Saturday, December 31, 2022

Should Auld Acquaintance Start To Rot

When it comes to ringing in the new year, the location that comes to mind for most is Times Square but my thoughts run to the Monroeville Mall in Pennsylvania. George Romero's Dawn of the Dead may not be considered to be a New Year's movie but I say that it fits the occasion. 

Some of that might have to do with the time of year I originally saw Dawn. In the early '80s, before VCR's were common household items, my parents rented one for the holidays, for two weeks from Christmas through New Year's. Having access to home video for the first time, I rented as many of the horror classics that I had never been able to see before as I could - chief among them being Dawn of the Dead - so because of that I've always associated Dawn with the end of the year. 

Beyond that, there are elements baked into Dawn's narrative that make it a New Year's staple for me. It's a movie about endings and new beginnings. It's about the way the wheel of life keeps turning and how we are forced to keep moving with it. The characters in Dawn don't just face life or death decisions related to the threat of zombie hordes, they have to make decisions about what they want to do with their lives. Not in the terms we think of like how to make a living but in terms of what living means in a world where the structures we used to measure our success by have unraveled. 

Unlike the rash of zombie movies that ripped it off, all of them focused on matching its splatter, there is a contemplative quality to Dawn. It's not a breathless exercise in suspense, it's not balls out action. A lot of Dawn is just rather sweet and sad. What makes Dawn what it is comes in that long stretch where the zombie problem has been more or less dealt with and Peter, Roger, Fran and Stephen are simply living. Life is comfortable for them. More than comfortable. It's practically luxurious. They have all the creature comforts. 

This isn't the typical horror movie scenario where the characters are constantly imperiled. This isn't a dusk till dawn struggle for survival like Night of the Living Dead where the characters are under siege throughout. No, in Dawn there is time - many months, even - for the characters to not be living in fear. The brilliance of Dawn is that the zombies are not an insurmountable threat. At a certain point, they become background noise, a manageable nuisance. It's only the careless mistakes humans make on their own that allow the zombies to be a threat. The greatest danger the characters in Dawn face is their own stagnation. They get so comfortable living in a facsimile of an old way of life that they give up on trying to forge a new one.  

At a certain point, Dawn's characters have to decide what they're going to do with themselves. Are they going to remain content with their status quo or step into the unknown? Are they going to remain complacent or are they going to venture forward? All of this relates to the type of thinking that most of us engage in at the end of each year. For us, that usually leads to New Year's resolutions concerning such things as losing some extra pounds, signing up for college courses, or looking for a better job, rather than navigating a zombie apocalypse but the principle is the same. It's about choosing whether to languish or be motivated.

Beyond the decisions that we choose to make when we feel an inner restlessness, Romero also reminds us that often times life doesn't allow us to remain complacent. As much as we may become comfortable with a status quo, life will inevitably intervene to disrupt that. As much as life in the mall feels like it could have gone on forever, there was always going to be something, whether within or without, that would force them to move on. 

When Fran and Peter fly off into a new dawn in the film's closing moments, it embodies the sense of hope and the spirit of fresh starts that we associate with the start of a new year. Fran and Peter are leaving behind what they've known for an uncertain future (with Fran carrying a new life inside her as well) but there is the sense that, come what may, they will be ok. While Night ended on the grim finality of a funeral pyre, Dawn sends its survivors into the blue sky of a breaking dawn. 

Once Fran and Peter fly off, though, Romero gives Dawn's final shots over to the zombies who have now reclaimed the mall. This place was a home to Fran, Stephen, Roger and Peter for a time and memories were made there but that was a moment in time that has passed and now it's overrun by the dead again. Somehow it doesn't seem sad to see it taken back by the dead, though, so much as it does inevitable. There's a sense of "why did we ever get so attached to this place?" in these final shots that accompany the end credits. Watching the zombies wander the mall, seeing how everything has instantly reverted back to what it was, we are able to be more clear eyed about the fact that there was never any real future here.  

