Monday, November 13, 2017

Some Guy, Some Cliché, Some WALKING DEAD

Recent installments of THE WALKING DEAD have, in the ham-handed way typical of the series, set up Ezekiel for a major fall. The King's bold and blatant displays of hubris seemed to signal his end was near and when "Some Guy," tonight's offering, opened with yet another, it looked as if his number was probably up. It wasn't though. In the end, he was able to hobble home but only as a greatly reduced "king" presiding over a greatly reduced Kingdom.

The Savior compound he and his men hit turned out to be the temporary residence of the big Browning machine-gun for which Rick has been searching. The Saviors put the weapon to work on the Kingdom's fighters, who were, at the time, in an open field, and wiped out the entire force. Ezekiel survived because several of his people had moved to shield him with their bodies; he had to crawl out from under what was left of them. This set up what could have been an extraordinarily ghoulish horror movie moment, as Ezekiel, with an injured leg that prevents him from immediately walking, is not only faced with the awful deaths of all of his beloved subjects but then has to try to crawl away from and over them as they begin to reanimate and pursue him for his flesh. Unfortunately, this is TWD, so that moment is entirely squandered by unimaginative direction and flat staging and editing, capped by the first of what will become many "surprise" last-minute saves in the ep.

In this first one, Ezekiel is about to become Zombie Chow when a random Kingdomite who somehow didn't die in the massacre suddenly arrives out of nowhere and announces his presence by shooting the menacing zombie bearing down on the King. This is, of course, one of the most overused clichés in action pictures, and it's the central preoccupation of this ep; in a little over 41 minutes of running time, it happens no less than five times. Ezekiel is saved from this zombie, his man Jerry rescues him from a Savior who had captured him, he and Jerry are saved from a zombie horde by Carol, Rick is saved from being machine-gunned by Daryl (a moment which, unlike any other action in the ep, is well-shot and edited) and finally, Ezekiel is again saved from a horde of zombies by his animated tiger Shiva.

That last horde is TWD's latest swipe from Z NATION, a group of zombies grotesquely mutated by a swamp full of toxic waste in which they've been milling around! ZN revels in offering up all kinds of unusual zombies like this. These particular critters are utterly random. There's no reason at all for them to be there, except that they're cool. But sometimes, that should be reason enough. Definitely a nice touch. Fill in my usual comments about the best part of this show--and these toxic-waste zombies were unquestionably the highlight of the evening--being something it lifted from ZN.

There are plenty of stupid bits, as always. Ezekiel, attempting to flee from zombies, grabs up a rifle and instead of shooting the creatures with it, uses it like a crutch, repeatedly driving its barrel down into the mud beneath him. Then, he tries to shoot it. Fortunately for him, it seems to have randomly jammed while its previous owner still had it, so he's spared having its barrel explode in his face. Later, as zombies are closing in on he and Jerry, who have no guns and are up against a chained-up gate, he notices one of the zombies has a pistol its hip. Instead of grabbing it and shooting off the lock, he continues to fight the zombies with his sword and both nearly die before being saved by Carol. Rick's plot-armor--and, one suspects, the creators' lack of familiarity with the weapon they're featuring--saves him from being turned into instant Swiss cheese when the Saviors turn their machine-gun on him and the Jeep he's driving. Rick drives up right beside the Saviors' humvee and jumps into the cab while the driver watches, when all the driver had to do was swerve out of the way, hit the gas, hit the brakes--do literally anything--and Rick would have been road-pizza.[1] A pissed-off 500 lb. tiger is overcome and killed by a handful of zombies who not only had the physical weakness of the long-dead but were practically falling apart from exposure to that toxic waste. Carol announces she's almost out of ammo even as she continues firing full-auto bursts at the large number of zombies she's attempting to evade rather than dropping down to semi.[2] And so on.

Despite how it markets itself, TWD has never really been a particularly action-packed series. Its stock-in-trade is tedious, wretchedly-paced one-line-item plot episodes wherein almost nothing happens. In recent weeks, the action quotient has been significantly amped up but we're now getting relatively action-packed eps that, paradoxically, manage to be pretty damn dull anyway. Go figure. One can't help but wonder how much of the season's budget is being burned up by all of this; it may well portend a very slow second half-season.

--j.

---

[1] Daryl's motorcycle has some interesting speed capabilities and limitations. Daryl was fired upon by the Savior in the hummer and crashed but he somehow recovers, gets back on his bike and catches up with the other vehicles in the chase, which should have been long gone by then. He gets there just in time to suddenly appear, shoot the gunner and save Rick (in a well-done little moment) but when Rick then jumps into the humvee and crashes it, Daryl, who should be right behind him, isn't even in sight and only drives up (from a substantial distance) after. It's possible Dwight's possession of the bike imbued it with some of the magic the Saviors have employed at various points, allowing Daryl to teleport in for the save then teleport back to his original position--far behind the chase and trying to catch up.

[2] At one point, Carol shoots it out with some Saviors, both she and they concealed behind some cars. As has been the case throughout this season, no one can hit one another, despite being at near-point-blank range using fully-automatic weapons, and the Saviors, who significantly outnumber Carol (at first) don't just go around the vehicle behind which she's crouched and shoot her, which would be easy to do. Instead--as has also been the case throughout this season--both she and they just pointlessly spray the bodies of the vehicles. Worthy of note--at least here in a footnote--is that one of the windows on the vehicle Carol is using for cover does break at one point (though it took some time). In previous eps, characters hid behind vehicles and threw an ungodly amount of lead--or was it cotton?--at one another without ever taking out windshields or windows.


Email: jriddlecult@gmail.com
Twitter: @jriddlecult

Sunday, November 5, 2017

What's That Coming Over the Hill? Is it Monsters? No, It's Just THE WALKING DEAD

Last week's WALKING DEAD ended with Rick, then prowling around for guns inside a Savior compound, being confronted by a gun-wielding Morales, a character who hadn't been seen since he and his family decided to split from the regular cast way back in season 1. He'd become a Savior, said other Saviors were on their way and his reappearance was such a portentous event, it became the note on which the curtain fell. "Wow!", the viewer is led to think, "where will this go?" The move seemed to herald some significant plot-twist, so when, a few minutes into tonight's ep, Daryl shows up and just shoots Morales in the head without a word, it was a moment of dramatic awkwardness that was absolutely hilarious. Moreso for me because sitting watching it, I'd just made a joke about how Daryl was up there somewhere--he'd been on the same floor as Rick--and suggested he should slip up on the fellow and kill him. Because that would be funny, not because I thought it would actually happen. After, Rick looks stunned. "Th- that was..." he stuttered and then Daryl cuts him off: "I know who it was," he says in that mumbling, dismissive way Norman Reedus has made part of Daryl's signature. "Don't matter." Which just made the already-damn-funny situation really damn funny.

Though the definite entertainment value in this was strictly unintentional, it proved to be the high-point of the ep.

It seems TWD's writers went through all the trouble of bringing back Morales just to have him introduce the Big Theme of the episode. Subtlety simply doesn't live in the TWD writer's room, so before Morales' hysterically funny demise, he called Rick a "monster," said the only difference between Rick and himself was that he had a gun and that this didn't make Rick any better, it just made him lucky. OUR HEROES ARE JUST LIKE THE VILLAINS, get it? It's material TWD has recycled so often the actors probably don't even need a script anymore to recite the requisite sentiments.[1]

And recite it they do. TWD has always set up and milked moral dilemmas for melodrama but genuine moral complexity has proven to be as beyond the capabilities of its writers as warp-drive technology. Throughout TWD's run, our heroes are, on rare occasions, shown doing ignoble things, almost always for the sake of some plot of the moment, but in the moral landscape in which they exist they're clearly on the side of the angels.[2] Last week when Rick killed a fellow who, it was then revealed, was protecting a baby, he was clearly sickened, even horrified. By contrast, the featured Saviors are just presented as the embodiment of every bad and vicious characteristic of the human species, brutish ravagers who slaughter their way across the landscape killing, terrorizing and stealing whatever they want, enslaving communities and taking great glee in their crimes against humanity. Their leader is a camp cartoon who bashes in the brains of a helpless prisoner in front of the fellow's pregnant wife then mocks the victim as he dies, who threatens to have his men gang-rape a teenage boy for shits and giggles. Rick and co. would have to suck really badly to suck as badly as the Saviors and they just don't. Not in that way.[3] That leaves nothing but false equivalences to be wrung from this "look how alike they are" theme but the writers throw it in the viewer's face repeatedly. The title of tonight's ep, "Monsters," flat-out screams it. Morales straight-up says it. Morgan repeats it like a mantra. "Y'see, we're the same! We're the same! We're the same." Mr. Sulu, warp factor 6.

As I've so often noted, words and actions on TWD are often disconnected and TWD's writers give no indication they've ever been exposed to the 1st Rule of Screenwriting, "Show, Don't Tell." Here, they can't inject their preferred theme into the ep by writing that draws genuine parallels between the actions of the heroes and Saviors--the Saviors are simply too deplorable--so they weave it into the ep as I've described, by having people talk about it. It's hard to find in the actual actions of the characters. Rick saw to it that the baby he'd found would be cared for. When Gregory, who betrayed the Hilltop community to the Saviors, shows up back at its gates and makes an impassioned plea to be able to return, Maggie--incredibly--allows it. Last week, Jesus created the show's current moral dilemma by, well, acting like a Jesus. Out of the blue and while his mission was already underway, he suddenly decided the whole thing bothered his conscience and instead of simply wiping out the Saviors against which his group was engaged (as was apparently the plan), he insisted on negotiating a surrender. Hilltop has no capacity for dealing with a large number of hostile prisoners and these are people who, as Tara noted last week, will kill you the second your back is turned. Jesus is acting incredibly stupid here but the writers are siding with him, having him mouth noble platitudes about "peace" and how we will have to live with these people after the war is over. Because overt survivalist sentiment is never given a fair hearing on TWD, no one points out to him that the war has only just started, that his own side in that war is totally outnumbered and outgunned, that the idea of a people peacefully coexisting with another that has only ever terrorized, abused and murdered them is extremely dubious or that the only reason they'd ever have to live with any of this particular group of murderous sadists is that he unwisely opted to spare them. Instead, his foils are Tara, who, after one of TWD's patented personality transplants, has been set up as an increasingly vicious, almost proto-Savior character, and Morgan, who is presented as completely insane. They just want to kill 'em, even after the Saviors are disarmed--a much uglier act than would have been defeating them in a battle. Jesus stands firm, even fights Morgan over it. In context, viewers have seen plenty of who the Saviors are and what they do and if anyone needs a refresher, the vicious Jared continued, in this ep, to taunt Morgan over Morgan's young pupil, whom Jared murdered, but it's still like a final insult when, near the end, the writers choose as the one who draws attention to their savage nature the despicable, back-stabbing Gregory; he calls them "monsters,"[4] bookending when Morales used that same word for Rick. While nearly the entire ep presents our heroes as basically good people who are, among other things, merciful to the point of being TWD-level stupid, they're really just all the same, see?

