Posts Tagged movies

A Superman for no seasons

Man of Steel posterHopes are high that Man of Steel, which opens today, will do the impossible and be a genuinely good Superman film in the modern sense, but I’m not so sure.

It’s not that I doubt the acting talent of Henry Cavill, or the directing talent of Zach Snyder. I just think they’ve got the wrong Superman.

“What if a child dreamed of becoming something other than what society intended?” Jor El asks as the camera focuses on a butterfly stuck in the chain of a swing in the trailer. Subtle.

As far as his biological parents are concerned, baby Kal El’s biggest problem won’t be dealing with the reality of being an orphan from a dead world, it will be growing up in one that’s too limiting.

As the trailer continues, the disembodied voice of Jor El encourages his son to be an example for humanity to strive for. How? Humans can’t shoot lasers from their eyes.

Obviously, a character that’s been around as long as Superman is open to interpretation but, so far, this version seems more like an Ayn Rand character than Superman.

The two most important elements of Superman are his powers and his background. The powers are self explanatory, but Man of Steel has changed Superman’s background for the worse.

Yes, he was born on Krypton, but he was rocketed to Smallville, Kansas as an infant. Raised by Jonathan and Martha Kent, he was imbued with American values, not Kryptonian ones. He’s just as ignorant as the rest of us, he can just outrun a speeding bullet.

Superman isn’t an alien emissary sent to enlighten humanity; he’s a naturalized immigrant who just happens to have superpowers. He has the same values as the majority of people; he’s just in a position to act on them.

And while Superman has many amazing powers, super philosophy isn’t one of them. Throughout his career, he’s been more than happy to defend the status quo. Remember “Truth, Justice, and the American Way?”

Even in his more rebellious days during the 1930s, Superman’s ideas about social problems tended to conform to his human readers’. His ideas of social justice fit comfortably with FDR’s New Deal, and the only he time he intervened on a global scale to stop a non-super threat was when he dragged Hitler and Stalin to the League of Nations in a bid to prevent World War II (DC probably doesn’t consider this story canon).

In fact, Superman’s passivity has earned him more than a little ridicule from fans. His reputation as the “Big Blue Boy Scout” is so resilient that Frank Miller even turned him into a government lackey in The Dark Knight Returns, blindly following the orders of a Reagan-esque president.

Superman may be the original superhero, but the lack of conflict in his story has made it hard to keep him appealing to comics readers or moviegoers. Forcing Superman to confront the people he protects will definitely add conflict to the story of Man of Steel, but at the expense of his original characterization.

If the movie is anything like the trailer, this new, more alien, self-righteous Superman won’t be a good substitute for the one lifting a car on the cover of Action Comics #1.

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Of robots and rockets

Pacific Rim and the Space RaceRobots and monsters! Pacific Rim, Guillermo del Toro’s soon-to-be blockbuster, sounds like pure nerd fantasy. Yet one aspect of the story sounds remarkably true.

In the film, humanity is attacked by giant monsters called kaiju, that emerge from an inter-dimensional portal in the Pacific Ocean. To stave off destruction (or worse, having to move inland) nations rally to build equally large fighting robots called jaegers.

The jaegers push the limit of what is technologically possible. They’re a bold vision tempered by the threat of imminent destruction.

Sound familiar? It should.

Strip away the monsters and robots, and you’ve got a scenario very similar to the one that led to the Space Race. Just as the characters in Pacific Rim live in constant fear of a kaiju attack, the real people of the 1950s and 1960s lived in constant fear of global nuclear war.

Instead of building robots, Cold War Americans and Soviets built rockets. Instead of defeating giant monsters, the goal was to demonstrate technological superiority and deny the enemy a foothold in outer space.

Sure, it’s easy to compare the fictional technological achievement of giant robots with the actual achievement of giant rockets like the Saturn V, but what really links Pacific Rim and the Space Race isn’t the human ability to create and wield technology, it’s the attitude that makes it happen.

