On today’s episode, we chat with the divine Roy Schwartz about his book Is Superman Circumcised?from McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers and the Jewish context for comic book icon Superman. Schwartz is an accomplished legal marketing professional, and he details how his appreciation of storytelling, graphics, character, and effective narrative have enabled him to help lawyers discover their business development super powers.
We *may* also talk (a lot) about comic books.
Rob Kates and I also chat with my mom Susie Sexton about fleas, the Olympics, and the joys of marriage. Other topics addressed in today’s show, in no particular order: Britney Spears, Bill Cosby, Jack Kirby, Stephen Colbert, cosplay, pool toys, Richard Donner, Christopher Reeve, Superman and Lois, writing, Halloween costumes, Schneider, and heaven knows what else.
Shout outs include Richard Pinto, Scott Neitlich, Merry Neitlich, Andrew Laver, Jessica Aries (happy birthday!), Kimberly Schwartz, and more!
So, we’ll have two comic-book-loving “Roys” on the show, and they’ll discuss the intersection of a career in legal marketing, a passion for writing and cultural analysis, and an obsession with superheroes.
Legal Marketing Coffee Talk is brought to you by: Jessica Aries’ By Aries and Rob Kates’ Kates Media: Video Production. Thank you, as always, to Katelynn McGuire for the promotional support!
Beautifully written and consummately researched, Is Superman Circumcised? extends its analysis well beyond the character’s Golden Age origins and authorship to assess the full 80+ years of the Man of Steel’s pop cultural history.
Schwartz marries biblical, literary, and sociocultural scholarship effortlessly. This is a breezy yet substantive and profound read, deftly navigating real world and DC Comics in-universe history as well as religious and mythic iconography. The portrait of Jewish history, culture, and faith as channeled through the Superman mythos is comprehensive and revelatory.
As for the titular question, I won’t spoil any surprises. Rather inevitably, logically, and reasonably (for a character so ingrained in the public consciousness), Schwartz leaves his reader with an answer akin to what might only be described as … Schrödinger’s prepuce.
Highly recommend for both comics fans and casual readers alike.
Schwartz will be conducting an author talk at the University of Michigan on June 16, 3-4 pm. It’s free to attend via Zoom – register here: umlib.us/superman.
SUPERMAN is the most famous character in the world. He’s the first superhero, an American icon—and he’s Jewish!
Introduced in June 1938, the Man of Steel was created by two Jewish teens, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the sons of immigrants from Eastern Europe. They based their hero’s origin story on Moses, his strength on Samson, his mission on the golem and his nebbish secret identity on themselves. They made him a refugee fleeing catastrophe on the eve of World War II and sent him to tear Nazi tanks apart nearly two years before the US joined the war.
In following decades Superman’s mostly Jewish writers, artists and editors continued to borrow Jewish motifs for their stories, basing Krypton’s past on Genesis and Exodus, its civilization on Jewish culture, the trial of Lex Luthor on Adolf Eichmann’s and a holiday celebrating Superman on Passover.
Exploring these underlying themes of a beloved modern mythology, Is Superman Circumcised? The Complete Jewish History of the World’s Greatest Hero is a fascinating and entertaining journey through comic book lore, American history and Jewish tradition, sure to give readers a newfound appreciation for the Mensch of Steel!
Roy is the author of Is Superman Circumcised? The Complete Jewish History of the World’s Greatest Hero (McFarland ’21) and The Darkness in Lee’s Closet and the Others Waiting There (Aelurus ’18).
He has written for newspapers, magazines, websites, academic organizations and journals, law firms, tech companies, toy companies, and production studios. He has taught English and writing at CUNY, the City University of New York, and is a former writer-in-residence at the New York Public Library. When not writing he is the director of marketing & business development of a regional law firm.
Roy graduated magna cum laude from the New School University with a BA in English, majoring in creative writing with a minor in journalism, and cum laude from NYU with an interdisciplinary MA in English and social thought, focusing on 19th century British and 20th century American literature. He interned for Marvel Comics.
Originally from Tel Aviv, Israel, Roy grew up a voracious reader of everything from Israeli novels to British plays to American comic books. He taught himself English from comics and cartoons, which is why he’s comfortable using words like “swell.”
Roy lives in Long Island, NY with his wife Kim, a bestselling author and editor, and their two children. He has a penchant for caffeine, candy, and a quality-over-quantity wardrobe.
Joe: You’re Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.
Norma: I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.
From Sunset Boulevard
“If you dream it, you can achieve it.” – Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) in Wonder Woman 1984
“Nothing good is born from lies.” – Diana (Gal Gadot) in Wonder Woman 1984
Sadly, this seems to be the season of watching big ticket blockbusters crammed onto a home screen. Furthermore, this seems to be the season where all of your Facebook friends march like lemmings to tell you what you’re supposed to think of said offerings before you even have had a chance to view them for yourself. Being the good-natured contrarian that my parents raised, I find myself in direct opposition to much of the feedback I’ve observed. To me, The Prom was kind-hearted escapism-with-attitude, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was a stagy self-indulgent slog, Midnight Sky was a resonant Truman Capote-meets-Ray Bradbury short (long) story, and Wonder Woman 1984 was a candy-coated (admittedly overstuffed) confection.
I loved The Prom. I, for one, like unapologetic musicals, and this Ryan Murphy production reads like Hairspray, The Greatest Showman, High School Musical, and Bye Bye Birdie had a socially progressive movie baby. Much needless ado has been made about (formerly?) beloved Carpool Karaokemaven James Corden playing a gay character, claiming his take is offensively stereotypical. Many critics’ descriptions have been as troubling as what they accuse Corden of perpetuating, if you ask me.
