Adventures In Streaming – Batman: Bad Blood (Netflix)

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An objective truth about Batman is that he is also a Bat Dad. Especially in the realm of cinema, this key element of the character is largely shunned by fans who want to see Bruce Wayne unencumbered by the rest of the Bat Family. Seriously, it’s crazy that Robin has only figured into two of the eight movies that have Batman’s name on the marquee (to say nothing of Batgirl and the rest of her peers). Batman takes on proteges as a part of his larger mission statement to always be there for people who find themselves in the same dire situation as he found himself in as a child. It is a key part of his character and, while this may not be a big live action tentpole, a large part of what works about Batman: Bat Blood (director Jay Oliva) is that it finally gives Bat Dad his cinematic due.

The micro Bat family that makes up our main cast is Batwoman (Yvonne Strahovski), Nightwing (Sean Maher), Robin (Stuart Allan) and Batwing (Gaius Charles). We are introduced to Batwoman as sort of the new kid in town, wearing the costume and roughing up criminals in Gotham with no prior connection to the rest of the team. She’s a Bino (Bat in Name Only). Nightwing, on the other hand, has moved on from the Batcave and has a nice little setup in Bludhaven. We meet him in a familiar crime fighting situation with an unfamiliar spin. He’s chatting with Starfire during the fight, underlying that with his departure from Gotham came a departure from the isolation that came from working with Batman. This isn’t one of the strictly business chats we see Bruce have with Alfred. This is loving banter that puts a smile on Dick’s face. Batwoman and Nightwing get the most substantial character arcs in the movie and right from their introductions we get exactly what they are about. Robin and Batwing don’t fair as well. Robin isn’t a reluctant newcomer like Batwoman or a old hand getting dragged back into a life he was happy to leave behind. He is just there because he wants to know why Batman is missing. It’s not a terrible reason but his character is noticeably lacking in conflict relative to his siblings. Ditto for Batwing, who says some stuff about wanting to go down his own path that doesn’t really make for strong character motivation.

So, what’s going on with the big guy himself? Batman has been captured by Talia al Ghul (Morena Baccarin), literalizing his distance from his family unit. Batman’s urgent need of rescuing causes the rest of the team to reluctantly come together, as they realize that the bat symbol isn’t just good superhero branding, it is a symbol of resilience in the face of trauma. Kate uses it to cope with her dead mother and sister, Dick with the death of his parents and Luke with the recent attack of his father by Talia’s henchmen. The finale all comes together in the way that you might expect, with the team having to work together to save the day. The clever bit is that their antagonist is a mind controlled Batman. This development allows the film to take on two thematic stances with regards to Batman. Firstly, the Bat family is able to save Batman from his mind control. This victory proves that an isolated Batman is not as powerful as a team that works together with the same end (Nightwing takes the mantle of Batman explicitly in the film to make the comparison clear). Second, Bruce’s freedom from the mind control comes from his family appealing to his better nature. Here we see that in saving others, Bruce has actually saved himself. This is the Batman mission statement in microcosm and it is great to see play out here.

The villains are also thematically coherent with the rest of the story. Talia uses a clone of Damian named The Heretic (Travis Willingham) as a henchmen. This clone wears the Batman costume as well which allows the viewer to see that the iconography is hollow without the right philosophy guiding it. Also, The Heretic is functionally Talia’s Robin, which makes her a foil for Batman. She looks at her relationships as pragmatic associations rather than emotionally substantive connections and, in the end, this directly leads to her downfall as Heretic’s lover strikes her down in vengeance for her own careless murder of her would be son.

