Medium/Large: Episodic Moves in Television and Movies

Many television critics have been bemoaning the death of the episode in TV lately. As our culture shifts to online, streaming, and binge watching, the episode has become less of a chapter and more of a sentence in the seasonal books we watch. More and more the shows we watch resemble 10-hour movies rather than episodic television. The flip side of that is that our movies are starting to resemble the episodic television we’re more accustomed to.

On the surface level these are driven by two different goals. Television is increasingly embracing the streaming platform’s structure of releasing a whole season in one go, which encourages long periods of watching, which doesn’t have as much need to break up the story into chunks like network television does. Movies, meanwhile, are caught up in the desire to be like Marvel, and create a shared cinematic universe. It’s the reason Captain America: Civil War is able to build on the characters, relationships, and events that people have been watching play out for almost a decade on the silver screen, or why The Force Awakens was able to exist paradoxically as a reboot, a sequel, and a retelling without fully standing on its own. star-wars-the-force-awakens-15-1200x630

But underneath it all it’s the same principle: To get people obsessed with your content. Marvel has always understood that building out narratives across issues and decades creates generations of fans. Star Wars invented modern blockbuster culture because it turned out to be a smash hit. Shows like BloodlineSense 8, and beyond are able to take advantage of the interest in telling long-form stories and connecting (deeply) with characters week-after-week to use whole seasons as pilots instead of one episode. And so they borrow strategies that worked for the other in order to build their medium up. Similar to the way genres have started to bleed into each other, formatting now is as well; blockbuster movies are more often than ever before just episodes of a longer story being told across a franchise, and television is just an imagined story that functions more like building a puzzle rather than a daisy chain each week.

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Tights and T-Rexes:

Well guys Suicide Squad has come and gone, and at no point did it go over well with critics. But audiences—or some vocal portion of them—liked it, and are as unhappy with critics as the critics are with the movie. Which lead to some accusations in the raging rapids of Twitter and social media that critics are just shills for Marvel, or even that critics have no place in our lives.

I’ve gone on record as favoring Marvel, and I’ll admit that I share no excitement about seeing Dawn of Justice. But I think it’s possible for both critics and DC fans to exist in this world of ours.

Take The Witch. The movie was trumpeted by critics, beloved for being a return to arthouse horror and building dread without jump-scares. It boasts a high critical rating on sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. But audiences weren’t so enthusiastic. I loved the film, but I’m not immodest enough to say that’s because it’s objectively one of the best movies of the year, let alone that some audiences are “just dumb” as some may argue.

Movies are such subjective experiences, built on the backs of so many people and for the enjoyment of even more I’d be hard-pressed to come up with a movie that everyone loves and could agree was an objectively good movie. So long as you’re able to appreciate what it is you enjoyed about the movie, reflect critically on that, what’s the harm? It’s ok for a movie to be good to you, and have all the elements you wanted from it and for critics to not agree.

I love dinosaurs, particularly of the underwater variety. So for myself, Jurassic World had everything I wanted and more. But I can also acknowledge that if you aren’t me, and weren’t flooded with adrenaline over the action sequences it’s a pretty subpar movie. Conversely, I like my horror films to really wig me out (while not being too gorey) and while It Follows gave others those feelings I wasn’t on board—no matter how much I appreciated the artistry of it. I’m a sucker for smart action films, so Marvel’s cinematic universe excites and thrills me, but that doesn’t mean A.O. Scott is wrong when he called it homogenous. It might mean that we value that differently in our enjoyment. Jurassic World dinosaur

To say that any one audience is “smarter” than another is gross and white-washes the issue. It’s more accurate (and kind) to say that your interests, values, and pleasure is simply stocked in different places. The whole idea of having a wide range of pop culture is that there’s something for everyone, not everything for someone.

When you read a critic’s review and it seems to be overly harsh or bashing on something you love, ask yourself: Is it? Is it just that we disagree? Is this a critic I have a trust and understanding with? Can I get over myself and just enjoy what I enjoy without validation?

