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,

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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.

My Utterly Unsolicited Opinion On Dick Grayson as the Robin in ‘Batman v Superman’

Zack Snyder commented on a Vero post today. This is nothing unusual. He spends a lot of time on Vero, and he comments on a lot of posts. But this time, he was saying that the dead Robin in Batman v Superman – the one pretty much everyone assumed was Jason, even though I do remember some debate based on that one picture of a gravestone labelled Richard Grayson – was in fact Dick, not Jason. This prompted Twitter freaking out. I…think that’s an overreaction.

As I’ve pointed out countless times, I adore Dick Grayson. He’s my favourite comic book character of all time, and the very first comic I read was his miniseries from 1995. I love him as Robin, I love him as Nightwing, and I love him as Batman. So believe me when I say…what I’m going to say has absolutely nothing to do with me being a “Snyder fanboy”. I adore Zack Snyder. I think he’s an awesome storyteller. But my love for Dick Grayson goes back a long way. I’ve loved his character since the same year 300 came out. Like all my posts about him illustrate, I’m very protective of how he’s interpreted. So my defending Snyder’s creative choices – even ones that I’m unsure about – has nothing to do with being a blind follower and everything to do with how Snyder has given me reasons to trust him.

I saw several Tweets along the lines of “having Dick be the dead Robin would have been a terrible idea”. To those, I just have to laugh, because you know something? Snyder has demonstrated that he knows how to make something incredible out of “terrible ideas”.

I do not like Frank Miller. I think The Dark Knight Returns is a bad comic that really doesn’t have many redeeming qualities in it. My instinct would have been to say that adapting it would have been a terrible idea. But that’s what Snyder did when he made Batman v Superman, and that was awesome. I love that movie with all my heart. There is no comic book movie on that level of incredible. And that’s because Snyder thinks things through. He creates nuanced takes. He found the good in The Dark Knight Returns and turned it from something I consider kind of terrible to something beautiful. That he could do that is huge. As it is, it doesn’t really matter to whom the Robin suit in Batman v Superman belonged, just that a loss had a major impact on Bruce. But I absolutely believe Snyder could have made something unique and compelling out of making it explicitly Dick rather than Jason.

Another comment I saw – that a lot of people were upset about – was about how it makes so much sense that it was Dick and not Jason that made Bruce so reclusive and angry in Batman v Superman. People often take comments about Bruce’s love for Dick being special as attacks on the other members of the Batfamily, but that’s not it. Of course Bruce has the capacity to love multiple people. He has room in his heart for all of his children and all of Gotham. That doesn’t mean that he and Dick don’t have a unique and beautiful relationship. Dick is his first son. His first partner. Dick saved Bruce from a dark path. Bruce once kept a whole universe from getting destroyed because Dick was in it. Dick has been there through everything. As a character, he predates Alfred, Barbara, Jason, Selina. He’s Bruce’s most valued partner and the one thing he did right. He’s utterly crucial.

One of the reasons Jason was so upset that Bruce didn’t kill the Joker was because he thought he would have done it had it been Dick who died. And there is some basis for that – Bruce completely flipped out and tried to strangle Lex during Forever Evil when he thought Lex had killed Dick. In Infinite Crisis, he grabbed a gun and threatened to shoot alternate universe Lex because of the same reason. The only reason he didn’t in both those cases was because Dick wasn’t actually dead. It’s a pattern of behaviour in the comics, carried through different writers, that Bruce probably would kill someone for Dick. So canonically, there could be that basis for why Snyder wanted it to be Dick and not Jason. But I don’t think that’s the real point. It’s not about what Dick’s place in the birth order means for his relationship with Bruce, but about what it means for the entire concept of the Batfamily.

Without Dick, there wouldn’t have been any other Robins. Tim could come after Jason because Dick already set the precedent for a success, for illustrating why Batman needs a Robin. But there’s no way in hell that Jason would have come along after Dick if Dick died instead. And without Jason – without the rest of the Batfamily – there would be no one to hold Bruce back and keep him from a dark path. So of course Bruce would be alone ten years after losing his partner. Of course he would be hugely more cynical and unwilling to work with other people. Of course feeling threatened by Superman could tip him into being ready to kill. That’s why Robin matters.

As someone that loves Dick, loves how he’s the gold standard that all his successors feel like they need to live up to, loves that he’s the member of the Batfamily most naturally suited to the job they all chose, and loves that Bruce considers him his greatest success, it upsets me to think that in the movies, that’s not the case and that he’s the Robin Bruce failed to save instead. But it also makes a huge amount of sense in this universe, even down to the simple matter of explaining where all the other members of the family were during the movie.

Is Jason best known for being killed by the Joker? Yeah. But we’re talking about superhero comics and their adaptations. Characters die and come back all the time. Killing a different Robin isn’t the same as taking something that’s fundamentally part of Jason’s story and not anyone else’s. And beyond that, movies are an adaptation. Changes are inevitable. It’s more important to me that they remain true to the spirit of the material than any particular storyline. And Zack Snyder has demonstrated that he has a lot of respect for the comics.

I wouldn’t want Dick to be the dead Robin, even though it does make a lot of sense and I know Snyder could make something awesome out of it that would, in all likelihood, respect Dick as a character, just because I love the Batfamily, I love Dick’s relationships with all kinds of different heroes, and I love how he’s the heart of the DCU. If he made a movie further exploring this, I’d go see it, and I’d be excited because it would be him making it, but I wouldn’t feel the same level of excitement as I do about other superhero movies, just because I get most excited about the other members of the Batfamily when they’re interacting with each other, especially with Dick. I wouldn’t be nearly excited to see any of them without that dynamic and a lot of emphasis on the importance of the Robin legacy and Bruce and Dick’s relationship. I really don’t care about Carrie Kelley, who Snyder said it a later comment, he’d have brought in (He said that Dick would have stayed dead until Carrie. I didn’t quite know what that meant – was that just referring to there being no Robin until Carrie, or was he saying that Dick himself would have come back to life after Carrie was introduced?).