There is a lot to like about Batman: Bad Blood but there are significant barriers keeping it from being a Batman animated classic like Under the Red Hood or The Mask of Phantasm. As I gestured towards earlier, the character work for Damian and Luke is lacking in substance. Especially Luke, whose initial aversion to working with his Dad at Wayne Enterprises begs for an explanation. There is also a distinct lack of visualization when it comes to the Bat family working together. They have a real tendency to break off on their own during their act 2 and act 3 missions. If the team had been showing working together by strategizing or even via the film’s fight choreography then it would have cemented that their working together had value (recall that awesome tracking shot from The Avengers that depicts the various heroes playing off of each other in creative ways). The action in general looks nice enough but it all feels pretty samey. Batwoman uses guns and Batwing is basically Iron Man but they don’t do enough fun stuff with these differences for them to register. Again, the different flavors and fighting styles mixing up with one another would be more visually and thematically compelling then the generic punch-fests they cooked up for the movie.

There are other small details that bug me. For example, the Bat Family manages to accidentally kill more than one person over the course of the movie, which doesn’t seem to phase the characters at all. Also, Batman himself is depicted as a little too callus and cold for him to fully match up with the understanding patriarchal figure that the film suggests he is in the end. He muses about whether he should “take Batwoman under his wing…or take her down” and I can’t help but wonder why, if the movie is ultimately about the virtue in Batman as father figure, he would consider the latter option at all. Still, Bad Blood is head and shoulder above other recently released DC animated efforts and, as a huge fan of the characters involved, I really dug it. Now, if we could just get a sequel that brings in the rest of the squad from James Tynion IV’s run on Detective Comics.

 

Venom Review – Sony’s Spiderverse is more DCEU than MCU

 

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There is a fork in the road that a film writer encounters when they walk out of the movie like Venom. You can either contribute to the raging sea of negativity that envelops the release of bad comic book movies on the internet or avoid talking about the movie altogether. This puts me in a strange predicament, as I want to talk about my experience with my movie and I detest being even a drop in the ocean of the “your movie sucks and here’s why” crowd that constitutes so much of internet film criticism. So, I want to make a conscious effort to set the tone of this review in a non-negative light. No performative euphemisms, no creative curses and no snarky quips. Lets just talk about the movie.

From a critic’s perspective, the most important element of a movie is its thematic content. If a movie isn’t about anything then you wouldn’t need film criticism to do any interpreting or contextualizing. Critics could be replaced with algorithms. “We have determined based on your previous viewing habits that you do not like unfinished visual effects work, villains whose motivations make no sense or a total inability to balance comedic and dramatic tones so we do not recommend that you see Venom”. That being said, what is Venom about? Well, the answer to that question is frustratingly unclear. One might infer from the symbiote egging Tom Hardy’s Eddie Brock on by calling him a “pussy” and forcing him to participate in violence when he is reluctant to do so that the symbiote is a metaphorical stand in for normative masculinity. That interpretation might not be defeated by the film’s ending, wherein Hardy and Venom have to stop fighting and learn to work together to defeat another symbiote but it is certainly something of a subtextual monkey wrench that the metaphorically monstrous masculine id is shown to actually be the path to salvation for our heroes (and the world!). The ashewing of a bifurcated masculinity that rejects its own destructive nature in favor of a unified, masculine hero who utilizes said destructiveness for positive ends is the closest thing Venom has to consistent subtext of any kind.

There isn’t just a lack of meaning in Venom, there is a full on aversion to it. When Brock’s inheritance of the symbiote is coincident with his reliance on alcohol to cope with his recently destroyed life, you think that the film is making an attempt at being about addiction in some substantive way. This is a smart move as it is a seemingly perfect fit for a story about Eddie Brock’s relationship with the Venom symbiote, at least as it has existed in other media. See, the Venom symbiote feeds on a host with negative emotions and empowers them to act on those negative emotions rather than change them. It is a balm that helps its users cope with frustration and perceived powerlessness. The fact that the symbiote is literally an addictive substance that is commonly used as a toxic coping mechanism couldn’t possibly have been lost on the filmmakers. I mean, right? Especially since alcohol is featured so prominently in the movie. Yet, the alcoholism stuff is dropped like everything else.

