Review: Camp Cretaceous Season 3

Camp Cretaceous returned on May 21st with a 10-part third season, and I found it to be an improvement over the sophomore round in just about every way. While–spoiler alert–the kids more or less retain plot armor, they are pushed more than ever before, and their lives are threatened and the stakes are higher than ever.

We’re reunited with the Camp Fam as they fail yet another attempt to escape the island and literally return to the drawing board. They’ve fallen into a “comfortable” routine on the island. They know how to survive its prehistoric hazards. They’ve had enough time without the constant threat of death to form some cozy bonds and petty rivalries. But things soon take a turn for the worse, as the escaped hybrid only hinted at in the last season begins to wreak havoc on the neo-Mesozoic ecosystem. The kids suddenly find the park animals acting erratically and dangerously, and they’re hunted by an antisocial killing machine that doesn’t act in a predictable way. Added to the mix, we–and they–learn that six months have passed since the events of Jurassic World, and mercenary teams soon arrive with Dr. Wu to recover needed genetic materials and research for his continued hybridization projects. (We’re introduced to that last element in one of the best sequences in the season, which directly dovetails with the opening moments of Fallen Kingdom.) The kids are torn between the need to escape, the drive to stop Dr. Wu from furthering his amoral research, and the hope of saving the dinosaurs from re-extinction at the claws of the loose hybrid monster on the island.

All the kids have satisfying arcs this time around, without the frustrating tendency to regress at key dramatic moments that was so common in the earlier seasons. They have history together now, and the show built on and used that to further challenge the characters, rather than tonally resetting them at times to create convenient interrelationship tension. Once more, though, the highlight of the season for me was Ben, who matured so much over season two and now is really struggling with the idea of leaving the island and his beloved Bumpy behind. It was a fun way to continue pushing on this character. He didn’t need to overcome fear; he’d conquered that. He didn’t need to develop independence or survival skills; he was already forced to do so. He’s loyal and strong. His weakness now lies in his rashness, in sometimes being a little too independent, and being uncertain about his ability to give his new life up and return to normal.

The art and animation look better than ever. Once more, we get additional prehistoric reptiles added to the field: setting aside the hybrid freak, this season sees a return of the Dimorphodons from Fallen Kingdom, and new-to-the-franchise Monolophosaurus and Ouranosaurus also show up. The dinosaurs look great. There aren’t any conspicuously big, flat plains sequences with reused dinosaur assets just standing about. Their animation makes them seem physically present, although at this point the show seems to have leaned into the whole pseudo-claymation aesthetic. The human character models are about the same, but environmental effects, like lighting, seem improved, and the show definitely shows an attention to detail in tracking continuity in clothing changes, dirt and grime, and even simple things like Brooklynn’s roots growing out as time has passed.

The hybrid dinosaur looks like an impressively disturbing monstrous first stab at creating the sort of creatures that could become Indominus or Indoraptor. But this new “original” hybrid, Scorpios, is also somewhat revolting to look at. Its proportions, its movements, are all off. It’s an effective monster, and its presence pushed the plot forward, but I sure hope this is truly the last hybrid we see (you know, outside of the fact that all the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park are hybrids that don’t look exactly like their real-life counterparts because, in-universe, they used DNA from sources like frogs to fill the gaps in the sequences).

There’s one dinosaur return I wasn’t expecting: that of Blue. This could have been heavy-handed, but she’s used sparingly, and it actually turned out to be a nice encounter in which this unique Velociraptor, established to have special characteristics of intelligence and empathy, is given a reason to develop some wary trust of humans. It’s not a necessary foundational step to her sparing Owen and his friends at the end of Fallen Kingdom, but it works as a little stepping stone on the path to that moment, with the ground having been laid, of course, by Owen himself as her trainer.

This season has bigger stakes, clearer theme and purpose, deeper character development, further improved art and animation, and direct continuity with the film universe that gives it a sense of greater relevance. It’s a high point for the show so far, and I hope that it continues for at least another season.


Quick season-end spoiler discussion here. They’re finally off the island, but it seems a certain predator might be hidden away aboard the ship. If there isn’t another season, that leaves some dire implications. After all, they have a flash drive showing Dr. Wu’s research, and they have every desire to see him face justice. And they know that he was back on the island in an attempt to continue his research. But he seems to have evaded any serious consequences and successfully escaped any scrutiny about ongoing research by the time of Fallen Kingdom.