To try to justify the presence of this theme in a story in which it's really entirely out of place, the writers throw in a moment in which Rick coaxes a lone Savior into surrendering in exchange for some information, making a big show of giving his word that the fellow won't be harmed if he cooperates then, after Rick gets the info, Daryl shoots the guy. Sort of a half-assed effort at theme-service; if the writers were serious, they would have had Rick pull the trigger.

Like last week, there's a lot of shooting and wasting of what should be precious ammo. When the Hilltoppers transporting those captured Saviors are set upon by a horde of zombies, they open up, full-auto, even though there's no reason for it (and to prove that the heroes and Saviors are all just the same, some of the good guys even get killed trying to protect those prisoners). Last week's silly, shallow-field shootout between Rick's group and the Saviors finally wraps up--who knew military-grade weapons couldn't shatter the windows on cars? As happened last week, the Saviors killed in that exchange zombify and though they've only just died moments earlier, the zombie make-up and appliances are caked on to them, making them look as if they've already been dead for weeks or months.

At this point, that sounds a bit like a metaphor for THE WALKING DEAD.


--j.

---

[1] Morales was given several minutes to make his own speech introducing all of this, which just added to the impression that the writers were going to do something important with him and made it more funny when he's immediately killed.

[2] Even when they stole guns from the Oceanside community, which was very wrong, no one was hurt and the action was done in the cause of fighting a common enemy. There's no doubt that when the fight is over, the only way Oceanside won't be welcomed as a friend is if it chooses not to be one.

[3] That's also why it's completely ridiculous to drag this theme into the show over and over again until it's worn down to parody. "Don't matter" indeed!

[4] When Gregory is raving about the evil of the Saviors and insisting Hilltop not let in Jesus' prisoners, there's a moment I found very funny when Maggie, looking to shut him up, angrily shouts at him--"GREGORY!"--like she's trying to make a young child behave. It's all in Lauren Cohan's delivery.


Email: jriddlecult@gmail.com
Twitter: @jriddlecult

Monday, October 30, 2017

The Damned WALKING DEAD... With Pictures!

There was a lot of shooting tonight on "The Damned," this week's installment of THE WALKING DEAD, but for all that sound, fury and fully-automatic gunfire, not a lot of clarity and, this being TWD, not a lot of logic either.

Our heroes' "all-out war" against the Saviors continues, with a number divided into teams who are tasked with hitting various Savior compounds in different locations. Unlike last week, the ep is very fast-paced but the action is, for the most part, very badly shot and edited. While there seems to be some overarching plan at work and definite mission objectives, the writers never let the audience in on either, so instead of a script that establishes a set of goals and builds suspense around how and if our heroes can achieve them, as would be appropriate to make an ep of this sort work, it's all just mayhem. Heroes and Saviors crash into one another--sounds a bit like SURVIVOR, doesn't it?--then needlessly burn through incredible amounts of ammo.

A team from the Kingdom including Ezekiel and Carol are on foot and heading to the site they're supposed to attack, while another featuring Morgan, Tara and Jesus are supposed to hit a different compound, the one Rick and co. hit after first encountering the Saviors back in season 6. In both cases, the characters stress the need to be stealthy, which would make sense if these attacks were timed to occur simultaneously with the operation against Negan's headquarters in the last ep but makes absolutely none in the aftermath of that event. It's been established since shortly after the Saviors first appeared that they use radios and satellite phones to communicate. They've even, on occasion, employed magic to accomplish impossible tasks, including teleporting from one location to another. After the attack on Negan's hq, there's no more reason to assume the Saviors won't know they're coming than there is logic in the Saviors not knowing they're coming. When Morgan and co. are scanning their target, Jesus says, "If they see us, if they fire a gun, we're not getting in."[1] Ezekiel and his team, meanwhile, are on foot and heading for their objective when they encounter a lone Savior who ducks behind a car and instead of someone just flanking him and shooting him, twenty people plant their feet and open up on the car with fully-automatic weapons, a clamor that would be heard for many miles around. Then they just as loudly wipe out a horde of zombies. The Savior still escapes, and Carol delivers the punchline: "If he tells them we're here, it's over before it started." And if the audience didn't get the point (or have enough of a laugh), she repeats this sentiment a little later.

Rick's team is attacking another facility. One group shoots it out with the Saviors in the yard while Rick, Daryl and several other men slip in through a different entrance. As we eventually learn, they're in search of a cache of guns that are supposed to be on the 4th floor. From the fact that they're mounting an operation of this scale to acquire it, we can assume it's supposed to be a big cache of guns but Rick and Daryl leave the rest of their group behind in order to climb to the 4th through an elevator shaft. Presumably, the two are going to find some room packed with weapons then somehow carry them down all by themselves.

The shootout that rages in front of this same building offers some of the worst staged and edited action in TWD's run. Perhaps for budgetary reasons, the two sides are shooting at one another from very close quarters, the sort of combat that, using military-grade weapons, would be over very quickly but here is prolonged merely because the script says so. I've put together some screen grabs to illustrate. The fellow in the foreground with the rifle just can't seem to hit that bald guy:


The guy at the lower right can't take out this fleet-footed duo:


 Just duck your head a bit; they'll never be able to nail you, even as you run right toward them:


How hard is it to machine-gun this guy from this angle?


At one point, Aaron sees some Saviors trying to flank Eric and some other fighters. These infiltrators are practically in reach of him. This is his point of view on them:


...as they come streaming in...


Instead of just gunning them down, he jumps in a car and backs over them. The car seems to go from 0 to 70 in the space of about two feet. This is how close it is to them as he cranks it and they pass behind it:


...yet when he throws it in reverse, the impact on the no-goodniks is so great, they're sent flying over its hood to their deaths.

The entire shoot-out is filled with this sort of thing. Eventually, the dead Saviors begin reanimating and eating their former comrades; these zombies, which are people who were just killed moments earlier, are made up so that they're grey, have sunken features, inhuman eyes and look like they'd been dead for weeks:




There are some other amusing errors in the ep as well. At one point, a group of Saviors gun down a pair of redshirts who were with Morgan. One of the redshirts had been very nervous about gong on the mission and after he dies, his corpse stares at Morgan in a way that was meant to be creepy and probably would have been if the actor hadn't been visibly breathing every time the camera fell on him. More bizarre is an image Morgan sees when he emerges from the Savior compound after going on a bit of a killing spree. Jesus, Tara and their team had just captured and disarmed a group of Saviors, who dropped their guns, walked out of the building and surrendered. When Morgan steps out in the aftermath, there among the Saviors is Jared, the bastard who, last season, stole Morgan's stick and murdered Morgan's young trainee Benjamin. And he's holding a rifle! That's him over Morgan's left shoulder:


Morgan has a lightning-fast flashback then walks up to Jared and the rifle is suddenly gone:


Jared is nothing but a murderous bully but Jesus won't let Morgan kill him, which is part of another ridiculous retread element in this ep, a badly-handled effort to craft a moral quandary. In the midst of what appeared to be simply a search-and-destroy mission, Jesus suddenly developed an humanitarian streak and insisted his people not just wipe out the enemy. This basically comes out of nowhere. Earlier, a Savior had hidden in a closet and pretended to be a terrified innocent only to turn on Jesus and Tara when Jesus sought to offer him mercy. Like most of the Saviors, this one was drawn as cartoonishly evil, making a grand flourish of crushing beneath his heel the prenatal vitamins the Saviors had stolen from Hilltop and that Tara had just said Maggie needed. He didn't offer a hearty "MUAHAHAHAH!!!" when he did it but if viewers heard that in their heads anyway, they were alert to the spirit of the moment. Jesus managed to put down this vitamin-crushing lout then still insisted on taking him prisoner instead of killing him. Our heroes, who are already short the manpower they need to fight the Saviors, certainly have no capacity to deal with prisoners, nor apparently were they part of any plan. The Saviors have proven themselves to be nothing but sadistic murderers who will kill you if you turn your back on them for even a second--something that had, in fact, just happened again. I'm sure Jesus' course of action will work out for the best all around, just as these things always do on TWD.

Rick, meanwhile, never finds that cache of guns but he does fight and kill a fellow whom he assumes is protecting it. The man's shirt is helpfully torn open and we see he has a tattoo of the name "Gracie." When Rick explores further, he finds a room with a sleeping baby, its name "Gracie" helpfully spelled out on a mobile over the crib. "TWD: We Do SUBTLETY!!!" Rick is clearly upset by what he's done and looks in the mirror handily present for just that moment, one of Rick's "what have I become?" moments.

Somewhere else in the world, Ezekiel learns from a radio that the Saviors have learned he and his team are coming (gee, ya' think?) and he decides to carry out the mission anyway. He's just spent the entire ep smiling, crowing about the great victory to come and expounding on the fact that he's smiling and crowing about the great victory to come. He is, in short, being set up for an epic fail, something that will no doubt play out next week.

This should have been a suspenseful ep but lacked any suspense. It was an action-packed ep but the action was handled just as badly as the drama in every ep. Like last week, the lack of any explanation for what the different teams are supposed to be doing, besides just killing Saviors, leaves viewers without much of a narrative line to follow[2] and when even that goal is abandoned, one can't help but wonder, what's the point?[3] This is TWD's 4th stuck-around-way-too-long season and in these first two weeks, it's shown no sign of life.

--j.

---

[1] After the Safe Zone's first attack on this facility, the Saviors had installed a zombie "moat" around it, a double fence with the space between filled with zombies, just as Murphy built around his own headquarters in last season's Z NATION. And though our heroes are standing and talking only a few feet from the zombies in that moat, none of the creatures react to their presence until the script says it's time for them to do so.

[2] In the comic, our heroes led the zombie horde to Negan's compound in order to pin down Negan's best fighters there and take them out of action. On tv, they mounted a major attack on Negan's compound just so we could get a few more minutes of Jeffrey Dean Morgan mugging and camping it up.

[3] The Kingdom team stays together (though it has a secondary group off camera that hooks up with it toward the end), the Morgan/Jesus/Tara team splits into two different groups and Rick's team is split into two different groups, then Rick and Daryl both go off on their own. With so many simultaneous threads and without a narrative line to contextualize them, the matter of who is where becomes at times a bit of a jumble.


