Saturday, June 8, 2019

◄ 19 Years of X-Men ►

The X-Men franchise should be dead.

That might sound like an insult, but I say it with a sense of awe and admiration. This is a franchise that began 19 years ago, in the year 2000. It predates the Marvel Cinematic Universe by 8 years. Hell, it even beats the Tobey Maguire “Spider-Man” by 2 years! Since 2002, we’ve had 3 live-action Spider-Man franchises, but there’s still only one X-Men franchise (albeit with two sets of main cast, playing the older and younger versions of the same characters). With its remarkable longevity, the X-Men franchise is our last tether back to a time before the modern age of mainstream superhero movies.

The first X-Men movie was released in the year 2000. I was only 14, so I can’t say much about the expectations that existed then, but I do remember how my dad reacted when he took me to see it: “That actually wasn’t bad.” (To be clear, it wasn’t his kind of movie. At least, that’s what he assumed beforehand.) My dad’s reaction was probably typical. While not a masterpiece, “X-Men” was one of those pleasantly surprising movies that are better than you would rightfully expect them to be. So much was working against the movie’s success: It was in a genre that wasn’t taken seriously, directed by someone with little experience (34-year-old Bryan Singer), and based on a comic book that had mainstream recognition, but not mainstream appeal.

Nevertheless, “X-Men” distinguished itself with competent execution and sophisticated themes about the marginalization of minorities and the clash of ideologies. (The casting of Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen didn’t hurt either.) The opening sequence, set in a Nazi concentration camp, grounded the fantastical story in a way that general audiences could connect with, making “X-Men” a critical and commercial success.

Despite that, I wasn’t really enthusiastic about the franchise until the second installment, “X2.” It came out in 2003, when “The Matrix” (not “X-Men”) was the franchise everyone was talking about. As such, I went into it with modest expectations… but I was completely blown away. The movie still has legendary status in my mind today because of the impression it made on my 17-year-old self. It organically continued the story of the previous movie, but with better special effects and a trove of cool ideas. (One appeal of the X-Men movies has always been how the mutant powers are conceived, executed, and used in various scenarios.) The end of the movie left my mouth watering for what would come next.

Unfortunately, Bryan Singer (who also directed “X2”) was unavailable for the third film, “The Last Stand,” so Brett Ratner (of “Rush Hour” fame) took the reins. The results were not good, ostensibly sealing X-Men’s fate as one of many trilogies with a disappointing finale. Then, in 2009, the franchise reached the spin-off stage with “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.” It was painfully bad, suggesting that the 9-year-old X-Men franchise was descending into an embarrassing afterlife of money-grabbing spin-offs.

As if on cue, a prequel came out in 2011: “X-Men: First Class.” There was little reason for anyone to expect it to be good… but it actually was. With James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender playing younger versions of the Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen roles, along with the fun-and-flashy direction of Matthew Vaughn, “First Class” was well received, giving the 11-year-old X-Men franchise a new lease on life. Even the second Wolverine spinoff, released in 2013, was a notable improvement on the first one.

By 2014, when the Marvel Cinematic Universe was only 5 years old, the 13-year-old X-Men franchise was having a second renaissance with its seventh film, “Days of Future Past.” This movie blew the minds of nerds everywhere (including me) by uniting the old cast with the new, as well as returning Bryan Singer to the director’s chair after 11 years. It told a daring story of time travel in which – spoiler alert – the timeline was changed so that the original trilogy never happened. (This twist was like a gift to everyone who hated the events of the much-despised third film, “The Last Stand.”)

The theme of fixing past mistakes continued in 2016, with “Deadpool.” While it wasn’t officially an X-Men movie, it was owned by the same studio, and it played with the idea of being in the same universe (but with its tongue far in-cheek). Moreover, it gave Ryan Reynolds a chance to finally do the character of Deadpool justice. He had played a barely-recognizable version of the character in the 2009 Wolverine movie, but everyone (including him) was unhappy with the results. That all changed with the 2016 “Deadpool” movie. It was a huge success, even after taking the risk of an R rating.

