The Ghost in the Shell whitewashing is worse than you think

Hollywood has a fraught relationship with anime. The difficulties of pulling a movie together compound with the slightly boom-and-bust cycle of interest in Japanese animation properties, such that even if a movie gets made, is it in any way relevant to the interest of any potential audience?

A Dragonball movie in 1999 would have been a pretty keen bit of timing. One in 2009 is just asking “why bother?” even before you get to the casting decisions. It’s not that there weren’t Dragonball fans, but many of them were considerably older and had probably moved on to other things. Naruto or something.

So there’s a desire to strike when the iron is hot that’s completely missed. Is there an interest in making a Sailor Moon movie? Probably. Would it be worthwhile to do so? Or is Evangelion still a viable product? It seems that production companies aren’t asking about what’s really big RIGHT NOW that they could get started working on so that it might be relevant to the audience when it hits, but rather are asking about things that were hot five, ten, or twenty years ago, as if that’s the same thing.

But, whatever. Ghost in the Shell is the latest foray, and arguably the most ambitious yet. (The aborted attempts at Akira with Leonardo DiCaprio or whoever might have been bigger, but that pretty much entered development hell from the getgo so here we are.)

To say that GitS has been courting controversy since the initial casting announcement of Scarlett Johansson is to put it lightly. The movie has become something of a flashpoint of the whitewashing nature of Hollywood casting. And that’s perfectly justified criticism. There are a vast number of Asian actresses who could have played the role of Major Kusanagi. It looks especially bad because Johansson already effectively played a role that should have gone to an Asian actress in Lucy.

For a while, I was in the camp that besides the racism of the casting, it was a problem because it undermined the very Japanese-ness of GitS’ story. It was conceived and developed in light of the collapse of the bubble economy in the 80s, and reflects a lot of the economic and political climate of Japan at the time. The strange nature of how Japan had (and has) one of the large military budgets in the world while not, technically speaking, having a military in the sense we’d expect. Or how because of that Japan engaged in militarizing its economy so that it could be a dominant force on the world stage. And further what effects the rapid technological advancement on the Japanese industry had on its culture, with questions of identity and human relationship. While some of these things could be stretched to reflect other societies, taken in whole they are very Japanese at the core. If you start to shift that to another setting, or remove the Japanese people from the story, it doesn’t mean the same thing.

But it’s actually worse than that. Because I didn’t realize until recently what GitS was a literary work. And whitewashing it completely undoes.

I’ve been reading William Gibson recently. Despite being rather into cyberpunk as a genre (Shadowrun has been my RPG jam off and on for 25 years, now), I actually hadn’t sat down and read the godfather of the genre before. So in the past year or so I’ve read Neuromancer, Count Zero, and (just in the past week) Mona Lisa Overdrive, his original Sprawl trilogy that set the stage of almost all our cyberpunk expectations.

And, while I’ve enjoyed all three books, I have some reservations. They’re very well written, no doubt. Gibson has an economy of language that gets across a ton of setting and ideas in a few words, and it’s no surprise that he managed to create a sub-genre with his presentation of the Sprawl. Plus, you know, fun characters and some really neat surprises in plot advancement that would never fly today if you were trying to write a cyberpunk novel.

But at the same time, holy shit is the depiction of Japan really narrow and pretty damn racist. Except for a few scenes here and there, it’s mostly by inference, but you get Japan as this sort of faceless economic superpower that’s a weird conglomeration of business monoliths and yakuza corruption.

In a way, this makes sense. Gibson was writing in the 80s, when Japan’s economy was ascendant. There was a sense that, eventually, everything would be made in Japan. America, at the time, had a sort of love/hate relationship with Japan. There was respect that they managed to make things more efficiently that were cheaper and better than American products of the time, but also this distaste that Japan was going to eventually buy out everything.

This idea that Japan had militarized its economy was inherent in the construction of cyberpunk worlds. So Gibson can be perhaps forgiven for not being precognitive about the eventual bubble crash.

However, the language of the novels is still grating. Several characters, casually refer to Japanese people as “Japs” a cringe-worthy epithet decades before Gibson was writing. (It’s not as bad as Neal Stephenson’s use of Nips in his novels.)

And the use of actual Japanese is of questionable value. At times it feels like Gibson caught on to a few choice Japanese words and decided to run with them as if that gave him complete understanding of the language and people who spoke it. There’s a sequence where one Japanese character recites gomi (trash or garbage) and postulates about how Japan and England differ regarding it. It’s a, frankly, limiting view that doesn’t give the character a sense of being a real person, but rather a caricature, a collection of cultural memes.

So, what does this have to do with Ghost in the Shell?

Well, I think that in terms of cyberpunk, it’s very much an attempt (probably unconscious) to reverse the appropriation of Japanese society that had happened in cyberpunk stories from western writers. By making it a cyberpunk story that is in and about Japan, Shirow (in the manga) and Oshii (in the films) are giving  much more honest and personal take on the concepts of the genre. If the original cyberpunk ideas grew out of this westernized view of Japan’s ascendency, Ghost in the Shell is an attempt to say “hey, now, here’s what you’re really talking about.”

And that’s why the Japan of Ghost in the Shell feels more authentic and real than the Japan of Gibson and so forth: it actually is. It’s not a collection of westernized views on Japanese culture, but a logical projection from people in Japan about how their culture would develop. (Not, perhaps, a correct projection, but a believable one.)

So, the Ghost in the Shell film is pretty much failing on three levels. It took a high profile acting gig away from an Asian woman and gave it to a white woman. By doing so it’s undermined the very nature of the story itself. And it’s subjugated the rather revolutionary cultural reappropriation that happened by Ghost in the Shell’s creation.

So what are we going to get? A nuanced take on Japanese society in an increasingly technical world? Probably not. At best we’re going to get a generic actioner that’s regressed back to the dodgy cultural politics of Gibson’s Sprawl.

If it was 30 years ago, it might be a lot of fun. Today, it just feels tired, lazy, backwards, and racist.

On the State of Sanders’ Campaign

I’m going to take a break from my usual media and entertainment commentary to talk about politics.

So as of yesterday, we’re looking at a very strange and unprecedented situation where Donald Trump is the presumptive Republican nominee. This is out of a field that at one point had something like 17 candidates. Yet they were whittled down while Trump and finally Cruz and Kasich suspended their campaigns, leaving a lot of questions about how Trump will perform in November.

Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders is staying in the race against Hillary Clinton, despite facing a pretty much insurmountable math problem in terms of delegates. In fact, to read the pro-Bernie section of my Facebook, the difference isn’t that great and Bernie can pull out a win. This is, to be frank, highly unlikely. However, it’s a testament to how strong his campaign has been that we’re looking at Clinton, inevitable nominee or no, still needing to take part in every contest through California.

This is a pretty shocking flip from how the narrative was expected, even expected a month or two ago. The factious infighting was going to follow the GOP all the way to their convention while Clinton would quietly become presumptive and turn her sights to the general.

I am rather curious about Sanders, because his entire campaign has turned out to be something of a war of contradictions. He’s done far better than anyone initially expected, but he’s still not anywhere close enough to really be considered in the fight. He’s campaigning on a platform largely to prop up the poor and downtrodden classes, but his voter base tends to be largely white and educated. (Young, yes, but not specifically poor.)

I like Bernie’s positions. I’m generally in favor of everything he espouses. But there does seem to be an odd disconnect between both his campaign and his supporters and the reality of the situation. He isn’t going to win. The question, really, is why? Why, if he’s got such an energized base, hasn’t he had a better showing? Why, if he’s fundraising so well, doesn’t he generate a stronger performance in open elections? Why has he completely failed to get media coverage?

