“Something True to Believe”

Every Godzilla fan is familiar with the song All to Blame by Sum 41, which was the official song of Godzilla: Final Wars, the fiftieth-anniversary film and third ‘grand finale’ of the series (it’s been around for nearly sixty-five years; it’s had a couple finales). It’s actually a decent song, despite some screaming and slightly heavy-handed lyrics. But there’s one line that really stands out:

“We’re hopelessly blissful and blind / when all we need / is something true to believe.”

I actually think, with that line, they nailed the essential frustration of my generation. Despite what some of us say or even think, all we really want is “something true to believe.” We’re sick and tired of relativistic mush, of ambiguity, of “free thought,” of “self-esteem,” and all the rest of it. You can’t build a life on that, you can’t derive real principles for that, you can’t sacrifice for that. All that it leaves us in is uncertainty and frustration. Cut off from tradition, from family, from any kind of roots, we find ourselves lost and adrift, searching in vain for solid ground.

That’s why so many millenials are turning to communism and political activism; it at least claims to be true in a certain way. Contrariwise, that’s also why young Catholics are growing more traditionalist; not just because traditionalism appeals to them, but because it is only the traditionalists who actually act as if they believe what they’re saying is true.

In other words, the Church, as a whole, is going about its work completely the wrong way in striving for ‘relevance’ and trying to accommodate and accompany and whatever other buzzwords are vomited up to blur the issue. Millenials are starving and practically begging for the truth, but the Church, which possess it, is afraid to offer it. If she wants to draw young people in and save their souls (i.e. do her job), then she ought to plant herself firmly and say, “this clear and objective statement is the truth, and it’s true whether you like it or not; following it will not be easy, will likely lead to your losing friends, and will require all you have, up to and including your life, but it will lead to your salvation.”

That’s the kind of message that will attract young people, not the mealy-mouthed nonsense we get about cultures of this and accompaniments of that.

Aleteia Post on Halloween

My first Aleteia post is up, and it’s about Halloween!

However, I also must confess a dislike for the usual proposed alternative of “All Saints Night,” in which children are encouraged to dress as their favorite saints and all the spooky trappings of the holiday are avoided. To paraphrase Jane Austen, that may be more Catholic, but it is much less like Halloween. An alternative that removes the defining elements of a thing is not a very appealing alternative.  

I would like to propose another approach — one that lets Halloween remain Halloween, while placing it in its proper context.

In the first place, we should keep in mind that the grotesque, macabre, and horrific have always been a part of Christian culture. Side-by-side with the celebration of the high and the holy has been the contemplation of the dark and the frightening. Christians traditionally do not shy away from facing evil; we carve monsters on the sides of churches, compose ghost stories and legends of the unquiet dead, hold danses macabre in cemeteries, and even build whole chapels out of bones. What we are to fear makes as much a part of the Christian story as what we are to desire.

This is because the greater the fear and the greater the danger, the greater the triumph. The path to glory leads through the dark valley; Good Friday precedes Easter Sunday; Dante descends into Hell before he can view Heaven.

Read the rest here.

Thoughts on ‘The Cabin in the Woods’

The other day I watched The Cabin in the Woods for the first time. I have to say, for a film with such a high reputation, I was really not impressed.

The set up is that it’s your standard ’80s horror film; a bunch of college students go out to a, yes, cabin in the woods, where they wake up an ancient evil and get slaughtered one by one. Only this time, it turns out the whole scenario is set up and controlled by a techno-corporate organization for reasons of their own. So we both follow the kids in the cabin and the workers who are arranging for all the cliches to come off. For instance, when the kids decide the best thing to do is arm themselves and stick together, the workers turn on a gas to impair their judgment and make them think that the thing to do is split up.

And that’s kind of the problem; the whole story is in service to this joke, but the joke isn’t either very clever or very funny. People have been making fun of ’80s horror cliches for ages, and Cabin in the Woods doesn’t really have anything original to add, except for a few (genuinely funny) gags involving the workers and their blase attitude toward the whole thing. It kind of reminds me of the ‘Godfather’ joke in Zootopia (to draw a somewhat distant example): it’s the sort of thing where, if you’re going to make that joke, you really have to do something original with it. Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, for instance, did this very well by making the hillbillies the heroes, while the joke was they kept accidentally acting like the villains. Cabin’s horror-related gags are almost all completely standard and pretty shallow in comparison.

Another problem is that the techno-corporate framing device is all wrong. The aesthetic doesn’t fit the premise. It ought to be either more artistic (akin to a TV studio or theater) or more militaristic. The business-type organization is jarringly at odds with the atmosphere and even the premise of what’s really going on. And like mocking horror films, mocking the business world is nothing new. The satire on both fronts is much too obvious and shallow (the original Robocop was doing these same jokes better thirty years earlier).

