RECAP: Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D Season 3 – Episode 1: "Laws of Nature"

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And we’re back.

One thing is for certain: Whenever AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D (and yes, I’m going to be the one pedant who insists on still typing out the periods on that) eventually wraps up, it’s going to be fascinating to unpack. Popular culture in general will likely be chewing over the particulars of the Marvel Cinematic Universe for decades in terms of its substantial place in the evolution of mass-entertainment – specifically, the rise of continuity-drive cross-media storytelling – but AGENTS feels like it’s always going to remain its own strange animal: Tasked with expanding and setting-up the concurrent movies but denied access to the most notable “toys” while also telling its own story, it’s effectively been three different shows across three seasons with characters and relationships turning on that same absurd axis.


Case in point: It now completely impossible to talk about Season 3 without “giving away” the laundry-list of reveals and twists that made up the first two seasons longest and most well-played gambit: Chloe Bennett’s mysterious orphan super-hacker turned quick-study neophyte Agent Skye has actually (unknowingly) been the Marvel Comics superheroine Daisy “Quake” Johnson this whole time, and “her people,” The Inhumans, have been lurking in the Cinematic Universe’s shadows for even longer. Which means that AGENTS’ mission statement now includes laying the groundwork for a Marvel movie that isn’t due to come out for another four years.

Short version: The Inhumans are basically Mutants (though they came first) but with a more complicated lineage as seemingly “normal” humans who ancestors were experimented on by The Kree (“The Blue Ones” from GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY) in pre-history who manifest super-powers and/or monstrous new forms when exposed to the alien element Terrigen. Most of them walk the Earth not knowing their own true identity, with a few isolated communities of “full” Inhumans living in secret, but at the climax of AGENTS Season 2 a quantity of Terrigen was released into the ocean and has now dispersed into the ecosystem to such a degree that “new” Inhumans are popping up everywhere. (This, you may have guessed, is an expansion of the original comics’ conception of The Inhumans, undertaken with an eye on letting the MCU tell X-MEN stories without needing the “real” X-MEN.)

As Season 3 opens, S.H.I.E.L.D (still not “officially existing”) has rededicated itself to managing the outbreak, both by trying to help the new Inhumans and contain those that turn out to be dangerous; with one eye on drafting those willing to be part of Director Coulson’s “Secret Warriors” program. Oh, and Skye isn’t “Skye” anymore: She’s going by Daisy, and arrives in the first scene of “Laws of Nature” having fully-emerged as S.H.I.E.L.D’s resident in-house superhero. Her focus for this episode is bringing-in (and expositing-to, of course) newly-changed Inhuman Joey Gutierrez, who has metal-melting powers and a touch of irony to his origin: He’s gay, and not particularly enthused about effectively having to “come out” all over again.

Elsewhere, the rest of the team are dealing with their own personal fallouts from Season 2: Hunter and Bobbi/Mockingbird are back on non-speaking terms, with her doing time in the lab waiting for a leg to heal and him brooding over revenge plans against the turncoat Agent Ward. Coulson is the only person who can’t get used to Skye’s new name, is worried that Agent May isn’t coming back from “vacation” and can’t find a mechanical arm (it got cut off) that feels right. Agent Mack is feeling glibly-innadequate now that Daisy is “the muscle” and Agent Fitz is scouring the globe in an obsessive quest to rescue Agent Simmons, whom they know was “eaten” by The Monolith but not why, how or if it can be reversed (as it turns out, she’s been zapped away to an unnamed alien planet.)

Otherwise, the plot of “Laws” was mainly concerned with some clever misdirection involving the reveal of what looks like our new “bad guy team” for Season 3, ACTU (Advanced Threat Contaiment Unit) a government-backed paramilitary unit tasked with neutralizing all the people-with-powers stuff that keeps happening over in the movies. I’m hoping there’s actually further misdirection going on here, since another “Bad S.H.I.E.L.D” feels kind of lazy (HYDRA is down to just Ward and some biker bros as of Season 2), but the introductory gag is pretty cool: Coulson and ACTU’s mysterious leader Rosalind Price had both assumed that eachother’s teams were responsible for the murders of various Inhumans, but as it turns out there’s a third party: Lash, an evil Inhuman who (in the comics, at least) feels that Terrigenesis transformations are being handed out too willy-nilly and goes about hunting/killing those he deems unworthy of the Inhuman mantle.

