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Holy Camp, Batman: The Redemptive Queerness of “Batman & Robin”…

The podcast that I co-host, The 250, will be looking at Batman and Robin this weekend. It is a fun discussion, well worth a listen, and I hope you enjoy. However, I had some thoughts that I wanted to get down before specifically about the film.

Batman and Robin is not a good movie, by any stretch of the imagination.

However, it is somewhat unfairly vilified. This is particularly true in comparison to its direct predecessor, Batman Forever. Very few people would attempt to argue that either Batman Forever or Batman and Robin were good films on their own terms, but the consensus seems to have formed around the idea that – to paraphrase Edward Nygma – Batman Forever was bad, Batman and Robin was worse. This calcified into the idea that Batman and Robin is among the very worst comic book movies ever, and Batman Forever is not.

It is interesting to speculate on why this might be. Batman Forever and Batman and Robin are both cynically constructed blockbusters aimed at the youngest and least discerning audiences, eschewing concepts like plot and characterisation in favour of cheap thrills and terrible jokes. Both films offer incredibly condescending exposition, betraying the sense in which they have been constructed for audiences with the shortest possible attention span. However, while Batman and Robin embraces this cynicism, Batman Forever clumsily tries to disguise it.

Much has been made of the fact that director Joel Schumacher wanted to make a better movie than Batman Forever. He singled out Batman: Year One as the Batman movie that he wanted to make. Traces of this better movie occasionally surface in discussions of Batman Forever and are often framed in reference to the film’s admittedly darker and more artistic deleted scenes. There is a clear sense that Batman Forever harboured something resembling ambition before it was brutally bent and broken into its final released form.

However, Batman Forever also offers its audience condescending and trite pop psychology. The result is a veneer of faux profundity that suggests hidden depths that the movie is unwilling and unable to explore. Batman Forever vaguely touches on the question of whether Bruce feels responsible for the death of his parents and the trouble he has reconciling the two halves of himself, but in no real depth. Two-Face is one of the primary antagonists of Batman Forever, and the film can’t even be bothered to make that thematic connection.

It’s interesting to wonder if Batman Forever has a slightly warmer reputation because of this unearned grasp at weightiness, these small gestures towards the idea of “psychological complexity” and “psychological nuance” in the most trite manner imaginable. After all, Batman Forever is a movie that has Bruce Wayne dating a psychologist, and feel inordinately proud of that idea. It’s easier to pass off Batman Forever as more mature or more considered than Batman and Robin, because it gestures broadly at ideas that are a little darker and more complex.

This is strange, because there’s a lot more interesting stuff happening in Batman and Robin. Unlike its direct predecessor, Batman and Robin makes no broad gesture towards profundity or insight. It is a profoundly stupid movie, and it is cognisant of both that stupidity and the audience’s relationship to that stupidity. However, there’s something much more interesting going on underneath the surface of Batman and Robin, in direct response to Batman Forever.

Batman Forever feels like a moral panic picture, a direct response to some imagined public outrage about certain earlier interpretations of the Caped Crusader. As such, it aims to produce the most generic and vanilla iteration of the character, the most boring and the most normative. What makes Batman and Robin so interesting is that it represents a firm rejection of that conservativism, and actively works to inject a lot of the queerness back into the Batman mythos. It doesn’t do this especially elegantly or smoothly, but it does it nonetheless. The results are compelling and engaging.

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Non-Review Review: Mulan (2020)

Niki Caro’s Mulan is an interesting beast.

As a piece of production, it’s impressive. It lands neatly among the best of Disney’s live action adaptations of its classic animated films, simply by virtue of its willingness to offer something new. It avoids the limp and slavish devotion of films like The Lion King, Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast, even if it never quite transcends its origins like Pete’s Dragon. It is vibrant and dynamic film, one that leans into what is possible in live action rather than animation, with cinematographer Mandy Walker ensuring that colours really pop off the screen.

