Tuesday, June 18, 2013


Age of Ultron

Do I think that a massive fan backlash is going to bring low Game of Thrones and cause HBO to lose millions of subscribers? Obviously not!

Comics is a strange world. It's small enough and the people who participate in it are intense enough that we take it for granted that this way of reading is normal. We live in a weird funhouse world. There's a term from art history, mise en abyme, which literally means "placed in abyss" - used to describe scenes in art where two mirrors are placed opposite one another and the viewer can see the reflection of one of the mirrors in the other. The most famous use of this technique - by which I mean, the picture you will most likely see in any art history reference volume to describe the technique - is Diego Velázquez's Las Meninas. It seems as if the comics industry is predicated on this type of abyssal discourse, predicated on the unquestioned assumption that the industry is small enough that anyone with sufficient expertise and vigor can make of themselves an authority. I think the relative size of the industry is of vital importance here: in a small room, it's easy to see the reflections of two mirrors placed on opposite walls and to trick yourself into imagining a vast cathedral in the space of a closet. It's a tight abyss.

Whereas most (but certainly not all) of the old-school entertainment industry is built on a one-sided delivery model, comics (and other nerd media) is fixated on the idea (usually illusory but still deeply ingrained) that the field is a two-sided conversation between fans on the one side and professionals, publishers, and corporations on the other. It's a strange thing indeed that the current media landscape is forcing much of the entertainment industry to adapt to the exigencies of this metastasized strange microbrew environment of instant (hypothetical) responsiveness. Now that so much of entertainment is small-bore niche programming and DIY operators, this is how people who want to work in art and entertainment have to operate - they have to at least pretend they care about the idea of fans as something other than abstract Neilsen numbers or Billboard sales statistics.

But no matter how many different methods they can figure out for movie stars, TV personalities, and famous singers to interact with fans without actually having to, you know, interact with them in any meaningful way, they're still most likely never going to be able to equal the comics industry in terms of actual interaction. You can go online right now and find a Tumblr where one of Marvel's Senior Vice Presidents of Publishing will answer any and all questions, even stupid and insulting ones. By any measure that's pretty neat, right? Imagine a Senior VP at Warner Brothers or Fox having a Tumblr like that. It's a strange world, this comics scene, where we can actually interact not just with the creators themselves but with the executives and editors who tell the creators what to do. it gives us a weird feeling of entitlement. The people who started printing letters' pages in Golden and Silver age comics were coming from the tradition of the sci-fi pulps, another field built on a porous relationship between fan and creator. I wonder, if they could have seen how it all turned out, if they would have done anything different.

I am amused by the fan reaction to the last season of Game of Thrones for the same reason that I am amused at the progress of Age of Ultron.

As of this writing I haven't read the last issue of Age of Ultron, even though it has apparently leaked. So I don't know if the rumors that have been flying around for the last few months have been accurate or not, and furthermore I don't know if the story ends on anything even remotely resembling a satisfactory note. Odds don't look good, nine issues in, I can tell you that. So far, Age of Ultron has been pretty terrible, and it doesn't look as if the final issue is going to be some kind of strange kamikaze left-turn that will validate all the previous nine issues worth of fuck-all. I live to be proven wrong, however - if I am not the perfect model audience for a storyline called Age of Ultron, I really don't know who is.

The story is abysmal. It seems to have been written for the specific purpose of pissing off its audience, which is a really odd sensation to get from a book that, all told, will cost its readers $40 + tax. (Does issue #10 cost more because it's double-sized?) When compiled into a shiny hardcover (which will probably inexplicably also retail in the $40 range) it will take less than a half-hour to read, and that's being generous and assuming you read slowly. Reading the story on an issue-by-issue basis, it's really remarkable how much of a cheat each issue has been - it's not as if every issue has left the reader hungry for more, it's as if they only remembered to print half the issues, and the half that made it to print was the half without the plot. It doesn't surprise me at all that the final issue is double-sized, because as it stands now they're going to need at least half of those pages to be solid walls of text in order to explain all the stuff they conveniently left out of the rest of the series. But I am dead certain that the double-sized pages are not going to used to provide the missing exposition, but will instead be even more in the way of random landscape shots, a handful of brief gnomic conversations, and then a few non sequitur teaser endings.

So, to recap: a long-anticipated event called Age of Ultron has lasted nine issues without actually once showing the title character. Oh, wait, scratch that - Ultron did appear, finally, on the last page of the ninth issue.

If this scene looks familiar, that's because you may have already read it, back in 1968:

Rather than giving us a story about fighting Ultron, Age of Ultron is instead a time-travel story about what happens when the heroes go back in time to prevent Ultron from having demolished the human race. Or rather, to be more precise, it is a story about what happens when Wolverine goes back in time to prevent Ultron from having demolished the human race, which is something everyone else knows is a bad idea because they've all read "A Sound of Thunder" and know how that ends. So rather than providing any kind of climactic battle with Ultron, I fully expect the final issue to show the negative consequences of Wolverine having gone off the reservation to stab his way across history. (Isn't this basically the premise of Exiles? Why didn't those time-travelers break the multiverse?) After nine issues, this is the climactic cliffhanger: a flashback from 1968's Avengers #58, illustrating the creation of Ultron. Which is certainly an interesting approach to making a cliffhanger in the year 2013.

