Wednesday, March 23, 2016

No Country For Old Men: Let's talk about Superman vs. Batman (and initial reviews and whatnot)

All right. The first reviews are in for Superman vs. Batman: Dawn of Justice, the much-hyped sequel to Man of Steel that, just there in the title, tells you how little faith Warner Bros. had in their desire for a stand-alone film franchise after making a terrible Superman movie in 2013.

Thanks to Randy, today I've also been thinking about actor Tommy Lee Jones.

How does one wind up with a face like Jones'?  There's a lot going on in that mug.  A lot of years written in the lines, the burned in look of disappointment.  How does one look that tired, that certain he's seen it all, and... yet... still confused how it keeps happening?  And, more so, the certainty it's going to happen again etched upon his brow.

Randy sent me a quote from an interview with Howard Stern, discussed in this article at Cinemablend, that detailed how much, apparently, Tommy Lee Jones hated Jim Carrey, who worked with him on Batman Forever.  Upon meeting Carrey, with whom he was to work the next day, Jones told Carrey:

"I hate you. I really don't like you…I cannot sanction your buffoonery."

That is a man with nothing left to lose and no time for antics.  And that was 20 years ago.

At best that's tangential to why I'm thinking of Jones and his face.  But it informs it.

Because I'm also thinking less of Jones himself and more of his character in No Country For Old Men, the Cormac McCarthy adaptation directed by the Coen Bros.  Jones plays West Texas lawman Ed Tom Bell, who has been doing his part in the wastelands beyond the Hill Country straight on to New Mexico, and has done a fine job of it.  But there comes a horror and crime so great, he can fathom it only in abstraction.  After all his good work, there's no place left for what he has done, and the value of that work is left in question if he cannot stop Anton Chigurh.

Superman vs. Batman: Dawn of Justice - a title demonstrating a whiteboard brainstorming session more than conveying meaning, held reviews in embargo until the afternoon of Tuesday, March 22nd for a movie that's probably being released on Thursday sometime, I'd assume.  Or, Friday.

The movie has been heavily hyped.  Hundreds of millions were spent on production.  Hundreds of millions appear to have spent on marketing to the intended demographic of mostly males, 18-25, who respond well to titles like Superman vs. Batman: Dawn of Justice.  It's been years since I've seen this many TV, print and internet ads for a movie.  WB has clearly hoped to frontload money into getting people invested in their franchise now so they can do less heavy lifting with the upcoming Justice League movies (likely to be super expensive as they film a 2-parter back-to-back).  And if I've learned anything about people - they will absolutely do what advertising tells them to do.  So, I expect this movie to do quite well despite the negative critical response.

And the critical response has been negative.

At my last check, the movie was clocking about 39% at Rotten Tomatoes with 47 reviews in, and with Top Critics, the numbers are slightly worse (4 of 13 found it "fresh").

The reviews I scanned mostly reflected what I suspected would occur when Zack Snyder took the helm and from what I saw in trailers and read in quotes.

Jake asked me if I felt vindication and if we could expect posts where I said "I told you so", and I said "no, because I won't see the movie."  And, because nothing I saw in the reviews or in the trailer was anything I wanted to see, which is insane if you've seen my house and personal collections, I don't want to see this movie.  Or, I don't want to pay to see this movie in the theater.  I'll watch it on HBO or something when I get to it.

What I grew up liking and the Superman and Batman of my heyday, and even fun superhero movies, aren't part of what DC and WB are up to.  I'm not just tired of the relentless advertising for a movie I don't want to see, I'm tired of people asking me if I'm excited.  I'm tired of people getting upset and trying to explain to me why I'm wrong to not want to see it.  "But I thought for sure YOU would see it the first day!" they say invariably.
"No," I say, "I just don't like what they did with Superman in the last one."
"Oh," they say, smiling, slowing down to explain it to me.  "I know it was weird, but he HAD to kill that guy.  He had no other option.  And, you know, for a modern audience and everything."
"It's a made up story," I say.  "I'd have liked to have seen a Superman that found a way to not have to kill anyone.  Or crush Metropolis to powder."
This is when they lose patience.
"It's more realistic," they say, starting to look edgy.  "Modern audiences can't go back to... ha ha... a guy in red underwear."
And this is where I let it go.  Because having that conversation just leads down this odd path where I'm told I don't get modern audiences, and that red underpants over a blue suit is ridiculous, but a blue suit is not ridiculous.  And I don't care.  Because, really, they totally do not really care.  They're repeating what they read online somewhere and I'm tripping that up, cognitive dissonance sucks, and I get that.
And, yes, all of them say, pretty much verbatim, what I said above.  I've had that conversation at least 30 times.  That is not an exaggeration.
Part B of this whole debacle is a couple weeks later when they start talking to me about the movie again (I'm "the Superman guy", after all) and you can see that flicker when they suddenly remember and say "....ooooh.  You didn't like this Superman.  You like Old Superman."  With that merry, condescending twinkle in their eye.
"Yeah," I say, and smile and nod a bit.  And try to change the subject before we repeat or someone else jumps in to hit all the same storybeats in Part A.  To help me along, you see.

