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‘La La Land’ Is Not Overrated Because You Hate It

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La La Land, starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling and directed by Whiplash director Damien Chazelle, is a clear frontrunner for Best Picture at the Oscars this year, and it will likely win. Weirdly enough, a lot of people across the filmgoing spectrum aren’t very happy about that.

The set up for the movie is deceptively simple: two dreamers living in present-day LA fall in love as they both struggle to accomplish their audacious creative goals. If that sounds a lot like Singin’ in the Rain, then you’re on the same page as the director. But as you watch the actual film, you’ll probably notice more material riffed from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) than anything else.

It’s a contemporary musical, essentially, with original music and some bold homage cinematography, especially toward the film’s vigorous “What if?” epilogue. And though many critics and audiences have gone head over heels for the film, myself included to an extent, there’s been a decisive backlash against the merits of La La Land and whether or not it deserves all the praise it gets.

Yes, people are calling it overrated, and these complaints will absolutely be exacerbated if the film continues to clean up this awards season, already cinching several key Golden Globes this past week.

Overrating is Overrated

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Now, I’ve always been quite open about my stance on calling films “overrated,” in that I think it’s an empty criticism. For the most part, I’m reacting to the fact that I didn’t resonate with a movie that was demonstrably more effective for a wide group of people at a very specific time. That may not “last,” and the film may fade away despite its momentary fame (see films like Crash and Avatar). But that doesn’t invalidate the positive moviegoing experience genuinely had by many…even if some watchers cling to a popular opinion instead of what they they really think, which doesn’t mean a film is overrated. It’s just been overhyped. Propped up on what it represents rather than what it does.

You can make an argument, then, that La La Land is overhyped, but I would also disagree with that, as well. Though the film can be as negatively deconstructed as any other creative property, it’s still incredibly well-realized and well-made. Even if you disagree with some of its core messages and what the script intentionally tried to communicate.

From here on out, this post contains SPOILERS for La La Land

The Subtlety of Homage

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Some of the criticisms of La La Land are definitely valid and meaningful observations. The idea that it might lift a bit too much material from movies like Umbrellas and Singin’ is a worthwhile concern, especially in how the final moments of the film are directly inspired by the former. Simply put, a film’s use of homage has to be backed up by originality and imagination in many other areas, which is where I think La La Land expertly makes up the difference.

See, the music of La La Land, while good, is not intended to be the film’s main hook. Sure, it’s catchy, but as you’ll notice, it’s not amazing. The singing and dancing portions aren’t perfect, and that’s sort of the point. Chazelle set out to present a fantasy movie with dreamy cinematography, noted by the very first scene/musical number, which is a literal dream sequence to kick things off. But a “dreamy” fantastical movie wouldn’t have worked without grounded, motivated characters.

The world of La La Land would have been a pretentious bore (much in the same way it’s wrongfully criticized) if the main leads were allowed flawless performances. The point isn’t to entertain with flashy perfection, but rather with likable showstoppers who suck us in to a believable world, a musical trick that’s a lot harder to pull off if you’re at all familiar with the legacy of Broadway.  La La Land presents a creative solution that might come off as sloppy work otherwise if you’re not already aware of the real talent from Stone and Gosling.

One example is when the two leads sing the reprise of “City of Stars,” and part of the way through, Mia messes up and laughs it off in the song. This one moment goes pretty far to encompass what La La Land is really prioritizing, and it’s not perfection.

Beginning and Ending

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There’s also something to be said about how the film opens and how it ends: with a “Cinemascope” throwback and then a clear lift from Umbrellas, a timeless classic in the same celebratory vein. But this type of homage works because it fits the context of the movie, with aspiring talents who also compare themselves against the past. It makes perfect sense for someone like Sebastian (a movie buff established through his James Dean fixation) to fantasize his career, romance, and the struggle between the two within the backdrop of a familiar dream sequence.

When I first watched La La Land, I admit I was a bit cold from how the film transported Mia and Sebastian to their lives “five years later.” I found it quite convenient that both characters got exactly what they wanted, though the film presents it as a “Yeah, but at what cost?” By the end, both characters have given up their passionate, seasonal romance for their careers, and they seem bittersweet about it. But at first glance, it can be hard to reckon a message that suggests that giving up your love for others is what will lead to the exact success you want. It’s not very realistic, even for such a dreamy movie.

Thinking on this more, I’ve come to accept that La La Land traded its relatable character work in order to hammer the final message home more effectively, in that we would have missed Chazelle’s point if both or even one of the characters fell short of their goals. And the film’s more subtle explanation is that their amazing romance and support of each other is what pushed them through the impossible obstacles that kept them focused on getting what they each want.

Mia confronts Sebastian, for example, when he’s selling out his real dreams for momentary fame. If she hadn’t have done this, then perhaps the ending would have been more “believable” for us. Likewise, if Sebastian hadn’t traveled all the way to Nevada and demonstrated his love in the simple act of remembering even the obscure details of a girlfriend, Mia’s ending would have been the typical “I tried LA and failed” story.

Perhaps the movie makes you work a bit harder to accept all of that, but it hardly detracts from the film as a whole. If anything, it supports the case for La La Land being one of the more rewatch-able films of the year, despite the fact that it’s not even in my top 5, strangely enough. It’s still a movie I applaud, though, and will fondly revisit for years to come.

One last thing…

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One frequent criticism of this movie that I do take umbrage with is the attempt to trivialize this story through a racial lens. That the movie is stuffed with “white entitlement” and “out of touch” elitism from Hollywood, which is supposedly why the movie is being so widely accepted by people in the industry.

