Friday, June 30, 2023

Lost in the Multiverse

In the wake of The Flash's disappointing box office, things are looking grim on the DC front. Or at the very least, uncertain. It seems clear that audiences are not buying what DC is selling at the moment and it's unclear what's going to turn that around. What you can bank on is that WB will never throw in the towel on the DC universe. That is an IP gold mine that no studio is ever going to forsake. So no matter what kind of failures the DC universe suffers, the movies will keep on coming. It's just a matter of what the latest plan for the DCU will be. 

For long time comic fans, the great irony of DC's current movie dilemma is how badly they've botched the multiverse aspect of their universe and, more than that, how they've forfeited that space to Marvel. For years, the multiverse was DC's thing. While Marvel had one streamlined universe with one continuity, DC was the comic universe that dealt in a myriad of multitudes. To explain the aging of their characters and to explain the multiple versions of their characters, DC had a multiverse that allowed Golden Age characters to exist in their own universe and Silver Age characters to exist in theirs, with the opportunities for crossovers between the two. One of the most legendary comics in DC history is 1961's Flash #123, an issue in which readers were presented with the tale of the "Flash of Two Worlds," with present day speedster Barry Allen meeting the Golden Age Flash Jay Garrick and it was the popularity of this issue with readers that led to a series of annual crossovers between the Golden Age Heroes of the Justice Society of America, whose roster included the likes of Hourman and Dr. Fate and the present day Justice League. 

For decades, DC had used the multiverse to account for continuity errors or to simply allow alternate versions of characters to remain in play, just not within the primary universe. But by the '80s, the thinking within DC was that to compete with industry leader Marvel, they had to emulate Marvel's singular continuity and trim the fat from their universe, paring it down to just one world. So 1985's Crisis on Infinite Earths was the big move on DC's part to rid themselves of the multiversal baggage that had built up over the course of fifty years and, hopefully, make their universe more new reader friendly. It ended up being an imperfect act of housekeeping, with editorial at the time failing to make a totally clean break between the past and present of DC. Remnants of prior history survived here and there and some characters were given a fresher slate than others. But even though it was a slightly sloppy segue way from one era to the next, overall it worked and the bottom line was that readers understood that there was now one connected DC universe going forward. 

That lasted until 2011 when DC decided to reinstate the multiverse with the Flashpoint storyline. So on the publishing side, decades after changing their universe to be more like Marvel, DC decided to get back in the multiverse game. Meanwhile, in the movie and TV realm, while Phases 1 through 3 of the MCU had been very liner, moving from Point A to Point B to lay down the foundation of the MCU, going into Phase 4, the new watchword of the MCU, according to Kevin Feige, would be "multiverse." On the Sony side of Marvel, this was also true with 2019's animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse being all about the vast multiverse of Spider Heroes, including everyone from Spider-Noir to Spider-Ham. While WB/DC was still in the process of struggling to create a singular shared universe to match the MCU, Marvel was already moving on to stake their claim as the masters of the multiverse, dubbing Phase 4 "The Multiverse Saga." What historically used to be DC's domain has now become perceived by the public at large as a Marvel thing. The multiverse was something that DC chose to give up and now they're forced to play catch up. 

With Phases 1 through 3, Marvel provided a model on establishing a cinematic universe but following their example proved difficult for WB/DC. Now in Phases 4 and 5, Marvel has been showing how to establish a cinematic multiverse but, again, as it was when it came to building a linear universe, when it comes to their multiverse game, WB/DC still just wants to short cut their way to where Marvel's at without putting the same effort in. 

Marvel has staked out the multiverse front with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018), Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021), Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022), Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (2023) and the Disney+ Marvel shows Loki (soon to debut its second season) and the animated What If? (also due to have a second season). They've dominated this space in a way that WB/DC is ill equipped to compete with. 

