Media Analysis Monday – Rogue One and the Evolving Star Wars Cinematic Landscape

 

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It is an odd thing to examine the landscape we find ourselves in in 2017. If you can recall what things were like before December of 2012, fans of the Star Wars series could only dream that there would be further cinematic outings featuring that universe, and if that were to come to fruition it would only ever likely come once George Lucas kicked the bucket and found himself as a means to describe a similarly dead parrot. And yet here we are five years and two cinematic entries into the series later and the landscape has decidedly changed. As fans of the Star Wars universe, we have had to twist our way of thinking and align it with the reality that whether we want them or not, we will be seeing yearly entries into the cinematic canon. How long will it be before Disney tries their luck with more than one film in a calendar year? We can’t know for sure, but having seen success with their Marvel output, I would wager a guess that it can’t be too far away.

A more interesting question going forward is whether or not future installments will branch away from what we consider to be the central narrative of the series thus far, the chronology that began with The Phantom Menace and is still directly continuing with The Last Jedi later this year. Every film thus far has been a link in a chain. Is it possible to tell a story in this universe that does not have ties to the central stories of Episodes I-VIII+? When Rogue One was released in December, it was an experiment. A Star Wars film featuring no Jedi? That would be a stretch for a good many casual fans. Indeed a good amount of chatter on the web featured confused commenters wondering why there was another death star, unaware that this was meant to serve as a prequel to A New Hope.  Given the overall box office success of the film, earning a total $1,055,724,829 worldwide based off of a reported 200 million dollar budget, it is highly likely that the takeaway Disney got from the release of Rogue One is that so long as the words “Star” and “Wars” are somewhere in proximity to the title they can expect astronomical returns on their monetary investment.

The upcoming Han Solo film directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller featuring Alden Ehrenreich in the role originated by Harrison Ford will be another major test for Disney. They want to see if audiences will allow and support the recasting of central characters for spinoff projects. When people think of Han Solo they think of Harrison Ford. It is not a James Bond situation where the name conjures multiple actors to mind depending on the personal experience of the audience in relation to the series. Han Solo and Harrison Ford are inseparable at this point. It was made the third act of The Force Awakens resonate in the manner that it did, as any attempt to have a new actor carry on the performance would have undercut the emotional reaction the audience was expected to have regarding the end of his arc in the larger narrative. Having someone play the character at a point prior to the moment we first meet him in A New Hope is not as bitter a pill to swallow in the minds of most audience members. At least this is the hope of executives planning the next several years of spinoffs and sequels bearing the Star Wars brand.

Rogue One, upon first viewing can be viewed as a bit too tethered to the original trilogy. The script uses the established saga as a crutch on which to give the story means to amble forward. Under close scrutiny, large holes appear in the narrative construction and the depth of the characters can be called into question. However, that raises the question of whether or not the film needs to divest itself of its own legacy in order to be valid. Simply because nobody in the cast is named Skywalker or carries a lightsaber does not mean that it isn’t an integral part of the greater story being told in the main saga. It is retroactively thus, and that may feel like a bit of a cheat. However, the film crafts a story that directly ties to central moments of A New Hope. I cannot speak to how well the film plays on a structural, emotional, and objective level without a prior connection to A New Hope, as I have had that film etched into the back of my brain since I was five years old. Analytically speaking, only two moments require a connection on the part of the audience;

  1. Anything involving Darth Vader
  2. CGI Princess Leia

Aside from those instances, the film’s narrative stands on its own and establishes its own internal logic and narrative force. The conflict presented within Jyn Erso as a character may not be as rich as others in the central saga, though much of that can be attributed to the logistical reality of a standalone film versus a multi-part epic. Her struggle to reconcile her feelings toward her father and his desire to undermine the Imperial war machine with her sense of self-preservation drives the central theme of the film; personal investment in societal change. The script takes strides to contrast Jyn with characters who fall on a spectrum of ideals, specifically through Chirrut’s mysticism-driven ideals that insist that what happens is the will of the universe (see force) and Cassian Andor’s deeply personalized sense of purpose in rebellion.

