Sunday, March 27, 2016

Why So Serious?

By Jay Stringer.

Bear with me on this post, guys. I don't think this actually works as a cohesive article. I'm just letting off steam for my own sanity. This is more like a really long tone poem, and that tone is 'AAAARRRRGGGGHHHHH'. 

I've been trying for a long time -long before the film that has inspired so much ranting in the last few days- to find the right term to describe what I'm here to talk about today. The closest I can come is empty cool. There's a culture of empty cool that pervades storytelling at the moment. 

A lot of storytellers of my generation (and rather than our own ages, I'm defining this generation as the people who read comics between, say, 1985 and 1995) have bought into this idea.

I noticed it in the 90's as my own tastes were really forming. I was learning what kinds of stories I wanted to read and write. There were characters becoming hugely popular who didn't seem to have much actual character to them. Fans started to talk about things that were 'cool.' Fight scenes. Costumes. Swearing. Death. Explosions. Splash pages. Wolverine. Deadpool. Cable. (Not that these characters can't be well done. They've all had good stories. A couple very good films. But at the time they were simply coooool.) This is an era that has been much lampooned for the way every hero had to start wearing armour, and become dark, and possibly even die. (Hey...anybody seen the movie yet? This description sounding familiar?)

I noticed that there was a comics culture that I simply wasn't a part of, even when I was at the right age. It should have been my thing, but it felt alien, and I couldn't talk about it because that would alienate me further; I'd sound like a pretentious hipster prick. (Imagine that.) And then I started to notice it in films, too.

It's not so much a culture of style over substance, as a culture that thinks they're the same thing. Style is the substance. Cool, bro. Cool. 

It's, "oh man, you're going to love this fight, it gets wild," rather than, "oh man, you're going to love the reason these characters are fighting." I praise the hallway fight in season one of DAREDEVIL  to anyone who'll listen, and it's got almost nothing to do with the fighting. I love it because the scene is pure character, and is a brilliantly effective final act to that episode's story

For similar reasons, I've never connected with THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS. Reading it is a cold and mean task. Frank Miller writes these characters as if he hates them, and that's never a good place to come from. To me, the book is just a hollow reactionary tale that happens to have some brilliant images. And yet, for fans of my era, and many since, TDKR is a holy book, a touchstone. On the other hand, a book I enjoyed for a long time was THE KILLING JOKE. But you know what happened? I grew up.

And let me pause here to clarify that. I don't mean 'I grew up' as in I outgrew comics. That would be a  ridiculous and condescending thing to say of a whole medium. But there is a weird form of arrested development in certain corners of the superhero comics -and in geek culture in general, I think- where it's like they tell adult stories as defined by a thirteen-year-old. All this edgy and gritty bullshit, that fetish of darkness. Maybe that's what adult looks like when you're a hormonal teenaged boy, but it bears no resemblance to any part of actual adult life. So when I say I grew up, I'm meaning that I outgrew that bullshit. I still enjoy the hell out of comics, but I live in the real world, and TKJ isn't adult, it's just mean. Frank Miller's work isn't adult, it' a weird fever dream of hormonal male bullshit. 

I find it interesting that Frank Miller's storytelling style has leaned ever more into this hollow style, whereas Alan Moore -who often gets cited alongside Miller as making comics more 'grown up'- has spent thirty years trying to push stories back in the other direction. Miller's career is defined by TDKR. Moore has disowned TKJ.

I don't know. Maybe it's just me. Maybe I'm out of step. More and more, from MAN OF STEEL to now, I see people telling me that 'DC is not MARVEL.' DC is 'more adult.' It's 'darker and edgier.' Well, they're correct in that DC has pushed a certain aesthetic for most of the last 30 years. I'm just not sure why we culturally agreed that this was more 'grown up.' I'm 35. I'm the exact kind of vague-30-something that DC characters tend to be, and I see way more of the tone of my adult life reflected in MARVEL movies than DC. 

DC pushes this fake version of adulthood. The adolescent pastiche. And I guess some people just want that because it's nostalgia, it's what they liked at 13, and it's what they want to see on the page or on screen. But it has zero emotional truth. 

