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“My World Doesn’t Exist Anymore.” Man of Steel, Batman vs. Superman, and the Rejection of Nostalgia

Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman are deeply flawed films. However, they are also breathtakingly ambitious films.

There are very few big budget blockbuster films that look and feel like Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman. Actor Henry Cavill has diplomatically described Batman vs. Superman as a “niche” film in order to account for the openly hostile fan and critic reaction to the movie. There is a sense that Cavill was trying to offer an apology without an apology, to appease certain vocal segments of fan culture without throwing his work under the bus. However, there is some truth in his words.

It is tempting to wonder how much of the vocal and aggressive online response to Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman comes down to the fact that these movies challenge popular perceptions of these iconic characters. Comic book writer Mark Waid was very vocal in his dislike of Man of Steel, not on the basis of the direction or the choreography or the framing or the craft, but because the film misunderstood “the essential part of Superman.” These complaints were echoed across the the blogosphere.

An unchallenged and unspoken assumption crept into discussions and debates around Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman. The primary argument seemed to be that this wasn’t really Superman and this wasn’t really Batman, because these characters were so impossible to reconcile with the popular image of these characters. Many criticisms of Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman measured them against other iterations of the characters, real and imagined. Man of Steel wasn’t colourful enough. Superman doesn’t kill. Lex Luthor is not Mark Zuckerberg.

The idea was that Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman violated some unspoken compact with the audience, that it offered a version of these characters and their world that didn’t line up with audience expectations. Indeed, this is perhaps most notable in the inevitable comparisons between Zack Snyder’s work and the output of Marvel Studios. Marvel Studios had spent the better part of a decade building a reputation as a studio that was faithful and respectful of its source material, to the point of slavishness. Marvel Studios offered uncomplicated, straightforward adaptations.

However, there is a sense that Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman were rather consciously rejecting the culture of nostalgia that has become so dominant and overwhelming in contemporary blockbuster cinema, that the films represented a conscious effort to challenge audience expectations and to push provocative and ambitious interpretations of these characters and their mythos. Indeed, it is hard not to see the audience’s vicious and aggressive response to Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman as a response to that.

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Trump Trek: How Star Trek: Voyager is Perfectly Trumpian Star Trek…

Star Trek has built up a fascinating pop culture mythology around itself. There is an interesting dissonance between that memory and the reality.

The fond memory of a thing is not the thing itself. It is a cliché to observe that the line “beam me up, Scotty” was never actually said on the original show, but many casual fans associate the phrase with the franchise. Even hardcore Star Trek fans tend to gloss over the historical record in favour of affectionate memory. Many fans remember the pointed anti-Vietnam rhetoric of A Taste of Armageddon, Errand of Mercy or The Trouble with Tribbles. Few remember the pro-Vietnam tone of Friday’s Child, The Apple or The Omega Glory.

There is a tendency to believe that Star Trek has always been progressive, that the franchise has always embraced tolerance and actively pursued diversity. However, the reality is often more complicated than that. This why certain sections of the fanbase seem to react in abject terror to concepts like “Trek Against Trump”, a campaign organised by Armin Shimerman to protest the racism and xenophobia espoused by the (then-) candidate Donald Trump. One would imagine that rejecting sexism, racism, white nationalism would be a no-brainer for fandom, but it was not.

Indeed, this reactionary strain of fandom has come up time and again in the context of Star Trek: Discovery. Certain vocal sections of the fan base have objected to the diversity of the primary cast, despite the fact that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine arguably had a much more diverse ensemble. The backlash has reached the point that the cast have had to actually give interviews that racism is a very bad thing and that the franchise is very much about tolerance and understanding. Similarly, the news that the series would be overtly political has rattled some cages in fandom.

In theory, these reactions should be shocking. The Star Trek franchise has carefully cultivated a reputation for liberalism and idealism. Indeed, the Federation is quite explicitly socialist, something hinted at in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and explicitly confirmed in Star Trek: First Contact. On a more fundamental level, the franchise is about people from different cultures and with different values coming together to work in common purpose. It seems reasonably fair to argue the franchise would disagree with concepts like “the Muslim Ban” or “the Transgender Service Ban.”

However, the truth is that there has always been a reactionary streak lurking within the franchise. And nowhere has that reactionary streak been stronger than in Star Trek: Voyager, bleeding over into the creation and first two seasons of Star Trek: Enterprise.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Bliss (Review)

Bliss is a textbook example of Star Trek: Voyager doing textbook Star Trek.

