Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Running Down A Dream

Back when Zack Snyder was put in charge of spearheading the DCEU, the higher-ups at Warners must've thought Disney/Marvel wasn't going to know what hit them. I certainly believe that Snyder, as someone who was able to convince Warners Bros. to put all their considerable eggs in his basket, must've thought that.

I imagine the thinking prior to the making of Man of Steel was that the DC cinematic universe was going to be driven to unimaginable heights by a visionary filmmaker with an eye for epic visuals.

In short, they had this.

And I bet that confident line of thinking lasted all the way up until Man of Steel was released in 2013.

Now, we all know how things went after that. No sense in rehashing all the sad details. But now, two years since Joss Whedon's JL cut hit theaters, the demand to see Snyder's version has had its greatest push, with calls to Release The Snyder Cut going out across the internet, with the film's cast all throwing their support behind it.

The thing is, it's not going to change a damn thing. Snyder's version of Justice League is never going to see the light of day.

Now, I'm not privy to any inside information. I'm just another nerd with access to the internet. But I do have a fair amount of common sense and that's all you need to know that Snyder's JL is finished.

I mean, finished as in nothing else is ever going to happen with it. 

When DC Entertainment President Diane Nelson says on Twitter, when asked about the Snyder Cut, that "If Zack feels he had the time and resources to finish a cut to his satisfaction and he would like fans to see it, nothing would make me happier than for him to have that opportunity," that's a polite way of saying that Warners isn't going to invest any more of their own money into this.

When Snyder calls upon fans to ask Warners to release his cut, what he's really wants is for Warners to feel pressured into giving him money to finish the movie. And that's not going to happen.

Would it be cool to see Snyder's cut of the movie? Absolutely. Whether it's good or bad (odds are on the latter, but whatever), it would be a fascinating artifact. No question about it. But there is no incentive for Warners to fund this. Zero. None.

"But think of all the money they'll make!" some fans will say.

Really? What money? From a theatrical release? I don't think so.

What idiot would think that a movie that originally failed at the box office - and failed fucking hard - would suddenly be a hit if it came back out in a revised form? A revised form, by the way, that might be every bit, if not more, disliked than what hit theaters in the first place. But we'll get to that. First, let's just agree that there is no way in hell that Justice League would ever make its way back to theaters.

"But they can put it on HBO Max! It'd be a huge selling point!"

Really? For who? For all the people who would already be getting HBO Max anyhow? Those people? If you're a fan of the DC brand, there's no way you're not getting HBO Max. They're going to have everything you want. All the films, all the animated features, all the animated shows, all the live-action shows.

They don't need to entice these fans or sweeten the deal with the promise of the Snyder Cut. They've already got their money. And there's no one else besides hardcore DC fanboys who give a shit about the Snyder Cut. No one who's on the fence about getting HBO Max is going to think for a second that, "Oh wait, they've got the Snyder Cut of Justice League? In that case I'd better sign up!"

People are enticed to sign up for these services not just for the catalog material but also for access to new, exclusively produced product. To get people on board who might think about skipping it because, well, they've got all the DVDs and Blu-ray's already, Warners is going to be spending their money on developing new series. It's smarter for them to develop, say, a live action Green Lantern series than it is to pour more cash into Justice League.

And to properly finish the Snyder Cut of Justice League, I imagine it would take a substantial investment on Warners' part. It wouldn't just be a matter of tossing a few bucks at it. It would cost real money to get to the point where it's a film that can be shown to the public. That's real money that would be better spent elsewhere.

And before anyone says "But what about the Richard Donner cut of Superman II? Why did they spend money on that?" Well, for one, I imagine it was much easier and less costly to put that back together according to Donner's original plans.

Also, unlike Justice LeagueSuperman II was a box office hit, recognized as a classic, with a dedicated fanbase that has endured over decades.