Case in point: The Flash

Even with Marvel beating them to the punch, The Flash still could have made the statement that DC has its own bragging rights to the multiverse but it did not send that message. It's not the fault of the filmmakers so much as the fault of a fickle studio demanding last minute changes. First and foremost, the problem that hinders WB/DC is that they lack the strong guiding hand that Marvel has and the willingness to stay the course and see things through. Whether that will change with James Gunn, who knows? For now, DC looks like a company that's been forced to play a weak hand. 

Aside from the lack of a clear strategy in place, in reflecting on The Flash and how it compares to the MCU's multiverse projects, the main flaw in DC compared to Marvel is how small and diminished their multiverse seems. Everything about the MCU's multiverse (and Sony Picture's part in it as well) has been about expansion. It is about opening up new possibilities, new avenues to explore, introducing new characters. DC's multiverse, on the other hand, seems like a sad wax museum. In The Flash, when Barry is seeing the various multiverse and it's just these poorly generated CGI images from DC's past, whether it be Adam West's Batman or Christopher Reeve's Superman, it gives the impression that DC's multiverse is simply about nostalgia and looking back on these inert figures sealed in amber, as opposed to Marvel's multiverse, which is about forging ahead and discovering new possibilities. 

Across the Spider-Verse makes the idea of seeing spin offs with Spider-Punk or Spider-Gwen and others a very welcome possibility. Multiverse of Madness, Loki, and What If? showed that there's endless, and endlessly surprising, variants on the Marvel universe. For its part, The Flash leaves audiences wondering "What was up with Nicolas Cage as Superman?" I say when you're trying to thrill and excite an audience on the possibilities that lie within your multiverse and you choose to waste screen time (and FX dollars) on an in-joke within an in-joke that is pitched to an incremental number of viewers - and even then is really not so much a "joke" at all but simply a reference (you not only have to know that Nicolas Cage was up to play Superman in a '90s Tim Burton movie that never happened, you also have to know that producer Jon Peters infamously insisted that he should fight a giant spider) - you're doing it wrong. 

It's even more galling that while it goes out of its way to reference a version of Superman that never even existed, The Flash completely passed on the opportunity to honor the CW's Arrowverse, which ironically actually was successful in creating a live action, interconnected DC multiverse in a way that the movies haven't been. WB/DC will of course keep trying and perhaps in the James Gunn era the potential of the DCU will finally flourish. For now, though, the DCU and its pantheon of heroes and villains are mired in a mismanaged multiverse.  

Sunday, June 18, 2023

Running To Stand Still

There's a measure of irony to the fact that the first feature film about DC Comics' Scarlet Speedster should prove to reflect the fable of the tortoise and the hare. As early as 2017, Warner Bros. was developing The Flash as an adaptation of the Flashpoint storyline from the comics. At the time, nothing like that in the comic book movie genre had made it to the big screen. Had WB hit the ground running early on, DC could have initially had the multiverse all to themselves but creative issues kept The Flash from bolting from the starting line. In the meantime, both Marvel Studios and Sony Pictures were making slow but steady progress on their own multiverse sagas. Now here in 2023, in a world where we've had Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018), Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021), Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022), and the currently playing Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, The Flash can't help but feel like it's lagging behind. Despite having the chance to be first over the finish line, DC is coming in a distant second in the race for the multiverse.  

On the positive side, there's much in The Flash that is fleet and funny. Despite the personal issues that have plagued Ezra Miller, they're very good here in a dual role as the Barry Allen of two different worlds. While I'll concede that Miller's portrayal of Barry might be like nails on a chalkboard to some viewers, I say their performance is in tune with the comedic angle screenwriter Christina Hudson and director Andy Muschietti are going for. 

The Flash's emphasis on humor might rankle some fans, especially devotees of the grim Snyder verse, but I think it was the smart choice to make. The Flashpoint storyline, if played totally straight, can't help but make Barry look pretty lousy, like a deeply reckless and short sighted person who can't see past his own selfish needs. The CW Flash series took the serious approach when they did their own Flashpoint and it only made Barry come off as an unsympathetic jerk. How could it not? Barry takes the fact that he misses his mom as a reason to unravel reality for billions of innocent people. 

