Batman v. Superman

[This is an old post I had on a previous, now-defunct blog, and it has only been lightly edited in posting here. As such, it’ll read a little strange for a movie that was released five years ago.]

Critical reaction to Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice has been very poor indeed. And a few of my friends, whose opinions I respect, also strongly disliked this film. But a slightly greater number of friends, whose opinions I also respect, left theaters with at least a somewhat positive opinion. I was confused; I wasn’t sure if it was even worth seeing, but I nonetheless felt compelled to watch a film that could produce such divisive opinions.

I walked into the theater expecting to hate BvS. But by the time I left, I was a lot closer to loving it. The execution was not perfect—this was not a masterpiece film. Nonetheless, despite a bit of a bizarre start and some third act problems, I truly enjoyed the film I was shown. Furthermore, I cannot remember the last time I was as critically engaged by a blockbuster action movie. The movie made me think throughout the experience and well after it ended. And I am hungry for more of this unique vision of the DC universe—I look forward to both an extended director’s cut (which will hopefully fill in a few elements that were somewhat lacking in the theatrical release) and to future films in the franchise. [Well look at that, Past Me. I got both of these things. The Ultimate Edition, for what it’s worth, is a better movie.]

I’d like to try to dig into this film and explain my reactions toward it, especially given how polarizing the film has been and how my own opinion fits into what appears to be a minority viewpoint. I’ll begin this engagement with a spoiler-packed [(though not so much now, five years later)] plot summary and then jump to what I liked, what I didn’t like, and what I was unsure of in BvS. I wouldn’t normally spend much time on a plot summary, but I think it’s useful to have a short narrative here to track the core beats of the film.

Plot summary

First, while I expect a fair number of readers will already be familiar with the basic comics characters, I think it might be beneficial to some if I explain that Batman’s alter ego is Bruce Wayne, Superman’s alter ego is Clark Kent, and Wonder Woman’s alter ego is Diana Prince; Lex Luthor is one of Superman’s most iconic villains, and Lois Lane is Superman’s most famous love interest. Now that that’s out of the way… [I can’t imagine doing something like this now, but I was aimed at a different audience then, and I’m keeping this paragraph here because it’s sort of charming to me in retrospect.]

Maybe the simplest plot summary would be as follows: Batman and Superman must overcome fear, doubt, and selfish self-interest to work together in stopping Lex Luthor from causing mass destruction; also, Wonder Woman shows up. Note that this is a fairly simple story at its core, yet that simple story telegraphs almost nothing that actually happens in the film. Note also that it would be very difficult to directly tie Wonder Woman into that central story. This highlights a few of the major problems with the film: it is over-packed, it is too long with too many extraneous threads for the story it is trying to tell, and because it tackles too much it fails to fully establish even important characters and plot points. But that’s me speaking with the benefit of distance and an attempt at objectivity. Those failings are present, but I was too busy having fun to worry about most of this at the time. Again, the execution was not perfect, but I really loved watching a superhero movie that took risks and experimented heavily with content and storytelling and the interplay of narrative and visuals.

I think that the barrage of details thrown at the unwary viewer probably sunk public opinion for the film. So, below you’ll find my own attempt to summarize (and just as importantly interpret) the key events of the film. [Note that this would be for the theatrical version; I’m not going to try to extend this any further with any reference to Ultimate Edition additions.]

The movie opens with yet another flashback to the murder of the Waynes. It then jumps forward to the destruction of Metropolis from the end of Man of Steel, this time from the perspective of the innocents harmed by the attacks—in particular, Bruce Wayne and his “family” of corporate employees. There is another time jump by eighteen months, and we find Batman and Superman in some unique situations.

First, Superman jumps into a firefight in Africa to save Lois Lane, barely arriving in time. He is blamed for several deaths, which occurred moments before his arrival. The US Senate has convened a committee to investigate Superman’s role in the attacks and his potential threat level. While he was obviously not the killer, testimony from survivors in the surrounding village appears to suggest that Superman triggered the violence and deaths by his arrival.

Despite wavering public opinion regarding Superman, Clark Kent has really come into his own since the events of Man of Steel. He appears to have embraced his role as hero, selflessly helping others whenever he becomes aware (his major limitation is his awareness–he is not omniscient and cannot be omnipresent, and he tends to overlook the motivations of others). He also seems to hold himself responsible for the destruction caused in his fight with Zod, feeling both alienated from humanity and simultaneously accountable to it. Since his encounter with Zod, he seems less willing to kill (although he still rushes to violent action when his loved ones are threatened) and deeply concerned with the plight of the disadvantaged.

Meanwhile, Batman, who has been in the vigilante business for twenty years, has become increasingly disenchanted and cruel. He now literally brands criminals, and his fighting style is brutal and unconcerned with sparing life. Superman becomes troubled by the Bat of Gotham’s new bad behavior (news reports begin circulating after the second branding), especially since it seems mostly directed at the poor who live and work near the ports and working-class neighborhoods of Gotham.