Really, in a lot of ways you can chalk up Sanders’ failure to Trump. Not directly, because there’s been pretty much no meaningful interaction between them. But in a lot of ways, the ascendance of Trump has been to Sanders’ detriment. In another election year, without Trump, the revolution rhetoric that Sanders espouses might have taken hold. He might have gotten massively more airplay and been seen as an agent of change. Instead, he’s often been shutout of the airways as the media has given Trump basically open and unfettered play for free.

Still, even without that, Sanders’ overall position has been one as an outsider trying to change the face of politics. And that’s a weird position to be in for a liberal politician. Yes, it’s true that Sanders isn’t a longtime Democrat. He’s built a career on being an independent and a progressive, neither of which tends to play big on the national scene. But at the same time, he’s been a Senator since 2007 and has been in Congress overall since 1991. It’s difficult to make a claim to be an outsider when you’ve been in the works for over two decades.

But even beyond that, the entire “outsider” rhetoric has pretty much been wholly claimed by conservative circles at this point. Go back to Reagan and move forward and you just see numerous of them compound on that point: Gingrich, McCain, Palin, the entire Tea Party, and so forth. Conservatives have claimed again and again that they’re coming from outside the establishment and working to fix things. Even if it’s untrue because they’re established, that’s a brand that they own at this point.

At another time, especially if the GOP had coalesced around an establishment type like Jeb Bush, Bernie might have been able to get his message out there, even if it’s an odd one for the Democrats, who are largely okay with government structures and institutions in abstract, even if specific policies and programs are to be viewed askance.

For once, though, Trump actually can claim to be an outsider. He’s made some efforts to run for president before, but nothing really strong or meaningful like this year. (I’ll be honest and state that I don’t think Trump expected or perhaps even wanted his campaign to get this far. For his brand, trying to run for president and making noise seem to be better than actually needing to go the whole way. Especially since his fundraising is shit and he’s spending his own money to do it.)

And Trump’s message is really simple and catchy. It’s easy to understand: he’s not a politician, and he’s going to come in and break shit until it’s working again.

Sanders, OTOH, is arguing for a bit more nuance. He’s not quite establishment, his politics are different, but what we need is a revolution to change how the systems we already have can be made to work better. There are some big, exciting ideas, sure, but in contrast to “break things until stuff works” it’s not quite going to catch on.

Or if you take Trump’s recent argument that the system was rigged against him. A rather laughable take, if you look at how the GOP puts together its delegates and do some analysis. If anything, Trump has benefited massively from the unequal distribution of delegates. But that message did catch on and possibly propelled him to the late successes that secured him the nomination.

Contrast that with the argument Sanders and co. had early on in the campaign: that counting the Superdelegates for Clinton was patently unfair. Those votes weren’t democratically determined, and it should be up to the people to vote.

Well, here we are several months down the line, and Clinton holds a commanding lead in voted delegates. As has been the case in every contested primary since they were first created, superdelegates have not mattered. Railing against them hasn’t had any effect, either in switching those superdelegates around or in convincing people to vote for Sanders in greater numbers.

Would that be different without Trump in the game? I don’t know, but it’s possible.

Moving forward for Sanders, we probably will see him contest this all the way to California, inevitability or not. And from there the Democratic convention probably will see him come to an agreement with Clinton in order to establish some structural changes to how the primary season works and what the party platform should espouse.

That’s perhaps not as sexy and exciting as many supporters wanted, but it’s the sort of incremental work that’s pretty endemic to the system we have in place. For all the “come in and break shit” rhetoric that gets thrown round, actual revolutions are pretty rare in American politics. Liberals may have been disappointed that Obama wasn’t the far left revolutionary they believed he was in 2008, but his pragmatic approach to actually get shit done despite monumental opposition has severed him well for 8 years. Similarly, the Tea Party wave basically showed itself to be incapable of doing anything except grinding things to a halt. No real change, just obstinance. And now many of those who got in on that wave are calling it quits.

Sanders, though, is well ingrained in the machinery of government. He knows how it works, and getting some degree of change, even if it’s not everything he wanted, is still a positive step.

Movie Review: Hardcore Henry

As a technical exercise, this is an interesting film. It has a concept of presentation, and it embraces that wholeheartedly. The film promises to be a first-person perspective endeavor, and it delivers on that. Taken on that level, it’s a film that can be appreciated. It is quite unlike anything that’s come before, except for small sequences here and there. To be so dedicated to a concept is something that can be praised. Oftentimes, a creator will not be fully committed to their concept and will pull back, which delivers weaker experience. Not so, with Hardcore Henry. It is was it is, from start to finish.

 

The problem, really, is that as a film, it isn’t very good. It has some entertaining parts, but as a whole it’s lackluster, derivative, and threadbare. Except for the gimmick, it has little to stand on that suggests it as a worthy experience.

 

Really, the problems, are twofold. The first is technical. Or rather, it’s biological. See, our human perspective on how we see and experience the world is not entirely visual. It’s not something that can be broken down into a single sense. If you move about, flicking your view to different things, you aren’t just seeing those things, you’re also getting information from your other senses that affect how you perceive everything. Most importantly, you have an inherent sense of balance which your brain processes along with what you’re seeing. If you look at something straight on, it looks right. If you tilt your head so that it’s sideways, you have all this extra information so that it still looks correct.

 

Movies are a presentation that’s generally reduced to two senses. You get the visual, you get the audio. And that’s it. THere’s no feeling or smell. There’s no balance. Even if the image on screen shifts so that the view is presented askew, you don’t have that internal adjustment to tell you this. It looks odd. This isn’t inherently a bad thing. An adept filmmaker can use that difference to heighten the effect of the film.

 

But the filmmaker needs to be adept. They need to understand what the limitations and advantages of their presentation will be when contrasted to the actual human experience of watching the film. If they aren’t doing that, then the experience becomes a burden on the viewer. In many cases, this isn’t so much of an issue. Movies (and other experiences) are pretty culturally embedded. We start seeing moving pictures at a very early age, often before we can even talk. The standard TV viewing is so normal that we have learned and take it as a given about how it will work. So this gives some leeway

 

But for newer tech, that’s less of the case. We haven’t learned and internalized how to process such things. And so a filmmaker could easily misstep. During the 3D boom you could see this a lot. Some filmmakers took the tech into account. They realized that some things you can do in traditional 2D presentations aren’t always going to work for a 3D presentation and would make adjustments. Others wouldn’t. They would film as they always had and you’d get a jumbled mess of rapid cuts which undermined the depth of field and led to a jarring amount of perspective shifts that left the eyes (and brain) tired from the viewer.

 

The makes of Hardcore Henry have done the same. They haven’t accounted for the lack of balance. They haven’t really done anything to allow the viewer extra time needed to process the images. As with 3D, it’s somewhat necessary to slow it down. Do away with the rapid cuts. Or at the very least, take into account the perspective lines so that when there is a cut, the viewer’s eye won’t need to rapidly shift to account for what’s being seen. (The latter, of course, what done masterfully in MMFR, which does have many, many rapid cuts, but also isn’t a burden, even in 3D, because they account for where the viewer is looking.)

 

Because of all this, I didn’t find that the film was something that took a little bit to get used to and then it was fine. In fact, it was the opposite. The early parts of the film were easy enough to take in, but as my eyes and brain became tired and strained, that was less of the case. About halfway through I was more disoriented, and by the end I even felt a bit queasy. Mostly I was struck by how lackluster an effort had been made to account for possible issues. If you need to avoid rapid cuts, for instance, why not tell a story that can mostly be told in the timeframe of your film runtime? (Another gimmick, but also one that’s been done several times before.) Instead what we’re left with is a film that repeatedly cuts out “boring bits” to speed things along, which mostly just gives the viewer visual confusion.

