Everyone Has Their Shows

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One of the many great things about Mad Max: Fury Road is that it defies attempts to explain it. So this is less of my usual “here’s a report to tell the internet how well I understood that thing I just saw,” and more just, “Did you guys just see that?!”

I happened to see it on the same night the series finale of Mad Men aired, and the juxtaposition is kind of interesting. A few years ago, I watched the pilot of Mad Men and dismissed it as an overly simplistic, almost Disney-fied codification of a period piece. Now, I realize that was unfair. (And if it’s any consolation to fans of the series: I’ve spent the last 5 years consistently seeing the search terms for this blog come up as “Mad Men sucks” or “Mad Men is overrated,” and every time I want to reply with a, “No wait I didn’t mean that I just meant…” that will forever fall on deaf ears). I’m still not that interested in it, but I’m no longer arrogant enough to dismiss it. I’ll just acknowledge it was a social phenomenon that completely passed me by, and that’s fine.

But seeing all the analyses of and thinkpieces about Mad Men, like this one from The A.V. Club, is downright jarring the morning after seeing Fury Road. While watching the movie, I felt like it had been beamed in fully-formed from another planet, one that was colonized by Cirque du Soleil, Smash-Up Derby promoters, and Burning Man organizers, who were left to interbreed and develop their own culture over thousands of years. It may be more accurate to say that it’s like a product from another time, bounced off a satellite from a time long ago, back before all the people had their own shows, and all the shows had their own recap blogs.

Turning Your Brain Off

Fury Road is completely, unapologetically, visual. Every time my brain tried to take over and ask: What does that mean? Who is that child? Is she from the first movie? Did I even see the first movie? What does this represent?, the movie would respond with, Shut up and look at this tractor trailer with a wall of amplifiers and a union suit-wearing bandit on bungee cords with an electric guitar that shoots flames. Also, there are drummers on the back. Also, the truck will explode.

(Like just about everything on Badass Digest/Birth.Movies.Death., I agree 100% with the premise of that post, then frustratingly disagree with where it goes from there. It’s not just that an origin story for this guy is unnecessary; explaining why it’s unnecessary with belabored analogies to Boba Fett is unnecessary. I shouldn’t even be writing this post).

I’ve already seen complaints about the movie that say it’s nothing more than an extended car chase sequence. Which is accurate, but I believe it also completely misses the point. It takes two hours of footage packed impossibly dense with unforgettable images, and then dismisses it because those images aren’t a vehicle (no pun intended) for something else.

I feel like we’ve been trained over the past couple of decades to believe that the opposite of cerebral is stupid. It’s the Transformers mentality: the people who enjoy those movies tend to justify it by saying that “you turn your brain off.” My response has always been that you shouldn’t need to turn your brain off; a well-made action sequence can still deliver symbolism and meaning and convey all sorts of “higher” concepts.

Fury Road felt like George Miller scoffing at me and saying, “Screw that, poindexter.” That whole attitude of “thinking man’s action movies” feels like a relic of the era of The Matrix: where you can’t just have tentacle ships and bullet time effects and thousands of suit-wearing agents engaged in kung fu battles and a badass slicing a semi truck with a samurai sword. It’s got to have a layer of simple-minded “philosophy” and Alice in Wonderland allusions slathered all over it for it to be worthwhile. So that a bunch of guys on the internet can say that they understood the deeper meaning and then make references to red pills and blue pills.

After ravaging the cinematic environment with that, an ecological disaster like Sucker Punch seems depressingly inevitable. I can’t really fault the basic intention: it recognizes that there’s some visual language of What 12 Year Old Boys Think is Rad that we all need to see. But it tries to stretch shallow ideas into epic spectacle that just shows how derivative all the imagery is, and worse, it tries to couch it in a completely bullshit travesty of gender commentary that’s so clumsily handled it’s offensive.

Not All War Boys

Fury Road appreciates the inherent value of a moving image. And it appreciates that because it invented so many of them. If anyone says the phrase “post-apocalyptic wasteland,” the image that pops into your head is, undoubtedly, from Mad Max or The Road Warrior.

I mentioned wasting time at the beginning of the movie trying to figure everything out. Because the “story” begins in media res, I was wondering whether I needed to have seen the other movies for context. I honestly can’t say whether I’ve seen the other three movies in their entirety; I know I’ve seen parts of them, but couldn’t tell you more than the basics.

Lone guy in a leather jacket driving through the desert in a modified sports car. Bandits killed his wife and child. Hot-rod and motorcycle-driving bandits chasing a tanker truck. Skulls. Communities of outlaws and warlords built with rusted metal and old car parts. Explosions. A guy totally getting his fingers cut off by a spinning boomerang blade thing.

A few minutes in, Fury Road reassured me: yeah, you got it. That’s all you need to know, because those unforgettable images are the whole point. Now watch, as we add dozens more, like an impossibly apocalyptic sandstorm. A “blood bag” strapped to the front of a car, chained to its driver. Four beautiful women appearing like a mirage in the desert, washing themselves with a hose. A white-haired warlord with a death mask, staring intently from behind the wheel of a car in pursuit.

The movie refuses to explain or give context for much of anything, not just because it’s unnecessary, but because it’d undermine their power as raw images. In fact, some of the most unforgettable images are only given a glimpse, a few seconds of screen time and a reaction shot from Max.

With all of that going on, this article in Vice describing the movie as “the feminist action flick we’ve been waiting for” seems misguided. Not that any of it is wrong. Just that pointing it out seems as facile as, for example, being able to identify what a tree is.

Early reports made me expect an action movie with an undercurrent of feminism. Fury Road doesn’t have undercurrents. It’s explicitly written on the wall: “Who killed the world?” and it’s not at all ambiguous. All these men did, and it’s only the women who have any chance of rebuilding it. And actually, by treating it as so explicit, the message is a lot more powerful than it would’ve been as a coded manifesto. There’s nothing to decipher, no nuance, no gray area that leaves room for differences in opinion: this is what happens when you treat people as commodities. Stop acting like it’s at all complicated.

