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Every “Star Wars: Rise Of Skywalker” Criticism In A Nutshell

Recently, I saw “Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker.” People tried to spoil it for me. People tried to give me reasons not to go see it. I still saw it and I loved it. It was, in my opinion, the best of the sequel trilogy.

Having said that, there’s a reason why I haven’t written about it or done a full review, as I’ve done before. That reason has less to do with why I loved the movie and more to do with all the whining about it by a small, but vocal segment of the fandom. I won’t name names or cite outlets because they don’t deserve the publicity. The most they deserve is pity and a galactic-sized middle finger.

The most I’ll say about this movie is it’s great. It caps off the story. It has so many wonderful moments that are worth celebrating and if you like it, don’t let some asshole tell you you’re flawed because of it. You’re not. You like what you like and others don’t. Some people are just assholes about it.

That said, you’ll find plenty of YouTube videos and articles criticizing this movie to no end. They say a lot without telling you anything of substance. So, as a service to both Star Wars fans and people who are generally opposed to assholes, here’s all their criticism summed up in a single gif.

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You’re welcome and may the Force be with you.

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The “New Mutants” Trailer And Why I’m Rooting For This Movie

Since the conclusion of “Dark Phoenix,” a movie I genuinely love and have re-watched more times than “Avengers Endgame,” it’s been a strange time for X-Men fans. We know that the X-Men are coming to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. With the Disney/Fox merge finalized, it’s only a matter of time before we see mutants pop up in the Marvel universe. It may even come sooner than we think.

Then, there’s “New Mutants.” This movie, which is based on a well-known, critically acclaimed X-Men comic from the 1980s, is a hell of an anomaly. It was originally supposed to come out in April 2018, but got delayed for reasons that are too complicated and stupid for me to put into words.

Delays aside, it has a bold concept. It attempts to mix horror with superhero movies. It’s a unique combination, but one that doesn’t sound that outlandish. Remember, this is the same franchise that made “Deadpool” a Valentine’s Day movie. However, at a time when Marvel Studios has set such a high bar, it almost feels out of place.

Now, with a firm release date of April 3, 2020, it seems like “New Mutants” is still happening. The director, Josh Boone, has been given the opportunity and the blessing by our Disney and Marvel overlords to see his vision through. Honestly, after seeing the latest trailer, I’m rooting for this movie.

It’s not just that this movie is bringing to life more great characters from the X-Men franchise. This movie is attempting to do something that we’ve never seen in the MCU or from DC, for that matter. It’s daring to mix genres in ways they’ve never been mixed. It’s attempting to craft a different kind of superhero movie. Given the success of “Joker,” I’m genuinely rooting for this movie.

I really do hope it succeeds and not just because I’m a die-hard X-Men fan. I think the superhero movie genre needs this. It needs to show that it can expand, evolve, and grow in new ways. Superhero movies don’t just have to be this colorful, big-scale spectacles backed by Disney’s deep pockets. They can be something different, darker, and bolder.

New Mutants” has had a lot of forces working against it. If it succeeds with critics and fans, then it sends a message to Marvel, DC, and the greater powers that be that there’s room for different kinds of superhero movies. They don’t have to follow the same formula. They can succeed in entirely new ways while still strengthening the brand.

If nothing else, it’ll tell the Martin Sorceresses of the world to piss off in the best possible way.

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Filed under movies, superhero comics, superhero movies, X-men

How And Why “No Strings Attached” Became My Favorite Romance Movie

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A few years back, I cited “Crazy/Beautiful,” an underrated cinematic gem from 2001, as my favorite romance movie. That movie, which I feel has aged better than similar movies from previous decades, has a special place in my heart and it always will. It was the first romance movie that I genuinely enjoyed as both a movie and a love story.

However, I’m here to announce that my ranking has recently changed. I still love “Crazy/Beautiful,” but it is no longer my favorite romance movie. That rank now belongs to “No Strings Attached,” the sexy romantic comedy from 2011 starring Ashton Kutcher and future Thor, Natalie Portman. As of this moment, it’s a rank that will be very difficult for any future movie to top.

The premise of “No Strings Attached” and how it became my favorite romance movie is a remarkable story, in and of itself. This is one of those movies I didn’t expect to be so impactful. I ignored it when it initially came out in theaters. The premise sounded generic and it didn’t help that a similar (and inferior) movie called “Friends With Benefits” came out at the same time.

This is even less romantic than it looks.

It’s a common romance trope. Two people decide to eschew traditional dating methods and just stick to sex. They don’t want anything serious. They just want steady, enjoyable sex, minus the complications that relationships bring. It starts off fun and sexy. Then, things get serious when emotion and jealousy enter the picture. Eventually, both characters realize they love each other and that’s the end of that.

It’s not an overly elaborate premise for a love story. I’ve written more than my share of those as an aspiring erotica/romance writer. It can be a great love story when done right. The problem is it’s rarely done right. It’s also painfully predictable. It’s next to impossible to evoke decent drama when the conflicts and resolutions are so obvious. That was what made “Friends With Benefits.”

