Thursday, June 20, 2013

As American As They Come

Truth, Justice, and The American Way. That's what Superman has stood for since his inception back in 1938. But in an effort to make Superman "relevant" for our more jaded, ironic age, the makers of Man of Steel (including director Zack Synder, producer Christopher Nolan, and writer David Goyer) have taken steps to ensure that their version of Superman isn't seen as a corny relic from a simpler time. In doing so, they do more harm than good to the character.

Now, if you haven't seen the movie yet, I'm about to jump into spoilers so stop reading now unless you want to know everything about Man of Steel's climax.

I'm serious. If you don't know and don't want to know, come back after you've seen the movie.

Ok, fair warning given. Now let's get into that ending...

At the end of Man of Steel, after a lengthy battle, General Zod is trying to fry a group of defenseless humans with his heat vision, straining against the neck hold that Superman has him in. As Zod refuses to give up, Superman resorts to lethal force, snapping Zod's neck and instantly killing him.

Henry Cavill delivers a powerful reaction immediately following but it's simply a moment that should not have happened. It's just too ugly. As readers know, Superman has killed in the comics before - killing Zod and his Kryptonian cronies, in fact - back at the end of John Byrne's historic run on Superman. In Superman #22, Superman acts as judge, jury, and executioner - exposing a Kryptonian trio to green kryptonite, killing all three. This deed occurs away from any witnesses but although the knowledge of what he's done rests solely with himself, Superman feels the full weight of his deadly actions, ruminating on the fact that none of the people of Earth who look up to him as a hero know that he's been tarnished.

So yes, Superman has killed but Man of Steel handles it much differently than Byrne did, depicting this monumental act in a much less responsible fashion. For one, in the Byrne issue, Superman kills his Kryptonian adversaries by means of a very "comic book-y" method. Seeing characters on a comic page fading away as they succumb to Kryptonite radiation is not nearly the same as the sight of Superman snapping a man's neck on the big screen, with the crack echoing in Dolby digital sound. We're talking about a very real world level of brutality here that is acceptable from a one man killing machine like The Punisher, but not from Superman.

This is a character that has inspired children for decades and still does. To have him straight-up murder someone, no matter what the circumstance, is just wrong. At 44, I'm plenty jaded and onscreen violence is nothing that I'm against as long as it's for an appropriate audience but there are some things that always need to be safe for kids to enjoy and Superman is way up there at the very top of that list. I'm the father of an eight-year-old boy who loves Superman and it was genuinely dispiriting to have our first Superman movie together on the big screen be crowned by the sight of Superman savagely murdering his opponent. Sorry, but it's just not cool. It's a sad conversation to have to have as you explain to your child that Superman was wrong and that he should've found a better way.

For those who want to cite Superman II (1981) as evidence that Superman has killed on film before, in the theatrical cut, the fate of Zod, Ursa, and Nod is left ambiguous and in the longer cut of the film that aired on ABC during its first television broadcast, there's a scene of all three being taken away from the Fortress of Solitude by the feds. So no, it's not quite the same. And for those who want to say, hey, times are different now - are they any worse than during the Depression or during World Wars or the tumult of the '60s? Or is just that people have poorer characters today? I'd say it's the latter.

As poor a decision as it was to have Superman kill, I could've almost gone with it had there been a thoughtful follow-up. But no, it's just glossed over. When Martha and Clark are standing over Pa Kent's grave at the end and Martha's saying she wishes Jonathan could've lived to see the man that Clark has became, my first thought was that he would've surely been appalled. After all, didn't Jonathan raise his son to be better? Couldn't they at least have had Clark acknowledge that he crossed a line that he never wants to cross again - that this is something that will haunt him and drive him to be a better hero? That even though no one blames him for killing Zod, he knows that he has to hold himself to a higher standard?

Some indication of guilt or shame would've been in line with Superman and it actually could've added a richer dimension to the character where he feels that he doesn't deserve the adulation he's receiving because, in his heart, he feels he could've avoided killing Zod.