THIS. All the things.

My favorite character in the movie — and with so much vivid imagery it’s kind of tough to choose — is The People Eater: an old white guy standing out of the sunroof of a car looking over a ledger, wearing a three-piece suit that has holes cut out for his nipple clamps. This is not a movie that aspires to subtlety.

So I ended up not analyzing it, but experiencing it. Cringing, covering my eyes, getting excited, staring in wonder, or laughing out loud. It’s a throwback to a time when I just enjoyed movies, instead of feeling like I had to understand them, because there was going to be a quiz later.

When everybody’s social media first exploded with reactions to the movie, most of them were of the format “Max Max: Fury Road is a thing that exists.” I’d thought it was just the standard internet cliche, like “Well, that happened.” After seeing it, I think it’s really just the best response. The novelty of a movie that’s not a mashup or reboot or reimagining, just 100% its own thing that exists in a pure and almost entirely unadulterated state, free of context and inspiration from anything other than itself. A platonic state of Mad Maxism.

From the right-out-of-the-early-80s title screen forward, it asserts itself as a product of another time. A time when someone could ask me what I thought of a movie, and I could just respond with, “It’s got a grotesque old white man in the sunroof of a car looking over a ledger, wearing a three-piece suit that has holes cut out for his nipple clamps.”

Avengers: Age of Um, Not So Much

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I’ve been avoiding reading reviews of Avengers: Age of Ultron, to avoid spoilers. I recommend you do the same, since I’m not going to make any effort to avoid spoiling everything here.

My short review: it’s very good, and I liked it a lot. It’s also 100% a Joss Whedon movie, for better and for worse.

While I didn’t read the reviews themselves, I was reading the headlines and summations. There seemed to be one bit of consensus in particular: it was supposedly more franchise than fun, a case of all the joyous excess of The Avengers finally starting to collapse under the weight of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

I don’t agree. I didn’t love it as much as The Avengers, or Iron Man, or even Captain America, and it was largely because it had to strain under the weight of decades of movies, television series, and comic book. But not Marvel’s. The ghosts of franchises and formulas past were from Firefly, Serenity, Angel, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.


If you were to have described to me all the stuff that appears in Age of Ultron, the part I would’ve expected to be the most insufferable would be “Ultron is an advanced artificial intelligence that talks like Xander Harris.”

In practice, though: yeah, not so much. It’s not particularly overdone, and in the end comes across not as “Self-aware supervillain as the writer’s self-effacing defense mechanism” but “this was an AI created by Robert Downey Jr.’s version of Tony Stark.” Sure, he does a comment about revealing his super-villainous plan — itself a bit of self-awareness at least as old as Watchmen, to the point that that’s become even more of a cliche. But it’s incidental to its scene, and ends up feeling more like another reminder of Tony Stark’s responsibility in the whole thing.

It’s also a constant reminder that Joss Whedon is speaking through all of these characters. And it was kind of hard to “turn him off.” Related: I either never knew that James Spader was the voice of Ultron, or I forgot. I thought it sounded like Ty Burrell, so I spent the entire movie picturing him whenever Ultron came on screen.

But I like Joss Whedon, a lot, so what’s the problem? The problem is when all the tics and mannerisms are so familiar that they threaten to overpower everything else.

Towards the climax (reminder that this is a pretty big spoiler, in case “towards the climax” wasn’t enough of a clue), there’s a “ha we have masterfully played off of your expectations” moment. Hawkeye has spent the entire movie with the Grim Reaper looming over his shoulder: he’s injured early on, he questions his value to the team, he has an idyllic visit with his family and a heart-to-heart with his wife, he says both that he’s made his final addition to his peaceful farmhouse and makes plans for one more as soon as this mission is over. He even says out loud that he doesn’t know who’ll be coming back alive.

But then no! It’s Quicksilver who heroically sacrifices himself, much like, say, a leaf on the wind. And he calls back to his rival Hawkeye’s earlier dialogue with the line “Bet you didn’t see that one coming.”

Except those of us who’ve spent the last couple of decades watching Joss Whedon’s stuff respond with a Whedon-esque “Actually, yeah, we kinda did.” It’s not even just a precedent from Serenity (and Dr. Horrible, and Buffy, and Angel); it was in the first Avengers movie! Agent Coulson is still practically standing right there, and they’re trying to act like Killing Someone In Act 3 still has any element of surprise or weight to it.

Even more frustrating is when it’s not just all the old familiar tics and mannerisms and favorite cliches, but the entire sensibility that threatens to overwhelm everything else.

One of the reasons the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” has been so successful is that they’ve been unafraid to let directors bring their own sensibilities to each character. So Iron Man feels like a romantic comedy with robot suits, Thor feels a little bit like a modern take on a Shakespearean tragedy, and Captain America feels like The Rocketeer with a bigger budget and better CG. (I guess DC has done the same, more or less, but it requires you to like Zack Snyder and Christopher Nolan’s sensibilities). It was a great fit for Avengers, as well: it had to be epic and packed full of stuff, so it was important to get somebody who could have huge, effects- and action-heavy sequences and keep it character-focused and have lots of good-looking people being flippant and charming to keep the whole thing from collapsing under its own weight.