The Cold War was, after all, the driving force behind the Space Race. In a 2006 New York Times interview, Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium, put it this way:

“What actually happened is that Sputnik lit a fire under our buns, and we said, “This is not good. The Soviet Union is our enemy and we have to beat them.”

Indeed, we wouldn’t have had sophisticated rocket technology or legions of trained pilots and engineers without the military.Pacific Rim and the Space Race

In that case, Pacific Rim might be a better explanation of the motivations behind human space exploration than Star Trek.

Still, there is a non-cynical way to look at this.

The positive side of both the jaeger and space programs is that they were all-out efforts that were pursued regardless of cost or chance of success. Humanity is capable of such feats, when it feels like it.

If humanity ever does face an existential threat that requires some awesome new form of technology to face, I’m confident we’ll be able to handle it; we’ve done it before. Solving global warming, on the other hand? Not so sure.

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Why “Into Darkness” will be a great Star Trek movie

Star Trek: Into Darkness posterI haven’t seen Star Trek: Into Darkness, but I know it will be good. How do I know? Because I love Star Trek, and that means having pretty low standards.

Let’s face it, the majority of the Star Trek canon is pretty bad, and it has been from the beginning.

Any viewer that (metaphorically) sets foot on the Original Series’ USS Enterprise, with its cheesy sets, pajama-wearing crew, and overacting captain, and decides to stay is truly dedicated.

Even when the Enterprise warped off to the big screen, and its increased budgets, there was still a lot to endure.

There were plots that didn’t just require fans to suspend disbelief, but to murder it, dissolve its body in acid, and dump the residue in the Gowanus Canal. Remember the sentient mass of space junk known as V’ger (Star Trek: The Motion Picture)? Or the alien masquerading as God on a planet at the center of the galaxy (The Final Frontier)? What does God need with a starship anyway?

Then there were the terrible attempts at comedy, like the one that led the main cast to spend an entire movie looking for whales on 20th century Earth (The Voyage Home), or the time Kirk and Spock sang “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” around a campfire (Final Frontier).

Star Trek: The Final Frontier posterYet Star Trek fans stuck with the franchise through all of this and more.

Star Trek: The Next Generation brought more believable special effects and the gravitas of Patrick Stewart to the table, but even this honed and refined series had its missteps.

Remember the tim Dr. Crusher accidentally de-evolved the Enterprise crew (“Genesis”)? What about the time she fell in love with a ghost (“Sub Rosa”)? Every time she yells “The flame was plasma-based!” at the end of that episode, I die a little inside.

Then there were Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise. All good series in their own ways, but never in a position to make up for the sins of the ones that came before.

So even if Into Darkness is the worst movie to air this year, it could still be among the best Star Trek films ever. It will definitely be better than Nemesis.

Over the years, Star Trek fans have demonstrated the same faith and patience that an actual five-year mission of space exploration would require. They’ve endured some pretty terrible schlock because the core ideas of Star Trek appeal to them.

That demonstrates the staying power of Gene Roddenberry’s vision for a future where people live in harmony and fulfill humanity’s potential. Or that people really like seeing movies with pointy-eared aliens. Either way, I can’t wait to see Into Darkness.

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Super serious

Iron Man 3I never thought I’d say this, but people are taking superheroes way too seriously.

By people, I mean film critics. They don’t seem to understand that superhero movies are based on comic books.

In Iron Man 3, Tony Stark won an impressive victory over a fire-breathing Aldrich Killian, but according to certain critics, he destroyed American culture in the process.

The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis said the film exploited imagery of terrorism for cheap thrills, without addressing any of the issues behind that imagery, and said that releasing the film so soon after the Boston Marathon bombing shows that Hollywood is out of touch with the real world.

NPR’s Linda Holmes criticized Tony himself, lamenting that his egotism, wealth, and use of technology to cocoon himself make him the “new Captain America.” Steve Rogers doesn’t use remote controlled drones to fight his battles, right?

I’m not saying that Iron Man 3 deserves critical praise, in fact quite the opposite. For movies like this, being faithful to the comic books that form the source material is as important as artistic merit.

