Once upon a time, I decided it was a little close-minded of me to intentionally write off an entire genre of film because of my crackpot political beefs with the Walt Disney Corporation. (For anybody new here, I haven’t watched a superhero film since about 2012 because I realized they were all the same and resented that they took up so much market space that could be occupied by any other type of movie. Anyway.) So I decided to swallow my pride and see what these were about. Obviously something was there, since they continue to make crazy money and increasingly garner critical respect.
I chose to focus on Marvel films, since they at least have the reputation for general competence and seem to follow some sort of road map. And my initial findings were…unsurprising. Basically they were entertaining enough while I was in them and had some good lines. There were often some fundamental storytelling issues (the largest of these problems is exposition—explaining stakes, identifying rules of the story universe, etc.—which we’ll perhaps get to at a later date) but overall things were cohesive enough for a movie that didn’t actively expect anything of me.
By the time I got to Iron Man 3 (Ironest Man?) though, things started to feel different. For most of this film, Tony Stark uses not his suit, but actual guns, to fight and eliminate bad guys. And this felt like something of a departure. Previously we’ve seen him use his arc reactor shooty things (yes, and sometimes rockets, but whatever), which don’t really look like guns and can therefore leave the audience with a nonlethal impression whenever he zaps someone at close range. Handguns, not so much.
Then I got to Winter Soldier.
In this film, the antagonist ends up being deep-state Hydra, but for most of it Steve Rogers is just on the run from who he thinks is SHIELD, the American intelligence agency he works for. There is the predictable vibrator-shield violence in these encounters, which, fine, whatever. He probably just knocked all those guys out. The problem for me came at the end of the film. Hydra’s plot involves three of the helicarrier things from Avengers which are being fed a Minority Report algorithm in order to eliminate potential enemies of Hydra. Captain’s plan involves disabling the algorithm and instead having the helicarrier things shoot themselves down. It’s a nice slam-bang finish for your third act and freedom endures for another day.
Here’s the thing though: while the film shows us that the helicarriers’ targets go down from hundreds of thousands to just three, there are still probably quite a few people on the ships when they shoot themselves down. Members of Hydra, yes, but also, you know, human citizens of the United States, who Captains aren’t supposed to just kill.
I’ve noticed a thread through several of these films so far: basically, if a guy is bad enough, our systems of justice are assumed incapable of handling it and “true” justice must be meted out by vigilante superheroes operating outside the law. This usually involves a death that can be attributed more to the bad guy’s monomania than, like straight-up murder or whatever. This is kind of a cynical worldview to cast in the kind of unambiguously heroic terms these films employ, but it’s all over the place. And it’s what we get in this film. Hydra is so abominably bad that Captain—the catalyzing symbol of the American Way™—essentially orders the deaths of dozens, maybe hundreds of people, in peacetime, on American soil. (This scenario feels very different if it’s, say, a Hydra base in Germany during WWII.) These people are also mostly not leaders, just the guys that work in the helicarrier engine room or navigation or whatever.
Obviously Hydra is bad. That’s not the issue. Captain really goes out of his way to convert back Winter Soldier, AKA Bucky, AKA The Best Friend A Guy Could Ever Have, who is arguably the most Hydra of them all since he’s been doing it more actively for more longer. But for the people who were working for SHIELD, who didn’t go to super villain school and possibly didn’t know what the helicarriers were actually up to in the first place, no dice. Captain’s ideals of justice for all stop somewhere before that.
Which, whatever, maybe he’s flawed like that. Would that such were the case, that the audience could be treated to such internal conflict in this previously conflict-free protagonist. (Side note: I hate super heroes as characters because their conflicts are almost unfailingly external rather than internal, meaning they don’t grow or develop or change or think thoughts, meaning they aren’t characters. Fight me.) The problem is nothing in the film portrays any flaw. His actions are only portrayed as Righteous, Selfless, and Heroic. Which means that the version of Captain America walking around Disneyland to the idolment of small children uses massive violence to enforce his singular views of justice and freedom. Just because they sound like good ideals doesn’t make that any less problematic.
I guess this is possibly the largest issue with inflating comic book stories into event cinema. I think there is still something kind of benign if, in a comic book, Captain blows up a helicarrier to save the day. It’s a cartoon after all, and he’s just getting the bad guys. (I did so much worse to my Lego bad guys when I was a child.) But by portraying such acts in a realistic, cinematic way, the violence of those acts is greatly compounded, as are the implications of what such portrayals of violence can mean. It is not a cartoon, after all. If it’s intended only for adults, like Jason Bourne or James Bond, whatever. But if it’s intended to also sell toys to children, we might need to seriously reëxamine our relationship with it.
