We Need to Talk About Hopper

I guess it’s too late for a mustache intervention…

I was a Stranger Things agnostic until earlier this year, when I finally sat down and watched Seasons 1 and 2 in just enough time to watch Season 3 right when it came out. The first season alone earned me as a fan for at least one more season. Joyce Byers’ character was just so compelling: desperately trying to claw her way into a mystery to save her son when everyone else, with the best of intentions, essentially gaslit her (unintentional gaslighting probably doesn’t count as gaslighting, but essentially) into questioning all of her experiences. Even as a viewer of the show, part of me wanted her to believe it was all in her head just so she wouldn’t have to keep struggling against an unsolvable mystery about a parallel dimension that took her child: the horror and impenetrability of it–knowing that Will was out there but so beyond anyone’s help due to the paranormal–almost seemed worse than just losing Will to a fall in the quarry. That drama was magnificently crafted.

We haven’t had anything quite like that in Seasons 2 or 3. At no point has anyone been quite as powerless, isolated, and afraid as in Season 1, which makes sense: the time it took for the various characters in Season 1 to come across one sliver of the situation, find someone they could trust to help find more, and then finally meet all the other groups and put all the pieces together was a central tension until the last couple episodes. Now, however, they have those relationships established, they trust each other, and it just feels contrived when, for often banal reasons, they don’t use the network of other characters in the know when more Upside Down stuff happens. We’ve transitioned from horror/thriller to adventure/thriller.

As the actual plot has become slightly less compelling, the characters have to step up and carry more of the burden of hooking the audience. We’re invested in their relationships, their goals, their defeats, and their triumphs. And that brings us to Hopper and Joyce.

Or “Jopper,” for those who believe in syllabic economy.

It’s not just that this looks a lot darker than it did when it was hinted at in the previous seasons because Hopper is emotionally abusive from the moment she agrees to go on a date with him, it’s that after the first couple episodes these two characters suddenly have very little going on outside the plot and the “will they, won’t they?” that drags on way too long.

In the first act of the season, Joyce is getting ready to move out of Hawkins (though we learn this by being told, not by seeing it, which is lame), and Hopper doesn’t want that for apparently selfish reasons. Hopper also has issues with El growing up and her relationship with Mike. So Hopper has a hard time accepting change, but everything in his life is changing right now.

And then he gets beat up by a Russian Terminator lookalike and we’re off to the races. Hopper spends this season as the cocky, angry, shouty guy who tries to control everyone around him and…that just works? Hopper gets basically everything he wants by being controlling and shouty. Mike backs off of El. Joyce agrees to date him. Alexei starts cooperating. He even straight-up defeats all the young, fit Russian hitmen, including the aforementioned Terminator lookalike, through sheer hand-to-hand prowess despite being one overweight, alcoholic single dad a couple decades past his prime.

It’s probably all the capitalism he eats.

That just encapsulates the problems of Hopper’s character this season: he spends episode after episode ramming fists–metaphorical or literal–into his problems, and is never confronted with any negative consequences of that approach which would force him to grow as a character. This is even weirder because he already had that arc in a different context in Season 2: he was controlling and manipulative of El since the government was still looking for her, but there his angry outbursts, his failure to apologize, his willingness to lie and get physical to maintain control at all times ended up blowing up when El ran away entirely. He was forced to apologize, and when she returned, he was more transparent and less controlling.

Not so in Season 3. Even as the script indicates consequences to Hopper’s actions, he never faces them, so he can’t ever grow. He lies to Mike and then threatens him to stay away from El, which causes all kinds of problems for the kids, but Hopper is just happy as a clam when he comes home from being stood up by Joyce to find it is Maxine, not Mike, in El’s room tonight. The mayor of Hawkins, played by the Dread Pirate Roberts, threatens to reveal all kinds of things about Hopper if Hopper tries to blackmail him for information on the Russians, but then when Hopper goes straight to violence and torture, and despite every indication of Westley’s ability to take some action against him…nothing really happens. Whatever the Robin Hood with the English accent did to help the Russians find Hopper (he said something about having the state police all looking for him or something), none of it worked, or even appears on screen: he had to phone it in himself when Hopper waltzed into the 4th of July bash. And speaking of the Russians, even though Hopper was completely outclassed by the Terminator in their first encounter in the abandoned lab, the second in the farmhouse was maybe a draw, and only defeated him in the fun house due to the hall of mirrors, in their final fight he just out-fights him and throws him into the spinning machine of ridiculous death.

But then (VERY SERIOUS SPOILERS, LIKE, THE NEVERENDING STORY SHOULD HAVE A CLEAR CONNECTION TO PLANCK’S CONSTANT TO YOU BEFORE YOU CONTINUE) Hopper dies,* and so there was some lip service of him reconciling with Mike. It was another one-sided conversation where Mike didn’t even say anything, he just nods. He more or less says goodbye to El, rehashing the second season’s themes because Hopper and El have almost no interaction in this season: he is actively dismissive when Joyce suggests they should even be worried about the kids. And then there was the Captain America-esque date scheduled with Joyce before the mission is finished.

I thought this was super fun and I have been singing it ever since, but it also ended all the stakes that had been built up. It was ten or fifteen minutes before there was any tension again. Not exactly what you want for your finale episode.

That brings me to Joyce. Joyce didn’t even have the setup of a character arc this season, except “will she date Hopper?” And lest my sarcasm be poorly detected in text, that’s not a character arc. A character arc is where a character overcomes a flaw or other internal impediment and grows. A good character arc differentiates between what a character consciously wants and subconsciously needs. The latter often includes a revelation that her worldview or approach is incomplete and needs broadening, thus allowing her to see that what she originally wanted was never the answer to what she needed in the first place. Think of Marty McFly in the Back to the Future trilogy: he wanted to be tough, to never back down from a fight, to not be a chicken like his dad. That led to him being goaded into bad spots time and time again, until he finally let go of his pride, which ended up saving him from a terrible car accident at the end of the films.

So what is set up for Joyce in this season? We see her re-enacting dinner with Bob. Hopper reveals (though it is never really brought up again) that she is also preparing to move away from Hawkins. She wants to figure out the mystery of the failing magnets. At the end of the season, she has figured out the mystery and leaves Hawkins, because the last person that could tie her there, Hopper, is gone. And she adopts El. I’m not sure if there’s really any character growth there at all. She does go from not recognizing her feelings for Hopper to recognizing them, so there’s that. At the same time, it’s not clear that her feelings are anything more than the sexual tension that Maurice identifies: they have little in common except that shared trauma, and outside of physical security, it’s unclear that Hopper has ever really supported or been there for Joyce in any way.

The Duffer brothers have been hinting at Jopper for two seasons, and this is what we get? I understand that they wanted Hopper’s death* to hit hard, but this is all they could think to make that happen? The angry guy who just shouts or punches until he gets his way and the trauma victim who is attracted to him despite the fact they’ve never emotionally connected? Meanwhile he has a daughter that stepped into his lost daughter’s place and they went through a serious test of their boundaries last season but grew a lot through it and now there are new boundary challenges going on, but instead of building that up even more to be the relationship that pulls at our heartstrings when he dies, the Duffer brothers ignored that entire relationship, instead “solving” Hopper’s issues with El and Mike by shouting and threats in one episode to focus on the shallow sexual tension that is Jopper, and filled that with more shouting and threats, until Joyce finally says yes to a date.

