Marvel vs. (Batman vs. Superman)*

Marvel is so dominant that even footage of Ben Affleck as Batman facing off with Superman and Wonder Woman costume photos don’t make much of an impact.

Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

Please don’t construe my statement to say it made no impact, it’s just that I found myself more excited by what was going on in the Avengers: Age of Ultron and Ant-Man panels than in the Batman vs. Superman panel. It kills me to say that, too, because I love Batman. He’s my guy. When someone asks me “who’s your favorite superhero” my answer is always Batman.

But this isn’t a piece about why Batman is awesome. This is about how DC is “Johnny Come Lately” when it comes to making good superhero movies aside from Batman films.

Think about what we’re discussing here: they’re finally making a Batman vs. Superman film and it’s not the biggest, most exciting news out of Comic Con. In what universe is Ant-Man even come close to Batman and Superman finally appearing in the same movie? With Wonder Woman (and every other DC character, apparently), too!!

Well, this universe apparently, because DC and Warner Brothers have dragged their feet, unwillingly, into the Cinematic Universe business and it shows. I have to give DC credit for finally doing it, but that’s the only credit I’ll give them because they’re doing it the wrong way. It’s sloppy, it looks sloppy, and there’s going to be a lot of scrutiny and cynicism going into Batman vs. Superman that need not be there.

The biggest problem, unfortunately, Man of Steel is our entry point into this universe and it’s not as strong of a film as 2007’s Iron Man was for Marvel’s universe. Hell, it’s not even as strong as Thor, which I consider to be the weakest of the 9 Marvel movies released to date. Because the Nolans were involved, everything was focused on “realism” and “grounding” the story. Now, given what happens in Man of Steel, it’s not very grounded. But it is a largely humorless film that seems to take no joy from reintroducing Superman to film audiences. And I liked it! It’s not a bad movie. It’s not X-Men: The Last Stand or Spider-Man 3, but it felt like there was disagreement on what kind of Superman story to tell, so they just threw everything into the movie. The problem with going that route is, as is often the case, trying to please everyone usually pleases no one.

Zod, kneel before Son of Jor El.

I’ve said, and I stand by it, that it was a ballsy creative decision to go so full-tilt into Superman’s extraterrestrial origins with the war on Krypton and the “science” of Kryptonians and whatnot. I liked that. I thought it was really cool, too, to talk about some of Krypton’s internal politics with regards to its caste system and even a subtle commentary on the morality of cloning. I even defend the film’s ending where Superman makes a very tough, moral decision that, traditionally, comic book Superman hasn’t made (that’s as specific as I’ll get to avoid spoilers). But the film was trying to be part origin story, part mystery, part disaster movie, with maybe a smidgen of romance and it only partially succeeded at any one those categories.

Let’s be clear: I loved the Christopher Nolan Batman films. I think they represent the definitive version of the character in film to this point. But I always criticized the hyper-realistic world that Nolan’s Batman inhabited. First and foremost, it eliminated the possibility for other superheroes like Superman to exist. But more relevant to Batman’s world, it precluded villains like Mr. Freeze or Clayface from appearing. Regardless, that trilogy has ended and we now have the Man of Steel universe.

I’m Batman.

I’ve dreamed of seeing Batman and Superman together in a movie since I was a kid. Batman: The Animated Series spawned a Superman: The Animated Adventures series (as well as Justice League) and put these two titanic heroes together in a pretty definitive way. I have lofty expectations. When the film was just Batman and Superman, I felt more optimistic. However, DC keeps adding more characters in an already bloated cast that wasn’t really developed even in the first film. The relationship between Batman and Superman (to say nothing of fights between them) is complex and needs screen time. How do you service that if you’re also servicing Lois Lane, Perry White, Jenny (?) Olsen, Lex Luthor, Alfred, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Cyborg, and all of the other 40 characters they’ve thrown into the film?

Get her

 

Marvel figured out how to service all of its characters by not putting themselves in an untenable situation. You don’t put everything into one movie all at once, you build a universe, establish individual heroes and stories, and then you start to cross-pollinate. That’s why The Avengers works. We don’t care about Pepper Potts or Rhodey or Jane Foster or Betty Ross or Peggy Carter because those characters and stories have been given their due. Even the comics that all of this is based on did that! When the Justice League gets together, who cares about Alfred? He belongs in Batman’s world and since he lives there and inhabits that place, if he doesn’t appear or appears briefly in another property we don’t notice.