My simple response to that is stop. I’m not white and I don’t live in LA, but I do have basic empathy. I can watch a movie with two leads who have harmless (and well-written) motivations that are shared by living breathing people in that very town, and I don’t have to cut down the purpose of this movie because it’s not something I directly relate with. For the same reason I can connect with Chiron in Moonlight through flawless filmmaking and writing, I can follow and hope for the best with Mia and Sebastian.

Is it so bad that Mia wants to become an actress? Should we stop making movies about people dreaming big and suffering to get it because of the connotations of appearance and privilege? Is it so bad that Sebastian wants to preserve music that’s quickly being forgotten, even if it’s not tied to him ethnically? The idea that he’s purported to be a white savior type suggests that his agenda is to “save jazz,” which is a projection of the critic, not something founded in the movie. Sebastian instead wants to celebrate a legacy in his own way, surrounded by others who do it justice and celebrate with him.

It’s just a shame that with a movie as technically impressive and crowd-pleasing as La La Land, we have to assign it so much baggage from other, lesser properties that actually commit these flaws, simply because we recognize a morsel of it and smell blood.

Wrapping Up

Despite my defense of La La Land, it isn’t among my favorite movies of 2016, though it lands in the top 10. It works the whole way through and has some tremendous moments, and I do want to shine a light on the great ideas here, rather than shout it down for its popularity. For many fans of musicals and movies in general, La La Land really is a must-see film.

Grade: A


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For Now, Rey From ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ Is Not A Great Character

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No one can deny that Star Wars: The Force Awakens was a huge win for Lucasfilm and Disney. It delivered on years of cautious hype with a solid movie that made an egregious amount of money for the studio.

Fans loved it. The critics loved it. Even the harshest criticisms lobbed at the movie (like a plot eerily similar to previous Star Wars films) are typically considered nitpicks, not deal breakers.

Warning: this post contains spoilers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens

A lot of this has to do with how TFA pleased both fans of the old movies and fans of what could happen next. Han Solo had a substantial role, along with Chewbacca and Princess Leia. And future movies promise to expand Luke’s story even further. But TFA also unveiled the next generation of Star Wars, and rightly so. Topped off with one character in particular who seems to be on everyone’s mind when talking about their favorite character in the movie: Rey.

Well, who is Rey?

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A lot of the discussion around TFA, which I’ve taken part in quite a bit myself, centers around who Rey really is within the context of the Star Wars mythology. Most people are convinced she just has to be connected to someone we know, whether it be the Skywalkers, Solos, or even Jyn Erso from the upcoming anthology movie, Rogue One. For a lot of fans, it isn’t enough to speculate that she could be wholly new, and that’s mostly because TFA suggests many times through dialogue and specific story moments that this might not be the case. Specifically, Rey touches Luke’s lightsaber and immediately envisions the past and future places connected to the Skywalker relic, even hearing Obi-Wan address her by name.

These secrets are likely to be uncovered in next year’s sequel and beyond, so I want to get away from all the theories (aside from how obvious it seems to me that Supreme Leader Snoke is Ezra from Star Wars Rebels) and settle on just one question about Rey: is she really a great character?

She’s likable, obviously, and we can list off plenty of traits that make her fun and entertaining to watch. But is she a well-written character…or a boring one?

I suspect most people reading this believe the former. And that’s probably because it’s wrong to say Rey is boring. The film’s most thrilling moments certainly revolve around her and how she reacts to various problems around her. She starts off as an incredibly resourceful person and becomes increasingly competent over the course of the film, which is pretty common for a lot of exciting characters we like in all types of stories.

So before we go any further…

What makes a character “great” in the first place?

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Evaluating a character’s quality is definitely subjective, but we can choose acceptable criteria to make a case for why any given character is good or bad. The key is to weigh that criteria against the context of the movie. 007, for example, is supposed to be a character who undergoes very little character change (at least, before the Craig movies), even though we expect most of our protagonists to go on some sort of dramatic, life-changing journey, where the climax involves that character making a personal choice or discovery that wins the day.

For that reason, some people consider 007 to be a weak character who’s still pretty fun to watch, because the movie surrounding him focuses more on how thrilling it is to observe someone competent solving tough problems in an interesting way. Other prominent protagonists, like Bruce Wayne, are considered great characters because they do undergo great character change that connects with their backstory, the antagonist, and how it all comes together in the climax. It’s this cohesion in storytelling that makes for a compelling character, rather than a somewhat average one.

So it is for Rey, from TFA. She undergoes a character change, to be certain, but what holds her back from being a great character is the fact that her motivations, backstory, relationships, and climactic choice are scattered, poorly-defined, and often contradictory, as we’ll get into. Most of these problems are because of the storytelling, of course, not Ridley’s performance or, as it bears repeating:

Not being “boring” doesn’t make a character great.

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From the moment she’s introduced, it’s clear that Rey can take care of herself quite easily, and she’s naturally talented at a lot of relevant things that become natural obstacles as the movie goes on. It’s not boring because we enjoy watching a well-rounded character solve problems that reference their backstory, which TFA pulls off pretty early on. For example, she figures out how to fly the Millennium Falcon rather quickly and even fixes things Han Solo can’t, not just because the plot demands it, but because she’s spent her life scavenging old ships on Jakku and presumably knows how they work.

The same applies to a lot of skills Rey picks up over the movie. She becomes adept at using complicated Force moves without any training, and that includes the mind trick, resisting Kylo’s influence, and summoning the lightsaber out of the snow. In fact, there’s little reason to believe she’s actually observed anyone doing the things she learns how to do on her own. She’s just good at it because…she’s good at it.

