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.

2 reviews: The Star Wars and Dinotopia

The Star Wars by J.W. Rinzler

My rating: 2 of 5 stars


The dialogue is bad, the plot feels more like an arbitrary series of events, the characters are alternately cruel or cold regardless of whether on the side of good or villainy, and motivations and personalities shift without any clear character arcs to explain them. Jedi and Sith are just buzzwords without any clear philosophy. There’s a rebel kingdom, but it seems that the issue is less with the Empire and more that it conducts itself differently than the Empire that preceded it. And yet, this is a fascinating artifact, a fully illustrated chance to see what The Star Wars was at first, before George Lucas refined it and improved it with a collaborative team of fellow creatives. (Turns out it feels a lot more derivative, wearing the influences of Flash Gordon and Foundation and Dune on its sleeves without really synthesizing them into something truly new and fresh just yet.) How much of this miniseries is representative of that original draft, though, versus what writer Jonathan Rinzler did to adapt the story for a comic book narrative? Either way, while I found the resultant comic art to often be rather cold and sterile, I am still impressed with how illustrator Mike Mayhew managed to make the story feel familiar yet distinct, a combination of new forms and old concept art and familiar images from the films.

This isn’t a vital Star Wars story, but it’s interesting–charming, even, if you look at it in just the right way.


Dinotopia: A Land Apart from Time by James Gurney

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I adored this book as a child. Returning to the fascinating world of Dinotopia as an adult, I’m just as delighted and eager to escape to this hidden realm. Gurney’s beautiful fantasy art is the star, but his story of a father and son surviving a shipwreck and finding themselves now part of this land where the descendants of castaway humans have come to live with prehistoric creatures in harmony is quite delightful in its own right. The narrative device that this is the explorers’ lost journal recounting their adventures, with abundant sketches and calligraphic notes, serves the story and art well. And there are so many fascinating details about everyday life in this fantasy setting that Gurney manages to incorporate throughout.

The smallest of nagging thoughts crossed my mind at times while rereading this as an adult: how do the characters know, in the 1860s, the scientific names of dinosaurs that had not yet even been discovered at the time? Turns out, Gurney had the same thought when creating the book, and his explanation is contained in the insightful behind-the-scenes afterword he’s provided for the 20th anniversary edition: “After giving these concerns serious consideration, I had to sweep them away, because adhering to them would muddy the waters.” Given that we’re already dealing with a story on a nonexistent colossal island where dinosaurs, extinct mammals, humans, and more all dwell together and can communicate intelligently with each other, this is a pretty valid way to address it. We’re in another world anyway; surely in this alternate reality, they just happen to be a bit further along in paleontology than we were in our own reality. It’s delightful fantasy, is what I’m saying, and worth suspending your belief for–which is easy enough to do when looking at the beautifully conceived double-page spreads. And it helps to know that Gurney already thought through all the concerns one might want to raise (yes, he thought through quite a lot, and his process as remembered in the afterword makes this edition worthwhile). But it’s really beside the point.

The point is that Dinotopia is fantastical, delightful, inspiring, memorable, and worth your time.



View all my reviews

Review: The Empire Strikes Back From A Certain Point of View

From a Certain Point of View: The Empire Strikes Back by Elizabeth Schaefer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This is another great Star Wars short story collection, now offering 40 new perspectives on the events in The Empire Strikes Back. I hope they continue this project, because I love this format and the opportunity to have so many writers, both new and familiar to the franchise, contribute something unique to the saga. Basically all of my praise for the original volume applies for this sequel, so I won’t recap that. And once more, I found that I appreciated something from every story. No bad stories yet again.

To return to the format of my original review for the first book, I’ll highlight one story that I loved and then outline my top ten (once more a very difficult decision). So, number one story I’d recommend? Tougher this time, because there’s not a single story that soars in my mind like “The Kloo Horn Cantina Caper” did, but there are nonetheless at least a handful that I’m quite fond of and would rather like to read again. To settle on one, I’d pick “Due on Batuu” by Rob Hart. Of course there was going to be a story about Willrow Hood, the “Ice Cream Guy.” And it’s not very surprising that a reference to Batuu would appear prominently at some point, given the heavy multimedia efforts built around Galaxy’s Edge. But blessedly, one need not know who Hood is or where Batuu is located to enjoy this little adventure. Willrow, it turns out, is an overworked, underpaid systems monitor for the gas mines who dreams of something bigger. He decides a dishonest living at smuggling is the way to beat the odds and finally become rich, so he pesters perhaps the only smuggler he knows into finally giving him an easy assignment. Things quickly fall apart: a couple betrayals and the Imperial occupation of the city throw everything into chaos. There’s a lot of fun reversals between Willrow and his erstwhile pilot partner Bexley. Their frenemy status keeps things interesting. Ultimately, it reads like a low-stakes heist bungled by a bunch of losers–no wonder I’m so fond of it.

