REVIEW: The Lego Movie (2014)

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Directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller
Written by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, Story by Dan Hageman, Kevin Hageman, Phil Lord, and Christopher Miller
Starring the Voices of Chris Pratt, Will Ferrell, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Nick Offerman, Alison Brie, Charlie Day, Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman

Hey guys, did you know that everything is awesome? That everything is cool when you’re part of a team? Everything is awesome, when you’re living the dream! Indeed it is, especially when that dream is turning the bastard child video series of a multi-million selling construction toy into one of the greatest movies to be released in recent memory.

Emmett (Chris Pratt), a completely ordinary LEGO mini-figure who lives his life like everyone else–according to the instructions–is identified as the most “extraordinary person” and the key to saving the Lego universe. Emmett and his friends go on an epic journey to stop the evil tyrant, Lord Business (Will Ferrell), whose evil plans to ensure order in his world with a powerful weapon threatens to freeze the entire LEGO realm in place–forever! As a prophecy about ‘Special’ comes true with the discovery of ‘Piece of Resistance,’ Emmett must tangle with the likes of Bad Cop (Liam Neeson), Micro managers and ‘Man from upstairs’ during his journey to save the world.

I both love and hate the reactions I get when I list The Lego Movie as one of my favorites. I love feeling like Emmett by the end of the film, with my mind opened to a knowledge and understanding that some people haven’t reached by embracing it as more than a fun time for kids, and I hate it as well, because people just need to recognize. The Lego Movie has everything any moviegoer would ever want: hella good performances by established and seasoned actors, beautiful animation, tons of laughs, and well-plotted story that sinks its teeth into the biggest philosophical questions there are.

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The secret to the film’s incredible fortitude is the creative talent behind the “camera,” namely producer Dan Lin, who originally conceived the project, directors Christopher Miller and Phil Loyd, and animation supervisor Chris McKay. Together, these four men were able to push a corporate-driven production into realms of storytelling bliss that is becoming harder and harder to find among tentpole cinema.

Taking place in a Lego world that is as complete as it is imaginative, the animation appears incredibly lifelike–to the point where most viewers don’t realize they are watching something that is totally computer animated. Everything on screen is composed of virtual Lego blocks, from the buildings and vehicles to even the water, fire, and clouds. Every character is an authentic Lego figure, only able to move in ways the actual toys can, a stark contrast to the cheaply-produced straight-to-video entries from the decade prior, where everything moves in bizarre, rubberized ways. This is all thanks to the creative team, who sought to harken back to most well-known Lego fan films of the 20th Century, like Journey to the Moon or The Magic Portal.

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It is in this homage to the most small-scale, independent filmmaking possible that The Lego Movie shows its true heart, by turning what has always been a business model, or in the sad case of The Magic Portal a corporate shutdown of the little guy, into a deep tale of the relationship between freedom and order. As McKay explains,

“We wanted to make the film feel like the way you play, the way I remember playing. We wanted to make it feel as epic and ambitious and self-serious as a kid feels when they play with LEGO. We took something you could claim is the most cynical cash grab in cinematic history, basically a 90 minute LEGO commercial, and turned it into a celebration of creativity, fun and invention, in the spirit of just having a good time and how ridiculous it can look when you make things up. And we had fun doing it.'”

Emmett’s journey through the narrative only heightens this, weaving threads of Joseph Campbell’s analysis of heroic myths into a film that projects the age-old conflict of the freedom of chaos versus the social contract, represented in bombastic, childlike form by the likes of Morgan Freeman’s Vitruvius (literally the Renaissance Vitruvius), and Will Ferrell’s Lord Business (subtle). In addition, Emmett’s vision of the outside world and the “Man Upstairs” is highly evocative of Plato’s cave allegory, and when Emmett finally reaches the outside, the meta-textual nature of the film really takes off.

Of course, the philosophizing is sandwiched into a film who’s first priority is entertainment, and watching the filmmakers play in several sandboxes worth of sets, haphazardly yet intelligently weaving together everything that makes the Lego toyline so unique and fun is quite the treat. The actors take their cues from the filmmakers, injecting whimsical spontaneity into their performances that always has me grinning from ear-to-ear. Who wouldn’t be giddy at the prospect of Will Ferrell playing the ultimate universal evil, or Morgan Freeman as blind wizard who’s sensitive about being called old?

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When it comes down to it, The Lego Movie is one of the best films of the 2010s already, by far. It’s sheer entertainment value props it up above the usual summer drivel, and its themes of cosmic purpose and the value of personal liberty manage to stick it to the man while he simultaneously makes money off of the message. If you still can’t make it through a whole viewing, maybe it’s time to leave adulthood in the trash can and give it another go, because if Lord Business can be stopped by the wonder of a child(man), than you can too!

EDITORIAL: Aliens Ruined the Alien Franchise

Before I begin, I just want to say that I, in fact, do not hate Aliens at all. Actually, I find it to be fine piece of cinema, heavily influential and paced to entertain at breakneck speed. If you don’t believe me, check out my review.

But as I found myself halfway through a viewing earlier this year for Alien Week, I began to realize something I never had considered before. It felt…different. Not different from the other films, it already is that in spades. I mean different as in I was seeing the film itself in a light I had never seen before. As Ripley and the Marines huddled together in formation, their backs to the wall, awaiting the alien horde with rifles at the ready, I began to remember the numerous complaints of Prometheus viewers at the movie theater where I work, five years ago.

“It’s too confusing; I couldn’t understand it.”

Hicks is spooked. He fires blindly into the ceiling.

“The characters are dumb, they make terrible, stupid decisions. Totally unbelievable.”

Hudson and Vazquez let loose. Alien after alien leaps down from the ceiling panels.

“It’s nothing like Aliens. That movie was good.”

Ripley finally fires, and now I get it.

Indeed, James Cameron’s “perfect sequel” is a good movie. And it was a good thing for the franchise at the time, keeping it alive at a crucial juncture, spawning comics, novels, and yes, more films. But as history has shown time and again, good things can inadvertently lead to bad things. And that night, as Ripley and Newt faced extraterrestrial death in my living room for what was probably the 100th time, I finally saw that Aliens had done just that.

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Damn right, I just blamed Aliens for this.

So how did a seminal sci-fi flick with substantial success, both in profit and influence, singlehandedly destroy the future of its own franchise? To answer that question, it is necessary to look back at Ridley Scott’s original horror classic as well as Cameron’s follow-up, to determine what made Scott’s film stand out, and what Cameron dropped from his to achieve greater success.

THE ORIGINAL FILM

Conceived mainly by screenwriters Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, the script for Alien quickly made a splash among industry insiders in the mid-70s for bleak atmosphere and innovative monster, heavily inspired by the art of Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger. Nothing like Alien had been seen on screen before; while images of extraterrestrial creatures eating people were standard EC Comics fare and the main “space trucker” characters seemed to be blue-collar revisions of the scientific crews of Forbidden Planet and The Thing from Another World, Giger’s beast was a nightmarish creature of incredible sensuality–qualities which are usually mutually exclusive to one another. And the way in which it enters the story–by raping a human male and forcing a bloody birth upon him–is so horrifyingly innovative that the original scene still holds the same shock that it did in 1979.

