Following on from yesterday, here’s a sample of thirty movie quotes that I would have included in the AFI List (all from films released at the time of the list in 2005, so as to be fair):
1. “All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.” -Roy Batty, Blade Runner 1982
2. “Get away from her, you bitch!” -Ripley, Aliens 1986
3. “Shut up and deal.” -Fran Kubelik, The Apartment 1960
4. “No. I am your father.” -Darth Vader, The Empire Strikes Back 1980
5. “There is a leopard on your roof and it’s my leopard, and I have to get it and to get it I have to sing.” -Susan Vance, Bringing Up Baby 1938
6. “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” -Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride 1987
7. “Fill your hands, you son-of-a-bitch!” -Rooster Cogburn, True Grit 1969
8. “Yippie-ki-yay, motherfucker!” -John McClane, Die Hard 1988
9. “Free! Free at last!” -Edward Hyde, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde 1931
10. “Ray, when someone asks you if you’re a god, you say ‘Yes’!” -Winston Zeddemore, Ghostbusters 1984
11. “How am I funny? Funny like I’m a clown? I amuse you?” -Tommy de Vito, Goodfellas 1990
12. “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend. -Maxwell Scott, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance 1962
13. “People here are funny. They work so hard at living they forget how to live.” -Longfellow Deeds, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town 1936
14. “You think I’m licked. You all think I’m licked. Well, I’m not licked. And I’m going to stay right here and fight for this lost cause. Even if this room gets filled with lies like these, and the Taylors and all their armies come marching into this place. Somebody will listen to me.” -Jefferson Smith, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington 1939
15. “Welcome to Sherwood, my lady!” -Robin Hood, The Adventures of Robin Hood 1938
16. “Earn this.” -Capt. John Miller, Saving Private Ryan 1998
17. “I have come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass, and I’m all out of bubble gum.” -Nada, They Live 1988
18. “Shut up, Mr. Burton. You are not brought upon this world to ‘get it’.” -Lo Pan, Big Trouble in Little China 1986
19. “Watch the skies, everywhere! Keep looking! Keep watching the skies!” -Ned Scott, The Thing from Another World 1951
20. “The fate of billions depends upon you. Heh heh heh!…Sorry.” -Lord Raiden, Mortal Kombat 1995
21. “You’ll be here too?” “I guess so, I usually am.” “Same chair, same perfume, same anklet?” “I wonder if I know what you mean.” “I wonder if you wonder.” -Walter Neff and Phyllis Dietrichson, Double Indemnity 1944
22. “Look down there. Tell me; would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand dollars for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare?” -Harry Lime, The Third Man 1949
23. “When a man takes an oath, he’s holding his own self in his own hands, like water, and if he opens his fingers then, he needn’t hope to find himself again.” -Sir Thomas More, A Man For All Seasons 1966
24. “Well, what family doesn’t have its ups and downs?” -Eleanor of Acquitaine, The Lion in Winter 1968
25. “Waiter will you serve the nuts? I mean, will you serve the guests the nuts.” -Nora Charles, The Thin Man 1934
26. “And should we win the day, the 4th of July will no longer be known as an American holiday. But as the day when the wold declared in one voice ‘We will not go quietly into the night! We will not vanish without a fight!’ We’re going to live on! We’re going to survive! Today we celebrate our Independence Day!” -President Whitmore, Independence Day 1996
27. “Broke into the wrong goddamn rec-room didn’t you, you bastard!” -Burt Gummer, Tremors 1990
28. “I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way.” -Jessica Rabbit, Who Framed Roger Rabbit 1988
29. “Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.” -Doc Brown, Back to the Future 1985
30. “Welcome to Jurassic Park.” -John Hammond, Jurassic Park 1993
Obviously don’t completely agree with this line up (nothing from The Princess Bride? Ghostbusters? No “Like tears in rain”, no “I am your Father”, no “You all think I’m licked”? Seriously?), but it’s a respectable collection. In any case, the editing and accompanying music is excellently done.
As far as the Snyder-DC heroes, I’m a little curious as to what is loathsome about them? Now: I’ll freely say that I could not stomach any part of Man of Steel, and BatvsSupes was terrible in almost every single respect, and that I only have vague memories of Watchmen.
But: he doesn’t seem to be malicious towards the characters at all, and the strength of the casting really shines through.
I started answering in the comments, but realized that it’s gonna need it’s own post. The subject of how poorly these characters were handled in these films is one of those that just keeps growing and growing the more you look into it.
To be entirely fair, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen these films, mostly because I hated them. I have seen clips and sort of ‘pieced together’ versions of them since in the form of reviews, critiques, and so on. If needs be, I’m considering doing a revisit just to be sure I’m being fair (and because I’ve grown into a much bigger fan of Superman in particular in the intervening years), but nothing I’ve seen since and none of the arguments I’ve heard in their favor have altered my views so far, so take that for what it’s worth.
Also, I will say that the casting is genuinely very good: Henry Cavill was an excellent choice and could have been a great Superman (as shown by the handful of moments he actually gets to play the character in Justice League). Ben Affleck’s a respectable choice for Batman, star-power issues notwithstanding. Most of the other casting choices are fine in and of themselves, absent what they’re made to do (Though other casting choices are not so good, and in one particular case the casting is rivaling The Conqueror as possibly the worst of all time).
So, the Snyderverse starts with Man of Steel, an extremely bloated, unnecessarily convoluted take on the Superman origin story (as in, we open with Jor-El having an extended action sequence on Krypton). I’m going to leave off the bulk of the film’s many, many writing, visual, and storytelling issues for now: instead let’s just talk about their version of Clark Kent.
Through flashbacks and so on we follow Clark from a child to adulthood as he learns of his powers and alien heritage. Clark was a bullied outcast at school, who nevertheless once used his powers to save his classmates when their bus went in the river. This prompts Jonathan Kent to suggest that maybe it would have been better for him to have let them die rather than reveal his powers for fear that he might become an outcast if people knew he was an alien. Then Clark learns of his true heritage, which prompts him, as a teenager, to snap “You’re not my dad,” at Jonathan. Then there’s a tornado and Clark, at Jonathan’s insistence, lets his own father die rather than reveal his powers.
As a young adult, Clark wanders the globe working odd jobs and periodically saving people (not bothering to hide his identity in the process, by the way). At one point he’s working in a bar when a truck driver harasses a waitress. Clark intervenes, but when the guy challenges him to a fight, he quits and allows himself to be humiliated rather than doing anything. Later that night, he destroys the man’s truck in vengeance by impaling it on the logs he was carrying.
I can’t quite remember the sequence of events, but it ends up being that General Zod and his people show up and demand earth hand over their Kryptonian refugee – namely Clark. This prompts a scene where Clark visits a priest to say “I’m not sure humanity is worth saving.”
Zod urges Clark to join him in re-founding Krypton on Earth, Krypto-forming the planet (there’s some BS about a genetic codex, but who cares) and wiping out the population.
This leads to a lot of big fight scenes, where Superman carelessly slams the other Kryptonians around, knocks them them through buildings, drags them into populated areas, downs a massive ship into the middle of Metropolis, and generally causes an insane amount of collateral damage (including losing what seems to be a good chunk of the entire population of both Smallville and Metropolis). Damage he barely seems aware of, to the point that he sometimes moves out of the way of projectiles so that they miss him and hit buildings full of civilians. All while pretty much getting his butt kicked by people who have had similar powers for a matter of minutes after he’s had thirty years of experience with them. During these sequences he saves maybe a dozen people out of what must be tens of thousands being killed.
He then makes out with Lois Lane amidst the smouldering ashes.
It ends with Superman snapping Zod’s neck because he apparently couldn’t think of a better way to stop him from lasering a group of innocents.
Then in Batman v. Superman he opens by carelessly squashing a terrorist holding Lois Lane hostage (apparently killing as such doesn’t bother him. Also, this version seems incapable of using his powers in anything but the most unrestrained, destructive way possible: he can’t just rush up and knock the guy out with a flick of his finger or disarm him before he knows what’s happening: he has to slam him through several brick walls) then spends most of the film in a morose, existential crisis (“Superman was never real”. “No one stays good in this world”). He saves people while looking like he’s in perpetual mourning, then goes into depressed exile after someone sets off a bomb in his vicinity. During this his mother tells him he “doesn’t owe this world a thing” and he has a vision of Jonathan Kent telling him a story about how heroism is a zero-sum game where you can’t help some people without hurting others (same guy who, again, suggested he should let children die to keep himself safe).
