‘Aquaman’ and a Fresh Take on the Classics

So today the second trailer for Aquaman was released, and all I could think was, holy shit.

What I find most interesting is that it’s not at all pushing the idea that it’s somehow “unique”. By that I mean that when it comes to a lot of movies’ marketing, there’s a lot about what’s special about it, what it’s doing that has never been done before. Aquaman  doesn’t seem to be doing that. Instead, it’s focusing on presenting the same classic tropes we’ve seen really well.

From what we’ve seen so far, it’s a textbook example of the hero’s journey. There’s a call to adventure and a refusal of the call. There was the unusual circumstances surrounding Arthur’s birth – which may have gone a little out of vogue, but is still very much a part of the classic hero’s journey. There’s Mera acting as a mentor. There are a series of trials that they go through together. We understand the arc of this type of movie going in. It’s not about plot twists and surprising the audience with what happens, it’s about using the tools and plot elements we’re well acquainted with to tell a compelling story. It looks like it’s going to do an amazing job at that.

A hero’s journey. A protagonist torn between two worlds and deciding for himself the kind of man he wants to be. Two separate love stories that I’m sure will be great. And all of that wrapped up with spectacular visuals and a probably brilliant score. I seriously cannot wait.

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The X-Men Movies And The Case They Make For Self Contained Stories

The X-Men film universe gives me a headache.

I know intellectually that I should take them in in the same way I do comic books – not worrying about the timeline, just relaxing into the story and not questioning it – but there’s something about having an adaptation, live action or otherwise, that makes that harder. Even though I know it doesn’t make sense, I find myself questioning timelines, questioning how the thing that happened in one movie ties into what happened in the previous one, trying to find in-universe explanations for retcons or inconsistencies. I get a little tired of the constant debate of how different things – even those that are explicitly not in the same universe, like The Gifted and Legion – fit into a timeline that at best can be interpreted loosely. And that doesn’t even get into how exhausting continuity lockout can be. A movie should be a complete story on its own. It should stand alone without needing to watch three other movies and read all the companion material. A multiple part story is one thing, but even then, that story should have a clear beginning, middle, and end, based on a pre-existing plan, not an endless number of instalments tacked on, because comic book movies are not comic books. Having more self contained stories, rather than pushing the idea of a “cinematic universe”, would solve all these problems.

Having a predetermined number of movies with a clear overall arc would lessen the debate of how things fit together, because there’d be a clear answer: they don’t. If it floats your boat, you could make a case for how they could, but when it comes to the actual story, the answer is they don’t. It would allow for viewers to just go in and watch the movie or the series without having to watch a bunch more movies to avoid confusion. It would allow for more creator freedom, because their work would depend on, at most, a couple other movies in a series, not a dozen of highly variable quality and comprehensibility. For the viewer, it makes it easier to just reject what you didn’t like. It seems to me like a much more enjoyable experience.

I’m sorry, but I didn’t enjoy Logan. From my perspective, it relied too heavily on existing fondness for the Hugh Jackman Wolverine and Patrick Stewart Xavier, because neither of them were very sympathetic in the film itself. It was more manipulative than well written. I didn’t like the concept, because it felt disrespectful to all the other X-Men and Old Man Logan doesn’t do it for me. And it wasn’t particularly well thought out, either, because when asked if it was in its own universe, everyone involved gave a different answer. But you know what? If it had been explicitly an separate story – with different actors, maybe, something to show that it’s a different universe – all that could have changed.

Part of the reason it bothered me so much was because of what it means for other X-Men movies. It wasn’t all of it, but it was certainly some of it, because it meant we were never going to see the original cast again. They’re never going to get the sendoff they deserve, that I was hoping for after we saw them again in Days of Future Past. So I’ve thought a lot about what it would be like if Logan were in a different universe and hadn’t slammed that door closed. In that case, it wouldn’t have turned a whole franchise into something even more annoyingly Wolverine-centric. It wouldn’t have turned the whole franchise into a giant Shoot the Shaggy Dog story where nothing the X-Men did in past movies or will do in future ones matters. It wouldn’t have presented Logan as the most important X-Man, despite the fact he’s arguably barely an X-Man and doesn’t fit at all with the metaphor for the oppressed that they’ve been since Chris Claremont defined them. Saying, hey, this is a movie about Wolverine and Professor X that has nothing to do with those other movies about them would mean it could be judged as a story, not as an entry into a franchise, on its own merits, rather than being Hugh Jackman’s swan song. In that case, we could have learned if it was actually good beyond the emotional manipulation. I might have actually liked it.