I'm exhausted from thinking about it.

As I told Jake, I'm getting Tommy Lee Jones face just thinking about this new movie.  Thinking about how it doesn't matter how lousy a film is - the audience will come out if you throw the right money at advertising and re-assuring them that Batman is great.

I don't know how everyone became an expert on what modern audiences want and need, but I do know pointing out the success of similar recent films that are more in line with my perspective doesn't go all that well.  I don't know how everyone became certain that audiences fifteen, twenty, forty years ago were so unsophisticated.  Or nodding in certainty as they're repeating an article from an internet movie site as their own ideas, regurgitating the same points made over and over to them, unexamined.  Those ideas, themselves, repeated over and over like a virus across pop culture websites.

It gives me Tommy Lee Jones face.

I cannot sanction their buffonery.

I'm not glad that the movie is getting a bit panned.  If the movie does fine, it clearly won't matter, and I assume the media blitz around this thing will paint over the rust and broken parts.  I actually was hoping I'd get another Force Awakens experience, wait til the reviews came out, and then rush to get tickets at that point.

I want to see a great Superman movie on the big screen.  And a great Batman film.  And even a great Superman v. Batman film.

I do not want WB to have their suspicions confirmed that this whole superhero game is bunk and shut down making superhero movies like they threaten to do every time they make another shitty superhero movie (see: Green Lantern).

I believe I do not understand the modern movie industry, or - at least - what I do understand of it seems so fraught with bad ideas and scientific and accounting driven badly concluded group-think that I can't understand how saner heads do not prevail.  Moreover, I've come to understand that the audience desires for their media to be deeply unsophisticated but with flashy FX while insisting that as part of the audience, they're some new form of evolution in viewership, all while you can almost see the gears of the works of the studio in every move made around a movie.

I can understand it only in the abstract, this modern age.


Simon MacDonald said...

Ryan, I am so with you on this one. At some point in time I will probably end up seeing this film on a plane or something where I need to kill a couple of hours but I won't be seeking it out.

Stuart said...

First: that is a *great* Tommy Lee Jones anecdote that I'd never heard, so thanks for that.

You know that I come from a similar place, and I sympathetize with most of what said. I've had those same awkward in-person discussions about Man of Steel on a fairly regular basis for the last three years.

Man of Steel definitely wasn't what I would've done with an opportunity to reestablish the character, but there were some things I liked about it. Moreso as time's passsed. But I believe Superman is a strong enough character to wheather multiple interpretations, that the core idea will still survive. The DCEU's Superman will never be *my* Superman. And that's okay. I can still enjoy it for what it is.

On the one hand, it doesn't really matter to me what they do with these characters, because I have my stories already and they're always going to be there. But on the other hand, I enjoy being part of the new and the anticipation. I enjoy the idea of maybe sharing a big screen Wonder Woman with my daughter. So, I'm kind of just having fun with there being a movie out there, and celebrating that. And if it's not good, oh well. No skin off my nose. But if I do like it, then all the better.

The other thing is: I don't put so much stock in critical consensus. Some of my favorite films of the last decade have RT scores in the 50s and lower. And many Oscar nominees (and winners) I have zero interest in. I think critics more concerned with crosstalking one another than in doing the job of consumer reporting. I'd rather take things in and decide for myself.

I don't regret all time I spent anticipating Superman Returns, even though that turned out to be not so great too. Or reading comics in the 90s.

So, I get it. Your perspective is your own, and it's earned. I just think it's more fun to be in the game than to sit on the sidelines.

The League said...

I actually don't think Superman will survive in the form we keep telling ourselves he will. The current WB approaches are in opposition to the idea I have in mind when it comes to Superman, and we're informing a generation of movie-goers of what Superman is via the images of these movies and the growing DCU Cinematic franchise. Just as the Donner movies informed our generation, these movies will inform the cultural conversation when we're pushing up daisies or until there's a shift in a generation to a different tone or a reboot that's general welcomed by the populace in the way the Daredevil series has wiped away the Affleck Daredevil film.

But it's clear DC Comics and DC as a studio are on a trajectory to revamp and reimagine the character into something different. On that, I think we can agree.

