Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Can we please stop remaking “The Dark Knight Returns”? The Official Black Owl review of “Superman V. Batman: Dawn of Justice

Just so you know, spoilers ahead!

There are a couple of different ways I want to talk about this film, because like its predecessor, Zach Snyder and Christopher Nolan’s “Man of Steel,” there are some babies here I don’t want to see go out with the bathwater, but man is this a troubled movie.  First though, I want to talk about it just as a movie, the second in a continuous series of films, bringing a specific version of the DC Comics universe to the big screen.  So, I am going to judge it on those merits first. Then we will get around to what this person (now much older) thought of it.

Later on you'll see this kid and his Granddaughter

It’s not an awful film.  The production design is fantastic, and the cast is possibly the best assembled in a long time in any superhero film.  When the “Batfleck” controversy first popped up, I said he would be the best thing about this film—for better or for worse—and I was right.  Cavill completely personifies the look of Superman, even without trunks.  I had a lot of misgivings about Gal Gadot, but she certainly looks the part of Wonder Woman.  And, the best thing about Man of Steel, Amy Adams as Lois Lane, is back for the sequel.  (Though, would have been nice if she didn't have to get saved three times.) Good stuff.

However, it is definitely a Nolan film; bloated, overlong, filled with clunky dialogue, and desperately in need of an editor.  There’s probably a really good 100-120 minute film slogging around in these 150 minutes.  At times this film confuses “convoluted” for “complicated” especially in regard to Lex Luthor’s plan.  I love the idea he’s behind a smear campaign against Superman and has been pushing Batman into darker territory,   However, in trying to show you how cool it is, there’s a lot of extra fluff.  Luthor specifically mentioned at one point some “red ink” and notes to help push Batman over the edge, but as part of the tension building leading up to the capitol explosion, Wayne calls for records on his wounded employee, and upon seeing the notes Luthor is talking about mentions seeing them for the first time.  It’s a non-sequitur in a sea of non-sequiturs.  Scenes don’t play into each other, and the result is a sequence of events rather than a plot. 

What the film really suffers from though is being made in the wrong sequence.  This should not be the second film in a series, but rather the fourth or fifth.  For example, the movie tells us Superman is a trusted hero, and that’s why Lex needs to discredit him; where was Superman a trusted hero?  All we know is the Superman who DIDN’T save Metropolis from Man of Steel, (a fact viscerally driven home again in the beginning of this film).  I need the movie in the middle that shows me Superman gaining the trust of the people.  Batman is 20 years into a career beating up bad guys, and is cynical and brutal, likely lost a sidekick, and not nearly so protective of human life.   Interesting but not if I am supposed to take this series on it’s own merits. It is not an interesting character development if you don’t show me a sane Batman at some point.  Now, Zach Snyder loves telling stories out of sequence, so perhaps this all plays in subsequent films which will fill in the gaps; but I don’t have that yet, I only have Man of Steel and this film.  There is no gravitas when Superman sacrifices himself to stop Doomsday; I haven’t seen a reason to care about this emo alien.  Superman died; so what?  You are TELLING me that’s a big deal, but never SHOW me.  And that is the biggest flaw here.  This movie repeatedly tells and does not show.  The short montage of Supergrim Superman saving people with a look on his face like he’s already tired of all this shit doesn’t show me the hero who is later slandered into people fearing him and Batman wanting to literally kill him; it kind of makes Supes out to be a jerk.

The hints at a larger DC universe are nice, even if brief.  Wonder Woman, who is well presented for the 20 or so minutes of screen time she has, has well, 20 minutes of screen time, and is barely more than a cameo.  The future Flash appearance, tied to the as yet unexplained (but I am willing to wait) vision Bruce Wayne has of the coming of Darkseid is as fast as the speedster himself. The fact there’s an Aquaman action figure in stores for his 9 seconds of footage leaves me scratching my head.