Surprise! You already know.

Has surprise casting ever worked? I don’t mean like Kevin Spacey at the end of Se7en. More like casting a notable actor in a film (typically a reboot or franchise) as a rando new character before ultimately revealing that—surprise—they were this character all along. Think Benedict Cumberbatch as John Harrison Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness or Marion Cotillard as Miranda Talia Al-Ghul in The Dark Knight Rises.

At this point fandoms have become accustomed to the studio’s schtick: There’s no such thing as adding a new character to an established franchise, they’re only there if it’s a bait-and-switch. Whether it seems to happen because they want to withhold some plot development later on (see Dark Knight Rises) or they want to be able to justify not casting a POC (Star Trek Into Darkness, and arguably Iron Man 3) without fan outrage, it’s a common enough practice that audiences—especially those that leak, clamor, and obsess over anything released by the studios regarding franchises—aren’t buying it anymore.

KhanSequel_FEAT-970x545.pngI’m all for spoiler warnings and avoiding knowing the plot ahead of time before movies (if that’s what you want, I don’t really see the harm in reasonably facilitating that for yourself). But too often it seems producers just straight up lie in order to avoid—what, controversy? Discussion? All they’re really doing is hoping the can is kicked far enough down the road that viewers will be more sympathetic, or at least understanding, of the artistic junket choices they made. But in my experiences no one likes feeling conned. And when these experiences don’t pay off artistically it makes it all the worse. It’s too simple to say that witholding information like this should enhance a viewing experience not dampen it, because that’s probably what creators thought they were doing with Talia and Khan.

But compared to something like (to grab another Spacey-villain-reveal joint) The Usual Suspects, where the person pulling the strings the whole time is played in a bit of misdirection—even acknowledged misdirection, as we see Spacey orchestrate the initial robberies even as he tells us that it was someone else. It’s nuggets like that that can create repeat and rewarding viewing experiences. Compare that to trying to reboot and slip a villain in under the radar in an established franchise under the wire while keeping it under wraps that it’s what you’re doing and the game is considerably more dicey (and as we’ve seen in both Rises and Into Darkness, prone to failure and letdown).

Perhaps the latest comes with the news that Zendaya won’t be playing a random “Michelle” in Spiderman: Homecoming, she’ll be playing none other than the red-headed heartthrob Mary-Jane. Though I’m hardpressed to believe that (if the rumors are true) there’s any real reason Marvel would withhold this information other than to have a couple more months without the ire of racists on the internet directed towards them, at least for once it’s being used to get a person of color into a white role, rather than the other way around.

Squad Goals?

Well the results are in and Suicide Squad is not a crowd critic pleaser. It’s adding more fuel on the fire to certain fanboys’ belief that critics are in the pocket of Big Marvel, that they’r enemies of fun, that they’ll do anything to keep DC down. But I think if we’re all being honest with ourselves the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in DC.

dc-comics-logo-legends-of-tomorrowThere was a time when DC movies were the clear victor: The original Superman movies are iconic, and the 1990s Batman movies at least had a home amongst audiences.During that time Marvel was going through a near bankruptcy, selling off most of its properties in order to stay afloat, and on paper struggling against DC’s might.

Then came Batman & Robin. Then Catwoman, seven years later. During this time Marvel was planting the seeds for a supergroup, a radical idea that there was a way to translate their heroes to screen in a massive cinematic universe. DC seems to have spent that time recapturing the glory.

And that glory was always a bit hokey: I mean, it’s not like Tim Burton directed Batman and people were expecting gritty, Alan Moore-esque. In fact these movies were in stark contrast with the comics of the time. Which is why Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy came out of nowhere.