There are other half hearted attempts at meaning. Eddie is an investigative reporter, which plays off of a speech given by Riz Ahmed’s Carlton Drake about silencing those who question things but it goes nowhere. Ditto for the Elon Musk satire that seems to have been the organizing principle of Drake’s character. So. if Venom is only about something as tepid and uninteresting as “men need to be men…but better” (and, I remind you, it feels generous to even assign a concrete thesis statement to a movie this clearly mangled in the editing room) then is there anything else that can compensate for that lack of meaning? Um, not that I can tell. The action is awful, with the most elaborate sequence being shrouded in smoke to cover up the shoddy visual effects work. I’m not sure I should be too ungrateful for that though, as Venom truly features some of the worst VFX in modern action cinema. The rest of the technical filmmaking is equally weak and there isn’t a stand out moment to be had in the film’s entire runtime.

I mentioned at the beginning of this review I don’t like being overly negative, so I will do my best to end on a positive note. The truth is that I’m grateful for movies like Venom. They offer insight into how crazy these Hollywood productions can get and how wrong they can go. Ruben Fleischer and company made a movie about nothing, for no one and with no redeeming qualities. The fact that that can happen with millions of dollars bankrolling talented people is, frankly, fascinating. I learned a lot about what not to do from watching Venom and I hope the filmmakers did too. There is a sequel tease at the end of this thing and I don’t want to be sitting here again in 3 years trying my hardest to be nice to Venom 2.

 

 

 

 

Eighth Grade Review: A Empathetic Look at Anxiety, Youth and Love In The Modern Age

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I cried all the way through Eighth Grade, the excellent debut feature of Bo Burnham. This experience was a new one for me. Usually my cinematic crying experiences are limited to a couple tears rolling down my cheek or that thing where your eyes get a bit red but no actual liquid comes out. I should explain that there were tears of joy as well as tears of sadness through the screening. Still, I’m not sure I could overstate the visceral emotional reaction I had to the movie. The main reason why I am framing this discussion in terms of crying is partly because good film criticism involves working backwards from the actual experience of watching a movie. What the movie actually makes you feel is an incredibly important part of analysing and understanding it. More than that, I bring up my emotional response because Eighth Grade is a movie that places such a high value on empathy that I want to be totally transparent and communicative about those emotions. This movie is arriving at a time when it’s sorely needed and its mission statement of placing empathy above all else makes it a truly radical and worthwhile experience.

When I say radical, I don’t mean it like how the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles might mean it. I am talking about the radicalism of Antifa or the Black Panthers. We live in a time of diminished empathy. I don’t mean to say that North America was ever a bastion of empathy and kindness. However, from where I sit, it is undeniable as refugees are turned away because saving their lives might stifle economic growth and as a buffoonish cartoon character still presides over the United States due in large part to his promise of erecting a giant monument to hate that we have an empathy problem. This problem isn’t just an insiders/outsiders thing either, it is also generational (to name just one way we are bad at empathizing with each other). This is a time where the young blame the old for destroying the planet and ushering in a neoliberal hellscape from which there might be no return and the old blame the young for being self absorbed, whiny and perpetually “triggered”.

Eighth Grade feels like a movie aimed squarely people who digest anti-millennial hot takes with glee. It is a movie that has the courage to treat the life of a middle schooler as having real weight and importance. It asks us to empathize with Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) as she goes to pool parties and agonizes over her lack of popularity. Burnham has the wisdom and technical filmmaking skills to make these things feel like life and death because, despite being conditioned to view young people’s lives as unimportant, this stuff subjectively feels like exactly that to them. The main way that Burnham addresses this generational divide is through the relationship between Kayla and her father, Mark. They are always framed in wide shots together, occupying opposite ends of large frames as they fail to communicate their positions to one another again and again as the film goes on. Mark is far from the crotchety and disgruntled guy that a you might think would represent his generation on screen. Even though he has his flaws, he is an example of what Gen Xers ought to be. He is persistent, willing to be patient with his daughter as she learns to articulate herself and always responds to her problems with love.