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But as much as Alien is O’Bannon’s baby, it was Ridley Scott who did the child-rearing that resulted in a brilliant piece of celluloid. Known for both a meticulous attention to even the smallest detail and his penchant for perfectionism behind the camera, Scott’s direction over both the actors and the design crew, consisting of Giger, Ron Cobb, and comic legends Chris Foss and Jean Moebius Giraud, is as sublime as it is epic. Resolving to push for the maximum effort, Scott was able to attain highly-technical and realistic sets for the space tug Nostromo, and truly eerie and inhuman sights for the crashed Derelict, and of course, the Alien itself. Just two years after Star Wars, Alien changed sci-fi again.

As detailed in The Long Take’s excellent video analysis, the menace of the Alien is wholly unconventional, covered in semen-like slime as it approaches its prey with a sexual cunning. At every stage of its monstrous life cycle, its body takes on alternatively vaginal and phallic forms, stalking men and women alike in an apparent play on both toxic masculinity and the transgender boogeyman of the ’70s feminist movement. Combined with the post-Nixon distrust of authority and the outstanding character of Ripley, played with both masculine grit and feminine intuition by Sigourney Weaver, Alien cracks the mold of both space films and horror.

THE SEQUEL

Immediately after Alien, Ridley Scott had his own designs for a sequel, spit-balling back and forth between a story involving LV-426 exploding, sending eggs through the vastness of space to eventually reach Earth, where Ripley arrives at the start, and another, interesting notion of a prequel detailing how the Derelict and its Space Jockey pilot came to be on their barren world. With the departure of Alan Ladd, Jr. from Twentieth Century Fox, these ideas would not come to fruition, and Scott decided to pursue other projects.

It is intriguing to see the genesis of two very different directions that the Alien franchise would be destined to explore. The first, with an Alien horde reaching Earth, resembles many of the early drafts for Alien 3 and the driving plot element of Alien Resurrection, while the prequel concept obviously became Scott’s preferred vision with Prometheus and Alien: Covenant. In either case, Scott’s ambitions were clear: he wanted to explore the origins and nature of the Xenomorph creature, and dabble in the depiction of the Space Jockey.

Fast-forward to 1984. James Cameron, hot off the success of The Terminator, is suddenly in demand among the Hollywood elite. Having been working on the Alien sequel for some time, he and his producing partner Gale Anne Hurd were finally given the complete reigns over the project to finish in 1986. Cameron’s final script, incorporating ideas from an earlier sci-fi story he had written entitled Mother, signaled a massive shift in formula and tone from Scott’s entry. While preserving continuity and retaining Sigourney Weaver as Ripley, Aliens shifted away from the horror elements of its ancestor and planted its roots as a combat-driven action film. Gone were allusions to gender identity and sexual psychology, replaced by an allegory of the Vietnam War that serves to provide Ripley with the chance to assert her maternal identity with Newt, the young sole survivor of the LV-426 colony.

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Cameron has been quoted as saying that he wanted his film to be “less horror, more terror.” Whatever that is supposed to mean, it is clear that Aliens doesn’t fit in with the pure existential and predatory dread of the first film. Aliens is scary, but in a different fashion, opting for more traditional jumps and creeps in between pulse-pounding scenes of futuristic combat. In what is probably his biggest contribution to the Alien mythos, Cameron introduces the final piece of the Alien’s reproductive cycle, the Queen. A powerful leadership caste that control the Warrior drones by simple gesture, the Queen is more than a match for the crafty Ripley, and can even hold a grudge–it pursues her in a decidedly intelligent quest for revenge after Ripley destroys its nest.

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On the surface, this seems to be a good change, focusing the menace into a bigger and meaner creature that can think its way out of a jam. However, closer comparison between the films reveals that the concept of the Queen stands in opposition to the original idea of the Alien. The Alien of the first film is a solitary creature, slowly crawling out of the shadows to attack in startling displays of sexual sadism, and in the original screenplay and Director’s Cut, horrifically transform its victims into new eggs while they remain awake for the entire ordeal. And yet, for everything known about the Alien, Scott’s greatest contribution to it was the mystery surrounding it.

The Alien’s life cycle may have been complete in the beginning, but even this does not fully account for the sheer number of eggs within the Derelict’s cargo hold. Indeed, perhaps the hold contained more than just Xenomorph eggs. Perhaps there were untold varieties of beastly horrors locked away in its ancient walls. Their origin is also kept a tantalizing mystery; could they have been the remains of the rest of the Space Jockey crew? Or scientific specimens of an exploratory vessel? Or perhaps they were a biological weapon, as Scott liked to opine in the decades after finishing Alien. Even the true nature of the titular “Big Chap,” originally revealed as a highly intelligent being after biting Ripley’s head off and mimicking her voice to set an interstellar trap, was wisely dropped from the final cut. All of this adds to the eerie atmosphere of Scott’s film, intertwining with the cultural zeitgeist of the uncertain ’70s to unleash a truly horrifying experience that still captures minds today.

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Cameron, on the other hand, seemed uninterested in mystery. His creation of the Queen is the biggest indication as to his preferred depiction of the Xenomorph, no doubt heavily influenced more by the Arachnids of Robert Heinlein’s novel Starship Troopers than by Giger’s artwork and concepts. The Queen simultaneously removes the mystery of the Alien and the universe at large outside of the walls of Hadley’s Hope, reducing the invincible monster of Alien to an expendable foot soldier, able to be defeated by a simple barrage of caseless rifle fire. If only Dallas had one of those, right? Further more, the enigma of the eggs in the cargo hold isn’t so unfathomable anymore.

This rejection of the unknown continues to seep into every facet of Aliens. Early on, the faceless, evil Company is laid bare as a bureaucratic mess, more concerned with the loss of an iron ore shipment than with the prospect of a race of monsters at Earth’s doorstep. And Special Order 937? Replaced by a lowly Company agent with greedy aspirations of profiting from the creatures, revealing the influence of the materialistic ’80s upon Cameron’s story, where capitalism is still the bees knees, its just a few bad apples that muck things up. The only thematic content more pervasive than this is the specter of Reagan’s America, present in the nuclear family of Ripley, Hicks, and Newt as the survivors of the film, triumphing unequivocally over the promiscuous Anti-Mother by seemingly destroying the Xenomorph race once and for all.

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THE AFTERMATH

When times are good, people will respond to stories that reinforce the world around them. Aliens was released at the height of an American economic boom, presenting just enough of Alien‘s creature to be recognizable while jettisoning the uncertainty and pessimism of the ’70s inherent in that film. This turned out to be a recipe for success, propelling Aliens to box office and pop culture glory.