It was four years before Marvel would strike gold with Iron Man, and Batman Begins seemed to do a lot of things well. Any bad aspects of it could be forgiven because it was so enthralling, tough, and true to Batman. Then The Dark Knight came out in 2008 and suddenly DC seemed to be owning the game again—this time with a brand new tone. The problem is, it was never really DC’s tone for their cinematic universe. It was Nolan’s.The Dark Knight

As an auteur and a postmodern filmmaker, Nolan makes movies that are meticulous, that hold up on rewatches, that dip into modern themes just enough to interrogate them a bit but not enough to be off-putting or admonishing. On creating The Dark Knight trilogy he said: “You try and get the audience to invest in cinematic reality. When I talk about reality in these films, it’s often misconstrued as a direct reality, but it’s really about a cinematic reality.”

Which is perhaps something DC is still struggling with. They believe that they’ve found their niche—more nihilistic, gritty, and grimey films to Marvel’s sun and fun approach—but they’re playing with someone else’s viewpoint. They can’t capture the magic because it isn’t theirs. In the years since Nolan left DC (and arguably somewhat while he was there) the doom and gloom of DC has become monotonous, with attempts to ape it popping up seemingly everywhere.

For whatever depth an audience can read into a Marvel movie, they understand their strengths, their point-of-view, and their heroes. They know what the audience wants to see and they know how to surprise them when they’re seeing it (even if it’s the 18th time they’ve trotted out the same formula). It’s allowed them to be more ambitious, turning the modern superhero film out to different genres. They are controlling the conversation and minting money doing so.

DC’s approach seems entirely in response: Response to what audiences seem to react to, response to the MCU, response to Nolan’s tonal shift for the comic company. They rushed into Batman v. Superman because they wanted to compete with Marvel’s Avengers, already on their second adventure together, and growing stronger and bigger every time. They pushed out Suicide Squad as their own version of a demented Avengers, a team of Deadpools, who might lighten the hearts and level the playing field. But as the reviews roll in, it seems that it’s just one more example of DC’s universe being an answer, not a statement.

Dead-Pansexual

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Let’s kick this off with the truth: No, Deadpool is not overtly pansexual in the new “Deadpool” movie. And no, that may not matter as much as you think.

For starters, this movie got made by the skin of its teeth. There’s a chance it got made using illegal creative means to get made, and there’s about a 70 percent chance that it wasn’t Ryan Reynolds. The movie has been in creative development for a decade (seriously) and hasn’t changed much since 2010.

It’s somewhat remarkable, given all that, the movie works as well and seems as timely as it is. Though I had a great time in the theater, the movie isn’t too much more than a wink and sarcastic comment about superhero tropes while still doing those exact same things. It’s fun and creative, but it’s not revolutionary—particularly not in the way the comic character can be. 

Our titular hero protagonist spends a lot of the film shrugging off the label of “hero” (even before he throws on the tights), and making snide comments about superhero movies and studios (about the X-mansion: “Such a big house. Weird that I only ever see you two. It’s almost like…the studio couldn’t afford another X-Man.”). But as distinct and clever as this commentary comes off, it’s not exactly in service of any revolutionary goals: He’s still trying to kick the bad guy’s ass and restore himself back to who he was, primarily so he can go back to life with his girl the hooker with a heart of gold Vanessa. As Deadpool himself says at the beginning, this isn’t a comic book movie so much as it is a love story. And basically every comic origin story involves lost, heteronormative love.

It’s hard to say if the film even makes any overt or intentional references to Deadpool’s shifting sexuality at all. Arguably almost any mentions can be played off as immature, “but no homo” jokes, and get about as far as Agent Coulson did when he first introduced himself to Pepper Potts: It’s a hat tip to those in the know, but it’s not integral to understanding the film.

And yeah, that sucks. Deadpool is such a unique and interesting character that seeing him flattened into the traditional superhero mold even as he actively decries himself against it is hard to shoulder, even if it ends up being pretty fun to watch.