On the other hand, it’s probably worth noting that the Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom Survival Guide reports that “Dr. Henry Wu was found guilty of bioethical misconduct and stripped of all his credentials” (p. 20). I’m not sure that this line in a tie-in book aimed at kids substantiates that he did face some sort of penalties; it’s also not clear to me exactly what specific crimes he was found guilty of, or by what sort of judicial system. Again, given the audience, and given the fact that the in-universe nature of the text is that of a guide quickly assembled on last-minute notice by Claire Dearing for her Dinosaur Protection Group team before their Lockwood Foundation-backed mission to Isla Nublar, it could just be an inaccurate turn of phrase that might refer to a finding of fault in some sort of civil proceeding, or perhaps a finding of ethical misconduct by a professional board. It would be satisfying if the kids’ efforts led to some of these suggested consequences.

Given that we last see the kids aboard a yacht in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with a perhaps hungry mystery dinosaur trapped on board, there’s not a guarantee that they meet a happy end! Of course, even without another season, we could come up with alternatives to address this ambiguity, even if it turns out that Dr. Wu never did face serious consequences between films. Perhaps something happens to the disc but they’re okay. Perhaps, like in the original Jurassic Park novel, the Costa Rican government detains these survivors and attempts to cover things up to save further international embarrassment. Perhaps their findings aren’t enough to persuade any governing body to take action. Perhaps it’s something else entirely! I’m sure the show won’t kill the kids and isn’t considering that as a serious outcome, but it’s still enough for me to anxiously await the next season.

(For a bit of a reality check and some reassurance about the fates of these kids and their left-behind pet dinosaur, and actually for some interesting thoughts from Colin Trevorrow in general, read this from The Hollywood Reporter.)

Review: Surviving Death (Book)

Surviving Death: A Journalist Investigates Evidence for an Afterlife by Leslie Kean

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Just like Leslie Kean’s UFOs: Generals, Pilots and Government Officials Go on the Record was for the UFO phenomenon, her Surviving Death: A Journalist Investigates Evidence for an Afterlife is a great introductory text about contemporary evidence for the afterlife geared at a mainstream audience. It’s not an examination of religious belief, and Kean presents herself as agnostic on the subject although inclined to believe that consciousness continues beyond death. She tries to maintain objectivity while also being explicit about her subjective perspective and personal biases; she weaves her own personal experiences into her reporting in a way that makes the book more intimate, more personally authentic, and yet more troubled. I’ll get to that more later.

The first thing you have to get past when reading this book is that Kean is not at all agnostic on the subject of psychic abilities. Quoting British psychologist David Fontana, she writes in the introduction, “Psychic abilities are a matter of fact, not of belief.” She then insists, “The reader will encounter the reality of the most refined psychic functioning throughout this book, and by the end will have no questions as to its existence.” I doubt that many readers, not previously inclined to believe in psychic abilities, will have shifted the needle on their views at all by the end. I certainly still have plenty of questions, having only been primed to accept that there may be some form of psychic ability in some humans thanks to having read Annie Jacobsen’s Phenomena: The Secret History of the U.S. Government’s Investigations into Extrasensory Perception and Psychokinesis. Nonetheless, you have to at least be willing to accept that parapsychologists and other paranormal researchers typically accept psychic abilities as existing to some degree or other, as this forms the big debate for many of these researchers in the narrative: is the evidence we have of some continuation of consciousness beyond death actually supportive of that hypothesis, or is it only reflective of the immense psychic abilities that some living agents may possess to access and synthesize otherwise hidden or unknown information sources that would often be separated without any clear connection? By the end of the book, I do believe that an objective and fair-minded reader will have to acknowledge that if at least some of the phenomena reported are genuine, then one of these possibilities must be true, and the living-agent hypothesis feels like a remarkably conservative position, a recognition that it’s at least as outlandish, if not more so, to make the great number of assumptions needed to reach a hypothesis in which consciousness somehow survives death. Either way, you should be prepared for some rather interesting discussion regarding the concept of non-local consciousness and how it might interact with one’s physical brain–something not presented as fact but as informed speculation in an attempt to explain some of the things described.

So what is described? Kean slowly constructs a narrative of the potential afterlife by building on one section of study after another, starting with reincarnation accounts, moving on to near-death experiences and “actual-death” experiences, providing connective tissue with overlapping accounts between those with NDEs and some of the details children provide about what happens between reincarnations, then steaming on to the end with mental mediumship, trance mediumship, apparitions, and physical mediumship. The plausibility of the experiences started off high for me and gradually decreased over time. (In fact, I’m already rather partial to reincarnation narratives because the best ones seem, to me at least, to be rather difficult to fake without the active involvement of the researcher in the fraud, and the accounts can’t really be brushed away as merely coincidental or absorbed through environment; Old Souls by Tom Shroder, which is referenced by Kean in Surviving Death, turned me onto the parapsychological research into this field, which at its very least is compelling as a form of oral history/folklore collection.)