Bullet Points:

  • The big setpiece, a powers-vs-powers brawl in a hospital between Daisy, lightning-tossing Inhuman Lincoln and Lash is suitably impressive stuff; but if AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D is committing to going the full-on superhero route (via the Secret Warriors business) it’s going to need to raise it’s game to compete with ARROW, THE FLASH and (potentially) SUPERGIRL.
  • Since Gutierrez can melt metal, it feels like a safe bet that they’ll ask him to try and do… “something” to The Monolith, yes?
  • It’s tempting to start wondering whether ACTU will be a precursor of the “let’s regulate superheroes” stuff coming in CIVIL WAR, but I wouldn’t bet on it – yet. Ike Perlmutter, the much-maligned Marvel bigwig recently ousted (forcibly) from having say over the movies, still technically controls the TV division and the two halves already didn’t get along great (logistically or otherwise.)
  • Speaking of which: I’ll stop harping on this eventually, but I’m still annoyed that the TV Agents weren’t on the rescue-helicarrier in AGE OF ULTRON. Obviously Coulson couldn’t have been there, but if Fitz/Simmons or one of the Koenigs were just matter-of-factly onhand it would’ve been appropriate and a really cool moment.
  • Speaking of The Koenigs, how long do we have o wait for Patton Oswalt to show up again?
  • Nice Continuity seeing President Ellis from IRON MAN 3 onscreen again.
  • Apparently the Hunter/Mockingbird spin-off series that was confirmed but then canceled while the Season was in production is back on the “yes” list, so I wonder how that’s going to work. Is the idea that they’ll go off and continue the conventional S.H.I.E.L.D vs HYDRA stuff with Ward while the “main” series focuses on being not-X-MEN?
  • Who is Rosalind Price? Is she’s another “secretly someone from the comics” reveal, thus far it’s too well hidden to even guess.
  • Where is Simmons? No idea, but the best guess is probably the Kree Homeworld or somewhere else Kree-related. Yes, it’d be fun if she ran into someone from GUARDIANS out there. No, that probably will not happen.
  • Why did The Monolith (supposedly deadly to Inhumans) take Simmons but nobody else? Obvious answer would be “she’s an Inhuman,” but I wonder if it’ll be that simple…

So far, I’m digging it. It’s not as much of a “Holy SHIT this got better suddenly!” blowout as Season 2’s premiere was, but I’m liking where things are going thus far. One imagines that there’s some CIVIL WAR buildup to come that’s going to get everyone’s hopes up (the Inhuman-outbreak thing would fit well into that story, but so far they’re not even mentioned in the plot-descriptions for that movie) but for now I’m looking forward to seeing how things play out. Will we get some indication of the more “familiar” Inhumans (Black Blot, Medusa, etc)? Will some Cosmic Marvel stuff crop up in Simmons’ story? I’m looking forward to it.

NEXT WEEK: “Purpose in The Machine” isn’t teasing much plot, but I’m intrigued to see the team standing in what looks like an old-fashioned Universal Monsters mad-science lab and I’m really happy to see the return of Peter MacNicol’s expat-Asgardian, who was a highlight of Season 1. I hope they wind up asking him to be a regular (MacNicol’s CSI: CYBER character is being replaced by a series-hopping Ted Danson, so he’s got the space open…)

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The Dark Knight Fades (Retrospective)

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THE DARK KNIGHT FADES: On the Striking Non-Impact of Christopher Nolan’s Bat-Masterpiece.
By Bob Chipman
What happens when the movie that’s supposed to change everything… doesn’t?