MARVEL movies do lean more towards the comedic, sure. And with actors like Robert Downey Jnr and Chris Pratt, they're going to play to the jokes, and I understand that's not everyone's cup of tea. But they have a lot of different flavours. A variety of tone. Especially when you throw in the Netfllix shows. And that -from my perspective- is real life. That is adult. Real life is not all one thing. It's happy, it's sad, it's dark, it's light, it's serious, it's goofy....and all at the same time. If you don't like the tone of one MARVEL movie? Hang around five minutes, there'll be one that suits you better. (And I'm not ignoring that many people feel there are way to many of them, but that's an argument for another day.) MARVEL gives us action movies, fantasy movies, heist movies, comedies, crime TV shows, space operas. We're surely only a few steps away from a musical. And DC? We get the one thing. DC could have an even more varied roster, if they tried. Their potential movie characters include sandman, Swamp Thing, Plastic Man, and Billy Batson, for fucks sake. 

Bring in some comedy filmmakers, bring in some horror filmmakers, bring in some social realists, bring in some goofballs. Don't just deliver a bleak, nihilistic vision. 

(There is a similar trend in crime fiction, and I probably lose friends every time I talk about it; the race to the bottom of noir)

DC comics led the charge in the 'silver age' of comic books. Long before Stan Lee dreamed up the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man, DC gave us Barry Allen and Hal Jordan. These guys were heroes. Adventurers. And most of the best DC comics of recent years have been works that reminds us of what was great about characters pre-Miller, books like ALL STAR SUPERMAN and WORLDS FINEST. I would love for DC movies to be doing the same now, and to be kicking MARVEL's ass in terms of diversity both on-and-off screen. 

Much was made in the early 2000's of there being a new era in comics. 'The age of the writer.' I think that's bullshit. Writers generally (with exceptions, like Bob Kane) are always the ones who get the credit. The greatest artists in the history of comics had to fight tooth and nail to receive their due, and in many cases it wasn't given until after their death. What I do think happened around then is we got a bunch of writers coming through -Bendis, Rucka, Brubaker, etc- who weren't just interested in empty cool. They knew story. Character. Structure. Empathy. They also had a love of an older age of comics, drawing largely from the 70's. It's possibly revealing of a behind-the-scenes culture difference that most of these writers got to make way more of a mark at Marvel than DC. 

(And don't read this as the rantings of an anti-DC fanboy. My favourite character is Daredevil, sure. And I have a lot of love for Captain America. But most of my childhood/teen reading was with DC. Batman is easily my second favourite comic book character. And the others -John Constantine, Jesse Custer, Zatanna, Dick Grayson, Captain Marvel (Billy Batson), Green Lantern, more recently Superman- betray a heavy DC bias. I hold WATCHMEN as one of the finest pieces of literature ever. I devoured Vertigo books. I want DC to be brilliant.)

(I also want them to stop screwing over creatives, and to give credit where it due, and to have less old-time artists and writers dying in obscurity and poverty...)

I've been told numerous times in the last few days that the Superman I like (i.e, the actual character) doesn't work in the modern day. The times are too dark, apparently. It's not like the aw shucks old days. Bullshit. You know what was going on at the time Superman was being created? A little thing called The Great Depression. Immediately after that his sales soared during an even smaller thing we like to call World War 2. Are people seriously going to tell me that what we have going on in the world now is somehow darker than two of the most difficult periods in American (and world) history? could it maybe, just maybe, be that dark times need one or two brighter characters? That as our pop culture turns inwards and fearful, and our stories reflect the grim and desperate times we live in, it's important to have just one or two icons that represent something better?

I'm starting to feel that the only genuinely transgressive move in storytelling these days -in comics, movies, and crime fiction- is to tell some stories about the good guy. Because everybody is telling the other story. We all seem scared to do anything else. And that scares the hell out of me, because it means we're not doing our jobs.

DC -and by extension their movies- seem stuck. Pushing this weird, fake version of adult storytelling. They've had great creators and stories in that time, but nothing that can seem to take hold in their mainstream stories. WATCHMEN and THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS may have given the company a huge shot in the financial arm, but creatively they can't seem to get out of the shadows cast by those stories. 