Email: jriddlecult@gmail.com
Twitter: @jriddlecult

Monday, October 23, 2017

At 100, THE WALKING DEAD Needs Mercy

Tonight's season 8 kick-off of THE WALKING DEAD also marked the series' 100th episode and the heavy promotion given that fact by AMC in the lead-up to it suggested the creators were planning something special. It was certainly the time for it. Last season, our heroes and the Saviors declared all-out war on one another. Unfortunately, TWD has been running on fumes for several seasons now and the only "something special" its creators could manage was to turn an all-out war into a moronic exercise in tedium.

As last season had ended, the combined forces of our heroes had decimated the Savior contingent Negan had brought to subjugate the Safe Zone. Negan used his plot immunity to escape. Though he made his exit in a lumbering military vehicle and was hours from his home base, Rick thought it was more important to have a weepy moment with Michonne than to send fighters in vehicles to run down and capture/kill the villain. It isn't clear how much time has passed between this and tonight's installment but it is clear the writers are showing their traditional disregard for this critical element. Maggie is pregnant. She first revealed she knew this at the time of Glenn's fake dumpster-dive "death," way back in the middle of season 6. Upon the introduction of the Hilltop community, the Hilltop doctor gave Maggie a transabdominal ultrasound, something that would only work if she was 8 weeks along or more. At the end of that season, she suffered a serious complication and the effort to get her to the doctor at Hilltop led to our heroes' first encounter with Negan. That complication was later diagnosed as a placental abruption, a condition that can only occur after 20 weeks of pregnancy (and typically happens much later). At this same time, Carol, who had left the Safe Zone, was shot to pieces. She convalesced at the Kingdom and it would be a minimum of 5 or 6 weeks before she would recover from such injuries. She did and then spent x amount of time living alone outside the community, basically written out of the story. Then in the last few minutes of season 7, Rick was shot. But tonight, he's fully recovered--another 5 or 6 weeks. Maggie's pregnancy should have been quite visible since at least 12 weeks in and by tonight's ep, she should be ready to pop but instead, she still isn't even showing. And she even made a joke about her pregnancy--"They say you can wage war through the second trimester."

A 5-or-6-week gap between the seasons is problematic in other ways. In his previous appearance, Negan was shown to have assembled his forces and told them they were going to war. Now, we're to believe it's been that long and not only has he entirely failed to go to war, he was so unprepared that he was caught with his pant's down by even one of Rick's idiotic schemes.

Rick's big plans are... well, you've seen the show--you know. This one was a mess of both the writing and the staging. Daryl is able to get a list of all of the guard outposts around Negan's compound. He gets it from Dwight. They tie messages on arrows and shoot them back and forth to one another over what's made to look like only a few feet of distance, like some POLICE SQUAD joke. Rick and co. take out the guards, rig some explosives to prevent any reinforcements from getting in then just drive some cars with metal plates on them right into the Saviors' compound and up to Negan's headquarters, circling them to form a defensive perimeter right in front of a building that is probably 20 stories high. That's Rick, the screen general who tries to deliver a rousing speech,[1] draws his saber then boldly leads his forces to take the low ground. The Saviors could sit in any one of their seeming infinity of widows and pick them off  like fish in a barrel. It's already been established that the Saviors have all kinds of explosives. A few grenades (or pretty much any explosive) chucked down into that little nest--something that could have been done by the Saviors inside with no danger to themselves--and it would have been all over for our heroes, not just the end of the operation but of the leaders of all three communities, all of whom were present on the ground. That's how bad Rick's plan was.

A gunshot in the air signals our heroes' presence and--wouldn't you know it?--the first guy to stick his head out the door is none other than Negan himself. The series has established that the Saviors, who are mostly dimwits and bullies, are basically a personality-cult built around their leader. More specifically, fear of their leader, who steals their wives and maims and murders them for transgressions. When Negan steps out, there are dozens of people with guns on him and ending the problem of the Saviors is probably as simple a matter as putting a bullet in him. There's no way around this. Even if, like Rick, one foolishly wants to try to make some kind of peace with his lieutenants, killing him is the first step. No scenario for where to proceed doesn't begin with that. And if, afterwards, those lieutenants won't play ball, they're all dumb enough to have followed him out of the building and into plain gun-sight and can also be liquidated on the spot. They're all there in a line, the entire Savior command structure. There's no rationale for doing anything except killing Negan on sight but impossibly, no one does it. Instead, we get several minutes of  his usual smiles and wisecracks and campy, way-over-the-top villainy, as he postures away about how his dick is bigger, how Rick doesn't know what's about to happen and even threatens Rick and co. with death without eliciting a bullet. The television incarnation of Negan is a one-trick pony and this is the trick. We've already seen it over and over again--by now, it makes for very dull television and when Negan isn't being killed any second of any one of the minutes he's prancing around like this, very bad television too.

Rick eventually opens fire on Negan but though he's aiming right at the man at near-point-blank range with a fully automatic weapon, the villain's plot-armor proves too much. That armor apparently projects a powerful forcefield as well, as none of Negan's underlings are killed either. In fact, even though a big shootout erupts, no one on either side is killed in it. It's as if the cache from which they all drew their weapons was left over from THE A-TEAM. Our heroes waste a lot of what should be very precious ammo, mostly spraying the buildings' windows, then hop in their cars and skedaddle, while Daryl leads a herd of zombies onto the grounds,[2] something that could have been done without putting any fighters inside the compound and at risk.

Before the shooting started, Negan had Gregory, the cowardly former leader of Hilltop, try to get the Hilltopians to stand down, which goes about as well as could be expected. A little later, when everyone is escaping, Father Gabriel, one of the least useful castmembers, sees Gregory in distress and tries to rescue him. For his trouble, Gregory steals his car and leaves him behind in the midst of an advancing zombie horde. Gabriel ducks into a trailer in the yard--the same trailer, it turns out, in which Negan had, only moments earlier, taken refuge. Negan emerges from the darkness, alone nad unarmed but with a grin and some threatening words and Gabriel, who is carrying a fully-automatic rifle, becomes the last person in the ep who can kill Negan but for no reason at all doesn't.

As is TWD's custom, the ep featured an extraordinary amount of filler. The pacing is terrible, there's no tightness in the editing, practically every scene long overstays its welcome. Items like apparent fantasy sequences showing Rick as an older man and a series of scenes in which Coral encounters some crazy fellow at a gas-station[3] are present just to eat up running time. Fill in my usual SMH sentiment about the fact that this is yet another ep that couldn't even fill its allotted hour yet was still allowed to exceed its scheduled running-time by five minutes.

The "war" looks as if it's going to continue--more Savior outposts to hit, probably at just as glacial a pace and with as few consequences. In its last few seasons, TWD's only bright moments came when it was ripping off the spirit of Z NATION, the vastly superior zombie apocalypse on SyFy. Tonight's ep (which featured barely a hint of ZN)[4] was called "Mercy." On ZN, to "mercy" someone is to put them down after they've died and zombified. TWD has needed that kind of mercy for several seasons now.

--j.

---

[1] The ep in fact opens with Rick delivering one of his awful speeches, the usual TWD-patented trite sentiment that's meant to sound noble and stirring. The writers have recycled this so many times that Lincoln could probably deliver it without a script.

[2] Daryl was leading the zombies with on his motorcycle but driving along at a slow pace, as he did when leading the zombie herd in season 6, was apparently judged to be insignificantly dramatic--it's being intercut with the events inside the Saviors' compound--so he's shown gunning the engine and riding it far faster than slow-shuffling zombies could possibly follow. Yet they're able to follow him anyway.

[3] Rick drives the fellow away with gunshots. Coral looks unkindly on this. Rick thinks the man could be a Savior lookout but, being the brilliant leader he is, lets him run away anyway, right on the verge of the assault on the Savior compound.

[4] In the fantasy sequences/flash forwards/whatever-they-are--Rick seems to be experiencing them in the present--the world is a lot brighter, a lot more dreamlike and there's always Weird Al in the air. It's a small nod but it counts.


Email: jriddlecult@gmail.com
Twitter: @jriddlecult

Friday, September 15, 2017

Harry Dean Stanton (1926-2017)

Harry Dean Stanton has died. Harry was a great, often underappreciated though much beloved actor--a personal favorite--and quite a character, who came to specialize in memorable, offbeat roles. A Kentucky native and veteran of World War II, he was bitten by the acting bug while at university and just went with it. He worked right to the end (he finished two movies that haven’t even been released yet) and with 200 credits in a career that spanned more than 50 years, his notable parts seem almost endless. The amnesiac Travis in PARIS, TEXAS, the ill-fated Brett in ALIEN, Brain in ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, the hopped-up repo specialist in REPO MAN, he was a regular in David Lynch's troupe for years--a brief smattering like that can't even scratch the surface. One of my perhaps oddest but most persistent images of him is from THE FIRE DOWN BELOW. It was a truly godawful Steven Seagal picture and after slogging through this unintentionally hilarious movie, Harry utterly randomly comes out on his porch with a guitar at the end and sings "Kentucky Waltz." In context, it was utterly surreal. And it was glorious.

Harry was 91. Rest easy, old boy.

--j.


Email: jriddlecult@gmail.com
Twitter: @jriddlecult

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Horrible Isn't Horror: The New Universal Universe & Its Crummy Mummy [Updated Below]

Thursday, there was a pretty good article on Decider on the problems Universal is going to have in creating its "Dark Universe," which launched Friday with the premiere of THE MUMMY. Written by Brett White, "Monster Problem: Dark Universe is the Anti-Marvel" covers some of the things that have made Universal's model, the Marvel's cinematic universe, work but that won't be applicable to Universal's effort. Marvel prioritizes "character over celebrity"; it doesn't do vehicles for huge-name stars. Universal is grabbing up every uber-A-list actor in sight and using them as major selling-points.[1] "While some Marvel characters weren’t massively popular before their film debuts..., their personalities were well-defined from decades of consistent storytelling," whereas the Universal monsters were archetypes that have been used by basically everyone for decades. Marvel was patient and built its universe over time; Universal is rushing into things, going big, going expansive (and, I'd add, making a lot of the same mistakes as Warner Brothers has made with its DC comics universe).

I'd add another item to this. Universal is going upbudget tentpole with properties that don't work well in that box.[2] In doing so, it's running away from what makes those properties enduring and bankable in the first place: their status as horror icons.

