2018: A Noisy Year, and Time for Changes

I’ve been writing the same, tired “Year in Review” article for a few years now. With the exception of one particularly creative dive into Boethius, admittedly a deep track reference if there ever was one, these write ups have been unremarkable and, I confess, lazy.

I’ve been doing this blog for almost seven years now. I don’t think our pop culture discourse has ever been noisier. It also, has never been less creative.

I read the same article about the same movie probably four or five times, every time. The assessment of film has become of an inescapable groupthink, which more often than not settles on analysis that is an inch deep and a mile wide. This problem isn’t unique to film, it’s in writing about television, sports, politics, basically all of journalism. We’re drawn to the hot take, the short article, the snarky humor, the bland repetitive analysis.

So what does this have to do with the state of popular culture in 2018? After all, 2018 was the year that brought us the best superhero movie (Black Panther), the best series finale of a television show (The Americans), Spike Lee’s return to form (Blackkklansman), and Steven Spielberg’s return to blockbusters (Ready Player One). The year’s biggest movie, globally, was the culmination of a massive series of films the likes of which we haven’t seen before (Avengers: Infinity War). These are real achievements, but something about them feels hollow. That isn’t right.

Film is about images. Roger Ebert understood this and repeated it often. What is lacking from the conversation is how those images make us feel. What they mean. In the moment, and more importantly, in the next moment.

Everything isn’t meant to be compared to everything else before it. With so many legacy movies, series, and filmmakers out there, we’ve been obsessed with just that – legacy. Legacy before the ink of history is even dry. This constant comparison makes art disposable. The art isn’t appreciated for what it is, but for how it measures up to other art. This, in case I’m not being clear, is a bad thing.

You could write about Blackkklansman and compare it to Lee’s earlier work, or you can talk about how Lee uses the film as a sledgehammer to shake the audience out of complacency. You could knock Spielberg as overly nostalgic, or you could point out how he uses nostalgia as a tool to reveal the humanity of an artificial world in Ready Player One. Black Panther is many things to many people, but instead of writing about what everyone is talking about, you can look deeper and see how and why Ryan Coogler’s best shot is when Killmonger walks into the throne-room. Ignore the noise – what does art mean to YOU? That is what I’m to endeavor to answer in the future.

That brings me to what’s changing on this page going forward:

1) I’m not writing traditional reviews anymore. See a movie or show, or don’t. I’m going to be writing about my impressions beyond simply answering whether art is good or bad.

2) Historical context needs time to develop. A new rule: a film or series needs to be at least five years old to have its influence discussed, ten to be understood, thirty to be fully appreciated.

3) I’m changing up the format a bit and working on a few other changes. It’s time.

4) I’ll still do Game of Thrones and maybe other Power Rankings, but I’ll be more thoughtful about a character or group’s story in the broader context.

5) I’m going to write about more random topics. I like to do that.

Thanks for sticking with this experiment that I started in 2012. I’ll do my best to continue making it worthwhile.

D.G. McCabe

December 21, 2018

(C) 2018

Captain America: Civil War (Review)

Directed by Joe and Anthony Russo, US, 2016

First thing’s first, Captain America: Civil War is one of the best two or three Marvel Studios films.  It avoids the excesses of the comic book storyline of the same name.  Instead it intensely focuses on questions that should be inherent in the superhero genre.  What happens to the people in those buildings that get smashed?  Or, to blatantly steal a line from a classic graphic novel, who watches the watchmen?

When superheroes fight super-villains, buildings collapse and things blow up.  What is rarely addressed is the human cost of that destruction.  The concept of superhero collateral damage has been addressed before on film a couple of times, both successfully (The Incredibles (2004)) and unsuccessfully (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)).  In Captain America: Civil War, the response to this issue sets up the central conflict in the story.   The world is grateful, really, but has decided that the Avengers need UN oversight so that the destructive consequences of their operations can be more effectively contained.

That seems reasonable, right?  Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) certainly thinks so.  The problem is, what if the powers that be can’t be trusted?  What if they are infiltrated, by I don’t know, Hydra?  What if they are so bureaucratic that they send what could be their greatest fighting asset on a tour to raise money for war bonds instead of asking him to actually fight?  You can see why Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) disagrees with Stark.

Somehow, between setting up who’s on what side and actually having a plot, the movie takes the time to effectively introduce not one, but two key Marvel superheroes.  The first is T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), who just happens to be a warrior called the Black Panther.  He’s also a king.  And a genius.  If that’s not enough fun, your friendly neighborhood Spiderman (Tom Holland) joins in on the action too.

Overall, Captain America: Civil War is a great action movie that asks important questions about the cost of security, the need for oversight, and the destructive power of vengeance.  If you haven’t already, and the box office receipts tell me that most of you have, go check it out.

You might like Captain America: Civil War if: You are interested in a well executed, smart action film that effectively deconstructs some of the recent blockbuster superhero movies.

You might not like Captain America: Civil War if: You can’t stand watching another superhero movie no matter how good it is.

