Colin Firth, Peter O’Toole, Romantic Competition, and the Immortal Bard

I was mostly on board with the subtlety & restraint exercised in December’s Movie of the Month, 1990’s Wings of Fame, but there was one glaring area where the film’s delicate approach to its surrealist premise could have benefited from a stronger hand. The film establishes a version of the afterlife that runs on a kind of fame economy, where the level of a historical figure or celebrity’s postmortem notoriety determines their privilege & prestige in an Eternal Limbo. Our introduction into this world is through a Shakespearean actor (Peter O’Toole) and his bitter assassin (Colin Firth) as they die near-simultaneously and blindly enter the fame-economy afterlife. Mostly, the breathing room allowed by the film’s patient, delicate approach to surrealism invites philosophical discussion & audience hypothesis on how, exactly, this fantasy realm operates. That exact openness to interpretation is likely the movie’s greatest strength. Where the restraint frustrates me, however, is in not populating its afterword with real life historical figures & dead celebrities. Besides familiar names like Albert Einstein, Ernest Hemingway, and Lassie, the movie’s ranks are mostly filled with fictional, archetypal placeholders: a psychedelic rocker, a Freudian psychologist, a Russian political poet, etc. Not using familiar personalities to fully explore the absurdity of its premise seemed like a missed opportunity, especially when it came to the comeuppance of the movie’s chief cad, played by Peter O’Toole. It seems obvious that a pompous Shakespearean actor obnoxiously blowing hot air in an afterlife populated by famous historical figures would have an onscreen confrontation with William Shakespeare himself, but it’s a moment that never arrives. Oddly, his co-star did have that confrontation with Shakespeare many years later, despite Colin Firth not being nearly as closely associated with the bard.

It’s strange to say that Peter O’Toole is known mostly as a Shakespearean actor, when he has never appeared in any Shakespearean films. Before he transitioned to TV & film work in the late 1950s and eventually achieved infamy as the lead in Lawrence of Arabia, O’Toole was already a well-known thespian, respected for his work on the British stage, especially in the coveted role of Hamlet. Once he blossomed into a screen actor, however, he mostly left Shakespeare behind, possibly out of fear of being typecast, possibly by simply aging out of the Hamlet role. He did portray King Henry II in two Shakespeare-esque films (Becket & Lion in Winter), but mostly left his Shakespeare career on the stage, not onscreen. Still, he was closely associated enough with Shakespearean drama as a medium that his casting in Wings of Fame was a meta reflection of his real life persona. His co-star in the film, Colin Firth, was also “discovered” while playing Hamlet on the stage, but was much more closely associated with another infamous literary author: Jane Austen. Firth’s role as Mr. Darcy in the 90s adaptation of Pride & Prejudice (and, parodically, in the Bridget Jones franchise) would command much of his career onscreen for well over a decade, falling into the exact kind of restrictive typecasting Peter O’Toole managed to avoid. It’s strange that despite both actors emerging through a British stage tradition in the same Shakespearean role and both separately working with Lawrence Olivier, the only thing they’ve happened to collaborate on together was this single Dutch picture about fame in the afterlife. What’s even stranger is that where Wings of Fame withholds the satisfaction of seeing famed Shakespearean actor Peter O’Toole get into an onscreen confrontation with William Shakespeare himself, the Jane Austen-associated Colin Firth would later play Shakespeare’s nemesis for the entire length of a high-profile, Oscars-sweeping feature.

John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love is one of those decent, mildly entertaining pictures that seems to draw a lot of critical heat merely because it was showered with a heap of Academy Awards. Although the film is dressed up like a prestige costume drama, it’s much more spiritually aligned with Shakespeare’s more frivolous farces (and not necessarily the exceptional ones). Everyone can enjoy a decent screwball comedy once in a while, though, and the film maintains its endearingness as such, especially now that the unfair, tremendous weight of its many Oscar wins has faded. Joseph Fiennes stars as (a forgettable, bland) William Shakespeare, who is suffering severe writer’s block as his romantic life hits a major rut. He finds his manic pixie dream muse in a noblewoman played by Gwyneth Paltrow, who auditions for his latest play (eventually titled Romeo & Juliet) in disguise as a man. Surface level meta humor about the hallmarks of Shakespeare’s work (drag, comic misunderstandings, drunken fools, confusion with Christopher Marlowe, exact lines & scenes from Romeo & Juliet, etc.) unfolds along with this new romance and shapes the course of the play the couple are collaborating on. Enter Colin Firth as Lord Wessex, an empty-pursed nobleman who arranges to marry Paltrow’s disinterested theatre nerd for her dowry. As Shakespeare’s romantic rival and an all-around cad, Colin Firth’s mustache-twirling villain brings life to an otherwise light romantic romp. Similar caricatures from Judy Dench, Geoffrey Rush, and (Bostonian sore thumb) Ben Affleck are amusing in flashes, but Firth is so over-the-top as the villain it’s near-impossible to focus anywhere else. First of all, his look includes the world’s worst goatee and a dangly earring. He’s introduced negotiating marital terms with his intended’s father by asking questions like “Is she fertile? Is she obedient?” Minutes later, before he even announces his marriage plans to their shared love interest, he pulls a knife on Shakespeare “for coveting his property.” He only gets more dastardly from there, singlehandedly setting up the forbidden love oppression that required two whole families of brutes to establish in Romeo & Juliet.

