The MST3k Reunion Was Everything It Needed To Be And More

e6cb31b27ff62b87dad5e700b1eac58fOn Tuesday, June 28th, 2016, multiple casts of Mystery Science Theater 3000 joined in Minneapolis, MN for a live reunion streamed across the country via Rifftrax, a venture led by the show’s head writer and second host, Mike Nelson, second (and definitive) Tom Servo, Kevin Murphy, and second Crow T. Robot, Bill Corbett.

But let me take a step back.

If you’re not in the know, Mystery Science Theater 3000 is about a man trapped in outer space on a craft called the Satellite of Love and is forced to watch bad movies by an evil scientist. To survive these experiments, the man makes fun of the movies with the help of his robot companions that he built (Joel) or inherited (Mike). The show’s opening credits explain the premise, too.

The concept exists purely to watch a movie with running comedy commentary. The show ran from 1989 to 1999, starting first on a local Minneapolis TV station, KTMA, then transitioning to the precursor of Comedy Central (originally called “The Comedy Channel”), and finally to the Sci-Fi channel before it was cancelled. MST3k is the brainchild of comedian Joel Hodgson, who portrayed the series’ first hapless test subject Joel Robinson. Joel hosted the show until midway through the 5th season when Mike Nelson stepped into the role of “Mike Nelson” and replaced Joel on the SoL. The opening was modified when Mike took over. But the premise remained the same: make fun of bad movies.

Over the course of the show, many performers came and went. Originally, the mad scientist, Dr. Clayton Forrester (portrayed by Trace Beaulieu who also voiced Crow T. Robot), was assisted by Dr. Ernhardt (played by writer/comedian Josh Weinstein) who disappeared after the first season on the Comedy Channel. He was replaced by TV’s Frank (played by writer/comedian Frank Conniff). Weinstein also voiced and worked the puppet for Tom Servo, Joel’s bubble gum machine headed robot, and writer/performer Kevin Murphy assumed control of the bot until the show’s end in 1999. After Joel left in season 5, Frank Conniff departed at the end of season 6. Frank was effectively replaced by writer Mary Jo Pehl who played Dr. Forrester’s mom, Pearl. Trace Beaulieu left at the end of the abbreviated 7th season, which was also the last season on Comedy Central. Pearl Forrester became the primary “villain” when the show moved to Sci-Fi and writer/comedian Bill Corbett joined the show to assume the role of Crow and a new character called Observer or “Brain Guy” who worked with Pearl.

After the show ended in 1999, the various writers and performers went their separate ways. Joel worked in Hollywood on various projects. Frank Conniff, Trace Beaulieu, and Josh Weinstein all worked in LA as writers on various shows and projects. Mike Nelson wrote a few books as did Kevin Murphy.

But in 2006, Mike worked for a small film studio called Legend Films and they asked him to do movie commentary on a few movies in their catalogue like Night of the Living Dead and Reefer Madness. They came up with an idea to do movie commentary ala MST3k, but via tracks recorded separately that could be synced to avoid needing to acquire movie licenses. They called it Rifftrax. Nelson eventually brought along his buddies Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett.

Joel also still had the movie riffing bug. He, Frank Conniff, Trace Beaulieu, Mary Jo Pehl, and Josh Weinstein formed Cinematic Titanic, which toured the country doing live movie riffs. The Rifftrax gang also started doing live movie riffs, but streaming them live to theaters throughout the country via Fathom Events.

Meanwhile, MST3k is living a new life on DVD and in streaming through a company called Shout Factory. Once Cinematic Titanic ended, Joel worked with Shout Factory to reacquire the rights to MST3k. Seeing opportunity through Kickstarter, Joel ran the most successful campaign in the history of the platform to create a new season of MST3k. A new young writer and comedian, Jonah Ray Rodrigues, who works for Chris Hardwick’s Nerdist, has been named the new host.

Wow. That was a big step back.

The MST3k reunion hosted by Rifftrax was also that enterprise’s 10th anniversary and its 20th live show. Mike, Bill, and Kevin were joined by Joel, Trace, Frank, Mary Jo, Bridget Nelson (Mike’s wife, who played many roles on MST3k over the years and has riffed with Mike and Mary Jo on Rifftrax), and Jonah Ray. Josh Weinstein chose not to participate.

Over the years, MST3k fans have fallen into various camps. Joel fans vs. Mike fans. Trace fans vs. Bill fans. Old vs. young. All a lot of nonsense really. MST3k is about making fun of bad movies. The talented writers and comedians who contributed to the show over the years only heightened the show’s reach and creativity. While I’m more a fan of Mike’s era on the show, there are some truly hilarious episodes during Joel’s tenure on the show. Sometimes Joel’s delivery alone moves a funny line to hilarious. Take this example from his final episode, Mitchell.

And I’ve never seen much point in comparing Trace and Bill’s runs on Crow T. Robot; they’re different, but hilarious in their own right. Trace’s Crow is a puckish, self-absorbed clown. Bill’s Crow has more attitude, but is insecure and prone to outbursts of rage.

Despite whatever divisions exist in the fan base, the reunion was full of nothing but good laughs and cheer. The writers and comedians who created and perfected this brand of comedy led the way by being funny. It was like a college reunion of good friends. Comedy is content, but there’s also an alchemy in personality. I felt glad just to watch them perform together. They can make one another laugh in ways that felt genuine and part of the live experience. This was never more evident than at the end when all performers appeared on stage together for a “Riff-a-palooza.”

The show opened with Mike, Kevin, and Bill riffing an educational short film for kids called “The Talking Car.” It sounds cute enough, but the eponymous talking car is a regular car with a pair of animated eyes and a mouth. A little boy almost gets hit by a car and his dreams are then haunted by three talking cars. It’s quite horrific, but the jokes were pretty sharp.

Mary Jo and Bridget followed up with a riff of an old sales short about fancy kitchens? I guess. It was called “A Word to the Wives” and it starred the dad from A Christmas Story. I confess, I think just about anything Mary Jo says is hilarious. Her delivery is always just the right mix of biting and “gee, gosh.”

Next up, Trace and Frank tackled a short film called “More Dates for Kay.” It’s such a strange short that I’m not exactly sure how to describe it. Basically, a young woman isn’t very popular, so she began a social outreach campaign that seemed an awful lot like hooking… Frank and Trace help make those connections for you in case you missed them. This was the strongest individual riffing team and effort in my opinion.

