Saturday, July 12, 2008

Comic Book Movies: The Oncoming Darkness

In my review of All Star Batman and Robin, I touched briefly on the way that the Hollywood comic book film zeitgeist is about 20 years behind what’s happening in comics themselves. This is coming to the fore with the upcoming releases of The Dark Knight and Watchmen, the film successors to the two legendary comic book works that changed the medium, and may change the general public’s perception of superhero stories. But, the big names in comics are heading in a totally disparate direction. What does this disconnect mean for each medium, and where will comic book movies go in the future? Let us ponder.

I’ve discussed similar issues before, in the context of 300, a film I considered a failure. There are two kinds of comic book movies, ones that use the book as a jumping off point for the creator’s own interests, such as V For Vendetta or Batman Returns. Then, there’s the ultra-faithful slavish adaptation, like Sin City or the upcoming Watchmen. In the case of ultra faithful adaptations, I usually find the trailer more interesting than the film itself. In the case of Sin City, I was totally in love with the trailer, watched it many times and was eagerly awaiting the film. Then, the film itself was kind of a letdown. It wasn’t bad, but it didn’t give me anything that the book didn’t. It was just a straight adaptation, nothing was changed to make it specific to film. So, having already seen the film’s ‘gimmick’ in the trailer, the actual movie had nothing new to offer.

I think this gets to a deeper issue in both comics and films, which is the fact that writers/directors don’t make use of what the medium can do. So many comics today are clearly written as screenplay pitches, using the visual language of film, and doing nothing that’s unique to the comics medium. The very best comics usually do things that only can be done in comics, be it the complex juxtaposition of words and images in Watchmen and Flex Mentallo, or the philosophical/narrative interweaving in The Invisibles and Promethea. Even on a pure art level, a work like We3 is so alive and kinetic in a way only comics can do, using the panel layouts to construct atmosphere and make us feel things in a specific way. I want a work that really challenges me and makes me take my time reading the story.

Film is the same way, very few directors really use what the medium can offer to tell a story. I want a work that doesn’t feel like an adaptation, I want a work that you can’t imagine as anything but a movie. Think of a film like Irreversible or Terence Malick’s work, the use of camera movement and music creates a hypnotic atmosphere. An Irreversible novel would be pointless, but as a movie, it’s startling and powerful.

So, if a work is done well in its own medium, why do you want to adapt it any way? That’s how I feel about Watchmen, I don’t see anything that can be added, it’s like going to see a Beatles cover band, it might be cool for a bit, but it’s ultimately a hollow, non-artistic endeavor. I think characters like Batman and Superman are better suited to adaptation because they don’t have specific narratives. They are archetypal characters who can, and have been reimagined thousands of different ways. The 60s Batman and the Batman Begins Batman and equally valid visions of the character. My favorite superhero movie, and one of my favorite movies of all time, is Batman Returns, which exists at the intersection of classic Batman thematic interests and Tim Burton’s own thematic obsessions, producing a film that’s simultaneously distinctly Batman and distinctly Burton.

But, most comic book movies today require the director to have, or at least tell the media about his love of the source material. I’m sure we’ll hear countless interviews from Chris Nolan talking about how much he loves Frank Miller’s work. And yet, his film is totally out of synch with the kind of stories Miller is telling at the moment. That’s because superhero movies are still in the ‘dark age,’ while current comics have moved into an era that’s perhaps best known as the ‘prismatic age.’ We’ve still got a lot of that old angsty stuff out there, but even Frank is doing a more fun, over the top Batman. It’s the integration of everything that’s come before into a simultaneously dark and light storytelling, keeping the emotional weight of the dark age stories without sacrificing the fun of classic Silver Age stuff.

And, it’s that fun that I fear will be missing from superhero movies for a while. One of my major issues with Batman Begins was its relentless joylessness, from the gloomy brown cinematography to the angsty Christian Bale performance. I know Bale is beloved by all, but outside of his work in Velvet Goldmine, I’m not that big a fan. I can respect his craft, but I just don’t enjoy watching him on screen. He doesn’t love being the goddamn Batman, I can’t imagine Bale’s Batman doing the sort of crazy joyous stuff that even Dark Knight Returns Batman does, certainly not what we see from the Dark Knight Strikes Again or Goddamn Batman.

