On Agency: Strong Female Characters, the Myth of Non-Action, and Jupiter Ascending

By now you'll have heard the "Jupiter Jones doesn't have agency" criticism of Jupiter Ascending (dirs. the Wachowskis; 2015).[1]  The gist of the argument, as far as I can tell, is that Jupiter doesn't have agency (or enough agency) because she does not become a "strong female character" until the last possible second.  Andrew O'Hehir, for example, wrote in his Salon.com review that
Jupiter has less female agency than any character ever played by Doris Day. Compared to this movie, the Disneyfied feminism of “Frozen” and “Brave” and “Maleficent” feels like Valerie Solanas’ "SCUM Manifesto."
Peter Debruge wrote in Variety that
[although] clearly conceived as an empowered female heroine, poor Jupiter spends most of the movie being kidnapped and shuffled from one unpleasant situation to another, whether that’s being nearly assassinated during an egg-donating operation or pushed into a marriage with a two-faced Abraxas prince.
Sam Maggs wrote in The Mary Sue:
When I hear “Mila Kunis black leather space princess,” I want to see her bulked the hell up, Emily Blunt style, kicking ass and taking names. We don’t get to see Kunis looking really cool until the very end of the film, at which point I wanted way more of that. Which, I guess, means I would pay for a sequel.
The most damning claim about Jupiter's agency, however, comes from Tim Martain's review for The Mercury:
There’s a little test I like to apply, where you try to describe a character without reference to their physical appearance or occupation. If you can come up with three clear character traits, then you may have a well-crafted character. If not, well, you have a cardboard cutout. 
Jupiter is a big ol’ flat piece of nothing. 
She is a name and a device, nothing more. Her character is not developed in any way beyond “special girl who everyone is fighting over”. She is Cinderella with even less motivation or personality.
In other words, Jupiter isn't even a person.  She's a thing.  Because she is passive.  Because she doesn't fight (until the very end).  Because she is manipulated by others.  Because she is a toilet cleaner.  Because she is everything other than a "strong female character."  One must ask:  why does Jupiter need to take names?  Why can't she just be a space princess?  Why can't she simply get sucked into a world where space princesses are real and people like her (like us) have to learn to navigate the absurd bureaucracy of space royalty?  Why can't she be a confused, naive person like, well, a real person might be?  Why isn't that enough for her to have agency or for her to escape the charge that her agency is nearly absent?  Why can't this also be a story about someone discovering or developing a different kind of agency?  Isn't that enough?

Frankly, I'm not sure these individuals understand what "agency" means.  At its most basic, "agency" refers to one's ability to take action to affect their own lives; as such, agency exists on a continuum that is affected by social status, culture, upbringing, economics, and so on and so forth.  The degree to which we all have agency, in other words, depends on how well equipped we are to affect our daily lives.  Agency can be individual, collective, immersed within or isolated from a specific dominant culture, and so on.  In other words:  agency is pretty damn complicated, as is clear when you start to look into the sociological, psychological, and feminist struggles to adequately define the concept in a way that incorporates the full range of social interactions.  For women, agency has been a key component of the feminist fight for equality.  Since the world has historically (and still is to a large degree) favored men in nearly every avenue, women's access to "choice" in its broadest conception has always been curtailed.  Worldbank notes that "across all countries women and men differ in their ability to make effective choices in a range of spheres, with women typically at a disadvantage" in the avenues of control over resources, free movement, decisions about family formation, freedom from violence, and freedom to have a voice in society and politics.

Oppression does not necessarily mean that one loses all agency, though.  Indeed, how one exerts influence can take myriad forms, including subversive actions within an oppressive situation.  Women in violent, patriarchal societies do not lose agency simply by being oppressed; their abilities to affect their own lives, however, do change, limiting the degree of agency they might have, or, in some cases, simply changing how agency is perceived.  Lest you think only overt oppression can steal one's agency, remember that we are all to varying degrees limited by social, economic, and other factors.  Some of us, such as myself, just have more advantages -- in my case because I am white, male, American, and educated.[2]

But in a world where pop criticism often stands in for professional criticism, the buzzword definitions are replicated ad naseum.  Women who punch bad guys or take direct action against oppression or in some way "act" in a manner that makes them visibly opposed to a system or individual or in a position to "make things happen" are women who have "agency."  Every other woman?  Well, she might have "agency," but not enough that her agency is worth talking about, except to note that she doesn't have any (or very little).  If she subverts the system, her agency is only valued if her subversion is aggressive.  Passive subversion won't make her "strong."  If anything, "passive" is just another word for "worthless" or "oppressed."

These limitations on "agency" are so pervasive that they affect how we even talk about female characters, particularly when the term "strong female character" crops up.  Sophia McDougall's essay in the New Statesman ("I Hate Strong Female Characters") points out that the phenomenon of the "strong female character" seems particular to women:
No one ever asks if a male character is “strong”. Nor if he’s “feisty,” or “kick-ass” come to that. 
The obvious thing to say here is that this is because he’s assumed to be “strong” by default. Part of the patronising promise of the Strong Female Character is that she’s anomalous. “Don’t worry!” that puff piece or interview is saying when it boasts the hero’s love interest is an SFC. “Of course, normal women are weak and boring and can’t do anything worthwhile. But this one is different. She is strong! See, she roundhouses people in the face.” 
Women, in other words, are the only ones who can be erased by a stereotype of strength.  Whereas men can be kung-fu masters, brilliant scientists, sensitive piano players, or chess players without losing their status as "strong characters," women who do not fit the mold assigned to "strong female characters" are rejected -- if not outright, then by implication.  Since "strong female character" is often synonymous with "woman with agency," it's no wonder that female characters who do not fall into that rigid definition of either term are also erased as women who do things.