Age of Ultron is also packed full of stuff, but somehow, none of it feels all that important. Which is a drag, because I think it made the right decisions going in:

  • It doesn’t pretend that the Avengers are anything other than a superhero team. All the “can these misfits work together?” drama was covered in the last movie, so this one starts right away with a big, complicated fight sequence in which it was clear to everyone that the Avengers were going to win. There’s even dialogue to that effect: one of the bad guys asks whether they can withstand the attack, and a henchman simply replies, “It’s the Avengers.”
  • Knowing that “will they win?” isn’t a valid question, the story puts all of the weight onto character conflict. The reason Scarlet Witch is a threat isn’t because she can overpower them, but that she could cause them all to collapse under their own personal baggage.
  • Even with that, the story knows exactly how far it can take the question of whether they’ll all turn on each other — because we know that even if they do, they’ll work around it by the end — and uses it as an impediment instead of a major crisis. The major crisis instead becomes completely character-driven: they have to deal with the left-over “psychic residue” of the Scarlet Witch’s attacks.
  • And that doesn’t take the form of self-doubt (because again: we’ve already seen them effortlessly taking down bad guys), but questioning what they want. Much more interesting than the question “can I win this fight?” is the question “do I really want to keep fighting?”
  • That cleverly side-steps the whole question of “why is Hawkeye even on this team?” The movie still asks that question outright, and answers it, but the implied answer is even stronger: Hawkeye’s the only one of them who has a “normal” life available to him, which is ostensibly what they’re all fighting for.
  • And that most obviously drives the whole romantic subplot between Black Widow and Bruce Banner, which is handled surprisingly maturely for a “comic book movie.” But it also drives the main plot, which is justifying the creation of Ultron: it states outright that the whole reason for the Avengers to exist is to create a world in which the Avengers don’t need to exist.
  • There’s a party scene that’s presented as if it’s meant to be aspirational: a bunch of clever, beautiful people having fun in a penthouse overlooking Manhattan. The recurring theme — from Rhodey Rhodes’s story about tossing a tank to the various attempt to pick up Thor’s hammer — is how much better these guys have it than “normal people.” The entire rest of the story seems to be questioning that scene: what are they doing, exactly, and why are they doing it? I liked the detail of ending the movie with Avengers Headquarters in a more nondescript, ground-level building outside of Manhattan.
  • “Who would win in a fight?” is a staple of superhero comic books, so we get the huge, destructive showdown between Hulk and Iron Man punching each other through buildings. But it’s framed to be both gratuitous and important to the theme: when the heroes are flying around smashing things, they’re making things worse for the civilians they’re trying to protect.
  • Which ties in yet again with Scarlet Witch & Quicksilver’s story, and puts almost all the emphasis of the climactic fight scene on their efforts to save people, instead of just beating the bad guy. (Which is itself kind of an interesting flip on the fight scene in the first Avengers; the destructive fall-out from that was the basis of a lot of follow-up stories, Daredevil in particular. Here they seem to have actually learned something from the experience). The question isn’t presented as “will they win?” but instead, “how many people will be hurt or killed when they win?”

In theory, it all fits together elegantly, giving the entire movie a nice solid through-line. It’s packed full of characters and sub-plots and franchise set-ups, and nothing feels out of place.

In practice, though, it just kind of drains the urgency out of the whole thing. I kept feeling as if the movie was making assumptions about what I should consider important. Ultron’s plan was never quite clear to me — extinction events and meteors kept getting mentioned, but they just seemed like metaphors — so I could never gauge how dangerous I was supposed to believe he was. I started to wonder whether my lack of a Marvel upbringing was working against me. Would I just “get” how he’s the baddest and most unstoppable of bad guys if I’d read the comics? After all, the Avengers seem to have no problem defeating infinite numbers of robots, vibranium/adamantium enhanced or not.

(I’ve read The Infinity Gauntlet but I still can’t for the life of me understand why people are so excited about even the smallest reference to it. “Is it like their equivalent to Crisis on Infinite Earths?“)

Normally, I’ve got a love/hate relationship with self-awareness in movies and books: it’s not just that I appreciate it when a writer respects my intelligence; I really do believe that it can trigger a kind of connection between the artist and the audience that’s impossible to get from something that’s completely earnest, no matter how honest it is. It’s an acknowledgement of the artificiality of fiction, and an implicit understanding that both the artist and the audience have at least one thing in common: we all know how this works.

But I started to wonder if the self-awareness in Age of Ultron had gone a bit too far into the realm of over-thinking it. It wasn’t arch, or really any other flavor of ironic detachment that you get when an artist feels that he’s better than the material he’s working with. Instead, it just felt kind of weary. The ending felt almost confessional, as if everyone involved would be happier just riding off with Tony Stark and getting out of the Gigantic Multi-feature Franchise business.

Maybe the over-inflated threats, villainous monologues, and crises of self-doubt that get resolved just in time for act 3 are in comic book stories because they need to be there. Maybe they’re not just lazy fallbacks that we’ve seen too many times already; maybe their familiarity is part of the appeal, why we keep going back for superhero stories in the first place.

I’ve said before that I was always more a DC guy than a Marvel guy. What’s been great about all the (good) Marvel adaptations is that you get a real sense of how excited people are about these characters. It’s as if they’re sharing their childhoods with us. That enthusiasm was in the first Avengers movie. Age of Ultron is still good, but it feels like they got all that enthusiasm out of their system. Which is a bizarre thing to say about a movie in which the Hulk and a witch fight legions of robots on a floating city, but there you have it.

The Tone Without Fear

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What a strange time to be alive! The coolest superheroes are Iron Man, Black Widow, and the Guardians of the Galaxy. Some of the best TV series are skipping the broadcast networks and being produced by streaming services! One of the most fun and entertaining translations of comics to television is a woman-focused period piece miniseries spinoff of Captain America! A movie featuring Batman and Superman together is finally coming out, and the trailer makes it look like a dire, boring, outdated and uninspired mess. And people are getting really excited about Star Wars again!

Every time Marvel comes out with another solid movie or TV show, I go through the same process of gee-whiz-that’s-a-surprise, even though they’ve been so consistently strong — with enough missteps to prove that they’re far from infallible — that it shouldn’t be surprising anymore. But to somebody who read comics in the 1990s, it still feels like DC and Marvel did a Freaky Friday-style switch in mindset: DC’s spent the past decade and a half trying to make itself dark and gritty and realistic, while Marvel’s been focused on storytelling, world-building, and characters.