Mike, Kevin, and Bill came back out and took on a hilariously melodramatic short called “Shaking Hands with Danger.” It was made by the Caterpillar construction equipment company and is all about negligent men injuring or killing themselves in various implausible scenarios. The guys also took the opportunity during this window to show a greatest hits reel of Rifftrax over the years as well as formally introduce their senior co-writers, Conor and Sean.

Finally, Joel and Jonah took the stage. Jonah was still an unknown quantity. With the new show coming soon, I was very interested to see how he performed. I also wanted to see Joel perform again. I attended one of the Cinematic Titanic shows when the troupe appeared at George Washington University and thought he was great with the live audience. The good news is that Jonah is a natural. I was a little bit nervous about him, but after hearing his performance, he’s a solid riffer with a great delivery. He did screw up a riff, but it set up Joel for a great live moment. When Bill introduced them, he took a moment to thank Joel for creating movie riffing. A nod to the founder in this time of reflection and transition was especially needed.

The final segment was, like I noted earlier, a massive riff with all of the guests. They riffed a short film of the original Superman serial starring George Reeves. This one was particularly interesting because it was paid for by the government as an ad for postage stamp bonds… the connection between Superman and the stamps was tenuous at best.

But just when we thought the night was over, the Rifftrax crew wrangled everyone back on stage for one final riff. It was a short film from the highly popular “At Your Fingertips” series. This one was focused on Grass. Yep. Grass. If you’ve never seen one of these things, it’s entirely about how kids can make things with grass. What can you make with grass? Everything, apparently. Even things that no normal person would ever want to make with grass. It made for strong riffing material and a great finish.

When it was over, my mouth hurt. I had been smiling and laughing for two hours straight. The mark of a good night.

 

ADDENDUM:

At the press conference before the reunion, the riffers were asked about which MST3k episode they liked which doesn’t come up much. An underrated episode. Mike responded almost immediately to say he really enjoyed The Girl in Gold Boots (a Season 10 entry about a country girl who becomes a “dancer” in LA, which I rather enjoy, too). Joel posed a question back to everyone regarding the famous (possibly most famous) episode of MST3k Manos: The Hands of Fate a movie during Joel’s run that ranks near the top of worst films on the show and ever made. Joel asked what everyone thought of it. He noted that he knows it’s regarded as a fan favorite, but he doesn’t think it’s a particularly strong riff. He didn’t understand why it’s so well regarded.

Allow me to respond.

I think Joel is forgetting about the MST3k “fiction.” Remember that the show is about a guy who has these terrible movies inflicted on him. When the staff happened upon Manos, they clearly recognized how terrible the movie is. In the episode, both TV’s Frank and Dr. Forrester apologize for sending the movie even though it’s their job. Throughout the episode, the bots break down over how terrible it is. Even Joel, who was normally easy-going and laid back, screamed at the movie during an interminable scene where characters just looked at one another. His line was, “DO SOMETHING!” if I remember correctly.

But my point is that the episode is not necessarily remembered for the stellar riffing on the material (which, in my humble opinion, is still quite good). No, it’s remembered as a fantastic overall episode. And in the fiction of the show, this poor guy has to watch this awful movie. I feel like the MST3k audience perceives Joel/Mike and the bots as a shield against the movies on the show. If nothing else, that’s how I perceive them. They’re on the front line, exposed to the movie up close and personal. And so I think MST3k fans have sympathy for the characters as they’re exposed to this awful movie.

It’s even more than that, though. Frank Conniff noted how the show brought Manos out of obscurity and it’s taken on a life of its own. It’s such a remarkably strange movie. Bad, yes, but it has such unique characters. Of course, the most notable character, Torgo, is so weird, off-putting, and unique that he can’t help but be memorable. In fact, the character left such a strong impression that Mike Nelson portrayed Torgo out of the theater for a couple of seasons.

Anyway, my main point is that, as goofy as the premise is, fans bought into the idea that Joel and Mike are forced to watch these movies. As such, the episodes have to be taken in totality, not just the riffing. Because Manos is recognized as a very bad movie, it stands out for fans because of that fact. They identified with the plight of the characters.

Manos was also the first movie to be so oppressively bad and disturbing. Yes, there was King Dinosaur, Time of the Apes, The Castle of Fu Manchu, and Monster A Go-Go, but Manos really is in a category all its own. I’ll be honest, I think Invasion of the Neptune Men is worse mostly because Manos is at least watchable in a “car accident” kind of way, whereas Neptune Men is boring, repetitious, and punishingly inept in every possible way. But Manos was also shown at a time when MST3k’s popularity was reaching its peak, meaning a lot of people saw it. King Dinosaur and Time of the Apes are more like deep tracks.

I hope Joel and his new writing staff and performers remember this as they finish crafting the new season. Movie riffing is absolutely the number one ingredient in making MST3k, but the creators would be wise to remember how much the audience commits to the fiction that frames the riffing. Some of my favorite MST3k episodes feature the characters breaking down throughout the movie like Manos, Wild World of Batwoman, any Coleman Francis movie, Invasion of the Neptune Men, and Hobgoblins. I’m sure there are more, but those are the ones that come to mind. I just think it lends credence to the premise when the characters occasionally get mad about the movies inflicted on them they can’t control. Therefore, that’s why I would suggest Manos is so beloved to Joel. It’s not the riffing specifically, but the fact that the audience is “in it” with Joel and the bots.

I’m on a Podcast!

Hi all!

There’s a great YouTube channel, and Facebook page (!), called “Obnoxious and Anonymous” that populates great entertainment news and opinion. I’ve recently joined as a contributor and I’m fortunate enough to appear on some of the weekly podcasts. It’s exactly my taste (in that we talk about nonsense), so if you enjoy my blog, you’ll probably enjoy the podcasts too.

This week’s podcast includes two members of the YouTube group “The Sausage Factory,” Cole and Orc. They have some great film discussions and “live watches” on their channel. They’re also big 80’s slasher film fans and I’m also a mega fan. TSF has a new episode premiering tonight, so check it out.

But this latest “O&A” video is one of the best and Cole and Orc are a couple of smart, funny guys so we have a pretty good discussion. I hope you enjoy and, if it floats your boat, subscribe to the channel! And this one!