Batman, Superman, and Lois Lane all become concerned with eccentric tech genius and LexCorp heir Lex Luthor. Luthor is attempting to weaponize Kryptonite to use against Superman, whom he fears as a potential source of devastation for the human race, and whom he hates as a false source of hope in a cruel universe. In his weaponization efforts, Luthor has employed a sophisticated smuggling ring based out of Gotham to bring radioactive Kryptonite into the country after his efforts to sway the opinion of the Superman Senate committee fail. Batman becomes involved over the course of his investigation of the Gotham smuggling operation. Lois follows a series of leads to learn that Lex in fact set up the mercenary firefight overseas to attempt to turn public opinion against Superman—apparently in the hopes that this would give him access to the crashed Kryptonian ship from the previous film (which it does), unfettered testing of Zod’s corpse (which it does), and government support of his Kryptonite weapons program (which it does not). Superman’s involvement is largely due to his interactions with Bruce Wayne (in his role as Clark Kent the reporter) and with his girlfriend Lois.

Bruce Wayne, who fears Superman about as much as Lex Luthor does, becomes involved with Diana Prince, who is also attempting to learn more about one of Luthor’s operations, and ultimately attempts to steal Kryptonite from a newly arrived convoy. Unfortunately, he is intercepted by Superman, who has come to tell Batman that he will not tolerate Batman’s form of justice anymore.

Batman backs down, but also becomes enraged by Superman’s interference. After a former Wayne employee, permanently injured in the Zod fight and mentally deranged in the following months, detonates an explosive in the capitol that kills several senators and hearing attendees but leaves Superman unharmed, Batman finally decides to take Superman down. He succeeds in stealing the Kryptonite from LexCorp and reactivates his Bat Signal in defiance of Superman. Lex, who has been waiting for just this moment, kidnaps Martha Kent and Lois Lane. After he gets Superman’s attention by almost killing Lois, he informs Superman that the superhero has one hour to bring Lex Batman’s head—or else Luthor’s goons will kill Martha in an undisclosed hideout. Superman goes after the Bat Signal, and Lois does everything she can to follow close behind, concerned for what is to come.

Superman initially intends to talk Batman into helping, but Batman is dead set on fighting, using a processed Kryptonite gas to disable and a Kryptonite spear to kill. In the fight, Superman is actually nearly killed by Batman, and as Batman prepares to kill him, Superman desperately pleads with Batman to stop the mercenaries who are going to kill “Martha.” Batman is enraged and confused—Martha was his own mother’s name—and this coincidence stalls him long enough for Lois to explain to Batman that Martha is Superman’s mother’s name. Batman, who has viewed Superman as a god or a demon or an alien or a monster throughout the film, finally sees Superman as human; he can finally empathize with this other man. Batman promises to free Martha, who is being held by the smuggler Lex used earlier on. Batman tracks down the smuggler and brutally takes down the mercenaries, freeing Martha.

Superman does not join Batman because he must go to check on the Kryptonian ship, which has been reactivated by Lex. He arrives after Luthor’s time limit is up (and just about the same time that Batman has rescued Martha), so Luthor allows his abominable Frankenstein’s monster, Doomsday, a fusion of Zod’s corrupted body and Lex’s own genetic material, to attack. Superman knocks Doomsday into space, where they are both nuked by the panicked and desperate American military. Doomsday crashes to earth, stronger. Batman, realizing that he needs the Kryptonian spear to take down a Kryptonian monster, agitates Doomsday into chasing him from Metropolis across the bay to Gotham, hoping to lure the monster into the vacated port area and to the spear. Superman is restored in orbit by our yellow sun and returns as Wonder Woman (Diana Prince, remember?) arrives to join the fight.

The three fight valiantly but are unable to defeat Doomsday. After an explosion, Superman realizes Lois is in danger again and races to save her, recovering the Kryptonite spear. Though the spear weakens him, he races back to the battle site and drives it through Doomsday, but Doomsday impales Superman on one of its own bodily spikes. Superman pulls himself further into the spike to drive the spear deeper into Doomsday, killing them both.

Batman has finally been convinced by the goodness that Superman embodied. At Clark Kent’s private funeral (while a separate, public, military funeral is held for Superman), Bruce Wayne convinces Diana Prince to help him recruit other metahumans to fight against future threats. Batman has a final confrontation with Luthor in prison, but instead of branding the supervillain he sears his brand into the wall. This suggests that Batman is healing from his psychic injuries thanks to Superman’s influence. And the film closes with some levitating soil on Superman’s coffin, suggesting that Superman is healing from his physical injuries and will return from his apparent death.