Kean is quite aware of the decreasing-plausibility concern, and I think she spends an unusual amount of time and space on mediumship and mental mediumship in particular because the field has such a strong history of fraud and resultant public skepticism. She is convinced, along with some other paranormal researchers, that there are legitimate mediums, and I have to say that what she shares of the readings by the exceptional mental mediums she has seen certainly suggests access to knowledge they could not otherwise possess that probably wouldn’t be possible with advance research or cold reading. But physical mediumship has always seemed too razzle-dazzle to be credible, seemingly set up with the intent to deceive, with the closet behind the medium and the darkness or low red light required for anything to happen. Plus, everything else works within an understanding that perhaps consciousness is non-local and can survive death, but it does not have many mechanisms to interact with our material plane, in the dimensions our physical bodies inhabit, and it may fundamentally be something unverifiable, but it doesn’t require a rethinking of our physical reality. However, physical mediumship, with its ectoplasm and conjurations of hands and feet and sometimes whole forms, with its vanishing and materialization of objects, with its projection of strange voices, reads like a bizarre stage show and would require reexamination of how we think the world works in pretty significant ways. It’s a bridge too far for me, and I suspect that will be the case for many people. Kean’s fighting a losing battle there, and her narration of sessions she has attended doesn’t do much for me. Surely she is convinced, and I truly believe she experienced what she writes, but I think that this is just evidence that she was sufficiently fooled by the performers. Many intelligent, educated, skeptical people can be fooled by an especially convincing hustle, so she would hardly be in bad company, but I just can’t accept the extraordinary claims invited by physical mediums without extraordinary evidence that will never be forthcoming. I suppose nothing’s impossible, but I’m not willing to let down my guard and believe just about anything simply because it could possibly be true. I think that’s the very path to the really whacky, far-out-there High Strangeness crowd.

While I think it was a mistake to devote so much time to physical mediumship, it is nonetheless the case that Kean has probably written the most persuasive argument possible to take the practice seriously. And in doing so, her interweaving of her personal experiences in the wake of her grief over losing her brother and a close friend makes the book something far more personal and emotional than I would have expected, even as she often keeps a rather clinical, dry, and objective writing style. It’s certainly a far more revealing book about the author as a person than UFOs was, and I appreciate the vulnerability, even though I can’t reward it with full belief.

Surviving Death presents a series of fascinating narratives, and I’ve barely touched on all that is covered for such a relatively small volume. Much like UFOs, it has its flaws, but it’s essential reading for its paranormal subject matter.



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Review: Amazing Dinoworld

Amazing Dinoworld is a tiny documentary miniseries released in 2019, currently available on a couple of the streaming platforms out there. I recently watched it and rather enjoyed it for its contemporary and impressively life-like depictions of dinosaurs.

Miniseries still manages to feel like an overstatement, as it’s just two episodes, each just under 50 minutes. It’s actually a little mystifying as to why it’s a two-parter instead of a single feature-length documentary film. It’s true that there’s a clear content split between the episodes, with the first focused on dinosaurs and the second on marine reptiles, but given that there are a couple of clear breaks in segments within each episode, it would have been quite easy to connect everything together.

Despite the brevity of the “season,” it covers an incredible amount of content. The first episode focuses on the impact of feathers on the continued evolution of dinosaurs and showcases a combination of scientific fact and speculation about what the adaptation of feathers might have allowed dinosaurs to do and become. Meanwhile, the second episode is largely about mosasaurs–their evolution, their ecology, and speculation about birthing and hunting strategies. A diverse, compelling, dynamic prehistoric world is depicted over the course of the two episodes.