This is part of the problem with the way critics (and even some proponents) have discussed Jupiter Ascending.  Because Jupiter does not "take action" (i.e., punch someone) until the end of the movie, she is a passive character, one with little to no agency because of her position as a member of the servant class and then as someone who has all the power in the universe but appears to do almost nothing with it for much of the movie.  She just doesn't move the plot.  Alternatively, as some fans have argued, Jupiter has agency only because she stops being a servant and eventually becomes a princess.  Power, in other words, is agency.
All of this is absolutely wrong.  Jupiter always had agency.  Jupiter's mother always had agency.  Being a servant does not mean you sacrifice your agency.  Becoming a princess doesn't mean an agency fairy drops out of the sky and anoints you with agency oils, as the film inconsistently demonstrates.  Agency is a complicated monstrosity because it is a reflection of an individual's interactions with a given culture.  How Jupiter interacts with her culture(s) is certainly passive for most of the movie, but that does not make her absent of agency.  In fact, quite the opposite.  From the moment Jupiter discovers she is a space princess, she must rely on the knowledge of others to help her through the process.  If, as one definition would hold, we define agency by the ability for one to take actions which are in their own interests, then it is certainly true that Jupiter's reliance, while passive, is a choice that is made for herself.  Because she does choose.  Her actions may not involve flying mecha spacejets or running away on hovering rollerblades, but they are actions -- and like normal people, her actions sometimes come with negative consequences.  Even her reluctance about the degree to which she wants to participate in the interstellar culture of the film indicates a character who has agency, since she not only struggles with this decision but also has the ability to make that decision.  And the film's progression, however inconsistent, is entirely about the process of shifting degrees of agency:  Jupiter begins the film with limited but apparent agency and ends the film with as much agency as the villains.  That she chooses to make limited use of her new-found power should be the real discussion point here, not the question of Jupiter's agency.
The erasure of the complexity of agency isn't isolated to Jupiter Ascending; it is just such a strong component of the criticism of the film that it's hard to ignore.  This erasure, however, occurs in other sf/f franchises, too.  In the case of The Hunger Games (the first two films/books, at least), the focus on Katniss as a "strong female character" often means that we forget Prim or her mother, who are not-quite-passive in the film, but certainly more passive than Katniss.  Unlike Katniss, however, Prim and their mother are healers, and, as far as we can tell, by choice.  They may all live in an oppressive society, but Prim, Katniss, and their mother each make their own choices within it, the consequences for which are varied.  We hail Katniss because she sacrifices in an overt manner, but we don't talk about Prim's sacrifices and struggles as a young girl learning to heal the wounds of an oppressed people.  The narrative does enough erasing by necessity, since it cannot cover everything, but the rigid definitions of "agency" and "strong female character" mean that we do a fair bit of erasing, too.
Another example of this can be found in the figure of Peggy Carter from Agent Carter.  As a character, Carter is on the surface a stereotypical "strong female character."  Despite living in the sexist culture of the 1940s (a complex one, we should note), Carter almost always acts of her own accord, often by fighting against the system in which she exists through feats of strength or intelligence.  She punches bad guys.  She tells people off.  She holds her own or plays up her "female-ness" when it serves her agenda.  She is, in other words, an active agent in almost every sense.  However, using Carter as the definition of a "strong female character" means that the agency of other women around her is effectively erased.  Angie, Carter's delightful neighbor, is unlike Carter because her actions are either that of conformity or subversion.  We should remember here, too, that the reason Angie is so different from Carter has to do with their relative power:  Carter is just in a better position to exercise her agency in active ways.  If we talk about Angie's difference as being a negative rather than a particular cultural position within a male-dominant society, then we are effectively making it possible to erase Angie's agency.  Carter's actions are the right actions; Angie's are not.  This comparison model, one which equally affects Jupiter since she is by default compared to female characters that "got it right," does a disservice to the women whose day-to-day lives may be infinitely more complex than films can ever show.

All of these women represent the myriad ways in which agency manifests.  Trying to compare them to one another as if some forms of agency are better than others is at best absurd and at worst downright unethical.  Unethical because it is a fantasy which erases, intentionally or otherwise, the gritty work of women around the globe who aren't bow-toting superheroines.  Women who are like Jupiter.  Women who are servants, prostitutes, soldiers, cooks, mothers, doctors, poker players, yoga instructors, fishers, housekeepers, CEOs, etc.  Women of all types.  Women living in all manner of social conditions.  By saying only some of them are really "strong" or "have agency (enough that it is worth noting)," we erase all those who exert their agency and strength in other ways.  Personally, I think women have been erased enough...

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[1]:  This post is obviously a defense of Jupiter Ascending.  However, I hope it's clear that I am defending the film in a specific way.  The quality of the film as a whole is a separate issue.

[2]:  This is obviously a rough definition so I can get to my point.

P.S.:  There are also other issues with the criticisms of Jupiter Ascending.  One that particularly irritates me is the attack on the film's representation of servant-class labor.  Setting aside the mass exploitation of immigrants, the attack on Jupiter's job as a toilet cleaner is part of a wider American (and probably elsewhere) assault on the value of labor in general.  While working at McDonald's or as a housekeeper has never been a particularly glamorous job, it has only become synonymous with "the garbage of society" over the course of decades of wage deflation, whereby minimum wage jobs are increasingly less valued because they are increasingly less able to facilitate the basics of American life.  As far as I'm concerned, the continued peddling of this narrative does a disservice to those who work in those less-valued industries, as it makes it far more difficult for them to lobby for better working conditions, etc.  But I digress...

P.S.S.:  Olivia Waite has a similar take on all of this in her post entitled "Die Hard, Jupiter Jones, Cinderella, and Character Agency."  I recommend reading it.

On Ridley Scott’s Exodus and Bannings

The Washington Post reports that Egypt has banned Ridley Scott's controversial Bible film, Exodus (starring Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, and Ben Kingsley), due to "alleged historical inaccuracies and a 'Zionist' agenda."  You can read the article for more detail, though I would suggest extra care here given the region under discussion and the inevitable spin that will come out of U.S. news sources.  For the record:  the BBC has reported the same thing, more or less.

I should also note that I'm not going to defend Exodus from the charges that it is inaccurate in any direct sense.  Honestly, I don't think the movie should have been made.  Its white-washing of history and clear manipulation of Biblical narrative for "sensationalist imagery" -- not to mention Ridley Scott's absurd defense of the former -- have not endeared the film to me.  In fact, I'm perfectly content with never seeing Exodus, and I sincerely hope it does so poorly that Hollywood thinks again before letting Ridley Scott ruin anything else.  But none of this is a reason to ban the film.  They made it, and if theaters want to play it, then so be it.

Now, to my thoughts:

As a general rule, I am against censorship, allowing for exceptions that might arise in which censorship might be necessary (no, I haven't a clue what those exceptions might look like).  Of course, when I say "censorship," I mean "from the government or its subsidiaries."  While I might be bothered by a theater refusing to play a film, my objections would be personal, not ethical or legal. Censorship from the government, however, moves beyond a personal level.  
One business entity making a quality judgement has little bearing on the public's perception of a work of art.  After all, there are theaters devoted entirely to independent films, and so they intentionally leave out all sorts of films that do not fit their criteria, in part because so many of those theaters are small and cannot play every indie film that gets released.  The Hippodrome Theater in Gainesville (where I live) does this.  They probably play 10% of the "significant" independent films released in a year because they do not have the space -- nor the funds -- of a company like Regal Cinemas, which receives, I imagine, 100 times the attendance of the Hipp.  And so the Hipp must make judgments on what it wants to play and for how long.  Those judgments might involve content, the assessment of the local audience, money, and so on and so forth.  All fair in the economics game.