What I liked

  • Batman. We don’t need an origin story for this Batman. He has been a crime fighter for twenty years. He has experienced continued loss. He is hardened and violent and cruel. He seems a man who maybe once had optimism that he could make a difference, that he could make a better Gotham. Now he is haunted by what he sees, rightly or wrongly, as his failures: the death of his parents while he stood by, the apparent death of one (if not the only) Robin at the hands of the Joker, the apparent past betrayal by Catwoman, the apparent past corruption of Harvey Dent, the destruction of so many members of the Wayne corporate family and of so much of Metropolis, and the mental degradation and suicide bombing of a former employee. A lot of those moments are inferred, of course, through snippets of dialogue—he is no longer taken in by women who seem doe-eyed and innocent and so is not fooled by Diana Prince, he continues to display Robin’s defaced armor, he mentions to Alfred that they have seen so many good people die or be turned. I think one of my favorite motivators for this Batman is the role of control. Superman is an excuse, an easy target to fear; the reaction is vitriolic and xenophobic. But deep down, Batman cannot tolerate a loss of control–the same vulnerability that drives Luthor to destroy Superman. Batman lost control the instant his parents died, and he has been trying to force the world to make sense ever after by exerting his control on Gotham. That is why he is Batman; that is why he raced to Metropolis during the Zod fight to attempt to save his employees; that is why he feels so powerless and yet defiant in the face of Superman. And Ben Affleck does a phenomenal job as this aging, tortured Batman; plus, the chemistry between Affleck’s Batman and Jeremy Irons’ Alfred is phenomenal. I’ve heard a lot of complaints about Batman’s killing and use of guns in this film, but almost every gun he uses appears to be in a nonlethal role, and while he is cruel and completely fine with killing, his combat style is still largely about crippling. The number of confirmed kills is surprisingly low compared to the outcry. This is a broken Batman who requires the influence of Superman to be restored, and his willingness to kill  is a marker of that.
  • Superman. I think that this film does a lot to improve my opinion of Man of Steel retroactively. Many have complained that Superman has undergone moral growth without any evidence of that process, but I would disagree. This movie still sees him growing. He is torn between selfishness and selflessness, and those dueling impulses are often combined in his relationship with Lois Lane. He would give anything to protect her, and often at a cost. And the more I think about it, he seems to only kill if nothing else will work. He did not kill Batman even though that would have been an easy solution to his problem. He killed Zod because Zod refused to stand down and was a superhuman threat. He killed Doomsday because it was basically an ever-growing zombie monster that could not be controlled. That doesn’t excuse the loss of innocents in these epic fights, but more weight is given to those losses—and those losses provide a good deal of the motivation for Batman. Henry Cavill isn’t my favorite version of Superman, but he works for this more haunted, vulnerable, and angrier version of the character.
  • The internal debate about morality, ethics, and justice. It’s even in the title. Not only does the subtitle Dawn of Justice set up the origin of the Justice League, it also discloses a key theme in the film. We live in an unjust, cruel world. What decisions must we make to bring about justice? What sacrifices must we undergo? Could most of us even make the sacrifices that these superheroes do (of reputation, of life, of freedom from destructive obsession)? And when our attempts to bring about justice still cause suffering in some form, can we still be said to be acting in a just way (a theme really driven home by a hallucinatory discussion between Clark Kent and the dead Pa Kent)? People mocked the “v.” instead of “vs.” but I would say that it underscores that theme of justice. Batman and Superman spend very little of the film battling each other, but their ideas of what justice is make up the crux of the film’s tension. They are in a way proposing different legal and ethical theories, and their own arguments are sometimes supported and sometimes opposed by arguments brought forward by their family and friends, by their enemies, by the government, and by the citizenry of America and the world.
  • Senator Finch. She is probably the best female character in the film. She at first seems antagonistic toward Superman, but she ultimately is shown to be an honest politician who simply wants Superman to be accountable. Rather than “unilaterally” acting against potential threats, she wants him to engage in a dialogue with the American people and their chosen representatives. Her sudden death in this film was unnecessary and shut down that dialogue way too early.
  • The religious allegories. The Trinity (Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman) appears in this film, and Snyder does not shy away from drawing comparisons to gods and to the Christian Holy Trinity. Superman’s death and certain eventual resurrection offers a pretty obvious analogy. Batman’s early rise toward heaven on the wings of bats in a dream sequence is over the top. Lex Luthor constantly talks gods and demons and ultimately embodies the figure of an Antichrist. The splash page image of Batman and Wonder Woman sullenly mourning the fallen Superman screams Renaissance religious iconography.
  • The surrealist imagery and how it influences the plot and future installments. The “dream” sequences were disorienting and so interwoven with the “reality” of the film that I think they open an avenue to deconstruction of “superhero films” as the source of any sort of “realism.” They also highlighted many of the themes and allegories discussed above. And I think that they suggest that the forces of Darkseid (who does not appear in this film) are acting on those who may be psychically sensitive. I think they slowly corrupt Luthor, and drive him toward greater knowledge about the larger universe. I think they also serve as a warning to Batman. It may not be an element from the comics, but it’s a unique touch. Also, presumably the dream sequence involving the Flash really did involve time travel. Lois Lane is the key? It seems that she grounds Superman. But is he warning not to trust Superman, or not to trust Lex, or not to trust another character who has not appeared yet?
  • Wonder Woman. She’s powerful, she’s beautiful, she’s competent. Even when fighting Doomsday to a standstill, she seems to enjoy the combat without being sadistic. I greatly enjoyed Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, though her scenes as Diana Prince largely lacked substance. I would have preferred more time to develop her character. I guess that’s something to look forward to about the upcoming Wonder Woman solo film. [Yes. It was worth the wait.]
  • Lex Luthor. I thought I would hate this Lex, based on the trailers. But then I gradually came to accept Jesse Eisenberg’s take on the character. This Lex is a genius, but he is also afraid. He was abused by his father and seems to feel inferior to the deceased elder Luthor, and he also seems to fear both a universe without a god and a universe in which an all-powerful god would allow such things to happen. He fears Superman and what such a being could do to humanity. He fears his own impotence. He is introverted and unstable, and his condition deteriorates over the film—probably both from the stress of inserting himself into the role of a “villain” and due to further psychic influence from Darkseid’s forces.
  • The indebtedness to past comics. The film obviously draws from The Dark Knight Returns and Death of Superman. But the corrupting psychic influence of an unseen force that brings out villains and draws heroes together reminds me of the Justice League origin story in The New Frontier, and the edgier and conflicted version of Superman appears to owe a debt to Superman: Earth One. I’ve really enjoyed a lot of the direct-to-video DC movies over the years—especially the Elseworlds stories in which anything can happen outside of mainstream DC continuity. BvS draws from these stories but also feels willing to let anything happen. I would not be surprised if the DC Cinematic Universe is less direct in how it pulls from comics stories as compared to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
  • The humor. There wasn’t a lot, and it was often dry or subtle, but I laughed when it came up. Lex doing a Professor Xavier impersonation in an electric wheelchair was my favorite comedic moment.