Some New Year's movies are about finding love by the stroke of midnight but Dawn of the Dead is about setting goals, moving forward and grabbing whatever opportunities that life offers. Unlike the crowds that gather each year at Times Square, whenever the clock tower at the center of the Monroeville Mall ticks to the top of the hour on January 1st, the undead denizens shuffling past it will not be another year older or another year wiser or even understand that one moment is different than the next. What we celebrate at the start of each year are all the new possibilities that we can pursue and Dawn is a reminder of how important it is to be aware of that and to always go into each new year hungry. Not for human flesh but for the chance to make the new year better than the last.   

Friday, December 30, 2022

You Don't Have To Go To Texas For A Chainsaw Massacre...But Why Wouldn't You Want To?

2022 was an especially excellent year for horror and as the year comes to a close, best of lists have been flooding the internet, with writers showing their love for the likes of Bones and All, Pearl, Nope, and other notable 2022 fear flicks. One movie that's absent from these year end round ups is one that I think did not get a fair shake. It came out early in the year, has been mostly forgotten by now and, well, wasn't particularly well liked even when it was fresh in everyone's mind. In fact, it was mostly trashed. But since when has being trashed kept a horror movie down? Horror thrives on being disreputable! And few horror films in 2022 were more disreputable than the latest Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Filmed in Bulgaria rather than the Lone Star State, Texas Chainsaw Massacre '22 was the ninth installment in the series, the first since 2017's Leatherface, and yet another Chainsaw sequel that positioned itself as a direct follow up to the original, discounting (or at least not directly incorporating) the continuity of the previous films. Directed by David Blue Garcia, with Evil Dead 2013 director Fede Alvarez on board as one of the producers (with Alvarez having also conceived the story along with his Evil Dead and Don't Breathe co-writer Robo Sayagues), Texas Chainsaw Massacre premiered on Netflix on February 18th and was immediately piled on by many fans and critics who were appalled that this was just a slasher sequel looking to deliver some gnarly kills. I say some people had the bar set way too high on this one. 

Of course this is a far cry from Tobe Hooper's original but if your metric of success here is that this had to be on par with one of the greatest horror movies ever made in order to earn a passing grade, then come on - just admit you weren't even trying to give this a shot. The original TCM is one of the great instances of catching lightning in a bottle. Even Hooper himself couldn't do it again when he did Part 2 in 1986 so why would anyone think that David Blue Garcia, on the ninth (!!) Chainsaw film, could possibly fare any better? Let's cut this movie some slack, shall we? 

The only fair way to view this is with what I would call reasonable expectations. That means you can hope that it's better than the worst entries in the series but that's it. What TCM '22 is realistically competing against is Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, Texas Chainsaw 3D and all the other shit shows. And let me tell you, by those standards, Texas Chainsaw '22 is fucking good! 

You can make a solid, perhaps even airtight, case for TCM '22 being the best non-Hooper entry in the series. The only one that might block it from occupying that slot is Marcus Nispel's 2003 remake but I give TCM '22 a slight edge in that match up. Either way, if you're looking at the Chainsaw franchise as a whole, TCM '22 deserves to be recognizes as a top tier entry. Yes, you can say that none of the sequels and remakes and reboots and so on have measured up to Hooper's first two Chainsaws but if that's your position, then it's not worth discussing the relative merits of the rest of the franchise. I mean, why even waste your time watching this movie that has no chance of giving you what you're looking for? You have to be willing to appreciate these movies on their own terms if you're going to appreciate them at all. 