The same year, Bryan Singer returned to direct an X-Men movie for the fourth and final time with “X-Men: Apocalypse.” As much as I expected to like this installment, I wasn’t very fond of it. The whole movie felt like a good thing taken to excess. It was intense, but impersonal, with a grandiose villain and a parade of ambitious visual effects that felt too much like they came from a Roland Emmerich disaster movie. The wide reception was similar to my feelings, as it earned a 65% among audiences on Rotten Tomatoes (and frequent use of the adjective “bloated”). It wasn’t an awful movie, but it was “less good” than it should have been.

Over the last 3 years of the franchise, the best-received films have ironically been the spin-offs: “Deadpool” in 2016, “Logan” in 2017, and “Deadpool 2” in 2018. “Logan” was the third and final Wolverine spin-off, directed by James Mangold (who had also directed the previous Wolverine movie). Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart reprised their iconic roles for the last time, in a somber and violent story about Wolverine and Professor X in a dystopian future where everything they loved is lost. It had an R rating (which might have been impossible for an X-Men movie without “Deadpool” paving the way), and was well-received. To this day, I don’t know whether it’s meant to be the “real” future of these characters, or just a “what if?” kind of story. I’m happier believing the latter, but regardless, “Logan” was an admirably successful experiment for a 17-year-old franchise.

That finally brings us to “Dark Phoenix,” the first X-Men movie to feature none of the original cast (not even Wolverine!), and probably the last X-Men film from 20th Century Fox. To my knowledge, the end of the franchise hasn’t been officially announced… but now that Fox has been acquired by Disney, which also owns Marvel Studios, everyone expects the X-Men to finally get a hard reboot—not a soft reboot, like the prequel in 2011 or the timeline change in 2014, but a truly different universe.

“Dark Phoenix” enters the scene as the tenth X-Men movie (counting the Wolverine movies, but not counting the Deadpool movies). It is the fourth movie to feature the prequel cast, and the second attempt to adapt the Dark Phoenix storyline, which was originally teased at the end of “X2” (in 2003) and then botched by “The Last Stand” (in 2006). Sadly, the movie hasn’t been well received by critics… but I’m crazy about it. This is the movie that 17-year-old me thought he was going to get after “X2” in 2003.

Because I love “Dark Phoenix” (and the “Logan” and “Deadpool” films have been so good), I don’t view the X-Men as a franchise in decline. However, that seems to be the common attitude, so I’m prepared for this to be the end. And hey, if “Dark Phoenix” is the end of this X-Men franchise, I’m okay with that. It’s not meant to be an all-encompassing finale (a la “Endgame”), even though some people seem to be judging it as such. Rather, it’s the last mixed bag in a 19-year saga of mixed bags. It’s a relic from a time when we weren’t lucky enough to have the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and its tenure deserves a measure of respect.

I love this franchise, and in order to love it, you have to accept it for what it is: a flawed-but-remarkable phenomenon that has pleasantly surprised us more times than we had any right to expect.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Thoughts on a Female "Doctor Who"

In just a few minutes, my wife and I will be sitting down to watch the premiere of Doctor Who’s 11th modern series. This will be our first chance to see the 13th Doctor in action, not counting her brief introduction at the end of the Christmas Special. I’m taking this moment to record my thoughts on the concept of a female Doctor (before my thoughts on the concept are influenced by the reality).

I could have shared these thoughts a long time ago, when the news was first announced. However, I have a standing practice of ignoring BBC press releases, since the network doesn’t have many qualms about spoilers. (River Song would be ashamed.) Honestly, I wish we could just see the events of the show as they happen, and react to them organically, rather than hashing them out in response to press releases that appear months in advance.

But I digress. The question is whether choosing a female Doctor is a good idea… and the answer is that I have no idea.

When the news was first announced, reactions were (in typical Internet fashion) polarized.

Some people said that it doesn’t make a difference whether the Doctor is male or female, but I can’t agree with that. It does make a difference, both in how the audience reacts to the Doctor (because I don’t think humans can avoid reacting to men and women differently, despite our best efforts to treat everyone the same) and in how other characters react to the Doctor, especially in many of the patriarchal times and places that the Doctor visits frequently.

