Archive for Zack Snyder

Wonder Woman: She Stood Up

Posted in comics, criticism, movies, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 3, 2017 by drayfish

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If nothing else, Wonder Woman finally proves that DC is willing to allow a woman to have a confusing, weightless, CGI-heavy third act of her own.

And that is something.

Yes, I’m being snarky, but don’t let that obscure the important takeaway here:

Wonder Woman is important.  And I loved watching every second of it.  Loved it.

With an asterisk.

Because in order to discuss what is deservedly praiseworthy about this film, you unfortunately have to acknowledge the pedestrian material that surrounds it.

So to get this out of the way:

This is a film with a fairly workmanlike screenplay.  At times characters blurt exposition at one another and the plotting is stiff.  There appears to be character arcs and side narratives that, to me, were clearly either lost in editing, or left half devised during the drafting process.  There are moments of levity amongst the characters, but you would be forgiven for thinking that these brief flashes were whipped together on the day of shooting rather than a tonal feature of the script.  The bag guys are so disposable you often forget about them while they are still on screen.  Some of the action continues to bears the fingerprints of Zack Snyder’s obsession with empty, slow-motion plasticity.  And you can still hear echoes of the original studio pitch-meeting that decreed this film should be a mash-up of Thor and Captain America (an observation I have seen others critics make).  Indeed, it can be argued that the story this film seeks to tell was already presented, more successfully, in last year’s Moana.

The whole production is abuzz with reasons to sink away and be forgotten.

Except for her.

Wonder Woman – both Gal Gadot inhabiting her, and Patty Jenkins behind the camera – proves just how shameful it is that it has taken this long to put this extraordinary hero on film.

Because, as Wonder Woman shows, a great hero, portrayed with respect, rises above whatever dreck they might find themselves in.  Patty Jenkins may have been hamstrung by a weak script, she may have been fending off interference by studio executives (I’ve not heard anything specific, but since Batman V Superman and Suicide Squad it certainly sounds like the DC films are lousy with intrusive meddling), and she may have had her aesthetic choices hampered by the established Syder-universe style of sepia funk, but she clearly respects her character, and recognises the significance of presenting her as an inspirational figure for generations of viewers to come.

And this ability for a hero to rise above their narrative is nothing new.  After all, it’s not just that Batman v Superman is awful; it’s that the Superman it presented was a psychotic emo twit and its Batman was a bro-sociopath Frank Miller wet dream.  In contrast, the Richard Donner Superman film is ridiculous, straight up lame at points (why is Lois rhyme-singing?!  Why the hell does turning the Earth the other way reverse time?!), but it treats Clark and Kal-El with deference, and allows Christopher Reeve to do that magic trick he perfected of playing both sides of the character with commitment.  The Dark Knight Rises is likewise pretty silly, but it gets Batman’s self-sacrifice and struggle to defy the temptation of his own darkness right.

So when Jenkins show Diana as a child, a smile of ambition and defiance breaking on her lips, it lights up the screen – even if the idyllic society in which she is both beloved and feared is so thinly sketched.  When Wonder Woman rises out of the muck of war to cross No Man’s Land (a land where no man can go, as the script not-so-subtly insists), the moment her determined gaze and burnished armour rise above the trenches, the film too transcends its limitations – even if the CGI matting washes everything out and the spatial relations of the characters are not always tracked.

Rather than treating her character as some myth to ‘deconstruct’ and debase (although in truth nothing in the DC movie universe so far actually constitutes an actual deconstruction of these characters, more a cynical revision), Jenkins valued what Diana, Princess of Themyscira represented enough to unapologetically embrace it.

Love.  Hope.  Compassion.

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In the Snyder universe these notions have so far been belittled and mocked as outdated.*  Its two most prominent ‘heroes’ have instead been motivated by self-interest and lost in their own narcissistic funks; Superman mopes around like Krypto the Dog just died and only seems to spring into action when either Lois or his mother are in danger; Batman has become a brutal fascist, literally trying to force the world to fit his world view; and even when the two of them decide to stop posturing and work together it’s because their mothers have the same name.  Screw altruism, or idealism, or service to humankind; the greatest superpower in the universe is apparently ego.

But out of this affected, self-indulgence, Wonder Woman arises, unsullied.  Embracing the incommunicable charisma of Gal Gadot’s performance – a magnetism that stole and solely justified last year’s asinine funeral dirge Batman v Superman – Jenkins allows the character’s radiance to operate as it should, like a sun around which everyone else orbits; from which everyone else draws light.

The result spills out into every other aspect of the film, elevating even the DC universe’s most generic tropes.  Here Diana’s supporting characters aren’t merely plot devices to be imperilled and spout emphatic one-liners for the trailer; we see them inspired by their time with Diana, and they are allowed moments of quietude in which to exhibit personality that in turn helps shape Diana’s world view.  Similarly, the slow motion CGI fights no longer overwhelm.  Jenkins uses them more sparingly, with a less lascivious gaze than in the previous DC films.  It is actually possible to follow the action, rather than descending into over-edited, incomprehensible mush.  And even that awful oversaturated brown aesthetic Snyder favours is more pointedly utilised here.  Jenkins employs it in the bulk of the second act – when Diana is traversing the murk of London and the front line of the war; both environments choked by male oppression; but this second act is preceded by the verdant paradise of Themyscira, and is later burned away by the reveal of Diana’s vibrant costume, which becomes something of a beacon shining through the gloom.

Ultimately, I guess what I’m saying is: it shouldn’t have been this damned hard, DC.  You finally made a movie that’s pretty good, with all the same ingredients as before, except that this time the hero was not afraid to stand for something, rather than dissolving into a puddle of half-baked pubescent nihilism.

But in hindsight, of course it would be Wonder Woman that showed the way.

After all, Wonder Woman has always been created to answer a lack.  In the fiction of her origin she was fashioned from clay by a mother who longed for a child.  In reality, she was designed as a response to a comics industry that was devoid of strong female characters.

Comic books in the late 1930s were still a relatively new entertainment, and found themselves accused of being sensationalist, masculine garbage, filled only with violence and vice that must surely be corrupting its readers.  Much of the criticism was hysterical, but it reflected a real absence, both of inspirational heroines, and of role models who solved the world’s problems with more than flamboyant kicks to the face.

William Moulton Marston, an American psychologist, saw the potential for comics to do more, to offer more.  With the help of his wife Elizabeth, Marston created Wonder Woman in 1941 to prove this potential true.  She was strong, capable, intelligent and loving.  As powerful as Superman, but seemingly more aware of the further role she could play as a symbol for change.  She sought to better the lives of those around her, encouraging human kind to aspire for more.  To fight for equality and truth (truth even literalised in her lasso), and to treat each other with compassion in the face of fear and division.**

And so, Wonder Woman stood up.  She remade the comic medium.  Not by breaking and reinventing the form, but by showing how that form could be better employed.

And happily, history has repeated.

So far the DC films have created a garbage pile of machismo, garbled pseudo-philosophy, and wilful stupidity.  They have been (rightly) maligned for being so busy dithering about in their Juggalo redesigns and empty pretentiousness to offer even the most basic of heroic iconography.

And once again, Wonder Woman stood up.

She climbed out of the stagnating trench of the DC universe, sloughed off the baggage of the perpetual sequel/prequel franchise to which she is still beholden, and shone brighter than all the turgid, inward looking-posers around her.

Wonder Woman may not be the kind of film that reinvents the medium in terms of its script or its themes – this is no The Dark Knight or Captain America: Winter Soldier – but Wonder Woman the character, as presented here, is the kind of hero who has now remade our expectation of all future blockbuster films to come.

Shamefully, for all of the success of the Marvel movie empire, they still have yet to place a female hero at the centre of a film (it is straight up insulting that at this point Black Widow has been the most dynamic thing in several of their films and yet never been the star).  And despite pumping out several films in their entangled universe, DC has yet to actually present a hero.  But Wonder Woman – both character and film – proves how pitifully reductive this thinking has been.

But with this foundation in place, there is now finally a chance that things might truly change.  That the cowardly, whining idiots on the internet who are fearful of women having superhero entertainment that also reflects their experience will be drowned out by the film’s success (please, please, please let this be true).  That studios will finally shake up their tired formulas of using women as mere props and damsels.  And perhaps, with a luminous presence like Gal Gadot inhabiting her, Patty Jenkins keen to do a sequel, Joss Whedon’s take on Batgirl in pre-production, and a deep bench of underutilised female characters waiting to get their moment to shine (where’s my Supergirl at?!), DC might actually be able to get out of their own way and remember that they have the opportunity to create diverse, dynamic entertainment that actually speaks – albeit in grand spectacle – to human truths.

It would be a fitting addition to the history of a trailblazing cultural icon.  Because despite appearances, Wonder Woman was always standing there.  It just took until now for some to notice.

