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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE — ROGUE NATION (2015) Movie Review (Spoilers)

The newest Mission: Impossible film, Rogue Nation, was written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie (writer of The Usual Suspects and Edge of Tomorrow, director of Jack Reacher) from a story by McQuarrie and Drew Pearce. It’s the second M:I film produced by Bad Robot, and thus the third with involvement from J.J. Abrams (who directed M:i:III but apparently did not produce it, I was surprised to learn recently). It continues the trend of continuity between films and the ensemble flavor of Ghost Protocol, with Simon Pegg’s Benji Dunn and Jeremy Renner’s William Brandt returning from that film, alongside Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt and Ving Rhames’s Luther Stickell, who has a sizeable role this time after having just a cameo in GP. Having both Benji and Luther prominently in the same film could be a problem, since they fill the same role on the team, but this is resolved by having them spend a lot of the film apart, with Benji supporting Ethan and Luther supporting Brandt. Paula Patton’s Jane Carter is neither seen nor mentioned, with the female lead instead being Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), a disavowed British agent whose loyalties are unclear for much of the film.

The film rather wisely starts out by immediately disposing of the big vertiginous Tom Cruise stunt sequence that was inevitably going to be plastered all over the trailers and promotions and thus wouldn’t be a surprise anyway — namely, the scene where he clings to the side of a cargo plane as it takes off. Fittingly, Ethan’s first appearance in the film has him doing a Patented Tom Cruise Run to leap onto the plane, and his plane cling isn’t exactly Ethan Hunt Climbs Things but is pretty close. (Previously, Cruise has had short hair in every odd-numbered picture and long hair in every even-numbered one; here he’s sort of in between.) The sequence is fun and deftly directed, and Joe Kraemer’s score immediately makes an impression equal in strength to Michael Giacchino’s work on the previous two films. Like Ghost Protocol, the teaser leads into a main title sequence that homages the titles of the original series, complete with flashforward clips of the action to come, but in a more conventional way than GP’s titles — rather evocative of the original 1996 film’s title sequence, in fact. The main title arrangement is big and brassy in a way that evokes both the 1996 Danny Elfman version and the Ghost Protocol Giacchino version.

The evocation of the ’96 film is perhaps appropriate, since this is the first sequel to directly acknowledge any events from that film. CIA Director Hunley (Alec Baldwin) mentions Ethan’s iconic Langley break-in from said film, along with the destruction of the Kremlin and other events of Ghost Protocol, as part of his case that the IMF is a renegade organization that should be shut down. He actually makes an objectively good case that its secretive methods are ill-suited to the modern age of transparency and accountability, but of course we’re supposed to be rooting against him and for Brandt, who argues that the IMF has been doing good work for 40 years — which is short by about nine years, I’d say. Has the original series suddenly been retconned out of existence? Is this proof that the movies are in a separate reality from the show? Or did Brandt just misspeak? In any case, the nebulously defined committee that they’re testifying to agrees to shut down the IMF.

But Ethan doesn’t know this, as he’s going to a message drop in London to get his next assignment. I had to squee at this sequence, because the drop is in a record store and the message is encoded on a vinyl phonograph album — a callback to the 1966 pilot episode!!!!! But with a couple of twists — first, that it uses a modern laser thingy to project graphics onto the turntable lid… and second, that it turns out to be a trap laid by the Syndicate, an evil organization that Ethan’s been hunting down since the closing moments of Ghost Protocol (said to be a year before, even though that was four years ago). It’s fun to hear the formula of the message subverted by the bad guys. Ethan sees a mysterious bespectacled man gun down the pretty store clerk who was his contact, before he’s gassed unconscious as the “self-destruct” part of the message.

Ethan awakes in the clutches of the Syndicate, which apparently plans to use torture to break him and turn him to their side. He’s helped to escape by Ilsa Faust, a mole within the Syndicate, but he finds from Brandt that he’s out in the cold and that Hunley doesn’t believe in the Syndicate’s existence. But he’s determined to find the bespectacled man and get justice, so he goes rogue. Cut to six months later, with Brandt working under Hunley and Benji as a CIA analyst who has to trick weekly polygraph tests to insist he has no loyalty to Ethan. But Ethan arranges to get Benji’s help at an opera in Vienna, whereupon he encounters Ilsa apparently trying to assassinate the Austrian chancellor, though there are two other assassins on hand to take her out if she fails. Ethan foils the assassination — the same way Ilsa had planned to — and they escape together, but the Syndicate has a backup plan and foils their foiling.

Ilsa breaks away to preserve her cover and report to Syndicate head Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), who keeps letting her live despite her “failures” because it’s convenient to the plot — err, because he sees “potential” in her. Meanwhile, Ethan explains to Benji that the Syndicate is an “anti-IMF,” consisting of former spies believed dead or missing and employing IMF-style tactics to fake deadly accidents in order to tear down the world order.

Lane gives Ilsa one more chance, sending her to Casablanca to break into an ultra-high security data vault, a job that Ethan and Benji end up helping her with when they learn it’s to access Lane’s ledger listing all the Syndicate’s agents. This is the sequence with Ethan diving into an underwater facility and trying to hold his breath for several minutes, and it’s another tour-de-force action set piece, with the underwater sound design being particularly impressive. Ilsa saves Ethan’s life when he drowns — the second time in the series that the female lead has gotten to bring Ethan back from the brink of death — but then she breaks away with the retrieved data, and Ethan and Benji literally run into Brandt and Luther as they chase after her. A car chase reminiscent of The Italian Job gives way to a motorcycle chase reminiscent of M:I-2, but Ilsa gets away.

She takes the data to Attlee, the head of British intelligence, and demands that she be brought in, but he turns out to be a ruthless bastard who insists she go back in and assassinate Ethan to prove her allegiance to Lane. He also deletes the stolen data on her thumb drive, though of course Benji made a backup, so Ethan’s team now has the only copy. And it’s not a ledger, but a “red box” file that only the Prime Minister of the UK can open. Clearly Lane intends to kidnap the PM. But when the team tracks down Ilsa to confront her, Lane kidnaps Benji in order to force Ethan to kidnap the PM. This was the plan all along. (Why? Seems needlessly convoluted.)

It looks like Ethan’s going to go through with it, and Brandt argues against doing something so insane. We cut to Brandt calling Hunley to tell him what Ethan’s planning. It’s pretty easy to guess that in between scenes, Ethan spelled out a con game that Brandt is playing along with, only pretending to betray him. Brandt lures Hunley to London, where they end up in a room with the PM and Attlee, the latter of whom maneuvers the PM into revealing to Hunley that the Syndicate was a proposal of Attlee’s to found a rogue agency that could act with impunity — a proposal that the PM rejected but that Attlee carried forward anyway. I guessed pretty early in the scene that Attlee was actually Ethan in a mask, since the actor they cast, Simon McBurney, seemed similar to Cruise in size and facial structure. And of course it was, though it’s unclear how Ethan deduced some of the things he reveals as Attlee. They’ve also lured the real Attlee to take the fall, while arranging for Hunley to take the credit for catching him. With Hunley now on their side, they use the PM’s biometrics to open the file, which is Attlee’s financial records intended to fund the Syndicate. (The most awkward moment in the film is here — just before the truth is revealed to Hunley, when he still thinks Ethan is coming to kill the PM, he issues an overwrought warning about how Ethan is this unstoppable force, “the living manifestation of destiny” or some such thing, which just comes out of nowhere and is way too aggrandizing to Ethan. We don’t even get a comedy beat of embarrassment when Hunley realizes that Ethan was standing right there listening to his overeffusive words.)

Lane sets up a trap to force Ethan to turn over the account numbers lest Benji and Ilsa be blown up, but Ethan outmaneuvers him — he memorized the data and erased the disk, so now Lane needs him alive. He gets Benji released and then protects Ilsa from being shot by Syndicate men, and this leads into a final chase through the streets wherein Ethan and Ilsa eventually get separated so that they can each have their own individual action climax. Lane shows up to confront Ethan directly, conveniently forgetting that whole “need him alive” thing, and Ethan leads him into a nice little trap set up by Luther and Benji — a trap that, refreshingly, ends with the villain apparently still alive and unconscious. And the way it’s done, which calls back the record-store incident that was Ethan and Lane’s first meeting, is more satisfying than Lane’s death would’ve been. Anyway, Ethan and Ilsa say their farewells — platonically, I’m glad to say, though that’s as close as the film comes to acknowledging that Ethan still has a wife out there somewhere.

The movie ends with an odd little scene where Hunley convinces the Nebulous Committee to reinstate the IMF, whereupon Brandt tells him, “Welcome to the IMF, Mister Secretary.” Now, that’s very odd. It implies that the Secretary is the head of the IMF. In the past, it always seemed that he was the secretary of defense or state, a cabinet-level post that oversaw the intelligence community. Having him be exclusively attached to the IMF and appointed by some kind of committee is hard to make sense of. It’s also a disappointing ending in another sense, because when Ilsa went off to her ill-defined future, I imagined the closing scene I wanted to see: Ilsa some time later showing up to a message drop and then hearing Ethan’s voice say, “Good morning, Ms. Faust. Your mission, should you choose to accept it…” I think that would’ve been a perfect ending. Concluding the film without formally bringing Ilsa on board feels incomplete, particularly since it leaves the IMF as an all-male outfit throughout the film.

Rogue Nation was a pretty solid action movie, very well-made. It doesn’t seem to have the plausibility problems of the first two films, and it has a level of humor close to that of Ghost Protocol. I’m getting tired of Ethan always being on the run from his own government, but at least it was set up as a continuation of the events of previous films. Indeed, I enjoy the way this film felt like a continuation of the previous one, even more so than GP did; it’s a refreshing change from the first decade of the franchise, where each film felt like an unrelated standalone. RN didn’t have as strong a character story at its core as the previous two, but what filled that void was the interplay and friendship among the core cast. This is the first M:I film where every member of Ethan’s team is a returning character, and that history gives weight to the character interactions, which is good, because the characters are given little development otherwise. There’s also Ilsa’s story as a reluctant double agent trying to balance her allegiances and stay alive — perhaps not very deep or emotional, but well-handled by Ferguson, who’s a very strong presence and an effective counterpart to Cruise. There’s a degree of male gaze directed toward her by the camera on occasion, but she never really feels objectified, since she’s so poised and in control.