On that note (and here we get into spoilers), there’s another issue: it’s revealed near the end that this organization has an entire stable of horror monsters kept locked up in individual vaults and, depending on what the kids did they would have unleashed one or other on them.

There are two major issues with this. One is that, like the corporate America aesthetic, blending all these creatures together, and especially in little technological aquariums, completely ruins any kind of atmosphere. These horrors are completely defanged by being established as essentially ‘props’ kept in a backroom. It’s as effective as seeing costumed characters running around Universal theme park: kind of fun, but completely ruins it as a horror film and destroys any substance it might have had.

The other is that this gets the horror genre all wrong. Good horror is essentially a morality play; there always has to be some ‘transgression’ that brings the horror as consequence. But, according to this film, the corporation essentially seeded the cabin with fake chances to ‘transgress’ while keeping the appropriate monsters in readiness. The game is rigged to produce the intended effect, and that is fatal to the genre.

The way this ought to work would be that the organization would be monitoring people who enter certain areas and providing the retribution if they transgress. That might have allowed them to have their joke without spoiling the horror. As it is, I’m reminded of C.S. Lewis’s account of his reluctance to accept that the nature he so loved had a creator: it would, he said, be like discovering that the mouse that ran across your path from under a hedge was a wind-up toy that someone had put their on purpose. It all just feels so fake.

The problem isn’t that this isn’t a ‘standard’ horror film, or even that it’s not really a horror film at all. The problem is that what it is instead isn’t very interesting.

This isn’t helped by the fact that there’s really no mystery or twist going on; we follow both sides the whole time and see all the tricks being used throughout the film. What ought to be a startling twist that causes us to question everything we saw is instead just…there.

All that said, it’s not a bad film; there are some funny jokes (my favorite being the running gag about how one of the workers wants to see a merman), and there is some enjoyment to be had with the crazy monster rampage at the end, where genre fans can have some fun identifying the different franchises and films being referenced. I am glad I saw it, if only because I think it is a film worth observing and forming an opinion about.

(Although frankly, if they really wanted to be clever, the Director should have been played by Amy Steel, Heather Langenkamp, or Jamie Lee Curtis, not Sigourney Weaver. Again, the joke is too obvious and doesn’t require any real knowledge or understanding to pull off).

The protagonist of the film, as it turns out, isn’t the redheaded final girl, but her stoner friend, who turns out to be immune from the chemical manipulation of the watchers due to the massive amounts of pot he’s consumed. That, it strikes me, is pretty much what this film is like and probably who it’s made for; it’s like listening to an intelligent, somewhat stoned college student with absolutely no aesthetic or moral sense trying to deconstruct something. He’s able to identify the superficial absurdities and inconsistencies and make witty jokes about them, all while completely missing the point. There’s no real insight into the subject; just a handful of fairly obvious observations.

 Galaxy Quest deconstructed and made fun of the tropes of ‘Star Trek’ and similar shows while being itself an excellent example of the genre. So too did Hot Fuzz, Megamind, and The Princess Bride, among others. These films didn’t just play with their tropes, but they also understood why they were tropes and how to use them. In other words, they understood their genres. Cabin in the Woods doesn’t understand horror, it only knows the cliches.

Thoughts on ‘The Social Network’

The other day I watched The Social Network as part of research for a script I was working on. I thought the film was pretty good overall, and that it presents a depressingly perceptive image of the world we live in.

The film purports to tell the story of how Facebook got started, with Harvard computer science student Mark Zuckerberg turning a drunken tantrum about breaking up with his girlfriend into a viral website for rating girls’ ‘hotness’, which through various influences and turns became the social network we know and endure today. Along the way, Mark alienates or betrays every decent person around him – his girlfriend, Erika, his initial backers, the Winklevoss twins, and finally his best friend and co-founder Eduardo – while building a multimillion-dollar company seemingly overnight. The movie is framed as being flashbacks during testimony related to the lawsuits being brought against him by the latter two parties.

Like I say, the film is very good throughout; the performances are uniformly excellent (I was especially impressed by Arnie Hammer as the Winklevoss twins), and the story, while a little tough to follow at first due to the odd structure – it would have helped to distinguish the main story from the framing device if Zuckerberg post-Facebook was in any way visually or behaviorally distinct from Zuckerberg pre-Facebook – is decently told (To be clear, I have no idea what the true story is and am basing this solely on the film as a film).

For me, there is one glaring problem with the film, and it is Zuckerberg himself. You see, there’s a part near the end where one character tells him, “You’re not an asshole.” My immediate response was, “Yeah, he really is.” And that’s the problem.

Not that you can’t have a film centered around a rotten human being, but the film itself can’t pretend he’s anything else. This one seemed, in its last moments, to be attempting to do that, and it did not work at all. Zuckerberg is simply too much of a prick to remain sympathetic. Pitiable, yes, but not sympathetic.