 

Still, if that was the only sin of Hardcore Henry, it could perhaps be forgiven. New tech and all, so it’s possible that the creators aren’t completely clear on what needs to be accounted for.

 

But the story. Oh, god, the story. Characters are paper thin. Motivations are absent and unexplained. Plot developments just happen without rhyme or reason. This isn’t to say that the film needs to be layered and complex. Thin, simple stories that exist as the vehicle for the action are perfectly fine, but this is mostly non-sensical. Almost every development raised questions that aren’t answered.

 

So as the film went on, I began to just wonder about things that were never given an explanation. Why did the bad guy care about making a cyborg army when he had super telekinetic powers? Why did he have telekinetic powers in the first place? When would the love interest backstab Henry, because it was an obvious “twist” from the beginning? Actually, I’ll come back to that last one in a moment.

 

Mostly, if you are doing a thin story as a vehicle for the action, make sure your action is really top-notch. And other than the FPS gimmick, there isn’t really much here to recommend the action besides the volume of violence. Henry fights guys and kills guys and the ways he does so aren’t particularly novel or interesting, except we’re seeing it from his perspective. After a while, there isn’t a whole lot of wow factor. After more of a while, I was just confused about what was going on? Did Henry start to rip the bad guy’s hand in two? I don’t know, it wasn’t clear enough to tell. But more than that, I just didn’t care anymore.

 

But going back to an earlier point. The love interest. Or rather, women in general. This film is terrible for its portrayal of women. Beyond the early realization that the love interest would backstab Henry at some point (and that such a twist wouldn’t be a satisfying character development for anyone), there was also a sense of deep misogyny about the film. Women were objects. They exist entirely for the consumption and use of men, both the characters and the assumed viewer. None of them have depth. None of them have agency. (Why is love interest lady really with the big bad guy? We never know.)

 

One standout moment came in the middle of a car chase sequence. Henry blows up a van with a grenade and is thrown into the air. He lands on the back of a motorcycle being driven by one of the femme fatale characters who just shows up for no explained reason. As he settles down, his hands run along her sides and then rest on her hips. Then he reaches forward and down, between her legs. It’s a moment that purely exists for titillation. And then he grabs a gun that’s there, pulls back and starts shooting. It’s a little twist, but the entire framing was unnecessary. Why is the gun between her legs and not, say, on her hip? Because they wanted that possessive, sexual grab.

 

Soon after, Henry leaps from the motorcycle. The femme fatale is discarded as a character. Whether she died or just disappeared isn’t really clear, but it makes little difference either way. She existed for the adolescent pleasure of the creators and the viewer in her skintight catsuit. Once she served her purpose, there was no reason to keep her around.

 

Mostly, the film as a whole felt like a video game. It had a video game plot, video game characters, video game fetch quests with maps and goals. It had a final boss who just exists for no reason except to be a final boss. Hardcore Henry is a low-grade sci-fi first person shooter that you’d expect to find in the bargain bin in three months. The only notable thing about it is it’s a video game that was shot as a movie and projected on a movie screen. And when it did that, it removed the one thing that makes even poor video games palatable: the mechanics. Without the ability to control Henry, the viewer is just a passive observer.

 

Which isn’t very interesting.

 

2/5, but mostly because they did try had on the gimmick. And Sharlto Copley is entertaining when he hams it up.

Review: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Here there be spoilers.

Now that I’ve had a night to think about it, I’m not actually sure if I liked the movie or not. And I don’t think it’s a case of really disliking it and being in denial. I really, honestly don’t know. To be fair, though, after I saw Man of Steel the first time, I was unsure about the movie.

 

Part of this, I think, is the presentation seemed to be very poor. The theater house lights never dimmed entirely. The sound mix seemed off. I think they had the aperture on the projector on incorrectly, which slightly cut off the top and bottom of the screen. (Noticeable in the scenes of news shows, where the bottom of the text was cut off.) And maybe they had the 3D grate down or something, because it seemed dim, especially compared to trailers I’d seen previously.

 

So, fighting against a sub-par movie experience. And I don’t want to hold that against the film itself.

 

Still, this was an acknowledged mess. I came away mostly thinking that they did have a pretty strong idea of what they wanted their characters to present as… but had no real clue how to get those ideas across the best. Many of the scenes felt like they were sketched out without a clear beginning and end, and we’re left with a feeling of a larger whole where we’re only seeing a few random middle bits. It’s not that the character motivations are lacking, just that the elements shown aren’t what drive those points across.

 

In a way, this is confusing, because when you strip it down, the plot of BvS is pretty great: Lex Luthor has a problem with Superman, so he sets up a Xanatos Gambit to put him in conflict with Batman. Eventually, they realize their error and team up.

 

Unfortunately, in order to get this across, you need a strong bifurcated storyline: Superman’s heroics need to progress in contrast with Batman’s investigations. The two should advance in a way that feels like they’re converging on the same point. Then you get the twist: instead of working separately against a common goal, they’re actually at odds against each other. This is how you get the fight that feels both surprising and organic. Also, this should come to head at the end of Act 2. Act 3 is the team-up.

 

The problem arises rather early. The entire Africa plotline feels needlessly busy and extraneous, especially since MoS already presented a very good reason for people to question Superman already. Then as the movie progresses, it seems to be too early when we’re seeing Lex’s gambit in action. Thus it isn’t a surprise about what happens. Thus we get a confusing selection of character actions that are clearly leading somewhere, but the film itself doesn’t seem clear on what that goal actually is.

 

So here’s what I think happened. I think David Goyer wrote a Man of Steel sequel. It was a Superman plot through and through. You can look at the throughline of Supes and Lex and see that it’s pretty clear that exists. In this context, Lex’s plan is entirely put public doubt in Superman, make him the blame of things going wrong (that are Lex’s doing), and then when that doesn’t work, bring out his ace in the hole, Doomsday, to kill Superman.

 

Then WB got nervous and decided to add Batman into the mix. And all hell broke loose. Because by adding Batman, you need to account for his motivations. And while there is a disagreement plot to be had, it wasn’t in the original script. So Goyer (and later Terrio) were doing the best they could with the plot at hand, but it was a confusing, tacked-on selection of motivations and character impetus that ultimately sets the original plot on a wobbly course.

 

In fact, if you look at the film, the interactions between the two characters is pretty sketchy prior to the final fight. They meet at Lex’s party (and in Batman’s dream), but that’s about it. It really feels like two different movies that more or less are happening at the same time. Or, perhaps more appropriately, this is a Superman movie that seems to star Batman for reasons that are not entirely clear from the film itself.

 

It’s entirely possible that the director’s cut, with ample time to explore the motivations and plots, will clear up the confusion. It’s not that they necessarily needed that extra time, but if they didn’t have a clear plan from the get-go, it could help work through all the excess they were dealing with. We’ll have to wait and see. Unfortunately, even if the DC is a vast improvement, it’s not going to help. Most of the audience will see it in the theaters, and their opinions will be pretty firm. I doubt many are going to give it a second chance, especially if it’s longer.

 

With all that, what did I like?

 

Well, I do like the cast. They’re all pretty great, especially given the weirdly limited material they have to work with. Affleck makes a great Batman. Irons a great Alfred (in fact, he had most of the best lines in the film). Eisenberg is weirdly compelling at Lex. Adams as Lois continues to give me heart eyes. And Cavill continues to sell what is a difficult role.