The subsequent sequels would not be so lucky. Alien 3 would prove to be Sisyphean struggle to produce, with many early drafts took on narratives that echoed Aliens, featuring military combat against swarms of the creatures. Despite some interesting drafts that presented truly nightmarish and ghastly depictions of the Aliens, each version retained this emphasis on action, until Vincent Ward’s legendary, ethereal lost story. Set on an artificial world made of wood and populated by Neo-Luddite monks, Ward’s Alien 3 became one of the greatest unmade films ever conceived, boldly removing the ’80s social certainty by killing Hicks and Newt and throwing Ripley into her own personal hell as the host for the last Alien. After Ward’s departure and the scrapping of the wooden world concept, the final Alien 3 as directed by David Fincher retained much of Ward’s themes, and pushed an increasingly nihilistic film upon an audience that expected a retread of Aliens, which is understandable given the misleading marketing of the film. As I’ve noted before, Alien 3 is uncompromising and brave in its conviction to emotional disturbance, betraying an almost gothic sense of horror that evokes the original but still remains its own beast. Unfortunately, audiences disagreed and many still do.

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Alien Resurrection, despite benefiting early on from the French expressionism of Jean-Pierre Jeunette and some of the most ghastly sights of the franchise, ends up playing as a light-hearted Aliens clone by the end, and the AVP entries of the 2000s were cynical cash grabs, with the second film literally remaking the plot of Aliens on present day Earth. Quickly, one can see a pattern emerging: nobody wanted to leave Cameron’s film behind.

Nobody except Ridley Scott himself, who regained the franchise in 2012 with Prometheus, a soft reboot that sought to explore the Space Jockey race, now called Engineers, in a bit of world-building that returned to the series the Eldritch threat of existential terror. Believing that Alien itself was a “cooked” beast, Scott strayed away from it, keeping the more recognizable beats of bodily horror while focusing on a demonic twist to humanity’s origins and the creeping threat of A.I. This led to a polarizing film, with opinions split down the middle; devotees of Scott’s original film feel it is a nice return of the tone of that piece, while critics deride it as shallow, confusing, and lacking of the main creature that makes the franchise what it is. Looking at the divide, it seems obvious where it came from.

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These days, the split among Alien fans remains firmly in place. Half seems to side more with Scott’s vision of a terrible, Lovecraftian universe of uncaring horrors, while the other prefers the human-centric adventure of Ripley and the Space Marines, barreling toward a war with the Alien species. What’s worse, this split has affected Scott’s plans for the prequel series. Originally planning a direct sequel to Prometheus entitled Paradise, the lukewarm reaction to that film caused him to drop many of the concepts he was building and shoehorn in the Alien for the even more polarizing Alien: Covenant, in which he seeks to assert ownership over the creature and its life cycle by presenting David, his murderous android character (and rebuke to the heroic Bishop) as the creator of the species. While I have my own thoughts on that little development, one cannot overstate how drastic a change this is from even his own first ideas, let alone the intentions of Dan O’Bannon and H.R. Giger. This can be unequivocally traced back to the success of Aliens, and the embracing by the fans of its simpler nature.

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With Alien: Covenant failing to make a splash at the box office, the future of the series is now uncertain. Scott’s Alien: Awakening project, even if it isn’t canceled, seems mired in its own intentions to reveal the last shred of mystery the franchise had, while the online outrage at the termination of Neill Blomkamp’s Alien 5 film, which would be another retread of Aliens with Ripley and Hicks returning to wipe away Alien 3 and Resurrection from continuity, has reached fever pitch, signalling that Fox could head in that direction. I would hope that they don’t, because I’ve had enough of Aliens. I’m fine with the one film, and would rather like to see more thought-provoking and eerie movies in the vein of the original. Attempting to recapture the Cameron version of the beast almost always ends in disappointment, and further dilutes the impact of the creature itself. But as it stands, it looks like the Alien will have to get used to disappointing its many devotees, because while Cameron seems more interested in friendlier E.T.s from Pandora, he’s still leaving his mark upon the cold evil of space.

REVIEW: Lucy (2014)

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Directed by Luc Besson
Written by Luc Besson
Starring Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Min-sik Choi, Amr Waked, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Pilou Asbaek, Analeigh Tipton

2014 saw the release of two films dealing with the concept of a post-human being: Wally Pfister’s Transcendence, which depicts the technological-based post-human concept of whole-brain emulation, and Luc Besson’s Lucy, which goes for a more preposterous premise for its titular transcendent being and uses her to tell a very spacy and heady action movie.

It was supposed to be a simple job. All Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) had to do was deliver a mysterious briefcase to Mr. Jang (Min-sik Choi). But immediately Lucy is caught up in a nightmarish deal where she is captured and turned into a drug mule for a new and powerful synthetic drug. When the bag she is carrying inside of her stomach leaks, Lucy’s body undergoes unimaginable changes that begins to unlock her mind’s full potential. With her new-found powers, Lucy turns into a merciless warrior intent on getting back at her captors, receiving invaluable help from Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman), the leading authority on the human mind, and French police captain Pierre Del Rio (Amr Waked).

Like many of Luc Besson’s films, Lucy is a frothy-sweet mixture of pseudo-intellectual ideas and impeccably-staged action, centered around a strong female lead who can kick some serious ass. This time around, that lead is Scarlett Johansson, and her ass-kicking is the product of her unlocked mind. Embracing the tired old myth that human beings only use 10% of their brain mass, or “cerebral capacity” as Professor Norman calls it, Besson uses the hypothesis in a somewhat convoluted setup to a frenetic and stylish action flick that actually manages to make up for its narrative deficiencies.

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Before I go on to sing Lucy‘s praises, I must address the elephant in the room. As I already mentioned, Besson’s take on the mighty psionically-powered superhuman is fundamentally flawed from its base within the 10% brain usage myth. Simply put, it’s complete rubbish. We use every bit of our brains, and there is absolutely no evidence to suggest otherwise. Digging deeper into the premise of this “hypothesis,” mostly told through scenes of a lecture by Professor Norman and later by Lucy herself, only reveals the massive holes in Besson’s logic. Lucy’s ever-expanding cerebral capacity reveals dormant abilities in the human brain: complete control over her own body, over others, over electromagnetic signals, and finally, time itself. So why does she need a massively powerful synthetic drug to access it? Why do any of us? How exactly does a simple flesh-and-blood organ exert control over space-time? Besson tries his best to explain, but his best isn’t enough to ever come off as believable.

Luckily, he is very skilled at crafting a hell of a violent good time. Beginning with Lucy as a scared college student at the mercy of Oldboy‘s Min-sik Choi as a typical-to-form slimy Besson gangster, the film weaves an intricate drug mule plot that intercuts with both Norman’s lecture and some very on-the-nose shot sequences of predators and prey. It’s classic Besson, and provides suspenseful opening that eases the viewer into the more metaphysical remainder of the film, which starts with the bag of CPH4 rupturing in Lucy’s abdomen, exposing her to an overdose of the superdrug.