What I didn’t like

  • The treatment of (most) women and (some) minorities. Lois Lane and Martha Kent spend an inordinate amount of time being rescued. [The Ultimate Edition must have given Lois more time, because I didn’t feel like this was as apparent an issue after my most recent watch, but it’s still definitely an issue.] Wonder Woman is background and not even suited up until the end. Senator Finch is unceremoniously killed. The scene where Superman saves a girl from a burning building and is worshiped by Hispanics celebrating the Day of the Dead is symbolically interesting but smacks of uncomfortable racial politics.
  • The first flashback. We don’t need to see Bruce Wayne’s parents die yet again. The more I think about it, the more I feel like that’s not even that vital to an interpretation of Batman. Unless a different background is proposed, the origin story is so oversaturated in our culture that Snyder should have trusted the audience enough to leave it out. Plus, we’re beaten over the head with imagery of Martha Wayne dying and of Martha Wayne’s tomb so that there is no way that the significance of Superman’s “Martha” moment could be lost on us. [The moment would have worked with less setup–or maybe Batman’s change of attitude should have been triggered by something else entirely. A lot of people seemed to find this key moment to be rather forced and laughable.]
  • The coincidental nature of the third act. In writing the plot summary, it didn’t seem that bad, but Lex took a lot for granted. He expected Batman to go rogue and insist on killing Superman. He expected Superman to show up just in time to save a falling Lois, even though this film repeatedly emphasizes that Superman is not as all-powerful or all-knowing as some interpretations of the character. Maybe Lex bought into his god speeches a bit too much.