The total top ten are still difficult to pick, but here we go (once more in order of appearance):

1. “Hunger,” by Mark Oshiro, which impressively manages to make the wampa into a sympathetic figure wronged by the Rebellion.

2. “She Will Keep Them Warm,” by Delilah S. Dawson, which provides a heartbreaking swan song for the tauntaun who carries Han in search of Luke.

3. “The Final Order,” by Seth Dickinson, which provides a name, backstory, and personality for the Imperial Star Destroyer captain lost in the asteroid belt but also examines the ugly nature of fascism and the unhealthy obsession with Imperial aesthetic held by at least some fans.

4. “This Is No Cave,” by Catherynne M. Valente, which gives the space slug a truly alien perspective on the events of the galaxy.

5. “Tooth and Claw,” by Michael Kogge, which manages to portray Bossk as a lethal and cruel hunter even as it also throws a wrench into his sociopathic lifestyle and forces him to reconsider strongly held beliefs.

6. “STET!”, by Daniel José Older, is quirky and funny and plays with style. It’s a draft of an in-universe magazine article with notes and corrections made by the editor, where both author and editor become uncomfortably inserted into the events of the story being told.

7. “But What Does He Eat?”, by S.A. Chakraborty, imagines Lando’s top chef, who must consider carefully how to handle a dinner hosted for Darth Vader–and the risks she’d be willing to take to eliminate the Emperor’s brutal enforcer.

8. “Faith in an Old Friend,” by Brittany N. Williams, brings L3-37 back, showing that she hasn’t just preserved her own identity within the Falcon‘s computer but actually drawn out the identities of the some of the other personalities loaded into it over time.

9. “Due on Batuu,” by Rob Hart, on the list for reasons explained earlier.

10. “Right-Hand Man,” by Lydia Kang, makes medical droid 2-1B interesting in his own right while allowing a quiet moment for Luke to work through some of his trauma after his fight with Vader, even while displaying the empathetic, curious traits that make him a hero.

Finally, I want to acknowledge some of the other stories for what they’ve brought into the new canon. “Ion Control,” by Emily Skrutskie, brings back Rebel sisters Toryn and Samoc Farr. “The Truest Duty,” by Christie Golden, provides a clear canon personality for General Veers and establishes for the record what happened to him on Hoth. “Rendezvous Point,” by Jason Fry, offers some old-school Legends Rogue Squadron storytelling centered on Wedge and Janson. And “No Time for Poetry,” by Austin Walker, manages a pair-up between IG-88 and Dengar that I never knew I wanted, perfectly capturing Dengar’s new-canon persona and opening up some new questions, like is that still IG-88’s ruined body on Cloud City in the new canon?, given how screwed up Dengar and IG-88’s efforts to track Solo have become, do they still track him to Bespin?, and does that mean that charming old Dengar is ultimately the one who kills the assassin droid now? I wouldn’t mind further adventures following any of these stories.

I certainly wouldn’t mind further stories From A Certain Point of View.



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Review: Surviving Death

Netflix’s Surviving Death, a docuseries adapting the nonfiction book by Leslie Kean, presents a variety of accounts of the afterlife that will not convince skeptics but are sure to provide a genuine perspective on the varied ways in which people look for answers and assurance when facing death and the loss of loved ones.

I’ve not read Ms. Kean’s book, although her UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go on the Record is essential reading on the contemporary UFO phenomenon, not to mention her reporting on the subject. If nothing else, this new series makes me want to read what she actually wrote on the pursuit of evidence of consciousness after death, and I can only imagine it would be similarly informative. Ms. Kean does appear quite a bit throughout the series, offering her perspective on various phenomena–especially on the subject of mediums, for some reason.