To me, it is one of Corden’s better and more thoughtful performances, layering broad comedy in a compelling gauze of pathos, to effectively depict a man struggling to find his path in the margins (in career, physicality, and, yes, sexuality). Corden is part of a free-wheeling quartet of Broadway narcissists (all compensating for respective ghosts of failures past) who descend on a small Indiana town to “rescue” it from its own prejudices after the local PTA shames and embarrasses a young lesbian (luminous newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman) in a way that would make even John Travolta’s character in Carriecringe.
Meryl Streep (channeling a caustic yet charming mix of Patti LuPone and Susan Lucci), Nicole Kidman (at her most winsomely fragile), and Andrew Rannells (all bounding and puppyish joy) are Corden’s partners in well-intentioned, occasionally misplaced crime, and they have fabulous chemistry. Kerry Washington is suitably evangelically vampy as the rigid PTA president, and Keegan-Michael Key is a pleasant surprise (both as a singer and actor) as the high school’s show tune loving principal. Tracey Ullmann pops up as Corden’s regretful Midwestern ma, and their reconciliation scene is a lovely little masterclass in heightened understatement.
Oh, right, I did say the movie is kicky fun, but nothing I’ve written here much indicates why. Working from Matthew Sklar’s buoyant Broadway production, Murphy and team overdo everything in all the right ways, juxtaposing all-too-real intolerance and heartache (basically everyone in the film is guilty of uninformed prejudice of one kind or another) with the metaphysical joys of unhinged singing, dancing, glitter, and sequins. All ends (predictably) happily, almost Shakespearean (if Shakespeare listened to Ariana Grande), and I dare you not to sit through the end credits with a stupid, hopeful grin on your face.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is also adapted from the stage, as legendary director George C. Wolfe brings August Wilson’s play to the screen. I suspect my disappointment is more to do with the source material than Wolfe’s sure-handed if claustrophobic direction. To be honest, I wanted more of Viola Davis’ dynamite Ma Rainey and less of … everyone else. Davis has one scene worthy of the Hollywood time capsule, eviscerating the misogynistic and racist capitalist machine that steals artists’ voices (quite literally as Rainey is committing her vocals to vinyl) and tosses people to the curb when they’ve outlived their usefulness.
The film depicts one day in a Chicago recording studio as Rainey fights with, well, anyone who crosses her path in defense of her vision and to retain her integrity in a world that reduces her to a commodity. THAT is the movie I wanted to see, but Wolfe gives preferred time to Rainey’s studio musicians, a group of men whose primary purpose seems to be representing inter-generational animosity among those with a Y-chromosome. Perhaps I’ve just had my fill for one lifetime of toxic male posturing, but I grew weary of their (endless) scenes.
In total, the film feels like it never really escapes the confines of the stage, and I may be among the few viewers underwhelmed by Chadwick Boseman’s performance. His work seems hammy and like he is in search of another movie altogether. I could be wrong, but the overwhelming praise for Boseman here feels like groupthink rhapsodizing given that he is no longer with us. I’m going to hell. See you there. Boseman remains a singular talent, but I don’t think time will be kind to this particular role, Oscar-winning as it likely will be.
Wonder Woman 1984 follows the loping narrative style of all inexplicably beloved films made in, well, 1984, and thereby is a kind of referendum on the cardboard excess and shallow instant gratification of that hollow era, nostalgia for which continues to plague us in insidious ways to this very day.
I found it nicely character driven with a strong cast and with a warm and (mostly) light touch, but plagued by some script/logic problems in its final act. All in all, it met my comics-loving expectations, and I enjoyed what they were doing. Gal Gadot remains a commanding presence in a way we just don’t see in screen stars these days. She’s not an actor per se, but she is a star.
Director Patty Jenkins has great Rube Goldberg-esque fun with one improbable action sequence after another. All were clearly nods to similar films of the 80s featuring, say, Superman or Indiana Jones but enhanced through modern Fast and the Furious-style tech and suspension of disbelief. I’m not looking for pragmatism in a movie like this. Sometimes I just want to be entertained, and WW84 did that for me
Jenkins makes the smart choice of casting talent who will connect the dots in a wafer-thin script. In the film, Kristen Wiig consistently makes smart acting choices as her character progresses from heartbreakingly nerdy sidekick to sullen and insolent supervillain, never losing the heartache of exclusion underneath it all. I thought she was a refreshing and inspired choice to play Barbara Minerva/Cheetah.
Dreamy/witty Chris Pine doesn’t get much dialogue/plot to work with as newly resurrected love interest Steve Trevor, but he shines nonetheless, wringing laughs from fish-out-of-water nuance without ever belaboring the joke.
Pedro Pascal balances Trumpian satire and Babbitt-esque tragedy as a gilded charlatan who believes 80s greed is the key to self-acceptance. He’s grand until the dodgy final act strands him somewhere on manic Gene Wilder-isle, and the film limps to its inevitable world-saving resolution.
I also think if people had watched WW84 on the big screen, they would have walked away with a different vibe. Some may disagree, but there’s a hidden psychological bump to paying for a ticket and investing time away from home (one WANTS the movie to be good) that is erased by the small screen – which has little to do with what is actually being viewed. IMHO.
The global warming parable Midnight Sky (directed by and starring George Clooney), however, benefits from small screen viewing. That said, the film’s outer space, nail biting, race-against-time elements have all been covered (sometimes better) in The Martian, Interstellar, Ad Astra, and George Clooney’s own Gravity. Hell, throw in Event Horizon, Sunshine, and The Black Hole for good measure.
