The Boys: Season One

boys1This was great. An eight-part series based on a comic book that I’d never even heard of written by Garth Ennis, the same guy behind Preacher (a comic book which I read several years ago via the graphic novel reprints, and which was also turned into a tv series on Amazon). The Boys comic book was published between 20o6 and 2012, so as far as comic geeks are concerned, its ancient history already, but it’s interesting to note its ‘age’ because it possibly informs its approach. Basically it’s a superhero book that is consciously the opposite of all the standard comic book tropes of traditional Marvel/DC superheroes. It takes the premise of Alan Moore’s Watchmen, in postulating that superheroes are real and living in our real world, and what they and the world would be like- basically, what would the world be like if Superman was real? In Watchmen, Superman is Dr Manhattan, a scientist of the Cold War transformed into a being with Godlike powers, who grows increasingly withdrawn and distant from human affairs that unravel in his wake during the cold-war 1980s. In The Boys, Superman is Highlander, a complete and utter self-centered dangerous asshole who feels he is above the law- possibly above any authority in the world. Indeed, the superheroes here are as unaccountable as real-life celebrities appear to be in our world, using their power and wealth to manipulate the media in their favour (no, I don’t like celebrity culture).

Basically, in The Boys all the superheroes have gone Corporate, they are celebrities whose brands are used to sell anything from beers to cereals, and whose popularity and powers have generally corrupted them so that they become reckless and self-centered and endanger the safety of the public and the world at large. The title of both comic and tv show refers to “The Boys”, a clandestine group of ordinary people who are at odds with the superheroes, intent on breaking through the lies and abuse of their powers, uncovering the truth about them, revealing their wrongs and hunting them down… and blowing them up if necessary (or putting a power drill to the test).

boys3Even for someone like me who loves the Watchmen graphic novel and movie (and hopefully the HBO spin-off series incoming this Autumn), The Boys is like a breath of fresh air. It deliberately sets out to undermine the traditions of the genre, full of gratuitous violence, sex and swearing and sending up most every standard trope that is celebrated in most any Marvel or DC superhero movie. We like to imagine that most anyone given superpowers would be like Captain America or Spider Man or Ant Man, you know, basically good and decent and set on ‘doing the right thing’ but the truth is, people aren’t inherently noble, are not generally incorruptible- people are usually greedy and selfish and self-centered, and most people given super powers would as likely be jerks abusing those powers as they would becoming noble, selfless heroes.

These guys lie and kill with wild abandon, and with no supervillains to keep them in check or validate their existence they run amok abusing their powers/position and manipulate public opinion through corporate videos and events. We can recognise the manipulation of social media and celebrity culture and it all looks pretty realistic.

The Boys benefits from coming out of nowhere, I think, as it constantly surprises. I gather many things are changed from the original comic book (some characters have changed sex and race, for instance) but part of the fun remains spotting the representations of familiar superheroes like Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman and Aquaman, and how The Boys variants are shown as horrible jerks and twisted shadows of the DC counterparts. It can run fast and loose and isn’t at all weighed down by, say, seventy years of comics mythology that weighs down the traditional superhero characters- and as it deliberately intends to shock and surprise it just gets wilder and funnier and, yes, quite disturbing at times. The wanton gory human collateral of the superheroics is a brutal reminder of what the traditional genre movies rather forget- you cannot destroy skyscrapers or cities etc without killing dozens or hundreds of regular innocents, and watching HIghlander gorily cut apart dozens of ‘terrorists’ because they are not American, or leave a plane of civilians to die because he messed up the rescue, can be very sobering indeed. He could be a hero like Superman, but instead he’s an asshole, because he’s only human, afterall. And the Boys need to take him down.

Yeah, great stuff, and very well done. Its gory and violent and funny and quite a surreal commentary on the celebrity-obsessed, social media culture we are living in. The cast and the production design and scripts are terrific and I really can’t fault it at all. I look forward to season two next year.

Superhero movies ain’t easy

supGood superhero movies don’t come easy, it’s hard, really hard, no matter how effortless Marvel makes it look sometimes- in any case, not every Marvel film has been great (although they are always at least ‘good’). But making a superhero movie, and making it good, is supremely difficult. Just look at Justice league. To be fair to DC, there’s all sorts of superhero capers over the decades that have been pretty terrible. Superhero movies ain’t easy.

Inherently, one has to consider that the idea of superhero movies is ridiculous. They are children’s comics that we should all grow out of, wishful power fantasies in universes that are moral playgrounds of plain good and evil, hardly any shades of grey in the four-colour worlds they depict. I am certain that most adults who love superhero films would never dream of ever reading comics, thinking them silly and beneath them.