And that’s not a bad thing. Not all by itself.

We can reason why she’s good at fighting, certainly, and how she manages to just barely defeat an injured Kylo Ren (even though she was losing for most of the fight). And like other movies with equally tough characters like Furiosa from Mad Max, the movie doesn’t spend time trying to explain why Rey is capable. You accept it because the main character of a movie should be unrealistically talented. It would be a bore, otherwise.

Why Rey is Rey.

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It’s probably safe to say that Rey is the way she is because Lawrence Kasdan wanted her to differ greatly from Luke Skywalker, a noticeably more whiny and doe-eyed character by comparison. In the original trilogy, Luke struggled a lot on his path to becoming a Jedi. In the first film, he only has one meaningful encounter with the Force, and it’s the climax of the movie. He famously turns off the targeting computer and finally trusts in the Force to destroy the Death Star. It’s a great moment because it’s the end result of a character journey that started with a simple fascination in something mysterious.

Kasdan went another route with Rey in order to shake things up, but I’m not sure if it’s quite as well thought out, as much as I appreciate the intent. Rey is an awesome role model for kids because she’s strong, bold, and unrestrained by outdated gender stereotypes (which the movie goes out of its way to address, perhaps for the sake of the audience).

She makes for a good audience surrogate, same as Luke, because she’s spent so much of her life away from the current events of the Star Wars universe, though the movie doesn’t treat her as a fish-out-of-water type who spends most of the movie discovering new things and asking questions.

Unfortunately, though, Rey is mostly a character of don’tsAs if the writers crafted her in a reactionary way, not a thoughtful one, obsessed with ensuring she wasn’t just another Luke, just another cliche, or just another helpless “chosen one” who relies on others until the very last moment. This isn’t a criticism, necessarily, but it can explain why some people walk away from her character feeling somewhat cold, even though they like the idea of Rey and what she truly represents for the future of Star Wars (someone different and full of potential).

But there’s another major problem.

Rey is too incomplete, and she shouldn’t be.

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It’s hard for me to admit this, but there’s not much substance to Rey’s journey as a scavenger turned would-be Padawan. Her character change amounts to the secrets of her past that prevent her from wanting to fully commit to adventure with newfound family. This would make for a great story if these secrets were at least somewhat teased to let us understand why Rey was abandoned, or why she’s so eager to reconnect with the people of her past, rather than feel the appropriate resentment for them.

Instead of these types of revelations, TFA relies on references from previous movies and hints of what’s to come in order to fill in the blanks, and Rey’s story gets somewhat lost in the shuffle of supporting characters and cameos, which is dangerous for your lead character. At no point do we understand why she has affection for her family because she never really talks about them, and the movie doesn’t either. It’s a hollow motivation, as a result, especially since Rey is supposed to be our eyes and ears throughout the movie, at least when Finn isn’t.

And all of this is hurt by the fact that we already have to make guesses for why Rey is a good person, too, because her circumstances suggest she shouldn’t be quite so righteous. The obvious answer seems to be that she does remember life before being dropped on Jakku, which is a life that might have been full of love and warmth that shaped her. We need that context to understand the character now, but it was set aside for franchise purposes, and we instead had to focus on the growing excellence of Rey in the present.

Again, it’s just fine for a lead character of any movie to be unrealistically exceptional. Harry Potter is a good example of this, but mostly because that story centers around Potter’s unwillingness to be noted as extraordinary, due to the pain of that fame being associated with the loss of his parents. Rey puts on a tough front, in comparison, and we never get that moment of vulnerability aside from flashbacks that briefly display a snapshot of how she was abandoned, with nothing close to an explanation or exploration of these ideas.

Back to Harry Potter, it was good for those books to not tell us everything all at once, but at least in that story, we understood the basics: Harry Potter is the boy who lived, famous for ending Voldemort’s rise to power. There’s nothing comparable to that in TFA, aside from the overt: the Force has awakened through Rey for unknown reasons.

Come on, not even short stories are that thin.

With Rey, we only know that she was abandoned as a child and is somehow a “Force” of nature. Characters briefly suggest that they know who she is or question who she is, but nothing is made of her place in the universe, which I think is a misguided plan. The filmmakers want us to endlessly speculate and come up with theories, but the end result is that none of these theories feel right. Because we have very little information to go on.

Rey will probably be a “great” character later. Maybe.

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This is probably enough for some fans, but not for me. I like Rey because of Daisy Ridley’s performance, her iconic look, and how different she seems. But I can’t say she’s a well-written character because there’s just too much lacking for the sake of teasing future movies. If it takes a sequel to change my mind on this, then that’s a tragedy of storytelling.

We didn’t need three movies to relate with Luke Skywalker or understand his motivations. Yes, he evolved over the trilogy, but in one movie, we were able to wrap our heads around his values and the stakes of this universe. There was already an ultimate antagonist tied to his journey, as well—a seemingly insurmountable danger that he needed to face one day. TFA holds back a lot of these details, like what the First Order really is and the relationship between Rey, the Resistance, the Republic, and so on.

The sad thing is that it only takes a basic shuffling of information to get Rey’s arc on the right track. Unlike Luke, Rey appears to have had a more isolated and less loving childhood, which is why she doesn’t trust easily in the first act, at least for a time. This entire character trait is eventually dropped as the movie brings her together with Finn, Han Solo, and Chewie, whom she forms quick bonds with (more on that, later).

Going even further, it’s strange that Kylo trying to probe her mind doesn’t seem to evoke true bitterness from her, even though it’s a clear violation of her independent personality. The movie instead sets up dramatic weight by killing off Han Solo right in front of her, which is undercut by her initial reaction to run away again (a smart move, nonetheless).