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* Before anyone mentions it: yes, I know that Snyder is credited as being partially involved in devising the story for this film, but he was also, if the scuttlebutt is true, swiftly nudged away from the project when the feedback on Batman v Superman emerged.

** There were also some more themes of bondage and Sapphic love in the subtext, but that is for a more comprehensive discussion of Marston’s philosophy…)

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Batman v Superman: Brawl of Jaundice: Some Thoughts

Posted in comics, criticism, movies, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 13, 2016 by drayfish

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[SPOILERS, obviously, for Batman V Superman…]

As is no doubt already evident, I was not a huge fan of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.*

Beyond that, there’s probably not much else that needs to be said.  It’s been a few weeks since its release.  The initial rush of the film’s critical panning, and the reactive rush of its defenders (usually accusing reviewers of being shameless Marvel fanboys involved in some grand conspiracy  concocted by Disney and funded by the illuminati), has, for the most part, subsided.  At this point the film can be judged on its merits…

And it’s a train wreck.  People can see well enough for themselves what a stain this film has been on the DC universe.  Admittedly there is fun to be had in this flop, but it requires work.  If you can somehow divorce yourself from what a sophomoric hit job it does on three of the most iconic characters in modern history (Wonder Woman escapes this dumpster fire with the most dignity by virtue of being largely disconnected from the plot), it is actually kind of hilarious.

Not intentionally, of course.

There’s not a single successful joke or moment of levity in this whole turgid squall of unconvincing CGI. But it does take one of the (literally) stupidest plots ever conceived and treats it with such unearned gravitas and self-seriousness that it is impossible not to be amused. It’s like watching a Dumb and Dumber sequel directed by Werner Herzog.

‘This is all super deep and heaps philosophical and stuff,’ it pouts, before Lex Luthor jitters his way into frame, starts spouting gibberish, and the whole thing reveals itself to be based on an unfinished Power Rangers script.

The film even, ironically, ends up offering a better description of itself than any of its enraged film reviewers managed:

It’s an exploding jar of human pee.

If it only weren’t so interminably boring that kind of self-destructive numb-nuttery could be respected.  But the film simply is what it is: exactly all that director Zack Snyder and screenwriter David S. Goyer are capable of producing.  They threatened as much with their tone deaf, moronic Man of Steel, and they followed type here, leaning in to their own failure with an obstinate, unearned arrogance.

Countless articles have already agreed on the same handful of points.  Yes, Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor was a twitchy Max Landis/Mark Zuckerberg caricature, insufferable to watch and unfathomably ridiculous in his motivations.  No, none of the characters had any emotional or psychological coherency.  Of course the film doesn’t follow through on any of the trite, pseudo-philosophical concepts it name-checks in its opening half.  The fights were a grey mush with cartoon physics.  The editing was disjointed.  The dialogue stale.  The pacing baffling.  Zack Snyder’s juvenile fetishistic objectivism infected every frame of film.  And yes, its best attributes, Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman and Jeremy Irons’ Alfred, were sidelined to make room for two-and-a-half interminable hours of watching a pair of narcististic, asshole psychopaths beating on everyone in sight because they are both too stupid to have a conversation that would literally clear up the entire plot in a sentence.

And if you make the mistake of trying to scratch the surface of the film’s meandering tangle of inane plot logic, you simply tumble down a well of idiocy from which there is no escape.  Why did Luthor try to get Superman all riled up about Batman if he was just going to kidnap his mother anyway?  Why did Luthor create an unstoppable killing machine?  Who did he think would be able to stop it once it killed Superman?  Why did Luthor …in fact, why did Luthor do literally anything he does in this film?  Literally.  Why did Wonder Woman think she could steal back a digital picture?  Does she not realise how computers work?  Why is phantom Pa Kent stacking rocks on a mountainside?  He can’t be a memory, because he tells Clark a story that he had never told him before, so either Clark is just hallucinating some meaningless nonsense, or he’s talking to a ghost.  Does this universe have ghosts now?  And ‘Save Martha’?!  On and on and on and on and on…  Down the rabbit hole of stupid lazy narrative contrivance.

Similarly, there is no point dipping into the slew of incredibly ill-conceived ‘think piece’ articles that arose in the wake of the film’s simultaneous bad critical reception and mammoth opening weekend.  Anyone trying to argue that the ‘age of the critic is dead’ or that ‘fans don’t care about quality’ is just wilfully peddling redundant clickbait.  The reason for that momentary disparity is – and was at the time – painfully clear.  Fans have been clamouring for a Batman and Superman film for generations – there is a reason why the World’s Finest comic crossovers have always sold out.  But that doesn’t invalidate the cinema score of B, and a second week record drop off in ticket sales of 69% when it was facing no competition.  The result is clear: the film’s initial monster box office prove that the idea of this film, not the film itself, drew people in.  Sight unseen it broke box office records; once the audience got a look they rejected this mess completely.

But despite all this, I did want to share some of the thought that occurred to me as I watched this thing unfold.  Not because I think they are particularly insightful or original, but because this film led me through a rollercoaster of realisations, some hopeful; at least one truly horrifying. So what follows is a kind of reverse director’s commentary (because it is the director I am frequently commenting upon)…

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IMAGE: ‘Yeah, hi.  We get the messiah imagery, Mr Superman.  Thanks.  Can you please just save us from drowning now?’

About ten minutes in – once the flashback within the fantasy within the dream sequence had already strangled the script into incoherency – I became aware of something that actually helped me let go of a lot of my anxieties.  I realised, all at once, that neither Batman nor Superman actually appear in this movie.  And I mean that literally.  There are characters labelled ‘Superman’ and ‘The Bat’ that show up, characters that wear vaguely similar (if gothed-down) costumes, but even if there were a way to bring this up on a charge of copyright infringement, the case could ever be proved.  Because nothing else of the history of the Batman and Superman characters remain.  Every defining characteristic has been jettisoned so as to refashion them into the most derivative ultra-hardcore-awesome version of them possible.

Here, Superman mopes and abandons the world because he doesn’t like it when humanity asks him to please stop crushing them like bugs.  Here Batman kills and uses guns.  Here the death of his parents didn’t inspire him to try and prevent others from ever having to feel that same pain; it instead taught him to become a sociopath:

‘I bet your parents taught you that you mean something; that you’re here for a reason.  My parents taught me a different lesson.  Dying in the gutter for no reason at all.  They taught me the world only makes sense if you force it to.’

This narrative is, I realised, just an Elseworlds edition, written by an angsty eleven year old.  What, it asks, would it be like if Batman was a murderous, mutilating lunatic, hypocritically exploiting the death of his parents as an excuse to indulge his every urge for wanton mayhem because awesome?  What if Superman was an aloof ubermensch, bored with the world and training himself to ignore its pain, who just wanted everyone to leave him alone for like five minutes, dad?!  Geez!

In a move that serves as more of a commentary on his own psyche than anything that these icons have ever represented, Snyder – either profoundly misunderstanding the characters, or just not giving a damn because it looked superficially ‘cool’ – has hollowed out both figures into the narcissistic power fantasies of an entitled, self-righteous douchebag.  You can almost hear the echo of teenage Snyder’s inner monologue moaning about how hard it is to be rich and powerful when everyone expects you to succeed.

At this point, around a third of the way through the film, after Metropolis and Gotham had been geographically established to be one city, I was becoming more and more surprised at exactly how much latitude DC and Warner Bros. had given a hack storyteller like Zack Snyder to cripple the world-building of their cinematic franchise.

To use just a couple of the several examples that present themselves during the film: Snyder decided that it would be hilarious to take the character of Jimmy Olsen – in the history of the Superman story, traditionally Superman’s loyal ‘pal’; overeager, if accident prone cub photographer – and immediately put a bullet in his head:

“We just did it as this little aside because we had been tracking where we thought the movies were gonna go, and we don’t have room for Jimmy Olsen in our big pantheon of characters, but we can have fun with him, right?”

He thought it would be fun.  You know – like a psychopath.

And it struck me how absurd, and obtuse this decision was.**  Because to non-fans watching the film Olsen appears as just some random CIA operative, killed as a display of hostility.  The only people for whom this ‘joke’ lands, therefore, are those who are fans of these characters and their histories.  To a fan – and only to a fan – the ‘joke’ is that a pivotal component of the mythos they love has been unceremoniously slaughtered for no reason.  His death is not shown to have any unique impact upon any of the characters in the movie.  It’s not done to make a point about sacrifice, or heroism.  He’s just killed because, ha ha, you liked him and probably expected more.  (Also, if you like Mercy Graves, Luthor’s assistant, don’t get too attached either.)

Snyder’s ‘gags’ consist of weaponising the history of Superman against the people who love it the most.  What the viewer loves and recognises is used to hurt them.  On a textual level it is analogous to the way Luther is later shown baiting Batman with the death of his parents, or ghoulishly blackmailing Superman by kidnapping his mother.  Snyder aspires, apparently, to be like the unhinged jag-off he places as the antagonist of his hysterically buffoonish plot.  And to his absolutely-no-credit, he succeeds.