If nothing else, TCM '22 can lay claim to being the first film in the entire series to feature an actual Chainsaw Massacre. Unbelievable as it may seem, never until this movie has our boy Leatherface been responsible for an actual massacre. But you get one here as he rips his way through an entire busload of people and, oh boy, it's incredible. 2022 was a banner year for gore and TCM '22 was second only to the unrated Terrifier 2 in delivering hardcore splatter. For an R rated movie, it's outrageously bloody. Besides serving up an actual massacre, which on its own would be more than enough, there are enough other graphic kills here to make for a healthy Joe Bob Briggs' Drive In Totals tally. Of course, this is where someone will interject with "but the original wasn't even gory!" to which I will simply have to sigh and say "I know." As with Halloween, whose first sequel immediately ditched the subtle, virtually bloodless approach of the original to go whole hog into the splatter era, so too did Hooper himself usher the series into the splatter age with Tom Savini's FX in Part 2. Once that happened, gore was officially a part of the Chainsaw mix and every entry since has been duty bound to get in on that action. No one who's still keeping up on new Chainsaw movies wants to see any of them skimp on the splatter. And on that count, TCM '22 might be the nastiest of the bunch. 

As someone who remembers when the MPAA at its most unreasonable forced nearly every frame of gore to be cut from 1990's TCM III before granting it a R rating, I have to say I found TCM '22 be a satisfying case of delayed gratification. For old school gore hounds, TCM '22 is exactly the movie we wished for back in the late '80s and early '90s when the MPAA was neutering genre films on a regular basis and Tony Timpone's editorials in FANGORIA and GoreZone were often tirades about how the puritanical whims of the MPAA were keeping gore off the nation's theater screens and video shelves. If you were a horror fan back then, when the future of splatter was in doubt, TCM '22 plays like the dream version of a Chainsaw sequel. 

Obviously not everyone shared that enthusiasm for TCM '22 but the bottom line for me is that if you're not a gorehound, Chainsaw sequels aren't going to be your thing. The stories aren't going to get any better, the characters aren't going to get any deeper, the formula isn't going to get any fresher. The only place you can look to for actual improvement from film to film is in the body count and the gore factor. If you're coming into these movies looking for more, forget it. That said, TCM '22 actually does just fine in most departments. The cast is solid (I thought Elsie Fisher as Lila made for a fine Final Girl), the story - with Gen Z entrepreneurs looking to sell property in an abandoned Texas town - is serviceable (it recalls the culture clash of not just the original but of many other '70s horror films where city dwellers and rural folk collide), and it's beautifully shot with some of the most striking imagery in the entire series. And Leatherface himself comes off great. From the stills that were released prior to the film, I wasn't feeling the look of the mask but seen in context it looks terrific. To my eyes, it's the first Chainsaw since the original where Leatherface's mask looks like actual skin rather than prosthetics, with it benefiting from frequently garish, stylized lighting. Played by Mark Burnham, Leatherface is also a little more spry than he's usually been depicted (which is funny given the character's advanced age here but whatever) with him displaying some surprisingly fast moves. When he charges out of a dark alley at top speed at one point, I couldn't help but exclaim "oh shit!" 

Two specific aspects of TCM '22 that rubbed some fans the wrong way were the lack of the family element and also its treatment of the Sally Hardesty character (played here by Olwen Fouere, taking the place of the late Marilyn Burns). I understand the complaints but in regards to the family, while that is a key feature of most of the previous films, I was ok with it being a non-factor here. This is Leatherface's show, reestablishing him as a slasher heavyweight, and the post credit scene sets up a return of the family so it's not like that aspect was forgotten, just temporarily set aside. As for the curt treatment of Sally, bringing the character back just to have her fall to Leatherface, I would just say, hey, it's a slasher movie. Previous survivors of slasher films come back to get killed in sequels all the time. Some might think that Sally qualifies as slasher royalty and should have gotten better treatment but I disagree. That she should get jacked up with a chainsaw through the gut only to then be hurled twenty feet onto a pile of trash feels very Chainsaw to me. This movie is equal opportunity in its brutality, it doesn't truck with any sentiment, and as bad as Sally gets it, Sarah Yarkin as almost co-Final Girl Melody gets it soooo much worse. 

