Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The Crime of the Missed Opportunity

The internet's most wanted, August 2015.
Counterclockwise from top right:
Josh Trank, Bernie Sanders, Axel Alonso, Steven Moffat
By now, you've heard what everyone and his Aunt Petunia thought of Fantastic 4 — and it was bad.  Worse-than-Batman-and-Robin bad, according to many internet sources.  "Garbage fire" bad.  A few of those scathing reviews mention what F4 did wrong.  Most of them dwell on what it failed to do right.

This isn't another post about the trainwreck currently in cinemas (the one not featuring Amy Schumer, Bill Hader, and LeBron James), but it starts there.  Cue the 20th Century Fox spotlights and fade the logo to black — except that one lingering F ... .

* * * * *

Fantastic 4 opens with an interesting enough scene — one that captured my imagination and predisposed me to give it a shot despite the beating it's been taking in the press.

Fifth(?)-grader Reed Richards scribbles away intently in his notebook as his teacher calls on him to come to the front of the class and give a presentation.  Several times, the teacher calls him by variations on his name ("Mr. Richards?  Reed!"), but the future Mr. Fantastic only looks up when the entire class bursts out laughing at his space-cadet inattentiveness.  Snapping to attention, Reed takes the podium in the class and presents his oral report on what he wants to do for a living as a grown-up.  "I want to be the first person to build a teleporter," he explains, before going on to give a basic theoretical background in how his teleportation device would work.

"I suppose you're working on this thing in your garage," his teacher taunts.  "Next to your flying car."

"I'm not working on that anymore," young Reed deadpans.

"This was supposed to be an assignment about real aspirations for a real career in the real world," chides his teacher.  "Sit down.  You can re-do it for partial credit tomorrow."

Evan Hannemann as Ben Grimm, paying an awful lot of
attention to that Richards kid.
As Reed slumps back to his seat, a kid in the back of the class, no books open or even visible anywhere near his desk, looks on, fascinated.  "Ben Grimm," calls the teacher.  "You're next."  As the sullen Ben stands up and walks to the front of the room, he doesn't take his eyes off laughing-stock Reed, a few kids snickering behind the bookish, clueless boy as he takes his seat and picks his pencil up, settling back into whatever he's doodling in that notebook.

"What do you want to do with your life when you grow up, Mr. Grimm?" asks the teacher, absent-mindedly making marks in his own notebook.

"When he builds that thing, I'm gonna fly it.  Or drive it.  Or whatever," says Ben.  "I'm going to travel in Reed Richards' teleporter."  As the teacher sighs in exasperation, Reed looks up from his notebook, as if noticing the other students in his class for the first time, especially Ben Grimm.

Except — that's not how the first scene plays out.  I've fudged the set-up and misattributed some parallels.  I've also invented Ben's dialogue out of whole cloth.

But wouldn't it have been great if that had been our introduction to Ben and Reed and their relationship?  Indulge me, and you might agree it sets up both their differences and the power of their friendship.  It allows Ben to stand up for Reed in a more interesting way than against some tiresome stereotypical bully.  (In fact, it puts him between Reed and the biggest bully any fifth-grader ever faces: the teacher.)  It echoes Ben's college promise to Reed from the comics (specifically, from John Byrne's retooled Fantastic Four origin story).  It practically sings — and 98% of it is right there, already in the movie.

What a missed opportunity

After what is there, the movie cuts to the Grimm family junkyard, presumably that night, where Ben and Reed go on to bond at greater length but with less certainty than in the version of the opening scene I just laid out.

* * * * *

Bernie Sanders paying an awful lot of attention as
Marissa Johnson and Mara Willaford take the mic
for #BlackLivesMatter.
Let's you and I cut to Seattle, the day after I saw Fantastic 4, where Democratic Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders found his campaign rally interrupted by activist Marissa Johnson.  Johnson, citing concerns about police violence, called on the crowd to observe four and a half minutes of silence for the anniversary of Michael Brown's death last year in Ferguson, Missouri.  Then she called on Sanders himself to make the safety of black Americans a key concern of his campaign.

Sanders's supporters' reactions ranged from irritation to outrage to confusion.  Sanders had been a well-documented supporter of the civil rights movement in the '60s and is today a tireless enemy of income inequality.  How could Marissa Johnson or other activists speaking under the #BlackLivesMatter banner accuse him of not addressing the black community?