To start things off, here's a conversation I have fairly regularly.
Me, to a friend: "Hey I think you should watch [some movie]."
Friend, to me: "Oh, really? Is it on Netflix?"
Me: "I don't know, I don't have Netflix."
Friend: "You don't have Netflix? Why don't you have Netflix? I thought you liked movies."
Since it seems like it's been a while since I've alienated any of my 7 readers, I thought now would be as good a time as ever. We need to talk about Netflix. If you saw my column on VidAngel, this piece will not focus on Netflix's business practices (of which it divulges nearly nothing but at least seem above-water). No, I will instead focus on the company's impact on the world of film, specifically its needlessly antagonistic view of film as a whole and the potentially catastrophic effect the service could have in the long term.
But first: what even is a movie? One of the things Netflix has forced us to do since its inception is to question in new ways what it means to be a movie. Specifically, does where or how it is watched make a difference?
Some, including Netflix, would say, "No." It's simply a moving picture. It may or may not contain narrative elements, sound, or color, but the forms in which it is created or exhibited make no effectual difference. And I would agree, in part. Whether a film is short or long or produced for TV or the big screen or is never seen by anyone again, it is still a film. But I would certainly claim that the where and how make a tremendous difference in how one experiences the film, even that such considerations are essential when thinking about movies. And Netflix does not give two of your neighbor's dog's old turds about that.
Film is a unique art form. On the one hand, it is the most holistic of them all, combining elements of every other form of art Man has yet invented: visual composition, storytelling, music, and on. It relies on the talents and cooperation of a large group of collaborators even for the simplest of endeavors. For this reason, it has had a much more intimate and fraught relationship with corporate business than any other art form. Yes, they all require some sort of sponsor at some level, but how many sponsors will devote hundreds of millions of dollars to the commission of a single piece? So, yes, film is undoubtedly, unabashedly commercial. But it is also fine art.
Netflix does not see that. And indeed its business model is actively hostile to any notion of "art." It sees what it terms to be merely "content" to be "consumed." I take serious issue with both of those words. Art is not "content." The endless and meaningless material that spews from a company's social media manager is "content." Logan Paul is "content." Baking hacks are "content." Art is meant to make a mark; "content" merely to wash over or through its audience in as constant a stream as possible. Netflix's users are encouraged now to merely consume what is given them, not to be a reflective, discerning audience enjoying and being impacted by the artistic statement of other human beings. Indeed, Netflix is anathema to art.
Surely that is a strong word, but I stand by it. For most of the history of film, it was, like theatre or music, a performative art. It was shown, in public, at given times that were not negotiable. In order to see it, one might have had to wait in line for hours. If the performance was missed, it was missed without recall. And once a film was through with its public performance, very few ever saw it again. It was an event.
But it was an accessible event. People who could not afford to see a stage play or symphony or opera had a nickel or two for a nice Saturday matinee. Film, next only perhaps to popular recorded music, became the great democratically enjoyed form of art in the 20th century.
The advent of home viewing removed some of the "event" status of film while expanding the democratic elements. Now one could own a copy of a favorite film and enjoy it at will. And rather than devalue the theatrical viewing experience, I think it opened up a beautiful new opportunity: the potential for a curated collection of art. Like one might collect treasured and meaningful books and music and paintings, one could now do so with the motion picture. In a form different from its original presentation, yes, but with all crucial elements intact.
It is the express mission of Netflix to set fire to all of that for the powerfully undemocratic purpose of pushing "content."
For with Netflix, one does not get a cultural event on the level of King Kong or Jaw or (dare I say it) even Infinite Wars. Neither does one get a personalized collection cultivated over years, an accumulated statement of enjoyable and perhaps important expressions of art to be admired and discussed and studied. One gets a parade of "content" tailored only to keep you watching enough to warrant your monthly subscription. With Netflix and its ilk, it is as though we collectively decided to tear down our libraries and book stores and entrust our literacy to the algorithmic recommendations of e-readers we have no control over.
But surely that is a little overdramatic. Netflix isn't Fahrenheit 451ing on us. Are they?
It's hard to tell for certain. Netflix is notoriously non-transparent, and this carries over into their searching capabilities. Browsing their categories feels like cycling in an endless loop, with titles appearing through multiple genres with little rhyme or reason. With that and no complete catalogue available from which to glean titles, no one really knows what is on Netflix on a given day. But I wanted to know. The best I could do was to enter in all of the DVD titles available to me, which totaled 415 (not all mine, I protest, but I don't disavow a perhaps-misspent youth). The number of those titles currently on Netflix?