Claws for concern

However, there’s also something slightly frustrating about Mulan. It often feels like the changes from the animated film were not made with the intention of improving the film or finding a new angle, but instead to render Mulan more palatable to a targetted Chinese audience. After all, for all the attention paid to the film’s video-on-demand release, its box office prospects have always had one eye on China. The result is a film that feels more cautious and more conservative than an animated film produced over two decades ago.

Mulan is clean and stylish, but feels a little too calculated and sterile to be its best self.

A prime cut?

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Of Death Stars, Sarlaccs and Sexting: The Curious Sexual Energy of “Star Wars”…

At its core, Star Wars is a Jungian, Campbellian and Freudian story about what it’s like to grow up.

This is perhaps most obvious within the original trilogy. Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back is ultimately about the realisation that your parents will eventually and inevitably fail you. Star Wars: Episode VI – The Return of the Jedi is about growing up and learning to make peace with them anyway. Of course, the individual films frame these core themes through their own lenses. Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens reframes that adventure so it centres on people who have rarely had the opportunity to anchor such a story. Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi asked what that meant in 2017.

Naturally, this coming of age story is framed in terms of adventure – young characters discovering that they are part of an epic mythology that guides them towards confrontations with ancient and incredible evils, often learning hidden truths about themselves and their destiny. There’s a reason that the Star Wars franchise has come to be associated with the “monomyth”, distilling the hero’s journey into something with a story with universal resonance. It is a story about what it feels like to grow up.

It is also, inevitably, very much about sex. And in some very interesting (and quite eccentric) ways.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Prophecy (Review)

The big surprise with Prophecy is not that Star Trek: Voyager is doing a Klingon-centric story, despite being set on the other side of the galaxy. The big surprise with Prophecy is that it took the series so long to get around to it.

Of course, there are lots of very good reasons why Voyager should never have had to resort to a Klingon-centric story. After all, Voyager is a series about a ship stranded half-way across the galaxy. The whole premise of the series is to get away from the familiar and established Star Trek aliens, to take a break from the familiar and iconic races like the Romulans or the Klingons, and to introduce new aliens like the Kazon, the Vidiians, the Hirogen, the Malon. Caretaker threw the crew into the Delta Quadrant to give the show a clean break.

Klingon in there!

However, the pull of the familiar is strong. Voyager wasted little time in building episodes around familiar alien menaces; Eye of the Needle featured a Romulan, Death Wish featured Q, False Profits featured two Ferengi, Blood Fever reintroduced the Borg as a potential menace. Few Star Trek aliens are as iconic as the Klingons. Even the most casual of audience members knows the name “Klingon” and probably has an understanding of how the culture works. Next to Vulcans – and even then, arguably just Spock – Klingons are Star Trek to casual viewers.

Indeed, Prophecy is far from the first time that Voyager has indulged its fascination with Klingon culture. Torres was split into human and Klingon halves in Faces. Holographic Klingons played significant roles in episodes like Day of Honour, The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II. Ronald D. Moore only worked on Voyager for a very short time, but – with the assistance of Bryan Fuller – helped to send Torres to the Klingon afterlife in Barge of the Dead. Indeed, even Endgame will feature recurring actor Vaughn Armstrong as a secondary Klingon character.

“You can’t make a mess in here, this is the mess hall!”

All of which is to say that while Voyager took its time to do an episode built around a major guest cast of new flesh-and-blood Klingon characters, the series had a long-standing interest in these most memorable and distinctive of Star Trek aliens. In its own weird way, the inclusion of such an overtly Klingon-centric episode plays into the seventh season’s weird fixation on the perceived “Star-Trek-ness” of Voyager, a strong desire to assert the aspects of Voyager that connected it to the larger Star Trek canon.

However, as with a lot of these recurring “Star-Trek-y” elements in the seventh season of Voyager, there is a strong sense with Prophecy that the production team have no greater understanding of the Klingons than their long-standing connection to Star Trek lore.

Today is a good day to try.

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Non-Review Review: Welcome to Marwen

Welcome to Marwen is a deeply weird film, and not in a good way.