It is a sad fact that “love is radical” reflexively evokes comparisons to the perpetually stoned and lazy hippie archetype because it’s the actual truth. Underneath all of the compelling drama and visceral cringe scenes,  Eighth Grade is a movie about learning to love yourself, love your family and love even the scariest, most unpleasant parts of life. I was exactly like Kayla until, if I am being honest, recently. Anxiety dominated my life in a really big way until I finally decided to seek help for it midway through my university degree. Until I made the best decision of my life and talked with professionals about these issues, anxiety chipped away at my confidence, self worth and ability to articulate myself in a big way. It still does, in fact. I persistently work on learning to love myself and others. I work on being okay with the fact that my nervous system will conflate sharing an idea with my professor or boss with being attacked by a stampede of machine gun wielding dinosaurs. This film really gets what that journey can be like and the honesty and reality of the depiction is unlike anything else I have seen in a movie.

This review is more personal than most because the film is as personal as they come. That said, I would be remiss if I did not mention that the movie is an extremely well made version of what it is. The movie feels largely plotless, which serves it well in an unexpected way. If “on a general trajectory to what feels like nowhere in particular” doesn’t describe adolescence than maybe I just had a strange one. Burnham also leans heavily on POV shots to convey Kayla’s perspective as well as a repeating theme of slow tracking shots both towards and away from her.  Through these shots, we are always made privy to Kayla’s tendency to be hyper critical and self focused while also being reminded of her status as one microbe in a vast social ecosystem. This is strong filmmaking that I wasn’t sure Burnham would have in him. Any praise I have for Burnham’s direction is met equally by the astonishment I have towards Fischer’s performance. She is so convincingly inarticulate and so authentically layers her performative social persona on top of her anxious, hyper-aware personality that the film often feels like a documentary. Kayla arrives from scene on as a complex, multifaceted human being and Fischer is magnetic for every step of her journey.

My reaction to this film is deeply subjective but, if you can help it, don’t write off this review because of that. The best movies find universality in specifics. I have never been a performer who is coping with his perceived irrelevance but The Wrestler resonates with me every time I watch it. I’ve never found out that I was, in fact, a superhero and had that information solve a lot of my midlife crisis issues but Unbreakable is my favorite movie of all time. I have no doubt that you will see yourself reflected in Kayla’s experiences as I did because when it comes to anxiety, popularity, self worth and socializing we are only really different in degrees if you don’t count serial killers. There is so much more to say about this film and even in this somewhat lengthy review I feel like I have barely scratched the surface. I urge you to see this movie in a theater while you can, it’s as vital and endearing a debut feature as I have ever seen.

 

Sicario: Day of the Soldado Review – A Victory Lap For The Bad Guys

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One of the most compelling things about Dennis Villeneuve’s Sicario is how effective it is at conveying the outsider status of Emily Blunt’s Kate Macer in the hypermasculine atmosphere of Matt Graver’s (Josh Brolin) anti-drug taskforce. The movie has gender at the forefront of its mind, with incredibly loaded imagery designed to evoke sexual domination and rape at multiple key points in the film. So, I was surprised to hear that we were leaving Emily Blunt’s character where she was the end of the last film; bullied, broken and intimidated by Benicio Del Toro’s enigmatic Alejandro and focusing on Alejandro himself as well as antagonist Matt Graver. It seems that my fears were well founded, as Sicario: Day of the Soldado is a macho affair that does very little to compliment the themes of the first movie. By the end of the film’s two hour runtime (it feels more like 3 hours, if I’m being honest) I was left wondering why this film exists at all. It’s a boring, superficial follow up to a fine movie that deserved a more worthy successor.