In many ways, Amazing Dinoworld feels like a considerably updated spiritual successor to the Walking with Dinosaurs series, with really impressive reconstructions that combine live-action footage and computer-generated images. I thought it was great that Amazing Dinoworld‘s creators chose to focus mostly on lesser-known dinosaurs–although most would still be somewhat familiar to even the most casual fans of these creatures like myself. The first episode’s dinosaur protagonists are Deinocheirus in Mongolia and Troodon in the American arctic, with a supporting cast that includes Avimimus, Tarbosaurus, and Zanabazar for the former and Pachyrhinosaurus (with a speculatively thick and long keratinous horn over the flattened boss of the skull) and Nanuqsaurus for the latter. The second episode turns its attention to marine reptiles including Mosasaurus and Plesiosaurus; the large fish Xiphactinus; a pterosaur, Azhdarcho, and dinosaurs including Abelisaurus, a thoroughly modernized depiction of Spinosaurus, and two versions of the ever-popular Tyrannosaurus (one feathered like most of the dinosaur and pterosaur models in the show, one un-feathered for some reason).

There were some good interviews with paleontologists and depictions of fossil evidence, and there were a lot of fun speculative appearances and behaviors, but the show didn’t always make clear just how speculative some of it was. Furthermore, there was a generally oversimplified history of the developing theories about dinosaurs, their behaviors, and their evolution that made everything sound a bit newer in conception or less complicated than it actually was, but I suppose that’s the nature of a two-hour science documentary. Despite this, the overarching narration was helpful in describing what was happening on-screen and provided informative additional content, while the split between the life-like reconstructions of the prehistoric animals, interviews, and fossil depictions was fairly balanced.

The show was unfortunately still heavily male-dominated but was fairly international in its coverage of sites and scientists. However, it didn’t take long to recognize that a great deal of the scientists and filmmakers were Japanese. It appears that Amazing Dinoworld underwent a bit of an evolution of its own, as it was apparently originally released in 2018 as Dinosaur Superworld in Japan, if a couple of fan sites can be relied upon. That point is just a curiosity for me, not substantive; I don’t think I’ve seen a dinosaur documentary before that wasn’t produced by Americans or Brits.

Regardless of its origins, and in spite of its relative brevity, Amazing Dinoworld is easily one of the best documentaries about Mesozoic life that I’ve ever seen.

Review: Sasquatch (2021)

Sasquatch is a moody, unnerving documentary on Hulu that has very little to do with Bigfoot at all, and I’m here to recommend it. The three-part series follows investigative journalist David Holthouse as he pursues a story based on a wild conversation overheard on a weed farm in 1993: allegedly, a couple of guys working for a weed farmer in the Emerald Triangle of California stumbled on the aftermath of a Sasquatch massacre in which three men were killed. Of course, that’s not the real story, and decades later, Holthouse tries to find out what actually happened. He never finds a certain answer, but he does produce a couple likely options, including a version of events that, while still rather far-fetched, probably represents something like the truth.

The first episode does spend time with the Bigfoot myth, interviewing local Bigfoot hunters to lay some groundwork for the bizarre and obscure rumor of the Sasquatch triple homicide. But the narrative quickly settles in the dark underbelly of the black market cannabis trade in California, finding its home in paranoid Back to Landers, violent Hells Angels, unreliable tweakers, quick-to-vanish migrant workers, and other oddballs and outcasts. All of this is intermixed with hauntingly beautiful footage of the northern California forests, with their moody contrasts of dark and light beneath old growth canopies. Here is a land where anything could, and apparently does, happen.

The myth of Bigfoot and the rumors traded within this uneasy community of weed growers become intertwined as the miniseries progresses, and Bigfoot returns to prominence as a figure of myth toward the very end to be juxtaposed with the monsters and contemporary myths that Holthouse has encountered. All are surreal and frightening conjurations of the outsider. The nuanced intermingling of myth and reality at the end offers a fascinatingly complex bit of philosophical musing to cap the show off. But Holthouse remains grounded and down to earth throughout.

Anyone who’s a fan of true crime or has an interest in obscure, even seemingly alien, alternative cultures should give this docuseries a viewing. It’s sort of the anti-Tiger King, focused on another bizarre, drug-fueled, self-absorbed, and ruthless counter-culture operating at best in the gray areas of the law, but without the mockery of its principal subjects that last year’s social media darling show delighted in. Sasquatch humanizes even as it shows us the monsters who live just outside of our view.

Two management styles: Planet Zoo and Jurassic World Evolution

I recently picked up Planet Zoo, and I’m enjoying it. It’s a great spiritual successor to the Zoo Tycoon series, and it has an incredibly in-depth level of customization that I’ve barely scratched the surface of (working through the campaign, relying heavily on the prefab stuff at present). It’s also got absolutely beautiful vistas and lovely depictions of lifelike animals, plus a good combination of animal and visitor AIs with a robust in-game economy.