The fundamental issue for any film is showing a grown adult dressed as a bat without it looking as silly as the Adam West show, a series which at least nailed the absurdity of superhero comics. Someone comes at you dressed as Batman to accost you for littering? You’d either run a mile or call the police. Superheroes transferred to the real-world inherently look like clowns.

spidrBeyond the silly costumes, the superpowers themselves are crazy. When you really think about them, they are plain nuts, no matter how realistically the films portray them. How does someone fly? How does that work? How does someone cling to walls? How does someone shrink to the size of an ant and yet maintain his original mass without falling through the floor? The Flash whizzes around grabbing people stationary and pulls them to safety- if you were standing still and were hit/picked up by someone travelling 1,000 mph, it’d hurt- if he took took you instantly from stationary to 1,000 mph to move you to safety, your brain would be mush, your bones smashed. So some superpowers are more realistic than others, some superheroes easier to translate and suspend disbelief in than others.

I’m a huge fan of Snyder’s Watchmen. I think it was impressively faithful to the original, and most issues with the film are simply that- issues with the original. It’s a dark film with superheroes in the real-world (or at least, a real-world alternate 1980s America), because that’s what the original was- a critique of superhero comics about people who dress up as a bat and asking the question what would it be like to have a superman in the real world? Unfortunately Snyder missed the point regards Watchmen‘s uniqueness and has been asking that same question in all his subsequent movies.

I don’t blame Snyder entirely. Christopher Nolan, coming of his Batman trilogy, was a producer on Man of Steel and his real-world angle from his trilogy constantly impresses on Man of Steel. I’ve no idea how much of this was the studio trying to catch the zeitgeist of Nolan’s trilogy, or Nolan trying to lend the approach to our fave Kryptonian, or if it was just Snyder continuing his approach from Watchmen. But real-world costumed heroes doesn’t always translate across the medium- Marvel may lend some real-world angles to their movies but it’s all superficial, it’s clear their films are not in our world, they are comics brought vividly to life but it’s not Watchmen-style agonising about fitting Captain America in our world or how he impacts on America. It’s a world close to ours, but it isn’t ours. It’s Marvel-world.

Whereas Snyder always seems focused on the DC heroes being in our world, a sense of gritty reality that is constantly at odds with the subject-matter. DC films lose the joy of the Marvel films. It’s fine if you are making Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy (although I’d argue the third film was a crushing disappointment that imploded the trilogy, unable to sustain that real-world/comic mythology balance) but if you’re making a Superman movie like a variant of Watchmen you are entirely missing the point. Worse still, this approach infects every subsequent outing. BvS has some kind of God-complex towards Superman, a grimly semi-religious tone that its Batman bristles at and questions/refutes. Our real-world doubts regards the role of America in the modern world, its values and ethics, our doubts and distrust in our leaders, it all infects the modern Superman, who in 1978 represented “truth, justice, the American Way,” an ideal that no longer seems valid. It’s quite daring really as an intellectual exercise, but it’s also very Watchmen.  In anycase, devoid of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ source pages, Snyder seems lost trying to pull it off. It’s also telling that for all its real-world agonising, Watchmen doesn’t take place in our real world, it’s that 1980s alternate-reality.  Snyder’s trying to manage something even Alan Moore wouldn’t dare, a rabbit-hole even he wouldn’t risk plunging into.

A rabbit-hole, unfortunately, that DC has jumped into and are trying desperately to climb out of.

Did Watchmen almost destroy the DC Superhero movie?

bvs22016.68: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice Ultimate Cut (Blu-Ray)

The shadow of Zack Snyder’s Watchmen looms large over BvS, right from the very beginning, with a portentous/pretentious (delete as applicable) flashback to the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents. In slow motion it looks and feels like a continuation of Watchmen -it even features the Comedian playing Bruce Wayne’s father. Watchmen is one of my favourite films, particularly of the Superhero genre, mostly because, whatever its faults, it remains true to its source and consequently has the internal logic that Alan Moore laboured over. But the central problem of BvS is Snyder still thinks he’s making Watchmen, resulting in a film that isn’t true to its source material (whether it be Batman comics, Superman comics, or Frank Millers Dark Knight Returns which is, crucially, wholly seperate from any Batman continuity I’m aware of, something many fans forget). Sometimes BvS feels more like Watchmen 2 than the Man of Steel 2 it should have really been.