Other people said it was a mistake to change the Doctor, but I can’t agree with that either. Since the Doctor’s first regeneration in the 1960s, the character has been defined by change. In fact, the show’s longevity is based on its ability to change! (The Doctor changes, the companions change, the TARDIS changes…) Everything that usually defines a show – from the cast to the sets to the setting – has been erased and rewritten, again and again.

I understand why people are saying, “A female doctor won’t be the same!” but that’s not the point. This is Doctor Who! It’s a show that’s predicated on the question, “How much can we stretch and reinvent this premise without losing what makes the show special?” By asking that question for decades – through 12 leading men and countless companions – Doctor Who has already challenged our notions of what defines a show’s identity. Why can't it also challenge our notions of what defines the Doctor’s identity?

In short, I acknowledge that a female Doctor is a huge creative risk. And I’m thrilled to see them take it.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Thoughts on a Live-Action "Last Airbender"

I feel so ungrateful about this "Last Airbender" news. It could be something wonderful, but I can't help thinking of all the reasons that it doesn't seem like a good idea.

Some stories are ripe for adaptation, but others are born in their ideal form, and cannot be improved by a retelling. For "The Last Airbender," animation seems like that ideal format, which makes me fear that a live action series – no matter how good – will be a pale imitation.

By contrast, consider "The Lord of the Rings." The books are a masterpiece, and the movies are an entirely different kind of masterpiece. They complement each other—one story, but expressed through two different types of storytelling.

Can the story of "The Last Airbender" also be told in a different way? More importantly, should it be? I'm not sure. I don't want a live action series that feels like a retread of the animated series, but I also don't want a live action series that conflicts with the series I know and love.

I have to wonder...

If Netflix believes in "The Last Airbender" enough to pay for it, why not produce more of the animated series? The story has already been continued in graphic novels, which demonstrates how many stories are left to tell... and, unlike the main arc of the series, those stories haven't been told in their ideal format yet. They could actually benefit from being brought to the screen.

Of course, that's where my feeling of ungratefulness comes in. Rather than being glad for what I'm given, I'm whining for what I'd rather have instead. The truth is, I should trust that the creators of "The Last Airbender" know what they're doing. After all, they're the ones who got it right the first time. If anyone can get it right again, it's them.

I just don't know how they can do justice to everything that made their first show great, especially on a TV budget. Granted, shows like "Game of Thrones" have demonstrated that a fantasy epic is possible on television... but even "Game of Thrones" is judicious in its use of visual effects. It uses them when they really count, but not all the time. By contrast, "The Last Airbender" lives in a world filled with flying creatures, detailed choreography, and magical powers. How in the world will they accomplish that?

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Mission Impossible: The Improbable Franchise

Let’s take a moment to appreciate the Mission Impossible franchise, which spans 22 years and 6 movies. In that time, the longest gap between films was 6 years. Off the top of your head, try to name another franchise with that longevity and that consistency. (Even the shockingly durable X-Men franchise didn’t begin until the year 2000.)

A few noteworthy franchises have similar longevity, but huge production gaps between films. (For Star Wars, the longest gap was 16 years, between 1983 and 1999.) Others have changed protagonists along the way. (For Star Trek, movies were produced consistently for 23 years, between 1979 and 2002, but the characters changed in 1994.)

On the other hand, Tom Cruise has carried the Mission Impossible franchise since he was 34 years old. In the latest installment, he’s 56, and still running breakneck across rooftops and doing his own death-defying stunts. For one scene, he trained for a whole year to do a complex high-altitude skydiving sequence. The man may be eccentric, but he’s an action phenomenon.

Another shocking thing about the franchise is that it hasn’t gone downhill. On Rotten Tomatoes, the first 3 movies are scored between 57% and 70% while the latter 3 movies are scored at 93% or higher. I’m tempted to quibble over some of the scores (Mission Impossible 3, scored at 70%, is my favorite), but the point still stands: These films hold up.