Since childhood, I’ve always been fond of zoological park sims in particular. That includes Frontier Developments’ Planet Zoo and Jurassic World: Evolution, but I can trace the fascination back to Blue Tongue Entertainment’s Jurassic Park: Operation Genesis; the original Zoo Tycoon and Zoo Tycoon 2 from Blue Fang Games, including their expansion packs, which of course added dinosaurs; and the game that started it all, the 1993 Manley & Associates educational game title, DinoPark Tycoon. I’ve always loved zoos and animals, and dinosaurs in particular, so it’s no surprise that I’d continue to be drawn to these games, even though the broader genre of management sims hasn’t kept me as engaged.

Something I’ve been thinking about with Planet Zoo is how it contrasts with the themes and goals of Jurassic World: Evolution. Given that they’re both games by Frontier Developments, released just a year apart from each other, I find the contrast rather interesting, and I think it reflects conscious choices on the part of the developer to characterize both games quite distinctly.

Jurassic World: Evolution, released in 2018, has a profit-focused, exploitative character to it. You play as a nameless corporate executive brought in to run the Jurassic World parks while balancing the needs of the Science, Security, and Entertainment divisions. All of these divisions are fundamentally guided by corporate greed, and to keep them pacified you need to do things like increase the quality and availability of guest services; raise park revenues; research, modify, and release new dinosaurs; and even engage in rather ethically dubious pursuits that include pitting dinosaurs against each other to attract more guests or even to sell off dinosaurs to who-knows-what other corporations to make a little extra profit. All of the divisions have a darker side. Science is perfectly willing to exploit the animals and endanger lives in the pursuit of more knowledge. Security is interested in weaponizing the dinosaurs for other parties. And Entertainment wants more than anything else to ensure that guest satisfaction, and the resultant stream of dollars, stays high, regardless of what that means for the welfare of the dinosaurs. The Secrets of Dr. Wu DLC expands on this dark side, as you get further caught up in the twisted experimentations of the megalomaniacal Dr. Wu. Claire’s Sanctuary initially pushes back on this, as dinosaurs are saved from certain re-extinction on Isla Nublar, but the “Sanctuary” quickly becomes another money-making machine for the Hammond Foundation and Ingen, with guest revenues fueling profit quotas from the corporate backers. Only Return to Jurassic Park truly bucks the trend by returning to the immediate aftermath of Jurassic Park in an alternate timeline in which Grant, Sattler, and Malcolm commit to making the park a safe way for guests to observe real dinosaurs; their priorities are genuine guest safety and a greater understanding of these restored creatures. Even so, Hammond and his assistant are there to push you to keep making the park bigger, better, and more fabulous to drive profits.

Planet Zoo, released in 2019, can’t ditch the profit motivation essential to management sims, but that wouldn’t make sense to do away with it entirely–after all, without funds, you can’t care for the animals or retain the staff needed to keep the park running. But the emphasis is different, instead focused on conservation and education, themes emphasized as soon as the initial tutorial missions in the campaign. In this game’s narrative, you actually design a friendly avatar for yourself, and you’re introduced to a couple of warm, caring people who manage these parks because they want to help preserve Earth’s biodiversity by spearheading breeding initiatives for endangered and threatened species and by raising public awareness. Rather than selling animals, you can release animals into the wild to gain “conservation credits,” which can sometimes be used to obtain new animals for the zoo in lieu of cash. And you can’t just send off undesirable animals to benefit. The animals to be released are those born in the zoo; they must have reached maturity; and their value for release is determined by factors like their health, age, and conservation status of the species. Poor animal welfare, or allowing inbreeding of animals, results in negative consequences for your park. An inspector reviews your zoo at regular intervals, ensuring that the animals have a good quality of life, the campus is cleanly, and guests are actually being educated about the animals. Profit margins and guest accommodations don’t factor into that rating (although, of course, to keep the park going, you need happy guests to buy tickets and merch and donate extra money so that you can pay the staff to care for the animals to provide the education and conservation benefits that your zoo can offer).

At the end of the day, you’re still doing many of the same things in Planet Zoo as in Jurassic World: Evolution, plotting out exhibits and guest facilities and staff buildings, monitoring income and expense trends, and ensuring a gradually improving quality rating, but the narrative and mechanic differences are part of the reason why these two game experiences ultimately feel so very different.