Every filmmaker probably hopes, however secretly, that their movie will change the world; even if the change is limited to one new recognizable box occupying shelf-space on the DVD racks (or iTunes queue, for you fancy Millennial tablet-swipers.) Bigger, more substantial cultural-landmark stature is a rarer achievement; and when it happens it’s seldom predictable. “No one ever sees The Big Ones coming!,” Old Hollywood logic will tell you, gesturing to the yellowing first-run posters for JAWS and LOVE STORY always posted hypothetically nearby.
Except when they do.
Every once in a while the mix of cultural readiness, marketing hype, genuine anticipation and collective societal desire all line up; and you get that rare scenario wherein a movie that wants to change the world debuts to a world that’s already cheering, begging and pleading “I’m ready! Change me!” like pubescent Beatlemaniacs at the Sullivan show. Sometimes it starts out as a minor surprise (think the first LORD OF THE RINGS feature), sometimes we really should have seen it coming (think STAR WARS, a “surprise” to an industry that hadn’t yet realized the Famous Monsters/comic-shop set were champing at the bit to be their new best customers) and oftentimes the movie itself isn’t exactly a classic (think AVATAR… for the first time since 2009) but it happens.
Such was the world that assembled to receive Christopher Nolan’s second Batman-epic, THE DARK KNIGHT, in the hazy summer of 2008. Granted, it was to be expected that the second (in that particular cycle) cinematic outing for what was then still the movie world’s most popular cinematic-superhero would land with a certain amount of welcome: Nolan’s BATMAN BEGINS may have only been a sleeper hit four years earlier, but it’s reputation had borne out well on cable and at Blockbuster Video (ask your parents) and – perhaps more importantly – it had inspired absolutely ravenous devotion from the grown-up comic book devotees whose obsessions were the primary fuel of the newly-dominant Internet Film Press.
To the so-called “fanboy” contingent, the Christopher Nolan of 2008 was the new God Auteur of big-budget moviemaking. Through BEGINS he’d claimed their undying loyalty by cleansing the BATMAN-franchise of Joel Schumacher’s mortal sins (primary colors, a sense of humor, an unwillingness to pretend he wasn’t working with cartoon-archetypes created for 7 year-olds and, of course, homoeroticism – in case you’ve forgotten your Bat-Catechism) and returning the 70+ year-old icon to the dark n’ gritty “roots” everyone seems to forget he only acquired as recently as the mid-1980s.
To web-critics and indeed also the older-guard film press, he’d inspired gooey love-struck awe via his potent technical acumen, affection for analyst-flattering labyrinthine story-structure and Film School Approved roster of (obvious) stylistic influences – notably Michael Mann, Alfred Hitchcock, Michael Mann, Stanley Kubrick, Michael Mann and also Michael Mann. Fewer things will inspire fealty among the traditional (or traditionally-inclined) film press than a structure-fixated craftsman who can boil any far-flung scenario down to a cast of well-regarded, overwhelmingly-male character-actors “Just doin’ a job!” in sharp suits and oh-so-serious faces.
“Nolanizing” had even become a movie-culture buzzword, referring mainly to the slew of productions begun in this period that clearly aimed to impose BATMAN BEGINS’ formula for adaptation (strip out anything resembling the fantastic or whimsical, ramp up the business-school machismo, flatline the sexuality, keep things as “grownup” as possible and don’t you dare crack a smile!) onto other intellectual properties. The proof of its efficacy seemed to be in the pudding: 2006’s CASINO ROYALE, which applied BEGINS’ outline to none other than James Bond, was heralded as a franchise-reviving hit – albeit one that proved unable to defeat an animated feature about a tap-dancing penguin for the top of the box-office. Still, the meme had been cast in iron: Nolan as the savior of the blockbuster, his style and methodology as the new key to success and acclaim.
And if Christopher Nolan was a Hollywood Messiah, THE DARK KNIGHT arrived pre-ordained as his Sermon on The Mount: Its trailers, promising enormous action and grim theatricality, had been ubiquitous for at least a year; with mainstream audiences primed for a payoff promised since BEGINS (a new incarnation of the iconic villain The Joker via rising-superstar Heath Ledger) while hardcore fans poured over screencaps and dialogue snippets for early clues: Would Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) become Two-Face? Was Harley Quinn (Joker’s girlfriend) a character? Did the title indicate any thematic ties to The Dark Knight Returns, a landmark comic series by Frank Miller whose shadow had loomed over (and indeed consumed) the Batman character since the mid-80s?
And then Heath Ledger died.
Fandom hosannas and the promise of being at the spearhead of the pop-culture zeitgeist are nice; but for turning a movie into a myth before anyone even gets to see it, nothing beats a Promising Young Artist™ with His Whole Life Ahead Of Him© dying unexpectedly before his preordained starmaking performance. To be clear: Ledger was an unmistakably natural-born movie star, and his Joker indeed demonstrates the flowering of a truly ferocious screen talent – his loss, as with all artists taken before their time, is incalculable. But none of that dispels the fact (quite the opposite, really) that his passing was the Fates’ final flourish in the alchemy that transformed THE DARK KNIGHT into the “event” it ultimately became: This was no longer merely a monument to fanboy wish-dreams and DC Comics licensing deals… this was to be an Egyptian Pyramid – a mountain-sized headstone at the grave of a mourned soul taken too soon.