For those keeping score, that's less than 8 percent. "But!" I hear you protest, "That's an incredibly skewed sample!" True. The home-viewing habits of my associates and I are arguably more niche than that of Ma and Pa Kettle. But, for a service that still clings to the public notion that it has everything and that states that it honors and promotes film, there is an incredible amount of embarrassing omissions, and what it does have is haphazard and even lazy. For example:
"Yes, but you're still not reconciling your crappy sample size," you say. True. But let me just point out one more thing. Prior to entering the streaming game, Netflix had amassed a library of some 35,000 DVD titles. To put that in context, the current American commercial film market produces around 300 titles a year. At that rate, it would take more than 115 years to create such a body from scratch. So the Netflix library of yesteryear would have contained contemporary and popular hits as well as a HUGE catalog of classic and international pictures. If Netflix didn't have what you were looking for, it wasn't unreasonable to assume that it couldn't be found.
I'm sure that now their library still ranges into the thousands, but it is a library bereft of any weight or purpose due to its incomplete arbitrariness. For example, it does not contain:
So how could any company that depends on giving customers what they're looking for get away with such a reckless disregard for the goods it provides? Easy: due to the runaway success of some of their original programming, Netflix has learned that it doesn't need to keep a sizable or competitive film library because people are fine with spending 8 bucks a month for Black Mirror and Stronger Thongs (excuse me, "Stranger Things"). In fact, Netflix recently announced a plan to spend $8 billion on original content this year, equating to some 700 (!) movies and TV series in various languages.
This investment is impressive and no doubt exciting for fans of their programming. But it should also give you serious pause. That doesn't look like the kind of company that wants to stand out from its competitors by offering selection. It looks like a company that just wants to be its own network.
"But what makes that any different from any other existing studio or network?" you ask. The difference is that Netflix has destroyed movie renting and is waging war on the public exhibition of films. It almost acts insulted when, as Cannes had the nerve to do recently, film organizations require that films be shown theatrically for consideration for awards. As Netflix continues to demonstrate that it doesn't need public showings to make money or even garner industry respect, other producers will surely take note. And first look no further than Disney, who are preparing their own streaming service armed with their stable of popular titles ranging from their own classics to Star Wars and Marvel and, now, potentially all of Fox. Considering how crappily they tend to treat theaters and how hellbent they are on total industry domination, don't be surprised when they first discontinue circulating DVD, Blu-Ray, and digital copies of their films, then move to "exclusive" material only available on their service, then finally a gradual discontinuance of any public exhibition at all. If every family in America is paying them 8 bucks a month whether they watch anything or not, why would a studio consider any other business model that requires them to give a cut to manufacturers or distributors?
To be bluntly clear: I do not think that Netflix in its current iteration is doing anything good for movies. Indeed, I say that Netflix is possibly the worst thing to happen to film in the history of the form. It is actively and needlessly hostile to the distribution and exhibition of films. It is going out of its way to destroy access to a century's worth of films from around the world, substituting the potential for cultural literacy with a bafflingly crappy algorithm. It has taken the great art form of the modern era and watered it down to "content" used to fill the gap between crappy comedy specials and TV you are supposed to like because everyone at the office does. ("This show is like we're in the 80s again even though I born in 1998!") And, I fear, Netflix will teach other producers and distributors of film that how something is watched doesn't really make a difference; that, as long as your subscriptions continue to grow, it doesn't really matter what you make because you are getting paid regardless.
Users of Netflix, I plead with you: cut your ties with them. They don't need you, and are offering you increasingly poor returns on your subscription at the cost of the reason you started subscribing in the first place: movies.
If you're a human living on Earth, you are going to fight the madding crowd this weekend to see the new Star War that Disney is releasing. Early notices for the film are overwhelmingly positive, which should no doubt be encouraging for fans of the franchise or the work of director Rian Johnson. As a fan more of the latter than the former, I am feeling good about attending. So to do his work justice, I decided to brush up on the other Star War of this modern dispensation, The Force Awakens. And I had some thoughts I wanted to share.
Basically, it's really not that good.
To qualify that: there are good (or at least cool) parts throughout The Force Awakens. First to mind is the overall design of the film. It does an incredible job of marrying practical on-set creatures and effects with digital creations and manipulations. (But let's please agree that the one horrifying exception to this standard is the Jakku junk dealer.) The universe feels very real, something the first trilogy always succeeded at. Taken in isolation, there are also a lot of cool parts. The opening sequence with Poe on Jakku is arresting and well-paced. There are some cool "wow" moments in various dogfight situations. The film really has a lot going for it on a design and technical level, which should be expected if you spend infinity dollars making a film.