What I was indifferent toward 

  • The Elseworlds nature of the DC Cinematic Universe. I think a lot of people did not like the movie because it did not embrace the commonly recognized versions of Batman and Superman. I agree that these are not those characters. But I’m willing to let Snyder and company play with the DC universe some more. We have plenty of other versions of the characters in the comics, in television, and in previous movies. We don’t need to simply repeat the incarnations of the characters that have come before. But I understand why people have reacted so strongly against these versions of the characters.
  • The hastily portrayed founding Justice League members. It makes the world seem small that the only other apparent metahumans are all being tracked by Lex, and these six (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Cyborg, and Aquaman) happen to be the future Justice League. It would be fun if this universe eventually grows to have a wild collection of other heroes. There are plenty to draw on. And did the Green Lantern movie do so terribly that GL just won’t appear in this DC Cinematic Universe? [Now I know that Green Lanterns have a part in the DCEU, and Justice League set up some potential other superheroes to appear down the line.]
  • Jimmy Olsen. So he’s not mentioned by name, he’s killed early on, and his death seems to have little impact on Lois and no impact on Superman. Why include him at all? [The Ultimate Edition addresses this a little better. It’s still weird to kill Jimmy Olsen so soon after introducing him, but it doesn’t feel quite so random.]
  • Big monster ravages the city. Seen that before. After such a long, overall thoughtful film, the third act felt rushed, and Doomsday feels almost tossed in to establish a big final battle.
  • The indebtedness to Frank Miller. Snyder obviously loves Frank Miller. I do not normally love Snyder or Miller. They are both fairly self-important and fixated on dark, moody, ultraviolent settings. At the same time, Miller is remembered for his impact on characters like Batman and Daredevil for a good reason (even though his more recent contributions are cartoonishly absurd and almost caricatures of his earlier work).
  • The empty cities. The port of Gotham is completely abandoned? Downtown Metropolis is nearly empty after work hours? That felt a little bit implausible, and more like Snyder flippantly responding to criticisms of the apparent death toll from the final battle of Man of Steel.

I hardly think that my opinion is conclusive. But, for what it’s worth, I found a lot more to like than hate in Batman v. Superman.

The Snyder Cut

Zack Snyder’s Justice League doesn’t need to exist, but I was impressed by it. The originally released Justice League was a light, action-packed superhero story by the numbers, the closest the DC movies have come to the Marvel formula. It was fine but forgettable. Snyder’s Justice League has stuck with me. It’s epic in scope and full of incredible action scenes, yet built on characters given the room to breathe and have full arcs. The best moments are often the slower ones in between the action. The film artfully has something to say about grief, loss, recovery, faith, hope…It genuinely feels like a blockbuster film with a true artistic vision, something there seems to be less and less of.

It’s still a blockbuster film, and some of what strikes me as artistic could also read to others as mere pretension. Snyder uses the same old tricks in all his movies, after all–especially the slow-motion action sequences that drag to a crawl to reveal a still shot that feels like a double-page spread in a comic book, which he returns to over and over and over again. (Maybe I’m just a contrarian–I find more pretension where most people find artistry in Christopher Nolan’s films, for instance.)

I haven’t really sought out reviews of the Snyder Cut, but I still live in a society, so I can’t help but pick up the generally positive reactions by many, even as others seemed quick to mock it. One of the few full essays I’ve actually read is this column by Owen Gleiberman on Variety, and it was one of those experiences where I was surprised to find someone having already put to word the thoughts still fomenting in my head, with much greater clarity than I could achieve. If you’re going to read anything about the new Justice League, it should be his essay. Not only do I agree with him, but I’m hungry for more films set in the DCEU. Justice League resolved its story arc well but set up a lot of new potential stories to tell, with explicit lingering narrative threads tugged at the end and a few references to DC characters waiting in the wings.

I didn’t get around to writing anything about the movie until over a week after its release, even though I watched it on release night, because I don’t feel I have anything vital to add to the general discourse, but it’s nonetheless a movie that’s stuck with me, that I keep thinking about and wanting to talk about. (Not to mention it’s pushed me back into a bit of a DC obsession again; seems I flip between just about half a dozen topics to obsess over.) I didn’t expect it to be as good as it was, but I absolutely was not surprised to find a film worth thinking over, even though I expected most people to hate it going in. You see, I really liked Batman v. Superman. It’s a weird thing for me to like, given that Snyder’s films have tended to become ammunition in the ongoing culture wars, and liking a Snyder project seems to ally you with some rather toxic, bigoted people. It’s understandable why, given that Snyder’s films have employed a leering male gaze and some racist tropes (I’m embarrassed to admit that high-school me loved 300 when it came out, and it took a few years for me to really understand what was wrong with it), and given that Snyder is clearly smitten with the problematic works of Frank Miller. Snyder’s take on DC characters is inseparable from Miller’s, after all.

But it would also be unfair to suggest that that’s all a Snyder film is, or that he can’t grow as a filmmaker or a person. Justice League focuses much of its emotional narrative on Cyborg and his family (though there’s a conversation to be had about how Cyborg is uniquely formed a hero out of great physical torment), and Wonder Woman has been an incredible fount of coolness, competence, and resolve since the moment she first appeared in BvS. I think that the new Justice League mostly avoids Snyder’s old pitfalls while telling an evocative story that builds on his previous two DCEU films even as it makes them more essential viewing. It’s a rewarding viewing experience.

Back when I started this blog, I salvaged a few blog posts from my days as a solo attorney. One post I opted not to carry over was a gushing review of Batman v. Superman (yeah, when I was writing a blog for my solo law firm, I sometimes had some weird content). Rather than jumping into more discourse about Justice League just now, I think I’d rather let the movie sit with me some more, maybe after re-watching it and the predecessor DC Snyder films. But I do think now is as good a time as any to re-share that older review. I’ll post it next week. Maybe, if I end up with something worth saying about Justice League, I’ll write more on it, but otherwise, I’ll leave the conversation at BvS.