That was also why it I didn’t bother seeing “No Strings Attached” for years. I thought it seemed too generic. Then, on a whim, I decided to check it out on Hulu. I fully expected to turn it off halfway through once the plot settled into familiar patterns. I freely admit I was dead wrong. I pre-judged this movie and that was a mistake on my part.

By the time the credits rolled, I was smiling from ear-to-ear and shaking my head in disbelief. This movie did something I didn’t expect it to do. I didn’t even think it was possible, given the sheer volume of romance I’ve written and consumed. It struck all the emotional chords it needed to and then some. Most romance movies these days are lucky if they can strike just a few.

To appreciate this, you can’t just look at the movie through its general plot summary. At its core, “No Strings Attached” follows the basic script of two people agreeing to casual sex in lieu of a formal relationship. However, what makes this movie stand out is how it navigates this premise through its two main characters, Emma Kurtzman and Adam Franklin.

Before these two characters ever start having sex, the movie takes time to establish who they are and why they decide to seek such an arrangement. Adam and Emma aren’t just a couple of attractive strangers who cross paths and decide they like casual sex. They’ve actually known each other for years, albeit informally.

The first 10 minutes of the movie are dedicated to showing that they both end up in such a frustrating place in their personal lives. Adam just broke up with his girlfriend, Vanessa. Then, his father, a former TV star, decides to start dating her. Naturally, that leaves him pretty messed up.

Emma’s situation is not much better. Before they reconnect, her father dies and she doesn’t demonstrate the greatest coping skills. Later on, her sister, Katie, is getting married and her coping skills still haven’t improved. Neither she nor Adam are complete wrecks, but they’re trying to navigate difficult personal matters and failing miserably.

These issues have nothing to do with romance, sex, or loneliness. They’re legitimate, relatable issues that real people deal with, even if they’re not as attractive as Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman. That makes their problems and their need for comfort feel genuine. It also makes their pursuit of a more casual, less complicated relationship more understandable.

This is where both the story and the romantic chemistry in “No Strings Attached” gains its endearing appeal. It helps that it’s a very sexy appeal, as well, but that’s only ever secondary, at most. As Adam and Emma pursue their new arrangement, we see that it’s not just fun and sexy. It’s genuinely good for them.

Being together in this unique arrangement helps them in many ways. They’re better able to navigate the other issues in their lives. Some of those issues have to do with work. Adam is trying to make it as a writer on a TV show while Emma is trying to further her career as a doctor. Others are on a more personal front with Adam’s dad being a heavy source of drama.

Whatever the issues, the relationship helps Emma and Adam in ways that are subtle, but noticeable. Being together, even if it isn’t romantic, is genuinely good for them. Even when new stresses enter the picture, they help each other get through it. They get to a point where you can’t help but root for them, both as individuals and as a couple.

That journey to something more serious than casual lovers does happen, but it’s chaotic. Considering how predictable stories about casual lovers tend to be, this is one of the most refreshing parts of “No Strings Attached.” It doesn’t happen all at once. There are even some major setbacks along the way. However, there’s a clear and logical progression with Adam and Emma’s romantic journey.

They start out as casual acquaintances.

Then, they start enjoying each other’s company.

Then, they become friends.

Then, they become lovers.

Then, they start to legitimately care about one another.

Then, they start to develop deeper feelings for one another.

Then, they confront those feelings together.

Finally, they fall in love.

Again, it’s not a smooth transition. There are moments in which the extent of their romantic connection is unclear. What Adam and Emma want from one another seems to fluctuate, which makes them feel very human. While it never comes off as entirely one-sided, it never feels like a bland love story in the mold of a fairy tale.

In addition, “No Strings Attached” also avoids the common trap of making sex seem like this huge complication for real romance. In many other love stories of this nature, sex is often framed as this make-or-break act for a couple. Either having sex destroys the romance or it makes the romance inevitable. It gives the impression that you can’t have sex without falling in love.

Beyond reinforcing harmful notions espoused by repressive purity culture, it undercuts the substance of the romance. It implies that it’s contingent on sex in order to blossom. The romance and the sex in “No Strings Attached” is portrayed with more complexity. One never depends on the other, but they do plenty to complement each other.

Ultimately, great sex isn’t the reason Emma and Adam start to fall in love with one another. It acts more as a catalyst. By being together, they’re not just happier and more sexually satisfied. They become better at navigating the various quirks of their respective lives. That’s basically the epitome of a healthy romance.

More than anything else, the end of the movie clearly establishes that these two people want to be together. Their love is not something they can’t avoid or escape. It’s not bound by destiny and ordained by higher forces. Emma and Adam get together because they choose to.

The love they find is not some burden that provokes jealousy or loneliness. They end up together because they want to be together. Their love works because it’s real, sincere, and genuine. This is what makes the final few minutes of the movie the most cathartic I’ve ever experienced in a romance movie. It was those final minutes that sealed “No Strings Attached” as my new favorite romance movie.

There are many other elements of this movie that I could praise for hours on end. I could probably write an entire book on why this movie worked so much better than “Friends With Benefits.” I’ll save that discussion for another time. For now, I encourage anyone out there with a taste for romance to check this movie out. Give it a chance, like I did. Let me know if it had a similar impact.