Actually, the fact there are action figures in stores aimed toward kids at all leaves me scratching my head.  This is a dark, brutal movie.  In the first 15 minutes we get at least three gunshots to the face, a city falling on thousands, a little girl crying at the fire her mom was in, and a slaughtered African village.  I don’t mind “grown up” super tales, but this is a movie that had really earned its PG-13, and still had two hours and fifteen minutes to go.  We see people branded, immolated, crushed, shot, their faces sliced open with spears…and that’s just what Batman’s up to.  There’s also bare knuckle fight club, legs crushed off, mothers going to be flame-throwered, and a suicide bomber.  In a dream, Superman executes prisoners with heat vision and rips Batman’s still beating heart from his chest.  This is not about Batman and Superman punching bad guys, this is a brutal cacophony of violence.   Nothing here should be marketed to kids. I am again not against violence in a superhero film, heck, I really like Snyder’s Watchmen.  But this is Superman and Batman and toys for four years olds are in stores, including dress up gear so YOU can go around your neighborhood and brand your friends or rip out their hearts. Here’s where I have to stop talking about the movie as a movie, and start discussing Superman and Batman.

Here’s everything you need to know about Batman: he’s still a little boy who never ever wants to see anyone die. That’s it, everything else about him is driven by that.  Not here.  Here, like the mistaken Tim Burton before, this Batman racks up a body count.  Here’s everything you need to know about Superman: if he were a human born to the Kents and had no super powers at all, he would still be out there doing the right thing and inspiring others to do that as well.  Here, he is nothing but burdened by his powers.  Henry Cavill, who was amazingly charismatic in “Man from UNCLE” is not allowed to enjoy being Superman for even a moment, and does nothing but question if he’s actually helping.  Now, I don’t need the raw “gee whiz” of Christopher Reeve (though, it would certainly help), but at least give me a reason to like this guy other than I am supposed to because he’s Superman.  This is a deconstruction of Superman and Batman, taking the elements of the mythology and showing how awful they would be in the real world…
…just like “The Dark Knight Returns.”  And here is the fundamental devil in these details.  DKR, which came out in the 80s the same time Watchmen did, like Watchmen, is a deconstruction of the superhero myth.  It shows us why those impossibly good superheroes can’t really be impossibly good. It is a fine literary criticism of the superhero genre for that, just like Watchmen was.  However, rather than leave it in the dystopian future realm of a one-off story, the fact fans like me (and yes, I am guilty) loved it so much meant WB has gone back to that well again and again.  Now, for 30 of Batman’s 77-year history, we’ve been deconstructing the poor psychotic bastard and not let anyone put him back together again.  Both film and comic have now done that with Superman as well.  Here’s a hint, Superman IS the impossibly good hero who can’t exist in the real world.  That’s the point: The aspirations he allows us to imagine, inspiring us to be more (I’ve talked at length about that here).  Man of Steel and this movie are like Watchmen, and I don’t think I need that anymore, I think I’ve had enough.   I know I sure as hell don’t want that out of a Superman movie.  If you’ve made a Superman film that you can’t take a ten-year-old to, you have failed.  If you make a Superman film that doesn’t fill the audience with hope,  you’ve failed.  If you give me  Superman who doesn’t reflect  the best we SHOULD be, rather than mixed bag we are, then you’ve failed.

I know, you’re sitting there saying, “Dan, it’s 2016; George Reeves and Christopher Reeve and heroes who stick happily to their moral code are a thing of the past and can’t be done for a modern audience.  No one wants to see that.”

Cap and I call “bullshit.”

So, for me as a Superman fan, this movie fails.  As a Batman fan, there’s some stuff to like, and Affleck pulls it off.  As a Wonder Woman fan, it leaves me wanting more, which I suppose is success. 

It’s not a terrible movie.  But it’s something I never need to sit through again, unless it’s to edit it myself.  I do hope someone here learns a lesson and when Superman pops out of that coffin (c’mon, can you telegraph THAT any more loudly?) he’s found a sense of humor in the afterlife.  A new respect for truth and justice.  A desire to SHOW me he’s a hero, and that he can inspire us all to do better rather than just TELL me. 

I don’t need funny, I don’t need corny, but I sure do need Superman.

And so do we all.

Friday, March 18, 2016

I may have been wrong about some Star Wars.