Let me try to explain: Zuckerberg in this film (and, as far as I know, in real life) is an asocial genius nerd who can create brilliant code and come up with revolutionary ideas, but has no idea how to interact with people. Now, I am an asocial nerd who has trouble interacting with people. So are a lot of my friends. But I had no sympathy for Zuckerberg because he was also incredibly arrogant, self-centered, and, above all, duplicitous. He wasn’t confused or intimidated by normal human behavior; he was contemptuous of it and seemed to think that his achievements meant that he was above such concerns and that he was entitled to the appreciation and respect of others for it (when he’s called before a disciplining committee for crashing the Harvard network with his ‘Facemash’ site, he boldly states that he thinks he deserves praise for showing the weaknesses in the network).

Now, contrast this with, say Tommy Wiseau in The Disaster Artist (speaking only of the film for comparison purposes). He too was an eccentric loner who had no idea how to interact with normal people, and who could often be very unpleasant. But Wiseau remained sympathetic despite his bad behavior because he was fundamentally the underdog. He’s completely untalented, but earnestly determined, and despite how much of an ass he is we still feel for him because we know he’s destined to be humiliated in the end. Zuckerberg effortlessly trounces everyone in his chosen field and seems to think this justifies any and all breaches of etiquette and morality, meaning that we – or at least I – want him to get taken down a peg and be made to see what a jerk he is.

Also, The Disaster Artist showed Wiseau partially recognizing his bad behavior; it showed him faintly desperate and confused when it seemed like he might lose his only friend, and it even ended with him asking Greg why he puts up with him. Tommy showed vulnerability and a modicum of self-awareness.

Now, Zuckerberg does show some vulnerability, mostly revolving around Erica and his inability to get over her, but it comes across less as an actual recognition that there is something wrong with him than frustrated entitlement: as if he doesn’t get why she doesn’t want to be with him and is still blaming her.

Finally, and most importantly, Tommy actually cared about Greg. He was controlling and selfish, but ultimately in his confused way he did appreciate his best friend’s place in his life. Zuckerberg doesn’t seem to care about Eduardo as anything but a source of revenue and stabs him in the back as soon as he doesn’t need him anymore.

Put it this way; as an asocial nerd, I feel that Zuckerberg, as depicted in this film, violated the ‘rules’ of being such a person. He’s not just a jerk from a normal person’s perspective, but from an eccentric loner’s perspective. Between his duplicity and his arrogant sense of entitlement, I simply couldn’t sympathize with him. At best, he’s a pathetic figure whose own warped personality dooms to a deserved unhappiness. At worst, he’s a terrible person who damages every life that comes his way and expects to be rewarded for it.

That’s the problem with the film; the central character is completely unsympathetic and the film doesn’t seem aware of just how unlikable he is. We might feel some pity for him as he gropes helplessly at a world of normal human affection that he has cut himself off from, we can’t really sympathize with him. Or at least I couldn’t.

It might also be in part because the end result of all this backstabbing, dishonesty, and arrogance is…Facebook. This may just be a personal reaction, but I don’t consider Facebook to be an especially noble or impressive contribution to the human race. Like the rest of social media, it’s a shallow and mixed blessing at best. Basically, when Zuckerberg preens himself on having been the genius who invented Facebook and therefore is above reproach, it comes across as slightly pathetic.

On that note, I found The Social Network most interesting as a picture of our times; hedonistic, self-absorbed, and shallow, with the best people on screen either desperately trying to cling to some semblance of a standard in a world that is constantly ignoring them or else groping in the dark sincerely trying to figure out what the right thing is with nothing and no one to guide them. It’s a sad image, and Zuckerberg seems right at home in it, though not as much so as Sean Parker, inventor of Napster and even more pathetically hateful than Zuckerberg.

My favorite moments were either involving the Winklevoss twins, whom I found to be genuinely likable characters in their frustrated decency. I liked when one of them actually appeals to a code of gentlemanly conduct in how they should respond to Zuckerberg’s theft (I also like how Zuckerberg tries to justify his stealing their idea by sneering at their ‘privilege’ as if that were relevant), or the times when Zuckerberg got his comeuppance, like when Eduardo reaches the end of his patience and, finding Zuckerberg is trying to tune him out, grabs his laptop and smashes it on the ground.

(By the way, at the very end, the film tries to pull the ‘unreliable narrator’ card by suggesting that anything or everything we’ve seen might have been lies or exaggeration. Yeah, you don’t get to do that movie. That’s not interesting or thought-provoking; it’s a cheap way of covering your behind. And if I were to take that seriously, the follow-up question would be “then what was the point of the past two hours”? You’re telling the story; have the guts to own what you say).

In the end, I found The Social Network to be a good film, but also kind of depressing. It’s a film that, to my mind, really shows how twisted our world is, in which narcissistic amoral geniuses like Zuckerberg and Parker rule and decent people like Eduardo and the Winklevosses get kicked around at their pleasure, while popular opinion flocks to their side because they offer shallow, hedonistic thrills. Decency, honor, loyalty, and even basic honesty have no place in this world; only money and fashion. Welcome to the Facebook generation.