I don’t doubt more romance movies will come along and challenge “No Strings Attached” for the title of my favorite. I watch more romance movies than most straight men and it may only be a matter of time before another movie comes along that exceeds both this and “Crazy/Beautiful.” I honestly look forward to that day, but “No Strings Attached” sets the bar pretty damn high.

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Why The “Terminator” Franchise Has Faltered (And How To Revive It)

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Some franchises just aren’t built to last. It’s a sad fact of life. Sometimes, the things we love just cannot grow and blossom. Not every franchise can be like the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In fact, every effort to mirror the success of the MCU has either failed or come up short. For some, it just doesn’t have resources to grow to that extent. In some cases, trying to force a franchise into something it’s not will only hurt it even more.

The latest franchise to learn this the hard way is the “Terminator.” Believe me when I say I take no joy in saying that. I’ve always had a special place in my heart for all things “Terminator.” The original 1984 film was one of the first R-rated movies that my parents let me watch. I remember being scared, but thrilled at the same time. As a kid, that was a major step up from traditional Disney movies.

Then, I saw “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” and the highest of bars was set. Like the first movie, it thrilled and amazed me to no end. At the same time, it struck many emotional chords, especially at the end. I still get choked up to this day when I hear the T-800 tell John, “I know now why you cry, but it is something I can never do.” There’s a good reason why many rank this among the greatest movies of all time.

A big part of what made that movie great was how it completed the story. What began with Sarah Connor’s journey in the first film ended beautifully in the second. It was as complete a story as it could’ve been. To make a sequel after that would’ve been like trying to improve on the Mona Lisa. While the prospect of sequels still interested me, I never got the sense that they could improve on what the first two movies did.

That didn’t stop Hollywood from trying multiple times. While some of those movies had their moments, they never came close to improving on the first two. If anything, each sequel did more and more damage to the franchise. It showed in both the critical reception and the box office. Now, with “Terminator: Dark Fate” an outright flop, the state of this franchise is dire.

Some are already saying it’s dead. I don’t agree with that. It’s in critical condition. That’s for certain. However, I don’t think it’s doomed to the archives of cinematic history. I believe it’s worth taking a step back to understand why the franchise has faltered so badly. I also believe that there is a way to revive it for a new generation.

The reasons the franchise declined are many. Ask a dozen people who love the franchise as much as I do and chances are you’ll get several dozen answers from each of them. They usually boil down to reasons like this.

The ending of “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” was too perfect and final to improve upon.

The sequels muddied and messed up the timeline more than it already was.

The sequels focused too much on action and not enough on the horror of the first movie or the drama of the second.

The sequels didn’t utilize enough of the original cast, relying heavily on the star power of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The sequels undermined or undercut the impact of the first two movies.

The sequels were too focused on setting up a trilogy rather than making one solid movie.

The threats in the sequels were too bland and predictable, relying too much on newer Terminators fighting older Terminators.

Personally, I think every one of these reasons has merit, but some have more than others. When I re-watch “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” and compare it to the sequels, I can clearly see the difference from a cinematic and storytelling standpoint. That movie was made to complete the story that James Cameron started telling with the first. Every other sequel was made to set up more sequels.

From there, every other issue compounded. The focus of the movies was less about having a genuine impact and more about teasing a future movie. That only works if the first movie is successful and that didn’t happen with any of the sequels after “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.” They attempted to set up a larger story, but nobody cared about that story anymore.

Then, “Terminator: Dark Fate” committed the ultimate sin, in my opinion, when it effectively rendered the first story pointless for the sake of a new one. For me, that ensured that this would be the first Terminator sequel I didn’t see in the theaters. I doubt I’ll even see it when it comes out on cable. What this movie did to John Connors and the over-arching narrative of the franchise just cannot be overlooked.

It’s so bad that I won’t even bother with a spoiler warning. “Terminator: Dark Fate” kills John within the first two minutes of the movie. In one cold, callous sequence, this character who fought so hard with his mother to save the future is rendered pointless. The only difference he made is that the name of the future robot overlords changed. Instead of Skynet, they got Legion. That’s it.

Not Pictured: Anything remotely appealing.

It would be akin to having Thanos come back to life, murder the Avengers, and wipe out half the life in the universe all over again in the first movie after “Avengers: Endgame.” Everything and everyone they fought to save is rendered pointless. Then, that same movie tries to tell a story about a new savior who nobody has any attachment to and will always be defined by being John’s replacement.

There’s nothing about that story that has any appeal, either to a fan of the Terminator franchise or any franchise, for that matter. On top of that, “Terminator: Dark Fate” went heavy on mixing gender politics with the movie. That’s not just an indirect interpretation. The director, Tim Miller, flat out admitted it in interviews before the movie came out.

I don’t want to get too caught up in that aspect of the movie, but I do think it was a contributing factor to the movie’s shortcomings. We’ve seen it happen with other movies before. When a movie is too focused on enduring its female characters pass the Bechdel Test, it rarely puts enough effort into making them likable or endearing. It also obscures the overall plot by making it predictable.