At the beginning, the films were very inconsistent. Each one was helmed by a different director, and the tone, characters, visual style, and production design changed every time. The first film is Brian De Palma’s take on Mission Impossible; the second film is John Woo’s take; the third film is J.J. Abrams’ take. For the first 3 films, the only consistent elements were Tom Cruise and his trusty “guy in the chair,” Ving Rhames.

Then Mission Impossible 4 began to change things. Although helmed by a different director, Brad Bird (of “Incredibles” fame), it brought back some characters and elements from the third film. Mission Impossible 5, directed by Christopher McQuarrie, brought back even more. Then Mission Impossible 6 bucked the trend completely; it had the same director as Mission Impossible 5, and it served as a direct sequel to the events of the previous film.

The thing that makes this strange and satisfying is that the series felt like it was ending 12 years ago! In Mission Impossible 3, Ethan Hunt (the Tom Cruise character) is retired. His adventures in the fourth film are explained as a special situation, but the fifth film doesn’t even bother to explain why he’s still a secret agent. That makes it extremely satisfying when the latest film, “Fallout,” ties everything back together.

Mission Impossible is a franchise built on delivering more than you expected to get, both in quantity and quality. How many times has a successful film franchise grown out of remaking an old TV show? I don’t think it happens very often. Then again, I admit to some amount of bias here; I’ve loved Mission Impossible since I saw the first film as a kid. (I distinctly remember recording an episode of Entertainment Tonight just to catch the trailer for Mission Impossible 2.)

For me, each new film has been a pleasant surprise—never something I took for granted. In fact, the gap between Mission Impossible 2 and 3 was so long (6 years) that I remember thinking the franchise was over. When they announced the third film, I thought, “Great! They’re going to finish the trilogy after all.” Then I reacted with surprise when they announced the fourth, and I was incredulous when they announced the fifth... but I was always excited to buy my ticket.

By the time the sixth film was announced, I knew better than to be surprised. However, I am a little surprised that it’s probably the best one yet. If they choose to end the franchise here, I’ll be completely satisfied, but I won’t rule out the possibility of another film. For any other franchise, that might seem improbable... but definitely not “Impossible.”

Saturday, June 23, 2018


In the first Jurassic World movie, Henry Wu says, "Nothing in Jurassic World is natural. We have always filled gaps in the genome with the DNA of other animals, and if the genetic code was pure, many of them would look quite different. But you didn't ask for reality; you asked for more teeth."

It cleverly explained why many of the dinosaurs in the original Jurassic Park weren't scientifically accurate, but it also reinforced the movie's theme about escalating a spectacle for a jaded audience. As Claire says, "The park needs a new attraction every few years in order to reinvigorate the public's interest. Kind of like the space program."

The parallel is clear: The movie is set in a fake world where real dinosaurs aren't amazing anymore, because the current generation of kids don't remember a time when dinosaurs didn't exist. Similarly, the real kids going to see movies in 2015 don't remember a time when amazing on-screen dinosaurs weren't possible. To realize what a miracle that is, you must have lived long enough to see how the world changed when visual effects (which once, by necessity, left much to the imagination) finally made anything possible on-screen.

Jurassic World was such a good movie because it understood its DNA. While being over the top, it cleverly acknowledged how and why it was over the top. Most importantly, it was executed pretty well.

Ironically, Fallen Kingdom is a disappointment (at least for me) because it embodies the careless escalation of spectacle that its predecessor denounced. Henry Wu's criticism of the Indominus Rex could apply, word for word, to this sequel: "You didn't ask for reality; you asked for more teeth."

Image result for jurassic world fallen kingdom

To be clear, teeth aren't bad. People show up to these movies for teeth… but striking a balance is important. The characters need to make enough bad decisions to enable the disaster, but not so many bad decisions that you can't take them seriously. The spectacle needs to be exciting, but not so densely packed (more dinosaurs! more violence! volcano!) that it all runs together. The story needs to be outlandish to be fun, but should make enough sense to be compelling.

