I Disagree with David Lynch

everything-you-need-to-know-about-the-twin-peaks-revival

Twin Peaks fever has taken hold for the first time in 26 years. The original series is being celebrated, re-analyzed, dissected, and is sourcing all manner of “listicles” for “best episodes,”  “scariest moments,” “favorite characters,” etc. Suffice it to say, interest in the new season airing on Showtime this Sunday, May 21st at 9 PM EST is high.

But amidst the feverish interest in the new series are two perspectives I find troubling, which impact the show’s lasting legacy and 27 years of fandom. I must defend Twin Peaks season two and the story of the series as a whole.

The first wrongheaded perspective is codifying Twin Peaks as a cult show. It’s revisionist history and it demeans the show’s legacy. It’s certainly true that since it’s been off of the air only the hard core fans have remained invested in the series, but when the show was airing live everyone watched. Not just a rabid, cultish few. Everyone talked about Twin Peaks around the “water cooler” (whatever that was…).

I challenge this idea mostly because classifying Twin Peaks as a “cult show” isn’t accurate. It twists the truth and turns potential future viewers away. When Twin Peaks was hot, it was sizzling and everyone was watching it. Recent reflections on the series have revealed that even state leaders like President George H.W. Bush and Queen Elizabeth were enamored with the story of the murdered prom queen and the mystery of who killed her. Rocky Horror Picture Show, my dear The Big Lebowski, and heck even Firefly are cult works. By contrast, Twin Peaks was a national phenomenon.

The second and more pervasive perspective is “Season 2 of Twin Peaks went off the rails.” I’m distilling a lot of criticism into one sentence for simplicity, but bear with me.

Season 1 is universally beloved. It’s tightly plotted, engrossing television that, to this day, still manages to astound with its peculiar dream imagery, emotional soundtrack, gorgeous visuals both in locations and in set design, and outrageous characters. Despite taking place in 1990 (1989?), it feels timeless. There’s a reason for this, of course. Creators David Lynch and Mark Frost crafted the genre-bending, transformational pilot movie and the subsequent 7 episodes together. It’s true that other writers and directors were involved, but the “bones” of the story were assembled by Lynch and Frost.

It’s inaccurate to say that Lynch and Frost were uninvolved in Season 2 and I wish that particular legend would die already. Even Brad Dukes’ great oral history of Twin Peaks dispels this notion. What really happened is more mundane — the first season was a limited season event and season two was picked up for a full 22 episodes and it needed to be run more “traditionally.” In short, the machinery of TV bureaucracy intruded. Lynch and Frost couldn’t just secret themselves away and design the whole season. TV didn’t work that way in 1990. Now, folks like Vince Gilligan (who walks firmly in Lynch and Frost’s footsteps), of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul fame, can develop a season from start to finish albeit with more concise 13 episode counts.

But all of that is beside the point. Despite the added pressure of success and the winding maze of 1990 era TV bureaucracy, Twin Peaks season 2 should not be minimized as lesser work. Indeed, I argue that what season 2 ultimately did was build the world far beyond just the murder of the seemingly innocent homecoming queen.

There are some who say the whole season is rubbish, but much of the criticism is leveled at many of the episodes following the reveal of Laura Palmer’s killer. Some is certainly fair. Let’s start there.

David Lynch (and Mark Frost to a lesser extent) have long lamented pressure from the network to reveal Laura Palmer’s killer. Lynch has argued that it killed “the golden goose.” I’ve never understood this, much less agreed with it. In other descriptions of Twin Peaks, Lynch has described Laura’s murder as the doorway into the strange, bucolic town full of secrets. If that’s true, then once we’re in the town, we’re in. Laura’s murder being solved should be immaterial. You could make the case that people would have abandoned the show anyway after awhile because they’d feel strung along with no answers in sight. In fact, some viewers were already leaving over the feeling of being strung along during early season two!

But from a story perspective Laura’s murder was merely the first layer of the onion. Once you peel it back, you could reveal greater truths and deeper mysteries (which is what happened!). The criticisms I will agree with about the second season have to do more with the poor transition from Laura’s story to the next big story and some of the subplot choices the show pursued. But simply solving Laura’s murder shouldn’t have ended the show when exposing her killer opened the door into the shows deeper mythology which was (and is) rich with even more story potential, hence the fact that we’re getting more show 27 years later!

Following Laura’s murder, the show should have transitioned directly into the Windom Earle story line. Or, perhaps, maybe just one episode of transition and denouement instead of three or four. I’m not proposing anything new or insightful here, I think this idea is almost universally shared. And, to me, that suggests that the late Season Two stories have merit and are good and the slow build to get there were the real problems. I certainly think the Cooper vs. Windom Earle and Hunt for Owl Cave stories were very strong and breathed some new life into the show, further bending the genre into which Twin Peaks falls.

