Monday, October 16, 2017

I Come to Bury Blade Runner 2049, Not Praise It

Nice poster. 
This entire article is a spoiler. You have been warned.

I’ve got real problems with Blade Runner 2049, but they are not the problems you think. Specifically, I have a real urge to throw this movie and everyone associated with it under the bus. But I’m going to untangle my ire and see if I can’t get to the heart of what’s bothering me. There’s a series of errors occurring in meat-space that have all conspired to create a false narrative around this film.

Fans got it wrong. They didn’t want this. They never did. Even if they say they did, they didn’t really. And right now, fandom is shearing off into two camps, as per usual; folks who are tearing the movie to pieces because it doesn’t look like what’s in their head, and folks who are blindly adoring of the movie because it’s “transcendent” and “evocative” and they dare not dislike it for fear of being accused of “not getting it.”

Critics got it wrong, for the most part. They were the ones granted early access to the film and they didn’t talk about what’s really wrong with the movie. They used words like “transcendent” and “evocative” to cover up the fact that they had no idea what they just watched and didn’t want to seem as if they didn’t “get it.”

Dennis Villeneuve and his whole team got it very wrong. Blade Runner 2049 is a Jurassic Park T-Rex: its makers were so pre-occupied about whether or not they could make it, that they didn’t bother to ask themselves whether or not they should make it.

This is a thing that should not be.

I think the thing that bothers me most is the reaction I’ve seen from some people akin to profound relief and satisfaction, as if they’ve been waiting patiently for three decades for them to “finally get it right.” Let me re-iterate: No one asked for this. The reason why it has slowly morphed into a beloved classic of the science fiction film genre is because there was only one of them, and it more or less worked right the first time. It didn’t need a second chapter, and it damn sure didn’t need to be re-kickstarted into a “franchise.” This whole project is a disservice to everyone. And it was doomed from the get-go.

Not my favorite Harrison Ford movie.
But let’s back this up 35 years, first. The problem begins in 1982 when Blade Runner first appeared. Ridley Scott was (comparatively) at the beginning of his career. Blade Runner was his third movie, after The Duellists, which was seen by maybe seventeen people, and Alien, which was seen by all of North America. He’d done some TV and music video work prior to that, but Blade Runner was clearly his most ambitious movie to date.

It was based on “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” by Phillip K. Dick, and it was the first of many Dick-inspired films appear, with widely varied results. To wit, there’s not much of the story in the movie, but then again, it was 1982, and we weren’t really expecting there to be. Also, Blade Runner ends up asking questions that are similar to the kinds of questions Dick wrote about, so this movie gets a pass from most die-hard SF readers and fans.

The movie starred Harrison Ford, fresh from Raiders of the Lost Ark, at the apex of his "Young Bogart" phase. Sean Young co-starred, doing her best Veronica Lake impression, and then there’s Rutger Hauer, an actor who was literally cast in everything he’s been in since based entirely on the strength of his performance as Roy Batty; i.e. "Hey, is that Rutger Hauer? Boy, did he get fat!" "Yeah, but he was the shit in Blade Runner, wasn't he?" The film is front loaded with great co-stars and character actors, each one bringing something different to the mix. Darryl Hannah plays a killer sexbot. M. Emmet Walsh is Deckard’s old boss. Edward James Olmos plays a skeevy cop named Gaff. Brion James, William Sanderson, James Hong, Joanna Cassidy...it’s smorgasbord of talent, okay?

Noir-style lighting, expertly applied, with no guessing as to where the light was coming from.
The film came out during this great period in early 80s cinema; ILM was an established entity by this time, and could turn in some impressive special effects, but it wasn’t so easy to do that you could sacrifice story or plot to make your spectacle. You still had to make an actual movie. And while Blade Runner spends a lot of time swinging wide over chilling hellscapes of over-developed cities in a flying car, there’s not too much else going on to distract you from the main story.  Also, there were a lot of downbeat endings, sort of a holdover from the 1970's flirtation with "realism" in cinema. It was okay, for example, to have a "happy for now" ending. Lots of movies from the early to mid-80's had that feel to it. It's like films were deconstructing themselves, even as people like Lucas and Spielberg were trying to stitch them back together again. But I digress.

Ford plays Deckard, a former cop known as a Blade Runner (why? Sounds cool, I guess) that hunts down and “retires” rogue Replicants—artificial workers who sometimes get wise that they are being used for slave labor and decide to rebel, run, or cause trouble. Pretty cynical. Deckard is done with that business, but apparently, he gets called back by his old boss for “one last job.” While he’s on the job, he meets Rachel (Young), and as soon as he does, he’s doomed. We find out pretty quickly that she’s a Replicant, like the ones he’s hunting. Deckard gets leads, drinks a lot, and runs the Replicants down, one by one, all while dealing with Rachel who keeps insisting she’s a real person. She’s got memories, photographs, see? She can’t be artificial.
 
One of the most used and most dramatic stills from the film. 
We find out that the Replicants who are rebelling want more life—they were only supposed to be active for five years. Eventually the head of the Tyrell Corporation, the maker of all the Replicants, has to tell that to Roy Batty, the leader of the gang of miscreant Replicants. “The candle that burns twice as bright, burns half as long. And you have burned so very brightly, Roy.” Weirdly, that does not satisfy Roy, who was looking for more than platitudes. But by now, Deckard has caught up to him and they fight, and Deckard is clearly outmatched. But Batty recites some amazing dialogue and dies right in front of an immobilized Deckard. The movie ends with Deckard grabbing Rachel and heading for the country. She may have a limited lifespan, like Batty. Maybe not. But Deckard decides it’s worth it, because they love each other.

Neat movie. Really makes you think in places.

Only, that’s not the end of it. Ridley Scott decided several years later that he didn’t like the movie. There’s voice-over narration in the film, see, and it was added under protest because the studio couldn’t figure out what was going on in the movie. The V.O. really heightened the “film noir” aspects of the movie. Also, the ending was tacked on, see? Another studio addition. So, Scott released a Director’s Cut, with more scenes of the flying car zooming over horrifying cityscapes, more Vangelis music, no narration, and an ending that was abrupt and jarring. Case closed, right?

No. See, it turns out that Scott really didn’t approve the director’s cut, and now there is a third version out there, a workprint that was screened once, and THAT is the closest to his vision. Oh, but there’s also a UK Director’s Cut that’s slightly different...sigh. By the time the dust had settled, there were a total of five different prints of Blade Runner, including the Ultimate Final cut that Scott DID approve of, complete with computer re-coloring because we can do that now.

But central to most of these do-overs was a scene where Deckard falls asleep and dreams of a unicorn. Based on that, for literally twenty years now, there’s been a friendly debate about whether or not Deckard was a Replicant himself.  Watching the movie that way completely changes the film. Especially since—and this is very important to note—there is literally zero indicator of this throughout the film.
 
There is more expression in this still than in the whole of Blade Runner 2049.
And don’t start on me with that “But Mark, the clues are there if you’re paying attention, see...”

First off, Chuckles, I’m not Sherlock Holmes. I’m not even John Watson. I’m a guy watching a movie. I don’t want subtle clues. I want scenes with plot, story, and dialogue in them. Heck, you can even throw in sub-text, if you like. I’ll sit there all day and discuss what it means with you. But at some point, you need to cue your audience in to what you want them to know in some way.

“See how much damage he takes? That’s a clue, man!”

Well, yes, but all of the signifiers in this movie are telling me it’s also a film noir homage, and one of the classic tropes there is the Herculean amount of concussive force the detective hero soaks up on his skull without permanent brain injury. So, if you signal to me this is a film noir, and then you have Deckard getting continually beat to shit, I’m not going think, “Hmmm, he must be a secret robot!” I’m going to think, “Oh, they’re doing the old Sam Spade schtick.” The only way it works is if in act three you let it slip that he’s a secret robot. If you keep it a secret, then you either didn’t think this through or you just didn’t want anyone to know in the first place.

This is one of the major problems with directors going back after twenty-five years and monkeying around with their movies. They aren’t the same people, anymore. They are bringing a completely different brain to the process. Early work is early work. If you want to revisit it, the best thing you can do is identify the themes you want to expound upon and put them into a new project.
 
Another great example of how to light an actor so that you can see
the performance. Something to think about for next time.
But as muddy as the waters were around Blade Runner, this was a friendly argument to make. After all, there were people who liked the voice-over (myself included) in that it helped build and explain the world in which this dystopian society operated in. Just like Noir voice-over should. This is doubly useful because of all the extra time director Ridley Scott spent filming vistas of blasted hellscapes and flying cars and having people sigh and drink and not say anything. And I never warmed to the Director’s Cuts, any of them, because I kept hearing the V.O. in my head during the scenes when it was supposed to be there and wasn’t.