There is enough thematic and narrative meat to allow Rogue One to stand on its own. Ultimately its ties to the greater Star Wars canon are simply embellishments for the sake of the initiated that do little to detract from the experience for casual observers. The film could take greater pains to force an investment in the characters on the part of the audience, but the end product is ultimately serviceable in every regard. There is little here that could be critiqued to a degree as to classify Rogue One as a poor film. While some may not enjoy the film enthusiastically, from an objective point of view the film functions well in every regard; composition, editing, effects, score, etc. They all work. Where the film deserves a critical eye is in regard to the script itself, which does seem to fail to develop our central characters fully. While some might argue that this is a trapping of an ensemble production, it is clear that the film was probably another full draft away from being where it needed to be in terms of character development. It is unclear how much of this is as a result of the much ballyhooed reshoots and editing bay shenanigans, but if we take things at face value there is still enough to find issue with.

Beyond The Last Jedi and the as-yet-untitled Han Solo film, we really do not know much about the future of the franchise. What direction will they go? In what ways will they course correct from Rogue One? Do they need to course correct at all? Everything at this juncture is speculation, and however things pan out, the first steps of this marathon have worked out well for Disney and Lucasfilm.

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Media Analysis Mondays – Examining Disney’s Live Action Adaptations

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Remakes and reboots are an established phenomenon at this juncture. As much as film can be an artistic medium, so too is it largely beholden to the whims of capitalism and the quest for box office success. When patterns begin to form, sometimes they are easily recognizable; such as every studio’s desire to create a “shared universe” in the wake of 2012’s The Avengers. Other patterns develop with a degree of subtlety, creating a lens with which to view a certain era of time. Patterns may also develop within a sort of microcosm, in an isolated environment divorced from the whole. Disney has of late taken to adapting their animated classics into live-action films, an initiative that can be traced back to 2010’s Alice in Wonderland directed by Tim Burton.

Since that time, we have seen adaptations of Sleeping Beauty in the revisionist Maleficent, Cinderella in 2015, with The Jungle book and Pete’s Dragon rounding out 2016. Spring of this year sees the release of Beauty and the Beast, whose original animated counterpart marked a turning point in the history of animation and of Disney as a company. The train is still rolling as casting has just begun for Aladdin, news recently broke that Mulan is moving forward but will not be a musical and it has been reported that James Earl Jones will reprise his role as the voice of Mufasa in a live action version of The Lion King.

While these adaptations have hitherto been moderate to extreme box office heavyweights, the lingering critical question upon the release of each subsequent film has been whether the studio is doing anything with the new versions of the film to justify their existence beyond the revenue they generate. Does translating these classic animated films into a live action film bring anything to the table that wasn’t there in the original version?

Focusing solely on the latest film in the lineup, it feels as if Disney has for the first time put an emphasis on injecting something new into the narrative for the sake of justifying its own existence. The script’s portrayal of Belle, here portrayed as the creative/inventive genius in her father’s workshop, seems hell-bent on making strides to correct the perception that the character is simply a bookworm suffering from Stockholm Syndrome. The script moves a few steps further by feeling the need to give Belle her own “tragic backstory,” perhaps to put her in the same company as Lily James’ Cinderella. This would not be obtrusive, had the script not felt the need to do the same for Beast, giving a kind of justification for his decision to turn away the enchantress that places the curse upon his home.

Wanting to provide depth to a character is not usually a tick mark in the negative column. However, this adaptation does not provide enough attention to this subplot for it to carry enough weight. In the end, it feels like padding; largely unnecessary in most regards. Some minor additions to the script actually do work, such as the addition of Beast’s third-act solo following Belle’s departure or LeFou’s eventual about-face in his relationship with Gaston.

The 2017 Beauty and the Beast is a good film, though it is not a great one. Part of the reason for this is simply that the original on which it is based succeeds in just about every regard where the remake falters. It is somewhat disappointing, but if you look at the patterns, it is not all that unsurprising.

Trading Genre – Examining Tropes and Expectations in LOGAN

 

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**Major spoilers for Logan are contained within. Be forewarned**

As a teacher of literature, I often preach the importance of understanding genre conventions. In trying to teach the concept of analysis, I have always found it important to build a bedrock of understanding that lies in comprehending the expectations present when examining a particular type of writing. I talk about text features, patterns, structure, etc. There are some who do not agree with this approach; that it hamstrings the person trying to formulate effective analysis because if they can’t tick a box they can’t generate a thesis, and while I feel that in some ways this is a logical argument, it can also easily be countered by taking a look at a selection that so readily establishes itself as a deconstruction of a genre itself or a commentary on the tropes and expectations contained therein.