It would likely be as tedious for me to recap the finer points of the plot as it would be for you to read them. It is a standard modern political thriller, where every conversation is happening in either an office or a military base and every conversation is about intangible goals, details and locations in a way that it is almost impossible to pay attention to. Basically, Graver has been called in to exploit the fact that the unnamed US President is going to declare the Mexican drug cartels terrorists. For some reason, provoking a war between the various cartels will allow the CIA to capitalize on the ensuing anarchy. To do this, Graver calls in his main man Alejandro to stage the kidnapping of Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner), daughter of an important Cartel leader.

What does successfully carry over from the first movie is the damning depiction of various arms of the United States government. The CIA of the Sicario movies – which is the most realistic version in cinema that I can think of – is comprised of cold pragmatists who even manage to perform ostensibly noble causes like combating the drug cartels and do them in the most disinterested and egoisitc way possible. There isn’t even a lone hero who swims against the tide, there is no Jack Bauer who fails to tow the line. This is a film about the same terrible people that we met in the first movie, with no fresh eyed outsider to slow them down.

This leads me to the film’s first big problem, which is that it has no real emotional center. The investment that came from taking Macer’s POV in the first movie isn’t replaced with anything worthwhile. There is an attempt made at around the one hour mark to elicit emotion when Alejandro and Reyes start going through their obligatory Logan arc and we see the more vulnerable Alejandro that we assumed had died with his cartel-victimized family. That being said, this simply doesn’t work like the filmmakers clearly wanted it to. Maybe it doesn’t quite click because Alejandro’s actions in the last film were so despicable that this movie couldn’t quite erase them or maybe it was because the film bludgeoned me with so much tediousness beforehand that I was numb to it but I found myself rolling my eyes at yet another story of a tough killer who has his emotional armor cracked by an aggressive yet vulnerable girl.

The film is as handsomely shot as its predecessor, though the sinister and thudding score of the previous movie is used with such abandon here that it starts to take on an almost comedic tone. The repetitious music makes the movie feel like an overlong sketch in the vein of Too Many Cooks, where the joke starts to be “just how much of the movie can we make punishingly dull and aggressively emotionless”. At one point two characters were flying in a helicopter together with the same foreboding music playing over the scene and I thought “This? This needs to be depressing and bleak as well”? One thing that the use of the same music in multiple scenes can do is invite comparisons between those scenes. We think of them together and compare the emotions and actions of one scene to the other. This is impossible, as the repetitious and simple score used this much creates on omnipresent mood that pervades over every inch of the movie. Imagine if 90% of The Avengers had the theme from the iconic panoramic shot of the team playing over it. That shot would probably be robbed of its iconic status because of it.

The technical filmmaking in general falls short of the original film. New director Stefano Sollima has little respect for narrative economy and there is an entire B-plot that concerns a wannabe Sicario named Miguel Hernandez (Elijah Rodriquez) that fails to meaningfully pay off. Similarly, the action is more prevalent than ever in this movie but it is all dull and boring. Tracking shot over the shoulder of a character, cut to that character firing an assault rifle and then cut to his targets falling over. Rinse and repeat, with none of the scenes having internal narratives or any sense of exciting escalation. The action doesn’t have to be exciting, mind you. It does, however, have to be memorable and useful to the overall film and unfortunately it’s just not. By the time we reach a completely useless and extended scene near the end – the details of which would be too spoilery for a general review – I was wondering if the filmmakers had any sense at all that their movie would actually be watched by an audience.

There is a certain type of person who will like Sicaro: Day of the Soldado. It has a macho uber-seriousness about it and it will likely kill with the “they don’t make movies for adults anymore” crowd but I just found it dull. I love the first movie and I wish they had furthered the narrative of that film more organically but Day of the Soldado doesn’t even work on its own terms. Let’s hope they figure out how to make the teased third movie work, because I’m not sure I can sit through another film as uninvolving and seemingly never-ending as this one.