I was already loving TCM '22 by the time it arrived at its final moments but when Yarkin and Elsie Fisher are preparing to drive off, these two sisters believing that they've survived the horror and dispatched Leatherface, only to have Leatherface smash in Yarkin's window, haul her out of the car and decapitate her on the spot as the car in autopilot mode drives a hysterical Lila away, oh man. I was already giving TCM '22 a thumbs up without this last bit of savagery but that they choose to toss in one last gratuitous kill, and a freaking mean one at that (Melody's a legitimately good person!), compelled me to say bravo. As a slasher fan, I felt well taken care of by this movie.  

TCM '22 wasn't trying to win over the kind of viewers who automatically roll their eyes at yet another Chainsaw sequel. It was for the diehards who stick with these waning franchises through thick and thin. I'd love to see more TCM entries from this creative team but sadly I have a feeling this is going to be another would be rebirth of the franchise that stalls out. But at least we got this one and even if very few dug it, I sure as hell did. Other 2022 horror releases were more artful and ambitious and I love that we got those but I believe there's also something to be said for a slasher movie that knows its audience and, my God, Texas Chainsaw Massacre '22 absolutely did. 

Wednesday, December 28, 2022

A Century of Stan

Of all the characters Stan Lee co-created with his brilliant collaborators at Marvel Comics in the '60s, a roster of heroes and villains that includes some of the most well known fictional characters in all of pop culture, the greatest creation of all might have been Stan Lee himself. Born Stanley Martin Lieber, "Stan Lee" was the pen name he adopted to put on his comic work, believing he should save his real name to put on the Great American Novel he hoped to write. Of course it was his supposedly lowly work in comics that eventually made Stan not just famous, not just respected, but immortal. 

Aside from his scripting that imbued superheroes with the kind of flaws and foibles and layers of personality that comic book heroes had never known before, it was his fabricated persona of Stan "The Man" that really made him a legend. The measure of Stan's contributions to the creation of characters like Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, The Hulk and so on is contentious to some fans who argue that he stole too much credit from the artists involved, most notably from Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. What percentage of that is true is impossible to determine. That Stan successfully made himself the public face of Marvel is not. 

As much as Stan acknowledged his co-creators over the years and as much as the names of those collaborators continue to appear along side Stan's in the credits of every Marvel movie, the fact is that "Stan Lee" stands alone as the name most associated both with the characters and with Marvel itself. This was not accidental. It was something that Stan manifested into existence through a mix of shrewd calculation and sheer force of will. Some may have resented him for this but I believe that if he hadn't been the personality he was and he hadn't given Marvel its public face, that the work he and his collaborators did would not have achieved the same level of notoriety. 

As a figure who was part exuberant salesman, part huckster extraordinaire, part affable best bud, part sage mentor, and part ringleader of a burgeoning new generation of comic nerds, Stan made comics inviting and cool in a way they had never been. The actual comics that came out of the fabled Marvel bullpen (itself another largely fictional creation on Stan's part) of the 1960's were groundbreaking and might have made a sizable impact regardless but I believe it was the personality that Stan projected, the way he was able to imprint himself on those books, that elevated the entire Marvel brand. 

Through his Bullpen Bulletins, through his Stan's Soapbox columns, through his many public appearances, through the warm, welcoming, enthusiastic forwards to the many collected editions of Marvel stories, through his distinctive voice work in Marvel's animated endeavors ("Stan Lee here!"), Stan gave a generation of comic fans someone they could think of as their friend. Not just a friend, a but cool friend who invited them to be a part of something bigger than themselves. Thanks to Stan, comic fans weren't just lonely nerds enjoying the adventures of their favorite superheroes, they were part of the Merry Marvel Marching Society, they were Friends of ol' Marvel, they were True Believers. Through the effortless exuberance of his public persona, Stan was able to bring fans in and keep them in. Fans wanted to be a part of his world and his world was Marvel. 

Long after he stopped scripting the books, long after he no longer had any editorial duties and was not involved in any of the actual production of Marvel Comics, his personality remained indelibly stamped on them for all time. They weren't his anymore but yet somehow they were his forever. 

He was the Godfather of the world that all these characters lived in, even the ones that were created by other hands, long after he had left. Had he not been able to create the persona he was known for, had it not been so intractable from Marvel itself, not only would we not remember Stan as we do today but Marvel Comics themselves and the world they embody would surely not have the massive profile that they do. 