Which, of course, meant the film (or at least that one performance) was now an Oscar Contender.
I can say from personal experience that, before fandom had realized that it was more fun to own The Culture than The Culture’s trophies, the legitimizing of “our” genres (science-fiction, fantasy, comic-book adaptations) through Academy Awards recognition was a prize never far from the minds of Film Geeks. The three consecutive years the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy spent gobbling up nominations (and technical awards) before culminating in a colossal near-sweep was reported on by the AICNs and CHUDs like an insurgent military campaign – a thumb in the eye to every book snob who ever sneered that this or that 29+ volume worldbuilding exercise about Elven Swordmaidens wasn’t “real literature” – And now it was starting to feel like the next Big Victory, a story about masked vigilantes in capes thwarting gimmick-nicknamed gangsters sitting between the period-pieces and political dramas at the Best Picture table, was within striking distance.
At that point, the movie didn’t even really need to come out – though it did, in July of 2008 to near-universal acclaim from fans and critics alike. Thunderous, shrieking acclaim of the sort that greets a film so hotly anticipated and featuring parts that work so well (Ledger’s now-iconic Joker, Nolan’s fully-realized “Batman, but as a thing that could happen” vision) that you want to actively undermine your own creeping misgivings about the parts that don’t (Christian Bale’s cringe-inducing “scary” Batman voice, a weirdly-structured extra third act, what feels even more so today like an implicit thumbs-up to Cheney Doctrine domestic security policy) lest you begin to think yourself a Bat-heretic.
Even the kinds of iconography-bending or material-flouting that would normally drive the fanboy set into a seething frenzy (The Joker wears makeup instead of bleached skin!? Two-Face dies rather than live on to bedevil Batman in future adventures!?) was, if only for a moment, forgiven: This was a great film. More importantly, this was the one comic-book movie to rule them all. The future of the genre. It’s box-office would blow open the doors for even more adaptations of DC’s ignored-by-Hollywood characters (maybe we’d finally get a great new Superman movie!) with “Nolanizing” as the magic cure-all for anything perceived un-filmable. It would make the critics shut up and take notice. And best of all, it’s stature as a Serious Issues™ crime-thriller that incidentally happened to involve Batman made those vague hopes of Oscar glory seem more real and vibrant than ever.
In fact, the idea that THE DARK KNIGHT “deserved” a place as a 2008 Best Picture contender became such a foregone conclusion that when it ultimately wasn’t among The Chosen (though Ledger’s family would still collect an all-but guaranteed posthumous Supporting Actor statue) it was immediately decided that its absence would be transformative instead! So widespread was the outcry among the press (I myself made a rambling monologue about the outrage of The Snub my video-resume to a potential employer – and got the job), the punditry and the public that it was widely viewed as the deciding factor in The Academy’s subsequent decision to increase the number of Best Picture nominees, a move obviously designed to allow bigger, more popular (with audiences) films to have a shot in the future. THE DARK KNIGHT was now poised not only to re-chart the course of its entire genre, but of the entire industry, all the way up to its yearly awards bonanzas.
And then… it didn’t.
It’s hard to put a finger on when it became fully apparent that THE DARK KNIGHT was a paper tiger as far as movement firebrands go. Maybe it wasn’t truly visible until its own sequel, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, landed as a dreary, convoluted slog a few years later. But it feels apparent now, and increasingly so as each new superhero-blockbuster goes by, that the notion of Nolan’s prestige-format Bat-opus as thetransformative moment of the genre was both premature and over-sold. Its expected influence over subsequent comic-adaptations has waned, almost no one involved has moved that much further in their careers and even its own studio appears to be in no small hurry to change directions.
In fact, I’d say that it’s worth positing that, outside of its own individual lasting popularity, THE DARK KNIGHT has had almost NO substantial, lasting impact. Not on film, not on the popular-culture, not on comics and not even on Batman. And that feels close to astonishing considering how sure the entire cinematic world was that it had experienced a GODFATHER-level sea change.
It hasn’t been much of a long-term boon to Christopher Nolan, whose post-TDK auteur-invulnerability lasted for exactly one film (INCEPTION), unable to protect him from a gently-disappointed critical drubbing for RISES and widespread audience-indifference to his ambitious mess of a sci-fi epic, INTERSTELLAR. More problematically, the focus on the minutiae of his aesthetic sensibilities has turned “Nolanizing” into something of a cinephile punchline, with many of the same fandom-obsessives who once poured over his recurring themes and tics like Rosetta Stones of moviemaking now pointedly asking if this filmmaker is trapped in his own box; culminating in a lukewarm reception for the Nolan-overseen would-be successor to the KNIGHT trilogy, MAN OF STEEL that found more than a few pinning the film’s myriad shortcomings on the influence of his grim, joyless sensibilities.