His botched characterisation of Batman too shows a similar contempt for the future of the franchise.  Because although having Batman indiscriminately use guns and murder criminals might be cool in the short term (‘Wow, he set that guy on fire!’ ‘Whee, he crushed that guy’s face with his car!”), it immediately undermines any future appearance of the character.  Not only does it make him boring – any moron can grab a gun and run into the street to kill someone; what makes Batman extraordinary is that doesn’t resort to his enemy’s cowardice – it also means that in future there is no reason not to kill Joker or Two Face.  Given that he has now proved himself willing to kill innumerable common street thugs (and knowingly brand them so that they can be killed by other people later) he cannot suddenly become precious about murdering his rogues gallery.  The next time the Joker turns up in a film and Batman doesn’t immediately kill him, he will look like a hypocritical fool.  And I don’t say that happily – I never want Batman to be judge, jury and executioner – I am merely pointing out that by this idiotic film’s own logic, his character has tipped over into a realm of murderous vigilantism from which he cannot return.  They’ve either made him a boring killer, or a hypocrite.  Either way, he is to become the mass-murdering, gun-toting, fascist head of this universe’s now thoroughly compromised ‘Justice League’.  And that’s not the origin story of a team of ‘heroes’, it’s Dick Cheney’s dream journal.

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IMAGE: ‘Well my dad’s name wasn’t Jonathan, SO YOU DIE NOW!’

Later, I would be even more shocked to recognise the wealth of source material that DC had allowed Snyder to burn off.  Not only does he waste The Dark Knight Rises’ battle between Superman and Batman, but the Death of Superman story also gets worked over in a ‘surprise’ third act ‘twist’ (honestly, calling this a ‘twist’ is such a ludicrous capitulation to this story’s gormlessness that it beggars belief, but whatever).  Rather than allowing Snyder to take a swing at one adaptation of an iconic story as he sought to set up their future franchises, for some reason they let him strangle two at once.

The Death of Superman, in particular, is a controversial storyline.  It’s not that beloved, but it is famous.  It’s iconic.  More importantly, it’s a storyline that could have been used to great effect in a larger arc of movies, something built to over multiple films that would have been enormously impactful and bold.  Instead, it was turned into a weird narrative Hail Mary at the end of an already overstuffed film, robbed of all of its gravitas.  It simultaneously removes all stakes from both Superman’s death (instead of the world losing a Superman that they admire, everyone is just freed the headache of having this super-powered alien stomping around their major cities) and his inevitable return (once it becomes clear that he can just die and come back from the dead arbitrarily, what future stories can threaten him?)

And it probably goes without saying that the clumsy setup for the larger DC universe was underwhelming.  Crammed into the lead up to the title fight by way of an unnecessary cameo by Wonder Woman (don’t get me wrong, I liked Gadot’s take on Diana Prince, but she had no reason to be in this plot), the best the film could concoct was a USB filled with trailers for Warner Bros.’ upcoming cinema releases?  Suddenly Lex Luthor, the inept bad guy whose greatest success was sneaking a jar of piss into a government building, has proved himself so bad at his job that he actually gathered together and named the members of the Justice League, just cause?  He even gives them logos!  Just like shoving Gotham and Metropolis across the bay from one another; just like making Batman a murderer because it’s cool; it’s narratively expedient (read: lazy), but shrinks this universe into a series of hackneyed conveniences.

Bafflingly, Warner Bros. and DC allowed a film to be made that leaves almost no wiggle room to build a future universe.   While Marvel’s long-term storytelling gradually thread individual stories into an expanding whole until The Avengers burst through the screen, Batman v Superman tries to immediately barf a universe into existence at once, and fumbles it on every level.  Narratively.  Thematically.  It paints future directors and artists into corners from which they cannot escape.  In their kneejerk response to the catch up to the Marvel franchise, DC seems to have allowed Snyder free reign to burn down their enterprise before it is even gets started.

By the time Superman helped armed terrorists get away by smashing up Batman’s car and the two ‘heroes’ were shoving each other through buildings, it became clear to me how utterly Snyder had even missed the point of each of the graphic novels he was ‘adapting’.  Snyder, in countless interviews, has bleated on and on about what a fan of comic books he is.  They are his source material, he claims.  His bible.  He has actors read them on set to help achieve the vision of the original work.  But it became clear that had he actually bothered to read any of the material from which he was stealing his aesthetics, he would have noticed the innumerable, direct contradictions in his plot points that bastardise the spirit of the original texts.

Snyder has repeatedly justified his presentation of the Batman character by citing Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, a story he said shows Batman drinking and killing and using guns.  But even a cursory glance at the source material reveals every part of this statement to be factually wrong.  The retired Bruce Wayne stops drinking when he becomes Batman again.  His no killing rule doesn’t waver – he cannot even bring himself to kill the Joker.  That becomes the whole point of their final conflict, Joker kills himself just to ‘win’.  Batman uses rubber suppression bullets in is Batmobile (honest).  He even makes the opposite argument about using guns himself.  In a pivotal moment of the story Batman holds up a firearm and states unequivocally to his forces: This is the weapon of the enemy.  Of cowards.  We don’t use these.  That’s right: even the gristled old fascist, secessionist nutbag Batman of Frank Miller wont resort to the weapon that slaughtered his parents.

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IMAGE: The Dark Knight Rises by Frank Miller, which Zack Snyder totally read.

Similarly in the Death of Superman – a pretty dumb story, frankly, but one that is illustrative of what makes the character of Superman great – the point was not that Superman is so stupid he blindly runs in and gets himself killed by a storming rock monster.  It’s that he is willing to literally be the last one fighting.  The fact that in Snyder’s contrived ending Superman ignores Wonder Woman’s help – she who could have gone in and stabbed Doomsday with the kryptonite spear without dying immediately – is just another sign of how woefully myopic Clark is in this version.

It has always been obvious that Snyder is not the ‘visionary’ his advertising material declares him to be, but rather a mimic.  For years he has been humoured for taking comic book panels and slavishly recreating them on film.  His 300 and Watchmen films were in good part just live action restagings of the original books’ imagery (smothered with grain and sepia filters).  But that’s not adaptation.  At the very best it is translation.  In another context it would be plagiarism.  It’s certainly not evidence of someone with a vision, but rather a person who has to ape the work of others to make up for their own shortfall in creativity.  What is surprising, though, is that the decisions he makes in Batman v Superman show that despite his apparent adoration of all the pretty pictures, Snyder clearly never bothers to read the words coming out of the character’s mouths.  He takes a comic book medium too often unjustly accused of superficiality and, by transporting them to the screen actually does just turn them into empty pictures.

And all this made me realise, as I watched the myriad ways that the DC universe was collapsing in on itself, that Batman v Superman might very well be the most cynical, spiteful film ever made.  It hates its characters.  It hates its own world, and goes out of its way to undermine any subsequent worlds that might be built upon its ashes.

Most of all it hates you.  The audience.  The viewer.  Anyone foolish enough to want to go on its gaudy, wilfully asinine journey.  It clearly thinks that you – that I, that all of us – are stupid.  It does patronising things like telling us – multiple times – that there are no civilian casualties in the smouldering wreckages of Metropolis and Gotham, and it actually believes its audience is obtuse enough not to question that logic***.  It runs trailers for the perpetual forced franchise it wants you to invest in amidst a single film that has already descended into unintelligible drivel.  It alters the characterisations of its heroes to make them actively moronic and thuggish.  Thomas Wayne takes a swing at his mugger, endangering his wife and child with his pigheaded heroics.  Batman is tricked by Lex Luthor into behaving like a narrow-minded goon.  Superman is a self-loathing blank slate.  Mythic, complex characters are stripped of all their poetry and grace as Snyder’s inane, nihilistic, masturbatory slurry takes everything good, or original, or unique about these characters, and turns it into the same shallow, washed-out slow motion show reel he has been making for the past dozen years.

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IMAGE: Why does no one appreciate my super city-destroying powers?

And it was around here, in this cascade of bad will, that I had the darkest, most horrific realisation that has ever flittered through my mind.  Truly, I am about to utter words that have rocked me to my core.  Watching Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman, I thought to myself:

I wish this had been directed by Michael Bay.

That’s right.  Michael goddamn Bay.

You have no idea the amount of loathing I had for myself at that moment – but it was true.  Watching the man who had shown such contempt for Superman in Man of Steel get his hands on Batman too – seeing Snyder turn another character defined by their compassion and moral fortitude into facile grimdark slurry – it broke me.  As did knowing that he was about to get his fingerprints on Wonder Woman too.  Having the ‘motivational’ speech of the film, Pa Kent’s ghost/dream/whatever speech to Clark on the top of a mountain for no reason, be yet another reminder that trying to be good, and trying to help others only ever ends in disaster – I just snapped.