On what would have been his 100th birthday, here's to remembering a man who helped create one of the greatest pop culture mythologies of all time in part by mythologizing himself, vanishing flawlessly into the beloved persona of "Stan Lee."

Or as Stan would say, "Excelsior!" 

Sunday, December 25, 2022

Christmas in Pandora

The more fitting title to this Christmas Day review of Avatar: The Way of Water might have been "Blue Christmas" but even for the sake of a pun, I wouldn't want to imply that anything about this movie left me feeling the least bit sad. Having just watched Way of Water for a second time over the holiday weekend, my spirits only feel more buoyed by the staggering spectacle of this movie. As much thought as James Cameron has put into his sequel's characters and themes, to talk about The Way of Water is to have to first acknowledge it as the singular visual FX achievement that it is. 

There is nothing else like it. 

I didn't revisit the original Avatar during its recent re-release so I can't directly compare the theatrical presentations of Avatar and this sequel but as much as I was blown away by the original back in 2009, and as much as it crushed anything else that had been done at that point, I know for sure it didn't look like The Way of Water does. Both my Way of Water viewings have been in 3D so I don't know how impressive this looks in 2D but all I can say is that in 3D it's like nothing else I've seen on a movie screen. I don't want every movie to be in 3D and I'm pretty sure the high frame rate that Cameron uses here might actually be unpleasant or distracting if it was used across the board in every movie but, dear God, it sure as fuck works here. I suspect that's simply due to Cameron having a command of the technology that other filmmakers would not but whatever the case, the sense of reality that the methods Cameron utilizes here allow him to pull off is astonishing. 

Living in the movie making era that we do where we have long taken for granted that anything can be put on screen and that there are no limits to special effects technology, you think that you're never going to experience any true game changing moments again. If you're a long time movie goer you just don't think you're going to experience something like the original Star Wars again or the original Jurassic Park or T2: Judgement Day or The Matrix - movies where you instantly knew when you saw them that everything afterwards was going to be different. I remember sitting in the theater watching all of those movies and feeling like each one vaulted the art of movie making forward. The Way of Water is in that category. 

You might think that the imagery of Way of Water can be shrugged off by saying, well, it's all done with computers. You know, this is all CGI and the illusions created here are on par with what we've become accustomed to. But no, that's not the case. Way of Water is legitimately stunning in a way that even the most CGI heavy FX spectaculars are not. Why that is, I can't quite explain except to say it just is. The best I can do is to say I believe it has something to do with its unparalleled attention to detail. Everything looks so real here that your brain is frequently fighting what your eyes are seeing. Whether it be the alien fauna of Pandora, the skin of the flying dragons, the individual hairs in Jake Sully's dreads, the sand on a beach or the tech in a lab, it all looks so fucking there in a way that is at times hard to wrap your head around.


 However jaded you might think you've become about CGI and how much you think you know about the filmmaking process and about how all this is done, Way of Water will bypass all of that and make you feel stupid (but in a good way!). Even if you showed me a painstakingly detailed behind the scenes documentary about the making of Way of Water, it would not spoil the magic of the final product. If anything, I think I'd be all the more impressed because even if you walked me through it all step by step, I believe I still wouldn't quite be able to process how it all came together. And I'm not even talking about big action shots either. I mean just scenes of people walking and talking. There's a scene with Edie Falco as General Ardmore and Stephen Lang as Colonel Quaritch as they're walking together as she fills Quaritch in on what the status is in RDA's new base of operations on Pandora. Falco's character is suited up in an exo-skeleton and Quaritch is in his Recombinant Na'vi body and as they walk through Bridgehead City, construction is going on all around them with little crab like machines that I think are called Scrambler Assemblers scurrying around, doing wielding on girders and so on. With all that's going on, not a single bit of it looks artificial and it's all filmed like it would be in a natural environment with the camera tracking along with Falco and Lang. Cameron could have saved himself and his team a lot of work and set this scene in an office or a boardroom or even over a Zoom call. There's nothing conveyed here that required it to happen in such a complex shot. The fact that Cameron chooses to do so is just a massive flex. Not in a showboat kind of way - everything in this shot is in the service of the story and of establishing the world - but just in demonstrating how he's always going to be pushing harder than anybody else, even in situations where he could have chosen not to and absolutely no one would have known it. 

