REVIEW: The Secret History of Twin Peaks (Spoilers)

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I love Twin Peaks.

I was too young to enjoy the show when it originally aired in 1990-1991. I was too busy watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies. My first exposure to the show was eleven years ago at college. I took a class at Syracuse University called “The Modern TV Drama: 1980 to Present” taught by a quasi-famous pop culture expert, Professor Robert Thompson. We met once a week on Thursdays for two hours and we watched and discussed the first shows to treat audiences like they had any intelligence, Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, Moonlighting… etc.

We spent three classes on Twin Peaks. I’m not going to recap all the reasons why you should watch it; I’ve already done so. But I’ll say this: the pilot for Twin Peaks is something everyone should see. It’s TV history. It changed everything. If you like Game of Thrones, Westworld, Lost, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad… (more!), thank David Lynch and Mark Frost. Professor Thompson showed it to us and I was intrigued by the melodious and indulgent opening credits and gripped at once by the series’ opening images of a mysterious, beautiful woman looking at herself in the mirror and a rumpled man going out to fish and making a horrific discovery—a dead body wrapped in plastic.

I sought out Twin Peaks DVDs and ravenously devoured the show. At the end, I made the horrific discovery that my progenitors made fifteen years earlier: the show ended with a hell of a cliffhanger. ABC cancelled the series after its second season. The “follow-up” movie Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is actually an R-rated prequel covering the last seven days of the victim’s, Laura Palmer, life.

For 25 years, the original fans of Twin Peaks languished until 2014 when it was announced that David Lynch and Mark Frost were reviving the series on Showtime and would also deliver a tie-in book about the town. The series has since completed filming and is slated to arrive “sometime” in 2017. But first, Mark Frost’s book The Secret History of Twin Peaks arrived on October 18th. This is the first new content in this story in 25 years and to say I was excited to read it is an understatement of the highest order. There was also an audio version announced featuring some of the show’s actors voicing their original characters as well as a smattering of others.

Originally titled The Secret Lives of Twin Peaks, the book’s press release said it would “…[reveal] what has happened to the people of that iconic fictional town since we last saw them 25 years ago.” This book does not do that.

Instead, The Secret History of Twin Peaks is an epistolary novel which means it’s told through letters, articles, memos, and commentary by a couple of people. Essentially, the “book” is a dossier found at a crime scene in July 2016 which the FBI is investigating. Could this be a plot point in the coming season? No clue, but it’s exciting that there are new mysteries to consume. FBI Assistant Director Gordon Cole has assigned an agent to review the tome and discover the identity of the “Archivist” who put it together.

In summary, I enjoyed the book. I was riveted. The “story” begins in the “real world”  explaining where the dossier was found and setting the stage before diving headlong into a deep historical narrative concerning Lewis and Clark’s exploration in the Northwest Territory (Twin Peaks is in northwest Washington near the Canadian border in the present sovereign borders). It winds through early American history, secret societies, conspiracies, and myths of Native Americans and the early North American peoples featuring some interesting linkages to the opaque mythology of the show.

However, the title of the book is something of a misnomer. While Twin Peaks and the history of (some of) its characters factor into the story, much of the novel follows an ancillary character from the show, who has been given a rigorous backstory more grand than his minor appearances on the show would indicate, and his adventures outside of the town. Major historical figures appear throughout the story and the scope of Twin Peaks’ connections to the wider world are expanded upon in ways that were only vague hints towards the close of the show’s final season and partially in the film. It’s a testament to Mark Frost’s writing and the vivid tapestry he weaves that all of this information is gripping and holds attention even though, for large portions of the story, the links to Twin Peaks are marginal at best.

When Twin Peaks and its characters, or their parents and grandparents, are in focus the story is damn fine. We learn dense backstory and interesting tidbits about the major families who founded the town and who are, unsurprisingly, related to most of the main characters from the show. One character, Josie Packard, whose backstory was largely shrouded in mystery on the series, receives a good bit of coverage and all major gaps are filled in. Josie’s history is not likely to get a lot of attention in the new season, for reasons fans will understand, so it’s nice to get closure on that thread. There are a few other examples of this, some more interesting than others, but I’ll let readers discover those on their own.