We also get a vision of the future suggesting that Superman becomes the murderous dictator of a destroyed world after Lois is killed.
He then lets himself get completely humiliated by Batman before dying to stop Doomsday.
Okay, let’s delve into those.
So, it seems like Snyder chief takeaway on the Superman character is “he’s an alien”. Throughout the films Clark inexplicably identifies first and foremost as a Kryptonian (telling his mother “I found my parents”, introducing himself to Lois as ‘Kal-El’, talking about “My world” and “my people”, speaking of humans as though they were a separate concern from himself, etc.). This is fundamentally wrong. The core of the character is that despite his godlike powers, he’s an ordinary man, human in every way that counts, and he thinks of himself as such. He’s not an alien putting on a show of being human: he’s a man who happens to have a unique heritage.
Being a man, he still lives as a man, subject to the law, to morality, to human interests and desires, and he has to find a way to balance that with his superhuman abilities. This is a key point of what makes him interesting. Making him fundamentally an alien gives him a detached, purely ‘other’ characterization. He’s no longer an example or a paragon because he’s essentially separate from humanity.
Not to mention that it’s morally pretty reprehensible of Clark to decide that the people who have loved and raised him his whole life and the culture and civilization he grew up with count for less in his mind than the one’s he knows off a goddamn zip drive. Yes, he should be interested in Kryptonian culture and keen to preserve it and learn from it, but it cannot be his primary point of reference or the core of his identity.
You could, arguably, make this work by having it a phase he goes through: a bit of teenage rebellion or getting caught up in the excitement of his powers, but it has to be just that: a temporary phase that he learns from. It cannot be the foundation of his whole character.
Getting into more specifics, no version of Jonathan Kent should be telling Clark “maybe you should let people die to protect yourself.” No version Matha Kent should be telling him “You don’t owe this world a thing.” No version of Clark should let his own father die out of a fear of what might happen if his secret is revealed. The real Superman, faced with such a choice, wouldn’t even consider that: his attitude would be, “I’ll work out a cover story later, or I’ll get a new secret identity, or worst comes to worst, I’ll deal with it.”
(I don’t think Clark should be a bullied outcast either: he should be well-adjusted and well-liked, the one who defends other kids from bullies, not the one who needs to be defended. That’s not a huge deal, though, I just find it annoying that it seems like modern filmmakers have no idea how to write a childhood that doesn’t involve being a bullied outcast).
Clark should not be stealing clothes from people (he should knock on the door and politely ask to borrow some with a plausible story of a shipwreck or something). Faced with a bully, Clark shouldn’t just walk away and let the guy continue to abuse his coworker and then throw a petty temper tantrum when he’s out of sight. He should have the self-control to knock the guy around enough to teach him a lesson without blowing his cover, or else be able to find some other way to resolve the situation to protect the woman and put the guy in his place (and if he wants to stay undercover, impaling a semi-truck on logs is a lot more conspicuous then smacking a drunk around).
Normal human beings have enough self-control to do that, let alone Superman.
The massive collateral damage and the fact that Clark barely seems aware of it (again, making out with Lois Lane in the middle of ground zero, ignoring projectiles as they fly past him to blow up buildings, dragging Zod from a mostly-empty cornfield into the middle of Smallville, etc.) is another huge problem. Superman should be saving a lot more people than this. Or if, for whatever reason, he can’t, he should be absolutely devastated by the carnage. He should be doing everything he can, leaving himself open to attack in order to keep people safe or try to move the fight out of populated areas (which would also solve the issue of keeping the fights interesting when he should be dominating his less-experienced and acclimated opponents). Here he’s more concerned that he killed Zod than that he failed to save tens of thousands of innocent people. Not that he should be happy about the former, but he doesn’t even acknowledge the larger failure
(And having both these massive failures in the origin film, and indeed his first public appearance as Superman, was a terrible, terrible idea).
Oh, and you can’t claim that this was intended to set up BvS, since if it were, Superman or someone would have acknowledged it in Man of Steel. Instead, Man of Steel doesn’t even seem aware that it’s a problem. So, if it was intended as a set up, then the characters are behaving like myopic sociopaths, and if it wasn’t, then the writers were unaware that Superman leaving thousands of bodies in his wake is a huge issue until audiences pointed it out to them. It’s bad writing either way.
In BvS, there’s a bit where Lex blows up the Capital while Superman is there using a lead-covered bomb (don’t ask). This prompts Superman to go into guilt-ridden exile. Because apparently he feels that it was his fault that he didn’t stop it? Why would he assume that? He should be devastated and enraged, of course, but his response should be to pour all his efforts into tracking down and catching whoever was responsible.
This points to another, and arguably more fundamental issue: throughout both films, Clark is incessantly morose, miserable, and downbeat. He hardly ever even smiles or jokes or looks happy. Nor do we get a sense of what his values are or why he does what he does, never any sense of why Clark is Superman. We don’t even know whether this version of Superman has a moral principle against killing people (he’s anguished when he kills Zod, but it isn’t clear whether this is because he killed someone or because he killed the last other Kryptonian. The fact that he thinks nothing of squashing the guy in BvS argues the latter, as does the fact that he seems to be very tempted to kill Luthor in their confrontation and only stops when Luthor reminds him that his mother will die if he does).
It’s non-stop doubt and deconstruction, not just from his opponents, but even from his own parents. He never, as far as I can recall, actually comes out with a reason why he’s decided “humanity is worth saving” (Superman shouldn’t start from asking that question: at most it should come up in his darkest hour), nor does he ever make positive affirmation that what he is doing is right or that he cares about people for their own sake. Yeah, he saves people, but he does it with an expression and attitude that suggests he doesn’t know why he’s doing it (unlike in real Superman stories, where he saves people with gusto and then gives them a friendly quip or pep talk, or a self-deprecating word to Lois to explain his absence).
In fact, I can’t figure out why he bothers helping people except that, on a meta level he’s supposed to be Superman. He claims it’s because his father wanted it of him, except Jonathan wanted him to let people die, so….
In Man of Steel, his big declaration of motive when he decides to stand against Zod is “Krypton had its chance!” Note the negative nature of the statement: not “Earth is my home,” or “these people deserve to live,” or even just a “you’re insane”. The fact that he has a brief moment of crisis before this where he actually hesitates to reject Zod’s offer is another problem: saving humanity at the cost of not replacing Krypton should not be a difficult choice for him.
Superman is supposed to be a fundamentally hopeful, optimistic character: the hero who fights in the light, who doesn’t wear a mask, who tries to show people the best they can be. He’s supposed to be a good person who happens to have the power to do what any other good person would want to be able to do. Here, he’s an apathetic, ineffectual cipher.
When he goes off to fight Batman, he tells Lois “No one stays good in this world.”
No version of Superman should say that. Contrast with the message a real version of Superman leaves her with in a similar situation in a better movie: “Believe. Always believe.”
Again, he doesn’t even have the decency, moral awareness, or self-control of a normal person in this version. He even blows off a work assignment just because he doesn’t think it’s important (why Perry White doesn’t think ‘vigilante dressed as a bat is branding people one city away’ isn’t worth writing about is another story, but Clark should have the responsibility and maturity to do the damn assignment anyway. No one is in character in these films. Except maybe Alfred). I’m not sure how much of this is deliberate subversion and how much is just that Snyder and his writers seem to have no clue what a genuinely exemplary human being actually looks like, but it’s bad either way.
Meanwhile everyone talks about how controversial he is, how dangerous he is, how disruptive he is. We are told he’s an icon of hope, but chiefly for the sake of the characters expressing doubts as to whether he should be (Clark himself at one point says “Superman was never real”). There’s also some talk about ‘hope’ in the abstract (mostly in Jor-El’s ramblings), but it never amounts to a principle or a clearly set of values or anything but a word that gets repeated over and over, contrasting sharply with the dour, cynical nature of both the films and the protagonist. The movies spend almost all their screen time subverting and questioning Superman’s character and position as a beacon of hope and almost no time establishing them. They’re so set on deconstructing him that they don’t bother to construct him in the first place. The total effect is of a failure and fraud who finally redeems himself by dying.