There are many other flaws to highlight in “Terminator: Dark Fate,” as well as plenty more in the movies that came before it. Rather than belabor those, I want to focus on how this franchise rebuilds itself from here. The failures of the sequels have damaged it significantly. There’s no amount of time travel or retroactive changes that can save the story that “Terminator: Dark Fate” tried to set up.

That said, this franchise does have a few things going for it. It’s a known brand that people recognize. When most people hear the word “Terminator,” they usually understand it as a reference to the movies. Even if it’s not as strong a brand as it used to be, it still carries weight and sometimes, that’s all it needs.

The first step to rebuilding it involves ending the futile efforts to build, expand, or somehow improve on the story of Sarah and John Connor. Their story ended perfectly in “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.” Most Terminator fans agree with that and anything that would somehow undermine their legacy is only going to cause more damage.

The next step is to start a new timeline, but one that doesn’t focus on saving the future leader of the resistance or ensuring that Judgement Day occurs. That story has been done to death. For Terminator to succeed, it needs to show that it can do more. In fact, I believe “Terminator: Dark Fate” actually has one sub-plot that might be the key to the franchise’s renewal and survival.

In that movie, the Terminator that killed John, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, secretly built a human life for itself after its mission was completed. It walked around as a human, met a woman with a son from a previous marriage, and formed a family. If the movie had any plot worthy of intrigue, it was this. Sadly, it was poorly developed and mostly rendered pointless by the end.

It’s a concept that might resonate more today than it could have in 1984. When the first Terminator movie came out, machines and robots weren’t that smart. They were defined by how inhuman, cold, and calculating they were. In recent years, that has changed. Movies like “Ex Machina” and “Wall-E” have built compelling stories about robots that have human traits, including emotions.

It’s something that the Terminator franchise has flirted with before. Part of what made the ending of “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” so dramatic and impactful was the emotional attachment that John developed for the T-800. Even the T-800 showed signs that he’d formed a bond. It made that final sacrifice feel so powerful.

Even “Terminator: Genysis” explored the idea. It had another T-800 form a fatherly bond with a young Sarah Connor, so much so that she called him Pops. While the movie didn’t flesh out the concept as much as it could’ve, there were moments that highlighted the extent of this bond. I strongly believed that if this movie had emphasized this concept over making John Connor evil, it would’ve succeeded.

Rather than hint or imply it, I believe a future Terminator movie should go all in on this idea of a killing machine developing emotional attachments to humans. It’s something that is more relevant today than it was in 1984 or 1991. We already interact more intimately with technology and we’ve even given our technology a personality. I say that’s a story that the Terminator can build upon.

Imagine the following scenario.

It’s the distant future. Machines have taken over. Humanity has been all but enslaved. There are only pockets of resistance. To combat this, the central machine intelligence, Skynet, creates Terminators with the sole purpose of killing the remaining humans.

However, humans prove crafty. They outwit and outsmart the early models. In order to become better killers, new Terminators are created that can mimic, study, and process emotions. Ideally, it could infiltrate human resistance camps, earn their trust, and terminate them appropriately. They would be the ultimate killers.

Unfortunately, there’s not enough data. Humans are too scattered, weak, and desperate. Skynet doesn’t have enough data to give these new Terminators the capabilities it needs. It calculates that it would take too long and require too many resources to compile the data in the present. As a result, it decides to send a model back in time before machines took over.

The model’s mission is simple. It must integrate into human society, compile data, preserve it, and transmit it back to Skynet by preserving it within disks. If it’s identity as a machine is uncovered by a human, its primary protocol is to terminate the human.

The first model is sent back. It arrives in a bustling city that would one day be reduced to ruin. It finds clothes, has an identity, and begins integration. However, just as it’s starting to establish itself, a human finds out it’s a machine. Its protocols are activated, but then something unexpected happens. It doesn’t terminate the human.

Instead of fear, the human develops intrigue. It connects with the Terminator. They start to form a bond. Eventually, the Terminator’s systems for mimicking emotions turn into real emotions. It develops a love for humanity and decides to defy Skynet. That decision ripples into the future and Skynet tries to send other Terminators back to destroy it.

As a Terminator fan, I would love to see a movie like this. It could work with a male or female Terminator. It could also work with a male or female protagonist. Like the T-800 in “Terminator: Dark Fate,” it could even become part of a family, giving it something to fight for and protect. Instead of fighting to protect a savior, the Terminator fights to change the fate of both itself and humanity.

This is just my idea, though. I’d love to hear with other Terminator fans think. I’d also love to hear how they would revitalize this franchise. I believe there is room for this franchise in the current cultural landscape. As machines and advanced artificial intelligence continue to progress, I suspect it’ll become even more relevant.

Like Sarah Connor once said, there is no fate, but what we make for ourselves. That applies to our future as a species. It also applies to this franchise.

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Filed under Artificial Intelligence, gender issues, media issues, movies, outrage culture, technology

What “Malcolm In The Middle” And “Joker” Can Teach Us About Deviance

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What makes someone deviant? What turns otherwise normal human beings into the kind of deviants who go onto commit crimes, foster discord, or lash out at the rest of society? These questions are often contemplated by psychologists, police, politicians, and people who just want to live in peace.