But, who am I to say that the Bale Batman isn’t a valid take on the character? Clearly it resonated with audiences. Why is it that people who decide to see a movie about a guy who dresses up in a bat suit and decides to fight crime also want it to be deadly self serious. I can understand wanting to engage with the fictional universe, but something in a movie should be fun, and I got no joy from watching Batman Begins.

So, you may say, you want your superheroes to be goofy and fun, why do you enjoy works like Miracleman and Watchmen? The short and snappy answer would be those works are just better. But, I think the real point is that those works are about something. The problem with so much of the dark, angsty superhero genre is that it’s not really about anything. The Dark Knight Returns is a meditation of the conservative movement and a deteriorating urban environment in the 80s. While the hardcore Batman action is the hook, it’s the political elements that give it substance. The same is true with Watchmen and Miracleman, they are incredible superhero stories, but also contain fascinating truths about the human condition. Miracleman is a philosophical parable wrapped up in a superhero story, and the last issue is one of the most exciting explorations of a fictional world I’ve ever experienced.

So, if we’re headed into the dark time of superhero movies, will we ever get out and see the light? Will audiences only accept the heavy intensity of The Dark Knight and Watchmen, or would they also be interested in some Silver Age style craziness? I think the general public is less inclined to like the sort of wacky stories that Alan Moore and Grant Morrison have come to embrace. People who don’t come from a comics background are going to find it easier to embrace a Batman who’s right out of a crime thriller rather than a Batman who goes into his sci-fi closet so he can insert the Ultramarines into an infant universe.

And, to be honest, I was the same way for a long time. That’s what Flex Mentallo is all about, the way that as adolescents, we only embrace the darkest stories and claim that’s what’s ‘real.’ But, I’ve come to embrace wackier stories now, be it Silver Age Superman or the Goddamn Batman. They’re out there, and a heavier Batman movie or Watchmen movie won’t take them off the shelves. And, considering how badly Hollywood messed up ‘fun’ Batman, perhaps it’s for the best that this current series of films are as heavy as they are.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Doctor Who: 'Journey's End' (4x13)

This season has easily been my favorite Who season so far, it’s been the most consistently great, never more so than in the last run of episodes. This episode, much like its predecessor “The Stolen Earth,” is a huge, messy over the top action spectacle. I have a bunch of issues with the way the episode was executed, but I think in general, the good outweighs the bad.

I think the episode was designed to take you on a journey through intense darkness, the whole reality bomb thing, up to the heights of the Earth being towed back by the Doctor’s “Children of Time,” then back down to the tempered happiness of Rose and the alternate Doctor, and ultimately down to deep sadness as we watch the Donna we know die. But, it’s frustrating to end the season on such a down note. At the end of ‘Doomsday,’ it was tragic to watch the Doctor and Rose ripped apart, but at least she had the memory of what she’d been through. Donna doesn’t even get that, she loses the person she’d become, the person who believed in herself in a way she never had before, and she’ll never even know who she was.

It’s an awful fate, and a lot of my mixed feelings on the finale come from the fact that I feel really frustrated, and I know I’m supposed to feel that frustration, but it’s still tough to face. I think it would have been a better fate for her to die, to burn out saving the universe. Now, she may be a hero elsewhere in the universe, but on Earth, she’ll never know what she’s capable of. The notion that if she remembers what she had done, it will burn up her mind is particularly tragic because there’s no hope, and Wilf and her mother have to live with her knowing what she was and unable to tell her.

It’s a testament to how good this season was that Rose feels so much like an afterthought. I remember before this season started, I was so excited when I heard that Rose was coming back. That was the story I wanted to see concluded, even after her year long absence, she hung over the show. But, Donna took control of the show this year, she proved herself an even better partner for the Doctor than Rose was, and by this point, even the somewhat happy ending for Rose is overwhelmed by the tragedy of what happened to Donna.

But, let me track back a bit. After an intense week of speculation about what the hell the Doctor would regenerate into, the whole tension was dissolved with a wave of his hand. It was a basically untenable cliffhanger, there was no way they were going to ditch Tennant at this point in the series, so it was probably best to just get it out of the way and move on. Still, I couldn’t help but feel a bit disappointed when everything was resolved so quickly.

From there, we move all the pieces into place for the big showdown. It was good to see Mickey and Jackie back, I was pondering where they were last week. Even though neither of them really gets much to do in the episode, it was nice to see them there. You could certainly make the argument that a lot of the cameos in the episode were pointless. There’s no intrinsic narrative reason that the Torchwood crew, Luke and Mr. Smith, Mickey and Jackie, or even Martha show up in the episode. But, I think there are two important reasons for them all to be here.