 

Fear “The Walking Dead’s” Return Because the Spin-off Doesn’t Match Up

…but we won’t explain HOW it began.

If you know anything about me, it’s that I’m not hyper-critical about sequels and spin-offs. I usually like them.

If I like the source material, I’m generally excited to see more adventures with the characters or see new angles of the universe through new characters and situations. If the creators of the “main” show, or original movie, are doing their jobs they’ve constructed a living, breathing world where all kinds of things can happen.

The Walking Dead does its job. Other than some logical and pacing missteps in its second season (rife with behind the scenes turnover and drama), TWD is a rich, fully realized world with a number of potential story paths to follow with our original cast and to explore away from them if they so choose. Unfortunately, Fear the Walking Dead mines the missteps from TWD season two as its concept—domestic drama.

The spinoff takes place in L.A., 3,000 miles away from where Sheriff Rick Grimes rests in a coma in Georgia. By all appearances, the new show takes place in the time when Rick was out of the loop. Society still exists. Kids go to school. Drug addicts get high. You get it.

The pilot introduces our main characters, a mixed-race family featuring Cliff Curtis (Travis), Kim Dickens (Madison), Alycia-Debnam-Carey (Alicia*), and Frank Dillane (Nick), in the midst of turmoil of the domestic variety – Nick is a drug addict and is in the hospital following a car accident precipitated by a proto-zombie attack. Of course, no one believes him because that’s crazy. This is another mistake FTWD makes – much of the show’s drama is based around the fact that the audience knows what’s happening and the characters don’t. In interviews, creators and cast cite this as a strength, but I think it’s a weakness. The show should stand on its own and create stakes based upon this story, not source cheap scares and suspense from the fact that we already watch The (superior) Walking Dead. What’s interesting about this story? Why should we invest in these people?

It’s unfair, but I have to compare the FTWD pilot to TWD pilot. When you do that, you see there’s no comparison at all. TWD pilot is cinematic, evocative, and tells a whole story in of itself – like a good pilot should. Rick Grimes is shot and goes into a coma; when he wakes up, he is alone and the hospital is abandoned. We enter this world with Rick as he discovers barricaded doors covered with a scribbled warning “Dead Inside.” The viewer is Rick’s companion as he stumbles deeper into a barren, empty, frightening world where the dead “live” and the only safety he finds is with a lone man and his son surviving in the abandoned suburbs near his empty house.

That pilot is highly visual, too. Rick riding down the highway in his sheriff’s uniform on a horse towards an apocalyptic Atlanta horizon, Rick weeping over an almost dissolved zombie body that still lives in unending torment, Rick shooting a zombified little girl in the head, and more! There’s hardly any dialogue, but the pilot communicates everything you need to know with powerful cinematography and crisp scripting.

Fear the Walking Dead’s pilot is nowhere near as strong. There’s nothing powerful happening here. Creator Robert Kirkman emphasized how this was going to be a story about a family and, man, he wasn’t kidding. Variety’s review suggested that FTWD is like Parenthood with zombies. The only problem with this is Kirkman and his co-writer, Dave Erickson, are not nearly as sharp as Jason Katims at crafting engaging family drama. But the question remains: why do we care about this family’s drama at all when we know there’s a zombie holocaust underway? One of the most fascinating episodes of the original show is “TS-19,” the first season finale where Rick and company arrive at the CDC and encounter the last surviving scientist who doled out tantalizing nuggets of mythology. I wasn’t asking for a show about chemistry, but some exploration of an outbreak that reanimates the dead might have been interesting.

FTWD’s focus on the family feels like a tease. I know Kirkman is dedicated to telling “ground-level” stories in his zombie universe, but he’s at a disadvantage here. After spending years with Rick Grimes and his motley crew, I have many questions about the zombie outbreak, the government response, what people knew and when, and so on. Since that show just threw us into the world after zombies, when we occasionally took a break to explore what family and friendships mean in this environment it was interesting (sometimes… I’m looking at you, Season Two). But FTWD has inverted that formula. We start with a family and, presumably, we will follow them into the apocalypse and see what that means for them. But there’s no hook. I have no reason to keep watching other than my foreknowledge about what’s coming. Kirkman’s insistence that he will give no answers or insight on the zombie virus (?) or sickness (?) is maddening. That’s the hook. That’s what would invest us in this story. Simply dropping us in a story of another group of people at a different point in time is just not a compelling reason for this show to exist.

Finally, if you forget the fact that The Walking Dead exists and evaluate this show on its merits, it’s OK. It’s not great. But if this had been the first show, I don’t think it would have done nearly as well. Again, what’s the hook? The measure of any great spin-off needs to be whether or not that show can be its own thing. FTWD would not have shattered ratings records if not for the fandom of the original show. I can’t begrudge the show for having a successful predecessor, but I can try to look at it objectively. If I do that, what was remarkable? Name a memorable scene. Name a character other than Nick and don’t cheat by going back in this post.

I’ll watch next week and, odds are, I’ll watch all the way up to The Walking Dead’s season six premiere. But, honestly, I’ll do so to pass the time until the exciting show I want to watch comes back. Maybe Fear the Walking Dead will grab me in the meantime.

 

*It’s distracting that Alycia Debnam-Carey is “Alicia.” Feels lazy even though I’m sure the name was set in the script before Debnam-Carey was cast.

Sequels, Reboots, and Shared Universes – Oh My!

Jaws 19

This time it’s really personal.

I know I said I would stop apologizing about not writing enough, but I feel bad that I’m not more up to date. It’s this annoying fatherhood… I mean, like “Change your own diaper!”

Fortunately, I’m feeling the itch to write these days thanks to some contributions I’m making at Obnoxious and Anonymous on video podcasts about a variety of subjects.

I’ve been aching to take on the persistent, knee-jerk cynicism about sequels, reboots, and the relatively new phenomenon of shared movie universes.

On the surface, I get it.

As the writer of my own original independent work (works), I would like room to break in and show people something new as opposed to a 3rd Spider-Man reboot within 15 years of the original film – to say nothing of the fact that the character has been in production for about fifty years of comics and cartoons (let’s not speak of the live action 70s show…). New characters and new stories are necessary. We can’t keep rehashing the same things over and over.