Also, to dip into Justice League, much as I enjoyed the scene where Supes dominates the entire rest of the team at once, Superman’s default, confused state should not be “kill everyone,” provocation or no (that would have made the episodes of The Adventures of Superman and Lois & Clark where he got amnesia following a meteor strike very different). And even if you could soup up some explanation of why he’s like that, he needs to react to it afterwards: “Oh, my God: I nearly killed people…”
(That’s not even considering the fact that, in an amnesiac state, Superman should be defaulting to Clark’s personality).
Speaking of which, regarding the nightmare flash-forward in BvS: Superman’s reaction to the death of Lois Lane would not be to join forces with Darkseid and become a mass-murdering dictator. Again, this points to the trend of undermining his position as a hero: the repeated suggestions that he’s just one bad day, one tragic loss away from becoming the worst villain of them all.
Because apparently he has no qualms about killing people, imposing dictatorial rule, or destroying the planet as such outside of the fact that he has a girlfriend? Or he genuinely considers that an option, but Lois somehow makes him think it’s worth trying to save humanity instead? This ties in with Jonathan Kent telling him that he only decided there was good in the world after meeting Martha, suggesting that Lois Lane is the only reason Clark sees any good in humanity at all, which is, again, fundamentally contrary to his character and frankly rather appalling.
I’m fine with the idea of Superman potentially going rogue, by the way, but it wouldn’t play out like this. He’s not going to be siding with Darkseid and helping to commit world-wide genocide. If he loses his way, he’d become more like the Gort-based civilization from The Day the Earth Stood Still: “Here’s a perfect, peaceful, enlightened society. Disrupt it and die.”
All of this, once again, points to Snyder’s fundamental misinterpretation of the character: the idea that Superman stands so far apart from humanity that he would ever consider just wiping them out (remember the “not sure humanity is worth saving” line?), that the most interesting thing about him are his powers, and that he really has no core beliefs or motivations of his own, he just sort of reacts to things.
Regardless, Superman’s sense of morality cannot be that fragile. Again, normal people do not go from ‘I lost the woman I love’ to ‘Stalin had the right idea,’ let alone someone like Superman.
Incidentally, this is something I notice a lot in contemporary fiction. Modern protagonists don’t usually have principles or values that they believe to be objectively right. Instead they have relationships. You rarely hear the protagonists in contemporary stories actually articulating a set of principles that they believe in, they just say something like “I believe in my friends” or “I believe in us” or some such thing. So here, Superman doesn’t believe in truth, justice, and the American way, doesn’t articulate why he refuses to kill his enemies or why he believes in humanity’s potential for good. Instead, he simply ‘finds good’ in his relationship with Lois or his mother, apparently with the proviso that if that ever gets taken from him, all bets are off. Likewise Batman doesn’t seem to care about justice, but he comes to respect Superman and try to honor his ‘legacy.’
(Even apart from the moral issues, given that their relationship is given almost no development and Lois herself almost no characterization outside of ‘determined reporter who loves Superman’, the idea that Lois is what keeps him on the straight and narrow is frankly embarrassing. Lois herself is extremely ill-served here as well, by the way, lacking almost all the fiery self-assurance and affectionate sarcasm that she’s supposed to have, and lacking any clear personality to replace it with. Like Clark, she’s a lay figure being halfheartedly put through the motions, not a developed character).
The disdain, or at least disinterest, that Snyder has for Superman is palpable. He dumps almost every key aspect of the character – the optimism, the commitment to principle, his status as an ordinary person, the Lois Lane love triangle (and with it the humility and self-abasement that balances his heroics), the strong value for life, even the fundamental decency – and spends most of the bloated run time emphasizing what a confused, morose, ineffective figure he is and having him toss his powers around in the most excessive, uncontrolled manner possible while undermining and cross-examining his ostensible iconic status with superficial philosophizing and suggesting he’s one bad day away from becoming a horrible monster. That’s when he isn’t just plain ignoring him in favor of other characters and plot lines.
If you have any doubt that Snyder wanted to annoy fans of Superman, look no further than Jimmy Olsen. At the start of BvS, a completely new character shows up, announces his name as Jimmy Olsen, and gets immediately killed because he was really a CIA plant and was using Lois to spy on his target. Now, there was no reason whatsoever to make this character Jimmy Olsen. You could have named him anything. But someone decided to make this throw-away character who deceives Lois and then dies one of the core Superman cast.
The only reason to do something like this would be as a middle-finger to the fans.
That’s really the question that recurs through all of this: “Why? Why are you making these choices? Why are you having Superman’s first meeting with Lois Lane involve him cauterizing her wound with his laser vision while she screams in agony? Why did you think it was a good idea to have Clark let his father die to protect himself? Why is Superman so joyless, directionless, and self-doubting? Why did you ‘force’ Superman to kill someone in his first film? Why do you have this whole nightmare sequence of the future at all? Why the sea of skulls and the H.R. Gieger-esque Kryptonian designs and the enormous body count? Why is any of this part of your vision for Superman?”
It’s really hard to come up with a plausible explanation other than “a sense of contempt for the character as he has been traditionally portrayed.” Or at the very least it’s hard for me to see how the films would have been any different if that were the motive.
(Also by the way, Synder’s too incompetent or apathetic to even instruct Henry Cavill to act differently as Clark Kent and Superman. In fact, Clark Kent hardly exists at all in these films.)
Ugh, I haven’t even gotten to Batman yet.
Fortunately, Batman isn’t as bad as Superman (partly because he’s already ‘darker’ character, and partly because he doesn’t have a whole film focusing on him), but again Snyder tries to push the ‘edginess’ by having Batman being a straight-up psychopathic murderer who brands criminals with his logo, ensuring they’ll be killed in prison (whether that’s an expected result or prompted by Luthor, the fact that Batman keeps doing it regardless is still on him), at least when he doesn’t opt to simply blow up bad guys with the batmobile’s firepower or toss batarangs into their throats. He also freely uses guns while ranting about how pointless his crusade against crime is, and has allowed Wayne Manor to fall into decay, because apparently he no longer cares about his family name or legacy. Oh, and he claims that the chief lesson his parents taught him was “dying in a gutter for no reason at all.” Thank you for that insight in the character who’s life is entirely defined by the legacy of his parents.
Then of course there’s the little fact that Batman decides to straight-up murder Superman in cold blood because he’s afraid of what he might do in the future.
That’s frankly a line you cannot have Batman cross. I’m not completely against Batman killing (though I think you need to have a very good excuse for that), but once he decides to preemptively murder someone because of what might happen later then he’s crossed over from hero or even antihero into straight-up villain territory. And he precedes it by beating, torturing, and taunting Superman while he has him at his mercy.
However dark or rough he may be, Batman cannot be doing this kind of stuff. He should be preparing of course, ready to take out Superman if need be, but cold-blooded, premeditated murder cannot be an option for him, especially against someone who hasn’t done anything wrong (unless you want to count his reckless, myopic incompetence. Justify one character assassination with the other character assassination. There’s quite a bit of that in this series). Paranoid murderer is not the right characterization for Batman.
I kind of feel like that should go without saying.
Also, Alfred should not be allowing Bruce to go through with this. This is an “I’ve locked the Batcave until you come to your senses” moment.
And you can’t say “well, the movie is him learning from his mistake,” because this isn’t the sort of thing you just ‘learn’ from. You can’t excuse this as a difference of philosophy or a conflict of interests. You can’t even excuse it as a momentary loss of control in the face of extreme provocation (e.g. Civil War) because he planned the whole thing. There is no way that Clark and Bruce can be friends or teammates after this, at least not without some serious penance on Bruce’s part.
Oh, and the reason why Superman doesn’t just talk to Batman instead of fighting him – when Superman has no reason to be fighting Batman at all, since as far as he knows he’s in no danger whatsoever from him and his motivation for being there at all is try to convince Batman to help save his mother – is that Snyder thought that they shouldn’t talk in their suits because he found the idea of costumed heroes talking to each other to be silly. Who the hell let this guy anywhere near these characters?