One is to raise the stakes of the conflict. I love that this is something so huge the Doctor calls in everyone. It never made sense to me why the characters on Buffy wouldn’t call Angel and his crew when things were going really bad. From a logistics point of view, it would become distracting for the viewer. The crossover itself would become the event rather than the story that each individual show had been building to. That’s why I don’t really mind the fact that most of the characters don’t end up doing too much. Sarah Jane gets her big moment, and even without having seen the episode with her and Davros, you can tell how affected she was by meeting him previously. Similarly, it’s good to just see Mickey again and get a bit of closure on his arc through this episode.

Davros was one of the better villains the show has had. In the first seasons, it’s the sheer numbers that make the Daleks or Cybermen such a threat. Last year, it was The Master’s insane personality, this year, we get a mix of both. Davros reminded me a lot of Star Wars’ The Emperor. The whole episode in general reminded me a lot of Star Wars. I write a lot about Morrison and Moore as influences on the way I view fiction, but before all that, it was Star Wars that first really got me into film and sci-fi. Those films still lurk in my subconsciousness, and a work like this hits something deep inside. Watching Davros rant about detonating the reality bomb hit me on every level. It’s appropriate to watch this on July 4th weekend, since it’s the best summer blockbuster you’re going to see this year.

But, unlike the vast majority of blockbusters, the show never stops being about the characters. All the spectacle is there to illuminate character points. We watch the Doctor standing helpless, watching what he has done to the people he’s met. Davros is willing to detonate the reality bomb to destroy all of existence, and the Doctor’s companions appear to be willing to do the same to destroy the Daleks. At that moment, how different are they, each the creator of an army bent on total destruction. I like that the Doctor reaches out to Davros at the end of the episode and tries to save him. If he could save Davros, it would be the ultimate vindication of his nonviolent approach to problem solving. But, Davros is unwilling to give the Doctor that satisfaction, and chooses apparent death instead.

Elsewhere, we see Donna create the new hybrid DoctorDonna. The whole second Doctor felt a little contrived. I think it would have been fine to have Donna touch the hand and then get the time lord powers on her own. We already know she’s connected to the original Doctor, and don’t need a second one around. Of course, he’s in there primarily to provide a happy resolution for the Rose storyline. It would have been too heavy to have the Doctor leave Rose, and then mindwipe Donna.

For whatever reason, the entire finale seems designed to move the Doctor back to where he was at the start of the series, struggling with guilt about destroying the Daleks. When I first watched the show, I didn’t know that this Time War was a new thing. I thought that it had always been part of the mythology, so even though I could tell the Eccleston Doctor was troubled by stuff, I didn’t think of it as directly related to his choice to kill all the Daleks. So, Rose gets the chance to rehibilitate the Doctor again, only this time the Doctor remembers everything they’ve been through. It’s kind of a dizzying mess of identity, the Tennant Doctor with the problems of the Eccleston Doctor, but actually human duplicate of each of them.

Anyway, with the reality bomb about to detonate, Donna rushes back and saves the day. This was a moment that I wanted to be a bit bigger, to hit the heights of Rose channeling the timestream back in ‘Parting of the Ways.’ I suppose Donna would be more self deprecating than that, it’s certainly cool to watch her operating that machine and taking them all out, but if this is the climax of such an epic story, at least throw in a burst of mysterious light or an explosion or something to cap it all off. Of course, her joy at saving the universe only looks sadder in retrospect, knowing what’s coming for her.

My favorite part of the episode, one of my favorite moments in the whole series, was the triumphant return of the Earth sequence. Now, we see the “Children of Time” working together to pilot the Tardis as it should be piloted. It’s ironic that though it’s built for six, we’ve rarely seen more than two people aboard. Why can’t all these people stay with the Doctor? Why can’t things always be like this? It seems like everyone has moved on from the Doctor. They may look back with fondness on traveling with him, but it’s a stage, not a destination. Even Rose doesn’t seem to make much of an effort to stay with him this time. Locking the other Doctor in the parallel world is the ostensible reason, but in reality, it seems that at least he has moved on, enough that he decides not to stay with her when he has the chance.

The episode leaves us in a really uncertain place about the efficacy of what the Doctor’s been doing. On the one hand, he has saved the universe, everyone soars back through spacetime hauling the Earth and it’s a glorious moment. I love the score there, I love the intercut scenes of people on Earth celebrating, it’s a really epic moment, and a fitting capper for the two parter.