And the mythic reputation of the Donner Cut was based on how much Donner's original Superman is revered among fans and critics, not based on "well, he screwed it all up before but maybe if he gave him another shot, this would be better." Also, when the Donner Cut was released on DVD in 2006, physical media was a much more viable revenue source in a pre-streaming age so Warners stood a good chance of recouping their investment.

I'm sure, too, that restoring the Donner Cut seemed like a smart way to capitalize on the summer '06 release of Superman Returns, which would be arriving on DVD around the same time as the Donner Cut. Of course, the move to restore that cut was put in motion long before anyone knew that Superman Returns would tank but that's neither here nor there now.

But anyhow, back to the Snyder Cut...

If Snyder was still leading the DCEU and his vision was still what was driving it forward, it might seem like a good investment on Warners' part to fund the Snyder Cut. But that isn't the case. Snyder is done making DC movies. With the success of Aquaman, Shazam! and Joker, Warners has moved on. They're doing better without him. There's no reason to put good money into helping him realize a vision of a film that no longer has any bearing on the future of the DCEU. The Justice League as it was is dead. There's no more Ben Affleck Batman. There's no more Henry Cavill Superman. There's not going to be a Justice League 2. Certainly not with Snyder's cast.

Will Warners make another Justice League movie one day? Maybe.

But if they do, it will have no connection to what Snyder did. Maybe if someone like J.J. Abrams or James Gunn were to be put in charge of driving the DC cinematic universe forward, another Justice League might happen but it would be with a clean slate. From Warners' perspective, there's no upside to restoring Snyder's vision in order to lay the groundwork for anything lying ahead.

The sad fact is, Snyder's Justice League was a troubled production and the final product was largely unsatisfying. Would it have been a better movie if he had been able to see it through according to his vision? Maybe, maybe not. Given the track record of Man of Steel and BvS, there's every reason to think that Snyder's Justice League would have been every bit as poorly received as those two films.

Aside from unhinged Snyder bros, there's no one who thinks that his Justice League was some masterpiece that was cruelly snatched away.

I think most fans are curious about what Snyder's cut looks like without actually thinking that it has a chance of being good. And I'm sure that all the higher-ups at Warners really feel that way because they saw for themselves what Snyder's Cut was shaping up as. If they had any confidence in Snyder's vision, they wouldn't have recruited Joss Whedon to make so many changes to it.

Even if Snyder couldn't have been there to see the movie through due to tragic personal circumstances, if they liked the direction he was going in, Warners would have made sure that anyone stepping in to finish the film would do so according to Snyder's wishes. They didn't.

As much as Warners keeps saying that they have no plans to release the Snyder Cut, I know Snyder's fans will not relent in the face of reality. They'll keep chasing this quixotic dream of the Snyder Cut until the end of time. That's their prerogative, of course. It seems like an especially fruitless goal to pursue but, you know, whatever.

But sometimes not getting what you want is really a good thing.

When it comes to the Snyder Cut of Justice League, I think the vision that exists in fan's minds is far better than what the reality could ever have been, even under the most ideal circumstances. 

Monday, November 18, 2019

How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Joker

Up front disclaimer: I don't actually love Todd Phillips' Joker. Additional disclaimer: I have not seen Joker, nor do I plan to. I have, however, stopped worrying about it.

Let me explain: 

From the moment it was announced, Joker looked like a hard pass to me. The only Joker origin that I care about is writer Bill Finger's "The Man Behind The Red Hood," from Detective Comics #168, in which we find out that The Joker was originally a criminal known as The Red Hood and that, during a desperate escape after robbing the Monarch Playing Card Company, he swam through a vat of chemical waste (falsely believing his hood would protect him) that turned his complexion and hair to the familiar visage of The Joker.

This story was later referenced in writer Alan Moore's and artist Brian Bolland's one-shot comic (or, if you prefer, graphic novel) The Killing Joke from 1988 which purported to tell the full origin of the Clown Price of Crime.