Of all the ways to send off Hopper, or to finally deliver on Jopper, this was a pretty clumsy way to go. This doesn’t feel like Season 1 anymore, with all the tight characterizations and straightforward, powerful themes. Now everything is murky, and the electricity just isn’t there. It’s almost like we’re in…

the Upside Down!

(*) Yeah, yeah, I know “the American.” I think that’s more likely to be Brenner, personally.

CIP Ep. 2: Carefully Avoiding Controversy

Stubbazubba & Chamomile proudly present the Critical Insignificance Podcast, Episode 2, attack of the new age music, in which we carefully avoid a few controversies that are simply too significant for this podcast. More importantly, we plug a little-known but much-loved RTS game with a unique twist called Majesty (see Cham’s prior heads-up on the Steam sale), and Cham briefly reviews Gone Home.

We also lay out how GMs can engineer better pick-up games online, which should be a boon to anyone running a play-by-post, play-by-email, or virtual tabletop a la roll20.net game. The tl;dr version is:

It's not what you think.

It’s not what you think.

I’m going to leave this a little ambiguous, because 1) who ever understands Bane perfectly the first time? And 2) because you should listen to the podcast, though I will say this discussion starts at 14:55.

Finally, we talk about what’s going on with the D&D movie rights; Hasbro and Sweetpea Entertainment (the studio behind this, this, and this) have concluded the trial over the future of the rights, and…well we’re still waiting for either a last-minute settlement or a decision from the judge, but either way, something is going to happen on that front. We talk about why that is and what it means for D&D fans in the near future.

Listen here:

Or download.

Like the show? Please Like and Subscribe! We love positive feedback! Have some criticism? Let us know, too. Criticism is essential to this getting better, tell us what’s not doing it for you.

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Frozen’s Whole Less Than the Sum of Its Parts

So, this happened.

I realize this is a little outside of my normal genre, but I found this worthy of talking about anyway, and I wanted to do it while both 1) it’s still a hot topic, and 2) I actually have the time to do so (Man of Something Part II should be coming along, as well). So here it goes:

People are calling Disney’s Frozen the best thing to come out of the studio since the Disney Renaissance of the ’90s. That is seriously high praise, because I thought Tangled was pretty awesome, but I’m not here to compare. I’m just here to analyze.

Well, first, let’s summarize. SPOILER WARNING for those of you who intend to see it, stop now, the Internet will not collapse before you get the chance to come back and read this later.

This computer-animated musical is about fun-loving, wide-eyed Princess Rapunzel Anna and her magical sister Elphaba Elsa. When they’re young, Elsa accidentally hurts Anna with her magic, and her parents decide absolute repression is the best way for Elsa to learn to control her powers. This naturally sucks for Elsa, and due to this she and Anna drift apart as they grow up, a rift that is not even overcome when their parents die.

A few years down the road, there’s a big party for Elsa’s coronation that royalty from many lands come to attend. Anna loves the idea of a party, Elsa is terrified of it. And it turns out both those feelings are perfectly justified: Anna finds a fun-loving prince and gets engaged, while Elsa gets upset at Anna over it and ends up revealing her ice magic. As the guests freak out, she flees into the mountains, without realizing that she has blanketed the entire kingdom in deep winter.

Anna sets out after her, leaving her fiance Hans in charge of the kingdom. Along the way she enlists the aid of mountain man Kristoff and his dog-like reindeer, Sven. They bump into a magical snowman named Olaf, who dreams about how nice life will be in the summertime. With their help they find the ice palace Elsa has built herself in her freedom and Anna confronts her, but things go poorly and Anna ends up struck by ice magic again, this time in the heart. Elsa creates a snow golem sort of thing to make them leave, but they provoke it and they end up being thrown over a cliff.

Meanwhile, Hans leads a rescue team into the mountains, finds Elsa’s palace, and manages to capture her and bring her back to the kingdom. Kristoff takes Anna to his ‘family’ of rock trolls who mistakenly believe they are an item, but when Anna starts to show signs of the ice magic affecting her, the prognosis isn’t very rosy; ice in the heart is fatal, unless an act of true love can thaw it.

They race back to the kingdom so that Hans can kiss her and thaw the ice. Well, it turns out that Hans has been manipulating Anna so that he could become next in line if Elsa ever “accidentally” died, and couldn’t be happier that Anna is actually freezing to death from the inside out. Elsa, who had been locked in a dungeon, escapes, but she’s terribly distraught and that creates a monstrous blizzard over the fjord. Kristoff sees this from the mountain he’s returning to and, fearing for Anna’s safety, rides back down. Olaf finds Anna freezing to death alone, and they realize that Kristoff is who they need now. Olaf sees him riding down the mountain post haste, and they decide to go meet him, as she has very little time left.

Hans is pursuing Elsa, hoping to kill her in the blizzard and make it look like an accident, so he’ll become king all in, like, three days. Anna sees Kristoff rushing to her, but also sees Hans about to kill Elsa, and decides to dive between Hans’ blade and Elsa just as the ice in her heart takes hold and turns her into an ice sculpture. However, this act of true love for her sister reverses the effects a minute or so later, and Elsa, overjoyed that her sister is alive and that she would sacrifice herself for her, rekindles some love in her heart and that enables her to undo the winter-pocalypse she had set off initially. Anna punches Hans into the fjord, she and Kristoff hook up, and Elsa is able to be queen with her powers.  Everyone’s happy.

Except Kristoff. All he got was a 14-second song and a hyper-active princess.

On the positive side, this movie’s songs are fantastic. I admit it, I like showtunes, and this musical’s tunes are so catchy, so joyously modern, and so packed with pathos. Let It Go is possibly the best song Disney has produced since Part of Your World, and it is the most pro-feminist song in the entire Disney canon. The characters are all endearing, even enjoyable (with the gigantic exception of Olaf), and the visuals are pretty grand, even though most everything is just ice and snow. The reversal of the true love’s kiss cliche is very effective and very refreshing.

Unfortunately, none of these things work particularly well together. The glitzy, Broadway-inspired pop style of the songs is fun, catchy, and great for a soundtrack. But the animators made great efforts to make the visuals feel, in their words, epic. Those two tones really grate against each other as you watch the movie.

Most of the characters were fun, they had great personalities, but they didn’t develop over the course of the movie; we don’t see enough of Anna’s feelings towards Elsa to know if her sacrifice at the end is a reversal or just a matter of course. Elsa spends much of the movie moping, and then instantly remembers that love happens and everything is nice again. The trolls’ song is really, really fun, but contributes nothing to the actual story. The same with Olaf’s song; terribly clever, but useless, because he doesn’t go anywhere, development-wise. He’s faithfully devoted to Anna the moment they meet, and then he just stays that way to the end of the movie.

Even the overt feminist message in Elsa’s story is totally subverted when it is her one expression of independence that first blankets the kingdom in winter and then almost kills her sister. Not to mention that she spends the second half of the movie either being a jerk or moping about, not being proactive about anything. Serious missed opportunity here.