 

And, of course, Gal Gadot is glorious as Wonder Woman. Messy as the film is, it isn’t confused at all when she’s on screen. When she shows up for the final fight, everything just sort of clarifies. Even the entire tone of the music changes, as if to say, “This is what we are here for.” And it is. The criticism of the DC films is that they’re afraid of letting their heroes enjoy themselves. That’s entirely absent with Wonder Woman. She fights and has fun at it. She alone is enough reason to be excited about what the DC films will bring in the future.

 

I doubt I’ll see BvS again theatrically. That’s mostly for financial reasons, though. I really would like to give it a second shot in a presentation that isn’t marred by the theater itself. I wonder if, like Man of Steel, it’s something that I warm up to over time and begin to love. I’d also like to see the director’s cut to see if that smooths out some of the story issues. Maybe if there’s another $10 blu-ray at Best Buy.

 

Still, I honestly don’t know if I like it or not.

 

?/5

Is Rebirth DC’s last, best hope?

I haven’t tended to keep up on comics news of late. But it’s been difficult to avoid the news of DC’s newest line-wide relaunch, Rebirth, which had been rumored for a while, but was made official at ComicsPRO this week.

The short of it is:

  • The entire line is getting a relaunch, starting with (mostly) new issue #1s.
  • There will be a series of “Rebirth” one-shots to introduce the new titles.
  • Several titles will be going twice a month.
  • Action and Detective, DC’s longstanding legacy titles, will resume their original numbering
  • Total number of titles will be 32.

In a lot of ways, this feels like another New 52, although it’s being framed as not starting from scratch like that was, and there’s an effort to connect with past continuity and to respect everything that’s come before. So, potentially, it will at least appeal to old fans who got jaded that time around.

The big question is, will it work? DC’s sales have been pretty consistently poor, they’ve lost the trust of retailers, and their efforts to bring in new readers have not been met with success. Last year’s DC You was pretty much a failure all around, despite apparently having some very innovative and good books in the effort.

Based on that past history, I’m skeptical. I can see things that look neat and interesting, but I also get the sense that DC is failing to learn from past mistakes. They aren’t identifying the true core problems. And so even if the Rebirth line is good, it still may be doomed to failure.

One big problem is DC has consistently been unwilling to have an open discussion about their plans with outside sources. The New 52, Convergence, and other line events seemed to come out of nowhere, with little warning or indication about what they were thinking. This seems to possibly even be true with their creative talent.

There are obvious problems with editorial and the decisions they’re making. I don’t know if that’s an issue with DiDio and Lee, or with others in senior positions. I’d gather at least in part the latter, because of all the rumors about problems within the Superman group (which also looks after Wonder Woman), but that in itself indicates there’s some blind spots for those people at the very top.

Maybe Rebirth is answering these. Bleeding Cool believes that Marguerite Bennett is going to be the new writer on Wonder Woman, which would probably indicate a pretty massive change for that title’s editorial oversight. And they aren’t ditching all their recent experiments. Gotham Academy is still happening, which is a massive positive in my book. It seems that unlike New 52, they aren’t going to switch to completely new creative teams just because. If a book is working, it should continue to work after the relaunch.

I truly believe that DC wants to have an expanded and diversified audience. The sudden success of Batgirl of Burnside gave them a taste, as did looking over at the success of Ms. Marvel, and I get the sense that the entire DC You effort was built to try and replicate that. However, the insular nature of how they make decisions means that they also don’t really understand how or why such things are a success.

This desire is also at odds with their tried and true strategies. Geoff Johns might be a great creative talent, but he inherently looks backwards for inspiration. The things he writes are not inclined towards expanded and diversified audiences. And you can’t have a “let creatives try new things and do their own books without distraction” along with “tie everything together and get back to our roots.” One or the other is going to run into problems. From past efforts and results, it’s the former that’s going to get the short end of the stick.

Not all of this is DC’s fault. They’re dealing with trying to make the best of a poor situation, and it can be difficult to read the signals of success or failure. But ultimately they are still trying to do new tricks using the same old tools in the same workshop as they always have.

DC’s real problem is that the direct market.

The direct market is a backwards, opaque, and incomprehensible beast. It’s often difficult to understand how it works even for people who are well into reading comics. I was chatting with a friend yesterday and realized he had no clue how it all really worked. And he’s been reading comics for more than 20 years. For someone who is a new, potential fan, it’s probably even worse.

It would seem like if you went out and found a book that appealed to you and bought it, that would be enough to indicate your interest to the publishers. But that doesn’t work. The nature of the direct market means that they can’t see sales directly, they only see what retailers order. Nothing is returnable, so retailers need to guess about demand. Only in situations where a book explodes in popularity, thus requiring reorders and additional print runs, will the publishers have a direct idea of sales.

Only in cases where a book explodes in popularity, requiring re-orders and extra print runs will this information cycle be broken. But even that isn’t a good situation for a new fan. If you hear about a new hot book that you might like and go down to the store to get it only to find out that it’s sold out and won’t be back for a month or two (even as current issues continue to come out), what are you going to do? Buy the issues you can get and wait to read them or lose interest and move onto something else.

The entire system is predicated on pre-orders. That’s how you signal to a retailer that you’re interested in a book. Well, how are you going to know if you’ll like a book three months before it comes out? Option one is to be psychic. Option two is to guess based on the things you already like.

What this creates is a system that is inherently geared towards older, more experienced (white, male) fans at the exclusion of all else. Since neither major publisher does outreach to potential new readers, they have no way to break into the cycle unless something very strange happens. Ms. Marvel managed its success by becoming the bestselling digital title, which did provide instant feedback. Such things are few and far between, though.

In that case, the existing readership is pretty set in its ways. At this point, it likes Marvel, particularly Marvel that is similar to the MCU. (It also probably likes X-Men and Fantastic Four, but Marvel is perfectly willing to dick over some long time fans in the name of sticking it to Fox.) It also likes Batman, who continues to do well for DC. But other than that? Roll the dice, man. Any book will probably get a core of dedicated readers, but it’s rarely enough to sustain itself.

The major outreach falls to the creators, which is particularly sad. “Buy my book!” they’ll cry out. “Here’s how to order it from your comic store.” And they’ll note the ordering code to use. This is a pretty shitty thing to expect creators to do over and over again, especially for IP they don’t actually own. But even when it works, it still reinforces existing patterns: fans following creators they know and like (rather than characters.)

But what about ordering the trade, you might ask? Oh, you sweet summer child, that’s adorable. Despite the fact that it’s long been becoming a normal and perfectly rational strategy to read books that are already created in 4-7 part chunks that will be combined into a trade paperback, it very rarely will happen in time to affect the life of a book. Everything needs to happen for those first few issues, well before the trade has even hit the catalogue.

Where does this leave DC’s Rebirth? I don’t entirely know, but based on what’s gone on before, it will probably see some initial interest, but much of that will be too late to save several books. Batman will continue to do well, because Batman. Some others may do just well enough to catch on. But it’s not going to drastically alter things in its favor. And it will probably have to do another one of these the next couple of years to stave off the bleeding.

This isn’t too say that DC is going to fold and Marvel will reign supreme. There’s enough indication that Marvel is also following an ultimately losing strategy. Their All New, All Different line isn’t succeeding all that well and the problems that they have in sticking to a schedule mean that resetting their entire line each year gets more and more confusing to try and follow. It’s a case of diminishing returns. But Marvel, at least, doesn’t need to put forth as much effort to keep selling books to the same old crowd.

There are no easy solutions, though. If DC is serious about wanting to try and reestablish itself and court new readership, it’s going to need to come up with some new strategies to do that. It’s going to need to find a way to have some success without relying on the direct market system.