Rather, I enjoyed the film’s quiet moments with Clooney as the sole (maybe?) survivor on an ice-covered Earth, as he fights the elements, time, and his own failing health to deter a deep-space crew from returning to their certain death on an uninhabitable planet. I didn’t give two hoots about the space mission, which included Felicity Jones, Kyle Chandler, David Oyelowo, and Tiffany Boone, all doing their level best to make us care. However, I was transfixed by an almost unrecognizable Clooney who checked his golden boy charm at the door and exquisitely projected the exhaustion and anxiety and fear of someone nearing the literal end. So, in other words, how most of us feel in 2020.
If it were up to me, I would edit out all of the space-faring scenes and leave the film’s focus on George Clooney alone in a post-apocalyptic arctic, yielding a transcendent hour-long Twilight Zone episode.
Now, let’s see how I fare in the Twitterverse when I finally turn to watching Disney’s/Pixar’s Soul …
Postscript …what follows is an email sent to my mother Susie Sexton this afternoon about 1960’s classic Cimarron. They don’t make movies like this any more, and that’s a shame.
From IMDB’s synopsis: “The epic saga of a frontier family, Cimarron starts with the Oklahoma Land Rush on 22 April 1889. The Cravet family builds their newspaper Oklahoma Wigwam into a business empire and Yancey Cravet is the adventurer-idealist who, to his wife’s anger, spurns the opportunity to become governor since this means helping to defraud the native Americans of their land and resources.”
I just finished Cimarron and liked it very very much. I do think that Edna Ferber captures perhaps somewhat formulaically but absolutely effectively, the passage and snowballing magnitude of time and life, with a lovely progressive sensibility (pun unintended).
Maria Schell is exquisite. I don’t think the film would’ve been half as good without her in it. I really like Anne Baxter too. Their one scene together is quite understated and powerful.
Glenn Ford is of course great too, but Maria Schell really got to me. She acts in a style ahead of its time. It’s a beautiful film, but at least in the first ten minutes I kept expecting them to burst into song. When it really digs into their struggle and unpredictable relationship, it’s very powerful. The supporting cast was of course great since all of those people had been in one million films already.
Thanks for recommending this! Love you!
My family loves movies. We always have. It is our cultural shorthand, and every holiday – until this one – has been spent in communion over what movies we saw, how they made us think and feel, and what these films might say about our culture and its advancement. That is in short why I write this blog. I can’t imagine watching a movie without having the opportunity to share how it speaks to my heart and mind.
Thank you for reading these thoughts of mine for nearly ten years (!), inspired as they are by a lifetime of loving movies.
Yes, I’m an adult (sort of) who reads (and enjoys) comic books. I’ve always relished the escapist interludes comics frequently provide. But sometimes they are transcendant.
A few times in my life, be they in epic scale (Marv Wolfman’s and George Pérez’ Crisis On Infinite Earths, Brad Meltzer’s and Rags Morales’ Identity Crisis, Grant Morrison’s and Howard Porter’s JLA) or clear-eyed cultural critique (Alan Moore’s and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Reggie Hudlin’s and John Romita, Jr.’s Black Panther), the books left me speechless and deeply moved, notably in terms of how metaphorically revelatory these pieces can be about our sometimes joyous, often painful human condition.
Add The Other History of the DC Universe to that storied (pun intended) list. Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave screenwriter John Ridley pens a compelling, heartrending, corrosive yet loving treatment of the history of the DC Universe from the eyes of heroes of color left in the (literal) margins. Giuseppe Camuncoli and Andrea Cucchi provide gorgeous illustrations that are expansive, exhilarating, and somehow both retro AND forward-leaning.
In the first issue, Jefferson Pierce AKA Black Lightning takes us from 1972 through 1995, juxtaposing “real” world and “DC Comics’ world” events of that era with an incisive point-of-view that is eye-opening, transformative, damning, beautiful, and human. You might never look at Superman the same way again, yet you are even more appreciative of these characters and their ability to reflect our own ever-evolving societal perspectives on equality, fair play, and inclusion. Can’t wait to read the rest.
Want to join me in supporting a good cause? For my birthday this month (December 28 to be exact!), I’m raising money for Ronald McDonald House Charities Ann Arbor and your contribution will make an impact, whether you donate $5 or $500. Just click donate on this fundraising page: https://lnkd.in/eQ_NVZD
I’m a proud board member and have seen firsthand how every little bit helps. This little fundraiser is nearing the two thousand dollar mark because of wonderful support from kind and generous friends like you!
Thanks to our donors-to-date: Beth Kennedy, Greg Griffin, Terry Branoff, Paola Armeni, Chris Sheeren, Aaron Bebee, Rachel Shields Williams, Megan McKeon, Morgan Leigh Horvitz, Monica Phillips, Dianne Rychlewski, Kristen Bateman Leis, Becky Felix, Anna Ostrander, Eric Walkuski, Donna Ballantyne, Christine N. Harris, Jennifer Munsayac, Barry Solomon, Kate Meltzer, Laurin Hawkins, Connie Harris, Cynthia Voth, Tina Paraventi, Amy Oldiges, Tammy Gales Mangan, Kelly MacKinnon, Sally Feldman, Petrea Schumacher, Brook Weeks Redmond, and Sarah Gallagher. Love you ❤️
Thank you for your support.
Legal Marketing Coffee Talk is back Monday with host Roy Sexton (ME!), Director of Marketing at Clark Hill, and guest Stephanie D. Preston, PhD and professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. Dr. Preston examines how the brain evolved to use emotions to influence decisions across species, particularly in interpersonal and investment contexts.
How does this apply to legal marketing!?