But now DC and Warner Brothers have decided to reboot their Batman character within their Superman property as well as every other DC character that’s ever existed. I’ll definitely see Batman v. Superman and I certainly don’t wish it to be terrible, but I’m giving as much thought to the franchise as DC has — not much. Sure, they paraded out some thematically cool looking footage that gave us our first good look at Ben Affleck’s Batman, but it feels like pandering. Even the Wonder Woman reveal leaves me feeling… meh.

Meanwhile, Marvel Studios wowed convention attendees with its Avengers 2 and Ant-Man panels because they’ve established a relationship with the audience. They’ve proven they respect the material, the characters, and how to depict it. Because Marvel’s done the hard work of building this world and the characters’ relationships, Joss Whedon can craft a party scene in Avengers 2 with everyone screwing around trying to lift Thor’s hammer. Doesn’t that sound great??

The crew… oh, crap! That’s Rhodey!

Again, I’ll see Batman v. Superman (how could I respect myself otherwise?), but I pledge, here and now, that I’ll see Captain America 3 first.

 

*I thought I should represent the conflict in proper SQL syntax.

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“Twin Peaks: The Entire Mystery” on Blu-Ray is out today

Twin Peaks: The Entire Mystery

There’s a fish in the percolator.

In keeping with my Twin Peaks-themed posts this week, the series and movie come out in a Blu-Ray set today.

The above Newsday.com piece covers the show generally (no spoilers) and discusses the phenomena that spooled up around it for the year and a half it was on. If you haven’t seen Twin Peaks, I imagine all of the references to Cherry Pie and Coffee are strange; I know they were before I saw it. It made me wonder what exactly the damn show was if they’re eating cherry pie and drinking coffee all of the time. Also, a little person and a giant?

“It is great,” is the answer to that question.

Amazon is offering the set for 119.99 and that includes all 29 episodes, including the spectacular pilot (which, for rights issues, was not available with the show when it initially came out on DVD years earlier), the prequel (?*) film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, and a host of special features both wondrous and strange. Two things in particular have my interest: the film, Fire Walk With Me had a ton of deleted footage that has been rumored and discussed for years and all of it has been remastered and assembled into a feature, “The Missing Pieces;” and David Lynch interviews the Palmer family as their characters, not the actors. Weird… but I’ll certainly watch it.

Of course, I understand if you don’t want to make such a tall investment for something you may not like (impossible!). The series is on Netflix, in its entirety, but not the movie. Once the series ends, I promise that you will be desperate to see what other content is available.

If nothing else, once it’s over you’ll certainly be wondering how Annie is.**

 

*While Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is holistically a prequel, there are elements that speak to “post-series” events. That’s as specific as I can get without spoiling anything. “The Missing Pieces” feature on the Blu-Ray set will feature more of the movie with these elements intact, so I’m highly motivated to see it.

**That’s only a spoiler if you have seen the show.

Why You Should Watch “Twin Peaks”

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: we’re living in a golden age of entertainment, particularly on TV.

Better (read: smarter) people than I have tried to explain what brought us here in historical and academic terms, so I won’t try to improve upon on what’s already been done very well. But if you’re interested in the subject (and really why wouldn’t you be??) TV reviewer Alan Sepinwall wrote a great book, The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers, and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever that covers the subject in an fun, non-academic way. It’s a good read is all I’m saying.

I argue, however, that one show, more than any other, put us on the road to TV greatness: Twin Peaks. Had it not been for Twin Peaks, we wouldn’t have gotten The Sopranos, Lost, 24, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, and many other wonderful shows that pushed the boundaries of what TV “is.”

Twin Peaks was not the first show to push the boundaries of TV. That honor belongs to Hill Street Blues (and one of that show’s writers, Mark Frost, joined David Lynch in crafting Twin Peaks). Some might argue that All in the Family or M*A*S*H, were first, but I’m specifically talking about the hour-long TV drama. Besides, AITF and M*A*S*H still adhered to many well-worn sitcom and pre-golden era TV tropes that overrule their influence. But there were other shows that broke the mold during and after Hill Street Blues like St. Elsewhere and Moonlighting.