Whether that appraisal is true or not is beside the point: In terms of the pop-hivemind, Nolan’s memetic identity has flipped from “The thinking-man’s action director” to “The guy who sucks the fun out of everything;” a caricature that (fairly or not) fits far too nicely with everything from narrative criticism (Why does nobody in INCEPTION dream about sex? Or fanciful settings? Or anything other than macho heist-movie scenarios?) to aesthetic disagreements (Who decided to wash the color-contrast out of, of all things, a Superman movie?) And sure, while he’s in no danger of not being able to get a project off the ground any time soon, it’s an extraordinary turn to see a filmmaker previously touted as the blockbuster’s new gold-standard become an Internet Comedy punchline for “This movie is dreary and no fun.”
Likewise, leading-man Christian Bale has found himself unable to secure another Batman-scale role. Though he finally picked up his Oscar for an impressive supporting turn in THE FIGHTER, a high-profile attempt to become the new face of the TERMINATOR franchise (an aim which reportedly led to a complete reworking of the storyline for the fourth installment, SALVATION) fizzled at the box-office, as did a turn as Moses in Ridley Scott’s poorly-received EXODUS. And while some critics (not me, by any stretch) embraced his showy turn in David O. Russell’s Oscar-baity Scorsese-a-like AMERICAN HUSTLE, audiences were less enthusiastic. And while Batman is already making his way back to theaters for DAWN OF JUSTICE, it’s a new version played by Ben Affleck in what’s already being touted as a marked departure from Bale’s interpretation.
Its hoped-for effect on the Academy Awards’ perception of genre film, too, never materialized. Though the following year’s Best Picture nominees did notably include Neil Blomkamp’s surprise alien-apartheid crowd-pleaser DISTRICT NINE, it didn’t help any fellow “outsider genre” offerings crack the victory ceiling: Despite dominating the cinematic landscape of the last decade and change, comic-book superheroes are an almost entirely-absent presence come Oscar time. Instead, a certain number of nominees each year became the butt of jokes as the recognizably-extraneous contenders among the Awards-blogger set, and The Academy began walking back the parameters of the arrangement as of last year; effectively making Oscar one more industry institution THE DARK KNIGHT ultimately failed to upend.
But, of course, nothing speaks to how profoundlywrong film culture’s educated guesses at the lasting influence of THE DARK KNIGHT really were than the subsequent fate of the comic-book superhero genre. This, above all else, is what Nolan’s work was supposed to form the new foundation of; a genre purged of both the “toyetic” technicolor nonsense of the earlier BATMAN features and the haphazard studio-handling that seemed to produce two X-MEN 3s or FANTASTIC FOURs for every one SPIDER-MAN. TDK was supposed to represent the future course of the entire genre: Characters stripped of their more film-unfriendly fanciful quirks, stories framed as “deconstructions” of the medium, aesthetic-sensibilities belonging more to the mainstream action genre and an almost defiant seriousness of purpose.
But the promised imitators never really materialized – except, once again, for the James Bond franchise, which paused its ongoing meta-story about a evil secret brotherhood to let Bond battle a Joker-like disfigured “funny” villain with a similarly Joker-like ironic-anarchy scheme in SKYFALL. Meanwhile, the lone film to be openly positioned as a DARK KNIGHT spiritual-progeny (read: another “deconstructed” superhero refigured for a dark, gritty modernization), MAN OF STEEL, found its dreary tone savaged by critics and fans alike.
The greatest irony, of course, is that the impact THE DARK KNIGHT was supposed to make wound up being made by another 2008 superhero feature. Marvel’s IRON MAN debuted to big money and solid reviews months before the Batman film bowed, but apart from devout fans crowing about a post-credits teaser floating the idea of other heroes lingering on Tony Stark’s margins and something called “The Avengers,” it (like the rest of the genre) was seen as being permanently consigned to Nolan’s bat-shadow. And in this case, the contrast couldn’t have been clearer: IRON MAN was a mid-budget (by today’s standards, anyway) romp whose plot-machinations were secondary to a quip-filled leading man turn by Robert Downey Jr. and an aesthetic determination toward faithfully translating the more colorful and fantastical side of the comics medium to screen. Fun, sure, but only just that – a trifle, compared to TDK’s quest to elevate “mere” comics into something Important™ and Meaningful© (as determined by the cadres of largely aging, humorless white men who hand out movie awards.)
And yet, that “trifle” has proved to have an impact and an influence that KNIGHT could (and did) only dream of: The Marvel Cinematic Universe that spun out of it has changed the blockbuster landscape like nothing since the debut of STAR WARS, establishing a new template for success that not only every other superhero series but every other big-budget moviemaking apparatus period is now chasing. Back in ’08 it was assumed that every cinematic hero (super or not) would find themselves “Nolanized” for success, but instead everyone from Robin Hood to King Arthur to the Universal Monsters are being set up for their chance to be franchised, crossed-over and eventually (hopefully) AVENGE’D.
So a movie that was supposed to change everything ultimately changed very little. Not in its genre, not for its medium, not even for its lead character; who’s already found himself recast as part of a planned decade-length interlocking multi-film narrative that will dwarf its predecessor by design. What everyone assumed would be a centerpiece is now more of an outlier – so what now becomes of it?