For Mature Audiences

I was one of the few people defending Man of Steel when it came out, but any remaining good will I had towards that movie’s decision to play up the “Superman as alien” angle dried up as soon as I saw Guardians of the Galaxy and how it made the combination of superheroes + science fiction seem effortless. And actually managed to have fun doing it, instead of wallowing in self-important meditations on What It Means to be an American in cloying montages straight out of a commercial for Ford Trucks.

But still. Netflix’s Daredevil series is a tough sell to me. Make Iron Man a romantic comedy with fight scenes, and I’m sold. Play up the X-Men angle of non-conformity and prejudice, and I’ll even think Wolverine is interesting. Give Joe Johnston the budget to make Captain America as a romanticized The Rocketeer-style period piece, or Kenneth Branagh the chance to present Thor in much the same spirit as a modernized Shakespeare tragedy, and those characters actually feel relevant for once. Take a license I’d never heard of and make it a sci-fi comedy adventure, and I’m in the theater even before you’re even finished with your elevator pitch (showing Chris Pratt in the trailer with his shirt off is pretty much overkill at that point).

But Daredevil has always been the one Marvel character that doesn’t just not interest me, but actively repels me. (Okay, sure, Cable and the Sub-Mariner, too, but get back to me once they get their own movies). I like Batman, so I always assumed I’d like Marvel’s version of Batman. And one of my favorite comic books of all time was Batman: Year One, which I’d long heard was influenced heavily (if not entirely) by Frank Miller’s work on Daredevil. So I’ve tried reading what have always been recommended as the standout Daredevil stories, and they just don’t do it for me.

The reason is that they take the basic premise — Marvel’s version of Batman — entirely literally. It drains almost all of the fantasy out of the Batman universe, distilling it almost entirely to what I think is the least interesting part, the “lone vigilante against crime” angle. All the dark gothic history of Gotham City is subbed out with Hell’s Kitchen in 1970s New York. The larger-than-life supervillains are replaced with mafiosos. Interpretations of Batman have always had a hard time getting the balance right between camp and seriousness, but Daredevil always struck me as being so afraid of camp and so eager to be taken seriously that it’s perpetually stuck in the mindset of an adolescent boy in 1981. (In case that seems too harsh, keep in mind that the replacement for Catwoman is a Greek female ninja assassin with “low-level mind control and telepathic communication”). I’ve re-read Batman: Year One in recent years, and it doesn’t really appeal to me anymore, for much the same reason.

Martha Wayne’s Pearl Necklace

Which is all background for why I’m not in the target audience for a Daredevil TV series, and why it’s so surprising that I’m enjoying the hell out of it. Granted, I’m still only two episodes in so far, so it could all fall apart. But it would take something pretty catastrophic to unravel everything built up by those first two hours. (Apparently Drew Goddard stepped down as show runner after the second episode, so maybe I should watch more before I go on gushing about how great the series is).

The thing that sold me in the first episode was the cleverness of the premise and the confidence in which everything was established. It checks off all the boxes of a comic book adaptation — the origin scene, the scenes with his father, the gym and the boxing matches, the glasses, the confessional, and even a scene standing watch over Hell’s Kitchen on a rooftop at night — but seems to understand exactly how and why they’re important to the story. It’s too early (for me) to tell, but this might be the first real case of a live-action graphic novel: feature films are always trying to cram decades of continuity into an hour and a half, and weekly episodic series are always conscious of having to state and re-state their premise with each episode. Daredevil seems designed with Netflix and binge-watching in mind: the episodes are more like chapters instead of installments, and it’s developing its own rhythm of introduction, repetition, and reinforcement that seems to be telling the story at its own pace, without fear of losing the audience.

The confessional is a solid example. Every Daredevil story I’ve read is pretty ham-fisted with the religious allegory, as if we might forget the “devil” part of the name, or forget that we’re supposed to be conflicted about a hero using violence to do good. But the series takes what could be a stock scene and uses it for character exposition. The last line, where he asks “forgiveness for what I’m about to do,” actually works, and it doesn’t just feel like the kind of line a writer high-fives himself for squeezing into a scene.

The “origin story” is an even better example. Even though it’s been 15 years since X-Men made comic book movies cool again, and we’ve seen so many comic book adaptations that they’ve gone through at least two rounds of backlash, and the last person to do anything novel or interesting with an origin story was Tim Burton in Batman Returns, we still get the origin story every single time. Because everybody assumes that’s just what comic book adaptations do. And, I assume, everybody wants to be the one who makes the definitive version, to come up with the thing that becomes as indelible and iconic as Martha Wayne’s pearl necklace.

Daredevil splits the difference: it doesn’t act as if it’s showing us something we’ve never seen before, but neither does it assume we’re so familiar with the story that it can use shorthand like Grant Morrison did for Superman. We’ve all been around the block enough times to know that if you save somebody’s life but get blinded by hazardous chemicals in the process, you’re going to get super powers. Daredevil isn’t even all that subtle about it:
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but in terms of comic book adaptations, it’s a paragon (I was about to say marvel) of restraint.

I saw two tweets today with criticisms of the show that I completely disagree with. One complained that the cool thing about Daredevil is that he’s blind, but the show ignores that. Another complained that “there’s no clear taxonomy [of sound], helping the audience understand what he does“. I think these are both examples of the same thing: we’re so used to comic book adaptations behaving a certain way, that it’s surprising to see any attempt at deviating from that with any kind of subtlety.

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When I saw the opening credit sequence, with all the iconography of Daredevil and New York City taking shape as it’s slowly covered with red wax, I thought I knew exactly what we were going to get: lots of fancy CGI sequences of outlines taking shape out of the darkness, to illustrate Matt Murdock’s echolocation. (My brain has mercifully blocked out all memory of the Ben Affleck movie, but if I remember correctly, they did exactly that). If the VFX team got ambitious, a crucial fight would take place in the rain, being the defining element that either saves the day or almost causes Daredevil to lose the fight, depending on however the writer decided rainfall would affect somebody with superhuman senses.