The basic structure of the film is a feel good narrative of a character coming to terms with his post-traumatic stress disorder. Mark Hogancamp was beaten almost to death by a group of Neo-Nazis outside a bar, for nothing more than mentioning that he liked to wear women’s clothes. Mark has retreated into himself, creating a model village called “Marwen”, an anachronistic Belgian village from the Second World War. The town is home to a toyetic doppelgänger for Mark, the heroic “Hoogie”, who finds the courage to fight Nazis despite his losses.

The toast of the town.

The arc of the film is very obvious from that premise, with a number of other details sprinkled into the script to provide stakes and momentum. Nicol, an attractive redhead dealing with the loss of her son and a stalker ex-boyfriend, moves in across the way and connects with Mark. At the same time, the sentencing of the criminals who attacked Mark is fast approaching, and Mark needs to read his “victim impact statement” in open court. There is also a suggestion that Mark is wrestling with addiction, having to careful ration his painkillers.

All of this is fairly standard prestige picture stuff, providing Mark and the audience with a very clear journey across the film and offering a potentially hopeful conclusion to Mark’s journey. This is all very hokey, but it could work. It is a very earnest narrative, but director Robert Zemeckis is the kind of storyteller who knows how to make those sorts of narratives work. Forrest Gump is a beloved classic for a reason, no matter how clumsy and hokey it might be.

Mark his words…

However, Welcome to Marwen chooses to elaborate upon its stock upbeat triumph-over-adversity template in a number of frankly bizarre ways. Welcome to Marwen flails wildly between genres, pivoting from earnest and overwrought melodrama to absurd fantasy to lazy comedy on a dime. The issue is not that Welcome to Marwen doesn’t cohere as a film, the issue is that many of the individual scenes within the film struggle to find a consistent tone from one minute to another.

Zemeckis is a skilled enough craftsman that the film impresses on a purely technical level; the dolls tilt into the uncanny valley on occasion, but there is every indication that this is intentional. However, on a purely narrative level, Welcome to Marwen feels like it was put together by a twelve-year-old who had only read about how movies work.

Hoogie’s heroes.

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106. Fifty Shades of Grey (#-91)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with Marianne Cassidy and Grace Duffy, The Bottom 100 is a subset of the fortnightly The 250 podcast, a trip through some of the worst movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users.

This time, Sam Taylor Johnson’s Fifty Shades of Grey.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Darkling (Review)

There is something to be said for the pulpier side of Star Trek: Voyager, the aspect of the show that plays like a cheesy sci-fi b-movie.

Brannon Braga is very much the driving force behind this aspect of the show, as evidenced by his scripts for the belated Cold War body-swapping horror of Cathexis or the psychological nightmare of Projections or the trashy psychedelic terror of Cold Fire or even the weird evolutionary anxieties of Threshold and Macrocosm. These sorts of episodes often feel like they belong in a late night movie slot reserved for forgotten horror flicks from the fifties and sixties. Of course, Braga is not alone in this; episodes like Meld and The Thaw also fit the pattern.

Blurred lines.

Blurred lines.

Of course, these episodes do not always hit the mark. Charitably, it could be argued that they land about half the time and misfire spectacularly about one third of the time. However, there is something strangely compelling about these episode. They feel distinct from what audiences expect from Star Trek. Even if they are arguably just an extension of late Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes like Sub Rosa or Genesis or Eye of the Beholder, they feel like something different from the show’s more conventional “let’s do archetypal Star Trek” plotting.

Darkling is an episode that doesn’t quite work, but which is oddly endearing in its dysfunction. It is a ridiculous central premise executed in a deeply flawed (and occasionally uncomfortable) manner. However, there is something weirdly compelling about wedding the show’s science-fiction premise to gothic horror through the fractured psyche of a computer program.

Patchy.

Patchy.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Blood Fever (Review)

Blood Fever is a strange and dysfunctional episode.

By this point in the third season, Star Trek: Voyager has abandoned any sincere attempt to develop or define its own identity. Instead, the series has committed itself to being the most generic Star Trek show imaginable. In many ways, this represents a disappointing betrayal of an interest premise and a fascinating cast of characters. In other ways, this allows the show to focus on telling archetypal Star Trek stories like Remember or Distant Origins or Living Witness, stories that deal with broad themes through science-fiction allegory.