Case in point; James Mangold’s Logan. The film, directed by Mangold based off a story he generated with a script by Scott Frank, is a direct response to the superhero genre as it has been established over the past ten years.

The “superhero genre” is one that, for a good while at least, was ill-defined at best. Many of the tropes schemes associated with the genre by the middle of the 1990s have been discarded, phased out in response to what feels like a steady rise in “focus group” or “Four Quadrant” mainstream film-making. While superhero films have been around for decades, it was the wave of films in the immediate aftermath of Bryan Singer’s X-Men in 2000 that started to form the mold that would be firmly solidified by the success of the Marvel cinematic universe in the wake of Iron Man in 2008. As a result, the expectations of the genre have, by and large, been set by Marvel Studios and Disney over the last ten years. Audiences are conditioned to look for certain elements; films that break from that mold are viewed as outliers.

What Marvel has done over the last decade is decide what tropes from published comic books they wanted to translate over to the world of film and television. It was Marvel studios that reversed the idea brought upon the cinematic landscape by X-Men in 2000 that heroes could not or should not wear their traditional costumes. There is also much to be said about the formula that they apply to their character archetypes, the structure of their narratives (Marvel never met a macguffin it didn’t like) and the congruous “house style” of their framing and color palettes.

While this has happened for films produced by Marvel’s association with the “Mouse House,” films produced by other studios have largely eschewed those conventions, either seeking to establish their own, or simply seeking to subvert them and comment on them in such a way as to stand apart from the herd. Warner Brothers attempted to sell their DC cinematic universe as “filmmaker driven,” as a dig at Marvel Studio’s perceived desire to keep their universe homogeneous to the point that, some argue, it renders the overall product increasingly bland. It is hard to see any WB/DC films, especially those under the guided hand of Zack Snyder as anything other than a direct antithesis of genre conventions established by the cultural powerhouse of Marvel Studios.

Where films like Batman v. Superman, Suicide Squad, et al. fail in that regard however is as a commentary on those conventions. The WB/DC films offer a counter-point in tone but do little to make an argument regarding that selfsame tone. What purpose does the implied darkness serve in the grander scheme of the narrative? In what way does reshaping the core fundamentals of firmly established characters shape the stories that they tell? It would appear that there is no such purpose.

Contrast that with other films that seek to deconstruct the genre; namely last year’s surprise (to some people, anyway) hit Deadpool and this year’s dark-horse candidate for comic adaptation of the year, Logan. Whereas the WB/DC films sought to provide a counter-balance to the Marvel cinematic universe in terms of tone, Deadpool and Logan seek to provide a rebuttal in terms, not only of tone, but of intent. Deadpool was a reverent, sophomoric exercise in showing that homogeneous, same-samey cinematic adaptions of popular characters could only get you so far. Trying to fit the character of Deadpool into the mold established by films like Iron Man and Thor simply would not work. Instead, they focused on subverting the genre expectations established by the films that preceded it, and utilized the character’s fourth-wall breaking tendencies to offer commentary directly to the audience. The subversion of genre tropes was both text and sub-text within the context of the film itself.

That commentary and subversion continues with Logan. It is no coincidence that Logan begins with a false-start that turns out to actually be a teaser trailer for Deadpool 2; both of these films, in their very DNA, a similarity in intent. Though the two films could not be any different if they tried, they share a connection that cannot be disputed; both films wear their R rating like badge of honor(though the reasoning and utilization of the freedom it allows are also quite disparate in nature), both scale back the drama in ways that make the narrative less about the external conflict with an ill-defined villain and more about the internal conflict with themselves, and both films seek to show that tone disparate from established genre norms requires that the intent of utilizing it also be addressed from a narrative standpoint.