Well, Dr. Preston focuses her attention on our desires and how our neural processes that originally evolved to guide mammals toward resources that are necessary but scarce may mislead us in our current modern conditions of material abundance. In other words, she will help us understand how our brains work. She will also explain to us the interesting connection between marketing and psychology and how their connection has led to overconsumption in some areas.
Based on the classic Fawcett Comics character Captain Marvel, Shazam was acquired by DC Comics in a copyright dispute in the 1950s over the character’s (overstated) similarities to Superman. DC, ironically in turn, lost the rights to use the name (but not the character) “Captain Marvel” to Marvel Comics in the 1970s, and Marvel’s version of “Captain Marvel” had her cinematic debut one month ago. Consequently, DC’s “Captain Marvel” now goes by “Shazam,” which in actuality is the magic word young Billy Batson exclaims to become “The Big Red Cheese” Captain Marvel (but we can’t actually call him “Captain Marvel” any more). Clear as mud? Thanks a lot, intellectual property laws. (It’s all explained much better and in much more detail here.)
None of this matters one whit to your ultimate enjoyment of David F. Sandberg’s film treatment of Shazam (which was also a corny Saturday morning Filmation live action series in the 1970s and a Republic serial in the 1940s). For the casual film-goer, the more relevant comparison is to Tom Hanks’ classic comedy Big as a wish fulfillment fantasy of a little boy lost who assumes adulthood (and superpowers) will solve all his real-life problems (spoiler alert: they don’t). Shazam even offers an onscreen nod to Big’s FAO Schwartz super-sized floor piano keyboard duet.
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
Asher Angel (think young Zac Efron, but a bit less precious) plays foster kid Billy Batson, ever on the hunt for the birth mother he lost years ago at a winter carnival and who mysteriously never reclaimed her son. Batson bounces from group home to group home until he lands at the beautifully blended foster home of Rosa and Victor Vasquez (warm and earthy Marta Milans and Cooper Andrews). Overeager and lonely foster brother Freddy Freeman (It‘s Jack Dylan Grazer in a dynamite and heartbreaking turn) introduces Billy to the nerdy joys of super hero trivia, and, before we know it, flash-bam-boom!, Billy finds himself one subway stop away from the magical “Rock of Eternity,” imbued with magical abilities by an ancient wizard (an almost unrecognizable Djimon Hounsou).
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
When Billy shouts “Shazam!” (acronym of Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury and the respective abilities of each), the young boy transforms into 6’3″ Zachary Levi (Chuck, Tangled, She Loves Me) whose sitcom/musical comedy ethos paired with a physique that now seems to have muscles-on-top-of-muscles makes him the perfect choice for this whimsical hero.
The film is saddled, as are most comic book adaptations alas, with a “take over the world” megalomaniac antagonist. This time, Mark Strong plays Dr. Sivana, and, in his typical glowering skinny/tall-British-Stanley-Tucci-with-dodgy-dental-work-way, Strong meanders about the film, saying vaguely apocalyptic things and shooting energy bolts from his hands. He’s completely unnecessary.
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
Thematically, Strong’s primary contribution seems to be to further the film’s exploration of family lost and family gained. Sivana’s father is a Lex Luthor-esque SOB, played by the go-to actor for Lex-Luthor-esque SOBs John Glover (Gremlins 2, Smallville … where, in fact, he played Lex Luthor’s dad) whose brutal parenting style predictably turns his little lad into a grade-A psychopath.
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
Shazam! works best when the film turns its gaze toward the adorable band of misfits in Billy’s foster home. The child actors are loving, lovable, believable, and kind. The challenges Billy endures embracing his new home and relinquishing his dream of reuniting with his birth mother are poignant and accessible and juxtapose nicely with the comic farce of him learning to be a proper super hero. Levi is an utter delight playing a 14-year-old boy in an (overgrown) man’s body, attempting superheroics when all he really wants to do is gobble junk food and play video games. At one point, Batson in his superhero persona observes, “If a superhero can’t save his family, he’s not much of a hero after all.” Amen to that. Amen to that.
Thanks to my boss Susan and coworker Megan for this! #wishfulfillment
“All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and whenever they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you, digger, listener, runner, prince with the swift warning. Be cunning and full of tricks and your people shall never be destroyed.” ― Richard Adams, Watership Down
When even our escapist entertainment reminds us of the dystopia in which we are currently living as Americans, you know things are dire indeed. This weekend we took in a Saturday night production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast by our talented pals at Augusta, Michigan’s Barn Theatre and a Sunday matinee of the film adaptation of Alexandra Bracken’s young adult novel The Darkest Minds. Both were engaging diversions, and, yet, as I sat through both, I was reminded repeatedly of how disconcertingly life imitates art.
If there were ever a tale as old as time that functions as a parable of toxic masculinity, it is Disney’s take on Beauty and the Beast, adapted from Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s fairy tale first as an Academy Award-winning animated musical in 1991, then as a Broadway stage show in 1994, and finally as a live action film musical in 2017. And it’s made boatloads of cash in each iteration.
Andrea Arvanigian as Belle and Charlie King as Maurice in “Beauty and the Beast” at Barn Theatre.
Let’s see. Belle, a bookish beauty, is caught between two brutes: 1) a misogynistic and vainglorious hunter (Gaston) who sees her as a trophy to be bullied and berated into submission and 2) a literal beast of a man who forces an exchange of her imprisonment for her father’s freedom and locks her in his castle until she succumbs to his “charms.” It may as well be renamed “#MeToo: The Musical.”
As always, the Barn wows with their stagecraft, turning around a technically complex show with barely a week of rehearsal, all the while smiling and parking cars and mowing lawns and serving drinks and selling souvenirs. Be our guest, indeed!