But it was our movie, and we loved it. It was science fiction at a time when there was a limited amount of it to consume and the quality varied widely. Over the years, it became a right of passage for other SF fans. “You haven’t seen Blade Runner? Oh, you gotta! We’re watching it this weekend.” And it’s a movie that gradually became more popular, and more respected, despite the director’s best efforts to confuse everyone, but it was always firmly in the SF genre. It didn’t break out, never really crossed over. Jocks don’t watch Blade Runner. It’s not that kind of movie, and never was. Even in the new Age of the Geek, it’s a deep cut. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I never ever, not once, thought to myself, “I wonder what happens next?”
 
In the original movie, buildings were billboards.
So, like, we're two years ahead of the curve on this one.
Now we get to Blade Runner 2049.

In the “Even a Blind Squirrel Occasionally Finds a Nut” Category, we find this short feature by Looper on Why Blade Runner 2049 ReallyFailed at the Box Office. I offer it here with no commentary, because I largely agree with it, and also, what I really want to do is pile on here, because I watched this movie twice and I have to tell you, I don’t know what you all were watching, but I don’t think the Emperor is wearing new clothes, here.
 
This orange color palate is supposed to mean something,
but I have no idea what. Ford is blue in the poster. 
Dennis Villeneuve made a splash with Arrival, a science fiction film, adapted from a real science fiction story, and it was well-received all around. He apparently pulled a lot of his visual style from watching early Ridley Scott movies. I wonder which ones?

It’s too bad he never figured out that Scott’s “style” is another way of saying “storytelling,” because this film substitutes mood for murk, doesn’t know when to start telling the story it’s trying to tell, doesn’t know how to signal anything to an audience, visually meanders for two hours and forty three minutes. That’s if you don’t count the three short films Villeneuve commissioned to explain key events leading up to Blade Runner 2049. Those run an additional twenty-seven minutes. That’s three hours and ten minutes’ worth of “What the hell am I watching?”

A great many of the shots in this movie are set up along the same angles and planes as many shots in the original film. Noticeably so. This wouldn’t be so bad in and of itself, but when Villeneuve isn’t swiping visual cues from the original movie, he’s bathing the background in heavy fog or smoke or “atmosphere” so that it’s really difficult to see what’s going on. In a 3D movie, darkened by technology to begin with, this renders big chunks of the movie oily and muddy by degrees.

When there is a light source, it’s in motion, creating a strange distraction. It’s the future. Why are light bulbs still swinging? Is conduit that scarce? Many of the scenes are inadequately lit—and we know this because when other scenes start, they are expertly lit, or over-lit. In a movie with three generations of hunky actors in it, you’d think you would want to shine a light on those darling faces so the audience could see them. There’s a scene with Ford and Leto where the moving light is so distracting, I was trying to figure it out instead of listening to the dialogue.

Oh, and that’s the thing: you have to concentrate on this movie, and instantly judge what you’re listening to so you can decide if this is plot, big secret reveal, or simply chit-chat before something else happens. For a movie that both slavishly values its silence, and yet also wrote in a literal Girl-Friday-in-the-Machine for Gosling to interact with so that we aren’t watching a silent picture for three hours, there are still scenes that Go Nowhere and Do Nothing. Gosling and Dave Bautista, easily the best actor in the movie, have several minutes of empty-calorie banter before Bautista is retired. The only purpose it serves is to introduce the idea that Gosling’s character is a Replicant, and in case you forget it, there’s a scene where he’s walking down a hallway shortly after that someone—human, I guess, barks at him as he’s walking by, “Lousy Skin-Job,” and Gosling’s character flinches and pulls away. See? Replicants are still a problem, here, too. But, why? I’ll get into the story, later.

And the soundtrack? It’s industrial noise. Say what you want about Vangelis, and I would not presume to debate you, but the soundtrack in this overblown set of vacation slides is giant, strident Harrumphing noises and sub-woofer honks. I shit you not. They are loud, too, instigating almost a jump-scare, because, see, for the past thirty minutes you’ve been leaning forward in your chair, trying to hear something, anything resembling meaningful dialogue. Next thing you know, Gosling is back in the car, flying over L.A. and the movie is braying at you like the genetically-recreated dinosaur that it is.
 
This is the most exiting moment in the film.
A real edge-of-your-seat nail biter, this one is.
It’s a technical mess. Villeneuve inexplicably found a sans serif font that is very thin and hard to read, underlit the text, and then slapped it up the upper and lower corners of the frame. It almost works when the screen is black, but those cards that are ideally used to tell you where you in the new scene (Los Angeles, San Francisco, etc.) are get lost in the corners of the frame with no weight or light on them. Oh, and they are sporadically used, as well. Some places never get a card. Good luck figuring out the place with the context of Gosling frog-walking through a scene with no expression on his face! I’d call it a rookie mistake but I don’t think it is. I think it was just a bad choice.

The lighting is bad, the sound is bad (actors are either quietly talking, or the soundtrack is blasting sub-woofer honks at you), the pacing is bad, and it’s an editorial mess. So much dead space that is given to showing more vistas of blasted hellscapes. No sense of place, no sense of time. I honestly don’t know what Villeneuve was thinking.

Let’s talk about the actors for just a second. I love Harrison Ford. I grew up with him. Spiritually, he’s wish-fulfillment figure to me—a psychic Cool Uncle I wish I had. Raiders of the Lost Ark is my personal Rosetta Stone. And so I say this with zero irony and full sincerity: Please sit down. I am really afraid he’s going to break a hip or something. And for God’s sake, quit dressing up in your old roles. The only reboot you need to be in right now is the Grumpy Old Men revival. Of course, there’s a practical reason why Ford is in the movie, and I’ll hit that later. I guess if you’re casting a movie about life-like robots, the wooden Ryan Gosling is probably a great call.

I think Ryan Gosling is one of the blandest, most colorless, gotta-face-made-for-punching actors in Hollywood right now. I’m glad Ford really hit him. I don’t get how two lazy eyes and a half smirk equals sex appeal in the 21st century, I really don’t. And don't say "abs." There's better abs on better actors. This triangle-headed incubus is what's wrong with the country today.

And then we come to Jared Leto. Yeah, I’m just going to leave that right there. This kid, boy, I tell you what...

But the worst thing about this movie is that it hinges on making a decision about the first Blade Runner movie. Its premise is based entirely on the idea that Deckard is a Replicant. Oh, yeah, sorry. Spoilers.

This premise has to be bought if you are going to buy the premise for the new movie. And if you are like me, and think the “Deckard is a Replicant” idea is bullshit, well, guess what? This movie is a fight from start to finish.

It’s a fight because the whole “secret plot” hinges on finding the baby—the all Replicant child of Deckard and Rachel. The baby that shouldn’t have happened. Because they are, you know, not real. Gosling’s character has to track this kid down before he “upsets the balance of the world.” I guess if the Replicants can Self-Replicate, then they are people and therefore not to be used as slave labor for...doing what, exactly? The off-world colonies are thriving, we are told. They aren’t terra-forming. Or are they? It’s a bunch of hand-waving, and God Help You if you didn’t watch the 27 minutes of bonus footage that came out ahead of time.
 
Lots of great visuals in this movie. When you can see them.
But not enough to move the story forward. 
Three vignettes. The first one was Dave Bautista, dated one year before the movie starts. It connects directly into the start of the movie. So directly, in fact, that it should have been the start of the movie.

The second vignette, starring Jared Leto doing the worst “William Shatner does Stevie Wonder” impression I’ve ever heard in my life, dated twelve years before the movie starts. We learned that the Tyrell Corporation was bought up by another mega-corp, run by Leto, who is genius enough to make Replicants who are totally safe, this time, because see, he orders his man to kill himself and he does it. Genius! Based on the movie that just came out, it’s safe to assume the ban on making Replicants has lifted.

The last one, an anime, is the longest, but it’s also got the most useful information in it. It happens three years AFTER the first movie. All of the Nexus 6 Replicants (Roy Batty’s batch) have expired because of their 5 year life span. Except presumably, apparently, (and now according to Villeneuve definitely) Rachel, who Tyrell said was special, and if you think that way, then presumably, apparently, (and now according to Villeneuve definitely) Deckard, as well. So, the new Replicants are Nexus 8’s, and they have all of the advantages of Nexus 6 Replicants, but they have a normal life span.

When a pack of former Replicant Soldiers find out that they are fighting a war against other Replicants (“toy soldiers in a sandbox,”) they decide to free the enslaved Replicants. Oh, yeah, and there’s an uprising. Replicants are being lynched. So, get the metaphor? Okay, just checking. Deep waters, here. A small team of infiltrators manage to blow up a satellite uplink and an installation that contains all of the Replicant records. It’s called The Blackout. It means, obliquely, that the Replicants were free to go into hiding to escape persecution. Which, apparently, they did.
 