By and large, studio suits hate horror movies, consider them lowbrow trash and don't want to be associated with them. Because horror can be done very inexpensively and has a huge and loyal audience, they'll hypocritically crank out some from time to time to keep the lights on (mostly tamed-down PG-13-rated rehashes of past successes) but they typically reflect the larger Hollywood culture in acting as if they're ashamed of such productions.[3] Universal horror is an established brand with 86 years of history but even as Universal is trying to exploit that brand, the studio won't even call the new franchise the Universal Horror Universe. When it comes to genres, horror remains the outlaw.

At the same time, the Hollywood notion of a tentpole is to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into a project, a similar amount into hyping it and give it a big release with the goal of a massive immediate return. The movies are huge in scale, they're kept as dumb, audience-pleasing and inoffensive as possible and they're as packed with noisy, rapid-fire action and big CGI-generated spectacle as the always-substantial budgets will allow. All of that is utterly anathema to quality horror; horror either doesn't need it, can't use is or is utterly undermined and destroyed by it.[4] While some tentpoles buck the race to the bottom that typically characterizes this class of film, they're invariably big, noisy action pictures. That's a necessity for foreign sales. That's all we're going to get here. MUMMY: IMPOSSIBLE, as so many commentators remarked upon seeing the awful trailer for the new Mummy flick. The classic Universal horrors were mythic. They worked by wringing creepy atmosphere, unease and a disturbed sense of wonder out of mysterious, grotesque and dangerous creatures that shouldn't exist in the world but that shuffle out of the shadows anyway, born of some dark legend, forgotten past or corner of the human psyche we don't like to acknowledge. If Universal had any interest in a horror universe using its classic monsters, it could certainly build one. Such an effort would, I imagine, be warmly welcomed. It wouldn't be made up of tentpoles though.

I've always hoped Universal would be able to come up with something worthwhile with this current project but I've always doubted it too. The contemporary studio has a very poor record when it comes to its classic monster properties. From 1999 to 2008, it released three Mummy movies starring Brendan Fraser[5] and while these did good box-office, they were terrible movies, painfully stupid, low-rent Indiana Jones knock-offs that had no real connection to the older films that had supposedly inspired them. In 2004, there was VAN HELSING, by the same director as the first two of those Mummy atrocities; it jammed a whole slew of classic Universal monsters into a CGI-overloaded action shit-fest. THE WOLFMAN from 2010 was an incredibly troubled production; as everyone working on it seemed to have an entirely different idea about what it should be, the final result was an unfocused, badly-made mess that ran insanely over-budget then flopped. DRACULA UNTOLD from 2014 was supposed to be the film that launched the new "universe" but it was awful, flopped domestically and has since been declared no part of it. The studio reaction to that setback was to throw even more money at the next project and go even bigger (which almost inevitably translates into "even dumber" and even less of a horror project). Now, it seems THE MUMMY is going to be just as awful a non-starter.

Source: Rotten Tomatoes

Too bad. Being lousy is certainly no bar against being a box-office success--tentpoles wouldn't even exist in their current form if that was the case--but the buzz on this one is terrible and its most likely fate in its theatrical run is probably a quick death. Universal's suits should probably be hoping Marvel doesn't decide to gather up its mostly unused or underused horror characters (Morbius, Blade, the Man Thing, Ghost Rider, and yes, the Living Mummy, Dracula, Werewolf By Night and the Frankenstein's Monster) and launch a Marvel Horror subuniverse to show them how it's done. Oddly enough, that would probably be the one thing that could convince Universal to finally make a serious effort to get it together with their own.

--j.

---

[1] Even if it didn't bespeak a wrongheaded effort to use star-power to sell the new franchise (which practically never works anyway), casting all that expensive talent is a major budgetary mistake; those actors and actresses will be huge line-items in the budgets of every movie in which they appear.

[2] I just wrote a somewhat long article about, among other things, the harm that has been done many comic-based properties by trying to force them into that tentpole box. Comic-based movies often need big-scale productions but it's the smaller-scale, more intimate stories that have made the characters survive and thrive for all these decades.

[3] We have decades of directors, writers, producers, executives who, while working on a horror movie, have insisted their project "isn't a horror movie." This was a running joke for decades in the recently-deceased Fangoria magazine.

[4] Did you know WORLD WAR Z was a zombie movie? Because the studio behind it didn't want you to know that and took every step to make it as unzombie as possible--it was shot as an action/disaster movie--then conceal what little was left of its nature in the advertising (something about which I wrote at the time).

[5] And four godawful SCORPION KING spin-offs from 2002-2015.


UPDATE (Sun., 12 June, 2017) - Reader "Stone Rockhouse" points to a November article in the Hollywood Reporter, a roundtable between various Hollywood executives, wherein Universal's Donna Langley says of the Dark Universe,

"...what we do have is an incredible legacy and history with the monster characters. We've tried over the years to make monster movies--unsuccessfully, actually. So, we took a good, hard look at it, and we settled upon an idea, which is to take it out of the horror genre, put it more in the action-adventure genre and make it present day..."


Email: jriddlecult@gmail.com
Twitter: @jriddlecult

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Comic Book Movies & What Ails 'Em 2: Aesthetic Hullabaloo

Three years ago, I jotted down some thoughts here on comic-to-screen adaptations and where I thought they were falling short. The number of such productions in the years since has continued to explode, blanketing movie and television screens and with so many future projects in the works at any given time, it's difficult to keep up with all of them. August will mark 19 years since this boom began, with the debut of the original BLADE, and it shows no sign of abating. I thought I'd revisit that earlier article to assess how, in the years since, these productions are faring on the issues I raised then.

In my first piece, I noted the distinct shortage of women in leading parts. While there had been a variety of female-led comic-style fantasy action pictures, actual comic adaptations were quite scarce, even as comic-based productions were becoming ubiquitous. Since then, there hasn't exactly been a bumper crop but the situation has certainly improved.

In 2015, Marvel launched AGENT CARTER for ABC, starring Hayley Atwell in the title role as a woman trying to make it in the boy's club of post-World War II espionage. It was a fun show and Atwell was an absolute jewel in the part--a joy every moment she was on the screen--but Marvel played it safe with the show. Far too safe. It fell into a formula, with the plucky Peggy on the case and always ahead of her often-cartoonishly-sexist male colleagues, who can't see her as anything more than a coffee-fetcher and secretary. The basic first-season plot was solid enough, involving incredibly dangerous stolen technology but the way it was executed, it never really felt like there was much at stake, a common failing of many comic-book productions.[1] The second season, which moved the show from New York to Los Angeles, was poorly promoted, its ratings dropped and it was cancelled. Since then, there's been recurring talk of reviving it in some form--it ended with some unresolved plot-threads intended to set up a third season--and Atwell has said she'd definitely like to return.

SUPERGIRL, which launched in 2015, has proved longer-lived. Bright-eyed Melissa Benoist is Superman's cousin Kara, sent to Earth from a dying Krypton to protect baby Kal El, her ship is blown off course and, by a jot of time-warping, ends up landing years later than intended, when Kal has already grown up and established himself as this world's greatest superhero. Initially debuting on CBS, SUPERGIRL was moved to the CW after her first season, her second ended last week and she's already been renewed for a 3rd. I reviewed the pilot of the series as entertaining but somewhat dramatically confused. Its creators quickly smoothed out most of the initial wrinkles and I enjoyed most of its first season but I've fallen behind more recently.

I hope it has been holding up, because at this particular time, SUPERGIRL is, for those of us who love this stuff, a rather important show, as it's the one current screen representation of the genuine Superman Family tradition and ethos at a time when the big-screen depiction of Superman--in MAN OF STEEL and BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE--has not only abandoned all of that but is openly antagonistic toward it. SUPERGIRL is bright, colorful, optimistic, its protagonist a good woman and a likable person, a friend who wants to help--a heroine. Unashamed of its origins, the series makes liberal use of the comic material and pays homage to previous screen Superprojects.[2] Lost in an ugly, bleak, entirely inappropriate tone, Zack Snyder's recent cinematic atrocities are colorless, joyless, stupid and hopeless, starring an aloof, brooding, indifferent, even murderous character whose major similarity to Superman is the name. History will remember it as one of the blackest marks on the character, if it remembers it at all. In the meantime, SUPERGIRL carries the torch.


In 2016, SyFy, which should be neck-deep in these sorts of productions (but isn't), launched WYNONNA EARP, based on the comic of the same name. Melanie Scrofano plays the descendant of legendary lawman Wyatt Earp, battling supernatural menaces in the modern West. It recently wrapped its first season, which was fairly well received, and has been renewed for a second.

Marvel's second Netflix series, JESSICA JONES, stars Krysten Ritter as a cynical, psychologically damaged and superpowered private investigator. Ritter is excellent, the show's themes are mature and quite dark and its first season--the only season we've gotten so far--features perhaps the single-best villain in Marvel screen adaptations to date. With the exception of IRON FIST, which wasn't quite up to snuff, Marvel's Netflix offerings have been spectacular, some of the best screen work Marvel is doing, and JJ is a strong contender for the best of the batch. The other series have introduced other significant Marvel women; Elektra turned up in the 2nd season of DAREDEVIL, Misty Knight in LUKE CAGE, Colleen Wing in IRON FIST and Sigourney Weaver will be playing the villain in the big DEFENDERS crossover mini, starring all of the Netflix characters.[3]

Marvel has announced a Captain Marvel film for 2019. I'll confess that I've never been a big fan of the character. I thought it was both a strange and a poor choice for the company's first female-led feature and suspect it was chosen for intellectual property reasons--that "Marvel" in the title--rather than any real merit as a potential film. But it's also the case that I haven't read any of the recent Captain Marvel books, which are supposed to be good and may also have been a factor in this decision. Marvel has much better female characters. The She-Hulk, the best of them, may be tied up in the complicated deal Marvel has with Universal regarding screen Hulk rights. It just seems insane to me that after all these years and with Scarlett Johansson under contract to play the part, we still don't have a Black Widow movie, not even one on the drawing-board. Johansson is one of the biggest stars in the world, last year's highest-grossing actor, and the ending of 2014's CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER provided a perfect set-up for a BW solo flick, which was just pissed away.[4]

Disney, which purchased Marvel back in 2009, may well be a fly in the ointment in this matter of getting women on screen. "Disney does not care about Marvel's female market," wrote a former Marvel employee in a 2015 article in the Mary Sue. "Disney bought Marvel and Lucasfilm because they wanted to access the male market." The author recounts seeing "a deck circulated by Disney’s Brand Marketing team... [U]nlike the actual demos, the desired demographics had no females in it whatsoever." Forbes reports some of the practical effects of this:

"The arrival of the first Avengers movie marketed 'Be a Hero' to boys and 'I Need a Hero' to girls, while completely exempting Black Widow from certain merchandise. Disney’s already pushing products for the upcoming Star Wars films, but are excluding Princess Leia from action figures, and popular characters from its Star Wars: Rebels line. Gamora, likewise, was deleted from Guardians of the Galaxy products. With Age of Ultron, Black Widow is not only removed from myriad team shots and merchandise, but from her very own scenes. Instead of marketing Black Widow on her motorcycle [as was the case in the movie itself], Hasbro offers Captain America and Iron Man."