This romantic rivalry between Wessex & Shakespeare, enforced through violence & wealth, is far more intense than what I was hoping to see in Wings of Fame. My hope was for a mere Shakespeare cameo, where the bard could offend Peter O’Toole’s posh sensibilities either by insulting his acting skills or by acting like an Al Bundy-modeled slob in a moment of don’t-meet-your-heroes disillusionment. Wishing for for something that specific to happen in a movie’s script is usually an idiotic way to approach cinema, but Wings of Fame feels like it sets up that conflict (or any kind of interaction, really) by sending a fictional, famous Shakespearean actor played by a real-life, famous Shakespearean actor to an afterworld populated by dead famous people, Shakespeare blatantly excluded. That’s what makes it so strange that Colin Firth would later be the actor to participate in an onscreen rivalry with the bard. What’s even stranger is that Wessex’s contentious relationship with Shakespeare in Shakespeare in Love is not too dissimilar to the main rivalry that drives Wings of Fame. Once they arrive in the afterlife, O’Toole’s Shakespearean actor and his professionally bitter assassin get caught up in a (passionless) love triangle as they compete for the affections of the same demure French pop singer. Of course, O’Toole plays the blowhard cad in that scenario, not Firth, who would assume those duties in Shakespeare in Love. Shakespeare in Love is a much lesser film than Wings of Fame (although the pair are largely incomparable), but it both complicates & satisfies the two caveats I had with the otherwise impeccable surrealist comedy that had managed to unite Firth & O’Toole onscreen. All of the romantic rivalry intensity & onscreen conflict with Shakespeare himself I felt was missing from Wings of Fame was oddly misplaced in Shakespeare in Love; it also happened to feature the wrong actor of the duo.

For more on December’s Movie of the Month, the delicately surreal afterlife puzzler Wings of Fame, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, and last week’s look at its less restrained Harmony Korine counterpoint.

-Brandon Ledet

Justice League (2017)

Look! Up on the screen! It’s big! It’s dumb! It’s loud! It’s Justice League!

And it mostly works. Mostly.

The very first scene of Justice League does some good work walking back the problems—and they are problems, not merely criticisms—of the first few non-Wonder Woman films in this universe. We see Superman as children see him, which is also the way that this franchise keeps trying to retroactively force its audience into reconceptualizing him: as a true-blue (literally, given the lightening of his costume) hero and symbol of hope. He’s kind, sympathetic, and, you know, Superman, as he’s supposed to be. And then, just as his life was, the video is cut short. This leads into a beautiful opening credits montage, a strength of Zack Snyder’s as a director (even those who hate his Watchmen adaptation, which I surprisingly don’t, are all but universally pleased with its Dylan-composed credits sequence).

This sequence is not without contentious issues, of course. First, there’s a headline seen in a newspaper box mourning the loss of David Bowie, Prince, and Superman, but not Leonard Cohen, which is pretty disrespectful given that the whole thing is set to a really, really terrible cover of “Everybody Knows.” There’s also the issue that we’re supposed to be seeing a world in mourning for the space god who showed them some truths about themselves, but if you’re going to enjoy anything about this movie, you’re just going to have to accept this retcon.

Consider the speech from Marlon Brando’s Jor-El in the first Richard Donner Superman film (and later repurposed for the trailer for Superman Returns): “They can be a great people, Kal-El; they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you… my only son.” This same speech was actually echoed by Russell Crowe in his turn as Papa El in Man of Steel: “You will give the people of Earth an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun, Kal. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.” Unfortunately, this franchise has made zero effort to actually follow through on these lofty ideals of the Superman-is-Messiah beyond paying lip service and a couple of “subtle” images in Man of Steel. The problem is that this was never present in the actual text of the film, which presented us with a broody, angry, super-powered alien whose only affection for the beings of his adopted world were his love for his mother and an office romance. He was more Tyler Hoechlin’s Derek Hale in Teen Wolf than Tyler Hoechlin’s Clark Kent in Supergirl (he’s killing it, by the way), and that absence has been sorely lacking in this film series so far.

But. But. Justice League, for all the baggage that its carrying from three bad movies and one spectacular one, actually works if you ignore all that needless, pointless, and out-of-place GRIMDARK nonsense that preceded it in the earlier installments. And it’s not just with Superman either; the scene that immediately follows the opening montage shows Batman out and about being Batman, and even uses some passages from Danny Elfman’s previous work on Tim Burton’s 1989 film adaptation (but which will always be a keystone for me as the theme music for the Batman animated series).

This first Batman scene is both good and bad. Your standard Gotham City burglar is exiting onto a roof at night, sees Batman, attacks the Bat, gets his ass handed to him, and is dangled over the side of a building to attract a Parademon (the foot soldiers of the film’s villain), which can apparently smell fear. Bats traps the Parademon in a net, tests out a series of sonic disruptions on it, and it dies, leaving behind a clue about the three Mother Boxes. It’s so, so dumb, but the combination of the old Elfman theme and the absurdity of the whole thing makes it feel like the cold open of an episode of the animated Justice League, where Kevin Conroy’s Batman would do something just like this: lure, trap, find weird clue that matches something he’s already investigating, detective it up. It shouldn’t (and for most people won’t) work in a feature film with live actors that is supposedly trying to take itself seriously, but that narrative works for me on a certain level. On the other hand, there are other elements of this scene that are inarguably bad story choices, like Batman just kind of grappling away from the scene to do detective stuff, completely disregarding the theft he just interrupted and leaving the burglar to his own devices.