I have particular praise for Joe Kraemer’s score. It integrates the Schifrin themes as strongly as Giacchino’s did, if not more so, and builds new motifs on similar chord structures so that it all feels of a piece, not only with the Schifrin themes but with the Giacchino scores, which did much the same thing. Kraemer actually uses “The Plot” more extensively than Giacchino did, accompanying a lot of the team’s machinations; although, like Danny Elfman in the first film, he never quotes the entire melody, sticking mainly to the first few bars. The most extensive use of “The Plot” is in the Casablanca sequence, where it gets reworked to have an “Arabian” sound to it.

The movie is not without flaws, though. For one thing, it fails the Bechdel test. Ilsa is the only significant female character; of the two others, one (the doomed record-shop clerk) is just there to be killed to motivate Ethan, and the other (an aide to Hunley played by Chinese actress Zhang Jingchu, who’s prominently credited for less than a minute of screen time) is apparently just there to satisfy the Chinese funding partners. Neither of them interacts with Ilsa at all. I’d say it passes the Mako Mori test, in that Ilsa has a clearly drawn arc of her own that isn’t about supporting a male character’s arc, but the overwhelming maleness of most of the cast is distracting. (The Nebulous Committee, for instance, consists entirely of old white men plus one token old black man.) Looking back over the series, though, it seems that none of the films pass the test fully, except maybe the first, which has three named women on the initial team, participating in the group conversation about the mission.

It also doesn’t feel as much like Mission: Impossible as GP did. It’s more in the vein of the second and third films in being driven more by big action than by devious con games. The sequence with the Prime Minister and Attlee comes the closest to an IMF-style con game, and the infiltration of the Casablanca vault has a touch of it (since it’s basically a variation on the classic IMF tactic of inserting fake credentials for a team member into the target’s records). But mostly it’s action over calculating schemes and deceptions, and Ethan and the team spend too much time improvising rather than playing out intricate chess games plotted in advance. The Nebulous Committee even argues that Ethan’s methods are “indistinguishable from luck,” which is pretty much anathema to the IMF of the TV series, wherein every move was calculated from the start and very little was ever left to chance. I regret that the film series has become so defined by its big action, because I’d love to see an M:I movie that was all about a big sting operation. Oh, and the Syndicate is said to be an “anti-IMF,” but its methods seem to consist mainly of snipers and bombs and the like. Dougray Scott in M:I-2 was more convincing in his use of IMF-style tactics for evil, and loyal readers, I’m as astonished as you to hear myself saying something positive about M:I-2. Granted, though, lack of IMFery isn’t a dealbreaker for an M:I movie; the third film had little of it, but it’s still one of the two strongest films in the series. It’s just that GP was the first film in the series that actually felt like Mission: Impossible rather than The Adventures of Ethan Hunt, and I was hoping RN would continue the trend. It did not.

And the lack of character development compared to the previous two films does disappoint me in retrospect. The dramatic tension among the team members played well, but there was little sense of backstory or personal lives like there was in the previous two films. It was all about the job and the plot business they were dealing with. The past two films gave Ethan a personal life that humanized him, but that was totally absent here, with Ethan defined totally by his quest to bring down the Syndicate. So it’s shallower overall, though not as shallow as the first two films.

If anything, RN reminds me of M:I-2 in a lot of ways. It’s a heavily action-driven film featuring a lengthy motorcycle chase; it features a villain using IMF-style tactics for evil; and it centers on Ethan’s competition with the villain for the allegiance of the sole significant female character in the film. But it’s much better in most respects: the action is less cartoony; the female lead is a protagonist in her own right and not merely a lust interest; and the rest of the IMF team functions as a full ensemble rather than just being tacked on.

So out of the five films so far, I would rank Rogue Nation as a close third behind the previous two films, and well ahead of the first two. I still think of the first two as failed pilots for a series that didn’t really get underway until J.J. Abrams took the helm. That series proper is now up to three films that have maintained a pretty consistent level of quality throughout. This is the weakest of the three, but by a narrow margin.

ANT-MAN Review (spoilers)

I’ve seen some reviews criticizing Ant-Man for not being as “necessary” to the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe as other films have been. But I think that’s missing the point of the MCU’s interconnectedness. It’s not about how the films serve the universe; it’s about how the universe serves the films. And I think that was very much in evidence in Ant-Man. It’s telling its own story, but it’s a story that’s informed by the larger context it’s part of, and that sense of being in a larger world is useful to the story.

For starters, the ties to the larger universe serve as a shorthand to help us understand the mindset of Dr. Hank Pym, as played by Michael Douglas, who’s very convincingly de-aged in the opening flashback to the 1980s. We already know what SHIELD is (in the person of a mature Peggy Carter), and we know who Howard Stark is (with John Slattery reprising the older Howard), so that gives us context for where Pym is coming from when he walks away from SHIELD rather than share his powerful Pym particles with them. And we know how Howard’s son Tony formed the Avengers and how SHIELD connects to Hydra, so that gives context for later developments such as Pym’s unwillingness to call in the Avengers and the plans of Pym’s protege Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) for militarizing the shrinking tech and selling it to disreputable parties.

So that background simplifies the exposition and lets the film focus more fully on the story it’s telling in the here and now, with catburglar Scott Lang (star and co-writer Paul Rudd) trying to go straight and be worthy of his totally adorable 5-year-old daughter, but being lured back into thievery by Pym, who intends to recruit him to steal Cross’s Yellowjacket prototype before it can fall into The Wrong Hands. Both Scott and Hank are defined by their troubled relationships with their daughters — Scott close to his daughter but kept away from her by his ex-wife and her cop fiance, and Hank marginalizing his gung-ho daughter Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) in a way she resents, but that turns out to be based on protectiveness and his grief about the loss of his wife Janet, the winsome Wasp. It’s a pretty effective story about well-meaning but flawed people gradually finding their way to the same page. Not profound drama, perhaps, but fine for giving a human core to a comedy-adventure movie.

What’s interesting about Hope’s arc, which is largely about her wanting to don the Ant-“Man” suit herself and resenting Hank’s insistence on recruiting Scott instead, is that it feels like a metatextual nod toward the treatment of female heroes in the MCU thus far. Hank may be acting out of love, preferring to risk the expendable Scott over his own daughter, but it’s still a paternalistic choice and keeps a clearly qualified woman out of the lead role she deserves. Hopefully the resolution of that arc is also symbolic of where the MCU is going with regard to its heroines, but it still feels like too little (no pun intended), too late.

Another MCU trend that this film fails to buck is the tendency toward one-dimensional villains. Darren Cross is an obvious bad egg from the first scene, and he has no character arc. It’s explained that the effect of his knockoff Pym particles has warped his mind, but that’s an easy copout. Making a villain insane is a cheat, because it saves the writer from having to come up with plausible motivations or nuances. And Marvel has had so many rich, nuanced villains in its comics over the decades that it’s surprising the MCU falls so short on that front even while capturing the Marvel spirit so well in other respects.

For me, perhaps the best example of that was the scene where Hank sent Scott on a “trial run” to steal a security bypass device from an old Stark facility which turned out to be the new Avengers HQ, leading to a fight with the Falcon. This was the part that felt the most like a scene out of a comic. You’re introducing a new hero and you want to show his stuff, so what do you do? You bring in an established guest hero and have them fight. That’s a classic Marvel move. And now the MCU is such a well-developed, continuous universe that it feels as natural in the movies as it does in the comics. It’s also good to see Falcon get a featured role after the way he was marginalized in Age of Ultron — though it’s a shame that his first action scene as an Avenger ends with him losing.

Also, I was bugged by Scott’s boastful line afterward about how “I fought an Avenger — and didn’t die!” That implies the Avengers go around killing as a matter of course, and that’s disturbing. That’s another respect in which the movies have consistently failed to capture the comics’ flavor — the casualness with which the “heroes” kill, something that their comics counterparts usually avoid as a rule. I find it ironic that the TV series Daredevil, which is touted as the darkest and most violent incarnation of the MCU yet, is the only one in which the hero has a code against killing. Ant-Man was pretty good in that respect too; both Hank and Scott were opposed to violence, and they and Scott’s comic-relief accomplices made a point of evacuating the building they planned to destroy in the big heist. (Indeed, the moment where Luis went back to rescue the tied-up guard was perhaps the moment when he really crossed the line to the side of “the good guys,” a nice redemptive beat.) Even Yellowjacket’s fate in the end is somewhat ambiguous. This film probably has the lowest body count of any MCU production to date, and that’s refreshing.

Otherwise, I feel the action was very well-done. Ant-Man’s shrinking powers and the microscopic setting in which he operated made for some very novel visuals and action beats, a nice, fresh addition to the usual roster of superpowers. When was the last time we had a live-action movie that played around with miniaturization? Was it way back with Honey, I Shrunk the Kids? If so, it’s a trope that’s been overdue for a revisit with modern effects. The control of ants as a major part of the action was also a novel element, though as a lifelong entomophobe, I appreciate that they made the digital ants “cuter” than the real things would be at that scale of magnification.

The comedy aspects of the film are also pretty effective, and I can tell that a lot of Edgar Wright’s ideas and sensibilities have been retained, particularly the use of super-quick cuts and visual montages. It’s probably more homogenized than it would’ve been if Wright had stayed on the film, but as a middle ground between the Wright style and the MCU house style, I think it worked pretty well.

The theater I went to was pretty crowded, since Tuesday is discount day and it’s the first week of release. (Normally I would’ve waited longer, but there were already so many spoilers out online that I felt I had to see it before I got too completely spoiled.) Nearly everybody stuck around for the mid-credits tag scene, but only a dozen or so people, myself included, stayed for the second tag scene. I found it interesting that the order of the tags was inverted compared to earlier movies. In both Thor: The Dark World and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the mid-credits scene was a teaser for the next film in the sequence, and the final post-credits scene was a tag to the film we’d just watched. I felt it would make more sense the other way around — and this time, it was, with the mid-credits scene being a tag to Ant-Man and the final scene being a setup for (and, I think, an actual excerpt from) Captain America: Civil War. It works better that way, especially with so few patrons being patient enough to stick around to the very end.