I’m also not willing to let David Lynch and Mark Frost off of the hook for these Season Two matters. Many of the ideas sewn into those stories originated with David and Mark. Brad Dukes’ book, for example, noted that putting Josie into the drawer pull originated with David Lynch. He also appeared as Gordon Cole in audio and in person. If he didn’t like what he was seeing from the material and the approach, why didn’t he say something or do something? Mark Frost apparently did a writing pass over every script; one or both of the creators was involved in every story the show produced. Lynch, of course, famously reasserted himself in the amazing season two finale (if you don’t know, Lynch used very little of what was scripted for the Black Lodge sequence at the end). But why wait? Some Lynch sycophants won’t like this, since he “walks on water,” but these questions deserve answers especially when he piles on season two as well (as recently as today!). I say, “Own it.”

Putting the leadership questions aside, it’s also worth putting things into their historical context. Twin Peaks season two, particularly the post Laura Palmer episodes, aired and were preempted by the Gulf War. For a deeply serialized show like Twin Peaks, that was a fatal blow. Add to that the show was moved to Saturday nights–hardly a good night for cultivating a TV audience. Original fans, even diehards, likely had a tough time finding the show. But even if they did, with huge gaps in episodes, it was harder to pick up the threads from previous episodes. And it was 1991. There weren’t reruns like there are now and no way to find missed episodes unless you taped them.

I point this out because I’m a “second-generation” (third?) Twin Peaks fan. I was introduced to the show in a college course about transformational TV dramas and subsequently watched it on DVD. I was able to watch the show one after the other. A pre-Netflix binge, if you will. While the post-Laura Palmer episodes are certainly different, in that they lack the central plot thread (at least initially), I still enjoyed them. And if you watched them in close sequencing, without weeks or months long gaps, they hold together much better. I can certainly understand fans’ frustrations in 1991 about watching Ben Horne reenact the Civil War in his office or James mope around with a melodramatic married woman while not advancing the main story much about Windom Earle, the missing Major Briggs, or where BOB had gone. But revisiting these episodes in a more streamlined fashion is enjoyable and easier to pick up the thread.

By the way, I thought the “Ben-as-a-Civil-War-general” story was funny. Ludicrous in the way only Twin Peaks could do. Josie’s story ramped up and, as a result, Sheriff Truman became a more well-rounded character with more to do. I thought the story about Jean Renault conspiring to get Cooper drummed out of the FBI and ultimately killed was good. Renault has a particularly good quote in his final episode:

“Before you came here, Twin Peaks was a simple place. My brothers sold drugs to truck-drivers and teenagers. One-Eyed Jack’s welcomed curious tourists and businessmen. Quiet people lived quiet lives. Then a pretty girl dies. And you arrive. Everything changes. My brother Bernard is shot and left to die in the woods. A grieving father smothers my surviving brother with a pillow. Arson, kidnapping. More death and destruction. Suddenly the quiet people here are no longer quiet. Their simple dreams have become a nightmare. Maybe you brought the nightmare with you. And maybe, it will die with you.”

It encapsulates quite nicely why I think the post-Laura Palmer episodes have merit. Before Laura died, all of the town’s secrets lay dormant with no one particularly interested in exposing them, if that was even possible. Laura’s death was a gateway into these secrets and the deeper mysteries waiting in the woods and solving her murder did not put the cap back on the bottle–it was broken open and could not be resealed. That’s the beauty of TV storytelling, iterative stories that build off of what’s come before and the resolution of Laura’s murder and what happened in the aftermath were worthwhile stories. Poorly executed, perhaps, but that doesn’t mean the story should not have been told.

I’m defensive about season two because all we have had for years is the episodes that were made. No comic books. No further sequels. Just these episodes and a movie. Beyond that, I loved the story of how Dale Cooper became a town deputy and embedded himself deeper into the town and it’s people. His friendship with Sheriff Truman, Andy, and Hawk grew. And he wanted to buy property in Twin Peaks. To me, it was the natural evolution of Cooper’s character that he had completely and utterly fallen in love with Twin Peaks. The real love story of Twin Peaks isn’t Cooper and Audrey or Ed and Norma, it’s Cooper and the town itself.

Coming back to the main point, many of the things people remember about Twin Peaks originated in Season 2. Iconic moments, characters, and stories: the Giant, Laura Palmer’s secret diary, white-haired Leland, Denise Bryson, the white and black lodges, Josie in the drawer knob, “How’s Annie?,” and more. It’s just become fashionable to dump on Twin Peaks season two so people do it and I’d venture to say that many who do haven’t seen the episodes they’re trashing in a while (if at all).