Logan is an R rated film. It earns the R rating not only through a veritable overload of graphic violence but through a cavalcade of cursing that would feel right at home in a film directed by Quentin Tarantino. Both of these points seek to reinforce that Logan is, itself, a commentary on the genre itself. Hugh Jackman has played the character of Wolverine for seventeen years. To put that in perspective, if Wolverine is Jackman’s baby, that baby is now old enough to purchase a ticket to Logan without a parent or guardian present. Fans have clamored for an R rated Wolverine film for almost as long as there has been an X-Men franchise. Following the release of X2, fans lamented the bloodless nature of Wolverine’s berserker rage as it was presented on camera. In that film however, it simply would not have been appropriate with regard to the tone being established. The violence in Logan is a commentary; from the very first scene it is established that Wolverine as a character is trying to move past violence. Just as the world has moved on, so too has he. The men trying to steal Logan’s limo initiate the violence with a cursory shotgun blast to his chest. Even after taking the hit, Logan attempts to talk his way out of the situation. Once the situation reaches an apex, only then do the claws come out. Every bit of violence that follows is deliberate and meaningful. It echoes the world that surrounds it. The world has fallen into decay. Logan, too, has fallen into decay. The veil of humanity and civilization and structure and order is now simply a specter, thus allowing the levels of violence and bloodshed shown on screen to be congruous with the story being told. The reason we, as an audience, didn’t need to see people getting claws shoved through their skulls in previous X-Men films is because there was still hope in the world where the narrative was transpiring. There, Logan was making an attempt to live within the norms of society; here, that restraint is gone, and so too is any censorship of his actions.

This same lack of censorship can be applied to the linguistic aspect of the script as well, specifically the casual nature with which the central characters drop f-bomb after f-bomb. The X-Men franchise has been toying around with this for several films now, with each film utilizing their one MPAA approved, non-sexual utterance of the word to varying degrees of comedic effect. Here, however, the word is not played for laughs, aside from perhaps the first time we hear Patrick Stewart’s Xavier use it because we feel it to be so far out of the natural confines of his character. But as we move deeper into the film and we as an audience come to understand the depths of sorrow and despair that have plagued both Logan and Charles since things all went sideways, the blue nature of the dialog begins to make organic sense, as it is a distillation of their emotional turmoil and serves as a means of non-violent catharsis. Again, this is something that would have been out of place in other entries in the franchise but is tied heavily to the film’s own thematic statements that when the credits roll you would be hard pressed to find an audience member who found the dialog to be incongruous with the story being told.

The single biggest challenge to the established expectations of the superhero genre however come simply in the form of the climax and the focus of the narrative. A majority of major comic book superhero adaptations feel the need to have an exaggerated climax, usually involving an under-developed villain and their desire to control/regain/destroy some type of macguffin. This usually ends with some sort of sky-portal or something falling from the sky. The sky is almost always involved. (Avengers had a sky portal, Avengers: Age of Ultron had a country falling out of the sky, Guardians of the Galaxy had a ship falling out of the sky, Thor: The Dark World had something falling out of the sky, a pattern does seem to develop) Logan eschews this in favor of focusing the narrative around Wolverine’s internal conflict; to what degree does he owe anything to Xavier, to Laura, who comes into his life at a time that could only bring complications, to Caliban, and ultimately to himself. It is ultimately fitting that Logan does battle with himself in the literal sense when he ends up fighting X-24; a younger, more virile version of himself that represents the unsuppressed violence that he had so desperately tried to control his entire life.

Ultimately, Logan is not a film that simply has Hugh Jackman violently stabbing people and dropping f-bombs for the sake of novelty; there is purpose and intent in the film’s construction. Logan serves to show that when you work within a genre, there are boxes that the audience is expecting you to tick, and if you don’t there had better be a reason for it, otherwise why would you be working with that genre to begin with? James Mangold took superhero DNA and infused it into a western, then used it as a way to hold a mirror up to the entirety of the superhero genre and show them a reflection of their own conflict. Not every film needs to do this. In fact, Logan’s success is largely dependent on a mold being present to break free from. What remains to be seen is what, if any, lessons upcoming films will take away from Wolverine’s last ride.

Signing A Covenant with Alien

The trailer for the latest entry into the saga of the xenomorph, Alien: Covenant, dropped this morning;

I have a strange personal history with the Alien franchise. I can remember being ten years old in the year of our lord 1996 and hearing the first rumblings of a fourth Alien film; this coming after the previews alone for Alien 3 kept me far and away from viewing any installment of the franchise thus far. I can vaguely recall a desire to prove my worth to my friends, all of whom had that prepubescent sense of superiority that came from watching the bloodiest, goriest, scariest films they could get their hands on. Strangely enough I decided to begin my journey with part two, James Cameron’s Aliens. As a glance at TV guide one afternoon yielded information that the local Fox affiliate would be airing a special presentation of the special edition version of the film that evening. My parents, lenient as they were with my viewing habits, would likely be perturbed by a request to rent any of the films from the local blockbuster so instead I stayed up just long enough to pop in a blank VHS tape and record the showing while I journeyed off to slumber, secure in my knowledge that the next day I would be able to sit down and watch through the whole thing, fast forwarding through any meddlesome commercial breaks.

