Tuesday, May 03, 2016

new contributions at Mockingbird, getting back to cartoons and superheroes, a few thoughts on film criticism in an era of sympathy for the devils

Certain semi-notorious topics withstanding, this blog has never been dedicated to any one set of topics.  And I've never stopped taking time here and there to write about the DCAU.  Actually ... I've written a lot of stuff about the DCAU and the DC inspired films for Mockingbird over the years.

Here's a long-form piece of criticism about my not enjoying Batman vs Superman, why I didn't much enjoy it, and why I've found that in some ways negative reviews of the film have also been disappointing.


It's not surprising that film critics might find the religious images invoked by Batman vs Superman hamfisted without even being able to explain why.  It sometimes seemed as if literacy were at a low ebb on the topic of religion and comics alike for film critics.  But then ... let's take a quick look at what film critics had to say about The Witch earlier this year.

If you’re asking me, I find this film to be a passionate paean to the feminine. The forest and the farm at its edge are metaphors we’d all do well to contemplate, but human aggression delivers the most crushing blows here. I’d like to think that, for thoughtful viewers, The Witch may crystallize, then fossilize, and then transcend centuries of abuse, mistrust, and fear. But make no mistake: there is also arrogance here, and cruelty, and selfishness. I am woman, watch me burn. And hang. And drown. And fly through the moonlit night.

Not everyone got the same impression about the film, which has gotten praise for thinking outside of one box while studiously thinking inside another.

By Will Leitch
February 19, 2016

The Witch is the sort of horror movie that gets a ton of praise for its dogged resistance to conventional scary movie tropes. An indie hit out of Sundance last year, The Witch is the type of film that’s a success at film festivals but tends to evaporate once released into the wild; what works in the relentless hustle of a festival can feel airless when introduced to the elements of regular human audiences. The Witch is wrapped up in its own views of religion, of sin, of feminine power, but more than anything else, it is wrapped up in itself.

Which other box?  The way the film has been parsed as an ode to female empowerment has been interesting to read this year, particularly with commentary like this:

Normally, the fall of the main character in the final scene of a horror movie would be a director’s gloomy or gleeful surrender to evil. But The Witch presents Thomasin’s conversion as a victory for her: Embracing Satan allows her to escape from the physical hardship, moral hypocrisy, and gendered violence that’s tortured her thus far. (Given how few people in the Calvinist universe actually belong to the divine elect, hedging your bets by becoming a cursed, uberpowerful immortal is just good sense.) I can’t overstate just how shocking this moment feels, when you realize that the movie has up until now perpetrated a fundamental deception about its own point of view. All along, Eggers has stood on the Devil’s side; the triumph of the forces he’s trained us to dread and fear actually constitutes a happy ending. This hugely daring reversal could read as a middle finger to viewers, who’ve spent the past hour and change sympathizing with the pilgrims and rooting against the dark hosts. But don’t have such a limiting, orthodox view of what a horror movie ought to accomplish! Let the film’s ending serve as a reminder—as a certain goat might say—how delicious heresy can be.
So when film critics leap at the chance to propose that a young women who decides to join a coven after her family is killed off has gained agency by more or less dealing with witches that comes off as, well, one commenter at ArtsFuse put it this way:
Another positive review for a movie that I despise more and more with every positive review I see. The only way I can stand this movie is to see it the way that @Mirasalena01 over at The Wild Hunt sees it — as a pogrom against extremism. Otherwise this is just a depressing fairy tale with the message “If you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em.” Eggers could’ve saved the energy and money he wasted on period costume and dialogue and filmed this in the modern day as the story of an abused girl giving up and joining a murderous drug gang. But then it wouldn’t have been given rave reviews and been praised as a “passionate paean to the feminine.” Argh!

and then there's the observation that joining the team of evil hardly seems like much of a choice ...


There are works of art that are praised by critics because, in a phrase, those critics can read themselves and their agendas on to the work.  When a character who succumbs to a case of Stockholm syndrome is presented as gaining agency for that reaction it may be worth asking whether the odes to girl power would have been the same had the end of the film shown Thomasin joining the Klan or the Republican party or some other organization not normally high on the list of groups that get praised by progressive arts journals in Boston. 

So in a larger cinematic context in which these kinds of conversations happen, it could be argued that the sloppy invocations of God and the devil made by Batman vs Superman aren't just ragged and incompetent at the surface level, they might be symptomatic of an entertainment industry sufficiently lacking literacy in both the comics its adapting and the biblical/historical tropes it attempts to invoke. If Blake claimed Milton was of the devil's party without knowing it, these days a whole lot of folks know they're of the devil's party and consider it the only real path to freedom.

In such a moment having Lex Luthor flip around between saying devils come down from the heavens and then saying one of those devils is God could have been coherent if Baudelaire were invoked.  But in the film we got?  It's more colloquially likely to get known as mixing metaphors.

Put Luthor's speeches together and we get a motive that is a mixed metaphor, which might sum up the problems with the script.  We're not given any insight into the screenwriters having a clear sense that they KNOW Luthor's motivation is expressed in a cumulatively mixed metaphor.  If you stick to the same metaphor from start to finish, like The Witch, for instance, you have a coherent story, at least, even if it can seem to be a blank slate on which film critics write what they wish. Batman vs Superman is the sort of film that won't let you, the viewer, decide what's going on, but it's too incoherent in its deployment of the canons of either DC comics or the Judeo-Christian literature to come across as knowing what it's doing.

oh, postscript

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