Rey is flawed, but the movie forgets that.

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I’m convinced that a movie can be great when the main character starts off capable and only gets better. But they need relevant character flaws to make the journey interesting and believable. Rey’s flaws are purely superficial and reactionary, saved only by a fluid performance from Ridley. She shows genuine fear during dangerous situations, and there’s clear self-doubt on her face as she gets to know the galaxy and eventually runs away from her destiny (the Force).

In short, she’s definitely reckless, and the odd thing is that movie rewards this flaw more often than it brings upon real consequences (like when she tries to help Han and accidentally frees the Rathtars, which ends up working better than her initial plan). When Rey acts before thinking, it almost always works out for her, save for when Kylo initially knocks her out in the ending forest scene, before she acts recklessly again and starts to fight him. And she uses this flaw to ultimately beat him, going after him without any meditation or introspection, just her own willingness to exude the Force.

The problem is that flaws like these only work when they run counter to a character’s key strengths. Otherwise, it feels like the character is unrealistically protected by the writers, when they should instead come off as vulnerable with room to grow. In the case of Rey’s recklessness, they’re one in the same because she benefits a lot from acting without thinking throughout the movie, so the climax doesn’t present any sort of personal challenge for her to grapple with. Fortunately, this isn’t the only major flaw we see with Rey. The other more prominent one is her loneliness.

Rey grew up alone and had to fight for everything she has, living day-to-day in a merciless existence. We like her because she’s still very human after all this, showing she has an innate righteousness, down to when she decides to help BB-8, rather than sell him off for food. But this pivotal moment (Rey choosing to help people) isn’t rounded out well by her flaw of feeling lonely and wanting to reconnect with her true family. It’s really only the beginning of an interesting character arc that the movie forgets about, or at the very least decides to put off until the sequel.

Specifically, she contradicts her flaw of loneliness constantly throughout the movie, because she’s quick to help others in lieu of remaining on Jakku to wait for her family. There’s a conflict, certainly, between the attachment she has for her new friends and the unseen family she sometimes references. There’s no “turning off the targeting computer” moment for Rey because she never really makes this choice in earnest. She’s captured and eventually tries to run away again, only to get hunted by Kylo before ultimately defeating him. There’s no personal challenge she has to overcome, aside from embracing the Force, which she had already done well before the battle with Kylo.

The main point, though, is that despite the fact that Rey has interesting, even intriguing character flaws, the movie fails to serve up a story that actually puts them to the test against the things she’s good at. There’s a kernel of a rounded out character here, where her independence should clash with her decision to rely on others, including the Force, but we see too much of the opposite occurring as well.

The fact is, Rey’s character doesn’t make much sense.

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It’s these exact contradictions that makes Rey seem less compelling than she should. Ditching the base instead of getting revenge for Han’s death lines up nicely with the Rey we met in the first act, who looks out for herself first and foremost. But the entire middle of the movie sets her up as someone who wants to help and make sacrifices, especially against her own interests, until an encounter with the lightsaber convinces her to run off yet again, because all of a sudden she wants no part of what’s happening…even though right before that, she pleads with Finn to help the Resistance, rather than flee.

If the movie was following an intelligent trajectory, then this would mean Rey’s final test would be to stand up to Kylo instead of running way, which the movie almost does, but actually too late. She and Finn flee into the forest, until Kylo finds them. Then Rey stands up to him, calling him a murderer for killing his own father. She tries to fight with a blaster, but Kylo stops her easily. Then she stands up to him again to save Finn, only this time using the Force.

This is the problem. The movie wants Rey to have the same “turn off the trajectory computer” moment that Luke Skywalker has in A New Hope, even though this character development doesn’t fit in with the rest of the movie. The only moment she hesitates to use the Force is when she touches Luke’s lightsaber, but it’s not established why she’d be averse to using the Force at all (only speculation). Then it “awakens” in her, and she uses it with full confidence and without hesitation. So her grabbing the lightsaber in the forest falls completely flat as a dramatic moment (just a “cool” one), and it’s a result of intertextual plotting instead of meaningful character writing.

Her victory over Kylo should have been a battle of willpower, because that is how their characters were set up over the course of the film, with Kylo having the training, but none of the mental discipline, while Rey has the exact opposite. She should have won by outsmarting him, because that would have been surprising and developed from previous learning. There’s even an entire scene that shows just how much more competent she is than him mentally, but the movie tries to posit that she wins simply because of a stronger connection the Force, which is an unnecessary and yes, boring, path to victory.

And all of this can be so easily fixed that it’s painful to point any of it out. For example, when Rey performs the mind trick on the stormtrooper, it would be far more dramatic and compelling if she sensed it might be wrong for her to do this, as someone who detests being controlled and manipulated might hate the idea of using the Force. That would certainly set up why she would hesitate to use it as a weapon at all, until finally accepting who she is in order to save Finn and eventually seek out Luke.

Instead, Rey jumps at the chance to use the Force to get inside someone’s head so she can escape, and it makes for weak character development and a missed opportunity based on what’s already present in the script. In fact, it’s really just confusing because there’s no mention of this ability throughout the movie to create context for how Rey knows what the mind trick even is. The movie simply has her fail two times and then get it exactly right (a running theme in the movie), though to the film’s credit, they masked this well by subverting the scene into something humorous.

Wrapping Up

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I don’t hate this movie, and I certainly don’t hate any these characters (some of them being far worse than Rey for similar reasons). But Rey is too cool a character concept for such a lopsided script.