The overarching plot of the film concerns the arrival of Steppenwolf, one of the members of Jack Kirby’s cosmic DC creations The New Gods, on earth. Millennia ago, he attempted to invade the planet and turn it into a “primordial hellscape,” but he was repelled by an alliance of Amazons, Atlanteans, the tribes of Man, and a couple of others that we’ll explore in a minute. Steppenwolf carrier with him three Mother Boxes, pieces of advanced technology that, when combined, create the terraforming effect that will make the earth his new home (yes, this was the exact same desire of the villains of Man of Steel). Now, after several millennia, he has returned in the wake of Superman’s death because mankind’s mourning of that great symbol of hope has made it ripe pickings for the invader’s crusade, and Batman has to recruit five superheroes with attitude to repel his forces (yes, this is essentially the same plot as the Mighty Morphing Power Rangers, and yes, I would love to see the trailer for JL recut with the opening narration of MMPR).

I’m not going to lie to you: this movie is clearly half-baked and it makes a lot of mistakes. Beyond the fact that Bats uses a street level criminal as bait and then ditching him without even notifying the police, there are other mistakes both big and small. For instance: the janitor working at Star Labs is seen bidding Dr. Stone good night, and it’s obvious (at least on the big screen) that the ID he’s wearing is for a different person, as he has dark hair and is clean-shaven, while the picture on the ID is of a man with a big bushy head of white hair and a glorious Mark Twain mustache. You can imagine sitting in the movie theater and thinking, like me: “Oh, he must be a spy who stole this ID, that’s a neat clue.” But no, it’s just a mistake; later, after said innocent janitor has been kidnapped by the villain, we see his belongings left behind in a pile, including an ID with an accurate photo. That’s this movie in a microcosm: when you think that it’s being clever, it’s actually just a goof.

When I was a kid, the DC comics characters were much dearer to me than Marvel’s. Although becoming an adult and becoming more socially aware has meant that I’m less inclined to love Batman uncritically (i.e., he’s kind of a fascist who spends most of his time attacking poor people out of his own sense of morality, rarely actually inspecting the causes of poverty and crime and trying to correct the problem at the root, although some of the best Batman writers have taken note of this and written him accordingly), he’s still the first character I think of when I think of superhero comics. The aforementioned Batman animated series was a defining piece of media for young Boomer, as were reruns of Superfriends, and I loved visiting the one aunt whose cable package included FX, as that meant I would get to see an episode of the Adam West Batman and, if I was very lucky, Lynda Carter in Wonder Woman. It’s for this reason, and not because I am a “Marvel fanboy,” that I’ve been pained to see this franchise handled so, so poorly in the past few years. Wonder Woman was not just a step in the right direction, but a wholehearted plunge into how to to this whole thing right (Alli may have given it a mere 3.5 stars, but that was a 5 star movie for me personally).

Justice League is having a harder time straddling that fence, seeing as it has to undo the immense damage done to the franchise as a whole by Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman. Sure, Suicide Squad was a terrible movie on the whole, but at its core it was a C-grade movie dressed up as a blockbuster, which is an aesthetic that I’m always a little bit on board for in spite of myself, especially when the actors really commit to the nonsense; additionally, the backstory and arc of Jay Hernandez’s Diablo contain far and away the most effective emotional beats of the first three films. It certainly didn’t fracture the fans in the same way as BvS, which some people are still defending for reasons that are unclear to me. Still, JL is trying hard to course correct, and the job that it’s doing is admirable, even if it stumbles every ten minutes or so. It works as a cartoon about the Justice League that just happens to be live action and have a tonally dissonant visual aesthetic from the text of the actions on screen.

The most important thing I can tell you if I’m trying to give you an idea as to whether or not you should see this film is this: Justice League works, if you accept it not as part of this franchise, but as an entry into the larger cultural understanding of Superman specifically and DC in general. What I mean by this is that the story it’s trying to tell, about a world without a Superman, does not work as a piece of the DCEU divorced from the context of the DC animated universes, or comic books, or even the earlier Donner and Burton films. But within that larger conversation, in which we do have a Superman who is a beacon of hope, truth, and justice, it does.

Additional notes:

  • I, too, saw all of the photos of Henry Cavill’s uncanny valley face online before I went to the theater, but I never noticed it when actually watching the movie. Maybe it says something about how my brain works that I completely overlooked it, but I’d wager it has more to do with the fact that if this were real life, Superman would have had to keep telling me “My weird face thing is up here.” You know what I’m talking about.
  • This has been addressed in other reviews that I’ve read and heard, but it is super weird that no one is at all concerned about maintaining their own or other’s secret identities in this movie. Aquaman calls Bruce Wayne “Batman” in front of a whole bunch of villagers, and Lois calls the newly awakened Superman “Clark” in front of several Metropolis police officers, which is only going to make it more obvious when he shows back up at work after having disappeared and reappeared at the exact same time as Supes did.
  • Ezra Miller’s Flash is charming, and I liked him a lot. A lot of his jokes fell flat, but I liked that they were overlooked in universe as well. I think that he’s probably the best addition to this universe since Wonder Woman.
  • Ray Fisher’s Cyborg is given almost nothing to do other than to be the machina that the deus exes.
  • All the stuff that you heard about Wonder Woman being more sexualized in this film is true, as I noticed the lingering shot of her rear, but she’s still Wonder Woman and still the best thing about this movie. I can’t wait for WW2.
  • The design for Steppenwolf is terrible. A stop-motion Starro would have been better, and would have made for a better villain overall anyway. Can you imagine a film where Starro the Conqueror appeared and tried to terraform the world into something more suitable to himself (i.e. covering the whole earth with the ocean)? There would be no need for the cliche sky beams, and instead there could have been the opportunity to discuss the rising oceans that are the result of climate change and Starro’s need to barely push humans into doing his will. The insistence on doing the New Gods stuff right out of the gate, especially after the imagery and ideas of Jack Kirby were so much better utilized in Guardians 2 and Thor: Ragnarok earlier this year, was a bad decision.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Armageddon (1998) Doesn’t Contrast the Small Scale Apocalypse Narrative of Last Night (1999), It Explodes It