With even its mundane moments of exposition being able to dazzle, when it gets to the action set pieces that comprise Way of Water's last hour, forget about it. There's so much happening, it's incredible. There's stuff here that would be difficult to choreograph in a real environment that becomes doubly impressive when you have to wonder if all of this was created in a digital realm. Just to compare, the climatic battle in T2 took place in a steel mill and that was filmed on location at an actual mill. Now that was a real place that Cameron could work out the physical beats of the finale's action in coordination with stunt people, actors, the FX team and so on. With Way of Water, its climax takes place on a damaged whaling vessel that is in the process of sinking and it seems impossible to conceive of the complex logistics of this scene that involves multiple characters on cat walks and hallways and loading docks and so on without there being a physical location to work it all out with and yet I don't believe there was. At the same time, while watching it, your brain is telling you it's all real because every surface has a tactile quality to it. 

Some will, of course, look to chirp about the story being weak or whatever but it is not. I guarantee the same people who want to ding Way of Water for its supposedly thin story never say shit about the equally "weak" stories in 99% of the other movies they watch. If you hear any self appointed guardian of the sanctity of storytelling trying to take a swipe at Way of Water, please disregard. And this isn't even a case of an action movie like a Fast & Furious film where it's a thing of "Oh, it's a popcorn movie. The story isn't important, you have to turn your brain off and enjoy it." No, the story here is thoughtful and layered and it very much testifies to Cameron's skill as a storyteller. 

In terms of Way of Water's characters, I love that this time around Jake (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) are more side characters now and that the story is driven by the new additions of their children. There's their adopted daughter of Kiri (Sigourney Weaver, giving a remarkably convincing vocal performance as a teen), born by the late Dr. Grace Augustine's avatar, father unknown. Then there's the Sully's oldest son Neteyam (Jake Flatters), their youngest son Lo'ak (Britain Dalton), and daughter Tuktirey or "Tuk" (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss). Additionally, there's the child that Quaritch left behind, Spider (Jack Champion), too young as a baby to be sent back to Earth in cryostasis, who has since grown up with the Na'vi and who is, in Jake's words, like a stray cat they've taken in. The struggles of these kids as they navigate the dramatic life changing events around them as well as their own adolescent troubles gives Way of Water a relatable human core. 

One of the strongest aspects of Way of Water is the relationship that develops between Lo'ak and a member of a whale like species called the Tulkun. At one point, Lo'ak finds himself alone in dangerous waters after being abandoned by the asshole kids of the reef people that the Sullys have taken refuge with and after being pursued by a predatory sea creature, a Tulkun intervenes and saves Lo'ak. When Lo'ak is saved by the surprise appearance of this Tulkun, I assumed that this would be just a "there's always a bigger fish" moment and that Lo'ak simply benefited from one predator taking out another. But turns out this Tulkun has a name, Payakan, and he and Lo'ak strike up a friendship. The people in this region of Pandora have a relationship with the Tulkun, who are actually highly intelligent and capable of emotion, and are able to communicate with them. Payakan is an outcast among the Tulkun, which is something that Lo'ak can relate to, feeling that he is the inferior son compared to his seemingly perfect older brother Neteyam and I just love that what is first assumed to be a throwaway bit with a space whale intervening (inadvertently, we think) to save Lo'ak's life turns out to be the introduction of a new character, a new storyline, and this whale has a whole personal backstory of their own. 