This fight? In the Vegas Lounge? It's technical chaos.
Glossing right over the idea that, in fact, Blade Runner 2022 makes for a much better, more compelling, and more interesting story than the one we got, these nuggets of info are crucial to understanding the 2 hour and 43 minute movie you’re watching—because, apparently, they couldn’t figure out a way to shoehorn that information in—in 2 hours and 43 minutes.

But instead of putting useful information into the movie, we get told things and then are given all of this empty space to try and make sense of it. And, when Harrison Ford shows up at the end of Act 2, and you realize that all of the assumptions you had about the first movie were, according to this movie, wrong, well, that’s on you to wrestle with. We’re not going to fill anything in for you.

So, Deckard is, apparently, a magical Replicant, not a Nexus 6, but “special,” like Rachel. A prototype Nexus 8, maybe? Two of them? And why would NO ONE in the first movie say anything to anyone about this? Why would Tyrell create two prototype Self-Replicating Replicants, which is basically just cloning at that point, and not tell anyone about it?

When Gosling’s character (K, or Joe, or, you know what? Who cares!?) starts pulling at this glued-over Gordian Knot of a plot, it has to compete with other lapses in logic. RepliGos has to be regularly re-calibrated to “baseline,” which is, I guess, the tweak Jared Leto did that keeps the Replicants from freaking out. Except that everyone still hates and distrusts them. Except for the ones who don’t. Whatever. When he starts looking into this mystery of the magical RepliKid, he has another Replicant bird-dogging his every move. She’s loyal to Leto, who needs the kid for...what? The secret of Replicant Life? Leto apparently can’t make more Replicants and thinks a self-Replicating Replicant, or just a clone, is the key to making more Replicants. His Replicant helps RepliGos from a distance, at one point even taking out a group of people attacking him with missiles. But she doesn’t try to attack RepliGos until he finally goes rogue. And even then, his human handler gives him 48 hours to “get right,” but it’s clear she’s just letting him go. Now the Replicant Hunter has become the Replicant Hunted. And he’s being tracked by a tiny bug a prostitute slips into his coat. Jeez, Louise, what a god-awful mess.

This film takes a very long time to tell a very basic, hackneyed, clich├ęd story that ultimately goes nowhere and does nothing. It’s got no heart, no balls, and no guts. It’s fitting, I suppose, that everyone in the movie is so wooden as to appear to be puppets. The Biblical allegory is ham-fisted, and the elaborate machinations necessary to get Deckard into the movie, and have him figure into the Messiah plot, and spend so much time on these earnest discussions that solve no problems and raise no stakes. This movie flies in the face of everything that made the original Blade Runner great. It was a simple story, made complicated by the questions it asked. It did not ask a bunch of pedantic questions and then try to build a story out of them.

I watched this movie twice, trying to reconcile what I was seeing with all of the questions that came up. Having Deckard end up a Replicant in the movie knocked me out of the film completely, and took some time to get back in. By then, I was pissed. This is a premise that shouldn’t have been utilized for a platform.

I don’t doubt that Villeneuve is a huge Blade Runner fan. I think this movie attests that he was unable to separate himself from the material and as a result, he made bad creative choices. No one else could separate their fan-ness enough to help him, apparently. I wish like hell that Ford was able to continue his personal quest to kill all of his beloved characters before he dies. Deckard should have eaten a bullet in the third act. Instead, he gets the last shot in the movie. Phillip K. Dick is spinning in his grave.

Oh, and the cinematographer? Roger Deakins? I agree, he deserves an Academy Award. Just not for this. But this will be the movie he wins it for. And that just sucks.

You may well think I’m wrong. That’s fine. Feel free to try and convince me otherwise.








Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Mending Broken Hearts with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers


Pretty much the album that made everyone a Tom Petty fan.
I was originally going to talk about all of the bands I carry around in my head, and why, but I think I can demonstrate my relationship with music using only Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. I really wanted to make this a positive, uplifting essay. Instead, it’s going to be another damn eulogy.

I don’t talk about music very much. It’s not that I don’t want to, but rather, I don’t want to run afoul of someone who doesn’t get what I like, or why. Few things bow me up into a fighting shape like being told a band I like really sucks. Slightly less irritating is being boxed into one particular category of music fan. That’s really not fair because I genuinely like a little bit of everything. That is to say, I like certain artists and bands in just about every genre. For the most part, I do not indulge deeply, but I do enjoy widely.

There are exceptions, of course. Certain bands transcend whether time and place and become part of your history. At least, that’s how it is for me. I assume that other people have a music memory on some sort of level, that listening to the song you lost your Virginity to will catapult you back in time like you’re on an episode of Quantum Leap. Music is the thumbtack on my memory map. I know where I was when I first heard certain songs. I can recall memories, sights, sounds, and sometimes even smells, all tied up in and around certain songs.

I was still a youth when their debut album hit, but back in the 1970s, radio stations would play an album and the singles released from it for up to two years without thinking twice. So, while I remember hearing “American Girl” on the radio, it didn’t quite resonate for me. I wasn’t really dialed in to what Tom was talking about until Damn the Torpedoes. Like the rest of the planet.

You couldn’t get away from “Refugee.” It was everywhere. All of the radio stations played it. At the skating rink. Forty-Fives and cassettes. Probably a few 8-Track tapes out there, too. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, DJs were actual people, not computer programs, and they played “Refugee” constantly, and then they went back and played other Tom Petty songs when they got bored with that one.

After that, I started hearing Tom Petty. Not listening, but really hearing him. His lyrics really spoke to me. See, I had to grow into the affable, charismatic, devil-may-care person you know so well. In Junior High, and High School, and, oh, most of my 20s, and probably right up to the age of thirty, I can chart my successes (and many, many failures) with the opposite sex using nothing but Tom Petty songs. No one writes a male break-up song like Tom Petty. He never had that machismo swagger. There was always a plaintive vulnerability to his voice that really conveyed pain, loss, and yeah, even heartbreak.

I weathered high school listening to “Stop Dragging My Heart Around,” that fantastic duet with Stevie Nicks, and also “American Girl,” “Listen to Her Heart,” “Don’t Do Me Like That,” and “You Got Lucky.” Those songs had a quality to them that you did not find in any other rock and roll records. Springsteen was singing about larger concerns. Heavy Metal might as well have been singing about a colony on Mars. I was going to a high school in a suburb of Waco, Texas. The girls Motley Crue focused on? The “club girls?” They didn’t exist for me and my friends.

The other record that made everyone
a Tom Petty fan. 
New Wave? Just as alien, though not without some of its charms, thanks to many a teen movie soundtrack. Pop music around this time was just shitty. It was Rick Astley and Billy Ocean and New Kids on the Block. There were very few rock and roll acts out there that managed to keep their street cred and just play their music. Top of that list was Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Thank God MTV and VH1 kept him in rotation. Generation X might not have survived otherwise.

When Full Moon Fever came out, I was in college. “Free Falling” and “Feel a Whole Lot Better” got me through one of the worst break-ups of my life, and it’s the reason why, to this day, I have a serious problem with women named “Amy.” It was a reinvention for Petty, and I think that producer Jeff Lynne made the inspired decision to put Tom’s voice right up close on the mic. It’s a more intimate sound, not as big and sonic as the early Heartbreakers albums, but it’s part of what makes songs like “Free Falling” so effective. When he goes up an octave for the chorus, and it sounds like genuine anguish, it gave me chills the first time I heard it.

Somewhere along the way, I started decoding the lyrics and I realized how effortless Tom Petty’s music always sounded, and how incredibly complicated it really was. And the Heartbreakers? One of the most underrated bands in rock and roll history. They are so tight that it’s really hard to unpack them. That more people don’t consider Mike Campbell to be a genius is just weird. That opening riff is so immediately identifiable, and yet it doesn’t sound like anything else, not really.

I owned this album twice. That's how much I liked it.
I was in the middle a tumultuous relationships when Wildflowers dropped. One of my most impactful relationships was stretched to the breaking point when I moved to California. I was trying to keep it together via long distance when I first heard “You Wreak Me,” and it cut into me like few songs ever have before or since. Taking it back to high school with the lyrics “I'll be the boy in the corduroy pants / You be the girl at the high school dance / Run with me, wherever I go /Just play dumb, whatever you know” was such a powerful sense memory; it was as if I’d been waiting since 1985 to hear that song and personalize it. The way the guy in the song begs the girl to throw it all away and just be with him and forget all the rest of it—that kind of crazy passion, the woman you know is bad for you, but you can’t help it—Ohhh oh oh. Yeah-aaaah. Who hasn’t had one of those relationships? Who didn’t come out of it feeling like they’d been in a car crash?

