Category Archives: fantasy

One Last Thought on Comic Book Grimdark…

My wife read over my last post about recent comic book movies and thought it wrong of me not to link this:

 

 

So there you have it.

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Hooked on a Feeling

"This never would have happened if that Schumacher guy were still around."

“This never would have happened if that Schumacher guy were still around.”

We managed to see Guardians of the Galaxy the other day and I think it’s time for someone (whomever makes declarations about such things), to declare this one of the greatest geek movies of the year; of the decade; of a generation. It’s an unapologetic space opera with a stylin’ throwback soundtrack, comic book tie-ins, and freakin’ Bradley Cooper as a trash-talking racoon.

We watched Guardians not long after reading up on the upcoming Batman v Superman teasers from San Diego Comic Con. I agree with others that based on the title alone, this should totally be about a Supreme Court case… but that’s not going to happen. We’re far more likely to see a rehash of The Dark Knight Returns.

Growing up, I was a much bigger fan of DC’s comics than Marvel’s comics, X-Men notwithstanding. That said, watching Guardians helped clarify something that’s been bugging me for a while about teasers for this film and some of DC’s recent movies in general. The fact of the matter is, I’m frankly not looking forward to watching Batman v Superman. I’m sure I will watch it. I’m just not expecting to enjoy it.

There’s an article on Vulture about DC’s overuse of Frank Miller as source material. I quibble with some of the details. Case in point, the recent movies have drawn from plenty of not-Frank-Miller sources. Jeph Loeb and Alan Moore jump to mind. I agree with the main premise of the article though that DC’s movies have all been a bit one-note in the post-Schumacher era. Not that I’m holding up the Schumacher Batmans as some ideal. Hell no. Just that something’s been kind of… off. Contrary to the above article, I would argue that the problem isn’t Frank Miller himself. It’s the type of grimdark storytelling he championed.

By “grimdark,” I’m not calling out the fantasy subgenre here, though I’d argue they’re a related phenomenon. Rather, I mean the tendency to draw out the grit and grim that hit comics like a sack of bricks in the eighties.

Here’s my biggest problem with comic book grimdark–it’s been done before. And taken to an extreme, it’s a creative dead-end. Thirty years ago, Alan Moore pointing out that capes are a silly and potentially dangerous fashion statement was clever and subversive. Now even Pixar gets thatWatchmen and The Dark Knight Returns changed the way many people perceived comic books… thirty years ago. Think about that. We’ve already seen Batman beat the living snot out of Superman. As a stylistic choice, grimdark can lend itself to lazy storytelling.

If one of my biggest problems with recent DC offerings is their grimdark edge, a related problem could well be Zach Snyder–watching his take on Watchmen and 300 made me realize he eats this shit up. Watchmen was a pretty well-crafted film. Being pretty literal to the source, it was also to me borderline unwatchable. His ability to approach his subjects with less irony than they warrant startles me. Especially since, you know, comic books. DC’s movie approach compared to Marvel’s serves up an ounce more verisimilitude at the expense of a pound of fun and charm.

And here’s another thing: this is one of the reasons I’ve hesitated to watch Man of Steel despite loving most of Superman’s live action incarnations (spoiler alert). A storyteller is god of a lesser world. She or he can tell a story that reinforces violence or a story that fosters empathy and understanding.

I’m not arguing there’s something inherently wrong with a particular mode of storytelling over another. The Dark Knight Returns was my all-time favorite comic as a teenager. That was a very long time ago. All the while I’m dreading a comic book movie about two of my all-time favorite characters meeting up, I’ve spent the last week with Blue Swede looping in my head.

Is that so wrong?

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Why the Lego Movie is a Better Matrix Film Than the Matrix

Our six-year-old daughter took me to see The Lego Movie a few weeks ago. My takeaway: this is what the Matrix trilogy should have been.

Read on only if you don’t mind spoilers of both films.

My parents went with our daughter the first go-around seeing the movie and, having not seen The Matrix, totally didn’t realize the The Lego Movie is more or less a spoof thereof. It blatantly and hilariously borrows from The Matrix: from its “chosen one” plot to its philosophical premise–the world as we know it is a facade. Here’s how the Wachowski siblings could’ve done it better.

1. The Lego Movie knows its place in the world 

Yup. It’s a movie about Legos. Produced by the company that creates Legos. With the intent of selling you Legos. Should we pretend that the Matrix trilogy didn’t try really hard to sell us video games? The Lego Movie never pretends to be something it’s not and its wry self-aware humor makes its blue pill a little easier to swallow. Yes, The Matrix offers a few chuckles. It’s also got a hell of a lot of plot holes as well as a premise that doesn’t make a lot of sense in spite of (or because of?) its Platonic cred. We can give The Lego Movie a pass on its plot holes because it presents its comedy front and center. If a movie wants to sell you “big ideas” it’s best not to shout, “THIS MOVIE IS ABOUT BIG IDEAS” upfront.

One of my favorite movies of all time is Big Fish. It’s absolutely hilarious and its final scenes left me bawling uncontrollably. I almost never cry during movies. The poignancy snuck up on me. Yoon Ha Lee writes some of the best short space opera around. She describes herself as a writer aiming to “assassinate the reader.

“The thing is that I don’t want the reader to see the short sharp point clearly from the beginning, but I want it to make sense afterward as the angle of attack.”

Sorry, Matrix. You broadcasted it a mile away and the point was not all that sharp. Lego Movie? I never saw it coming. And for the record, I sniffled just a little.

On the subject of philosophy…

2. The Matrix is morally bankrupt

Cracked says it best. Also here.

The “heroes” of The Matrix would have us believe that confronting a life of deceit is an inherent good that justifies any means. Call me crazy. I feel like they need to support that theorem a little better. Also, I’m not sure what’s more disturbing–the callousness with which the “good guys” kill people they purport to want to save and so readily call them “the enemy” or the fact that after all of that, the movie trilogy has an out-of-left field “we can live in peace” ending.

Seriously?

3. The Lego Movie handles its philosophical dilemma with more nuance

Neo is the Chosen One. “Chosen One” narratives are problematic as all hell. They’re about the elite and able saving the masses through arbitrary means at the discretion of the storyteller. They tell us little about the world or the human condition. You could say there’s something Christlike about Neo’s sacrifice at the trilogy’s end. If Christ had an uzi.

Alongside The Lego Movie‘s purpose of, you know, selling us all more Legos, is a message that manages to be naive, audacious, and heartwarming at once. There’s something beautiful about the way it resolves its own “Chosen One” story. There’s worth and uniqueness in all of us. Even the “bad guy.”

Corny? Sure. At least it makes sense in the context of the film.

So those are my two cents. If you still don’t believe me, consider this–The Lego Movie earned a higher score on Rotten Tomatoes than The Matrix. This blog is strictly my opinion. But Rotten Tomatoes? That’s science.

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A Tale of Two Trailers

We finally watched Disney’s Frozen on Black Friday. Going into the film, we had no idea what to expect. Here’s why: by midsummer, we could only find two trailers. First, the international trailer–available in an assortment of languages, none of which being English. I’m linking the Japanese because Japanese voice actors and actresses are the world’s most badass. Prove me wrong.

Totally flippin’ sweet! If you can read Japanese, you’ll note it’s titled Anna and the Snow Queen. What about an English language trailer though? Well, it would be a while before one of those came out. We could find only this:

Huh?

So, I’m thinking, this is the same movie, right? It would be a while before the full English trailer arrived, but even then, we went into the movie cold (so to speak).

So which trailer came closest? Well, both and neither. Adding a hearty dose of Broadway comes a little closer to the true picture. Wikipedia classifies Frozen as a “computer animated epic musical fantasy comedy film.” I’m not even sure what that means. To paraphrase Douglas Adams, it was clear from the beginning the movie would be almost, but not quite, entirely unlike anything Hans Christian Anderson would have ever written. But really, what is it?

And that’s my big quibble with the film, which isn’t really a quibble at all. It’s hard to pigeon-hole Frozen: beautiful, thrilling, and goofy, but surprising. Yes, there’s a largely-unnecessary comic-relief side-kick. Yes, there’s an unevenness of tone that’s typical Disney. At the same time, it breaks the mold in a lot of ways a spoiler-free review can’t describe. Hans Christian Anderson’s Snow Queen is a two-dimensional villainess–a Luciferian temptress in the tradition of Milton. Frozen‘s “Snow Queen,” Elsa, is easily one of Disney’s most complex characters. If you’ve seen enough Disney films, you kind of know the basic plot. That holds true here as well, but even then a few moments had me earnestly wondering where they were going with this thing.

Frozen is one of the most nuanced and subversive films Disney has ever created. This is the film for anyone who’s ever wondered why Disney heroines can be princesses, but never queens. For anyone who’s wondered, “Hey, where are the siblings?” Or why, in 2013, is the Bechdel test still so hard for a company that markets its films to girls and young women? Or why do Disney couples shop for the wedding ring on their second dates?

I’m being vague because I really don’t want to give anything away. It’s that unique. See it or yourself.

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Thoughts on Joss Whedon

Is this what they mean by “mansplaining?”

The other day, Joss Whedon tried a little verbal jujutsu in his dissection of the word, “feminist.”

Included is an excerpt:

Ist in it’s meaning is also a problem for me. Because you can’t be born an ist. It’s not natural… So feminist includes the idea that believing men and women to be equal, believing all people to be people, is not a natural state. That we don’t emerge assuming that everybody in the human race is a human, that the idea of equality is just an idea that’s imposed on us. That we are indoctrinated with it, that it’s an agenda……My problem with feminist is not the word. It’s the question. “Are you now, or have you ever been, a feminist?” The great Katy Perry once said—I’m paraphrasing—”I’m not a feminist but I like it when women are strong.”…Don’t know why she feels the need to say the first part, but listening to the word and thinking about it, I realize I do understand. This question that lies before us is one that should lie behind us. The word is problematic for me because there’s another word that we’re missing…

…When you say racist, you are saying that is a negative thing. That is a line that we have crossed. Anything on the side of that line is shameful, is on the wrong side of history. And that is a line that we have crossed in terms of gender but we don’t have the word for it…

…I start thinking about the fact that we have this word when we’re thinking about race that says we have evolved beyond something and we don’t really have this word for gender. Now you could argue sexism, but I’d say that’s a little specific. People feel removed from sexism. ‘I’m not a sexist, but I’m not a feminist.’ They think there’s this fuzzy middle ground. There’s no fuzzy middle ground. You either believe that women are people or you don’t. It’s that simple…

Genderist. I would like this word to become the new racist. I would like a word that says there was a shameful past before we realized that all people were created equal. And we are past that. And every evolved human being who is intelligent and educated and compassionate and to say I don’t believe that is unacceptable. And Katy Perry won’t say, “I’m not a feminist but I like strong women,” she’ll say, “I’m not a genderist but sometimes I like to dress up pretty.” And that’ll be fine.

This is how we understand society. The word racism didn’t end racism, it contextualized it in a way that we still haven’t done with this issue. Does that mean that this will end the problem? Yes, definitely, we’ve done it.

So while I think I see what he’s getting at… okay, I actually don’t. Did he just 1) make up his own word to take the place of “sexist?” And 2) did he just say that we’re “past” it?

Joss Whedon’s always occupied a peculiar place in pop culture–a white, heterosexual cis-male who has been closely aligned with feminism over the years. A lot has been said about whether or not the title “feminist” really fits for him.

He writes swashbuckling stories with larger than life characters and I’m glad he gives women a space to be larger than life and swashbuckling. Some of his stuff can get pretty problematic though. First and foremost, most of his “strong” women are exceptional. What you won’t see in a lot of in his stories are women who are… well… ordinary. And I don’t mean that in a derogatory way. I mean it in a “Free to Be You and Me” kind of way. You don’t see a lot of women who are not the Chosen One. Not science experiments. Not following male ideals of heroism. Traditionally feminine in a way that doesn’t hyper-emphasize their sexuality. Cracked has a great, albeit tongue in cheek, breakdown of Joss Whedon’s female archetypes.

What you don’t see are a lot of female lawyers and judges and doctors and police officers and politicians and… you get the idea. In fact, his worlds tend to be depressingly patriarchal. Runaways is one of my favorite Marvel Comics. During his run on the series, the characters travel back in time to 1907 Manhattan where they meet 12-year-old Klara Prast: a physically and sexually abused child bride. A mutant, she travels back to the future with them, becoming a regular (and emotionally stunted) character and Whedon’s contribution to the series. It was hard not to feel crawly reading that arc. Whedon writes a lot of “powerful women,” but not a lot of women with real power.

Others have written more nuanced critiques of his remarks on sexism. Excuse me. “genderism.” I’m not trying to condemn the man and his creations. Any work of fiction’s going to be problematic to someone, sometime, somehow. In fact, I quite liked Buffy and Firefly. His works tend to be pulpy and entertaining. But are they feminist? Joss Whedon himself seems to be saying we should stop calling them that from now on.

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High Fantasy for Five-Year-Olds

We bought a copy of Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn recently. The Rankin / Bass cartoon is one of the first movies I remember watching. Our five-year-old daughter was fascinated by the notion her parents were reading a book about unicorns. We have the cartoon, but I’m afraid it might be a little intense for her yet. Still, she has wanted me to read her excerpts and tell her about the story.

The following contains spoilers.

Daughter: Why is she the last unicorn?

Father: The others were kidnapped by a man named King Haggard.

Daughter: Why did he kidnap them?

Father: Well, he thought they would make him happy.

Daughter: Did they make him happy?

Father: For a while they did.

Daughter: But then they didn’t?

Father: Not really, no.

Daughter: Why?

Father: Well, he tried a lot of things to make him happy.

Daughter: And they didn’t?

Father: No.

Daughter: Why?

Father: Well… Some people have something called clinical depression.

Daughter: What’s that?

Father: That’s when, for some people, no matter what they do, they’re always going to be depressed. Sometimes, only medication can help. But a long time ago, they didn’t have medication. So people just stayed depressed.

Daughter: … Until someone invented medication?

Father: Yes.

Daughter: Did King Haggard get medication?

Father: No. He fell out of a tower.

Daughter: Why?

Father: Because sometimes, people with clinical depression fall out of towers.

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