I'm going to be generous here and say that there is the kernel of an interesting idea at the heart of Age of Ultron. It's not a new idea, it's not even a particularly interesting idea - but good creators have done a lot more with a lot less. The problem is almost entirely one of execution. However, there is a kind and merciful God. he series has been released at a rapid clip: the first five issues were almost weekly, and the second half has been bi-weekly (save for the tenth, I believe). One the one hand, it is somewhat nice to see a series like this actually come out on time, and even at an accelerated schedule. On the other, the story itself has made it blindingly obvious that anything other than an accelerated release schedule would have kneecapped the venture entirely by laying bare the complete lack of plot in excruciatingly plain terms. One issue a month would have made the series not just a poorly-received event (which is patently already is) but a complete joke.

Shipping the series so quickly has paid ample dividends for the company. Take a look at sales for the first six issues, courtesy of Paul O'Brien:
03/13 Age of Ultron #1 of 10 - 174,952
03/13 Age of Ultron #2 of 10 - 109,383 (-37.5%)
03/13 Age of Ultron #3 of 10 - 105,505 ( -3.5%)
04/13 Age of Ultron #4 of 10 - 101,057 ( -4.2%)
04/13 Age of Ultron #5 of 10 - 97,982 ( -3.0%)
04/13 Age of Ultron #6 of 10 - 97,242 ( -0.8%)
Set aside the usual first issue drop, and these are remarkably solid sales. Imagine sales for the series if the story had been allowed to dribble out slowly over the course of ten months. They would have lost quite a few readers by month ten. I don't think this is one of those series that would have picked up momentum over the course of a year - far from it. Marvel gambled that dumping over half the series in one fell swoop would pay off with stable sales, ensuring that later orders could only be hurt so much by poor word of mouth. The gamble worked. We don't have the luxury of hopping into Dr. Doom's time machine in order to see a parallel world where the series was released at a more standard rate, but we can guess that there are definite reasons why the story was sold the way it was. I wonder how sell-through has been for later issues of the series, or if we're going to be seeing copies of this book in the quarter bins for years to come.

This isn't a new problem. This has been the standard complaint regarding Bendis' event stories for almost a decade. (House of M was released in 2005!) Rather than addressing the problem, Bendis has been allowed to continue to write these stories in this way more or less unchecked. Now, he's obviously made a lot of money over the years for Marvel. There are good reasons why he is allowed more-or-less carte blanche regarding these events: he has a proven track record of producing stories that sell well out of the gate and that (perhaps inexplicably) continue to sell in collected form years later. But the criticisms regarding the pace of his stories has never abated. Releasing Age of Ultron so quickly is probably the best way to counter this problem, short of - you know - actually trying to write a single issue that takes more than four minutes to read.

Thankfully, Brian Michael Bendis keeps a Tumblr where he answers fan questions on topics such as these. One fan wrote him to suggest, in reference to Ultimate Comics Spider-Man:
Could I ask you to read one of your recent books, any of them that cost 3.99$ and time yourself when you do, and then sit down and read Transmetropolitain #1 or Preacher #1 timing yourself again, then explain to me why I should pay 3.99$ for Mile's story when I make 10.50/ hr?
To which Bendis answered:
First of all, I have done all of those things.

I have read every issue of my book at least a dozen times before you see it and I’ve read everything Warren Ellis and Garth Ennis have ever done (sans some of those wacky avatar books :-))

 I don’t know how long it takes you to read. I don’t know if you’re skimming or staring at the beautiful artwork. I don’t know if there is a value system to how much time it takes to read something versus how well it is written or how true the writing is.

 word count does not equal good. the words are not the only thing on the page.

 some of my favorite songs are under two minutes long.  

 buy things that make you happy.

all i can do is make comics i would buy with my money. i would buy Ultimate Spider-man.

This answer does a fantastic job of encapsulating what could best be described as a dysfunctional dynamic within the mainstream industry. There's an idea on the part of creators and editorial that any reader who complains about not getting their money's worth must be reading their comics wrong. When Bendis states, "I don’t know if you’re skimming or staring at the beautiful artwork," there's a really profound disconnect here between what the creator himself has learned to value and what the fans themselves value.

I've been reading comics for almost as long as I've been alive - literally, some of my very first memories are buying Batman comics on family car trips and staring at them in my car seat. I study, write about, and teach literature for a living. If I don't have at least some ability to judge the aesthetic merits of a comic book after all this time, then I honestly don't know who does: there's my sense of entitlement for you. I write a comic book blog with a 9 1/2 year paper trail - you can look back through the archives and find every stupid thing I ever wrote, every creator I ever needlessly antagonized, every sweeping generalization I popped off and then painfully retracted. I know a few things about how comic books work. And I know that when a creator says something like "I don’t know if there is a value system to how much time it takes to read something versus how well it is written or how true the writing is," there is something very profoundly missing in terms of a reciprocal, cordial, sympathetic dialogue between a creator and fan.

