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New Escapist Column! On “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” and Superman as an Inspiration…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist this evening. With the release of Zack Snyder’s Justice League last week, it seemed like a good opportunity to dig into the movie’s portrayal of Superman.

Snyder’s portrayal of Superman has always been controversial among more hardcore fans of the character, particularly in Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. There are those who claim that Snyder misunderstands the Man of Steel, and that his films fail to grasp the most compelling aspect of his character. Instead, Zack Snyder’s Justice League offers a fascinating and rounded view of the superhero, one not defined by nostalgia for past iterations – but instead by hope for the generations inspired by him.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

226. Zack Snyder’s Justice League (#86)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with special guest Graham Day, The 250 is a fortnightly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users.

This time, Zack Snyder’s Zack Snyder’s Justice League.

Following the death of Superman, Batman sets about putting together a team of superheroes to fight a threat that is charging at Earth from across the cosmos.

At time of recording, it was ranked the 86th best movie of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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New Escapist Column! On the Horror of Joss Whedon’s “Justice League”…

I published a new column at The Escapist this evening. With the release of Zack Snyder’s Justice League this week, it seemed like an appropriate opportunity to take a look at the original theatrical cut of Justice League, which remains one of the worst blockbusters of the past decade.

What makes the theatrical cut of Justice League such an insidious film isn’t just what it is, although it is terrible on its own terms. It’s what the film represents. It’s a very conscious and very deliberate erasure of a distinct vision of an expensive creative project, in the hope of serving reheated nostalgic leftovers that fans might gorge themselves upon. It’s pure, empty, vacuous content – a pale imitation of what other companies do better, without a single unique perspective of its own.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

New Escapist Column! On the “Superman II” as the Rosetta Stone of Zack Snyder’s DCEU…

I published a new column at The Escapist this evening. With the release of Zack Snyder’s Justice League this week, it seemed like an appropriate opportunity to take a look at the strange and enduring influence of Superman II on the DCEU, from Man of Steel forward.

Superman II is one of the cornerstones of the superhero genre. It was the first big superhero blockbuster sequel, setting the stage for the franchises that would follow. It was the first depiction of the urban devastation that has become a fixture of the modern superhero spectacle. However, what makes movies like Man of Steel and Zack Snyder’s Justice League so interesting is the extent to which they interrogate and explore the fantasy presented in Superman II.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

New Escapist Column! On How “Superman and Lois” Finds Superman Saving Smallville…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist this evening. Given the premiere of Superman and Lois this week, it seemed like a good time to take a look at the new show, and the new spin that it puts on the classic Superman mythos.

Smallville has always been an essential part of Superman’s backstory, even before it was named as such. When Superman was created, it made sense to bring some rural values into anonymous and hostile cities, with Superman importing many of the progressive ideas that he inherited from his adopted parents to the crime- and depression-ridden American cities. However, times have changed. Superman and Lois finds Clark returning to a version of Smallville that is at once unrecognisable and familiar. Superman and Lois shrewdly reverse’s the character’s classic journey.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

New Escapist Column! On Versatility and Adaptability as Batman’s True Superpowers…

I published a new In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine this evening. It’s been a busy couple of weeks with actors talking about the role of Batman. Val Kilmer discussed it in a long-form interview with The New York Times and Robert Pattinson brought it up in his GQ quarantine profile.

Kilmer argued that the actor playing Batman was unimportant in irrelevant, which is both true in the general case and false in this specific situation. In a general sense, Hollywood is moving away from movie stars and towards intellectual property. However, Batman remains one of the few established brands that is flexible enough to allow a unique approach shine through; Adam West, Kevin Conroy, Michael Keaton, Christian Bale, Will Arnett and Ben Affleck have all offered distinctive takes on the Caped Crusader, each finding a different window to explore the cultural icon.

There is no single “right” interpretation of Batman, and this has contributed to the character’s ubiquity and endurance. Indeed, it’s arguable that Superman has struggled to remain relevant precisely because he doesn’t have that same flexibility. Superman remains largely stuck in a template defined by the Richard Donner movies, unable to escape their gravity and the pull of the nostalgia around them. Batman can be anything that he needs to be – and that is why he remains as popular as ever.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

Non-Review Review: Brightburn

Brightburn is effectively an elevator pitch movie. It’s a heady cocktail combining Man of Steel, The Omen and We Need to Talk About Kevin into a single ninety-minute movie.

Brightburn often feels more like a sketch extended to feature length rather than a movie of itself. Its characterisation is light, its worldbuilding is shallow, its premise is not so much developed as directly stated. With the notable exception of Elizabeth Banks, who largely anchors the film in emotional terms, the performances are largely blank and generic. This is especially true of Jackson A. Dunn, who is cast in the title role. There is something very threadbare about Brightburn, as if the film is operating on nothing more than its fairly simple premise.