I tweeted about this the other day, but felt I wanted to play with the concept a little more in depth.  Let me start out by saying that I don’t hate Episodes I-III the way a lot of my generation does.  When I say my generation, I am talking about people who saw at least one Episode of the OT first run in a theater.  We have a tendency to express a lot of displeasure with the Prequels.  Though I enjoy them, I recognize issues (though, don’t forget there are plenty of issues with the OT), and one of the ones I hated the most was the absolutely horrendous performances by Hayden Christiansen and Natalie Portman in portraying Anakin and Padme’s relationship.  Bad dialogue, cardboard performances; I even recently posited they should do a cut of II and III where they actually replace the live-action Anakin with the animated version from The Clone Wars.
More believable.

But, I had a thought the other day that makes me wonder if perhaps I—and many other critics—have missed the point all along.  There might be something much deeper going on that makes both the dialogue and the performances exactly what they should be, and improve the quality of the prequels in its acceptance. 

And if there are younger other fans out there saying, “well of course!” please pardon my ignorance and allow me to proselytize to others.

Let’s take a look at Anakin Skywalker.  Here’s a kid who was a slave.  The only person he was ever really able to get close to was his Mother, and though granted certain autonomy, lives under the constant threat of a violent death if he displeases his exploitative master.  From this socially isolated environment, he is taken in by a group of Warrior Monks where he spends the majority of his time in meditation, combat training. Add to this he is constantly reminded by people around him that he’s different for starting the training late, only around because Yoda wanted to help Obi-Wan fulfill a promise, and oh MIGHT be the person who will fulfill some ambiguous prophecy from the distant past.  Aside from his friendship with Obi-Wan, the only person who has really shown him true kindness aside from his month and Qui-Gon is Padme.  However, the Jedi have spend a decade telling him he CANNOT have that connection, that those links and relationships are forbidden. 

How could he possibly pursue romance like a normal human being?  He must be emotionally stunted, completely unpracticed in dealing with the opposite gender, and still fixated on this one girl who was a pre-pubescent crush who over a decade has probably been promoted in his mind to an impossible reality.  Of course he’s awkward, wooden, obsessive, and immature.  He has no idea how to be anything else.

Then there’s Padme.  Here’s a girl who when she should have been finishing an education and hanging out at the local Naboo Boy-Band Concerts was actually in a position requiring her to rule a planet.  Ruling a planet that was already suffering racial discord (humans versus gunguns) and then suffers invasion and war.  After liberating her world, she becomes a Senator to the Republic, likely to replace that nice Senator Palpatine who is now Chancellor.  She never has a childhood.  She’s spent her life a target enough to need look-alike hand maidens who act as secret service and decoys.  Those would be the people with whom she is closest, virtual twins who she sees die in her place periodically.  What does she know about actually carrying on a romance?  Ascension guns up the side of Theed Palace do not prepare a 15 year old girl for having a normal relationship. 

Along comes Anakin, and Padme sees he’s clumsy in his approach to her, and here finally is someone she does not have to put on airs for, or act like a Senator, Queen, or Liberator.  She can just be Padme, and even she isn’t really sure who that is. 

Finally in Episode III, they know it must all come to an end.  Padme is pregnant, and huge gowns and clever waistlines will not hide that fact forever.  Eventually someone is going to ask who the other parent is.  Eventually, either Padme or Anakin are going to have to give up everything they have and are and make a choice.  And that terrifying change is gestating in Padme with every minute.

So, Padme and Anakin’s conversations and romance are clumsy and poorly worded.  Their love seems to be aping what real romance would be; perfect, that is perhaps exactly what it should be.  How else should we really expect two people who must be completely socially retarded (in the literal, clinical sense) to be?

Maybe this was exactly right all along.

