In which I re-write the Justice League movie

Last November, I was busy creating a tiny human and so did not have time to go to the theater for Justice League.  I finally got around to seeing it a few weeks ago, and in general I felt the same about it as I did about the other DC movies: there was a good movie in there somewhere.  It just wasn’t the final cut.

There wasn’t anything really horrible about the movie; it was just kind of blah.  Characters, plot, effects, everything.  The more I thought about it, the more ideas came to me of how to improve it (none of which involve more Whedon-esque quips).

Start with Intergang

It’s pretty clear that BvS set the stage for a villain from the fiery dystopian planet Apokolips to appear in Justice League by teasing parademons and possibly Darkseid himself (“He’s coming!”)  Justice League picks that thread up by starting the movie with an invasion of parademons, then goes on to a history lesson about the Mother boxes and Steppenwolf, the movie’s big bad (and one of Darkseid’s lieutenants).  Although I got a laugh with the scene comparing the sketch of a parademon to Batman, in general this was not a terribly compelling plot and definitely involved some info dumps.

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Parademons

But I have seen a better way to introduce the Apokoliptians in Superman: The Animated Series, which uses a criminal organization called Intergang to bring in concepts like Mother boxes and boom tubes (which are shown but never explained in JL).

Intergang is a group of humans based in Metropolis, generally led by a guy named Bruno Mannheim, that use advanced technology from Apokolips to commit thefts and other crimes.  The DCU movies do like to pretend from time to time that they care about how all this superhero stuff affects the average citizen, so perhaps seeing an “arms race” of super-tech in response to the beginnings of the Justice League would be an interesting direction to take (a bit like Vulture in Spiderman: Homecoming).

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Darkseid and Bruno Mannheim in the DCAU

Just as with the parademons, we could see Batman investigating Intergang early in the movie.  This would be a good excuse to show Batman acting like a detective instead of a thug who just likes to dangle people off buildings when it’s helpful to him.  As his investigations lead him further, he and Wonder Woman could come across the information about the Mother boxes and Darkseid’s underling who brought them to Earth.  This seems a little more organic than an oddly specific flare signal from the Amazons and an info dump from Diana (though, again, I enjoyed seeing more of the Amazons).

Intergang also provides a vehicle for character development for Lois Lane.  Instead of grieving by writing fluff pieces, Lois could grieve by throwing herself recklessly into a dangerous investigation of the group.  As much as I liked the “mother-in-law” scene with her and Ma Kent, this reaction seems more like the Lois Lane I am familiar with. It also gives her a reason to cross paths with Batman early in the movie so they can be like, “Man, doesn’t it suck that Superman’s dead?  Yeah, we could really use him around.” And thereby lay the groundwork for his eventual resurrection and Lois’s role in it.

Ditch Steppenwolf

So if we have Intergang, do we need Steppenwolf in his role?  Well, we need some Apokoliptian to be calling the shots for Intergang, but it should definitely not be Steppenwolf, who is one of the absolute worst villains in all modern superhero movies.  His defining characteristics are that he has a cool axe and some vague mommy issues. It is an absolute waste of a great actor like Ciaran Hinds.

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Steppenwolf: The Worst

If I have one problem with the DCU movies in general, it’s that the third act tends to devolve into an everything-is-dark-and-on-fire CGI mess.  So maybe we could have a villain that’s not a giant CGI monster for once?

There are several flunkies of Darkseid’s that would work for this role.  Kalibak and DeSaad specifically were well done in S:TAS, giving some insight to the political machinations going on back on Apokolips.  But my first crazy choice would have to be Granny Goodness.

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Come to Granny, darling. She’ll make it all better.

We haven’t seen anything like Granny yet, not even in a Marvel movie.  Done well, she can be intimidating while at the same time providing comic relief.  Remember, for example, that she is voiced wonderfully by Ed Asner in the DCAU–what if we had someone similar to play her here?  It doesn’t have to be too campy.

Plus, if we get Granny, we can also get her Furies, which would make for a pretty cool climax battle for the Justice League, with several different types of action.  And it would be nice to see some female supervillains for once (they are a rarity even in Marvel movies).