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Revisiting the 1987 BEAUTY AND THE BEAST TV series (spoilers)

I’ve spent the past couple of weeks revisiting the original 1987 Beauty and the Beast, the Linda Hamilton/Ron Perlman fantasy series that was the very loose basis for the current CW Network series of the same name. I gave up on the CW remake partway through the second season, but I remembered liking the original, so I wanted to rewatch it before Netflix pulled it from streaming at the end of the month. Oddly, though, Netflix’s stream is missing two episodes (and one of the final episodes is shown out of order), and I eventually ended up borrowing much of the series on DVD from the public library. The series is badly in need of an HD remastering, and I’m afraid it actually looks better on my old, standard-definition TV set — the format it was made for — than it does on streaming video, where there are often serious scan-line artifacts.

Beauty and the Beast was created and showrun by Ron Koslow, and its writing staff featured novelist George R.R. Martin, best known today for A Song of Ice and Fire/A Game of Thrones. Other writing staffers included Alex Gansa & Howard Gordon, David Peckinpah (season 1 only), and P.K. Simonds, with Paul Junger Witt & Tony Thomas (best known for various sitcoms) as the executive producers along with Koslow. The series had only the loosest connection to the fairy tale of the same name. Linda Hamilton played Catherine Chandler, a pampered corporate lawyer who was subjected to a brutal, random attack (a case of mistaken identity, since ’80s TV didn’t demand that every plot point be part of some vast conspiracy directed at the main characters) and was nursed back to health by Vincent (Ron Perlman), a powerful but gentle lion-man who lived in the tunnels underneath New York City, part of a secret utopian community led by Father (Roy Dotrice), a stern but kindly older man who adopted Vincent when he was found abandoned as a baby. (The series never explained Vincent’s origins or nature.) Catherine is initially shocked by Vincent’s appearance once her bandages come off and she can see him, but she’s had time to discover his caring, educated nature, and the two form a powerful bond that enables Vincent to sense her emotions empathically and feel when she’s in danger. And that comes in handy later, since she leaves her cushy law firm and gets a job at the district attorney’s office, which often leads her into danger on the gritty streets of a New York City that was portrayed (at least in the first season) as a rather hellish, squalid place. Though Vincent was a soft-spoken, compassionate being with the mind of a scholar and the soul of a poet, he had a ferocious animal side that came out with lethal effect whenever Catherine was endangered.

Vincent’s leonine makeup was created by FX legend Rick Baker, and it’s one of his finest creations. It works so well with the planes of Ron Perlman’s face while also transforming it utterly and making it beautiful. Perlman also uses a very different voice than he usually does, a soft, contemplative, highly articulate growl that probably had female viewers swooning. (Jay Ryan on the CW remake attempts to do the same kind of rumbly voice, but in his case it just comes off as mushmouthed, lazy mumbling. Even though he doesn’t have Perlman’s impediment of a mouth full of fake fangs to talk through.)

I have a theory that TV series with unusual premises are often obligated to start out in a formulaic mode to appease network executives and more conservative viewers, and only later are free to begin exploring the ideas that make them distinctive. B&tB is a classic example of this. The show was always literate, with characters constantly reading books and quoting poetry and literature and listening to classical music, and the production values were excellent, particularly the lush musical score (initially by Lee Holdridge, but mostly by future The Matrix composer Don Davis and occasionally William Ross), one of the last great, lyrical orchestral TV scores before the age of minimalist atmospherics and electronic scores took hold in the ’90s. But the first ten episodes were quite formulaic and rather boring after a while. The stories were mainly focused on the surface world (“The World Above”), with the underground “World Below” given very little exploration, even though it was the most interesting part of the premise. The World Below was based on the real-life phenomenon of homeless people living in the extensive abandoned tunnels beneath New York City, but it was a fantasy extrapolation beyond that, a warm and inviting cavern world filled with books and artwork and ornate hand-me-downs from the World Above, and with gorgeous underground settings represented by elaborate matte paintings. But for nearly half a season, the inhabitants of the World Below seemed to consist entirely of Vincent, Father, and occasionally a few orphan children. It was a secondary element tacked onto an otherwise fairly conventional crime drama, with Vincent as your formulaic superhero who was constantly running through tunnels and riding on top of a subway train to race to Catherine’s rescue. Those episodes that didn’t involve Vincent saving Catherine usually involved Vincent getting captured or trapped up above and needing Catherine to rescue him. The main exception was an episode where Father had to venture above when summoned by an old love, but immediately stumbled upon a murder and got arrested for it.

But about halfway through the season, that suddenly changed, as if the producers were finally given the freedom to explore the side of the show that the network was uneasy with. In the course of just a few episodes, the World Below was fleshed out into a whole community of recurring characters including: Pascal (Armin Shimerman), the master of the tunnelers’ communication system based in tapping code on underground pipes; Mouse (David Greenlee), an eccentric, semi-feral tinkerer and troublemaker with an idiosyncratic speech pattern (“Okay good, okay fine”); Jamie (Irina Irvine), a plucky teenage girl; Mary (Ellen Geer), the matronly midwife of the community; Winslow (James Avery), who started out being just the big angry guy who was wrong about everything but who got to be on more or less the right side in later appearances; and the main recurring bad guy, Paracelsus (Tony Jay) — a co-founder of the underground world with Father, but long since exiled due to his supervillainous ambitions. For the rest of the season, although we still got a few more conventional Above plots, most of the stories were about events Below or about the impact that people and events from one world had upon the other. There was also a decreasing emphasis on action and a shift more toward more character-driven, dramatic stories.

These trends become even stronger in the first half of season 2, which focuses primarily on the World Below, or on aboveground plots driven by characters and situations from Below. The tunnel world and its culture are fleshed out more fully, and the show becomes less about the romance between Catherine and Vincent and more about Catherine’s relationship with the entire underground community, her role as the bridge between worlds. Personally, I liked the show far better in this vein. There’s only so much you can do with “a love that can never be,” especially when it’s defined as vaguely as it was here. The relationship between the two remained totally chaste; they never even kissed, for reasons that were left vague. I suppose the implicit reason was that Vincent’s fangs and claws and superstrength made it too dangerous for her, and that the “beast” within him would go out of control in the heat of passion. But when they finally did an episode that gingerly addressed this, fully halfway into season 2, it was clearly the first time Vincent and Catherine had even spoken about it, which was deeply implausible. It’s startling from a modern perspective how utterly chaste the show was, never talking about sex overtly. But then, it was an 8 PM show back when 8 PM was considered a child-friendly viewing hour. And maybe the show was designed to appeal to female viewers who were drawn to a fantasy of a heroic, perfect male companion with the thrill of danger but no need to worry about the complications of sex. I have to wonder what it says about Catherine that she was okay to have that with Vincent for over a year without even wondering why.

Season 2 also toned down the action and violence in the first half, mercifully avoiding the Catherine-in-danger formula and the recycled footage of Vincent racing to her rescue. On those few occasions that Vincent did give in to his rage, we finally saw how it troubled him, how he feared and hated that side of him, something we’d never really seen in season 1 when it was a handy device to kill off the bad guys of the week. For a show that was so prudish about sex, it was surprisingly cavalier about killing, and I was glad to see it get away from that. Plus I found the exploration of the World Below more engaging than the action and romance elements. The problem with romance series is the need to keep the characters constantly apart or in turmoil through one contrivance or another, and that was something that really got tedious to me when I watched the show in its first run. I was happiest at the point when Vincent and Catherine’s relationship was just this stable background element in a show that was about fleshing out this charming fantasy world beneath the city. The World Below was the kind of fantasy that drew me, a safe haven free from violence or cruelty, a place where outcasts and the vulnerable could be taken in and nurtured. Of course, the more we explored the World Below, the more crises had to befall it for the sake of drama, and I remember getting tired of how maudlin the second season got, with one disastrous thing after another seeming to befall the leads. Yet on my revisit, that didn’t seem to be quite as constant a thread as I remembered.

Unfortunately, the pattern of season 2 was the reverse of season 1, in that the half-season devoted to gentler, dramatic stories driven by the tunnel community was followed by a half-season devoted to action/danger plots in the World Above. My recollection is that there was network meddling to fight sagging ratings, and that meant a return to the formulaic and familiar, with the tunnel characters all but disappearing in the back half of the season. Even in the episode where Catherine’s father dies and she retreats below to grieve, that sense of the larger community is absent and it’s solely about her and Vincent. Even a scene between her and Father would’ve been welcome. And then there’s a whole run of episodes set topside and dealing with various crime/danger or courtroom-drama plots. It’s only in the last two episodes, as the Paracelsus arc comes to a climax, that the World Below is featured again.

All in all, the first two seasons are a study in overcorrections. The show swings between extremes, half a season spending too little time in one world followed by half a season spending too little time in the other. I preferred the roughly year-long stretch in the middle that focused on the World Below, but I would’ve appreciated more of a balance throughout.

The show went through more radical changes in the third season, as Linda Hamilton’s pregnancy forced the producers to write her out. Also, Ron Koslow left the series after co-writing the season premiere to set off the new course, although the rest of the staff remained intact. Most of the season revolved around a new archvillain named Gabriel (Stephen McHattie), a nebulously all-powerful crime boss who secretly rules the city, and who’s prone to rambling monologues about his evil philosophy (I’m not sure whether the writers intended them to be as incoherent as they were). Although he’s played with effective menace by McHattie, and given a memorable leitmotif by Davis (like a cross between Lalo Schifrin’s “The Plot” and Gerald Fried’s “Pon Farr”), it’s never really all that clear just who he is, what he does, or how he got so powerful.