This movie just couldn’t figure out what it was trying to say. They wanted to make Elsa so “understandable” that they removed any actual antagonism between her and Anna, so the ending doesn’t say anything about how they’ve changed (if they’ve changed). They couldn’t decide if they wanted to focus on the sister story or the love story, so neither was very developed. And Olaf. And the trolls. Interesting ideas, but so shallow that they end up just being a waste of screen time when there are more interesting things that ended up only half-baked.

I enjoyed this movie, just not as much as I was hoping to, and it’s because the story seemed really uncommitted to what it was trying to talk about. The fact that the “second act” really dragged is probably a symptom of that problem as much as it is another problem.

I certainly won’t devote the time to re-write it, but if I were going to I’d focus on Elsa’s fall and then rise a lot more, and pretty much make her the main character, although if I could make it so that Elsa and Anna were equally main characters, that would be ideal. Yes, I’d make Elsa realize that she put ice in Anna’s heart and join the party to find a way to undo it. I’m not sure where it would go from there, but it would be about Anna and Elsa slowly reconciling, so that the sacrifice at the end doesn’t feel forced. To focus on that, I’d probably de-emphasize the love stories, which might mean the kiss twist wouldn’t work, but then again I could just trim some of the cruft from the rest of the movie and there would probably be time for that.

Look at that nose. He *must* be related to Jar-Jar.  We’ll all be better off with less Olaf.

Most interestingly, it almost sounds like Disney at one point had a version where there was more angst between Anna and Elsa that actually made the self-sacrifice at the end meaningful. I glean this from the “deleted tracks” featured on the Deluxe Edition Soundtrack, graciously posted to YouTube by Red Rose. The song “Life’s Too Short” sounds both 1) way more like sisters trying to talk through differences, and 2) like a better set up for the ending. What they replaced it with is pretty, but not nearly as solid as this, from a narrative standpoint.

We’ll never know just what kind of movie it would have been if the story had remained in that iteration, but it makes me sad to think that Disney went from a more emotionally gripping and thematically dynamic idea to a kind of hesitant story that crippled all the other elements, which were strong on their own, but didn’t have enough substance tying them together to make a really great show.

X-Men: Days of Future Past Trailer

Happy Halloween!

In case you missed it, the above is the international trailer for X-Men: Days of Future Past. Once again, this looks like an amazing trailer for what should prove to be an actually great movie, given Mr. Singer’s track record with X-Men movies.

So we evidently have a post-apocalyptic future setting (X-Men’s favorite) where everyone wears battle armor and ethnic minorities wear war paint. Whatever, I’m just glad to finally see Bishop. (Interesting tidbit, the Asian female you see playing Blink is actually Fan Bingbing, a major Chinese movie star who also had a bit role in Iron Man 3 – at least, the Chinese release of Iron Man 3). Wonder if we’ll see a Cable cameo. I believe we can safely assume that the aforementioned apocalypse is caused by the Sentinel program of Bolivar Trask, which is what I imagine they must go back in time in order to prevent from coming to fruition.

We have heard that Logan is chosen to go back in time (instead of Kitty Pryde who did so in the original comic) because the process would likely kill anyone else. OK, fair enough, they had to make Wolverine a main character somehow, because of course they do, and besides, I like Hugh Jackman, he deserves it. But, and here’s the good part; while this movie will definitely feature Wolverine, it doesn’t look like the bulk of the story will deal with his development, thank the cinema gods!

After First Class, we heard James McAvoy talk about the plot ideas for the next X-Men movie and how much his character had been affected by the events of the first, and that this movie would explore some of Charles’ struggles. Now we know what those appear to be:  Eric has left and formed his mutant terrorist group, while Charles has both been betrayed by the U.S. government, and has lost his ability to walk. When future Xavier is looking him in the eye at the very end, he says, “We need you to hope again.” It would appear that Charles has lost his faith in humanity, which is kind of the defining distinction between him and Eric, and become apathetic.

I actually really like that angle – it actually explains why he wiped Moira’s memory at the end of the first one, which kind of upset me when I saw it. If Xavier felt he could trust any human alive, it was her, and yet he still wiped her memory. Now we know why; he may not have really trusted her anymore. And Wolverine is the only one who has a chance of getting him to come out of it. I guess we’ll see how that goes.

Also of note, is that there appears to be at least one point of tension between Magneto and Mystique. Their relationship always seems…well, unusual, let’s say, I wonder what’s happening now?

Anything else you noticed, or liked, or didn’t like?

Captain America: The Winter Soldier Teaser


I like the idea of a political thriller super hero movie, and I think it’s something that could bring a lot of glory and depth to Cap’s character. Here’s hoping Marvel pulls it off! Are you excited?

Man of Something Part 1

The Man of Steel hit theaters last week, and since I’m actually back in the States again (and not in China), I could actually go see it!  So I did. And there were some cool parts. And boy, did it look good. But by about halfway through the movie I was very aware that this would not be the movie I had been hoping for.

This is your official spoiler warning: I talk about specific scenes and plot points, and re-write them. It’s only for those who have seen the movie or who won’t be seeing the movie. I promise this blog will still be here after you see it.

As always, I’ll start with where the movie excelled. And for that you need look no further than the visuals. Whether it was in space, on Krypton, or in Metropolis, everything here looked beautiful, though dark. The vistas and landscapes of Krypton, the snowscapes of the Arctic, and the cityscapes of ground zero in Metropolis were like paintings, and the design of the ships, costumes, and technology was similarly sumptuous.

In addition, it had some amazingly strong performances: Henry Cavill has been snubbed out of being a household name for a long time, but I can see him earning it with this one; he didn’t have much to work with script-wise, but he still packed an emotional range into the character that saved the movie from being unbearable. Michael Shannon was bristling with aggression and insanity as General Zod. Amy Adams as Lois Lane was impressive, as expected; she didn’t come off as overly pushy, in-your-face reporter girl, which was a relief. Russell Crowe did a fine job, but for much of the movie his character was very flat. I didn’t really like this take on the Kents, but given what they were aiming for, I think Kevin Costner hit it out of the park with that “Maybe.”

Finally, let’s talk action. The fight scenes are fittingly epic, with major smack-down on all sides, lots of explosions and indiscriminate destruction. The fight between Superman and Zod is possibly the best super hero fight since Spider-Man and Green Goblin in 2001. Unfortunately, there’s so much fighting going on, it eventually loses its pizzazz.

OK, that’s the short list of what was good in this movie, and some of those were still qualified. I’ll mention some things that were really lacking, then I’ll dive in to a re-imagining of Man of Steel.

First, where was the humor? Batman Begins was lighter than this movie, for cryin’ out loud. The unrelenting heaviness seemed completely inappropriate for a super hero summer blockbuster movie at all, let alone a Superman movie. What’s worse is that the ever-present mood made their few, awkward attempts at humor feel out of place and fall flat all the more. This shortage of levity made it difficult to watch.

Second, why was everything so washed out? Everyone looked pasty white, except Jor-El for some reason. All the colors were muted to what seemed like an obscene degree. That kind of thing might work in a Batman movie, where, y’know, everything takes place at night anyway, but in a broad daylight movie, you’ve gotta put that color there.

