Let me tell you, yet another review, this one more of a meta-review on the direction of a movie studio. The End of the Decline for DC? That’s right, I’m calling it. Or at least, Suicide Squad shows they finally realised they’re heading in the wrong direction.
I haven’t read any of the reviews of Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice because I wanted to see the movie with an untainted mind. Still, when the titles are all along the lines of “This is the worst movie ever” and “I would rather gouge out my eyes with a rusty spoon than see this again”, the sentiment is pretty clear.
My official verdict: The movie is pretty good. There are great visuals and a steady (if slow) build up of suspense and threat. DC is sticking by its grimdark approach to superhero movies, which I’m OK with – there a people who say they should take a lesson from Marvel, but then all the superhero movies would be the same…and they’d probably be criticised for not trying something new.
Ben Affleck played Batman the same way all the other actors since Micheal Keaton have. Henry Cavill played Superman the way you expect him to be played, with possibly less smiles. The actors for the support characters did their job, and Gal Gadot was great as Wonder Woman. I’m looking forward to that movie now.
However, there were some things I thought were mistakes, or which could have been changed to improve the movie.
Too long a set-up
The set-up of the premise – that Batman was going to try to kill Superman – went for ages and ages and ages. A third or a half of the movie. Seriously, they should have checked out Fast & Furious 7, which introduced the main villain and had the entire premise set up in two minutes. If the audience is suspending their disbelief enough to accept an invincible man who can fly and shoot laser fire from his eyes, it isn’t much to ask them to make the leap that some people want to kill that man, possibly for erroneous reasons. Then straight onto the action. There are some subsets of this point:
Batman Is a Second-Rate Villain: You know how villains, such as Batman’s line-up of adversaries, often lose because they spend all their time blabbing to the hero instead of just dealing the death blow? Considering how many people he’s thought, you’d really think Batman would know better.
Featuring The Joker as Lex Luthor: Apparently DC thought that since the Joker is their most popular villain, possibly their most popular character, the movie would be improved by having Lex Luthor talk a lot of oblique nonsense. I don’t think it suited the character at all. Jesse Eisenburg played the character well, but he should have been playing a different character. I think if he’d had better dialogue and direction he would have made a great Luthor. This might lead into the greatest problem of all with the movie:
The Characters Aren’t Consistent With Their History: I’ll be honest, I don’t much care about Batman or Superman, so I didn’t particularly care that they both seemed rather cavalier with life. However, I think a major idea behind those characters is that they don’t kill people, and changing that really changes the character. I can see how that would annoy fans.
Finally, the title – Dawn of Justice. What the hell did that have to do with the movie? If it’s setting up the Justice League, it’s pretty lame. You don’t title the movie to be a hint about a sequel.
The NY Times has an article on Disney Princesses, specifically the way they’re being transformed and repurposed, gender-bent and race-bent and everything else that crops up on tumblr and instagram. They’re also the subject of long dissertations about why a particular princess is actually awesome, what each princess signifies in terms of life lessons and admirable traits to emulate, and how they’re far more serious and important than a mere children’s film.
This sounds very familiar – it’s what nerds did with superheroes. ← This link explains it pretty thoroughly, but the overly simplified version is that nerds adultified superheroes, and made them part of mainstream culture via a two-pronged process of having the best talent create superhero stories and having a large demographic with excess cash like superheroes.
I think Disney princesses are at the stage we were in the 90s – maybe they’re a little bit more ahead, but a lot of what I see reminds me of the conversations I had with my friends while waiting for a bus. So in the coming decades we’re likely to see “Disney Princess” movies made for adults rather than children, with complex plots and ambiguous heroes, and amazing writing. They’ll be good enough that they’ll be mainstream, everyone will watch them because they’ll be the best movies with the highest production values, and even people who don’t like Disney movies – and who probably ridicule those who do – will start liking Disney Princess movies.
They’ll get remade. They’ll get rebooted. And they’ll be celebrated in a way that will annoy current fans.
I need to find a way to cash in on this.