Godzilla: 2 Million Years

I’ll admit in advance that this is sort of a bizarre post.

In the original Godzilla, the “paleontologist” character refers to the transition from the Jurassic to the Cretaceous as occurring 2 million years ago. Why is that? We would actually be looking at more like 150 million years ago. Obviously, paleontology and geology have evolved a lot over the past century, but I guess I’d assumed that there was a better understanding of geologic time by the 1950s. The “2 million years” reference happens more than once even; you’d think someone involved in production might have bothered to check that fact, even when they have such a fantastic imaginary monster as Godzilla, a creature so big that it defies reality on its face.

I love the original movie. This one little thing doesn’t make the movie worse. It’s just confusing. From what I could find, it seems like we were able to start producing relatively reliable time scales through the use of radiometric dating by the first half of the twentieth century. That would suggest that by the mid-twentieth century, we’d have a good enough understanding of geologic time for this line to be wildly inaccurate to anyone with a passing familiarity with geology or paleontology. Is this then a translation error in the subtitles? Is it an example of inattentiveness on the part of Takeo Murata and Ishiro Honda? Does anyone know what’s going on here? Responses appreciated!

Review: When Whales Walked

There’s a delightful little documentary about some of Earth’s evolutionary history on PBS called When Whales Walked. Looks like it was originally released in June 2019, though I just stumbled across it a little bit ago. It uses a combination of nature footage, extensive interviews with scientists, views of fossil digs and museum displays, and a bit of paleoart and CGI reconstructions to tell the tale of the evolution of crocodiles, birds, whales, and elephants. It’s just under two hours total, with roughly a quarter dedicated to each story. I rather enjoyed it.

You might think I’m here for the dinosaur content, with the origin of birds, but that’s a story I know reasonably well, and so while I think it was well-told, it was the least intriguing section for me personally. But I learned a bit about crocodiles, whales, elephants, and their ancestries, and it was all enjoyable and engaging. The interviewed scientists worked in a variety of fields, including biology and paleontology and genetics, and it seemed that the producers tried to seek out more diverse voices, even though I believe white men still represented the majority of speakers. The show hops around to a variety of locations, like an underwater cave in Madagascar in search of the remains of horned crocodiles, European fossil collections of ancient whale ancestors and Asian collections of early birds, and sites in Africa to observe living elephants and fossil digs of their ancestors.

There were some enjoyable depictions of various prehistoric creatures, but thankfully the show was more focused on letting scientists talk about how they’ve learned more about these animals and their connections, so it was as informative as it was entertaining. And the show managed to use the evolution of these creatures to point out how precarious their living lines are, how close to losing many of them forever we are. It made the prehistoric past immediately relevant to the present, and after seeing how special these animals are, the idea of losing them forever really hits home.

When Whales Walked is a great nature/science documentary that inspires curiosity and care. I’d recommend it to anyone!

Reviews – Adventure Time: Obsidian, Soul, and WW84

Adventure Time: Obsidian is even better than BMO, delivering an even more emotional story that continues to show the healing relationship that Marceline and Princess Bubblegum continue to work at. I was surprised and delighted by how clearly, unmistakably queer and romantic their relationship was here (where it was only subtly implied through most of the show), and by how normal that relationship was portrayed as (you know, the weird part being that one’s a vampire/demon and the other’s a sentient candy avatar).

Obsidian also really showed how both Marceline and PB had grown and overcome many of their earlier traumas. They were more mature and able to adapt to tensions and stressors to become stronger together by the end. That’s not to say that this is purely focused on emotions and relationships (though there were some tearjerker moments for me); there were some excellent action sequences throughout and plenty of weird and imaginative characters and creatures.

I really want to scream about the implications of the appearance of some characters at the end of the episode, but since I’m rounding up a few short reviews here, I’ll keep that spoiler-free. But oh boy, there are some interesting questions raised.


Soul was a really good movie about what it means to find purpose and meaning in life, offering up a bit of introspection in the context of a unique portrayal of the spiritual realm. The film tracks a middle-aged music teacher and aspiring jazz artist (portrayed by Jamie Foxx) who dies just after landing his big break. Determined to get back to his body and fulfill his perceived purpose, he escapes the imminent Great Beyond and falls into the Great Before, where souls’ distinctive traits are forged. He eventually encounters an old soul (Tina Fey) who refuses to ever leave for a life on Earth, and they agree to work together so that he can go back and the old soul can stay out of living for good. They both figure out some things about themselves, about what makes life worth living and fighting for, and about when you have to let something or someone go. It’s a Pixar movie, so I sobbed hysterically at the end. My wife and I realized that the last time I’d cried so hard at a movie, it was Inside Out. But then I also cried at Onward and Coco and The Good Dinosaur just in the last few years, so I guess the point is that (A) I cry a lot and (B) Pixar movies are crafted in a way to really hit me (and I think most people) right in the gut. If you have Disney+, watch Soul!