On a similar note, we have Days of Future Past. Now, I love this movie. I think it was one of the peaks of the franchise. But it also has a lot of glaring flaws. Some of these, I think, would have been fixed by making it and First Class a separate duology, or maybe even adding a third movie to put it into a trilogy that had nothing to do with any other movie. What’s one of the biggest complaints about that movie? That’s easy: Kitty Pryde being sidelined from being the lead character of the story to being Wolverine’s Uber driver. But every time that gets brought up, people jump to defending why it “had to be Wolverine”. There are two ways they use to argue this – Watsonian or Doylist. Intradiegetic or extradiegetic. In-universe or real world.

The in-universe answer is that Wolverine was the only one alive at the time they had to go back to that could handle the trip and for the way the story’s version of time travel worked, they couldn’t send someone else. For argument’s sake, let’s ignore the fact that the writers could change those time travel rules. Setting it in a separate timeline from the other movies could make that not true – boom, done, Kitty was alive in the time she needed to go back to, she could go.

The other argument for why it “had to be Wolverine” is the real world answer – people were attached to Wolverine, not Kitty, who only had about fifteen minutes of screen time in the series. So sending back Wolverine made for a more poignant story. You know what that indicates? Precisely my problem with Logan – a story that’s manipulative and relying on existing fondness for a character, rather than actually giving them an arc that we can be invested in. If DoFP was a “standalone” (though part of its own, shorter series), none of this justification for not sending Kitty would be valid, because Wolverine wouldn’t have any more history in the story. All history would have to be built in the movie itself. Every minute would have to count. And that’s how you can tell a good story from something that’s not – a good story can make the audience sympathize and root for and feel attached to the character on its own. It doesn’t need a whole preceding series.

It’s funny – the original X-Men trilogy was hugely important for the development of superhero movies. They demonstrated how great sequels to these movies could be. They very probably paved the way for shared universes as it pertains to superheroes, all of them existing together. Without them, there would be no MCU or DCEU. It doesn’t matter whether or not you love them, you have to acknowledge that they matter. But I think they also have reached a point, eighteen years in, where they make it clear that this really isn’t necessarily the best way to go. Logan  and Days of Future Past clearly demonstrate the value of standalones.

It reminds me of something that there was a lot of debate about which on Twitter recently – Zack Snyder’s comment that, in his five movie plan, he would have killed Batman. A lot of people were shocked and glad that didn’t come to pass. But I think that’s just another indication of what Snyder’s preferred method of storytelling is. And I think that method of storytelling would work amazingly for the X-Men.

Snyder believes in story arcs, not universes. He draws inspiration from various sources, blending them into one coherent story, where instalments connect to each other, but there’s also an end in sight. His movies have very little excess bulk, with every minute of footage serving a specific purpose. He makes bold choices, such as killing off iconic characters like Bruce Wayne, in a way that all Snyder fans know would be respectful and poignant. Some people were talking about how Dick Grayson could become Batman after Bruce’s death- an idea which I love, Dick as Batman is one of my very favourite things – but I don’t think that’s the point here. The point is that Snyder’s vision wasn’t more and more instalments with more and more characters that ended up all sharing the screen. It was thinking through all the details, planning ahead, and making a story that doesn’t go on forever. It’s not really a style loved by executives in this age of sequels and remakes. It’s very different from the MCU brand. But it’s fascinating to watch. It’s a beautiful style from someone that believes in self contained stories, the kind that would be perfect for the X-Men.

The X-Men movies have felt a bit like the result of a bunch of unplanned sequels being tacked on to a finished product, for no reason other than they make money. For someone that loves the X-Men and loves quite a bit of what’s in the X-Men movies, it’s kind of heartbreaking. I know they’re going to reboot. And presumably pretty soon. I just wish that when they do, it would be in a way that follows the tradition of self contained movies or trilogies, rather than the MCU brand of sticking everything together, because who cares about art when there’s money to be made.