 

 

 

The Incredibles 2 Review – Maybe Just Rewatch the First One Instead?

the-incredibles.jpgThe Incredibles 2 opens with a short introduction from multiple people involved in making of the movie. Director Brad Bird, as well as most of the main cast, assures us that they have taken their time with this film and that it will be well worth the 14 year wait since the first movie. This is a weird decision, as nobody in the theater needs to be sold on Pixar’s pedigree or the prospect of watching an Incredibles sequel. It is an even stranger thing to do when the product you have made is not particularly good, as is the case with The Incredibles 2.  Bird and Co. have made Incredibles 2: Incredibles Harder, a sequel in the repetitious and unnecessary mold of Die Hard 2. Unlike the second Die Hard film, that can’t use “we wanted to fast track this one to capitalize on the popularity of the first” as a justification for making an underwhelming retread of the first movie because, as Samuel L. Jackson told me just before the film started, it is a labour of love that has been worked on for 14 years.

The first Incredibles ends with each family member assuredly looking at one another as the Underminer (John Ratzenberger) emerges, each knowing exactly what to expect from the other. They strike a team pose while framed in a wide shot, visually conveying that they have learned to work together as a cohesive unit. This is a great ending because we see how far they have come from their frustrated squabbling and inability to get one the same page as one another early on in the film. Bafflingly, The Incredibles 2 begins by undercutting the exceptionally well realized character development that we saw in the first movie. Picking up immediately from where the last one left off, the family has instantly regressed from a functional unit back to the squabbling, perpetually frustrated individuals we met at the before they went to Syndrome’s Island.

This shift back to a familiar status quo is followed through on with tenacity, as the film has the same basic plot as the first movie. Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) and Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) have switched places but we are nevertheless watching one of them prioritize heroism over family while doing hero work for mysterious benefactors while the other is confined to domesticity in the interim. Violet (Sarah Vowell) is once again after the affections of her generic teen heartthrob love interest from the last movie (due to a strange contrivance she is even pursuing a date with him in this movie despite getting one at the end of the last film). Of course, there is also Dash (Huck Miner) who…wait, they didn’t actually give Dash anything to do this time.

It would be one thing to do the same movie again but the shame of it is that Bird is doing everything so much worse this time around. Bird dealt with Bob’s secret superhero time with an incredibly effective montage, which served to limit the amount of time that the family spent apart and kept things moving at a steady pace. The pacing in this film is so much worse, as Bird has just opted to make two concordant movies about Elastigirl’s superheroics and the rest of the family respectively and then shuffle them together in the edit. To add insult to injury, the Mr. Incredible half of the movie ends up being hugely inconsequential in the grand scheme of things.  The movie drops his obnoxious arc about being jealous of Elastigirl with no clear resolution, so the audience can’t help but wonder why the filmmakers spent so much time on it. At least, the Elastigirl stuff fairs better, with a number of well directed action scenes injecting some much-needed life into the proceedings.

Bottom line: Incredibles 2 is bottom shelf Pixar that does nothing to justify its existence. The plotting isn’t as tight, it’s not as much fun and it mostly feels like a now-or-never cash grab on the part of the filmmakers. I rewatched the first movie immediately before seeing this one and it holds up like nobody’s business. Just go watch that movie instead, you’ll almost certainly be glad you did.

 

Revisiting Superman (1978): The Perfect Superman Movie

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Superman is held in very high esteem amongst most comic book movie nerds. Snyderverse megafans aside, everyone seems to be able to respect that Richard Donner set up shop in a industry landscape that was a far cry from our modern one and made a film that perfectly presented the most iconic version of a beloved hero (speaking of our modern climate, what’s weirder: that Oscar nominee Josh Brolin just finished playing Thanos AND Cable in movies released a month apart from one another or that most people don’t even think of this as being strange?). Superman regularly turns up on “top five best comic book movie” lists, was recently the subject of a thorough examination on Moviebob’s popular Really That Good video essay series and is fondly remembered by everyone who hasn’t recently tweeted out #ReleaseTheSnyderCut. So, I am now left wondering why my recent revisitation of the film left me feeling disappointed.