Even then, Moore muddied the waters a bit as to the verity of this story. For DC characters, especially in the post-Crisis universe of the late '80s, continuity was selective at best. What past stories now "counted" - especially ones from the Gold and Silver ages - was rarely consistent and often in question. As The Joker says at one point in The Killing Joke, "If I'm going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!"

So, while DC house ads may have trumpeted The Killing Joke as "definitive," this could well have taken place entirely outside of mainstream DC continuity. It wasn't so much meant to fill in the official blanks of The Joker's past as much to be a speculative "what if." Or, in the parlance of DC, a possible Elseworlds tale. 

The Joker is a character who doesn't need a backstory. In fact, I think he's better off without one - at least in regards to laying out his psychological motivations. Finger's origin offered an ingenious, satisfying explanation as to how the Joker came by his macabre appearance, wrapped up in an entertaining mystery, but didn't have anything to say about the deeper motivations of the man.

It was a simple story for a simpler time. It explained the how of the Joker and not the why because the why wasn't important to readers at the time.

The Joker as originally conceived was simply a criminal with a penchant for perpetrating crimes laced with deadly humor. That Moore referenced "The Man Behind The Red Hood" in The Killing Joke was a way to weave this naive origin into a much darker tale.

By the late '80s, comics had become much more adult so having The Joker simply switching gears from one criminal identity to another by dint of a whim of fate that disfigured him wouldn't do.

No, now this change had to drive him absolutely mad.

Moore has expressed his misgiving on The Killing Joke in years since, saying "I've never really liked my story in The Killing Joke. I think it put far too much melodramatic weight upon a character that was never designed to carry it." I agree with Moore on this. Bolland's art is stunning in The Killing Joke but it's at the service of an ugly story that leaves Commissioner Gordon's daughter - and one-time Batgirl - Barbara sexually violated and paralyzed from the waist down. It's a story that, to my mind, never should have been given the ok - especially not for the cheap cause of giving The Joker an origin.

The Joker is a character whose appeal is primarily visual with his white skin, green hair, red lips, snazzy purple wardrobe, his array of deadly, outwardly innocent (often oversized) props and he works as perfect contrast to another brilliant visual - The Batman. You have a character who is outwardly jolly but lethal set against a character who is brooding and cloaked in shadow and mystery.

Putting these two together on a comic book page is always going to work. The genius of them is in their design, not their psychological complexity. Trying to burden them with layers of emotional depth and dragging them into the real world has always felt like a mistake to me. Batman should never feel like an episode of Law & Order: SVU, you know? When you have to break out the rape kit in a Batman comic, I feel like mistakes have been made. And the criminals that Batman pursues should not be so purely despicable.

Specifically with The Joker, I feel like Batman: The Animated Series writer/producer (and creator of Harley Quinn) Paul Dini hit the nail on the head when he said, when talking about Mark Hamill's celebrated portrayal of the character, that "...So often The Joker's been played as sort of like a harmless clown or a total raving, psychotic madman, which actually defeats the purpose doing the character because then he becomes totally unsavory...with Joker I think we struck a nice balance between the clown and the killer."

Others, of course, will strongly disagree. I mean, despite Moore's regrets, The Killing Joke is generally regarded as a classic and, gee, certainly audiences have embraced Joker. There is a large segment of fans - comic readers and moviegoers alike - who love to see the Batman and everything within his larger world be depicted as dark as it can be. A lot of people prefer seeing these things taken to an unsavory extreme. For me, that approach is always a turn off.

I feel it always smacks of embarrassment towards the source material and a belief that it has to shout "This isn't for kids, you know!" in order to validate its existence.

The kind of "magic realism" that Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams practiced during their stint on the Batman comic in the '70s and that others emulated (at least until Frank Miller got his hands on the character) always seemed like the right way to go for me. It was dark, it was mature, but it didn't just shovel on nastiness in order to appear more grown-up. It wasn't insecure about what it was.