(And I have to point out that two minutes later, Superman trusts this man to save his mother’s life).
Besides all of that, if preemptive murder is a moral option for Batman, why the heck is the Joker still alive in this universe? You mean to say that Superman needs to be put down with extreme prejudice, but we still have to suffer through Jared Leto’s performance? That doesn’t seem remotely fair.
(See, that’s the practical issue with allowing Batman to kill as a matter of course: there becomes no reason for him not to simply execute the Joker or any of his other rogues the next time they meet. Or even hunt them down Punisher style and throw a Batarang through their throats. Once Batman starts killing people, he can’t have a rogues gallery anymore).
Both Batman and Superman in these films seem to have no faith in or motivation for their own missions: they’re just going through the motions because apparently they lack the personality or agency to do anything else. The films spend most of their time deconstructing and subverting them, questioning the very purpose of their ‘heroics’. That is when the movies aren’t tripping over themselves to be as violent, dark, cynical, and dour as possible. And in all that time they neglect to give their characters any goals or values worth examining in the first place.
It is as if the filmmakers have a degree of contempt for the very idea of costumed superheroes.
Now, the excuse being made for all of this is that “Snyder wanted to start off with dark, unimpressive versions of the characters and then payoff with them becoming true heroes in Justice League.” But the problem is that these are core characterization issues. Superman’s lack of humanity, lack of purpose or principles, his alienation, his morose, dour attitude and so on are not things that can be adequately corrected with a bout of character development at the end of a nine hour story line. Because even if you somehow correct all of that at the eleventh hour, he will still have been the character who spent most of his life and most of our time knowing him as an apathetic and ineffectual alien. A Clark Kent who has to learn optimism, care for human life in adulthood after letting his father die and after dying himself is for that very reason an unacceptable version of Clark Kent. A Superman whose first public appearance has at least a five-digit body count cannot ‘grow into’ an icon of hope. Ditto for a Batman who ‘grew out of’ being a paranoid murderer who regularly guns down thugs from an armored vehicle and tried to murder Superman in cold blood (also, this version of Batman is a 20 year veteran, which in itself wrecks the “developing into the classic character” idea: he should be retiring at this point, not ‘growing into’ the role).
Part of characterization is where the character comes from, the history that has shaped him. Even if we try to argue we’re building to the real Superman and Batman, I would argue that the real Superman and Batman cannot legitimately come from these characters. If you want to take them on a journey and have them develop into themselves, you still need to start from someone who is fundamentally the same person. For instance, Superman can learn something of the complexities of life or the unintended consequences of using his powers, but he needs to start from being an essentially decent, hopeful person, not a morose alien consumed with the idea of being an outcast.
Not to mention that having these be the dominant notes for both characters for the vast majority of your grand vision is terrible, terrible idea to begin with. It’s like Luke Skywalker thinking of murdering his own nephew in his sleep or Godzilla running away from a fight; whatever justification or explanation you can come up with for Superman killing people and wondering if humanity is worth saving or Batman resolving on cold-blooded murder as a preemptive measure, the fact that he is doing it at all is the problem.
This is not how you work with established, beloved heroes. You can’t have them acting completely the opposite of their characters, undermining or contradicting them for the bulk of the screen time of three bloated movies only to claim it’s brilliant because the final hour arguably has them growing into something like the people they were supposed to be in the first place (I’d also like to point out that at the start of that third film that will tie everything together and allow the characters to come into their own, one of our protagonists is a 20 year veteran nearing retirement and the other is dead).
And all of that is assuming that Snyder’s cut of Justice League actually does what this argument claims it does. All the above should give a good idea why I’m skeptical of that.
As I’ve said many times, I’m a great fan of working character actors: the kind of professional performers who will never headline a marquee, but who show up again and again to deliver rock-solid performances in whatever role they’re given. Recently I learned that one of the best of that breed has as last gone to his reward.
Yaphet Kotto was one of those actors who seemed to simply melt away into his parts, with a commanding screen presence that made him often riveting to watch (he was in fact directly descended from Cameroon royalty). A prolific figure in movies, television, and the theater (he has close to a hundred credits on IMDb), he could take a stereotypical ‘Black’ role and through sheer charisma and acting power wrestle it into something honest and three-dimensional.
I mostly know him from three roles. The first and most prominent in my mind is as the villainous Kananga in the James Bond film Live and Let Die. The movie itself is a rather mediocre effort in the series, with a lot of things I really like and a lot of things I really don’t, but I always thought Kananga was one of the best bad guys of the whole franchise. His plan (to flood the drug market with free opium, simultaneously creating millions of new addicts and underbidding his competition out of business to create a monopoly) was genuinely clever and one of the few that felt like it might actually work. Kananga himself was a commanding and dangerous figure, effortlessly humiliating Bond for most of the first half of the film with his enormous and varied arsenal of resources (including, for the first and only time in the series, potentially supernatural powers). I want to say that Bond hadn’t been put through the ringer this badly since at least Goldfinger: almost every gambit he tries gets immediately shot down or overturned by Kananga (even simply bribing a waiter for information: one of the funniest scenes in the film, by the way), and he’s pretty much just struggling to stay alive up until at least the two-thirds mark.
Even when Bond eventually manages to begin to strip away his defenses, Kananga remains mostly cool and in charge up until the very end. The times when he does lose his temper, it’s in a controlled, emotionally-honest seeming way that makes him feel all the more dangerous. He’s very much in the ‘equal opposite’ camp to Bond, with a similar blend of cunning, sophistication, and savagery (as opposed to a ‘warped and frustrated’ figure such as Goldfinger), and Mr. Kotto’s performance absolutely sells the character.
Unfortunately, he is also granted one of the stupidest deaths of any Bond villain, which ends a great performance on a sour note.
The second role is as Parker in Alien, one of the two mechanics of the ship (alongside the late Harry Dean Stanton). In that extremely-well-written film, Parker was arguably the most practical minded of the crew. At first he was chiefly concerned with his paycheck and the possibility of a bonus for finding the derelict spacecraft. He was then the one suggesting the simple, straightforward solutions: “Why don’t you freeze him?” “Just kill the thing,” and so on. He’s a blue-collar, rather simple man trying to wrestle some sense into an increasingly out-of-control situation and providing much of the necessary muscle in the hunt for the alien.
There’s a lot that could be said about how well-done this film is, especially in how convincingly it portrays its characters as that rarest of cinematic species, normal people. Mr. Kotto’s effortlessly casual and genuine performance amongst his equally talented co-stars is a key point in selling this.
Looking back on it, I especially recall his jovial, unaffected friendliness toward John Hurt’s Kane during the fateful dinner scene right before everything goes to hell. It’s such a simple, but familiar tone: a man cheerfully supporting and building up his friend / co-worker who has just been through a traumatic, potentially fatal incident, happy that it seems like everything has worked out and showing his affection without outright stating it. Again, something just about everyone’s experienced, but not the kind of thing you usually think about, and Mr. Kotto nails it effortlessly, making the subsequent events all the more shocking and horrifying.
The third role is as Agent Mosely in the action-comedy Midnight Run, starring Robert De Niro as a put-upon bounty hunter trying to bring former mob accountant Charles Grodin across the country for a sentencing hearing. Mosely is the FBI Agent who is also hunting Grodin, hoping to grab him as a witness in his own case. It’s a great little film and very funny, with Mr. Kotto getting many, many laughs as the no-nonsense Fed who continually gets humiliated and out-witted by De Niro (among other things, De Niro swipes his badge to allow him to pretend to be an FBI Agent when needs be, leading to Mosely being repeatedly told – to his increasing fury – that the guy he’s looking for is with “Agent Mosely”). As always, Mr. Kotto lends extra gravitas to the role, both making Mosley remain a credible threat to the protagonist throughout and making the jokes at his expense all the funnier.
Most people today probably know Mr. Kotto from his long-running role as Lieutenant Giardello on Homicide: Life on the Street (which I have yet to see), and he also had guest appearances on both Gunsmoke and Law & Order, putting him in the cast rolls of both of American television’s longest running prime-time dramas, as well as roles on Murder She Wrote and Perry Mason. Other notable roles include supporting turns in the Arnold Schwarzenegger flick The Running Man, and the would-be-finale Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare.