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From here, Johansson carries the film in a performance that it truly doesn’t deserve. Going from a terrified young woman, authentic in every way, the CPH4 transforms her into a relentless killing machine with very little humanity left. It’s a very tall order for any actor to have to play, but Johansson toes the very fine line and succeeds brilliantly, appearing sufficiently creepy with just the right amount of her previous identity to anchor the character. Min-sik echoes her creepy factor as Jang, and Amr Waked rounds out the main players as a French detective caught up in Lucy’s quest to acquire more of the drug in order to stay alive. And of course, Morgan Freeman is God–er, I mean Morgan Freeman.

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Heavy on CGI visual effects, Lucy nonetheless electrifies visually, appearing as a clean and colorful digital slate punctuated by images of the changing innards of Lucy’s body and the powerful manifestations of her new abilities. Action scenes are handled with care, either with a tactful mind to cutting or with John Woo-style slow motion that allows us to savor every gunshot, every pounding hit.

When it comes down to it, Lucy likes to play around with very interesting and profound ideas about human perspective and the boundaries of perception and reality, with a character that has truly transcended all of it. Whether it does that well seems to be up to interpretation, given it’s horribly wrong method of presenting said questions. Lucy is blue pill entertainment; meant to be consumed, not savored, and while I can’t quite turn my brain fully off to avoid complaining about the perpetuation of pseudo-science at its worst, that doesn’t mean I can’t recommend the film for what it is: hella fun.

REVIEW: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

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Directed by Luc Besson
Written by Luc Besson, Based on the comic book Valérian and Laureline by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières
Starring Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke, Herbie Hancock, Kris Wu, Sam Spruell, Alain Chabat, Rutger Hauer

Luc Besson is probably one of the most risk-taking filmmakers out there today, although that declaration should come with a qualifier; his risks aren’t in innovation or narrative, style, or visual effects techniques, but in the simple fact that he always sets out to please his own violence-loving tendencies. A glance through his filmography reveals an almost Hong Kong filmmaking-esque fetishizing of martial arts, gunfights, and balls-to-the-wall action is evident, and when coupled with his unique French perspective on the camera lens it makes for at least a good time, if not always a breathtaking time. Valerian is somewhere towards the bottom part of his middle ground, breathtaking to the eyes but not so much the head and heart, but is that really a bad thing?

In the 28th century, Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are a team of special operatives charged with maintaining order throughout the human territories. Under assignment from the Minister of Defense (Herbie Hancock), the two embark on a mission to the astonishing city of Alpha: an ever-expanding metropolis where species from all over the universe have converged over centuries to share knowledge, intelligence and cultures with each other. There is a mystery at the center of Alpha, a dark force which threatens the peaceful existence of the City of a Thousand Planets, and Valerian and Laureline must race to identify the marauding menace and safeguard not just Alpha, but the future of the universe. 

Based on the popular Franco-Belgian comic book Valérian and Laureline by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières, Besson’s film is a very obvious labor of love by the French auteur, having grown up reading the comic since it’s beginning in the yesteryear of 1967. Financed with a combination of crowd-sourcing and his own pocket, totaling 210 million dollars, Valerian is now the most expensive independent film ever made. Not that it matters much now that the film is tanking in the box office, but I suspect Valerian will have longer legs on home video and in the streaming market, where its spiritual predecessor The Fifth Element carved out a cult following.

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Valerian begins with what is now among my top-ten opening sequences of the past decade: the progression of the Alpha Space Station over two centuries, presenting all sorts of human and alien peoples joining hands with a succession of welcoming captains in mutual cooperation–and it’s set to David Bowie’s Space Oddity. Solid start. Continuing onto probably the best full-out visual effects sequence since anything seen in Avatar, we are introduced to the Pearls, a race of peaceful, nature-oriented aliens who fish magical, energy-giving pearls from the oceans, using small creatures called converters, that can replicate a hundred-fold anything they consume, to replenish the planet’s supply. But, just as quickly as we come to admire them, the Pearls’ paradise is shattered by the falling wrecks of a space fleet, and they seem to be obliterated by a war that they had no part in.

Without having actually read Valerian, I can’t say for certain that this is an accurate assessment, but from what I do know, this opening is an excellent demonstration of Christin’s humanist and liberal leanings in his writing, which comes more and more to the forefront through Cara Delevingne’s Laureline, as independent and humanist as they come, compared to her partner and superior, Major Valerian, who’s womanizing ways and adherence to protocol and law do more than infuriate his partner and the object of his desires throughout the story.

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Unfortunately, with their introduction is where I start to tune out. While Delevingne’s performance is a bit wooden in places, this is all a part of the package, as a glance through the comics reveals their Golden Age Space Opera origins, ’30s dialogue and all. In fact, in many scenes, I found her to be the breath of fresh air compared to Dane DeHaan, who in this critic’s opinion, should never have been allowed near the role of Valerian. His cheap imitation at a manly comic strip hero’s voice betrays how shrimpy he looks in the role, as if he were a ten-year-old boy playing astronaut dress-up. He has absolutely no chemistry with Delevingne, and his stunted delivery during some of the most pivotal and emotional moments destroys the drama almost as much as Besson’s barely passable writing.

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Oh yeah, the script. Honestly, past the mentioned opening, I’m not too impressed with the story. The comic was a space opera with heavy time travel elements, with Laureline literally having been an 11th Century French villager before being recruited into the Spatio-Temporal Service. The film makes little-to-no mention of time travel at all, presumably to streamline things for a wider audience, but that is no excuse for robbing Valerian of what could have been another major selling point besides the amazing visuals. Even worse is Besson’s handling of the romantic subplot and Commander Filitt’s (Clive Owen) motivations; while Filitt’s endgame is needlessly drawn out over ten minutes of precious climactic screentime, Valerian is established as already wanting to get into Laureline’s pants, and after only 20 minutes, is to the point of proposing to her. May I remind you this film is almost 140 minutes long?

Past these immense problems, the film starts to present some redemption. Everyone else in front of the camera does a pretty good job with their material, even when their roles amount to little more than extended cameo’s like Ethan Hawke and the great Rutger Hauer. And for once, Rihanna was actually one of the better parts of a movie.

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However, the real star of Valerian is the immense and immersive world created on screen through some of the best CGI work in a long time. Created by a unified team of ILM and Weta Digital artists, everything from the massive world of Alpha to the myriad species of alien beings are created lovingly and in textures that appear incredibly lifelike in Besson’s neon-lit style employed in this picture.

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So, what is my final verdict? While the casting of Valerian himself and Besson’s writing are huge flaws that pull the film down from the potential it could have had, ultimately, it isn’t a complete waste of time. In fact, the immersive world on display and the thrilling alien action are enough to convince me to give this film another go around when it hits blu-ray. Until then, I’d say proceed with caution on a matinee or discount night at your local cinema. Wait until a more worthy independent project comes along to pay full price.