Flash forward to this year: my friends bought me and Cathy tickets to see Tom Petty in Austin on his 40th Anniversary Farewell Tour. This would be Cathy’s third time to see him. She’s also seen Bruce Springsteen three times. My wife. She likes rock and roll for all of the right reasons. Anyway.

Over the years, I have observed that experiencing a treasured band tends to overwrite my memories of listening to their music by myself and supplant that with memories of seeing them live. This has happened with KISS, The Cramps, Springsteen, Robert Plant, Joan Jett, etc. you get the idea.

As we are enjoying the concert—and it was a fantastic show—the band went back through their catalog in a greatest hits kind of playlist. “You Wreak Me,” by the way, was their first encore number, and it filled me with such joy.

Walking out of the Frank Erwin Center, and for days afterward, I was re-playing the show in my head and I noticed that all of that heartache and heartbreak that I’d attached to these songs over the years had scooched over to make room for that concert, with my wife and my friends, as we jumped and clapped and sang along, and the sense memory of holding my wife’s hand through most of the concert.

The heartbreak had become love. Not healed, so much as refocused. The power of rock and roll, baby.

I loved everything about Tom Petty. His sound, his sense of humor, his genuine love of music, his list of influences, and his dark streak of irony. Naming the band of musical nerds and misfits “the heartbreakers,” man. Self-effacing from the start. I always assumed that he’d be around forever, like Willie Nelson. It’s a darker, lonelier world without him in it. Thankfully, he has a song for that.

Rest in Peace, Tom. Rest in peace. 


Friday, September 29, 2017

The Alamo Draft House Gordian Knot

Note: I'm only posting this to give some context to my reactions regarding the massive scandal the Alamo Drafthouse Finds itself Embroiled in involving, among others, Devin Faraci and now Harry Knowles. If you don't care about any of this, or don't know the players involved, feel free to skip it all.

The first time I saw Harry Knowles was at a City Wide Garage Sale in the mid-1990s. We were walking around and looking for geeky junk and my friend pointed to their set-up and said, “Buyer Beware.”

“What?” Their set-up had a lot of interesting things on it. Some movie memorabilia, including Lobby Cards, which I was really into at the time.

“They have a reputation for selling reproductions and knock-offs as originals. And when you tell them about it, they refund your money, but put the shit back out on the table. We call them ‘Buyer Beware.’”

Good to know, I thought.

I later learned their names, and sure enough, they had a reputation around Austin amongst the other dealers and collectors in the Geek Secondary Market; the comic shops, record shops, weekend warrior dealers, etc. In other words, in a world of sharks, they were the sharks other people were careful to avoid.

Some time after that, they came into the comic shop where I worked; scratch that, they swaggered in. Their whole demeanor was one of “prove it,” and they were very careful to inspect us, what we were selling, and the look of the store. (Long Story Short: we’d taken over the business from long-time owners and made a few changes to the place—for those of you keeping up, it was the beginning of Austin Books, Mk.II).

They eventually made some small talk with us, bought some supplies (the go-to move for anyone casing a new store) and bid us adieu. Thereafter, we’d see them approximately once a year, as they checked in on us and looked for, well, I don’t know what, exactly, but they always made small purchases and that was it.

It was several years later (after I left the store, moved away, and moved back) that they made an appearance one day. Harry was excited. He’d just started a website, see? And he gleefully told me about some spy he knew from LA that sent him pictures of...you know, I don’t even remember what—but that he ran them and the studio was sooooo pissed at him, and he was just, you know, a fan, sharing pictures, and it wasn’t HIS fault if they weren’t supposed to be released, how did HE know? He then told me I should come check out the site.

I did.

It was terrible. Badly written, weirdly personal, not at all professional, distractingly disingenuous, and full of some real sycophantic, nearly slavish praise, for everything Harry was writing. It didn’t make sense to me.

I knew that his dad had tenuous connections to “Hollywood,” in that he worked on some films that were made in Texas, but they made way more of this connection than maybe a guy who worked, uncredited, in the prop department, fully deserved. Even before Austin became a Mecca Hot Spot for Texas filmmakers, it was always a quiet underground for Texas filmmakers, and actors. I wasn’t impressed.

Harry’s rep was largely folded around his father’s credits, such as they were, and so sure, they probably did know some folks behind the scenes working on movies. Again, I say, so what? Someone snaps pics of the actor on the set and you publish them. Basically, the same thing the National Enquirer does.

To borrow a quote from another,
better movie, "Uh, not really, no."
I hate-read the site for a while, trying to get a handle on it. And I was reading just at the right time read about Harry’s visit to the set of Armageddon, wherein they walked him around, and he got to meet Bruce Willis in his space suit, and he spent time at the craft services table, and on and on and on, but nothing really about the movie. Just his impressions of stuff. It was really amateurish, wide-eyed, wonderment. There were several of those travelogues, and they were all very embarrassing. On one of these trips, he split his pants on the set—and then stuck around after. Zero pride. Zero filters.

It was around this time that his “reviews” began to take on these glowing tones. You should have heard him gush about Armageddon, a film that might have been somewhat entertaining, but was nowhere near the emotional, cathartic experience he made it out to be. He was duly excoriated on the site, which brought his defenders running to say, “you don’t know, you don’t understand, you can’t do any better, etc.” It was appalling. I kept thinking to myself, “How is it that Hollywood is taking this guy seriously?”

I wrote about it, in an early email article that I was sending around—the first version of Finn’s Wake, back when I had an AOL address. And oh, God, did I get blowback. See, I was one of the ones who just didn’t get it. I didn’t know anything. I was not privy to any of the great plans, great deals, great schemes that Harry was planning on giving the world, all for us, and by tearing him down, I was a real asshole. What had they ever done to me?

Nothing, frankly. But the Knowles, as a group, were sketchy when I first saw them, they acted sketchy every time I interacted with them, and now they were profiting from being sketchy online. Oh, and the kid couldn’t write. Not well. It bothered me that his reviews were more about Harry than why a movie was or wasn’t good. It went beyond subjective. It was wildly inconsistent, because he back tracked, issued second reviews that nullified the first review, and demonstrated over and over that he was not above being wined and dined in exchange for saying nice things. Voice a criticism and his jackbooted-thugs-online followers piled on with hateful, spiteful, and cheerfully horrible attacks. It just wasn’t an interaction I was interested in having, especially not on a daily basis. So, I tuned out and stopped watching the tire fire.

The last time I saw him in the store was around the time that Dean Devlin’s new Godzilla movie was about to drop. Harry was bragging to me that “Dean kept trying to get me to say nice things about the lead actress in the movie, who, you know, he’s dating right now, but I’m not gonna...I mean, hey man, I’ve got some standards, here. I can’t just...you know, because we’re friends, and all...”

After telling me that story, they bought some comic book supplies and left.

Faraci at SDCC from 2007. Exactly how I pictured him.
By that time, I was reading CHUD, a Georgia-based movie fan site, this one dedicated to Horror movies. The Wild West mentality was in full swing over there, as well. One of the biggest shit-stirrers was a Journeyman Asshole named Devin Faraci, a man who seemed dedicated to taking hisAsshole Credentials to the Professional level. He was, if nothing else, a better writer than Harry, but he had a style of analysis that I have come to think of as Khan-textualizing. You know the quote. “You’ve managed to kill just about everyone else, but like a poor marksman, you Keep. Missing. The Target.”

That’s Faraci’s film commentary. Impressive. Showy. Makes good points. Always screws up the landing. He can’t stick the dismount. He always devolves into some petulant version of his own worst personality quirks, and manages to alienate careful readers. If, like most people reading on the Internet, you read the first few paragraphs and skim the rest, he comes off as a genius. But it’s in the skim where the Emperor Has No Clothes.

Apparently, though, he could talk a good game, because he next showed up at Badass Cinema. Later, it became Birth. Death. Movies. In both cases, it was hard to get past his now weapons-grade asshole-ish behavior. I never met him in person, but I am positive it would have been very hard to not have a go at him after all of the hateful shit he wrote online over the years.

Around this time, the Alamo Draft House was becoming a thing. To die-hard movie fans, their "No Texting" policy was a godsend. They were militant about it, and with good reason: it was a real problem in Austin, a tech-savvy city, at the time. It probably still is. But whatever, it was this place that was just not like the corporate-driven multiplexes. They "got it." My first experience with the Draft House was going to a midnight show of the movie Shaft. The ticket price included a 40 oz. malt liquor. Genius. And the place was paaaaaaaacked full of scruffy guys with unkempt beards, all singing the theme from Shaft, and I realized that not only had I found my people, but my place to watch movies.