And third, someone needs to organize an intervention for Hans Zimmer. His work has become increasingly similar as of late. Step 1: lots of percussion. Step 2: dramatic chord progression. Step 3: have those strings riff around on top. Step 4: no one notices the lack of melody. Inception. The Dark Knight Rises. Man of Steel. I like Zimmer, I really do, but I can’t help but feel like we’re missing out on some great themes and motifs because this percussion-driven mood poem is not only accepted, but praised as awesome because Zimmer’s name is on it. Maybe he’s a genius who’s purposefully pushing soundtracks in a new, minimalist direction and I’m just not a fan, but I much prefer his earlier stuff (Lion King, Prince of Egypt, Gladiator). (Remind to write a piece about how good Michael Giacchino is someday).

OK, that was the easy stuff. Anyone can point out things like that. What comes next is a little trickier. This movie just didn’t speak to me. I’m not excited to see more Superman after watching it. I don’t feel like I know this film’s Superman very well. He wasn’t a very memorable character. The guys that stands out in this movie is General Zod, followed by Jor-El. What I feel it really came down to was that Superman himself didn’t have much of a story to tell. It felt like there were big action set pieces to get to, and Zod had a clear motivation, but the writers just didn’t know what they were getting at with the main character.

Finally, a Superman movie unafraid to ask the tough questions

In fact, this lack of clear narrative direction resulted in a lot of conflicting themes. Jor-El broke Kryptonian law and had a naturally-born son who would have the choice of becoming the kind of man he wanted. But then Superman’s choices in this movie are almost entirely made for him, or they’re so extreme that its clear he has no choice at all: Save the school bus of kids or let them drown to protect my secret? Sacrifice the Earth or turn myself in to Zod? No hero points for that one. Even the final conflict with Zod, where it’s a choice between sacrificing the family he’s about to kill or killing Zod is specifically designed to be inevitable, to push him to justifiably have to kill Zod. So in the end, as Zod had revealed, he is genetically engineered to pursue the path he is, while Superman…also has no other real path to pursue. He can’t help but save people, even when Pa Kent seriously discourages it. He’s clearly got this hero mindset down, but where on Earth and/or Krypton does it come from??

Superman has no reason to be a good person, besides the fact that its easy for him to save school buses; Pa Kent lives and dies to keep him from doing so, he never knew Jor-El, much less his aspirations for him as a hero or leader, and he apparently struggles with trusting humanity himself. Oh, well, I’m the protagonist, I guess I’ll do the right thing and save the world for no good reason. ? I’m so confused.

It’s super effective

Next on the list of Things That Confuse Stubbazubba, is why does Lois Lane do any of the things she does? What is her motivation? I mean, tracking down Clark’s secret is one thing, after she personally encountered him, and a touch that I rather like, but printing a story about him against her boss’ wishes, and then not, just because she feels sorry for his sob story about his dad? It’s almost as if Lois’ character was so poorly thought out that she was written just to reflect the poorly thought out internal conflict of the main character (which is only ever talked about, never acted upon; he’s a hero from the word ‘go,’ he just…makes a show of debating it sometimes). In which case, why are we wasting Ms. Adams’ valuable time here?

OK, so the first two problems were just the two leads. Maybe the rest of the characters were better? Sadly, not so much. Pa Kent is afraid that people will fear Clark, a reasonable fear and a good twist on the character, but why he’s afraid enough of that to die to prevent the secret getting out is a mystery. Yes, we can just figure that it’s a scary prospect to possibly have your child taken away by black suits or an angry mob, but the movie never shows the Kents feeling that fear, so it lacks explanatory power for Jonathan’s motivation. Instead, he just comes off as paranoid to the point of completely uncaring about the fate of others (Really? He struggles with whether or not to let a school bus of children die? These aren’t strangers, these are Clark’s friends, their neighbors’ kids, people he knows!), yet still likable? Curse you, Kevin Costner and your considerable folksy charm! Faora (Zod’s lieutenant) has the opposite problem: She keeps spouting off all this stuff about evolutionary advantage, hinting at her motivations, which don’t really gel with Zod’s fanaticism that well, but when they’re on-screen together, all that just disappears.  How did those two end up working together?

Their love for fashionable armor, I presume.

I’m sorry, folks, but there is hardly a character that is well done here. There’s not even a central theme they’re working with: Hope is a buzzword they throw around, but that didn’t really come up in any significant way, while the outsider/humanity thing was talked about and we had some awkward scenes where soldiers started trusting him (because…wait, he hadn’t done anything to impress those soldiers…how did that scene even happen?), but it was hardly central to anyone’s motivation, mostly because no one had any motivation…except the villains, and they couldn’t even agree on one. They paid lip service to themes, but didn’t actually put any into the DNA of this tale.

So…that’s a lot to re-write. While many people would probably prefer going back to concept, I’m going to try and keep the major plot points as they are, and stick to what I think the filmmakers wanted to get across. So, Superman will kill Zod in the end, but that makes this a tragic Superman story. Unorthodox for an origin story, but that’s the way it’s got to go.

First things first; Superman has to be way more Big Blue Boy Scout and way less Batman. So he will not be destroying trucks like a petulant teenager. He will be saving people, not in the abstract, but preventing harm to everyone he can get to. This motivation needs to spring from somewhere: He needs to feel a deep connection to the human race, and to specific individuals. His mother is a good candidate, as is Lois, and some more people he’ll have to have scenes with from Smallville, and preferably the crew of the Daily Planet. And his relationship with his dad is going to be re-tooled.

Let’s talk about that. The way I see it, Superman cannot be a hero without Ma and Pa Kent kind of inculcating that in him as he grows up. However, encouraging him not to use his powers in public is all well and good, and they should be afraid of losing him. I want the audience to feel that fear, so we are going to see a bit more into their lives. They will be established as good, honest, loving people who have been unable to have children in a single scene, possibly at the hospital when they find out. Then the ship falls from the sky, revealing the baby Kal-El. They are bewildered, but overjoyed. But the next morning, the sheriff knocks on the door, accompanied by an FBI agent in a jet black suit and tie. The Kents are terrified, and as they ask if they can take a look around the field, they must think of something fast to stall for time so Jonathan can move the ship before they can go look. They are successful, barely, but they resolve to hide him from prying eyes until they can sort things out.

Flash forward to the X-ray vision/hiding in the closet scene, which works as-is. Cut to young Clark at home, listening in on his parents going back and forth about what happened. His dad is certain the teacher will report it, but mom said she was able to put it out of everyone’s mind. Dad is still not totally satisfied, but mom promises to help him learn to hide his gifts. Clark runs off crying (possibly at super-speed).

Flash forward to the school bus scene. Spend extra time establishing that Clark and Lana are good friends, then as the bus fills with water, have them make eye contact just before Clark disappears. Bus is saved, Pete is saved specifically, as-is. This time, in the scene afterwards, first off I want Martha to come out first and just sit next to Clark and hold his head against her. When Pa Kent comes to talk to Clark, Clark apologizes. He says he tried to just shut it out and hide from it all, but he just couldn’t listen to the screams and see how afraid they were when he could help. Pa Kent looks Clark in the eyes and says, “Clark, don’t you ever apologize to me for doing the right thing again.” Ma Kent takes over, “Your…talents, they’re yours to help people with, even if we forget that when we’re afraid.” Clark replies, not quite understanding, “Afraid?  What am I, some kind of monster?” And then we do the spaceship scene as-is.