Abrams has always been great at concepting characters that people like and want to get behind, but he’s often struggled at setting up believable paths for them to go on (see Lost). I have to believe that the fascination we have for Rey—especially concerning those final moments between her and Luke—have more to do with empty cliffhanger teasing and less to do with a natural evolution of a truly great character.

Is she a good character? I certainly think there’s room to suggest that based on the various positives noted above. And it’s off-base to call her a bad character simply for not being close to perfect. But the incomplete nature of her arc leads me to believe she’s inconsistent and incomplete at the moment, which is a travesty. I believe she should be more than great. She should and hopefully will be revolutionary.


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Or just say hello on Twitter: @JonNegroni


Marvel Has Been Successful Because It’s Better at Being Different

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Until the end of the “superhero golden era” finally comes, we won’t be able to analyze the full impact that Marvel Studios has had with its cinematic universe of movies. But even though we don’t have the full picture at our disposal, everyone has their own reasonable guess for how and why Marvel been the dominant superhero movie franchise for nearly a decade, in terms of both critical and fan reception.

Some of the effects of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) are quite obvious, and I think that’s why vague observations about Marvel Studios are tossed around by its naysayers. When you think of shared universe movies — that is, movies that share the same characters and other sandbox elements without being direct sequels — you might feel the urge to groan a bit, especially if you watch and keep up with a lot of different movie franchises that all strive to replicate what Marvel did so well with Iron Man in 2008.

Sony tried to kickstart a Spider-Man shared universe of villains and ultimately failed. Universal has long been planning a shared universe of monster movies, citing they could have the “Avengers” of Dracula, the Frankenstein monster, the Wolfman, and more. Even a Hanna-Barbera cinematic universe is reportedly in the works, planned to kick off with a new Scooby Doo movie. And this year’s Ghostbusters ends with a universe-setting teaser straight out of the ambiguously defined Marvel formula.

Marvel’s most direct rival, and for several obvious, yet key reasons, is DC Comics, which Warner Bros. owns the exclusive rights to. After a hugely successful trilogy of Batman movies, all helmed by Christopher Nolan and universally praised by fans and critics, Warner Bros. took the next logical step toward establishing a shared universe of their own that could do for Wonder Woman and the Flash what Marvel managed for Iron Man and Captain America, just to name a few.

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Remember, just one year after Nolan’s Batman trilogy ended with The Dark Knight Rises, Warner Bros. released Man of Steel, the perfunctory beginning of what was meant to be something completely different compared to anything put out by Marvel Studios.

Except, well, Marvel has already  been “different” by its own standards for years, and it’s found great success doing so, while DC Comics hasn’t. At least not on the same scale.

To be fair, Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice were not financial failures, but they did fail to live up to their profitable potential, making less money domestically than Deadpool, which is based on a character far less popular and recognizable than Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman. And even more recently, Suicide Squad has been panned by critics for sharing a lot of the same flaws of these movies, though it will still open to huge box office numbers, regardless.

What’s odd, then, is that the films have been criticized by many for being too different, using phrases like joyless and dark to color a picture of a movie that doesn’t deliver the same experience viewers got with most of the Marvel movies.

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Supporters of these DC Comics movies have a right to call out this opinion for being intellectually dishonest. Of course a movie like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is different, they say. If it were the same formula as a movie like The Avengers, then critics would complain just as feverishly.

Both sides of this argument have it wrong, then. Because what they both forget is that while there is a bare-bones formula to the Marvel movies that makes them feel cohesive — that is, it’s easy to believe the movies exist in the same universe at all — none of them are all that similar to any of the others in just about every other way, unless the movie is a sequel, and even then, Marvel movies have a habit of changing entire subgenres in between their sequels.

One of the best and most famous examples of Marvel being “different” involves the entirety of what sets up the first Avengers movie, which serendipitously released the same year as The Dark Knight Rises. The very concept of setting up an ensemble superhero film after several standalone pictures that establish the characters was brand new at the time and, more importantly, untested.

Yet The Avengers is the highest-grossing superhero film of all time and was universally acclaimed by moviegoers, which holds up even today.

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It’s fair to judge Marvel for being good at being different based on the fact that people loved The Avengers, despite how risky the structure of it was, and because it provided a sizable return on investment both financially and even culturally, hence we’re even having this debate about superhero movies being different.

What’s even more interesting, though, is the fact that Marvel movies have continued to be different and surprising, even though they have a proven formula they could repeat on end to minimize the risk of failure.

For example, the Marvel films that have truly defied expectations include Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man, arnhich were both proven hits for the studio, despite being completely different from any other Marvel film in tone, structure, and many other crucial elements.

Guardians of the Galaxy is an action comedy set in space, and most of its characters aren’t even human. That’s a far cry from any other comic book film, period, let alone Marvel movies like Iron Man and even Thor. The premise of Ant-Man is absurd enough, despite the movie actually taking place on Earth. Yet it feels so different as a superhero movie because first and foremost, it’s really a heist film with bits of Edgar Wright’s unique editing style thrown in.

marvel better different

The upcoming Doctor Strange, set to release this November, is also a movie that — judging by the marketing and previous knowledge of the character — looks and feels different from previous Marvel offerings, because it seems to be tackling unchartered territory in terms of fantasy elements and dimensional science for the hero of that movie to experience.

These movies, excluding the as of yet unseen Doctor Strange, have been hits with both critics and casual audiences because yes, they’re different. So it’s strange, then, when both critics and naysayers of Marvel movies speak as if this cinematic universe has a firm license on vague storytelling elements, like humor and quipping. There’s a desire for DC to be the other side of the coin, different and more progressive than what might be called a mainstream superhero franchise with Marvel.