Red eyes at night…

Oddly enough, this all serves to make Brightburn more effective than it might otherwise be. Brightburn is a single-minded film, arguably powered entirely by its own high concept. That high concept is ingenious, and enough to sustain the film across the entirety of its ninety-minute runtime. Brightburn feels relatively light, but that is almost by design. There is little ambiguity about what it is doing, and why it is doing it. There is no clutter, no distraction, no wondering attention. Brightburn is little more than its central narrative engine, but that engine is a powerful and compelling force.

Brightburn is not a subtle film. It has all the nuance of its title character, smashing through wood as though it were wet cardboard. Somehow, that lack of subtlety makes it all the more effective.

Holy Moses.

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Non-Review Review: Batman vs. Superman – Dawn of Justice

Batman vs. Superman is a curiosity, a fascinating mess of a film that doesn’t really work but which constantly teases its audience with the idea that it might work in a variety of intriguing way.

Batman vs. Superman is certainly ambitious. Although the story about a persecuted alien immigrant obviously comes with no small amount of political subtext that feels applicable at a time of resurgent nationalist sentiment, the most remarkable thing about Batman vs. Superman is the way that the script is very consciously and awkwardly attempting to get at bigger underlying themes. Whereas Christopher Nolan tailored his impressive Batman trilogy for the realities of twenty-first century America, Batman vs. Superman is attempting something greater.

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Of course, what it is actually attempting is hugely contradictory. It occasionally seems like director Zack Snyder is working at cross purposes with writers Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer. Appropriately enough for a director who recently announced plans to adapt The Fountainhead, Snyder is trying to construct a Randian power fantasy about the moral authority that rests with exceptional people like Superman. In contrast, Terrio and Goyer want to construct a fable about Superman as an embodiment of hope for a sinful Earth.

While Snyder seems at times to wrestle against the script, Terrio and Goyer face their own issues. While Batman vs. Superman is thematically ambitious and philosophically rich, it is also positively abstract in its plotting. Events occur for no reason beyond plot necessity, while character motivation is delivered through dreams and metaphor. Contrivances and illogicalities abound, to the point where any number of plot developments might have easily been avoided if characters simply talked to one another about what exactly they thought was going on in a given moment.

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There are no shortage of issues with Batman vs. Superman, issues so fundamental that it is hard to imagine how an extended cut will do anything but deepen them. There are points at which the movie’s attempts to fashion a pop mythology are so dense as to suggest a required reading list, saturating with knowing references to everything from Lolita to A Streetcar Named Desire to Final Crisis. There is an argument to be made that Batman vs. Superman is not only illogical, but unapologetically (and perhaps unforgivably) pretentious.

And, yet, acknowledging all of these flaws, there is something strangely compelling about the muddled spectacle of it all. There is a sense that Snyder and Terrio and Goyer are really trying to do something in a manner that is bold and ambitious. (Just not necessarily the same things.) As crazy as it sounds – and it sounds crazy – Batman vs. Superman is the result of the same style of Warner Brothers movie-making that led to the infinitely superior Mad Max: Fury Road and The Dark Knight. There is a willingness to let artists take massive risks with significant budgets.

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Warner Brothers has a track record of supporting and encouraging these gambles. Sometimes these gambles pay off. No other major studio would have signed off on Mad Max: Fury Road, to pick an example. Christopher Nolan produced a trilogy of engaged and exciting blockbusters built around a character most had written off in live action. Sometimes this big budget auteur model doesn’t pay off. Say what you might about Cloud Atlas and Man of Steel, but they are indisputably unique and distinct visions of their creative architects.

In its abstraction, its tone and its aesthetic, Batman vs. Superman has the look and feel of a two-hundred-and-fifty million dollar indie feature. It might lack the polish and finesse (and, to be frank, cohesion and internal logic) of other major superhero films. However, it has a weirdly compelling spark and ambition that is lacking from the more standardised model of Marvel Studios blockbuster. The result is deeply unsatisfying, yet strangely compelling.

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Scott Snyder and Jim Lee’s Superman Unchained (Review)

This March sees the release of Batman vs. Superman. To celebrate, we’ll be looking at some iconic and modern Batman and Superman stories over the course of the month.

Superman Unchained is a big deal.

It arrives in the character’s seventy-fifth anniversary year. It is designed to tie into the release of Man of Steel, launching two months after Zack Snyder’s cinematic adaptation. It is also the flagship Superman title, launching three months after Grant Morrison finished up on Action Comics and existing free of the line-wide crossovers haunting the Superman line. It slots comfortably into the niche between the end of Grant Morrison’s Action Comics run in May 2013 and the new direction for Superman dictated by the “DC You” re-branding in June 2015.