Instead, so far at least, there are frequent reminders that Murdock is actually blind, gradually more explicit indications that his other senses are becoming more sensitive (like young Matt reacting to a boxing ring bell or hearing a conversation on the other side of the room), Rosario Dawson’s character repeatedly asking how a blind man can smell someone through walls a couple of floors down or accurately drop a fire extinguisher several stories down a stairwell to hit someone at exactly the right moment, and generally, an implicit assumption that the audience can understand that super powers are happening without the aid of a visual effects crew.

Powers Beyond Those Of Mortal Men

And the reason I think it’s enough of a big deal to drag out is because the second episode, “Cut Man,” is just masterfully constructed. I’d say it’s as strong as Battlestar Galactica’s “33” in that both are seamlessly orchestrated self-contained episodes that also confidently and definitively establish the tone of the rest of the series.

Throughout the episode, what impresses me the most is the decision what to show and what to leave implicit. It’s the first episode where we really see the extent of Daredevil’s powers as something super-human, but it’s almost entirely conveyed via Claire Temple asking him how he’s doing all this. It took the setup from the end of the pilot — a child is kidnapped by a human trafficking ring — and immediately advance past his super-heroics to a shot of him lying in a dumpster near death. The bulk of the episode is his recovering from his near-fatal injuries while Claire recounts the standard “birth of a super hero” adventures that we’d normally get in a montage sequence.

And of course the final sequence really is a masterpiece; I’ll be very surprised if anything else in the series is able to top it. Again, it’s because of the restraint. The previous episode ended with a montage of all the horrible atrocities the bad guys were committing, to make it clear that Daredevil was hopelessly outnumbered against an insurmountable evil. The bulk of the second episode is spent making it clear that he’s broken and beaten, and that there’s a very real chance he won’t survive the night.

But then the final climactic battle is slow and almost quiet. It just trucks slowly — even self-consciously — up and down a long dark hallway, and we see the fight spill out from side rooms into the hall. We still get to see all the bad-ass highlights of a standard cinematic superhero fight, but the events of the fight itself aren’t presented as if they were part of the story. And neither is showing explicitly how he’s predicting his enemies’ movements or fending two or three of them off at a time. The story doesn’t deem it important to show how he fights crime; what’s important is simply to show that he does it.

That’s huge. In terms of just plain good storytelling, it’s what keeps the action from devolving into “movie musical number” territory that fight scenes and car chase scenes almost invariably end up being. It’s a super-hero story, so the ending is a foregone conclusion: he’s going to win. So there’s always a disconnect to see extended sequences of stunt people punching and kicking each other, presented as if it were advancing the story, when it’s actually just stopped the story to show you something cool.

The “story” here is that Daredevil is at one end of the hall, and he’s going to go to the other end of the hall and rescue this kid, or he’s going to die trying. The fight spills out into the hall not just so we can see some cool martial arts choreography, but to show that he’s beaten and he’s impossibly weary, but he’s not going to give up.

There’s no indication that he can’t see any of what’s going on, and no indication of how he’s hearing movements or heartbeats, because that would be worse than irrelevant. It would turn the story into one about a guy who fights crime because he has super powers, instead of a guy whose super powers make it possible for him to fight crime.

That’s a distinction that Superman and Batman stories have been wrestling with for decades. Superman’s only interesting when you play up the idea that he’d be a good guy even without his powers (which is why putting him against General Zod and other Kryptonians right off the bat was one of the few good decisions Man of Steel made). And most of the “serious” Batman stories put all the focus on how the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents drove him to make himself a hero. Everything in “Cut Man” — including what would seem like an unrelated “B-plot” about Foggy keeping Karen company through the night — establishes Matt Murdock as a hero driven to help people solely because it’s something that needs to be done.

Marvel Universe

My other favorite aspect of the series is something I’ve never seen mentioned in reviews or comments: the central conflict that sparks the series is all a result of crime bosses fighting to take over Hell’s Kitchen after the destruction caused by the climactic battle in The Avengers. It’s just an ingenious way to modernize it while still making it feel like a timeless premise, and a perfect way to tie it in with the rest of Marvel live-action continuity without a Special Guest Appearance or cross-over. I’ve been watching The Flash on CW and enjoying it a lot, but its frequent cross-overs with Arrow just bring to mind the most negative connotations of “comic book adaptation.”

But really, that’s just one part of what makes The Flash seem like perfectly enjoyable (seriously!) but by-the-numbers episodic television comic book adaptation. There’s something about the entire series that just feels safe. You get the impression that when the idea came to develop a Flash series, their two main questions were how to do the running VFX, and how to work some racial diversity into the main cast. The rest writes itself: season-long intrigue, monster-of-the-week format, opening and closing voice-over that put the events of the episode into “larger” perspective, etc.

Which goes back to my old shorthand of “DC = fantastic, larger-than-life, fun storytelling; Marvel = adolescent obsession with ‘realism’ and ‘maturity,'” which probably hasn’t been true in at least 20 years. And seems to fall apart as a valid metric anyway, considering that the reasons I’m enjoying Daredevil so much seem to go directly against all my assumptions: it’s a more mature, realistic, and understated take on a super-hero comic book setup.

I think it comes down to tone, and walking the tightrope between wallowing in grim self-importance and floating off into irrelevance. “For Mature Audiences” in comic books has traditionally meant anything but maturity: it’s been dominated by reactionary, adolescent, and defensive attempts to make comic books more than “kids stuff” by slathering everything in violence, sex, profanity, and “adult content.” And Daredevil‘s standout creators in comics have been some of the worst offenders. Sure, Sin City, for example, is a self-conscious attempt to build on lurid pulp comics and novels, but it’s also so enamored of the pulp that it stops making any kind of commentary on it. It becomes indistinguishable from the real thing.

I’m definitely not going to suggest that Daredevil the TV series is “light:” the first episode’s montage of all the evil going on in the city includes a sweatshop full of silent slave workers measuring out drugs for distribution, and they’ve all been visibly, violently blinded. Not to mention all the human trafficking, or the blood, or the pervasive paranoia, or the murders and murders made to look like suicides.