I sat down to watch the film the next day and the sensation of anxiety in doing so was palpable. More than anything that was happening on screen, my nerves were gripped by the mystique that had been built up surrounding the mythos of the series by friends and movie magazines. (Yes, even at age ten I was a devout follower of certain periodicals that gave me all the latest movie news before the explosion of the online film community) I sat enraptured, awaiting the first appearance of the legendary creature. I knew enough about the movies from secondhand discussion or lengthy articles detailing the production of the films that the slow build of tension was practically torture.

Keep in mind, I was ten.

After the end credits rolled I had been hooked in. I needed to see the rest of the series. It was imperative. Luckily, I had a friend named Brett who lived a few blocks over whose parents were far more relaxed regarding their son’s consumption of violent media. His parents had an entire boxed set of the trilogy and that weekend I asked him if we could marathon watch them all. He seemed amicable to the idea and I wound up watching all three films over the course of a day with Brett and one other friend whose name I could not remember if you placed a loaded plasma rifle to my temple.

Even so young, I found myself intrigued by the differences between all three films. Where Aliens was dripping with a defiant, last-stand-at-the-Alamo sense of action, Ridley Scott’s original film was a quiet, creeping slow burn that honestly left me feeling underwhelmed at first. In the years since I have grown to love Alien as a true classic of dramatic and horrific tension, and I don’t view it as greater or lesser than its sequel; as they are so disparate in tone and composition that comparing the two is pointless. I even found myself enthralled by Alien 3, a position that seemed bold at the time but one that has seemingly been vindicated by the march of time.

The next year I managed to see Alien Resurrection in theaters and I believe that may be the first time I have ever been acutely aware of magic being broken. While there were certainly elements that I enjoyed in the film it felt a little too detached from the mood and tone established by the first three. I tried to convince myself that I actually liked the film, the same way I would with The Phantom Menace in ’99, but I think in my heart of hearts I knew I was lying to myself. In trying to figure out what it was that didn’t resonate with me I came to understand that there was a lack of severity to Resurrection that I did not wish to engage with. I don’t mean to say that the film didn’t have its moments of seriousness, but there was a degree of dismissive levity to the characters, which I now realize was largely the work of Joss Whedon’s writing, that seemed inappropriate for the series it was inhabiting. That same tone, so out of place in Resurrection, would work wonders for Firefly only five years down the line. But in 1997, aboard a ship crawling with one of the most iconic film monsters of all time, it felt inappropriate and jarring.

And so my love affair with the Alien franchise laid dormant. It was a major shift for me. In the time between discovering the first three films and seeing Resurrection in 1997, I tore through any and all available media I could regarding the franchise; novels, comic books, video games, the whole nine. Then it all fell by the wayside. For about seven years. Then in 2004, as a seventeen year old kid freshly graduated from high school, I found myself ready to be sucked back in by the release of Alien vs. Predator.

The Predator series never grabbed me the way that Alien did. Mostly because up until this point, there had only been two films and of those two I only held one in high regard. I can appreciate Predator 2 for what it is now, but when I was younger I found it to be lacking in most areas. My interest in AvP stemmed from the time I spent consuming all of that tertiary media in the buildup for Resurrection. The comics and novels built on the mythos of those series better than either of the films and I was hoping some of that would carry over into the film version.

I think most people know how that turned out.

For the second time, my hopes had been dashed upon the rocks and my desire to see a film that captured that same sense of excitement I’d had when I was ten and being brought into the warm embrace of the series for the first time was but a fleeting memory. I begrudgingly saw the follow-up film Aliens vs. Predator – Requiem in 2007 but went in with lowered expectations from the outset. I figured my relationship with the series was all but dead.

Then in 2012 Ridley Scott returned to the franchise with Prometheus, and for the first time since watching the first three on a grainy VHS tape I felt a spark in the series. I will be the first to admit that there were some parts of the film that didn’t work for me; Guy Pearce’s terrible old-man makeup, the perceived need to tip-toe around the ties to the original Alien, a general under-utilization of Idris Elba. Those minor gripes aside I found it to be a visually stunning film and one that did one thing right if it failed in any other category; it felt congruous with the universe that had been previously developed and it offered avenues for interesting storytelling opportunities.