From the start, Joker just wasn't going to be for me. I thought it was wrongheaded, creatively lazy, and that it appeared to pander largely to a crowd inclined to see this movie as a vindication for their own anti-social bents. Literally nothing about it, save for Joaquin Phoenix's performance, looked good to me. But, as we see, it's a massive hit that clearly struck a chord with a lot of people. Incels alone don't put a movie over a billion at the box office.

So the joke's on me, right?

Well, you can't argue against what the public wants. If something isn't for you, it's not for you, even if everyone else seems to love it.

Rather than try to demean the popularity of something that you don't connect with or try to rage against it, you can only accept it, try to understand it, and hope its success will lead to good things.

My hope with Joker's success is that the lesson that Warners/DC learns from it is that every movie based on their comic properties can be its own thing. My hope is that it will confirm that they're better off not pursuing the kind of shared universe that Marvel has a knack for and instead let every movie stand as its own entity.

That's my hope and I'd like to see that hope be proven right.

I don't love Joker but I have learned to put on a happy face about it. 

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Face Front, True Believers!

It's the topic that just won't go away. Some journalists started asking aging auteurs their thoughts on Marvel movies and it just opened up a whole can of worms. Because, for some reason, some people were shocked to find out that Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola weren't hyped for Black Panther II. Personally, I don't think this was the stuff of headline news.

To me, I would have thought this was a no-brainer. I can't imagine these movies being their thing. And, you know, it's cool. But the dismissive tone of their comments really irked some people, like to the point of them being actually offended. I just don't get the anger in this regard. Do I agree with Scorsese's or Coppola's comments? Not at all. But don't we expect the elderly to be a little out of touch and grumpy? Do we want to give them shit about it and yell back at them? I don't think so. Let them be cantankerous about whatever.

We'll all get there eventually, if we're lucky.

But because we live in the internet age where nothing can just be said and forgotten, I guess Scorsese has been hounded enough where he felt he had to clarify his feelings on Marvel in an opinion piece in the New York Times. Which, honestly, is hysterical to me. If you had told anyone back in the '70s or '80s that one day Martin Scorsese would be forced to clarify his thoughts on fucking Ant-Man in the pages of the New York Times, they'd wonder what kind of insane future we'd come to live in one day and, of course, you'd have to tell them "Oh man, you don't even know the half of it!"

But now that he's gone ahead and said what, one would hope, would be his final piece in the matter, and everyone can read it away from the potential distortions of the headlines, can we say that Scorsese has a point? Well, he has an opinion and some will agree with him because they share his outlook and, like Scorsese, probably look at the Marvel Cinematic Universe from a distance and just, well, don't get it.

Is he right, though, about Marvel movies or comic book movies not being "cinema?" No, that's still just elitist gatekeeping. Has that ever worked out? Has any popular form of entertainment been shit on by the elder set and then just gone away?  No, just the opposite.

Whether it's monster movies, or EC Comics, or rock and roll, or Hammer Films, or heavy metal, or slasher films, punk or rap, or whatever, if it taps into a hunger in the public, if it excites an audience, then it becomes permanently entrenched in the culture.

"Yeah, but just because something's popular doesn't make it good! It doesn't make it art!" I guess would be the response back to that.

Hmm, sure. Many things - movies, music, TV shows, novels - can be popular without satisfying the definition of "art." And often times popularity and quality don't necessarily go hand in hand.

But making blanket statements and knee-jerk dismissals is not helpful. It shows a lack of understanding, and an unwillingness to concede that, hey, there might be more to this than you're willing to admit.

When Scorsese talks about the "sameness" of Marvel movies, or superhero movies in general, it's the perspective of someone who - obviously - isn't a fan and for who all this looks alike. Reading his words, I think about being a teenager in the '80s and my mother complaining that all the heavy metal and rap I listened to sounded alike and that it was all "just noise," with one song completely indistinguishable from the other. To someone older, to someone who finds it alienating and abrasive, it does sound "all the same."