After 27 years (12 for me), the only content fans have had from the world of Twin Peaks are 29 episodes and a movie. We’ve lived with those stories for years, theorized about them, debated them, dreamed about them, wondered what would happen next. We may like some stories more than we like others, yes; that’s true of anything. But those stories are all Twin Peaks.

We can lament that David Lynch didn’t direct more episodes, but the fact of the matter is: he didn’t. Episodes that are probably well loved were written and directed by people who are not David Lynch. Mark Frost directed the season one finale quite capably. Lesli Linka Glatter, Caleb Deschanel, Duwayne Dunham, Tim Hunter… all great directors who brought life to the stories and characters. The show was orchestrated by all of these people, not just David Lynch and Mark Frost.

When the new show continues, it will be guided firmly by David Lynch and Mark Frost. More power to them. I can’t wait to see what they have in store for us. But I do hope that 27 years of stories, because that’s what they really are, are not cast aside casually. It’s been 27 years in real life, perhaps just 25 years in the show, but life moves on. I get it and that’s license to forget about some things. I really don’t care much about the pine weasel or Little Nicky all grown up, but it would be nice to learn if Ghostwood was ever developed. Does Josie still haunt drawer pulls in the Great Northern Hotel? Is that what happened to the Log Lady’s husband? Is Ben Horne really Donna Hayward’s father? What, if anything, did Major Briggs do with the communication from Windom Earle via Sarah Palmer (“I’m in the Black Lodge with Dale Cooper.”)?

Twin Peaks is the sum of its 30 parts, counting the movie, too. I’m a completionist. I’ve never been able to say, “Well, Star Trek seasons one and two are really great, but season three is terrible so I don’t count it.” No. The work is the work. Frankly, I think it’s a fun bit of fandom to analyze and criticize the best and worst parts of a series. To stick with my Star Trek analogy, The Next Generation season one is, to put it kindly, not it’s best. But it’s not like the events of that season are ignored because the episodes didn’t turn out as well as we would have liked.

Life is that way, too. There are things we are proud of in our lives. There are things we wish we had not done or that we had done them differently. But all of our experiences make up who we are now. We can choose to ignore some parts of our pasts, but those things happened and they affect us regardless.

I say accept Twin Peaks the same way. It is the sum of its parts, some good, some Evelyn and Little Nicky. But soon, there will be more parts and that cannot be anything but exciting.

Enjoy your coffee and pie this weekend, folks.

MST3k Premiere Review: 1101 – “Reptilicus”

Movie sign!

I shared my broad, non-spoiler reactions to the new MST3k’s premiere episode here. Since I can finally talk spoilers and refer to the movie, I’ll share my impressions beyond those broader thoughts.

As I noted before, there was certainly a lot of good aspects to the premiere. I’m encouraged to watch more.

The show opening is spirited and it certainly covered a lot of narrative ground. It did not, however, explain why the Satellite of Love or the Bots are back in space. As a fan of the original series, and one who was particularly moved by that show’s conclusion, this rubbed me the wrong way. I made this comment to Joel Hodgson on Facebook and he actually responded to me! Joel said (I made grammar edits for clarity and OCD reasons…):

“I appreciate your note, but I didn’t feel like sewing all those elements together up front. Felt “top heavy.” Also, I’ll explain how the bots got back into space downstream. Next season.”

First off, I’m glad to hear he thinks there will be another season. More MST3k can only be a good thing. But while I respect that Joel took the time to respond to me, it doesn’t persuade me to his view because he dedicated a lot of upfront narrative as it is.

I would say explaining how the Bots, who escaped their previous captors, ended up stranded on the satellite again is a worthwhile story to tell. Or at least acknowledge. The previous iteration of MST, while goofy, still maintained a loose but straightforward continuity. That’s why I think the transitions from Josh to Kevin, Joel to Mike, Frank and Trace to Pearl, and Trace to Bill were about as smooth as could be expected given the affection for those characters. The show acknowledged something was different and, while not dwelling on it, at least gave it attention so the audience didn’t feel unmoored. Since this is being positioned as a new season and kind of a reboot, it clearly doesn’t play by those same rules, but it’s why I, as a “legacy” fan, feel it’s a rough start.

It also doesn’t help that Tom Servo and Crow, who were last performed so vividly by Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett (and Trace Beaulieu before him), are shells of their former selves. Again, I recognize I may just be longing for the old performers who embodied these characters for so long. But even when I try to account for that bias, it’s undeniable that in this premiere episode Tom and Crow are merely additional voices to deliver jokes. I have no idea what their new personalities are supposed to be. For new viewers, they may not care. But for legacy fans, I can’t imagine I’ll be alone in this.