And I don't think I can blame Lucas for this Lazer Boner.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016


See these guys?  These were my first Stormtroopers.  Yep, Dad bought them for me at K-Mart sometime in 1978.  They’ve been shot down by Luke, Han, Chewie, Leia, Lando, Admiral Akbar (I liked Akbar), Boba Fett (turncoat SOB), countless times.  They’ve been with me as I’ve traveled the world in the US Army.  They made it (obviously not unscarred) through a house fire in 1996, and have finally settled with me here in the Pacific Northwest.
So, why am I talking about these guys?  I realized something.  A few months back, when I decided I was going to make a custom built lightsaber to fit my personality, I was trying to settle on Jedi saber or Sith.  I couldn’t really.  I wanted to order a sticker for my car.  Empire or Rebels?  Republic?  Resistance? First Order?  I couldn’t quite settle.  Then it occurred to me.  It wasn’t Jedi or Sith or Bounty Hunters or Smugglers or Rebels or Imperials that really appealed to me, that I saw myself in when projecting into Star Wars’ grand tapestry.
It was the Troopers.
Clone Troopers, grown in a test tube, their free will subverted from birth, forced to fight in a war to control a Galaxy that barely sees them as human.  Struggling to establish their own identities among a million faces that look just like the one in the mirror.
Stormtroopers, men and women who were living on backwater planets and saw an opportunity to get out into the Galaxy by accepting Imperial conscription or even enlisting.  People whose first time off-world or at hyperspace was probably to a training ground that taught you to look out only for yourself and your Empire; do what your told even if what you’re told is “die.”  Who didn’t get good enough training or equipment to win a battle through any other method but overwhelming numbers.
First Order Stormtroopers, many taken from their families as children and conditioned only to serve the brutal zealots trying to resurrect a dead Empire.  Some giving in because it’s all they know.  Some giving in because they believe.  Some just knowing there’s nowhere else to go…but fighting nonetheless.  
Sometimes on the side of right; sometimes thinking they are trying to make the best of a bad situation; struggling to be a person in a system designed to make you the political equivalent of a robot army.  There’s something in those faceless hordes defending a Republic, and Empire, and an Order I connect with.  No, I don’t think my own military service made me a Stormtrooper for the Empire. But, I think we all had our metaphorical moments when we were discouraged from being an individual for the good of the unit; when we were given the allegorical equivalent of a helmet with misaligned eyeholes and a blaster that can’t hold the same sight-picture twice; when we felt like a disconnected leader missing only a mechanical wheeze told us to stand there and get shot by the ragtag rebels so we can follow them back to their base instead of just shooting them before they get back to their transport. 
 Here’s to the Troopers, either Cloned, Conscripted, or Stolen as a baby.  May their nights be Ewok free.
By the way, instead of a saber, I got a DC-15A blaster; for a sticker, I got a Clone Trooper helmet.
And for Halloween, this was my Granddaughter.

Here’s to the losers in all of us, who hold out for the win.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Force is Still Waking Up.

New thoughts!

-Everything in my first review I said about how there were a few too many echoes of Episode IV is rubbish.  Those echoes (starting off in the desert; Resistance/Rebellion vs. First Order/Empire; Giant mega weapon blowing up planets needs to be blown up) exist to set a specific context and tone for our heroes’ journeys and to serve as a backdrop for how DIFFERENT they are than the OT heroes.  Finn, Poe, and Rey are NOT Luke, Han, and Leia, and that makes all the difference.

-The problem I had with too many open questions at the end of my first viewing quickly evolved into having a great time speculating.  Why does it seem Han knows Rey?  Why does Kylo Ren take such interest in a “girl” helping Finn and BB-8 to escape?  What power does Snoke still hold from Kylo, only offering to “complete his training” AFTER Kylo commits patricide?  JJ’s Mystery Box has me harkening back to days in grade school puzzling over Yoda’s declaration of “No, there is another.” Subsequent viewings have become an archeological dig for clues and red herrings, and it’s really a great time.

-Rey is as surprised at her progress as anyone around her, right down to discussing briefly with Finn how she’s not even sure how she was able to pilot the Falcon through the Graveyard of Giants.  It also seems she is seeing the future; when Kylo Ren interrogates her he sees an ocean with an island; this is after she has already touched the saber, so is it a blast from the future and the film’s last scene…or is it a memory and she has been to Luke’s hideout before?  For that matter, is the vision of Kylo and the Knights of Ren standing in the rain a flashback to the purge Kylo led against Luke’s Academy, or a view of the future where Rey will stand against them all?