Disney's indifference (which, in the aftermath of articles like that, it's allegedly taking steps to remedy) may be reflective of a wider trend, a corporate "conventional wisdom" that, contrary to the available demographic data, insists comic-based properties are for a male audience. A similar "conventional wisdom"--that lady superheroes don't sell at the box-office--poisoned Hollywood on such projects for years and, one suspects, still holds powerful sway. But, of course, it's nonsense and always has been, derived from the failure of substandard movies like ELEKTRA, CATWOMAN, even SUPERGIRL way back in 1984. Instead of concluding that those movies failed because they weren't very good, the women took the blame.[5]

From Ms. Marvel vol. 1, #1
While the appearance of more female-led screen adaptations suggest those attitudes are changing, progress is slow. As a creator, I can't help but see it as a string of potentially great shows being left to go to seed out of sheer shortsightedness.[6] The sparsity of these productions is problematic in another way. I have no children of my own so far but I have a pair of much younger cousins, girls, whom I sort of raised for some years. Under my influence, they were both very much into the comic-book shows. As much as they ate up these flicks and asked for more, they were sort of starved for shows featuring women heroes. They'd become very excited whenever I'd turn up with one--usually wanted to see it right away--and I fed that as much as I could. They were voracious. They flew through the first season of the '70s WONDER WOMAN--a particular favorite--in a matter of days and wanted to watch it again from the beginning as soon as the last ep finished. The very intensity of that interest proved a pitfall though. I showed them everything that was age-appropriate. They even got to see the female-led serials of the '40s. There just aren't that many shows in that vein starring women. Girls want this stuff. They need it, heroes to whom they can relate, empowerment fantasies that stand as examples of strong, capable women, icons that tell them, merely by being there, they can do anything in this life, become anything. These films can play a powerful role in shaping young people, their morality, their sense of justice and of community, their understanding of ethical ambiguity. Comics themselves did this for me--their influence on who I became is incalculable. The omnipresent comic culture of my own youth is gone with the wind; these screen representations are what we have now. Or, as is so often the case with the girls, what we don't have.[7]

Obviously, none of these are particularly original observations but as widely as they seem to be understood, the problem persists. Things are getting better. They're certainly better than when I wrote my first article. More work is needed.

As I'm writing, we're only days away from the release of WONDER WOMAN, the first big-screen solo adventure of DC's iconic Amazon--the most recognizable superheroine of all time. I spent years doing whatever little part I could to shame Warner Brothers for failing to bring this property to the screen, as the studio half-heartedly--and half-assedly--launched one proposed WW project after another, only to let each die before it could come to fruition. Given this and what I've just been writing, it may come as a bit of a surprise that my feelings toward the current WW film are distinctly ambivalent.

I've written here before about WONDER WOMAN's troubled production history. Nothing inspiring in that, although Patty Jenkins, the director on which the studio finally settled, is by far the best director to work on any of these DC universe projects to date. Jenkins didn't get to participate in casting the lead in her own movie; that decision was made a year-and-a-half before she was attached to it by Zack Snyder, the clown who, more than any other single person, has so royally ruined the current effort at a DC movie universe. And boy, was it a doozy.

Comic fans often kick around ideas about who would be most ideally cast as various characters. This is Wonder Woman:


Tall, athletic, rippling with powerful--a formidable presence.



Wonder Woman charges right into fights with giant monsters:


Wonder Woman holds up collapsing suspension bridges:


Wonder Woman can put down Superman himself:


Wonder Woman is awesome.


And this is Israeli model-turned-actress Gal Gadot, who, in December 2013, was cast by Zack Snyder as the new screen Wonder Woman:


Physically, this is casting Woody Allen as Superman, a self-evident absurdity--a non-starter that looks and will look completely ridiculous on screen no matter how much padding, CGI or quick edits are applied to try to sell it. Gadot had three FAST & FURIOUS movies under her belt at that time but one must be quite charitable indeed to describe anything she did in them as "acting."

This is far worse than just a really bad casting decision in some comic-book movie though. Wonder Woman was intentionally designed as a character to be idolized. When it comes to such idols for girls, she's the ultimate one. She's wise, beautiful, caring, a strong, independent woman, a warrior, not some ditzy dame or shrinking violet or damsel in distress who always has to be rescued by some guy. If someone needs rescuing, she does it herself. She's a crusader for justice and human rights. A hero out of myth. Today, we live in a world where young ladies do themselves a great deal of harm pursuing the impossible notions of "beauty" that are constantly blaring at them from media, images of airbrushed, emaciated, heroin-chic models that have little to do with the real world but are packaged as an ideal. At its most extreme, this manifests itself in a rash of eating disorders but its wider effects--much wider--are in the psychological harm it causes, which runs a gamut from quite significant to just making women overly critical of themselves, insecure in their own skins. It's been a problem for generations now. Everyone knows it. I think it's a crime that we, as a culture (and in particular, men), allow it to continue and do so little to address it. In casting yet another frail mannequin as Wonder Woman, Warner Brothers has coopted this great icon and role-model, the one representation that should stand as counter to all of that and belong to everyone, and turned it into just another impossible, oppressive image. This casting is a profound insult. It has poisoned the entire WW project; if the movie works and finds success--and despite some questionable internet rumors, I think there's a strong chance it could be quite good--it just becomes a bigger megaphone for that same oppressive image, which will then continue into further productions. I found that infuriating in December 2013. I find it just as infuriating now.[8]

After years of advocacy for a WW movie, part of me thinks it would be better if WONDER WOMAN bombed, even if that did feed that poisonous meme about lady superheroes not selling. It would, of course, be almost impossible for WONDER WOMAN not to turn a profit. Unless it's a major stinker--and I find it impossible to believe Jenkins would make a WW that bad and difficult to believe she wouldn't make a good one--it's likely to be the beneficiary of disproportionate critical approbation merely by virtue of not being as godawful as the three previous DC universe productions.[9] Those films--MAN OF STEEL, BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE and SUICIDE SQUAD--are part of why part of me thinks it would be better if WW just failed: it would help take this entire run of pictures down the drain with it. In any current discussion of comic book movies and what ails 'em, this franchise must occupy a prominent position. It's been an unmitigated disaster on every front. It has already ruined its Superman and Batman and it did so beyond repair. It wasn't just a matter of sticking them in lousy movies, in which case one need only make a better one. The characters themselves were blackened in fundamental ways from which there's simply no coming back. I've already touched on Zack Snyder's cinematic rape of Superman. I wrote a longer piece here a couple years ago. The signature image of MAN OF STEEL is that of "Superman" indifferently zipping through the sky while helping to kill perhaps hundreds of thousands of people. While comic Batman is one of the smartest characters in the DC universe, a trait taken to some pretty cartoonish extremes at times, Snyder's Batman is a murderous dunce, a xenophobic, Dick Cheney-quoting Punisher who spends most of BvS being entirely outwitted by a grinning, mugging, utterly unimpressive caricature of a villain plucked straight out of the old Adam West Batman series. To add further insult, that villain is slapped with the name "Lex Luthor," though he bears no resemblance to any version of that character.[10]

The "plot" of BvS--the word is sorely taxed by applying it here--is as idiotic as that of MoS. Its "Luthor" wants Superman dead and as he acquires a cache of Kryptonite, that would seem rather easy to accomplish, but instead of just using it, he embarks upon a convoluted effort to get the Batman to steal the material and do the deed for him. He eventually kidnaps Superman's adoptive mother and tells Superman to go kill the Batman or she's a cooked goose.[11] Superman tries to talk to Batman instead but the bat just attacks him and they spend a few minutes having an entirely pointless fight. The resolution, meant to be an engrossing moment of high drama, is dramatically inept and hilariously stupid--the words "Save Martha," which have been a running joke on the internet since the film was released, are likely to become a permanent synonym for dramatic misfire. Then for no other reason than that the movie is stuck in convention and its creators feel they simply must have a big CGI-filled action climax, "Luthor" creates and unleashes Doomsday, a nearly indestructible monster who, if it had succeeded in killing Superman as was "Luthor's" intent, would then destroy the world and everyone on it, including Luthor himself. While Marvel had set up its cinematic universe via a series of films featuring the individual characters, WB was unwilling to put in this legwork. The studio had, in fact, spent years trying to launch their series of DC films via a Justice League movie that would have jammed in all of the major characters--an expositional nightmare. This impatience helps further cripple BvS, which is a bloated mess (2 1/3 hours in its theatrical release, over 3 in its longer form). All of the League characters are shown, the movie bogs down in, among other things, multiple dream-sequences that are present for no other purpose than to set up future movies and Wonder Woman's appearance isn't connected to much of anything; after being established earlier in the film as Diana Prince, "antique dealer" involved in some cloak-and-dagger, she just randomly shows up at the end to help fight the monster.

SUICIDE SQUAD didn't really defecate on any icons[12] but it was insultingly stupid, badly made and lacked any courage in its own premise. In the comics, the Squad was a secret U.S. government project that recruited villains to carry out black ops. It was a perfect cover. If anything went wrong, they're criminals; no one would believe they were officially sanctioned. Politics figured heavily into the Squad's operations. Its missions were things like destroying a metahuman terrorist cell in the Middle East, facilitating the defection of a prominent dissident from the Soviet Union and liquidating the operation of a politically-well-connected drug-lord in South America. A great property for screen adaptation but WB wasn't interested in it. The film version dies in idiocy with its premise; the Squad is assembled as a counter to Superman-level threats. A marksman, a guy who is good with boomerangs, a petite, mentally-ill woman with a ballbat, etc.--criminals who have already been apprehended by lesser heroes--are going to save America from beings who can rip apart the planet with their bare hands. As with BvS, WB's unwillingness to properly build its universe is a major liability here. Exposition is one of the most dreaded foes of quality screenwriting but SUICIDE SQUAD has to introduce its large cast from scratch and wastes much of its running-time on it. Who is this character? Who is this character? Who is this character? We're at the halfway point of the movie before the final member of the team is introduced and the plot finally gets underway. Stripped down, the basic "bad people forced to do good" is a solid premise but aiming for a PG-rating and assiduously trying to avoid anything nasty that might alienate middle America, the creators weren't interested in it either.[13] We never see any of the Squad do anything particularly bad and, in fact, they're shown as trapped in a sadistic system that makes them look far more sinned-against than sinners. To establish their bad-guy-ness, the creators considered it adequate to have characters repeatedly say "we're bad guys."[14] The film's central villain plot involved a member of the Squad itself going rogue, which is particularly egregious, as it means the entire thing could have been avoided if the Squad had never been started in the first place.[15] During the big existence-threatening showdown, which takes place, in the heart of a major city, none of Earth's more capable heroes are anywhere to be found.