REVIEW: The Interview (2014)

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Directed by Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg
Written by Dan Sterling, Story by Seth Rogan, Evan Goldberg, and Dan Sterling
Starring James Franco, Seth Rogan, Lizzy Caplan, Randall Park, Diana Bang, Timothy Simons

Remember December, 2015? When North Korea threatened global thermonuclear war over a comedy film? When cinemas were pulling it from bookings nationwide, and frat boys declared their uber-patriotism by downloading a movie? Remember when that was the craziest the news got? Those were the days.

Dave Skylark (James Franco) and his producer Aaron Rapoport (Seth Rogen) run the popular celebrity tabloid TV show “Skylark Tonight.” When they discover that North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un (Randall Park) is a fan of the show, they land an interview with him in an attempt to legitimize themselves as journalists. As Dave and Aaron prepare to travel to Pyongyang, their plans change when the CIA recruits them, perhaps the two least-qualified men imaginable, to assassinate Kim Jong-un.

The Interview, originally conceived as both a satirical attack on shallow late night television and probably the most monstrous dictatorial regime currently on the face of the Earth, was obviously meant to be no more than a spiritual successor to the efforts of Trey Parker and the South Park creators, whilst staying firmly rooted in the metatextual comedy of Seth Rogan’s work. What it ended up becoming was an even bigger and more controversial piece than Rogan or Franco or co-director Evan Goldberg ever imagined. All because of the very man they were “killing” in their film. The resulting firestorm is worthy of a film story in of itself, interesting and funny in ways I still can’t believe, and that’s even after the bag of poo-fire we as a nation have suddenly found ourselves in by electing our own whiney man-child.

But this isn’t an editorial of the effects of The Interview, this is a review, and while I can’t gloss over the impact it has already had, I can place it on the back-burner and return to why I’m typing this out in the first place.

Rogan and Goldberg, along with screenwriter Dan Sterling, pull no punches from the very beginning with an incredibly anti-American song sung by a beautiful young voice on the eve of yet another nuclear missile test in North Korea. It’s a scene that seems wildly over-the-top and unrealistic, but given the hermit-like nature of North Korea and the oppression of the Kim family that makes Orwell’s corpse wish he’d thought of it, the whole sequence could very much be true. It’s a strange world we live in, is what I’m trying to say.

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After a barrage of serious news coverage documenting the strike, we slam-cut the opposite end of the media spectrum: Dave Skylark, a narcissistic party boy who somehow found himself on television, then proceeded to rape the very concepts of integrity and importance by doing nothing more than interviewing celebrities about their, frankly, worthless quirks. The only thing worse about Skylark than his null contributions to humanity at large is that he truly thinks he’s the greatest thing since sliced bread, pulling down his producer Aaron Rappaport, an excellent journalist whose potential is being wasted on Rob Lowe’s bald head. Right away, The Interview establishes itself as a very in-your-face brand of comedy, and while Franco’s endless monologues that elevate himself to godhood in his eyes come close to annoying the audience as much as the characters surrounding him, Rogan is there as his trademark straight man, showing us just how insane our priorities as a society are.

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When Dave becomes determined to book an interview with the infamous Kim Jong-un after hearing how much of a fan he is of the show, Aaron is forced to the dirty work, and before they know it, they have their scoop locked and scheduled. Then Lizzy Caplan shows up, representing the CIA with a push-up bra, fake glasses, and a smile, aiming to “honeypot” the two into assassinating Kim with a poison strip during the interview. It’s classic American shadiness filtered through Rogan’s raunchy style, and they accept, with Aaron thinking about the contribution to human history they are undertaking, while Dave can only ponder what gun he will use and what title his tell-all book will have.

From here, the film gets even more meta, possibly explaining what exactly happened to Dennis Rodman during his visit; Dave and Aaron are shown facade after facade of lies pertaining to Korea’s welfare, and Dave is further seduced by the familiarity of Kim, played hilariously as an immature idiot with daddy issues that he buries with margaritas and women by Randall Park, an actor with already limited masculine charisma who nonetheless comes across as way more manly than the actual Kim. Through all of this, we still get the steady diet of Rogan and Goldberg raunch and poo jokes, which ends up tying together nicely with the satire in a climax that is incredibly fantastic, bloody, and over-the-top (more so than even the opening), but not entirely unexpected, given the nature of the film.

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So how did a film like this become way more than what it should have been, which is good, but not news-worthy? Because the world is a hellfire of insanity, ladies and gentlemen, which was proven in sweeping form by theaters pulling the film from their bookings before its release date, fearful of provoking a war with Korea. Somebody should have told them that North Korea threatens war every weekend as a hobby, but the message was eventually received, sparking off as opposite a response to the pullings as Skylark’s hollow charm is to the grave situation of North Korea’s citizens. Art-house cinemas and smaller theaters began pledging to show the film, streaming and download services began offering it, and couch patriots the nation over declared it our duty as citizens to watch and disseminate a run-of-the-mill comedy film. I told you, the world is weird.

In the end, we did get an entertaining and funny film, one that plays around with genre, society, and politics in enough measure to counterbalance the juvenile nature of its core comedic content. I don’t know if it was worth an international incident, but I’d be more than willing to go back to that “simpler” time.

REVIEW: Escape from New York (1981)

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Directed by John Carpenter
Written by John Carpenter and Nick Castle
Starring Kurt Russell, Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, Donald Pleasance, Isaac Hayes, Harry Dean Stanton, Adrienne Barbeau, Charles Cyphers, Tom Atkins

You can’t get much cooler than John Carpenter. The self-styled rebel of the horror and sci-fi genres, Carpenter’s output from 1974 to 1994 is simply perfect, packed full of interesting and wildly entertaining films that run the gamut from cult gems to full-blown classics. Right in the middle of this period sits Escape from New York, a low-budget futuristic flick that transcends its trashy brethren thanks to thoughtful and tight set design, the reliable combo of Carpenter and Dean Cundey behind the camera, and a then-little-known actor named Kurt Russell.

In 1997, Manhattan has been transformed in the New York Maximum Security Penitentiary, where criminals are sent in life sentence. When the Air Force One crashes in Manhattan with the President of the United States (Donald Pleasance) aboard, having been traveling to a summit with other world leaders, the police commissioner Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) proposes a deal to the convicted one-eyed bank robber and war hero Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell). If he rescues the president and his tape in less than 23 hours, he would be granted pardon. In order to guarantee full commitment, Hauk injects a lethal capsule in his blood that will dissolve in the scheduled time. Soon, Snake is on his way into the Prison, a hellhole of humanity where once you go in, you don’t come out.

If it’s hard for you, my dear reader, to imagine New York, with its over-8 million residents and impressive business infrastructure, being walled off and transformed into a penal colony for the wrecked and crime-infested totalitarian state of America, then my friend, you only need to turn on the news.

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Good? Okay, back to the review.

What’s so great about Escape is that Carpenter’s and Nick Castle’s script is incredibly adept at getting background information across with just a glance by the characters. Just from watching the film and paying attention to dialogue, I can tell you that the United States is now more totalitarian than ever, with a nationalized and heavily militarized police force that operates like an army against the citizens, while the nation fights World War III against China and the Soviet Union with limited usage of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. The crime rate has surged 400%, a surefire sign that the government is cracking down on things and acts that we’re previously non-criminal. All of this can be gleaned by inference from the smart writing and inventive production design by Joe Alves that makes the most of the limited budget, providing just enough to believe in the world without spoon-feeding.

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Opening with beautifully haunting sights of the New York Maximum Security Penitentiary provided by Roy Arbogast’s special effects crew (including matte painter James Cameron), comprising simple yet effective model work and some very crude computer simulation effects, these methods blend seamlessly with location work on Liberty Island, providing one of many ironic digs at authority Carpenter is so well known for, which further blends with the stark and bland sets of the police headquarters to create a vision of the future that is both imaginative and scarily realistic.

Into this hell world walks Snake Plissken, a former Special Forces war hero, now a captured bank robber on a one-way ticket into the Prison. At the time of filming, Kurt Russell was still a relatively little-known actor, having only the television movie Elvis as his big claim to fame. Here, he proves what a powerhouse he actually was, sinking into a pseudo-Clint Eastwood personality with such a contempt for authority and society that he must be literally threatened with impending death to save the President from the prisoners, courtesy of the microscopic charges lodged in his carotid arteries by police commissioner Bob Hauk, the legendary spaghetti western veteran Lee Van Cleef.

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By the time Snake is in the prison, we are just as enamored with him as we are the expansive St. Louis location shooting, standing in for a post-apocalyptic New York with tons upon tons of junk used as set dressing. As Snake slowly navigates the urban decay, his quietly-threatening interactions with everyone from the excitable Ernest Borgnine as the last NY cabbie and Harry Dean Stanton as the Prison’s resident engineering genius further impresses his cynical and world-weary streak of aloneness upon the screen. What I’m trying to say is, damn what a role, and a great performance to portray it.

Just as big a star as Russell on Escape is Carpenter’s direction, which by then was cemented by hits like Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, and The Fog. Working with his best DP, Dean Cundey, early Carpenter films usually featured slow, methodically blocked and shot sequences, many of them single-take camera passes, punctuated by bursts of on-screen action and shock, accompanied by a gruesomely realistic violence. Escape is no exception, and while not descending into slasher film-levels of gore, it can be at times relentless, even by today’s standards. The key to tempering this violent disposition is with Carpenter’s steady metaphorical hand, favoring suspense and low-light imagery as opposed to explosions and all-out general Bayhem. And of course, an atmospheric electronic score at least partially composed by himself. Escape offers yet another of his classic themes.

At its core, Escape is more than thrills and action; it actually joins a prestigious and well-hidden group of radical libertarian examples of American cinema, where authority and government are no less than the ultimate evil, but the heroes are not collectivist idols or even nice guys. Snake is the ultimate individualist hero, caring only for his own neck but displaying a sensible streak of survival, neither aggressive or sadistic. As he makes his journey from one Inferno into another, we see the two nemeses of libertarianism: the rampant state, controlling everything through fear and business, and the immoral anarchy of New York, where human beings are reduced to animals, flocking to another Che Guevara-style revolutionary in the Duke at best, and cannibalizing each other at worst.

Through this reading, which is most certainly the intent of the filmmakers given their past statements on the film and their own personal politics, Escape most certainly deserves to be looked at as more than a simple B-movie. In a way, it might turn out to be prophetic, if the British Trump at the head of the country in this film is any indication. So if you have, pop it in and enjoy. If you don’t, well get going on the hunt for it, because I promise that even on the lightest, entertainment-driven level of viewing, Escape from New York will not disappoint.

Just, for the love of God, stay away from Escape from L.A.

EDITORIAL: Marvel vs DC

editorials

I know, I know. I have high ambitions for my first editorial. Looking forward to reading those well thought-out and considerate comments!

It is a battle with divisions deeper than the Middle East conflict. Marvel Comics against Detective Comics. Marvel vs DC. Day vs Night. Yeah, I went there. With origins separated by almost 3 decades, Marvel and DC quickly became rivals in the huge American comic book industry, and still today the typical image of the superhero is ingrained in the characters each company offers to its readers. While much has been and continues to be said and debated over the individual merits and flaws of each company’s franchise, fictional histories, and business strategy, I’m here to go into a specific market of each company, one out of many yet probably the most prominent aspect of each entity today.

I’m going to compare their cinematic universes.

Now, at first it may seem very unfair, given that the MCU is on its 16th film with several network television and Netflix series under its belt, while the so-called DCEU is only 3 films in. But fret not, I’m not here to bash. I am going to point out the deficiencies in each one, sure, but this being a full comparison means that I’m going to provide as clear a picture as I can of the unique flavor of both franchises, and how each reflects the core heart of each company’s approach to the American superhero.

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So, where do we start? How about the beginning? Why yes, invisible twin! Let’s start at the beginning: 2008.

MARVEL CINEMATIC UNIVERSE

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The Marvel Cinematic Universe, known colloquially by fans as the MCU, was the brainchild of Kevin Feige, who in 2005 as the newly-formed Marvel Studios’ second-in-command under Avi Arad, envisioned an interconnected series of superhero films based around the only big characters Marvel still held film rights to: the Avengers. Shortly after becoming Chief Producer with Arad’s departure, Feige oversaw the formation of a committee designed to ensure creative integrity and continuity in the universe. This committee included Marvel Studios co-President Louis D’Esposito, Marvel Comics President of Publishing Dan Buckley, Marvel Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada, writer Brian Michael Bendis, Marvel Entertainment President Alan Fine, and Feige himself. Together, these six would begin crafting a broad, arching storyline that would form the basis for the MCU, which officially started with Iron Man, directed by Jon Favreau and starring Robert Downey Jr. as the Armored Avenger, Tony Stark.

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Despite the nearly three-year preparation and formation of the MCU, this wasn’t a very well-known fact at the time among normal moviegoers; with only a short post-credits stinger introducing Samuel L. Jackson as the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D., Nick Fury, as any indication that a larger universe lay ahead, Iron Man was very much a standalone superhero flick, concerned with establishing its character first before introducing the universe at large.

This theme of the slow reveal continued throughout the MCU’s Phase One, with The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger containing smaller references to the world at large, mostly in the form of background easter eggs, plot devices, and of course, the omnipresent stinger, which by now has become a Marvel trademark. Not until 2012’s The Avengers, written and directed by Joss Whedon, did the MCU explode into full frame, with an ensemble assortment of characters, a storyline that reached deep into the Marvel toybox, and plot points that set up the next two Phases of films.

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As pioneering as this approach to world-building as this was, critics and audiences had reservations as well as hope, particularly in the cinematic styles of the films themselves. Looking at the Marvel output, one gets a sense that everything just looks almost the same, and there is truth to that statement. Despite Phase One containing diverse directorial talent from Kenneth Branaugh and Joe Johnston to newcomers Jon Favreau and Louis Leterrier, only Whedon seems to have been afforded a semblance of visual freedom, electing to shoot Avengers in an uncommon 1.85:1 ratio which greatly opens up the big action pieces that are the lynchpin of his film. Everything else, even when factoring in the signature trademarks of each helmer, feels as if it has all been sanitized into a one-size-fits-all box of cinematography.

 

While this continues into Phase Two at first, the influx of new filmmakers into the mix began to show. With names like Shane Black, James Gunn, and the Russo Brothers, Phase Two is where the MCU really started to hit its stride. The films began to take on more and more of their ancestral formulas; the Russos’ Captain America: The Winter Soldier borrowed heavily from 1970s spy and conspiracy thrillers, while Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy was a visual and auditory explosion of saccharine, presenting a colorful cosmos set to hit music from the ’70s and ’80s. Even Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man, while thematically as safe as Iron Man 3 or Thor: The Dark World, is an eclectic mix of heist movies and Golden Age sci-fi, able to tangle with the bigger hits of the summer easily.

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Phase Two also brought the MCU into television with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on ABC and the Netflix shows, starting with Daredevil. While the ABC series have definitely hit roadblocks in terms of their writing (and in the sad case of Agent Carter, cancellation), Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is still airing, with many more on the way such as The Inhumans, Cloak and Dagger, The Runaways, and the just-announced New Warriors. However, it is the Netflix shows where the MCU shines on the small screen, with Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist acting as a sort of R-rated Avengers, setting up a highly-anticipated miniseries called The Defenders in November of this year.

With the MCU now in its Third Phase of films and approaching a turning point with the third and fourth Avengers films in 2018 and 2019, it seems like the sky is no longer the limit for Marvel as they continue to rake in profits, bolstered by an ever-increasing critical support for their films.

DC EXTENDED UNIVERSE

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While the MCU was in the process of carving out its name in pop culture, Warner Brothers was still in the middle of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. Itself a massive monetary and critical success for their company, the trilogy however was not conducive to beginning a shared continuity due to its heavy basis in realism and the whims of Nolan’s creative fancy. During the Nolan years, several attempts were made at rebooting the series, with the project closest to becoming a reality being George Miller’s Justice League Mortal. Without getting too much into it, this picture failed to be made, and instead, a new film focusing a reboot of Superman was pitched, written, and shot instead, guided in the scripting phase by Dark Knight alums David S. Goyer and Nolan himself, and then handed off to Zack Snyder.

While containing several references to other DC characters such as Batman, Man of Steel was made more as a “backdoor pilot” to a new shared universe, one that could stand alone if not successful but launch a franchise if so. Meanwhile, Warner’s television holdings began to air several series revolving around DC comics characters, beginning with Arrow in 2012. This started three distinct continuitues, with Arrow, The Flash, and Legends of Tomorrow sharing one, Gotham, a Batman prequel series centered on Detective Jim Gordon, and Supergirl contained within their own universes. Due to the hard sci-fi nature of The Flash and Legends, these shows have still crossed over several times, but never with any DC films at the time of this writing.

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After the modest success of Man of Steel, DC announced in 2014 a slate of ten upcoming films sharing continuity with the new Superman, and a year later finally placed a name on this continuity: the DC Extended Universe. Including the television series as separate universes, the DCEU functions as a multiverse, with different realities containing the various properties. This was done in order to include the television series without having to keep to their continuity, allowing the films to start fresh with only Man of Steel to have to honor.

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The film portion of the DCEU began in earnest with the March release of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Introducing the new Batman, and for the first time on film, Wonder Woman, BVS did eventually become a blockbuster hit, but not after taking a savage pounding by critics and inducing a polarizing effect on the fanbase with its lackluster script and treatment of its characters. Later that year, Suicide Squad joined the ranks of the DCEU, presenting a team-up of DC villains that was even more polarizing than BVS, simultaneously earning low marks in reviews while winning an Oscar for makeup effects. It would not be until Wonder Woman‘s June release of this year that the DCEU earned near-unanimous praise, and not a moment too soon, with Justice League, its first high-profile team up film, dropping in November.

SO WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?

Now, before I start, there seems to be some contention on whether it is even appropriate to compare the two franchises, let alone where to make the comparison. Do only the early Marvel films count, since the DCEU is 4 films in while the MCU is packing 16? I’m actually going to throw caution to the wind and open up the playing field for all the films, because, and let’s face it, the DCEU may be new, but they had the advantage of paying attention to Marvel and learning from their mistakes. So there it is.

Some of the more obvious visual differences are easy to spot, such as the DCEU’s usage of film over digital since BVS, which affords those films a more natural and dynamic look as opposed to the brighter, cleaner-looking Marvel offerings. There’s also the fact that Warner has full control over all characters in the DC Comics, having never had to experience the bankruptcy and selling off of film rights that Marvel did in the 1990s.

The audio experience of each franchise is also worlds apart, specifically in the musical motifs. While Marvel films have consistently proficient and even wonderful scores, the continuity of themes are virtually nonexistent, with sequels rarely carrying over the music of the previous installment. Really, only Alan Silvestri’s Avengers themes are brought back at all. Compare this with the grand and graceful work of Hans Zimmer, who is said to have composed the main themes for every Justice League member, and there’s another point for the DCEU.

 

However, the advantages start to taper off for the DCEU right about here. The biggest disadvantage that the DCEU has is it’s writing, pure and simple. From BVS on, there has been a persistent deficiency of even passable writing, from character motivations and development, to basic story structure, and it has greatly hurt the infant franchise. To illustrate this, I’ll be specifically comparing BVS with Civil War.

Image result for Captain America CIvil WarReleased only two months apart, BVS and CW both feature conflicts between superheroes considered by audiences at large to be friends and partners, motivated by deep philosophical and moral rifts between them. CW, being the first of Marvel’s Phase Three and the 13th film overall in the series, had the enormous advantage of the established story before it. Here, Steve Rogers/Captain America and Tony Stark/Iron Man find themselves on opposite sides of the law, with Stark supporting the Sokovia Accords, an international treaty governing the actions of superheroes, and Rogers opposing it to keep his friend, Bucky, out of an armored cell. Their arrival at these two different ends of the ideological spectrum had been evolving throughout the entire series, with Stark beginning very much distrustful of authority and Rogers firmly supportive of it. Their backgrounds reflected this as well: Rogers as a WWII veteran and super soldier, Stark as a freewheeling billionaire playboy who had been fighting off a government wanting to appropriate his weaponized armor for years. The events of the series slowly change them; Stark’s growing PTSD leads him to create Ultron in an attempt to secure world piece, only to backfire horrifically when Ultron goes rogue and kills thousands of people, while Rogers witnesses S.H.I.E.L.D., the clandestine spy agency he serves, grow more and more authoritarian until it is revealed that his worst enemy, the HYDRA organization, had hijacked it decades ago, and infested the entire world’s political infrastructure. The journeys these characters have taken are logical and conducive to good drama, culminating in an emotional slugfest when Stark, who’s already-strong self-destructive streak is at its peak, makes a snap-decision to murder Bucky for killing his parents while under HYDRA control.