To the ears of an older person, it's not "real" music. But, of course, it is and to anyone who is a fan, it's easy to hear the differences and understand the value of the music and the respective skills of the different bands and groups involved. Similarly, all superhero movies or comic book adaptations are not the same. Someone who watches these movies and enjoys them can tell you that Captain America: Winter Soldier is not the same as Guardians of the Galaxy which is not the same as Doctor Strange which is not the same as Shazam! or Wonder Woman and so on down the line. They are not this uniform lump. They’re different movies, with different flavors and they are not interchangeable from one to the other.

To the issue of cinematic “risk,” or the lack thereof, that Scorsese talks about in his Times piece, well, if you don’t think trying to make Ant-Man, of all characters, into a successful movie franchise isn’t a crazy gamble, I don’t know what to tell you! But seriously, the history of cinema is littered with big budget failures, would-be franchises that stalled out of the gate, or once successful ones that eventually made creative mis-steps and lost the attention of the audience. The movie going audience, as much as some would like to portray them as an undiscerning mob, actually do make their own decisions, even if they're not the decisions that Scorsese wants them to make. Now, Scorsese is really talking about emotional risk here, of course, and I'll get to that, but I think the issue of commercial risk is worth talking about because I think the perception from Scorsese and others is that Marvel movies are just a "safe bet," requiring no vision to succeed, and that's not the case.

Throwing the latest, greatest special effects on screen is not a guarantee of success. If it were, we wouldn’t be talking about how the new Terminator is likely going to be the final nail in that franchise’s coffin. If it were, Mortal Engines wouldn’t have tanked. If it were, we’d still be seeing further Chronicles of Narnia movies. If it were, we’d still be seeing new installments of Star Wars anthology style films on the big screen. If it were, Ryan Reynolds would be on his fourth or fifth Green Lantern movie by now rather than being known as Deadpool. If it were, Zack Snyder’s Justice League would have been every bit as successful as Joss Whedon’s Avengers rather than a failure. Making a movie that audiences respond to is hard, period. Especially ones that need to - given the enormous financial stakes involved - appeal to a wide audience. It's difficult to do that even once. It's never an easy layup. So for Marvel to do it over and over for a decade, with success after success, you can't dismiss that kind of record and not look out of touch.

Every Marvel movie has had the potential to fail. Every one, starting with Iron Man. They've been so successful with their franchises for so long, though, that some take that success for granted and the considerable skill and the creative instincts behind it tends to be dismissed.

But hey, these movies don't make themselves, you know.

If every studio could do what Marvel does, they would. But they can’t. It's not as simple as following a formula. Warners/DC tried and failed to mount a shared cinematic universe and they had to re-think their strategy (and did so successfully). In years to come, people will – for lack of a better word – marvel at what Marvel was able to achieve. It’s unprecedented. Shared universes existed on screen before – such as the Universal Monster Series and the ToHo Godzilla films – but never like this. Never on this scale and never with this many moving parts. It's like spinning plates while balancing on a tightrope and the fact that they’ve done it over the course of ten years with twenty-three movies so far without all of it crashing down is astonishing. To wave it off with a "meh," like "oh, they're just giving audience empty spectacle" or that "oh it’s just theme parks” is some small-minded, sour grapes bullshit.

If it’s so easy and if it takes so little skill and if it involves no genuinely artistry, everyone with at least half a brain in the movie business should be able to follow Marvel’s blueprint. The fact that they can’t says that what Marvel does is something special and unique to them. What their success is really built on is that they’ve made audiences care about these characters. Audiences are invested in Steve Rogers and Tony Stark and Natasha Romanoff and Clint Barton and Scott Lang and Carol Danvers and T’Challa and so on.

These characters aren’t just a collection of computer codes in CG action scenes, they have a personality and a life to them that viewers respond to. That’s why people keep coming back.