I thought to myself, has there ever been a more asinine and adolescent vision of heroism in the history of film?  In the history of narrative?  Why, I wondered, is Zack Snyder telling these stories if heroism for him is just a gigantic pain, where the hero hates himself, the people hate him, and nothing is motivational or aspirational; it’s all just a ridiculous power-fantasy where the guy in the cape just spends his time moping because everyone doesn’t love him unconditionally enough?  I was watching my favourite characters, and the whole DC universe around them, mutate before my eyes into a dreary, cynical mess in which heroism is not just actively discouraged, it must be constantly reiterated as futile; an enactment of Ayn Rand’s objectivism in colourful spandex, superficial and selfish and vile.

It was a bleak world view so puerile and oppressive that I started to realise: literally the only thing this film has going for it is spectacle.  I realised that Warner Bros. have allowed Snyder to sacrifice the heart of their franchise for empty pyrotechnics.  They wanted to do Transformers business: ragingly success films largely devoid of character and plot, that function purely to move from one expensive spectacle to the next.

And if that is what they want, I realised, they should just get Michael Bay.  I realised – feeling a swell of revulsion as I said it – that I would easily rather have Bay direct a Superman/Batman/Wonder Woman film than Zack Snyder.  I would actually prefer his signature cheesy, brutal, obtuse filmmaking style over all this unearned nihilistic posturing.

Because then, at least, you get your spectacle.  Whatever else you might think of Bay – and I don’t think much – the man can film explosions.  But more than that, his weird fetishism for Americana – his obsession with soldiers portrayed as gods on earth, with hot apple pies and American flags waving – would, albeit clumsily, actually speak to some of the themes of these characters.

Bay, in spite of himself perhaps, would present a Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman that were symbols of hope.  It might be a very childish vision of hope – and of truth and justice – but you would certainly get your ‘American way’.  It might look, in cinematic terms, like a child’s crayon drawing, but it would at least capture the thumbnail sketch of these heroes with some neat looking flames thrown in for good measure.  (On second thoughts, you might want to get someone other than Bay to direct Wonder Woman or things could get disturbingly pervy. )

Snyder, despite being equally juvenile in his output, is the complete opposite of Bay’s spirit.  In his efforts to set up a ‘cool’ alternate universe, in which truth and hope are ignored, while never actually deconstructing or examining those ideas, what he actually reveals is that he and his universe are devoid of vision.  You cannot even enjoy the pretty pictures then, because they become representative of nothing.

So thanks for that Warner Bros.  You made a film so bad that I would actually welcome Michael Bay getting his grubby, baby-oil slathered fingers on my favourite iconic characters.

I need a shower.

Wonder-Woman-1200x1149

IMAGE: The best thing in the movie; barely in the movie

But this brought me to my final realisation.  It’s now the end of the film; the characters have waved at a CGI monster on a green screen for twenty minutes, and I have watched Superman arbitrarily die  …and  felt nothing.  I, who at twelve years old fanatically bought every comic leading up to the death of Superman.  I, who stood in place (it only felt right to stand as I read that issue), stunned as I opened that final fold-out page and saw him slump back dead into the dirt.  I, who ridiculously bought into the hype that he really was gone, and felt genuinely haunted by what I had just read.  I watched that story enacted on the cinema screen, and felt nothing at all.

And if that moment had so little effect on me, I can only imagine how miniscule the impact must have been for average viewers who had no such adoration for the character.  It got me thinking.  About the second week skydive in ticket sales for this film (which puts it in the category of Green Lantern and Wolverine: Origins)****, about the critical backlash (it remains pinned at 28% on Rotten Tomatoes), about the horrid word of mouth.  I wondered if it was this emptiness of spirit, symbolised by this hollow ending, that audiences have been rejecting?  The lack of genuine ideological conflict in the clash between these two characters – so contrived that it can be resolved by a piece of comic book trivia?  Martha indeed.  Because once you’ve seen the only thing that Snyder can offer – the spectacle – there is nothing to return to.  No aspiration.  No joy.  No subtext.

Snyder has traded on eighty years of good will and audience investment in these characters.  He has taken figures that have built mythologies and made them unrecognisable, emptying their narratives of meaning.  And now that  Warner Bros. and DC have tried to build a world upon a foundation of nihilism and cynicism, without replacing the elements of  that universe that they let be desecrated, all that is left is a universe devoid of substance.  Nothing for an audience to return to, to mull over or take inspiration from.  And if heroes don’t have morals, or ideals, or identifiable struggles, if they are all just CGI splash and grating sonics, they fade instantly.  Their films die near immediately at the box office.  They themselves dissolve near immediately in the mind.  Once the spectacle is consumed, it instantaneously fades.

And that made me, amidst all of this despair and mess, cautiously hopeful.  Because this film’s relative failure – initially buoyed by the hopes of an audience that were dashed upon seeing the final product – is a harbinger of the failure that awaits the DC cinematic universe if they follow the patented Snyder brand of dreary, superficial mediocrity.  And since Warner Bros. cannot afford to risk a repeat of this scenario – audiences are less likely to fall for this trick again – that doesn’t look so likely as it had before.

To end on a happier note: it’s for this exact reason that so many viewers have become fixated on Gal Gadot’s smile.  Wonder Woman’s flash of excitement is the one thing that shines bright amidst this turgid, dreary mess of a film.  Because that smile implies joy.  It implies hope.  Amidst all this droning CGI carnage, that one movement the lips implies a depth of character – or at least just another layer to a character – that is lacking everywhere else on the screen.

And what that suggests to me is that Warner Bros., if they have the clarity to see the audience reaction for what it is – unbridled excitement for the film, and complete disinterest in what Snyder and Goyer presented – it could signal a fundamental redirection for this universe.

And the signals are there that this could already be happening.  The upcoming Suicide Squad has now gone back for reshoots to bump up its character interaction, something sorely missing from Snyder’s film in which Superman and Wonder Woman do not even speak; the director of Aquaman, James Wan, has already distanced himself from Snyder’s oppressive, joyless tone.

But as the film finally sputtered to an end after several tedious fake-outs, I realised that even if none of these dreams come to fruition, even if in two years Zack Snyder is still turning Justice League into a seven hour joyless, glowering dirge, at least I still have The Flash and Supergirl to watch – shows that aren’t embarrassed by joy and inspiration.  Shows that actually like their own characters, and respect their audience, and that are comfortable enough in their skin not to need to pose and posture and misquote philosophies they don’t understand just to sound cool.

And with that I fired up the Supergirl/Flash crossover episode again, and happily lost myself in a world where superheroes still have something worthwhile to say about life.

flash and supergirl

IMAGE:  So much better than anything in this film it’s embarrassing

* If you want to hear my opinion of the glowering, dour sociopath that was Snyder’s Man of Steel, read here.

** To be clear, it was only after reading the credits that I realised murdered photographer was Olsen, but the meaninglessness and callousness of that death, so early in the picture, had been weighing on me the whole time, proof that Snyder had happily refused to learn anything about the criticism Man of Steel had received for its cavalier brutality.

*** Presumably Snyder’s feelings were hurt when people criticised the gleeful collateral damage of Man of Steel, but he could only be bothered paying the most glib lip service to that complaint.

**** As I type this during its third weekend after release, the film was beaten outright by critically panned Melissa McCarthy comedy The Boss.

Commercial Break: Toys For The Kids

Posted in criticism, movies, stupidity with tags , , , , , on April 1, 2016 by drayfish

WARNING: SPOILERS for Batman v Superman: Damn of Justice  …also, a good deal of angry snark.

batman superman toys

HEY KIDS!

New from Warner Bros merchandise!  Re-molded from unsold Green Lantern stock – it’s the toy range to accompany the hot new film:

Gotham Gun Man V Inscrutable Alien Narcissist: Dawn of Jaundice

Relive all the Sturm und Drang fun of your favourite two asinine Jesus metaphors as they glare at each other and commit literally countless acts of murder!

CHOOSE YOUR MOPEY SOCIOPATH!

Play as your favourite dour, overpowered lunatic!  Massacre your enemies!  Savage bystanders!  Pretend that nightshift workers and late night traffic don’t exist as you embark upon a senseless, easily-avoided rampage of savagery!

batman maxresdefault

IMAGE: Gunman talking to himself, totally not embarrassed…

PLAY AS THE GOTHAM GUNMAN!

Become the thing you despise as you slip into hypocritical spiral of serial killing!  Commit countless gun-related homicides while playing as a man haunted by the death of his parents at the barrel of a gun!  Includes branding iron accessory!  Practice mutilating your cowering victims so that they can be murdered later in prison!

Play the world’s greatest detective as a thug dudebro too stupid to know that he is being played for a fool by everyone that he meets!

Gunman Mobile comes with machinegun attachment and spatters of brain-matter on the bumper!

superman

IMAGE: The ‘S’ stands for slaughter

OR PLAY AS INSCRUTIBLE ALIEN NARCISSIST!