Some Oscar Thoughts

So the votes are in. Or at least the preliminary votes. The Academy has spoken and selected the three-to-five Best whatevers of 2015 films. Now the real betting can begin to determine which is the best of the Best.

In general, it’s not a bad Oscar lineup. There are some things I’m very happy with. There are some glaring oversights. For starters:

Best Song

When I woke up this morning, this was actually the first category I checked. And I was crushed. See You Again didn’t even warrant a nomination. That’s criminal. No offense to Sam Smith, who I’m sure is a perfectly fine musician, but I don’t think I even remembered his song for Spectre even right after the movie, much less months later.

In contrast Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth put out a heartspoken entry that shot to the top of the charts (ousting fantastic earworm Uptown Funk) and managing to be memorable even months later. Go ahead, try and listen to it and not tear up a bit. I dare you.

So my initial thought was “Fuck these Oscars”. But I kept looking around and there were some bright spots.

Mad Max: Fury Road

What seemed like a dark horse candidate for many categories even a month ago managed to secure an amazing ten nominations, second most of any film. And it wasn’t just for the technical stuff. George Miller himself is up for both Best Director and Best Picture (along with Doug Mitchell).

Arguably, it should have had even more. Charlize Theron’s performance as Furiosa had a depth of anger and focus that was among the best performances of the year, man or woman. And Nicholas Hoult’s turn as Nux gave us one of the best and touching character arcs ever seen. Junkie XL’s score is a piece of brilliance and not getting a nod is criminal. Finally, while it’s not anything close to standard for screenplays, the process that Miller built up the story of the film is key to making the whole thing work, and should have been acknowledged.

Still, there is good news. It got noms for all eight of the technical categories (Cinematography, Costume Design, Visual Effects, Editing, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Production Design, and Makeup.) It should manage a handful of wins from those.

 

Animation

The presence of Inside Out among the Best Animated Feature nominees was not a surprise. The fact that all of the other four nominees were much lower profile was, and that’s welcome. It’s become apparent that the animation branch in particular doesn’t generally follow the lean of popularity in their choices. One has to look no further than The LEGO Movie‘s surprising snub last year to see that.

Even so, the lack of anything from a major studio besides Inside Out could indicate that the branch is going even further in that direction. While Shaun the Sheep and Anomolisa are fairly expected (the animation branch LOVES stop motion), and When Marnie Was There is a beautiful piece of traditional animation (another love) that also has the distinction of being the final feature from the legendary Studio Ghibli, the presence of Boy & the World is a shock. Mostly because you haven’t heard of it. It’s grossed a total of $17,580. No, that’s not missing a few digits. It’s earned less in total (domestically) than Inside Out did in an average theater over its opening weekend ($22,919.)

So, nice selection that will hopefully drive the profile of some of these films higher.

But let’s talk about Inside Out. It’s basically guaranteed to win the award. Now that the voting is going to the entire Academy, the trends will take hold, and it’s become apparent that whatever grosses the most domestically will probably win the Oscar. But Inside Out also managed to snag a writing nomination, for Best Original Screenplay. This isn’t an unprecedented feat. Pete Docter’s last film, UP, managed do to the same.

Where the two differ, though, is that despite easily being one of the best films of the year, Inside Out didn’t get a Best Picture nomination. The reasons for this are because after expanding the field to ten films in 2009 (which allowed UP to get a nom), the Academy changed the rules in 2011 (after Toy Story 3 got a BP nom), so that there’s a threshold of first place votes required to get a choice. This has led to there being a selection of eight or nine films, not ten. Whether this was done to keep animation out (and in its preferred ghetto spot of Best Animated Feature) or something else, I don’t know.

Acting (and other whiteness)

Here’s where we get to the ugly. For the second year in a row, all twenty nominees for the four acting categories were white people. And for the second year in a row, that’s a highly questionable selection.

It’s not that the nominees aren’t great. I’m sure many of them are, but when you have the likes of Straight Outta Compton and Creed, both of which garnered critical praise and seemed well poised to get some recognition. Both films came away with but a single nomination (Best Original Screenplay for Compton and Best Supporting Actor – for Sylvester Stallone – for Creed). Both films should have had more, in acting, directing, and picture recognition.

Besides those two, where is Will Smith? Where is Idris Elba? Where is Samuel L. Jackson? Their presence wouldn’t make up for the astonishingly offensive snub of David Oyelowo last year, but it would be a start.

I mean, how is Eddie Redmayne there? By all reports, the only bright spot in The Danish Girl is Alicia Vikandar’s performance (she’s had a hell of a year). Did Redmayne get in because the voters were like “Oh, he won last year so this must be good?” I suppose he just has that right combination of “Most Acting” that the Academy seems to adore. (I like Jupiter Ascending, but his cheesy over-the-top-ness in it doesn’t really indicate he’s a man who knows how to act in moderation.)

So we’re looking at two straight years where many actors (and directors) of color have put up virtuoso work and not been acknowledged. It’s great that Mad Max: Fury Road got the recognition it deserves, but it’s only a weird blip in the otherwise ongoing out-of-touch-ness that the Oscars display.

And I don’t mean popularity, here. Understanding that diversity in awards and other recognition is as important as being diverse in the products themselves. The whiteness of the acting nominations is anomalous, even for an institution as old, white, male as the Academy. In every year from 2013 at least as far back as 2001, at least one non-white person got an acting nomination. Several of them, such as Denzel Washington, Lupita Nyong’o, and Javiar Bardem even won.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

So, Star Wars wasn’t shut out, earning five nominations, but it didn’t get a Best Picture nomination. And this is a little anomalous.

Going back at least as far as Jaws every film that has managed to break the all-time domestic record has managed to get a nomination for Best Picture. So why didn’t it happen this time? Another sign that the Academy is out of touch with the general public?

Well, in a sense, it seems that the Academy is less likely to favor huge box office grossing films than they were in the past. It’s not that they dislike such things, but the biggest films of late tend to be franchise vehicles and sequels, which isn’t something favored by the Academy. In fact, only five sequels have ever gotten a BP nomination: two Lord of the Rings films, two Godfather films, and Toy Story 3. 

Besides that, all those previous All Time Domestic Champions were very much director driven films. James Cameron was the guiding vision for Titanic and Avatar. Steven Spielberg is entirely behind Jaws and ET. And George Lucas perhaps had so much of a vision for Star Wars, that he spawned the biggest franchise of all time.

In contrast, Star Wars: The Force Awakens feels like a committee vehicle. JJ Abrams may have been the director, but he’s not the only one driving this train. The Academy likes to reward a singular vision, and that’s just not in evidence this time around.

 

 

Marvel & DC: Culture & Design

Well, two months have passed since my last blog post. Partially I can claim that I was distracted by NaNoWriMo, which I’m still working on. (Got to my target word count just fine, but the project still needs a lot of TLC to get it in the right shape.)

In light of the recent trailers that have dropped for Captain America: Civil War and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice the discussion of Marvel and DC is especially high right now. I ended up writing a couple posts on a forum about them, which I think I can edit together into a rough blog post for posterity’s sake.

In general, I’m loathe to delve into a DC vs. Marvel discussion, I think there’s some interesting points of comparison. Especially since a lot of the naysayers seem to be saying that General Audiences aren’t going to care about the BatSoup fight or eventual teamup.

There’s obvious differences between the Marvel and DC setup for their shared universes. Marvel started with a series of solo films, laying bits of groundwork in each of them, essentially seeding the teamup film over the course of four previous. DC did a solo film and now they’re pushing forward with the teamup in the sequel. And, really, neither of these approaches is better than the other. I’d argue that in their own ways they’re both the best for the characters presented.