Another aspect of Way of Water I appreciated is how Cameron shows that prejudice is something that exists between tribes on Pandora with the tree dwelling teens of Sully's clan (half-breeds at that) labeled as freaks by the teens of the Metkayina reef people. As much as it seems ridiculous that one race of blue or green skinned aliens would think of other blue or green skinned aliens as being so vastly different than themselves, it only points out in classic science fiction fashion the absurdity of prejudice. It was also a smart choice on Cameron's part to have everyone, especially the kids, speak in a recognizably contemporary idiom. With all the strangeness of the environments, it's grounding to have a character being able to sock someone in the mouth and say "That's called a punch, bitch!" Cameron knows how to get his ideas across in the most accessible way not just to the audience that is already open to spending time on an alien planet with blue cat people who ride dragons but to a wider audience that might ordinarily write this stuff off. He's a nerd with an infallible read on what non-nerds will respond to.

Based on the box office performance of Way of Water so far, it seems clear that Cameron will be able to see his saga through as planned. There's no doubt now as to whether Avatar sequels are commercially viable and so Cameron's going to get to make Avatar 4 and 5 and given what he's done with Way of Water, the mind reels at what the rest of this series is going to be like. Cameron has proven himself to be the guy who always crushes it on Part 2's. He's got Aliens, T2 and now Way of the Water to attest to that. So it's going to be truly amazing to see what he can do with multiple sequels and see what an entire James Cameron saga taken from start to finish will look like.

Friday, December 23, 2022

All I Want For Christmas is Morbius 2

With Christmas just around the corner, I know Morbius 2 will not magically arrive in theaters within the next two days. However, in the spirit of making holiday wishes, I'm putting it out there that I hope that we get an announcement for Morbius 2 at some point. Yeah, it won't be before Christmas or even New Year's for that matter. To be honest, it might be never but I'd love to be wrong about that. 

The #1 cinematic punching bag of 2022, Morbius was adopted by the internet as a punchline even before its release. Why that is, I'm not quite sure. While it's no Top Gun: Maverick, the derision it's received has been way out of proportion to the movie itself. Morbius is a pedestrian movie, not a cinematic travesty. In terms of comic book adaptations, we've become spoiled over the last twenty years or so. We get multiple Marvel and DC adaptations a year and every year at least a few of those movies are exceptionally good with few, if any, being out right bad. I actually think that annoys critics, who would be happy to just dump on these movies at will so when Morbius gave critics a ready opportunity to unload, they took it.

Morbius would have played much better in the late '90s/early '00s when the comic book genre as we know it was still emerging. Years ago, Morbius still would have been received as a competently made, intriguingly darker edged comic book adaptation. These days, the bar is set so much higher. One might say that just means that filmmakers have to work harder to clear that bar but I say an ok movie shouldn't be eviscerated for not being exceptional. 

Ahead of its release, the collective public mood was primed to come down on Morbius. Not only is it an adaptation of a fairly obscure Spider-Man villain (and sometimes anti-hero!), which set it up for a barrage of "why was this even made/who asked for this?" attacks but the repeated delays it suffered due to both Covid and reshoots cast a preemptive pall of failure over it. The constant release date changes, five in all that took it all the way from July 10th, 2020 to April 1st, 2022, gave it the vibe of being an inferior product, a movie that was in need of repair. After all the delays, Morbius would have had to have been outstanding to overcome the sentiment that it was bad and, well, it wasn't. It was ok. But ok for Morbuis was enough to have it be labeled as terrible. Even its box office performance, which was also fine, was perceived to be disastrous. While it wasn't a massive blockbuster by any means it made $167 million worldwide on a $75-83 million dollar budget. That's hardly an embarrassment. Moonfall was a bomb. Strange New World was a bomb. Bros was a bomb. Amsterdam was a bomb. Babylon was a bomb. In comparison, Morbius did damn good. 