St. Elsewhere was a post-modern take on the “medical drama.” It starred, throughout its run, William Daniels (Mr. Feeney! And KITT from Knight Rider, of course), Ed Begley Jr. (he’s been in everything and most recently was Erin’s dad in The Office finale), and Howie Mandel (he hosted Deal or No Deal and was the voice of the eponymous “Bobby” from Bobby’s World an old FOX cartoon). It’s probably most infamous for its ending where…

**SPOILER ALERT — if you count shows that ended almost 30 years ago capable of being spoiled** …we learned that the whole show took place in the imagination of an autistic boy, Tommy Westphall, staring at a snow globe with the hospital St. Elsewhere inside of it. I’ve always been fascinated by this ending because St. Elsewhere crossed over with Homicide: Life on the Street, which in turn crossed over with other shows like Law & Order. Homicide’s Richard Beltzer’s* Detective Munch crossed over on like 10 different shows as Munch meaning that all of these shows originated in the mind of Tommy Westphall. Fascinating. **SPOILERS END**

Moonlighting was the original “will they or won’t they” drama. It had highly imaginative, spirited dialogue and “outside the box” stories (for example, they had a musical episode and a black and white episode before it was fashionable to do so). It starred pre-Die Hard Bruce Willis and was on when that movie premiered so his star had begun to rise. It also starred Cybill Shepherd, who did not become as famous, and became notoriously more and more difficult to work with on the show. As far as plot, Moonlighting was about a private detective agency run by two hot people (yes, Cybill Shepherd was hot once… and Bruce used to have hair, too) who worked with a lot of sexual tension. They eventually got together and became a cautionary tale for how not to get your leads together because all drama went out of the show. It ultimately only lasted 4 seasons. If I’m being fair, the show was run by Glenn Gordon Caron, who was also a difficult personality. He had never run a show before and scripts were usually late and changed often, right up until shooting started and even during. So, the show had a few issues. But it’s notable for sharp, clever, and well-written episodes that were meta before meta was a thing. Case in point…

**SPOILER ALERT** …the last episode of the show started like all of the others. The story was just as much about the end of the show, in the real world, as it was the plot of that particular episode. Over the course of the episode, you see crew members breaking down the set in the background of scenes. David and Maddie discuss their failed romance and the dialogue is “in-world” as much as it’s a meta-commentary on how the show has failed. You could probably say that without Moonlighting there would be no Community, which is certainly the most meta show that has ever existed. **SPOILERS END**

There are many reasons why you should watch Twin Peaks (or pick it back up if you never finished originally), but I boiled them down to five in no particular order:

5. Who Killed Laura Palmer?

She’s dead, wrapped in plastic.

That question is famous. You can type it into Google and it will tell you… so don’t do it and get spoiled. The mystery surrounding her murder is made more interesting by the details of her brief, disturbed, dark life — none of which would be self evident just by looking at the angelic beauty. This is the standard-bearer by which all TV mysteries are judged.

Also, Laura’s death and life are our windows into Twin Peaks where we learn that just like Laura, nothing is what it seems. Everyone is living at least one extra life or getting’ some on the side.

4. Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn)

Audrey Horne

‘Nuff said.

3. David Lynch

It’s less creepy when sped up.

You’ve never seen a show like Twin Peaks.

Did you like True Detective? How about Lost? Or even Game of Thrones? 

All of these shows (and more) drew something from Twin Peaks. Think about all of those long, lingering wide shots of the bizarrely beautiful Louisiana countryside that filled you with dread in True Detective. Watch Twin Peaks. Somehow David Lynch turned shots of wind blowing through trees and traffic lights at night into portents of evil. Some of the scariest imagery I’ve ever seen is from Twin Peaks — and I’m talking about skin-chilling, stomach dropping scary.

2. Shelly Johnson (Madchen Amick)

See #5 “Audrey.”

1. Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan)

There’s never been a hero quite like Dale Cooper. The only things you need to know about him can be found in the below two scenes:

He’s a strange guy in a strange town investigating a strange murder.

If you’re looking for a new show to get into OR you watched Twin Peaks years ago and never finished, now is the time. The whole series is on Netflix. It’s also getting re-released on Blu-Ray along with the follow up movie Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. It’s a great piece of TV history and addictive as hell.

Plus, Audrey, Shelly, and Donna:

Oh, to be an eligible young man in 1990…

Let me say “You’re Welcome” in advance.

A Dearth of Strong Females in Game of Thrones? I think not.

Hermione on the Throne

How great would it be to get Hermione on Game of Thrones?

Time Magazine just reported that Game of Thrones fans are disappointed by the supposed* absence of a female character in the series upcoming 5th season.