It’s unlikely that we’re going to go back to the age of standalones any time soon. Not after the MCU has demonstrated how much money there is to be made like this. But I hope someday we do. The cinematic universe model has been a great experiment, and it was fun while it lasted, but I really would like to go back to self contained series now.

The ‘Dark Phoenix’ Trailer: A Pretty Good Summary Of All My Issues With the X-Men Movies

The Last Stand was kind of a mess. Decent action movie? Sure. But it also had a confused plot, several different things crammed into what should have been multiple movies, and it had no respect for the source material. A major part of Days of Future Past was undoing that. When Logan went back, he gave Xavier his memories so he could avoid the mistakes he made the first time around. And he did. In Apocalypse, Xavier told Jean to unleash her power instead of trying to bottle it up. To not be afraid of who she was and what she could do. To embrace it. And yet, here we find he was making the exact same damn mistakes he made in the original timeline – lying to Jean and manipulating her for the sake of “protecting her”.

I mean, sure, that’s probably the closest thing to comics Xavier movie Xavier has ever been. Pretty much all his comics self ever did was lie to people and manipulate him. But said comics self also just blocked off young Jean’s telepathy temporarily, so she could focus on mastering her telekinesis first without having everyone’s voices in her head. I’m all for straying from the comics. But it has to be done in a thoughtful way. This? It feels more like it’s there because it was there in The Last Stand than because it’s a good storytelling technique that fits with the Dark Phoenix Saga.

I’m all for straying from the comics. I even wrote a post about it. Movies are movies and comics are comics. What works in a comic may not work in a movie and vice versa. And it’s more interesting to watch a story where you don’t know how it’ll end, or every plot point that’ll get you to that ending. But straying from the comics has to be done in an thoughtful way, in a way that has a clear purpose, whether it be for character development reasons or plot reasons. This doesn’t look likely to be that.

I can buy Magneto’s presence in this movie. While I can’t know until I watch the actual movie, I can imagine a lot of ways in which he could benefit the movie. Even though I would much prefer to see Utopia than Genosha, because this should centre around Jean and Scott, it makes plenty of sense that Erik’s reaction to Charles – someone that’s supposed to be helping mutants – lying to Jean and trying to block off her powers would be to create a place for mutants where no one can get to them. But Mystique? A Mystique that is absolutely nothing like her comics counterpart, played by an actress that never even seems like she wants to be there? A Mystique who took on a role of ” leading and training the X-Men” that absolutely should not be hers? I’m not into this at all.

I’m over all these endless movies of Charles telling Erik there’s still good in him, or the two being on the same side for about five minutes, or neither of them acknowledging that there’s a middle ground between sitting there and doing absolutely nothing and killing everyone standing in their way. I’m especially over their conflict happening in a movie that’s supposed to be about Jean – again. It’s gotten really repetitive. My investment in said conflict will be for one petty reason and one alone: that comics Xavier is the worst and I’m happy to see movie Xavier finally being acknowledged as a deeply flawed, manipulative person – though, going back to my first point, it really doesn’t work as part of a series and does a great job demonstrating why studios producing comic book movies should be making more standalone films and elseworlds tales, rather than instalment after instalment in a never ending franchise (that’s one of my many drafts. It…might get done).

My biggest worry about Dark Phoenix was that it was going to go the “crazy Jean that lost control route”. And from the trailer, that seems like a safe bet. I find that so unbelievably exhausting – they’re going cosmic. They’re bringing in the Shi’ar and the Phoenix Force. But they can’t avoid the gross sexism – that didn’t exist in the original comic – of “crazy chick with more power than she can handle”? I get not bringing in the Hellfire Club, but cutting out everything about Emma Frost and Mastermind manipulating her? It’s tiresome.

As I’ve said before – at this point, more times than I can remember – I’ve never been big on this idea. I love the X-Men and I love the Dark Phoenix Saga and I love Jean Grey, but I wasn’t a fan of giving this arc another try, even back when I first heard the rumour that it was going to happen. As much as I love the original comic, I have hugely conflicted feelings when it comes to everything else that’s ever pertained to the Phoenix. Maybe that means I went into watching the trailer biased against it, expecting it to be bad, and I should be more open-minded, but believe me, I’ve tried. Sure, it could be a great movie – we can’t know one way or the other until we see more – but for me, it’s kind of painfully reminiscent of The Last Stand, what with the focus on Charles and Erik and big action scenes that look awesome.