Perhaps it was a reaction to criticism of Man of Steel, and Snyder falling back to what he ‘knows’. He obviously felt that the solution was to adopt the Watchmen method of treating the Superhero genre. The whole point of Watchmen was to put superhero archetypes in a real-world situation and analysing their impact and ironic tropes. But that’s not really the ‘point’ of the Batman strip or the Superman strip. They are ‘just’ superheroes. There’s this weird dichotomy of a crazy billionaire dressed up as a bat beating up what he perceives to be people who deserve it, a centrally daft premise, and trying to validate that as a real-world response to real-world problems. Nowhere is this more infuriating than with the constant agonising that is the film’s treatment of Superman, something extended from the previous Man of Steel. It’s clear to me that Snyder is confusing Superman with Dr Manhattan, which is misguided in the extreme.

bvs3Note the similarity to the scene of the Vietnamese surrendering to Dr Manhattan in Watchmen (bowing to him as if acknowledging his Godlike status) to scenes of people reaching upwards to Superman as if again, surrendering to his Messianic, Godlike status. In just the same way as an untrusting public scared of his Godlike powers turned upon Dr Manhattan, so people turn against Superman in BvS. Its far removed from the treatment of the character in Superman: The Movie, in which he is simply accepted as a ‘good’ guy in whom everyone can believe in to do the ‘right thing’. Okay, that might be simplistic in our modern cynical world, but that’s Superman, and over-analysing and agonising over his place in our real-world is what Watchmen was about in creating Dr Manhattan. This is supposed to be a Superman movie, not a Watchmen movie, and psycho-analysing superheroes just backs you into the Dark Knight corner and ultimately gets you nowhere.

Instead of the Caped Detective, this film’s Batman is a rogue vigilante, a younger variant of the DKR version and more Watchmen‘s Comedian than is really necessary (is there indeed something deliberate about the Comedian playing Bruce Wayne’s father in the prologue?). The Comedian revelled in the chaos of the world and saw all the greed and depravity and crime as the natural way of things in a cold universe with humanity lacking any decency. Batman in BvS follows this direction, even branding villains and killing when necessary, in his almost perverse version of justice, traumatised by earlier events involving (it is inferred, at least) the death of Robin. The central difference is that the Comedian laughed and smiled about it, seeing the irony of costumed heroes only making things worse, while Batman just frowns harder at his inability to ‘cure’ Gotham of the blight of crime over the course of decades of effort and whose only response is to, well, just try harder.

In the end, the looming shadow of Watchmen just confuses BvS and paralyses it. It wants to be dark and serious and Watchmen-like, but also wants to be a Marvel movie and launch a DC-Universe version of the Marvel Studios output. It wants to be a Batman movie, adapting DKR, but it also wants to be a Man of Steel sequel. It wants to be a Batman/Superman hybrid movie, but it also wants to be a Justice league prequel. It wants to be everything for everyone, and pretty much fails to be anything at all.

bvs1The last hope of DC fans and in particular fans of BvS was its Ultimate Cut. Of course its impossible for thirty minutes additional footage to save such an already troubled picture. Surprisingly, the additional thirty minutes do actually improve on some of the internal logic failings of the theatrical cut, and fix some glaring inconsistencies and plot holes. But you know, I think you could put those thirty minutes in and take another sixty minutes out and you’d have a better picture. As it is, it’s way too long and slow and contains too much redundant stuff.

The Apocalyptic dream-sequence adds nothing to the film. It may look visually interesting and feature another action sequence (if only to spice-up the pace of a flagging film), but it adds absolutely nothing to the film at all. Neither do the shots of a future-Flash shouting an enigmatic message about saving Lois Lane. Its almost like an intermission; BvS stops to show a scene from some other movie and then we’re back to BvS.  Indeed, it’s not even as if Bruce Wayne/Batman considers the dream or comments on it- not even “I just had the damndest dream” to Alfred, or a “I think I somehow just saw a vision of the future.” It isn’t referenced in the film at all. It happens and then it’s gone. Its adds nothing at all, utterly redundant, only functioning to confuse the audience, as if a trailer for BvS Part Three was edited into the film by mistake or an angry editor with a score to settle against Snyder. It really didn’t need be there at all. Its bad storytelling, it’s bad movie -making. Its just some nod to the geeks who know the original comic storyline and tease the larger DC Universe, but as far as making a decent movie, it’s a glaring error.