The author, Nolan Feeney, is referring to Arianne Martell, heiress to the capital city of Dorne. She’s apparently a significant character in the books (I haven’t read that far yet — I am almost done with A Clash of Kings as of this writing.) Mr. Nolan noted: “…she was a strong, complex female character in a fictional universe that doesn’t have too many of those.”

If that’s supposed to be sarcasm, I didn’t get it. Setting aside, for the moment, the character’s supposed importance to the story in the books, I don’t see how Game of Thrones is lacking in strong female characters. Let’s count them out: Catelyn Stark**, Arya Stark, Cersei Lannister, Melissandre (The Red Woman), Daenerys Targaryen, Brienne of Tarth, Asha (Theon’s sister), Osha, Lady Olenna, and, my personal favorite, Ygritte** (of “You know nothing, Jon Snow” fame). All of these women fit the “strong female character” label to me.

And I’m being somewhat dogmatic, too. I think a case can be made that Margarey Tyrell belongs in that list. She’s not stabbing people with swords or directing governments, but she’s playing a pretty high-level political game with Cersei Lannister and it’s one she’s been pursuing since Renly Baratheon. I would also suggest that Sansa deserves credit (although she has annoyed me at times) for surviving as a hostile prisoner in very bad circumstances; however, our final glimpse of Sansa suggests she’s taking control of her fate like never before. Hell, she was bat-shit crazy, but Catelyn’s sister, Lysa Arryn**, is a candidate — she was a queen and clearly in charge of her realm (again, albeit unstable in the brain space).

Consider, too, about what the author (and some of the sampled Twitter postings) are complaining. One female character is (potentially) being omitted. But they’re still adding four new female characters, that (as I understand it) are all “strong females” — Oberyn Martell’s daughters, the so-called “Sand Snakes.” The show has apparently even added a conflict (read: fight) between one of them, Obara, and another major character, which does not happen in the books. And that’s on top of the list of characters I noted above.

My point is: what are we even talking about here? What’s the purpose of this Time article? It feels like the ongoing, forced media narrative about a “war on women” or underrepresented women… or something? You tell me. I can’t figure it out.

Is the argument that there are more male characters in Game of Thrones than women? Is it that of the number of men characters vs. women characters, more men are “strong?” I wouldn’t try to refute either of those points (if that’s even from where this is coming), but take a look at some other series on TV right now. Are there even more than one or two primary women characters in the cast? Are they “strong?” Did they, for example, like Brienne of Tarth, take on, in hand to hand combat, one of the most formidable male characters in their series (to say nothing of all the other men she’s killed in combat)? And that’s just Brienne — Daenarys has been burning and burying guys left and right. Arya — freakin’ Arya — a little girl, is more badass than 90% of the males on the show.

On NCIS, they have only two female characters. Of them, they’re both “strong,” I suppose (in a network TV sense), but really only one of them is out there kicking butt and dealing justice (I’m just considering Kate, Ziva, and whoever the new one is, the same role — it satisfies the same purpose in the cast). On Special Victims Unit, there are two females, both “strong” among a cast of numerically more men (at least in my last viewing). So, are we calling out these shows as well?

Not only is this Time article unnecessary and reaching in its point (whatever it is), but I think just the opposite: Game of Thrones is setting a new standard for “strong, female characters” in entertainment. Think about who we root for on the show (or, at least, for whom I root): Daenarys, Arya, Brienne, Catelyn, Ygritte… and while I hate her guts, Cersei Lannister is a force to be reckoned with, one who has the upper hand over just about every male character.

Do some critical thinking, Time Magazine.

 

*We don’t 100% know that this character has been omitted. It just looks like, from casting info, that the role does not exist in the TV series as of now.

 

–SPOILERS BELOW–

 

**I realize that Catelyn, Ygritte, and Lysa are no longer with us, but they were on the show and were definitely “strong, female characters.”

I Hate the Song “Rude” and You Should, Too

I despise this song.

Originally, I thought my reaction was visceral, based in the fact that the song is played 4,000 times an hour. I sometimes have a contrarian’s view that rejects certain popular concepts, simply because they’re popular, so this seemed likely at first.

Maybe it’s the singer, Nasri Atweh’s, whiny cadence and squeaky intonation. A quick Wikipedia perusal tells me the band Magic! is “canadian reggae fusion.” I don’t support a single descriptor between those quotes, so that’s definitely part of it.