It differs from The Last Stand in a lot of ways – focusing on the Jean and Dark Phoenix story, rather than having an entirely different storyline thrown in; a different kind of action because it’s not 2006 anymore; thankfully no Wolverine – but there are still enough similarities that it seems to me like Simon Kinberg is trying to say something like I was so right back in 2006 and you all were just too dumb to see it, here, let me rework it until you get it. I wrote a post about the repercussions of misremembering the Dark Phoenix Saga on all kinds of X-Men material, and this trailer drove one thing home for sure: the public perception of the Dark Phoenix Saga as a story about a crazy woman that can’t control her powers and destroys a bunch of stuff and is manipulated by the people she cares about rather is about to be cemented, probably forever,

The Long Term Impact of the Way We Misremember ‘The Dark Phoenix Saga’

Seeing as the first Dark Phoenix trailer is going to be released tonight, I thought this would be an appropriate time to talk about Jean Grey, The Dark Phoenix Saga, and how the two have been interpreted in all forms of media in the past nearly 40 years. I’ve done a few posts similar to this before – this one, where I discussed the regurgitation of storylines rather than trying anything new; this one, where I touched upon why adapting specific storylines isn’t necessarily great; and this one, when I pointed out why we remember the original Dark Phoenix story as much more sexist than it actually was. In that last post, I mentioned the fact that the original story was much less “Jean going crazy because she just wasn’t strong enough to handle all that power” and more “the Hellfire Club manipulated her and screwed with her head until she didn’t know what to believe anymore”. What most of us tend to remember though isn’t the latter, but the former. And that has consequences, even beyond adaptations acting as if that’s the only story Jean’s ever been involved in. Because it’s not just directors and screenwriters, it’s people involved in comics.

I Tweeted something a while ago. It was something about how comics Captain America gets pushed as some moral ideal and a representation of the best of America, but how the actual text depicts him more as a huge hypocrite and a fascist that’ll invade countries to arrest teenagers that haven’t committed crimes. Some stranger decided to drop in and comment, calling Scott a crazy person, calling me a Cyclops apologist, and all sorts of other nonsense (I ended up blocking him for being a pain). Now that I think about it, I realize that does a lot to demonstrate how both audiences and writers misremember stories because of their own preconceived notions and those stories’ places in our collective pop culture memory.

It would be hard to overstate the impact of the film franchise on the general audience’s understanding of the X-Men. The first movie came out in 2000. And because of it, people perceive the characters in ways I can’t fully comprehend. Like I’ve said countless times now, I’m grateful for the movies and their role in keeping the X-Men alive. Just as Smallville kept the idea of Superman in the public memory, the X-Men movies have done the same for mutants. But it’s also the movies that have propagated ideas about comics that are completely inaccurate. How many people out there think, because of the movies, that Stryker is a Wolverine villain and not a religious fanatic villain for mutantkind in general? How many people think, because of the movies, that Xavier is an unambiguous Big Good? And how many people think, because of the movies, that Jean losing control over her powers was just because of her and not outside interference? Because of the movies, it becomes way easier for the people that should know better to forget what actually happened in the source material – everyone already thinks one thing, so why bother remembering what actually happened, right?

So many stories have been unbelievably nonsensical because of this misremembering of the Dark Phoenix saga. It’s inconsistent no matter what we accept as true. It’s especially ridiculous if you try to make sense out of it. Maybe that’s part of the reason why people like me see Avengers vs X-Men as clearly putting the Avengers in the wrong, while writers and other parts of the audience think that the work is demonstrating Cyclops as some reckless, crazy person: people like me remember that if we accept the only version of the story that’s ever made any sense as true, Cyclops saying that the Phoenix is a force for rebirth isn’t just the ravings of a man desperate to save his species. It’s him actually thinking about the facts.