Unfortunately, Fallen Kingdom misses those marks. I couldn't buy into what was happening; I couldn't buy into why it was happening; and I couldn't buy into the people it was happening to. The movie does have some appealing characters and good ideas, as well as some good spectacle, but it’s hampered by too much over-the-top action, and too much sketchy characterization, to keep me invested. I don’t hate it, but I don’t like it much either. For someone who’s been a huge fan of Jurassic Park since childhood, that’s a disappointing surprise.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Response to Silverman-White Debate

A Christian friend recommended the following debate, between David Silverman (atheist) and Dr. James White (Christian, presuppositional apologist). The topic of the debate was, "Is the New Testament evil?" This was my response:

I listened to this because you recommended it, but I tend to avoid debates that revolve around evaluating scripture. Having listened to a lot of debates, I now believe that the only religious debate worth having (or at least, the first debate that must be had) is whether the testable claims of that religion deserve to be taken seriously. Until the underlying worldview is shown to be reasonable, arguing the details of that worldview is putting the cart before the horse. 

It’s like arguing whether Bigfoot is left-handed. Until we have a good reason to think Bigfoot exists, who cares which hand he writes with?

That’s why, if I had been in David Silverman’s shoes, I wouldn’t even have agreed to a debate about whether the New Testament is “evil.” Before it even started, I knew how that debate would go: The atheist would say, “Here’s some bad stuff in the Bible,” and the Christian would say, “You have no objective basis for morality, so how can you say what’s good or bad?” Of course, that’s exactly what happened. On those terms, there’s no way to settle the question. There’s no effective way to conduct the conversation, much less to win the debate.

I wonder why the Christians even wanted to have this debate. It makes me imagine a bunch of Star Wars fans who invite a layman to debate whether Darth Vader is evil. The layman wants to do his research, so he watches the movies, and he shows up with the most coherent argument that he can muster. He says, “Well, Darth Vader uses the Force to choke people who don’t deserve it, so Darth Vader is clearly evil.” But, instead of engaging with that point, the Star Wars fans reply, “How can you say that choking people is evil? You’re not a Star Wars fan. To you, this is a fictional story. If these are just fictional characters, how can choking them be evil?”

At that point, the layman would rightfully reply, “Okay, fine, but if that’s your attitude, why did you invite me to this debate? I thought you wanted to talk about Star Wars, but it seems like you only want to talk about how my opinion doesn’t count because I’m not a Star Wars fan.”

I told you once that presuppositionalism can’t actually win arguments; it just prevents itself from losing. It does that by trying to invalidate the whole conversation, claiming that its opponents have no basis for anything they say (or that they “borrow” their basis from the Christian worldview). Thus, the opponent can’t make any progress toward a coherent argument, because the presuppositionalist keeps derailing the discussion.

Unfortunately, David Silverman is not very good at avoiding those sneaky presuppositional traps. He did a decent job, but he kept taking the bait instead of chopping off the fishing pole. 

One of his biggest mistakes was claiming that humans can judge an “all-knowing, all-powerful being” (God). He was wrong to say that because, when atheists judge the morality of “God,” they are not judging an all-knowing, all-powerful being. Rather, they are judging the HUMAN IDEA of an all-knowing, all-powerful being (according to how that idea is portrayed as a character in the Christian Bible). It’s possible to make those judgments without believing a shred of the mythology attached, just as it’s possible to judge Darth Vader as a literary character without believing that Star Wars really happened. On that basis, we can identify “plot holes” in the Christian mythos that reveal its true nature as a human narrative. 

As Gene Roddenberry said, “We must question the story logic of an all-knowing, all-powerful God who creates faulty humans, and then blames them for his own mistakes.” 

Another point that David Silverman should have countered was the one about morality and natural selection. Contrary to the implications of Dr. White, subscribing to evolutionary theory is not equivalent to believing that every action favored by natural selection is morally good. White kept implying that things like rape should be good from a “naturalistic materialist worldview” because they lead to reproduction, and reproduction is the only thing natural selection cares about. That’s absurd.