But the government doesn't have the luxury of reflecting the voice of one entity, let alone a small collection of people working within that entity.  It is meant to reflect the voice of a nation.  In the case of the U.S., that voice is a protected voice, not just by our Constitution, but also by the individual laws we have put in place to protect artistic and everyday expression.  We have a history of that protection lapsing, and we still struggle with a culture of book banning.  Ever more the reason to discuss these rights and to continue fighting for them.

Egypt, however, is not the U.S. and is not bound by our rules and legal structures (as should be obvious).  Here, I think the principle of expression is paramount, and that's something that I find difficult to support beyond the confines of the U.S.  After all, it's not every day that I am asked to defend my perspective of human rights with someone who does not share my nation's history.  How do I justify a position which says that Egypt's banning of Exodus is wrong -- even somewhat fascistic -- when that position arrives from a growing up in a nation where such values are mostly upheld?  Even if I suggest that expression is a fundamental right, can I defend that without resorting to a Western view?

As it turns out, I can.  Sorta.  Egypt has been part of the United Nations since 1945 (Oct. 24).  In 1948, they adopted the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, which contains a handy little section on expression:
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
In short, Egypt agreed to the same principles which protect artistic and everyday expression in the U.S. (though, I must admit that the U.N.'s language is a tad clearer on the implementation).  Egypt's decision to ban Exodus, in other words, is a clear violation of this right/principle.

We could certainly get into arguments about whether the U.N. has any authority or whether its Declaration is anything other than symbolic.  Regardless, that Egypt adopted the Declaration suggests that they agreed with the principles written within it -- or, rather, that a previous government did and no government afterwards saw fit to contradict that adoption.  A banning, in short, is fundamentally unethical, and it sets a precedent that allows for other moralistic decisions about art.  After all, that's what Egypt's banning is.  Exodus was not banned because it is obscene or can be shown to have any real impact on Egypt's population; it was banned because it does not represent history as Egypt's government would want it.
While it is probably true that Exodus is disgustingly wrong about its history (it certainly failed on the racial front), there is a suspiciously religious-moralistic flavor to this particular banning.  If it were not so marked, then one could look back through Egypt's history and find instances of other blatantly inaccurate films being banned.  But Egypt released Gladiator, 300, 300:  Rise of an Empire, The Patriot, and 10,000 B.C.  One might argue that some of these simply take creative license with historical periods, but you can't say that they are accurate films; given that at least two of these intended to be accurate, they have the same potential effect on a certain segment of the population as a historically-inaccurate Bible flick (huge emphasis on certain segment of the population).

A simple rejection of historical inaccuracy, while still violating the principles under discussion here, would seem less disturbing than what Egypt has actually presented.  Here, state-sponsored notions of morality, religiosity, and history have now determined which art is accessible to the Egyptian public.  Nothing good ever comes from such practices.  Unfortunately, given the turmoil in Egypt over the past few years, I'm not sure they'll notice.  That's unfortunate, but understandable.  But it goes to an underlying issue with so many governments:  so many of them, including my own, have deemed it fit to dictate the terms of expression to the rest of us, sometimes under the guise of "protecting us from harmful ideas."

Me:  I'd rather we lived in a world where we all have to parse through the good and the bad instead of having some entity serving as the ultimate parent.  Art, as I've mentioned before, must be controversial to force us to think about the world in which we live.  Sometimes, even shitty and/or inaccurate art can serve the same purpose.  After all, Exodus has got us thinking about ethnic identity in ancient Egypt.  Just 10 years ago, I'm almost certain we wouldn't be having this conversation at all -- at least, not in any very public way.  That, at least, is a good thing.

Film Remakes and the Necessity for Critical Distance

Hollywood is hopelessly obsessed with remakes.  We all know this.  And if we don't, it's really not that difficult to figure out how obsessed Hollywood really is.  But I'll make it easy for you here:  here's a list of 57 remakes which were marked as "in development" as of July 2013.  Some of those may have been dropped, but the fact of the matter is that there were 57 remakes in various stages of development last year.

There's nothing inherently wrong with remakes, of course.  After all, many remakes tackles films that are now 30+ years old, which means the primary viewing audience -- let's say 15 to 40 -- probably hasn't seen them anyway.  Some remakes are attempts to update concepts which haven't aged well, or which really are pretty darn cool and would benefit from newer film technologies and bigger budgets (technically, this year's Robocop fits into this category, but that film is terrible).  It makes sense, too, why Hollywood studios would choose to remake a film:  it's safer to reboot something that was already a success -- or which has a following or concept that would work well in today's market -- since the discussion surrounding the remake will naturally include buzz about the previous version; obviously, this can sometimes backfire, as in the case of Total Recall or Robocop (or perhaps it's more often than not), as it's difficult to find remakes which are absolutely better than their predecessors.  There's almost always something "missing."

I tend to think of remakes in two ways:

  1. They are indicative of Hollywood's inability to imagine new things and, in a sense, its refusal to take chances; and
  2. They are only a good idea if there is sufficient critical distance from the original source material.
It's the latter of these two modes that I want to discuss here.

Part of the problem with remakes and reboots, as I see it, is the obsession with doing so before the original material has time to breathe.  Amazing Spider-Man may be a decent superhero film, but it comes on the heels of an existing "canon" of Spider-Man films -- the Sam Raimi lot.  Setting aside what we think about Raimi's take on Spidey, the films were financially successful and were generally well-received.  The latest batch is half a decade removed from the original; rather than continue the story with a new cast, this new Spidey flick completely re-tells Spidey's origins.  If the intended audience for remakes are a "new" batch of viewers, which is, admittedly, my argument, then it makes little sense to re-tell an existing narrative when the audience is hardly "new."  One can point to many other examples of this, such as the Battlestar Galactica movie-reboot-remake-monstrosity that will hit theaters at some point in the next year or so.  Would it not make more sense to continue an existing narrative?