The problem with that desire, though, is that Marvel has already been the other side of that coin, and the other side of many coins that they, themselves, have inserted into the zeitgeist of superhero films. They don’t always get it right, of course, and some of their risks have been paid off better than others, but if DC should take notes on being “different” for the sake of surprising and delighting its fans, it should really be paying more attention to Marvel. Not less.

Because being different, while a good start, is not a merit on its own. Fantastic Four was different, which we can all agree on. But that definitely didn’t improve what was inherently flawed with that film. A non-Marvel movie that’s great at being different is Deadpool, made by Fox, proving that a superhero film doesn’t have to be made by Disney in order for it to be beloved by just about everyone old enough to see it.

marvel better different

I still have high hopes for DC Comics moving forward, though not nearly as high as I used to three years ago. But if you’re reading this and feeling a bit alienated because you want DC Comics and Warner Bros. to keep taking risks and producing films with these iconic characters that demand to be different from what we’ve seen before, then you can definitely take solace in one, major thing: The DC Comics movie universe under Geoff Johns — their new Chief Creative Officer and co-developer of The Flash on CW — kicks off next year with Wonder Woman.

And from what we’ve seen so far of that movie, the future could still be quite bright (not dark) for DC Comics.


I’m Jon and thanks for reading this. You can subscribe to my posts by clicking “Follow” in the right sidebar. Or just say hey on Twitter! @JonNegroni

Unopinionated: ‘Birdman’ Was a Good Movie, And That’s OK

birdman unpopular opinion

Every Tuesday, I examine an unpopular opinion in film and argue against it. This week: Why do so many people hate Birdman despite its huge success? 

There are a lot of ways to dislike a film, and sometimes for the worst reasons. So is the case with Birdman, the 2014 dark comedy that won the Academy Award for Best Picture over the likes of Boyhood and Whiplash (my personal favorite film of that year).

The film has been widely praised as a return to greatness for its star, Michael Keaton, as well as the cementing of Alejandro Iñárritu as one of Hollywood’s premiere filmmakers, just as long as he keeps signing Emmanuel Lubezki’s checks.

Like with most movies that achieve high praise among critics, Birdman’s detractors are quite vocal about their distaste for the film’s supposedly undeserved success. And since seeing the film myself in theaters, I’ve been one of those harsher critics.

birdman unpopular opinion

But Birdman isn’t a terrible movie. It’s above average, I would argue, and its resonance with film buffs as a great film, or even a work of art, has plenty of merit for the same reasons all of Iñárritu’s films achieve critical success. Technically speaking, the film is quite masterful.

Birdman centers around an aging actor named Riggan, who once played the superhero, “Birman,” and has yet to find gratification beyond that peak fame he acquired. It’s an obvious parallel to Keaton’s true life, as he of course portrayed Batman in the 1989 Tim Burton film that inspired the majority of that character’s evolution in film, television, and even video games.

To prove he is an actor who transcends the schlock that made him famous, Riggan directs, writes, and stars in a Broadway show adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. The title alone is a clear dig into the type of love that fans heave onto their heroes, and this is played out in a satisfying way as we constantly see people stopping Riggan to take a photo, while he stands there unamused. Even when teenagers admit to not even recognizing him, proving that indifference really is the true opposite of love.

This is a film that makes its audience feel clever for catching these clues and making snide remarks about the current state of the superhero genre. Yet so much of it is loud and on the nose, including a fantastic scene where Riggan tells off a Broadway critic for all of the reasons most of us haven’t even bothered to articulate. In fact, the same criticisms he lobs at her apply nicely to Birdman itself.

birdman unpopular opinion

But is anything within Birdman really all that smart? Viewers don’t have to work hard to grasp the film’s deepest themes, and the camera itself even holds your hand by never violating its one-take structure and giving you a specific sense of where everything is laid out. Optimistically, this is an enjoyable trick that shows off the best of Iñárritu and Lubezki’s ability to enliven even the most mundane sets (some of them being gross to even look at), but for some, it comes off as a magic trick, in that finding out the illusion sort of spoils the fun.

But this is no reason to dismiss Birdman, for the same reason you put up with a brilliant friend who acts pretentious from time to time. There’s value in watching an imperfect character study that allows itself to get swallowed in the creative process, which we see with Riggan and his co-stars as they wander backstage with a never-ending purpose. Though it doesn’t amount to anything reasonably profound in the end, Birdman feels like a film that doesn’t even care about its own ending. It’s a show off in the best way possible.

And Birdman is among a long list of films that tackle the existential crises of fame. It’s just a shame that the unique and crafty questions it brings up aren’t answered in an equally compelling way. Without getting into spoilers, its resolution comes straight from the Hollywood playbook of rushed ex machina, and an ambiguous ending does little to assuage this. But the ride itself is still pretty satisfying as long as you don’t take it too seriously.

Grade: B


I’m Jon and thanks for reading this. You can subscribe to my posts by clicking “Follow” in the right sidebar. Or just say hey on Twitter! @JonNegroni

Unopinionated: ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ Is Better Than What You May Remember

dark knight rises unpopular opinion

Every week, readers send me their unpopular opinions, and on Unopinionated, I explain why they’re unpopular in the first place.

From my inbox: “Sad to see you hating Batman v Superman, when The Dark Knight Rises has to be one of the worst Batman films of all time. That’s not an unpopular opinion, it’s just fact.” – Cheyenne

It’s interesting how quickly some have turned on The Dark Knight Rises (TDKR), a powerfully ambitious film that is quite easy to unpack for various flaws and plot holes that we’ve all come to expect from Christopher Nolan’s brand of filmmaking.