Flash forward to another scene. It’s a bully scene, but it’s not the one in the movie. Clark is in high school, he’s friends with Lana and Pete, they’re eating lunch, and some bully starts picking on Pete and/or Lana. Clark steps in, tries to defuse things, but the bully taunts and taunts, harassing Clark, Pete, and Lana, which finally gets Clark to snap. He sends the bully flying. This elicits cheers from the students, but Pa Kent kind of freaks out, tells him hospitalizing boys with no hope of fighting back is a sickening abuse of his gifts and an insult to everything they’ve taught him, and showing off like that in front of hundreds of people is asking to be taken away, to destroy his life and his parents’. Segue directly into the tornado scene, which can still play largely as-is (though Pa Kent dying to save a dog is pretty dumb; make it someone’s kid at least, preferably Ma Kent herself).

OK, so Clark has learned his lesson about keeping a low profile the hard way now, and the best part is Pa Kent actually has to sacrifice himself in the tornado because anything else would arouse too much suspicion with Clark’s feat of strength the same day. Now, the next challenge is to get from that Uncle Ben moment to world-traveling silent do-gooder. From the end of the tornado scene, segue into montage of Clark and mom at the funeral, Clark on graduation day bummed that his dad isn’t there, and him taking care of the farm but not really doing anything else. Mom comes to him and pretty much tells him this isn’t the future his father envisioned for him. Clark brings up his other parents, his heritage, and Ma Kent suggests he search for clues. He says he couldn’t leave her, as she’s all he has left. She replies something along the lines of, “No, Clark, you have more than just me. You have a future, a destiny. You will always be my son, but you are a gift to the whole world, and I’m not going to let you waste your gifts doing farm work for me. You, more than anyone, can become whoever you want to be, because I know you’ll always be the same good man. Just remember the good woman who raised you every now and then, OK?”

That wasn’t so bad. They have a scene at the bus stop where he says good-bye, and then we flash forward to the ship/oil rig scene. It plays as-is, followed by the clothes-nabbing, hitch-hiking, and bar-tending scenes, where he will show way more interest in what the military guys are saying about the discovery site. He gets harassed by the redneck, walks away, totally doesn’t destroy his truck like a child (heck, maybe have him save him somehow).

OK, so that’s the first part, kind of the obligatory exposition to his motivation. We feel connected to his upbringing and his motivation now, I think. Moreso, at least. We know he helps because he feels empathy and because the Kents raised him to be that way, while also hitting home the fear of being discovered, and the quest to discover more about himself. I’ll wrap up here for tonight, and continue on the next chance I get with another character that has to be re-directed a bit; Lois Lane.

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Trailer of Steel


OK, the new trailer released last week for Warner Bros’ upcoming Man of Steel is probably one of the most effective trailers for a super hero movie ever. I am a Marvel fan, a huge Avengers fan, and Iron Man may be my personal favorite, but for some reason none of the Iron Man 3 trailers, good as they have been, have really made me think that this movie was going to rock my world. It may yet, and I’ll definitely go see it and post a review if I find something worth digging in to, but the trailers have been pretty lackluster.

The new Man of Steel trailer couldn’t be more different. It excels on pretty much every level. I’m not a hardcore Superman fan (more on that later), but after watching this trailer, I want this movie to be the summer’s biggest hit, if for nothing other than how artfully crafted the trailer is. The team that put this trailer together really flexed their muscles in three areas: Establishing the conflict, the visuals, and the performances.

The Conflict

Each and every movie, each and every story, is about conflict. This shouldn’t be news to anyone. As many have pointed out, Superman’s nigh-unbounded power prunes out a lot of potential sources of conflict, as physical challenges are often central to stories about people with physical super-powers. However, that kind of constraint often brings out the best creative work, right? According to an interview with Entertainment Weekly, the Superman of MoS will be “frustrated, angry, lost.” He’ll be beset by emotional conflict.

To be specific, David S. Goyer, who also worked on the script for the Dark Knight trilogy, has said that the team is not approaching the movie as a comic book movie at all, and are instead focusing on the “first contact” themes of isolation, acceptance, and societal fear. Also at the heart of this movie will be Superman’s personal struggle to choose his destiny; it sounds like while Jor-El encourages him to be the paragon of truth, justice, and such, the Kents encourage him all his life to hide his abilities at all costs. Carrying that kind of secret, and that kind of lack of identity, around all your life will definitely weigh on you, and I’m extremely excited to see that conflict ground a Superman movie, to watch him choose the outfit (which we understand will be some kind of Kryptonian under armor), and reveal himself to a world which then feebly proceeds to try and destroy him.

The Visuals

Not to let the emotional themes outshine the fact that this is, in fact, a comic book movie, General Zod and his robot army will prove a physical threat to the Earth, if not to the Big Blue Boy Scout himself, that Superman will have to face. And if you were like me and saw Superman Returns and thought, “I guess fighting tidal waves and continents and such forces of nature are really the only appropriate physical challenges for Supes,” there was an extremely satisfying amount of punching and fighting going on!

And it looks like a significant amount of it won’t even be on Earth. There’s some definite military action going on around the time that Kal-El is sent away, and we see clips of laser-shooting spacecraft dog-fighting in the air, Zod and accomplices bound in what appears to be some kind of tribunal where he defiantly shouts that he “will find him,” supposedly referring to Kal-El, in addition to the shots of Mr. and Mrs. El sending off their infant son.

We know also that in this retelling, Kal-El is different from pretty much every other Kryptonian, in that he was born naturally, and not genetically pre-designed and born in a test tube. This apparently becomes a huge deal on Krypton, and may be what leads to the huge military conflict we see in the opening shots of the trailer. So not only would Kal-El be an alien on Earth, but also a genetic freak amongst Kryptonians. That might make him the only Kryptonian to get super powers in the light of a yellow sun, which would be a cool twist.

However that turns out, Krypton certainly looks alien, both from our world and the Krypton of yester-year, while still not being truly novel. The design that went into the structures, tech, and costumes here, though, looks pretty grand. I bet there’ll be whole featurettes on Kryptonian society and how its reflected in their stuff. One final question remains; is Krypton destroyed in this movie? It’s not clear in the trailer, since evidently Zod and presumably Jor-El exchange words after Kal-El is gone (“I WILL FIND HIM!” if memory serves). Kal-El may have just been sent away to protect him from the war, which was possibly specifically trying to kill him, and not from the planet’s total annihilation. That’s something Zod might unleash later after his court martial.

The Performances

Looking over the cast list is pretty breath-taking; Henry Cavill, the runner-up for every big part in the last half dozen or so years, Russell Crowe, Kevin Costner, Michael Shannon, and more. They did not skimp on the talent for this movie, which just makes me more excited to see how they can push the envelope with the writing for a Superman story. The scene of Jonathan Kent revealing to a young Clark his origin, followed by the tear-jerking reaffirmation of paternal love was promising to me, though Costner still has to win me away from John Schneider’s character in Smallville.