A better question might be why anything needs to become of it. Outliers are, after all, just as much landmarks as centerpieces. What fandom’s obsession with what THE DARK KNIGHT was meant to do on behalf of its tertiary elements long-term managed to obscure was that it remains a fairly excellent piece of work as is – even (perhaps more so) when removed from the broader superhero movie phenomenon, the Batman legacy and even its own prequel and sequel. Maybe it will take a while for the moviegoing world to take note of that again, as TDK continues its rotation in Saturday afternoon cable programming while the Marvel and DC Cinematic Universes slug it out at the multiplex for the next who-knows-how-long – pushed too early to the background because of everyone else’s expectations… punished by pop-culture for being “only” a good movie.

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Review: STONEWALL (2015)

And here’s one of those not-great misfires of a movie that will probably wind up with a (slightly) better reputation than it deserves (later) largely because the initial response will be seen (by some) as much more negative (perhaps even “unfairly” so) than was warranted. So much of modern film-discourse is built around pre-reactions, space-filling hypothetical “analysis” (read: guessing) and hot-takes that this becomes a recurring issue – the transformation of “bad” movies into “better than expected” by hyped-up early condemnation.

Fair or not, the knives seemed to have been out for Roland Emmerich’s STONEWALL pretty-much since it was announced; first based on the idea that a blockbuster/action-specialist shouldn’t be tackling a historical drama about gay activism (that the ID4 and DAY AFTER TOMORROW director is himself a gay activist was evidently not as widely known as I’d thought), later based on the version of the story he had chosen to tell: Namely an “eyewitness to history” historical-fiction approach wherein the events of the infamous riots popularly-cited as the “birth” of the modern gay-rights movement are presented to the audience from the perspective of a fictional character rather than any of the real figures who participated in the real thing; the final straw being that said audience-avatar was to be a strapping, classically-handsome Midwestern teen-heartthrob type (Jeremy Irvine) whose journey to accepting his own gay self-identity occurs in-tandem with the events leading up to the riots.

SPOILERS after the jump:

Whereas the Stonewall Riots in “popular history” were, for years mainly framed as a moment of unity; in recent decades they’ve gained renewed life as a point of symbolic schism within LGBTQ activism. Today, Stonewall is discussed less often in terms of it’s meaning to the early gay pride movement than it is in regards to how the fact that the first wave of rioting/protesting was spearheaded by trans women and people of color whose contributions were subsequently minimized by the co-opting of the events as a rallying-point for “mainstream” (read: white, male) gay culture.