The Seduction of the Innocent

But still, there’s very much a sense of “comic book mentality” that carries throughout. Part of it is just the presentation: Murdock’s apartment and its intrusively bright LCD sign, the boxing gym where the bulk of the flashbacks take place, and the water tower on top of Claire’s apartment building, all have a very simple, iconic, and graphic feel to them. You watch a scene and can immediately imagine how the panels would be laid out on the page.

More significantly, it’s a comic book adaptation in that there is a very clear delineation of good guys and bad guys. There are crooked prison guards and corruptible or arrogant people, but there also exist characters who are Good and characters who are Evil. That’s the comic book aspect; the maturity comes from the way the first two episodes don’t attempt to milk any kind of artificial conflict out of the delineation. Claire advises Daredevil with little hesitation exactly how to jam a knife into a guy’s eye socket to inflict the most pain. And Daredevil uses should-be-lethal force so often that it makes Superman and Batman’s “no killing, no guns” philosophies seem almost as juvenile as Frank Castle’s.

That’s another way that the series benefits from being on Netflix instead of broadcast television, or even HBO. It doesn’t have to dance around questions of violence or profanity that make it seem even more artificial. A lot of “for mature audiences” material (see: True Blood, most FX series) seems as if it were written by people who found out they can use the f-word and then freak the fuck out. Daredevil has characters saying “shit” when a real adult in 2015 would say “shit.” And fight scenes that cause believable bodily harm with blood and broken bones.

Oddly enough, while watching the Daredevil series, the comic book that keeps coming to mind is Jamie Delano’s Hellblazer. (And I better not get started on what an enormous disappointed the Constantine TV series turned out to be, or I’ll go on for another 3000 words). There was a real sense that its first motivation was to be a good, compelling story, and everything else was a product of that. It showed an innate understanding of its medium: it wasn’t attempting to tell a story that begrudgingly used the comic book format, or make a masterpiece that would elevate comics to some “higher” level of relevance, but used all the strengths and weaknesses of the format to tell its story. It understood that “mature” often means subtlety, but it didn’t shy away from being graphic. It understood that “adult” meant weighty questions of ethics and morality that couldn’t be summed up with some clumsy allegory, but also that a huge part of what makes comic book storytelling so appealing is its simplicity and abstraction.

Ultimately, it feels like something made by people who love comics and love television (and love martial arts choreography), instead of being made with some preconceived notion of what people who love comics are supposed to like. However they did it, if they can take my least favorite Marvel character and turn it into such a compelling show, I can’t wait to see what they do with Gambit, Jubilee, or Dazzler.

They Alive, Dammit. It’s a Miracle!


The best thing about Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is the way its premise is set up with an uplifting viral video theme song that’s abruptly cut short. Or how one of the “mole women” calls Matt Lauer “Bryant” and it’s never commented on. Or how Matt Lauer remarks that in 15 years, Donna Maria never learned English, and her caption says “These bitches never bothered to learn Spanish.” Or how the Today show producers shove the women out into New York City with gift bags, cheerily saying “Thank you, victims!” before slamming the big metal doors shut behind them. Or how Kimmy says “nukular” during her Today show interview, and then during her big Act 3 inspirational speech says she got “tooken” by a cult leader. Or how that inspirational speech is prompted by a rat in a New York trash can. Or how Jane Krakowski’s character has a refrigerator specifically for bottled water, and she casually tosses an unused bottle in the garbage after it’s been offered. Or how Kimmy dresses in the bright clothes of a middle-school-aged girl and it’s contrasted against every single other resident of New York, or how she runs wide-eyed into Saks Fifth Avenue and the only thing she’s chosen to buy is a pair of light-up sneakers.

What I’m saying here is that it’s got the best first episode of anything that I’ve seen in years. It’s like Lost pilot strong in terms of setting the tone of the series and getting me hooked. In fact, its ultimately uplifting message of indomitable spirit in the face of adversity was kind of lost on me, since I just went away thinking that I’ll probably never write a script that good.

I threatened to write a Slate-style think piece about how the opening theme of the show works on multiple levels to perfectly encapsulate the combination of satire and celebration that runs throughout the series. Then the show stole my thunder by making it all explicit over the course of the next few episodes. (Netflix means going from hyped-up first episode excitement to post-season-finale depression in less than two days).

For starters, it’s catchy as hell. I’d thought that it was just a reference to the Gregory Brothers’ viral videos, but was glad to find out that they were essentially referencing themselves. It gives a Gilligan’s Island setup of the premise of the series — four women released into 2014 after being kidnapped and held underground by a post-apocalyptic cult leader — but does it in the way that we hear about horrible stuff in 2014, through viral YouTube remixes of news reports. (“Also, look at these sunglasses I found. Unbreakable.”)

It’s a satire of how we take people’s personal stories of horror and tragedy, and then repackage and commodify them as concern-tainment. Like Titus says later on in the series, it gives people the chance to see all the lurid details of a story, but also lets them feel good about themselves for being concerned and having an opinion. And it requires no effort apart from paying attention just long enough for the media to get fixated on the next story. It’s Ace in the Hole condensed to about 60 seconds.

But it’s not presented as cynical, inert satire; nor as a j’accuse! condemnation. It’s an auto-tuned pop gospel song, a celebration. Of freedom and children getting to enjoy their childhood and dancing dogs in suits and scenes from the musical Daddy’s Boy. And I like how the theme song just says “girls” and “females” and not “women,” not just as a shallow “take back the language of MRAs,” but as an affirmation that the idea of strength is much more powerful than any PC name-wrangling.

And all that stuff is in there because the series has the same sensibility as 30 Rock — smart and confident enough in its own intelligence to be unabashedly absurd without spinning off into irrelevance, and able to combine dark and silly without losing either. Plus, you need to watch with subtitles on to get all the jokes.