In making The Flash essentially a comedy of (cosmic) errors, and portraying Barry's action as those of an emotionally stunted but well intended fool, it makes his actions more palatable. He's able to come across less as a selfish asshole and more like a helpless goof who's prone to catastrophe. 

The Flash has an almost lampoonish quality to it as Barry races from one reality to the next, dismantling the DC universe as he goes, with the multiverse like a set of spinning plates that Barry is madly struggling (and failing) to keep in the air. 

Things do get darker as the film goes on and as the dramatic stakes rise but yet it all comes back around to funny business with the movie ending on a punchline, the point of which being that the DCU has been permanently broken. It's a good laugh (with a great cameo) but at the same time, this is a movie that needed to bring clarity to the DCU and the fact that it doesn't is a problem. 

When the new DC regime, led by James Gunn and David Zaslav, came in last year and announced that the much touted "change in the DC hierarchy of power," Black Adam, wasn't actually going to lead to anything and that the DCU that began with Man of Steel in 2013 would be ending (despite the return of Henry Cavill's Superman in Black Adam's post credit scene), it fell on The Flash to make the case why that was a good idea and to establish what the new direction of the DCU would be.

Instead The Flash comes across as a cinematic pie in the face of the DCU, frequently sillier than even the most broadly comic Marvel movie and I have to think that's not what DC fans are in the mood for, especially in the wake of the universe they'd become attached to over the last ten years being so unceremoniously scrapped.

Say what you will about Black Adam but I think The Rock had the right idea in regards to not throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Black Adam might not have been a monster hit but it made the right moves in teeing up the DCU for bigger things to come while going for a more palatable soft reboot of sorts. Even though movies like Man of Steel and WW84 might not have been the best vehicles for them, Cavill's Superman and Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman were still very well liked and I think there was an audience that simply wanted to see them (and others from the Snyder verse) get their shot in a refocused DCU. If you're going to kick these actors to the curb, you've got to do it gracefully in way that respects their contributions to the DCU while also making the strongest case possible for a new direction and The Flash does neither. 

Additionally, The Flash squanders both Micheal Keaton's return as Batman and Sasha Calle's introduction as Supergirl. Both of them have some outstanding scenes (I particularly enjoyed the re-introduction of Keaton, in a fight scene that's reminiscent of a Pink Panther movie with Kato lying in wait to ambush Clouseau) but their arcs come to unsatisfying ends that feel undeserving of the characters. Reports say that the final version wasn't what was originally planned, with changes made since in order to accommodate the changes in the DCU but what they went with was not the right choice. After setting up Bruce, the two Barrys and Kara as a mini Justice League and following their strategizing to take down Zod, this section of the film ends on a deflated note and as a result the inclusion of Bruce and Kara ends up feeling pointless and dispiriting rather than heroic. 

Spoilers here but it feels like a poor choice to prime the audience to anticipate how Flash, Kara and Bruce are going to take down Zod only to find out that, oh, they don't. The entire time spent in Bruce and Kara's reality ends up being a prolonged lesson in failure and while the experience teaches Barry that sometimes there isn't a way to fix things, there should have been a better way to get him to that point without having the bulk of the movie be about everyone fighting a losing battle. 

The most curious flaw of The Flash, though, is that even though the story hinges on Barry changing the fabric of the universe to save his mother, he never shows any interest in finding out who killed her or why. It's doubly maddening in that Barry's other big motivation is in clearing his dad of the crime. So why does it never occur to him to find out who did it and bring them to justice? At the very least, where's the curiosity about this crime on Barry's part? I mean, it's one thing to not want to interfere any more overtly than he's already doing but how about getting some answers for himself? You can time travel but you don't want to find out why your mother was murdered? Really?   

It's such a bizarre oversight to have this not even be a factor in the film. In the comics the murder is committed by one of Barry's arch foes from the future but even if the movie didn't want to take it in that super villain direction, they've still got to address why this crime was committed in the first place and it's just crazy that it goes ignored. 