Play the world’s most iconic inspirational hero recast as a petulant, omnipotent cry baby!

Get sidelined from your own sequel!  Be responsible for an event a thousand times worse than 9/11!  Turn a terrorist you could easily disarm into a wet paste!  Continue your creepy obsession with your girlfriend and your mother at the expense of every other living creature on Earth!  Stand idle with a constipated expression as an entire building filled with innocent people blows up around you!  Generally be a dick to everyone!  Die for arbitrary reasons!  Scowl disdainfully at humanity as you leer over them like a demigod!

Pretend that your director doesn’t actively despise everything you represent!

lois lane

IMAGE: Wasted in this film

PLAY AS LOIS LANE!

Be marginalised by a script that reduces you to a helpless damsel, a naked trophy in a bathtub, or an exposition dispenser!

…Actually kids, don’t do that.  Because we didn’t bother to make any Lois Lane dolls.  After all, we only made Wonder Woman a toy in a cross promotion with Barbie.

We don’t know what the hell we’re doing.

lex luthor toy

IMAGE: Remember this scene?  No?!

PLAY AS LEX LUTHOR!

Whip yourself into a jittery, scene-chewing frenzy as a  trust-fund, douche bag knock off of Heath Ledger’s Joker!  Misunderstand poorly-applied Wikipedia quotes!

Comes with accessory jar of human pee!

AND DON’T FORGET TO BUY BOTH ‘MARTHA’ DOLLS

Otherwise one of your heroes will brutally murder the other one!

…no, really.

Angry-Batman-vs-Angry-Superman

IMAGE: The faces of the ‘heroes’ that now haunt your nightmares

THESE TOYS ARE EDUCATIONAL!

Learn about Ayn Rand’s bogus philosophy of glorified narcissism!  Help director Zack Snyder live out his adolescent Atlas Shrugged power fantasies as you turn heroes that have always been defined by their compassion and devotion to humanity into brutal, nihilistic, myopic assholes, whining about how no one appreciates how exceptional they are.

Like a real hero!

batman-v-superman-image-gallery

IMAGE: Kiss!  Kiss!  Kiss!

YOU BE THE FILMMAKER!

Use flashbacks and flash forwards and visions!  Imbed a dream within a dream within a time travel  premonition because you saw Inception once!  Allow yourself to become a cynical shill  for your parent company as you lazily cram several film’s worth of foreshadowing, and a blatant trailer reel for your upcoming products, into an already farcically incoherent plot!

Smash your toys together for an interminable hour, letting the migraine inducing cacophony of grinding plastic distract you from the realisation that the entire narrative could literally be resolved with a simple conversation!

Shoot Superman’s pal Jimmy Olsen in the f**king head!  While you are feeling nauseous, be comforted by the thought that Zack Snyder thinks this is funny!

Try to convince yourself that Zack Snyder is not a joyless psychopath!

wonder woman barbie main

AND HEY, REMEMBER WONDER WOMAN?

Relive the only moment of light in this oppressive nightmare!  You know, that moment where Wonder Woman kind of half-smiles?  Try to hold on to that fleeting sensation of joy as this vapid nihilistic hate screed of a film turns everything you adore about these characters and the DC universe into a turgid, spiteful, wilfully stupid brown muck!

On sale wherever dreams go to die.

Batman V Superman: Dawn of Snark

Posted in criticism, movies, stupidity with tags , , , , , on March 27, 2016 by drayfish

batman-v-superman-reviews

IMAGE: Batman V Superman: The Plaintiff, Defendant, and Lady with Sword

I just wish there was somewhere I could watch a film where Superman was a depressed, psychotic narcissist with a messiah complex, Batman was a stupid, easily duped, gun-totting murderer, and Wonder Woman (arguably the best character in comic book history) was sidelined into a bit-part by all the asinine adolescent male angst in the plot.

Also, if there was a giant CGI turd monster that everyone could punch for an hour, that would be great.

But Hollywood never listens to fans like me.

The Phantom Drone: Prelude To A Rant…

Posted in comics, criticism, movies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 31, 2013 by drayfish

Seriously, I am about to rant in the lead up to another, equally tedious rant.  If you loved Man of Steel, have an understandable hatred for futile whining on the interwebs, or just generally care for your own mental health, I suggest you don’t bother reading the following post. 

The TLDR version is: other people liked Man of Steel – and that’s fine.  I resoundingly did not enjoy it (which is also fine, by the way) – but I foolishly tried to analyse why, and almost lost my mind in the process. 

This is that story…

man of steel general zod

IMAGE: General Zod from Man of Steel (Warner Bros.)

I made a mistake.

Two months ago, the granddaddy of all super heroes, the original man-in-the-tri-colour-onesie – Superman – returned to cinemas.  It had been decades since the Richard Donner vision of the prototypical comic book champion was so watered down by his progressively inferior sequels that the franchise had faded into a mockery of itself.  A new millennium had come upon us since the (thankfully) stalled Kevin Smith/Tim Burton/Nick Cage ‘dark’ re-visioning of Krypton’s son, Superman Lives, was jettisoned into the whispers of movie studio lore.  And it has been years since Bryan Singer (leaving the X-Men franchise to collapse in on itself under Brett Ratner’s profoundly mediocre directing*) had seen his resurrection of the saga stalled with a lukewarm (to hostile) audience response.

Superman had certainly lived on in comics (been killed and reborn, had his powers altered and gotten married), and he had thrived in the phenomenal animated Superman and Justice League programs (executive produced by Bruce Timm who likewise helmed the groundbreaking Batman: The Animated Series**), but it took until this year for Kal-El to return to the silver screen in Man of Steel, a big budget spectacle designed to reintroduce the Superman tale to a whole new audience, restarting the narrative from the beginning.

I was warned ahead of time that this version of the tale would probably not appeal to me – that I might, in fact, get quite angry at this depiction of the character.

I didn’t listen.

But that’s not the mistake bit.  Not yet.  The mistake comes later.

‘Pish-posh,’ cried I, when I heard their cautions.  ‘Why, adaptation is the lifeblood of all mythologies that seek to remain valid!  It is the responsibility of each new generation to re-contextualise the elements of these adventures to speak to their own experience!  Ergo, the details will change, the tone will fluctuate, and the familiar will be remade anew!  Forsooth!  Egads!  Harrumph!’

Flinging my martini into the fireplace, I then repositioned my monocle, bid everyone a good day (‘I said, Good Day, sir!’), and clambered up onto my penny-farthing, to pedal as swiftly as I could to the nearest moving-pictures show and pay for a ticket – keen to discover for myself how this new-fangled Superman was rejuvenating the stuffy and old with a fresh perspective.

…Okay, to be honest I wasn’t quite so philosophical.  While I desperately hoped that the film would deliver a rollicking, triumphant and introspective journey (Superman is a character that can frequently be dismissed as cheesy or old-fashioned, but I legitimately believe him to be more important in our current cultural climate than he ever has been) there had been some major warning signs hanging over the production that gave me pause.

Namely, Jack Snyder.

To put it mildly, I am not a fan of Zack Snyder’s work.  To me it has consistently been the very definition of cinematic style over substance – and considering that I’m not really a big fan of his perpetually washed-out-metallic-sheen aesthetic either, there really is really very little to endear me to his canon.  I know many loved the film (and I am glad for them) but beyond its faithfulness to the source material’s bold visuals (and near-fetishistic masculinity), I saw little to love in 300.  The Watchmen likewise perfectly recreated the page layouts of the comic, but its characters and symbolism fell flat (again, just my opinion).  And the less said about what I consider to be his grotesquely misguided (and mystifyingly tone-deaf) ‘feminist’ treatise Suckerpunch, the better.  So far his filmography has seemed to me to be stylistically thumping but narratively scattershot; emotionless, inhuman, and lacking anything that even vaguely resembles subtlety, character depth, cohesive narrative, or the capacity to linger in a moment of meaningful quietude.

Having said all that, however, I legitimately went in to Man of Steel hoping to be surprised.  Under the presumably watchful eye of producer Christopher Nolan, the man who rescued the Batman franchise from Joel Schumacher’s neon fever dream, and the screenwriting potential of David Goyer, who (sure, while he also wrote Ghost Rider) collaborated with Nolan in the Dark Knight trilogy to turn it into one of the most diverse, multifaceted explorations of terrorism yet committed to film, there was every reason to believe that this could be the project that would give Snyder the guidance he needed to finally evolve as a storyteller.