Unfortunately, this movie was made by people who hold the short-sighted belief that a more violent Superman must naturally be a cooler Superman. It's just sad that the responsibility for this movie wound up in their hands and I wonder how anyone connected with this film (at least those who were in the position to make key creative decisions) can possibly feel good about themselves.

Even in Frank Miller's landmark The Dark Knight Returns, Batman starts to take The Joker's life by breaking his foe's neck but stops short of it. In a final mad act, The Joker finishes the job himself but Batman, the grimmest of heroes, couldn't bring himself to go there. Now we're saying that Superman can? No, I can't go along with that.

In one of Man of Steel's final scenes, Superman assures a general who still harbors a modicum of suspicion towards him that he's "as American as it gets."

And truth be told, in being depicted as content to go for an expedient, lazy, and morally wrong solution rather than working harder and smarter to do what's right, this Superman is as American as it gets.

That just doesn't say anything good about either modern Americans or Superman.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Max Jenke Is DOOMED!

As yet another comic book adaptation rules the box office landscape with Man of Steel's opening bow this weekend, turn your attention to one of the most famous failures in that sub-genre - 1994's legendary Roger Corman-produced Fantastic Four. Never given an official release, the Corman FF remains a popular item on the bootleg circuit.

Filmmakers Marty Langford and Mark Sikes are seeking to expose the story behind this fascinating misfire, a film that struggled with very limited means to do justice to the characters that formed the foundation of the mighty Marvel Universe.

Despite the movie's shortcomings, there's a sweetness and an earnestness that shines through and a clear desire to honor the essence of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's fabulous foursome. And when you're talking about trying to mount an adaptation of a comic that features characters who can stretch their body at will, burst into flame, turn invisible and project force fields, and transform into orange rock all on a $1 million budget, you're talking about working some real miracles! As a film and comic book fan, that's a story that I'd love to hear, told in the words of the people who were there.

Marty and Mark are currently raising funds for their film, entitled Doomed: The Untold Story of Roger Corman's Fantastic Four at this link. Give it a look and see if you'd like to contribute to their cause.

Help make sure this film is not 4-gotten! It's Documentin' Time!

Friday, June 14, 2013

The Purge And The Pain

I have to hand it to The Purge. It's been awhile since a movie borderline enraged me. I run at a real even keel and with all the lousy movies I see, a bad movie is usually the last thing to get under my skin. Hell, most times I enjoy them - but I found The Purge to be such an unforgivable failure on every level that it put me in a sour mood for awhile afterwards. I can definitely tell you that I'll be avoiding all movies written and directed by James DeMonaco in the future. Maybe even ones starring Ethan Hawke, too, just to be safe.

Let's start with the premise, which defies all sense. At some point in the not-so-far future, the US passes a law establishing an annual "Purge Night" during which all crime is legal. The psychological reason behind this being that, given an opportunity to "unleash the beast," that people will be more docile during the rest of the year.

Any successful sci-fi concept has to have a kernel of believability and "Purge Night" doesn't have that. There are many outrageous concepts that can be accepted as within the realm of plausibility but "Purge Night" isn't one of them. This movie would have us believe that people can just go back to their normal lives after a night where their neighbors, co-workers, family members, what have you, have gone out to murder people. The absurdity of that is a hump I can't get over. To even begin to make this concept work, you'd have to take it to a Star Trek sort of level where it's another planet, another species - something where it can be more readily appreciated as an allegorical thing and not something that's taking place in a world that's just barely removed from our own.

And if the idea of Purge Night is that all crime is legal for a 12-hour span and that the solution to surviving it is to go into lockdown with your family, that fails to take into account the possibility that many family members would happily turn on each other on such a night. Not to be overly cynical but how many disgruntled teens or unhappy spouses would let their resentments build up for a year and then take the opportunity to slay their siblings, or parents, or significant others? On a night where murder is legal, being locked in with your family is not exactly the best way to stay safe. Far from it, in fact!