I’d never seen the stage iteration, and I admit to having some difficulty with the first act which pads out the narrative with some forgettable numbers and comic bits and belabors the Beast’s darker impulses to the point that we begin to lose the sense of isolation and loneliness that humanizes him in the films (not Alan Menken’s and Tim Rice’s finest work – Rice took over for the late Howard Ashman for the Broadway adaptation’s additional material). I now understand why Disney went back to the drawing board with last year’s live action flick, rather than adapt the stage version.
Swiped from Jamey’s Facebook page … sorry (not sorry)!
That said, Jamey Grisham as the titular beast does a lovely job working around those limitations and giving us a Beast who is more of a woebegone man-child than an outright Stanley Kowalski caveman. As I said to him following last night’s performance, his Beast was like a misunderstood pit bull who’d been left at the shelter too long. He looked at me quizzically, but, believe me, for an animal lover like me, that’s high praise. Jamey has the voice of an angel and moves beautifully, but arguably his finest moment is his quietest: when Belle reads King Arthur aloud to the admittedly illiterate Beast. The tender poignancy of Andrea Arvanigian’s Belle sharing a beloved tome with a creature who has never received the most basic of kindnesses is palpable. And the subtle canine physicality that Grisham brings to the scene (how does a Beast sit in a chair, anyway?) is heartwarmingly whimsical.
Albert Nelthropp as Gaston in Barn Theatre’s “Beauty and Beast.”
Albert Nelthropp has a true gift for balancing the cartoonish and the menacing as Gaston. He never misses a comic beat, has a voice (and articulation) that fills the cavernous Barn space, and possesses that rare ability to be likable without losing the utter despicability of his character. Penelope Alex is a lovely and warm Mrs. Potts, delivering the title tune in a soft and lullaby-like manner.
And Hans Friedrichs is having the time of his life as Maurice Chevalier-inspired major domo Lumiere. Few performers could be as elegantly hysterical with (basically) a flashlight strapped to the end of each arm. He and Samantha Rickard as his paramour-turned-feather-duster Babette are a hoot.
Be sure to stick around for the Bar Show, a Barn Theatre tradition where the apprentices take over the Rehearsal Shed post-performance to deliver a kooky comic cabaret with polish and panache. Grisham directs and choreographs (is there anything this man can’t do?) with a zippy but inclusive efficiency.
The Disney theme continues with numbers from Coco, The Aristocats, and The Lion King, plus the lost number “Disneyland” from Marvin Hamlisch’s and Howard Ashman’s musicalization of Smile and a pretty epic opener “The Greatest Show” from Benj Pasek and Justin Paul‘s The Greatest Showman (which, for all intents and purposes, should be a Disney musical … but isn’t).
Video clipsat the bottom of this post.
From musicalized misogyny on Saturday to a sci fi fable on Sunday about children locked in cages by the government, forcibly separated from their parents – The Darkest Minds … I told you our entertainment choices this weekend seemed oddly ripped from today’s headlines. Or I just spend way to much time trolling CNN’s and MSNBC’s websites.
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
The Darkest Minds has been unfairly pilloried by critics. It’s not awful. It’s not great either. The cinematic universe is now littered with Ray Bradbury-esque young adult future-shock franchises that aspired to the box office glory of Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games but never quite made it past the starting gate: The Golden Compass, The Mortal Instruments,Beautiful Creatures, Percy Jackson, Divergent, I Am Number Four, and so on. Judging by ticket sales this past weekend, Darkest Minds will be in the trash heap of failed young adult film series as well.
That’s a bit of a shame, as I found its depressing and ominous qualities oddly … refreshing (?). It is necessarily discomforting in today’s world to watch a piece of popcorn entertainment depict young children forcibly ripped from their parents’ arms and sent to internment camps for being “different” (albeit in this instance for having super powers). Yes, we’ve covered this territory a lot; hell, it’s basically the same premise Marvel’s X-Men have been milking for nearly sixty years. Yet, it remains timely. Sadly timely.
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
The film probably would have worked better as a bleak TV series – something you watch on NetFlix on a grey Sunday afternoon, while still in your pajamas and eating an entire box of Cap’n Crunch cereal.
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
In her first live action film (after Kung Fu Panda), Jennifer Yuh Nelson has assembled a capable and transfixing cast, even if they are in servitude to a fairly pedestrian and episodic script. A luminous and haunting Amandla Stenberg (Rue from the original Hunger Games) plays telepathically gifted Ruby Daly – as in all of these sorts of films, she is the Christ/Skywalker/Superman-like “one who will save us all.”
Stenberg is a star in the making, so her mere presence makes the film far more interesting to watch than it should be. A la Dorothy in Oz, she has a band of scruffy friends – Harris Dickinson as dreamy love interest Liam, Skylan Brooks as cerebral Chubbs, Miya Cech as mute Zu – who aid and abet her adventures. The foursome are by far the best thing in the film with a chemistry that deserves a far better vehicle to showcase it.
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
They are on the run from a rather confusing collection of government entities and rebel factions that have sprung up in the wake of a nationwide virus that has killed 90% of America’s children and left the remaining 10% with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Uplifting, eh?
Of course, all the adults – well-meaning and earnest Mandy Moore (that’s pretty much her range right there), glowering Gwendoline Christie (sadly sans her shiny Star Wars Stormtrooper helmet), and West Wing‘s Bradley Whitford being all West Wing-y as, yes, the President – are on a mission to collect the super kids to do … well … something? Take over the world? Kill the remaining kids? Clean boots and grow vegetables? Heck, I have no idea.