And, more to the point, I think what I, as a fan, sometimes hate about sequels or reboots is how bad they can be, which can spoil the memories and connections I’ve made to the original work. Two examples that illustrate this perfectly for me are the original Sam Raimi Spider-Man films and The X-Men films. Both series started out with decent first films and then debuted stronger, more complex—more awesome—sequels. Then each series turned out bad second sequels that were not only pretty bad films, but they soured the stories and my memories of the first two films. I would point out, too, that it was largely studio interference or behind the scenes problems that tanked these movies. Not that it makes it better, but it’s not like the ideas were flawed from the start.

But the geek in me—the passionate fan—wants more content about the things I love. More good content. I want these films—or TV shows—to succeed. Sometimes I think I come off as a contrarian when it comes to these things because there seems to be so much vitriol online against sequels that I feel the need to balance the scales and defend them.

It’s not just that, though. The truth is: we don’t hate sequels. Some of our favorite films are sequels. There are the obvious ones: Godfather 2, Aliens, Terminator 2… these movies are not only good by their own rights, but they grew the worlds of the original films and gave us extra dimensions of the characters and situations that only improve the original movies in context.

I would add Beverly Hills Cop 2 and Lethal Weapon 2 to that list as well, by the way.

I have less patience for so-called reboots, but even there I think there is something interesting in taking an established property and playing with our expectation of it. It may seem like an odd example, but the Friday the 13th reboot is one of the best. The writers clearly had a love for the original material and the film is like a spiritual remix of the first four movies in the “original” series. They even took the opportunity to make sense of the original series disjointed mythology related to Jason’s original drowning and return. More than anything, they got the character of Jason right. He’s not necessarily a complex character, but Jason Goes To Hell is an example of how wrong you can portray Jason Voorhees (including misspelling his last name like JGTH does).

On the other hand, I have a seething hatred for Rob Zombie’s Halloween reboot. That’s an example of how not to reboot something. Zombie fundamentally does not understand the characters of the original Halloween least of all Michael Myers and Dr. Loomis, who are pretty important to get right. Zombie said once that Dr. Loomis must have been the worst psychiatrist in the world, which to me is one of the most brain dead things I have ever heard. The point in Carpenter’s Halloween was that Michael Myers was pure evil. No amount of psychiatric treatment would have helped him because he’s not a person. He’s a force. But I digress… I could devote a whole blog to my hatred of that film.

Meanwhile, Chris Nolan’s Batman Begins is another example of how to properly reboot a property. In that case, it almost seems easy in retrospect. After Batman and Robin, there was no way it could be worse. But Nolan didn’t settle for average—Nolan and screenwriter David Goyer crafted a story that explored the character of Bruce Wayne and Batman, which, oddly enough, wasn’t really done in the previous four Batman films; the previous directors put the focus on Batman’s rogues as opposed to the Dark Knight. Bruce Wayne, in costume as Batman, doesn’t even show up until around the 40 minute mark of Batman Begins. It’s a strong film and, by the way, followed by the amazing sequel The Dark Knight.

Finally, while sequels and reboots aren’t exactly new, the concept of a “shared movie universe” is less than 10 years old. Birthed by our good friends at Marvel, for those of you living under a rock since 2008, this is when more than one movie franchise exists in the same “universe.” Basically, Tony Stark (Iron Man) can go have coffee with Bruce Banner (The Hulk). What happens in one film happens for all the films in that shared universe.

It makes the most sense with comic book properties because that’s how comic books work. As Spider-Man web-slings around the city he might pass Iron Man or Johnny Storm (Human Torch) flying in the other direction. Crossovers are plentiful. But the standard of believability and reality in a feature film (or TV show) is different from a comic book. Marvel’s shared universe gambit was so bold because of the logistics involved with meshing, say, Thor with Iron Man. Iron Man wears a high-tech suit that flies. While it’s fantastical, it’s grounded in a kind of realism that makes it believable. Meanwhile, Thor is a musclebound god who flies and hits people with a magic hammer that only he* can lift. In retrospect, we shouldn’t have been worried, but you can see how there was cause for concern.

But criticisms of the shared universe concept go beyond movie logic. Marketing, particularly by Marvel, has been problematic. Last summer Marvel announced every movie slated for release through 2019. While it was interesting to see the new properties that would debut, like Dr. Strange, Black Panther, and Captain Marvel, new entries in existing character franchises were announced as well—not to mention the next two Avengers entries. It’s been argued that this robbed Avengers: Age of Ultron of some drama because if we know that Captain America is coming out next year, then we know he survives the film and is OK. Same with Thor, who also had a new entry announced.

This criticism is fair. But my response is simple. Who actually thinks Marvel would kill off a marquee character like Thor or Captain America when the actors still have films left on their contracts? Besides, death with comic book characters is about as permanent as the Hulk’s shirt.

I love the idea. But I have two gripes. One, studios are tried to do shared movie universes with everything whether it makes sense or not. Universal is working on a classic monster shared universe with Dracula, the Mummy, the Wolfman, etc. Paramount is working on a Transformers universe with spinoff films centered on different characters like Bumblebee. Meanwhile, one shared universe I’m excited about is a Stephen King universe and this is mostly because there is a shared King book universe connected by The Dark Tower series.

My second gripe is aimed at Marvel and DC. Marvel built up to 2012’s The Avengers where all of our established heroes, Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Black Widow, and Hawkeye teamed up with S.H.I.E.L.D. to fight aliens. Awesome! Then Iron Man 3 threw it all out the window. After establishing all of these characters and the connectivity in the greater world, Iron Man effectively faces off against Al Qaeda by another name and he does so alone. One might wonder why S.H.I.E.L.D., the overarching intelligence apparatus that seems to know everything, didn’t appear. I did! The movie never addresses this issue. After S.H.I.E.L.D. was up Tony Stark’s butt for two independent films and then a team-up film why would it suddenly disappear when terrorists fly up to Iron Man’s house and blow it up? Why weren’t they involved in combatting the terrorists up to that point? The movie could have had one line that fixed this and I would have stayed mum: “Oh man, S.H.I.E.L.D. is so busy cleaning up New York they’re undermanned…” or whatever. Problem solved. But the movie doesn’t bother to address it.