Complete Cyborg’s Story Arc

Image result for cyborg justice leagueGoing in to Justice League, I was afraid that Cyborg’s character was going to be very bland, but I was pleasantly surprised with him and his backstory.  (Though his character design could have been better…)  But after finishing the movie, I really feel like he got the shaft in terms of character development.  Batman and Wonder Woman both see grow over the movie, Aquaman gets some set up for his upcoming movie, Flash gets some nice resolution and a cute end credit scene with Superman.  What does Cyborg get?  A story arc that’s left hanging.

At the beginning of the movie, we see that Cyborg is conflicted, to say the least, about his father’s decision to save his life and make him into a cyborg with the technology from the Mother box.  He feels more like an experiment than a son and is frustrated that he can’t understand his changing powers.  Later, he must save his father from the parademons, and this would have been a great time for his feelings to come to a head.

But instead, the team saves his father and just kinda leaves, and I don’t think we see Dr. Stone again at the end of the movie (someone correct me if I’m wrong).  Cyborg never works out his feelings about what was done to him, and how he’ll live going forward.  For a character that is essential to the plot, being the only one who understands how to shut down the Mother boxes, this seems like a significant oversight.  Especially when Barry gets such a nice scene with his father at the end showing his character growth.

I’m sure the powers that be had planned to flesh this out more in a solo Cyborg movie, but I wouldn’t bet on that being a certainty now.

Speaking of which, after seeing the end credit scene, I think it’s pretty cute that they think they’ll be doing not only another possible movie with Darkseid that they’ve been leading up to, but also an Injustice League (or Secret Society/Legion of Doom/etc) movie.  Beyond Aquaman and WW2, I’m not convinced of how many more movies we’ll get in the DCU period.  My younger self would cry to hear me say this, but I’m not sure I really even care.

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Disney/Pixar Madness

Do you like getting into fights on the Internet over trivial things?  If so, I recommend you fill out this March Madness-style bracket of Disney and Pixar movies and begin alienating your friends with your terrible choices.

I had so much fun doing the Holiday Madness bracket at Christmas, I thought this would be another fun one to do.  As you see, Disney movies are on the left side of the bracket and Pixar movies are on the right, meeting in the final.  As with all brackets, the seeding is the most important factor in determining the outcome, and I think the seeding here is a bit flawed.  I’m not really sure how it was done, and I feel like the starting matchups could be better, but I’m too lazy to figure out my own, so we’ll go with this one.

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I really tried to be objective instead of just picking my favorites.  On the Disney side, I knew it would come down to those top four, and then I struggled to pick among them.  I admit I probably let some nostalgia sway me, because The Lion King is my favorite Disney movie.  I’m confused by the inclusion of The Nightmare Before Christmas instead of, say, The Rescuers Down Under or Atlantis if they wanted to keep it around the Disney Renaissance period, or Wreck-It Ralph if going more contemporary.

On the Pixar side, Up and Wall-E are my favorite Pixar movies, but they didn’t make it very far.  I really struggled with the seeding: Finding Nemo vs. Inside Out and The Incredibles vs. Wall-E do not seem like first round matchups to me.  I also admit I have not seen Coco or Cars 2 (plus I fell asleep during the original Cars).

But overall, I think my “Elite Eight” are a pretty good representation of the best of Disney/Pixar.  Now here’s your chance to tell me how wrong I am!  What would your picks be?

Black History Month: Afrofuturism and Black Panther

I went to see Black Panther last weekend, and it was every bit as good as everyone said.  One of its most striking aspects is the visual aesthetic and culture of Wakanda, a successful cross of organic and technological, traditional and futuristic.  It is one of the most stunning recent representations of a decades-long movement called “Afrofuturism.”  Although it may not have always been at the forefront of the genre, it has had a deep and lasting impact on science fiction.

Janelle Monáe’s album The ArchAndroid

Afrofuturism has its roots in the mid-20th century works of authors such as W.E.B. DuBois and Ralph Ellison.  The term itself was coined in the ’90s to describe the trend of “speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of 20th-century technoculture.”  Hugo- and Nebula-winning author Octavia Butler produced some of the most famous works of the movement.

Afrofuturism seems to be having a bit of a renaissance currently, being represented in the works of authors like Nnedi Okorafor, musicians like Janelle Monáe, and even in the video game Overwatch with the appearance of the fictional utopian city Numbani.  But the Black Panther movie is clearly destined to move Afrofuturism solidly into our collective consciousness and give it a lasting place in popular culture.

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Overwatch’s Afrofuturist city Numbani

Wakanda’s Afrofuturistic aspects can be seen in many facets, from the visuals of its architecture and clothing to its transportation and medical care, and especially in its mirage that keeps its true advanced nature hidden from the rest of the world.  In many ways, the African culture blends seamlessly with technology powered by the fictional metal vibranium.  Traditional articles of clothing become advanced armor and shields.  A beaded bracelet is a remote control device for communications, healing, or other infrastructure systems.  Wakanda has metropolitan skyscrapers that are covered in living plants.

But Afrofuturism is more than the sum of its sci-fi tech gadgets. Note for example the difference between Black Panther and Falcon, another black MCU superhero with lots of tech.  While Falcon provides great representation for African-Americans, his MCU incarnation does not have a lot of qualities that speak specifically to that experience.  In general, Anthony Mackie could be replaced with a white actor with little change to the character.

But in the Afrofuturistic world of Black Panther, the dual nature of its African roots and forward-thinking ideas reflects the duality of the black experience.  (Interesting that even the word “African-American” itself showcases a duality.)  For a black perspective on this, I recommend this commentary on the different dichotomies of the movie; I think the Afrofuturistic vibe fits that motif as well.  The movie feels both African and (African-)American, and has a lot to say about black issues using science fiction as a background.

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Wakanda

So what about Afrofuturism has given it such staying power over the years, and such draw now? Because Afrofuturist works are typically made by black creators, and frequently for a black audience, my personal speculations are largely irrelevant.  The one thing that rings true to me is that Wakanda is an empowering, optimistic view of a possible future, where, among other things, young black women can be the head scientists of a nation.

I recently read a quote from author Shomari Wills about why he wrote his book Black Fortunes: The Story of the First Six African Americans Who Escaped Slavery and Became Millionaires.  He said, “So much today focuses on black folks and lack.”  He went on to say that while poverty and disparity are important issues to discuss, he wanted a more positive message to honor those successful businessmen and women and empower readers.  I think Afrofuturism serves a similar purpose.  By having their own space in speculative fiction to tell unique stories, Afrofuturists can empower us to envision a future where black culture and science are not at odds but blend seamlessly.

Further Reading:

Holiday Movie Madness

One of our local papers had a fun poll this Christmas season: a bracket of holiday movies, competing for the title of champion.  In their poll, the winner turned out to be (no surprise) It’s a Wonderful Life.  As a huge fan of Christmas movies (even bad, made-for-TV ones), I decided to go ahead and fill in my own picks.

The 4 regions:

Old School

  1. It’s a Wonderful Life
  2. Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
  3. White Christmas
  4. A Christmas Story
  5. The Santa Clause
  6. Die Hard
  7. Home Alone
  8. The Bishop’s Wife
Semi-finalist: #7 Home Alone

New School

  1. Elf
  2. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation
  3. Love Actually
  4. The Preacher’s Wife
  5. Bad Santa
  6. This Christmas
  7. A Madea Christmas
  8. The Nightmare Before Christmas
Semi-finalist: #3 Love Actually

Must-See TV

  1. How the Grinch Stole Christmas
  2. Frosty the Snowman
  3. A Charlie Brown Christmas
  4. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
  5. Hallmark movies (multiple)
  6. Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town
  7. The Year Without a Santa Claus
  8. The Christmas Shoes
Semi-finalist: #1 How the Grinch Stole Christmas

Dickens Do-Agains

  1. A Christmas Carol (1951, Alastair Sim)
  2. Scrooged (1988, Bill Murray)
  3. A Christmas Carol (1984, George C. Scott)
  4. Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962)
  5. A Christmas Carol (1999, Patrick Stewart)
  6. The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
  7. Scrooge (1970, Albert Finney)
  8. A Christmas Carol (2009, Jim Carrey animated)
Semi-finalist: #6 The Muppet Christmas Carol

So here’s my full bracket:

Holiday Movie Madness

There are two films in this list of 32 that some people might question.  Die Hard is typically thought of as a mere action movie, but I definitely think it is a Christmas movie because the holiday is key to the plot and themes.  Plus, I’ve always liked that Hans Gruber sounds like Franz Gruber, who wrote “Silent Night.”  The Nightmare Before Christmas, on the other hand, is not a Christmas movie, and I wouldn’t have included it here.  Despite the fact that it has “Christmas” in the title, it’s more of a Halloween movie.  But I’m sure many people feel the exact opposite about these two.  You can fight me in the comments.

There are also a bunch of these movies that I haven’t ever seen (including half of the Christmas Carol versions), so I just didn’t vote for any of those.

The hardest head-to-head match up in the first round was White Christmas vs. Die Hard in the Old School category.  I love them both, but they are so different it is hard to compare.  I went with White Christmas because I love the music, and also I saw it more recently haha.

In the semi-finals, I also had trouble with How the Grinch Stole Christmas vs. The Muppet Christmas Carol.  The Grinch was a Christmas tradition in my house growing up, and I can probably quote most of the movie (not to mention singing the song).  But how can you beat the Muppets and Michael Caine singing in the Dickens classic?  I gave the edge to the Grinch because the nostalgia factor was stronger there.

No one that knows me will be surprised that I picked Home Alone for my number one Christmas movie.  Growing up, it was a tradition to watch this movie on Thanksgiving to kick off the holiday season.  I recently even went to see the Cleveland Orchestra perform the movie score live.  It really is such a good movie: great writing and acting, plenty of comedy of all kinds, 90s nostalgia, and a killer score by John Williams that manages to be festive yet sinister.  It also really captures the spirit of Christmas in childhood.

So that’s why Home Alone is my #1 Christmas movie.  What’s yours?  How would you fill out your bracket?

My Top 5 Versions of Cinderella

I had so much fun looking at my favorite versions of Beauty and the Beast a few months ago, I thought I would do the same with another favorite fairy tale, Cinderella.  This one was way harder, because I have read and seen so many more versions of this tale, and some of them rank among my favorite fairy tale retellings of all time.  I managed to narrow it down to five…plus a few honorable mentions.

Cinderella (2015)

Related imageThis Disney live-action version by Kenneth Branagh, building off the classic animated version, was a pleasant surprise for me when I saw it at the drive-in theater.  First of all, it is visually gorgeous in its costumes, sets, and cinematography.  The actors are uniformly engaging; Cate Blanchett in particular is a treat as the Evil Stepmother.

It also has the most wonderful soundtrack, centered around a charming version of the folk song “Lavender’s Blue.”  I even used the soundtrack as writing music during NaNoWriMo.

But the best thing about it is the way it improves on the original Disney movie.  The original Cinderella is one of those pretty princesses without much agency, and the plot relies heavily on insta-love.  This version condenses the themes of Cinderella stories nicely with its mantra of “Have courage and be kind.”  It’s the kind of moral I would be happy to see a daughter of mine glean from a fairy tale.  We also see a much more developed relationship between Cinderella and the Prince.

Cinder by Marissa Meyer

Related imageI read this story for the first time about a year ago and fell in love with the creativity of this retelling.  First, it’s a sci-fi take on the story (Cinder is a cyborg), and it actually has some pretty cool biological concepts in it.  It also has a lot in common with Sailor Moon.

The romance is slow and sweet; how can you not love Prince Kai?  I also liked that there is not really one specific Fairy Godmother in this story; Cinder makes it to the ball with her own willpower (and a little help from darling Iko the android).

Cinder is only the first book in the Lunar Chronicles series, and as such it does not have a happy ending.  Instead, it spins nicely into the other stories without being saccharine.  I also really liked how the series goes on to feature other great female characters from fairy tales, ending in an awesome team-up.

Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella (1997)

My family had recorded this on VHS when it was on TV in 1997, and I can’t remember how many times we watched it as kids.  Brandy plus Whitney Houston is just a magical 90s combination.

This version, like the previous two mentioned above, also uses the idea of the Prince and Cinderella meeting once prior to the ball, which I always thought made more sense.

The songs may not be on par with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s best, but they do the job, and the cast really breathes life into them.  My personal favorite is “Ten Minutes Ago,” sung by Cinderella and the Prince at the ball.  The dancing scenes are also fun, and the actors play up the comedy throughout nicely.

Speaking of the cast, I love the racial diversity here.  We have black, white, and Asian characters, sometimes all in the same family.  Of course, the story does not address this fact in any way, but visually it’s nice to see that representation.

Ever After

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Before Disney’s big screen, live action version a few years ago, the Cinderella movie crown was unquestionably held by Ever After, which is apparently appropriately subtitled “A Cinderella Story.”  This version grounds itself in real life by taking place in Renaissance France, with a framing story about the Grimm Brothers collecting European fairy tales.

Our main character Danielle has dreams, but she also has nerve and ambition.  She is one of the boldest Cinderellas I can think of, pretending to be a courtier as well as standing up to gypsies.  She is also very well-read thanks to her father, being able to quote Utopia.  I think my favorite part of this version is that Leonardo da Vinci serves the role of fairy godmother in helping Danielle get to the ball.

Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine

Image result for ella enchantedFor me, this is the book that started my entire love of fairy tale retellings.  I still re-read it, even now, most often going back to my favorite part: the letters that Char and Ella write to each other while he is away in Ayortha.

In this version, Ella is not obedient of her own accord; no, she has been cursed to be obedient (the fairy who bestowed this trait called it a gift!).  Ella must do anything that anyone commands her to do.  This, of course, nearly ruins her life, and the lives of her friends, so she sets out to break her curse and is able to overcome it in the end.  The story actually has a lot to say about autonomy and free will, which is pretty deep stuff for a children’s book; I think that’s one of the reasons it’s so beloved.

Even as it adds to the original tale, it stays close to its origins, using devices like Ella’s fairy godmother, the glass slippers, pumpkin carriage, and three nights of balls.  Plus, this book has everything you could want from a children’s fairy tale: magic curses, fantasy creatures like fairies, elves, ogres, and centaurs, made-up languages, and an adorable main couple.

There is also a movie version of Ella Enchanted, starring Anne Hathaway, that is delightful, but aside from the basic premise does not have that much in common with the novel.

I couldn’t let it go with just five this time, so here are some Honorable Mentions:

Princess of Glass by Jessica Day George

Image result for princess of glassThis story is the sequel to Princess of the Midnight Ball, itself a retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.”  The main character is Princess Poppy of Westfalin, who is just awesome, with so much humor and spunk.  But she is not really the Cinderella character; though Poppy does stand in for her once, the real Cinderella, Eleanora, is a side character and the Cinderella story is really more of a side plot.  I liked that it is a bit darker; for example, the fairy godmother is not good, and the molten glass is poured on the girls’ feet to make the slippers.

Another Cinderella Story

I will be honest: this is objectively not a great movie.  But I just love it anyways!  I guess I am just a sucker for dance movies.  Selena Gomez stars as an aspiring dancer who falls for a famous teen pop star after they dance together incognito.  The dance numbers are awesome, and the songs are stupidly catchy.  And how can you not love Jane Lynch?  She is hilarious as a has-been pop star in the evil stepmother role.  I like it way better than the first movie in the series with Hilary Duff, and the two movies after it get progressively worse.

Cinderella (Prokofiev)

Did you know there is a ballet version of Cinderella?  I danced in it when I was younger, as a “court lady,” aka part of the corps de ballet.  (My costume was a long maroon dress…maroon is a terrible color for redheads.)  The score by Prokofiev is very nice, though not as memorable as, say, Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker.  There are several versions of choreography (I don’t know which my company did), but the story is very classic.

What is your favorite version of Cinderella?  One of these, or a similar story from another culture?