 

Why I Remain Catholic

New Post on the Federalist.

But now I will answer his question directly. The Protestant asks: “Do you believe Protestants have Christ?” The Roman answers: “Not as we do.”

You Protestants have him as a distant voice; we Romans have him body and soul and majesty and divinity. We feed upon his body and drink his blood. We hear, with our bodily ears, his voice through his anointed ones saying, “Your sins are forgiven you” and, “This is my body.” We touch the bones of his saints and venerate the wood of his cross. And yes, we hear his written word in scripture as well. We have him not only as Protestants do, but also in a way that can be seen and and touched and tasted.

Christ is not words on paper or high lessons. He is a man, solid and real. A man who tromped the Earth with his feet, struck people with his hands, and sweat and bled from his body. He is hard, brute, unmistakable Reality, and his bride the church is no different. She is no invisible collection of believers, but men and women bound by words spoken aloud under the same law and the same doctrine: doctrine that means one thing and not another. A visible, objective entity upon Earth, just as he was and is.

You Protestants do not have that. You have pieces that you tore off and carried away. We are original: you are derivative. You have an echo or an image or a dream of Christ. By the grace of God, that may be enough to bring you to salvation, but it is a poor substitute for the real thing. So, that would be my answer to Maas’s question. I hope that makes the issue a little clearer.

Go here to read the rest.

Thoughts on ‘Justice League’

So, the other day I decided to finally check out Justice League. And…yeah, it’s really bad. Don’t get me wrong; it’s nothing like as bad as Batman v Superman (which is one of the very few films I hate as much as The Last Jedi). That film was painful; this one is entertainingly bad, and it has some definite highlights.

Gal Gadot being one of the key high points. I’m just gonna sprinkle pictures of her throughout to give you something nice to look at.

With Superman dead, Batman and Wonder Woman soon discover that fear-fueled ‘parademons’ are spreading all over the Earth, heralding the return of Steppenwolf, an agent of Apokalypse, who plans to destroy the world with his three all-powerful ‘Mother Boxes’, which in ancient times were captured by the Amazons, Atlateans, and Humans, who each took and guarded one (hilariously, the humans are shown burying theirs…about two feet underground). So, Batman and Wonder Woman set about gathering three other powerful allies: Aquaman, Cyborg, and the Flash to try to stop him.

So…yeah, the story is pretty standard: villain wants to use ancient superweapon to conquer and/or destroy the world. Essentially it’s the same plot as The Avengers, which really emphasizes how badly done it is in this case.

In the first place, Steppenwolf is a terrible villain. He has no motivation other than a pure desire for power – great characterization there; never seen that before – no unique design, nothing entertaining or interesting to say, no perspective, no discernable personality, no backstory, nothing. He might be the single most generic bad guy I’ve seen in a major comic book film (well, the guy from Thor: The Dark World might have him beat).

Really, with all the fantastic villains in the DC Universe that haven’t shown up yet – Grodd, Sinestro, Brainiac, Mongul, Vandal Savage, and so on – who the heck decided to go with Steppenwolf? I’d never even heard of him, and I’ve got a decent working knowledge of the DCU. He’s one of Darkseid’s warriors, and…that’s about it. He’s not an interesting villain, but he’s related to one. It’s as if, instead of Loki, The Avengers featured Thanos’s cousin, Manos.

…okay, never mind; that would have been awesome.

It doesn’t help that Steppenwolf looks as though he stepped directly out of a God of War game, without getting a graphical upgrade.

Another huge problem is that the Justice League itself is…kind of a failure. You see, as conceived in this film, it only exists to fight Steppenwolf because Superman isn’t around. Then they reach the conclusion that they can’t stop him without Superman, so they revive him and…after that it’s pretty much just marking time until Superman fixes everything.

Now, I love Superman, and pretty much the whole reason I watched this movie was because I heard they actually tried to get him right this time, so I did enjoy seeing him basically take over the film every time he was on screen (the scene where he effortlessly beats the crap out of the entire rest of the League at once is easily my favorite). However, this is supposed to be a Justice League movie: a team up. But apart from maybe Cyborg, no one else even needed to be there for the climax. They went from the whole team at once barely being able to faze Steppenwolf to Superman punting him around the room like a volleyball.

See, this is another reason Steppenwolf doesn’t work as a villain: he’s just a straightforward physical threat, meaning that, to fight him, they just need the strongest fighter they can possibly get. Or to put it another way, there is absolutely nothing the likes of Batman can do against him, while in turn there’s absolutely nothing Steppenwolf can do to counter Superman.