Similarly, in Captain America: The Winter Soldier when Steve Rogers and Black Widow are on the run, they go to Falcon’s house and say everyone they know is trying to kill them. What about Tony Stark? They were even in New Jersey at one point, which brought them close to NYC where Tony and THE HULK were chilling in their Science Bros lab. Again, not really addressed. I would have been happy with a line that explained S.H.I.E.L.D. was monitoring Tony’s phones or Tony wouldn’t respond. Something. Anything! The movie clearly knew that Iron Man exists because “Anthony Stark” is targeted by “Project Insight” at the movie’s climax. I get that each character needs their own films and stories, but if you’re going to go to the trouble of building a shared universe you have to maintain it and acknowledge what you’ve built.

I’ve made my feelings about DC clear in other pieces so I won’t belabor them here. I will only note that the inner-connectivity between Arrow and The Flash is a perfect example of how to do it right. My complaints about DC are more about how they won’t unify all of their TV properties and have separated their films from TV.

Basically, my position is simple. Sequels, reboots, shared universes – make them! But make them well. And if you’re going to develop a shared universe, you need to respect the audience’s intelligence – don’t ignore the fact these characters exist in each other’s’ lives. Otherwise, why are you doing it?

Consistency

I have tried to remain non-political on the blog. And it will mostly remain a non-political place. I mean, c’mon, talking about Ghostbusters or Lost or The Avengers is way better than wading into that crap. In fact, let’s not even call this one “political.” Let’s call it “philosophy.”

It’s not that I don’t have opinions, I most certainly do. But I find—and studies have borne this out—the proliferation of media has given us the freedom to consume the content we want and ignore what we don’t; and most of us don’t want to discuss politics or philosophy that may challenge us. “Conservatives”* consume content that reflects that ideology and “liberals”* do the same. On the surface, I understand this perspective. We all work. We all commute. We’re living our lives and just making it through the day is hard enough sometimes without needing to get worked up in political conversations that shake us or make us uncomfortable.

But I can’t stay silent. The truth is we are not as different as MSNBC or Fox News tells us we are. I have many friends of various political stripes and 9 times out of 10, in our day-to-day lives, we agree or, at least, we can compromise on important subjects. If nothing else, we can have a discussion. But the reason things seem polarized, when viewed through the media’s filter, is because they only juxtapose issues between two points. Liberal or conservative. Democrat or republican. Wrong or right. But there is almost never a situation in our lives that comes down to just two choices. We’re faced with a spectrum of options at any given moment and so too are we representative of a spectrum of opinions, positions, and philosophies.

Just in case you think this is going to be an argument for “centrism,” let me stop you right there. I’m not a centrist. But my overall point is that I don’t think centrism is real because I don’t think there are only two positions between which there is a middle ground into which some people fall. But if you’re married to existing terminology if I’m arguing anything it’s that most people are “centrists” in the traditional sense. We simply get pulled into choosing one side over another when we would probably choose neither one if that was a legitimate option (and some do this, incidentally).

Since we’re forced to choose between two positions we often twist ourselves into argumentative knots to fit our complex views into the most compatible position. I won’t use an arbitrary example; I’ll use myself. I believe in a small government of specified and limited powers. I believe that’s the surest way to prevent the abuse of power by our elected leadership. What should the government’s specified powers be? Let that be a debate for another day. Let’s stay general here. I’ve said that I believed this for many years, going all the way back to high school. But I didn’t. I was like many people; I was partisan and really just parroting my parents’ values.

You see, when I was in high school, the US was attacked by Islamic fundamentalist terrorists who knocked down the Twin Towers in New York City and crashed a plane into the Pentagon. I, like everyone else it seemed, was shocked, horrified, scared, and angry. As the government grinded into action with a military response, I cheered them on. When Congress passed the Patriot Act, billed as a way to unify our intelligence efforts and make it easier to pursue terrorists, I cheered. Someone was doing something.

The problem, and it took me years to realize this, was that we compromised our principles to address this threat. What’s the saying? “We had to burn down the village to save it?” It’s melodramatic, but my point, and again I’m only talking about myself, is that I said I supported a small government of specified, limited powers except in certain circumstances. There it is. A lack of consistency.

If I had been consistent with my beliefs, I would not have supported many provisions in the Patriot Act. I believe in the philosophical basis that formed our country and supported documents like the Declaration of Independence. That declaration notes that all men are created equal and have certain fundamental, inalienable rights that come from our creator. Whether or not you believe in God is immaterial, if you’re alive, you have the right to live and all the others. Those rights belong to you simply by existing. I believe that with sincerity. Therefore, how could I support treating some people, in this case “enemy combatants,” as less than people? How could I support holding people indefinitely without trial and without representation? If I am being consistent, I cannot.

Now, please make no mistake: one of government’s express powers is national defense. And fighting a war takes commitment and certainty. If you’re going to do it, name your enemy and define victory. I supported, and still do, our response to attack Afghanistan which housed the Al Qaeda terrorist leadership. But I cannot support the invasion of Iraq if I am being consistent with my principles. Iraq was a dictatorship run by a madman. Is the world a better place without Saddam Hussein? Unequivocally so. But it’s also a more complicated place. And simply because Hussein was a bad person, does not mean that invading his country was the right policy decision for the United States. Despite what some may think, the question is still open on Iraq’s weapon caches, which was our justification for waging that war. The NY Times reported on the thousands of chemical weapons found over the course of our engagement there and some suspect that more of the active weaponry ultimately ended up in the hands of the Syrians. But you know what, this is immaterial to my larger point.

I supported something in which I didn’t believe because my philosophy mostly aligned with the stated policy objectives of those driving it forward. But over time, I realized that the political party pushing that agenda forward, for all its talk of small government and responsible foreign policy, merely wanted big government to advance its interests and reward its political allies. And sadly, the only other legitimate political alternative is doing the same thing with a different set of big government objectives.

I eventually came to a place where I couldn’t honestly defend my personal philosophy and support some of the public policy choices made by representatives in the party I traditionally supported. I’m suspicious of overreaching government power. I took to heart the chief lesson learned by the Founders of the United States of America – unchecked power can and will be abused. So, they designed a system where no one entity of government could act without the cooperation—and compromise—of the other entities. But that system is gone now. When the President of the United States takes unilateral action and half the country cheers him because he’s a member of their political party, and they would jeer if a President from the other party tried the same thing, it’s hard to believe in the process. The process has been replaced by parties.