Not that this is an excuse. TDKR is absolutely a flawed movie. Part of that might have to do with how it is justifiably compared to its predecessor, The Dark Knight, which has cemented itself as a lasting future classic within the pantheon of superhero movies (despite the fact that it is far removed from what constitutes a typical superhero film).

dark knight rises unpopular opinion

Expectations were always going to be lopsided with TDKR, so it was surprising to see mostly positive reviews surface as the movie was released. As the years have gone on, however, there’s been a quiet movement to shift the consensus of that film to something much less grandiose than the two Batman films it wrapped up.

And I’m among the fans of this movie who wished for a more cohesive film, structurally. TDKR has not one, but two “rebirth” narratives it forces its Bruce Wayne to endure. Multiple time skips, an overabundance of key players, and some familiar beats from TDR are just a few complaints that weaken the overall product of this film, but they don’t even come close to undercutting how potent this conclusion truly was.

You don’t owe these people any more. You’ve given them everything. – Selina Kyle

What the film does spectacularly is stay on target with what Batman Begins set out to do in the first place (and what TDK carried on so superbly). That is, these movies have always been about holding a mirror up to the deepest fears we have about the post-9/11 millennium — the deconstruction of American capitalism through outside forces, terrorist attacks based in nihilism, and highly invasive government tactics — only to show us how ludicrous it is for us to think that one man can save us all.

Of course, we root for him anyway.

dark knight rises unpopular opinion

TDK played with this direct parallel by pitting the “clean” politician, Harvey Dent, against the vigilante secretly known as Bruce Wayne in a love triangle, of all constructs. By TDKR, audiences are convinced that no one man can save Gotham, but perhaps everyone can unite in righteous fear against a force they don’t understand. This, of course, speaks more relevantly to current events of 2016 even more than 2012, when Barack Obama was poised to win his re-election and the Occupy movement was in full swing.

TDKR makes it clear that violence always has a purpose, whether it’s for the sake of violence as illustrated in TDK, or to be a forced resurrection through the events of Batman Begins. There’s a reason Nolan chose to end this trilogy on the shoulders of the League of Assassins, whose seemingly anarchistic goals are based in some eerily sound logic carried over from the first film.

The film actually begins during a time of peace, eight years after the events of TDK. This peace, of course, is based on the lie that Harvey Dent (and his morals) survived his own death. The white knight was chosen over the dark knight, except the dark knight is the one who made this choice possible.

Speak of the devil and he shall appear. – Bane

Forced into exile, Bruce Wayne has spent this time letting others run the city, and even his company, believing once and for all that the city no longer needs a “Batman.” Meanwhile, a new threat named Bane has set a plan into motion that couldn’t be more ambitious: an actual takeover of Gotham City, effectively making it the hostage of a rogue network of fascist mercenaries.

dark knight rises unpopular opinion

Three new faces enter Wayne’s life as this plan takes off, and they couldn’t be more dissimilar. A young cop named John Blake represents the faith Wayne once had in the Batman role. Miranda Tate, a board member of Wayne Enterprises, helps Wayne enact a new plan to create sustainable and clean energy for Gotham. And the wildcard is Selina Kyle, a thief who shifts between wanting to save the world or giving up to profit off of the chaos.

A good part of the film is used exploring what these new characters mean to Bruce Wayne as he embarks on a war against Bane, but also against his own uncertainty and entanglement with the darkness that he hasn’t been able to shake since the Joker came around.

I don’t know why you took the fall for Dent’s murder, but I’m still a believer in the Batman. – John Blake

But it’s truly the more established cast that helps make the spectacle of TDKR worth caring about. Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, and Morgan Freeman all return to reprise their roles as a shade of Bruce Wayne’s standalone mentor. And Christian Bale himself delivers a more compelling, pain-stricken Wayne than even the TDK, but mostly because that movie did the work to set him up.

Dark Knight Rises unpopular opinion

And that’s the biggest advantage TDKR has, and it’s what helps it overcome its various shortcomings. The film is improved by what came before it, and it also improves them, as well. While franchise blockbusters like The Avengers are to be commended for their commitment to world-building, TDKR is to be celebrated for how complete its story is across its three offerings.

Nolan does a splendid job balancing energetic set pieces (the opening hijack scene is a highlight) with what would descend into mindless fantasy, otherwise. And they save TDKR from being devoid of any fun or awe considering how lacking this film actually is of Batman himself.

A hero can be anyone. Even a man doing something as simple and reassuring as putting a coat around a young boy’s shoulders to let him know that the world hadn’t ended. – Batman

But when viewed as a continuation, not a standalone film, these flaws suddenly become less entrenched with the film itself. From start to finish, TDKR works more as an honorable resolution, rather than a climactic high achieved by TDK. Perhaps we wanted something more groundbreaking, or even faithful to the comics that founded this character and how his story ends in our own imaginations. Our expectations aside, TDKR still delivers something that makes sense within itself.

Grade: B+


Do you have an unpopular opinion you want challenged? Let me know in the comments and I’ll take it on in a future Unopinionated article. Or you can email nowconspiring@gmail.com

I’m Jon and thanks for reading this. You can subscribe to my posts by clicking “Follow” in the right sidebar. Or just say hey on Twitter! @JonNegroni

65 Things That Are Just Plain Wrong in ‘Batman v Superman’

batman v superman wrong

Batman v Superman: esertawn of Justice has to be one of the most polarizing movies of the last decade. Not since Interstellar or Man of Steel have I seen a movie so hotly debated. A movie that is as as fiercely defended as it is savagely ripped apart.