Tales of Suspense 50No movie with as many explosions as Iron Man 3 deserves a critic’s approval, but because dodging explosions is what Iron Man does in the comic books, that’s what he should be doing on the big screen.

While writers and directors do have to make certain decisions about how to transform a comic book character into a movie character, or even about which comic books to make movies of, critics still need to stop treating the resulting movies as if they materialized from thin air.

Certain things about Iron Man simply can’t be changed, like the fact that he’s a rich white guy, or that his arch enemy is a guy called The Mandarin, or that he fights people. Without those elements, the cinematic Iron Man might be more nuanced, but he wouldn’t be Iron Man.

Iron Man and most of his colleagues predate the movie craze that is enriching their owners, and many of the political issues they are now accused of exploiting. When Iron Man debuted in 1963, Osama bin Laden was six, and America was in the middle of the Cold War.

People seem to be aware of this. In “The Amazing Spider-Man and the Modern Comic Book Movie,” a dialogue with Dargis, the Times’ A.O. Scott notes that “our superheroes have been around for a very long time.”

Of course, superheroes are capable of changing with the times. Tony fought Soviet-themed villains like the Crimson Dynamo when they were still relevant, and The Mandarin has gradually shifted from an old school megalomaniacal villain into a terrorist.

Still, there are certain things that cannot be changed. In the same article on the “Modern Comic Book Movie,” Dargis acknowledges that superheroes predate the movies that depict them, and claims that is he problem.

“The world has moved on — there’s an African-American man in the Oval Office, a woman is the secretary of state — but the movie superhero remains stuck in a pre-feminist, pre-civil rights logic that dictates that a bunch of white dudes, as in “The Avengers,” will save the world for the grateful multiracial, multicultural multitudes. What a bunch of super-nonsense,” she says.Iron Man first appearance

A team of white guys saving the world does seem inappropriate in our post-feminist, post-civil rights world, but this isn’t just any team of white guys, it’s the Avengers. They resonate because of who they are, not because they are white and male.

Superheroes are popular because people like them. They like the idea of them, and more importantly, they like specific characters like Iron Man and Captain America. That’s why, when a movie that does them justice (no pun intended) appears, they turn out in droves.

While it’s not impossible for a superhero movie to have an important message, or to meaningfully engage with important issues, that is all secondary to the “superhero” part of it.

If you’re looking for cultural critiques, Iron Man 3 is not the movie for you. If you want to see Iron Man in a movie, it is.

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Why stop at Seven Samurai?

So, rumors are going around that Zack Snyder (director of 300 and Watchmen) is working on a Star Wars version of Akira Kurosawa’s classic Seven Samurai. I’m assuming that means seven warriors will band together to defend a small village, only this time they’ll have lightsabers.

Whether this actually happens or not, it shows the flexibility of Kurosawa’s original story. Seeven Samurai has already been adapted as Magnificent Seven and an anime called Samurai 7. Tropes from the original have also been recycled in countless actions films.

Which begs the question: What other sci-fi adaptations of Seven Samurai are possible?

Seven Gundams: I’m thinking specifically of Gundam Wing; they’re only two pilots short of a full contingent already. The plot would involve seven laconic teenagers and their mobile suits defending an unarmed space colony, with space rice as their only payment.

Seven Redshirts: A Federation starship is dispatched to defend a small outpost from the Romulans and/or Klingons. An away team is dispatched. Everyone dies.

Seven Klingons: Klingons consider a glorious death in battle as payment. Three survive (as in Seven Samurai) and their shame is passed down for three generations.

Seven Superheroes: Pretty much a standard Avengers (Marvel) or Justice League (DC) story, but substituting an impoverished village for New York/Metropolis.

Seven Transformers: Not that Optimus Prime would ever accept payment for defending humans against a Decepticon attack, but some Energon would sweeten the deal and give Megatron a reason to attack.

Seven Mandalorians: Factional differences lead to the destruction of all seven before the Hutts get to the village.