The "value system" is simple: if a comic is entertaining, it is doing its job and the reader is left with few if any complaints. If the comic is unentertaining, for whatever reason, than the creator has failed at his or her job. People don't poke holes in a comic they enjoyed. Pointing out that a Bendis comic is decompressed and doesn't provide enough story for the reader to feel as if he's gotten his or her money's worth should really not be a point of controversy in the year 2013. If a reader tells you they're not getting their money's worth from your book, you damn well better apologize. You don't have to swear to change everything overnight - if you've got a style that still succeeds in getting customers in the door, there are obviously sufficient people around who do appreciate what you're doing. But don't tell your fans they don't know how to read. Say you're sorry and move on.

How do you read comics? I don't know about you, but I really don't read most superhero comics with the kind of care and diligence I would use to read Love & Rockets. If I see a two-page spread of smashed buildings and rubble - and boy howdy, are there lots of two-page spreads of smashed buildings and rubble in Age of Ultron - I'm going to scan it to see what the relevant information is before turning the page. I'm not lingering over the drawings. Because, sure, Bryan Hitch can draw. He can draw really well. But asking him to draw page after page after page of smashed buildings and rubble is just stupid. It's moronic. It betrays a pathological inability to understand the most basic difference between detailed drawing and involving stories. Yeah, seeing a couple pages of carnage is fun. But so much of the first half of Age of Ultron is just the same thing repeated over and over again. Now lets do the same thing with different characters! What are Black Panther and Red Hulk doing in Chicago? Pretty much the same thing as Black Widow in San Francisco! Lots of people scurrying around in rubble waiting for a plot to happen. And then, the worst part, the absolute worst part, is that the real "story" as such doesn't even begin until the end of the fifth issue. It's not until they actually get into the time machine - one group of heroes heads into the future for a last-ditch assault on Ultron, while Wolverine and Sue Storm hijack the machine to go into the past - that the actual business of telling the story they intended to tell gets underway.

Stop a minute and think about the fact that this story is called Age of Ultron. I know I made this point before - forgive my repetition - but when you see a story called Age of Ultron, do you expect Ultron to appear in that story? Do you expect the story to be in some way about Ultron? You could write roughly the same story about Dormammu, or Korvac, or Dracula, or Thanos, or the Leader, or really, any massively powerful villain with a deep history who could conceivably conquer the planet and do serious damage under the right circumstances. (Pointing out that this is also part of the plot of Age of Apocalypse is surely redundant at this point, yes?) In the early issues we got an endless supply of Ultron drones, and one legitimately interesting twist when it was revealed just who was directing the drones to hunt for Avengers, but no Ultron. Based on the way the plot has progressed, there is simply no way that issue ten contains anything resembling a climactic battle with Ultron - if Wolverine and Sue Storm have succeeded, the "Age of Ultron" will never have come to pass. There will be no reason to actually fight the villain, which means the actual confrontation will probably last a couple pages before fading out into one of those white panels that indicates a timeline has been destroyed or overwritten, at which point the story will switch gears to describe the terrible consequences of Wolverine's actions.

Back to Bendis' Tumblr, he addresses another, more complementary fan query:
How did you come up with the Age of Ultron story? What made you want to write it? Also, it seems like there could have been numerous ways to write this story, did you always have one concrete way of telling it? Or were you in between different plot ideas? Thanks!
To which our man answers:
It started with the very writerly idea of taking a villain, a classic villain, whose promise has always been complete apocalypse, and deciding to start the story after the apocalypse has already happened. what if the villain won?

 the germ of the idea started when I was writing the avengers THQ video game that you will never see because they no longer exist and the game was canceled ( I still have a copy, it was a good game) and the premise that they had come to me with is: Secret Invasion but the alien invasion had already taken place. the avengers got caught with their pants down kind of story. I thought to myself that if I would do Secret Invasion again I would love to do it that way. just drop the reader right into the story instead of the traditional build up.

 I was also, and continue to be, obsessed with the idea of a story that starts with one genre and flips to another. movies like Barton Fink where you think you know what kind of story it is and then all of a sudden, an hour later, you realize it’s completely different.

 knowing that both of these ideas could be frustrating to some of the readers who have been groomed on the traditional three act structure of an event comic, I knew I was going to take a bit of a beating from some corners of the Twittersphere because you can’t even judge the piece until it’s completed, but, as is my way, I don’t care. :-)  once an idea gets in my head it’s very hard not to do it.

 but this entire year has been a big transition for me as far as genre and style and I have been so relieved at the positive feedback and support.

 and as Tom tweeted today, the final issue is, to my surprise as well, black bagged for your protection. and with the final issue all my cards will be on the table
I don't think a massive blockbuster event story is the right place to conduct some kind of radical genre experiment.

We're not talking about art films here. We're talking about a superhero crossover. I can't help but read these words and come away with an unmistakable feeling of contempt - maybe not explicit contempt, sure, but a lack of respect nonetheless for the fans and readers who buy these stories, and even the stories themselves. The fans and readers who "have been groomed on the traditional three act structure of an event comic," who might actually like that type of story, and who might be feeling more than a little bit ripped off about the fact that the finished product has transformed into some kind of Coen Brothers hybrid right before their eyes. There's a reason why they don't hire the Coen Brothers to direct The Transformers - sure, they might produce a really interesting movie about transforming robots from space, but chances are it wouldn't be a particularly popular one.