Let's get ready to rumble...

Let’s get ready to rumble…

Superman Unchained is also the work of an a-list creative team, written by superstar writer Scott Snyder and illustrated by DC co-publisher Jim Lee. The only higher profile team that DC comics could have assembled would have been to team Jim Lee with Geoff Johns, as they did launching Justice League back in September 2011. In fact, Geoff Johns would do his part to help revitalise the Superman line when he teamed up with John Romita Jr. on the Superman title, marking the artist’s first work non-crossover work at DC.

So Superman Unchained is very much a big deal for the character, and represents a conscious effort by DC to bring Superman to the fore. However, what is most striking about Superman Unchained is how old-fashioned and narratively conservative it seems, particularly when juxtaposed with Grant Morrison and Greg Pak’s work on Action Comics. In a way, this fits with the anniversary branding and the mass market push; this is very much your grandfather’s Superman.

Up in the sky!

Up in the sky!

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Grant Morrison’s Run on Action Comics (Review/Retrospective)

This March sees the release of Batman vs. Superman. To celebrate, we’ll be looking at some iconic and modern Batman and Superman stories over the course of the month.

On paper, Grant Morrison and Rag Morales’ Action Comics should have been a slam dunk.

The title was announced as part of DC’s “new 52” relaunch, a resetting of the comic book giant’s continuity beginning in September 2011. Designed to revitalise the line, shoring up sales numbers and providing a clear point of entry, the “new 52” was clearly intended as a “jumping on” point for new and lapsed comic fans. It was bold and radical, an even greater departure for the company than their reboot following Crisis on Infinite Earths back in 1986. The comic book publisher gave themselves a blank slate.

Wow, he IS more powerful than a locomotive...!

Wow, he IS more powerful than a locomotive…!

In theory, this was a great idea; anything was possible and everything was on the table. In practice, the execution was more muddled; the massive experiment curtailed by a very conservative aesthetic. In many respects, the “new 52” felt like more of the same; familiar mid-tier talent working on familiar mid-tier ideas. The most interesting books were those that dared to do things differently; Scott Snyder inverting Alan Moore’s brilliant twist on Swamp Thing made for iconoclastic reading, as did Brian Azzarello’s ground-up reimagining of Wonder Woman.

In contrast, a lot of the line felt like hedging. Hellblazer was cancelled so that John Constantine could be dragged under the corporate umbrella in Justice League Dark, all in the name of coporate synergy. The Wildstorm characters were ported over into mainstream continuity, in spite of the fact that they were largely redundant or incompatible. Instead of courting either exciting new talent or industry veterans, the company had difficulty drawing top-tier talent. Scott Lobdell and Rob Liefeld were among the relaunch’s heavy hitters.

... And what was that about speeding bullets?

… And what was that about speeding bullets?

To be fair, there were bright spots. But the ideas and concepts that were interesting were frequently hobbled by the demands of the publisher. All-Star Western was diminished by having to tie to Gotham City continuity, while attempts at genre diversity in books like Demon Knights or I, Vampire were under-promoted. Emphasis was placed squarely on monthly print sales numbers, with little patience for books to grow their audiences whether online or through collected editions.

In spite of all the confusion and chaos of the relaunch, Grant Morrison writing Action Comics was the cause of considerable excitement. Morrison was one of few comic book writers who could legitimately be described as a superstar, arguably with a higher profile outside mainstream comics than executives Jim Lee and Geoff Johns. Having Morrison on a monthly book was a big deal, particularly a monthly book as important to the company’s legacy as Action Comics. (Then again, the relaunch also chose to put Tony Daniel on Detective Comics, so there’s that.)

Happily never after...

Happily never after…

More than that, the book represented something of a homecoming for Morrison. Although the character of Superman had struggled with issues of relevance in the twenty-first century, Morrison had been the architect of one of the character’s most beloved stories. All-Star Superman is widely regarded as one of the best Superman stories ever published. Having its author writing a monthly book as part of the relaunch was a big deal. Following high-profile misfires like New Krypton or Grounded, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to put Superman back on the right course.

In many respects, Grant Morrison’s run on Action Comics typifies the sort of push-and-pull at the publisher as part of the relaunch. The great ideas smothered by corporate mandates, the tension between familiarity and novelty, the burden of expectation even while trying to chart a new course. For better or worse, Action Comics could be seen as the flagship of DC’s “new 52” initiative. This seems entirely appropriate, given the title’s historical significance to DC comics.

Running jump...

Running jump…

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