Contrast this with The Avengers, where Loki is able to bring both physical power and deadly cunning as well as his own private army to bear against the heroes, meaning that he can fight each of them – and vice versa – in their own particular way or all of them at once. Likewise, every single one of the team had a crucial role to play in the climax, one that suited their character and abilities, with Captain America strategizing and rescuing civilians, Iron Man running the perimeter, Hawkeye calling out movements and sniping from a distance, Black Widow handling tech and infiltration duties, while Thor and Hulk tore up the battlefield. Everyone had a moment to shine; everyone had a reason to be there.

The problem is balance, and this film has none of it. The Justice League, arguably the single greatest superhero team in comics, is nothing but a holding pattern for Superman.

(For what it’s worth, I actually think a good choice for the villain would have been Brainiac: he has the physical power and resources to challenge the team, but without being simply indestructible, so the less-powerful team members would be able to contribute, and he has the intellect to counteract Superman’s overwhelming physical force and necessitate a coordinated effort to stop him, as well as being a planet-level threat.)

Then, of course, there’s the problem so many people have pointed out; that the whole franchise has so very clearly been rushed and that, going into this team up, we’ve only met Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, and only the latter two have had their own films (and only Wonder Woman has had an actually good film). Also, Wonder Woman was introduced in Batman v. Superman and has already fought alongside those two, meaning that when it comes to the characters we actually know, there’s no novelty factor to seeing them team up as they were practically introduced as a team, and when it comes to the others there is no investment since we’re meeting them for the first time. The ‘team up’ aspect of this film is about as botched as it could possibly be.

(That isn’t even considering the fact that this version of Batman tried to straight-up murder the world’s greatest hero in a fit of paranoia the last time we saw him. You decided to do it, franchise; you’ve gotta live with it).

So the film is a conceptual nightmare, but the problems don’t stop there. The film is riddled with plot holes, moments that make no sense, and just bad writing in general. Things like a random street thug somehow guess the monster that attacked him was from space, or Cyborg hacking the Batcomputer by accident (though it doesn’t really matter since Bruce has no problem straight up telling Aquaman that he’s Batman in front about twenty civilians), or the fact that, as far as I recall, we never learn just how Cyborg’s father got hold of the Mother Box (spoilers, I guess, except it’s so poorly established that I’m not even sure if they meant it to be a twist). He just has it, yet Steppenwolf can’t find it, but knows that the people in the lab know where it is? Actually, where was it? Cyborg just flies off and grabs it from…I don’t know, wherever it was being kept.

(Speaking of the Mother Boxes, what a stupid name for the Macguffin. And hey, just think: if Steppenwolf had only called them Martha Boxes he could have gotten Batman on his side).

Don’t tell Captain Marvel she’s smiling!

Aquaman has apparently spent his whole life staying away from Atlantis, yet knows where they keep their ultimate secret that could doom the world and he can just swim in there whenever he wants (also, way to waste such a pivotal moment in his story: his return to Atlantis after growing up on land lasts about five minutes during which he visits the basement vault). Batman and Wonder Woman somehow don’t notice the hulking half-robot listening in on their conversation from about twenty feet away because he’s partly hidden behind a tree. Batman’s contingency plan in case the revived Superman has lost his mind is to show him Lois Lane: why not just have her there the whole time?

And so on and so forth; the film is just shy of incoherent in its writing and it struggles to maintain any kind of structure at all. Cyborg’s subplot with his father goes completely unresolved; Flash’s arc with his father involves two scenes and a lot of running puns. Aquaman has no arc at all to speak of; he’s just kind of along for the ride. And Batman is mostly tasked with trying very hard to make us forget how badly his character was betrayed last time around and not really succeeding.

Wonder Woman’s ‘arc’ is that she hides herself away from the world rather than being a beacon of hope like Superman, and then at the end she goes public. Apparently not one of the hostages or terrorists in her opening action sequence bothered to mention the superhuman Amazon that saved the day, nor did anyone notice the insanely beautiful woman in low-cut armor and a skirt standing on the rooftop or running around town. Seriously, if she regularly spends her time beating up terrorists in broad daylight, how, exactly, has she remained ‘in hiding’ for the past century?

(By the way, the rent-a-villains here identify themselves as ‘Reactionary Terrorists’, which kinda made me laugh: Hollywood is really desperate to avoid reality on that particular subject, isn’t it?)

Then there’s the Flash. My, my, my…

Hold onto those good feelings. Here we go…

See, I like the Flash. On the Justice League cartoon (which is about thousand times smarter and better written than this film, by the way) he was probably my favorite character. I love how they wrote him as an immature goofball on the surface and a truly humble, selfless hero underneath; the guy who doesn’t just save people, but remembers their names afterwards, and all the while he’s second only to Superman in terms of raw power. Flash was awesome, and since then I’ve always had a soft spot for the character.