It would appear that those avenues are being traveled with Alien: Covenant. I like the continuation of the established themes of crew as family, creeping dread, and claustrophobic terror. I appreciate that with the return to utilizing the franchise namesake in the title their fear in putting the monster on display seems to be gone.

Marketing can oftentimes be misleading, but from what is on display here, it would appear I have cause to be optimistic about the franchise again. Maybe I should pull some of those old novels out and give them a read through again. Just for old times’ sake.

Crying for Criticism – Examining Batman v Superman : Dawn of Justice

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Film is a medium that is ruled by the sum of its parts. This is why it is possible to enjoy a film when certain elements falter in the eyes of the viewer. It is a function of the medium itself that a film can overcome the under-performance of its own elements to be viewed as a success by the audience. This is an understanding that most lovers of film will readily acknowledge when discussing the art form. It is a reason why viewers are apt to have so-called “guilty pleasures” wherein some element of an otherwise disposable piece of entertainment overpowers its combined negative elements to provide enjoyment to the person watching. There is nothing wrong with being the dissenting opinion. There is nothing wrong with believing that a film has merit that others do not see. However, in the wake of the release of mega-blockbuster Batman v Superman : Dawn of Justice, there has been an explosion of inflammatory rhetoric and combative attitudes put forth by both critics and supporters of the film that seems to ignore the basic central tenet of film criticism; that artistic value is ultimately subjective.

One of the prevailing false equivalencies in defending one’s opinion on a piece of art or entertainment is to dismiss the person stating the opinion rather than providing a logical opposition to the opinion itself. This is what is known as an ad hominem attack. A sizeable amount of the street-level conversation regarding the release of Batman v Superman : Dawn of Justice has circled around the fact that those criticizing the film are doing so out of customer loyalty to rival Marvel Comics, and in no way predicated on the fact that the film, like any produced by mere mortals, has flaws that many will see as inexcusable when trying to assess its relative value. In the world of film criticism, to a certain degree, any argument is valid provided that it resides in sound logic. Dismissing legitimate criticisms as an aftereffect of a perceived cultural hive-mind is not a basis for defending one’s own position. However, a sizeable faction of those supporting Batman v Superman : Dawn of Justice seem incapable of drafting their own thesis in defense of the film and would rather predicate their attack on the criticism the film has received, hoping to undermine the voices of those who would question whatever artistic merit it might have by painting those who would speak against it as preternaturally biased. It is somewhat perplexing that so many defenders of the film have chosen this path because in the world of film criticism the best offence is not a good defense. Supporters of the film, if they are seeking credibility or validity for their own viewpoint, should focus on presenting the merits of the film rather than attacking those who fail to see them.

Batman v Superman : Dawn of Justice is a film that seems equal parts genetically engineered for close analysis and wholly underdeveloped to the point that any analysis would be equally insubstantial. Director Zack Snyder begins the film with a sequence in which a young Bruce Wayne, following the funeral of his parents, finds himself at the bottom of a well after tumbling down an unseen shaft. The young child is then shown ascending out of the cave in a maelstrom of bats. This is a powerful metaphor to be certain, or rather it could be, but ultimately it is meaningless because nothing in the film follows up on the symbolism presented in that scene. It is an isolated piece of imagery that exists only to provide a stirring visual. This is a legitimate criticism of an aspect of the film. Does it, in and of itself, mean that the film is a disaster? No. It does not. This criticism is not predicated on any particular loyalty to an outside brand or a bias against the film walking into the theater. It is an observation that explains why someone might take issue with the film and call it ultimately empty and lackluster in its construction.