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
Arguably, the best outcome for the tens of people who will have walked past Mission: Impossible or Mamma Mia! to go see The Darkest Minds is that some of them might be inspired to pick up the far superior Watership Down by Richard Adams and give it a spin.
Ruby improbably finds a paperback copy in an abandoned shopping mall, reads it to her compatriots, and then repeats ad nauseum Adams’ narrator’s memorable caution to “Prince Rabbit” that “all the world will be your enemy.”
Sadly, these days, those words seem more prescient than ever. So much for escapist entertainment.
Disney Pixar’s Incredibles 2, picking up 14 years (!) after the last film hit theatres, is about as subversive as a movie full of pixelated superheroes can be. This is the film our country needs right now. People will flock to this – Blue States on the coasts and Red States in the middle – and none will be the wiser that directing wunderkind Brad Bird has given us the ultimate Ray Bradburdy-esque allegory for our topsy turvy political times.
For instance, Holly Hunter’s Elastigirl – offered a Faustian contract by media-hack Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk) to publicly redeem superheroes who have been outlawed in the Incredibles’ flawlessly production-designed mid-century moment – queries, “To help my family I have to leave it. To fix the law, I have to break it.” Does that sound familiar … or what?! (I won’t even get into our present debate over the horror of separating immigrant families from their children at the border … oh, Elastigirl, how we need you right now.)
The first Incredibles surprised us all, billed as it was as a four-color throwback to superhero shenanigans of movie matinee yore. Yet, in reality, it was a brilliantly executed existential treatise on surviving in a world of ageist disposability and politically charged hypocrisy. In both films, Bird uses the titular Spandex’d family (homage as they are to Marvel’s own Fantastic Four) to explore thorny issues of identity politics, socioeconomic disparity, and xenophobia. (For those of you rolling your eyes, watch the first film again and tell me I’m wrong. In fact, I would argue that, taken together, The Incredibles are a far better “spiritual adaptation” of Alan Moore’s and Dave Gibbons’ seminal Watchmen than Zack Snyder’s slavishly literal 2009 film treatment of said graphic novel.)
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Bird has woven into both films an infectious love of 60s caper-television fare a la Mission: Impossible,The Man from UNCLE, and Jonny Quest, aided and abetted by his pitch-perfect musical soundtrack partner Michael Giacchino, whose shameless worship of Lalo Schifrin, John Barry, and Herbie Hancock is as obvious as the “i” on Mr. Incredible’s Buick-sized chest.
Of all Pixar’s storied output, The Incredibles films go the greatest distance, creating a self-contained universe of exceptional design and unimpeachable character and holding an outsized mirror to the heartbreaking flaws in our present reality.
Incredibles 2 is one of those rare sequels that meets if not exceeds its predecessor. This may be the Godfather 2 of Pixar flicks.
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
The first film debuted before Marvel Studios’ ascent to cinematic glory, not to mention Marvel’s subsequent acquisition by Disney, and this sequel appears after the first major chapter of Marvel’s meteoric rise comes to a close with Avengers: Infinity War. Not sure what to make of that, but The Incredibles‘ wry, relatable commentary is arguably far more sophisticated than that of any other superhero flicks we have seen … or likely ever will. (I’m pretty sure this is the only superhero movie, let alone animated film, I’ve ever seen that has used the word “conflate” in a line of dialogue.)
We meet our heroes, one day following the events of the first film, as they continue to bump along in life – Olympian gods suffering through the mundanities of middle American subsistence. The super-family’s well-intentioned intervention of a bank heist goes awry, and they find themselves in the slammer and without the aid of their super-handler Rick Dicker, who has decided a life of retirement is preferable to one of damage control for a family of super-powered freaks. He observes ruefully, “You want out of the hole? You should put down the shovel.”
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
In Dicker’s absence, PR maven Winston Deavor steps forward with a scheme to celebrate Elastigirl and thereby rehabilitate the negative image “supers” have suffered in The Incredibles-universe for years. Mr. Incredible (with heart-breaking comic voice work by Craig T. Nelson) is left at home with a super-powered infant Jack-Jack (whose anarchic impulses yield increasingly zany and haunting consequences) as well as two angsty tweens: the invisible Violet and the speedster Dash. Oh, and Deavor’s sister Evelyn (a delightfully sardonic Catherine Keener) may or may not be on the side of the angels. TBD.
The movie touches on just about every zeitgeist issue hitting today’s headlines: women who have lived far too long in the shadows of men; the dilemma of finally finding one’s “moment” when the obligations of daily life make it impossible to actually enjoy it; a fear-mongering government whose reach far exceeds its grasp; and the unerring need of the media and elected officials to scapegoat the marginalized for all of society’s failings. Not incidentally, Incredibles 2 is a funny-as-hell, fizzy-a$$ bottle-rocket of entertainment.
Yes, fan-favorites Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson, all wisenheimer perfection) and Edna Mode (director Brad Bird doing double-duty as the voice of the fussy Edith Head-inspired “capes and cowls” designer) make their triumphant returns. Mode particularly enjoys a delightful sequence where her take-no-prisoners approach to fashion ends up yielding exceptional parenting tips to Mr. Incredible: “Done properly, parenting is a heroic act.”
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
The film’s antagonist declares in the movie’s final act that “superheroes make us weak,” asserting that our reliance on escapist fare prevents us from living our most authentic lives.
It’s a twisty and cynical bit of meta-commentary, embedded as it is in a film produced by a media empire (Disney’s) raking in billions from our foolhardy fantasies that Captain America will somehow save our hides from the real-life fascists ruining our country. Fair enough.