Now, this Flash, on the other hand, is one of the most obnoxious characters I’ve seen in a superhero film. He’s this wimpy, chatty, smirking little douche who keeps making dumb, unfunny jokes at the worst possible times, when he isn’t tripping over his own feet or chatting nonstop like he thinks the mere sound of his voice is hilarious. If you took your average hipster college student and forced him to watch everything Joss Whedon ever wrote Clockwork Orange style for a few weeks on end, you might end up with something akin to this Flash’s personality. He is that insufferable.

There were only two moments with him that I actually liked; one was when he and Cyborg are digging up Superman’s grave (by the way, why those two? Wouldn’t Wonder Woman and Aquaman have been quicker?) and he comments that he could use superspeed to do the job in an instant, but can’t help feeling it would be disrespectful. That felt at least moderately like how a real human being might behave. The other was the great “Oh, crap!” moment during the fight with Superman when he realizes that Supes can move and react just as fast as he can.

On the subject of the Flash, let’s tackle this film’s attempts at humor. It goes about as well as its attempt at a villain. I think there was only one joke in the film that I actually laughed at (I laughed at quite a few other parts, however). For the record, it was when Batman is laying out their plan for the final battle and Aquaman just says, “I think we’re gonna be dead way before that.” I also kind of like it when one of Steppenwolf’s hostages pleas, “We have families!” he answers, “Why does everyone keep telling me that?” Because it is a good point; he literally just killed someone who made the exact same plea a second ago (it’s pretty much Steppenwolf’s only good moment in the film).

For the rest, we have truly cringe-inducing jokes. For instance, “I’m not the one who brought a pitchfork” (said after seeing said pitchfork turn back oncoming floodwater), “Woah, he is tall!” “I’m a snack-hole,” “what is brunch?” and so on. We also have the old (and God is it tired) Whedonesque gag of self-consciously describing what is happening on screen (“Oh, they just left. That’s rude”). Part of the trouble is that so many of the jokes come from the Flash, who, again, is incredibly obnoxious in his whole persona. Another problem is that they often come at the worst possible moments. There’s a bit where Steppenwolf murders an innocent woman just off screen after we hear her begging and crying for mercy, and then it’s immediately followed by the Flash ‘comically’ panicking. Or after the dramatic fight with Superman we cut to Batman – Batman – lying on the ground ‘comically’ griping about which bones are broken (was there a typo in the script? Who the heck gives that kind of gag to Batman?). Or there’s another moment where Aquaman gives an actually decent line about how he’s fine with dying for an honorable cause, approaching something like character…then it transitions into a joke about him sitting on Wonder Woman’s lasso and babbling the truth, which is not just tonally inappropriate, but completely subverts his assertion by having him admit that he isn’t fine with dying. Thanks movie: you have a good character moment and then immediately spoil it for a cheap gag.

Also, they’re really convinced the phrase ‘talk to fish’ is funny. Every time someone says it, there is this awkward-as-hell pause like they’re just waiting for the laughter to die down. I don’t know why they thought this was so funny; it’s a light chuckle line at best, but any humor is utterly ruined by the subsequent “you’re laughing now” performance.

So, this is a very bad film, let’s call it. Is there anything good about it?

Besides the obvious

Again, Superman is easily the best thing about this film. After two movies dedicated to tearing him down, they finally make an attempt to get him right. It’s terrible from a storytelling point of view, but Lord, it is satisfying to see him curb-stomping everyone in this film (Batman absolutely deserved to get pounded into the pavement after BvS). Likewise, when he shows up in the final battle, the first thing he does is note that there are still civilians in the area and head off to make sure they’re safe. That is something Superman would do (though it does point to the problem that the writers are clearly struggling to find a way to keep the battle going once Superman shows up so that we don’t notice that the story is basically over the moment he joins the fight). He gets a little time to be with Lois, to enjoy being home in Kansas, even to submit with good grace to an interview with a bunch of nervous kids for their podcast (this is the opening scene of the film, by the way, and it establishes his character better in two minutes than the previous films managed in over five collective hours…though this is where the infamous reshoots came in. My very first note on this film is “Holy crap! What’s up with his lip?!”)

(Speaking of civilians, at least this film makes a point to show innocent people in danger and being rescued by our heroes, putting the climactic battle into context. Which is more than some films – including one whose title may or may not rhyme with ‘slack anther’ – bother to do).

Gal Gadot is still the perfect Wonder Woman, and she struggles to maintain a level of class throughout the proceedings. I actually kind of like her interactions with Bruce Wayne, though otherwise she really doesn’t have much to do except draw the eye every time she’s onscreen and participate in the action scenes.

Aquaman is actually my favorite of the newcomers: he actually has something of a decent personality, being a laid-back, inwardly bitter badass who saves people with a bad grace then charges drinks to their tabs. His thrill in combat and macho persona were pretty enjoyable and made him stand out from the other characters. I’m actually thinking I might go see his film when if comes out, not because I think it’ll be good, but because I figure this guy is at least entertaining company.