The answers aren’t easy, but they often make for compelling movies and TV shows. Some dare to offer answers that are as revealing as they are distressing. That’s part of what made “Joker” such an impactful movie. It’s also what triggered the controversy surrounding its subversive message. I tried to explore that message my review of the movie, but in doing so, I uncovered something surprising.

The themes in “Joker” are more relevant today than they’ve been in years. It makes the case that when people denigrate, marginalize, or ignore those in the lowest rungs of society, they’re going to create the kinds of monsters and supervillains that undermine the current order. Moreover, they deserve the chaos and deviance that these individuals cause.

In “Joker,” Arthur Fleck was a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances and societal denigration. While Gotham City didn’t turn him into the Joker, they put him in a position to make those fateful choices. Nobody tried to help him or give him other options. If anything, the help and options he needed were taken away. It was part of what made his deviance both compelling and understandable.

It reminded me of a famous TV show that made a similar point, albeit one from a very different genre and medium. It dared to make that point decade earlier, long before the current controversies surrounding mass shooters in movie theaters and so-called “incel culture.” That show is “Malcolm In The Middle.”

The two narratives couldn’t be more different. One is an R-rated movie that defies the conventions of the superhero genre and explores the twisted mind of an iconic villain. The other is a prime-time sitcom full of funny, cartoonish antics from a dysfunctional working-class family. One is dark and serious. The other is funny and light-hearted.

Despite those vast differences, they convey very similar messages. They both make the case that a callous, negligent society will create deviant individuals within its most disadvantaged. They also highlight how efforts to push them aside or suppress their deviance will only make things worse.

In “Joker,” it turned Arthur Fleck into an agent of chaos who went onto inspire more chaos in others. The circumstances in “Malcolm In The Middle” were very different and a lot more subtle, but the underlying message was still there.

It’s subtle, but it’s there.

From the first episode of the show to its finale, Malcolm and his family are depicted as both dysfunctional and disadvantaged. In some instances, they’re downright destitute. On many occasions, they deal with crippling debt, dead-end jobs, and arrogant upper-class types who look down on them with disgust. More often than not, Malcolm and his brothers get back at them in their own creative way.

Whatever form the antics take, the show never uses the lower-class status of Malcolm’s family to justify their behavior. Much like “Joker,” it establishes that the characters have agency. They’re dealt a lousy hand, but they still have opportunities to make non-deviant choices. They’re rarely forced into deviant acts. Opportunities arise and they exercise poor judgement, to say the least.

The very least.

Malcolm and his brothers didn’t have to lie about what happened to Dewey’s bike in Season 1, Episode 15. They did it anyways and things only escalated from there when the consequences caught up with them.

Malcom and his brother didn’t have to buy their mother a terrible birthday gift in Season 2, Episode 3. They still did and the end result led to them fighting an army of clowns in one of the show’s most memorable moments.

It’s not just the kids, either. Hal didn’t have to resort to unorthodox tactics when coaching Dewey’s soccer team in Season 3, Episode 16. He still did and things only got messier from there.

Lois didn’t have to force Malcolm to getting a job as terrible as hers in order to teach him a lesson in Season 5, Episode 6. She still did and, in doing so, taught him an entirely different lesson about just how screwed people like them are. It’s a message that even found its way into her memorable speech in the series finale.

It’s an important component of the show’s brilliance and humor. Malcolm and his family are a mess. They’re constantly getting screwed over by circumstances, bad choices, and other people who look down on them. However, they never come off as victims, nor do they carry themselves as such. They have opportunities to become less dysfunction, but often squander them.

Arthur Fleck had chances to become something other than a killer clown. There were a number of instances in “Joker” in which he could’ve gone a different path. He simply chose not to and society didn’t lift a finger to help him. If anything, they took away what little help he got.

Throughout seven seasons in “Malcolm In The Middle,” Malcolm’s family finds themselves in similar situations. One of the best examples is in Season 4, Episode 17, which happened to be the second clip show episode. In that episode, Hal and Lois recount the births of their kids as they prepare for the arrival of another.

In every instance, the births are subject to strange and hilarious circumstances. In one of them, Lois goes into labor in the driveway of their house because Francis locked her out of the car. Then, while she’s writhing in pain from the labor, a jogger passes by. She yells out she’s having a baby, but the jogger just ignores her and congratulates her.

It’s funny, but symptomatic of the family’s lot in life. Nobody goes out of their way for them. Nobody offers to help them. It even happens again a few episodes later in Season 4, Episode 21 when Lois goes into labor with Jamie. Even though someone calls 9-1-1 and an ambulance arrives, they don’t get there until after she gives birth. The EMTs even joke about how they stopped for coffee.

Like Arthur Fleck, the society around Malcolm’s family doesn’t care about them. They even go out of their way to avoid or neglect them. In “Joker,” Arthur is repeatedly victimized by both the system and individuals who go out of their way to harass him. His situation is already bad, but these ordeals only make it worse.