-The sun above Starkiller Base going black as Kylo snuffs out the light within himself to kill Han is a beautiful dramatic moment.  Indeed, is Starkiller Base an allegory for Ren himself?  It destroys the Republic (kills Han), fails to kill the final target (Rey), and collapses into a burning ball of rage when defeated.

-Given that though, I am now quite convinced that Rey is Ben Solo’s sister, daughter of Han and Leia (whom they believe is dead, but begin to suspect has returned), and that when the Knights of Ren destroyed the Jedi Order, Ben could not bring himself to kill his sister, and HE hid her on Jakku as she suppressed her memories of what had happened.  Ben/Kylo wants to hide the fact he left the girl alive from Snoke, and it is why he becomes so very interested in both the mysterious “girl on Jakku” before he captures her, and in converting her once he has.  

-Folks who can't deal with Rey defeating Kylo in a saber duel: SHE IS THE HERO AND HE IS THE VILLAIN.  IT IS HER MOVIE.  THE TITLE IS ABOUT HER.  Enough said.

I will have another viewing Monday night; we shall see if any more clues emerge!  In the end though, multiple viewings really do improve this film, and it wiggles its way into the Star Wars canon very well.   It is not like episodes I and IV however, films that stand alone; this is the 7th in a series, and perhaps that is exactly how it should be.

Friday, December 25, 2015

The 2015 Holiday Letter!

Hello everyone!
Welcome to the Fosters’ Holiday Update, 2015! I don’t say “holiday” because I am ignoring Christmas, but don’t forget there’re many holidays this time of year: Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, the release of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”; the list goes on.  I hope all of them are treating you right.
The best way to describe our year I think is that we are putting the “tired” in “retired,” but in the most wonderful possible ways.  Early this year I took on a job as an academic coordinator for the Fort Lewis Language Center, and within about six weeks that turned into “Regional Manager.”  It’s an amazing job, surrounded by amazing people.  My staff is from such exotic places as China, Russia, Lebanon, Israel, Afghanistan, and California; I feel like a Bond Villain every time I show up for work.  There is a lot of work though, so it keeps me moving like the Millennium Falcon on the Kessel Run (too obscure?).  Still this year, I managed to get a book in print, and the first half of my next on digits.  Also did some great collaboration with a phenomenal artist here in Washington to do a small print run on the first of a series of graphic novels.  Need to find a way to reverse that “real job/writing” time ratio.
Also, Jennifer and I found time this year to have another wedding to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the first one.  It was a small affair still, but with less tears or shotguns than the first, and a Priest who I think might actually be more of a Trekkie than I am.  We then had a nice honeymoon in Canada, where Jennifer let me do a drive-by (only) of the set to the new Star Trek movie.  There was no repeat of “The Doohan Incident” of ’92.  I behaved. 
We also made some trips this year down to New Mexico to see Zack, Toni, and Jade and their new house.  That Granddaughter, no offense to you all, is my favorite human right now, and she even dressed as a Stormtrooper for Halloween.  Brings tears of joy to this nerd’s eyes.  I’m sure it won’t be long until we’re out looking for droids together…
Jen and I also have been empty-nesters this year.  Hannah spent the first part of the year in Boise, then recently moved out into her own rental across town.  She’s still coming by to watch Doctor Who each week, but I can’t hold that against her.  She’s doing all right, and it’s neat to watch her Adulting all on her own.  Mostly.
Our animal family sadly shrunk by one this year.  Patches the Evil Cat™ turned 18 this year, but also got very sick, so we had to take her to the vet one last time.  Even the dogs miss her…well, Eightball does.  Luna and Patches had an uneasy truce, but I sure miss having her around.  She was Evil, but she was family.  I buried her out front hoping for a horror movie type resurrection, but I guess only some of the terrible things you see on TV extend into real life.
And as I wrap this up, I want to extend our love to you all.  All of you are proof that life is not as horrible as the TV would have you believe.  Yes, there are bad things in the world, but all of you are evidence of the good too, and so long as we stick together on that, there’s nothing the bad can do to win.  Unless “The Force Awakens” is bad, then it’s game over.
We love you all, Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and May the Force Be With You.
Daniel, Jennifer, Eightball Tiberius, and Lunafish

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Some more thoughts on The Force Awakens

Having not yet seen it a second time, but obviously thinking about it, and a few good discussions with fellow fans.  I want to quickly address two more minor quibbles (there’s that word again), then some other things I liked.