Another rhetorical fallacy being paraded by supporters of the film is that it heralds the arrival of mainstream comic adaptations that ascend in maturity the way that rival Marvel adaptations are afraid to embrace. This seems entirely centered around a false definition of the word “mature.” In the parlance of those who herald Batman v Superman : Dawn of Justice as a mature alternative to Marvel, the word they are likely looking for is simply “dark.” Maturity implies sophistication. Batman v Superman : Dawn of Justice is many things but sophisticated is low among the adjectives that could be reasonably applied to it with a straight face. By implying that Batman v Superman : Dawn of Justice is a mature film, supporters would then be arguing that it is intricately crafted and sophisticated in its design in a way that a lesser or more juvenile film could not attain. While I will say that there are points in the film that are artfully and tastefully rendered, with a careful intricacy in developing certain themes, the majority of the film’s construction is ultimately haphazard and disjointed in a way that defies the term “mature.” Coherency is a central part of narrative storytelling. There are myriad elements within the script of Batman v Superman : Dawn of Justice which defy logical cohesion. They are not so much “plot holes” as they are “logic holes,” and moments that could and should have been caught in revising the draft before being placed in production.

Again, that is not to say that there are not sophisticated elements showcasing this abstract concept of maturity within the film. Batman v Superman : Dawn of Justice does an excellent job with its operatic interpretation of the death of Martha and Thomas Wayne, a singularly important moment in developing Batman as a character. It is even more striking when you realize that this scene, very early in the film, sets the philosophical principles of Batman in an organic way that utilized economic storytelling and strong visuals instead of the ham-fisted expository dialog that permeates the rest of the film. To wit, Thomas Wayne is shot down in the midst of attempting to fight off the attacker who would rob them. This is a direct act of aggression, which sets the tone for our more active-minded, aggressive Batman throughout the rest of the film. Contrast this with the Batman of the Christopher Nolan trilogy, whose Thomas Wayne died while trying to place himself between the attacker and his wife, an act of defense. To construct the scene this way, Snyder was likely attempting to prove his thesis on heroism; that passivity has no place in the heart of those we should call heroes. This is indeed a bold choice and shows some of the maturity that supporters of the film like to point to. However, much of the goodwill earned by flourishes like this are balanced out by scenes in which Lex Luthor taunts a senator with a glass of urine on her desk before suicide bomber takes out the capitol building.

Batman v Superman : Dawn of Justice is not an unholy abomination of a film. It is not even the worst comic book film of the last five years. Oddly enough, as much as this film drew from the oeuvre of Frank Miller, it was that man’s Sin City : A Dame to Kill For that takes the prize as the most incoherent, painfully unwatchable comic book adaptation since the genre saw its resurgence in the middle of the 2000s. What Batman v Superman : Dawn of Justice is actually is a deeply flawed film whose individual parts do not add up to a competent film but possesses minute elements that work in such a way that the flaws can be overlooked by a certain contingency of the audience. In a way, supporters of Batman v Superman : Dawn of Justice are correct. The film is critic proof. It will and has made the studio the money they so obviously desired. But for those who were hoping to see a film that embraced the true meaning of maturity, the concept that so many are quick to rally around to defend this film, they will only be disappointed.

Fifty Shades of Criticism

Having a verbal discussion about Fifty Shades of Grey is challenging. The book is a loaded subject and one that at this point has been discussed into oblivion and back. The ramblings of one more person isn’t going to change public perception on the novel, nor should it. On episode thirty of the Pop and Schlock Podcast I spoke about the book’s film adaptation and how it should be viewed as its own entity and judged on the merits presented therein, ignoring the book that spawned the adaptation. I argued that the film improves on the novel in almost every aspect, which I still stand by. It would be hard not to improve on a book that poorly written. I have made it across the finish line on many a terrible book. I could not do that with E.L. James poorly written and terribly constructed mainstream smut. I have annotations on how and why the book is beyond problematic and how as a character Christian Grey is a sociopathic abuser and will not argue that as he is presented on paper, he fits that category. That is not in dispute. That readers are romanticizing him and treating him as an object of desire in spite of this evidence is also not in dispute. Arguing that the film adaptation is without merit or somehow devoid of consequence or craft because of the soil from which it grew is however, something that I would wish to dispute.

    As presented on film, the abuse present in the novel is largely redacted. Christian Grey on film is respectful of Anastasia’s wishes and allows her full agency with regard to her decision to engage in a consensual BDSM relationship. He never ignores a safeword and reiterates multiple times that she has the power and the right to leave at any time. The climax of the film features a scene in which Ana verbally asks Christian to demonstrate his idea of punishment, which he does by spanking her with a leather strap six times. He clearly defines what he is going to do, and before commencing Anastasia has ample time to decline and exit the premises. As the activity is being carried out, she too can utilize a safeword to alter the proceedings; yellow to slow down because she is nearing her personal limit or red to stop entirely. She utilizes neither. She demonstrated at an earlier point in the film verbally to Christian that she understands and is aware of her safewords and her ability to end the scene. She chooses to leave Christian only after the scene has concluded. She tells him to stop following her as she exits with a firm “No,” which he complies with immediately. He does not disregard her wishes at any point in the film’s runtime. Thus, one of the major elements of contention with the novel is erased, a change made for the better by more talented creative forces than the original novel’s author.