I also did appreciate that Cyborg, despite his utterly bland personality, was allowed to give his catchphrase “boo-yah.” Though the delivery fell flat and only served to remind me of how much better his character was portrayed in the Teen Titans cartoon (again, the show aimed at children was much more human, thoughtful, and better written than this film ostensibly directed at adults).

I will say that parts of the film do work as dumb fun, and there is some undeniably cool imagery. The parademons looked good, and I admit I did like seeing one of the Green Lantern Corps show up in a flashback.

Oh, and the opening credits, done over scenes of the world mourning Superman, is very nice, even if not earned by past films. It’s a somber, respectful piece of work in the midst of all the chaos and nonsense.

Likewise, I liked the mid-credit scene of Superman and the Flash starting a race, even though Flash is still obnoxious as ever. The bit where Superman asks “which coast?” is pretty much perfect.

On the other hand, it’s followed by a post-credits scene featuring the return of Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor, just to remind us that John Wayne wasn’t that bad a choice to play Genghis Khan. God, I’d forgotten how annoying his voice is: I was chanting for Deathstroke to kill him.

Oh, yeah, Deathstrokes there in the post-credits scene too, and Luthor tries to set up a sequel. Like that’s gonna happen.

Justice League is the film The Avengers could have been had the filmmakers not put the time and effort into building the world and characters and managing the crossover with care. It isn’t anything like one of the worst films I’ve ever seen, but it is probably one of the messiest films I’ve seen, at least in terms of a major franchise. It’s falling apart at the seams, trying to do too much and ultimately achieving very little. Through a combination hubris, greed, pretentiousness, and impatience, Warner Brothers and Zack Snyder tripped over themselves to get to this point as soon as possible with a string of mostly-terrible films, with the result that the long awaited dream of a Justice League film, featuring some of the greatest superheroes of all time, thought impossible for decades, has come true at last and the best that can be said of it is “dumb fun.” What a sad indictment of the entertainment industry.

End on a high note

Thoughts on the Captain Marvel Trailer

Last week the trailer for Captain Marvel, the next entry in the venerable Marvel Cinematic Universe, arrived. For those who don’t know, Captain Marvel is a female superhero with tremendous energy manipulation powers, whose presence was teased in the last scene of Avengers: Infinity War (I will refrain from discussing any details for those who have managed to avoid spoilers thus far). She is being touted as the headliner for the next ‘phase’ of the MCU.

So far, reactions to the trailer have been…rather mixed. My own reaction is that, much as I love the MCU, I’m not getting a good vibe off of this.

In the first place, I really don’t get much of a sense of excitement from this trailer: there are only a handful of very brief scenes actually showing the heroine in action, none of which were especially impressive. Most of the trailer just showed footage of Carol Danvers (Captain Marvel’s real name)’s life; things like her as a girl falling over blended with her falling as an adult, or her in training in the military, or her just wandering about with a glazed expression.

On that subject, a lot of criticism has been leveled at Brie Larson’s performance as seen in this trailer and…yeah, I can’t say it isn’t warranted. She spends just about the whole thing with the most bored, disinterested expression on her face. I think they were trying to make her look serious and competent, but from what we’ve seen, she just looks half asleep most of the time.

Contrast Miss Larson’s expression with Miss Johanson’s in the trailer for The Avengers back in 2012:

 

 

See, Black Widow looks tough, determined, and ready for battle; her eyes are focused, but fully open, her brow is lowered, her jaw clenched. Meanwhile, Captain Marvel just looks vague: her eyes are unfocused, the eyelids appear to be drooping, and her brow and jawlines appear to be relaxed. She looks like she just got out of bed and hasn’t had her morning cup of Joe.

Dishearteningly, this even extends to her Entertainment Weekly cover, which you’d think would try to present the best possible face on the upcoming film.

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Just to drive the point home, some fans subsequently photoshopped still images from the trailer and promotional materials to give her a smile. It’s kind of startling the difference it makes: she immediately appears so much more likable and, well, human. She suddenly has a real sense of personality. For my part, I at once found myself thinking, “yeah, I’d like to go on an adventure with this character.”

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Predictably, certain corners of the internet labeled this ‘sexist’, since apparently asking a woman to smile is sexist and demeaning. This neatly sidesteps the fact that the issue is less that she doesn’t smile than that she doesn’t emote. Also that no one felt the need to give similar treatment to, say, Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman or Evangeline Lilly’s Wasp. Or that fans have made similar complaints about male characters ranging from Superman to Freddy Krueger. Also, they apparently haven’t learned from Lucasfilm that insulting your audience for criticizing your product is not a good idea.

Perhaps this is all misleading, and her actual performance will be better. I hope it is, since I don’t like disliking Marvel films (well, Black Panther is kinda fun to take apart, but I’d much rather it had been a good movie), especially one that is, apparently, so vital to the conclusion of Infinity War.