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When Last Night played the festival circuit in 1998, critics made a big deal about how its small scale, intimate depiction of the Apocalypse was entirely antithetical to Michael Bay’s massive explosion orgy of the same year, Armageddon. Almost a decade later, it’s still an interesting point of contrast. There are obvious ways that an indie budget Canadian black comedy wouldn’t match up to a massive Hollywood special effects spectacle, mostly in terms of scale. Armageddon is packed to the gills with recognizable faces (Bruce Willis, Billy Bob Thornton, Ben Affleck, Liv Tyler, Steve Buscemi, Owen Wilson, so many more), while Last Night boasts the muted star power of niche Canadian indie superdarlings like David Cronenberg & a before-she-was-minorly-famous Sarah Polley. Last Night saves money & energy by not at all addressing the mechanism for the world’s end, instead focusing on the personal reactions of a small group of people to the grief it inspires; Armageddon dedicates more than half of its bloated 150min runtime to blowing up an asteroid “the size of Texas.” Last Night limits its scope to the city of Toronto, while Armageddon attempts to span the entire globe (or at least a version of the globe where the USA eats up 60% of the terrain) and utterly destroys three major cities in the process. These financial & genre differences are to be expected from the get go, though. What’s really interesting outside the two doomsday films’ sense of scale is the relative blackness of their souls.

For all of Last Night‘s Gen-X cynicism & neurotic existentialism, it’s above all else a humanist story. We join the world well after it has accepted its impending communal death and although the film often chooses to laugh through the pain, it makes a point to celebrate the way characters, often strangers, comfort each other in their shared moment of grief. Armageddon is an entirely different kind of beast. The Apocalypse depicted in Michael Bay’s film is not a crisis that must be accepted & emotionally processed; it’s an obstacle that can be overcome by a tough son of a bitch American badass who blows stuff up real good. We first meet our supposed hero (Willis) launching golf balls at oil spill protestors & chasing an employee around his rig with his adult daughter. The black-hearted conservative fantasy continues when he & his rag tag crew of “roughnecks” (who at one point, no joke, self-describe as “a bunch of daddies”) are recruited to blow up the Texas-sized asteroid, because the pansy nerds at NASA just could not get the job done. So much of Bay’s film is outright despicable. Steve Buscemi’s asked to charmingly deliver a torrent of pedophile humor. Every depiction of a foreign country (who apparently all sit on their hands while America saves the day) is cartoonish in its culture-gazing, especially in the comic relief of its Chinese businessmen. One of the film’s many climactic crises is solved when a man violently tosses aside a trained female astronaut (with practically no dialogue) to bang on a machine with a wrench & yell at it until it works. Thousands of lives are lost as entire cities crumble, but less thought is given to casualties than to finding more space for yet another Aesosmith song or a lengthy assembling-the-team montage. Armageddon doesn’t muster one ounce of the compassion or the empathy of Last Night and often feels actively deplorable in its views on humanity, both political & spiritual. Still, I can’t shake the feeling that the film is worthwhile in its own right.

As ugly as Armageddon‘s hostile, conservative soul in its terms of narrative & dialogue, it’s an absolutely gorgeous film to behold. With the low attention span of a Hausu or a Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Bay’s camera carefully considers each kinetic set-up and somehow turns a succession of beautifully crafted shots into a rapid fire assault on the senses & sensibilities of its audience. The way Last Night understands basic human fears & intimacies and the way they galvanize in timed of widespread crisis is impressive, but I don’t think the film ever approaches Armageddon‘s attention to filmmaking as a craft. It’s not even a question of budget, either. Even when you ignore for a minute all of the CGI buildings and hand-built miniatures Bay can’t resist gleefully exploding every few narrative beats, he has a distinct touch as a stylist. I’m not sure McKellar can claim the same in Last Night. The intense colors, framing, and rhythms of Armageddon are far above the film’s intelligence level in terms of plot & dialogue and it’s fascinating to watch something so smartly beautiful used for such an ugly, evil purpose.

I don’t mean to imply that Armageddon needs to be reassessed as some kind of overlooked masterpiece. If anything, it’d full-blown camp spectacle. Details like the opening narration about dinosaurs and the unfathomably awful animal crackers seduction scene had me howling with laughter, when I’m fairly sure that was far from their intent. Last Night‘s joke about the world’s biggest (and presumably final) guitar jam playing Bachman Turner Overdrive’s “Taking Care of Business” was the only gag that got that big of a laugh out of me, even though I’d say that film is the one that “deserves” to be championed as a lost classic. Armageddon is much more firmly in the so-bad-it’s-good side of that divide. It takes everything touching, mysterious, and humanist about Last Night and explodes it into a mean-spirited spectacle of jingoistic hero worship & casual misogyny. And yet, I found myself floored by Bay’s disaster epic for the entirety of its impossibly bloated runtime, a reaction I certainly did not expect on this revisit. Last Night is the more artful, empathetic portrait of humanity in crisis and fulfils every desire you’d have for a small budget indie about the Apocalypse. Armageddon, on the other hand, refuses to be ignored as a remarkable achievement in its own right, even if it is the exact polar opposite of McKellar’s black comedy and, arguably, a loud exemplifier of the worst aspects of modern Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking. As deplorable as Armageddon is as a Death Wish-style conservative fantasy piece, I’ll never sarcastically deride its inclusion in the Criterion Collection again. I get its appeal now, despite my better judgement.