But y’know who I’m hoping to be impressed by most? Amy Adams as Lois Lane. I am sincerely hoping that Lois Lane becomes a fleshed out character for this new take on Supes. I like the idea that she’s trying to track down this urban legend of Superman, but I hope she goes way deeper than that. I want her to have a story of her own, which intertwines with Superman. I don’t know how they’re going to develop a relationship, since it appears that their first meeting is in that interrogation room. Maybe they don’t need that yet? Maybe Lois is just the one who trusts who he is, when all the world is afraid of what he is, and thereby gives him the hope to keep going at some crucial moment.

And Amy Adams, I believe, can deliver that. She has shown an impressive range since her big break in Enchanted (following an appearance in the first season of Smallville, no less), and I’m hoping we can get a truly nuanced character that’s so much more than just the dogged journalist we’re all kind of seen enough of. That would be the crowning accomplishment of a modern, “realistic,” and grounded take on Superman, is make a dynamic Lois Lane.

“It Means Hope…”

This trailer has kindled within me a bright hope for Man of Steel. I grew up watching Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, I actually liked Superman Returns, but I admit I’ve never been able to really fall in love with the character. I watched Batman cartoons, Spider-Man cartoons, and X-Men cartoons, and love all of those characters. When the X-Men, Spider-Man, and new Batman movies came out, I loved those, too.  My most recent super hero love is the Avengers, because of their movies. I guess I’m saying that I – and probably many in my generation – need a Superman movie to really blow us away and speak to today’s audience. That’s what this trailer has promised; a re-imagined, relevant, riveting spectacle, both visually and dramatically. Obviously, trailers are not necessarily a reliable way to judge the movie they market for, but with the team behind this one, and the look of this trailer, the Man of Steel fills me with hope!

P.S.:  The soundtrack. Yes, this is good stuff, it backs up the action on the screen and builds everything up perfectly. But, while everyone loves to heap praise on everything Hans Zimmer puts out (which is a freaking ton), this track is little more than an interesting percussion track, a chord progression, and some non-melodic riffs in the strings. Which is most of what Zimmer’s soundtracks are. He makes one actually singable melody per movie, and the rest is just chord progressions layered on top of a driving percussion track. Inception, TDK, they all start to sound alike. I’m hoping his Man of Steel theme can go toe-to-toe with Williams’ original, and be far less subtle than his “Molossus” from Batman Begins (the only actual melody in the TDK trilogy). Gladiator was gorgeous, I just hope Zimmer will weave multiple themes in different moods through it all again.

Amazing Spider-Man, Part 2

In this Part 2 of a two-part analysis of The Amazing Spider-Man’s struggle to be as good of  a movie as I wanted it to be, I focus on the villain and the overall effect of the underdeveloped themes. It picks up right where Part 1 left off, so here’s a link.

Continue reading

The Amazing Spider-Man, Part 1

In this extended analysis, I’m going to look at several things that are keeping The Amazing Spider-Man from really blowing us away, and how I would’ve fixed it.

I really wanted to love The Amazing Spider-Man. Many people complained that it was too soon to reboot the franchise as the original came out only ten years ago, etc., etc., but I – being a lover of all super heroes and Spider-Man in particular – was firm in my belief that if a reboot had a new, interesting spin to bring to the character and could deliver a great Spidey story that the Sam Raimi films couldn’t, why did we have to arbitrarily wait longer for a good show? Did TASM deliver on those fronts? Did it justify the rapid reboot? Well, yes and no. At the risk of engendering the ire of Film Crit Hulk*, I feel like this movie had problems with it’s ‘second act.’ Let’s examine what TASM brings to the Spider-Man legend, and also what it needed to change, story-wise, to justify the sudden reboot.

Marc Webb’s reboot of Spider-Man definitely explores some new angles to the character; the mystery about his father’s work, his parents’ death, and what’s going on at OsCorp is instantly intriguing. In addition, you’ve got an understandably broody Peter Parker, who shows the wear-and-tear of having his parents leave and then die as a child, then growing up as an outcast. That, connected to the ‘who am I?’ theme, is a great new interpretation of Spider-Man.

Andrew Garfield really pulled off a lovable Peter Parker, despite – or perhaps because of – spending so much screen-time fumbling for words. As Spider-Man, he does great as a new, uncertain super hero, except when he’s an obnoxious, wise-cracking super hero. Unfortunately, that latter end is kind of unacceptable for Spider-Man; he has to be funny, not obnoxious. When Peter was wracked with emotion, though, Garfield delivered a visceral, satisfying performance. As high school student Parker, Garfield gets lots of hesitant, awkward glory, especially when combined with Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy.

Stone’s Gwen was bright, assertive, and beautiful. Their chemistry was positively tangible, thanks both to their talent and Marc Webb’s directing chops, but I still felt like their relationship lacked depth. Yes, she kind of sticks up for/befriends him at the beginning and he likes to show off the super powers for her, but I don’t know what they find interesting about each other, besides Gwen’s eyes and Peter’s smile. I feel like they only got together because the writers knew they were supposed to. Not that real life high school relationships don’t form based purely on physical attraction sometimes, but those are dumb; I mean, sure, every guy in the audience would’ve loved to make out with Emma Stone, but that’s not engaging enough for a real story.

It’s not like there’s a lack of opportunities for them to spend time together and, y’know, actually talk to each other, either; they’re both brilliant high school scientists, and they clearly think the other is cute, they just needed to show a scene or two of them working together/flirting in science class before they jump to dating each other. These are two talented actors and a great director, this should have been the best super hero relationship yet, but for all the charm of the scenes they have, the script needed another scene or two between “awkward classmates” and “boyfriend-girlfriend” to really bring the audience all the way in. You’re not engaging the audience, not making us care about the story, with “They kind of know each other, and then they start going out, and they’re adorably awkward about it until the important stuff happens in the last 20 minutes.” I am paying you, you can do better.

Leaving aside the two leads, the supporting characters are brilliant, as well. Uncle Ben by Martin Sheen had that great blue-collar working man dignity and knew just how to come down on Peter for shirking his responsibilities and bullying at school. Sally Field’s Aunt May was solid, if not quite as extraordinary as Uncle Ben. Though I liked Rosemary Harris’ quaint, wisdom-spouting Aunt May from the Sam Raimi trilogy, Sally Field’s version was far better for this interpretation of the wall-crawler. Finally, Denis Leary’s Captain Stacy was a great foil for Peter; he was the embodiment of power & responsibility which Peter was still struggling to understand.

But again, an opportunity was missed here. Captain Stacy was convinced Spider-Man was a dangerous vigilante and was determined to bring him in. In the comics, George Stacy is a supporter both of Spider-Man and his daughter’s relationship with Peter Parker, whom he guessed was the aforementioned wall-crawler. I think they were kind of trying to have him kind of go there by the end of the movie, it seems kind of muddled. But let’s assume those were the two endpoints.