The farewell in a park sequence feels like a graduation. Everyone moves on to do something else. It looks like Mickey and Martha will be joining up with Torchwood, Sarah Jane will continue doing her own thing over on her spinoff show. Rose and Jackie go back home, and the Doctor is left with only Donna, the companion who’s pledged to travel with him forever. This episode went by so quickly, I was expect there to be another act of some kind, a foe to fight after they return the Earth to its proper place.

But, it turned out to be a more personal tragedy. The moment Donna started repeating herself, I knew things were going to be bad, and from there it was a short fall to the mindwipe. The first time I watched it, I felt like I needed another scene with Donna, where she says good bye to the Doctor. It was too quick the first time. Flipping through the episode again, I came to that scene, and watching it, it’s partially how fast everything happens that makes it so tragic. She doesn’t get a chance to even say that good bye, it’s just a frenzied “No! No,” then her mind is gone. The Doctor must have known this would happen from the moment she got those powers. She saved the universe, but it wound up destroying her.

I don’t know if RTD came up with the mindwipe thing as a way to avoid the pain of killing her. If that was the intent, I think he failed miserably since those last scenes are absolutely excruciating. It’s one of the most sadistic character fates I’ve seen in a series. Really, the only comprable thing for me is Adrianna’s fate in The Sopranos, we know something bad is going to happen, he knows something bad is going to happen to her, but for a moment, she doesn’t believe it. She thinks everything’s going to be okay, better than okay, and then the gunshot comes down, the illusion breaks and reality comes rushing in.

In just a few scenes this season, Bernard Cribbins’ Wilf has become the emotional anchor of the series, the everyman who loves aliens and spaceships. It’s so sad to watch him have to come to terms with the person that Donna has become getting wiped away. They will sing songs of her on alien worlds, but on ours, she will be nothing.

And, that leads to the really difficult scene in which the Doctor sees the old Donna back, totally oblivious to the person she was, the person she could be. Instead, she’ll just go about her life and never realize her potential. I think this ties back to what I consider one of the touchstone scenes for the series, the scene at the restaurant from “Parting of the Ways.” Here, Rose talks to her mother and Mickey and says she won’t go back to her old life, she can’t go back. She’d rather die up in space by the Doctor’s side than go back and live an ordinary life. I think one of the things the Doctor doesn’t understand is that even though his companions may go through bad stuff, they’re all happier to have seen it, and wouldn’t trade it for anything. I’d almost have preferred to see The Doctor just shove Donna out the doors of the Tardis into space than to bring her back home to become the person she used to be.

Of course, maybe things won’t be all bad for Donna. We saw in ‘Forest of the Dead’ that she can be happy in a normal life, and perhaps some of what she’s been through will seep through. Or, at least her mother and Wilf will treat her better, knowing what she can be. Still, the way the scenes are played, and the fact that if she remembers anything, she’ll burn up indicates that the Donna we knew is lost in time.

Her fate here makes clear why we spent so much time on parallel universe Donna of “Turn Left.” It’s clear that even though the person she was is gone, the impact she made on the Earth doesn’t disappear. Comparing the world they’re in now to the world of “Turn Left” makes that clear. She saved the Doctor, and the world many times over. But, that’s not much comfort for the viewer, or for Wilf and the Doctor.

The season, and RTD’s run on the series, ends on a really down note. Wilf says he’ll keep looking up at the stars, he’ll keep her memory alive, but is that any real consolation? It’s not for the Doctor, who ends up alone, forced to reflect on the fact that though he has built an army, he himself is still alone. It’s a downer of an ending, and one that leaves things fairly open for the future.

How much of Davies’ continuity will Moffat run with? Who will be the new companion? There’s a lot of questions, and I think I’ll ponder them in another post that will simultaneously look back and look forward at this run of Doctor Who.

This episode left me with mixed feelings. It really bothered me on a deep level, and I think that’s a testament to the writing, but I can’t help but feel like Donna could have gotten some kind of better ending, and the Doctor needn’t have ended things feeling so bad. Still, it hit me really hard, like no other show does. For me, this is the most emotional show on TV, and this season has been my favorite by far. I can quibble with a lot of things in the episode, but the overall emotional impact overrides any of that. It’s not the series’ best finale, but it’s still a pretty amazing piece of television.