This is purely from the standpoint of the outsider looking in. I have dealt with the Draft House professionally at BookPeople before on several occasions where we cross-promoted events, and me and my business partner Steve got to sit down with co-founder Tim League and talk to him about the perils of running a movie theater. He gave us some good advice. Probably doesn't even remember meeting me, and wouldn't recognize me to this day.

But I was never cool enough to be at any of these parties. Always had to work during FantasticFest. Didn't WANT to go to the Butt-Numb-A-Thon (see above). Never an insider. Never really wanted to be. Mostly because of the people I saw in those orbits that I wanted nothing to do with. Not when there were so many other people I could be working with that I did like, that weren't assholes. 

It was—again—weird to me that Tim would want to partner with both Harry and Devin. But they brought with them a certain extra value, in the form of loyal followers and large platforms from which to promote the Alamo Draft House. I just assumed at the time that it was a smart decision by League to use them to get the word out about the cool things the Draft House was doing.

I got busy doing my own stuff. I had zero interest in dealing with either of these people, and they were the people that I would need to deal with if I wanted to be involved in the Austin Film Community in some way other than as a fan. So, that’s what I did. Years later, folks finally began to question what Harry was doing. In a massive, two-part takedown, Film Threat flayed Harry for all of the things, and more, that I saw wrong with the site (Part 1 here, Part 2 here). Vindication was great, but by then, Knowles was worth 700K a year. And laughing all the way to the bank. It just felt like a scam from the get-go. Sketchy. Buyer Beware.

I’m only posting this because folks have wondered at my glee regarding these recent allegations. It’s more than mere schadenfreude on my part. It turned out, no one liked Devin Faraci at all, but because he held some weird perceived power, and people thought they had to kow-tow to him, they let him be an asshole instead of blowing the whistle and ordering him out of the pool.

I think it comes down to this: I don’t like bullies and I don’t like assholes. And I never have. I saw these guys for what they were from the start. I don’t think it merits a victory lap, per se, but I am very pleased to know that my gut-instincts were correct. I have since stopped doubting myself, relying on my ability to size people and things up accordingly, and it’s just good to know that I’ve had that ability for longer than I thought.

As for the Alamo Draft House, well, I really hope Tim can make the necessary changes to ensure this doesn't happen again. I think he can, and it's not that hard to do, in the grand scheme. My advice to him, step one, is to not associate yourself with sketchy people and assholes. That's a really good start.

Now both of these guys are “getting help” and I hope they do. They have apologies to make, and a lot of bad shit to atone for, and it’s not up to me whether or not they are forgiven. But—and let me say this out loud—even if they are forgiven, it would be a grievous mistake to re-install them anywhere close to where they were. Leopards do not change their spots. And absolute power corrupts absolutely. Even sober, even with 12-step programs completed, even with apologies made, and victims forgiving...even if all of that were to happen, my gut tells me they’d still be sketchy, still be an asshole. And this time, I’m trusting my gut.

Minor Edit: correcting the location of CHUD.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Len Wein 1948-2017

One of my all-time favorite comics.
It's not fair that we lost both Bernie Wrightson and Len Wein in the same year. You've probably heard by now about his passing on social media, and everyone is reminding us that Lein Wein co-created Swamp Thing with Bernie and also Wolverine with Herb Trimpe and he re-started the languishing X-Men by making them Uncanny and creating a bunch of now-standard--and interestingly, international--characters like Colossus, Nightcrawler, Thunderbird, and of course, the Canadian Mystery Man, Wolverine himself. This is a big deal, and should be mentioned, alongside his stint as editor-in-chief at Marvel comics, and his later career writing for TV animation like the Batman Animated Series. Len deserves every once of credit for all of that, and more.

But I want to talk about Len Wein and what he meant to me. See, I was late to the Uncanny X-Men--my first issue was well into the Claremont/Byrne run (issue #119, if you must know; the second appearance of Moses Magnum). I discovered Swamp Thing later, around age 9, watching them read aloud on television with actors speaking the parts, like a book and record sort of thing. But my first Len Wein comic I ever read was an issue of The Incredible Hulk. It wasn't #180 (*First Appearance of Wolverine-cameo, last panel) nor #181 (*First Full Appearance of Wolverine, worth a small fortune these day). Nope. It was Incredible Hulk #182 (*2nd Wolverine Appearance-cameo, first page). Which, as you may well imagine, ain't worth diddly-squat, by comparison.

Comics History, Bronze Age Style
But that doesn't matter. At the age of 8, I was reading them to be reading them. You couldn't get full runs of anything in Abilene, Texas, in the mid-1970s, and I had to be content with what I could find. So I read these comics very carefully, looking for clues and connections to other comics and stories.  This was, at first glance, a random issue of The Incredible Hulk. I don't even remember where I got it. Probably bought for me by my dad, or possibly included in a stack from a garage sale. Who knows. But this seemingly-innocuous comic hit me like a ton of bricks.

In a nutshell, here' the recap: The Canadian government captures the Hulk, no thanks to their field agent, Wolverine. Hulk gets loose, as per usual, and disappears into the forest. He comes across an old black man who set up camp. He introduces himself as Crackerjack Jackson and offers Hulk some food. He plays the harmonica and they talk for a while.

Elsewhere, two convicts, an angry black man, and a racist white man, have broken out of prison, but they are shackled together, chain gang style. They are not friends, and can't wait to get free of their chains and go their separate ways. They stumble across a mushroom-headed alien and shoot him. The alien is saved by the metal in the bullets and as a thank you for the help, turns their ordinary chain into an energy tether that gives them strength and power. They rebrand themselves as Hammer and Anvil and decide to get revenge on the prison.

This comic broke my heart.
Meanwhile, Crackerjack is teaching Hulk to fish and write his name. Crackerjack tells Hulk, "A man ain't nothin' if he ain't got his name." Hulk is pleased with his results. He agrees to accompany Crackerjack to see his son.

As it turns out, his son is in prison. The very prison that Hammer and Anvil are about to take apart. Moreover, Leroy, now "Hammer", is Crackerjack's son. Crackerjack sees what's going on and tries to intervene, but Leroy is too angry at his absent father to listen. When Crackerjack reaches out to his son, he grabs the energy chain and the shock kills the old man instantly. When Hulk sees this he goes nuts and attacks the pair. They get Hulk in a stranglehold, but Hulk overcomes and tears the bio-chain apart, which stuns them both.

Before the authorities can swoop in, Hulk takes Crackerjack's body in his arms and leaps away. There, in the woods, he digs a grave for his friend, and buries him. Using his finger, he digs into a rock, carving Crackerjack's name into the makeshift tombstone. And then he leaps away.

All of that story happens in a story merely 17 pages long. And at the age of 7, it filled me with such profound sadness, such regret and loss, that it made me cry. I've since revisited the story, and it's...well, dated, to be polite...but at the time, this was great, great stuff.. I'd argue that even though it's dated now, its heart is still in the right place. And that's why Len Wein should be remembered. This wasn't high art. But he took something that could have been just another Hulk comic and made it greater than the sum of its parts.

That was the first time I noticed the writer's name, Len Wein. Two years later, when I discovered Swamp Thing, I would see his name again and the light bulb went off in my head: you could write comics! You didn't have to be an artist. Because (and I say this with all due respect) there is zero chance of mistaking Herb Trimpe for Bernie Wrightson. But the connective thread there was Len Wein, the writer.

Comics, and especially Bronze and Silver Age comics, take it in the shorts for their "simplicity" and being "kid's stuff," and while there was a schizophrenic barrage of message inherent in the way comics and comic properties were marketed in the 1970s, the people writing them weren't writing comics for kids. They were writing things that interested them, based on what they were hearing from fans, who were all ages--thirty and forty year old men and women, even back then. So the themes of casual racism, absent fathers, self-awareness, patricide, revenge, and regret--this was all fair game back then. What the critics of comics never realized, never got, never understood, is that when comics were their very best, they never pandered to the lowest common denominator. All of the best books forced their readers to engage with them at a much higher level. And that's what Len Wein did when he wrote comics.

I've lost, traded, or misplaced many of my "childhood" comics, but I still have my battered and beat-to-hell issue of Incredible Hulk #182. It was a transformative book for me, one that most certainly contributed to my path to being a storyteller. I am deeply sorry I never got a chance to tell Len that in person.

Rest in Peace, Good Sir. And thanks. For all of it.

Edited to correct an appearance error and the weird loss of a paragraph in the posting.

Friday, September 8, 2017

What We Mean When We Say “Super Hero Fatigue”

Look at the colors in this poster for
Thor Ragnarok. How can you not
be excited to see this?
Nothing quite sets me off like the phrase “Super Hero Fatigue.” It’s a passive-aggressive way for movie reviewers and online content providers to turn their nose up at a genre that they either don’t like, don’t get, or some combination of the two. I’m not unsympathetic; we’ve all gotten fed up with a trend or a fad before the media, or your little sister, or the world was ready to let go of it, and we’ve all suffered through “the Spring Break song” of the year or the Twilight Saga or whatever it was with a mixture of benign hate and stoic indifference. I get it.