Wonder Woman 1984 was fun to watch, it had a strong theme (unchecked desire leads us to lie to ourselves and warp the best of intentions to bad ends), it had some good fight sequences, it had a couple of emotional moments, and yet it was troubled by some head-scratching plot beats and an over-liberal usage of deus ex machina.

There was a particular type of perceived problem, however, that I didn’t feel actually existed in the film. I’d seen concern expressed on social media about apparent racist undertones to the movie, particularly a vilification of men of color in favor of a narrative about white women’s empowerment, but I felt that those concerns were overstated and somewhat misleading in favor of generating outrage and controversy. I recognize that as a white man, I have blind spots to issues like race and gender, but the concerns raised seemed to inaccurately characterize what happened in the movie.

I thought the film’s very transparent examination of desire was interesting. Set in the consumerist excesses of the ’80s, Wonder Woman’s biggest battle is not with an enemy but with desire, her own and others’. She makes a desperate plea at one point to not give up her greatest love again, declaring that she gives so much and she deserved this one thing. She must ultimately make that sacrifice nonetheless to be the hero she needs to be. I thought that was an interesting opportunity to hold the mirror up to our own lives, how we tell ourselves that we deserve something or other because of all we do, how commercials often suggest that we have earned a special reward or convenience we can purchase simply because we exist and do the things all humans must do. It gives you something to chew on after the movie, I suppose, but it’s hardly a revelatory concept, and I imagine the point will be rejected by many (and is more than a little ironic in an industry context, given its method of delivery in a major blockbuster superhero movie that will serve as escapism for many and primarily exists to generate profits for the studio and its corporate backers).

My wife loved the movie, but she’s not the one writing the review. I thought it was fine, though I get what appealed to her about it. I’m sure this movie will continue to generate a lot of reactions, if not a lot of deep thought or serious conversation. It’s not a vital film, but it remains entertaining throughout.

Holiday Special

Happy holidays, everyone! If you’re looking for something different to watch instead of or in addition to the old holiday classics, might I suggest The Lego Star Wars Holiday Special? It’s heartwarming, cheeky, and fun. Its time-traveling shenanigans don’t make a whole lot of sense, but Star Wars, especially its Lego alternate version, doesn’t always make sense. No deeper analysis here; this was a cute little movie appropriate for the whole Star Wars-loving family, and it’s far more watchable than the non-Lego version.

Review: Love and Monsters

I heard something favorable about this movie yesterday, watched the trailer, and opted to watch it with a purchase on Amazon Prime. It was worth it. I found out only after watching that it was released via video on demand on Friday, so this is a rare example where I’m actually writing about a topical piece of pop culture.

Love and Monsters is easy to talk about because while it’s a refreshingly funny and thrilling coming-of-age story focused on relationships and emotions, and it’s dealing with a post-apocalyptic world with its own lore to explain how cold-blooded animals rapidly mutated into horrific monsters, the narrative is simple. Joel (played by Dylan O’Brien) has lived with a small group of survivors in the seven years since these monsters erupted onto the world stage. He feels alone and out-of-place in his group, though he loves his found family, and after freezing in the face of a monster breach and realizing that he could soon die alone, he decides to go on a seven-day overland journey to reunite in person with his old high school girlfriend, Aimee (Jessica Henwick), who he’s managed to reconnect with over the radio. He sets out, ill-prepared for what awaits him. Along the way, he meets fellow survivors that he bonds with, develops the skills and inner strength needed to make it in this dangerous new world, and learns the value he had within himself and his small community all along. It’s heartwarming, intimate, and optimistic, a tale of what normal humans can do, and it promises that even in the face of the apocalypse, we can adapt and overcome. In that way, it joins a small subgenre of optimistic disaster/monster movies, including Pacific Rim, Zombieland, and Monsters (a fairly generic title for Gareth Edwards’s 2010 kaiju invasion/relationship flick–and arguably the least relevant to this list, given the ambiguity of the opening/ending).

Love and Monsters is a straightforward tale, told well by director Michael Matthews and screenwriters Brian Duffield and Matthew Robinson. There’s a lot of heart and humor in it, and Dylan O’Brien does a great job conveying a variety of emotions in a range of contexts, which is vitally important in a film built around him, especially when he is so often alone. His most constant company is a dog named Boy, who like every character in the movie is dealing with a traumatic loss; Boy refuses to go anywhere without a red dress, a memento of his missing and presumably deceased former caretaker. Boy steals every scene he’s in. He’s such a smart, good, loyal Boy. The relationship between Dylan and Boy becomes perhaps the central relationship, more so than Dylan’s relationship with his former colony or Aimee or his deceased parents, and rivaled only by his relatively brief traveling companions, an adoptive father-daughter team of hardened survivalists played by Michael Rooker and Ariana Greenblatt. Impressively, the film is not a love story played straight; Dylan finds his relationship to Aimee changed, just as he is changed by his journey. (It’s a nice touch that the big romantic gesture isn’t necessarily received as such or in the same spirit, while the unrequited love interest remains likeable, charismatic, and competent.)