The score, though a John Williams score, was very lackluster.  There was no real standout motif or theme for me, the way “The Imperial March” or “Duel of the Fates” stands out. 

Secondly, and maybe I just missed this one, were there screen wipes between scenes?  I don’t remember them, though maybe I just didn’t notice.  I am a huge fan of those though in the previous six films, and they did not stand out for me here.

Now, a quick message for the 44 out of 45 detractors I saw on the comments section of theforce.net’s film review:  You don’t get to spend 15 years bitching about Lucas and complain that this didn’t feel like Lucas.  You don’t get to complain that a modern movie didn’t affect you the way one did when you were seven; you’re not seven anymore.  And to that one guy who “doesn’t want to sound sexist” but isn’t sure a female lead can carry the new series, I have two very non-Star Wars words:

Fuck. You.

Sorry, not sure how else to possibly deal with that kind of asshole.  Of course, I am sure Rey can defend herself quite nicely without my help, but I've got her back.  Besides, pay attention jackass; the movie is called "The Force Awakens."  That's about Rey, and I think she carried it just fine.

Now, some things that have sat very well with me in the last 48 hours.  I am increasingly impressed with Adam Driver’s performance.  When he’s beating himself in his blaster wound just to will himself to the anger and pain to tap the Dark Side, just heartbreakingly wonderful.

Hux and his red-faced speech to the masses.  Just excellent.  He's a horrible human, and I like that.

The First Order.  Their Stormtroopers can shoot.  I’m generally a fan of the Troopers—Clone or Storm—and I have long taken issue with the idea that Troopers can’t shoot.  Stormtroopers managed to keep an entire Galaxy under the Empire’s thumb for more than 30 years, and apparently a good remnant stuck around after that.  We seem to forget that they kept missing in Episode IV because Vader told them to.  

The idea that rather than Cloning or conscripting, the First Order is taking children and pressing them into service before they even know their own names is a chilling concept lending to a great villain.

And given that, I am making my official prediction as to the identity of Supreme Leader Snoke:

That’s right, the "Star Wars: Rebels" Grand Inquisitor.  Follow the link up there to see an image of  from the "Art of The Force Awakens" book, and then follow my logic here.  We never hear Snoke or Kylo Ren discuss “The Sith.”  They talk about the Dark Side a lot, but not the Sith.  There’s an unhealthy fixation on Darth Vader, and Snoke is obviously somewhat deformed.  Now, The Inquisitor in all the Rebels merchandising was played up as a very big deal; but, not Sith, just trained in the Dark Side.  His “death” would certainly have damaged him even if he survived, but he could not have gone back to Vader having been defeated by a half-trained Jedi.  So he waited.  With Vader and Palpatine gone at the end of ROTJ, The Inquisitor sees a chance to gain power again.  He’s familiar enough with the Empire to form the First Order from its remnants, and take the rest of the Inquisitors and give them a new beginning as a separate entity: The Knights of Ren.  We know the Inquisitors were out taking children to meet their goals, something the Grand Inquisitor, now going by Snoke (his real name?) implements into the First Order Army.  None of that “Rule of Two” either; more than happy to stock the Knights of Ren with Force sensitives and the Stormtroopers with people who can shoot.  Seducing Ben Solo to the Dark Side was a coup, but incomplete due to Snoke’s limited power as not actually being a Sith.  Starkiller base?  A superweapon that perhaps used a kyber crystal to focus its power…like the crystal on the Inquisitor’s homeworld of Utapau in the Clone Wars story reel from the canon, but unproduced TCW season 7. 

Probably not, but I am going with it.