And it’s frustrating because, like I noted near the beginning, I find tremendous agreement with friends and colleagues on important issues that affect our day-to-day lives. A government represented by people like us, not entrenched ideologues, would be something indeed. My wife and I just had a baby and as we prepare for the future, I’m drowning in the details of our finances. My wife and I (seem to) make a good living, but when I look at the costs ahead I’m worried. And no one is talking about that. No one is working to address the problem in our tax code that doesn’t take enough taxes out of a married couple’s income so that they owe money during tax season. That issue, and many others like it, isn’t sexy, so it’s rarely addressed.

So… I don’t know where to turn. The only thing I know how to do is be true to what I believe. I stand by my principles. To anyone reading this, I would simply ask that you be consistent. If you think it’s wrong for the government to stick its nose into the parenting style of people who let their kids walk, alone, to the park, then it should also be wrong for the government to stick its nose into the consensual relationship between two adults be they a man and a woman or two men or two women.

And if you think it’s wrong for the President to exercise too much unchecked power when he’s a democrat, then I hope you feel the same way when he’s a republican. And vice versa. I think we would get better representation if we were more consistent like that.

Ugh.

Now that we have that out of the way, how about that Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice trailer??

Stop Criticizing Superhero Media

Over-saturation? If they’re bad, yeah.

I’m late to the party on this, but I’ve wanted to address the rising criticism of superhero properties and storytelling for some time. Life interfered. Fortunately (or unfortunately), these criticisms keep coming so it’s just as relevant now as it was a month or two ago when these pieces began to propagate.

The first piece I saw that really struck a chord with me was one in which Simon Pegg said superhero movies are “dumbing us down.” He said they deal with “childish” subjects and take away from “real world issues.” Other than the irony of “Scotty,” from J.J. Abrams’ dumbed down Star Trek films (especially …Into Darkness…) saying this, I think he’s merely jumping aboard a popular train of criticism.

Superhero films are a genre like “action” or “comedy.” Criticizing superhero films for dealing with “childish” subjects is akin to criticizing comedies for making dick jokes. And to that I would say, a good dick joke is funny. So it is with superhero movies, too. X-Men: The Last Stand is a bad superhero movie. The Dark Knight is a good superhero movie (dare I say film). Or apples-to-apples, X-Men 2 is a good superhero movie.

The point is criticizing all superhero movies as “childish” is generalizing. It would be like criticizing Jaws as a “shallow” monster movie. It has popcorn moments to be sure, but the theme of Jaws is “man vs. nature.” It’s about a man with a fear of the water forced to confront a literal monster that lives in the water that threatens his home and his family. So, yes, there is a “monster” in Jaws, but it’s so much more than a monster movie.

More than anything I’m arguing that superhero films, like any other genre, have good ones and bad ones. Criticizing them all as childish—as the same thing—is simply inaccurate. It’s also conveniently forgetting the time before 2000 when Batman and Robin was the only kind of superhero movie we got. We should celebrate the serious and reverent way these properties are adapting to live action. We should even celebrate the quirky, fresh re-imaginings that we get like Guardians of the Galaxy.

We should be thankful that we now get movies like The Dark Knight and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. TDK was a movie with a guy who dresses up like a bat, yes, but it was also about self-sacrifice and what it takes to do the right thing. It was about chaos and savagery vs. humanity. TWS was about a guy who wears stars and stripes, yes, but it was also about unchecked government power and the surveillance state. It was about an individual who always believed in the system learning that the system was wrong. Of course, there was a lot of punching and kicking in the midst of these heady themes, but that doesn’t negate the fact these were good movies independent of the fact their protagonists wore outrageous costumes.

But superhero movies don’t need to confront serious issues to be taken seriously. The Avengers was two hours of fun. It’s exciting to see the disparate characters from separate franchises get together and fight a war. And what’s wrong with that? So what if the summer of 2012’s best movie moment was a giant green muscle monster punching a humungous flying alien worm in the face? It was a rousing moment that excited and galvanized the audience.

Superheroes are the Greek gods of the modern era. They tell larger than life stories about issues that matter. Spider-Man teaches us about power and responsibility. The X-Men teach us about discrimination and unfair judgment. Batman teaches us about the difference one man can make and about justice. It goes on and on.

More than anything I think these criticisms are elitism of the worst kind. The content contains costumes and superpowers so it couldn’t possibly have something substantial to say about government surveillance or corrupt institutions, etc. I wouldn’t describe Simon Pegg as an elitist, but I would call him a hypocrite. He’s made his money with comedies about zombies and aliens and super-spy thrillers and I don’t see how that material is any less childish than Iron Man or Batman. In fact, I would juxtapose The Dark Knight against Mission: Impossible 3 (or any of the slew of sequels in which he’s taken part) and argue there is less “childish” content in TDK than in those films.

But you know what? It shouldn’t matter. This shouldn’t be a pissing contest over what movie is less “childish.” When we get into the business of criticizing content based on superficial values rather than what those films are saying or how well the story is told, we go down a dangerous path.

Movies and TV are escapism, but they’re art, too. It’s hard to admit that about something like CHiPs or CSI: Miami, but it’s storytelling at the very least. But Game of Thrones is art. It’s about dragons and giant wolves, but it’s art. The people that put that show together take great care to present a highly visual, dense, visceral show that challenges the viewer. To bring it back to superheroes, specifically, Daredevil on Netflix goes to great pains to present a world of visual and figurative beauty where characters are motivated by their demons as much as their better angels. And yeah, the hero is a blind guy whose other senses are superhuman and he’s kind of a ninja.

If we’re going to criticize superhero films and media, let’s criticize them for when they don’t rise to the high standard that we’ve earned with The Dark Knight or Daredevil. Let’s not criticize them simply for existing based on some arbitrary standard of what’s “childish” and what’s not.

I Was Wrong About DC Comics (sort of)

The Emerald Knight vs. the Scarlett Speedster

If you’re not watching Arrow and The Flash, you’re missing two of the best superhero comic adaptations on TV ever. And by DC Comics, no less!

I’ve attacked DC Comics’ wrongheaded film efforts many times in the past on this blog as well as to anyone who would listen, but I did so before seeing Arrow and The Flash. Both shows are more than worth your time. In fact, they’re successfully doing on TV what Marvel has mastered in film.