For my relationship with this film, context matters a lot. I had put off watching it forever due to a then still sadly engrained bias against what I sometimes incorrectly perceived as “dated” special effects (honestly, Superman looks better than most of big budget movies made in the 90s) and partly because, as a younger person, I self consciously believed that I was somehow above an earnest, old movie about a big, blue boy scout. Flash forward to one neck snap later, when my then girlfriend and I were leaving Man of Steel. I vividly remember discussing the film for 3 hours afterwards, with interludes about what we even wanted from a Superman movie at all and what elements of the character we deemed fundamental. It was at this point that we viewed Superman and it arrived like Lois Lane, throwing away the kryptonite of gloom, bad editing and tornado induced suicide that was Man of Steel at the last second.

It was nice to watch a movie that didn’t seem as self conscious and embarrassed of its own source material as Man of Steel is. There are colours, smiles and many other staples of the funny books that Zack Snyder was all too happy to kick to the curb in his Nolan emulating, fun devoid reboot. Christopher Reeve’s Superman was (and is) the stuff of acting legend, with his performance being able to definitively answer the question of why nobody realizes Superman and Clark Kent are the same person. You could never believe that Reeve’s Clark was a superhero, even if you saw him lift a car with his own two hands. The way that he minimizes himself in crowd shots (a testament to the quality of the scene blocking as well as Reeve’s physical acting) has you almost forgetting he’s there in the same way that Lois always seems to. Incidentally, a brilliant choice by Margot Kidder and/or the filmmakers is to have Lois never really look directly at Clark. This inattention is a byproduct of Clark’s meekness as well as Lois’ ambition and tendency to multitask. All of this comes together really nicely in what is as perfect an early Lois/Clark dynamic as has ever been realized in any medium.

If you noticed that I was gushing in that paragraph, it is because there are certain elements of this movie you just can’t help but gush about. Donner’s perfect use of tone that distinguishes the various chapters of Superman’s life, the performances of literally every actor in the film, the unabashed commitment to the source material. It’s all so great. Why, then, was I left feeling so cold?

I guess it was because certain things just stick out in today’s political climate now in a way that they didn’t back in 2013. This is partly due to my increased political awareness and partly because institutions like the police, the presidency and the USA itself have had their flaws and failures exposed by the magnifying glass and microphone of social media. When Lois quips that Superman would have to put every elected official in America behind bars if he were truly committed to justice, Superman responds with “I’m sure you don’t believe that”. In 2013, this kind of claim was antidotal. It was a refreshing optimism that cured my disinfatuation with grim and gritty comic book movies. In 2018 however, it is just one frustrating way in which the conservatism inherent in so many superheroes manifests. Superman spends the movie catching criminals and gleefully handing them over to the Metropolis police department. He has faith – which he is never actually asked to justify – in the American political system as it currently functions (as distinguished by having faith in the principles that the system *should* be a product of, which would be far more permissible). He also manages to drop Lex Luthor off in prison at the end of the movie*. The problem with that ending of course being that using “gets dropped off at an American prison” as narrative shorthand for “justice is served” is naïve at best and propagandistic at worst. The police, the prison system and America as an institution are never examined, questioned or even paid that much attention to. Instead, these oppressive and deeply flawed systems functioning without any depicted flaws or any onscreen questioning is the baselines reality that Donner’s Superman lives in.

In a way, this does make Superman the definitive cinematic representation of the character of Superman. He, like many superheroes, fills us with happiness, optimism and hope when the world seems bleak. Superman is charming, funny and comforting in a way that conveys the warmth of his best stories. However, he, like many superheroes, is an adamant defender of the status quo who would rather unilaterally intervene in circumstances he doesn’t understand and offer a quick, easy “solution” that tempers any lingering worry that the world isn’t a simplistic fantasyland in which the right man punching the right guys often enough will fix anything or help anyone.