And on some very basic level, if you work in the more popular reaches of the entertainment industry, then don't you have to be conscious of the fact that you are producing popular entertainment? I would argue that there is a profound disconnect here between a creator who is - by his own testimony - bored of writing blockbuster crossover stories, and an audience who have every expectation of receiving a blockbuster crossover story. As it stands, Age of Ultron is half monumentally boring post-apocalyptic travelogue, and half time-travel story - the second half literally moots the first half, but you still spent $20 on all those beautifully drawn two-page spreads of rubble. (No flies on Hitch, but even he had to be thinking "enough is enough with all this damn rubble!")

We have the comics industry we deserve. On one side of the fence you have an armed camp micromanaged by corporate drones who do not appear to understand the most basic rudiments of storytelling, and on the other side you have rows of auters who have been empowered by the unshakeable belief that they are creating great works of durable art and not actually corporate-owned superhero comics. Neither philosophy succeeds particularly well in creating readable superhero adventure stories. There is a point between the conception and execution of a grand narrative where the ambitions of the creators must come into direct conflict with the expectations of the audience. The conflict threshold for superhero comics is quite low, and every creator who purposefully puts themselves into conflict with the expectations of their audience really has to work had to justify the friction.

The conflict threshold for epic fantasy is usually quite low as well, but somehow George R. R. Martin has made the tension work for him. I was fascinated by the discourse surrounding the last season of Game of Thrones because it has been very interesting to see how plot points intended for prose have been scaled to meet the requirements of a mass-medium television audience. Television programs that intentionally alienate their audiences don't have a history of lasting very long, but all indications point to Game of Thrones being the exception that proves the rule, the franchise whose appeal outweighs the appeal of any single character or plotline.

Age of Ultron is no Game of Thrones. Although Bendis would surely like to believe that he is a genre-twisting auteur who has, like Martin, earned sufficient trust from his audience to be able to count on their enthusiasm to follow any wild story he can conjure, his poor critical track record with blockbuster events speaks for itself. It's important at these moments to remember that the comics industry is no captive audience, although we certainly do style ourselves as such. We don't have to eat the turkey if we don't want to. Sometimes the abyss is just one-sided mirror.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Munchausen Weekend

Man of Steel

Short version: I liked it! It was pretty good, with some minor caveats.

Long version: spoilers, I guess.

The funny thing is, after I got home and mentioned on Twitter that I enjoyed the film, a couple people said they were surprised to hear me say that, and that they had been expecting me to hate it. That is interesting! Certainly, heading into the movie I wanted to like it, but that should hardly be taken to mean I wasn't trying to be as critical as I often am. I hated a lot of things about Iron Man 3 - it was a pretty awful movie, all things considered, and the fact that so many people embraced it uncritically was - if not surprising - still disheartening. That Man of Steel is a lot better than it needed to be, and that it is being met with a somewhat more muted reaction, is no less surprising. (People on Twitter are quick to respond: fans just like Marvel more, and give them the benefit of the doubt that DC never gets, with the obvious exception of Batman. Very true.)

I mean, sure, in the big scheme of things who gives a shit if one of the largest entertainment conglomerates in the history of the world hits their quarterly earnings projections? But since these are the bread and circuses we are given, we might as well have something nice and shiny with which to distract ourselves as we roll over the waterfalls and onto the jagged rocks of cultural oblivion.

Many of the negative critiques I've heard regarding the film seem to be the kind of critiques that you could have predicted sight-unseen. The film is too dour. The film takes itself too seriously. There is too much disaster porn. There are too many obvious Christ references. Not enough Clark Kent. Not enough Daily Planet. Too much Krypton. All of which you could have gleaned from the credits. All of which are certainly true.

But you're stuck reviewing the film you watched, not the film you wanted to see. And while certainly I think the film might have wisely spent more time setting up the adult Clark Kent, or putting some more levity into the character interactions, or even given us a less melancholy version of Superman himself, that's not the film they chose to make. For the most part, the choices the made work within the constraints they've established. The film they chose to make is, for better or for worse, po-faced, sincerely unironic, and very violent. These were conscious decisions made to distance the film from previous on-screen interpretations of the Man of Steel, specifically the associations of Richard Donner's original films and the regrettable Bryan Singer retread. If you want an explanation as to why Man of Steel is the way it is, all you need to remember is that the studio's unambiguous remit for this film was to do for Superman what Christopher Nolan had done for Batman. Why do you think they went out of their way to put Nolan's name on the film? Nolan was very clear about the fact that he didn't want to make a Superman movie, and yet they got him to put his imprimatur on it anyway. They were serious about wanting to make this film work in a big way, and the best way they saw to do that was to make the film serious in a big way.

I have never made any secret of the fact that I am not the biggest fan of Nolan's Batman movies. In brief: too dark, overly complicated, thematically muddy - basically nonsensical when you put any amount of thought into trying to understand why anything in those films happens the way it does. I didn't really see any of those problems in this film. The plot was fairly straight-forward - no annoying third-act "surprise" twists, all the important elements were laid out plainly for the audience to see, all the character motivations were more or less well delineated. I am so very sick of the "puzzle box" school of film plotting, and it was refreshing to see a large film so steadfast in its desire to keep the plot mechanics as untangled as possible. Superman has a clear character arc from the first time we see him through to the last frame. General Zod has a coherent motivation and concrete goals. Although some of the plot points revolve around MacGuffins and Hamdingers (slamming this capsule into that ship will send them both back to the Phantom Zone! Superman has the whole Kryptonian race imrpinted in his DNA!), they're all clearly spelled-out in the necessary comic-book-science fashion.