Tunnels of love.

Tunnels of love.

In its strongest moments, Blood Fever feels like it wants to be that kind of classic Star Trek metaphorical exploration of contemporary society. In many ways, Blood Fever is an exploration of contemporary attitudes towards sex and sexuality, of the damage that can be wrought by sexual repression on levels both personal and societal. It is building upon the idea of pon’farr as introduced by Theodore Sturgeon (and refined by D.C. Fontana) in Amok Time, as the volcanic eruption of sexual desire following years of repression.

Unfortunately, Blood Fever lacks the courage of its convictions. The script feels like a victim of the same social mores that it seeks to critique, either unable or unwilling to talk about sex and sexuality in a manner that is suitably candid. As a result, Blood Fever ends up a muddled and ineffective piece of television that seems unwilling to call out its characters and which inevitably builds towards a tired rehash of an iconic Star Trek scene. Waiting seven seasons for this must be very unsatisfying.

Droning on.

Droning on.

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Star Trek – The Mark of Gideon (Review)

This July and August, we’re celebrating the release of Star Trek Beyond by taking a look back at the third season of the original Star Trek. Check back every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for the latest update.

The Mark of Gideon is in many ways a direct counterpoint to Whom Gods Destroy.

Both The Mark of Gideon and Whom Gods Destroy have what might charitably be described as “major logic problems.” Both episodes were produced on a tiny budget, with those constraints bleeding through into almost every frame of the finished production. Both stories engage with the idea of utopianism as an essential ingredient in Star Trek storytelling. Both episodes are very much third season episodes, in terms of production and construction and storytelling.

Viewing screen on.

Viewing screen on.

However, Whom Gods Destroy manages to turn all of these elements into an ambitious mess. Although far from the strongest episode of the season, or even a half-decent episode of television, there is an endearing charm to Whom Gods Destroy that carries the episode far further than it should. In contrast, The Mark of Gideon is dead at arrival. It is an episode with a striking premise and set-up that has no idea where to go from that starting point and so meanders limply and lifelessly through forty-five minutes of television.

It also offers a pretty reprehensible vision of the franchise’s utopia.

This is an accurate representation of the third season's viewing figures.

This is an accurate representation of the third season’s viewing figures.

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Star Trek: Enterprise – Rajiin (Review)

Next year, Star Trek is fifty years old. We have some special stuff planned for that, but – in the meantime – we’re reviewing all of Star Trek: Enterprise this year as something of a prequel to that anniversary. This August, we’re doing the third season. Check back daily for the latest review.

Rajiin is not as bad as Extinction. So there’s that.

Rajiin continues the pulpy theme that runs through the third season of Star Trek: Enterprise and into the fourth. There is a sense that the writing staff are cutting loose with a collection of decidedly retro science-fiction tropes that they found in the old storage cupboard. The third and fourth seasons have a gonzo energy to them, with elements like the reptile!Xindi and the evil!alien!space!Nazis feeling like ideas that escaped from the types of magazines where Benny Russell used to work.

"Captain, my scans report that she does have Bette Davis eyes."

“Captain, my scans report that she does have Bette Davis eyes.”

At its best, this new storytelling freedom allows the show to cut loose with ideas that would have made Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Voyager blush. The show would never have attempted episodes like Impulse and North Star in its first or second season. Even if the episodes are not flawless, they have an energy and vitality that was sorely lacking in the first two years of the show. It feels like the writing staff are really having fun with the concept, playing with the sort of goofy ideas that they never would have attempted a year or so earlier.

Of course, there is a flip side to that coin. The biggest misfires of the third season are generally rooted in that pulpy storytelling style. Extinction was effectively a “lost race” story that felt like a throwback to colonial narratives about explorers in exotic parts of the world. Rajiin is the story of an alien seductress who our hero rescues from slavery, only to use her womanly wiles to seduce the crew for a sinister purpose.

"Hey, Kirk got to do this all the time!"

“Hey, Kirk got to do this all the time!”

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