But let’s face it: the real reason Twin Peaks fans wanted to get their hands on this book is to find out what happened after the cataclysmic events of the series’ final episode. But unfortunately, if that’s all you came to find, you will be disappointed. The events covered in the book go just barely past the end of the show* and only fleeting answers are provided. But one of the finale’s major events (not the one you really want to know about) is addressed in clear detail and provides interesting, if not unsurprising, resolution. In the course of addressing that hanging thread, another character whose fate was up in the air is unceremoniously declared alive and well with no mention of his own violent encounter.

Which leads me to a subject about the book, which is already an Internet point of debate: there are a number of glaring historical and Twin Peaks plot inconsistencies. In some interviews, Mark Frost has addressed this in a couple of ways: 1. He has noted that the nature of the novel is one where the narrator(s) are not always reliable, and 2. A cryptic response “All will be revealed in time…” Let me address these in order.

Regarding the “unreliable narrator,” that would not explain certain incorrect important historical dates. It also would not explain characters who should have had direct information on events giving conflicting information. The most obvious and harmless example to mention is a retelling of what happened with the Big Ed, Norma, and Nadine love triangle. I won’t recount it here, but the book directly conflicts with what the show told us happened. It’s particularly egregious because the story was told in the season two premiere, which was written by David Lynch and Mark Frost (the author), in a funny and memorable scene that’s easily one of my favorites which you can enjoy here as a matter of fact. There are several other examples like the wrong date for the moon landing. There are also a number of stunning omissions** such as no mention made of the White or Black Lodges (directly), no mention of Annie Blackburn, “blink and you’ll miss them” entries about Windom Earle, and a handful more. For non-fans, this is gobbledygook, but for people who have watched and re-watched the series many times over the past two and a half decades it is clear and it’s troubling.

There might be hope, though. Frost’s response that “all will be revealed…” hints at what some of us have already suspected about this book: that it is, in of itself, a mystery to be solved. The changes and the omissions may be deliberate obfuscation by the “Archivist” (who is identified eventually). Or maybe something happened to the Dossier after the “Archivist” parted with it (maybe not intentionally?). In fact, given what I’ve noted about the Big Ed story above, it’s hard to believe that Mark Frost would have been that careless. I would have hoped that he reviewed the series again before diving back into the new season and this book. Even if he just skimmed some episodes, I would hope that he’d have paid close attention to the ones he and Lynch directly generated. So, it’s difficult to swallow that he just screwed it up or simply wanted to retcon it. It seems likely (or maybe I’m desperate to believe) that Frost made the plot changes on purpose because they are obvious and fans would notice. Perhaps they point the way to some hidden truth. Fans on Reddit are already pouring through the text to see if there is some kind of embedded code—I love the Internet, by the way.

Setting aside any plot or historical errors for the moment, The Secret History of Twin Peaks is an engrossing read. It’s new Twin Peaks content for goodness sake! Two years ago, no one thought we would ever see new Twin Peaks anything let alone a novel and a new season (seasons??). There was clearly a lot of energy put into the book. It’s also exciting to think that maybe the items I initially perceived as continuity errors might point the way towards some hidden truths that a plain reading of the text doesn’t reveal.

Since I also listened to the audio book, I’ll say that the voice cast is quite good. Annie Wersching of 24 and Bosch fame provided the narration for the FBI agent investigating the dossier and I wish she was a listed cast member for the new season. She did a great job here and she’s a good actress otherwise. Perhaps, one of the many actresses listed in that 217 deep cast list will be portraying the character she voiced? I wish David Lynch had voiced Gordon Cole as I was expecting some yelling at the start and didn’t get it, but I suppose his time is better spent in the editing bay getting us a damn trailer for the new season. Otherwise, Len Cariou narrated as the “Archivist” and the guy should read all my books for me—he had a rich timbre that lent itself to the material well.

All in all, if you’re at all a fan of Twin Peaks, this book is essential reading (or listening) for you. It’s a great appetizer for us to snack on while we wait for the main course coming next year. Pick it up and read slowly; 2017 will be here before we know it.