The episode feels like a stew composed primarily of leftovers, the residue of past meals thrown together to serve up something lukewarm and familiar. Bliss is not necessarily a bad episode of television, per se. It is rather lifeless and generic, but it is hardly the weakest episode of the season or the series. Instead, Bliss is the kind of episode that fades gently from memory, a hollow confection that doesn’t taste particularly nice, but which at least offers something to chew over.

Good Sheppard.

Bliss is a cocktail of familiar Star Trek plot elements. At the centre of the story is the sort of gigantic monstrous space entity that haunted earlier tales like The Immunity Syndrome or Datalore, a reminder of how weird and dangerous space can be. The “pitcher plant” in Bliss recalls the parasites from Operation — Annihilate! or the space vampire from The Man Trap. It feels like something almost Lovecraftian, a “beast” with tendrils that reach into the minds anybody near enough so that it might lure them to their doom. It is unfathomable to those caught within its grasp.

Qatai exists in opposition to this malign entity, caught in an immortal struggle with a force more vicious and more powerful than he could ever be. The EMH compares Qatai to Ahab, acknowledging the debt that Bliss owes to Moby Dick. Of course, the Star Trek franchise is populated with stories built upon that classic template; Obsession, The Doomsday Machine, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek: First Contact, Star Trek: Nemesis, Star Trek. It is hard to think of a more generic source of inspiration for an episode of Star Trek.

The show could use a shot in the arm.

Even beyond that, Bliss touches on plot ideas and elements that will be familiar to most Voyager viewers. As with episodes like Eye of the Needle or False Profits, the crew are tempted by a phenomenon that seems to promise the possibility of getting the crew home quickly. As in Hope and Fear and The Voyager Conspiracy, Seven of Nine becomes preoccupied with the notion that she is the only member of the crew with an objective perspective that allows her to see the truth. As with The Cloud or One, this might be deemed an “anomaly of the week” episode.

The result is something the feels very much like a representative distillation of Voyager, the statistical mean of the series derived to a decimal point. Bliss is perhaps the perfect encapsulation of Voyager as a television show. It is neither truly great or truly awful, it is merely there.

Coming down to Earth.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Bride of Chaotica! (Review)

Bride of Chaotica! is an enjoyable mess.

As its title implies, Bride of Chaotica! is a celebration of nostalgic futurism. It is a culmination of a number of themes running through the series. Most obviously, this particular brand of retrofuturism has been a recurring gag since Night at the start of the fifth season, but it fits within a broader context. From the outset, Star Trek: Voyager has been engaged with a more nostalgic sci-fi aesthetic than Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Bride of evil.

Voyager‘s retrofuturism has taken various forms; the old school “space western” tone established by Caretaker, the retro sci-fi trappings of episodes like Innocence or Rise, the monster mayhem of episodes like Phage or Macrocosm, the Cold War paranoia of Cathexis or In the Flesh, Tom Paris’ nostalgic holoprograms in Lifesigns or Vis á Vis, the abductees from the early twentieth century in The 37’s. However, perhaps the most basic is baked into the concept of the show. Voyager is literally a series about the desire to return to a safer and more familiar time.

In some ways, Bride of Chaotica! cements this nostalgia in the context of the larger Star Trek canon, embracing the anxiety that has become increasingly apparent in the years since the thirtieth anniversary. After all, the surrounding feature films all literalise the pull of the past. Star Trek: First Contact has Jean-Luc Picard literally journey back to twenty-first century Earth while revisiting his most iconic moment. Star Trek: Insurrection has the crew discover the fountain of youth. Star Trek: Nemesis confronts Picard with a younger clone of himself.

Radio Chaotica!

It is perhaps telling that Voyager was the moment at which the Star Trek franchise stopped pushing forward. During and after Voyager, the franchise would become increasingly backwards-looking. Star Trek: Enterprise would invite the audience to meet James T. Kirk’s childhood era, trying to recapture that old magic. JJ Abrams’ Star Trek reboot would focus on a young version of Kirk and Spock. Star Trek: Discovery will feature a central character who is something close to Spock’s sister. There is a conscious pull of nostalgia.

Perhaps the future was better yesterday.

Never too far afield.

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Non-Review Review: Star Trek – Insurrection

“I think I’m having a mid-life crisis,” Riker tells Troi at one point in Star Trek: Insurrection, and it might be the most telling line in the film.