But for now it’s important to note that the creators and people integral to the production of future Deadpool movies (director Tim Miller, or “an overpaid tool” as the opening credits refer to him and star Ryan “God’s perfect idiot” Reynolds) believe him to be pansexual—and have stated so publicly.  That elevates this beyond just “queer-baiting” where writers like to flirt with fandom pairings without ever publicly acknowledging them. Deadpool’s ever-shifting sexuality (itself still debated in the comics) is not merely a subtextual bastard. It’s an influence running in the back of the minds of the creators.

For now it’s purely subtextual. And yeah, that is annoying, or at least disappointing. “Deadpool” is not progressive in that way, aside from some homoerotic subtext and winking jokes—aka, not progressive. But the film’s success so far can’t be ignored, and while it’s sure to impact what X-Men and superhero films look like in the future, there’s probably hopefully nothing but good vibes and green lights on the horizon for the Merc with the Mouth. And the people making it seem to be itching to bring in some LGBTQ-love.

We’ve already seen what they can do with some test footage.

Aka in costume

There’s been a whole lot of talk about Jessica Jones. And to me, one thing seems awfully clear to me: Jessica Jones is never without her armor.

I know a lot of the coverage around the show has commented specifically at how JJ manages to tip its hat to a lot of the superhero conventions while avoiding them in favor of a more noir action thriller. And one of the ways the show has arguably strayed from the superhero path is avoiding the costume—even holding up the one Jessica “Jewel” Jones wears in the comics and ridiculing it. But Jessica does wear a costume in the show, it’s just her regular clothes.

Jessica, as Netflix imagines her, has never shied away from a fight, and isn’t quick to let people in. But she also has a very permeable sense of self; the season toys with the extent of Kilgrave’s power over her, and how she constructs herself from the opinions of others. As a person, she favored dark jeans, sweaters, and leather and/or military-esque jackets. It’s what she wears every day (to the great delight of the Internet). But as we see in a flashback in episode 5, these choices—like most things in Jessica’s life—are hard fought.

After (what we see to be) her first foray into heroism, she’s spied by Kilgrave, aka future arch-nemesis and big bad for season one. He’s instantly enthralled by her, her powers, her beauty. Right away, he starts sizing her up, presumably using his powers, and making her his. And he specifically comments on her clothing.

Kilgrave sizes up Jessica
“You are a vision—hair, skin. Appalling sense of fashion, but that can be remedied.”

As we’ve seen in other flashbacks (so far) Jessica under Kilgrave’s control is much closer to his art-deco style; big fur collared coats, flashy dresses. Before that she was similar to the Jessica we see now, if a bit less rundown. From what we’ve seen of her past (and her youth) Jessica has always dressed with a flair for punk, but it was only once she escaped Kilgrave that her wardrobe became less and expression of self and more of a barrier to it. It’s an effective way to shorthand Jessica’s PTSD, her time under Kilgrave, and demonstrate when (and how) she feels safe.

It may not be stars and stripes, but it’s a battle outfit nonetheless. Jessica Jones is just always ready for a fight.

Comic Dating

You can’t avoid dating yourself. It’s coded into everything you do; style, language, even casual observances of the future. But many movies strive to be anyway, hoping that if they exist outside of the time continuum they can go down forever as something that “really holds up,” or at least a classic. And it’s clear that the Marvel movies are attempting to do the same.

They don’t wade into the politics that coincide with their release like “The Dark Knight” does; they build a universe just adjacent to ours, where the politics is more concerned with super powers than it is with super lame election candidates.

But what seems to be lost on the Marvel-powers-that-be is that by trying to remain the clean-cut classic comic cinema that’s above all the veiled agendas it’s inadvertently dating itself—and robbing its stories of their original punch. Take Spider-man for example, who’s about to undergo his umpteenth (alright, you caught me, his second) reboot, and once again the actors considered are all traditional Peter Parker: nerdy white, males.

imageNow that we live in the age of the geek, this could’ve been a great opportunity for Marvel to make a statement, to bring the power back behind the story that resonated in the 60s. Maybe a Peter Park, a Korean American whose background would lineup so well with that of an immigrant’s background. A Miles Morales, whose Uncle Ben was shot by police in a situation that mirrored the experiences of so many African American families sadly experience today.