In the comics, Flashpoint was a blunt means to an end. Having Barry undo his mother's murder wasn't about exploring Barry's trauma. While that might have been the surface storyline, underneath that Flashpoint was just a mechanism meant to restore the DC multiverse that had been undone back in 1985's Crisis on Infinite Earths and doing it within continuity. It was essentially a reboot in disguise. 

To apply what Flashpoint did in the comics to the movies, they needed to have a similarly clear and pragmatic plan in place of what they were looking to accomplish but unfortunately the goals The Flash started with changed drastically during the course of its production and post-production, going from teeing up the next round of adventures with the DCU characters we've come to know to becoming their awkward send-off and that last minute swerve badly kneecaps the final product. 


A production that ran into more problems than it could handle before it was able to cross the finish line, The Flash should have shown that the DC universe is still in the race but instead it makes it look like a franchise that's running on empty. 

Sunday, June 4, 2023

Still Crazy After All These Years: Psycho II at 40

Sequels have always presented an arduous challenge for filmmakers. But to make a sequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), the shocker that single-handedly changed the course of modern horror? That was more than just a challenge, it was an act of cinematic sacrilege. The idea of anyone attempting to make a Psycho II sounded like pure craziness, especially given the staggering twenty year plus gap between them. But then, we all go a little mad sometimes.   

Inspired in part by his disdain for the slasher genre of the early ‘80s, and prior to the development of the Psycho II film, Psycho novelist Robert Bloch had his own idea for a continuation of Norman Bates’ story. Bloch had the still-nuts Norman escape from an asylum (by murdering a nun and dressing in her habit) and then trek to Hollywood to terrorize the makers of a movie based on his exploits (that it would’ve taken twenty some-odd years for Hollywood to make a movie out of Norman’s grisly deeds seems far-fetched but hey, whatever). Bloch’s Psycho II was published in 1982 but with its acerbic jabs at Hollywood and the way the storyline marginalized (and even discarded) Norman, it didn’t make for a viable candidate for a movie adaptation. 

Still, with both slashers and sequels being all the rage in the early '80s, Universal recognized the strong commercial viability in the return of Norman Bates and set about mounting their version of Psycho II. Screenwriter Tom Holland (The Beast Within) was enlisted to create a storyline from scratch and in the director’s seat was ardent Hitchcock disciple Richard Franklin, who had previously proved his aptitude for suspense with the acclaimed Australian thriller Road Games (1981). The importance of having the right writer and director aside, the success of any attempt at a Psycho sequel hinged on the participation of Anthony Perkins. The actor’s (at first reluctant) decision to return as Norman was the essential casting coup that made Psycho II into a credible project. In the summer of 1983, the Bates Motel would be back in business. Cue the slashing violins!

From the instant a judge declares Norman fit to return to society, the sister of Norman's most famous victim, Lila Loomis (Vera Miles), formerly Lila Crane, is in the courthouse calling bullshit and waving a petition to keep this murdering menace locked up for life. Even though she comes across as a bit of a high-strung, haranguing bitch (though can you blame her?), audiences suspect Lila might be onto something as no sooner than Norman returns to the Victorian frame house he used to share with his mother’s corpse does he see someone in the window of Mother’s old bedroom. Worse than that, Norman starts finding notes for him left in his mother’s name. Is Norman losing it so soon, or is there another explanation?

While he – and the audience – are left to wonder what’s what, Norman scores himself a new job outside of the motel to keep himself occupied. He’s now working as a cook at the local diner and when he isn’t busy flipping burgers, he’s warming up to young waitress Mary Samuels (Meg Tilly). When Mary’s boyfriend dumps her, Norman does the gentlemanly thing and offers her a room at his motel. Unfortunately, when Norman goes to put Mary in a cabin he discovers to his horror that the man appointed by the state to run the motel in Norman’s absence, Warren Toomey (Dennis Franz), has turned the Bates Motel into – gasp! – a place where people go to indulge in all manner of “adult” and/or illegal activities. Naturally, Norman is outraged. Is Toomey trying to give the Bates Motel a bad name or what? 