On top of how daft the premise is, the movie additionally requires that every character must act moronic in order to keep the storyline moving. You have to believe that the young son of Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey's characters is a) dumb enough to let a stranger into their house but also b) that he knows the home security code and c) that Hawke and Headey are not keeping a constant eye on their kids during purge night. When you have a night where all hell's breaking loose and there's no recourse to the law, no matter how tight your home security system is you'd think that any parent would insist on everyone sticking close. You'd also think that people would have, at the very least, some concrete bunker action going on. Which brings me to another area of absurdity: Hawke's character sells home security systems and yet we find out that these high-end systems aren't worth a dime. Once a group of would-be purgers decide to break into Hawke's home in order to get to the man that has taken shelter there, it takes them about a hot minute to bust in. Reinforcing how ill-thought out The Purge's premise is, all Hawke can say to Headey when it's clear that their security system is nothing but show are words to the effect of: "Hey, no system is impenetrable! Anyone can get in if they really want to!" Um, shouldn't that be the exact situation that your system is explicitly built for - the times when someone really does want to get in to kill you and they're willing to sweat a little bit to do it? If your system isn't Purge Proof, then some additional work is needed.

Even with all this, had the B-movie goods been delivered, I would have given a pass to The Purge's many illogical elements but yet it completely fails to satisfy on the action front.

While there is plenty of gunplay on tap and various instances of interpersonal mayhem, none of it is handled with any gusto or flair. More critically, a half-hearted anti-violence message is offered during the climax, which allows several heinous characters - characters who were willing to slaughter children - to survive all but completely unscathed and, man, that just doesn't cut it. After asking an audience to swallow such an idiotic premise, to then not reward them with the kind of visceral payoff that might have made it worthwhile and instead basically smugly scold them for even expecting a bloody payoff, is just an outrageous slap in the face.

And in the situation as it plays out in The Purge, the refrain from violence that happens is absolutely absurd. No one would just let things go at the point that they do. No one that you'd ever care to sympathize or identify with, that's for sure. So what you end up with is a movie about "purging the beast" that denies the viewer of any kind of catharsis. How useless is that?

Thanks to its big opening weekend, this nonsense is already getting a sequel and to my mind there's only one thing that could possibly make a Purge 2 watchable - make The Purge be a random event. No more annual Purge Night. Instead, it happens at a random time, on a random day. People are at work, at the mall, out to dinner, whatever. Everything is normal and then sirens go off announcing the beginning of the purge. Then you're really in a dicey situation.

Sure, the idea that the government - or anyone - would think that a Random Purge is a sensible, healthy idea is insane but so is the idea of The Purge itself so why not go with it? I know it'd make for a wild movie.

As for The Purge, well I'm feeling calmer about it now. But not so calm that I'm about to forget it was one of the worst movies I've seen - if not arguably the worst (seriously!) - in a very long time.

Monday, June 3, 2013

A Dead Shark

Last month marked an unfortunate milestone in this blog's history: it was the first time that I've gone an entire month (nearly two, by now!) without a single post. Thinking about the status of Dinner with Max Jenke makes me think of Woody Allen's conversation with Diane Keaton in Annie Hall (1977) as they fly back to New York from their trip to LA:

"A relationship, I think, is like a shark. You know? It has to constantly move forward or it dies. And I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark."

Likewise, DWMJ hasn't been moving forward lately and by now it's looking suspiciously like a dead shark.

The reason for the inactivity mainly boils down to a lack of time. I seldom have the time to watch a movie just for the sake of my own enjoyment, much less devote additional time to writing about it afterwards. Even though things might often seem half-assed here, I do actually like to be able to write to the best of my abilities - such as they might be.

Anyhow, for anyone who's been stopping by to see if things are still up and running - yes, they are. Things have been on a hiatus but for now, the shark is still swimming.