Bonus cute baby animal content:

Review: Titans Season 2

Continuing my bit of DC focus, I rewatched the first season of Titans and finally got around to the second season. As I’ve said before, I really liked Titans, and the second season proved to be even better. The first episode of the new season neatly wraps up the cliffhanger from the first season, and we step back from the brink of becoming a bit too dark and edgy just in time to lead into another twelve episodes that show the team growing into a found family, only to be shattered by lies and secrets from Dick Grayson’s past, with the individual members of the team left to decide just how valuable saving this new family of choice is.

More specifically, with the Trigon arc concluded, we have a few different story arcs that wind together over this season:

  1. Rachel continues to grow in power, having evolved further in the wake of defeating Trigon, and she must learn how to come to terms with the darkness within her;
  2. Dick brings the team together, along with Jason Todd (on a bit of a Bat-probation) and new metahuman stray Rose, to form the Titans–or rather, to reform the team, we learn;
  3. In a series of flashbacks, we learn more about what happened to the original Titans when they crossed paths with Deathstroke, and why it led to the dissolution of the group;
  4. Deathstroke returns on the scene and charts a diabolical path to take down the new Titans;
  5. Hawk/Hank and Dove/Dawn struggle with the return of the team, with their relationship, and with Hank’s addiction;
  6. Kory, memories restored, attempts to avoid becoming entangled in the royal politics of Tamaran; and
  7. Conner, clone of Lex Luthor and Clark Kent, escapes from Cadmus and brings the Titans into the organization’s sights when he crosses paths with the team.

There’s a lot more going on besides. I didn’t say anything about how Wonder Girl or Beast Boy fit into all that, for instance, or the critical parts that Rose and Jericho play! It’s amazing that the show manages to give the increasingly large ensemble cast room to breathe. Dick, Jason, Rachel, Kory, Garfield, Donna, Hank, Dawn, Rose, Conner, and Jericho all have several opportunities to display full personalities and internal lives (though I’d peg Dick and Rachel as the central protagonists, with their mentor/mentee relationship continuing to be a core element of the show). And there’s a lot of hyper-violent, brutal action scenes throughout on top of that! (While there are several great fight scenes this season, my particular favorite was a relatively low-stakes one in which Hawk, at a low point, is fighting in cage matches for cash, all choreographed to DMX’s “Party Up.”)

Once more, the show did make some choices that felt a little too grimdark, but overall the balance between darkness, violence, and heart continued to be carefully maintained, perhaps more so than the first season. They did take some of the characters to some very dark places, and it’s clear that while there’s still a continued draw from comic book storylines and prior incarnations of the characters in other media, the show’s creators also want to do something new. While I can certainly pick out some of the storylines and character traits taken from other sources, I’m not enough of a comics nerd to know, for instance, if the places they take Beast Boy this season have any clear analogue to a comics arc. (The Beast Boy arc is an example of something going uncomfortably dark for a while.)

This season offered more of a glimpse of a larger world of superheroes, supervillains, and metahumans. This still came mostly in the form of small teases, but as the team has grown, all their immediate connections have brought in an increasing variety of characters and concepts. I’m not sure if we’ll ever get the sense of a living, vibrant world packed with superpowered adventures happening just off-screen, but to be fair, I already get plenty of that in Young Justice (and that is one of the reasons why it’s my favorite DC show).

My favorite character was once more Jason Todd. He’s given more emotional complexity and vulnerability over the course of this season, and it’s clear that he’s never stopped feeling like an orphaned outcast. The show takes him on an interesting journey. By the end of the season, he’s reached a point, much like Dick, where the Robin identity doesn’t really work for him.

I was also fascinated by what the show has done with Bruce Wayne, here portrayed by Iain Glen. While the first season gave us glimpses of Batman in Robin’s worst nightmares, we see the real Bruce on several occasions this season, but never suited up. This Bruce is older–Glen’s 59, and Brenton Thwaites is 31, giving the actors and their characters an age difference that approximates that of a real parent-child relationship. That age difference works well as the show teases out elements of their background and relationship; Dick realizes over the course of the show that Bruce was at least subconsciously doing his best to reach out and create a family for the two, even though the former Robin remembers much of their years together in a decidedly darker light. They have an awkward reconciliation of sorts over the course of the season, but the Bruce Wayne of Dick’s imagination proves to be a consistent influence in the latter half, with Dick hallucinating the man’s mocking presence in a variety of high-stress situations, providing some very surreal and absorbing television.

I’m pleased to see that Titans continues to find ways to distinguish itself among all the other DC productions out there. Its special blend of elements would be welcome for many more seasons.

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.