The story they chose to tell maybe isn't the story a lot of Superman fans wanted to see. This isn't a well-established, super-competent Superman - this is Young Superman's first adventure. Although he's had a lifetime to adjust to living on Earth, which is a definite advantage over the Phantom Zone army (and certainly one of the most clever bits in the film), he still hasn't gotten used to his abilities because up until the moment he puts on The Suit his father gives him, he'd always been afraid to really test the limits of his powers. When he engages with the villains, he's barely competent. He doesn't know how to fight at all, which is why he keeps getting his ass handed to him by people with the same powers who have been trained to fight. His only advantage is that he has a remarkable degree of self-control and patience, skills given him by his Earth parents and developed through decades of hard work and perserverence. I'm willing to overlook a number of problems with those scenes - his relative inability to lessen collateral damage, for instance - by remembering that by the time he first engages with Zod's forces in Smallville, he couldn't have been flying for more than two or three days. Although his moral compass is solid from the beginning, his abilities are not commensurate with his ambition, not yet.

The way the film plots out Superman's first adventure creates some interesting storytelling problems which could either be used as fodder for the sequels or ignored entirely. For one thing, having Lois meet Superman before she meets Clark - and making it explicitly clear that she knows from the very beginning who this Clark Kent fellow really is - sidesteps one of the franchise's most important dynamics. Now, it's important to remember that this movie isn't really setting up the kind of open-ended storytelling engine you might expect to find on TV or the comics themselves: there are probably going to be two or three more Superman films in this series, tops. So maybe it just isn't that important to set up a situation where a Lois / Superman / Clark triangle could exist. That triangle was essential to the franchise for decades, but I don't believe it's necessarily integral to the character, although I know many people disagree vehemently on this subject. I liked Married Superman just fine, and don't think being married hurt Superman at all, certainly not the way it did Spider-Man. Superman isn't really much in the way of a bachelor, anyway - after 75 years everyone knows he belongs with Lois, and having them married for so long in the comics was something out of which the creators actually got a fair degree of mileage (as opposed, again, to Spider-Man, where the marriage was more an impediment than anything else). The fact that the Nu-52 Superman isn't currently dating Lois is just stupid, because every single person reading the books - every single person - knows he's never actually going to marry Wonder Woman, and that he's eventually going to marry Lois - if not actually in the comics, then, you know, "next year," and forever after. It just doesn't do Lois any favors as a character to put her in a situation where she doesn't see that two people with whom she is intimately familiar are one and the same. I like the fact that the movie isn't chary about the fact that Clark loves Lois the first time he sees her, and that also the first time he saves her life she trusts him completely.

Another potential problem is the fact that Superman only actually reveals himself to humanity in reaction to Zod's threat. Now, in the movie, it makes perfect sense: Clark can't become Superman until he learns from Jor-El who he actually is, and learns not to be afraid of his powers, and to trust in the decency of the human race to be able not to lose their collective shit when he steps in front of a camera for the first time. But in terms of the plot, the fact that he comes "out of the closet" at the same moment the Earth is under attack from evil aliens, it seems like it will be that much harder for Superman to gain people's trust. Again, this is another Nu-52 plot point that I'm not happy about: it's all well and good if the average Joe on the street distrusts superhumans or superheroes in general, but Superman should be that one guy that everyone trusts, even if they are afraid of Batman or think that Wonder Woman is a man-hating Marxist feminazi or that Green Lantern is an intergalactic fascist. But looking forward to the sequel, I can see this being a powerful argument for Lex Luthor (because, duh, Luthor is the sequel) - how can we trust this Superman creature when all we really know about him is that his people want us all dead? So again, if this movie were being used to set up a new ongoing Superman serial, that might be problematic, but as a plot point in an isolated film it doesn't pose too many problems, and might be working to set up conflicts for future sequels. I do hope, however, that they don't spend too much time in the sequel on anyone "hating and fearing" Superman - that's Luthor's schtick. In fact, that's Luthor's character in a nutshell. He's that guy who has to look a gift horse in the mouth and remain suspicious of the one man in the entire world who purports to act with no ulterior motive whatsoever, because he is constitutionally incapable of understanding altruism.

Walking out of Iron Man 3 I was just exhausted and fed-up - with the character, with Robert Downey, Jr., with the elements of the Marvel Studios format that were obviously already congealing into stale formula. Walking out of Man of Steel I am eager to see the next one - especially now that they're done with the de rigeur origin story, now they've established the setting and given us a small army of good actors to fill out Superman's universe. The second movie will obviously be Lex Luthor. Since they're following Nolan's blueprint so closely I anticipate them putting a lot of work into making Luthor as impressive as he deserves to be - they're going to want to find an actor who can sell Lex Luthor like Heath Ledger sold the Joker. I want this to work because Lex Luthor is really fucking cool, and deserves to be treated as such. (Also: I really hope the next film is done with Krypton, because I've always maintained that Krypton is actually the least interesting thing about Superman. Jor-El's story ends the moment his planet explodes, so the insistence on the part of successive generations of filmmakers and TV people that Jor-El remain an important figure in Superman's life seems really weird to me.)