Anyway, the second season ended with a cliffhanger where Vincent was lost in his rage and Catherine went in to try to help him, and in the third season premiere, that “help” evidently consists of the physical intimacy the show aggressively avoided until now. Although the avoidance is still intact, because their “love scene” is in the form of a hilariously cheesy video montage of blooming roses and explosions and hands clasping, with the song version of the main title theme playing over it. This cheesy montage has two effects: One, it gets Catherine pregnant, and two, it breaks their empathic bond so that Vincent can’t find her and save her when Gabriel abducts her (before she can tell Vincent about the child). But Gabriel learns of Vincent and wants to possess his child, keeping Catherine alive until she delivers and then killing her, with Vincent just too late to save her. The show remains intensely euphemistic about sex even in her dying words to Vincent: “We loved. There is a child.”

The show then introduces a new female lead, Jo Anderson, as Diana Bennett, an NYPD profiler/analyst who gets assigned to Catherine’s case in the second episode and eventually finds her way to Vincent about halfway through the 11-episode season. Now, when this cast change happened, most of the show’s fans were outraged. Vincent and Catherine are eternal lovers! How can you kill off our beloved Catherine and expect us to accept this interloper in her place? But I never felt that way, because… well, I’m sorry, but I’ve never actually liked Linda Hamilton much. She’s okay as Sarah Connor, but I found her performance as Catherine rather unappealing, particularly in the first half-season, when she tended to deliver her lines in a high-pitched lilt that I found weak and insipid. Her delivery got better over time, perhaps as Catherine outgrew her pampered-heiress origins and became tougher, but I still never liked her delivery much, the weakest voice in a cast filled with gorgeous voices like Ron Perlman, Roy Dotrice, Tony Jay, and James Avery. I also never found her to be as beautiful as advertised. So her departure didn’t trouble me at all. And while Jo Anderson didn’t seem all that striking to me at first glance, she had the kind of face that gets more compellingly beautiful the more you look at it. She was a redhead with enormous, soulful blue eyes and luminous skin, like a Titian painting brought to life. And she had an earthier, subtler appeal than Hamilton had; Diana was more of a middle-class character with a New Jersey accent (the actress’s own) that I found rather charming. I didn’t think of it until just this moment, but she reminds me of Elisa Maza from Gargoyles. (She’s also very reminiscent of Gillian Anderson of The X-Files, but apparently they aren’t related.)

(Edited to add) Season 3 also makes a regular out of the late Edward Laurence Albert, who’d had a recurring role in the first two seasons as Elliot Burch, a morally ambiguous industrialist who was a rival for Catherine’s affections, and whom Vincent approached for help in investigating her death. (If Diana reminds me of Elisa from Gargoyles, Elliot is basically a nicer David Xanatos, even to the point of resembling Jonathan Frakes.) Albert was the son of comic actor Eddie Albert, but he did terrific dramatic work as Burch, so it’s no wonder they made him a regular. Although it was odd in story terms that Vincent went to him instead of the other male regular, Catherine’s boss Joe Maxwell (Jay Acovone), who’d been a stalwart friend to her throughout (and secretly in love with her, though it was never made explicit until season 3). As it was, Joe became a somewhat adversarial figure as he latched onto Vincent as a possible suspect in Catherine’s murder (albeit without knowing more than his name). He was the one who brought Diana into the story, though.

Which is not to say that I liked everything about the third season. It’s far more plot- and action-driven than the previous two, a lot less thoughtful and rarefied and a lot more violent. It’s striking how heavily serialized it is, with almost every episode ending on a cliffhanger. I tend to think of that level of serialization as something that didn’t develop in SF/fantasy TV until Babylon 5, but B&tB had it beat by several years. Oddly, though, the Gabriel arc wraps up after 9 episodes, with the series concluding with an unconnected 2-parter. I’d guess that 2-parter was a “pilot” for the new status quo just in case the series got renewed, as it served to bring Diana fully into the tunnel community at last.

But season 3 is the only one that manages to find a good balance between the Worlds Above and Below, though somewhat at the expense of Below’s isolation and otherness, with more characters crossing from one world to the other. I would’ve liked to see that balance achieved while the series was still more driven by character drama.

Overall, Beauty and the Beast never found the perfect balance of its elements. It was at the mercy of constant executive meddling, frequent retools and overcorrections that never let it find and keep a consistent identity. The saving grace is that the writing staff remained mostly consistent, with the only major changes being the departures of David Peckinpah after season 1 (probably for the best, considering how he later screwed up Sliders) and Koslow after the season 3 premiere. Koslow aside, George R.R. Martin and the Gansa/Gordon duo remained the primary guiding voices throughout, so it did manage to maintain a degree of consistency despite its changes. (Including, I think, a change of venue. The first season seemed to be shot in New York for real, but the last two were made in LA. It gave it a less authentic feel.)

One thing that surprised me is how old this show felt. I don’t think of the ’80s as being that long ago, but it was nearly three decades, and the world was very different. There are no mobile phones and hardly any computers in the show. The DA’s office has some computer consoles off to the side, but no desktops, and Catherine writes her legal briefs in pencil on a yellow pad. They even have old-style phones with mechanical ringers, although they get upgraded later in the series. Many of the special effects are really dated as well. There’s gorgeous matte work by Illusion Arts and Effects Unlimited representing the tunnel world, but there are occasional some really bad-looking video chromakey mattes, and I mentioned the terrible-looking “lovemaking” montage. (But there is one cool video effect. In the second-season finale, when Vincent was losing control of himself, some of his point-of-view shots were distorted with the same kind of “howlround” effect used to create the original Doctor Who titles, resulting from the time-delayed feedback you get by pointing a video camera at its own monitor.) The rich orchestral music is also a vestige of an earlier era, albeit a far more welcome one.

But that’s not the most dated aspect. Unfortunately, the show’s treatment of race is rather poor. The cast is overwhelmingly white, unrealistically so for New York City — especially since so many in the World Below are outcasts, orphans, and homeless people who came seeking refuge. The show starts out with several prominent black characters who systematically disappear. Initially, Ren Woods is a regular as Edie, the computer researcher who’s Catherine’s best friend in the office, but she disappears after the first half-season (though, oddly, her name remains in the main titles clear through the third-season premiere). Delroy Lindo has a recurring role as Catherine’s self-defense instructor Isaac, but he also disappears after three early episodes. And James Avery’s Winslow is stuck not only with the stereotype of Angry Black Man, but with the stereotype of First One to Die, late in season 1. He’s replaced for the rest of the series with the nearly identical character William, played by a white actor, Ritch Brinkley. There are occasional guest roles for nonwhite actors, including a significant turn by Richard Roundtree in late season 2 and early season 3, but not often.

And in the first season, there are a few episodes painting other cultures in a rather stereotyped light. There’s a “voodoo cult” episode, the lowest point of season 1, that’s so racist it’s actually called “Dark Spirit.” It tries to be non-racist by having the black suspect be innocent and the handsome white voodoo-expert professor be the real villain, but it’s still horrendous in its portrayal of Haitian religion, with Father dismissing vodou as “primitive superstition.” The episode also introduces the other major black character in the World Below, Narcissa (Beah Richards), a blind mystic constantly spouting cryptic warnings about de world of de spirits. There’s also a Chinatown episode and a “Gypsy” episode that both portray the cultures in question as insular, exotic communities with their own harsh, intractable traditions, needing the show’s enlightened white heroine to convince them that there’s a more humane way. (Although the Chinatown episode, “China Moon,” features fully eight cast members from Big Trouble in Little China, even pitting James Hong as the bad guy against Dennis Dun and Victor Wong as good guys, which is kind of awesome.) It’s such a striking contrast from the modern remake on The CW. That’s a much weaker show in most respects, but it does a terrific job of inclusion, with a Chinese-American Catherine Chandler and a regular cast that’s always been at least 50% nonwhite. I’m sure the original show wasn’t trying to be discriminatory, but it unthinkingly fell into so many of the default racial attitudes of its era.

Overall, Beauty and the Beast was a flawed show, but an intriguing one. In many ways, it was the classiest, most literate and cultured show of its era, though it had to contend with constant network pressures to be more conventional and lowbrow. It had a mostly really good cast (Linda Hamilton being the exception for me), and it was my introduction to multiple actors who went on to become SF or animation stalwarts, including Perlman, Jay, Avery, and Shimerman. (I’d heard Avery’s voice before, but never seen him in live action before this.) And it had mostly terrific production values, making it perhaps the most beautiful show of its day (which is why it really needs an HD upgrade). All in all, it was worth a revisit, even though it was a more flawed show than I remembered.

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Re-evaluating SUPERGIRL (1984)

I hadn’t planned to do any further entries in my coverage of Alexander and Ilya Salkind’s Superman film series (including the Donner films, the theatrical version of Superman II, and Superman III), but the buzz over the pilot to the upcoming CBS Supergirl TV series got me interested in revisiting the movie — particularly after reading this defense of the film on The Mary Sue not long ago, which argued that it worked as an unapologetic Silver Age story, basically the same mindset that let me enjoy Superman III.

Now, my prior impression of the Supergirl movie, which was written by David Odell (The Muppet Show, The Dark Crystal) and directed by Jeannot Szwarc (who’s since gone on to direct many episodes of Smallville and six of Heroes), was not much kinder than my prior impression of the Superman movies. I remembered thinking Helen Slater looked great and was reasonably good in the role, and I remembered loving the Jerry Goldsmith score, but I also remembered finding it rather silly and resenting the way that Supergirl got stuck with a love-triangle plot while her male counterpart got to save the world. Let’s see how that holds up.

First off, Goldsmith’s score is still fantastic. I think I need to get the CD. It’s very much in the vein of John Williams’s Superman work (which was in turn an elaboration on the earlier Superman themes of Sammy Timberg and Leon Klatzkin and just the general heroic-march tradition), but it’s also very much a classic Goldsmith score, with many of his trademarks including the use of novel electronic sounds to supplement the gorgeously arranged orchestra. I also quite like the main title sequence created by Derek Meddings, with reflective titles swooping through the mists and bright lights flashing off them. It’s the kind of title treatment that would soon go on to become a garish cliche of computer-animated titles, but it was done live with actual reflective cutouts, which gives it a much greater elegance. Though the film has some weak effects (like a couple of really blatant jump cuts), it also has some spectacular ones, particularly Meddings’s superb work with a moving camera and a glass painting to represent the villainess Selena’s fortress in the climax.