Similarly, I am not some slavish fanboy of the old films (so however the following criticisms may sound, they truly do not come from a ‘They did it better back when…’ place).  I know that to many this will sound like heresy, but aside from Christopher Reeves’ masterful shape-shifting double-duty playing both a mythic god and a bumbling country boy, I find little in the original films worth salvaging.  Superman’s 4 and 3 are cheap (really, really cheap) goofy kitsch; film 2 (no doubt due to its drama behind the scenes) feels slightly schizophrenic in tone (and what was with that cellophane symbol Superman Frisbees about?); and even the original (admittedly the best of the bunch) is at times plodding, contains that mystifying anti-musical number when Lois sing-speaks ‘Can you read my mind?’ in her head, and most egregiously of all, is marred by possibly the laziest piece of deus ex machina drivel ever committed to film in the narrative’s climax, as Superman spins the earth around the other way  to turn back time (!!?!!).***

And while I’m not a pure hater of the Superman Returns – it did attempt to recapture some of the wonder of Donner’s original – Singer’s soft-reboot never quite carved out an individual identity beyond its almost-plagiarising homage.  …Not to mention that, when looked at objectively, Snyder’s vision of Superman was both a dead-beat dad, and something of a creeper.  I’m almost certain these two lines of Lois Lane’s dialogue were cut, last minute, from the theatrical release:

‘Wait, is that someone floating outside my window x-ray visioning into my most private family moments?  Oh, no. It’s just the guy I used to date – a dude who dumped me, ran off, and was leading a double life so elaborate it was like he was two different people…’

‘Hold on, has someone sneaked into my house so that they can leer over my sleeping child like a psychopath?  …Oh no, it’s just an omnipotent, moody alien with boundary issues wearing skin tight lycra.  It’s fine.’

So while it may not sound like it, when the house lights of the cinema went down, I truly was eager to believe – given the subject matter of the narrative and the pedigree of its actors and producers – that perhaps both Man of Steel and its director could ultimately soar…

…I was wrong.

But again: this too is not the mistake of which I speak.  That’s still to come…

No doubt many others did and continue to enjoy Snyder’s take on Superman a great deal (in fact, I know they have; I scarcely remember a time I’ve seen such vitriol directed by supporters of a film back at those who criticise it), but for me it was a resounding miss.  Indeed, a completely baffling miss.

Illogical, over-wrought, weirdly tonally jarring; the makers of the film seemed to hit every cliché in the narrative with over-earnest pretention, but simultaneously remained almost belligerently ignorant of the subtext they themselves were ordering the audience to embrace.  Between the incongruous religious allegories, the hackneyed terrorism analogies, the completely nonsensical way it cannibalised its own mythos rather than communicate a coherent plot, the whole thing seemed to thrash about wildly, a cluster bomb of clichés.  Sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Even the action, which I have heard many people celebrate, struck me cold – eventually leaving me utterly, stupefyingly numb.  Sure, there was spectacle (after all, aside from Singer’s more restrained vision, this is the first time special-effects technology has been at a state where the guy in the cape can really let fly with the ‘splosions and feats of strength), but after about fifty unbroken minutes of it, the carnage tipped over from breathtaking epic clash to indulgent, meaningless noise.  I do recall involuntarily shaking my head as the film gormlessly telegraphed Superman’s decision to slaughter his enemy, but even then, I felt almost nothing.  The whole thing seemed like little more than a CGI tech demo, with cardboard cut-outs of beautiful people danced in front of the screen, and dialogue so stilted it was like placeholder notations for a second draft that never came to be.

And so, when I left the cinema I was surprised to find that I wasn’t, as my friends had warned me, angry.

In truth, I was mostly just bemused.  Sure, part of that was probably just a product of being stunned by the film’s aimless sensory overload.  That final hour really does wear you down.  Indeed, through some kind of unnerving magic, it becomes a hyperactive tantrum of punching and crunching so monotonous that the countless deaths it depicts actually transmogrify from horrifying to utterly boring.  But overall, between the hysterically rampant product placement, the creaking script, and the asinine allusions the film was ham-fistedly trying to employ, it was all far more humorous than aggravating.

Yes, there was the immediate vulgarity (that many others have already cited) of Superman arbitrarily killing his enemy and having the narrative implicitly celebrate it – but even this was handled in such a clumsy way as to become absurdly comedic, an act of scriptwriting laziness more than any kind of moral statement.  After all, Superman had, until that point, been nonplussed to watch countless people crushed and blown up and stomped on (often as a direct consequence of his own blind fury) – but suddenly, in the final ten minutes, Zod threatens a family escaped from an Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue and he is so tortured that he both snaps Zod’s neck (mortal damage that he has magically been unable to do before that very second) and rears back to unleash a Darth Vader-style ‘Nooooooooo!!!’ scream to the heavens?

To give Snyder the benefit of the doubt for a moment, he may well have been thinking of Superman’s reckless and willingness to resort to murder in his first outing as a hero in the terms of an origin tale such as Spiderman, where Peter Parker had to start by being irresponsible (let the mugger go) so that he could learn to be responsible in future (to stop other innocents like Uncle Ben dying as a result of his apathy).  Sure, it would still be the laziest of possible resolutions (aside from spinning the Earth back around the other way, of course), but Snyder might have been thinking that by indulging such extremes you can later cobble together a tale of heroism and moral fortitude out of remorse and redemption.  You know – like Spiderman’s guilt…  Except, of course, that Spiderman didn’t personally gun Ben down.  He didn’t plunge his hand through his chest and shout, ‘Responsibility!!!’ into the sky as lightning crackled overhead.****

But I digress…

No, ultimately the whole of Man of Steel felt too tacky and self-indulgent to get mad about.  From the derivatively mopey emo tone they tried to slather over every scene (even though there was never any specific reason offered for why being superhuman, good-looking, popular with the ladies, and awesome, should be such an onerous drag); to the endless expositional pontificating by poor Kevin Costner’s (apparently suicidal) Pa Kent;  to the embarrassingly insincere attempt to manufacture pathos by ripping off the origin stories of other heroes.  The whole thing seemed to be so desperately trying distinguish itself – to shout ‘This isn’t your grandma’s Superman!‘ – that it collapsed over into a weirdly joyless farce.

Nonetheless, when I got home from the cinema, I decided that the whole experience should not be for nothing.  There had to be something worth talking about in the shambolic mess I had just witnessed…  The film certainly seemed to want to say something, even if it kept contradicting itself and indulging all of its laziest impulses.

And here comes the mistake bit…

Hmm, I thought.  That messiah stuff was kind of weird.

That fundamental contradiction between the sacrificial analogy the filmmakers were ponderously trying to draw and their character’s own behaviour, seemed so preposterous, so juvenile, that I decided to write a short, playful response to it.

And that was it.  That was the mistake.  The white rabbit had scampered by, and the moment that my fingers touched the keyboard to start unpacking that obnoxiously irrelevant Jesus imagery I was tumbling down a nonsensical hole that felt like it stole weeks from my life.

man of steel dream sequence

IMAGE: Dream sequence from Terminator 2 Man of Steel (Warner Bros.)

Suddenly, all those once-humorous contradictions started piling up.  The aimless, artless, facile equivalencies the film tried to evoke, all while belligerently ignoring the implications of its own message, steadily began overtaking me, started rubbing me raw.  Now it wasn’t just the Kal-El-is-Jesus comparison (which, to be fair, was stolen from Donner’s film, Donner just handled it far more elegantly), it was the clumsy endorsement of Nietzsche’s notion of the ubermensch; the exploitatively cowardly sensationalising of 9/11; the terrorism analogies that ironically embrace rather than discredit the use of ideological horror; the pretentious hypocrisy of all the film’s rote philosophising about ‘restraint’ (they even throw in a Plato reference, despite going on to wholesale contradict everything Plato was arguing); the way that the empty rhetoric of ‘hope’ and moral fortitude that gets vomited up in stilted dialogue but never validated by the plot; the complete nonsense of having characters drone on and on about what Superman is ‘meant’ to represent, only to then show him embodying the complete opposite of these qualities at every significant moment…

I tried to remain rational, tried to stay as detached, and objective and analytically unbiased as I could manage – but a strange gravity kept pulling me in.  Perhaps it was the realisation that, despite what people who scoff at comic books might think, super heroes have a substance, have an inspirational mythos that they carry with them; and to see it so callously maligned kind of stung.  Perhaps it was irritation at the film’s faux-philosophical self-satisfaction, despite the fact that even it didn’t seem to know what it was saying.  Whatever it was, I found myself spewing out a tedious analytical screed so lengthy it felt at times that it would never end (I literally checked the word count at one point to find, with horror, that I was already over eight thousand words in) all while trying to comprehend a film that I had previously sloughed off as inordinately expensive B-movie cheese.  (Not to mention that here I am doing it all over again…)  At times, when I allowed myself the egotism of such hyperbole it felt like I had spent more time thinking about the plot and its themes than the film’s creators ever had – and then that thought (petty as it was) got on my nerves too.