I don’t care how many times Marvel tries to retcon the original Dark Phoenix story in stupid ways. It never made sense that it was the Phoenix itself impersonating Jean, and Marvel has never let Jean move on and have stories totally unrelated the Phoenix, so I have always refused to accept the claim that Jean’s most famous story isn’t about her, because if she’s never going to live down the Phoenix arc, it damn well better be about her. And honestly, that’s probably a good thing. Because if I took Marvel at their word, I’d have to question why the fuck they’re being both a) so misogynistic as to suggest that it makes more sense to have a woman be impersonated by an all powerful force that nonetheless behaved exactly like her, couldn’t control itself, and sacrificed itself for that lack of control than to actually let her be the most powerful X-Men character on her own,  and b) so unbelievably tone deaf that people from a group representing a persecuted minority are supposed to face consequences for things they did while possessed, including claiming one of them is a monster for killing a man in self defence when he was being attacked while working to improve the world.

Marvel doesn’t know what they want to do with the X-Men or the Phoenix. At all. Avengers vs X-Men proves that beyond a doubt. A friend and I were discussing how much we hate stories like it a while back. As she put it – and I swear, she said it, not me, I have screenshots if you want proof – Batman v Superman is a good example of pitting characters against each other for a story, Avengers vs X-Men and Inhumans vs X-Men are not. Not if you still want either the Avengers or Inhumans to be perceived as heroes, which the writers clearly did. It wasn’t a good story, and it demonstrated a reliance on the Phoenix to create drama, rather than leaving it well enough alone.

This refusal to let the Dark Phoenix Saga stand alone – without bringing back the Phoenix, without having different characters be hosts to it, without retconning it repeatedly – isn’t good storytelling. It was a great story! But it should have gone the way of God Loves, Man Kills – remembered as awesome, but for the most part, left alone, without being rehashed over and over again. The fact that it hasn’t has helped contribute to the mess of X-Men comics and movies both. I’m over it.

The Importance of the Minutiae

I wrote this piece about why it kind of irritates me how quick we all are to refer to movies or TV shows as groundbreaking, and it made me think of something else: who says something needs to be revolutionary to be important? Hell, things don’t even have to be good to be important.

In that post, I brought up Harold and Kumar. And as I said, I don’t think that can be called revolutionary at all. But if you look at Kal Penn, one of the lead actors, you can see the clear progression of his career throughout the history of Hollywood movies with Indian leads. I remember reading an interview that he did once. It was part of the lead up to the release of The Namesake. And in it, he said that he was so happy to be working with Mira Nair because it was partially a movie she made in the 90s – Mississippi Masala – that inspired him to become an actor. The reason she chose him to play the role was that her son had seen Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle and asked her to give him a shot because he was great. You would think that his image from that movie would have damaged his chances of getting the role, and in fact, it did. It made Nair think he was the wrong choice for the role. But he was only in a position where she was aware of him enough to both think he wasn’t a good fit and to have her mind be changed because of that ridiculous movie.

A movie directed by a brown woman with a brown lead inspired Penn to start acting, and a silly comedy where he played the lead launched his career and paved the way for his roles in The Namesake, Superman Returns, How I Met Your Mother, Designated Survivor, and more. From that perspective, Harold and Kumar may not have been revolutionary, but it was certainly important. But that wasn’t something immediately obvious. When it came out, it was just a dumb stoner flick with gross comedy that didn’t do well at the box office. It still helped the careers of its leads. It still mattered.

Sure, sometimes it’s clear when a work is important. Mississippi Masala was pretty clearly crossing boundaries and addressing topics few other movies did. It was a romance…but it was one that tackled the challenges of interracial relationships and intercommunity racism. It wasn’t clear what – if any – impact it would have in the long run, but it certainly was something new. Maybe you could call Harold and Kumar important at the time. I’m not sure anyone would, but you could say it. And it did have an impact. But the real impact isn’t something that could be seen until a few years later. It’s kind of like Star Trek.

Star Trek was a campy sci fi political drama that, in hindsight, looks hilariously terrible, despite the political allegories and moral questions. It was a trailblazer for representation even as declining ratings put it at risk of cancellation multiple times. But Nichelle Nichols as Uhura inspired Whoopi Goldberg to become an actress. She inspired Mae Jemison to study science. And Goldberg and Jemison proceeded to inspire countless people themselves. It goes to show that it takes years for the full impact of something to be seen. We need to give things more time before we decide what their place in history is. There are ripple effects for everything. Something may matter for one person, but that one person may matter for countless more. Something minor – the most trivial seeming of roles – can turn out to be more important than we could imagine. So maybe we should just take things as they are without rushing to declare it either the best thing or the worst thing in the world. Because if something is important, we’ll find out eventually. Why insist we can tell immediately?