Yes, it would mean wading into territory that might not be all fanfare. But it’d be a powerful move, something that would remind viewers who these comics were catering to when they launched and the force for justice they still can be. And I wouldn’t be surprised if it were met with support from its viewers; I mean, hey, it’s worked so far for “Cinderella” and “Mad Max.”

But given Marvel’s 3000 year plan, and resistance to taking a gamble on anyone but a white male, it’s unlikely that we’ll see this anytime soon. But Marvel, remember the (paraphrased) words of the wise David Bowie: time will change (how viewers perceive) you, but you can’t change time. You may as well get with them.

The Sum of Their Parts

Warning: I’ve now seen “Avengers: Age Of Ultron” and will be referring to parts of the plot fairly freely in the post below. Also MCU is short hand for “Marvel Cinematic Universe” 

Avengers-Age-of-Ultron-Trailer-3-Team-In-AirOne of the overarching themes running rampant in Joss Whedon’s “Age of Ultron” (and, believe you me, there are many) is about teamwork, and whether it matters how a team is broken down. Fittingly, it’s a similar allegory for how Marvel churns out their films.

Sure, there’s the the criticism that all their blockbusters are homogenous, or that they’re just another cog in the Marvel-complex that demands that all box offices kneel before it. But that’s selling short the true vision of the entire operation, and frankly that’d be a dumbass thing to do.

Marvel is building a universe. An imperfect one, but an awe-inspiring one nonetheless. It’s got action, it’s got chapters, and—in my book—above all, it’s got heart.

Take Tony Stark. When we first met him in the gamble that was 2008’s “Iron Man” he was the man who would shirk responsibility with any chance he got. By the end, he had transformed his PTSD into some serious firepower. That could’ve been the end of the arc (and had “Iron Man” been a bomb it likely would’ve been) but as Devin Farci notes in a post for birth. movies. death., all the movies since then have traced and pulled on this arc in powerful new ways, culminating in the most recent release:

[In “Ultron] when the Scarlet Witch shows Tony a destroyed future, his PTSD kicks in again. It’s important to understand that while standard narratives would have a hero getting over his PTSD, in reality you never do – you just live with it, hopefully dealing with it but never leaving it behind. And that PTSD can return, can rear its ugly head and fuck you up all over again. And that’s what happens to Tony.

Tony’s post-script has now morphed into a new arc. The guy who didn’t give a shit in Iron Man now cannot stop giving a shit. His journey has taken him from shirking responsibility to accepting responsibility to, in Ultron, embracing ALL the responsibility. This is an incredible arc, a profound change of a character who still remains recognizable after all this time.

Writing off any “Iron Man” or “Avengers” flick as just another in the mega-wheel that is Marvel Studios right now as more of the same misses the larger picture—and the profoundly engaging character development that goes on in between (and during) all the fights. iron-man-jericho

And if you read Farci’s piece (which you should, because it’s fascinating; here’s the link again) the roots of everyone’s arcs in “Ultron” can be traced back through the MCU so far (and presumably foreshadow arcs in the next phases as well). Like the titular Avengers, Marvel has built a universe that triumphs in not only its breadth, but in its details as well. As a reader of the comics, it’s the best kind of fan service I can ask for. That they all work within and towards the same vision—building a cohesive MCU—warms my heart.

It’s also the same reason I’m so ambivalent on DC’s offerings. Ever the competitive comic industry, DC has now started building its own cinematic universe, but theirs is without any sort of vision. Thus far the sum of their parts hasn’t been all that promising. Their world so far has been most successful with Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, and that’s over.

Now they’re starting from scratch while at the same time running to stand still next to Marvel, and it’s got the overwhelming potential to be messy. As Mike Ryan notes for Uproxx, “The Avengers” was a culmination of the story thus far; “the orgasm after four years of foreplay.”