There is a Phantom Zone in this film (though they don’t call it that), where time and space are immaterial, where the void swallows you whole, where logic and physics are meaningless.  It is a prison, one that Zod gets thrown into for being arrogant enough to question the social order – the Kryptonian council who want to pretend that things are great, and that no one need worry about any of it.  In scratching the surface of Man of Steel’s themes I shared Zod’s fate; I felt I had stared into that same abyss.  It was an impossible, immaterial vacuum, where images at first appeared to have substance, but remained disturbingly, nonsensically one dimensional.  Where words like ‘honour’ and ‘hope’ and ‘sacrifice’ were hollowed out and stripped of context, but still flaunted in a vain display.  It was an act of analysis that, of I’m honest, left me feeling peculiarly grim – something that I most recently remember feeling when trying to discern the ‘feminist’ message of Snyder’s repugnant Sucker Punch.

The result of this foray into critical madness – following Snyder’s Kurtz into a superhuman heart of darkness – can be found on the PopMatters journal website: ‘A Man of Steel That Sinks Like Lead’.  If you are particularly self-loathing, you can inflict it upon yourself there (although I will probably republish it here sometime in the future).  Upon its publication it was immediately torn to shreds by fans of the film as being needlessly nitpicking and of taking the film too seriously.  ‘It was just a film’, seemed to be the overwhelming catch-cry.

And although I did (and do) say to those commentators that my experience is in no way meant to discredit their interpretation – that I am glad for them that they enjoyed Man of Steel, I just did not share their point of view – perhaps there is some truth in what they say.  After all, it was long, and exhausting, and frankly I feel only worse having written it; and like the film itself, there is an inescapable stench of futility hanging over the entire enterprise.  The people who love the film will continue to love it no matter what (and they are more than welcome to it); meanwhile the people who hate Snyder’s vision will no doubt find nothing within my screed they have not already noticed themselves.

As I look back on this little purge of mine, I realise that the word that keeps resurfacing is ‘Indulgent’ – and I think that’s where I personally land on Man of Steel.  To me, it is the exemplar of lazy and indulgent filmmaking, in all of its gaudy excess.  It gratifies only the most fleeting of superficial desires for bombast and spectacle; its characters are no more than mouthpieces to advance the most flimsy of plotlines; it wallows in adolescent nihilism; it affects subtext in order to ape significance but follows through on nothing it evokes; and it shamelessly trades on the good will of its predecessors, offering nothing new to an audience itself.

But there was one further indulgence that I hadn’t considered: that of my own unwillingness to just walk away.

After all, I don’t like writing long, boring, tracts of criticism that dig for meaning and come up empty.  It’s a chore that, believe me, is even less fun to write than it is to read.  So why – when there have been plenty of other shallow action spectacles that have pilfered iconography they didn’t understand to ape gravitas they didn’t earn – why was I unable to shake loose of this one when I saw that analytical Phantom Zone open before me?

Perhaps it was some selfish affection for the Superman character, who I felt was being twisted into something unrecognisable; perhaps it was some personal contempt for Snyder himself, and his hackneyed, empty symbolism; perhaps it was just sanctimonious reprisal, petty revenge for feeling that I had been tricked into digging for substance where there was only exploitation.

In any case, whatever it was, it was a mistake.  One that I vow I shall never make again.  I free myself both of the burden of hoping for something better in Snyder’s work, and of tilting at his windmills in critical analysis.  Superman has weathered worse than him, and there are far more substantive texts still out there to explore…

You have no more power over me, Man of Steel.  Do whatever you wish, because I won’t let you plague me any more.

All right.  Good.  Now that all of that is out of the way, let me move on with my life and get back to checking the internet blog-o-sphere to see what’s going on in the world.

Let me just click on this first link here and –

Hmm?  What’s this?  The next Superman film is going to have Batman in it?!

Wait.

…Snyder is going to do Batman?!

And played by Ben Affleck!?!?

Oh, gods no…

No…

Just when I think I’m out, they pull me back in.

Sigh.

All right.  Fine.  You win.

Just let me kneel down on the ground here and…

NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!

man of steel scream 600x338

IMAGE: Emotions from Man of Steel (Warner Bros.)

* Who used his extraordinary reverse-Midas powers to turn one of comic books fiction’s most celebrated  dramatic arcs (and the gathering propulsion of the preceding films) into a muddled, affected soap-opera, sprinkled with poorly-staged CGI explosions.

** Truly, his smack down with Captain Marvel alone nails every epic note that Man of Steel failed to hit, and the debate over his political and social responsibilities in the Cadmus story arc make a joke of the clumsy military posturing in Snyder’s tale.

*** …Also: ?!??!!!?!!?!!

**** Not to mention that I think it’s fair to say that in superhero terms, committing an act of murder is usually considered to be in the wheelhouse of ‘letting the toddler  touch the stove top’.  It’s enough to just tell them no, and let them figure out for themselves why it was the right thing to avoid.

Swing-and-a-Miss: ‘Feminism’ in Sucker Punch

Posted in criticism, movies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 2, 2013 by drayfish

sucker punch

IMAGE: Sucker Punch, Directed by Zack Snyder (Warner Bros)

Superficially, Sucker Punch (2011) is an easy film to hate.  Between the maudlin histrionics of the plot, the stilted, tone deaf dialogue, and the glossy CGI pyrotechnics cluttering the screen while signifying little, it appears to be little more than a bombastic, exploitative spectacle.  Loud, voyeuristic, and seemingly concerned with the systematised objectification and abuse of women, upon its release it was savaged by critics who labelled it juvenile, misogynistic, and even hysterically, garishly overwrought.

However, as almost a direct reaction to this overwhelming panning, a select few critics sought to vehemently defend the film, lamenting that no one had taken the time to look beneath the surface of the work.  No one, they declared, had appreciated the irony at the heart of its narrative, the sardonic statement it was making about the exploitation and debasement of women that informs its narrative.

One film critic in particular, Scott Mendelson, went so far as to declare that the reaction to Sucker Punch was a harbinger of our cultural ruin, a kneejerk PC overcorrection that revealed ‘Why We Can’t Have Nice Things…’ (here)*  We, as a mass-market audience, were all too ignorant, and ‘couldn’t see past the surface’ to the genius beneath.  Indeed, in France, Mendelson argued, the film would have been hailed a masterpiece (although from what little I have gleaned it does not appear that it was beloved in Europe, either), but when a ‘visionary’ director such as Zack Snyder releases a film in America, it is unjustly maligned and rejected as exploitative trash.

Similarly, /Film’s Adam Quigley made the bold claim that no one but he had yet seen the true narrative of the film in a video essay literally titled ‘You Don’t Understand Sucker Punch’ (here).  Apparently what the audience didn’t understand (Quigley actually uses the slightly hysterical phrasing ‘prestigious journalists … don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about’) was that we were meant to infer that the entire narrative was bookended by another layer of fantasy, a ‘real’ world in which secondary-character Sweet Pea was being lobotomised, and that everything depicted was all just her dream.

…Why this entirely subjective hypothesis has any impact upon the themes of objectification and sexism at the film’s heart, why layering another needless ‘twist’ upon the several that already go nowhere is impactful, or how one single, fleeting scene with Sweet Pea being threatened by a lobotomy was distinct enough from every other similar sequence that it could distinguish itself as the singular key that unlocks the film’s puzzle, is never fully explained by Quigley.  (Although perhaps he doesn’t bother because ‘critics’ would no doubt be too stupid to understand anyway.)

However, while it is often easy to attack the media for concentrating too much upon the salacious, and for failing to address the thematic meat beneath an artist’s work – as both Mendelson and Quigley do with indignation – in this case, I would argue that to actually take up their challenge, to bother to scratch the surface of Snyder’s work and delve into its psychologically regressive meaning, rather than rescuing the film from condemnation, instead confirms its ugly pretence, and the exploitative sexism it mistakenly, clumsily believes it is debunking.

Before even leaping into the subtext, though, I should be honest and admit that even superficially the film does little to warm me to it.  Personally, I find its hyper-stylised cartoon action so flashy and weightless that it loses all sense of substance, meaning that as a punctuation for character drama it becomes impossible to invest in (particularly in light of the ultimate revelation that it is all just layers of fantasy within fantasy).  Likewise, the glossy sexualisation of the central female characters – reducing them to an amalgam of corsets, miniskirts and porcelain skin – was off-putting rather than enticing, sadly hollowing these women into figurines provocatively posed amongst a CGI cacophony.

But it is in the Russian Doll embedding of realities (with Babydoll descending into her mindscape to find herself, the namesake ‘baby doll’ in the stack) that the purportedly subversive message that critics such as Mendelson and Quigley have applauded is at its most invasive and corroding, where it becomes most evident that Snyder (I hope) did not actually understand how to articulate the themes that he was trying to explore, resulting in an offensively contradictory mess.