Right now, the end of this plotline makes no sense; Captain Stacy, a by-the-book cop, has been trying to apprehend the vigilante Spider-Man the entire movie. Mind you, Spider-Man has still done very little to look like anything but a vigilante, at least that the public has seen. However, when it is revealed that Spider-Man is Peter Parker – the disrespectful punk kid his daughter is wasting her time with – then he realizes the city needs Spider-Man…because…well, huh. He’s not even aware of the situation with the Genali device, he had no idea that Peter actually had a plan. In fact, Stacy is the one who saves Spidey from the Lizard a bit later anyway, so I don’t know how he determines that Spider-Man is needed from all that.

Once again, we needed some transition steps here to really build up to that conclusion; Peter and/or Spidey needed to interact with Capt. Stacy a few more times. After Peter realizes he’s just out for revenge after getting chewed out by Capt. Stacy at dinner, Spidey should have gone on a ‘friendly neighborhood Spider-Man’ tour, stopping all manner of petty thieves and crimes, maybe even leaving notes to the police. Stacy can’t make sense of it initially, until the possible connection between Peter and Spider-Man dawns on him.

To test it, have him drop some important police info, like about another sting or something, in front of Peter and mention that the police can’t take the next step for whatever reason, and then have Spider-Man act on it. This would confirm in Stacy’s mind that 1) Peter is Spider-Man, and 2) he can and will be a benefit to the city. Stacy then turns into a subtle advocate for the web-slinger, redirecting police resources away from pursuing him. He also tries to mentor Peter as much as he can, trying to give him tips or hints whenever he runs into him. Spidey should then be seen applying some of these. Now their relationship is established, and the audience gets a real sense that Stacy will be an ally for the foreseeable future.

This way, when Stacy is killed by the Lizard, he’s not just the love interest’s dad, who didn’t like him anyway; he’s a surrogate father figure, a man who is looking out for him both privately and publicly, and who is helping make Spider-Man the hero he is. Judging by the final words scene and how much his death seemed to affect Peter, I’d say the writers wanted that kind of emotional punch, but didn’t know how to make it happen and made the mistake of assuming we would care because we’re supposed to. This is how you make us care; make him an emotional and crime-fighting asset, and then take him away. It worked for Sirius Black, it’ll work here.

Part II, where I talk about the Lizard – and oh is there a lot to talk about there – among other things will be up in the next day or two, so check back soon!

*Film Crit Hulk wrote an eye-opening article on the Myth of the Three Act Structure, in which he…well…just go read the article, it’s that good.

Who Makes Avengers So Good?

Avengers Poster

I am writing this on an international flight, just after finishing the Avengers on the little screen in front of me. This movie is so good, I could dedicate at least a half dozen articles to talking about why, but for now, I’m only going to focus on the element that hit me hardest this time.

There are a few roles which were both written and performed well enough to carry the whole movie. Actually, almost every role is that way, but there are a few who really reach out and grab you. I could dedicate an entire article to Phil Coulson, Nick Fury, Black Widow, and Hawkeye each, and there’s already an article here talking about why Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner made us care about the Hulk in a new way. But I’m not going to focus on them today.

The three who were already famous – Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark/Iron Man, Chris Hemsworth as Thor, and Chris Evans as Captain America – each explored new dimensions to their characters while delivering the greatest action-adventure romp of the year with the same winning mannerisms and characters that we have cheered for in the past. But I’m not going to talk about them, either. That’s right, one of the top factors contributing to the Avengers’ success is Loki, performed by the inestimable Tom Hiddleston.

Loki - Tom Hiddleston

Loki is the perfect villain for this group. His rhetoric about freedom being a dream humanity chases in a self-defeating frenzy is not what makes him so, nor do I believe it was meant to be. One of the movie’s central themes is the larger-than-life egos of the would-be heroes, and how they have to get above themselves to work together as a team and save the world. That’s one of those tried-and-true tropes of team-forming movies, from Remember the Titans to that gospel choir movie that just came out to this. And Loki is the embodiment of that idea, that reckless pride and disunity. Just listen to his first conversation with Thor; he considers himself a higher life-form than us mere mortals – as by rights any of the Avengers could – and wants to rule over a world to satisfy his bruised ego.

He always loses in direct confrontation: Cap and Iron Man subdue him; Thor consistently has him on the ground (Loki gets one cheap shot on him, but certainly doesn’t win any of their encounters); Hulk, of course, beats him like a rag doll; even Hawkeye’s arrow gets the better of him. When Agent Coulson shoots you through a wall and in the minds of the audience definitively wins that confrontation after you already killed him, you lose any credibility as a direct threat.

No, Loki is not a formidable foe to fight, but what he lacks in firepower he more than makes up for in treachery. He is a master manipulator, and he manages to get inside every one of the Avengers’ heads. He plants – or exposes – doubt and mistrust, and lets their egos and lack of team strength do the rest. With just the right push, they are separated, scattered, and defeated, simply by sticking to their guns.

That’s the mark of a good villain; turning the heroes’ strengths into your most potent weapons. The Joker nearly drove Batman over the edge in TDK by ramming him up against his own rules. The Green Goblin torments Spider-Man by using his own sense of self-sacrifice against him. And Loki uses the Avengers’ own self-confidence to tear them apart, letting him nearly complete his take-over-the-world scheme.

Why is this so important for a good villain? It’s not because it’s the most effective way to take over the world; it’s just one of a myriad number of effective tools. Being able to out-fight Thor, out-wrestle the Hulk, and/or out-strategize SHIELD* would have made Loki a lot more successful, but not much of a better villain.

When I say this ability to turn a hero’s strengths upside-down is important for a good villain, I mean that from a storytelling perspective: Good villains are ones which make the heroes face something about themselves and give them an opportunity to change. Sometimes the heroic thing to do is change, as in the Avengers’ case, but other times we want them to hold true, as in The Dark Knight. But it’s those moments when the hero is vulnerable and exposed somehow that the audience can really plug into them and it’s then that we cheer for them.

And the best way to create that scenario is to have the villain find a weakness in the hero’s heroic character to exploit. One thing that the Dark Knight Rises did right with Bane was the whole exposing Jim Gordon (and by extension Batman) as a liar bit. By turning the Pyrrhic victory from TDK on its head, he was hitting the good guys where it hurt. Unfortunately this wasn’t really a huge point and didn’t have much lasting effect for anyone; everyone still trusted Gordon and Batman, anyway, and no one brought it up again after the scene where it occurred.

But to wrap up, strong super hero stories are ones where the themes are reflected in the conflict between the hero and villain. The villain being overwhelmingly powerful and scary like Bane isn’t enough, unless that reinforces the main idea. Like Loki, a good villain often turns a hero’s strength into a weakness, which makes them face a turning point and do the right thing to overcome the situation. That is when the hero is most human, when we see ourselves in them. That’s when we cheer for them the most, because we feel for them.

We love to hate Loki, that’s what gives the scene where Hulk throws him around such a satisfying catharsis. He is such a good villain, and gets exactly what every good villain deserves; a sound thumping and then justice (we assume) off-screen (somewhere). 😛

So here’s to the good villains; you make the heroes heroic. You make everyone hate you and you get beat up and imprisoned and sometimes die, just so we can enjoy the good guys. No one ever even knows that without you the hero would be just an arrogant, lazy jerk with no need or desire to do good. Thanks for changing that. You’re the best of the bad.