What I want to suggest about all this is a kind of "too soon"-ness.  It's not that these reboots and remakes of 30-years-or-less-old flicks are bad in and of themselves; in fact, many of them might be perfectly fine movies on their own or improvements over their predecessors (given the absence of emo-hipster jazz dances in the new Spidey films, I suspect this is a point most of you will understand).  Rather, the problem these films pose is two-fold:
  1. Their "too soon"-ness courts comparison, largely unfavorable, and creates the conditions for viewer fatigue, and
  2. They remind us that Hollywood is largely a business, and so any means by which they can procure profit from licensed properties will be taken, including rebooting and remaking things well before they've fallen away from public consciousness, perhaps under the false assumption that doing so will naturally draw new and old fans alike.
To the first, I think comparison is both beneficial and detrimental.  If a film succeeds in remaking something that wasn't all that great to begin with, but is fondly remembered in a kind of "cult" sense (i.e., Red Dawn), then the comparison to the original is largely positive.  If Red Dawn (the remake) were actually better than Red Dawn (the 1980s cult classic), our conversation surrounding it would be about what it does right, how it succeeds where its predecessor did not and where it succeeds on its own merits.  But Red Dawn did not have that reception.  It is right for us to compare it to the original and laugh at the fact that the remake is an obviously lesser film, suffering from poor pacing, bad acting, and so on.  It is also right for us to recognize the absurdity of its altered premise.  The original Red Dawn took place right at the tail end of the Cold War, nestling itself right into pre-existing American fears and cultural narratives.  In 1984, the Soviet Union was a real threat in America's public discourse.  But North Korea, the primary villain of the remake, is only a threat in the most limited sense.  While the U.S. currently considers NK a dangerous nation, it is not one which we actively discuss as having the capacity to invade the United States -- if anything, we should recognize that North Korea's only staying power is a nuclear deterrent.  The remake's politics, as such, are conspicuously nonsensical in comparison to its predecessor and remind us of the specificity of the cultural context in which the original Red Dawn arose:  it is simply untranslatable to the cultural context of 2012.[1]

Much of the problem with Red Dawn rests in the fact that its conceptual origins are a) not detached from the present era due to chronological proximity, and b) coupled with a narrative which always reminds us that this is a remake.  In other words, it is difficult for the studios, let alone the public at large -- except, perhaps, a limited portion of the present viewership (teens) -- to disentangle the narrative of Red Dawn (2012) from the history and narrative of Red Dawn (1984).  And that disentanglement is necessary, I would argue, to avoid the fatigue of remake/reboot fever.  I'm calling it critical distance, though you're free to use a different term.  In sociology, critical distance refers to the tenuous balance between literal distance from the subject and the necessity for some degree of nearness.  Here, I want to suggest that critical distance refers to the necessity of disentanglement from the narrative of the remake and the narrative of origins as well as a degree of conceptual rigor which demonstrates a kind of filmic "ownership."  Red Dawn fails on all fronts precisely because it could not be disentangled from its remake/origins narratives and because its concept was never a departure from those narratives -- it was always just a lesser Red Dawn (1982).

For a positive example, one might look at Ron Moore's re-make of the 1970s classic, Battlestar Galactica.  Setting aside the endless arguments about the ending or its various internal issues, the series took the original concept and twisted it just enough to give it both a sense of contemporaneity and ownership.  Moore's BSG always felt like its own thing to me.  It certainly borrowed from the original canon, but it seemed fearless in its desire to find its own path instead of remaining fixed.  Though comparisons are inevitable, the narrative surrounding Moore's BSG never seemed dominated by concerns that it would be "like the original" or that it would fail where its predecessor had succeeded.  In truth, classic BSG hasn't aged well anyway, and so Moore's BSG could easily be disentangled from concerns about fidelity and adaptation (of origination).  Rather, the focus for BSG always seemed to be on its successful departures, drawing attention to its character development, its manipulation of the robot revenge plot through flesh-based Cylons, and so on.

Similar things could be said of John Carpenter's remake of Howard Hawks' 1951 film, The Thing from Another World.[2]  Carpenter's 1982 film -- The Thing -- hardly deserves comparison, given its grotesque imagery (for the 80s), brilliant handling of horrific suspense, and its influence on scifi horror thereafter.[3]  This is not to suggest that contemporary audiences of the film loved it (Roger Ebert apparently gave it 2.5 stars out of 4).  But it has since been revered for its special effects and ability to evoke terror -- a product, if you will, of the public's critical distance from Carpenter's creation (I think it's also fair to say that 1980s audiences were mostly unaware of the 1951 precursor).  Indeed, Ebert's review makes no mention of the original, while Vincent Canby's NYT review makes a superficial comparison and pans the film for being emotionally lifeless; in fact, when the film is compared to its predecessor, it is usually to mark its differences in style and tone.  This is a markedly different kind of comparative discussion to that surrounding Red Dawn.  The Thing (1982) may invite comparison, but only superficially or in a setting where comparison is a necessary component (academia, for example).  In many respects, the film is taken on its own merits, revered or hated for its grotesquery or tone or style -- now more favorably than in the past.  In truth, Carpenter's The Thing is utterly terrifying -- it scared me when I was a kid in the 90s, and it still scares the crap out of me to this day.

If I had seen the 2011 prequel of the same name (literally, The Thing is its title), I might be able to comment on its relevance to this post.  Alas, I have not done so, which means I leave you to decide if that film managed to exist in a kind of critical distance vacuum, or if it is confused not just in title, but also by its placement within the existing filmic frame.

In any case, I hope the point I'm making is clear.  It is nice to think that we should treat films entirely on their own merits, but it is also realistic to expect that remakes and reboots always court comparison, and that the nature of that comparison will depend equally as much on the film's adaptation of whatever precedes it.  I'd argue that the closer a remake is to its original material, the less we are able to disentangle it from the narratives of origins and remakes.  New-ness or "too soon"-ness reduces a film's potential to rigorously re-define the perimeters of the source, since it is always already compromised by proximity.  We will compare Spider-Man (2002) to The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) so long as both are part of our cinematic conversation of the character.  We will do the same to Red Dawn (1982 / 2012) and the sea of other remakes that pollute the industry.  My hope is that we'll end up with more examples of The Thing or Battlestar Galactica or The Fly (1986) or The Little Shop of Horrors (1986) or The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978).

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[1]:  This is even more true when one takes into account the fact that the only real perceived "threat" to the United States also happens to be one of the largest foreign film markets in terms of size.  Granted, China doesn't exactly translate well to the situation either, since it is only a threat in an abstract, group-specific sense.  Unlike the U.S.S.R. (in America's mind), China is not currently the ultimate bogeyman to U.S. foreign policy.

[2]:  It is also a re-adaptation of John W. Campbell's "Who Goes There?"

[3]:  In much the same way as Alien just three years earlier.

Month of Joy: “The Joy of City Stomping” by David Annandale

Though their heyday was undoubtedly the 1950s and 60s, giant monsters have rampaged through the movies long before and long after the era that saw the arrival of the Big Bugs, Godzilla and friends, and Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion marvels. Obviously, King Kong casts his long shadow from 1933, but before him were the dinosaurs of The Lost World in 1925 (whose climax features the first city rampage), and even earlier, Georges Méliès gave us the likes of the Frost Giant from The Conquest of the Pole in 1912, and the titular Gigantic Devil in 1902. So, when all is said and done, we have had well over a century of giant monsters stomping (or, in Méliès’ case, cavorting) across our screens.

Why?