If you’re making a film about Batman and Superman, and calling it Batman v Superman, then thats your story. Everything should serve that story and that story should be your focus. If there is some elaborate scheme to orchestrate that face-off then establish that and see it out, and have that face-off be your big pay-off, your big finale. Don’t drop in a late cameo of Zod’s corpse turning into Doomsday just to excuse the appearance of Wonder Woman as an advert/tease for her own movie. For one thing, the logic is total bullshit- if Lex Luthor created Doomsday to kill Superman, and that scheme succeeded, then who’s going to kill Doomsday if Superman is dead? Doomsday is hardly going to be an obedient lackey for a despotic Luthor. I can imagine Doomsday killing Superman then turning on everyone else and Luthor thinking “whoops”as Doomsday lives up to his name and nukes the planet. I thought Luthor was a genius?

BvS isn’t about making a decent movie. It isn’t even really trying to be a decent movie, because if it was, it’d be about an hour shorter with a more focused story, As it is, it is just one long confusing tease for Wonder Woman/Man of Steel 2/ Batman/Justice League and all the other films Warner/DC are intent on making. It is a cynical and calculated attempt to sell a raft of further movies instead of making one decent or even great movie. Thats a betrayal of the fans and the movie audience in general, but sadly symptomatic of how films are made these days.

 

Future Shock! The Story of 2000AD (2014)

future-shock-pat-mills

2016.30: Future Shock! The Story of 2000AD (TV, Film Four)

Now this is brilliant. It’s a documentary about the creation and history of the great British sci-fi anthology comic 2000AD. Basically a talking heads piece in which the comics editors and the creators of the strips reminisce about the making of the comic and its ensuing history, full of entertaining commentary and sometimes acidic rants (God bless you, Pat Mills, I owe you my childhood). With a punk-rock, anti-establishment attitude fostered in the dark dismal mid-seventies and Thatcher’s Britain,  the comic was an incredible culture shock for impressionable young kids like me and incredibly exciting. It certainly lived up to its reputation as The Galaxy’s Greatest Comic.

I read the comic from its very first issue up to, oh, the late-eighties, so it was a real joy to see the heroes of my childhood- and yes, these guys were my heroes. Not the strips themselves, it was the  guys in the little credit-box that were my heroes. Guys like Pat Mills and John Wagner and Kevin O’Neill and Brian Bolland and Dave Gibbons and Carlos Ezquerra (bless him, I cannot understand a word of what Carlos says in his segments). To see them all now as middle-aged men looking back at those heady days of being young firebrands ripping apart the rulebook of British comics is fantastic. There’s a few notable absentees, like Ian Gibson, and yes I guess no-one would expect Alan Moore to show his face, and sadly he doesn’t. That man Moore is a genius who really should give his fans the Halo Jones saga we’ve been waiting for, but I’m afraid he’s not interested, so Neil Gaiman’s tease about Moore once telling him all the untold Halo Jones stories he had planned was almost painful to watch. Its just one of the many fascinating highlights.

Running nearly two hours, this thing could have been three hours long and it wouldn’t have bored me at all (indeed, film-makers, I want the three-hour director’s cut!). Its almost like a chat in the pub with the coolest dudes ever. These guys lit up my childhood and later saved Marvel and DC comics when the Americans pulled them across the pond to make Watchmen and so many other strips. That exodus of talent is related in the doc, and the resultant problems on the comic that nearly sank it (it’s no coincidence that I stopped reading the comic during this troubling period). There’s the inevitable discussion of creator rights and some horror stories of what happened to some of the gorgeous original artwork. There’s also a look at the two Judge Dredd movies and the influence of 2000AD strips on films and culture in general. The doc brings things up to the present day with the comic on a surer footing.

Still, it’s those early days that live loud and bright in my memory. Me and my mate Andy to this day can sit together and chat about the old strips we used to love- Robo Hunter, Dredd’s Apocalypse War, Nemesis the Warlock, so many others. Reading that comic back then was like a rite of passage. Sometimes I pick up a current copy in a newsagent and flick through it- it looks interesting but I haven’t bought 2000AD in awhile. I had a spell buying it again a few years ago, but I mostly buy collected editions these days. It doesn’t feel like my old 2000AD to be honest, the early stuff was fairly brutal and raw and yes, mostly black and white on cheap paper. The current comic is on better paper, mostly colour, the strips look slick but it feels… well, I’ll no doubt buy it again in future but it isn’t really the 2000AD of my childhood. That was a long time ago, after all.

But this documentary is fantastic stuff. I honestly think it’d be rewarding even for those unfamiliar with the original comic. There’s really a very human story behind the comic and the times that created it, the sensibilities behind it. 2000AD could only have come out of Britain, and its cultural impact would surprise many who aren’t at all familiar with it. For those of us on whom it had such an impact, hell, this doc is brilliant. These guys are heroes.