But all hail Pixar for yet again offering us – under the deceptive and intoxicating guise of family friendly entertainment – a healthy dose of philosophical medicine just when we desperately need it … a big gulp of fortifying spinach to counteract the real-life Krytonite sapping our spirits on a daily basis. (Yes, I just mixed my Popeye and Superman metaphors. Go sue me, Lex Luthor.)
Justice League isn’t getting a fair shake. At all. Was there far too much hype, including an insane amount of expectation put on this film to be DC’s answer to the cinematic superhero genre’s watershed Avengers? Indubitably. Did DC dig its own grave by playing coy about reviews and critical response in advance of Justice League‘s pre-Thanksgiving release? Yep. Is the critical backlash reflective of years of pent-up frustration that producer/director Zack Snyder continues to crank out one overindulgent, sophomoric, bleak video-game-by-Abercrombie-&-Fitch-esque flick after another? Darn tootin’.
And that’s a shame.
Justice League is a lot of fun with a crackerjack cast and a ton of lovely character beats (no doubt courtesy of co-director/screenwriter Joss Whedon – Avengers, Buffy – who stepped in when Snyder left the production after a family tragedy). A few years ago, this film would have been a critical and popular blockbuster, but in a year that brought us smarter, savvier, and edgier comic book fare like Thor: Ragnarok, Spider-Man: Homecoming,Logan, and DC’s own Wonder Woman, Justice League pales in comparison as it pretty much aims for the Saturday matinee crowd and succeeds on those popcorn terms.
The plot is more or less lifted from The Avengers … and any superhero movie of the 80s or 90s. There is a rather forgettable villain in the form of Steppenwolf (part of Jack Kirby’s Fourth World/New Gods saga), a tragically Shakespearean character in print, rendered CGI-mundane and unrecognizable (voiced by Ciaran Hinds) in the film. He journeys to Earth to conquer our planet and thereby reclaim his place in the royal family of his intergalactic despot nephew Darkseid. The “MacGuffins” (a la Marvel’s “infinity stones”) are three “Mother Boxes” that have been hidden on Earth thousands of years ago by the Amazons, Atlanteans, and mankind and that, when united, will create some globby-swirly-Jackson-Pollock-looking “engine of destruction” to wipe all of us from the globe. Steppenwolf is aided by an army of screeching bug-warriors called Parademons who primarily serve the purpose of letting our Super Friend heroes bash and smash in a fairly bloodless PG-friendly way.
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Now that you’ve read that byzantine description, please note that none of that matters. What does matter is the delightful dynamic created among luminous a$$-kicker Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman and DC Universe newcomers Ezra Miller as a delightfully manic and winsome Flash and Jason Momoa as a brash and swaggering yet completely adorable Aquaman. The bit with Aquaman and Wonder Woman’s “lasso of truth” is particularly priceless.
Ben Affleck seems to be running on vapors at this point as Batman, but his sullen exhaustion just accentuates the sparkling character work of Gadot, Miller, and Momoa. The trio also brings out the best in Henry Cavill, who heretofore seems to have struggled with the balance of homespun charm and godlike awe required of Superman. We even get to see Superman crack a joke or two and … wait for it …smile!
(Spoiler alert: surprising no one, Cavill, whose character died in the previous Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice – lord, THAT TITLE?!?! – is brought back to life in a fairly convoluted but nonetheless poignant sequence that evokes as much of Joss Whedon’s own Buffy the Vampire Slayer as it does DC’s classic Death of Superman comics event.)
Rounding out the League is Ray Fisher’s Cyborg (who in the comics actually started his career as a Teen Titan but was upgraded to League founding member in one of DC Comics’ never-ending and exhausting universe reboots a few years ago). Fisher is saddled with a burdensome CGI “costume” that only affords him about 1/3 of his face with which to turn in any kind of performance. Alas, he gets a bit lost in the shuffle. Nonetheless, I thought he did credible work conveying the Frankenstein’s monster dilemma of having remarkable powers (in this case, 90% of his body being replaced with robot parts) at the expense of losing his humanity and any kind of so-called “normal” life.
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There are a number of fun turns in the supporting cast from Jeremy Irons’ acerbic Alfred Pennyworth to JK Simmons’ hard-boiled yet hopeful Commissioner James Gordon. Amy Adams does her best with a handful of underwritten Lois Lane-in-mopey-mourning scenes, and Diane Lane continues to breathe feisty life into Superman’s Ma Kent. Billy Crudup (once Doctor Manhattan in Zack Snyder’s overbaked Watchmen) is heartbreaking as Barry Allen’s/The Flash’s falsely incarcerated papa. Amber Heard’s Mera (eventually Aquaman’s wife) looks the part but has far too little to do, and the same can be said for Connie Nielsen’s Amazonian Queen Hippolyta, regrettably downgraded to mere cannon fodder.
The film’s color palette is brighter than anything we’ve seen in the DC oeuvre to date (save Wonder Woman), replacing the sepia tones of Batman v. Superman or Suicide Squad or Man of Steel with some pops of four-color glory, especially as the film barrels toward its denouement. Danny Elfman’s score is also notable in that it boldly incorporates themes from previously “out of continuity” DC films like the original Superman and Batman movies, sonically (at least) indicating that maybe DC learned a lesson from the success of the humane and witty Wonder Woman and is allowing a little life and joy into the larger franchise.
Justice League seems to offer a message of transition, ending on an optimistic note of friendship and collaboration, family and hope. We haven’t seen too much of that in DC’s films since Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy or the “official” kick-off of DC’s extended cinematic universe Man of Steel. That lack of joy has hobbled these films to date (again, save Wonder Woman). I can only wish that audiences ignore Justice League‘s critical drubbing and give the frisky if simplistic adaptation a chance and reward the filmmakers for this much-needed course correction.