But if you don’t stop talking about super hero fatigue, I’m going to sock your nose. 

When you talk about “super hero fatigue” you may mean that you’re bored with the movies, but what I hear when you say that is, “I want these movies to go away.” Well, I don’t. If you don’t like them—if they aren’t for you—that’s fine, whatever, go peddle your ducks elsewhere. But to my mind, they’ve only really been good for, what, 9 years, now? Not even a full decade? Why do you hate fun? Who hurt you? And why would you waste good ink complaining about it when there’s hundreds of other movies, obscure and neglected, that you can champion as only a hipster can?

Now that you know what this blog post is going to be about, feel free to chalk it up as one of those “Old Man Yells at Cloud” posts. Or just skip right down to the end and tell me I don’t know what I’m talking about. You will be wrong, of course, and do you know why?

I did the math. I’ve got the numbers. I have data, you smug bastards. So let me explain to you folks—many of whom are under the age of 35—why you need to stop kvetching about the Super Hero Movie Genre and let us Generation X folks have our moment.

My Thesis
The modern comic book movie didn’t officially begin until the year 1999 with the premiere of The Matrix. While it was not connected to a comic series or based on established characters, the visual effects in the film handily duplicated the fast-action and ballet-like fighting that was a staple of comic books. The “Bullet Time” effects in particular showcased key scenes before, during and after their execution, mimicking a “panel” in a comic.

Note: I did not include Blade (1998) in this calculation because, while Blade’s comic book origins are well-established, he is a vampire who hunts vampires. His speed and strength did not need any further explanation. The movie going audience understood that from the get-go and so no additional story was needed to justify his “super powers.” Nevertheless, Blade does count as a comic book movie, as we’ll later see.

Special effects, and in particular computer-generated effects, have been a staple of the movie industry since Jurassic Park in 1993. However, it took nearly a decade to create computer-generated imagery that was able to meet the rigorous demands of a super hero film. Even movies that were deemed mediocre as films boasted incredible special effects and images that were simply not possible prior to the 21st century.

Of course, that didn’t keep Hollywood from trying. The 20th century has some of the best-and worst-super hero movies and television shows to ever exist. And I should know. I watched all of it. Yeah, that’s right, all of it. Look, I was an early and avid fan of super heroes. I was reading comics at the age of 5. Collecting them by age 8. And—here’s the kicker—I was born in 1969, which puts me at ground zero for everything that was to come along and, little by little, improve with each try. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that if you were born anytime after 1960, then you probably feel as I do, if you’re as big a fan of comics and super heroes as me. If you were born in the seventies, you’re probably on board with me. But if you were born in the mid to late 1980s...you may just be the person I’m talking to when I say, “shut up your flapping food hole” about Super Hero fatigue.

I Made a Chart
You can download a PDF of my full chart here.  It took me a while to put together, since this is not my strong suit. But I wanted to back up my feelings, my impressions, and my memories with some actual hard data points. So there it is, in its full glory, if you’re so inclined. Also, I graded every single super hero movie and project from A to F. That's what we're all going to fight about. I just know it. So go ahead and download it now and look it over and get ready to tell me why I'm the biggest idiot the world has ever produced because I didn't like your favorite movie from 1997. For the rest of you, I’m going to skip ahead and talk briefly about what I uncovered.

Most of you know that modern super heroes debuted in 1938 with the first appearance of Superman in Action Comics. Batman followed in 1939, and Captain America and Wonder Woman came after that in 1940. Most of you know about the Golden Age of Super Hero Comics, and you may even know about the Silver Age and the creation of Marvel Comics in 1961 with The Fantastic Four, followed quickly by The Incredible Hulk and Spider-Man.  

Marvel and DC continue to rule the roost when it comes to super heroes and their related properties. There have been (and continue to be) other publishers of comics, but it’s hard to topple characters who’ve been around for 60, 70, and 80 or more years. One thing I found interesting was that the 1940s and the 1960s, both times of great interest in comic book super heroes, each had their own attempts to capitalize on that success in movies or TV.

The 1940s were the era of the serials, or “Cliffhangers,” wherein a story was broken up into weekly chapters, each running around 15 minutes, and exhibited as part of a larger Saturday matinee program. These serials were sometimes re-edited into feature length films. The special effects for these cliffhangers was shoestring, at best, but the stunt work and action were often top-notch.

The 1950s gave rise to atomic age science fiction, and also opened up circuit distribution for independent film companies and “packagers.” Thus, quality varied widely, with some of the movies skirting the edge of outright exploitation.

Television was a fixture in the 1960s, and when Marvel came along, it saw an opportunity not on the silver screen but on the little screen. As early as 1966, a number of animated properties were developed—aimed at kids, of course—featuring the Marvel super heroes. The 1960s also continued the Science Fiction trend, but new fears were creeping into the zeitgeist. Planet of the Apes is the standout from this decade. Also, the studio system was breaking down.

The 1970s were essentially the end of the 1960s. Some speculative films were out, but there were more Godzilla movies than super hero fare on the big screen. It wasn’t until Star Wars changed the game in terms of what could be done onscreen that things started to change—but not until the 1980s. However, Marvel—perhaps emboldened by its success with animated properties, made the bewildering decision to take some of its beloved characters and turn them into lackluster live-action properties. Only Superman in 1978could save us from such mediocrity, and set the bar so high that it became the standard for decades on How to Make a Super Hero Movie.  

1980s were a heyday for fantasy films, embracing the new technologies created by ILM such as blue screen technology and optical compositing as soon as it was invented. Most of the time, the technology was badly applied, or worse, applied quite well to bolster terrible films. Marvel never really got its legs under it, doubling down on projects like Incredible Hulk TV movies and trying to launch David Hasselhoff as Nick Fury. DC didn’t do much better, with the Superman films rapidly declining in quality, each one dumber than the last. Again, a last minute save by Tim Burton invigorated Batman for a new generation.

Never forget. This is why we fight.
The 1990s tried their hardest to deliver, but the technology was just out of reach of the subject matter. To make matters worse, decades of bad super heroes, campy super heroes, and corny super heroes had muddied the waters. The nadir of this era was the much maligned and rightly so Batman and Robin, an intentional salute and celebration of the 1966 Batman TV show that everyone tried so hard to overcome. That the show has found a new audience now is not the point; there are finally enough interpretations of Batman in the zeitgeist that a super silly Batman isn't the only thing drawing water, nor is it the only view of super heroes out there. Back when it was the only note anyone could blow on a horn, it was tiresome in the extreme. The independent comics produced a  few exceptions, such as The Mask, which made the rubbery computer animation work for it, and The Rocketeer, which matched nice special effects with a sincere attempt at getting the character right, made the failures around it that much worse. Only the quantum leap forward with CGI at the end of the decade made what came next possible.

The 2000s can inarguably be considered the new Golden Age of comic book movies, now that technology finally caught up to the rigorous demands of the stories being told. However, the old modes of storytelling and the insistence on telling the same kind of super hero story—now a mash-up of the Superman (1978) and Batman (1989) plot would continue to plague many of the projects for most of the decade. When Iron Man started the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2008, it put into place one of the most ambitious world-building and franchise building exercises ever attempted on such a large scale, and it paid off handsomely.

2010 to 2017 is not a complete decade, but I would go so far as to argue that today’s comic book movies and television shows have supplanted the comic book themselves in terms of the place they occupy in popular culture—as a mirror of the times, and also as a reaction to current events. This is especially true in the politically-charged decade of the 2010s. The success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe only highlights the ongoing struggles of Warner Brothers to get its proprietary DC Universe characters on the big screen.

My Methodology
First, I counted only the Marvel, DC, and Independent movies and TV shows that were based on actual comics. There were a couple of exceptions, as you’ll see if you look at the PDF above. Mostly for multi-media properties such as The Green Hornet, The Lone Ranger, and The Phantom. It was only a few extra numbers, as you’ll see. I also only counted TV shows once, even if they were on for multiple seasons.

I left off animation because it would have ballooned the super hero list. Also, because 95% of the animation was aimed at children. There’s a separate metric for that, in that all of that kiddie fare drove the discourse down and made super heroes infantile and their fans man-children for much of the 20th century. But that’s not what I was looking at. For what it’s worth, I did choose to count the live-action Saturday Morning Shows like Shazam! and Electra Woman and Dyna Girl. I’m nothing if not capricious.

Then I went back and counted all of the movies and TV, aimed at American audiences, that were super heroes who were not actually comic book based. This is where stuff like The Greatest American Hero (1981-83) got counted. M.A.N.T.I.S. (1995). Heroes (2006-2010). Hancock (2008). You get the idea. For what it’s worth, I did choose to count the live-action Saturday Morning Shows like Shazam! and Electra Woman and Dyna Girl.