Early in the movie, Arthur does show signs that he’s capable of being a decent person. He tried to make a kid on the bus laugh. He entertained sick children at a hospital. He could’ve been a productive, positive force in society. Then, society started screwing him over and bad choices on his part led him to become a dangerous deviant.

While Malcolm and his family didn’t become as deviant as the Joker, they still did plenty of damage with their antics. At the same time, there were plenty of instances that showed that, as dysfunctional as they were, they could still be good and decent to others when given the chance. They just rarely got those changes and society rarely provided the incentives.

It’s a powerful message with respect to what makes people deviant. Some people are at the mercy of bad circumstances, be they poverty, mental illness, or having an overbearing mother like Lois. They’re still capable of being good, but it’s easier for them to become deviant when society neglects them. That deviance only compounds as a result of poor judgement and bad choices.

Yes, they compound a LOT.

There are plenty of differences between “Joker” and “Malcolm In The Middle.” Whereas “Joker” takes things to the worst possible outcome in the descent towards deviance, “Malcolm In The Middle” manages to maintain a more hopeful outlook. People can still be deviant and dysfunctional, but they can rise above it. The events of the series finale affirm that.

Those differences aside, this movie and this TV show offer lessons and insight into something that all societies must deal with. There will always be a certain level of deviance. There will also be those more inclined to pursue it. It’s just a matter of how to confront it. More than anything else, “Joker” and “Malcolm In The Middle” shows the consequences of confronting it the wrong way.

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Filed under Current Events, human nature, movies, psychology, television, Villains Journey

Why “Joker” Is Brilliant, But Controversial (For The Wrong Reasons)

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Every now and then, a movie comes along that’s brilliant in so many ways, but undermined by the circumstances of its release. In the same way certain movies come along at just the right time to become a cultural phenomenon, others hit theaters with unexpected forces working against them.

When “The Dark Knight” came out in 2008, its timing was perfect. It struck all the right notes from a cinematic, narrative, and cultural perspective. On top of that, Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker went down as one of the greatest displays of acting prowess of all time, and not just for a superhero movie. For many, myself included, Ledger’s version of the Joker will always be the one by which all others are measured.

By contrast, “Joker” couldn’t have been timed worse. The current social, political, and cultural landscape is vulnerable and hypersensitive to every one of the themes it explores. On top of that, the movie explores those things very well, so much so that it warrants being in the same conversation as “The Dark Knight” in terms of how it portrays the Joker.

While Heath Ledger’s Joker is still superior in almost every way, what Joaquin Phoenix accomplished in this movie deserves plenty of praise. At the very least, it helps cleanse the memories of those still cringing at Jared Leto’s rather eccentric take on the character in “Suicide Squad.”

This movie, as well as Phoenix’s performance, comes at a time when taboos about mental health and disturbed lonely men are hot-button topics. On top of that, a string of mass shootings perpetrated by disturbed men, some with disturbing manifestos, has created real-life horror while stoking genuine fears. The story in “Joker” neither avoids nor downplays those issues.

This movie also dares to do something that few beyond Alan More has been able to achieve, which is to give the Joker a backstory. For many lifelong comic fans, especially Batman fans, the very concept of fleshing out this character undermines the core of his appeal. He has always functioned better as a chaotic force of nature rather than a person with a tangible history.

Ever since his creation in 1940, his life and his story have been vague. He has been defined as a perfect counter to Batman’s never-ending crusade. Whereas Batman seeks justice through clear, defined rules, the Joker seeks chaos and laughs at such rules. He can never be too defined, as a character, if he’s to personify that chaos.

Despite these challenges, “Joker” finds a way to tell his story and, like “The Dark Knight” before it, actually manages to make the Joker even more terrifying. Through the character of Arthur Fleck, we see a disturbed mind trapped within an environment that does everything to make his condition worse. Through both unavoidable circumstances and fateful choices, we see this broken mind become something far more dangerous.

It doesn’t happen all at once. There’s no single trigger, like falling into a vat of chemicals. There’s a cumulative effect to Arthur Fleck’s transformation. It’s not always logical or smooth, which comes off as intentional from the beginning. The only constant is that Fleck gets more twisted and unhinged with each escalating event.

This is where Phoenix’s performance really shines. He carries himself with a presence that feels very close to what Ledger captured in “The Dark Knight.” He starts off as simply being mentally ill and struggling with it. However, what he does with his illness and what it does to him turns him into something more than just another disturbed loner.

It’s here where the controversy behind the “Joker” takes hold. I would argue it’s a dumb controversy, but it was serious enough for Aurora, Colorado to cancel screenings of the movie. While it feels like an overreaction, it’s somewhat understandable, given what happened in Aurora in 2012.

If that were the extent of the controversy, then “Joker” would only be a passing concern for most people. Then came the idea the movie celebrates or glorifies “incel culture” through Fleck’s story. While I usually try to be balanced when scrutinizing certain ideas, even if they’re absurd, I can’t do that this time.

Simply put, this part of the controversy is just plain stupid. There’s no better way to say it.

Worrying that this movie might somehow inspire lonely, disturbed men to go on killing sprees is completely without merit. It’s akin to worrying that “Friday the 13th” will inspire anyone who wears a hockey mask to brutally murder camp counselors. Moreover, the absurdity of this controversy undercuts the more substantive messages of this movie.