In this respect, then, the indictment of Emmerich’s approach is less that he’s opted to “print the legend” and more that he’s not printing the right legend. And while one can’t possibly not be sympathetic to the aggrieved parties here (the various erasures in question here are a serious problem in the reality of the matter and a major component of why the movie doesn’t work), I also can’t help but wonder if any version of STONEWALL that, regardless of quality, wasn’t explicitly all/only about condemning said erasure (which would be a wholly legit film to make in it’s own right, just so we’re clear) would’ve been welcomed at this point – regardless of who directed and how they chose to tell the story.

Not that it matters beyond theory at this point, since the film indeed is an unfortunate misfire and its tone-deafness to its own use of historic-symbolism is a big reason why; but I still can’t shake the sense that more than a few critical minds were made up before a frame of film had been projected. Still, since whatever was being attempted hasn’t worked, the point is largely moot.

Again, I take no issue with anyone so personally affronted by the manner in which the story is being told that they refuse to even bother engaging it on any other level (not that I, the exact opposite of “marginalized” in every conceivable way, would have a “right” to in the first place.) But, frankly, the ways in which STONEWALL goes wrong (and also right, here and there) run deeper than which details have been fudged and which figures have been ommitted. It’s ultimately a failure, but a sincerely-mounted and fascinating one.

The key problem, on a technical level, is that the film can’t find any sense of cohesion. Emmerich and writer Jon Robin Baitz are going for big, sprawling, multi-character, high-emotion historical melodrama here (think TITANIC), and if there’s one thing that consistently torpedoes works in that genre it’s an inability to make all the moving parts work together. There are a lot of threads criss-crossing the narrative here: The personal journey of Irvine’s Danny Winters, the exploits of a group of young homeless hustlers led by Johnny Beauchamp’s Ray/Ramona (a scene-stealing performance that come close to rescuing the movie), political/gangland conspiracies surrounding the mob-owned Stonewall bar itself, Ron Perlman as a brutal kidnapping-prone pimp, power-struggles within the corrupt police precinct charged with managing “business” on Christopher Street, Johnathan Rhys Meyers’s would-be Mattachine Society order-keeper, Ray’s unrequitted pining for Danny, the fleeting presence of Marsha P. Johnson, Danny’s secondary struggle to secure attendance at Columbia, the death of Judy Garland, etc… and very little of it ever comes together; with each plot-transition feeling more like slices of six or seven different movies (some more compelling than others) being shuffled around in an attempt to make “more” translate into “epic.”

But, if we’re being charitable, it can be said that the final film is a case of two disparate main storylines – Danny’s journey and the drama surrounding Stonewall itself – that fail to come together. They never form a genuinely-meaningful parallel, always leaving one feeling like a distraction from the other, and thus The Moment where they’re supposed to converge and drive the emotional climax doesn’t gel. You can see, mechanically, how everything is supposed to build to a crescendo wherein Danny embraces himself not only as gay but as a gay-revolutionary; but when it arrives it feels false. And while a big part of why is because it’s impossible to ignore that actual heroes are being nudged aside for a made-up one… the fact is it still wouldn’t work dramatically even if that somehow wasn’t an issue.

Here’s the thing: While too symbolically-problematic to likely ever be “acceptable” for this specific story, the “Danny-as-POV” aspect makes a certain amount of technical sense. It’s clear from the opening frames that Emmerich is aiming for message-movie territory here: unconcerned with accuracy to the point of self-parody, the goal here isn’t even so much to commemorate Stonewall itself but rather to send audiences home in an afterglow of righteous, fist-pumping “get off your ass and do something!” fervor; and framing the story around a near-blank protagonist’s transformation from self-preserving survivor to community-minded activist is a surefire way to do that.

In fact, in that regard even the “whitewashing” makes a certain amount of mechanical sense – the level of naivete about the way of the world required for Danny’s role as the reciever of lessons effectively demands that he be a clueless rural white kid in this scenario: If he were any further marginalized, it would be unbelievable for him to arrive on Christopher Street so lacking in worldliness so as to spur the other characters to explain their world and ways to him/us. That doesn’t make it “okay,” but you can see the reasons for it to have occured beyond simplistic presumptions of malice.

Yes, as many had worried, the film posits Danny as throwing the “first brick” in the riot, but he doesn’t pick it up himself: It’s thrust into his hand by another character as a “put up or shut up” moment wherein Danny, here more than anywhere else positioned as walking Golden Boy metaphor for the entirety of “apolitical” America and American gays of the era specifically, is forced to choose between Mattachine slow-build politicking and radical upheaval as the right path for himself and His People – and yes, because I wasn’t exaggerating about the melodrama here being TITANIC-level hyper-earnest cheese, this actually plays out with Rhys Meyers and Beauchamp shouting “DO IT!” and “DON’T!” at him from opposite sides of the street like those movies where two kids fight over ownership of a puppy.