But, as someone like Scorsese would say, how can we care about them if there’s no real risk, if we know they can’t really die? Well, first of all, you could apply that same complaint to any film in the action genre. You might as well throw your hands up at the latest James Bond movie and ask “Ugh, why does anyone even care? You know he’s not going to die, right?” And, of course, it’s true. No one ever goes to a James Bond movie, genuinely wondering whether Bond will fail in his mission and die at the hands of a master criminal. No one ever went to a Die Hard sequel or an Indiana Jones movie thinking that the end credits might roll over a shot of the hero’s still, lifeless body. Does this the lack of genuine risk to the characters make these movies not cinema? Of course not.

As far as superheroes go, this is an issue that goes back to the comics themselves. In the comics, characters like Batman and Spider-Man are essentially immortal. They often bleed but they don’t die. They might appear to die at times, as pretty much every major hero has in the comic world by now, but they don’t stay dead. There’s always a resurrection to come and a heroic return. It might involve time travel, or genetic science, or magic, but they’ll come back. With characters like this, it’s not about having a fear they they’ll perish for good. And it’s not even about wondering whether they’ll prevail in whatever conflict they’re involved in. Of course they will. It’s not a matter of whether they’ll win but how.

The 'how' is the fun part. It’s why people keep reading the adventures of these characters. It’s not because anyone wonders if this is finally going to be the issue where Batman is stumped by, say, the Riddler and fails Gotham. No, it’s because they want to see how Batman will find a way to prevail once again and how cleverly the writer of the issue will find a new way to surprise within that formulaic framework. That’s where the ingenuity and the creativity lies. How will the hero out-smart their opponent, how will the hero find a way to turn the tables when all looks lost? More importantly, how will they do it and still retain the values that make them heroic in the first place? The risk in these stories isn’t about life and limb so much as it is about maintaining moral integrity in the face of adversity. How can you win without compromising who you are?

In the movies, it’s the same way. It’s about wanting to see how the hero will find a way to win. Seeing a character pull it together in the clutch never gets old. Seeing them beat the odds never gets old.

Unless you watch mysteries honestly thinking that, well, they probably won't solve this one or you watch romantic comedies thinking, eh, things probably won't work out between these two or you watch sports movies thinking that a crushing loss is in the cards, don't complain about the sameness or the lack of "risk" with superhero movies. In the case of all these genres, the audience has a clear idea going in what the outcome, in general terms, is going to be. It's how the movies arrive at those expected outcomes and what obstacles are placed in the protagonist's way is what makes them interesting, despite all of them trafficking in well worn formulas.

As to whether Marvel movies are cinema or not, there is no debate. They are an evolution of genre cinema and deserved to be discussed as such. Going back to the serials of the '30s and '40s, superheroes have been adapted to the screen and seeing how that corner of cinema has evolved from what it was to what it is now should be interesting - in strictly academic terms, if nothing else - to anyone who cares about movies. It's as valid to the study of the art of film as tracking the evolution of westerns or comedies or musicals or horror films or war movies. It's all under the umbrella of cinema.

As to the Chicken Little cries that Marvel movies are crowding everything else out and extinguishing cinema as we know it in the process, well, that’s frankly just hysteria. It says more about some people being pissed about what other people like and trying to be bitter scolds about it than really addressing the reality of the situation. I mean, the last Marvel movie in theaters was Spider-Man: Far From Home back in July. The next one, Black Widow, isn't out until May of next year. Seems pretty spaced out to me. Plenty of room for other films to exist. Avengers: Endgame didn't keep Midsommar, Ad Astra, Us, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood or The Lighthouse from getting made and into theaters, you know?

The fact that Martin Scorsese isn't into movies about talking raccoons and wall-crawling teenagers and Russian-bred super-spies and that he doesn't give a flying fig about finding out who The Eternals are or that he can't find Wakanda on a map (wait, it's not on a map?) shouldn't be a big deal to anyone. The fact that it's been made into one seems silly to me.

Then again, I also find it silly that someone as brilliant as Scorsese would waste his time harrumphing about popular entertainment.