Marvel, circa 10 years ago, wanted to get their film slate rolling, but had to deal with the fact that the characters they controlled were not especially well known. Captain America is, but Thor and Iron Man are just some dudes that people may have heard of. So while Avengers might be the end-game, they need to create the setup and make sure people know the characters first. They drop Avengers by itself, or too early in the process, and they probably give people the impression that the Avengers are mostly like the X-Men: heroes that almost always tend to fight as a team, or perhaps are Wolverine/Iron-Man and their Amazing Friends.

So, do individual films and then the team-up. In the process, get the cultural knowledge out there and establish Iron Man, Cap, and Thor as bigger heroes. Good strategy. It worked. Thumbs up Marvel.

Now over at DC, they also want to get their shared world rolling. But while they have some disadvantages (such as doing so after Marvel already has), they have some significant advantages, as well. Namely, Batman, Superman, and (to a lesser degree) Wonder Woman are cultural icons. They are well known and recognized characters, up there with some of the biggest of the 20th century (like Spider-Man, Mickey Mouse, and Darth Vader.)

Cultural knowledge is an interesting beast. It’s long on presence though short on specifics. If you look at the cultural knowledge of Batman, you get a shorthand: dead parents, Gotham City, Joker, Commissioner Gordon, Robin, etc. For Superman you get Krypton, Lex Luthor, Lois Lane, Daily Planet, Metropolis, Smallville farm, and so forth. It’s really broad strokes of the pieces, and how those pieces fit together isn’t defined, but here’s the kicker: it doesn’t really matter.

Because Batman and Superman are so well known, DC has the advantage that they can basically take a short cut and just say “you know who these guys are, here’s a teamup.” And while this might be maddening for people who are invested in Marvel’s build-up strategy, it actually does work. The audience member who doesn’t really know comics minutia isn’t coming into this wondering where Batman came from. She already knows Batman in broad strokes, and that’s enough. Some of the details might be fudged around, but there’s a loose enough picture.

Basically, once you do the ground work, you can take it as a given that some things will be known. At this point, Marvel very much does the same thing. Over the years from 2008 to 2012, their characters entered cultural memory a bit, so it was fine when far more people saw The Avengers than saw any of the preceding films.

Now, despite these base differences, the two do approach storytelling in a similar manner. Superhero stories tend to be cut from the same basic cloth. There are tropes endemic to the genre that will play whether you’re telling a story about Iron Man or Superman. That’s part of the charm and appeal and why most people tend to just like superheroes rather than falling on one side of the Big Two or the other.

However, in terms of design, there are vast gulfs. Marvel has built up a fairly specific aesthetic. On one hand, their costume designs evoke the look from the comics very closely. They aren’t exact copies, but it gives a very real sense of the superheroes come to life. However, beyond that is a very real attempt to make it seem real world. This is a conceit that goes back to the comics themselves: the Marvel Earth is basically our Earth, just that some people can shoot lasers out of their eyes. While that might falter when you apply some logical scrutiny, it serves a purpose: the world has an easy access point.

DC tends not to do this. For one, their world is littered with cities that don’t exist. Unlike Marvel, which mostly takes place in recognizable New York, each DC hero has their own abode, all of which have very strong and specific design ticks. Superman’s Metropolis is Art Deco through-and-through while Batman’s Gotham has gothic roots. And that’s informing the presentation we got in Man of Steel and is showing up here. As a friend wonderfully put it, this is “Apocalyptic Golden Age SF”.

The design choices are informative, because it’s a statement that the DC world works differently. The presence of Thor on Marvel Earth hasn’t had a great effect. For most people, it’s business as normal, just watch out of the occasional falling Ultron bot. But for the DC Earth, Superman’s presence is an indication of great change. The worlds that Man of Steel showed (Earth and Krypton) had different looks and feels, but now that’s blending, which pulls us away from the familiar into this more fantastical place.

Neither of these approaches are right or wrong. They both work, and they specifically work for their respective heroes. Marvel in the 60s established their universe as grounded in human feelings and frailties. DC’s roots are from the 40s, and their universe and heroes have a more iconic status. (The latter, somewhat interestingly, allows for variations on the characters to be easier to accept.)

The MCU Shuffle

The news of the moment is the addition of a new film added to the ever impressive Marvel Cinematic Universe lineup. This time around it’s a sequel of sorts to this summer’s Ant-Man, and will be entitled Ant-Man and the Wasp.

I’m going to assume that this will be the Scott Lang Ant-Man played by Paul Rudd and the Hope van Dyne Wasp played by Evangeline Lilly who was teased at the end of the film, and not some Hank Pym played computer-de-aged Michael Douglas led vehicle. (Although an entire film set in the 80s would be kinda cool.)

The selected date for this film is almost three years from the first: July 6, 2018.

But wait, you think. Wasn’t something already in that date? Yes, yes there was. The Black Panther movie starring Chadwick Boseman had been slotted in that prime summer moment and now has to vacate it for the… higher profile (?) sequel.

Also on the move is the Captain Marvel movie, leaving it’s November 2018 release date.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen these two films on the move. A year ago, they were originally announced for November, 2017 (Black Panther) and July 2018 (Captain Marvel). Oh, for those heady days when we were all excited about a CM movie in a prime summer slot. Those plans were torpedoed once Sony and Marvel got to an agreement to fold Spider-Man into the MCU. Spidey’s a huge character, of course, and he needs a huge character release date. Like that prime July 2017 slot, which had been held by Thor 3. So Thor moved to the November slot held by Black Panther, BP moved to the July slot held by Captain Marvel, and CM moved to the November 2018 slot held by… nothing.

(Unaffected in all these shuffles were GotG 2, Avengers 3 and 4, and Inhumans.)

This time, there is some supposedly good news. Black Panther is actually moving forward in the schedule. Not quite as early as its original release date, but now it’s slotted in February, 2018, just in time for the President’s Day weekend. It’s also primed to capitalized on Black History Month!

I say that news is supposedly good, because, well… February’s a bit of a down month. It tends to be a bit cramped, filling up with mid-tier releases, and while some do gather a fair amount of success, true breakouts are few and far between. Only two films, ever, have earned more than $200 million domestically after opening in February: The Passion of the Christ, which, well, had a number of other factors at play, and The LEGO Movie.

What this shift says to me is that Marvel feels more confident in a sequel than in an original property. It feels like preemptive damage control. Why waste a prime slot when you can just give it an acceptable one. The holiday weekend can be quite good for business, but after that it’s kind of a long haul, as March tends to fill up with high profile releases that take audience attention. Plus, besides that one holiday Monday, there’s little to otherwise bolster it. Easter and spring breaks aren’t until over a month later.

So that’s BP, which we get earlier, but doesn’t really speak of any faith the studio has in the property.

What about Captain Marvel? It’s jumping four months later to March of 2019. If it’s moving, surely something is going into its slot.

However, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Last time it moved it was because BP was taking its place. BP’s going in the other direction, so why is Captain Marvel moving?

As best I can tell it’s for some balance. With the AM&TW jumping in the schedule and the moves, the MCU now has three films a year from 2017-2019. They also announced three untitled for 2020, so that seems to be what they want their output to be at.Had Captain Marvel stayed November 2018, that would have had four films hitting that year. (Avengers 3 is hitting in May 2018 and isn’t going to be affected by any changes.) That’s too many, I suppose, so CM abandons the November slot for nothing.

Its new March date has been pitched as a good thing. It speaks of confidence because now it’s starting the blockbuster season, whatever that means. It’s also on International Women’s Day.

So how is the new date? Well, it’s okay. The new date is probably on par with the old one. I’ve tended to feel that the early November release dates are overrated. The films that are big for them are because of the film, not the calendar. They’re too early to get a bump from both Thanksgiving and Christmas, and the huge films that hit later in the month take away their thunder. It’s possible Marvel agrees. With this shift of CM, they don’t have any late year releases after Thor 3.

March doesn’t really have that problem. There is the capacity for big films, but they tend to spread out. Easter is a mobile holiday, so it can help, but it could also be a wash. Spring breaks hit at different times, but provide some boost.

In contrast, early November tends to be facing really light competition, much as early May does. October’s becoming a stronger month, but it tends to be from one standout rather than a glut. February, as noted above, sees a glut.So really, for CM, the shift is probably a wash for potential. November and Holiday sounds sexier, but March is good enough. But the surrounding message is unsatisfying. This is a film that originally had that prime July slot. That was the slot that held Dark Knights and Pirates and Harry Potters. You’ve got some studio oomph in that Mid-July slot. Now this film has been bumped nine months later. It’s gone from Hoo-Rah! to sexy! to …okay?

On one hand, I get it. Schedules are going to change. Things will happen and hiccup and a studio needs to adjust. But last October when Marvel did their big release announcement, they were met with universal praise. “This is how you do announcements,” people said. “Look! We’ve got Black Panther and Captain Marvel!”

A few weeks earlier, WB had more or less revealed their DC movie schedule in an investor call. The contrast between the two was highlighted. Marvel showing, yet again, that it does things the right way.

Now they’ve basically squandered and ruined all that goodwill. The excitement over Black Panther being the first POC lead remains. It was going to come out three weeks before the Jason Momoa led Aquaman, and now it’s going to have a few more months lead time.But Captain Marvel, oh. She has a fierce and dedicated fanbase They were excited and have now seen two release date shifts. Now they get to rationalize how this is a good thing. All while wondering how long it’s going to be before the part is even cast. Boseman is suiting up with the Panther tights next summer, prior to his own film, but we may not see anything of Captain Marvel before March of 2019.

Perhaps that’s by design. The original announcement may have been entirely to get people fired up, but the production heart may not be in it. Something, anything, could happen and they may quietly bump the release date again. Or perhaps cancel it entirely.

This wouldn’t be a surprise. Fans have been clamoring for a Black Widow movie for years, but there’s no indication of any interest from the studio. Kevin Feige has highlighted her supporting spots in various films, but that’s not the same thing. Feige has also said that they have a grand plan for the MCU, and they can’t just force something into the lineup, like a Black Widow movie. But now we’ve seen two films forced into the lineup. The grand plan is all smoke and promises.

Those promises are empty.

(WB, it should be noted, never did a full announcement of those release dates. They had previous selected various untitled film dates, and we could match them to the announced titles, which have mostly been confirmed at this point, but it was just a little bit looser and gives them the option of deniability. If something happens to cause a shift, they don’t really have egg on their face because of it.)

My 2015 movie summer (part 3)

So what is the best movie of the summer?

This shouldn’t be a surprise.

Mad Max: Fury Road

In a world that’s chock full of regressive sequels and reboots, Mad Max: Fury Road is a breath of fresh air.

Wait, that’s not quite right.

On paper, leading into the year, Fury Road seemed like yet another sequel for a long dormant franchise. True, Mad Max was never a blockbuster series, but it has fans and has carved a rather enduring niche into the public consciousness. “Two men enter, one man leaves!” is regularly quoted, even by people who haven’t seen the film. (Ironically, the line is from the oft-maligned Thunderdome film.)

There are at least seven franchises that are seeing their fourth or later film this year. Three of those are hitting at least seven installments. One hit twelve. Established IPs are the name of the game, and Hollywood has begun to trawl around for anything with some name recognition to slap on the screen.

So in that sense, Fury Road is another of the pack. If Hollywood had a formula, you could foresee how it would go: string together enough recognizable references to the original films, slap on some prettified computer effects, and amp up the bass line of the soundtrack. $150 million later, and you’ve got a brand spanking new film.

The big question with these sequels is whether there’s an audience. Or rather, whether the fans of the original won’t be alienated by the changes while younger viewers are intrigued enough to come along for the ride. And going into the summer, it seemed that it might not work. Much like Terminator franchise, Mad Max was one of those that had seen its time come and go, with only older fan nostalgia to keep it going.

Except it wasn’t QUITE the same. Terminator had seen creator/director James Cameron move onto (much) bigger things. Steven Spielberg had stepped back to executive producer duties for the dinosaurs. George Lucas sold off his entire company to Disney has nothing to do with the new film (for good or ill).

In the case of most of these franchises, the IP are held by studios or passed around between holding companies or somesuch. Thanks to our frankly absurd copyright laws, they will remain as such until the heat death of the universe, so we’re going to be subjected to franchise iterations until then, with only a few exceptions. (One notable: Back to the Future. Zemeckis and Gale got a good contract there.)

But Mad Max is an exception. The rights aren’t held by Warner Brothers, but by Kennedy Miller Mitchell. The Miller in the name refers to George Miller. The same George Miller who wrote and directed the original Mad Max films. So if a new film was going to happen, it was only going to be with his involvement.

Actually, Fury Road pretty much only got made because Miller had an interest. Hollywood’s normally gung-ho franchise mining nature was unusually tepid about another post-apocalyptic car chase. Miller spent over a decade pulling together the story and doing the storyboards before he got a green light.

That time taken is apparent on the screen. The thought that went into the construction of Fury Road is meticulous. Not just the sublime choreography of the action sequences, but also the details that were considered to build the world and characters without getting didactic with the dialogue. In fact, the dialogue is largely irrelevant to the film. Miller has in effect married the planning and foresight of Alfred Hitchcock with the visual presentation of classic Hong Kong. The story is one that is perfectly told in the visual, filmed medium, and not any other.

It’s a bit disappointing that much of the narrative surrounding the film has been harping on the practical stunts. They are amazing, to be sure, but it somewhat misses the point. It’s not as if Miller came in to show how things were done better, old-school style. There are numerous computer effects in the film as it stands, and it was shot digitally. Originally he wanted to shoot it natively in 3D. Plus his two previous films were completely computer animated.

Rather, what Fury Road shows is that to get a great film, the director needs to know his tools and to use them properly. It’s entirely possible for a director to return to a franchise well after the fact and to stumble. George Lucas did that with the Star Wars prequels, which even if you accept that he planned everything ahead of time were not especially well executed. Lucas possibly tried to push things too far, too fast, and it didn’t work.

Miller, instead, has shown that he’s comfortable to get any piece of technology to do what it can for his needs. Fury Road works in ways that many other films don’t because it is immersive. With few words and actually little explanation, the world on the film is fully believable. It’s one of the greatest examples of “show, don’t tell” ever put together.

While there are small nods to the previous films in the series, Fury Road is remarkably forward thinking. Too often franchises will rest on the work of previous films in the series. Whether because of continuity, limited vision, or just plain laziness, later entries will feel like empty husks with bigger budgets. Perhaps because of Miller’s desire to build a mythological figure rather than a cohesive plot, he’s made a film that stands on its own. Connections to the past provide enjoyment, but are not required.

By freeing himself from the constraints of the past, Miller instead has managed to craft a remarkably subversive and innovative film. Even as Furiosa joins a list of spectacular female action heroes, the entire craft of the film is cutting edge feminism.