 

*Given that the initial press release said the book would cover what happened to the people in Twin Peaks over the last 25 years and offer a “deeper glimpse into the central mystery that was only touched on in the original series,” I wonder when that approach changed. Or if the publisher simply used provocative language to promote the book’s plot and Frost never had any intention of doing that? Some of the Twin Peaks fan sites have done interviews with Frost, but they’re so busy falling over to complement him and gush over the show that they haven’t asked about this significant discrepancy in marketing.

**I wonder if Lynch asked Frost not to put some topics in the book like Annie and The Black Lodge, directly, because he would prefer they only be addressed on screen. Purely a guess, but it might be a “real world” reason why those rather important topics aren’t mentioned at all.

Viral Twin Peaks Marketing?

Cooper and the gang use the

Cooper and the gang use the “Tibetan Method” to solve a mystery.

This afternoon a veteran editor at “The Twin Peaks Experience” posted a link to a site: http://doublerdiner.squarespace.com/ which appears to be a restaurant site for the fictional “Double R Diner” from Twin Peaks.

The only link on the page “Menu,” actually goes to http://www.playinglynch.com/. This site only contains a clock, which as of this writing is counting down from 7 days, 14 hours. Will the long-awaited Twin Peaks season three trailer appear in 7 days and 14 hours??

However, there is an interesting detail on the “Double R Diner” site. It notes the diner is famous for its “Huckleberry” pies. While I believe that kind of pie was served on Twin Peaks, even casual fans of the series know that cherry pies were the menu item in demand (that, and coffee of course). Is this detail significant? Maybe this site isn’t related to Twin Peaks officially and is merely a fan attempt for attention. Or, if real, could the change be deliberate to indicate some kind of change in the town over the past 25 years?

As a huge fan of Lost, the spiritual successor to Twin Peaks, I didn’t realize how much I missed trying to figure out TV mysteries. I’m excited to see where this return to Twin Peaks takes us.

Watch “Person of Interest”

maxresdefaultA very good, special show ended last week and I bet many of you don’t even know it. The good news is you can still watch it because it now lives in the digital realm thanks to Netflix. I hope you heed my suggestion.

Person of Interest ended on Tuesday night after a quick burn of its final 13 episodes over the last month and a half. Its final season was cut down from 22 to 13 episodes. The reduced runtime really honed the writing and the story. In fact, credit where credit is due: CBS could have just cancelled the show outright or let the producers wiggle on the line regarding renewal. But they gave them a final run and the show’s creators made the most of it.

The series centered on Harold Finch played masterfully by Michael Emerson. Finch build a surveillance Machine for the government to fight terrorism after 9/11 with access to camera feeds, phone calls, emails, text messages, internet searches… everything. It feeds information to the government about terrorists based on all of this collected data so it can stop terrorist attacks. There is a privacy compromise, however: the government can’t see or access this information. The Machine communicates a social security number or another unique ID associated to a person. The government must then determine if that person is a terrorist, a terror target, or somehow affiliated with terrorists on its own.

But because the Machine sees everything it knows about non-terrorist violent crimes, too. The government wasn’t interested in those, though. Those crimes are labeled “irrelevant.” Harold set up a connection with the machine so that he receives the “irrelevant” numbers so he can intervene. However genius Harold may be, he’s not equipped to stop these crimes on his own so he partners with a former CIA operative, John Reese, played by Jesus himself, Jim Caviezel. Reese is cast off, adrift, and probably close to death either by his own hand or otherwise. Harold gives John a purpose and they get to work receiving numbers and helping people.

Every episode opened with a “saga sell” kind of like Quantum Leap had (the first 48 seconds of this clip), which explained the show’s premise. Watch POI’s “saga sell” from season one. It’s more succinct than my summary. And here is a scene from the pilot episode with our two leads discussing it as well.

On the surface, Person of Interest was like any other CBS crime procedural. A new number—a new case—every week. Good guys and bad guys. Easy enough, right? For the first third of its first season, Person of Interest seemed to conform to that, but a dense mythology was brewing under the surface. How did Harold build this Machine? How does it reach the conclusions that it does? If the government wants to keep this a secret, what might they do if they found out Harold can access the Machine and receive information from it?

Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, even though the Machine helps them stop crime and the government stop terror attacks, it is a massive overreach of power. The government’s system can see everything we do. Harold’s defense might be that only the Machine sees that data, no human can view the private information the Machine sees. Is this right? The end result is good, but at what cost? How might this kind of technology be abused?

But the most fundamental question of all: what really is the Machine? It’s better if you watch to find out, but I can say concisely: artificial intelligence. The Machine is not just a database. Not just an algorithm. It thinks. And it learns. It makes judgements. That’s how the Machine can make determinations about if a violent crime is going to occur—it’s not just if Steve says, “I’m going to kill Judy.” The Machine sees that Steve purchased a gun, he has a violent felony arrest record, he’s bought plastic sheeting, and he’s made an appointment with Judy late at night in a secluded part of town. All of those facts taken together (and much more) factor into the Machine’s decision-making. In practice, the Machine would send Steve’s SSN to Harold and he and John would need to investigate to find out what’s going on.

While POI never really shed its “procedural” shell, it transitioned from a crime thriller to a modern science fiction show with the introduction of a mysterious hacker, Root (played by the ageless Amy Acker), who had figured out that the Machine existed and, realizing what it was, wanted to free it. Root saw the Machine as a higher life form, an ASI—Artificial Super Intelligence—a god even. But Harold had “shackled” the Machine with rules so that it couldn’t be abused and so that it would not grow too powerful in its own right. Here, the show started to show its true colors. It was a CBS crime procedural, yes… but it was also about a nascent artificial intelligence and all of the ethical questions associated with its creation, how others might seek to use it, and its very existence.

The show gave us many glimpses into the past about how Harold not only created the Machine, but also how he taught it judgment, logic, and, most importantly, the value of life. Arguably, that education continued between Harold and John; Harold discouraged John from killing and encouraged less lethal means. It was also a way for our series lead badass to not kill 20 people an episode and just shoot them in the legs. CBS probably would have frowned on the excess murder, but gunshot legs are fine.

Meanwhile, as the show continued, evidence of another artificial intelligence loomed. If Harold’s Machine was a passive conduit for our heroes to help people and save lives, the introduction of “Samaritan” showed that there was another way artificial intelligence could go. Samaritan was an ASI unshackled like the Machine. Its handlers weren’t trying to protect privacy or restrain its power and access, they wanted Samaritan to amass knowledge, influence, and power. While the Machine made no direct action itself, Samaritan changed police records, deactivated security systems, influenced stock market prices, texted people with monetary incentives to do its bidding, and was basically a precursor to Skynet from The Terminator.

But it has to be emphasized that the show kept all of this grounded in reality. And that’s the scary part! Nothing Samaritan (or the Machine) did seems out of the realm of possibility. In fact, the show makes explicit references to actual, real government programs to build something like the fictional Machine or Samaritan. If you don’t know, the government actually tried to do something like this. Three such projects were TIA, Stellar Wind, and Trailblazer. The show was science fiction, but just barely.

And like any good science fiction, it’s the characters that breathe life into the “fantastical” situations and story. We begin, like we do with any CBS procedural, believing our heroes are the chaste, white knights chasing down bad guys. But think about what Harold has created. It’s true that he’s trying to use the Machine for “good,” but he’s effectively hacking a government program. And the Machine exists as a tool for violating personal privacy and rights of search. That it’s a “benevolent” intelligence is beside the point. Our “heroes” are vigilantes. And, more to the point, may have opened Pandora’s Box. Had Harold not created the Machine, would Samaritan exist? Would the government have simply found a way to build this technology anyway with a less altruistic creator? These are questions you might have and the show, God Bless It, addresses.

In my zeal to sell you on the concept, I’ve left out a ton of things you should discover on your own. Taraji P. Henson plays Detective Joss Carter, who is on John Reese’s tail as well as facing down an inter-departmental ring of dirty cops. Kevin Chapman plays Detective Lionel Fusco, a crooked cop in which John Reese takes an interest. Sarah Shahi plays Sameen Shaw, a government operative initially working on the list of numbers from the Machine’s “relevant” list, who may also be a high functioning sociopath. And there’s a host of other recurring characters that “Team Machine” encounters along the way who only enrich the universe the creators have crafted. There’s even an awesome dog who is probably my favorite character, but really it’s because it’s a dog.

Ron Swanson once said, “Son, you should know that my recommendation is essentially a guarantee.” This is true of my recommendation as well. I hope you check out Person of Interest. The first four seasons are on Netflix right now. In a pinch you could get the final season on iTunes or Amazon Video, whatever. But for those of you (I’m one!) who have lamented the lack of quality in broadcast network TV, Person of Interest was a rarity. It broke the mold of CBS’s usual, tired premises and aspired to be a thoughtful, exciting, dynamic show with real heart and purpose at its center.

As I noted at the beginning, Person of Interest’s series finale aired last week. Finales are hard to get right. In my humble opinion, Breaking Bad and The Shield are probably the best, most satisfying TV finales ever crafted. POI breathes that rarefied air, too. So, if you’re not looking to get invested in a show only to be disappointed by the end, you can relax. If anything, you’ll wish there was more Person of Interest to come and really, that’s the way to end a show: make the audience miss it, not be glad it’s dead.

I miss Person of Interest. If even a few of you pick it up on my recommendation, it will have been worth it. You’ve got a hell of a good show ahead of you to watch and I’m envious.

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?

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.

MCU and Avengers: Age of Ultron Speculation (Spoilers)!

Avengers: Age of Ultron Official Poster

A lot of photoshop at work here.

There’s enough information out about the MCU and Avengers: Age of Ultron that we can start formulating some hard theories about story and plot developments.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. film crossover connections?

On the mid-season premiere of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. we learned that Bobbi Morse (Mockingbird) and Mack are keeping a secret. They are working for someone else and trying to obtain Nick Fury’s “toolkit,” which Coulson used to restart S.H.I.E.L.D. Hydra is the obvious culprit, which is why I don’t think it’s them. By this point, the “he’s a Hydra spy!” reveal is played out. I have a hard time believing the writers would think that would surprise people.

That’s why I think they’re working for Tony Stark.

We know a few things, both “in-world” and out that bring me to this conclusion. Hydra has been the big threat all year on AoS. From Captain America: The Winter Soldier, we know that Hydra leader Baron Von Strucker has Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver in captivity in Europe somewhere. From multiple Avengers: Age of Ultron trailers, we know the Avengers assault what is believed to be Strucker’s base where they are being held. Somehow the Avengers must learn where the base is located. I think Strucker is using an old secret S.H.I.E.L.D. base, the locations of which are on Fury’s toolkit which is how they will find them.

I don’t think Tony Stark hired Maria Hill to work for him just to be a nice guy. He rarely, if ever, does stuff like that (Potato Gun Mark II, notwithstanding). No, he hired Hill because she has useful information like the fact that Fury has something like the toolkit in the first place. She may have also recruited Bobbi and Mack to do this for the Avengers.

In the comics, Bobbi is an Avenger (also married to Hawkeye), which also leads me to believe this connection exists. Adrienne Palicki, who plays her, has also done a few major feature films, so moving her into a Marvel feature, if only for a cameo, wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility. Captain America: Civil War, anyone?

Post Avengers 2 and Season Ending of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

When (not if) the Avengers defeat Baron von Strucker, Hydra will probably be largely defeated (unless Ultron drastically upsets the status quo, which is highly possible). That will carry over to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. In looking at a calendar, AoS. will have about three or so episodes to air after Avengers: Age of Ultron comes out and I think that the Inhumans/Kyle MacLachlan story will turn out to be the big season-ending threat to confront. Hydra will still exist and be a threat, to be sure, but it won’t be the overriding nemesis to S.H.I.E.L.D. like it’s been.

In fact, I suspect that super-powered people (Inhumans and others) will be the overarching story for at least the first half of AoS’s next season and that will then transition into set up for Captain America: Civil War. I even wonder if they will try to do the Stamford, CT event that largely kicked off Civil War in the comics on AoS.

Time will tell if I am right, but it’ll be fun to find out.