Thursday, March 24, 2016

Superheroes and storytelling


If you're wondering why I'm probably going to pass on seeing Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice in the theater, aside from that awful title, the final straw was Batman v Superman throws lots of punches, but with no impact at all by Drew McWeeny. He also liked Man of Steel, indeed, probably more than me, so if it didn't work for him than my extant apathy seems only justified.

Here's what I need to admit, though. That apathy is currently extending to most superhero stuff. Oddly enough, I write that at a time that I am indeed watching, and very much enjoying, season 2 of Daredevil.

I was watching Arrow and The Flash and enjoying them very much. I haven't caught up on the current season of either, nor have I tried Supergirl or Legends of Tomorrow yet, although I'm optimistic about both.

So, a significant part of the problem for me is basic. I kind of don't care much for superhero movies.

At some point, comparing the history of Bat-films to Batman: The Animated Series, I would have guessed it was live-action that was the problem.

I have no strong cart in the light vs. dark debate. I enjoy both very when they're done well. Were I forced to make a decision, I would say the "pro-dark" advocates say more incredibly stupid things, such as Zack Snyder said words about Superman, Kansas morals, and Star Wars. Less prominent "pro-dark" advocates say things that are just as stupid all the time. The "pro-light" advocates do occasionally say things that make me roll my eyes, but rarely jump completely off the deep-end like that.

Here's the thing, though. I would happily watch any episode of "Batman: The Animated Series", Superman: The Animated Series, Justice League, Justice League Unlimited any time. And, yes, while DC Comics has had more success hooking me with their animated shows, the same would be true for Hulk and the Agents of S.M.A.S.H. or The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes, although certainly not Avengers Assemble. I also enjoyed Fantastic Four: World's Greatest Heroes with some reservations. This fits with the fact that if someone wanted to binge watch the earlier seasons "Arrow" or "The Flash" with me, I'd be interested in revisiting them. I expect the same will be true for "Daredevil" and Jessica Jones soon enough. And I don't even know where to put the original Batman, but of course I'll watch it any time!

And yet, I think Superman: The Movie, Superman II and Batman are the only superhero movies I've watched all the way through more than once. Those aren't the only ones I've enjoyed. I've enjoyed the The X-Men movies for the most part. I started watching X-Men a second time once and just got distracted and never went back. I was actually kind of thrilled with the first two Sam Raimi directed Spider-Man movies, but I don't remember even starting them. I liked the The Dark Knight Trilogy less than many, but I did genuinely love Batman Begins, which I've watched bits and pieces of on TV, but never watched it all the way through.

One could argue my disappointment with the sequels could have dampened my enthusiasm for Iron Man, but so far all is rosy for Captain America: First Avenger and yet, just once. Pretty recently, though, due to my boycott of Marvel Films that was ended with Kirby settlement, although cheated on for Guardians of the Galaxy, which I have seen three times. Is that a "superhero" movie? My love for James Gunn trumps many things, apparently including my own convictions.

Like I said, I'm just listing off movies I liked, including many I liked quite well.

Am I certain how this works?

Not exactly. Some of it might be to do with more general issues. I believe I like serial storytelling more than individual single stories overall in life. In general, that's pretty broad. I'm not sure there's a TV show I like better than I like, say, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, nor do I think expanding that story into a serial story could possibly improve it. And there's a longer post I've been meaning to write on continuing To Kill a Mockingbird.

Now, you might say, "But what about Star Wars or Planet of the Apes? I read this blog, Neil, and I know what you're into. Aren't those serials in the form of individual movies, just like Marvel has been doing and DC is working to start?"

Yes, this is where my general indifference to modern blockbuster storytelling might be a bigger factor than my preference for serials in explaining why I haven't gotten around to Avengers: Age of Ultron, why I'm not excited to rush off to Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, etc. Not to mention the fact that the Planet of the Apes TV series, Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels are now significant elements in my continuing enjoyment of these franchises, so those complicate rather than simplify.

Seriously, though. Which movie series right now do you expect to throw something like Beneath the Planet of the Apes in there? And then follow it with something like Escape from the Planet of the Apes? I don't think it could happen with a big movie series like that anymore. Sure, the Marvel movies are toying with making different movies that feel like variations on other genres, which I think is a good plan for keeping them feeling fresh generally overall to the public and not wear out their welcome. It looks like, if done right, including the Star Wars anthology stories, starting with Rogue One, subtitled "A Star Wars Story", are attempting to do the same.

But tell the story of the apocalypse and follow that with a fish out water comedy that goes altogether south? It couldn't happen.

Take a look at something like Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. This is certainly the Star Trek series that had the strongest through line for its story. It has a story that develops directly out of the pilot, Emissary, and concludes with the final episode, What You Leave Behind. Even in the first season, when the path to being that fully a series with a direction, that story is already being developed in episodes such as Progress, Duet and In the Hands of the Prophets.

The fact that they had no designs on the details only makes it more of a delight. Look at Garak, who would eventually be a major player, dramatically and thematically, in the full series, but he's kind of just a humorous plot device in Past Prologue, his first episode. Almost certainly without the brilliant Andrew Robinson would never have been seen again, and only possibly referred to again as the punchline to a joke referring back to that episode. Even then, without the brilliance of Robinson, who would remember that episode to get the joke?

The digressions possible in a serial are part of the joy and the richness of the texture. Little Green Men and Trials and Tribble-ations are part of the fabric of the show as much as the larger political story, the latter, of course, playing off an Original Series episode it puts its own spin on.

Individual stories rarely have those kinds of happy accidents, although, admittedly, they can have their own kinds.

But the divergence is specific to the serial. The funny episode of a generally serious series, as noted above, or the sad episode of a comedy. It gives the each a kind of richness that I find particularly compelling and find lacking in much of the mainstream blockbusters. Many of the reviews for Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice refer to it as "humorless", which is particularly odd for a movie about superheroes, but I suspect the larger issue is that it's emotionally one-dimensional and we reach to humor because that is the most common extra dimension to add to a "serious" action movie, so it's the first people reach for.

Superheroes specifically seem designed for serial storytelling. Not only were they, but they grew out of pulp and radio adventures of similar characters that were also designed to be told as serials. Telling only the big stories and packaging them in one big fancy summer package can be fun, but I think the real issue is that I don't connect with it. It's cotton candy for me, even if some of it is some kind of super gourmet hipster cotton candy with unusual flavors. Ultimately, it's just eaten and gone. Other people, many, many other people, seem to respond differently to them and I think that's great, but I needed to process why it feels different to me and try to see perhaps why I don't connect the same.

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