For more on December’s Movie of the Month, the apocalyptic black comedy Last Night, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film & last week’s look at its studio comedy equivalent Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012).

-Brandon Ledet

Suicide Squad (2016)

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three star

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I don’t know if it was the two weeks of brutal, tear-it-down reviews or the flattering comparison points of Dawn of Justice & Man of Steel, but the much-maligned third entry in the so-called DCEU (a title that certainly has not been earned at this date) actually wasn’t all that bad. High praise, I know. Suicide Squad is not the winning success the budding DC Comics film franchise desperately needs to turn its frown upside down, but I left the theater in a much better mood than I did with the two Batman & Superman films that preceded it. A lot of the narrative surrounding Suicide Squad‘s critical shortcomings centers on the idea that the film’s messy tone is a result of post-production studio meddling in which DC & Warner Bros. attempted to right the ship by punching up Zack Snyder’s nü-metal glowering in Dawn of Justice with some edited-in comedy after seeing the wonders a sense of humor did for *shudder* Fox & Marvel’s successful Deadpool gamble. The frequent comparisons of Suicide Squad with the MCU’s dark-but-fun Guardians of the Galaxy in particular (most of them citing Suicide Squad as a cheap knockoff) are not off-base, but I do think that the wrong lesson is being learned in the two films’ contrast. To me, both Suicide Squad & Guardians of the Galaxy stand as clear advocates for the virtues of major studio meddling, particularly for the way it can reel in certain directors’ most unseemly sensibilities while still maintaining their sense of style for an amalgamated compromise that affords the resulting films a better chance at wide commercial appeal & likability. Suicide Squad is not nearly as good or as enjoyable as its best MCU comparison point, but it’ll do in a pinch.

The director of this major studio film-by-committee byproduct is one David Ayer, perhaps best known for penning the less-than-subtle exploitation thriller Training Day in the early 2000s. Ayer is ex-military and it shows in his aggressively masculine action schlock, typified in works like the bull-headed tank movie Fury & his nasty Schwarzenegger drug running monster Sabotage. After the dour boredom of Snyder’s two DC entries, though, a subtle hand is the last thing the franchise needed & I have to admit I sort of appreciated Ayer’s bull in a china shop approach to the material here. In a lot of ways Suicide Squad is just as bloated & tonally inept as Dawn of Justice & Man of Steel. It’s never boring, though, and thanks to some studio meddling it actually allowed for some interesting moments & decent performances to shine through all of Ayer’s trashy genre film bravado. If the MCU’s dreaded “house style” had not tempered the sadistic sensibilities James Gunn brought to his other comic book movie, Super, there’s no way Guardians of the Galaxy would be nearly as watchable or endearing as it is. Likewise, the studio meddling of Suicide Squad, with its joke-heavy re-shoots, shoehorned-in neon color palette, diminished screen time for Jared Leto’s Joker, and Guardians-aped soundtrack was much more haphazard & disharmonious, but it at least made the troubled material a decently fun action picture. In an ideal world I wouldn’t necessarily want to see Ayer’s Sabotage (a film I described as “oozing with scum” & “garbage water pessimism” in my review) reworked as a superhero spectacle, but Warner Bros. found a way to make that formula remarkably palatable. Kudos to the studio for reigning in Ayer’s bad taste & aggression just enough to make the movie work while still allowing it to breathe new, testosterone-corrupted life into what was previously a drab, depressive franchise.

Suicide Squad‘s opening credits smear the screen with a presumably after-the-fact splash of neon color that recalls recent works like Nerve & The Neon Demon. Each of its “bad guy” characters is then individually introduced like an overstuffed roster of pro wrestlers. You learn one quick fact about them (what wrestlers would call a gimmick), their corresponding theme music plays, and then you move onto the next contender in this year’s Royal Rumble. The only participants in this endless parade of heels that register as even halfway interesting are the stars of Focus (Is it time for me to churn out a Buzzfeed-worthy “fan theory” about how this film is an unofficial sequel?): Will Smith as the reluctant assassin/sad dad Deadshot & Margot Robbie as the damaged sexdoll/homicidal Jersey Girl clown Harley Quinn. Knowing very little about their characters’ comic book backstories & judging them solely by what’s presented onscreen, I can at least attest that the actors are just as entertaining as a pair here as they were in their comedic conjob thriller past and what’s particularly smart about Suicide Squad‘s post-production meddling/editing is that the movie seems to know it. All other members of the titular squad go by in a wash, outside an occasional flashback to their horrific pasts, but their collective presence as a team of single-gimmick anti-heroes reminded me of the “Attitude Era” of the WWE. For instance, I didn’t need to know any more about Killer Croc other than he’s a crocodile man who likes to watch BET and scuttle into dirty water to enjoy seeing him exterminate faceless baddies and the movie didn’t feel the need to supply me with much more information than that anyway. Smith & Robbie have an interesting father-daughter/killer-murderer dynamic; everything else is background & attitude. The movie does a decent job of letting that formula work itself out onscreen in what I assume mostly came from a damage control-focused editing room.