Save for their Spider-Man films - whether it be the live action ones currently produced by Kevin Feige or the animated Spider-Verse films - Sony Picture's other attempts to exploit the properties at their disposal in the Spider-Man world are operating at a disadvantage. But it's their unlikeliness as box office contenders that I find appealing. Venom was the easiest sell of the bunch, with the character having such a fanbase, but when you're talking about trying to make the likes of Morbius, Kraven the Hunter, Madame Web, and even El Muerto and Hypno-Hustler into franchises of their own, you're in weird, unpredictable territory - something that I think is worth pursuing because you never know what's going to come of it. It's all wild card stuff.  

People love to complain that comic book movies are commercially calculated product, which I think is unfair - after all, every single movie is made with the hope that it will be commercially viable. But if there is any truth to that, wouldn't you want to bring as many offbeat offerings into the genre as possible? Rather than more stories about good vs. evil with the universe at stake, let's have more quirky, oddball offerings. I'm all for seeing Sony spend their wad on crazy long shots. Good or bad, the chances are high that they'll be interesting. 

Marvel's other venture into horror this year was Werewolf by Night which, unlike Morbius, was met with near universal acclaim. Personally, I preferred Morbius. When it comes to adapting Marvel's horror characters, I want the pulpy energy that Morbius had. Morbius did a better job of being true to the feel of the grungy '90s, Midnight Sons era of comics that Morbius flourished in than Werewolf by Night did in capturing that character's shaggy '70s exploits. For all the snarky memes it inspired, the fact is that Morbius performed well enough at the box office to earn a follow up. With most comic book movies, it's not hard to guess what route a sequel might take. With Morbius, though, I have no idea what a Part 2 would look like and that's what makes me want one all the more. 

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Hey There, Bat Fans and Super Friends!

With the last vestiges of the Snyderverse due to hit theaters next year prior to whatever DCU reset James Gunn has planned, a promotional special that aired in prime time on the CW six scant years ago stands as a choice artifact of the Snyderverse era. On January 19th, 2016, ahead of the March release of BvS that year, the CW aired DC Films Presents The Dawn of the Justice League. Hosted by comic book/pop culture guru Kevin Smith with Geoff Johns, DC comic writer and Chief Creative Officer of DC Entertainment, joining him to share the latest inside info, the mission of this special was to hype the hell out of the Snyderverse, which at the time only consisted of Man of Steel

In his role as host, Kevin Smith delivers the best acting of his career, reacting to every bit of info from Johns with rapturous surprise as though he's learning about all this stuff in real time right before our eyes. Why anyone decided this was the angle they wanted Smith to play here, I don't know but for what it's worth he does his best to convince viewers that he somehow knows less about DC's upcoming films than any fan on the internet. 

Some might roll their eyes at Smith's relentless hucksterism on behalf of Warners' corporate product but I actually find his deep dedication to this infomercial endearing. Even if the surprise that he greets every announcement with is feigned, I don't feel like the enthusiasm he's expressing is a total put on. The fact is, all this stuff looked legitimately cool and you know that past being a paid shill, Smith is first and foremost a fanboy at heart and like every other fan weaned on the exploits of these characters, he truly hoped that all of these movies would be incredible.  

While some might think that viewing this special today is an opportunity to snicker at an enormous face plant (it is crazy to see so much laid out here that never came to anything - I forgot Cyborg was supposed to get a movie, for instance) it doesn't hit me like that at all. I actually find it to be more of a bittersweet thing. All involved here are, one assumes, good people (well, save for Ezra Miller) who set out to do their best and make some cool movies. It genuinely sucks that the whole thing fell apart. Is the tale of the failure of the Snyderverse a story of a short sighted corporation undermining an artist at every turn or is it that of a visionary director put in charge of a universe of characters that he didn't truly have a feel for? Depends on who you ask. A little of both, I say. But whatever your take may be, watching this special is like a rush of nostalgia for a future that never was. 






No matter what lies ahead for the DC universe, even if everything James Gunn does is a rousing success, the Snyderverse will remain the preferred live action rendition of the DC Universe for some fans (and not all of them internet trolls). There's a loyal fanbase who will always see the Snyderverse as their DCU. Watching this special is a reminder that DC Films once believed it was theirs as well.