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Irons’ Alfred reflects to Affleck’s Bruce Wayne early in the film, “I don’t recognize this world.” Bruce replies, “I don’t have to recognize it. Just save it.” Amen. DC did just that with Justice League, IMHO.
Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital).
I loved Wonder Woman as a little kid – the escapist kitsch of the Lynda Carter TV version with the spinning costume changes and the disco theme song and that Pepsodent-grinning Lyle Waggoner.
As I entered adolescence, the DC Comics version went through her own renaissance, led in great part by one of my favorite writers/artists George Perez (and later advanced in equal measure by Phil Jimenez and Greg Rucka). Diana, Amazonian princess, rediscovered her mythic Greek roots, fully embracing all of the soapy sudsy sturm-und-drang that being the daughter of Zeus and Hyppolyta can bring with a whole heaping helping of jealous demi-god cousins, stepmothers, and half-siblings biting at her heels. Those stories were great fun (for the reader … not so much for Diana herself.)
I’m happy to report that the new (and first?!) cinematic treatment of Wonder Woman honors all that has come before, even incorporating a bit of original creator William Moulton Marston’s skeezy blend of feminist kink (see: Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor exiting an Amazonian glowing warm springs hot tub while Diana’s gaze sizes him up – literally – but she is ultimately more interested in his wristwatch than anything else.)
Whether or not Wonder Woman finally breaks the Zack Snyder-invoked curse of stinkeroo movie-making that has blighted DC Comics’ cinematic output to date or is merely the brilliant exception that proves the rule remains to be seen. Nonetheless, director Patty Jenkins (Monster) working from a script by Allan Heinberg (who rocked the comics world over ten years ago with the similarly humanistic Young Avengers) gives us a return to form for classically majestic comic book movie making (Richard Donner’s Superman, Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy) with a nod toward Marvel’s postmodern humane whimsy (Captain America, Ant-Man) but with a surety of voice and purpose that is wholly its own.
Is it feminist? Of course it is! Unapologetically and utterly inclusively so.
“Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.” Diana, as portrayed with warmth and fire and wit and steel by Gal Gadot, is a stranger in a strange land to whom all creatures (man, woman, child, animal) deserve respect and love … and if you are incapable of showing that love, she’ll unequivocally kick your ass.
Making the interesting choice to set the action during WWI (Wonder Woman has traditionally been more associated with WWII), Jenkins and Heinberg make absolute hay with a setting where war was arguably at its peak of muddy, bloody brutality and where the nascent suffrage movement continued to make waves (pro and con) for women in society.
In Wonder Woman, Gadot fulfills the promise of her all-too-brief screen time in the comparatively glum and humorless (and horrifically titled) Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, delivering a star turn for the ages. It is not a showy performance (ironic, I know, since she is wearing a glittering metallic bathing suit, wielding a mammoth sword, deflecting lightning bolts with her bracelets, and, you know, flying) but is layered with beautiful notes of heartache, ironic detachment, utter bemusement, and complete bewilderment over a world designed chiefly to destroy.
She is joined by a stellar supporting cast – the aforementioned Pine who turns his character actor good looks into matinee idol charm as mansplaining sidekick Steve Trevor, glowering Danny Huston as a German warmonger, David Thewlis as a British idealogue whose rhetoric seems to urge a quick and speedy armistice, Elena Anaya as a bruised soul whose distaste for humanity leads her to develop poisonous gasses of mass destruction, and Lucy Davis stealing every scene as bantering “secretary” Etta Candy whose delight at being in the presence of a woman (Diana), who could give two whits about societal decorum, is utterly infectious.
The film is at its most thrilling when Diana leads a ragtag band of adorably mismatched soldiers across the Western Front, herself marching directly through the battle lines, armed only with her wits, her magic bracelets, and her righteous indignation over the horrors she has just witnessed befalling everyday families (and horses). I may have cried a little (a lot) during that sequence.
Wonder Woman‘s only misstep is in its length. At nearly 2.5 hours, the film’s running time strains audience patience. Though beautiful and transporting, the movie’s opening third, set in Diana’s home Themiscyra or “Paradise Island” amidst a utopia of warrior women, is, well, kind of a bore. While it is essential to show Amazonian society, which is designed through reason and equality, contrasted with man’s ugly world, locked as it is in the plague of war, we could have used about 20 fewer minutes of pristine beaches, jewel-hued skies, horseback-riding, and Queen Hyppolyta (Connie Nielsen) and her dutiful General Antiope (Robin Wright) stumbling to mimic Gadot’s irrepressibly undefinable accent. (At times, I wondered if the Amazon nation settled off Greece by way of Transylvania.)
Hyppolyta warns Diana early in the film, in a line that foreshadows thematically all that is to come, “Be careful in the world of men, Diana, for they do not deserve you.” Indeed, we do not deserve Wonder Woman, but we do need her and her message of inclusion and peace, tolerance and integrity … now, more than ever.
P.S. And, rest in peace, to that other superhero icon of my youth, Adam West, whose Batman introduced me to a universe of colorful characters that I still love to this day.
Thank you to Rose McInerney of WomanScape for her kind words and for referencing the above Wonder Woman review in her fabulous site’s latest and greatest. Rose writes, “So, while Wonder Woman is undoubtedly good storytelling with a sizable marketing budget, its success is also explained by key factors in our changing world. The first of these is the growing number of men like movie reviewer Roy Sexton who are joining with women to help promote the Diana-like warriors in our world. Roy lends his unabashed support and writing talents advocating for feminism and equal rights.” Read here.