Besides its cartoonish pro wrestling simplicity, Suicide Squad also reminded me of a very particular campy art piece from recent memory: Southland Tales. Much like Richard Kelly’s technophobic mess of a sci-fi action comedy, Ayer’s comic book movie is a work of sheer excess & a pummeling sense of pace. No idea in either film is allowed to fully sink in before the next dozen line up to bludgeon you in the head in rapid succession. After the endless wrestler gimmicks are introduced, you’re sucked into a standard doomsday device plot in which an ancient witch & her sleepy brother plan to blow up the world with a literal doomsday device because “Now [humans] worship machines, so I will build a machine that will destroy them all,” or some such bullshit. You’d never guess it was as simple as all that, though, not with the nonstop assault of betrayals & abuses from Viola Davis as the shady federal agent Amanda Waller (a steely performance that’s just as much of an oasis of competence as Smith’s or Robbie’s), Ben Affleck’s cameo-relegated Batman (who we were generously kind to in our Batman rankings on the podcast), Jared Leto’s half-Nicholson/half-Ledger with a sprinkle of Spring Breakers Joker (more on him in a minute), lovelorn army officials, and bubble-faced goons made of witchcraft tar. Just like with Southland Tales, I had to struggle to grab hold onto any single idea or individual player in Suicide Squad during its massive flood of content until I just sort of gave up & let it sweep me away. By then, I realized that the movie was already 2/3rds over and it became clear how smart it was for the studio to employ Ayer’s brawn over brains battering ram to get through all of this glut & bloat in the first place.

That brutish sense of cannonball pacing is what Ayer’s aesthetic brings to the table, but I don’t think the film would’ve worked at all if it weren’t for the studio’s after-the-fact meddling that tempered it. The value of the studio-director compromise is not only readily recognizable in the tacked-on jokes & bright, fluorescent colors. It’s also deeply felt in the narrative throughline of the Harley Quinn-Joker romance. In the film Harley Quinn is a flirtatious sadist with clown makeup, a baseball bat, and wildly fluctuating accent. She takes a shining to Will Smith’s occasionally-masked assassin Deadshot, whose wrestler gimmick is aching to be a father figure to someone, anyone, but her closest association is obviously with the wildcard Leto character The Joker, whom she lovingly calls Mr. J. In both the comics & the film, Harley was an intelligent, mentally-stable doctor who lost hold of her sanity when she fell in love with The Joker, a patient. In the comics & the much beloved Batman: The Animated Series, their relationship is portrayed as abusive, both physically & spiritually damaging, with the once self-sufficient Quinn now unable to tear herself away from the psychotic brute and becoming a glutton for his punishment. The movie, which already features two shots of women being punched in the face without that domestic abuse element, smartly trades up in the Quinn & Joker romance angle. Instead of portraying one of the few enjoyable characters in its roster suffering repetitive abuse, Suicide Squad instead re-works her love affair with Mr. J as a Bonnie & Clyde/Mickey & Mallory type outlaws-against-the-world dynamic, one with a very strong BDSM undertone. Affording Harley Quinn sexual consent isn’t the only part of the studio-notes genius of the scenario, either. The film also cuts Leto’s competent-but-forgettable meth mouth Joker down to a bit role so that he’s an occasional element of chaos at best, never fully outwearing his welcome. Not only does this editing room decision soften Leto’s potential annoyance & Ayer’s inherent nastiness, it also allows Harley Quinn to be a wisecracking murderer on her own terms, one whose most pronounced relationship in the film (with Deadshot) is friendly instead of romantic. I know you’re supposed to root for an auteur’s vision & not for the big bad studio trying to homogenize their “art”, but Suicide Squad was much more enjoyable in its presumably compromised form than it would have been otherwise.

Look, Suicide Squad isn’t some overlooked indie production that needs someone to stand up for it. It made a killer profit in its opening weekend despite its brutal critical reception and I feel like its inevitable sequel would’ve been automatically greenlit even if it didn’t, so the movie’s doing just fine. Besides, there’s plenty of things I did hate about it: the aforementioned woman-punching (at least one instance of which was played for a laugh), its relentlessly on-the-nose soundtrack (which included the distasteful likes of Eminem, my eternal pop music enemy), a continuation of Deadpool‘s inane inclusion of unicorns for easy gender-contrast humor meme points, its big bad killer witch’s stupid undulating dance moves, etc. Enough complaining has already been piled on this movie already, though, especially considering that overall it’s just okay, Grade C, trashy action movie fluff. With Dawn of Justice, the DCEU tried to do a dozen MCU films’ worth of bricklaying in a single go, building an entire franchise’s foundation on the back of an overstuffed, overworked snoozefest helmed by one of Hollywood’s least interesting big name directors. Suicide Squad was tasked with the same groundwork-laying burden of setting up future storylines at breakneck speed, except in this case the director’s aesthetic was both more suitable & more entertaining for the job at hand. Ayer does what he always does here & delivers a grimy, trashy action flick with an overtly sexual fetish for firearms & ammunition, as well as human cruelty. The studio that hired him found a way to hitch its thankless superhero workload to that director-specific, hyper-masculine schlock vehicle and after cleaning up some of its rougher edges the resulting product was an easily digestible two hour movie trailer with a handful of memorable performances & a few opportunities to sell some Monster Energy drinks & HotTopic fashion line tie-ins along the way. I’ve paid to see much worse than that in the theater before and one of the most glaring examples came just a few months ago from the very same studio & franchise. If every one of the DCEU’s missteps were a little less depressive glower Snyder & a little more tactless brute Ayer the idea of following this series of bloated action fantasies would be a lot less exhausting. Then again, it just took me 2,000 words to defend a film as “not all that bad,” so maybe exhaustion is just a natural part of the territory.