All three of the current DC movies have adopted a dark tone that's very familiar to longtime comic readers. It's the relentlessly juvenile "darkness" of the comics of the early 1990s, where what seemed like everyone in the industry started trying to do half-assed pastiche of Frank Miller and Alan Moore. BvS is, in fact, full of elements pillaged from Miller's "The Dark Knight Returns"[16] and the movie feels just like all the third-rate trash that was coming out back then and trying to ape that style. And their pathetic imitation of that style is all it and MoS have. Marvel places its characters in the center of every movie it produces. Its protagonists are well-developed people, they have character arcs, they change and grow. This focus on characterization is one of Marvel's major strengths, something that allows it to get away with some otherwise pretty substandard movies at times (CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER, IRON MAN 2, etc.). Viewers like the characters and that's what keeps them coming back. WB's DC movies don't do characterization. At all. There isn't a single well-defined character or genuine character arc in any of them; the filmmakers have never even tried. Viewers are given no reason to care about anyone. Motives are sketchy and typically so entirely illogical that they feel like some kind of resented chore dropped in as an afterthought merely to tie together the explosions and fight-scenes. The Snyder movies are particularly bad in this respect. They're choppy, badly assembled and banish all levity, all humanity. The central characters are joyless automatons.

Explosions, CGI and action are, of course, the things on which the Hollywood studios depend to sell most of their tentpole movies. I've made my own general contempt for such films well-known here. As I wrote in one tirade a few years ago, a self-styled Hollywood "blockbuster" is typically "made by a committee, filled with computer-generated effects spectacles to ooh and aah the bumpkins, plotted, shot and edited in Attention-Span-Optional mode, watered down to a PG-13 rating so as not to keep the kiddies away and dumbed down to serve the needs of the dumbest son of a bitch who may wander into a theater to watch it." And since, in Hollywood, nothing succeeds like success (and, more to the point, there's an extreme allergy to anything even perceived as risky), it's usually going to be a rehash of something that has already proven itself. And proven itself. And proven itself, a trend of milking past successes made worse in more recent years by the expansion of foreign markets--new folks to batter with the old formulas. As I wrote in my previous essay, part of Hollywood's ideology is that in tentpole films, "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." That studios, when looking at comic-based properties, only seem to see potential tentpoles has proven a major limitation on these projects. While its extraordinary that so many of them have bucked the relentless race to the bottom that characterizes most tentpoles and have actually been good, they've also been severely tempered by being forced into that box. They're rendered too conservative, too safe and the scale of the tentpoles is often inappropriate and works against what made these properties so successful and long-lived on the page.

Three years ago, I used Spider-Man as my example of the latter, noting that "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... The same is true of the Batman." To pick up on that, in three of the last four Batman movies (existing in two different continuities), the Batman has tackled, in this order, a plot to destroy the denizens of the entire city of Gotham,[17] a plot to blow up that city and a world-threatening menace. When next we see him on screen, he'll be working to thwart a full-blown alien invasion and he's already been set up for a storyline in which he will resist a Superman who has become a godlike dictator and has conquered the world.[18] Though stories like this are told in the comics, they're a very small part of the larger Batman picture. Making them the focus over and over again isn't just formulaic repetitiveness, it's a pretty significant misrepresentation and once things on screen are allowed to balloon in this manner, it is very difficult to deescalate, because the (fallacious) institutional thinking begins to go like this: After an audience has seen the Batman battle and help defeat Doomsday, a world-destroyer, how much impact can then be wrung out of a story involving, say, the Batman investigating a SE7EN-style serial killer (something I've wanted to see on screen for ages) or trying to crack one of the Penguin's criminal schemes?[19] It becomes a Conventional Wisdom that it's unwise to make a flick in which the Batman does what he does on the page most of the time, the stuff he exists to do. It's notable to me that the live-action Batman adaptation with by far the best reputation is THE DARK KNIGHT, which simply has the Batman matching off against the Joker and Two-Face, no universe at stake.[20]

The tentpole scale is appropriate for some properties. The Avengers are Earth's Mightiest Heroes, a formidable force, and it makes sense that a major threat--in their first screen adventure, an alien invasion--would be used as a rationale for their coming together. SUICIDE SQUAD, on the other hand, was crippled from conception when Warner Brothers tried to force it into that same big-team tentpole movie box. The movie incarnation of the Squad, as noted earlier, is assembled to battle Superman-level threats, described as "a taskforce of the most dangerous people on the planet" and ends up confronting a potentially world-ending menace. That's just not the Suicide Squad; it's directly at odds with the source material. And suggested sequels with a story more in line with that material will be perceived as a major step down from the original and are less likely to be made.

Though some of the screen adventures of the X-Men have been very good--X2 and in particular DAYS OF FUTURE PAST--even those top x-flicks are tentpoles that, when made to represent the x-franchise, squander most of its potential. Marvel's mutants and their satellites are a rich mine of great, well-developed, fascinating characters. On screen, most of that is lost and only a handful get much of the attention. Wolverine, the most popular of the X-Men, has also been the most overexposed, not only being made the central character of nearly all of the team flicks but spinning off into a series of solo films. The second solo movie was supposed to be based on a miniseries that is widely regarded as the greatest Wolverine story ever told, a samurai-epic- and film-noir-inspired piece about Logan pursuing his love, Mariko Yashida, to Japan and becoming entangled in a feud with her crime lord father and a potential love triangle with an assassin. It was Logan's first solo adventure outside the pages of the X-Men, goes deeper into the character than anything that has ever been published and is largely responsible for the popularity he has enjoyed ever since. "The original mini," I wrote in my previous article, "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." The movie that eventually emerged turned out, instead, to be a great example of how the tentpole mentality can fuck up even a wet dream, as "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." The simple, beautiful story became a distended, moronic mess that was made to span 70 years and involve the atomic bombing of Japan, feature a snake-woman who can steal mutant powers (though she steals Logan's healing ability, he doesn't die or even slow down very much after a steady barrage of what should have been deadly wounds) and conclude with a big CGI-overloaded battle between Logan and a giant mechanical monster. Awful.[21]

Hollywood looked at this...


...and saw this.

I've long suggested supplementing these larger-scale screen adaptations with a regular slate of smaller movies with more intimate stories and greater depth than is usually permitted by the constraints of the bigger spectacle pictures. This would provide a screen milieu more appropriate for the characters that don't really operate on a save-the universe level, one that gives characters from the bigger pictures a place to go to do the sort of smaller stories that have always played a key role in their success on the page (I ran through several examples of such smaller stories in my previous article)[22] and that could act as a laboratory that will allow for a much broader range of movies, with the added benefit of being low-cost, thus low-risk.

The considerable move into television in the years since my first piece has been, in some ways, a step in this direction.[23]

Marvel's Netflix series, which are among the best screen work Marvel has done, also provide a point of comparison between this sort of approach and the big spectacle pictures, as DAREDEVIL, the first series released, had previously been adapted to the big screen in 2003 in a film starring Ben Affleck. The feature version tried to jam in years of complex stories and characters from the comics, running roughshod over all of them in the process. It became so crowded and unfocused that it's virtually plotless. Seeing dollar-signs in the wake of SPIDER-MAN's monster success, Universal moved to ape that film and the movie filled up with CGI, wirework, inappropriate feats that looked a whole lot like Spidey but not much like DD. The Netflix series, by contrast, centered on the characters, as is usually the case with Marvel. Its first season offered a very human, very grounded Daredevil/Matt Murdock, a fellow struggling to build a law practice while still trying to figure out the nocturnal vigilante thing and progressively coming into conflict, in both vocations, with a plot by a gangster who will become his greatest enemy. The show is able to spend time with all of its major characters, give them storylines, go into what makes them tick. It does all of this over a span of 13 hours that cumulatively cost significantly less than that one 133-minute movie. I wouldn't want to overstate the comparison to the feature film--that movie was an inept creative abortion, no nicer way to say it--but one can say any good Daredevil production is going to look a lot more like the Netflix series than the movie. Evaluating Netflix DAREDEVIL through the lens of what I'd prefer in the way of smaller-scale productions, I suppose my major complaint about it--and this is true of all of the other Marvel Netflix series as well--is that it's so heavily serialized. Every installment is tied to the one central story, with no time for any episodic interludes not connected to it.

Most of the other comic-based tv productions do both extended storylines and episodic tales, sometimes creating an overarching premise as part of the former that allows for the latter. The shows tend to be of wildly varying quality. They're subject to the usual limitations of weekly television series such as stricter budgetary limitations, content restrictions and viewer expectations that act as pressure against anything overly bold or challenging.[24] The CW aims at a particular young demographic and its DC shows (like the Netflix Marvel shows) are made by a relatively small handful of creators, which can lead to a certain sameness. The Marvel-produced Marvel shows are all set in the same universe but they form segregated enclaves within it, sometimes acknowledging the other portions but never really interacting with them. The Netflix Marvels only work together, the ABC Marvels only work together, the Marvel films only work together. There are obvious reasons for this--the outlets on which these are featured wouldn't want to advertise a competitor--but it creates a new set of problems. The most obvious is how it renders an ever-increasing portion of the source material unfilmable. Spider-Man and Daredevil become close friends in the comics and feature together in decades of stories that would, because of this system, probably be impossible on screen; Daredevil and the Black Widow were lovers and crimebusting partners for years, same problem. The Kingpin, the Punisher, Cloak & Dagger were all Spider-Man characters--lots of stories there too, none doable. Luke Cage's long run as an Avenger is out. And so on. When one enclave uses characters or other elements, they generally become exclusive to that enclave, which means a successful project like AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D. only amplifies this problem, because it uses more and more characters over time.[25] Big-screen characters can't go to these shows to have the smaller-scale adventures denied them on the big screen while small-screen characters can't go to the big screen for bigger ones. Other than the Marvel Netflix shows, which are specifically devoted to street-level stories featuring street-level characters, most of the other comic-based tv shows also do large-scale adventures.