DC Comics and Warner Bros. have been chasing Marvel Studios “Cinematic Universe” for years now. DC’s first genuine “lap” in that race was 2013’s Man of Steel, a new Superman reboot and a starting point for their shared universe. Despite my criticisms, I genuinely like the film.

I am still not sure how Man of Steel stands as the first step in a new shared movie universe, though. It’s Superman done “realistic;” at least as realistic as an alien made invincible by the sun’s rays can be. And it feels embarrassed to embrace its comic book roots. That’s not to say it’s embarrassed of spectacle, because it has oodles of that. To a fault. The foundation of DC’s cinematic universe is built on a film in which Superman introduces himself to the world and then destroys Metropolis in a knockdown drag-out fight with General Zod and his mini army in the same film.

Superman is supposed to be a boy scout, a beacon of hope, and a savior. He did put himself on the line to save humanity, but left a path of destruction behind him that would leave the most optimistic supporters hard pressed to defend him. So, we’ll see how Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice develops this universe further. In my heart, I am a DC over Marvel guy — I love Batman — but it’s hard to defend how badly they’ve treated their properties on film (Nolan-verse aside, of course).

Yet, in 2012 Arrow premiered on the CW as a gritty re-imagining of the laughable Batman rip-off superhero Green Arrow. In the comics, Green Arrow is probably most famous for sometimes shooting people in the face with a “boxing glove” arrow and looking like a Robin Hood rip-off. Although, Green Arrow appeared in the Bruce Timm animated universe, specifically Justice League Unlimited, as a pretty cool character who questioned the league’s authority as a voice of the “common man.” He was also voiced by the guy who played “Scotty” on General Hospital in the 90s… uh, *ahem*, not that I would know much about that.

In any case, Arrow is better than it has any right to be. It plays sort of like Batman Begins with the would-be hero, Oliver Queen, returning from a long exile and setting up his crime-fighting apparatus, complete with a training montage featuring salmon ladder pull-ups which my wife very much enjoys watching. But it’s OK because I ogle Ollie’s sister, Thea, a young woman who never met a shirt that didn’t show her midriff.

The story plays out, at least initially, with “villains of the week” and serialized elements guiding the story forward. Interestingly, Oliver Queen’s crime-fighting persona is not “Green Arrow.” At least not at first. He is “The Hood.” Playing into the Batman Begins comparison, Ollie is not fully baked at the end of episode one. Part of the fun is watching Ollie learn how to wage war on his city’s criminals and learn the ropes of urban vigilantism. As he does, the show’s story and characters expand and become more complex. Even better, the show’s leadership and writers are very comfortable geeking out with DC comics minutiae. For example, Ollie faces off with a version of Batman’s Royal Flush Gang in one episode.

The fight scenes are well done and surprisingly brutal. Ollie is not above filling guys who pose a threat with arrows. The costumes are reasonably good… although as with any superhero property there is necessary suspension of belief after a point.

Arrow eventually introduced crime scene investigator Barry Allen aka: The freakin’ Flash and spun him off into his own show, which introduced the concept of super powers and “meta-humans” into this universe. The Flash has been a fantastic show with an endearing lead and surprisingly good effects for a CW show. It’s also developed a very strong central mystery which has been propelling the story forward.

Since The Flash premiered, it has crossed over with Arrow several times yet both shows have maintained their own stories and arcs. In fact, I’ve been thoroughly impressed by how the shows have maintained ties to each other (whether characters from either show appear or not) and haven’t forgotten that these people exist in the same world. It’s one of few criticisms that I would make of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel — once the characters diverged, other than prearranged crossovers, the two worlds were entirely separate. Normally, this would have been OK except that on Buffy the world was ending every year and you’d think that maybe someone would have noticed a flying dragon (Season 5 finale) or the fact that the sun was blotted out in LA for several days on Angel (season 4).

Amazingly, while “kingmaker” Marvel was struggling to give it’s first TV property, Agents of SHIELD, solid footing, Arrow was into its second ambitious season developing a “big bad” that had been foreshadowed since the pilot episode and shaking up the status quo every week. It wasn’t until Captain America: The Winter Soldier came out that Agents of SHIELD improved drastically and made what came before a lot more relevant. But I would argue that Arrow was still the better show even though it was very cool to see how events playing out in the Marvel films affected the wider universe that Agents of SHIELD lives in week to week.

Which leads me to how DC is still screwing this up and lets me explain how I was only “sorta” wrong about them.

After Man of Steel came out there were questions about whether or not Superman and Arrow’s Oliver Queen existed in the same universe. Unlike Marvel, DC doesn’t have a unifying figure like Kevin Feige keeping these things locked down. DC was cagey about the continuity between universes for more than a year. Fans clamored for a shared movie and TV universe like Marvel has, although given the world changing events of Man of Steel it seemed odd that Arrow seemed unaffected by nor mentioned the near worldwide cataclysm. Then in late summer 2014, DC guru Geoff Johns confirmed what fans dreaded: Arrow/The Flash are not in the same universe as Man of Steel. They are “separate universes,” says Johns. The point was further hit home by the casting of a separate Flash for the upcoming Justice League and Flash movies (Grant Gustin plays an exceptional Barry Allen/Flash on TV and Erza Miller will be the movie Flash).

Disheartening news. DC had an opportunity to build off of a fantastic existing property, Arrow, and tie it to its big movie franchises and they have shut it down. Worse yet, CBS is developing a Supergirl TV show and there is a question as to whether or not that will be part of the same universe as Arrow and The Flash. Would it be part of the movie universe? It’s own thing?? It’s not clear yet and that, in of itself, is proof of DC’s shortsighted, bad planning.

Now, let me be clear about one thing: I actually would not mind, in principle, if the DC TV universe and the movie universe were separate entities. Let the movie world be one thing and the TV world be another. Sounds fair.

Except it’s not.

The DC movie universe has free reign to use whatever characters and properties it wishes (assuming licensing rights aren’t an issue, of course), but DC TV does not. For example, Batman and Superman are off limits. I don’t think I’ve seen it expressly stated anywhere, but I suspect that Wonder Woman is off-limits, too. Junior Varsity Batman villains are OK (Deadshot, Clock King, etc.) but not the Joker or even Harley Quinn for that matter (brief Arrow easter egg aside, that is). Now, it probably wouldn’t make much sense to have the Joker without Batman anyway, but my point remains: TV is limited in what characters it can use while the movies are not. This doesn’t make sense to me. If the universes are “separate” why does it matter if there’s a TV Batman and a movie Batman? Hell, at this point, there’s a TV Flash and a movie Flash; so why are we holding back on the characters that fans want to see?