Unfortunately, very few of those infinity dollars went toward creating a story that worked on its own or was made of mature components. Two examples particularly stuck out to me on this viewing: 1) there is an incredible amount of narrative string-pulling, and 2) there is a baffling amount of expositional dialog. Let's look at these a little closer.
Narrative string-pulling is what I'm calling the phenomenon, rife throughout this entire film, of a force outside the film (i.e., the storytellers) propelling action forward in an arbitrary or at least unearned way.
Expositional dialog takes many forms, but is always used to inform the audience of important material. It isn't inherently bad, but it is often awkward or at least obvious, and detracts from any realism that may have been desired. Basically it is a lazy way for a storyteller to directly communicate with the audience. For my tastes, I think good films jettison expositional dialog almost entirely, instead using other, subtler devices to portray the film's world to the viewer.
The expositional dialog in The Force Awakens takes one of its worst forms: two characters talking about things they both know as if they don't. And it takes it often. A prime example is basically everything Han and Leia say to each other. You know our son, the bad guy who split us up? As you remember, it caused us to split up. It's too bad we had to deal with that in our own way by falling back on what we were best at. But it's good we still kinda like each other too. And so on.
But there are other forms for the fan of expositional dialog to feast on. There is plenty of "This is what I'm thinking" and "Remember, our plan is to do these things" and "Those are bad guys" and "Those are good guys" peppered around. Taken together, there are very few conversations which don't amount to explicitly clueing in the audience to new material or reminding them of or referencing old material, instead of revealing layers of character. Watched muted, the experience would be largely the same.
I bring all this up because I think that fans of franchises, especially franchises that have the resources to achieve anything they want, deserve films with complexity and depth. And The Force Awakens is a fundamentally depthless movie. Fun, yes, particularly on first viewing, but depthless. I brought up some specific storytelling issues here, but there is also the thing taken as a whole: Nothing new is really explored in terms of the Force or characters' relationships or even the geo-political situation of this fantasy universe. There are suggestions, yes, but so much has to happen that we get only a handful of non-expositional moments between anybody, which means we end up not really knowing (or caring) much about anybody. The characters themselves are hollow: either caricatures of themselves if they are old ones, or thinly painted in broad strokes if new. Indeed, the film has many of the symptoms of overstuffed contemporary blockbuster filmmaking, above all placing supposed spectacle over characters and conflicts that mean anything outside of the brand.
Again, I think that fans of franchises should hold what they love to a higher standard. Massive franchise movies can be fun and also really good--that's the whole reason you got into Star Wars in the first place. As a fan of Rian Johnson's other work, I really hope The Last Jedi has more going for it than a great-looking exterior, and I know he can deliver. I guess we'll see this weekend.
By now you've no doubt heard the news that VidAngel, the popular filtered streaming service, is back. "Back," because, you know, it was shut down by a federal judge back in December. Although it appears that, at least for now, the company's practices are on less skeezy legal footing than before, this writer is still not a fan. And I've decided to burn a few friendships to try and win some of you over.
First, let's talk about the old VidAngel and why it was so problematic. Martyr-cries to #savefiltering notwithstanding, the prolonged legal battle involving Disney, Warner Brothers, and 20th Century Fox really has nothing to do with filtering. It can't, because in 2005 Congress enacted a law titled The Family Home Movie Act. This act essentially allows for the creation of software or other devices to edit a DVD or transmitted film during playback. It maintains the integrity of any copyrighted intellectual property represented in a film by not effectually changing its substance, while permitting consumers to filter out content they consider offensive in a home-viewing setting.
Now, understandably, copyright holders might get concerned about this, since digital piracy is a massive problem. And they don't have to make it easy for DVDs or streamed information to be altered. Consumers that want filtered content also get frustrated, since many filtering products work pretty poorly. Enter VidAngel. The company offered a cheap, fairly-reliable solution that could basically be applied to any movie under the sun. If it sounds too good to be true, it is.
But the trouble with VidAngel was never the filtering; it was their process prior to. That process, described by lawyers for both sides, was roughly as follows: The company bought a DVD of a given film, broke its encryption, and created a single master copy. That copy was broken into many pieces, tagged for potential offensive content, and stored in a cloud. When VidAngel then "sold" you that film, what you got was really an assemblage gathered from a single master, not a legitimate copy from the source. You know, like piracy.