There is a real message in “Joker” and it has nothing to do with incels, masculinity, or even violence. In this world, Gotham City is the perfect symbol of a grossly flawed society that tries to pretend those flaws can be fixed by staying the course. From the perspective of people like Arthur Fleck, this notion is a complete joke.

Much like our world, there’s a small segment of very rich, very powerful people who benefit the most from this society. The Wayne family is the perfect manifestation of this joke. Even when they carry themselves as responsible, upstanding pillars of the community, they still look down at those who are dissatisfied. On top of that, they think their dissatisfaction is a flaw.

Arthur Fleck is as caught up as anyone in this decaying society. Then, through details I won’t spoil, he starts something that inspires chaos that would make Heath Ledger’s Joker proud. That chaos may or may not be entirely justified, but it’s understandable. In a sense, the Joker is just an extreme manifestation of something that seemed inevitable.

If there is a real controversy with “Joker,” it’s that the wrong issues became controversial. This movie conveys a message to the rich, powerful people who benefit the most from society that things aren’t as rosy as they seem. Those same people who think they know the solutions have no idea what people at the bottom are going through and dismissing them as “clowns” only makes things worse.

We’ve already seen this happen in the real world. The powerful who seek greater power call those who lash out as unimportant or misguided. They think those who protest loudly have nothing of merit to say, which only feels like an excuse to not listen. In that sense, it’s probably not surprising that many media outlets have turned on this movie, albeit for the wrong reasons.

At its core, “Joker” highlights the craziness that compounds craziness. In a world that’s unfair, unjust, and full of lies, how can sane person not be driven insane by their circumstances? Arthur Fleck had more circumstances than most and his mental illness only compounded the situation.

There are times when it’s not entirely clear when the events unfolding are real or vivid delusions. It nicely reflects the uncertain nature of the Joker’s origins, as both the Killing Joke and “The Dark Knight” have previously established. There’s a point in the movie where it becomes unclear where Arthur Fleck truly comes from or whether that name is truly his.

In the end, his name doesn’t matter because once he becomes the Joker, he becomes something more than just a mentally ill loner. For certain people who have seen mentally ill loners commit atrocities in the real world, it sparks real fear. At the same time, “Joker” makes clear that’s the wrong target.

After seeing “Joker,” I feel like I just saw a movie that people are going to be talking about for years to come. It’s a movie that can be interpreted in many ways, which is perfectly befitting of the Joker’s chaotic nature. At the same time, I knew some of those interpretations would be used in the name of an agenda and not in a good way.

In another time, “Joker” would be hailed as a movie worthy of praise on the level of “The Dark Knight.” However, because it came out at a time when people fear the lonely, deranged men more than the society that creates them, it’s not able to have the same impact. It’s still an excellent movie and one that will have a unique place in cinematic history for years to come.

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“Spider-Man: Far From Home” Review: An Amazing Movie With One Spectacular Flaw

spider-man-far-from-home-teaser-poster

In this golden age of superhero movies, Spider-Man occupies a special place. Aside from being one of Stan Lee’s most famous creations, this franchise has undergone many triumphs, failures, scandals, upheavals, and everything in between. No matter where it stands among other franchises, Marvel just isn’t Marvel without Spider-Man.

The first “Spider-Man” movie helped revolutionize the superhero genre alongside “X-Men.” It’s not unreasonable to say that the Marvel Cinematic Universe wouldn’t exist without that first movie. That’s why when Spider-Man entered the MCU with “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” it carried a lot of weight.

With “Spider-Man: Far From Home,” both the standards and the stakes are higher. This movie is coming off the historic success of “Avengers Endgame” and is poised to close out Phase 3 of the MCU. It’s tasked with building on the foundation of its predecessor and dealing with the dramatic aftermath of the battle against Thanos. That’s a tall order for any franchise.

Look at this face and tell me I’m wrong. I dare you.

At the same time, it feels like Spider-Man has to be the franchise to pull this off. Between its special place in the genre and its cast of emerging stars, including the inherently lovable Tom Holland, “Spider-Man: Far From Home” feels like the only movie worthy of such a task. It has everything going for it. The question remains. Does it succeed?

In my humble opinion, I say it does, but not without some major flaws.

In terms of the big picture, “Spider-Man: Far From Home” is a quality Spider-Man movie that checks a lot of boxes, both for the franchise and for the MCU. It seamlessly weaves itself into the evolving narrative of the MCU in wake of “Avengers Endgame.” The first five minutes of the movie touch on the lingering aftermath of that climactic battle. It even injects some of that trademark MCU humor into some heavy moments.

On a more personal level, Peter Parker’s story builds upon the drama of Tony Stark’s death in “Avengers Endgame.” Throughout the movie, Iron Man’s presence looms large. Spider-Man is essentially stuck in the shadow of another hero who really affected his journey as a character in “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” It makes for plenty of dramatic moments that guide Peter throughout the story.