The Strange Sense Of Elitism In Film Criticism

There was a debate all over my Twitter timeline a while ago about something Ethan Hawke said about how superhero movies get overpraised and that Logan is a fine superhero movie, but not a great movie. And regardless of my feelings towards Logan  specifically, I think this betrays the typical genre elitism that does more harm than good by preventing excellent works from being recognized as excellent and thus keeping standards from getting higher.

There are countless counterexamples to Hawke’s point. So instead of listing all of them, let’s focus on three main points: the literary merit of commercial entertainment, the dismissal of the superhero genre, and the pretentiousness behind the idea that literary fiction is its own category.

Meaningful Stories In Popular Media

If you pick out any member of the Animorphs fandom and ask them about the series, I doubt you’d find a single one that would argue that it isn’t kind of trashy sci fi aimed at children. Because it is. They were cheap paperbacks pushed out at a breakneck pace to sell toys to kids with a lot of lighthearted, funny scenes largely centred around fish-out-of-water comedy. No one will deny that. But that absolutely does not preclude them from having literary merit.

It’s a story about child soldiers and trauma and galaxy wide imperialism. Sure, there are moments where the lead characters argue over Teletubbies and an alien eats chocolate off the floor, but that doesn’t negate the themes of genocide, slavery, and depression. They coexist. They work together to build multifaceted characters. Anyone is free to not like it, or think it’s not well written, but if your argument for why it doesn’t have merit or why those themes aren’t meaningful is it’s about kids turning into animals, you’re not making a good case.

“It’s written in a simplistic style targeted at children and lacks the sophistication necessary to appeal to me” is a fair enough statement. I can’t say I’ve ever felt the same way about a novel – sure, I like things that sound good, pieces of literature that can flow over me where how it makes me feel is somewhat more important than what specifically is happening, but I’ve always felt that that is best suited for poetry and short stories than for a full length novel – but I can understand why someone would feel that way. I don’t agree, but it’s an infinitely better case than “it’s not a great book, it’s a fine adventure story, it’s still about kids turning into animals”.

I don’t have much use for media that doesn’t tell me a compelling story. Characters, plot, themes, and style all work together to create a story. No amount of interesting style or themes or both of them put together is enough to make up for boring characters or a nonexistent plot. Animorphs? It does a great job handling all of them together. The books take themselves just seriously enough. They’re a perfect example of how meaningful and pretentiousness don’t have to go hand in hand, how there doesn’t have to be a trade off between developed characters and a developed plot, how themes in children’s literature can be handled more subtly than by dropping an anvil over the reader’s head, how a blunt style isn’t inherently worse than anything else. Most of all, they demonstrate how it doesn’t even matter what the plot is – any plot can be the plot of a meaningful story.

Dismissal of Superheroes

I genuinely don’t understand this need to be all it’s not a superhero story, it’s a whatever story with superheroes! “Superhero” isn’t a genre, it’s an archetype. A wide range of stories can fall into the superhero category. It comes across as people trying to separate something they enjoy from other things with similar elements, not for the sake of describing what it is, but for the sake of making it sound more “high brow”. This extends far beyond superhero stories. Like, what does the phrase “genre fiction” even mean? Nothing. It means nothing.

It becomes a vicious cycle. People expect superhero movies to be straightforward, so people go watch them when they want some shallow entertainment. That results in those that try something new not doing as well, which in turn results in less creative movies, which solidifies people’s belief that superhero movies should be straightforward entertainment. Then you have Batman v Superman, which is a whole different thing altogether.

Never once does it shy away from being a superhero story, because there’s no denying that’s what it is. It’s based on a comic book. It’s about the most iconic superheroes of all time. But that doesn’t preclude it from being a layered story, filled with allusions and themes. It’s the most high budget arthouse movie ever made. All the political themes are interwoven into the story. It’s more than just pseudo-deep quotes, all the themes are rooted throughout the movie. That the characters are public figures and heroes mattersIt’s thoughtful and unique. But critics expected they didn’t have to pay much attention because it’s a superhero movie and didn’t get nearly as much out of it as people thought about what they were watching.