Addendum:  We now know that Joss Whedon will return to direct Avengers 2!  That is great news.  Now what kind of villain will they face then?  If they follow my advice here, that’ll depend on what they want to explore with the heroes; how will the team grow and change in the next round of movies, and what brings them together to save the world again.  While his name may be Thanos, we don’t know just how he’ll approach the Avengers; we don’t know how he’ll challenge and test them.  What are your predictions?  Leave a reply with what you want to see from Thanos and why.  I’ll cover my thoughts in the near future.

*One might argue that Loki was able to nearly bring down the helicarrier and destroy all of SHIELD’s leadership and Phase 2, but I would reply that the attack on the helicarrier was, as far as I can tell, planned by Hawkeye: He shows his ability to think strategically frequently throughout the movie (he identifies and acts on Fury’s stalling tactic in the opening scene, he identifies what needs to be done to open the portal after a brief conversation with Dr. Selvig, and plans that attack as well, and then there’s his tactical guidance in the final fight) and Loki was relatively inept without his expertise to help out – the Tesseract was left defended only by its own shield and the Chitauri appeared to have no coordination or purpose in their attack whatsoever. So, no, Loki can’t out-strategize SHIELD; he still loses to an army of 6 and a borrowed nuke when he has thousands, if not millions of troops at his command. Hawkeye, on the other hand, is awesome.

The Dark Knight Rises…just not as high as I was hoping

OK, it’s been long enough, time for my Dark Knight Rises review:

Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne and Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle
First, what it got right-

  • Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle was a pleasant surprise; I remember all the apprehension I felt when I heard that casting decision, but she really nailed it.
  • This is Michael Caine’s best performance of Alfred by far. I’ve never looked at Alfred as so human a character before.
  • Christian Bale has a great understanding of the Batman/Bruce Wayne dynamic, and continues to drive that one home. This film lets him shine as Bruce Wayne in a way the others didn’t.
  • Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Blake are also really engaging; I felt for the former when he was explaining the “structure as shackles” thing to Blake and for the latter at the bridge scene.
  • The gadgets, the Batpod rolling over itself, the Bat being all…cool…and all that stuff was good. This movie also has possibly the best fight scenes of the trilogy.

So, all in all, definitely worth seeing for these performances and the sheer marvel of film that it is.

I have to say, though, that the writing for this movie was mediocre compared to the other films. The Dark Knight had clear themes it was speaking to and got to some gripping conclusions about them, and, most importantly, every scene helped to build to one of those conclusions. It was solid. TDKR, on the other hand, definitely has themes it explores, but it doesn’t commit to them the same way TDK did. I’m just going to focus on one theme, and ignore some others for brevity (other problems include this movie’s villains and plot being nothing more than the first movie with new paint, the way it referenced the Occupy movement but said nothing interesting about it, and the sudden disinterest in the goodness of Gotham’s citizens): Bruce Wayne’s struggle to get past being Batman is the focus at the beginning of the movie, but its then subverted with the appearance of Bane and Gotham being plunged back into utter peril, proving that Gotham needs Batman; all the scenes in the prison of him working himself back into Bat-shape and “getting angry” is just him turning Batman up to 11. At the end, though (huge spoiler here, stop and go back until you’ve seen the movie, I’ll wait!), Bruce Wayne gives up being Batman as if he’s reached some kind of resolution.

Well, if he did, I didn’t see it. It was hinted at, but it seems like Bruce Wayne’s important character development doesn’t really get very much screen time. He ultimately chooses to stop being Batman so he can live a real life as Bruce Wayne, and ends up dating Selina Kyle. This is a great ending, but it’s not built up throughout the movie very well. While it’s definitely the ending we want, there’s scant evidence that it’s the ending Bruce ever wanted. Bruce’s relationship with Miranda Tate, the first time he’s opened up to a woman since Rachel Dawes, ends up being a bad, bad decision, but he just gets over it and starts smooching Catwoman, who has never shown any interest in him until that scene? Yes, I realize that all of a sudden they were faced with the possibility of never seeing each other again and that does bring stuff out that wouldn’t otherwise come out, but while that is a perfectly realistic explanation, I’m not talking about real life, I’m talking about the conclusion to a cinema epic 7 years in the making; you can’t spring a love story on me like that essentially out of the blue.

The worst of it is that it seemed like they had all the pieces to make a poignant resolution to the whole trilogy, but instead of coupling these pieces together they left them separate and just sprinkled the whole thing with vapid spectacle instead. The conversations between Bruce and Alfred (my favorite scenes) put it perfectly; Bruce wanted to die for Gotham City, in a selfish way which, in his torn mind, seemed like self-sacrifice. But what he needed to do was find something to live for instead. If Bruce died fighting Gotham’s battles, then ultimately Gotham’s problems overcame him. But if Bruce saved Gotham and then reclaimed his life – actually overcoming the grief and rage he had harbored and fed since his childhood – then the victory was truly Bruce’s.

While they played this up well during the first half of the film, once Bruce was thrown in the prison, the only motivation Bruce ever mentions is wanting to throw himself back into being Batman. The doctor guy in the prison was right there talking about how he needed to fear death in order to have the strength to get out. He was just a hair’s breadth away from saying what needed to be said; that something to live and fight for is more important than not fearing death. Instead of making that connection to life, though, they left it at “you need to fear death.” Period. They didn’t bring it full circle to what Alfred and Lucius Fox talked about in the first hour of the movie.

Had that point been made, then the relationship he had randomly begun with Miranda Tate could have been much more important. Bruce’s desire to get out wasn’t about Bruce getting angry, it was about him realizing that he had a life to go back to that he actually wanted, and that he needed to fight to save that opportunity now. That would have given the whole final conflict so much more emotional punch, and the betrayal by Miranda would have been that much more treacherous. But the best part of that would be that when Miranda explains how she really just wanted revenge on Bruce, he could then turn around and – instead of flatly-delivering some one-liner about slow knives – say something profound about how he knows revenge inside and out, and it will never satisfy her, it’s a loser’s game, or something much better than that but to that same point; he could invite her, even at that stage, to overcome that grief as he had and redeem herself. Of course she wouldn’t, and that’s fine. Because then, when Catwoman does come back a moment later, it proves that she’s actually the one with the kind of heart that Bruce could love.

Ideally Bruce and Selina would have had a tad closer of a relationship, then he would consider both Miranda and Selina in the prison, and ultimately choose Miranda as his motivation, then reverse that when their true colors are shown. Then when he says he’s going to sacrifice himself a couple scenes later, there’s a real emotional tug because we actually know that at this point he and Selina were on the verge of a great relationship, but he’s sacrificing that for Gotham, and Selina would know that, too, and actually be sad with us. Instead of watching their attraction to each other go from 0-60 at the speed of plot, we would be cheering for this relationship as it developed more organically and felt how much Bruce’s sacrifice would really hurt. Then the reveal with the auto-pilot would have sent us through-the-roof crazy with cheers because we were emotionally invested, instead of just being “cool.”


So, in the end, TDKR is fun to watch, but really it’s only a wild success based on the momentum of TDK; the narrative fails to get us sufficiently invested in the characters, relationships, or even the themes it explores. I’d say it’s at the high end of average, but not truly exceptional like TDK or even Avengers is.