I wonder how different their film universe would be looking right now if they'd gone with Joss Whedon's BATMAN pitch over Chris Nolan's? Or his WONDER WOMAN? Or if they'd not rewritten Greg Berlanti's GREEN LANTERN script into a mangled botch-job? If they'd given MAN OF STEEL to someone like Brad Bird? 

And now there is a generation of these empty cool storytellers who are in positions of power in Hollywood. People who grew up with this hollow, splash page mentality. 

When Zack Snyder remade DAWN OF THE DEAD I was pleasantly surprised. It's a popcorn version of a horror flick. It has some wit, some style, and a deftness of touch. I enjoyed that film way more than I expected to. But I have hated everything since. 

This was crystallised way back during the making of WATCHMEN. I saw him give an interview in which he talked of them making a rubber copy of Comedians hand, so that during the opening fight sequence the camera could get in real close, and we could see that hand get punched really hard. In slow motion. Cool. He talked about this rubber hand for about five minutes, which is five minutes longer than I've ever heard him talk about a character's story arc. That's not why I go to a film. Not why I re-read WATCHMEN on an annual basis. The film is an exercise in seeing someone who loves the imagery, but has zero interest in digging down into the subtext (or even the text, really.) Is this style? Because it sure ain't substance.

His version of deep is basically the same as West Wing's episode about ten word answers. We all know people who can talk politics by reeling off slogans ("we just want more freedom, not less.") But can they talk beyond those trite lines? Can they talk policy? Can they back up their arguments? Snyder is the filmic equivalent. "Look, I can reference Jesus. I can show Hercules. Here's something that invokes the samurai." That's nice, Zack, but those are images. Can you explore what they mean, or why you're using them?

(And don't get me started on the fucking stupidity of turning Superman into a Christ figure. Look, I'm an atheist, I don't care either way, but Superman is Moses. You wanna do Jesus? Then go get J'on J'onzz.) 

This is the TDKR mentality. A bunch of cool images, some over-the-top dialogue, a vague awareness of iconography and mythic images, and zero depth or empathy. Snyder makes splash page films. 

He kills off one of the most beloved Superman characters in the first fifteen minutes of BVS. This character is never referred to by name, and is executed by terrorists. Now, I'm a storyteller, and I understand that killing characters is part of the job. So it's not the choice to kill that's the problem. But do it as part of a fucking STORY. With emotional arcs. With structure. With meaning. Snyder's reason for this death? To "have a little fun with the character." Yeah. A little fun. Killed by terrorists. Yeah, that's empty cool. I've read an interview where he says they had many discussions over whether Batman should swear in the movie. That seems to take up more thought than whether Batman should kill, or if the most anti-gun character in comics should use guns. Cool, bro, cool

And so, I guess I just need to accept that he and I will never agree. He is not going to make films that interest me, and it's pointless getting angry over that. 

That's also not to say that the fans of his films are wrong. I can't say that. Maybe it's me that's wrong. I know the way I talk about the whole empty cool culture is loaded with implied snobbishness. But I've honestly spent a long time trying to think up a better way of describing what I see, and I've failed. 

I know there are people who love 300. People who love WATCHMEN. There are people who have tried to convince me of the artistic merits of MAN OF STEEL. I hear what they're saying, I simply can't cross the bridge they've tried to build. Just as I remember conversations with friends when I was younger, and they would try and convince me that I was missing something with Spawn. They would say Todd McFarlane was correct to believe Batman and Spider-Man should kill, because "this is the 90's." Yeah, cool bro, cool. 

I have to call it the way I see it. If you're a fan of this culture of storytelling, I apologize for not being able to describe it in less condescending terms. All I can really say is that this little rant is me agreeing not to keep shitting on you; you go do your thing, and I'll go do mine.

And that goes double for the director. He tells stories that I just don't like. That I've never liked. But if I simply don't engage with it, it's pointless losing sleep over them. He can just go do his thing, I'll go do mine.

And I guess mine is going to need to be to try and tell some stories about the characters that empty cool isn't interested in.


Thomas Pluck said...

Well said.

Chris Beckett said...

Great post. Really nails the issues I also have with the DC movie universe -- basically, there needs to be some variety in tone.

Thom said...

yes. you can be serious without being boring and maudlin.
dark is fine
jessica jones
those work because they seem like they're not preaching