If our expectations for superhero movies included that they must mean something, and critics actually thought critically, the reaction to Batman v Superman would have been hugely different. If you took the same movie and didn’t tell them it was directed by Zack Snyder – because critics clearly have something against him – it would have just as much action and bombast, but critics would be more receptive to the themes and quiet drama of the whole movie. They’d call it – rightfully – a work of art and a political statement. They might even go so far as to make the mistake in saying it’s not a superhero movie, it’s a drama about our relationship with power. It is that. But it matters that it’s told using superheroes. Pretty much the only reason that critics didn’t analyze it through that lens is because it’s a superhero movie. This goes back to the “superhero movie” as compared to “movie with superheroes” issue. If you extend that further, you get the frequent argument that something is not part of a given genre, it just has elements of that genre. That takes us to the “literary fiction” debate.

Genre Fiction vs. Literary Fiction

Perhaps the reason a certain demographic claims “genre fiction” is a lesser art form than so-called “literary fiction” is that they’re constantly redefining the best works in any genre as something other than what it is – especially in retrospect. Consider – The Book Thief has beautiful characterization and striking prose. It’s a piece of historical fiction set in Nazi Germany, and it’s widely considered to be an excellent book. It’s also narrated by Death – that makes it a fantasy. But I’ve seen multiple critics ignore that fantasy aspect and focus solely on the historical setting. Similarly, I saw an article once about literary fiction that claimed All the Pretty Horses is not a Western and 1984 is not sci fi. I think most of us can agree those claims are absurd. Style doesn’t change the genre. Being well written or memorable or having literary merit for whatever reason doesn’t stop something from fitting the conventions of a given genre.

It especially irks me when it comes to the topic of science fiction, because some of the core tenants of sci fi have always been questioning the world and society. It’s a weird kind of self-importance to suggest that only literary fiction addresses those themes, and even weirder to pitch your work as literature, as if that’s something you or critics get to decide and not time. There are lots of movies and novels that have literary merit. But that doesn’t change the fact that they belong to different genres. It reminds me a bit of the way some Game of Thrones fans try to talk about how much it transcends a genreThere’s a line about it in Parks and Recreation that’s something along the lines of “they’re telling human stories in a fantasy world”. Is there something about fantasy which means fantasy writers don’t tell human stories? No, because that’s stupid. Everyone tells human stories. Saying that it’s not a fantasy story, it’s something else in a fantasy setting doesn’t actually mean anything.


Hawke had a very valid point in that when it comes to superhero movies, most aren’t very good, and they’re praised for being mindless entertainment. But the reason for that has nothing to do with what they are. It has nothing to do with “people wearing tights” or “having metal coming out of their hands”. I’ve been vocal about my issues with Logan as a movie, but something I will never say is that one of the problems with it is the fact it involves people with metal claws. You can make anything sound silly if you talk about it like that – Slaughterhouse-Five is about a man who gets put on display in an alien zoo.

With live action superhero movies, we’re talking about a fairly small sample size. Sure, that’s expanded a huge amount in the past fifteen years, but we’re not talking about anything so broad as “fantasy” or “science fiction”. So we can say things like most superhero movies are lazy without generalizing, because a lot of people have seen a significant percentage of the movies that fall into that category. If that’s what Hawke meant, that’s what he should have said. But what he did say was dismissive of entire genre based on what the genre is, rather than what it’s produced. We have to judge people’s statements for what they are, not bend over backwards trying to find a way to justify them as correct because we agree with something kind of relevant to what they’re talking about.

Logan isn’t a great movie and most superhero movies are overpraised and carefully calculated to sell rather than actually make a point. Yeah. True. But that has absolutely nothing to do with the science fiction and fantasy elements of those stories.

The Problem With Our Urge To Declare Any Representation Groundbreaking

“This movie is the first [insert overly narrow category] film. This is so important! Everyone go watch it!” People say things like that all the time. Not just about movies, even – about TV shows, about characters, about directors. We see it with which superheroes are brought to screen, we see it with who’s cast in what big budget movie, we see it with who’s directing an upcoming blockbuster. Right now, we’re seeing it with most of the discussion around  Crazy Rich Asians. And I get it. I do. But I also think it’s getting a little much.