-Brandon Ledet

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

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I’ll start out saying this: I didn’t hate Batman v Superman … as much as I thought I was going to. I certainly didn’t hate it as much as I hated Man of Steel, for starters. Further, despite the fact that I found co-writer David S. Goyer’s script for the final Christopher Nolan Batman flick to be patronizing and transparent in its privileged take on income inequality, this film wasn’t quite so morally bankrupt in its presuppositions about audience attitudes. I even had a few positive takeaways from the flick, although some of those things were probably in spite of the filmmaker’s goals and not because of them.

I’m not a Zack “The Hack” Snyder hater, either. I know that hating on him is popular and easy, and he certainly deserves some of the criticism that is leveled at him. I’ve heard mixed things about Sucker Punch (although never anything that enticed me into watching the whole thing), and I find that the director’s cut of Watchmen is a decent adaptation of the source material. The problem with Snyder is that he knows and understands that film has a language, but he doesn’t know how to make that language work for him. Snyder just doesn’t grasp how to handle pacing and tension, so, instead of having rising action that grows at a steady rate up to a film’s denouement, everything is metaphorically cranked up to eleven at all times. Snyder knows how to make things look “epic,” but he uses that same technique in every shot; as a result, every action has the same dramatic weight, be it people fleeing in terror from collapsing buildings, potential warnings from the future, nuclear deployment, or uneventful board meetings.

Not all of this is Snyder’s fault, really; it’s the audience’s. The general public took 300, a film that revels in its consistently over-the-top nature and (arguably) succeeds as a narrative within that paradigm, and made it Snyder’s first real mainstream success. We taught Snyder the unfortunate lesson that this style was laudable and commercially viable when it’s actually exhausting. He’s like that classmate of yours who misunderstood the definition of a word from context clues and then proceeded to use it incorrectly all the time because it sounds good to their ear. It’s not that Snyder doesn’t have experience; he’s got several films under his belt now, each one more popular (or at least profitable) than the last. Snyder is simply living proof that sometimes a person can create a worthwhile piece of media without grasping the reason that it works. He understands that using a particular visual rhetorical strategy is something that filmmakers do to elicit a response, but he doesn’t seem to know why they do it. As a result, you can’t really say that there are any “quiet moments” here in Batman v Superman, just scenes and sequences that would be treated with some deftness and gravitas in another, more sensitive movie, a film in the hands of a more mature filmmaker.

Ironically, the audience is expected to assume that the immature Superman of the previous film has grown into a true-blue hero after a short montage of him rescuing people in scenes that appropriate the images of real-life disasters. Just as Man of Steel relied heavily on 9/11 imagery, so too does this film co-opt the images we have seen of the victims of Hurricane Katrina waiting for rescue on their rooftops. What’s more, it seems that the criticism of the previous film’s inappropriate use of this visual rhetoric resulted in an increase in it this time around, which is horrible. The audience is supposed to believe that Superman has learned his lesson about accountability and the value of life despite the fact that, metatextually, Snyder certainly didn’t. Further, he couldn’t figure out how to communicate that idea visually; you know, like making Metropolis a warmer looking place, or subtly lightening the blue of the Superman outfit in order to make him stand out as a beacon of hope in contrast to Batman’s more fear-mongering approach.

Of course, just because their names are in the title doesn’t necessarily mean that either Batman or Superman is really the main character in this film; Lex Luthor is. I wasn’t keeping track of the exact number of lines that each says in the film, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Jesse Eisenberg’s character had as many as Henry Cavill’s and Ben Affleck’s combined. Luthor’s actions kick off the plot, Luthor is behind the false flag operation in Nairomi (which provides the final catalyst for Bruce Wayne to come out of retirement), Luthor kidnaps Ma Kent in order to force Superman’s hand, Luthor creates Doomsday, etc. Luthor even collates the data about potential powered individuals for Bruce to later stumble upon. Every other character is reacting to Luthor’s manipulations, but Eisenberg’s performance doesn’t have the requisite gravitas to make the character work. Eisenberg has been in a few things that I’ve enjoyed and a fair few others that I have not. He’s not necessarily a bad actor, but he is one with a fairly limited range, and, in fairness to him, I don’t know that any performer could have played this role and pulled it off. Luthor is framed as some kind of wunderkind, but any menace that he could possibly embody is undercut by the character’s shrill, foppish affectations. I don’t know if that was a character choice made by Eisenberg or on his behalf, but it’s distracting and obnoxious. Overall, Luthor ends up as a non-threatening villain despite the heinousness of his actions.