Monster designs are creepy and creative too, with grotesque and giant versions of frogs, millipedes, ants, and so on. They don’t always have a great sense of grounding in a physical space, and sometimes they appear a bit plasticky, but overall they look good.

I don’t really have more to say. Love and Monsters is simply good fun, in thrilling packaging.

Harley Quinn Fever

Thanks to HBO Max, my wife and I have now watched Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) and the Harley Quinn animated series. We loved them both.

My wife prefers Margot Robbie’s depiction, and Robbie is certainly doing a fantastic job, really raising the profile of the character in the public consciousness and providing a fun, whimsical, zany take. She was fun in Suicide Squad, but that movie had plenty of baggage. Birds of Prey is starring, written, and directed by women and presents its female antiheroes as flawed, bizarre, unusual birds of a feather, portrayed as complex and whole people, with a general avoidance of the male gaze. Quinn is coming off a breakup with the Joker, bouncing back from heartbreak, moving on from a life in the supervillain’s shadow, and finding both freedom and danger now that she is out of the Clown Prince of Crime’s bubble. She quickly becomes wrapped up in the lives of three other women and a young girl who are all caught up in taking down the criminal organization of the chillingly psychopathic Black Mask. The narrative chronology is a little more twisted up than it needs to be, but filtered through the unreliable narration of Harley Quinn, the film’s a blast. While the Joker is a driving force behind who Harley Quinn is at the start of the film, he’s entirely absent. This is largely to the film’s benefit, as it can then be about Harley and her new “friends,” but it is a curious choice, given that the film presents itself as a continuation of the same character from Suicide Squad. Sure, the Joker’s not good for Harley, and he was just as monstrous to Dr. Quinzel as any other version of the character, but the two seemed closely bonded and reciprocally loyal. What changed between them?

I really enjoyed Birds of Prey, but I actually favor Harley Quinn. This show provides Harley, voiced here by Kaley Cuoco, a little more autonomy from the get-go, as it is she who breaks up with the abusive Joker. He puts quite a lot of effort into getting her back at first, and then trying to kill her, and then trying to use her, but thanks to her close friendship with Poison Ivy, she is able to persevere and move on, forming her own criminal crew first to get back at Joker and later to do her own thing. Cuoco endows the character with considerable up-beat manic energy, sometimes disrupted by a depressive low (often when finally taking a moment to contemplate how her actions have hurt someone else, or how the Joker or her parents have traumatized her in some way), and sometimes masked in her conversation with Joker in cutesy line delivery straight out of Batman: The Animated Series. One of the things I’ve enjoyed in the series is how it draws on a variety of past representations of characters to distill something new, like the elements of Quinn drawn from that older series, among other comic and film interpretations. Other great examples: Bane is basically a parody of his The Dark Knight Rises version (with some DCAU influence mixed in), Lex Luthor feels straight out of the DCAU, Joker’s appearance changes over the show’s timeline to mirror different versions of the character, Kite Man has his “Hell yeah” catchphrase from his more recent comics incarnation, and Mr. Freeze is given an arc that at first appears to subvert his tragic story from the DCAU only to ultimately play it straight. Some versions of characters are just wacky and new: Commissioner Gordon is a shadow of his former self, lonely and rambling, teetering on the edge of insanity; the Penguin is a hardened criminal mastermind but also something of a family man; the Riddler is a little unhinged, a little weird, quite the survivor, and eventually really buff. The mixing of backgrounds and characterizations, and references to deep cuts from the comics and shows, quickly establishes a rich and varied timeline, of which we’ve only seen bits and pieces. It makes Harley Quinn and her gang feel like just a small (though significant) part of a much bigger world, benefiting from the depth of accumulated storytelling to quickly achieve a sense of a lived-in setting in a way that Justice League Unlimited and Young Justice also used to great effect. And I especially like that under all the layers of comics lore, the show is still fundamentally about a woman figuring out who she really is as she sets out in a newly independent life and tries to set aside the traumas of her past. There are only two seasons so far, but I sure hope we get more of the show.

Both of these versions of Harley Quinn are very good. The former is a good movie and the latter is a good show. I recommend them both. You can easily watch them both on HBO Max now. (Blessedly, Warner Media is moving away from the DC Universe / HBO Max divide. For all the evils of these mega corporations, the least they could do is provide all their television and movie offerings on a single streaming service.)