Fundamentally, the plot concerns a young woman, nicknamed Babydoll, who is incarcerated in a mental institution after accidentally shooting and killing her younger sister.  Babydoll had been attempting to fend off the physically abusive and sexually predatory advances of her stepfather, but he, unpunished, watches on as she is arrested, and bribes an orderly to forge the signatures that will ensure she is given a lobotomy.  Over the course of the following week, Babydoll finds herself and her fellow inmates taking refuge in the shared fantasy that they are actually trapped inside a bordello, where they must ‘dance’ for the entertainment of their clients.  Guided by Babydoll, who receives instruction from a wizened old man, in this layer of fantasy, the women then regress into a further layer of communal dream whenever Babydoll ‘dances’ to distract the onlooking men, imagining themselves on a quest to gather together a series of totemic ‘keys’ that will ‘free’ them from their entrapment.  These vignettes take the form of something akin to videogame levels – a world war one fight with robots; a samurai showdown; orcs and dragons – and when the item is retrieved the women return to the world of the bordello to continue their escape plan.

Advocates of the film suggest that it can be read as a postmodern feminist statement, because it is in these regressions into themselves that these women find a power that defies the dominance of the men who physically hold them down.  In such a reading, these women are attempting to escape their exploitation at the hands of a corrupted social structure that allows men to dominate the sanctity of a woman’s legal rights and autonomy (Babydoll was committed because she fought back against a brutal rapist, and is condemned to receive a lobotomy to shut her up), a gender politics that allows them to be sexually exploited at will (a kind reading of the narrative suggests that they must ‘dance’ for men’s entertainment; a more accurate reading reveals that they are being repeatedly raped by the orderlies who are running a makeshift slave-brothel), and even a media that reduces them to pretty faces that can kick ass in tight leather and school-girl outfits for the entertainment of a movie-going audience (those in the audience who came to watch Snyder’s film).  They do this by looking deep within themselves for a space that these patriarchal systems cannot touch, and by using the power that they find in this private recess to their advantage.

Now, if the point of this fiction was to argue that there is, ultimately, no way out of this kind of sexist, abusive cycle, then the film would be making a horribly grim, but consistent message.  It would be presenting a searing – if hackneyed – condemnation of a corrupt worldview that needs to change.  But Snyder attempts to go further, suggesting that there is a way to reclaim individual dignity in the face of such cruelty by playing into its expectation.  Sadly, Snyder’s film ultimately posits that women caught in the web of this debasement need to embrace the ‘power’ afforded to them by their imposed sexualisation, thereby achieving ‘freedom’.  It effectively offers a rather nihilistic message about the need for women to utterly abdicate their sense of self in service of survival.

At every level of the descent down the reality/fantasy slide these women are being dominated and defined by men, and must use these fantasies as a refuge (effectively looking away as they are violated).  In order to escape the horror of being raped in the institution, Babydoll descends into the fantasy of a bordello.  When she is likewise sexually exploited there, compelled to dress provocatively and turn men on with her dancing, she escapes this debasement by withdrawing into a series of computer-generated boss-battles, imagining herself and her fellow captives in sexy costumes.  So even here, in her most private depicted space – the landscape of her own mind and imagination – she and her fellow prisoners are shown to be viewed through a sexualised vision.  Snyder yet again reduces them to objects performing aimless spectacle for the gratification of their viewer.  Babydoll ‘dances’ for both the corrupted orderlies and bordello patrons, but also for the conventional movie-going audience who demand their empty, silky set-piece spectacle.

Snyder claims to take us on a journey into their mindscape to show their independence, the private space no man can enter to defile them, but in doing so he performs arguably the most grotesque violation of all: he distorts their inner imaginative space to be subsumed into yet another male-gaze.  Socially, physically, and (thanks to the film’s intrusion into their dreams) psychologically, they are being reprogrammed to believe that there is salvation and autonomy in such an ideological compromise of self.  Sure, they can be ‘heroes’ – they can control their own destinies – if only they will agree to put on the skimpy schoolgirl outfits and pout in the flare of the explosions.  In pigtails, short skirt, and high stockings, carrying glossy cold steel as she is bent into a sexual pretzel of poses, Babydoll becomes precisely what her nickname suggests: an objectified, sexualised infant being trained to behave.

And this, sadly, is evident in the rather vile ending that results.  Not only is there the clumsy patriarchal reinforcement of having these women delivered their ‘salvation’ by a fatherly figure who tells them what to do in each videogame mission (and who eventually appears as a bus driver in the ‘real world’ to carry the one survivor to freedom), but it is revealed that it is only through embracing these multiple exploitations, giving over bodily and psychologically to the hungry leering of both their narrative and metatextual captors, that these women can see their mission ‘succeed’.

Babydoll’s ‘reward’ for acquiescing to the objectification of her captors is to lose her metaphorical virginity in the dream of the bordello, to have her physical sanctity violated by being repeatedly raped and savaged in the asylum, and then to be robbed literally of her mind – firstly embracing the lecherous fantasy of crass commercial culture by playing a sexy ninjette, and then having that private space decimated anyway by being casually lobotomised.  (In the extended cut apparently she also gets to ’empower’ herself by choosing to sexually gratify the doctor who then goes on to literally cut the last vestiges of her independent personality away.)  But apparently all this sacrifice is a ‘win’ because she managed to help one other woman thread this vile gauntlet to be ‘freed’.

Yes, the film posits that men are weak, exploitative, institutionally-cowardly scum, but where it fails is in its suggestion that the only way women can overcome their enslavement is to actually embrace this grotesque misogynist vision of the world wholly, to become (both body and mind) the object that this debased social structure demands they be in the first place.  If they do so, it says, then maybe – just maybe – by being willing to literally sacrifice themself to this self-immolating pageantry, they can thread the leering gauntlet that would punish their autonomy, and a couple of them might find a nice asexual old bus-driver/spiritual-advisor man who can carry them off to safety.

These victims are shown needing to embrace their infantilisation and sexualisation at every level of their being – and, again, were the movie legitimately about showing how barren and wasteful such vile compromise is, it would have fulfilled its rather nihilistic purpose.  Instead, it chooses to reinforce the merit in embracing this kind of exploitation.  Sure, the majority of these women will be emotionally and psychologically indoctrinated to view themselves through the lens of their oppressors, put on display like dolls, raped, killed and lobotomised like so much cattle, but at least one of them might make it through this nightmare …only to spend the rest of her life traumatised and alone in a world still engineered to reward such ritual cruelty.

By making every male in the film a hysterically overinflated uber-villain, and by reducing the women to sexualised beings that must sell themselves physically and psychologically, Snyder might be deriding the whole process of reducing women to objects, but instead of condemning it outright, he (I hope unknowingly) actually reinforces it.  After all, as the narrative progresses, it is only by having these women embrace the fetishisation of mass market culture that the film disingenuously purports to critique that they are even offered an illusion of autonomy.  And it is in that contradiction – positing that there is independence and supremacy in the act of utterly divesting oneself of selfhood – that the film egregiously falls down, creating an equally damaging illusion of ‘feminist’ power by ironically strengthening all of the hateful misogyny that it claims to deride.

To be completely honest, if, as Mendelson declared in his vehement support of the film, Sucker Punch’s aesthetic titillation and reprehensible message are the ‘nice things’ audiences have denied themselves in future because they were unwilling to celebrate Snyder’s misogynistic snuff film as ‘feminism’, I struggle to feel the loss.  Hopefully, more films will arise that show women embracing their strength, independence and sexuality – not because they have been infantilised or patronisingly danced about like action figures, but because they are being rightly depicted as having every reserve of strength and autonomy that any man has – making the ‘novelty’ of a misguided film such as this a thing of the past.

 sucker punch institution

 IMAGE: Sucker Punch, Directed by Zack Snyder (Warner Bros)

* Mendelson’s celebration of the film gathers pace from the backhanded encouragement of ‘In the end, Sucker Punch is a messy, flawed, and ambitious movie that earns kudos for daring to actually be about something relevant and interesting’ in his original review (http://scottalanmendelson.blogspot.com.au/2011/03/review-sucker-punch-2011.html), to ‘it is a severely compromised and messy picture. But it earns points for being about something genuinely interesting’ in follow-up commentaries, to finally declaring it a ‘masterpiece’ by any conceivable standard, a symbol of everything that should be defended and celebrated in Art, ‘a big budget studio picture filled with provocative and challenging ideas …. creating at least three all-time classic action set pieces …. It is everything we say we want from our mainstream entertainments’ (http://scottalanmendelson.blogspot.com.au/2011/06/why-we-cant-have-nice-things-last-word.html).

** Consequentially, I have very real concerns about how Lois Lane – a character who, over the span of her existence has managed to finally shuffle off a good portion of the helpless, naive damsel-in-distress cliché that hung over her in some of her earliest incarnations – will be depicted in Snyder’s upcoming Superman reboot, Man of Steel.  I would hate to see a self-possessed, capable, heroic woman like the more contemporary Lois likewise reduced to a vulnerable waif, reliant upon a man to show her kindness.

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