DC has been schizophrenic about this for almost 15 years. Justice League and Justice League Unlimited were victims of a so-called “bat embargo” that gradually prevented the usage of Batman characters and villains on the shows for… reasons. In the linked article, it’s suggested that because of the Batman Begins reboot in 2004 DC was sensitive about confusing people with multiple versions of the same character. It’s also noted that because Aquaman appeared on Smallville (ugh), he couldn’t be used on Justice League anymore either. What is DC’s deal??

Anyway, I’ll drive myself insane trying to understand why DC is contradicting itself. But if you take anything from this post, it should be WATCH ARROW AND THE FLASH! They’re fantastic. You have to do it in chronological order, though. Watch the first two seasons of Arrow and then watch The Flash pilot and then trade off Arrow and The Flash episodes after that.

Marvel’s “Villain Problem”

I’ve had a vision of a world made free from magic tricks.

*LIGHT SPOILERS AHEAD*

Marvel Studios, for all its great decisions and fantastic vision, is not doing its villains justice. It’s the only area where DC is supreme.

Mike Cecchini at Den of Geek has written a fantastic piece, with which I completely agree, about how Marvel’s cinematic villains aren’t up to snuff. There have been 10 Marvel movies now and, of them, only one memorable villain who headlined in two of those films. I’m referring to Loki, of course, in case you’re blind. Mr. Cecchini even makes the rather damning point that Captain America: The First Avenger wasted Hugo Weaving as Red Skull. He’s right.

Alternatively, the Warner Brothers’ DC films have done its villains justice. Of course, Christopher Nolan’s Batman films were great for their characterization of the man himself, but the villains were also given a great deal to do. Even Man of Steel, which I’ve criticized in another post, has a formidable villain in General Zod played by Michael Shannon. Zod has real motivation and a point of view, that while we don’t necessarily agree with it, we can understand. Plus, since his goal (essentially terraforming Earth into a new Krypton) is something that Superman struggles with as one of the last beings of his race in the universe, the conflict between them takes on added weight.

In Batman Begins, Ra’s Al Ghul wasn’t just a monologue spewing evil machine — he had real objectives and beliefs and the threat of force behind his actions that challenged Batman physically as well as philosophically. In many ways, Ra’s and Batman have the same objective. They just have radically different methods for attaining it. The drama of their conflict is borne out of their similarities and, indeed, the bond of mentor and student shared at the beginning. It also doesn’t hurt that Liam Neeson is amazing.

So much has been said about Heath Ledger as the Joker in The Dark Knight that I can hardly say anything new. He was brilliant and terrifying and funny. It was the ultimate depiction of the character on film because everything he did, he did through action and motion and violence or the ever-present threat of violence. You cringe to watch him in some scenes while not daring to look away. Performance aside, the Joker is the yin to Batman’s yang. And in The Dark Knight that was literally true because, thematically, the Joker was a consequence of Batman’s escalation against criminals. The Joker even thanks Batman for it. While he claims to have no motive and no goal, that’s not true and we see it play out over the course of the film. Perhaps the best thing that can be said about Ledger’s performance as Joker and of his role in The Dark Knight, is that a truly good villain truly shows us the hero in a new light. The Joker tests Batman and tests the police and forces them to stand by their morality or not. Because of Joker, we learned a great deal more about Batman’s character and his resolve than we did in the previous film.

Finally, in The Dark Knight Rises, realizing that no one could compare to Heath Ledger’s psychological performance as Joker, Nolan and team went a different way: position Batman against a foe that’s not just a philosophical threat, but one who can physically match and surpass him: Bane. While lacking some of the thematic value of Ra’s and Joker, Bane’s presence as a physical threat played into the idea of a Batman past his prime who could no longer cut it. Bane was young, muscle-bound, and powerful, while Batman had been off the streets for years, walked with a cane, and was unbalanced. Again, it was another prism through which to see Batman and bring out more aspects of his character. The film is not nearly as perfect as The Dark Knight, but still a pretty satisfying portrayal of Batman as well as a villain with real menace.

Unfortunately, none of the Cinematic Marvel villains have the weight of the DC villains — even Loki. He’s a great foil and is a good villain, but Tom Hiddleston’s performance is 99% of the reason that is the case. What does Loki tell us about Thor or the Avengers? Nothing, really. He’s just a foe, presenting a challenge, which the heroes must defeat. It’s a shame because in the comics Marvel villains are usually more nuanced and human than their counterparts in the DC Universe (Batman’s rogues aside, of course).

I can hardly fault Marvel for putting so much love and attention into their protagonists because we are seeing some really good comics-to-screen adaptations. But I can’t help but think that Iron Man and Thor (as well as the actors who portray them) would be better served by facing off against fully-realized villains that challenged their very souls as opposed to just some scheme or plan or MacGuffin that everyone is after.

Mr. Cecchini gave faint praise to Captain America: The Winter Soldier for its villains. I’d like to respectfully disagree and say that those villains were worthwhile foes that presented a genuine threat to Captain America as not just a challenge to overcome, but they made him confront who he is, what he is doing, and in what he believes. I suppose that the overall situation provided this threat, but even still, Captain America is a “white bread,” boy scout. He’s immovable in his honor, courage, and beliefs, so to wring drama out of him you need to put him against a philosophical threat that doesn’t neatly slot into “good” or “bad.” Plus, the Winter Soldier provided a physical challenge to the Cap that not many villains faced thus far have as well as emotional resonance in his relationship to him. Think of how successful Captain America: The Winter Soldier was — I would argue that it was great for its rich story and compelling villains as much as the spectacle of its set pieces.

Overall, Mr. Cecchini’s article is spot-on. Marvel is clearly building towards Thanos as the super villain our heroes will have to face either en masse or through proxy battles (probably both) and he deserves respect. They’ve already cast Josh Brolin to play him–which is a good start to invest in talent–but if all Thanos is going to do is make menacing faces and give monosyllabic responses, Marvel may be building up to its first genuine disappointment in an otherwise masterful cinematic adaptation of its properties.

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.