Iron Fist, recently adapted as a Netflix series, is a good example of a property that could really use some mobility between large- and small-scale screen treatments. The comic origin of Iron Fist, both in its original form and particularly as expanded by later creators, is epic in scale, featuring a series of mystical, extradimensional cities of immortals, a Phantom-like backstory of previous Iron Fists going back many centuries and a child, the heir to a fortune and an outsider in his adoptive city of K'un-Lun, who overcomes remarkable adversity to become the ultimate warrior by defeating a dragon with his bare hands. Danny Rand, the Iron Fist, comes back to this world initially seeking revenge for the death of his father by his father's business partner, a partner who now sits on the throne of the multinational firm the father built. Cumulatively, the stuff of a major upbudget motion picture. But Danny eventually finds friends and associates and slowly settles into a life as an adventurer, including a very long association with Luke Cage, a fellow who becomes his best friend and business partner, material much better suited to smaller-scale projects like the Netflix series. The series barely even tried to cover the big origin stuff, which is related to viewers mostly via hints or characters rattling off exposition or, worst of all, by things that happen just off camera because there wasn't the budget to shoot and show it. The representation of Danny's battle with the dragon is a scene showing Danny entering a dark cave then a scene after it's all over and Danny is laying exhausted on the ground. Things like that are some of the reasons IRON FIST was critically scourged upon its release.

While the tv shows do serve an obvious need, they are, in their current form, no substitute for that slate of smaller pictures I've proposed. Something that comes close is LOGAN, released in March, a scaled-down film that takes the overexposed Wolverine out of the tentpole till and presents him as a sick old man[26] in a futuristic world from which most mutants have been exterminated. Caring for a dementia-stricken 90-something Charles Xavier, he's reluctantly pulled into one last adventure and gets a taste of something he'd missed in his long life. It's a marvel of a movie and though not exactly tiny, it gives a taste of what these pictures can be when they move away from the tentpole mold.

LOGAN appeared a year after DEADPOOL, a similarly stripped-down (but otherwise very different) flick starring Ryan Reynolds as the "Merc With a Mouth," an asshole adventurer who amusingly deconstructs the tropes of comic-book movies while making his way through a madcap addition to the genre. Both films went for an R-rating, which allowed Wolverine to finally not be very nice at what he does best and Deadpool to layer on the irreverent, raunchy humor with a trowel. Going outside the box paid off. Adjusting for inflation, these were the two least expensive films in the x-franchise yet worldwide, DEADPOOL was the highest-grossing film in that 17-year run, while LOGAN was the third-highest.[27] They're the most profitable x-flicks of all time, by a very wide margin. It remains to be seen whether they'll just be another man-bites-dog story or if they'll spur some movement toward these sorts of smaller productions. Factors that may be working against the latter include branding concerns--that tentpole mentality could perceive using these characters in smaller productions as cheapening the brand--and a concern with oversaturating the market, though it would seem much more logical to worry about that when there isn't sufficient diversity in the available product--people get tired of the same old thing. The smaller pictures, managed properly, help fix that.

Speaking of which, "the comics on which these films are based," I wrote in my previous essay, "have told every kind of story there is to be told. Dramas, horrors, swashbuckling adventures, comedies, spy stories, love stories, war stories, weird tales, political thrillers, mystical vision-quests 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." Though they continue to be basically conservative, some of the tentpole movies that have appeared since have integrated a wider range of these elements, something else that shouldn't be overstated but is nevertheless still worthy of note. CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER is very much in the vein of the political thrillers of the 1970s and featured Robert Redford, the star of two of the better-known flicks of that particular species (ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN and THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR). Its tale is a nightmare of our time, the cynical manipulation of a War On Terror[tm] ideology to mask and carry out horrors, and there was some rock-solid drama--great characterization of Cap, the Black Widow and the Falcon. A top-shelf comic-boom movie. The forthcoming WONDER WOMAN is reportedly a story of World War I. Hopefully, a much better war picture than CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER, which entirely lost the Second World War--and a golden opportunity for a good movie--in a silly alternate history so extreme it may as well have been set on another planet (and I don't say that in a good way). DOCTOR STRANGE was the major screen introduction to Mystical Marvel but was seriously hampered its conservatism--the tentpole ethos strikes again. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY introduced Cosmic Marvel. It is, at heart, a misfit-heroes-save-the-day movie but it really revels the oddness of that particular milieu.[28]

On the page, the Marvel Universe is a profoundly weird place, a story that spans the whole of time packed with gods, monsters, heroes, villains, demons, mutants, science freaks, sorcery, bizarre technology of every conceivable make and model, lost races, alien worlds beyond measure, microverses, parallel universes, dream realms, alternate timelines--as broad as the imagination itself.






























Some images that help illustrate just how little of the scope and glorious weirdness of the Marvel Universe has so far carried over into the screen adaptations.[29] The DC universe on the page is full of weird wonders as well.[30]

It seems odd now that BLADE (1998) was the picture that touched off the current comic movie boom. In so many ways, it entirely runs against the grain of what it eventually wrought. The character came out of Marvel horror comics, rather than the company's much-better-known books, it reflected that origin with a strong horror element (something tentpoles try to avoid), it was, compared to the self-styled "blockbusters" of its day, made on a relatively modest budget ($45 million, the equivalent of about $67 million today) and it was R-rated. Most importantly, it was good, the first good Marvel movie, and led to X-MEN, which led to SPIDER-MAN which led to... and right on to the present. One of its only "safe" elements was established star Wesley Snipes in the lead. But even as the comic-based tentpoles integrate somewhat broader themes and influences, it seems likely something like BLADE would have a hard time getting made today.[31]

BLADE also yielded BLADE II, which brought Guillermo del Toro, a filmmaker of immense talent, into comic-book flicks, where he pulled up a stump and sat a spell, spinning us the excellent HELLBOY and its even more excellent sequel. Made on relatively modest budgets, these are, like the Mike Mignola comics on which they're based, wonderfully inventive fantasies, full of imagination, genuinely inspired moments and heart. It would be tricky to make a case for their being underrated, as they're met with pretty general praise all around, but I've always considered them terribly underappreciated. Looking back on them now, they're so much a product of the minds behind them they just sort of sit there in history, not really inspiring anything further in the comic-book movie genre, which, of course, just makes them look even better but it's also disappointing.[32] The genre didn't need a string of HELLBOY knock-offs but it needed--and desperately needs--that kind of movie. James Gunn, who came out of the Troma school and had already made a great comic-book-style movie (SUPER) before he hooked up with Marvel,[33] has brought that kind of quirky vision to the GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY pictures, which take to the toys in the cosmic Marvel toy box with an infectiously mad glee. One wishes there were a great many more such visionary creators working on comic-book movies. Most productions, alas, are being handled by much more, shall we say, workmanlike figures.[34] Too bad.

The comic-book movies produced so far aren't revolutionary. They don't typically challenge viewers in any fundamental ways, feature little that's transgressive, little that asks viewers to broaden their horizons or entertain heretical ideas. They do feature plenty of explosions, CGI and action. Still, a not-insignificant portion of them have overcome the pigeonholes in which they're so often stuffed and have managed to not only work but work well. While not even the best of those released so far will ever make Cahiers du Cinema's list of the 100 greatest movies of all time, there's no reason comic-based productions eventually couldn't. Those of us who are readers of the comics know they have that potential. One wishes those behind the movies could see it.

--j.

---

 [1] It seems to be a common belief among filmmakers that making things seem too weighty spoils the fun but giving them too little weight makes the entire enterprise feel pointless. The most pernicious manifestation of this phenomenon is, of course, in the treatment of violence, where mass death is often sold as spectacle in movies that aren't about having fun with something like mass death. That's very bad filmmaking.

 [2] Kara's adoptive mother is played by Helen Slater, the first screen Supergirl, her adoptive father is played by Dean Cain, Superman from LOIS & CLARK, Rhea, the current villain, is played by Teri Hatcher, Lois from that same series and villain Indigo is played by Laura Vandervoort, Supergirl from SMALLVILLE. The creators eventually introduced Superman himself as a recurring character.

 [3] This leaves out others. Deborah Ann Woll is great as DAREDEVIL's Karen Page. Rosario Dawson has appeared in all of the Netflix Marvels as Claire Temple, a composite of both the comics' character of the same name and Linda Carter, the "Night Nurse," who undertakes an illicit practice of patching up wounded superheroes. Wai Ching Ho is the enigmatic and magnificently evil Madame Gao, a leader of the Hand in DAREDEVIL and IRON FIST.

 [4] Along with what could have been a really good Nick Fury solo flick featuring Sam Jackson's Fury pursuing the remnants of Hydra to Europe and other parts of the globe.

 [5] In 2015, a leaked email from Marvel CEO Ike Perlmutter described past failures of female-led superhero flicks, though as Time noted, "the context of the summer 2014 email is unclear: Perlmutter could be enumerating the films as proof that female superhero movies bomb at the box office, or he may be optimistically hoping to break the pattern."

 [6] I have in my head a bit of a dream projects involving Storm of the X-Men, sort of artsy productions that would probably never be greenlit even if I was in any position to pitch them to anyone who mattered, and I'm not. I think it would be cool to bring Dazzler to the screen.

 [7] I'd talked about these issues in the past with Lebeau from Le Blog. When I was preparing this article, I asked him about it:

"My youngest is named Kara which was at least partially inspired by Supergirl. As it turns out, she developed an interest in superheroes at an early age... It's great. It's obviously an interest we share which is always a good thing. We watch Supergirl together every week and love it. I feel like she gets the same thing I got from Batman and Superman when I was a kid. A sense of empowerment and a belief that you should do your best to help others. She can look to characters like Supergirl and Wonder Woman for inspiration. My oldest doesn't care for superheroes, but we have had similar experiences watching Star Wars and the Ghostbusters remake. Girls are starved for strong female protagonists."

When Kara became a Wonder Woman fan, he wrote, he had problems finding WW merchandise. When he'd look for something obvious like a Wonder Woman doll,

"there weren't any to be found. Here was one of the most recognizable characters in American pop culture and it was difficult to track down quality merchandise with her image on it. She was excluded from Justice League merchandise because I'm sure there were concerns boys would reject her. If I managed to find anything, it was usually pink and either an article of clothing or an accessory. There were lots of Wonder Woman purses, relatively few dolls. If you ventured into online shopping you could find some Wonder Woman dolls that were either outrageously priced or inappropriate for a five year old."

Since then, he continued, "things have improved a bit" as some companies have started to realize "there is a huge market for these characters among young girls. Something we already knew, but I am glad toy companies have figured it out."

 [8] I found it infuriating that those who objected to her casting on the grounds that she's physically totally inappropriate for the part were portrayed as a pack of drooling internet trolls bitching that "her tits are too small." I found it infuriating that those who offered thoughtful critiques were accused of "body-shaming." They're not body-shaming; the casting of Gadot is body-shaming.