There is also the rather cringe inducing tagline, “Discover what makes a hero,” with a very deliberate emphasis on the ‘her’ part. I don’t know if that was meant to be “what makes her a hero” or “what makes a her-o,” but it’s ill-judged either way. For one thing, could that tagline be any more generic? And for another, emphasizing the femaleness of your heroine is not going to work as a selling point: there is nothing novel about a female-led action movie, and normal audience members don’t care either way. All they want is a good story with likable characters; that’s why Wonder Woman was a smash hit and the Ghostbusters remake wasn’t.

That’s right, I said there was nothing novel about a female-led action film. Salt, Lucy, Ghost in the Shell, The Hunger Games films, Wonder Woman, Colombiana, the Tomb Raider films, the new Star Wars films, the Ghostbusters remake, and on and on, not to mention superhero films Elektra and Catwoman. You might be saying “But most of those films bombed and/or were really, really terrible!” Yes, but we’re not talking about quality, only novelty, and my claim is that there is no novelty in a female-led action film. For goodness sakes, Aliens was headed by Sigourney Weaver and that’s one of the most popular and influential sci-fi action films ever made.

The point is that you cannot use a female superhero as a selling point; it’s been done, and thanks to Wonder Woman it’s even been done very well. You need to give us something more, and thus far I’m not really seeing anything. Heck, I thought the Aquaman trailer had more of fun and novelty in it than this; it looks stupid as hell, but at least it was energetic and showed off major points of interest, like sea monsters, submarines being lifted out of the water, and so on. What we see here is all either extremely generic (firing lasers from her fists: haven’t seen that before) or just ordinary. The trailer doesn’t even establish the Skrulls, the shape-shifting aliens who serve as the film’s antagonists (meaning audience members who don’t know about the plot from other sources will simply have a shot of the supposed heroine punching an old woman with no context. There’s a selling point: wooden-faced heroine beats up old people).

Now, if I were doing this film, I’d make it an action-packed, high-concept space adventure; something akin to Aliens with a super powered Ripley. Maybe they’re doing that, but I just don’t get a sense of it from the trailer, or really of any kind of fun adventure. That would be the way to sell this film; courageous and good-looking astronaut girl fights evil alien monsters with her cosmic superpowers. Lots of people would be happy to pay to see that. Very few people are going to want to see a film marketed as, “It’s a Marvel film, but this time with a female lead! No, it’s not that character you all like. Or that one. Not that one either.”

But even apart from the shortcomings of the trailer itself, there’s another problem lurking in background; it’s the aforementioned fact that Marvel is already saying that Captain Marvel is going to replace Iron Man and Captain America as the new ‘face’ of the MCU. This is a big mistake.

You see, the Marvel films are by now a venerable, established series, headlined by characters who have become fixtures of the popular imagination. Millions of people have accompanied Iron Man and Cap through a decade’s worth of adventures, experiencing their hardships, struggles, joys, and triumphs. So, telling that audience that these characters are now going to be replaced or are going to take a back seat to this other character whom they haven’t had any kind of experience with yet (and, to be frank, one whom most in the audience haven’t even heard of) is not going to inspire much good will. If you told your son that you were going to take away his favorite toy and replace it with another toy, his reaction wouldn’t be excitement; it would be at best deep skepticism and a predisposition to hate the new toy. Not to mention that it sets the bar incredibly high for this new film: it not only has to be good, it has to be on par with the original Iron Man and Captain Marvel has to be as vivid and inspiring a character as Captain America. To put it bluntly, this is not going to happen. The film may be good, and we hope it is, but you are not going to make audiences care about Captain Marvel the same way they care about Captain frickin’ America. So please do not set that as the goal you are trying to achieve; you will only hurt you own film.

I’m fine with replacing the old characters (provided they’re given a respectful and fitting send off), but you need to do that organically; you can’t just present the audience with a completely new character and tell them that they are going to admire and be inspired by her now before the film is even released. That needs to happen organically, by building the new character into the universe and most of all by making her engaging and likable.

All things considered, so far this is the first MCU film that I’m looking forward to with more trepidation than excitement (I wasn’t super excited for Black Panther, but I was looking forward to it). But then again, I wasn’t looking forward to Wonder Woman either and they blew that one out of the water.

On the other hand, the DCEU was already a slow-motion disaster when Wonder Woman came along. There was nothing at stake if that movie had failed because it would only have been another entry in a series of missteps.

The MCU, however, has been a towering success and is coming off of its crowning achievement in Infinity War. Now they have essentially gambled the future of the series on this one film: a film that honestly does not look very promising at this point.

That’s why I’m uneasy about this movie; not just that I fear it will be bad in itself, but that I’m worried it will irretrievably break one of the few healthy film franchises we have left. Time alone will tell, but I’m not optimistic.