Clocking in at just under three hours, Dawn of Justice seems interminable at times, and the above-cited problem with a lack of variation in intensity is only one factor. There are abundant issues with pacing as well. Something like 10% of the film’s 166 minutes, including the very first scene, is taken up with dream sequences (and dream sequences within dream sequences, and imagined conversations with dead relatives). I don’t want to go into too many details in case any of you reading this want to maintain some surprise when/if you get around to seeing it, but there’s a prolonged scene that occurs near the film’s climax which interrupts the preparation for battle to focus on a character watching a series of video files. This sequence exists solely for the purpose of planting the seeds for DC’s attempt to create a Marvel-style interconnected film franchise, and its placement  in the film is utterly baffling. There’s a basic misunderstanding of narrative at play here with DC’s embarrassing attempt to play catch up with the House of Ideas. I can’t tell if it’s a blatant attempt to differentiate their business model from Marvel’s or a stubborn unwillingness to take the time and effort to give individual characters the needed breathing room for an audience to get to know them before forcing an Avengers style team-up with the upcoming Justice League (Part I… ugh). Either way, Batman v Superman doesn’t work as a cornerstone for the building of this larger universe or as a notable film in its own right.

There are occasional hints of a better narrative throughout (for instance, having Lex act as both a corrupt businessman and a bit of a mad scientist, as he has been portrayed as both in the past/comics, was a good idea that was poorly executed). I would even go so far as to say that the first half of the film works surprisingly well, especially with Holly Hunter acting circles around every other person onscreen in her performance as Senator June Finch. It’s really all downhill once she’s no longer present, with the second half feeling like a completely different movie. Amy Adams’s Lois Lane spends most of the climax struggling to retrieve a kryptonite spear from an underwater location that she herself threw it into in an earlier scene; that’s a first draft plot problem if I ever saw one. In one particularly noteworthy scripting problem, Lois’s Senator informant tells the President that the monster Bats and Superman are fighting only gets stronger each time that they attack it. This occurs after they attack Doomsday only once; sure, the knowledge that Doomsday gets stronger with every defeat is something that certain parts of the audience will know because of a familiarity with the source material, but why does this character have this knowledge?

I am sure that defenders of this film will find ways to justify the problems with the narrative, just as there were many who bent over backwards to make excuses for Man of Steel and its poor choices. We live in a world where there are people who will look you in the eye and defend the Star Wars prequels, so there’s no possibility that I could ever again be caught off guard by individual tastes and perceptions, no matter how alien they seem to be to me. This is an objectively bad movie, but I’m certainly not here to judge (I’m writing this next to a DVD shelf that contains both Dead Heat and Astro Zombies, after all). I will say, however, that I cannot fathom getting sufficient enjoyment from this movie to merit dealing with the long swathes in which there is nothing that could offer the smallest amount of filmic pleasure.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should cite the film’s good elements. I mentioned Holly Hunter’s strong performance above, but Gal Gadot does good work here with the limited screen time they give her, and there really is nothing quite like finally seeing Wonder Woman on the big screen for the first time (not counting The Lego Movie), and I gave the movie an extra half star for her appearance alone. The guitar-heavy track that serves as WW’s leitmotif is strange, but it does effectively differentiate her musical arrangement from Clark’s and Bruce’s even if it is an unusual choice. I also appreciated that the film trusts the audience to infer that Bruce was once the Batman and has since retired, even though Snyder apparently felt the need to show the Waynes getting gunned down in an alley for approximately the millionth time, complete with falling pearls, as if this wasn’t the most well-known origin story on the planet other than the birth of Christ. There’s a fun cameo from a Major Ferris (i.e. Carol Ferris from the Green Lantern comics) as well as some other Easter Eggs, and I’m always happy to see Lauren Cohan (Mrs. Wayne) getting work.

If you were already planning to see this movie (or not), one more negative review on top of all the others that are floating around isn’t going to make much of a difference to you. Still, even if you (like me) are enticed solely by the prospect of Wonder Woman, don’t waste your money trying to catch this flick in theaters. Like the Luthor character, Dawn of Justice is less interested in being clever than it is in investing time in making itself seem more clever than it really is, and ultimately ends up being incoherent for all its effort.

Random Remaining Questions (spoilers for both this film and Man of Steel):

● In the trailer for the film, we see Bruce getting a piece of hate mail that says “You let your family die,” and we see this same scene in the film. In context, this makes no sense, as no members of the Wayne family were killed during the showdown that ended Man of Steel, just Wayne Enterprises employees. So what was the point of that, other than to mislead people with the trailer?

● At the end of the film, Lois is hanging out in a bedroom in the Kent farmhouse. From the look of it, it seems like it’s supposed to be Clark’s room from before he left for college. So did Ma Kent really have the house recreated so exactly after its destruction in the first film that they duplicated this room, right down to its rural teen aesthetic?

● When will TV and films realize that an atmospheric detonation of a nuclear weapon is exponentially worse than one that occurs on the ground? Heroes got called out for doing this same thing ten years ago at the end of their first season; was no one listening?

● This one was pointed out to me after the fact by my friend who saw the film with me: was Luthor intercepting Wally’s mail for eighteen months before he used him to infiltrate the senate subcommittee? My reading of the situation was that Wally was returning his checks to Wayne Enterprises for all that time and then came to Luthor’s attention following his public arrest for vandalism of that hideous Superman statue, at which point Luthor approached Wally to help him. But later Luthor seems to admit that he sent the final piece of mail to Bruce personally, implying that he was behind the returning of checks this whole time. So which is it?

● I know that the locations of Metropolis and Gotham City are not fixed and as such they sometimes are close to each other and sometimes further apart, but putting them across the bay from each other really bothers me for reasons that I can’t quite put my finger on. I guess I feel that you shouldn’t be able to see one city from the other? Like, if any random person in Metropolis could look toward the waterfront and see the Bat-Signal in Gotham City, it really strains credibility that these two characters would have never interacted previously.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond