Super (under)powered Cinema

So I’ll be honest at the start of this: I was a huge fan of superhero films. Browsing Life in Pixels’ archives will testify my adoration of the genre. But recently, I’ve become tired of these films. They’re formulaic (which is sometimes not such a bad thing… but, you know). Netflix does a great job of producing some actual substance in this field, but for the most part the television side of the genre leaves much to be desired.

I would watch, week in week out, the latest episodes of Arrow, The Flash, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., … until it all just got too much. How much of my life was I willing to invest in this? There comes a point where entertainment becomes a chore, and I think I’ve reached that. In its response to mass-consumption, itself a product of the success the genre has felt since the first Iron Man hit theatres, superhero films and television have since departed the gravitas that once underscored the category.

Now, I’m not saying that I’m a voice with final-say in what people should be watching or consuming. We live in a free(ish) society; we can do what we want. But I’ve since become uninterested in this genre, a part of pop culture that at one time was a powerful critique on society, and that formed a big part of my own life.

Take Nolan’s Batman films. Yes, I know. It’s a cop-out whenever a critic of contemporary superhero cinema brings out Mr Nolan and his work. But with this succinct trilogy, he crafted a piece of cinema that is both powerful as a work of art, a strong series of examinations on our society – a society that is plagued by fanaticism, crime, terror, rogue ideology and fear. The Batman becomes the lens through which we examine what it means to live in such a world. Tom Hardy’s Bane represents that strong, terrifying faction that can, at any moment, shake the very foundations of our civilisation. Ledger’s Joker, of course, just wants to see the world burn.

The point is, these films carried substance. Gravitas. And Nolan knew when to stop. He set out to tell this legend, this mythos of the Batman, and he achieved it through those three films.

Superheroes are, I believe, a potent vehicle for exploring very human issues: politics, race, culture, power… historically, they have been used as a critique on society. But in the commodification of the genre, as Hollywood’s prying fingers tear through the metaphor to mine the cashflow, I fear we’re losing that very essence. Yes, on the print side, things still seem to be alive and kicking. But I’m arguing from the cinematic perspective, and the state of things in that arena leaves much to be desired.

 

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The DC Television Universe

Continuing this week’s theme of DC superheros (read this, this and this), today I’d like to talk about the DC Television Universe. Because this coming television season, we’re going to be treated to a plethora of superhero-inspired television – and it’s not just from Marvel. Indeed, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. took its sweet time to get its momentum, whilst DC’s offering, in the form of the CW’s Arrow, had a riveting second season with a welcomed mid-season teaser of their upcoming offering, The Flash.

So what exactly is on offer next season? Along with Arrow season 3, we’ve got Barry Allen’s standalone debut as the Flash in, you guessed it, CW’s The Flash. This show and Arrow will be tightly integrated into what could potentially be a television universe – a rather unique idea considering the current surge in shared arcs for big-budget features by the studios. We’ll get to this later, though. The other offerings are Gotham, an origins tale of sorts for the villains of the Batman world. Incidentally, Bruce Wayne won’t be prominently featured in this series; it’ll revolve around a young Commissioner Gordon and seems like a crime-noir tale, rather than a vigilante/superhero one like Arrow.

Gotham isn’t going to integrate with Arrow and Flash. It’s a standalone series. But with the tightly-connected arcs of Arrow and Flash, here’s what I’m hoping for: that this is just the beginning of a much wider, richer television universe. One where other DC characters (perhaps minor ones) begin to populate the world. Arrow has proven that DC can make a decent television series with their properties. And with an established fan base for the show, there’s an existing market that would be eager to consume more of this world.

What’s interesting to see is how these shows react to the emerging DC Cinematic Universe. Will we see Stephen Amell’s Green Arrow join the Justice League alongside Ben Affleck’s Batman and Henry Cavill’s Superman? I, for one, would welcome this. I think it’d be awesome to see these minor JL characters fight the bad guys alongside these superstars.

We’ll most likely find out how the current television universe fits into what seems like a rather comprehensive cinematic universe from DC, at this month’s San Diego Comic Con.

Along with The Flash getting his own show, and interacting with the Arrow universe, I’d like to see a Nightwing series adaptation. Arrow, Flash and Nighwing could form a potent triad of heroes that cement the DC flag in a medium fast-outpacing the cinematic facet of the entertainment world.

Next season will be the reign of the superhero series. Based on how it fares with audiences, we could very well be on the brink of seeing the television landscape becoming saturated with the superhero obsession much like what’s currently happening in film.