When I was a kid I loved comics – I started off loving Archie, moved on to loving Spider-man and the Silver Surfer, and finally migrated to Hellblazer and Sandman. These were my escapist fantasies: Archie was full of dorky characters who nevertheless had friends and – quite often – girlfriends; Spider-man was the ultimate nerd who beat up the bullies and got the cute girl, while the Silver Surfer was not trapped on this “planet full of madmen” but could roam the galaxies on a cool surfboard; Hellblazer and Sandman were more complex stories, but still offered the dream that life wasn’t as fixed and staid as everyone kept insisting it was. Of course the characters were powerful and beautiful and had proportions that never exist in the human species, but no-one really expected an accurate anatomy lesson*.
My sister and mother had different escapist stories, Mills & Boon and Harlequin books where men were always impossibly handsome and brooding and just couldn’t resist the protagonist, who was normally strong and independent yet desperate to be swept off her feet. Or there were other books, Pride and Prejudice clones, where the normal-looking woman attracted the attention of the most sought-after rich, handsome and unattainable man, aloof and yet unable to maintain his display of disinterest around the protagonist.
Some stories we shared, such as Piers Anthony novels, TV sitcoms and the like.
That was when I was a kid. Now, superheroes are mainstream culture. They’re no longer nerd escapism, they’re intended to be entertainment for everyone, and as such they have to appeal to everyone, which means jettisoning a lot of the wish-fulfillment parts that attracted nerds in the first place. This has happened with a lot of “nerd culture” that I enjoyed growing up, to the point where there isn’t really a nerd culture anymore. This means a lot of people feel not only that their escapism stories are under attack, but that they personally are under attack. If the situation was reversed, and millions of men had started reading Mills & Boon novels, the same type of outcry would be underway but with different segments of the population.
So, the traditional nerd culture that I grew up with has been co-opted, has sold out to the lowest common denominator. And who is to blame for this? I’ll give you a hint: Nerds. I’m not talking about growing up and getting good jobs and suddenly having a lot of purchasing power and so on; I’m talking about the way we took it all too seriously.
Nerds forgot that what they were enjoying was escapism, and started treating it as high art. Batman was an exploration of the psychological damage trauma could cause, Superman a biting commentary on the burdens placed on those with the power to save the world, X-Men an intelligent discourse on the problems faced by the different and dispossessed… We punished cookie-cutter scripts and tepid art and lauded Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Todd McFarlane and Sam Keith, which would have been all to the good if we didn’t also loudly and persistently try to convince everyone else that comics were a valid form of literature that everyone should read, lending copies of Alan Moore and Will Eisner willy-nilly, pushing books by Frank Miller and Jeff Smith onto all and sundry. Of course they all liked it, of course comics became popular, and of course the big entertainment industry began making blockbuster movies about them (something everyone had clamoured for) and of course those movies were targeted to a general audience. What did we expect?
This will never return to the escapist fantasies of old, and we wouldn’t be happy if it did. Underlying a lot of the you’re-not-a-real-nerd rage is the fear that once “nerd culture” falls out of fashion we will again be mocked for liking it, and further mocked for trying but failing to be cool by liking something that’s gone out of fashion. We can form enclaves where we can enjoy superheroes in our traditional nerdy ways, but whenever they get good they’ll just be invaded again. Besides, there’s a lot to be said for the mainstream superhero appreciation – the escapist comics would work better as b-grade movie schlock rather than Hollywood blockbusters anyway, and there’s a lot of great shows on TV plus the cosplayers at cons are really cool.
Nothing is meant to last forever, and I think this is hopefully also true of the need for escapist fantasies. It’s time we remembered that nerd culture, like any subculture, is just that: A subculture. It’s not mainstream, it’s on the fringes, it’s small groups of people enjoying what they like together rather than desperately flooding friends and family (and social media) with it in the hopes that people will belatedly realise how cool it is, and therefore how cool we are for doing it.