Equally notable are the roles he turned down: he was on a short list of actors to play Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: the Next Generation and was offered the role of Lando Calrissian in The Empire Strikes Back. Both roles he turned down, which he (unsurprisingly) later came to seriously regret.
(Apparently, George Lucas also considered him for Han Solo back when the first film was being cast. Which means that there is an alternate universe where Star Wars featured Robert Englund as Luke Skywalker and Yaphet Kotto as Han Solo).
As I say, Mr. Kotto was one of those actors who could always be relied on to absolutely nail his role with a powerful presence and oceans of raw talent. He was honestly one of my favorite contemporary character actors, someone I was always delighted to see show up. His presence will be missed.
Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May his soul and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.
The number of films coming out that I’m actually considering paying money to see might be counted on one hand. These are mostly because they are continuations of stories I’m already invested in somehow, or because they seem to be the very odd exceptions to the usual rules of trash Hollywood that somehow slipped through the cracks.
Godzilla vs. Kong is one of those, entirely because I’m a massive Godzilla fan.
I’ll be honest: I don’t think it’ll be good (and it’s liable to be the last new film I ever bother to see as a new film), but I do hope that it will at least provide some satisfying kaiju moments. That’s really how I think of these things at this point: a two-and-a-half-hour fan-art slideshow.
In any case, the trailer finally dropped, confirming that this film is in fact still coming out despite the lackluster box office of every previous film in the Legendary ‘Monsterverse’ series (for the record: I liked Godzilla quite a lot, thought King of the Monsters was extremely stupid in unnecessary ways, but at least paid most of the monsters their due, and found Skull Island alternately delightful and annoying).
First thought: must every trailer for every action movie open with an explosion and that ominous hum?
So, Kong’s on a barge in chains. That’s a good note to start on: very fitting for Kong.
Kong is friends with a little girl. Eh, that seems off to me. Kong’s story is ‘beauty and the beast,’ not ‘innocence and the beast’. That’s a very different tone and I don’t care for the change. Even Skull Island got that right with Bored Larson (the ‘innocence’ connection more fits with Gamera than Kong).
The story seems to be the Godzilla has suddenly started attacking people for an unknown reason, casting him as the heavy in this film. I will say, I’m glad that they’re pulling back from the overtly heroic role they had him playing in the previous two films. Godzilla in my mind needs to have that air of danger and wildness to him: he’s noble and can be heroic, but he should never seem safe. The essence of his character is to be the embodiment of things that man cannot control: the unexpected consequences that can’t be shoved back into the box. He is a reminder that mankind is not an absolute ruler of the world, but subject to higher laws that we cannot evade or overrule. So I’m all on board with him actually attacking people this time around. The dialogue implies there’s some larger threat at work that will serve as a common enemy to both Kong and Godzilla, which I’m also onboard with (I remember reading a fan-fiction version of Kong vs. Godzilla many years ago where Gigan was the villain. It’s probably too much to hope for that here, but it’s not impossible I suppose. Though I can’t help thinking Kong wouldn’t last long against him).
As for what actually goes on in the trailer, well, Kong seems to be getting the better of things much more than I like to see (is it me, or do filmmakers have trouble showing balanced fights these days?). The action is way over the top to the point of being ridiculous (Godzilla and Kong both actually stand on a ship and fight? Yeah, that’s not happening). I like Kong making crude weapons for himself, but that shot at the end of Kong leaping at Godzilla and ‘catching’ his ray on the ax…well, one, the ax should melt, and two, all Godzilla has to do is adjust his aim a little bit, so…yikes. Not a good sign.
I really don’t like the music either. Rap (or whatever this is) doesn’t fit kaiju at all in my mind. It’s too American and it’s too undignified. The kaiju are warriors, not thugs (well, a character like Gigan might work with rap), especially Godzilla and Kong. Plus, come on: every action trailer has this kind of music in it. Kong and Godzilla want lush, heavy orchestral scores, or maybe metal guitar riffs, not generic gangster tunes.
My biggest worry going in, however, is that I strongly suspect they’re going to give the fight to Kong on the grounds that he’s the underdog. The issue I have with this is very much the same as in Batman v Superman (well, one of many, many issues I have with that film): strong as the meta-fictional rivalry is, the logic of the characters themselves dictates that the fight can only end one way. But instead of following that out, we give it to the ‘favored’ character, thereby cheapening them both and blatantly showing the writer’s hand.
Yes, Kong won in the original King Kong vs. Godzilla. But the thing with that is that Godzilla was still a pretty new character at that point and a solid villain, while Kong was a well-established and fairly beloved figure. The Godzilla ‘rules’ hadn’t been quite worked out yet, and even then it was a close fight that ended on an ambiguous note. That’s not the case anymore: Godzilla is at least as well-established as Kong, and his ‘rules’ have become pretty well set. It’s similar to the difference between Fleischer Superman and modern Superman. And those rules dictate that he should win any fight with Kong hands down.
(Another reason I like Freddy vs. Jason: the writers followed through on this and gave the fight – as far as it went – to the logical winner, even though he was the less prestigious character).
But that still remains to be seen. All signs seem to point to the filmmakers giving it to Kong, but maybe they’ll surprise me.
In any case, I’ll be seeing it, but I’m not recommending it to anyone not already interested. It looks like a big, stupid blockbuster employing characters I love, and my hope is that they at least pay them their due respects.
Last night I watched The Shining for the first time with my family. Though obviously I’ve been familiar with it for a long time and I’ve seen many clips of it (which, unfortunately, meant that I kind of went in knowing more or less what was going to happen).
Quick take: it’s pretty good. I can’t say I thought it was amazing, certainly not one of my top horror films, but it’s pretty good.
The best part: definitely the camera work and set decoration. I haven’t seen a camera move as much and in the way this one does in a long time; maybe ever. Especially the way it’ll hang over the character’s shoulders, following them from room to room as though something’s watching them. The suspense scenes are very well set up as well, like when Wendy is dragging Jack to the storeroom, and we can see he’s beginning to wake up as she fumbles with the doorknob. And the Overlook Hotel is a masterpiece of design. It looks very much like a real hotel, but something about the way it’s shot and the ambiance conveys a strong sense of isolation, of that particular, specific feeling of being alone in a place meant for crowds.
The performances are great all around. Danny Lloyd, who plays little Danny is a stand-out in the ranks of creepy children in horror films. Shelly Duvall has to do a lot of the heavy lifting, and props to her for pulling off the terrified wife role so effectively. I also really liked Scatman Cruthers as the kindly chef who shares Danny’s gift and tries his best to help them (his exit was kind of annoying, though: all that work and time to get him there, and he’s just bumped out of the movie). The smaller roles were excellently cast as well: particularly Barry Nelson as the hotel owner, trying to put the best possible spin on “one of your predecessors went nuts and murdered his family” so as not to scare off a potential employee, and Joe Turkel as Lloyd the bartender, who manages to be one of the most unsettling things in the hotel with nothing but a piercing smile (who was also Dr. Tyrell from Blade Runner: dang, that’s a resume right there).
(There is one big exception to the cast, which we will get to. Though you’ve probably already notice who I’ve left out)
The scares were nicely done for the most part. I thought some of them dragged on for too long (the nude woman in the bath for instance could have stood to have been tightened up a bit: come on, movie, we know something’s going to happen here). And I really liked the creeping sense of uncertainty of just what the hotel wants and what really is happening here. That famous final shot, coupled with some earlier lines, leaves us feeling we’ve touched the edge of a world of rules that we don’t understand, which is what many good horror films aim to achieve (definite Lovecraft influence there, as he was the master of this effect).
Speaking of influences, I saw quite a bit of DNA from Robert Wise’s The Haunting, especially the creative camera work and the specific scare of having a crucial door which had previously been locked suddenly be found open. Actually, upon reflection, the film is more or less the same story as The Haunting, only with a family and ax-murder angle and more heavy-handed manifestations. This is not a bad thing at all; most stories are variations on older ones. Just so long as you do something creative or interesting with it, and I’d say this one does.