Let’s Talk About S.H.I.E.L.D.

WARNING: SPOILERS THROUGHOUT THIS POST.

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I wasn’t an ardent fan of Marvel movies. I preferred the dramatic “seriousness” of the Nolan-era DC films and actually enjoyed Man of Steel. Iron Man and Avengers were O.K. when it came to Marvel, but Captain America: The First Avenger remained my favourite Marvel film of the MCU – probably because I liked the setting; that was an interesting era to have a superhero film set in.

When it came to television, again I preferred DC’s Arrow to Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Like many, I thought that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. lacked the gravitas or substance that would afford it continued watchability. Those “missions a week” setups became tired after the third episode, and the fact that the creators were not drawing from such a wealth of material that is the extended MCU made me lose interest in this series.

That was until I watched Captain America: The Winter Soldier. My entire conception of the MCU changed.

I have recently become a big fan of Marvel, and of the direction the MCU is headed in. Marvel has been known as the studio with the massive special-effects laden films with little story, but right now, they are doing things with the art of storytelling that have perhaps never been done before. Things that are innovative and extremely compelling.

I, along with many others, was very wrong in dismissing Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. as a show that wasn’t connecting well with the extended MCU. Because all along, Marvel was playing us, subtly having the entire universe linked, setting up events for a massive reveal in Winter Soldier and the subsequent episode Turn, Turn, Turn from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Dissolving S.H.I.E.L.D. is probably the best thing Marvel could do to ensure their universe moves forward. Now we have some serious disarray that can really disorient our characters, leading to infinite possibilities of where things could go. Proper conflict. We, just like the characters on the show, don’t know who to trust. Having Hydra infiltrate S.H.I.E.L.D. at its inception means that there are some deep questions about S.H.I.E.L.D.’s actions of the past, and the justification thereof.

Having a tentpole movie introducing the Hydra threat shows the large-scale catastrophe caused, and then the following episode on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. brings things into perspective on a smaller, more intimate scale – of just how these events have impacted the unassuming operatives of S.H.I.E.L.D. – ordinary humans without superpowers to defend themselves (albeit badass fighting skills). This is truly innovative storytelling, where we get to experience a major event from different angles on different formats so close to each other.

This is what I think many fans expected going in to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. It’s this specific move that has made the slow-burn of the first half of Season 1 worth the arduous watch,

The way I see this, S.H.I.E.L.D. is central to everything that is currently happening in the MCU. This entity is the pivot point upon which Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the extended MCU have been held precariously, and with Hydra’s re-emergence, that balance has been broken and the two have cascaded into each other – just the thing us viewers have been aching to see for so long now.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is finally the Marvel show I want to watch – it doesn’t just have flash-bang-action, but a genuine storyline that is compelling and that makes it a strong force within the broader arc, actually able to hold its weight with the larger films that surround it.

Agent Ward’s actions in the cliffhanger at the end of Turn, Turn, Turn, and the use of the Hydra logo instead of the S.H.I.E.L.D. one to end-off the episode, leave so many questions that, coupled with the conclusion in Winter Soldier, makes us as the audience actually feel like a character in the MCU.

I can’t wait to see what they’re up to next.

Well played, Marvel. Well played indeed.

Mini Update

I haven’t been posting in a while due to not feeling too well. I hope to get back to a more “regular” schedule soon. Expect my thoughts on the new Superman film Man of Steel (once I actually get to see it), and reviews and musings on the world of tech. But for now, I thought I’d just drop by to update you on some of the things that are keeping me interested whilst I get better.

Book: Dan Brown’s Inferno. I started it earlier this week. Still very early into the story, so I can’t give any proper opinion yet. But I’m enjoying it – classic Dan Brown stuff here.

Music: Still enjoying Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories. Gets better with each listen.

TV Series: since Da Vinci’s Demons ended season 1 (on a cliffhanger, too!) and all my other favourite comedies (Modern Family, The Big Bang Theory, Community) aren’t scheduled to resume until later this year, I’ve found myself drawn to Arrow. Yes, I know, I’m a bit late to the party there, but this series has enough plot twists and intrigue to keep me entertained. The acting is a bit questionable, but it’s a fun watch nevertheless.

Projects: apart from working on the major redesign of the SKKSA website, I’m also learning some new web technologies (though I can’t say much more about that just yet…). Hoping to also get back into the manuscript soon.

Sorry for the lack of posts on Pixelated Thinking. I can’t wait to get back to the regular schedule. See you soon!