In terms of it genre, “Spider-Man: Far From Home” even succeeds in maintaining the increasingly high bar that Marvel Studios has set for its villains. While Jake Gyllenhaal’s Mysterio won’t rank as highly as Josh Brolin’s Thanos, he proves himself a daunting foe who doesn’t just test Spider-Man. He comes very close to breaking him.

I would even go so far as to say that Gyllenhaal’s take on Mysterio is worth the inflated ticket price. He makes “Spider-Man: Far From Home” work on multiple levels. I would argue that he’s the primary reason why the movie succeeds, despite its critical flaws.

Now, this is where I’m probably going to diverge from the those who have given this movie such glowing reviews. I may even upset some of my fellow Marvel fans who recoil at the idea of an MCU movie faltering. However, I believe the flaws are there and are being overshadowed by factors beyond the scope of the movie.

To me, the biggest failure of this movie isn’t in how it tells Spider-Man’s story. It’s in how it develops Peter Parker’s story. The battle between Spider-Man and Mysterio is beautifully developed. It’s what happens when Peter is out of his mask where the story stagnates and it has everything to do with Zendaya’s character, “MJ.”

I put “MJ” in quotes because she is definitively not Mary Jane Watson, Spider-Man’s most famous love interest in the comics and the character that Kirsten Dunst portrayed in the first three Spider-Man movies. That’s not the issue, though. “Spider-Man: Homecoming” established her and Peter’s friends as something very different from the comics. It wouldn’t be the first time the MCU made such changes.

The problem with MJ, Peter, and their shared role in “Spider-Man: Far From Home” is how poorly their romantic sub-plot plays out. It’s not a trivial sub-plot, either. A good chunk of the plot involves Peter following this elaborate plan to tell MJ how he feels about her. On paper, it’s pretty romantic. In practice, it’s a catalyst for too many cringe-worthy moments.

There’s no polite way to say it. The romance between Peter and MJ in this movie is awful. I won’t say it’s as awful as the nonsensical babble we saw between Peter and Gwen in “Amazing Spider-Man,” but it’s pretty close and for the high standards of the MCU, it’s just unacceptable.

While “Spider-Man: Homecoming” did an admirable job of establishing the dynamics between Peter and MJ, it falls incredibly flat in “Spider-Man: Far From Home.” In fact, if you didn’t see “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” Peter’s efforts to get with MJ seem more obsessive than romantic. At one point, he becomes downright vindictive when someone else tries to get with her. It does not reflect well on Peter.

MJ isn’t much better. Zendaya is a great actress, but she comes off as flat and unemotional throughout this movie. Say what you will about Kirsten Dunst’s portrayal of Mary Jane, but she still displayed a wide range of emotions throughout three movies. Zendaya’s tone and facial expressions barely change throughout this movie.

In essence, there’s no real chemistry between Peter and MJ. Given how critical this relationship is for the plot of the movie, that’s not a trivial oversight. It frames their actions and their decisions as something petty and selfish. There’s never a sense that Peter and MJ make each other better. If anything, they’re liabilities to one another.

In both the comics and the previous movies, this is not how the romantic sub-plots play out. While Spider-Man’s relationships have always complicated his efforts to be a better superhero, they ultimately make him stronger. They make his decision more heroic and his triumphs more satisfying. In “Spider-Man: Far From Home,” the romance was more a handicap than a challenge.

Compared to how other romantic sub-plots in the MCU, Peter and MJ’s is by far one of the weakest. It’s established that they’re attracted to one another. That’s the critical first step in any romantic sub-plot. However, “Spider-Man: Far From Home” skips the part where they actually start caring for one another before they develop deeper feelings.

Again, that’s not a trivial oversight. Compare that to other relationships like Starlord and Gamora, Pepper Potts and Iron Man, or even Thor and Jane Foster. It starts with attraction. The characters flirt and tease one another. Then, at some point, that flirting turns into genuine care. They show concern and emotion when they see one another in danger. From there, deeper feelings emerge.

None of that happens with Peter and MJ. Their interactions lack drama, which limits the personal stakes for Spider-Man’s battle against Mysterio. It helps that there are other personal stakes besides MJ that guide this struggle. If anything, those stakes would be a lot more powerful if the sub-plot with MJ were completely removed.

As bad as this romantic sub-plot is, “Spider-Man: Far From Home” still works because so many other elements of the movie are well done. Mysterio is a great villain who really capitalizes on the post-Thanos landscape of the MCU. Peter’s supporting cast, from his teachers to his Aunt May to his best friend Ned, all get a chance to shine. They help give this movie the right impact.

Compared to other Spider-Man movies, “Spider-Man: Far From Home” definitely exceeds the quality of the two “Amazing Spider-Man” movies that came before it. I would also say it’s slightly better than “Spider-Man 3,” albeit barely. If I had to score this movie, I would give it a 6 out of 10. It’s great, but not amazing.

For the MCU, especially after “Avengers Endgame,” the standards for a great superhero movie have never been higher. This movie met many of those standards, but a major flaw in a key sub-plot kept it from exceeding those standards. While I doubt this will hinder the franchise, I believe it’s a flaw that will only get worse if it’s not addressed in the sequels.

If you see the mid-credits scene, then you know what I’m talking about.

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