That is what Disney Company, et. al., were unhappy about: not the on-the-fly filtering by home viewers provisioned by Congress, but the unauthorized copying and redistribution of copyrighted material, to the tune of tens of millions of dollars.
But now things are different. By filtering movies you can legitimately stream, VidAngel should no longer be in violation of any copyright law. But that makes them only marginally less-awful in my book.
VidAngel made a (very successful) business of hawking unauthorized wares to people who only want to do the right thing. Instead of setting up something legitimate, like it looks like they have finally done, they turned the guy in a hoodie selling ripped DVDs on the corner into the Last Bastion of Decency. Given the speed with which they have pivoted business models, one must conclude that it was a very intentional choice to take the low road in the first place: how much easier to simply raid the Walmart $5 bin than go through the rigamarole of streaming licensure.
It also irks me that VidAngel has always played and will continue to play the victim of a pernicious plot by "Hollywood" to remove anything good and decent from American homes. Hollywood knows families are big business--Sony just announced the release of family-friendly versions of some of its films--it just really doesn't like when people don't pay it for its stuff. Notwithstanding having amassed impressive profits, VidAngel deemed it needful to enlist the financial aid of its customers during its heroic fight against the persecution of the Mouse House. Indeed, it gathered some $10 million toward the noble cause of "saving filtering," one which needs no defense as it is under no attack. No, it duped its customers with misleading pleas and petitions to contribute tens of millions of dollars toward little more than protecting piracy.
Let's not talk about the casual (okay, pretty overt) misogyny and disability-shaming that permeates VidAngel's first entry into original content, Tim Timmerman, Hope of America. For a company that apparently worries so much about the disproportional amount of female nudity in American film and what depictions of aggressive masculinity teach our boys, it doesn't seem to be too concerned about creating anything that contributes positively to the lack of meaningful female roles or reverses negative gender stereotypes.
VidAngel is not what you think it is. It is not the Final Hope against corrupt Hollywood turning our kids into thugs and pornographers. It is not the little guy who has your side. It is a company that just wants your money. That's not any different from any other company, I guess, but from where I sit VidAngel goes about getting it in hypocritical, deceitful, and, it seems, less-than-legal ways.
I don't really care if you are into filtering or not, as long as however you watch your movies is supportive of the people who made them. I plead for you to seek out your entertainment through legitimate means, whatever it is that you watch or play or listen to. Or if not, I guess you can always #savepiracy.
I think we can all pretty much agree: 2016 kinda sucked all around. This writer, for one, will not be terribly sad to see it go, in part because 2017 looks like it holds some pretty good potential, movie-wise. So let us all give this year one final "good riddance" by having a little look at 4 movies I'm looking forward to next year.
John Wick: Chapter 2
2014's John Wick was a wonderful little surprise. It claims to be nothing more than straight-ahead action-flic, but like a good straight-ahead, no-frills rock song, sometimes that's all you need. Its action sequences were fun and inventive, and it managed to have a genuine sense of humor, something lacking in many contemporary action movies. Hopefully the next chapter continues in that direction.
John Wick: Chapter 2 comes out February 10th.
Kong: Skull Island
I know I'm the last person to be excited about another expanded franchise film, but the trailer above kinda sold me hard. It's a great cast, and the colors and other visuals have really been appealing to me. It's also directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, who brought us The Kings of Summer, one of my favorite films of 2013. So that's more than enough goodwill to get me in line.
Kong: Skull Island comes out March 10th.
(The only trailer I can find right now is a red band one, FYI.)
I know a lot of you weren't totally impressed with 2012's Prometheus, and while I have issues with it I still enjoy it more than most. But certainly Michael Fassbender was one of the better elements of that movie. This looks to be more in line with Alien than many of the other entries in the series that followed. Hopefully it does have some original cards to play as well, though, especially as an expensive summer release.
Alien: Covenant comes out May 19th.
Blade Runner 2049
This film, of the rest on this list, holds the most promise for me. It is based on one of my favorite films from the early 80s, Blade Runner, and directed by Denis Villeneuve (who just gave us Arrival) and shot by master Roger Deakins. So I am hopeful that it will turn out to be a film as engaging as its originator, and not a legacyquel with great production design like Star Wars: The Force Awakens was. But at this point, I am confident of something quite satisfying.
Blade Runner 2049 comes out on October 6th.
That does it for this list, which I just realized has nothing that is not now part of some franchise on it, for shame. So I'll mention I'm also excited (to one degree or another) for Split (1/20), A Cure for Wellness (2/17), Life (3/24), and Dunkirk (7/21), to name a few. Happy viewing, and I'll see you next year!
by Chase Harrison