Those feeling the Bern didn't see the missed opportunity for Sanders, a progressive who's been friendly to black America's welfare in the past, to use his voice on behalf of the struggle galvanizing black America right now.  The Sanders camp gave Johnson the microphone — but imagine if Sanders had borrowed it back to quiet the boos directed at Johnson and joined her in asking for a moment of silence.  It practically sings, doesn't it?  And 98% of it is already there, in the moment.

* * * * *

Cut to two weeks ago, right here on the internet.  When asked about the new Hercules ongoing series and, more specifically, implications of Hercules's bisexuality, Marvel editor-in-chief Axel Alonso missed an opportunity.  Thinking back to X-Treme X-Men, Alonso clarified that that alternative-timeline Herc's relationship with James Howlett "took place in a unique alternate universe, similar to how Colossus was gay in the Ultimate Universe, but is straight in the 616."  Alonso capped that with "same goes for Hercules here" and unwittingly crushed LGBT readers' hopes for an openly bi- headliner in the All-New, All-Different Marvel lineup.

Namor (and LGBT readers) paying an awful lot of attention as Northstar
beats a hasty restreat from Hercules's wake.
He wasn't wrong.  There isn't much textual evidence for Hercules's bisexuality in the Marvel Comics, except a single page in Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente's Hercules: Fall of an Avenger micro-series — and that's part of a clunky, embarrassing gag about Herc's sex life relying on characters talking more to the reader than to each other.  As Alonso observed, alternate-universe and alternate-timeline variations of a character having alternate sexualities don't necessarily reflect some secret on the part of their 616 counterpart.  (Which makes perfect sense, at least in super-hero semiotics.  Think of all those gender-swapped versions of heroes in other timelines.)

But Alonso still missed out.  He missed a chance to connect a dot in a puzzle he's actively been working on during his tenure at Marvel Comics: how to reach underrepresented demographics who, by dint of their sidelined place in culture, may need and appreciate super-heroes even more than the middle-aged, middle-class, straight, white males whom conventional wisdom says are the genre's target audience.  Close-up on Alonso reflecting on his mistake, reading Brett White's excellent "Why Bisexual Hercules Matters to Me," which does a far better job of explaining how this missed opportunity stings for LGBT readers while it's only an intellectual curiosity for me.

* * * * *

Cut to Doctor Who, gearing up for its return with a series of new episodes next month.  Both trailers for the new series include the Doctor's perennial nemesis, the Master — now regenerated as a woman and calling herself Missy (short, one presumes, for Mistress).

Peter Capaldi as the Doctor paying an
awful lot of attention to Michelle Gomez
as the Mistress.
The villain's return was the running subplot in the last series of Doctor Who, with Michelle Gomez playing the mysterious Missy, who only revealed her true identity in the series-concluding two-parter.  This might have been a shocking twist, except the current incarnation of Doctor Who has been beset by pleas to gender-swap the Doctor himself for the last couple of years.  (Plotwise, this isn't as drastic a suggestion as it might be in other shows, given Doctor Who's unique set-up.)  With that suggestion in the air, reinventing the show's other recurring Time Lord as a Time Lady seems less like intricate plotting and more like a consolation prize.

Gender-swapping the Doctor may never have occurred to showrunner Steven Moffat.  As a self-avowed lifelong fan of the show (like his predecessor, Russell T Davies), Moffat has likely been plotting the major arcana of his Doctor Who for decades and began doing so in the years when gender-swapping the show's main actor would have been unthinkable.  I don't mean met by opposition from conservative forces at the BBC; I mean unthinkable — as in outside the realm of changes you could make to the program and still have the same show.  The Doctor's maleness may not be essential to his (or her) character, but the landscape of television is one where his very outfit is seen as essential to his character.  For a generation of BBC execs, showrunners, and writers who wouldn't consider having the character change clothes more than 12 times in 50 years, gender-swapping him is a leap more giant than sending Neil Armstrong to the moon.  It's no wonder it never occurred to Moffat in the years he must have spent fantasy-casting his Doctor Who and daydreaming about the questions he wanted to answer and characters he wanted to bring back into the series.  He had a lifetime of opportunities he was keen not to miss — and that's why he missed one so important to others.

* * * * *

Same for Axel Alonso and Bernie Sanders and, yes, Josh Trank and the hundreds of others responsible for Fantastic 4.  They were busy pursuing their own opportunities, furthering their own agendas.  They weren't willfully neglectful of others' — just wrapped up in their own.