I happen to be in the camp of people who despise BvS, and for no shortage of reasons. So many, in fact, this week’s Unopinionated tackles one-half of an unpopular opinion. The opinion, of course, is that the movie is a “masterpiece” and one of the best superhero movies of all time.

Go on…65 Things That Are Just Plain Wrong in ‘Batman v Superman’

Unopinionated: ‘Man of Steel’ Isn’t the Superman Movie We Asked For

esman of steel unpopular opinion

Every week, readers send me their unpopular opinions, and on Unopinionated, I explain why they’re unpopular in the first place.

From my inbox: “Man of Steel is a lot better than people give it credit for. In fact, it’s pretty much flawless.” – Shadan

The first “can’t put my finger on it” issue with Man of Steel is its identity crisis. Is it a space opera or a superhero movie? While some of the best superhero movies attempt to mix genres (the spy thriller undertones of Captain America: The Winter Soldier are a fine example), Man of Steel fails to commit fully to its aesthetic, bouncing themes and ideas around without any sort of thread that connects them.

Make a better world than ours, Kal. – Lara Lor-Van

This is partly because Man of Steel spends most of its long running time explaining what Kryptonians are, rather than who they are. And this of course carries over to Superman himself, who is so embedded in mainstream culture at this point that any sort of follow up has to sell him in a unique way in order to be effective.

The structure is overtly reminiscent of Batman Begins, and for good reason. Nolan’s 2005 rebirth of the Batman film franchise led to WB’s critical and financial smash hit, The Dark Knight, oft cited as the best superhero movie of all time. It makes sense that the studio would want to retell Superman’s origins with the same kind of flashback-focused narrative that combines backstory with the drama of the hero’s first journey.

In Batman Begins, however, there’s a clear vision that unites these flashbacks with present day, mostly because Christopher Nolan had creative authority. In Man of Steel, which was helmed by Zack Snyder, it’s clear that some parts of the film had separate influences. To put it bluntly, it’s jarring to jump from a Zack Snyder sci-fi movie to a Christopher Nolan origin story (with some vague Dragonball Z aesthetics thrown in during the final act).

man of steel unpopular opinion

Henry Cavill as Clark Kent is a double-edged sword of satisfaction. He absolutely looks the part, and his early wanderings in the movie are a highlight. Watching him show restraint in the face of overwhelming opposition (only to sacrifice the mystery in order to be a hero) is both a clever and unique way to make sense out of why he wants to be Superman in the first place.

Aside from this, Clark Kent is a character with very little to do, and even fewer critical decisions to make (which is why it feels bizarre when he does finally do something surprising). Instead, he merely reacts to everything around him as he scrambles from plot point to plot point. True, the script tries to add depth to his character with carefully worded interactions between him and the supporting cast, but they’re offset by impossibly moronic character decisions, notably with Jonathan Kent’s guidance and ultimate sacrifice that makes very little sense constructively.

People are afraid of what they don’t understand. – Jonathan Kent

Clark Kent is presented as a blank character who has more symbolism thrust upon him than any of the humanity (or Kryptonianity) that would make such symbolism feel substantial. Before the movie has a chance to actually go somewhere with Clark’s future and motivations, an all-out brawl erupts that monopolizes the final act, undercutting most of the thought-provoking ideas that would have justified the movie’s exposition. By the time the end credits start rolling, the audience is left with a titular character who is actually quite boring.

man of steel

Some of this could have been forgivable if Man of Steel had better handled its Lois Lane, which is likely the levity-filled saving grace of the first few Superman films. Unfortunately, the chemistry between Amy Adams’ Lois and Cavill’s Superman stumbles around in order to feel a little less forced than it deserves. The characters exchange few lines before major reveals (and out-of-context romance) take place, which could have been a novel idea if the film had offered more weight to these crucial moments.

Despite all of this, Man of Steel is not a terrible movie. In fact, it succeeds in many ways that its predecessors fell short. It gracefully omits typical Superman lore (Lex Luthor, kryptonite, etc.) in order to put attention on a unique narrative, complete with an awe-inspiring reimagining of Krypton. The action scenes are certainly eye-catching, discounting the egregious IHOP product placement and overly extended set pieces.

But overall, much of what Man of Steel offers in terms of themes, characters, and plot simply doesn’t mix with the established mythos of Superman. This wouldn’t be a problem, of course, if the movie wasn’t trying to tackle the most recognizable superhero of all time.

Hi, Lois Lane. Welcome to The Planet. – Lois

A gritty, more realistic take on Batman made sense because the character himself is already  somewhat grounded, making his internal struggle as endearing as it is believable. To replicate this, Snyder doubled down on how Superman is essentially Earth’s “messiah,” an enduring (and obvious) interpretation of the source material. The problem is that this isn’t what people actually love about the character, despite how fundamental the Jesus story is to Clark Kent. What people love about Superman lies elsewhere, far removed from a 33-year old Superman posing on a figurative cross in outer space. That kind of Superman is, for lack of a word already mentioned in this review, boring.

Simply put, Snyder’s Superman is a messiah, a son, a hero, and a wanderer. But strangely enough, he’s never a character. Not an interesting one, at least. And that’s all anyone was asking for.

Grade: C


Do you have an unpopular opinion you want challenged? Let me know in the comments and I’ll take it on in a future Unopinionated article. Or you can email nowconspiring@gmail.com

I’m Jon and thanks for reading this. You can subscribe to my posts by clicking “Follow” in the right sidebar. Or just say hey on Twitter! @JonNegroni

 

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