The biggest liability to the film is definitely Jack Nicholson. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a great actor and he’s extremely entertaining here. But that’s kind of the problem; he’s more entertaining than scary. When he goes nuts, I couldn’t help laughing because it’s Jack Nicholson gnawing at the scenery like a sugar addict set loose in Willy Wonka’s factory, bugging his eyes, arching those famous eyebrows of his, and twisting his face like rubber. Take the scene where he’s talking to his son (a genuinely uncomfortable scene, admittedly). When he says, “I would never hurt you,” I just laughed because he says it in the most insane, non-reassuring way imaginable. It wouldn’t have been out of place in a cartoon.
That, and he’s too obviously crazy from the get go. If I’m supposed to be disturbed and shocked by a normal family man dissolving into an axe-wielding psychopath, he can’t start off looking like an axe-wielding psychopath. Nicholson’s many things, but he’s not the everyman. Intentional or not, he comes across like a nutjob from almost the moment we meet him (about a half-hour in I commented “this is basically ‘I Married the Joker’”).
I also didn’t care much for the roller-coaster of scares in the climax, with Wendy running around the hotel and encountering different ghosts. Throwing weird stuff at her like a guy in a bear costume giving a blow-job to a butler feels way too desperate and…well, just random. Like they collected a lot of different weird ideas and just pulled a few out of the hat. Not like, say, the Shape’s surreal tableau of jack-o-lanterns, a tombstone, and the body of one of its victims at the end of Halloween, which was atmospheric as hell while tying in with the opening and giving disturbing hints at the inner workings of its mind. This just feels like they were trying to be shocking for shock’s sake.
Actually, that’s another problem; the manifestations throughout the film are too random. They actually remind me of the scares in House on Haunted Hill: that sense of just throwing anything at the screen in the hopes of getting a reaction. They seem to me to lack any kind of thematic through line, or to have any real depth to them. They could have had with a few small tweaks, but they don’t (I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know how much this applies there as well). Like, the bear-costume bit could have been ten times as effective if, say, Danny had carried a teddy bear around with him or been particularly attached to such a toy. That would have linked it to the rest of the story, would have been a scare with some real bite to it, instead of just a “what the heck?” moment. Likewise the woman in the bath would have worked better if we’d established that Jack and his wife were no longer being intimate (playing on the idea of isolation and confinement), but nothing suggested that to me. Wendy is warm and affectionate to Jack, if a bit of a frumpy nag, and the friction comes primarily from his end.
The best scares are simply the sense of isolation and cold created by the visual style: the crushing sense of loneliness, of boredom, of confinement. The film excels at this, and I think it’s the best thing about it.
Overall, I’d call The Shining a good horror movie, but not a great one. The directing and acting are exemplary, it’s amazingly atmospheric, and it’s highly entertaining, but a lot of the scares are pretty shallow upon reflection and it’s handicapped by a tremendous miscasting in the lead role. But whatever its flaws, it’s definitely one that needs to be seen by anyone who enjoys horror films or wants to understand the horror genre.
Never going to be a favorite, but clearly canon status.
This is a big one, and a long time coming. Sir Sean Connery, the definitive James Bond and elder statesman actor for a generation has gone to his reward at the age of 90.
Sir Sean was an interesting figure on screen: one of the old school of actors who came from a working class background, serving as a truck driver and labourer among other things (his father was a factory hand and his brother was plasterer), though he also dabbled in bodybuilding and modeling. When he turned to acting (choosing it over a football career), he had a fair number of roles in low-budget or made-for-TV movies (which were just getting started at the time), as well as a lead role in Walt Disney’s Darby O’Gill and the Little People. It was this film, of all things, that brought him to the attention of Cubby Broccoli when he was casting an adaptation of Dr. No.
Ian Flemming wasn’t crazy about the rough Scotsman at first. Bond is an aristocrat, and Sir Sean had no knowledge whatsoever of the high-class, sophisticated world that Bond was supposed to inhabit. He had to have a crash course in fine wines, tailored clothes, and all the rest of it. It paid off, and Sir Sean conveyed the absolute perfect combination of sophistication and brutality that has come to define Bond: a man you can absolutely believe would be equally at home trading witty barbs in a high class casino and trouncing thugs in the alley behind it. Flemming warmed up to Sir Sean’s portrayal so much that he re-wrote Bond’s backstory to make him Scottish.
Sir Sean attempted to leave the role more than once, being tired of it and especially the enormous publicity that went with it, as well as not wanting to be typecast. After finally escaping the franchise, he began to reinvent himself as a powerhouse actor, serving under Alfred Hitchcock in Marnie and John Houston in The Man Who Would Be King (acting opposite the equally great Michael Caine in an adaptation of a Rudyard Kipling story, and frankly those four names alone tell you it’s going to be great), being one of a dozen stars participating in Murder on the Orient Express, and playing the Arab chief Raisull in The Wind and the Lion.
I remember him mostly, from my own childhood, as one of the great elder statesmen actors: as Indiana Jones’ father in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, as Draco the dragon in Dragonheart, defecting Soviet sub captain Ramius in The Hunt for Red October, and as the aging British secret agent John Mason (who is basically Bond in all but name) in The Rock. He won the Academy Award for The Untouchables, back when that still actually meant something. In any case, it was only a confirmation of what everyone already knew: Sir Sean was one of the top actors of his generation, with an unforgettable voice and manner (he’s one of the most imitated actors in history). He could be incredibly tender or incredible brutal, often in the same film. Or he could become a grumpy old professor, or a reclusive writer. Whatever role demanded character, strength, and integrity.
That, I think, is what came across most on screen: Sir Sean was a man. When he was tender and romantic, or even when he was doddering and comic, he always had that edge of iron masculinity that made him riveting to watch.
By all accounts he was a consummate gentleman on set and well-liked by his peers. Some of my own favorite stories about him tell of how he would go out of his way to look after the other actors, such as when he took it upon himself to check on Japanese actress Mie Hama (who, like him, came from a working class background and was blindsided by the experience of making a Bond film) every day they were shooting together on You Only Live Twice to make sure she was bearing it up.
His final role was in the unfortunately abysmal League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a film that, like the Mario Brothers movie, I have a soft spot for despite its horrible quality. It’s a film marked by a collection of very talented actors doing their best with awful script. That said, Sir Sean’s performance as an aging Allan Quatermain showcases all his usual power and skill, and his final words are strikingly appropriate epitaph upon his illustrious career:
Eternal rest grant unto him, o Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May his soul, and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, Rest in Peace
With the unnecessary and unwanted remake becoming the ‘who the heck thought this was a good idea?’ film of the season (previously occupied by such luminary pictures as Birds of Prey and The Rise of Skywalker), I decided to revisit the original Mulan, which I had not seen in many, many years.
Mulan came near the tail end of the Disney Renaissance of the 90s, about the time the formula was beginning to wear thin and the films were going into decline. I may attempt a full recap of the Disney canon someday and then it will be time to tackle its place in the series, but for now let’s just consider it by itself as a film.
In Medieval China the Huns (led by the intimidating Shan Yu) have invaded over the Great Wall. In response the Emperor sends out his imperial troops to stop them and orders up conscription; one man from every family to supplement the regular army.
We then meet Mulan, the intelligent, tomboyish daughter of a crippled war veteran. When the call for conscription comes out, her father sets aside his crutch and steps forward, though its plain his fighting days are behind him. Mulan, who loves her father dearly, can see that if he goes to war, he will certainly die. She first tries to talk him out of it, which prompts him to anger, then resolves on the desperate course of disguising herself as a boy and taking his place.
Her ancestral spirits, concerned of the impact this might have on the family, dispatch the demoted ex-guardian Mushu to fetch her back (they try to send the ‘stone dragon,’ but Mushu breaks it. We’ll not try to work that one out). Mushu, however, hits on the idea that he can regain his own lost status if he can make Mulan a war hero and so decides to help her succeed in the army instead.
At the camp, Mulan receives a crash course in the male mode of life and begins training under the young captain Shang, son of the Imperial General. At first she struggles just to keep up with her fellow soldiers (themselves pretty unimpressive), but through perseverance, hard work, and cleverness she and her comrades grow into competent soldiers. Before long she and her ragtag unit find themselves marching into battle against a vastly superior foe.