Each episode of the series covers a different phenomenon: near-death experiences, a two-parter on mediums, alleged signs from the dead, ghosts and end-of-life visions, and reincarnation. While everyone might react differently based on their own biases, my own worldview made the stories about near-death experiences, end-of-life visions, and reincarnation most palatable. Even though the first two categories have many alternative explanations, they’re still interesting phenomena; conversely, the really good and verifiable examples of alleged reincarnation are very compelling, and the alternative explanations about as extraordinary as the idea of reincarnation itself. Even if you reject the (admittedly difficult to reconcile and impossible to prove) paranormal components, the universality of certain themes and narratives across generations and cultures is fascinating in and of itself. At its core, parapsychological studies of these types of stories read to me as a sort of anthropology, just focused on a type of folklore taken as true. So even if you reject them as true accounts of an afterlife out of hand, you’re still left with true accounts of belief and lived experiences that are remarkable even under the most normal of explanations.

Having two episodes devoted to mediums was hard, though. The show repeatedly acknowledges, through some of its interviewed subjects, that spiritualism and mediumship have long histories of fraud. And yet. And yet, two episodes are spent on what can only be read as an attempt to convince us that some level of mediumship must be legitimate. Nothing changed my mind, although I was rather fond of the man who went from medium to medium, attempting to communicate with his dad, celebrating the sessions that were eerily accurate and emotionally on-point, yet even then noting how they could be faked or otherwise staged. For someone to continue to engage with mediums with an open mind, yet never shutting out his critical thinking, well–that’s a man after my own heart. But most of our time is spent with a succession of mediums and true believers. They even have a physical medium, someone who claims to be able to produce physical forms of spirits through the use of ectoplasm. In 2021, a documentary is giving serious space to a woman who claims to use ectoplasm! Oh, sure, all those other physical mediums were frauds or at least highly suspect, but this one’s different? This one who leads seminars to train others to be mediums? Wild! Don’t get me wrong–if you were on the fence, or susceptible to believing in mediumship, this might push you over the edge with some of the more compelling readings, but there’s nothing here that proves mediums are real or that counteracts the obvious non-mystic explanations for all their stunts.

The episode on signs from the dead was fascinating because it really showed how desperately people look for comfort and reassurance when they lose someone. I felt for them. This episode was especially hard on my wife, because it’s basically a nearly hour-long presentation of people’s very raw grief. While it was not compelling evidence for taking signs seriously, it was a nice reminder that if you can take comfort from a perceived sign, there’s no harm in doing so, and a lot of people, even otherwise non-spiritual and rational people, can find comfort in this. In other words, it was just a very human story.

Finally, the episode on end-of-life visions also had a segment on ghosts and ghost hunters. The woman-of-color ghost hunter the series follows is more interesting than the jackass white bros we normally see; rather than pretending to be scientific (and they never are), she actually seemed almost like a shaman, someone who felt that her hobby was sacred work. She was still over-fond of tech gadgets that don’t ever detect or react in exactly the ways the ghost hunters think they do, but it was still a more sentimental and reflective segment than I was expecting given the usual ghost hunters on TV. The proposed “evidence” is all the same, though, and very non-conclusive.

While the episode quality varies, I did stay engaged throughout, even if scoffing at the people onscreen (which was rarer than I might have expected). It was compelling television, with a refreshingly human focus that showed the value in the experiences for the living, regardless of what those experiences actually said about the dead. As an intimate look at how humans respond to death and attempt to adjust to loss in the modern era, I would highly recommend this show.

Breaking through Baldur’s Gate

I finished Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition. I’ve tried to play the first Baldur’s Gate before, but never got very far; it’s the only game in the series I’d ever tried. Beating the campaign feels like an accomplishment. And especially once my party was around level 5, the game did start being generally more fun, the truly challenging battles more memorable instead of just another in a long slog of painful party wipes and reloads.

I knocked out the Tales of the Sword Coast content along the way; while nothing in that was vital, I thought that it represented a general improvement in storytelling, with a concentrated hub town serving as a springboard for a variety of diverse quests, from a variety of events related to delving into a truly nasty dungeon, to sailing for a fabled shipwreck on a distant island only to find yourself in the middle of lycanthrope tribal warfare, to putting down a cult dedicated to a powerful demonic enemy. (There were probably more Ancient and Terrible Evils in the quests of Tales than in the entire base game–it did start to feel a little crowded). Two very different elements represented my favorite components of the expansion. Probably my single favorite was uncovering the layers of mystery and deceit associated with the shipwreck and islanders; having the option to befriend a local islander and a long-lost mage and having them both help me in the final moments felt surprisingly organic for a game whose mechanics typically grind away all too visibly. Second favorite was dealing with some of the puzzles in the lower levels of Durlag’s Tower, which really helped develop the setting and the tortured mindset of the dungeon’s creator and long-dead lord. The dungeon wasn’t just dangerous and torturous; it was created by a man who had suffered great losses, and his psyche left a permanent impact on its design and implementation. Both of these examples of favorite moments highlight where characterization and environmental storytelling won out over heavy lore dumps and hackneyed, conventional plotting; the latter, unfortunately, constituted the majority of Baldur’s Gate. (While I liked some of the lore I picked up from the game’s items, I object to the idea of lore descriptions for items. How are the characters gleaning this detailed information just from inspecting it? Meanwhile, the in-game history books, mostly short chapters of larger histories, suggest there’s almost too much lore for the relatively straightforward story being told in the game itself. But that point probably has more to do with the Forgotten Realms setting in general.)

I don’t really want to focus on the bad, though. It’s an old game, and I don’t want to just pick away at it. Still, it must be said: the plot largely serves as a vehicle for advancing your character in power and exploring new map segments. It’s (mostly) serviceable, but ultimately mundane and uninspired. That said, even the base game had its moments. I liked exploring the city of Baldur’s Gate itself and learning more about its mercantilist government topped by oligarchs. I liked learning more about how the disparate pieces of the story fit together into Sarevok’s master plan–which was more interesting than any boring old stuff about a Great and Terrible Destiny for the player character. I think my favorite moment in the base game was when you encounter the doppelgangers who take on the aspects of Elminster and Gorion in the dungeons below Candlekeep. Before that, the doppelgangers are very transparent, often clearly searching for a weakness if not outright hostile even before they reveal their true forms. But these two, for a moment, had me wondering what was real. Could Gorion have survived? What “Elminster” and “Gorion” said sounded sensible. I hadn’t confronted doppelgangers putting so much energy into convincing me of their worn identities, and their answers were plausible. What if I had fallen under the sway of a powerful illusion? Forcing me to pick dialogue responses there really made me consider my decisions and how I reacted. I had to remind myself that everything I’d seen before indicated that these two were fake. And of course, they were. But the game made me doubt myself, and I was anxious and uncomfortable with the prospect of choosing to fight them, even though I felt it was necessary. Seeing them revert to doppelgangers to start that fight was a huge relief a little too soon, so it’s possible that the game could have pushed harder. Imagine if they’d stayed in their forms and used spells you’d expect a mage to have up until the moment of their deaths! But it was still a very good moment where the emotional stakes were raised, however briefly.

As soon as you defeat Sarevok at the end, there’s a closing cinematic, the credits roll, and then, in the particular version I have, you’re immediately launched into the opening cinematic of the 2016 Beamdog expansion, Siege of Dragonspear. That opening cinematic does a good job of establishing the setting and the new antagonist. Then you’re dumped into a new dungeon, where a quick game-engine cutscene shows that you’ve pursued the final holdout of Sarevok’s followers to a decrepit tomb. Already, there’s a little more dialogue, and the characters of my party feel familiar and comfortable together. The relationships largely built up in my head with little textual support feel reinforced by that opening. What I mean to say is, the story was already more interesting to me, the characters more alive, in just the opening 5 minutes. Kudos to the writers–of course, they’d had almost two decades to let the first game permeate, and they could take into account the elements of the second game and developments in game storytelling over time. Still, I’m impressed. I’ve sunk many hours into Siege of Dragonspear since when I originally started this post, and the improvements to characterization, pacing, and storytelling have remained sharp. It’s not a perfect game, but it’s a colossal leap forward when compared with the original game.

Review: Ghosts

Ghosts is a very funny British comedy about, well, ghosts. It’s currently available on HBO Max, which is where I watched it. And it’s only got two seasons–or series, I’d suppose they’d call them–of six episodes each. So it’s very easy to binge and definitely worthwhile.

The premise: a young couple, Alison and Mike, inherit an old, decaying manor. They fall in love with the idea of turning it into a hotel, so they quit their day jobs and move out to start live-in renovations. However, the house is haunted by several ghosts, who would rather not have a bunch of mortals in and out. They try to scare the newcomers out, but they’re not really able to do much– one can cause the smell of burning if walked through, another can cause lights to flicker, a third can (with immense effort) touch or gently push physical objects, and the others are more or less useless. The tactile ghost decides to give Alison a push at an opportune moment as she reaches out a window, knocking her to the grounds a couple floors below. She survives but her near-death experience gives her the ability to see ghosts. While this leads her to want to move out and sell the place, Mike has already taken out loans whose early payment penalties would bankrupt them. And so Alison, Mike, and the ghosts must find a way to tolerate each other.

The characters gradually come to be fond of each other–except for Mike, who remains scared of the dead people he can’t see–but the series thrives even more on a lot of cringe-inducing situations emerging out of their various self-sabotaging and conflicting actions. It’s all very, very funny. From the first episode, my wife and I were laughing early and often. But getting to know each of the ghosts and their pasts was another reason to keep watching, definitely. There are certainly some fun subversions of expectations and twists of perspective along the way.

The show also manages to poke a lot of fun at spiritualists and ghost hunters, drenched in the irony that the charlatans and fools are so close to being right in this case, even as they ultimately conclude that the house is in fact not haunted (due to the overeager, greed-motivated actions of Alison and Mike to put on a show for some visiting paranormal enthusiasts). So often, the show’s playful spin gives a reason for why ghosts would be so fickle, inconsistent, and unresponsive. Of course ghosts have trouble communicating–it’s exhausting trying to tap out responses when even tapping a key on a keyboard is a strenuous effort! Of course ghosts sometimes manifest and sometimes don’t–they’re people too, and they aren’t there to amuse you, if they’re interested in you at all! Whether you’re a true believer or a hardened skeptic, whether you’re deeply engaged in the paranormal or couldn’t care less, you’ll find something humorously rewarding in the viewing.

I’ve said enough though. It’s just twelve episodes! Watch it!

Review: Camp Cretaceous Season 2

I watched the eight episodes of season two over their release weekend, but I didn’t feel particularly compelled to put my thoughts down right after. I think that impulse reflects what season two turned out to be: a pleasant but forgettable bit of television comfort food. I suppose that this puts it rather in line with my impression of the first season, but the first improved over the course of its run and set up exciting possibilities for the second, and I just don’t feel like the follow-up season really ran with anything or even attempted anything new. It did, at least, have several exciting action sequences!

As I mentioned in my first review, this show is rather character-focused over anything else. So, after having grown fond of the kids in the first season, I was simultaneously pleased with and disappointed by their portrayals in this season. This time around, there were more moments where the kids could almost relax, where they tried to just act like kids, but there’d always be some harsh new reality to force them back into survival mode. They’ve grown as characters, and they all get opportunities to shine. They’re also a rather tightly knit found family, although the constant stress does lead to inevitable infighting at times. All that said, sometimes the show forced an arbitrary regression of a character to suit the plot of a particular episode. In finding a situation for the star athlete Yaz to truly learn that sometimes she couldn’t help, sometimes even her best wasn’t enough, and sometimes she had to rest, the writers forced spoiled rich kid Kenji back into his obnoxiously lazy and selfish role to act as a foil. Sure, Kenji’s dumb and self-centered, but he’d come a tremendous way in the first season, and this felt like an unnecessary step back for him. At the same time, the show does appear to want to show what trauma looks like for these children, and having moments of regression does seem natural. Clearly, the show didn’t always convince me that that’s what was going on, though.

The best character development this season goes to Ben, presumed dead by the other campers (though the show made clear enough he’d survived at the very end of season one). Once he’s reintroduced as a wannabe-commando figure to a couple of his friends, the show focuses a whole episode on his arc of surviving on the island alone for however many days (or weeks) have elapsed. He was forced to find his own inner strength and courage, he prevailed over a series of hazards, and he eventually reached a point of power and competence. Yet he’s still Ben, the skinny, dweebish little kid, and so he’s also developed the amusing quirk in which he believes that he’s tougher than anyone else, all evidence to the contrary. With a whole episode devoted just to his survival story, however, it was still a little goofy that it conveniently skips over the point at which he’d made some serious outfit adjustments, and it just as conveniently has a brief falling out between Ben and Bumpy that allows Bumpy to mature into a full-size Ankylosaurus off-screen. (Bumpy remains as adorable as ever, even fully grown, and I still cheered for Bumpy whenever she did anything at all.)

The plot is more disappointing. The first season focused on the attempt to reach the evacuation point in time; the group failed, of course. This season again finds the kids attempting to reach a target for rescue–actually, two targets. The first one is an emergency beacon that can call for help. That objective is accomplished rather handily with the group’s new survival skills and teamwork. However, typical chaos ensues involving a Tyrannosaurus, and the kids aren’t sure if their message got through. They soon after stumble upon a small party of “ecotourists” who have made their way to the island in the days since the park shutdown. These yuppie adventurers promise the kids access to their yacht in a few days when it returns from refueling. They’re lying, and how the kids react to their alleged rescuers–and how the rescuers respond–becomes the major point of conflict for the remainder of the season. It’s all for naught because (spoiler alert) the kids find themselves stranded on the island once more, yet again barely missing a boat off the island.

The stakes felt lower this season. The adults could serve as dino food, but the show largely stepped back from any real sense that any of the kids would ever actually die. This made many of the dinosaur attacks (so, so many dinosaur attacks) thrilling rather than horrifying, but if the action-adventure show about killer dinosaurs doesn’t really have killer dinosaurs, it loses its edge fast. Likewise, there weren’t really any great moments of wonder this season. The closest would be the discovery of a watering hole shared by several dinosaur species, but it’s populated with dinosaurs we’re already familiar with, and something about the lighting or dinosaur models or design just made it feel like a bunch of CG dinosaur assets positioned around a flat surface. (Yes, of course, they’re always CGI effects, but the quality did not support the emotional effect needed from the scene.) On the other hand, many of the dinosaur attack sequences looked very real, as though the dinosaurs occupied physical sets, although in a somewhat jarring manner, as though they were claymation.

We get some new dinosaurs, but mostly it’s reused assets from before. That means that at some point, it begins to feel like the park is dominated by Parasaurolophus, Brachiosaurus, Stegosaurus, and Sinoceratops (especially unusual given that the ceratopsian is supposed to be a recent addition to the park, yet we don’t really see Triceratops or Styracosaurus). Where are the herds of diverse dinosaurs present in the films? I recognize the answer to that is that the show has a limited budget compared to a movie, but I can’t help but think how diverse and lifelike the dinosaurs look in Jurassic World: Evolution, a video game that also simulates animal and tourist behaviors, weather effects, and a park economy. There are some new dinosaurs, carnivores pulled from the films: Ceratosaurus and Baryonyx. However, the former only has a couple appearances. Meanwhile, the Baryonyx has been reimagined as a very social pack hunter and terrestrial pursuit predator, which raises the question: why did they use Baryonyx at all? It felt more than a little like the showrunners really wanted a predator to fill the gap left by the Velociraptors, so they just forced an animal into the role. Fallen Kingdom‘s introduction of Baryonyx was already far enough from the real animal, but the creatures in Camp Cretaceous seem rather out of step with the semiaquatic, piscivorous but opportunistic spinosaurid that the real animal appears to have been. (And why do you pick Baryonyx for this role when Allosaurus is also in the park, similarly sized, and an actual big game predator that might have actually coordinated in social groups?! Or why not Ceratosaurus, already an asset in the show??)

All that said, it might seem foolish to once again be hopeful about the next season. But there are several elements in play here that should finally push the story in new directions:

  1. The kids have decided to try to find their own way off the island, rather than being dependent on rescue, and they all now have the survival skills to potentially achieve that without always being on the run.
  2. The kids do not know if the emergency beacon worked, but the audience knows that a successful transmission was sent–to whom remains the big question.
  3. The kids accidentally unleashed some new experimental creature on the island, which will almost surely be a focus for the third season. (Is it a prototype Indoraptor or something else entirely?)

We have the pieces but I can’t see what this jigsaw puzzle is supposed to form. I’ll be interested to see what answers the show arrives at.