In order to give these numbers some meaning, I used the combined Fantasy and Science Fiction genres to help “classify” them, since they have, up until very recently, been considered part of that genre (well, sometimes they get placed in action/adventure, but I maintain that the special effects needed to get super heroes to work on film is equal to an F/SF film, so this was a more accurate grouping).  I looked at the number of “real” or Top Shelf (Marvel, DC, etc) movies and TV shows by decade, and compared them to the number of Non-Marvel, DC, etc. movies and also F/SF movies by decade to generate a percentage within that larger group. Here are the results of that.

Super Hero Movie Stats
YEARS
By
Decade
Marvel, DC & Indy films
Other “Super Hero” films
Other F/SF films
% BY
DECADE
1940s





14
1
37
36%
1950s





6
2
164
4%
1960s





3
1
115
2.5%
1970s





7
5
123
5%
1980s





11
7
196
5%
1990s





24
16
194
11%
2000s





33
5
190
17%
2010s





48*
4*
159*
29%*
* an ongoing statistic. Tallies are not final.

Interpreting the Data
I deliberately pushed “Other Super Hero” films into a separate category because, almost without fail, they only added to the signal to noise ratio in getting good and true representations of these characters onscreen. In retrospect, I should have included another column for animated series, as it’s very important from the 1960s on, as keeping the characters (albeit simplified) in the public eye. But what I’m driving at here is this: Condorman did nothing to sell the public on the idea that super heroes were anything other than kiddy fare, played for laughs. And that was released by Walt Disney. Captain Nice, another live-action Saturday morning Yuk-fest, was even more stupid. This all relates back to the Batman TV series, of course. It was played for laughs and it was so incredibly successful, so fast, that they couldn’t monetize it fast enough. It was a legitimate pop culture phenomenon. And because it was so successful, that’s the well Hollywood went back to for a full decade when Super Heroes came up. That’s why Doc Savage looked the way it did.

That’s not to say that the major comic book companies didn’t shoot themselves in the foot, either. For decades prior to the premiere of X-Men in 2000, Marvel comics fans groaned every time a new TV series or movie was announced, because they just Couldn’t Get It Right. Ever. In some cases, it was like they weren’t even trying. The Incredible Hulk was popular, for what it was, but it really bore no resemblance to the comics. There were no super villains, nothing to really set The Hulk in the Marvel Universe. Ferrigno in green body paint was expensive enough. And he stormed through Styrofoam walls, broke balsa wood tables, and even pushed cars around with his Hulk-like strength, but it was a far, far cry from “Hulk Smash.” Later, in the 1980s, they revived the Hulk for TV movies co-starring Thor and Daredevil, and they were the sorriest, most inane versions of the characters I’ve ever seen—and I’ve seen them all, even the pirated unreleased TV pilots and movies that have been shelved over the years because they sucked so bad.

And What about DC? They were defined by the success of Superman (1978) and Batman (1989), this is true, but no one ever brings up Swamp Thing (1981). Or Legends of the Superheroes (1979). Wonder Woman was initially as great as something with a nineteen-dollar special effects budget could be, but as quick as they could, they brought her into the modern era, where everyone wore pantsuits, and all of the aliens were from a future or a planet that used crystals and a lot of lycra. No, there’s enough blame to go around. By now, the Batman TV show was in syndication, and it was a daily dose of super heroes, and we all watched it, because we had no other options, but we all wondered why Adam West and Burt Ward were nothing—at all—like the Batman and Robin in the comics.

At first glance, it sure does seem like the number of super hero projects has increased. I think it’s interesting to note that in terms of percentages, 2010 and 1940 are the closest in comparative sizes, and I think this is due to a similar rise in interest. Comics are no longer hermetic and inaccessible. Super heroes are everywhere, and they function, more or less, like how they work in the comics. This is a huge leap forward, and one that may contribute to the decline (and maybe even the death) of American super hero comics as the characters move into this new storytelling medium en masse.

These are good numbers to look at, but there’s one more number, very important, that I want to talk about. Here’s where we venture, and quite correctly, into “You Young Kids” territory. I’ll let the numbers speak for themselves, for now.

Number of Top-Tier Super Hero movies prior to 2000: 65
Number of SF and “other” super hero movies combined, prior to 2000: 861
Percentage of Top Tier Super hero films prior to 2000:  7.5%

Number of Top-Tier Super Hero movies after 2000: 81
Number of SF and “other” super hero movies combined, after 2000: 358
Percentage of Top Tier Super hero films after 2000:  23%

So, what we have here is not only the establishment of super hero movies as a genre, but also a clear line in the sand for people born from 1960 to 1985 and people born after 1985. It has a lot to do with when you started consuming super heroes. If you were born after a certain age, you just aren’t in a position to understand why it’s important to Generation X that we now have cool movies that don’t insult anyone’s intelligence and that millions of people are interested in and oh yeah, also star Captain Freaking America. You don’t understand, and I don’t know that you’ll ever have the empathy to do so.

A Tale of Two Marks
To prove my point, I’m going to create two identical Marks. Mark from Earth-1 and Mark from Earth-2. For clarity’s sake, I will eschew with the standard time deviation that is problematic with the multiverse and make Earth-1 Mark older than Earth-2 Mark. I know that there’s a small percentage of DC comics fans who’s heads just exploded, but I don’t care. This isn’t for them.

Mark from Earth-1 was born in 1969. He was born at a time when there wasn’t Cable TV, and there wasn’t VHS recorders (and certainly not any DVD players). Mark really likes super heroes, and thankfully, there’s plenty of them around. He just has to ride his bike all over to the four or five convenience stores, drug stores, and super markets that each have a limited selection of Marvel and DC comics. Earth-1 Mark has to smile politely when his grandparents bring him a handful of “funny books” to read; stacks of Archie and Ritchie Rich that do nothing to satisfy his itch to leap tall buildings in a single bound and save the world from the mad menace of The Joker.

Earth-1 Mark is eight years old when Star Wars premieres in 1977. Up until that time, he’s been watching cartoons (of course) and Wonder Woman on television. He’s also been watching Shazam! every Saturday morning. Most of the time, their super heroics are about this same; I can’t count the number of car bumpers they both lifted up to prevent criminals from just driving away from them.

But all is not gloom and doom for Earth-1 Mark. Even though he doesn’t have the streaming Internet, or even cable, he has regular TV and radio. On the AM stations, at night, he can listen to old time radio programs like The Shadow. He’s got Power Records, actual comics with actors speaking the lines. Those are pretty cool, and do not shy away from the subject matter. And on TV, he’s privy to just about every super hero program from 1940 to 1968. Shows like Batman ran in the afternoons, after school. He watches all of it, including the Saturday morning cartoons like Batman and The Super Friends, and Space Ghost. Even after Star Wars debuts, it take years between projects. There is no Internet to instantly spread the latest rumors and gossip; just controlled press releases that state Superman II is now filming and will be premiere in 1980. Three years away.

You were supposed to protect us from this, Stan! We
trusted you! How could you let this happen? Do you
have any idea how much shit we took for liking this stuff?
In the meantime, Earth-1 Mark can tide himself over with The Incredible Hulk, on TV, and watch Bill Bixby turn into Lou Ferrigno twice each episode. He can watch Spider-Man, on TV, climb up walls and shoot nylon cord out of a webshooter the size of a disco ball and watch it magically curl around a bad guy to tie him up. He can watch Captain America, on TV, drive a motorcycle while wearing a giant blue helmet and throw a clear plastic shield around like a Frisbee.  He can watch Ed McMahon yuk it up with third-rate comedians in ill-fitting super hero Spandex, on TV. And he can deftly avoid the bigger kids in school who love to make fun of him because comics are stupid and for babies and nothing in the larger media is proving the bullies wrong at this point.

Earth-2 Mark? He was born in 1985. He also loves comics. His mom takes him to the comic book shop every week to buy his latest books. He still has to avoid the other kids who might make fun of him, but there are other people his age who also go to the comic book store, and they band together, like Sand People, to hide their true numbers.

Earth-2 Mark is 6 years old when Jurassic Park comes out. It’s the first time he’s been thrilled and terrified at a movie, because the dinosaurs looked so very real! Later, in his early twenties, he’ll decry the animation as clumsy and stupid, but for now, he’s duly impressed. Mostly, though, he’s into Batman: The Animated Series and the X-Men cartoons.