If then we can agree that the major element of contention that establishes the original novel as overtly problematic is rectified by changes made in the course of adapting it to screen, my contention during the podcast was that any notations of what happens between Anastasia and Christian as “abusive” by critics then reverts to simple kink shaming. Logically, if the act is consensual and safe, which by my estimation the events portrayed on screen were, then claims of abuse are seeded in a need to judge the activities as deviant by the person giving critique. To argue that abuse does not happen in BDSM relationships is naive and downright wrong, but I am not making a statement about that community or the issues that permeate the members thereof. Speaking solely of what is presented on screen, the BDSM in the film adaptation ofFifty Shades of Grey lacks the offending elements that so many critics of the book get worked into a furor over.

Thus, establishing that there is little to be offended by in the film unless you rally against it for being deviant in its subject matter or simply for being explicit in its depiction of sexual content, the film can be judged as an adaptation and a work of cinema in the same manner as any other adaptation of a piece of writing, be it established literary fiction, modern popular fiction, comic books, or even non-fiction narrative writing. With that in mind, there is little to find contention with while watching the film. The cinematography by Seamus McGarvey is stunning and transforms a normally dreary Seattle setting into something sleek and refined, with a polished look that raises the presentation of the material above its contemporaries such as hastily produced Lifetime original films or daytime soap operas. This is a film that when viewed in high definition is buoyed by its production value. One of the sole saving graces of Michael Bay’s Transformers films is that they are beautifully rendered at times, and if we can give praise to Michael Bay for his visuals, we can certainly do the same for Sam Taylor-Johnson’s adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey.

Another point of critical contention, at least with regard to the books, was the cringe-worthy writing that E.L. James placed into the mouths of our primary characters. In the novel, Anastasia’s first person narration makes the prose practically unreadable, as it labors the reader’s ability to suspend their disbelief that they are reading the thoughts of a young college graduate and not a sexually frustrated housewife. By adapting the novel to screen, this element is removed as well. We are forced to view the proceedings without an audience surrogate force-feeding information as the narrative progresses. That is not to say that the film couldn’t have kept that same first person perspective. The director and screenwriter might have opted for a Goodfellas approach and given Anastasia the chance to narrate the proceedings in a dreadful voiceover. By making this change, we can see that the producers of this film recognized the flaws of the original text and sought to improve on it wherever possible. With this one choice they have immediately elevated the text beyond its origins and should be given commendations for their efforts.

The final point of contention that a majority of critics latched onto was the idea that the performances in the film were subpar. Nothing on screen in Fifty Shades of Grey feels as if it were phoned in or slept through. The same cannot be said for performances in other films I have witnessed in the past month. Nobody involved in the production of Jupiter Ascendinggave a performance that had a twelfth of the charisma exhibited by Dakota Johnson in Fifty Shades of Grey. This film should be, and hopefully will be, a star-making turn for her as an actress, as she proves that she can handle a major film franchise with aplomb. Something that cannot be said of actresses in other major releases. Kristen Stewart has respectable acting talent as evidenced in her roles in Adventureland and The Runaways,but she lacked the patience or investment to turn Bella Swan into a realized individual the way that Johnson did with Anastasia Steele, a character who was wholly unlikeable on page but a charming and well-rounded person on screen.

The argument that needs to be made is this; that Fifty Shades of Grey is as deserving of legitimate observation and critique as any other film in wide release and that the level of mockery it has received from so-called film journalists since it hit theaters is indicative of a bully mentality that they so often try to crusade against when the same shallow criticisms are lobbied at the properties that they have a personal investment in. Fifty Shades of Grey is one of the most important movies of this year for a myriad of reasons and those being dismissive of it are doing so due to their own agenda. Objectively speaking, this film is better constructed, in many ways, than Oscar nominees like American Sniper. At least nobody had to cradle a plastic baby in Fifty Shades of Grey. Make of that what you will.