I’m trying to tackle the question from a particular angle, given the theme of Shaun’s site this week.
What, exactly, is the joy that these creatures give us? And oh, why be coy: what is the joy they give me. They have for as far back as my conscious memories reach. I could go on about the symbolic riches they provide, such as the multiple, simultaneous readings embodied in Kong, the entangling patriarchy of It Came from Beneath the Sea’s octopus (defeated by the ingenuity of Faith Domergue), or Godzilla incarnating nuclear war in one film, enraged nature in another, or the vengeful spirits of the victims of Japanese war crimes in a third. And while it is true that these represent many of the joys I find in monster films now, they are only partial explanations. These reasons are encrustations, new pleasures that have grown on top of the old ones, but the old ones are still there.
To put it another way: while I am fascinated by Cloverfield’s allusions to the first Godzilla film as a way of underscoring the big thematic concern shared by both films (the re-enactment, in fantastic terms, of very recent national traumas), there is no getting away from the fact that my biggest thrill in watching that film is the giddy excitement of seeing that monster wreck stuff.

Let me put it more nakedly yet: when, in the VHS era, my brother and I were finally able to binge on all the Godzilla films, one of our primary criteria for deciding which ones were better than others was how much real estate was trashed. Monster fights in urban centres were way cooler than slugfests in the countryside (and this is a treat that Pacific Rim delivers in full during the Hong Kong sequence).
So there is joy in destruction, as we have known since childhood. Isn’t this the main reason we play with building blocks? So we can spectacularly knock down what we laboriously construct? In this respect, the monster movie and the disaster film offer overlapping pleasures, but not identical ones. To focus only on the falling skyscrapers would be to miss the importance of the monster itself.

It has been said (and I apologize for not recalling where I read this first), that one of the reasons children love dinosaurs so much is that they are non-threatening embodiments of power, embodiments that we first encounter when we are at our most powerless. If the power fantasies in super-heroes are ones where we suddenly have the ability to right the wrongs of an imperfect world, the monster gives us the ability to show an unfriendly world exactly what we think of it. Sometimes, we don’t want to save it. Sometimes, we just want to trample it underfoot. And that trampling is justified: with the exception of creatures such as King Ghidorah or Iris, who are the antagonists fought by the protagonist monsters (Godzilla and Gamera, respectively), the truly evil giant creature is rare indeed.* Kong, Godzilla, Gorgo, Gamera, Rodan, Mothra, Gwangi, and so on and on and on, even at their most vicious and destructive, have a core of innocence. They are more sinned against than sinning.

It is telling, too, that though the 1954 Godzilla is still arguably the grimmest, most despairing giant monster movie going, and emphatically not aimed at children, it would not be too many years before the reverse would be the case, and the character had become a super-hero. The joyless film somehow leads to the infamous-yet-infectious expression of joy that is Godzilla’s dance in Invasion of Astro-Monster (1965).
So the joys of the giant monster films are very much paradoxical. Even in the case of the darkest films (and let there be no mistake: Godzilla is about as bleak as they come), when the fears and traumatic memories of the audience are receiving their fullest, most graphic expression, there is still that anarchic joy to be had. There is still the excitement inherent to the rampage itself. Let me close by suggesting one further possibility. The rampage almost never truly comes out of the blue.** As baffling as the monsters are for the terrified, fleeing masses, there is always a context for them. I propose that we see the creatures as examples of the Event as defined by Alain Badiou: something that a particular system cannot account for, or even imagine, but that is nevertheless a result of that system, and shatters it.

Perhaps, then, at some level, our joy is the result of recognizing the monsters as necessary.

They’re certainly necessary for my inner child.

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* Pacific Rim is no different: the evil kaiju are the antagonists, and while the jaegers are robots, it is significant that the opening narration refers to them as “monsters.”

** Cloverfield is an obvious exception here, in that the monster appears to have literally fallen from the sky. Its anomalous position is, I believe, a pointed one: one of the many aspects of 9/11 that the film is evoking is the confusion and terror of those on the ground in the middle of the event, people for whom, at that moment and in that place, the broader picture of why these things are happening is irrelevant.

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David Annandale brings doom to untold billions as a writer of Warhammer 40,000 fiction for the Black Library, most recently in the novel The Death of Antagonis. As the author of the horror novel Gethsemane Hall, he hopes to end sleep for you forever. During the day, he poisons minds as he teaches film, video games and English literature at the University of Manitoba. If you have any fragments of hope still left, you can have them crushed at his website or by following his Twitter account.

P.S.:  If you want to hear David's take on Pacific Rim, check out this episode of Shoot the WISB!

A Justice League Movie? (or, Hopefully This Won’t Be a Missed Opportunity)

Since Man of Steel hit theaters, there's been a lot of talk about a potential Justice League movie.  We even mentioned this topic in the latest Shoot the WISB episode on the new Superman film.  Much of the discussion is based on rumors, no doubt supported by this oddly blank IMDB page, which suggests that some sort of Justice League film will hit a screen of some description in 2015.  Now, Henry Cavill, who plays Supes in Man of Steel, has suggested that a Justice League adaptation likely won't happen any time soon.

What does that mean?  I don't know.  In Hollywood time, that could mean 3 minutes or 3 decades, or it could mean a black hole has popped into existence and swallowed DC.  A lot of folks want to see Flash and Wonder Woman in film form before Justice League reaches the big screen.  I,
however, think that would be a bad idea.
I am awesome.  That is all.
First, I don't know how Hollywood will manage to avoid ruining both the Flash and Wonder Woman without completely revamping the characters, and, thus, retconning most of what has defined the character in the last 50 years.  The problem?  Both characters are prone to ridiculousness in the Hollywood world.  After all, the only serious portrayals of either characters in the last two decades have been in cartoons, which I don't think necessarily translate well into live action (in part because the things you can do in a cartoon are difficult to do well with real people -- see every CG hellhole Hollywood has tried to make, hence my concern).  There is also the very real problem embodied in the universe the current film DC adaptations have presented:  a dark, serious universe.  There isn't a lot of room for camp in in a world where Nolan's Batman and Superman exist, and that means any interpretation of the Flash or Wonder Woman has to reject its predecessors quite soundly to make any coherent sense.  That doesn't mean we need a Nolan-style treatment of either character (let alone of the various other members of the JL -- Green Arrow (on TV right now, in fact)*, Aquaman, Hawkman, Green Lantern, and so on and so forth), but it does mean DC and Hollywood have to seriously reconsider how to place these characters within a cinematic universe.

That said, it's important to realize that a lot of DC's characters have baggage from previous film histories.  Batman and Superman have mostly escaped their own baggage.  Not easily, of course.  Batman made a minor shift in the Tim Burton films, fell into the abyss with Forever and Robin, and then took a huge turn (for the best, I believe) with the Nolan trilogy.  Superman had a similar journey.  My hatred of Returns notwithstanding, the film did at least offer a lead-up to the Nolan-influenced Man of Steel.
The same cannot be said for Wonder Woman or the Flash -- at least, not within the live action franchises.  Wonder Woman, for example, has never seen a big screen adaptation, though many are still quite fond of the 1970s adaptation starring Lynda Carter (not to mention all the love for the various cartoon versions).  She's quite likely to return to the small screen soon, which I think would be a great idea; DC (or one of the studios -- not sure which) has actively been trying to bring her back to TV for several years (a 2011 pilot flopped at NBC, but the CW has expressed interest in pushing their own adaptation called Amazon).  The same is true for the Flash.  He had a TV movie in 1990 and plenty of appearances in cartoons.  But he has yet to make the jump to the big screen, and probably won't (though this IMDB page suggests otherwise).  All of these facts are good reasons for both characters to have their own films...eventually.  I, however, think DC would be better off going another route.
If DC is hell bent on bringing these characters to the big screen, I think the best direction would be to release Man of Steel 2 (whatever it might be called), followed by the first Justice League movie.  In the interim, Wonder Woman and the Flash should have origin narratives put up on the small screen; after Justice League (assuming success), new film narratives can take the limelight (or they can stick with TV).  Doing so will have a few important impacts:

  1. TV adaptations will allow the characters to develop in the sort of depth they deserve.
  2. We'll avoid the uncomfortable mess of 2.5 hour camp-fests (Wonder Woman especially; she's a cool character, but her origin story will not inspire audiences).  I don't think film origins of these characters will do them justice, in part because most of us haven't seen the characters outside of the comic "universes."  If you're not a Flash fan already, you don't know anything about him (and vice versa for Wonder Woman).  And, well, I don't think characters with super-speed work all that well on the big screen (that's my personal hangup, though).
  3. I think starting with the trifecta of TV series (Green Arrow, Wonder Woman, and the Flash) will also give DC's franchise a huge boost in the right direction.  If you create three TV shows that cross over one another, each leading towards a Justice League film, you cross-pollinate your audience quite brilliantly.  A good deal of people will watch all three, some will watch one or two, and some will come from entirely different avenues:  following on the heels of Batman and Superman.  Basically, hitting almost every direction at once seems like a perfect method for making a Justice League movie a success.

Granted, none of this is likely to happen.  If DC is hell bent on releasing a Justice League movie in 2015, then it doesn't really matter what I think.  Two years is hardly enough time to get two new TV series off the ground.  My hope is that a film version of Wonder Woman provides roughly the same tone as Marvel's Thor.  Two parts serious, one part camp.  If you allow the camp to override everything else, the film will be a disaster.

I can dream, of course, but dreaming isn't the same as reality.  Whatever happens, I sincerely hope they get it right.  Marvel's cinematic universe is killing in the box office right now.  Even with Nolan's exceptional Batman films, DC's cinematic universe is one step away from self-destruction.  Batman and Superman movies are wonderful, but we need more.  We need Marvel's level of cinematic pollination in DC's cinematic universe.  It'll be great for DC, great for comic book movies, and great for film overall.

I guess we'll see what happens.**
This is the bad idea I'm talking about...
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*Including Green Arrow in a Justice League film might actually make for an interesting crossover.  Assuming the show remains on the air for the next few years, there's ample opportunity to suck in audiences from two different directions and lead up to a Justice League movie in a slow and deliberate manner.  Imagine having an entire season of a TV show leading us up to a film.  You could do so much with this!  The entire season could involve conflicts and events, the climax or conclusion to which could appear in the film version.

**If they cast Megan Fox as Wonder Woman, I will lose my friggin mind.  However, if they bring in Nathan Fillion as the Green Lantern, I will rejoice, for the Lord will have spoken...

Why I Hated Superman Returns

Honestly, I hated Superman Returns because it established Superman as virtually (though not actually) limitless, at which point he becomes uninteresting to me as a hero. Clearly Kryptonite doesn't really matter. He can lift entire islands of the stuff into the sky, so all this talk about it being his bad news bears is really just nonsense. At best, it's a nuisance.  And since he can basically do anything, there's no reason to ever worry that he will fail. That's what makes a good hero for me. We know, deep down, he won't fail, but on the outside, we see his weaknesses and know that it's always possible that he will (or she, for that matter).

What also makes Superman a fantastic hero isn't his strength and other abilities; it's his constant need to do the right thing, even in the face of terrible adversity. This is why I think the trailer for the new film is so effective (even if the film falls short -- haven't seen it, so I can't say). The idea that Superman is someone we're supposed to look up to and an image to strive towards makes him such
a compelling figure, not because he's got all those powers, but because he is the guy who will brave the storm for his fellow "man", even if that storm is likely to kill him. (You can see why the military is using Superman to sell volunteering in some of their recent ads, since the idea behind the trailer for the new Superman film clearly jives with the mythic formation of the soldier -- the one who sacrifices for others).

And while a lot of that is in Superman Returns, it is trampled by the complete retconning of Superman's abilities (in my mind, anyway). Yeah, he does go and do the big, dangerous thing, but in doing so, he ceases to be something for which we can reasonably strive. He becomes god or close enough to it that the distinction isn't relevant. What might have made Superman Returns a better film is if the great hero had to rely on the help of regular humans for once. Maybe the military storms in as Luther is about to deal the final blow to Superman. Maybe, like in Spiderman (the first Raimi film), a bunch of regular folks start chucking rocks and telling Luther to frak off, because if you mess with Superman, you mess with humanity. This would humble Superman, and it would remind us that his abilities are not what makes him who he is. They're just icing on the cake, as it were. No, what makes Superman admirable is his personal strength and his ability to inspire. Superman has principles, and he sticks to them no matter what.  He fights while the rest of us cower, and in doing so, he gives us courage.  But in Superman Returns, I don't need to create my own courage.  The god will save me.  I can cower away and let greater beings do everything for me.  I am weak.  I am nothing.

That's why I hated Superman Returns.

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This originally appeared on my Facebook page as a response to Alex Bledsoe.

Shoot the WISB #02: Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) Reviewed w/ Paul Weimer and Jay Garmon

Spoiler Alert:  the following podcast contains spoilers for the film being reviewed; if you wish to see the film without having it ruined for you, download this podcast and save it for later.

Paul Weimer (website / twitter) and Jay Garmon (website / twitter) join me to discuss the good, the bad, and the ugly of J.J. Abrams' second installment in the Star Trek film reboot.  Feel free to offer your thoughts in the comments below.

You can download or stream the mp3 from this link.



The Black Guy is Ruining the Fantastic Four Reboot!