Earth-2 Mark’s dad took him to see Batman Forever but he didn’t remember it, so he rented the VHS tape and rewatched it at his home. All of his super hero movies are on video tape, and he can watch them whenever he wants to, now. But the movie he really remembers seeing in the theater was Batman & Robin, and it blew his young mind (he watched it years later, as an adult, and was bummed to find out that it didn’t hold up, not in the least). He also saw Spawn that same year by sneaking into the theater, and it was super cool, because he got Spawn #1 and it’s now worth $20 and it’s only going to go up after the movie comes out, right?

When the first X-Men movie drops in 2000, Earth-2 Mark is in line. And he comes out of it energized. Finally! He thinks. We’ve been waiting for, like, ten years for this. It was stupid of them to wait so long. They could have and should have done this years ago. In fact, they should have done X-Men instead of Blade. Now, if only they’d put Colossus in the next X-Men movie...

Now it’s 2017. Earth-2 Mark is 29 years old. He’s been to college. He’s gotten a degree in general studies. He now works for an online content provider, and he writes pithy and succinct think-pieces about popular culture. But he’s bored, now, because they still aren’t making the movies he wants them to make, and he’s so fed up with all of these super hero movies, because, come on, this is so 1997, people, amiright? I mean, it was fun when I was younger, but after watching 12 Years a Slave, he simply cannot go back to movies that don’t elucidate or instruct in some meaningful way.

When Captain America (Finally) Throws His Mighty Shield
Okay, that’s enough of that. My point, in case you missed it, was this: for my generation, super heroes on film and TV were rare, hard to access, and nearly always not worth the terrible effort it took to find it in the first place. For so long, the special effects necessary to sell these stories was sorely lacking. When the special effects got better, efforts to translate the material suffered because of the prevailing attitude that comics were either A. Stupid; B. Infantile; or C. Both. The only thing people could do was to try and duplicate the success of the Batman TV show, with terrible results every time.

I really cannot stress to you just how bad all of it was. And I’m not saying, “compared to now,” either. I mean, bad back then. Case in point: Captain America.

I love Captain America. He’s one of my all-time favorite super heroes. Cool character, cool costume, cool powers, cool friends, cool everything. I was a seventies kid, and the bicentennial was huge. I had a copy of Captain America’s Bicentennial battles. I had the Captain America and the Falcon Power Records Book and Record set. I had the Captain America pocket books full-color reprint. Cap was my guy.

So when I found out there was a clilffhanger serial, featuring Captain America, and made during the 1940s, when it was cool to punch Nazis, I spent years tracking it down...and when I found it...ooh boy. It’s not good. Dick Purcell? Really? It’s just not. Cliffhangers are kind of cheesy and bad, but this poor sap in the cap suit didn’t even have a shield! I mean, Come On. How hard is that? There's nothing in the serial that is unique to Captain America. He could have been called "Bund-Puncher McGurk" and it would have made zero difference to the plot or the story. 

Thankfully, in the 1970s, there were these old limited animation shows (and I do mean limited) featuring the Marvel Super Heroes. One of which was Captain America, which came with a nifty theme song that I know you’ve heard people sing before. These cartoons were done in the mid-sixties, at a New York studio, with crude animation and clumsy voice acting, but the art for the cartoons was taken directly from the comics themselves. They look almost exactly like the Motion Comics of today.

This was not cool. Not even during the heyday of
Evel Knievel Fever. It sucked and we all knew it.
In the late 1970s, these two Captain America TV movies were shown, starring Reb Brown (don’t ask me) and featuring a Captain America who drove a motorcycle with a giant clear plastic shield that snapped onto the front of the bike like a windscreen. To promote cycle safety, Cap also had a giant blue motorcycle helmet with white wings painted on the side. Not even Christopher Lee as the bad guy makes these things worth watching. They are wrist-slitting awful.

By then, Stan was in Los Angeles, ostensibly heading up Marvel Entertainment, making movie and TV deals for all of us True Believers and telling us about it in his monthly column in the comics. That lasted until the early 1990s, but by then, we had the direct market and some comic book magazines that kept us up-to-date on the latest gossip—like the brand-new Captain America movie coming out!

Featuring an Italian Red Skull, a rubber suit that looked okay, until Cap turned his head and the molded rubber ears that were part of the mask he wore flattened against his head and looked ridiculous. This Cap is untrained, and flown into battle with one mission, holding a solid shield (thank you!), and he promptly gets kidnapped by the Italian Red Skull and strapped to a rocket that drops him into the Arctic Sea and freezes him. He’s thawed out in the modern world, only to find the Italian Red Skull is still alive, and they have one more fight and Cap wins.

Did I mention to you that this movie wasn’t originally released in America? It was so bad, it ended up going straight to video—right about the same time that Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four movie was being shelved for sucking so bad.

So, there’s Captain America’s media history. One of the easiest (you’d think) characters to pull off: no flight, no crazy powers like eye beams or weather control. Just running, jumping, punching, and throwing a shield—stuff that special effects could have and should have been able to pull off since the early 1980s.

That’s why Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) is such a big deal. Not only did they get all of the little stuff right—the running, the jumping, the punching, and the shield—they spent a shit-ton of money making Steve Rogers look like a 98 pound weakling for the first third of the movie. When Cap throws his shield and it ricochets off of two bad guys and knocks them out, it looks exactly like how he does it in the comics. Chris Evans plays him like a conflicted Boy Scout, which is Cap all over from the 1960s to the 2010s. And the Red Skull was German, and a Nazi. Don’t ask me why it took so long. But understand this: I never thought they’d do it. After seeing them trying, and failing, so often, from the age of 7 to me in my early 40s, I just didn’t think they’d ever do it right. Not until Iron Man in 2008. Until then, I had zero hope.

By then, it was clear that the Geeks had Inherited the Earth. And apparently, what we want is good comic book movies and TV shows. Is that so wrong? We’d been denied them, all while the rest of you got romantic comedies, westerns, gangster movies, war movies, and love stories. And we had to take what we could get, because no one took comics seriously for decades. But there came a point when comics weren’t stigmatized. It started in the mid-to-late 1980s with the publication of a number of comics and graphic novels aimed at adults rather than kids. Somewhere in the mid-to-late 1990s, comics stopped being popular culture’s whipping boy. By then, it was okay to like comics, and the movies that came out, while of widely varied quality, at least looked and behaved like comic book super heroes. It wasn’t until members of Generation X started making these movies that they underwent a tonal change.

Post 2000 super hero movies are still a mixed bag, right up until 2008, when Marvel dropped Iron Man on an unsuspecting world. The birth of the Marvel Cinematic Universe was one of the most ambitious experiments of all time; make six super hero movies just so you can make a seventh one. Planning that far ahead was backwards thinking to the rest of Hollywood, but it worked like a charm. And judging from the box office numbers, it continues to work.  

Most of us old-timers chuckle at how the fortunes have reversed. There was a time that we preferred the DC movies and hated everything Marvel threw at us. Those days, thankfully, are long gone. But it’s worth noting that our interest hasn’t waned, just because we’re older. There’s still a lot to answer for. Decades of mistreatment, in fact. Even if we scrape off the first seven years of the 21st century (throwing out Spider-Man and X-Men along with Elektra and Catwoman)...even if we just start keeping score in 2008, that’s just ten years of jaw-dropping sights and sounds, stuff we never thought we’d ever see—such as an actual Captain America movie that wasn’t completely stupid—ten years, compared to, what? Thirty to forty years of insulting our intelligence, denigrating something we love almost unconditionally, mishandling the characters and concepts that have sustained generations of fans, beloved characters that are larger than life and mean something personal and sacred to so many folks...four decades of Hollywood screwing it up and making it worse.

This is our time. We earned these movies, with our money, with our loyalty, with our hearts. We kept these flames alive, and we kept the comic book industry afloat, and we championed these things to our friends, our family, our boyfriends and girlfriends—to anyone who would listen. It cost us social currency, relationships, arguments and fights—scars we carry to this day in one way or another. This is our hard-earned and just reward, in this new Era of Geek Culture.

They may not all be good, and some of them aren’t. But this is a relative and highly subjective criteria we’re talking about, here. Take the worst Marvel Cinematic Universe movie you can think of—whichever the worst one in your mind is. Now, go compare that to anything that came out in the 1970s and 1980s. Go on, do it. I’ll wait. Pick the worst DC movie of the last ten years and go compare that to anything in the 1990s. See if it suddenly, magically, doesn’t start to look amazing and wonderful, by comparison.

See, it’s all relative. And it should be. We’re talking about a sub-genre of fantasy and science fiction movies, here. As popular now as the spy genre was in the 1960s or the western was in the 1940s and 1950s. It will very likely slow down on its own, due to economic pressures and interests, since Hollywood has a time-honored tradition of self-sabotage and over-saturation. But for right now, Super Heroes are only about one fifth of the overall number of fantasy and science fiction movies being released in the last ten years.

So, how about you let us have this moment and stop trying to take it away?