The film opens in Argo City, evidently created by Peter O’Toole’s inventor Zaltar as an extradimensional artists’ colony of sorts, much more inviting and organic than the sterile, jagged crystals of Donner’s Krypton. It’s never explained whether it was created/moved to “inner space” as a means of escaping Krypton’s destruction or if it was already there and happened to survive as a result. Anyway, Slater’s Kara Zor-El, a favorite of the iconoclastic Zaltar, is girlish and a bit gawky, a convincing teenager even though she was around 20 at the time. She has a nice rapport with O’Toole, but it all goes wrong when their playing around with the Omegahedron (one of Argo City’s two power sources, Zaltar says, though the identity of the second is evidently lost to editing) causes it to be ejected into space, endangering the city’s survival. (That second power source must not be all that impressive, then.) Kara hijacks the pod Zaltar had made to travel to Earth (where her cousin Superman lives) in order to pursue the Omegahedron and bring it back, while Zaltar gamely sentences himself to the Phantom Zone for his crime. Technically it’s as much Kara’s fault as his, and I like it that the film sets her up with a strong motive to correct her mistake, although it unfortuntely forgets it almost immediately.

After a trip through the lava lamp dimension, Kara somehow emerges from the pod in Supergirl costume, and the coltish teenager has somehow given way to a graceful and lovely young woman, just by a change of hairstyle, clothes, and manner. Slater’s eyes are just extraordinary — perfect for Supergirl and convincing as Christopher Reeve’s cousin, and just plain compelling to look at. And the design of the Supergirl costume is fantastic.

As Supergirl discovers her powers on Earth, we get the lengthy “aerial ballet,” which is just beautiful, a charming sequence as Kara revels in what she can do and the beauty of the new world she’s entered. It’s fittingly named, as Slater’s flying technique is more balletic than Reeve’s, more like swimming through the air, with arms out to the sides and one knee bent. It’s different, but it works for her. Later, she rather randomly adopts the identity of girls’ school resident Linda Lee, and apparently has the same power as Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman to change into any desired outfit instantaneously, except she does it by passing behind things rather than spinning. This includes the ability to change from blonde to brunette as well, and again, she looks very different as Linda. Performance-wise, allowing for the fact that this was her debut role, I think she did a terrific job, creating a mostly strong and expressive character who was also young and innocent. She’s particularly good in her scenes with O’Toole in the Phantom Zone, exhorting him to get out of his self-flagellating funk and help her escape. I would’ve loved to see her mature in the role in later movies.

Most of the film’s cast is terrific. The villains consist of Faye Dunaway as Selena, an ambitious novice witch who gains great power from the Omegahedron and uses it in pursuit of conquest; Brenda Vaccaro as her roommate/sidekick Bianca; and Peter Cook as Nigel, the mentor in black magic who craves her but whom she tosses over in favor of the Omegahedron’s power. They’re all extremely good, particularly Vaccaro, who shows great comedic flair. (Useless fact: When this movie first came out, I knew Vaccaro mainly from The Pride of Jesse Hallam, a TV movie that was filmed at the high school I then attended. I don’t think I ever saw her in person, though. I was too shy to audition for a role as an extra.)

Maureen Teefy also does a good job as Linda’s roommate, who coincidentally happens to be Lucy Lane, sister of Lois and girlfriend of Jimmy Olsen (with Marc McClure reprising his role from the other films and not really doing much). Lucy’s main role in the comics was to be the most mean-spirited and disapproving girlfriend in history (for some reason, Silver Age DC love interests tended to be thoroughly awful toward the male leads), but here she’s basically a mini-Lois, sassy and fearless, with much of the same spirit as Margot Kidder’s Lois. In one of the film’s big set pieces involving a magically controlled runaway construction vehicle, Lucy throws herself into danger to try to take control of it, while Kara/Linda just stands around doing nothing for two or three minutes to let the action play out — a major logic hole, and far from the only one in the film. Lucy is knocked unconscious in the process, and Supergirl rather callously abandons her in order to rescue the male lead from the vehicle.

Unfortunately, that male lead, Hart Bochner as the “love interest” Ethan, is by far the most awful part of the film. The attempt at a love story is atrocious. Ethan is a total non-entity, just eye candy until Selena decides to cast a love spell on him to test it as a tool for control — and he’s thoroughly unpleasant and abrasive in his first dialogue scene, up to the point where she slips him the potion. It’s supposed to make him love the first person he sees, but he staggers off and wanders through town for a good ten minutes, then gets caught up by the construction vehicle and needs to be rescued by Supergirl, all somehow without actually looking at anyone until Supergirl randomly changes to Linda after the rescue. Then he’s “in love” with Linda for the rest of the movie, and though Kara/Linda initially discourages him, she ends up sort of falling for him — which is deeply creepy considering the non-consensual angle to his participation in the story. Which is balanced by the fact that she’s evidently underage, so neither participant is really in a position to consent. It’s creepy and wrong for both of them. The fact that he’s shown to be still in love with Linda after the spell breaks doesn’t ameliorate it any, because that “love” is totally unmotivated; Supergirl even points out that he doesn’t know a thing about Linda. Plus Bochner is a dull, unappealing actor and his character has no discernible personality. I suppose that’s sort of a counterpoint to the way female love interests were often portrayed in male-led action movies — vacuous, personality-free eye candy existing only to be romantically available to the hero — so perhaps one could read a certain satirical statement into it if one desired. But I doubt that was the intent, and it doesn’t do much to ameliorate the unpleasantness of the character and the storyline. The most annoying thing is that Kara pretty much spills her secret identity to him because she can’t resist kissing him as Supergirl. Superman gets to keep his secret to himself, but Supergirl spills it to the first guy who turns her head? Okay, that could be chalked up to her youth and inexperience, but it feels a bit gendered, in terms of who has the control and power advantage in the relationship.

Still, I have to admit, the movie is less centered on the love triangle than I thought. Supergirl and Selena are fighting over Ethan, but Selena’s interested in Ethan more as a trophy and a pawn than anything else, and as a way to manipulate and hurt Supergirl. Her agenda really is world conquest, and she gains the power to pull it off. So, even though the romantic angle is terrible, it isn’t quite as demeaning as reducing Supergirl to a petty love triangle while Superman gets to save the world. The stakes really are global and the villainess quite dangerous, once she gets the hang of her powers. In terms of potential for global domination, Selena easily rivals Zod and surpasses Lex Luthor and Ross Webster. Which makes sense, since she’s getting a power boost from Kryptonian technology. (Which is perhaps amplified in its power on Earth just as everything else from Krypton is, by the logic of Silver/Bronze Age comics. When she first touches it, it seems to bond with her as a “child of the Sun” — the same yellow star that empowers Superman and Supergirl.) True, that threat is more potential than actually demonstrated; we only get one scene of the townsfolk protesting her evil reign without any real portrayal of its effects. But I was clearly wrong to believe Selena’s goals were limited to stealing Supergirl’s boy toy.

Selena’s fusion of magic and Kryptonian technology even allows her to banish Supergirl to the Phantom Zone, the first time in the series that we see what the Zone is like on the inside, and it’s a pretty dark and grungy place. (A brighter version of the Zone would later be depicted in Smallville, but never in an episode directed by Szwarc.) The problem is that getting out of it is implausibly easy. Sure, the way out involves risking a deadly maelstrom to which Zaltar sacrifices himself to help Kara, but still, given that onscreen evidence suggests a roughly 50 percent survival rate, you’d think Krypton’s criminals would be braving the rift all the time and periodically succeeding in their escapes. My personal rationalization is that the rift was only created when Zod, Non, and Ursa were blown out of the Zone in Superman II (either version), and maybe Zaltar was the first to discover it.

It’s in these climactic sequences that Slater’s mostly strong performance as Kara is undermined. Twice, once in the Phantom Zone escape and once when battling Selena’s final-boss demon, Supergirl is overcome with despair and whines “I can’t!” until Zaltar encourages her and gives her the confidence to go on (in the flesh the first time, Obi-Wan-style later). Again, this could perhaps be attributed to her youth, but it feels like the movie was saying a mere female couldn’t succeed without borrowing strength from a man. (And its one attempt to show any kind of “girl power” message is in questionable taste, as she fends off a couple of truckers who randomly sexually harass her, implicitly with rape in mind; and though she thrashes them handily, they’re played more as figures of humor than menace. One of them is a young Matt Frewer, in what is not one of the finer roles of his career.)

The ending is also kind of arbitrary. Since the filmmakers evidently wanted the Superman and Supergirl films to stand more or less independently of each other (or at least decided they did after Christopher Reeve bowed out of appearing in Supergirl), the film ends with Kara getting Lucy and Jimmy to promise to tell no one about her. Really? Don’t tell Superman that he’s not the last son of Krypton, that his cousin, uncle Zor-El, aunt Alura, and hundreds of other Kryptonians are alive and well in “inner space”? That is just so not cool. It’s also unbelievable that she could keep her existence a secret, given her public appearances in the city fighting Selena’s attacks.

All told, it’s a film with a lot of flaws and plot holes and an absolutely horrible excuse for a love story, but there’s still a lot that works, at least by the turn-off-your-brain Silver-Age standards of the series. It’s reasonably well-made, and it has great music and good costume design (by Emma Porteous, who did several Bond films, Clash of the Titans, Aliens, and season 2 of Space: 1999). Bochner aside, it has one of the strongest casts of any of the Salkind Super-movies, and Helen Slater is a worthy addition to the Kryptonian family.

Indeed, Kara herself is a terrific character — she’s intelligent, adaptable, a problem-solver. She spends much of the movie actively searching for the Omegahedron, even plotting out search grids on a map at one point. The sense of urgency she should have about rescuing Argo City is missing, and she does tend to get easily distracted by schoolgirl antics and creepily wrong romance, but those are flaws in the writing and direction, and perhaps can be somewhat attributed to her youth. Indeed, in a sense, they underline her inquisitive nature. Superman grew up on Earth, but to Kara, it’s an alien planet and she’s got too lively a mind to resist exploring its novelties.