Image result for batman v superman bruceBVS, on the other hand, had only one film before it to set up any characters, and that was a solo Superman film. Thus, Clark Kent is the only character that receives enough backstory to understand, but even that is no help in reasons that will become clearer in a moment. The new Bruce Wayne of the film, played with a suave and masterful swagger by Ben Affleck, is nevertheless an enigma; he is an older Batman, having already suffered the loss of Robin years ago, an event that seemingly pushed him over the edge into killing criminals, a decision that alienated many fans. This is the only semblance of any character building with Batman that leaves audiences unfamiliar with him, and hampers any connection we can make with him.

This doesn’t get any better when we realize that almost nothing the characters do actually contributes to the story. If it is true that the typical story act ends when a character makes a fateful and irrevocable decision, than BVS must have a two-hour-long act, followed by an ten-minute one, when Batman decides to kill Superman over flimsy fears that he will turn bad, and then decides to let him live over one of the most poorly-executed scenes ever filmed.

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You know the one, don’t ask.

And sure, Lex Luthor decides to kill Superman, using Batman to do it, but we never see this choice go down–he has decided to do it already when the film begins. Batman’s attempts to recover the kryptonite from Luthor and find out what he is doing with it are useless, as an action sequence involving the Batmobile ends with him failing to recover it, and later scene of Bruce infiltrating Luthor’s ball also ends with him losing the data to Diana Prince/Wonder Woman, so what was the point of those 20 minutes of precious screentime?

And then comes the big fight. Luthor holds hostage Clark’s mother Martha, forcing him to deliver Batman’s head if he wants her to live. Resolving to try to enlist the Batman’s help, as he reveals to Lois Lane, Superman heads to their confrontation, and tries to reason with Bruce…all of two times. By the third booby-trap Batman has sprung on him, Clark suddenly decides that he’d rather fight this man who needs advanced armor just to survive one of his blows rather than save his mother, and this is before he gets hit with kryptonite. It’s such a petty and out-of-character moment for Superman that it obliterates all of the development he had in the previous film. Remember how angrily he attacked Zod when he threatened his mother? Or how devastated he was at having to take Zod’s life to save others? Well here, he turns his back on both of those plot points, and its only to give us a Batman vs Superman fight, because Goddammit, it’s right there in the title!

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Superdouche.

Combine this with a role for Wonder Woman that only exists to give us a third leg in the Doomsday fight (and to open up a laptop with a Justice League trailer on it), and you get a mighty mess that leaves Nolan happy he didn’t have his name attached to it. With all of the emphasis on action scenes and pointless philosophical discussions that go nowhere, what should have been a solid Superman sequel with Batman as the antagonist quickly becomes an exercise on how not to write a script.

But why did this happen? Well, the most obvious explanation is that Warner wanted to catch up quickly to Marvel by putting out team-up films early, and capitalize on the Nolan-inspired wave of smarter blockbusters by injecting a directionless intellectual bent into a story with only enough meat for an hour of movie. This is Warner’s biggest weakness compared to Marvel: they simply don’t have a plan, and couldn’t be bothered to take the time to come up with one.

Remember, the MCU is guided by Kevin Feige and a committee of comic veterans who are experienced in plotting multi-issue story arcs that last years. Warner did not take this approach, only appointing Geoff Johns to Creative Head after the BVS fiasco. Even then, there is still no main story thread in place, as opposed to Marvel’s ongoing Infinity Stones storyline, which offers a basic framework while the characters evolve and grow on their way to the ultimate battle. The DCEU is very much a rudderless speedboat, employing a selection of its own first-rate filmmakers but not capitalizing on their strengths.

Another weakness of Warner’s franchise is the fact that they still assume more control over creative decisions. Within Marvel, Feige is free to direct the MCU as he sees fit, with minimal interference from the parent company (shocking that Disney would leave them alone, isn’t it?). There are still exertions of control over the filmmakers, most evident in the feud between Feige and Whedon during Age of Ultron, and the departures of Sally Jenkins from Thor: The Dark World and Edgar Wright from Ant-Man, but on the whole, this has been more the exception than the rule. Meanwhile, after BVS fell short of its projections, the heads of Warner stepped in, demanding extensive changes to the next film, Suicide Squad. Their alterations resulted in an even worse mess, with a film bearing an even more nonsensical storyline and no real growth from any character, essentially amounting to a video game level on film. In short, Marvel and Warner both meddle in the creative process, but to a lesser extent in the MCU and before the cameras roll, ensuring a more coherent product will hit the screens.

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So with that, MCU is definitely the more solid franchise, but that doesn’t mean the DCEU should be given up on. While the MCU’s television series tie in with the films, allowing for smaller side stories within the universe, the DC offerings are consistently higher-rated, and have the converse advantage of being able to go where they want to go, regardless of the film series. The DCEU has taken many more risks with its character portrayals, while the MCU is starting to feel stagnant in the fact that characters hardly die or face real danger. And when it comes down to it, Warner may be learning from their mistakes, if Wonder Woman is any indication.

So let’s say the DCEU rights itself, and become a real contender to Marvel’s dominance. How can it get there? Well, I know a little something of DC comics as well, for through most of my teen years I favored them more than the capeless denizens of Marvel. And I believe that the best way for that to happen is for DC’s runners and writers to recognize how different their heroes and stories are. Marvel makes topical entertainment, catering to whatever is hip and happening today. They’re entirely well-made pieces that will continue to captivate and offer up philosophical fodder for my sleepless nights, but they’ll never be as timeless as the worldly rage of Batman, or the lonely compassion of Superman. DC heroes and heroines harken back to the Golden Age of Comic Books, the introductory period of superhumans, and as such, the films should shift tone to reflect that heritage. Tony Stark and Steve Rogers are self-destructive creatures, doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over in front of us as a testament to our darker desires, while Diana Prince and J’onn J’onns see only the good in humanity, and fight to protect it.

In short, Marvel is riding a renaissance of cynicalism. It will be the job of DC to usher in the era of human optimism. This is their potential, and it’s high time they realize it.

Well, here it comes. I can’t wait to hear the polite and friendly responses to this accusing me of being a Marvel kiss-up or a DC puke, and let’s face it, I am much more of a Marvel fan right now, they are simply doing it better. But I really would like to see the DCEU succeed, so comparing the two and discovering the weaknesses and strengths of each is still a worthy endeavor. Am I crazy or am I onto something with this analysis? Let me know, I can take it.

As I flinch in the corner.