Norman’s puritanical reaction is a genius move on the part of Franklin and Holland. To have Norman, of all people, representing the voice of decency was a perfect way to sardonically comment on just how debased the world had become since 1960 while also establishing Norman as a weirdly virtuous character. It should be ridiculous – Norman is, after all, a serial killer. But Holland, Franklin, and Perkins collectively sell us on the idea of Norman as a chivalrous guy. Norman was always a sympathetic figure; it’s part of what made the original film so successful. But in Psycho II when he shows his backbone and fires Toomey, he’s like some '80s movie hero, taking out the trash. This isn’t Norman as the same stammering man-child he was in the original; this is Norman as a valorous man of principles who won’t be taking anyone’s shit. Pay attention, scumbags. There's a new sheriff in town and his name is Norman. 

Holland, Franklin and Perkins knew how important it was that the audience be in Norman’s corner. If Norman came off as just being sketchy, the idea that Mary would consent to stay alone in his house would be impossible to accept and the movie would instantly fall apart. Although we find out later in the film that Mary has her own hidden motives for getting close to Norman, not knowing that at first, we have to believe upfront that this young girl would not be an idiot for trusting a former serial killer (no matter how “cured” the state claims he is) – much less to begin to fall in love with him.

Reportedly, Tilly and Perkins had an acrimonious relationship on the set but on screen, the budding romance of their characters has the convincing chemistry of two lost souls finding each other. Alas, as we find out here and in Psycho III (1986), love is just not in the cards for Norman. The guy has too much baggage and Mother never stays out of the picture for long. As viewers, we root for the tormented Norman to beat his demons and claw his way out of his private trap but Mother always has the last say when it comes to Norman's love life.

Whether Norman is really putting on a woman’s wig and dress again or not, someone who looks an awful lot like Mrs. Bates is up to multiple murder (with some nasty gore to be had – an absolutely brutal knife through the mouth gag rivals the most ghastly FX found in any ‘80s slasher movie) and until the last scenes, Holland and Franklin keep the audience on their toes as to what the solution to the film’s mystery is. 

With all respect to Bloch as a genius of psychological horror and as the literary father of Norman Bates, Holland's script bested Bloch's novel as the better Psycho II story. Not only did Holland realize that in 1983, there'd be no need for Norman to break out of an asylum (instead, thanks to an overburdened judicial and mental health system, he'd be deemed cured and released), Holland also knew that this story needed to be about Norman, On every level, Holland's script made the right choices. It was more emotional, more surprising, and scarier to boot.  

In 1983, the return of Norman Bates could’ve easily been treated as an occasion for camp. By that time, Psycho was so embedded in the cultural vernacular that its iconic moments had been parodied time and again, in everything from Mel Brooks' Hitchcock spoof High Anxiety (1977) to Brian DePalma's Phantom of the Paradise (1974). But Holland and Franklin wisely played it seriously. 

Psycho II is very much a horror film of the Friday the 13th era (the death of a pot smoking teen trying to get into his girlfriend's pants in the cellar of the Bates home is a deliberate nod to the current conventions of the slasher genre) but unlike most of its competitors, Psycho II wasn't just about a body count. It's just that everyone involved in making Psycho II were savvy enough to know that in 1983 they needed to have one. 

As an acolyte of Hitchcock, Franklin crafted Psycho II as a love letter to Psycho, filled with visual quotes and Easter Egg-style shout-outs to the original (including a slyly hidden cameo by the late director, with Hitch's signature shadow making an appearance) while contributing its own indelible moments to the Psycho saga (with the shockingly sudden shovel murder being a standout).

While the twenty two years that separated Psycho II from the original was thought to be a ridiculously long span of time back when II was released on June 3rd, 1983, here we are now in 2023 looking back at Psycho II as 40 year old film. Considered to be not just a risk at the time but also (to some) a crassly commercial cash in with no artistic merit, the years have been kind to Psycho II. Whereas once Psycho II earned compliments as being a better film than it had a right to be, when people refer to it today as a classic in its own right, it's a sentiment that doesn’t sound so crazy at all.