Anyway, even with the flaws in execution, what’s intriguing about the premise is that Supergirl is one of the few screen superheroes who’s actually the protagonist of her movie. As my friend David Mack recently pointed out in his comments on Mad Max: Fury Road, a hero and a protagonist are not, strictly speaking, the same thing. The protagonist of a story is the character whose action or pursuit of a goal drives the narrative, and the antagonist is the one countering the protagonist’s actions. Usually in superhero stories, it’s the villain who’s actively pursuing a goal (such as world conquest) and the hero who’s reactively trying to thwart them, so generally the villain is the protagonist. That’s certainly true of the first three Superman films. And in a sense, Selena fills the classic villain-protagonist role, since she’s pursuing the goal of conquering the world and Supergirl has to stop her. But Selena’s powers are merely a side effect of Kara’s mistake in losing the Omegahedron, and Kara is the one who sets the story in motion both by making that mistake and by going to Earth in order to correct it. She’s the one trying to retrieve the Omegahedron while Selena thwarts her efforts with magic. And she’s the one who motivates Zaltar to help her while he’s content to wallow in despair. So she’s the primary protagonist of the film. It makes her a nicely proactive and motivated heroine, and is a real strength of the film, despite its constant efforts to undermine itself.

In sum, I have to conclude that, like the other Superman films that preceded it, Supergirl is not that bad, and is in fact rather fun to watch if approached in the right spirit. (Although the same does not go for the film that followed it, The Quest for Peace. Don’t expect me to change my mind about that one.)

Helen Slater has gone on to play several other DC characters. She was the voice of Talia al Ghul in Batman: The Animated Series, and played Clark Kent’s Kryptonian mother Lara Lor-Van (billed as Lara-El) in Smallville. And she’s appearing in the upcoming CBS Supergirl series as Sylvia Danvers, Kara’s adoptive mother on Earth (opposite Lois and Clark‘s Dean Cain as Kara’s adoptive father). Hart Bochner also returned to DC, playing Councilman Reeves in Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. Marc McClure, in addition to playing Jimmy Olsen in four other films, played Kryptonian scientist Dax-Ur in Smallville. Matt Frewer’s extensive career is surprisingly light on DC roles, but he did a memorable turn as Sid the Squid in Batman: The Animated Series‘s “The Man Who Killed Batman,” as well as playing Moloch in the Watchmen feature film.

It’s a shame that Slater didn’t get the chance to play Supergirl again, since she was really good at it. It might be a stretch to say that playing Supergirl’s mother on the upcoming series is the next best thing, but it’s something, and I look forward to it. I hope the new series manages to make Kara a comparably strong, charming, and proactive character, while avoiding the film’s many failings.

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Lots of spoilery thoughts on AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON

I saw Avengers: Age of Ultron Monday and have had a lot of thoughts about it, but was too worn out afterward to really focus on a detailed post. It’s a pretty intense, densely packed movie, although in some ways I wish it had been longer (and I look forward to the extended DVD cut).

Oh, where to begin? Well, maybe I should start with how pleased I am with the smooth transition from last week’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode to this movie. That episode featured Dr. List — Baron Strucker’s assistant in the Winter Soldier tag scene and here — experimenting with human enhancement, and ended with Agent Coulson discovering the location of Loki’s scepter in List’s files, then transmitting that info to Maria Hill so she could send in the Avengers. In the movie, we find that the Avengers have been together as a team for some time, hunting down Loki’s sceptre while cleaning up the remains of HYDRA. It’s a bit odd that we haven’t heard about their efforts in previous AoS episodes, but HYDRA’s a big, fragmented enough organization (cut off one head, two more grow, etc.) that I can believe that two groups would be involved in hunting them down and that their efforts would rarely overlap.

(Agents didn’t quite stick the dismount, though; last night’s episode following up on Ultron was a bit abrupt, just “Well, that happened; now let’s get back to our own problems.” The transition will be rather jarring on a binge rewatch unless you pause to watch the movie in between episodes.)

Anyway, I figure the Avengers have probably been back together as a team ever since the fall of SHIELD in The Winter Soldier. For one thing, they needed to pick up the slack, to fill the void of protection left by SHIELD’s fall; and for another, once HYDRA was exposed, it would’ve been discovered that SHIELD-held assets like the scepter were in HYDRA hands, motivating Thor’s hunt. This is probably also what drew Tony back out of his retirement at the end of Iron Man 3, though it would’ve been nice to have some acknowledgment of this.

Tony Stark’s arc between that movie and this is a bit awkward. It feels like he’s regressed from his growth at the end of that movie. But then, he is an addictive personality, and thus prone to relapse. And he did have a little help. It wasn’t until the Scarlet Witch’s psychic push that he started repeating his old mistakes in earnest and trying to create “a suit of armor around the world.” True, he did have the Iron Legion, an Avengers-branded version of his army of suits from IM3, but they seemed to serve a narrower, more specific function. They were a sign of his potential for relapse, but it took Wanda to push him over the edge. So it’s a plausible personality arc, even if I have to read (or write) between the lines to justify it.

Steve Rogers has less of an arc here; if anything, it’s more the resolution of his arc in the previous few films, as he moves on past his identity as a WWII relic and ex-SHIELD agent and finally embraces being his own man, his own superhero. He’s the rock upon which the Avengers are built (to borrow Ultron’s Biblical allusion), the stalwart moral center, and that’s what Captain America needs to be. And I continue to be impressed at how perfect Chris Evans is in the role. He’s the purest paragon of heroism onscreen since Christopher Reeve, but with more of a soldierly edge, as befits the character.

Thor has even less to do here, mainly just advancing plot threads for this and other movies and providing comic relief with his smugness. The visions that Wanda gave him were mainly about creating an excuse to include Heimdall and Eric Selvig in the movie, and about moving the Infinity Gauntlet arc forward a bit more (although it is neat to see that thread starting to coalesce). Apparently, according to this Whedon interview, this part went on even longer in the original version, but test audiences reponded poorly since it was so peripheral to the film itself, so the pool sequence was cut to the bare minimum.

The bulk of this movie’s character work was for the characters who don’t have their own film series, which makes sense. Black Widow in particular continues to be a dominant presence, as she’s been in every one of her appearances except Iron Man 2. And she’s grown a lot. What we see here is the payoff of Natasha’s arc from The Winter Soldier. There, she told Cap that he might be in the wrong business, because he valued friends more than secrets. As it turned out, she was right, and that movie ended with Cap leaving the spy game (indeed, kicking the whole board over) — and with Natasha following him out. When she told the Congressional committee “You know where to find us,” it was implicit to me that she was talking about Avengers Tower. Now Black Widow the spy has given way to Black Widow the Avenger, and she’s manifestly happier as a superhero — more open, more able to connect to another human being in a way she never allowed herself before. The team’s use of her as the keeper of the “Lullaby” to calm the Hulk probably started as an exploitation of her skills at seducing and manipulating people, but by the time we see them here, it’s grown into something more real to her, given her a human connection she wouldn’t have been open to while working for Fury and playing his games of secrets and lies. Now, I gather there’s some criticism of this plot development putting Widow in a more conventional feminine role than before (discounting her sexualized debut in IM2), making her less “strong” as a character, but I disagree. I think she’s actually stronger here, because she’s grown into a more complete, healthy person, one who’s added honesty and genuine kindness to her repertoire of assets. Real strength doesn’t come from fighting and killing, or from hiding your emotions from yourself or others. Any mindless force of nature can destroy; what enabled humanity to transform the world was our empathy, our ability to bond and work together. That’s real power.

As for Bruce Banner, I found his arc a little unfocused. The Avengers (Avengers Assemble to you UK folks) ended with Bruce apparently coming to terms with the Hulk, recognizing that he could direct the Hulk as a force for good. And come to think of it, The Incredible Hulk ended with the same epiphany, to an extent (“Maybe I can aim it”). How many times is he going to regress to thinking of himself as a monster? And what exactly did Wanda put in his mind to set off his Johannesburg rampage? Hopefully we’ll see that in the extended cut. His departure at the end seemed pretty arbitrary too.

(By the way, there were moments when I was watching Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce and I was struck by how much he reminded me of Bill Bixby. I think it’s the hair, and the way he plays the role. The face isn’t really that similar.)

It’s Clint Barton/Hawkeye who gets the most development here, given that he’s had the fewest appearances of any of the Avengers and spent most of his one previous big appearance under Loki’s mind control (which Whedon acknowledges and corrects here by having Clint be the only one who avoids Wanda’s mind-whammy). Turns out he has a whole hidden domestic life we didn’t know about, and Natasha isn’t his love interest but his best friend and his children’s favorite “aunt.” And Whedon nicely plays with genre cliches here, as he so often does, since he spends much of the movie doing all he can to set up Clint as the one who’s doomed to die — he’s severely injured in the first battle, then he has a family and a pregnant wife, and he’s talking about all his home renovation plans, so that when he steps off the evac shuttle and gives up his ride to safety to rescue that kid, it seems inevitable that he’s going to be killed — and then Quicksilver shows up and changes the narrative. In the interview linked above, Whedon admits that he had great fun playing with that cliche, really pushing all the “Hawkeye’s gonna die” buttons to set us up for the twist.

Beyond that, Pietro never really emerged as that interesting a character, with Wanda carrying the bulk of the emotion and plot agency in their arc (since she’s the one who sets Ultron’s creation in motion). Whedon says he’d always planned to kill off Quicksilver, so that there’d be a real price to what he considered a war story, so maybe that’s why his character development was considered the most expendable (apparently quite a lot of it ended up on the cutting-room floor). I also can’t help but notice: Now there’s no longer a Quicksilver in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and there never was a Scarlet Witch in the Fox X-Men movie universe. That would seem to resolve their dispute over the characters and their split rights — they’ve each ended up with half the pair. I’m not sure if that was planned, but it works out nicely for them.

