured attraction in every X-Men film, grew into a huge-budget--and borderline unwatchable--piece of shit that embraced all the worst abuses of the character's backstory from recent years.[*] Then Fox took up the single-best Wolverine story of all time, the Chris Claremont/Frank Miller miniseries from 1982. The original mini is a dark story of love, honor, and betrayal heavily influenced by Japanese cinema. Its imagery is simple and straightforward like a samurai movie, a perfect film already storyboarded on the page. The rights to turn it into a film was a license to print money. After early public braying that the film would be a faithful adaptation, the Fox suits chucked the original story in the trash and made another big, noisy and, often completely incomprehensible shitfest with virtually no connection to the source material. Throwing that story away is a crime. This was not the direction those projects needed to go.

[*] Wolverine, in his first decades in the comics, was initially just a fellow who aged like anyone else. His healing abilities took time to work, and as he got older, it began to work more slowly. His claws were bionic implants, mechanical devices grafted on to him during the same experimentation that laced his bones with adamantium. Later revisions turned up his healing power to 11--almost instant regeneration from even the most horrendous damage; the origin of his claws were rewritten--they became natural bone claws that were covered with adamantium like the rest of his skeleton; his backstory was changed to make him essentially immortal--a fellow who had lived for centuries and whose healing powers kept him forever young. So not all the bad decisions about these characters are made by Hollywood. Yes, this is a footnote to a footnote--sue me.

[12] To bitch about THE WOLVERINE some more, the original story was, as I said in my earlier notes, very much like a samurai film. One of the many infuriating things the fimmakers did was rigorously jettisoned any hint of Eastern influence, both in the film's look and in its themes. They threw away what made it special and turned it into just another conservative superhero movie.