I still love Superman and I am happy to revisit it at new times in my life and have my reactions change as I do. The desire to hold on to the good feelings offered up by simple, uncritical pieces of art and media rarely have good consequences. The fact is that Richard Donner made the perfect Superman movie but, as I get older, the perfect Superman movie gets further and further away from my definition of the perfect movie full stop. I am just interested in continuing to see how my relationship with Superman and, well…Superman continues to grow and change in the coming years.

*This post assumes the truth of a number of controversial social positions for the sake of brevity. I would love to hammer out the details of why these systems shouldn’t be exalted and what exactly Superman should do instead but that is another post for another time

 

Death Wish Review: A Bad Movie For Bad People

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Let’s just get this out of the way: Death Wish is a terrible movie. Eli Roth’s film wholly buys into toxic, hypermasculine ideals that would have felt retrograde 15 years ago. How retrograde is it? Well, Dr. Paul Kersey’s (Bruce Willis) primary flaw is established when a nameless character calls him a “pussy” at a soccer game and he doesn’t start a physical altercation over it. Instead, he keeps his cool and has a nice day with out with his family. Clearly, this is a flawed man who needs fixing. Of course, you know that Paul gets his chance to “man up” when his family is targeted in a home invasion and he fails to protect them. Now, in the words of his gun saleswoman, Bruce has to get “cocked, locked and ready to rock” and prove that he (and by extension the insecure dads in the audience who identify with him) is a real man and not the “pussy” that he is perceived as.

There are elements of Death Wish that gesture towards a satirical takedown of modern culture. Paul learns a comical amount about how to use firearms on Youtube, where he also sees “tactical furniture” advertised (tables, shelves, etc that allow you to hide a gun in them). The woman who sells Paul his first gun is much younger than him, unrealistically gorgeous and flirts with the now 62 year Bruce Willis. In a better movie, these things would be framed in such a way as to ultimately indict the relationship between American culture, masculinity and guns. As the film goes on, it becomes apparent that Roth has no interest in any such indictment. He’s just making a pandering masculine power fantasy at a time where nothing in the world is less appealing. Roth is sensible enough to try and cover his ass by putting in montages of media reactions to Paul’s vigilante activities, but any condemnation is just lip service. Everything works out for Paul, who gets his regressive masculine groove back without any kind of problems or punishment getting in his way.

Despite the repulsive themes of the movie, it could have still worked on a visceral level. Unfortunately, the action scenes are incredibly unengaging, and they mostly just consist of Bruce Willis pointing and firing his gun at various racial caricatures and cartoonish two-dimensional bad guys. Curiously one of the action scenes diverges from the others by veering into slapstick territory for no discernible reason. It’s as if Roth himself realized that he was making a dud and tried to shake things up any way that he could. The home invasion sequence, in which Paul’s family is attacked, contains the only bit of tension in the movie. Unfortunately, the tension comes from piggishly allowing the threat of sexual violence to loom over Paul’s daughter Jordan. Eli Roth, truly a man of class.

The film also fails on a dramatic level. Paul’s family isn’t really made up of characters so much as walking placeholders that talk about how much they love Paul and how great their long, long life is going to be. As such, it’s impossible to feel anything for them. They exist only to be harmed, which paradoxically make it impossible to be sad that they are harmed. Instead, the degree to which the film telegraphs the impending familial violence is tedious and you just end up hoping that it will hurry up and happen already.

Look, there’s enough wrong with Death Wish that I could go on for another thousand words. I could talk about racial issues in the movie (the film’s aesthetic could basically be described as Zimmerman-chic) or I could talk about how unpleasant it was to suffer through yet another zombie-esque Bruce Willis performance. Honestly though, this movie has wasted enough of my time and I won’t let it waste any more of yours. Just see Black Panther again instead, you’ll have a much better time.