And honestly, none of this really matters. It was left open ended at the time, presumably for the director of the Batsolo to decide how they want to handle it. For all we know, Matt Reeves won’t handle it at all. But I think it’s crazy to have such rigid opinions on how a movie that we probably won’t see would have been based on a one word comment. There are a million ways that story could go. I’m not saying I’d be thrilled about this deviation from the comics, and it might not have been what I wanted, but Zack Snyder has demonstrated that he makes purposeful changes. He doesn’t just change what’s in the source material for no reason. He cares about these characters. I trust that he’d give us an interesting story.

The Impact of Adaptations on Perception of Characters

Adaptations are a funny thing. When it comes to superhero movies or TV shows, it’s almost inevitable that someone out there will absolutely hate it.

It’s easy to mock the “not muh Superman!” people that complain about a different interpretation of the character that holds true to the source material. But some of the time, I do understand where they’re coming from. Sure, with a lot of characters, one bad adaptation isn’t the end of the world, but adaptations have a major role on how people perceive comics and comic book characters. Especially live-action adaptations and first adaptations. Especially when the adaptation is of a character non-comics fans don’t know much about.

One of the reasons I’m so anxious about Titans is because as much as I adore Dick Grayson, as much as I know he’s popular among comic fans, I also am painfully aware of the fact that despite his longevity as a character, he’s simply not taken very seriously by the general audience. He’s not Batman, Superman, Spider-Man. All of those characters have gotten multiple adaptations within my lifespan, but Dick? While we’re supposedly getting a Nightwing movie, that’s like the Flash, Cyborg, and Batman ones – stuck in development hell to the point where I doubt it’s ever coming. If he doesn’t stand out as awesome in Titans, he’s not gonna get another chance to do so for a long time.

It’s a similar issue to bad interpretations in a long running series or a shared universe that includes a lot of characters and movies, rather than just a standalone solo movie, or even a trilogy. I mean, consider Harry Potter. In the movies, Hermione took on basically all Ron’s skills and personality. Despite the massive popularity of the series, I highly doubt there’ll be a reboot any time soon, so the only visual adaptation we’re going to have for a long time will be one that stripped one of the most important characters in the series of what made him interesting and managed to make a lot of people – an astounding number, really, considering that Harry Potter was the series that got pretty much the entire world to line up at midnight for a book release and learn about the book version of the characters’ real traits – forget just how important and skilled Ron was.

Take the X-Men movies. Those did a similar thing. Yes, they’ve had both highs and lows that I’ve commented on repeatedly. But what’s more important than deciding how good they are is they’ve had a huge impact on perception of the X-Men. The X-Men were introduced in 1963. The first movie came out in 2000. That means this interpretation of the characters has been around for more than 30% of the characters’ entire lifespan – at least. The characters introduced in 1963 were the original X-Men, from the days before Claremont, the days before characters like Storm, Wolverine, Shadowcat, Emma Frost. Saying that the X-Men movies ruined a character, while still dramatic, is much more understandable than saying the same of a character like Superman or Batman. I have to suppress a laugh at people saying Zack Snyder ruined Superman because that just sounds ridiculous, but complaining about the movie interpretation of the X-Men? That I completely get.

Superman and Batman have had multiple different interpretations in my lifespan, in the forms of both TV series and movies, both live action and animated. The X-Men? Not really. When it comes to live-action, it’s just been the one set of related movies where no one that wasn’t Wolverine, Xavier, Magneto, or Mystique got any real attention and we had to sit through Xavier giving Magneto the same “there’s still good in you” speech like six times. And since there’s never been a real reboot, none of the characters got to be rewritten in a more interesting or more comics accurate way. I try not to say things like X movie ruined Y character, because oftentimes, that’s not fair. There are a lot of unseen people that work hard in the industry on every movie and we should at least try to find something to appreciate before we start complaining about what we didn’t like. But that doesn’t mean I don’t understand bitterness towards the X-Men movies for how they treated most of the characters. Scott Summers is my favourite Marvel character, and I had to watch first the original trilogy strip away his background, personality, leadership skills, tactical instincts, and fighting ability, then the alternate timeline make him a totally different person. Believe me. I get it.

Adaptations have a huge impact on perception of characters and stories. Whether it’s how the Richard Donner Superman movies starring Christopher Reeve were so influential that people start talking about that as the source material rather than the comics, or how a first adaptation of a character can make or break their possibilities for a future adaptation, adaptations of superhero comics are arguably even more important than the comics themselves when it comes to keeping those characters alive in public memory. It’s disappointing. Comics are a wonderful medium with amazing stories and brilliant characters that should be acknowledged as such. And superheroes are a major part of cultural knowledge. But when it comes to the general audience, most of that knowledge comes from adaptations, or in a diluted fashion through cultural osmosis.

It’s neither good nor bad that the general audience doesn’t read comics and gets their knowledge of the characters from adaptations. Disappointing, sure, but not intrinsically bad. What is disappointing though is the lack of respect for comics in the writers and directors of a lot of these adaptations. I want the characters I love to get the best possible chance at making it into the public consciousness in an accurate sense. That won’t happen unless adaptations respect them and give nuanced takes. We’ll all still have different perspectives on whether or not those takes are good ones…but we’ll have to respect that there was thought and care put into them. In the long run, that’s what’s good for characters.