So, I think we should just enjoy the new versions for what they are, ret-cons and inclusiveness and all, and focus on following our passions irrespective of what society is up to – just like we’ve always done. It’s back to the indies for us, the self-published section on Amazon**, the band putting up their songs on YouTube, the pub or cafe meetings to argue about the finer points of radiation protection in space. Stop bitching about people not really understanding what we like, and just concentrate on liking it. The Mills & Boon crowd have done it – just look at the romance section in online bookstores, there’s everything from monster porn to romances that cleverly satirise international politics being published. As far as I can tell they’re just ignoring the bitching about Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey and getting on with enjoying what they like.
* That being said, comic book art did later morph into the realm of ridiculousness.
** I know, this could seem self-serving, but I’ve always waded in the indie section.
I saw Fast & Furious 7 on the weekend, and it’s one o the best movies I’ve ever seen in my whole life. I’m going to have to rewatch it several times and study it, because it’s one of the best examples of storytelling I’ve seen in ages. Off the top of my head:
– It gave the viewer what they wanted. People like the Fast & Furious series for two reasons: Fast car chases and amazing fight scenes. Not every movie has fulfilled this, there were a couple that were very heavy in plot development and character development, and not in a good way (I’ll get to that in a point below). Director James Wan provided this to such an extent that Bloomberg showed the film is mathematically the fastest and most furious in the entire franchise. The car chases were not only fast and dangerous and aggressive in a way that Cars Wars only dreamed of being, they put cars in the air. Completely unrealistic but also completely awesome, and nobody watches these movies for realism. The fight scenes were also amongst the best I’ve seen in western cinema. Normally fight scenes either use moves that would completely fail in a real fight, or have the combatants clearly not attacking/striking each other. In F&F7 we had western style fighting with moves that looked brutal and effective and which looked like they connected. Plus, the scenes were exciting to watch, which I normally only expect in Asian films. The lesson here is quite clear – if your fans like a movie because of particular aspects or features, any sequel should maintain and expand on those aspects and features rather than heading off into a completely new genre.
– Efficient character exposition. There’s not a lot of character development in the Fast & Furious franchise, but people do remain in character. In F&F7 the motives of the characters were explained effectively and – most importantly – efficiently. Aside from Letty’s amnesia, each character gets 1-2 minutes max of back story and motive explanation, but which covers everything you need to know to explain their actions in the movie. That opening scene with Deckard Shaw was brilliant; his motives and his character demonstrated in the most effective manner imaginable, in mere minutes. A lot of stories try to flesh out their characters into “well-rounded individuals”, which is great if the story is all about people or relationships. However, if the story is about car races and fist-fights, you really only need to know why the characters are driving and throwing punches, everything else is extraneous and can be cut. You can go too far in the other direction and have characters doing random things for no discernible reason, of course, which is also bad. The key is efficiency in character exposition.
– Fat-free plot development. In the same way characters and their motives were introduced efficiently, the plot of F&F7 was full on and lacked any extraneous filler. I was so excited by each development I didn’t notice the movie ran for two and a half hours. As an example I’ll use when Deckard Shaw showed up at the tower. How did he know where everyone would be? How did he get there? We don’t know, and we don’t really care. We don’t really need to know how he got his information and made his travel arrangements, all we need and want is to see him show up and cause mayhem for the protagonists.
– Good meta ending. One of the stars, Paul Walker, died in a car crash during filming. The movie was finished using Walker’s brothers and some CGI. At the end of the movie Dom, when asked if he is going to say goodbye to Brian, replies “It’s never goodbye.” (Then there’s another scene which struck me as being put in to give Diesel a chance to farewell Walker). The words spoken by Dom work on a level that says that an actor’s body of work is their legacy, and in that sense they never leave us. That as long as we remember someone they are still with us. It also works on the meta-level that a movie can include an actor’s likeness even after that actor is dead – technology is reaching the stage where at no point will we have to say “this actor will be in no more movies”… which raises concerns about the legalities of using an actors likeness. I don’t think that applies to this movie, as such, but it will be relevant in the future.
My primary goal in writing is to have some finish reading my novel and feel about the book the way I feel about this movie.