We can recognize that natural selection got us to this point without liking everything about the process. In fact, as we struggle to build a better world, it’s important for us to recognize how the perverse incentives of natural selection have stacked the deck against us. We need to recognize that the human race did not evolve to be fair, or safe, or happy, and that those qualities can only be developed in the world if we consciously rise above our “programming.” That programming includes our innate predilection for superstitious thinking, and its dire consequence, religion.

You might argue, as Dr. White did, that I have no basis for wanting to build a world like that. You might argue that my “naturalistic materialist worldview” makes everything meaningless, because we’re all just molecules bumping around in the dark (physical matter with no soul). But, if nothing else, I’m a conscious animal who’s capable of experiencing pleasure and pain. Therefore, my pleasure and pain has meaning to me, and the satisfaction or suffering of other people has meaning to them. Beyond that, we can argue about the details – about what exactly is the meaning of life – but it’s ludicrous to suggest that life is meaningless for creatures who can think and feel.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

"Justice League" Review

The film's bookending theme is hope, so it's appropriate that it restored my hope for the DC Cinematic Universe. (Yes, I know it’s officially called the “Extended Universe.” I’m not calling it that.) It’s not quite a breath of fresh air, like Wonder Woman, but it’s an engaging and exciting movie with no major flaws to drag it down.

I can’t discuss my feelings about Justice League without recapping my feelings about the DC films I didn’t like.

I mostly liked Man of Steel, but I could never get excited about it because its flaws were flaws that really bothered me. (Visually, it suffered from muted colors and an abuse of slow motion during emotional scenes. Narratively, it was hampered by some logic flaws... and everything about Jonathan Kent.) I loved the opening sequence of Batman v Superman, and I think that Ben Affleck is the best on-screen Batman ever, but the film quickly descends into a jumbled and numbing slog. (I also can’t stand Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor. At all.) I thought that Suicide Squad was mostly a mess, slightly redeemed by a few good characters – including the first good portrayal of Amanda Waller, by Viola Davis – but just as harmed by bad ones. (I approached Jared Leto’s Joker with an open mind, but I couldn’t get onboard.) Finally, as I said above, Wonder Woman was a breath of fresh air, even if it had some flaws.

With Justice League, all of DC’s good casting decisions are in the spotlight, along with some new ones, and that really helps. The actors playing Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman were already great in their roles. Among the new faces, I thought I would like Jason Momoa as Aquaman, and sure enough, I did. (For the record, I’ve been a fan since before Game of Thrones, when Momoa joined the cast of Stargate Atlantis.) However, I wasn’t sure how to feel about Ezra Miller. He has a hard job to do in owning a character that already belongs – for this generation of fans – to Grant Gustin on the Flash TV show. This version of Barry Allen is young, impulsive, and insecure. Rather than Barry Allen, he feels more like Bart Allen (another speedster, one who’s actually known as “Impulse”). For me, though, the real standout was Ray Fisher as Cyborg. I already knew the character, but not very well, so this was a new introduction for me. Fisher brings gravity – and some elements of danger – to the role, but he also gets to show some emotional range. I’m really looking forward to seeing him as a fully-developed hero.

For most of the film, I was invested in the interactions between these characters, and that’s an important proof of concept for a DC universe that’s jumping into its big team-up movie without introducing all of the players first. This film shows that I can see these characters together and actually care about them and what they’re doing. The only weak areas are some bits of humor – mostly with the Flash, but even with Batman – that feel a little forced. I wonder if that was the influence of Joss Whedon (who took over the post-production of the film after the director, Zack Snyder, suffered a personal loss), or the influence of a movie studio listening to complaints that Batman v Superman wasn’t “fun like those Marvel movies.” Either way, it’s not always a good idea for the people making movies to listen to what audiences think they want. When people complained that Batman v Superman wasn’t “fun,” the remedy wasn’t to add more jokes; it was to build a better story with engaging characters. The good news is, they mostly hit that mark this time.

(Next on my DC wishlist: a climactic battle sequence that doesn’t remind me of a video game.)