Seven Soul Reapers: A group of Soul Reapers has a dispute with the Soul Society (it happens all the time) and redeem themselves by entering the World of the Living to stop marauding Hollows.

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“Pacific Rim’s” Gipsy Danger and Gigantor: Separated at birth?

Pacific_Rim_FilmPosterJust when we thought the giant monster versus giant robots genre was dead, Guillermo del Toro delivers a rocket-assisted punch of awesome to the nerdscape. Pacific Rim, due out in July 2013, tells the story of giant monsters called kaiju that emerge from an inter-dimensional portal in the Pacific Ocean to ravage humanity. To stop the kaiju, the world’s nations build giant fighting robots called jaegers.

Del Toro calls the movie a “beautiful love poem to giant monsters,” and, if that doesn’t make you want to see Pacific Rim, you should check out the trailer.

Any movie about a showdown between giant monsters and robots owes a debt to Japanese pop culture. “Kaiju” is after all, a Japanese word denoting giant creatures from Godzilla to the antagonists of various tokusatsu live-action television shows and movies. Literally translated, it means “mysterious beast.”

The plot of Pacific Rim will also sound familiar to fans of Neon Genesis Evangelion, but hopefully there will be a little less weirdness and existential angst than in that robots versus monsters anime.

The design of the main jaeger also seems familiar, at least to me. Pacific Rim’s two protagonists, Raleigh Beckett (Charlie Hunnam) and Mako Mori (Rinko Kickuchi) pilot the United States’ Gipsy Danger, a supposedly obsolete model that looks a bit like the grandfather of all giant robots.Gigantor

Gigantor made his debut in manga form as Tetsujin 28 (Iron Man 28) in 1956, and came to the U.S. as a cartoon in 1964. In the American version of the story, Gigantor fought criminals and megalomaniacs with 10-year-old Jimmy Sparks, who used a remote control to operate the giant robot.

Gigantor had no neck, and a large round torso that made him look like a garbage can with limbs. Gipsy Danger is obviously more sophisticated, but when I saw its visored “eyes” peering out from behind a high collar, I immediately thought of Gigantor. Gipsy’s long limbs and dark blue color clinched it.

I’m certain this wasn’t intentional, but it is fitting that the latest and greatest giant robot resembles its literal ancestor. Along with Speed Racer, Astroboy, and 8 Man, Gigantor was one of the first Japanese pop culture exports, robot or otherwise, to make it big. If it wasn’t for that walking trash can, we wouldn’t be awash with anime and manga, and we wouldn’t have Pacific Rim.

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We need another villain

cinematic villainsI’m looking for a good villain. I’ve had enough of relatable bad guys that need to be empathized with as well as feared. Maybe it’s just leftover angst from the Presidential Election, but I’d like to see a character whose two dimensionality I can point out without making me look like a bad person.

What the public needs is someone they can love to hate. Someone whose iPod has a playlist of children crying. Someone who keeps a cat around just so they can maniacally pet it in a revolving chair. Someone who looks good (and by good, I mean bad) with a mustache.

In the world of nerd literature, definitely the best place to look for archetypal bad guys, the opposite is the trend. As writers strive for more depth, characters wearing both white and black hats become more realistic.

That’s great most of the time, but sometimes it’s just fun to watch Captain America punch the Red Skull in the face without having to consider the Skull’s perspective.

Giving a character a detailed set of motivations makes him or her more relatable, but it also makes the character less evil. Audiences were supposed to view the army Voldemoort raised in the final Harry Potter film as the ultimate force of darkness, but it looked like a mob of homeless people. You’re supposed to fear the Army of Darkness, not empathize with it because social stratification left it with no other viable options!

A good work of film or literature needs complex characters, but sometimes readers and viewers need absolutes. Everyday life is a gray blob, we face choices that are morally ambiguous and often inconsequential outside of the moment. Even when someone commits a genuinely bad act, there is usually a reason behind it.

We forgive people’s bad vibes, and wonder if we’re making the right choices, but we often don’t know anything for sure. A little fictional certainty once and awhile is a good thing. Shakespeare had it right when he created Iago.

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