Watching Mulan, I can see why it’s often considered a rather forgettable, middling entry in the Disney canon. It’s uneven in its tone and the Disney Renaissance formula elements (soulful hero who feels ‘different’ and yearns for something more, cute sidekicks, Broadway-style songs etc.) are sometimes jarringly out of place. Yet, at the same time, I was struck by how much better it is than most of the films being made today. It’s a really good story, for one thing, and the characters, especially Mulan herself, are written with a degree of skill and nuance. It’s, well, a good movie. Not a great movie by any stretch, but a pretty good one.
In particular, the film takes a fairly intelligent approach to Mulan’s situation. She doesn’t put on her armor and immediately become a badass, or find her only obstacle is prejudice or some such nonsense. She runs into many of the problems you would logically expect someone in her situation to encounter. When she first starts her masquerade, she gets tripped up by merely talking to the other soldiers, since she has absolutely no idea how men relate to each other (Mushu’s advice doesn’t help). This causes her to make several bad first impressions, though amusingly enough, it also helps her masquerade a bit, as her apparent incompetence makes it easier for the royal official to believe that her father “doesn’t talk about me much”.
Then when training begins, she’s the most hopeless of the largely hopeless unit, struggling even to master basic tests. But she sticks with it, works hard, and starts finding ways to work in her new environment. Her inventiveness (established in her very first scene) allows her to figure out a particular challenge Shang has set them, and she and her fellow soldiers all grow over the course of training. They not only master the difficult tasks set them, but develop comradery with each other. The soldiers, Mulan included, earn one another’s respect through shared hardship and developing competence.
One thing I particularly like is that she actually is given a chance to go home part way through training. Rather than leaping at the chance, however, she stays and gives the arrow challenge one more shot. This is both very admirable of her and fits perfectly with what’s been established without having to make it explicit. Going home would mean bringing shame on her family and her father for having sent a worthless reject to defend the Emperor. It isn’t just a matter of helping her dad dodge the draft; the family name and honor is at stake. She’s taken it upon herself, and so she has to keep trying to uphold it.
Which is another thing that this film does well; it has the sense to understand that Mulan’s story is not only about her. Her family and her country are also on the line. Her becoming a soldier, even if she’s the best soldier of her unit, doesn’t ultimately mean anything unless she can preserve them.
Of course, the film also makes obligatory gestures toward modern individualism, with Mulan wanting to be ‘who I am inside’ and all that. Though to its credit, when she wrestles with the question of whether that was her real motive, she’s clearly ashamed by the idea of its being so (more credit to the film in giving her such mixed motives in the first place).
In short, Mulan actually takes super-personal matters of honor, familial duty, and feudal obligation seriously and treats them as if they had legitimate claims rather than being mere obstacles to personal development.
On that note, despite its surface-level feminism the story is actually remarkably patriarchal (and I have to clarify, I think that’s a good thing). The whole plot is centered around protecting the Emperor (more on him in a minute), which is reflected in miniature with Mulan trying to save her father.
Her father is a thoroughly admirable character; a former war hero and a kindly man who loves his daughter deeply. After her disastrous meeting with the matchmaker, he doesn’t rebuke her for screwing up but comforts her by likening her to a flower that hasn’t bloomed yet. In his one moment of anger with her (telling her to “know your place”) he’s actually shown to be fundamentally correct. She’s trying to convince him not to go to war, saying there are plenty of young men to fight and he isn’t necessary. He answers, essentially, that it isn’t about him, and that honor – doing what is right – is worth dying for. Which, as noted, pretty much drives everything she does from then on.
Basically, she was right that he can’t go to war – since he’s a cripple and wouldn’t survive in a battle – but she was wrong about what to do about it, which prompts her to take a desperate and unexpected solution to save him.
(There is the fact that he may have just been sent home upon failing training, which arguably is a plot hole. However, I don’t think that actually detracts from the story: the fact that he is a war hero – Shang is impressed upon finding out who ‘Ping’ is related to – means that he probably would have been kept on out of respect if nothing else. And if he were sent home, that would have also brought shame on the family, assuming that he accepted the dismissal, which it’s reasonable to think he wouldn’t have, so it would have been a disaster nonetheless. And finally, we can reasonably assume that, in any case, Mulan wouldn’t have thought of that. So, even if she didn’t strictly have to go, she would have believed she did and once committed to the scheme she would have to see it through to the end).
Her filial devotion to her father is mirrored by China’s devotion to the Emperor. The new troops who are called up are specifically called to serve the Emperor. When they find the Imperial Army destroyed, Shang tells his troops that they’re “the only hope for the Emperor now.” Note the specificity: not China, but the Emperor. Since, of course, he embodies China.
This all gives us a wonderfully positive image of monarchy. The Emperor answers the filial devotion of his people with a paternal love and care for them (at one point he calls them “my children”). Upon learning of the invasion, orders his armies away from his palace to defend the outlying provinces. When Shang meets him after the battle, the Emperor’s first move is to condole with him on the death of his father. Then when Shan Yu has him captured and at sword point, he still calmly and resolutely refuses to bow to the Hun, willing to accept death rather than dishonor his people.
In all this the Emperor is convincingly portrayed as the father and embodiment of his nation, and as a man who takes this role very seriously. He wields absolute authority but tempered with the personal touch of a man relating to other men.
As for Mulan herself, I touched on it a bit, but she’s a likable heroine; her evident courage, devotion, and willingness to persevere make her admirable, while her initial clumsiness and warm-heartedness make her endearing. She’s a bit of a common trop – the smart, independent woman chafing in a traditional society that we’ve seen a hundred times – but fortunately the aforementioned piety she shows, as well as her efforts to fit in the military while still having a distinctly feminine personality peeking through the cracks is more than enough to keep her interesting.
Her heroics are generally excellent. Again, the film is smart enough to know that she cannot hope to match her male allies or enemies in strength and so she doesn’t try. Instead she employs her grace, agility, and cleverness to get around their advantages, as when she uses their one remaining cannon to start an avalanche to take out the entire Hun army, or when she uses her fan (a distinctly feminine article) in her showdown with Shan Yu. But I love that, though she’s fighting in unorthodox way, she is still putting herself on the line for the sake of her comrades and the mission. Her trick with the cannon requires her to get right up to the charging hoard, resulting in her being wounded. In the climax there’s a moment where she has a chance to join her friends and the Emperor, but chooses to forego it to prevent Shan Yu from following them, leaving her and Shang trapped with an extremely angry Hun. The film does an excellent job of showing that in all her schemes and gambits, the mission and her friends always come first for her. This, much more than simply beating the bad guys, is what makes her a worthy heroine.
I also like how she keeps her feminine habits and outlook throughout the film. She’s nearly unmasked at one point because she’s used to regular baths and tries to sneak one in the local watering hole (“There are a couple of things I know they’re bound to notice!” Mushu laments as her new buddies rush to join her). In this scene there’s also a small detail where, when one of her friends tries to shake hands, she instinctively offers hers as though presenting it to be kissed.
It’s clever too that at no point does Mulan actually like being in the army. She makes friends and is able to pull her weight, but she’s clearly feeling awkward and out of place the whole time. Kudos to the animators for making her armor look bulky and ill-fitting throughout, visually cluing us to her discomfort. Even in her most heroic moments, the animators are sure to show that she is frightened, and she does feel out of her depth (I love the bit where she throws her shoe at Shan Yu to focus his attention on her and then fumbles to put it back on so she can run away from him). This carries on to the very end, where even in her final gambit she’s quietly frantic as she tries to get out of the way of the results (“getofftheroofgetofftheroofgetofftheroof…”).
Also, not all of her ‘quirks’ are positive. At the start of the film she’s shown to be kind of lazy: oversleeping, trying to cheat on her test, and getting her dog to do her chores for her. This habit realistically come back to bite her in the army and she has to learn to temper her natural inclinations with discipline and hard work.
Then there are her interactions with Shang, where, as intimidating and stern as he is to her, she still takes the time to reach out to him emotionally when she sees he is down, trying to build him up and support him (that and she can’t help staring when he takes his shirt off and reveals his chiseled physique).