Whatever genre you apply to it, whether action or science fiction or what have you, it isn’t hyperbole to claim Fury Road’s near the best in that genre, if not the best. In fact, while it’s surprising to consider, a film with a flame-throwing guitar is among the best the medium has ever produced.

Even if there is no such thing as a perfect film, Mad Max: Fury Road is close enough that we can say that it’s perfect in every way.

My 2015 movie summer (part 2)

Last time I ran down my picks for the 11th through 7th best films of the summer. Conveniently enough, you could group those films as “the bad and the ugly”. Even if I kinda liked parts of them, they are all movies that have questionable construction. None of them deserve to be on anyone’s best-of lists at the end of the year.

For the remaining films, they are mostly good to great. 6th place is borderline.

6. Ant-Man

So, on one hand, Ant-Man has a lot of questionable choices in its production. On the other, I really had a fun time watching it. Do I lean toward “why the hell did they do this” or toward “this is a good movie-going experience”? In the end, it’s a bit of both.

Like, never in the context of the film was there a satisfying reason for why Hope wasn’t the hero instead of Scott. Even when they tried to give a reason, it fell flat. And given the business and schedule for Marvel films, it seems unlikely we’ll see a sequel with Hope in the costume anytime soon.

And why, oh WHY, does Marvel do such a consistently terrible job with its villains. Outside of Loki, none of them are great. I’ve honestly forgotten what the bad guy’s non-Yellowjacket name is here. He was so bland and uninspired. He’s also dead, which is pretty much what Marvel does.

But still, the cast is pretty great, the jokes click, and there’s some pretty good action. Even with the problems, I’d mark it as an upper-level Marvel effort. It’s the second best of the Phase Two films, easily.

It really would have been nice to see Edgar Wright’s version, though.

5. The Man from UNCLE

There’s style and then there’s STYLE. If nothing else, Guy Ritchie’s films deliver on the latter. UNCLE is no exception. It positively oozes style from the stylish pores of its very stylish actors. It has style like it’s, well, going out of style.

Which, in a sense, it kind of is. I have to feel bad for stars Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer. They feel like actors who are working in the wrong decade. They both a stoic, understated demeanor that is coupled with unearthly good looks, and that doesn’t seem to be an appreciated combination. Audiences seem to want their actors beautiful, yes, but they also want the humor and action to be very overstated. So if you watch The Lone Ranger or Man of Steel, their performances feel a bit out of time.

Still, slot them in a period piece, and it clicks together almost perfectly. The humor is easy-going. The action is fun without being overbearing. Everyone, yes EVERYONE, is pretty to look at. Sure, the plot’s a little light, but the breeziness helps make UNCLE a pretty perfect late summer movie.

One particular point of amusement: just about everyone isn’t using their normal access. Cavill (English) is playing American, as is Jared Hess (also English). Hammer (American) is playing Russian. Alicia Vikander (Swedish) goes German. And Elizabeth Debicki (Australia) is an Italian. The only exception is Hugh Grant who is playing, well, Hugh Grant.

4. Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation

After Ghost Protocol, there was probably some question as to where the Mission Impossible franchise would go. It’s always been a bit of an odd beast, just trucking along and doing what it does very well. While there are other, older franchises that are currently relevant, Mission Impossible has been around for close to twenty years without any sort of hiatus. Perhaps the trend of taking 4-6 years to develop a film (about twice as long as most other ongoing series) each time means that it always remains somewhat fresh.

Still, after Ghost Protocol, where would it go? The Dubai sequence in that film is legendary, and if you’re going to make a sequel, you need to go bigger or just not even bother, right?

Rogue Nation didn’t hide the fact that it was going to have a big set piece in the advertising. Tom Cruise, hanging off the side of a plane! It’s the logical step up.

And then it throws a curveball. You sit down to watch it and it’s like Cruise and writer/director McQuarrie tell you “yes, we know you’re here for this action sequence, well here it is.” Boom, done in five minutes. It might be risky for a film to blow its wad so early, but it makes a lot of sense. You get the spectacle, but you also don’t feel like the advertising spoiled anything.

From there, it rockets along at a great clip, with all the fun, action, and intrigue we’ve come to expect. But then Rogue Nation does something pretty amazing.: it actually nails the third act.

Previous Mission Impossibles can be justifiably criticized for not really coming together in the end. Notably for the second film (which is two very entertaining acts followed by a bunch of WTF), but all except the first are pretty flabby at the conclusion.

Not so here. McQuarrie has crafted a great conclusion that brings the whole arc of the film back to a neat, satisfying close.

It’s not a stretch to say that Rogue Nation is the best in the series.

3. SPY

For all the recent talk about the overwhelming presence of superhero movies, it’s actually the spy genre that’s been omnipresent this year. Along with the aforementioned UNCLE and Rogue Nation, there was also Kingsman back in February. And then there’s the latest in the granddaddy of all spy franchises this holiday season, with Spectre.

Somewhere in all this, Melissa McCarthy’s latest endeavor to set herself as THE go-to name in comedy came out. And it’s a spy movie. Now, it’s a comedy, but it’s not a spoof. The film tweaks with conventions, with hilarious results, but it doesn’t ridicule them.

The comedy here is a bit of a slow burn. For the first act or so, I was smiling and nodding along, but it was like funny and enjoyable, not gut-busting. And then it just clicked. I’m not sure what the moment was exactly. It might have been Rose Byrne delivering a perfect upper crust obscenity. It might have been the moment when it was suddenly clear exactly what Jason Statham’s character was like. Regardless, at a moment, SPY went from a fun romp to a comedy great.

The cast is perfect. Each member can deliver the funny, but does so in different ways. Statham and Byrne are standouts, but McCarthy continues her quest to establish one of the best comedic resumes in history. And supporting efforts from Allison Janney, Bobby Cannavale, and Miranda Hart round things out. Several times I had a thought of “I hate this character” followed by “but they’re so funny!”

In addition to McCarthy, director Paul Feig has been delivering a consistent string of hits after cutting his teeth on TV work. So far, he hasn’t been a standout technically, but his efforts are solid and with SPY and The Heat, he’s shown he has a good eye to blend action and comedy.

McCarthy and Feig team up again with Ghostbusters next year. Personally, I can’t wait.

2. Inside Out

Pete Docter is the best director working in animation today. He’s one of the core people in Pixar’s brain trust, and among them all he’s remained as the stalwart at the studio. John Lasseter is now in charge of all Disney creative endeavors, and he always struck me as better on the production rather than directing side. Andrew Stanton and Brad Bird are both fine directors, but they’ve taken forays into live action that have not been entirely successful. Both have returned to Pixar.

But Docter has remained throughout the entire history of the studio. And in so doing he’s delivered three of the best animated films of all time. While discussions can be heated when you talk about the output of a studio that has as high bar for quality as Pixar, Inside Out is arguably up there for best Pixar film ever.

For all the doubts levied against Pixar’s recent output, Inside Out shows that the studio can still deliver on its strengths. And Docter’s storytelling choices are probably the most perfectly suited to Pixar. He makes his films funny and exciting, but he also has an ability to home in on the heartfelt expression that makes Pixar stand out.

Tears are not an uncommon feature of his films. And personally, none of the other Pixar films hit quite so hard as Docter’s. And even Inside Out is a step above the rest, with three huge gut-punch moments.

Ultimately, what Inside Out and Docter deliver is a commodity so few films truly deliver: satisfaction. At the end, we’re given a film so complete that it’s profound. And then we realize how rare that feeling is, so we want to see it again.

Well, I’ve gone on for about 1500 words this time. I think I’ll cap it there and then I can really go long next time while I talk about my favorite film of the summer.