I’m not talking just about the idea that it’s silly to go watch a movie you don’t like the look of just for the sake of representation with no other reason. I’m talking about the concept of hailing a movie as revolutionary just based on the diversity of the cast. Because here’s the thing: If we’re gonna act like Crazy Rich Asians is some kind of pioneer for depicting rich Singaporeans, by the same logic, you can argue that the Harold and Kumar movies are some of the most important and groundbreaking movies in years. Does that sound right to you?

Now, I’m probably not even close to the best person to talk about said movies. I literally could not watch the second movie because the first one was just over the top crass, and I do not do well with toilet humour. But these movies are buddy comedies with Asian leads. They challenge the idea that “Asian” means East Asian and nothing else. They counter the model minority myth, while also not going with the idea that their Asian lead characters are poor, uneducated taxi drivers or convenience store owners. They helped both John Cho and Kal Penn, who were both largely unknown at the time, become much more widely recognizable, to the point where both actors credited them with helping them land other roles. They made actual points about something. From that perspective, they’re far more groundbreaking than movies like Crazy Rich Asians, which is a kind of creepy wealth fantasy.

I don’t think the Harold and Kumar movies are actually groundbreaking. To suggest they are seems ridiculous to me. While all of what I said above about them is true, none of that changes the fact that they weren’t good movies; they didn’t make much at the box office; and while they helped Cho and Penn’s careers, they didn’t clearly lead to more movies centring around Asian characters. My point is that you can make the case that practically anything is groundbreaking.

Crazy Rich Asians matters in that it’s a fun, lighthearted rom-com with a predominantly Asian cast. That’s not a movie we see often, and it’s great. But I get uncomfortable with how much is being read into it. On Twitter, I’ve seen a lot of people say a movie can’t be everything when people point out the lack of representation of Singapore’s ethnic minorities, and, yeah, that’s kind of the point. It’s just a story about a group of people that don’t often get stories made about them. We’re celebrating movies that are perfectly fine and that do something valuable in bringing more Asians and Asian Americans to screen, but do we really think that that in itself is something revolutionary? A step forward, sure. But hardly something that’ll ~change Hollywood forever. It’s a romantic comedy about rich people starring several known entities – Constance Wu, well acknowledged as the absolutely hilarious breakout star of Fresh Off The Boat; Michelle Yeoh, with her career going back decades and including roles in works ranging from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to Star Trek: Discovery; Ken Jeong, long recognized for his comedic roles; and more. It’s not tackling and difficult issues. It’s just a safe topic featuring Asians instead of white people.

I’m all for light movies starring people of colour that don’t involve drama or political statements, because existing isn’t one of those. There’s no reason why Crazy Rich Asians has to be anything other than what it is, which is a feel good romance. But taking a stand and drawing attention to serious world issues is what makes something revolutionary. How groundbreaking can something be when it’s a safe story that, while starring minorities, is about people that aren’t marginalized in the context of the setting and has no bold stances? It’s an escapist story set in Singapore that’s targeted at Americans. It tries to apply the Western perspective of racism to an entirely different cultural context through a combination of erasing ethnic minorities, ignoring the enormous wealth disparity, and glossing over the awful treatment of migrant workers by pretending it doesn’t exist. There’s not really anything fundamentally wrong with the movie. But I’m not going to call it groundbreaking.

Stories have enormous power. Philadelphia opened people’s eyes to the reality of AIDS. It’s almost certain that Blackfish was part of the reason SeaWorld agreed to stop breeding orcas and end their theatrical shows. Victim‘s sympathetic depiction of a gay man in the early 1960s helped change attitudes and maybe even pave the way towards the decriminalization of homosexuality. Those are what I call revolutionary. They made a profound and obvious impact. Crazy Rich Asians does what it does, and that’s fine, but I think it’s silly to act like that’s a bold and courageous action.

I love Constance Wu, so, yeah, I’m going to go watch this movie. She’s made so many episodes of Fresh Off The Boat worth it, which puts her in the small, distinguished category of actors that can draw me to the theatre. And I’m sure I’ll enjoy it. It looks like a movie that I’ll have a good time watching. But revolutionary? Nah. That’s a word I’m going to hold in reserve for works that earn it.