Passion — in movies, politics, comics, the arts, and life — is a carpe diem affair.  You have to seize the days before they can escape you.  In that mindset, the greatest crime you can commit is to miss an opportunity.  That's why people are hurt when they aren't spoken to, when their issues aren't addressed.  It's also why people don't speak to others and don't address their issues.  We're all chasing the versions we have in our heads, the versions that speak most clearly to us and to others about us.  In doing so, we miss each other, like those proverbial ships passing in the night.

Not that all is lost.  Cue the pre-credits "where are they now" updates:

Steven Moffat retooled the Mistress and looks to be making her a recurring character on Doctor Who.

Axel Alonso addressed his blind spot in a follow-up installment of Axel-in-Charge and (more significantly) has had conversations about it with Marvel staff and Hercules writer Dan Abnett.

Bernie Sanders has started talking about private prisons and their disproportionate impact on African-Americans.

Fox Studios' Deadpool already has the title character in perhaps the most comic-accurate movie super-suit we've seen to date and has O.K.ed an R rating for his trademark violence and juvenile banter.

These aren't exactly missed opportunities unmissed, but they are examples of creative voices moving to seize new opportunities as they arise.

That's the good thing about a carpe diem culture.  There's always tomorrow to seize.

Now if only I can get Avi Arad and Kevin Feige on a conference call, because there are some real gems the three of us could un-miss in yet another FF reboot.

— Scott


Jim Shelley said...

There's a lot of stuff here, so it's a bit hard for me to decide on what to comment on:

I think Bernie Sanders is going to end up being a water tester for Hillary. Watching his campaign, she'll get to see what topics to tackle and how to do it. That's already happened with this latest kerfluffle. (Now, if Bernie had his own top secret e-mail server, she would be all set.)

While I'm disappointed with Alonso's (completely unnecessary) walking back of Hercules' sexuality, I was encouraged to see so many online fans in support of keeping Herc bi-sexual. So often, I feel like the industry sort of just picks random, low selling characters to make gay without any thought. With Hercules and his mythological/historical origins, being bi-sexual actually made sense.

Catherine Tate is probably about as close as we are ever going to get to a female Dr. Who.

As to the FF movie - I've yet to encounter anyone who was surprised by the movie's dismal performance. Whether the full Trank version would have been more successful is hard to say, but I think, based on the number of Hulk movies scheduled for the future (zero) we won't be seeing a new FF movie anytime soon.


Acttualy this is my fav movie, in my child out but, this is more awesome then the old one before^^


MattComix said...

The FF situation like the Green Lantern one is really frustrating for me because I've always felt both of them were two of the most movie friendly concepts from comics out there. Honestly, the fact that no GL film materialized in the 80's in that scf-fi craze sparked by the original Star Wars trilogy strikes me as off in retrospect. It'd have been right at home next to The Last Starfighter.

At this point especially I think the better destiny for the FF in other media may be on television.

But that would still require a production team that wasn't making a Fantastic Four project and then bending everything over backwards to keep it from being The Fantastic Four. I think you would need that balance the current Flash tv series seems to have where while not bound strictly to the source material they are also not afraid or ashamed of it. Also the tv series format would give everything more time to breathe and to build up. Wouldn't the arrival of Galactus make for a killer season ending cliffhanger?

Also do not tell me that for all of Hollywood much vaunted effects magic that doing a decent Doctor Doom or Galactus is somehow impossible without severe changes. If you can do Darth Vader, you can do Doctor Doom. If you can do Pacific Rim, you can do Galactus. If you can do any sci-fi movie that has come out since the debut of Star Wars you can friggin do the Fantastic Four! Granted tv budgets are more limited but there again I say if you can do Doctor Who you can do the Fantastic Four! (Get Murray Gold for the soundtrack while we're at it!)

Jim Shelley said...

@MattComix - you said: Honestly, the fact that no GL film materialized in the 80's in that scf-fi craze sparked by the original Star Wars trilogy strikes me as off in retrospect. It'd have been right at home next to The Last Starfighter.

That's a really good point! What was up with that? Imagine a movie with at least Aliens/Terminator level SFX featuring the Green Lantern Corps. If it was the flying aspect (which may have been an expensive/hard to sell effect) then they could have said that a squad of GL members were stuck on a planet and had to conserve ring energy until a new battery reached them. Then they discover that planet has creatures on it that are trying to kill them. A sort of Predator/Pitch Black scenario with the heroes armed with power rings to defend themselves. It wouldn't have to be _that_ expensive to make and would have been an awesome intro to the GL Corps concepts.

northierthanthou said...

Quietting the boos? That wouuld have been brilliant.


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