 [9] We've already seen a microcosm of this; Gadot's cameo in BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE led many critics to describe her as the high-point of that otherwise godawful movie.

[10] The creators left themselves an out here as well by revealing that this Lex Luthor is a "Jr."

[11] This "Superman" doesn't really care about people but he's creepily attached to his mother and to Lois Lane, to the point that a dream-sequence in the film suggests this will lead him to become a brutal dictator in an "Injustice: Gods Among Us" future. One reviewer noted (and I regret I'm unable to remember who) that this element is a painful bit of juvenile melodrama; the guy who is supposed to be the world's greatest superhero, torn between his mother and his girlfriend.

[12] Many would point to Jared Leto's awful gangstah rapper Joker and disagree. It probably sticks out as particularly bad coming as it does so soon after Heath Ledger's near-universally-praised turn as the character.

[13] While there was little interest at any point in the source material, presenting an oddball gaggle of wisecracking heroes tasked with saving creation to the tune of one classic rock track after another proved that the creators paid attention to the box-office take of GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY. The movie's big CGI-filled pillar-of-light-to the-sky finale seemed to be an effort to get a jump-start on the then-upcoming GHOSTBUSTERS remake, something internet memesters have beaten to death:


[14] Surprisingly, given that the film shows so little interest in the source material, Harley Quinn is handled pretty well but her relationship with the Joker, who most definitely isn't, looks like flashbacks from a movie that should have preceded this one but didn't. It's hard to see that missing flick as a tragedy given Jared Leto's Joker, which is the worst version of that character ever brought to the screen, but there's a great story between those two, if anyone is ever interested in making it (and if the Leto version of the Joker can be abandoned). With Harley, who, without that story, is as without a character arc as everyone else in the picture, I'll concede I may just be looking too hard to find something praiseworthy in a failed flick I really wanted to like--I'm a fan of the comic and looked forward to the movie for a long time--but if there's anything positive one could say about the otherwise awful SS, Margot Robbie's Harley is it. Will Smith is theoretically cast as Deadshot but actually plays one of the only characters he ever plays anymore: Will Smith. Not good. The other members of the Squad are barely even a presence; the movie is focused primarily on Smith and Robbie. And Robbie's ass, which, as another reviewer noted, probably gets more close-ups than most of the other Squad members.

[15] That's a plot I've long associated with the Avengers, the comics, that is. On screen, it crept--crapped?--its way into AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON as well, where the big problem the heroes must solve is one they, themselves, created. This nullifies the premise of whatever story uses it.

[16] Zack Snyder sees nothing more in these elements he pillages than some empty "it's just so kewl!" visuals; he steals them while stripping them of everything that, on the page, gave them any meaning or impact. This also wastes these elements, spoiling them for anyone who may come along later and actually want to adapt the stories from which he's thieved them.

[17] That first flick, BATMAN BEGINS, introduced a corrupt-to-the-core Gotham ruled by an unstoppable crime-lord but though tackling this could have made for a great Batman movie, it was apparently judged insufficient; after setting it up, the film simply abandoned it halfway through the movie in a very jarring way in order to bring in a different, bigger villain plot involving a completely ridiculous scheme to make the inhabitants of Gotham kill themselves.

[18] Though one suspects the horrendous critical reception given BvS may have put that future project, represented as a potential future, in limbo.

[19] Sam Raimi's SPIDER-MAN 2 offered a good example of bigger-is-better actively ruining a core element of the character. The thing that made Spider-Man so revolutionary on the page was his humanity. He's just a regular guy who happens to gain extraordinary powers. As I've written in the past, the movie, by contrast, presents him as an "all-but-indestructible juggernaut, with strength and durability so far beyond our frame of reference as to seem positively otherworldly." Whereas Spider-Man is a brave guy who pits himself against incredibly dangerous menaces, "it's difficult to imagine anyone giving too much trouble to the character with the capabilities we see in SPIDER-MAN 2, much less outmatching him. He's relentless, unstoppable, possessed of Hulk-like strength, and nearly impossible to injure; attributing bravery to him for what he does is like attributing it to a person who squashes a bug." This "Spider-Man" stops a speeding train with his bare hands. "[O]ne of the most celebrated moments from the [Spider-Man] comic came in 'Amazing Spider-Man' #32-33, when Spider-Man is pinned beneath a large piece of machinery in a room that is rapidly flooding. A few feet away is a new serum that will heal a dying Aunt May. If he can't free himself, he'll die, and, without the serum, she'll die. He's completely exhausted though. He's been running for days without a break. He'd just fought his way through a phalanx of hoods then gone 10 rounds with Dr. Octopus. The machine above him is massive. When he first tries, he can't budge it an inch. Between the two issues he spends seven pages--an eternity, by Silver Age comic standards--struggling to free himself, thinking of Aunt May, beating himself up again for Uncle Ben's death, insisting to himself that he won't let May die. And, throughout the course of this, slowly, ever so painfully, he manages to begin lifting the machine off his back and, with the strain so great he's on the verge of blacking out, he frees himself. The sequence is one of the greatest moments in the history of superhero comics and is widely regarded as Spider-Man's defining moment." And after we've seen him stop a speeding train--a feat that trumps that one on a galactic scale--it would just seem ridiculous if brought to the screen.

[20] The Joker and Two-Face are two of the Batman's most iconic villains. Either one of them could be the featured villain of a film or even of a series of films. Jamming both of them into the same film is an aspect of that pernicious tentpole thinking, wherein villain multiplication is seen as a way of making a picture "bigger." Villains typically multiply as sequels are produced. All of the Nolan bat-flicks jammed in multiple villains.

[21] For any readers of my original article who may decide I've gratuitously pulled out this movie for further abuse, I wouldn't necessarily disagree but a fuck-up of that scale deserves all the abuse it gets.

[22] To offer another (and plug a good current book while I'm at it), the current She-Hulk book, written by Mariko Tamaki and drawn by Nico Leon, has featured a very good story about Jennifer Walters, the She-Hulk, trying to deal with post-traumatic stress after a near-death experience. For Jen, becoming the She-Hulk was the best thing that ever happened to her. Now, she finds her troubled psychological state is threatening to turn that side of her into something she can't control, as happened with her cousin Bruce, the Hulk. Reflecting this, the title of the book is just "Hulk." Not the sort of thing that would even be considered for a film project at present but exactly the sort of thing that should be considered for a film project.

[23] And that move has been quite considerable. Since then, the "c" in CW has practically come to mean "comics," as the network has launched RIVERDALE (an adaptation of Archie), iZOMBIE, and its ARROW, which began in 2012, has spun off into a major DC television universe with four different live-action series, a 5th on the way (BLACK LIGHTNING, which looks awesome) and an animated series on Seed, the CW's online streaming platform. When NBC produced a season of CONSTANTINE about DC's snarky occultist of the same name, the series failed after one season but the character was then integrated into the CW DC-verse and will soon return as another animated series on the Seed. GOTHAM, about the pre-Batman characters in the title city, came to Fox; its 4th season is forthcoming. WYNONNA EARP, as mentioned earlier, came to SyFy. Fox's Marvel x-franchise has moved to television with LEGION, which launched on F/X in February, and THE GIFTED, which will air on Fox later this year. Marvel's AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D. which began in 2013, has put in a long run on ABC and was just renewed for a 5th season. It was joined for two seasons by AGENT CARTER and will be joined, later this year, by INHUMANS. Marvel is currently preparing CLOAK & DAGGER for Freeform and RUNAWAYS for Hulu. Marvel launched a Netflix mini-universe of four shows and a 5th plus a crossover mini on the way. On AMC, THE WALKING DEAD--as popular as it is terrible--will soon begin its 8th season and it's recently been joined by PREACHER.

[24] These limitations rendered AMC's very ill-advised PREACHER adaptation dead at conception, though it continues to infest the network and molest the material (and not in any good ways).

[25] To cover the gaps caused by this segregation, the enclaves have mostly resorted to lame substitutions. In the comics, Ben Urich is a reporter for the Daily Bugle, Peter "Spider-Man" Parker's newspaper; Netflix DAREDEVIL combined Urich and Joe Robertson, another Spider-Man character, into a new Urich and had him working at some other paper (presumably locking both Urich and Robertson out of the movie enclave where roams Spider-Man). In the comics, Hawkeye had a long relationship with Mockingbird; on screen, he's an Avenger in the movie universe while she's on AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D., so the movie enclave just gave Hawkeye a different wife.

[26] The movie was inspired by "Old Man Logan," a miniseries by Mark Millar and Steve McNiven but didn't really adapte it, just swiped the general plot.

[27] Caveat: those numbers aren't adjusted for inflation because I'm running long and being lazy.

[28] The Thor pictures had introduced the Asgardians, who have one foot in mystical Marvel and the other in cosmic Marvel.

[29] Jack Kirby technology alone is something production designers on Marvel features should be horsewhipped for ignoring.

[30] Though I haven't put together a similar collection of images for DC, I feel duty-bound to offer at least one example. Here's the Element Man on a date from Metamorpho #1:

[31] While BLADE opened up comic-book movies, it didn't inspire many films like itself, even back then. One could, I suppose, vaguely point to THE PUNISHER (2004), a small movie about a dark and violent character. The violence was almost entirely bloodless and the movie was probably made with a PG-13 rating--it got an R primarily because it says "fuck" more than is allowed. It's also a very bad movie. Its sequel, PUNISHER: WAR ZONE, was, by contrast, a blast and I really would have loved to see it continue into further films but its release was sabotaged as a consequence of internal politics at Lion's Gate, the studio that produced it. Marvel has reacquired the film rights; it has already introduced its new Punisher (Jon Bernthal, an excellent choice) in the second season of Netflix DAREDEVIL and the character will be debuting his own Netflix series soon.

[32] Also disappointing, the fact that the long-awaited HELLBOY III was recently declared dead and the studio announced they'd be producing a recast remake instead, which also killed a planned spin-off of the original pair of films.

[33] SUPER is about a schlub who takes up a rather inept version of the superheroing business after his addict girlfriend runs away with a drug dealer. A great, screamingly funny comic-book movie that isn't based on an actual comic. In both this and my previous "What Ails 'Em" article, I've mostly ignored flicks that weren't adaptations, though there have been some real gems (CHRONICLE is another that comes to mind). They'll probably end up the subject of a future essay. I've also almost entirely ignored animated features, as they tend to be a very different beast.

[34] After he had worked on developing ANT MAN for a decade, Marvel fired Edgar Wright on the verge of principal photography, replacing him with Peyton "Bring It On" Reed. A travesty.


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