So far from DC’s universe we’ve seen “Man of Steel,” (which admittedly I didn’t care much for), and though it’s unclear how that piece fits into the larger whole, they’re already rushing to put out “Batman vs. Superman,” which will introduce four new characters, not to mention a new face for Batman. It’s messy sure, but if it were all working as part of a larger, coherent sum we could forgive a bit of messiness (I’m looking at you, “Iron Man 2”). But as Ryan notes, it’s not quite that simple:

But the problem is DC doesn’t have a Kevin Feige – a studio head that also has a deep personal knowledge of these characters. I’ve interviewed Feige four times over the last couple of years — the man knows his sh*t. That’s not a ruse, he’s legitimately a fan of these characters. He never speaks like someone coming from the business side of this operation, he talks to you like he’s got the best toy collection on the block and knows exactly how to display them. But the funny this is, DC legitimately has the best toy collection – they have access to every DC character, as opposed to Marvel, who doesn’t. The problem is, they just don’t know how to display or position that collection.

Marvel fan or not, you have to hand it to them for how they’ve built up an empire on solid foundation.

Whedon is a master at balancing while exploring the subtler dynamics of a team, and it’s thanks to his hand that “The Avengers” movies have been able to stand on the shoulders of all the films that came before them. It’s going to be a bit of juggling act to switch up directors now, but with any luck the Russo brothers are up to the challenge of taking Marvel’s vision and weaving it with those character arcs. Because so far all the puzzle pieces have fallen right into place, and they don’t look like that’s going to stop anytime soon.

Hell, they’ve even made “Ant Man” look promising.

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Why Marvel is optimism prime

In the name of Pulp Diction, friendship, and love of films, I have had many a heated argument over opinions on movies with my best friend and writing partner. Though perhaps none as heated as the time we started to review “The Dark Knight Rises.”

We had gone to see it with a large group of people, shelled out for the gaggle of us to see it in eye-popping IMAX, and built up the potential in our minds for eons. Walking out of it though, I seemed to be the only one who seemed skeptical of how the end of the great Nolan/Batman trilogy had turned out. Surprising, since my bestie and I are normally so far on the same page it’s scary.

We debated, back and forth, for a couple hours when it came time to write the review. The argument came to a head when I asked him if he really liked “The Dark Knight Rises” over, say, “The Avengers,” or if he just felt like he did because it had a more somber tone. Though I would say in the end we found a common ground in the voice of our review, the debate struck a chord with me that I haven’t been able to shake.

Though my sisters and I have often scampered around the comic realm, we’ve always been slightly more partial to Marvel over DC. I’ve heard it said that “DC comics are about superheroes who happen to be humans, Marvel comics are about humans who happen to be superheroes,” and I think that’s reflective of the tone picked up in most comic book movies that I didn’t full realize until my debate around “Rises.”

Where DC seems to be reveling in their shade and gloominess, Marvel is celebrating in the sheer absurdity of its comic universe. It’s a tonal reflection that often happens in pop culture, believing that a serious setting is worth more than a comical, or more palatable framing (see also: almost any Oscar ballot).

But it’s a little exhausting, that universal bleakness. I could probably tell you a handful of points I enjoyed around last year’s “Man of Steel,” but it is tiring, following Superman–who has a symbol for hope on his chest–fly around such a dreary mis-en-scene.

What’s refreshing, as both an independent viewer and a reader of comic books, is how Marvel doesn’t seem to be ashamed of its zany elements or its outlandish schemes, costumes, or acronyms. Sure it might tone them down a bit–change the time frame, make the costumes a bit more realistic (or at least VFX friendly)–but at no point in its production does it seem to be doing anything but going balls-to-the-wall when building their universe up, with enthusiasm fully engaged.

So while there’s cases to be made for each side’s television, movie, and minority representation, you’ll have to drag me away from Marvel kicking and screaming. And, likely, from a line of Marvel fans all doing the same.