Apparently, the series was first pitched to NBC, and they liked it but didn’t know where or when to air it, so it went to Netflix. Even though I would’ve liked to enjoy a full season of hype, running on Netflix was likely the best choice as there’s no feeling of self-censoring going on here. 30 Rock was at its best when it kept the sitcom format as just the barest skeleton for a bizarre storyline or stunt-casting guest appearance, like Paul Reubens as a horribly inbred prince. The equivalents here are Martin Short as a mad plastic surgeon and Nick Kroll as a cultish exercise leader, and they’re still batshit insane but grounded in a theme: the ways women fall into the trap of feeling worthless or unsure of themselves.

Ellie Kemper is amazing as Kimmy Schmidt; she deserves an Emmy for her reaction shots alone. It would’ve been easy for the performance, like the show itself, to settle into a rut of “wide-eyed teenager” or “fish out of water” or “unsinkable Molly Brown,” but she encompasses all of it. Constantly. Her entire first-time-in-New-York sequence is limited to the first five minutes of the first episode, and then afterwards she’s a real character. (Whose entire frame of reference is 1999 teen girl culture and a post-apocalyptic death cult). The 30 Rock style of delivering side jokes is so established now that it can seem formulaic, but when Kimmy answers an unrelated question with “yes, there was weird sex stuff” it’s a jolt that reminds you of the darkness that’s behind every joke.

And speaking of 30 Rock, Jane Krakowski is essentially doing a variation of Jenna Mulroney, but there’s more depth to her character (Mrs. Voorhees, because this series is brilliant) than there was on a network sitcom. The series doesn’t have any interest in bringing Strong Female Characters, but includes women of various states of intelligence, self-destructiveness, and general competence. Carol Kane’s character may be the closest to a stock character that the series has, but her delivery sells it. Tina Fey’s guest appearance as a permed incompetent lawyer is the exact opposite of Liz Lemon. And really, Jane Krakowski never got nearly enough credit for mastering the 30 Rock delivery, which she effortlessly does here without the benefit of Jackie Jorp-Jomp or The Rural Juror.

(The only reason I don’t have more to say about Titus Burgess is that the role seems to have been made specifically for him. It’s impressive to be able to take a character that insufferably self-absorbed and make him sympathetic).

It may be corny to say so, but I think that airing on Netflix instead of broadcast TV was the best thing for Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, because it feels like it belongs in a new medium. It’s something that could only exist in 2015, a time that Kimmy insists on calling “the future.”

No wait, I got it: the absolute best thing about Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is the flashback to the bunker when Cyndee was overcome with Hulkamania and Kimmy had to talk her down by pretending to by Macho Man Randy Savage. Oh yeah, brother!

Red Room Resolutions

TwinPeaksDoppelganger
I spent a few thousand words figuring the whole Twin Peaks problem, and that’s without even mentioning the Red Room. I was more interested in the more plot-driven, primetime-soap-opera aspects of it. That was the stuff that I’ve spent years being dismissive of, because I first watched the series in 1990 and could never make sense of it.

Re-watching the series now, in order, including the essential (and long unavailable) pilot episode, has helped me make sense of the series. Or at least, re-evaluate my memory of the series and my assumptions of what it was trying to do. All the bizarre, awkward, and disturbing stuff isn’t just a bunch of stylistic flourishes or weirdness for its own sake, but is there for a reason.

As I’m watching the series with a newfound understanding and appreciation of it, I get to the end of the third episode (helpfully named “Episode 2″). It’s Agent Cooper’s first dream sequence in the Red Room. It’s the most iconic image of Twin Peaks, the first thing that people think of when they hear “Twin Peaks,” even more than the title card, “damn good coffee,” and solitary traffic lights. It’s been parodied and referenced and “re-interpreted” dozens of times over the past 24 years. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve quoted from it, while of course doing The Man From Another Place’s little dance. It’s revisited multiple times throughout the series, and all of its content is explained over the course of the following episodes as we learn more about Laura Palmer’s murder.

So I revisited this old, familiar scene, and it completely blew my mind. Enough to challenge some of the most basic assumptions I’ve let build up for years. And enough to inspire me to change how I think about creative works, both as an audience member and as an aspiring creator. Here are the two main ones, in Buzzfeed-style list format:

1. Stop being reductive.

Everything that dream sequence establishes for the narrative could’ve been accomplished a lot more quickly and easily without having to hire a designer or teaching a bunch of actors to speak backwards.

And doing it efficiently would’ve robbed pop culture in general — and television in particular — of some of its most indelible images.

In fact, the series did more efficiently deliver all the information from its dream sequence. It was serialized network television in the Dark Times before DVRs, so even something as bizarre as Twin Peaks was obligated to get the audience back up to speed each episode. It’s not as if the series was so enamored of its artistic vision that it ignored its own format.

And I’m not suggesting that there was ever actually the proposal: “Let’s ditch this whole thing and just have Cooper saying, ‘Diane I just had the weirdest dream.'” I think the problem of being reductive is more pervasive and more subtle than that. It happens gradually, often without our even realizing that that’s what we’re doing.

I’ve already got a tendency to treat narrative works as if they were puzzle boxes, or math problems. Break everything down to its basic components, then you’ve figured out what the artist was trying to say. Ax + By + Cz = Fargo. (Or, for that matter, “Twin Peaks is about nostalgia for something that never existed” or “Twin Peaks is Blue Velvet meets Peyton Place.”)

To make matters worse, when Twin Peaks first aired, I was coming off a brief (and mostly unsuccessful) stint as a film and TV major, which just enabled all the worst pick-it-apart tendencies. Sparse sets with ornate furnishings and the shadow of a piece of fabric blowing in the wind? I’ve seen Spellbound, thank you, and I know how movies and TV represent dream interpretation. Here’s what the scene is trying to accomplish artistically.

Plus, the scene seems to beg for interpretation. This is the climactic scene in the episode, and the breakthrough point of a murder investigation. Here’s what all the clues mean to the case. Here’s what the scene is doing narratively, which of course is the whole point of a murder mystery.