I also have to give the film credit for the logic of how she’s eventually discovered (she’s wounded in battle) and what happens next; Shang actually does seem about ready to execute her, and his (stated) reasons for not doing so make perfect sense. His reaction on seeing her again when she comes to try to warn them are likewise pretty well done. He’s surprised, but he isn’t really angry with her; he just wants her to go away.
Shang himself is a decent character; a tough, capable, masculine hero with his own story arc. He’s established right away as, like Mulan, being very close to his father and wanting to live up to his expectations and uphold the family honor (his introduction also lets us see the good-humored man beneath the commander as he stammers over his thanks for the promotion before collecting himself). We get to see a fair amount of his struggles as well; saddled with green, uncouth soldiers – not to mention an obnoxious bureaucrat who is constantly criticizing him – and trying to whip them into shape in order to live up to the responsibility entrusted to him (though I will say one minor flaw is that he seems to throw away at least one sword too many over the course of the film).
I appreciate that, though Mulan is of course the star, Shang is allowed to be a dashing and heroic figure in his own right. Among other things he rallies his pitiful unit to continue their mission even after finding the main Imperial Army has been wiped out (including his father), ready to fight out the war to the bitter end. He’s also the one who actually saves the Emperor and though he loses to Shan Yu in a one-on-one fight, he does so in a way that shows him be an impressive combatant in his own right (that is, it’s clear he’s simply out-classed rather than unskilled). And when he and Mulan end up facing the Hun commander alone, his first move is to try to protect her and focus Yu’s attention on himself.
Their romance actually works a lot better than I remember it. Her glimpses into his interior life and the compassion she shows him form a believable basis for an attachment. His interactions with her (such as the way he calls for her to come back during the mountain fight) hint that has an idea there’s something different about this particular soldier, though he can’t quite put his finger on it, mirroring how she sees past his commander persona to the human being underneath.
Kudos again to the animators for his facial expressions after she’s unmasked; in both the scene where he considers executing her and when they meet again in the city they manage to show that a lot more is going on inside him than his dialogue would indicate (again, his surprised and not-unpleased look when he first sees her in the latter scene is particularly good).
Then there’s the villain. Shan Yu’s an interesting entry in the stable of Disney bad guys, in that honestly he could just as easily have stepped out of an anime or even a live-action film. There’s almost nothing ‘cartoony’ about him. He’s a big, hulking monster at the head of a massive army, seemingly looking to conquer China more for the satisfaction of beating the Emperor than for any desire for political power or wealth. He gets a striking introduction, burning the Chinese flag and declaring his delight at the prospect of facing the whole Middle Kingdom. Later he tells two captured scouts to “tell the Emperor to send his strongest armies. I’m ready for him!” He then has one of the scouts killed just because.
Basically, he’s a barbarian through and through, looking for nothing but to prove himself in battle by smashing the best the civilized world can throw at him. This makes him a good foil to Mulan, Shang, and the Emperor, who all are motivated by filial piety and devotion to duty. Mulan fears that she might be only fighting to prove something to herself; Shan Yu actually is fighting for just such a reason, only he never doubts that he’ll succeed. He relies largely on overwhelming strength, while Mulan uses cunning and finesse to get around it.
On that note, I have to say the scene of the Mongol hoard coming over the mountain is nothing short of breathtaking, particularly paired with the awesome music.
The film really does allow itself to be a war movie, even if a Disneyfied one. The heroes kill people, characters die in battle, and at one point the Huns even massacre a village complete with explicitly killing children (off-screen of course, but it’s still pretty grim. By the way, note how Shan Yu’s sarcastic desire to return the little girl’s doll mirrors and inverts the way Mulan intervenes on behalf of another little girl in the opening musical number by returning her doll from some bullies).
So, overall, the film’s pretty good. My main criticism of it is definitely Mushu. Now, Eddie Murphy is a great comedic talent, and he does a fine job with the character. I laughed quite a bit at his antics. The trouble is that Mushu is simultaneously crucial to the story at several points (including being instrumental in killing the villain) and the rest of the time he’s almost entirely disconnected from it. No one except Mulan seems to see or hear him even when they really, really should, save again for one or two specific scenes. He never interacts with any of the other characters (except in disguise), and his dialogue and behavior are tonally distinct from the rest of the story.
Contrast this with the genie from Aladdin, who was explicitly an otherworldly being in service to Aladdin, and hence could be seen or unseen as he liked and would be expected to stand out from the rest of the film (also the Genie was central to the plot). Mushu is more or less just along for the ride, except for when he suddenly intrudes on the story to get it out of a difficulty. You could tell exactly the same story without him and nothing would change except for a few specific incidents (e.g. the reason for their being called up to the front).
Also, Mushu never really completes his character arc. He admits to his selfish motives, but he never has to walk them back or offer to sacrifice them for the greater good. He does offer to go back home with Mulan to take his punishment, but at that point they have pretty much no other options (again, contrast the genie offering to let Aladdin use his final wish to become a prince again, even though his motives were much less questionable than Mushu’s ).
Now, I like the idea of a family guardian as the sidekick character, but they needed to integrate him into the story better. You could, for instance, make it explicit that only members of Mulan’s family can see or hear him unless he allows himself to be seen. As it is, his presence feels very forced, almost as though there’s a whole separate film going on with him and the cricket that only occasionally crosses over with the rest of the story through Mulan.
On the other hand, Mulan’s three soldier buddies fit in much better as comic relief, and I’m glad that they were allowed to actually be competent soldiers and put their training to good use when it came to the point. I also liked her grandmother (“Woo! Sign me up for the next war!”), but she has very little screen time.
Meanwhile, the songs are…okay. There aren’t very many of them for a Disney film (four I think), and with only one exception (I’ll Make a Man Out of You) I found them to be pretty forgettable. The big Oscar-bait song Reflection in particular was thoroughly blah, with the lyrics amounting to simply a flat reiteration of the film’s most tiresome and commonplace themes. Also, the movie just sort of stops being a musical about the start of the third act, apart from a very brief reprise. While there’s not a lot of places they could reasonably have fit a song in after that (you really can’t have characters singing on a battlefield, or at least, you’d have to really, really work at it), it once again creates a sense of disconnection, as if the movie is struggling to make its story fit into the Disney formula.
That, I think, is what it comes down to; that Mulan has a very good, classical story at its core, with big, interesting ideas of familial and national piety, honor, and duty. But the filmmakers feel they have to check off certain boxes; they have to include some stuff about personal identity (“Who I am inside”), they have to include some boilerplate feminism, and they have to have cute sidekicks and songs.
Some of these they manage integrate better than others, but they all feel as though the writers had to fit them in rather than being organic parts of the story.
These are flaws, and they detract from the film, but they don’t derail it. As I say, the good parts of the film are very good, and the bad really aren’t awful, just kind of annoying. Overall, I’d call Mulan a worthwhile movie; a very good core story with uneven execution that amounts to a generally charming experience.
Most people probably don’t recognize the name John Saxon, but I guarantee you know some of his films. Saxon was one of those reliable character actors who throve in the world of B-pictures, with nearly 200 film and TV credits to his name in a career spanning from the 1950s (when he played supporting roles to likes of James Stewart, Audrey Hepburn, and Debbie Reynolds) to the 2010s. He’s best known for his roles as Nancy Thompson’s skeptical police chief father in the first and third Nightmare on Elm Street films (he then played himself in the meta-horror New Nightmare) and as the gambling addict Roper in the Bruce Lee classic Enter the Dragon (John Saxon was a skilled martial artist in his own right).
He also had roles in the horror classic Black Christmas and the action-horror cult-classic From Dusk Till Dawn, plus appearances on just about every notable TV show of the 70s and 80s. Fans of MST3k, meanwhile, will remember Saxon from the classic episode Mitchell, where he played the slimy villain of the B-plot opposite Joe Don Baker’s titular detective (though the cut of the film used on the show inexplicably left out the resolution of his plot line, causing Joel to wonder “Wasn’t John Saxon in this movie?”).
Mr. Saxon never rose high in the film industry, but he was a reliable, professional, hard-working actor who was always a welcome presence in his many, many films. I always have a fondness for that kind of working character actor: the ones who will never headline a blockbuster, but who simply show up, do their job well, and leave the audience glad for their company.
Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon him. May his soul, and the soul of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.