Even in Bill Corbett’s first episode as Crow, arguably the second toughest character transition for the show (after Joel to Mike, of course), he began developing a personality that was somewhat of a hybrid between Trace’s Crow and the one he would eventually perfect, that “barely contained East Coast anger” Crow. He left an impression. I have no impression of the new Crow, voiced by (but not puppeted) comedian Hampton Yount.

It’s even worse for Tom Servo, now voiced by comedian Baron Vaughn. It’s inarguable that Kevin Murphy was Tom Servo for 99% of MSTies. Yes, I know the character originated with Josh Weinstein. But he had two (sorta) seasons with Tom and the show was barely defined at this point, he didn’t have much time to make a mark. I don’t see any huge contingent of “Weinstein was better” fans coming out of the woodwork other than the “I HATE TOM SERVO’S NEW VOICE” guy. Kevin Murphy inhabited Tom Servo from Season 2 to the end. His mark on the character is indelible. The singing, the swaying to music in the theater, the unique deep baritone, even the odd quirks he developed over the years like an underwear collection… It’s unfair to compare Vaughn to Murphy, but it will happen. Particularly because Murphy’s Tom was so memorable and developed.

Jonah probably comes out the best, from a character perspective, in the premiere. But he’s definitely more Joel than Mike. And, of course he does because this is Joel’s party. What do I mean by this? Well, Joel “Robinson” was a thoughtful, easy going father figure who didn’t really rock the boat. He did inventions, he taught the bots lessons, he tried to focus on the positive aspects of movies, and was pretty much an amiable lug content to watch bad movies while being held hostage.

Jonah’s not much different. He has that “millennial,” Chris Hardwick vibe (the two are real life friends, actually) where he seems to get excited and geek out on subjects of interest. But in the premiere, Jonah plays very much of a Joel role. He doesn’t really act like a guy who just got kidnapped and is forced to watch bad movies.

Mike Nelson started off “cooler” than he would ultimately be by the end. “Insecure, beefy Midwestern guy.” He bucked the Mads. He tried to escape a lot. And he didn’t police the Bots’ riffs in the theater like Joel did. He was like a big brother, if Joel was akin to a father figure. Jonah has been pitched as akin to your friend’s little brother who you don’t really want hanging around you, in terms of his relationship with the Bots. But if that’s the idea, it’s not apparent in the premiere.

The strongest additions are Felicia Day as Kinga Forrester and Patton Oswalt as “TV’s Son of TV’s Frank” or just Max. He prefers the former. They’ve got a good chemistry together. I like Felicia Day from her other work. Patton Oswalt is hilarious and I’ve enjoyed him at least since The King of Queens. Their “evil” goal is somewhat different than Dr. F or Pearl’s; it’s more meta. Kinga is resurrecting Mystery Science Theater 3000 and wants to inflict bad movies on Jonah because that will get better ratings. I think it’s an inspired choice. My only fear is that meta stuff can get tiresome fast if not well balanced. We’ll see.

Finally, the movie: 1961’s Reptilicus. If there’s a definition of a “cheesy” movie, this is it. It’s got everything a MSTie could want: drab, lumpy white guys in coats talking about made up science, hot 60s babes, and more models of buildings and a green lizard monster than you can shake a stick at. Plus, the monster spews green acid that looks like Ecto Cooler and is an effect added after the fact and so doesn’t render well. Ripe material for riffing.

The riffing: this episode bears re-watching, but the riffs came so often and so fast that it was hard to react to them. It was definitely a case of the new riffing team getting comfortable because this gets better as the episodes go on and everyone settles down. I laughed out loud a few times, but was more bemused than anything.

The new MST3k feels very much like Joel Hodgson is behind it. It’s feels like the show rewound to its Season 3 and Season 4 sensibilities. I have no problems with Season 3 or 4 of MST3k; there are great episodes in those seasons: Pod People, of course, Master Ninja, Gamera, Manos, Monster A-Go-Go, and more. It’s just that the show evolved after those seasons. The riffing got tighter and the characters grew into their roles. It felt more like a guy trapped in space forced to watch bad movies. The riffs became more conversational than some guy doing a voice shouting at the screen (although those riffs still happened).

I realize that I may be coming off fairly negative. It’s not my intent. But I had high expectations. Probably too high. And since my preferences come from Season 5 Joel and the Mike era of the show, my expectations are probably even more uncalibrated. I just see too many people heaping praise on the premiere and, while decent, it really doesn’t warrant it. It succeeds at launching the new show and reestablishing the premise, but so far it only honors the “Joel” era of MST3k and there were 4 ½ other seasons (and a movie!) to draw upon.

Fortunately, I saw enough good things and lavish attention to detail that I’m not calling it a misfire. And since I’ve already watched ahead beyond the premiere, I know that each episode forward is an improvement.

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.