Oh, what?  He isn't?  Are you sure?  I mean.  He's black.  That means, like, Sue has to be black, right?  She doesn't?  Johnny or Sue could be adopted?  Or they could be children of different mothers or fathers or maybe they're interracial or something?  But I thought if you're half black and half white you just look almost white?  That's not true?  Really?  Well, the original Johnny was a white guy, so he has to stay white.  What about Idris Elba?  Oh, yeah, he was cool in Thor?  The original character wasn't a black guy?  Oh, well, then that's OK because he's not a major character.  Besides, this doesn't have anything to do about race.  I know I keep talking about it.  But just because I talk about race doesn't mean what we're talking about is actually about race, even if the only reason we're talking about it is because a black guy might be the Human Torch.  It's just not about race, OK?
That pretty much sums up the stupidity you'll find online about the rumor of Michael B. Jordan's (of Chronicle fame) possible casting as the Human Torch in the reboot of The Fantastic Four.
Cracked.com has a brilliant take-down here.  Read the comments on the first link at your own risk (I'll post some gems below).
Let's call this for what it is:  soft racism.  For example, here is this amazing quote from The Wrap (linked in the previous paragraph):
This is a horrible idea. Johnny Storm is an iconic Marvel character, a blonde, blue-eyed, party boy daredevil. He's not a second string character, he's a principal team member of one of Marvel's flagship series. As a long-time comic book collector, it would completely distract from any story to change Johnny's ethnicity. (It was bad enough that Jessica Alba was such an awful, awful blonde). Johnny once dated a Skrull - an African American could play her, or She-Hulk is an ancillary FF character - her ethnicity could be changed with little distraction, even Ben Grimm would be less distracting as another commenter suggested, although that would raise the question of whether Ben would stay Jewish (there are far less Jews in Marvel Comics than African Americans). But Johnny Storm? Comic book fans take "canon" very seriously, and this idea just smells like disaster.
Translation:  Johnny Storm was white in the comics, and if you made him black, we'd all get distracted because he's black; if you're going to have black people in this, let them play aliens or green rage monsters who are secondary to the plot, but don't you dare put a black guy as a main character, because I'll just be so distracted by...black guys.

Clearly, none of this has anything to do with race, am I right?  If you're distracted by black people, you're not distracted because they're black; you're distracted because they...are...look at the beautiful sunset!  There are a lot of people arguing variations of this type.  The irony is that in throwing a hissy fit over this topic, these commenters have inadvertently punched themselves in the face.  It's not possible to wiggle out of a soft racism charge when your main argument is "black people are distracting when they are in my movies about white people."

Some, however, have taken a different strategy, such as this fellow over at IGN:
The whole "defined by whiteness" arguement is stupid (by that same standard many black heroes should easily be recast as white as they're not "defined by blackness"), the guy is wrong for the role plain and simple, it's about race because that's where he's wrong for the role...if he was a 300 pound white guy that could nail Torch's personality exactly, he'd still be wrong for the role. Rather than taking the time to proper cast the movie the guy is trying to go with an associate wrong for the role, it doesn't matter how good he can act, Johnny Storm is white, and people are looking for proper adaptations for things of this sort...try creating or utilizing the existing black super heroes if it's that important rather than lazily shoehorning bad choices for the sake of it.
i.e., even though the Human Torch is not defined by his whiteness, he can't be played by a black guy because he's not black.  If you can see the circles going around and around here, you deserve a pat on the back.

The irony with statements like these is that they often not only refute themselves, but they also fall for the typical anti-racist-is-code-for-anti-white rhetoric that assumes that because you can't do the same thing to other races, it is just as racist to do it to white people.  Let's set aside the fact that changing the Human Torch's race isn't really an insult to white people (after all, it's not like we don't have a shitload of white superheroes in film already *coughWolverineCaptainAmericaCyclopsProfXBatmanGreenLanternOnAndOnAndOncough*).  What is alarming about arguments like this is the bizarre amnesia to which their proponents have succumbed.  Not to beat a dead horse, but racism is alive and well in this country.  This is why I find historical amnesia on this subject disturbing, since it allows people of any race to make arguments that are counterproductive and, in some cases, damaging.  The two positions are not equal:  casting a white guy as Luke Cage is not the same as casting a black guy as the Human Torch.  There is no history of white people being denied entry based on their race (especially in American comics).  Isolated cases may exist, but one cannot rationally argue that whites are discriminated against at the same level as blacks (today and in the past -- see here) -- it's an absurd claim.
None of this is new to the world of film adaptations, though.  We saw something similar when Idris Elba was cast as Heimdall.  Not surprisingly, when the film came and went, it didn't seem to have that much of an impact on, well, anything.  Are people still throwing a hissy fit about it?  Not really.  It turned out that casting a black guy for a role previously written as white really didn't matter (and let's admit:  Elba was pretty awesome as Heimdall).  If Michael B. Jordan is officially cast as the Human Torch, I doubt anyone but the fervently racist will really care.  The only difference, of course, is that the Human Torch is a larger role than Heimdall, which has some people in a tizzy -- hence the "just cast some black folks as secondary characters" argument.

There are also comments like this:
honestly I am not racist..but I am a die hard fan of the fantatisc four..and I dont want them to just cast a black guy because...of whatever reason.its like they are not even trying at this point. He was white for petes sake ..if this is real i am not watching it
The infamous "I'm not a racist, but..." phrase.  I suppose the historical absence of black superheroes in the classic Marvel canon has remained unknown to this author.  There are a lot of them in terms of gross numbers, but most of them have remained relatively obscure (or firmly as secondary characters).  Few can name many black superheroes who have been around since the Silver Age who have the same staying power as the Fantastic Four.  Luke Cage and the Black Panther are about it (and you'll never get a movie about the latter because of the name)(please correct me if I'm wrong about this).  I don't actually know why there are so few black superheroes who have the same "fame" as the Fantastic Four or the Avengers or X-Men.  Maybe we need something along those lines one of these days...
Of course, I'm sure this person also doesn't know that another always-has-been-white character was fairly recently replaced by a black guy.  Also, a latino.  Both in alternate Marvel universes (Ultimates and 2099 respectively).  Somehow, those changes didn't destroy Marvel forever!

However, I think the more humorous comments fall in the "you can't change things" category, such as:
Make a movie for actual black characters from the comic books. The background is already there why change it up. A Luke Cage and a Black Panther movie and a Storm movie I would watch. Changing Nick Furry (sic) black actually made him better but making Johnny Storm Black well then you have to make Sue Storm black as well and honestly I wouldn't watch it if you paid me.
Of course, this individual is oblivious to the myriad of ways that Sue and Johnny could be different races (adoption, different mothers/fathers, or, you know, maybe Sue ends up mixed race and the entire universe collapses).  The commenter even makes the amusing argument that it was OK for Nick Fury to end up black, but you can't blackify Johnny because...err...Mr. Angry Comment just won't pay to see it.  In other words, he'll pay to see black characters if they are secondary to the narrative OR if we are talking about imaginary film adaptations, but if you screw with a major character, well, no money for you.