But the scene is stunning even to those of us who already know the solution to the mystery, and to those of us who’ve seen some of the works that inspired it. Not everything can or should be boiled down to a plot point or a visual reference. To suggest that there’s a “right answer” is, essentially, reducing artistic communication to telecommunications: the artist assembles a packet of “Important Meaning,” I process it and then acknowledge by blogging, “I get it!”

It’s not all or nothing, and it’s not a sudden insistence that everything be straightforward, non-challenging, and explainable. It’s a gradual process where our obsession with understanding art slowly takes dominance over our ability to just appreciate it. And in my case, at least, it was made worse by several years working to literally reduce stories down to a series of puzzles.

Screw the culture that turned “respect for the reader’s time” into “tl,dr.” Or “accessibility” into “complete lack of challenge.” Interpretation is fine, and even useful, but not if it’s presented as if it’s the single correct solution. And definitely not to the point where it reduces all media into Wikipedia summaries and, even worse, TV Tropes pages. It’s insidious, because it can feel productive, disguising itself as deeper engagement with and appreciation for media. But left unchallenged, it turns simply into the old problem of Cliffs Notes trying to substitute for the real thing.

2. Set a limit for compromises.

One of the best aspects of the Twin Peaks Rewatch podcast is that it’s a reminder of how popular Twin Peaks was. I’ve always mis-remembered the show as some obscure cult classic, when in fact “Who Killed Laura Palmer?” was as big a pop culture obsession in 1990 as “Who Shot J.R.?” was in 1980. [Ed Note: I’m 43 years old.]

To somebody who’s spent years insisting on a rigid division between “good” and “popular”, it’s a bizarre cognitive dissonance. Not just this shit actually aired on primetime network television in the early 90s?! but here’s a weird dwarf in a red suit dancing and talking backwards, and not only was it not immediately canceled, but it became a hit?!

For Twin Peaks, it goes back to that notion of accessibility and awareness of its own format. Murder mysteries are inherently compelling. So are soap operas, and in fact all serialized narratives. It would’ve been easy for successful filmmakers to dismiss a TV soap opera as slumming, just because the standouts up to that point were Dynasty, Dallas, and a bunch of other competent series that never strived for much more than “entertainment.”

Instead, Lynch and Frost made something that didn’t just use its format to make a commentary on its format and its audience, but used the format to make all their bizarre fever dreams accessible to their audience. It’s a brilliant way to take what most people would consider a limitation, and instead turn it into a strength. (Two of my favorite examples in video games: Grim Fandango‘s use of low-poly skeletons against pre-rendered backgrounds, which was a concession to the technical limitations of 3D at the time but has aged better than most contemporary fully 3D games. And the low-poly characters in Gravity Bone and 30 Flights of Loving are an essential part of its artistic design; having “higher fidelity” just wouldn’t be nearly as cool or memorable).

So bizarre stuff can be hugely popular. And accessibility and artistic vision aren’t mutually exclusive. Got it.

On top of that, I’ve got a deep-seated revulsion to auteur theory that’s so strong, I have a knee-jerk reaction to even innocuous interviews with “creative leads” as being repulsively fetishistic. I’ve experienced what it’s like to work on a project where egos are allowed to run unchecked, a couple of them where my ego was allowed to run unchecked. Plenty of “masterworks” are actually the work of dozens if not hundreds of people, and the people who most vocally defend the notion of the auteur are either the ones who are getting the credit, or aspiring to get all the credit.

Or the ones who are so far removed from the process that it’s a complete mystery to them. I have next to no understanding of how major film production works, so I’m often giving the Coen Brothers credit for Roger Deakins’s or Barry Sonnenfeld’s work (and sometimes, even Roderick Jaynes’s work). It’s pervasive, and it’s dismissive of the value of creative collaboration.

As a result of all of that, I’ve turned accessibility, collaboration, and compromise into a mantra.

And then I get a reminder: no wait, David Lynch and Mark Frost really are geniuses.

It’s not the work of any one person, it didn’t happen in a vacuum, it didn’t spring fully-formed from one person’s mind, and it didn’t even happen without precedent. But still, it had to take a singular artistic vision to convince so many people that this was going to turn out to be a good idea.

Of course, it’s not all or nothing. No doubt they had to make a ton of compromises and concessions, both technical and artistic. And it’s still entirely possible to be so confident in your own vision that you’re completely insufferable. But the first part of knowing where to draw the line is acknowledging that there’s so much leeway that a line even needs to be drawn. That there’s no one right way to do it. That there’s plenty of middle ground between egomania and complete self-censorship.

Even if we’ve never had to deal with it directly, I think most of us are familiar with the idea of horrible feedback. The clueless network executive, the crass and venal marketing team, the vocal critic, the insipid client: it’s so common that it’s become a stereotype.

But I’ve started to believe that the stereotype has backfired, and it’s far more dangerous to set the bar as low as the worst possible example. To believe that anything other than useless feedback is constructive feedback, or that anything less than completely abandoning your “vision” is acceptable compromise. It’s dangerous because it’s a slow decline, a gradual chipping away at integrity — with the constant reassurance that it’s not “that bad” — enough so that what you once would’ve considered unacceptable is now taken as a matter of course, and the demands get more and more absurd.

Eventually, you get to take a step back, and it’s almost as if you’ve become a different person. A long series of gradual, “harmless” compromises have resulted in something that can no longer be called even a collaboration, because there’s no trace left of you. Everything you valued in the first place — the entire reason you decided to do what you do — has been de-emphasized if not outright lost. You’re just left with the question “why am I doing this at all?”

(Purely a hypothetical, of course).

Seeing the Red Room in 2014 was a reminder of the version of me that saw the Red Room in 1990. And inspiration to start un-learning all the stuff I’ve taught myself since then. To get away from the person who’d say what does this mean? or how could you possibly broadcast this on TV today? and get back to the one who just said this is awesome I want to make a living making stuff like this.