And while no one has ruined my childhood, I don't buy entirely into the "it doesn't affect me" approach to how a franchise is handled. I was one of millions of people who didn't care for Star Wars Episodes 1-3, and it did, in fact, make me just want to ignore Star Wars altogether. It's what Star Wars became. It was author's intention to drive the series in a way that I found preposterous. No, it didn't travel back in time and make me an unhappy kid sadly playing with a landspeeder, not sure why he was feeling a creeping ennui, but it had a lasting impact on my impression.

If Mel Gibson comes out and reveals himself as an utter jack-ass, I can still enjoy Road Warrior, but to say it doesn't have any impact, cumulatively, can't possibly be true.

I agree that genre film is often not treated kindly by critics. I was a huge fan of "John Carter", which was rated so poorly, you'd think John Carter had insulted the critics' mothers.

But I don't reject film criticism. I can't. Not every critic will "get" every bit of genre film or find it to their taste. But as much as I believe in critical analysis in comics or film, I believe in the mixture of the two. And, RT is a fascinating bellwether for the overall filmic quality of whatever we're getting. Now, if we're admitting "sometimes I just like crap. Give me Beastmaster!", then I'm right there with you.

But it's hard to ignore the critical surprise and delight at almost every Marvel release, even as they predict the doom of the superhero genre, they say "but this one! This one is okay!".

And, yes, talking about Oscar Bait movies is it's own discussion altogether, and its problematic for both the industry and audiences.

Stuart said...

Sure, the prequels redefined Star Wars for almost a generation. But it came back!

With superman, we're talking about an idea that's weathered almost 80 years of *constant* reinterpretations. And in the last 30 years, almost all of that has been looking backward. They still haven't cracked the code on how to effectively modernize Superman.

Like Star Wars, Superman is a pure and unique idea. It may wander a bit, but it will come back.

The League said...

Let's be honest - Disney saved Star Wars. Lucas was ready to just keep pile driving it into the dirt.

There will have to be a major shift at WB and DCE before they "modernize" Superman properly. Which I think is do-able. It's a pretty pathetic state of affairs if all "modern" can mean to young audiences is "mopey and in need of a hug".

J.S. said...

I think that part of the problem is that good Superman (and I will say, yes, good Superman for the modern audience) is probably difficult to write. It's hard to write a character who remains as morally resolute as Superman without having the character seem silly to an increasingly cynical modern audience.
That being said, I think it would be not only possible to write such a script, but that it would be extremely well received if it was effectively done. If you can acknowledge the fact that we live in a world where terrorists are beheading people and lighting people on fire in cages while still writing believable hero who adheres to the absolute sanctity of human life, you could really say something (particularly if you show that it is often very difficult to try to protect every life as sacred when you're carrying on battles on an epic scale- this, by the way, is clearly what Snyder got so terribly wrong in the last movie). Equally, given that our modern political leaders, media figures, and CEOs all seem extremely prone to corruption when tempted by even small amounts of power, it could be incredibly compelling to see those flaws contrasted against an individual of nearly limitless strength who, nonetheless, appears unwavering in his attempts to remain ethical and principled. The trick is to portray Superman in a way in which he maintains those qualities while feeling like more than a caricature. Easier said than done. I don't think the answer is to make Superman more cynical, though, or to make him despondent or mopey or filled with escapist fantasies. Superman is the guy who does the job of saving the planet without a lot of complaint because it's his duty by virtue of who he is, and he's the only one who can do it. I think it's weird to think of Superman as someone who's resentful of that responsibility. Maybe, like other immigrants, he has a heightened sense of responsibility to live up to the obligations of citizenship in his new home. I'm not sure. Anyway, Superman needs good writers. Really good writers.

Simon MacDonald said...

@JS but at the same time Marvel has rolled out 4 movies starring Captain America who is a character that is devoid of cynicism and is every bit as morally resolute as Superman. So, it really is possible to write such a story even a super hero story without giving into the dourness that DC is going for.

Superman should be an ideal that we strive for, a better version of ourselves. We shouldn't drag the character down to our level.

The League said...

At this point, the take on Superman from WB tells me more about WB than it does about modern audiences or the difficulty of the character. But, yes, I see writers in the comics wrestling with this, and most are faking it at best, and even good writers have fumbled the ball. It's the best Superman comics that have this ideal firmly in hand.

J.S. said...

I agree that Marvel's done a great job with Cap. I always felt like his character got a bit more of a pass by virtue of the fact that he's literally a figure from a bygone age, though. And there's something about Superman's near omnipotence that seems to make people especially skeptical of the notion that he can consistently keep his ideals intact. But you still make a good point.