(c) 2016 D.G. McCabe

 

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Guardians of the Galaxy

Directed by James Gunn, U.S., 2014

Superhero movies have gotten a bit too self serious these days.  I suppose one could blame the success of Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” (2008), but Batman is usually presented a dark, humorless figure these days. Nolan was just perfecting the accepted interpretation of the character.  No, the problem isn’t Nolan’s work but rather everyone else trying to copy it.  There was a time, however, when superheros were supposed to be <gasp> fun for all ages and not brooding stand-ins for the anxieties of our times.

Guardians of the Galaxy is not serious in any way whatsoever, and it is a stronger film for it.  It presents to us Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), or Star-Lord as he likes to call himself, a wisecracking, womanizing, thief and scavenger.  After finding a valuable artifact, he is pursued two bounty hunters (Rocket and Groot, voiced by Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel) and an assassin (Gamora, played by Zoe Saldana).  After a street brawl, these four are sent to prison, where they meet the humorless he-man Drax (Dave Bautista).

The plot can be summarized as follows – everyone wants to kill everyone else over the artifact that Quill recovered, but eventually our heroes stop trying to kill each other and start trying to kill the bad guys.  Where both of these ventures are concerned, our heroes are all thumbs.

The sometimes convoluted plot and vast number of characters make it a bit confusing at times, but Guardians of the Galaxy is the ultimate summer popcorn flick.  It’s at once a fun action movie and a goofy farce – superhero film as comedy without trying too hard.

You might like Guardians of the Galaxy if: You’re bored with self-serious superhero fare and looking for something a bit more fun.

You might not like Guardians of the Galaxy if: A space opera with lots of characters and a complicated plot isn’t your cup of tea, even if it is really, really funny.

(c) 2014 D.G. McCabe

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

X-Men: Days of Future Past

Directed by Bryan Singer, U.S., 2014

Sometimes I wish that the creators of some bad movies would create sequels or remakes that would undo all of the damage those bad movies did to their respective franchises.  After all, how many of us have spent more time talking about how the Star Wars prequels could have been better if they just made a few changes?  Or wish the Indiana Jones series only had two movies in it?  Or wish a mad-with-power William Shatner had never made Star Trek V?  Enter X-Men: Days of Future Past.

Like its unfortunately botched predecessor,  2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand (which was loosely – extremely loosely – based on the Dark Phoenix Saga), Days of Future Past is based on a beloved classic X-Men story.  What Last Stand got wrong, Days of Future Past gets mostly right.

Days of Future Past is a sequel to Last Stand, but it is moreso a sequel to the far superior X-Men: First Class (2011).  The future part of “Days of Future Past” is a framing device only, as the future Professor X and Magneto (Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan) send Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back in time.  In the comics, it’s Shadowcat (Ellen Page) that goes back, which makes a lot more sense but hey, gotta have Wolverine as a central character in an X-Men movie!

Anyway, Wolverine has to take a burnt out 1973 Professor X (James McAvoy), and imprisoned 1973 Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and get them to stop 1973 Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from doing something that will result in horrible killbots destroying the world in 2013.

The movie relies upon the strong character foundations of First Class and The Wolverine (2013), so it doesn’t spend a lot of time on the background of its the characters.  That is actually okay in this circumstance – we already know these characters. This avoidance of repetitive background information allows the movie to indulge in some of the better action sequences in any comic book film.

Also, unlike some Spider-man related sequels, Days of Future Past avoids too-many-villain-syndrome.  Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) is interesting, and the evil robots he creates are devastating to the future X-Men, but the real villain in this film is time itself.

That touches a nerve I think.  The movie would be one of the better comic book films due to its indulgence in comic book action rather than filler, but its premise gives it an added dimension.  We all wish we could go back and change one or two things about the past after all, especially, I imagine, if a choice we make results in the destruction of our civilization.   Or even, if the choice we made to hire Brett Ratner and rush out a crappy sequel caused people to question whether this our lucrative franchise should just revert back to Marvel/Disney.

On that note, I like where Fox is headed with X-Men.  The Days of Future Past storyline in the comics put off the destruction of the world for a time, but it left a hanging question over the heads of the X-Men as to whether they weren’t ultimately doomed anyway.  Moving forward, it will be interesting to see how this dynamic plays out.

Finally, if Fox continues to produce quality X-Men films like Days of Future Past and First Class, I don’t think the franchise should revert back to Disney.  After all, the biggest problem I have with the Marvel comic book universe is that the X-Men work better as a stand alone universe.  Otherwise, it wouldn’t make sense that the Fantastic Four and Avengers are revered while mutants are persecuted.  What makes the X-Men so special/reviled in a world where super powered beings are a dime a dozen?  Plus, it gives Marvel a lazy way of creating hero back-story because, when in doubt, they can just make someone a mutant.

Anyway, that’s a discussion for another time.  Back on topic – if you like the X-Men you should see this movie.

You might like X-Men: Days of Future Past if: You like the X-Men, and are sick of comic book movie sequels that contain repetitive characterization and endless, one-dimensional, villains.

You might not like X-Men: Days of Future Past if: You think comic book movies are silly.

(c) 2014 D.G. McCabe