Insurrection is many things, perhaps too many things. However, it primarily feels like a meditation on what it means to grow old, focusing on the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation. That first live-action Star Trek spin-off had revived the franchise as an on-going cultural concern, even launching a feature film franchise including Star Trek: Generations and Star Trek: First Contact, and spawning its own spin-offs including Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

A fist full of Data.

However, by the time that Insurrection arrived, The Next Generation was looking quite old. The Next Generation had launched more than a decade earlier, and had been off the air for almost five years. Although it had been a pop cultural behemoth, even its children (or its younger siblings) were starting to look a little long in the tooth. Deep Space Nine was in its final season, and Voyager was closer to its end than to its beginning. There was a creeping sense of fatigue and exhaustion.

In theory, this positions Insurrection quite well. After all, the original feature film franchise really came into its own when the characters found themselves forced to confront their own mortality. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan breathed new life into the franchise as it forced Kirk to come to terms with his old age, while Star Trek III: The Search for Spock indulged the sense of grown-ups behaving badly in a story that forced Kirk to throw aside his ship and his career in service of an old friend.

Picard’s hairpiece was fooling nobody.

Stories about age and mortality resonate, and so Insurrection has a fairly solid foundation from which to build. There is just one sizable problem. The cast and crew of The Next Generation have no intention of growing old, of wrestling with mortality, of confronting their age. Insurrection is fundamentally a story about rejecting this maturity and this sense of age, of refusing to accept that time takes its toll and denying that old age is best faced with solemn dignity and reflection.

Insurrection is a story about mamboing against the dying of the light.

A familiar dance.

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La La Land and Nostalgia’s End

One of the enduring criticisms of La La Land is the extent to which it indulges in nostalgia.

This is true of both the film and its characters. The opening scene proudly declares that the movie has been filmed in “Cinemascope”, with the landscape heavily saturated with bright colours that evoke classic Hollywood musicals even before a final showstopping number that evokes everything from An American in Paris to 7th Heaven. In this day and age, producing any big budget musical would feel like an act of nostalgia, but La La Land is a love letter to a genre that has fallen even further to the wayside than the western.

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Even the characters inhabiting the film’s world are defined by nostalgia. This is most obvious with Sebastian, a jazz nerd who desperately wants to construct a loving shrine to the artform as he loves it. “It’s dying,” he urges Mia. “It’s withering on the vine.” Sebastian laments the conversion of a cultural landmark into a “samba and tapas” restaurant. However, Mia is implied to be just as nostalgic. Her room is decorated with classic Hollywood memorabilia. When she finishes a rendition of her one-woman show, she asks Sebastian, “Is it too nostalgic?”

This sense of nostalgia has become an obvious line of attack against La La Land, particularly once it emerged as a Best Picture frontrunner. This is the way that things work; the same accusations were leveled at films like The Artist and Argo, to pick two recent examples. However, these criticisms miss one of the more compelling and nuanced aspects of La La Land‘s nostalgia. The film clearly pines for a lost past, wistfully remembering a world that no longer exists. However, it also accepts that loss. Unlike most exercises in nostalgia, La La Land understands that things can have value because they end.

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Note: This post contains spoilers for La La Land, including a discussion of the film’s ending. Go see it. Then come back.

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Seventies Heaven – The Shifting Gaze of Cultural Nostalgia

Nostalgia is a funny thing.

It is infinitely more complex than most people will allow. By its very nature, it is highly fungible, intertwined with concepts like memory and politics in a way that does not always make it easy to parse. Nostalgia hits in waves, but those waves do not always hit at the same time with the same intensity. Nostalgia is not a single monolithic concept, it pulls and pushes from moment to moment. What is the nostalgia of the moment? The eighties nostalgia of Stranger Things? The nineties nostalgia of Independence Day: Resurgence?

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Trying to define a pattern in pop culture’s nostalgia is like trying to read the tea leaves, falling somewhere between a conversational art and outright hucksterism.  Still, one of the more interesting – and least discussed – aspects of the grand nostalgia industrial complex is the state of transition. Big waves become little waves, emphasis shifts, focus goes elsewhere. One of the more interesting shifts in nostalgia over the past couple of years has been a transition from a strong sixties nostalgia into something altogether more seventies.

It is a rather weird sight to behold, as if watching the popular image of one decade fade into the popular image of the other.

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