But there are other complaints which deserve to be answered. The first major complaint I've seen is that the amount of destruction in the movie is simply obscene. There is some truth to this. Superhero movies are spectacle, and audiences expect (or, at least, studios believe audiences expect) to see every penny of the budget onscreen in the most obnoxious manner possible, and the best way to do that is to show shit blowing up. Now, of course, if a major American city really suffered the kind of damages Metropolis sees in this film, the death toll would be in the thousands, possibly the tens or even hundreds of thousands. (New York gets trashed pretty hard in The Avengers, but it's worth pointing out for the sake of comparison that the Avengers in that film are always primarily concerned with getting civilians out of harm's way.) This is problematic, but pretty much inescapable for modern superhero films, which are essentially old-fashioned disaster films by another name. It says some weird things about our national psyche in the wake of decades of real-life disaster porn on television that this is our cathartic entertainment, but ultimately I think it says just as much about the state of the movie industry. These movies are the biggest entertainment spectacles in the world right now, and the most impressive ways movie studios can imagine to show off all the money they have to spend is by blowing shit up. That's a little bit depressing and speaks to a profound lack of imagination on the part of moviemakers, but I don't see it changing anytime soon.

When Metropolis starts getting (literally) pounded in this film, Superman is on the other side of the world in India trying to disassemble a giant World Engine that is destroying the planet. So, Superman can't be in two places at once - and although a lot of people die as a result of this, I think it's important to remember that one of the reasons why this scene plays out the way it does is that Superman trusts the people he's working with to do the right thing. After the military starts working with him and not against him, they all work together to decide what needs to be done, and he trusts that they're going to to be able to accomplish it because he believes in their abilities. That's a very Superman thing to do, really - we all have important parts to play, and even if he's more powerful he can't do it all, and we need to help each other to succeed. It's important that we see the military trying so hard to take down Zod's flagship, even if they're unsuccessful, for the same reason it's important we see Perry White working so hard to save Jenny the Intern from the rubble - because that's the whole point of the movie. Superman can't be everywhere, but he can inspire us to be better, and to do what needs to be done. That's one of my favorite bits in the movie, actually, now that I think back on it: Perry White and Steve Lombard hear Jenny the Intern (who is hopefully named Olson) screaming under a pile of rubble. Perry moves to help her but Lombard pauses a moment before coming back with a metal pole to use for leverage to dig the intern out. It's great because Lombard's reaction is precisely the kind of thing we want to see happen around Superman - Lombard obviously wants to leave, to get out of there, to save himself, but after a split-second of hesitation he comes and helps. Because it's the right thing to do.

Which leaves us with the last, most controversial aspect of the film - the ending, when Superman kills Zod. Now, watching this film I knew that this was going to be a problem. I knew that this was most likely how the film was going to end, and I also knew this was most likely going to be the single plot element that most fans would have trouble swallowing. But as it played out, I didn't actually have any problems with it. I've already read Mark Waid's impassioned reaction against the film's ending. If there is anyone on this planet who I trust to be an authority on all things Superman, it's Mark Waid, but I'm not going to be a purist about this. It works because even though it's a terrible thing that Superman should never do, the film goes out of its way to show us that this is the only conceivable way the story can end. Superman doesn't kill Zod for convenience, or out of revenge or even as punishment - he kills Zod because there is, in a split-second, no other conceivable choice, and there is no other conceivable choice because Zod wants to die.

Now, think about Superman's character arc throughout this movie. When the movie begins he's already more or less dedicated his life to helping people, even if he's still a bit unsure about the best way to go about doing so. He's absorbed all the lessons in decency and kindness that his parents could possibly have taught him - and Jonathan Kent's death, far from being the afterthought that it is in most iterations of the mythos, is crucial to his character growth. (If you clicked on the link above, Waid does a great job of explaining just how much this plot point helps define Clark.) But he is still missing that one crucial part of his life, the knowledge of his heritage, that is necessary before he can come out into the open as Superman. Finally, when he meets Jor-El's ghost and receives the Kryptonian uniform that becomes his costume, he is ready to take his first steps as a public figure. And then the plot begins, because the moment he dedicates himself to learning the limits of his powers and using them to their fullest potential, in public, is when Zod comes to Earth and states his intention to kill every last person on the planet.

So even though Superman has already made the decision to be good, he is still basically inexperienced, and goes from having no idea who he is to having to make the choice to end his race in order to save humanity in the space of about a week. When Zod comes to Earth, Superman gets his ass kicked at first, for all the reasons discussed above. But finally the tides turn, Superman and his human allies save the day, and the only other Kryptonian left alive in Metropolis is Zod. And I really can't overpraise Michael Shannon's acting enough here, because even though he's playing the character at an almost hysterical pitch, he is still completely lucid, and he lays out in precise detail exactly how the film is going to end: he was born and bred for one purpose, and that purpose was to protect and preserve Krypton, and Kal-El has prevented him from fulfilling his purpose, and so he has no more reason to live. He wants to kill Superman, sure, but really, he wants to make Superman kill him. Because he knows that Superman doesn't want to do it. Zod has been trained to kill, to be as cruel and efficient as necessary to protect Krypton, but he doesn't have any other purpose. He's lost, but he can still make damn sure that Superman doesn't win. The last thing he can do is put Kal-El in a situation where he will be forced to kill the last living connection to his home planet and people.

So at that final moment, with Zod a split-second away from killing four innocent people, Superman does the only thing he can. He makes his choice, and his choice is to protect the people of Earth. Could he have found another way? Maybe a mature Superman could have easily thought his way out of the problem, known how to fly Zod away from a crowded city, been able to more effectively counter Zod's superior tactical ability and fighting prowess. But this isn't that Superman, not yet: this is Superman's first real adventure, and it's also his greatest test. So when push comes to shove, yes, he kills Zod. But you know he's going to carry that moment for the rest of his life, he's going to hear the crisp 'snap' of Zod's neck in his dreams whenever he sleeps. The grief he expresses right after he kills Zod, after he loses the last tangible connection to his birthright, is real. He will do everything possible to never again be placed in a situation where the only possible recourse is to take another being's life. He will do better, be better. And that is Superman.

As for the rest of it? Zach Snyder isn't a half-bad director when he leaves all the cheap junior high fan-service and gay-bating at home. In fact, one thing I kept coming back to throughout the movie was that there was some unmistakeable subtext connected to the manner of Superman revealing himself to the people of Earth - his conflicting desires to come out and to stay secret, and his ultimate heroic choice to reveal his true identity and trust that the people around him will accept that his intentions are noble. Considering Snyder's . . . less than sterling track-record with the gay community, the fact that he was responsible for a Superman movie that acts as an admirable coming-out narrative is pretty fucking remarkable, and surely worthy of some attention.

As for the Jesus Christ pose - well, again, there's only so far you can run from that in a story about an alien who is sent to Earth by his father to help people. There's one scene with Superman falling backwards off a spaceship into the atmosphere with his arms outstretched like Christ on the cross that felt a little bit "on the nose," as the kids say. I groaned a little, I confess. But there is also a scene in a church earlier in the film where Clark's decision to reveal himself is framed in terms of a reference to Jesus' acts of charity, which I thought was a commendable use of religious imagery to communicate the importance of selflessness and self-sacrifice.

So did I like the movie? Yeah. It was good. It's better than it needed to be. I'm looking forward to the sequel. And that is the best complement you can pay a movie like this.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Munchausen Weekend

Game of Thrones - "The Rains of Castamere"

Well, that happened, then. Spoilers, duh.

The problem with Game of Thrones as it has developed over the last three years - and, for you commenters, I still haven't read any of the books so please keep the comment section clean - is that while it is undoubtedly an enjoyable program, it suffers some in the translation from the source material. I can say that without having read the books simply by virtue of the fact that the limitations of episodic television impose restrictions which seem as if they would be significantly less restricting on the printed page. Allow me to explain.

(As an aside, perhaps the most annoying facet of Sunday's viewing experience was the quiet smug crowing among book fans over just how badly the TV fans were losing their shit. People who have read the books have known about this twist for, what, ten years? So they knew exactly what was going to happen, and they knew exactly how much people were going to freak the fuck out. Which is only fair, I suppose, but still vaguely reminiscent of your asshole dad gloating because he knows you're getting a bike for Christmas and you have to wait to find out. At some point you just want to stab people yourself, because the idea that nerd secrets represent a form of godlike power is simply disgusting.)

Anyway. The problem is that while the books seem to have built a massively devoted fanbase out of readers who are more than happy to enjoy the ways in which Martin inverts the audience expectations regarding genre conventions, I think it is fair to say that the jury is still out as to just how this kind of relentless subversion of expectation will play out for a larger audience. For a readership weaned on Tolkien, Terry Brooks, and Robert Jordan, yeah, having the "bad guys" consistently win and then have the bad guys turn into less-bad guys and then having all the supposedly main plots overwhelmed by suddenly important side plots may seem thrilling and novel. But I wonder at what point this kind of narrative legerdemain will exert an erosive force on the television audience.

Book fans have said that, in the books themselves, this surprise - while no less significant - was slightly less crushing than on TV because the characters involved were never viewpoint characters. Fair enough. But the TV show could never adopt that kind of formal device. On TV what we have instead was a group of characters who the audience - perhaps due to a lifetime of conditioning regarding how genre conventions in these stories work, perhaps not - identified as being "the good guys," the central heroes of the story, who were slaughtered in no uncertain terms. Now, I can easily see how that might make for a dynamite book, but that kind of perspectival shifting doesn't have a great track record of working well on television. Look at how much shit David Chase gets after all these years for ending The Sopranos on an ambiguous note - that was a smart, effective ending that a large part of the show's fanbase was simply unprepared to deal with because they had been weaned to expect narrative closure. To that end, I mean, yeah, sure, the Red Wedding was unexpected and quite effective and I can appreciate the kind of cajones it took to sell the series knowing full well that the end of the third season was almost guaranteed to be a traumatic experience both for fans as well as the network itself - but it was also sad in a way that I don't entirely credit to the show's favor. It's frustrating, is what it is, and based on a completely unscientific survey of folks on my Twitter feed who are more familiar with the books, it seems that more than a few fans feel the books themselves fell into steadily diminishing returns after this point.

Now, there are plenty of hyperventilating fans out there who are swearing to swear off Game of Thrones forever, and while we can probably assume that for most people this is going to mean about as much as your lifelong X-fan swearing off Marvel because Wolverine got turned into a woman or something, there's still an element of severity to this reaction that strikes me as unusually vociferous. Remember when Marvel kept saying back in the last decade that something they put into a comic that maybe 200,000 people might ever read was going to "break the internet in half"? I think what we saw Sunday night was what it looks like when the internet actually breaks in half, when millions of people across the planet come to a plot point that makes them stand up in unison and scream "DO NOT WANT" at the top of their collective lungs.

So is it possible that, given the success that the show has achieved to date, Game of Thrones might be in trouble? This was never an avoidable problem: this was hardwired into the books themselves and the creators of the show could never have skipped such a central plot twist even if they had wanted. But look at the economics. A show like Game of Thrones, in order to be a success, has to be a massive success. It can't afford even a minor backlash from its core constituency. It's not a cheap show. Regardless of how popular it is, the show still has multiple seasons worth of story to cover - what, six or seven seasons worth if they continue at this pace? So we're looking at 9-10 seasons, total, representing a significant outlay of capital on the part of HBO. If the fanbase flags and ratings and DVD sales droop ever so slightly at any point - even if the show remains successful on a more modest scale - the network might have to reevaluate their calculus for future seasons. Because it's not as if HBO has ever cancelled in mid-story a well-received show with a fervent fanbase that still cost too much money to continue producing.

Or, to put it another way, The Sopranos could afford to piss off its audience because the show was already over. Game of Thrones still has a long way to go, and a lot of fans who are feeling, rightly or wrongly, that it might not be a good idea to continue to care about a show as doggedly committed to shock as this one. Time will tell!

Mad Men - "A Tale of Two Cities"

Three episodes in a row have centered on Don imbibing mind altering chemicals: "The Crash" had a needle full of speed, "The Better Half" had a flask of booze, "A Tale of Two Cities" had hashish. In "The Crash" he fixates on Sylvia (hopefully gone for good, her character and storyline were boring) and experiences flashbacks to his youth in the whorehouse, wherein the old "mother / whore" dynamic is literalized. In "The Better Half" he has a tipsy fling with his ex-wife, a surprisingly pleasant experience for the both of them that is nevertheless erased and (almost) forgotten by the next morning. "A Tale of Two Cities" shows Don confronted by the not-dead-yet specter of Megan, carrying the already-dead specter of the child she miscarried. People who complain about the frequency of drug episodes in this season need to pay attention to numbers - one is a lark, two is a trend, and three is a pattern.

There are connections to be drawn here, all the more significant that the show has conditioned us away from thinking that alcohol has any special properties whatsoever. But in "The Better Half" liquor is a big deal: Don and Betty talk about getting it throughout the early part of the episode, and when Don finally scores a bottle the first person he runs into is Betty, with whom he shares. It's not perhaps as overt as the strange drug trips that bookend it, but worth pointing out considering just how pervasive substance abuse on the show actually is.

Roger's acid trip last season actually brought about positive changes in his life, perhaps not in terms of changing his behavior but definitely in terms of self-perception. Don has had three episodes in a row devoted to showing him how relations with women completely dominate his subconscious, and offering him some degree of hierophantic insight into his own worst impulses. Ultimately, we've reached the point in the series where Don literally has to change or has to die: after three successive specters (living or imagined) reflecting unsatisfied facets of his history, he can either move forward or end up drowned. Or get shot by one of the husbands he's cuckolded.

I've seen it speculated in some circles that Don might conceivably die at the end of the season - that would certainly be interesting, but surely one Red Wedding is enough for a single season of television. I was struck the other day, seemingly out of the blue, by the similarities between Mad Men and The Sandman, of all things, two fictions dedicated to dismantling some form of a classically masculine ideal by forcing their protagonists to face the prospect of changing or dying. Morpheus chose to die rather than change. I think it would be far more interesting to see Don sincerely change and try to become a better person.

It's not a story we have a lot of familiarity with on television - we have a lot of experience seeing men fail to change being brought low as a result. (That's one of the reasons I'm always frustrated by The Sopranos in hindsight - Tony couldn't change, and by the end of the run his refusal to change had become tiresome and heavy-handed.) But stories of men trying to change in order to become better - men wanting to genuinely be better, not just to be seen as better (which you could probably say was Don's preoccupation heading into this season) - well, that's a far more exciting possibility.

If we want to think of Don in terms of the Dante references from the first episode: he's seen hell and been brought face to face with the roots of his sinfulness. I think the Purgatorio is a far more interesting book than the Inferno, for the reason that we get to see a vision of how people become better, through abandoning sin and making the conscious effort to seek forgiveness. If this season is Don's Divine Comedy, will he eventually look up to see the stars?