But what is truly amusing about this is this individual's profound ignorance about the Marvel universe.  Marvel has already changed characters.  Most famously, and not without controversy, they completely rebooted a sea of characters when they created the Ultimates imprint -- they changed background stories, updated the settings, and so on (and, yes, switched some characters' races).  There are numerous instances in the Marvel universe where alternate worlds have come into existence, characters have been completely rewritten, and so on and so forth.  The Marvel universe is called a multiverse for a reason:  it's full of pocket universes, external realities, and so on.  Ultimates literally occurs in a different continuity -- a different "universe," if you will.  And since the film universe is already completely different from the comics, it is no less ridiculous to change Nick Fury's character than it is to change the Human Torch's (or Heimdall's, for that matter).  These film incarnations of the classic heroes are not the same heroes from your comics.  They aren't even the same heroes from the updated Ultimates line.  They're not the same heroes from any of the other side universes either (except, perhaps, the Marvel Now universe, though I haven't read my Iron Man comics yet, so I can't say whether this is true or not).  They are completely different versions of our favorite heroes, and even more so now that Columbia has rebooted Spider-man and, now, The Fantastic Four.
Lastly, I think the only thing that really matters is whether Michael B. Jordan can perform the role well.  Having seen his work in Chronicles, I think there's potential.  Whether he will have the same cocky attitude as Chris Evans in the first two Fantastic Four movies, I cannot say (assuming that's what we're looking for, here).  But I can say that all of this hubbub about how wrong it is to have a black guy as the Human Torch has made me realize that I really shouldn't care if Idris Elba becomes the next 007.  Anyone who has heard me argue against Elba's casting in that franchise can officially toss out everything I said as nonsense.  If Idris Elba brings something to the table as a possible future Bond, then let him have a stab at it.  And that means we should all support him for no other reason than whether you think he, as an actor, can play the role.  Who cares if James Bond has always been a white guy?  Not me.  Not anymore.

(Idealistic Shaun for the win.)

How Not to Write a Review (or, “Oblivion isn’t about Tom Cruise, dumbass…”)

In a recent New York Times review of the SF action adventure film, Oblivion, Manohla Dargis opens with the following:
If only it were less easy to laugh at “Oblivion,” a lackluster science-fiction adventure with Tom Cruise that, even before its opening, was groaning under the weight of its hard-working, slowly fading star and a title that invites mockery of him and it both. The agony of being a longtime Tom Cruise fan has always been a burden, but now it’s just, well, dispiriting. You not only have to ignore the din of the tabloids and swat away the buzzing generated by his multiple headline-ready dramas, you also have to come to grips with the harsh truth that it no longer actually matters why and how Tom Terrific became less so. No one else much cares.
This opening paragraph is followed by another much like it, in which Dargis argues pretty much the same thing:  Tom Cruise is on the way out because he's nuts.  This train of thought makes up most of the review.  There's little time spent actually defending why Oblivion is lackluster or why,
as Dargis suggests, there is something wrong with the film mashing together a number of different SF ideas (this is a charge that applies to basically all SF films these days, so it seems like a pointless argument if you can't add something, well, original to it -- ha!).
This is not how one writes a review.  When you come into a film with a pre-loaded bias -- in particular, a bias against an actor/director as a person rather than as an actor/director -- your ability to assess the quality of that film will be greatly diminished.  Dargis suffers from this problem.  Because she cannot see beyond Cruise as a person, she cannot honestly assess Oblivion on its own terms; she's assessing the film as a reflection of an individual.  In other words, Dargis' review is about why she doesn't like Tom Cruise, not Oblivion itself -- not "Tom Cruise" the actor, but "Tom Cruise" the person.  That Dargis cannot set aside the tabloids and Cruise's various eccentricities is telling.  Anything she can say about a movie involving Cruise will be tainted by her personal biases, something made apparent by her desire to front-load the personal barbs over an honest assessment of the man's work.

Many of the other reviews I've read have not done this.  David Edelstein made a Scientology joke in his review on Vulture, but it was not the central "thesis" of his argument about Oblivion.  Others might drop a hint at Cruise's personal life or nothing whatsoever.  But most of them justified their critiques of Oblivion by addressing the film itself.  They wrote actual reviews, not character assassinations.

That is exactly what Dargis did -- she went for the jugular and forgot to actually write a review.

The Sequel We Deserve: Galaxy Quest…2 or the Show?

In a recent Flavorwire interview, Mark Johnson, the producer of Breaking Bad (a show I'm told is really good), offered this little gem:
I wish... It’s complicated. I can’t get into it because it only gets me angry, because I’m so proud of that movie… For a while there, and someday we may actually get there, we actually talked about doing a television show which would be sort of fun because it would be a TV show looking at a movie that’s looking at a TV show, something like that. So I wish I could answer you and I wish we did have a sequel or certainly a half hour comedy based on it. So we’ll see. It’s not over.
Needless to say, some of us are excited.  I've previously said that Galaxy Quest would make a terrific TV show.  I still believe that, though I certainly wouldn't complain about a sequel film if the
studios put up the dough to make one.
The primary benefit to a film is its length.  With two hours, you can effectively create a parody and adventure story all in one, without disrupting the viewing process with the disconnected sitcom form -- every moment leads to somewhere else. But films also limit the comedic frame, as overloading those two hours with references, jokes, and so on can pull apart the plot.  This is what has happened with the various incarnations of Scary Movie -- each became less and less about the characters existing within a parody and more about the parody itself.  The result?  Crappy films.  Granted, a lot of folks would disagree with me, but I'll stick by the claim.  Under the proper writing and direction, Galaxy Quest 2 could easily surpass its predecessor -- the folks who were behind the original should return if a sequel film ever happens.

Having said that, though, I have to admit that a TV series might offer a different set of useful conditions for a parody.  First, Galaxy Quest is an obvious parody of the most popular science fiction TV show of all time:  Star Trek.  While the film never tries to follow the exact format, that doesn't mean it wouldn't benefit from taking things to the episodic level.  Personally, I would prefer to see 45-minute episodes rather than the traditional 23-26-minute sitcom form.  Doing so would let the writers play with the interconnected storylines, parody the narrative form of Star Trek and other TV franchises, and develop characters and comedy in a more efficient, laugh-track-free zone.  Galaxy Quest doesn't deserve a laugh track, but it does deserve sufficient space to explore the parodic form.  A film might let the franchise expand and develop certain aspects of its universe, but a direct narrative parody would do so much more.
Of course, this is what I think, and I'm nobody.  I've never written for television.  All I've got to work on are my personal desires and the shows I've already seen.  Besides, Doctor Who has done well for itself, has it not?  Galaxy Quest could be the American response, if you will...

What do you all think?