I guess talking about Scarlet Witch brings me to the Vision next. In some ways, bringing about his creation seemed like one thread too many in an already-cluttered film. What made it work was the decision to retcon the Vision into an evolved form of the JARVIS artificial intelligence. JARVIS has been Tony’s stalwart ally from the start of the MCU, so the audience already has an investment in him as a character. And the film established him as a heroic figure in the first two acts, showing him fighting to stop Ultron at the latter’s creation, apparently dying heroically in the attempt, and then turning out to have survived and assisted the Avengers clandestinely in battling Ultron on the Internet. Giving him a body and a fuller sentience is basically a payoff he’s earned through all his prior achievements — although I think Tony underestimated how sentient he was to begin with. JARVIS was never just a voice interface, but had many behaviors that require sophisticated cognition — the ability to recognize and generate humor foremost among them, but also the ability to anticipate Tony’s thoughts, needs, and even feelings. (Like when JARVIS suggested calling Pepper when Tony was about to sacrifice himself in the Chitauri wormhole. No mindless interface could have that kind of empathy.)

And that was Tony’s real mistake here — underestimating the true intelligence of his own creation, so that he felt compelled to do something very stupid and plug an unknown alien AI from an evil sceptre into his mainframe and use it as the basis for his ultimate security system. True, it was Wanda’s amplification of his fears that compelled him to choose the more advanced intelligence, but he still didn’t appreciate the potential of his own “son.” I’m reminded of Harold Finch on Person of Interest and the way he continually underestimates the intelligence and the morality of his own AI creation. The Vision’s creation represents Tony finally trusting that his own brainchildren are good enough, that he doesn’t have to be forever unsatisfied and striving for more. And maybe finally recognizing just how much JARVIS has done for him over the years, and how worthy JARVIS is of being entrusted with the enormous power of the Vision.

And that moment with Thor’s hammer — I was literally agape and on the edge of my seat after the Vision lifted it. I mean, I knew that much-touted scene where everyone was competing to lift the hammer was bound to be setup for a later scene where someone other than Thor would prove worthy to lift it, but I was expecting it to be Cap. The fact that Vision did it so casually just made it more striking. (Although I love the final bit where Tony and Steve try to comfort Thor about how maybe it didn’t count. “An elevator isn’t worthy.”)

So anyway, Ultron himself… He was a pretty interesting villain, more nuanced and textured than a number of the MCU’s villains (I’ve seen sheets of plastic wrap with more texture and depth than Guardians of the Galaxy‘s Ronan), but still kind of rushed in a lot of ways. His creation in particular seemed to happen overnight, although I guess it probably took the Avengers a few days to gather all those party guests together after bringing Strucker down. Even so, it felt kind of abrupt, and a lot of Ultron’s character traits, while fun to watch thanks to James Spader’s performance, seemed a bit unmotivated. Why did he hate the Avengers so much? How did he end up as a reflection of Tony’s own personality, as seemed to be the case? Why did he turn to Wanda and Pietro as his allies? Maybe it would’ve worked better if Ultron had been a more direct outgrowth of Tony’s legion of suits in IM3 — if he’d been established there as a broader global security program, and if Age of Ultron had begun with the Avengers already relying on Ultron drones as a security program to take the place of SHIELD, and if it had been Tony’s effort to improve the system by enhancing it with the sceptre’s software that had pushed it over the edge. Then it wouldn’t have felt quite so abrupt, Ultron rebelling from the instant of his creation. It would’ve required a different ending to IM3, but would’ve unified the films more and helped set up Ultron’s rise better. (I may be influenced by how the animated The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes did it, with Ultron starting out as a set of robot prison guards and security drones for the Avengers before going bad.)

As far as the film’s ties to the broader MCU go, I like it that they managed to include so much, like cameos by Rhodey and Falcon and Peggy and mentions of Pepper and Jane, but I regret that they left out so much, like actual appearances by Pepper and Jane and maybe Darcy. (Although I do like it that Pepper and Jane’s absence was justified by the fact that they were just too awesome and important to have time for being mere extensions of their men’s lives. And I love it that Tony and Thor were competing with each other by boasting about how powerful and amazing their girlfriends were.) And I suspect that a fair amount of Sam/Falcon’s material was cut. In the climax, it felt like he was supposed to be there, providing air support alongside Rhodey, so it was odd that he didn’t show until that brief cameo in costume at the end.

But I’m glad we got the new character of Helen Cho. I recently watched Netflix’s Marco Polo and quite enjoyed Claudia Kim as Khutulun, so it was nice to see her again in another role so soon. And it’s interesting that she’s still around as part of the Avengers’ support team at the end. I wonder if we’ll see her in future films, or maybe in an Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. guest role.

So… at the end of the film, we see Iron Man step down from the team (justified, as it was his mistake that created the crisis), Thor take a leave of absence to research the Infinity Stones, and Hulk wander off for unclear reasons, while Hawkeye goes home to his family. And now we’ve got a new team of B-listers led by Captain America. This is an homage to the comics’ evolution in which the original Avengers team gave way to “Cap’s Kooky Quartet” of himself, Hawkeye, Quicksilver, and the Scarlet Witch. The new team at the end of Age of Ultron, by contrast, has Cap and Black Widow as the leaders and War Machine, Falcon, Scarlet Witch, and Vision as the new recruits. Which is a definite improvement on the all-white, one-female roster we started with. But I wonder if it’ll last. The next film after Ant-Man is Captain America: Civil War, which I’ve heard referred to as essentially Avengers 2 1/2. We know that most of the members of this Avengers roster (except War Machine and Vision, and including Hawkeye) are already confirmed members of its cast. So this is probably the team Cap will be leading at the start of Civil War. Whether it survives those events and continues into Avengers: Infinity War remains to be seen.

Anyway, I mentioned earlier how Cap and Widow have basically graduated from being soldiers/spies to full-on superheroes. Aside from the HYDRA raid at the beginning, the Avengers definitely felt more like superheroes than warriors here. One thing a lot of reviewers have called attention to — and it’s sad that this is unusual enough in movies to need calling attention to — is how much the action sequences focus on protecting civilians. This was something I noticed and liked in the climax of the first Avengers, the way Whedon kept the focus grounded on the reactions of ordinary people and showed us what it was the heroes were fighting for. And it’s an even larger focus here, with so much of the climactic sequence revolving around the logistics and difficulties of evacuating the civilians, and Fury/SHIELD’s Big Damn Hero moment being an act of rescue rather than one of combat. This is something I’m glad to see in any movie, particularly a superhero movie. As I’ve said before, I prefer seeing superheroes as rescuers, not warriors. It’s also a pretty clear “Take that” to Zack Snyder and Man of Steel, and I can totally get behind that. I just hope that Markus, McFeely, and the Russo brothers — the writers and directors of Civil War and Infinity War — follow Whedon’s lead in this regard. I felt they kind of dropped the ball on that front in The Winter Soldier, staging battles with lots of potential or implied civilian casualties and only making the rare token nod to protecting civilians. (Although it was a nice touch in TWS that the one character who was shown urging civilians to get to safety was Black Widow, showing that she had more hero in her than she realized.)

One thing I want to acknowledge in particular is the musical score, by Danny Elfman and an uncredited Brian Tyler (well, semi-credited — there’s a section deep in the credits that has one heading for the musicians who worked on Tyler’s score and one for those who worked on Elfman’s score; I gather Elfman replaced Tyler midway through). One thing the MCU has lacked in the past is musical consistency; they use different composers for the different movies in a given series, so we generally haven’t gotten character themes that have remained consistent from one film to the next. Only Alan Silvestri’s Captain America March has been used consistently, being at least briefly quoted in all four of Cap’s films to date. But with this film, there was more acknowledgment and consolidation of past themes. We got snippets of both Cap’s theme and Tyler’s Iron Man 3 theme at key heroic moments for those characters (and maybe more individual character themes I didn’t catch), and Silvestri’s Avengers motif from the first film was quoted here both in the underscore and in the end titles. It’s good to hear some continuity in the scoring at last, to accompany the continuity in storylines. And the score is solid overall, too. I don’t know how much or which parts Elfman did, but I think he’s become a more mature and versatile composer in recent years, growing beyond the single, somewhat repetitive sound his scores had in the ’80s and ’90s. There was a time when seeing Elfman’s name in a movie’s credits inspired a reaction of “Oh, not again” in me, but that’s no longer the case.

Ooh, what else? Physics! I can talk about physics. The science behind Ultron’s scheme at the end actually made a fair amount of sense, up to a point. The movie recognized that even if the big chunk of Sokovia fell back to Earth from even a relatively low height, at an altitude where people could still breathe fairly easily, the energy release of the impact would be cataclysmic — not enough to wipe out all life on Earth, but certainly enough to devastate the continent. This is something a lot of movies don’t get. In Independence Day, for instance, all those city-sized saucers crashing into the ground even from just a mile or two up would’ve caused an extinction-level event all by itself; heck, the simple act of their deceleration within Earth’s atmosphere would’ve converted enough kinetic energy into heat to devastate the planet. So points for understanding gravitational potential energy. A bit iffier is the fact that if Ultron’s engines were powerful enough to lift that mass against gravity, then they must’ve been capable of generating the same amount of energy that would be released by its impact, and then some (since some of the energy they generated would go into vibration, breakage, heat, noise, etc. rather than lift). So why not just use that device as a bomb and eliminate the middlemassif? But Ultron isn’t a perfectly logical being, and he seems inordinately fixated on symbolism and metaphor. He was thinking in terms of impact events causing mass extinctions, and was irrational and immature enough to focus on recreating that particular type of event rather than recognizing that there was a simpler way. So I can buy that.

The problem is the one you usually get in “stop the asteroid” stories — namely, that blowing up the impactor wouldn’t really help, because you’ve still got the same amount of mass delivering its kinetic energy to the Earth’s atmosphere and surface, just a bit more diffusely. It can actually make things worse, in the way that a shotgun blast can be more damaging than a single bullet hit. In this case, though, it might be somewhat justifiable, since the mass of rock was shattered at the very beginning of its descent. If you blew up an asteroid that was already incoming at high speed, all its fragments would still have that same velocity. But here, the mass is starting from zero velocity (or a low upward velocity). Intact, it would’ve all accelerated at once and would’ve been too massive for air resistance to matter; but with lot of smaller fragments starting from zero, air resistance would be more of a factor. So the millions of fragments wouldn’t be able to build up as much kinetic energy as the one big chunk. It would probably still be a lot worse than shown, but it borders on the plausible.