When I first heard the song, I thought it was kind of catchy and listened to it without really listening. The more I began to hate it the more I paid attention to the lyrics. Backwards, I know. Once I honed in on exactly what the song is saying, that’s when I realized I hated the song. The “meaning” is actually my top reason for hating it.

If, by some miracle, you have escaped listening to “Rude” by Magic! the song has a pretty simple story. A guy is going to ask his girlfriend’s father for permission to marry her and the father says “no.” Pretty straightforward. It’s also not a new concept. Quite a bit of music is about people telling other people they can’t do something and then the people who have been told that express their strong opinions about having been told that (see: Pat Benatar). I get it.

Read these lyrics (or, if you dare, listen to the song) and I will tell you why it makes my blood boil. Hopefully, you’ll get it before I say anything:

Can I have your daughter for the rest of my life?
Say yes, say yes ’cause I need to know
You say I’ll never get your blessing ’til the day I die
Tough luck, my friend, but the answer is ‘No’

Why you gotta be so rude?
Don’t you know I’m human too?
Why you gotta be so rude?
I’m gonna marry her anyway

Marry that girl
Marry her anyway
Marry that girl
Yeah, no matter what you say
Marry that girl
And we’ll be a family
Why you gotta be so
Rude

I skipped over the very first lyrics because they don’t bear on my annoyance as much, although in them the guy explains how he “got out of bed” and put on a suit (his “best” one, apparently) to head over to this poor dad’s house. No shower? No deodorant? I’m probably being overly judgmental now.

No, my real problem is that the core concept of the song is endemic of 2014 culture. This guy acknowledges that his girlfriend’s father is “an old fashioned man” who would like to be asked for his daughter’s hand in marriage and, indeed, asks. But when the dad says “no,” his response isn’t “I’m going to prove to you that I’m the guy” or “we deserve to be together.” No, it’s “Why you gotta be so rude?” Essentially, I asked you for permission to do something, you said “no,” and so you’re being rude to me. What? Why did you even ask if the only answer you would accept is “yes?”

This is such a quintessentially 2014 kind of theme and I really hate how this is where our culture is heading. If people say things that we don’t like, it’s “rude” or “offensive” when, in fact, it may not be either of those things (Time Magazine actually has a funny piece about how the father’s reaction doesn’t, definitionally, qualify as “rude”)– but we don’t like it, so we mis-characterize it and label it like some attack upon us personally.

Then, later he says he’s “…gonna marry her anyway…no matter what [dad says]…” I actually don’t have a problem with that concept in of itself. It is 2014 and I generally think that once someone is 18 and living his or her own life, they’re responsible to make decisions regarding who to marry and not marry. But it goes back to the idea that this guy did seek out his girlfriend’s father because he recognized it was something the dad would want and when he gets an answer he doesn’t like, he declares it “rude” and, like a whiny bitch, says “I’m gonna marry her anyway.”

There are plenty of songs about people being told they can’t do something where the singer simply flouts the rules or ignores authority. I have no problem with them. I rather like quite a few of them, like this one. But everything about “Rude” grates on me from the whiny singer’s voice, to the insolent message, and, yes, the incessant overplaying on the radio.

Please join me in hating it because misery loves company. Thank you.

Return to your daily lives and hope you only hear “Rude” three times on the way home from work.

Editor’s Note: I intentionally did not link to the song because I don’t want to foist it upon anyone else or support the musicians that wrote/performed it. Petty? Yes, but I’ve made it quite clear that I hate the song, so don’t be surprised.

Let the “Bad Guys” Win

Turtle Power

TV is really good now. Let me begin with that central point. Yes, there are still terrible things on TV like the “Kardashians” and “Survivor,” but we’ve also gotten really amazing TV like The Wire, Breaking Bad, Lost, Game of Thrones, Arrested Development, House of Cards, and the list goes on. The reasons for this ascendance into TV’s golden age are varied and detailed by people far more in the know than me, so I won’t go into all of that here.

But I will note one thing that was really cool when I was a kid, which has become almost commonplace today: the bad guys sometimes won.

If you know me at all, or have read any of my other pieces, you know that I am something of a TV aficionado. Self-proclaimed, if nothing else. Without giving you my whole life story I watched a lot of TV and movies as a kid and spent a fair amount of time by myself.

Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t crouching in a basement, friendless, and writing a manifesto. I had a sick family member that took up a lot of my parents’ attention, so I learned to play by myself and immerse myself in other worlds. It actually helped me develop my fantastic imagination.

In any case, like many kids my age I watched Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles almost daily. Back in the 80’s, the show (and kids cartoons, generally) followed a pretty basic formula: the Turtles and/or April O’Neil are living large, eating pizza, loving life, Shredder and Krang (or one of a handful of other sub-villains like Rat-King) come up with a scheme, the Turtles find out about the scheme, there is a fight, bad guys sort of hold them off or beat the turtles back, turtles rally and win the day. Exciting stuff (and no, that’s not sarcasm).

But there were a couple of episodes where things didn’t quite work out that way and my interest level piqued when the bad guys won. It’s not that I wanted the turtles to lose exactly, it was just really interesting when the villain succeeded in their plan. Think about how all of these stories rolled out: “We can’t let Shredder get the MacGuffin or he’ll destroy New York City!” Because the turtles always won, we hardly ever saw what happened when Shredder actually got the MacGuffin or him get ready to destroy New York City.” On the few occasions when that finally happened, it was exciting.

It was also annoying how Shredder’s minions, BeBop and Rocksteady, always shot at the turtles with laser weapons and couldn’t hit them. I can’t remember the name of the episode and I have looked (believe me), but one time Bebop and Rocksteady lured the turtles into a trap and shot them!

That’s right. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles got shot! Of course, it was with lasers and the turtles were only slightly burnt and smoking, but they were hit and down for the count. They later came back and won, but it was still a cool moment.

There was also an episode where Shredder and Krang’s massive, super-tank fortress, the Technodrome, finally got enough power or something and made its way to the planet’s surface and started tearing up New York City. In fact, I believe that was a 2-parter wherein the turtles technically lost in the first part because they couldn’t stop Shredder from powering up the Technodrome in the first place.

The most famous example of this is probably when Optimus Prime died in the original Transformers cartoon movie (featuring the voices of Leonard Nimoy and Orson Welles, BTW…). As a kid, we were used to our heroes always winning out in the end. If there was a fight and they were injured, they’d get better or something would heal them. Not this time. No, after Prime’s all-out attack on the Decepticons and Megatron, he was mortally wounded and he died for real.* He passed on his “Matrix of Leadership” or whatever to Hot Rod, but the being Optimus Prime was dead as in “he wasn’t in the movie anymore.” As kids, we weren’t used to seeing that.

Lil’ Power Rangers

Hell, Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers ended with them losing! The kid phenomena, Power Rangers, which sold a gazillion toys and sparked a live show, then a movie, actually ended with a big loss for the rangers. Lord Zedd and Rita (who had gotten married by this point (WTF)) figured out a way to reverse the rotation of the Earth, which (as we all know) reverses time. The rangers tried to stop it, but were held off (for probably the only time ever) by Goldar and whatever goons they were using. When time reversed, the rangers became kids again and, apparently, they could not morph when they were kids. Lord Zedd and Rita grow big and start trashing Angel Grove. THE END. It was all subterfuge for the next series, which would necessitate another ranger team coming to help them with different powers and zords (read: toys) but the rangers were beaten. Let’s call it what it is.

As a slight addendum to that, the Rangers also “lost” at the end of the series that followed MMPR, Mighty Morphin’ Alien Rangers. Lord Zedd and Rita found a way to smuggle a bomb into the rangers’ Command Center and blew it up. Power Rangers Zeo rather cheaply retconned its way out of it, but still rather shocking.

Of course, there is probably the greatest downbeat ending of all time: The Empire Strikes Back. Our intrepid hero, Luke Skywalker, was handed his ass by the Dark Lord (of the Sith) Vader, Han Solo was frozen in carbonite, and the rebels were in flight across the galaxy having been driven from their base. Things were pretty dire and it wasn’t very uplifting. Audiences loved it and, to this day, it’s the gold standard in Star Wars storytelling.