So what else is there to say? Mainly that Joss Whedon, in his interviews lately, sounds really, really tired. He worked damn hard to make this movie work, and he managed to pull it off, but he’s earned a good rest. I can’t blame him at all for choosing to step down from the MCU and go back to his own, more manageably sized projects. At this point, he can probably do whatever he wants in Hollywood. It’s impressive that he’s already gone back to focusing on his writing (which is apparently the real reason he left Twitter, despite certain claims that have been made — here’s the link, but watch out for “language,” as Cap would say!). I just hope the Russo brothers don’t burn out doing three big Marvel films pretty much in a row. At least there are two of them, so hopefully that’ll ease the workload.

(By the way, would Cap really have had an issue with his teammates using profanity? I mean, sure, he’s wholesome and clean-cut and a literal poster boy, but he was also a soldier in the trenches in WWII, so I’m sure he’s quite used to being around heavy cursers. He would’ve been uncomfortable with such language being used in front of a woman, but he’s been teamed with Natasha long enough to think of her as a fellow soldier. So that bit, while funny, didn’t quite ring true for me.)

JUSTICE LEAGUE: THRONE OF ATLANTIS review (spoilers)

Justice League: Throne of Atlantis is the third movie in the New 52-based continuity that the DC Universe Animated Original Movie line has adopted in the past couple of years. As I remarked before, I really disliked the first one, Justice League: War, and found the second, Son of Batman, to be better but still deeply flawed and excessively violent. So I wasn’t expecting much from ToA, and wasn’t even sure I wanted to see it at all. Fortunately, it’s a great improvement on the previous JL installment, even while being a direct continuation of it.

As the title indicates, it’s mainly the story of how Arthur Curry discovers his birthright as Aquaman and battles with his half-brother, the evil Orm (Ocean Master), for the rule of Atlantis, with Orm trying to engineer a war with the surface world as a means to gain power. But it’s also a continuation of the story of the Justice League coming together, its disparate members learning to work together and commit more to the team. The character work is thus rather better this time out. The action still tends to be bloodier than I like, but at least there’s more character exploration going on between and during the action. There are some pretty good moments in the script by Heath Corson.

Although there are a couple of bits that don’t make much sense at all — spoiler alert. One, when Queen Atlanna (Aquaman’s mother) realizes that Orm and Black Manta are attempting to overthrow her, she stands with her back to Orm while speechifying, leaving herself totally open to being stabbed. Now, maybe I misread the scene and she thought that only Manta was involved, still trusting her son, but I don’t think that was the case. The other, more serious logic problem is toward the climax, when Orm is sending a tsunami to wipe out Metropolis and Gotham and the heroes fear there’s nothing they can do to stop it. Now, first off, between them, Superman, Shazam, Green Lantern, and the Flash should be able to stop a tsunami in its tracks. But that’s not the real problem. The real problem is that, just as the tidal wave is cresting and about to smash into Metropolis, Orm stops it in its tracks, then parts it Moses-style to reveal… a bunch of infantry soldiers who invade the city on foot. I’m sorry? That tidal wave could’ve done a hundred times as much damage to the city as that entire army, a hundred times faster, without a single Atlantean life being at risk. Orm had a weapon of mass destruction at his disposal. But he didn’t use it, and instead launched a far smaller, conventional attack that was much easier for the heroes to fight back against. The whole tidal-wave thing was a total fakeout. That’s just lame.

Although it’s in continuity with War, a number of the voices have been recast. Returning are Jason O’Mara as Batman, Sean Astin as Shazam, Christopher Gorham as the Flash, Shemar Moore as Cyborg, and George Newbern (Superman from the Justice League/JL Unlimited TV series) in a small role as Steve Trevor. But Alan Tudyk has been replaced as Superman by Jerry O’Connell (who was Captain Marvel/Shazam in JLU), Justin Kirk has been replaced by Nathan Fillion in his fourth DC Universe iteration of Hal Jordan (fifth if you count Robot Chicken), and best of all, Wonder Woman is now Rosario Dawson (who was Artemis in the DCU Wonder Woman movie), taking over from Michelle Monaghan, who was simply awful in the role in JL: War. Fillion and Dawson are improvements, but I’m not sure about O’Connell. I wasn’t too impressed with Tudyk as Superman in JLW, but that’s probably because he had so little to work with. I wouldn’t have minded hearing him get another shot with better material. (And honestly, Dawson is kind of mediocre as Wonder Woman, but better mediocre than dreadful.)

The new characters are pretty well-cast. Arthur/Aquaman is Matt Lanter, Anakin Skywalker from Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Roman from The CW’s Star-Crossed. His ally and future queen Mera is Sumalee Montano, who was Katana in Beware the Batman. And Orm is Sam Witwer — aka Crashdown from Battlestar Galactica, Davis/Doomsday from Smallville, Darth Maul from The Clone Wars, and soon to be Emperor Palpatine in Star Wars: Rebels. This is a great choice, because Witwer is a fantastic voice actor, bringing a lot of operatic menace to his villain roles. Harry Lennix is Black Manta, Sirena Irwin (Mera from Batman: The Brave and the Bold) is Atlanna, and Juliet Landau has a minor role as Lois Lane, who’s quite marginalized due to the decision to pair Superman up with Wonder Woman in this continuity.

This is the first time the DC Universe movies have reached three installments in a single continuity — unless you count Batman: Year One and their 2-part The Dark Knight Returns as a common reality, but I’m not sure that flies in either the comics or the movies. (Maybe this even counts as a fourth installment, since The Flashpoint Paradox was based on the comics storyline that created the New 52. But there’s been nothing in the movies themselves to link that one to this new series, and not even any voices in common until now, with Fillion reprising GL and Steve Blum reprising Lex Luthor in the post-credits teaser.) Anyway, using continuity has given the DCU filmmakers opportunities they didn’t have in the previous standalone films, the chance to develop the characters and relationships over time and establish arcs and running gags. I appreciated the sense of continuity and growth that the links to JLW provided, even though I hated JLW itself. I’m hopeful that as the line continues, the chance to develop the world and the characters more fully will continue to enrich it, making sure we never get anything as superficial and dumb as JLW ever again.

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Just saw THE HOBBIT Part 3… (Spoilers)

January 2, 2015 1 comment

I wasn’t sure how eager I was to see The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, given the lukewarm reviews. But I was moderately interested in it as a technical achievement; I actually like the high frame rate and the realistic feel it creates, reminding me of watching a videotaped BBC drama. And I was interested in it for some of the actors, particularly Martin Freeman. I figured I should see it in the theater, even if I didn’t expect much.

And it was okay. It really didn’t feel like it lasted two and a half hours, because, let’s face it, not that many things happened. I was actually surprised when I realized the story was wrapping up, because it didn’t seem I’d been in the theater that long. There weren’t even that many parts that felt to me like they were going on too long or too slowly, even though I have felt that way about other Peter Jackson movies. The one part that did seem to drag for me was the aftermath of the battle of Laketown. After Smaug was killed, and before the conflict over the mountain started, it all felt like denouement. And in retrospect, I have to question whether there was really a point in giving so much screen time to Alfrid, the sleazy assistant to the late Master. Sure, he provided some comic relief in a film that was generally devoid of it, but he got more screen time than a lot of the dwarves, than Galadriel or Radagast or Saruman… it almost feels like his screen time rivalled Bilbo’s. And he had no arc. He didn’t change or evolve in any way, didn’t get any comeuppance or resolution — he was just there until he left. I think they could’ve cut his role down considerably.

And while it was a reasonably entertaining experience, it’s very much a fragment of an experience. It isn’t really a story of its own, it’s a bridge between The Desolation of Smaug and The Fellowship of the Ring. Basically, to borrow a term from comic books, Peter Jackson is writing for the trade — telling a decompressed, serial story with an eye toward how it will work when collected and experienced straight through, rather than making each individual installment a complete experience on its own. The film even opens without any preliminaries, just assuming the viewer knows what happened in TDoS and picking right up as if it had just come back from a commercial break. And while the final scenes do serve to wrap up Bilbo’s journey to an extent, they feel like they have more of an eye toward setting up Fellowship.

But the film was worthwhile for the performances. Martin Freeman is an amazingly talented actor — and an amazingly gifted reactor, which is one of his greatest assets. He can convey volumes just by the way he listens and silently reacts to other people’s words or actions. Which is great, because it adds a lot to the film’s rather thin storytelling and Bilbo’s fairly sidelined role in it. The rest of the cast is impressive too, but Freeman’s the real standout for me.

Technically, it was pretty impressive as long as you can accept that much of it is essentially a photorealistic animated cartoon. I did feel there was too much CGI and too many swooping camera moves, although it wasn’t as bad as some of the scenes in the first Hobbit film that felt like video-game cutscenes. The 3D generally worked pretty well, but sometimes (especially in the CGI scenes) the characters seemed toy-sized; and there were a few overly self-conscious 3D gimmicks, like the bit where Thorin was advancing on Azog with the point of his sword sticking right out toward the camera. But then, self-indulgence is Jackson’s stock in trade these days.

Speaking of indulgence, the theater I was in has been refitted with cushy, reclining seats and wider aisles. I’ve seen that other theaters are doing that lately; I guess that, in this age of huge widescreen TVs and surround sound systems, theaters have to try harder to compete with people’s living rooms, and comfy recliners are a way to do that. But I actually didn’t benefit much from the experience, due to my health issues; the soft seat back wasn’t good for my lower back, and my feet cramp if they’re elevated and unsupported for too long. Plus, the whirring of motors as other moviegoers adjusted their recliners during the film was distracting.  Also, I was nonplussed by the need to preselect a seat at the ticket counter, like ordering an airline ticket, rather than just taking whatever seat I wanted. Since I didn’t know how big the theater would be, I couldn’t adequately estimate where a good place to sit would be, and I ended up maybe a row further back than I would’ve liked.

So anyway, I guess that’s it for Jackson’s Tolkien film series — for now. Maybe someday I’ll rent the expanded editions and go through the whole experience, but I don’t really feel strongly motivated to do so. If anything, I should probably reread the books first.

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