Utter defeat

What this is all leading to, is the storytellers and creators of TV and movie content realized that having everything work out and be wrapped up neatly isn’t very dramatic. We like to see our heroes win, but it’s truly only satisfying if there are actual stakes–and actual threat that they might lose. But more and more shows have connected around the “anti-hero” or the just plain bad guy (see: Tony Soprano and Vic Mackey). That’s why fans are so mad about Han Solo not shooting Greedo first — it’s not about Han being a cold-blooded killer as George Lucas vainly asserts — it’s a character trait that shows Han is a man of action who will not be walked into a corner

It used to be that the audience had to identify with the main character. He had to be moral and make good decisions. He may not always win, but he always did his best. Both Tony and Vic showed us that our main character doesn’t need to be good — in fact, he can be downright loathsome as long as he is interesting to watch. Walter White is a great example of this; he started in a place where people could identify with him and understand his choices (to an extent), but as Breaking Bad went on, Walt started to go off the rails. He really went from “Mr. Blue Chips to Scarface” as creator Vince Gilligan envisioned.

It’s not exactly a new or foreign concept. The Godfather depicted protagonists as bad guys doing bad things, but we generally rooted for them. Or at least we were fascinated to watch. The slasher film craze of the 80s works into this, too. The movies started out as being innocence against violence and evil, but gradually characters like Jason, Freddy Kruger, and Michael Myers became the stars. Audiences turned out to see Jason get those immoral kids doing drugs, having sex, or just generally being mean. They were taking authoritative action — not action we would take necessarily, but these are movies; we want our characters doing interesting things.

Consider Hannibal Lecter. Really think about who he is and what he does. He kills people and he eats them. In some cases, he tortures them before he kills them. He made one guy cut off his face and feed it to dogs. But we like him. He’s a gentleman, he’s got a great accent, he’s smart, he’s witty, and, generally, he goes after people that we don’t really like. At the heart of it, though, are Hannibal Lecter’s contradictions. We’re mesmerized by this character who does such terrible things, but on the surface is really quite interesting. He’s affable (to some), he tells great stories, and he seems to know more about you than you do.

Contradiction is dramatic. It creates story where the script doesn’t explicitly depict it. “Clarice Starling is bright, young, and innocent. Hannibal Lecter is incisive, brilliant, and dangerous.” What happens when these two forces meet? As they talk and interface, that story plays out in the actors’ performances while the overt plot comes through in their dialogue and revelations. Plus, try to remember that when Silence of the Lambs came out, other than book readers and the 13 people that saw Manhunter, no one really knew what Hannibal Lecter was. Other characters told us he was dangerous and Clarice, herself, says it to his face when she notes that he “ate” his victims instead of keeping parts of them as trophies. Of course, it didn’t hurt that the amazingly charismatic and charming Anthony Hopkins played Lecter. Until the 3rd act, when Lecter escapes in traumatic and explosively violent fashion we didn’t really know what he was capable of doing. There’s probably even a few people that silently cheered his escape because Lecter’s captor, Dr. Chilton, is so slimy and loathsome.

Anyway, to bring this long-winded piece back to something resembling a point, in Silence of the Lambs, the bad guy wins after a fashion. The primary antagonist, Jame Gumb, is killed by our fledgling hero, Clarice Starling, but Hannibal Lecter escapes. AND as we now now, Lecter is certainly more dangerous than Gumb. Frankly, Lecter emboldens guys like Jame Gumb and makes them worse. The audience is really the winner in this scenario. It’s just watched a taut, well-executed story where the bad guy wins. It can’t wait to see more.

Similarly, rather than be angry or downcast because the Ninja Turtles or Power Rangers lost, I was jazzed up. The story was excited. What would my heroes do now? As exciting as heroes are when they’re winning, they’re more interesting when they’re losing. How will they react? Can they turn things back in their favor?

Think about Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The most common criticism of Captain America is that he, like Superman, is too perfect. He’s bland. He’s a boy scout. Those things are true. But what does the bland, boy scout do when the ground fall out from underneath him? What does he do when everything he believes is called into question? He’s named “Captain America” for goodness sake. What does he do when the United States he’s fighting for tries to kill him and is responsible for some really heinous stuff? TWS was a great movie and while (spoiler alert) the good guys prevail in the end, it was a Pyrrhic Victory. Many are dead and one of the bedrock foundations (so we thought…) of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is shattered to pieces. The bad guys sort of won and that movie was the better for it (so is Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.).

I’m sorry for the somewhat meandering piece. I used to get these thoughts out with my friends at my old job and since I don’t have easy access to those fine minds anymore, this is the medium I must use. And, I ask you, if random thoughts about TV shows and movies don’t belong on the Internet, where do they belong, huh?

Oh yeah, and watch Hannibal (1st Season up on Amazon Prime and 2nd season on Amazon or iTunes or whatever digital medium you prefer). It’s really good.

Enjoy