(For what it’s worth, I cringed on-reflex when Danny threw the brick – an action that many accounts and popular-narrative typically attribute to Johnson – but in narrative/character context the moment makes sense. But having him then turn around, immediately-transformed, and become the first character in the film to raise a fist and shout “GAY POWER!” is a tone deaf, deflating decision. It would’ve been more appropriate and powerful if he’d thrown, stayed in-character with some “Oh crap, what’d I just do?” yokel-beffudlement and then find strength as Ray and the others rallied around him and started the chant.)

This sort of stuff is, believe it or not, the best and worst parts of the project. Turning complex events/ideas into stark clashes between goodies and baddies to drive The Point home is Emmerich’s narrative stock in trade – lest we forget his recent (under-appreciated) WHITE HOUSE DOWN, wherein a grab-bag of progressive policy-messages are wedded to a scenario wherein a fictional version of President Obama battles a terrorist strike-team comprising the entire scope of American right-wing ideology from pro-war Senators to white-supremascists to Snowden-esque techno-libertarians. Unfortunately, the unfocused screenplay makes all these mechanics for naught – a lot of the “worldbuilding” winds up as dead-ends, and even then there are too many scenes setting up other threads where our “hero” isn’t even involved.

Meanwhile, trying to give Danny an inner-life and backstory beyond metaphor/stand-in turns out to be a resource hog on the more interesting parts of the movie. It’s clear that Emmerich and Baitz have keyed in on the character at a very personal, visceral level (like most well-intentioned misfires, STONEWALL seems a case of decisive-clarity being impeded by filmmakers operating in full-blown, heart-on-sleeve, bleeding onto the text earnestness), but trying to make him a three-dimensional character weakens his ability to function as a symbolic vessel in the “other half” of the movie.

It doesn’t help that “Danny’s story” is where the film decides to drop any last remaining pretense to subtlety in establishing its moral axis: The poor kid isn’t simply bounced from his home after being outed at school (complete with finding an already-packed suitcase waiting on his bed); he’s “caught” in a tryst with the hero quarterback of the football team that just happens to be coached by Danny’s own father (really!) who, when confronting his son, accuses Danny of seducing “his quarterback” as a way to hurt him. Yeesh!

What’s frustrating is, even as the parts never really click into place there are individual moments where you can see the better movie STONEWALL wants to be. The lack of fusion between Danny the Character and Danny the Metaphor fails him, but Irvine is a strong presence in both versions. Beauchamp is legitimately great, carrying huge sections of the film on his shoulders and infusing the world-building business with real energy and elevating every other performer he shares a scene with to the point where you have to wonder why Ray isn’t the main character – especially since he also starts out even more politically-averse than Danny. Relative newcomer Vladimir Alexis impresses as Queen Cong, another of Ray’s posse. The production design and cinematography are pretty terrific, centering the aesthetic appropriately between gauzy Norman Rockwell mythic-history and sanguine oversaturation.

The riot itself, particularly when it sticks to history (“Why don’t you guys do something!?” occurs as it does in most accounts, and makes for a big moment), is unquestionably compelling – even though we only get to see the first night. And yes, even though it’s also one of the goofiest things to happen in the entire movie, Ray and Danny’s crew facing down an advancing phalanx of armed riot-control cops by forming a chorus-girl kickline (I honestly have no idea if this is drawn from anything real) and belting out a playfully-filthy power-anthem is pretty-much exactly what I wanted out of the Roland Emmerich version of this story, for better or for worse.

From where I sit, this is all much more “silly” than maliciously-offensive (though somehow also not silly enough, given that Emmerich’s other historical-fiction entries are legitimate gonzo camp classics)

In the end, while not forgiving the film it’s many shortcomings, it largely left me feeling bad for Emmerich, who clearly wanted to make this work and had described STONEWALL in the past as a 20-year dream project. I’ve referenced TITANIC a few times in describing the film’s tone, but in terms of net-results it has more in common with Scorsese’s GANGS OF NEW YORK or Levinson’s TOYS – other films that sat as long-desired “passion projects” from great filmmakers but emerged as overbaked, unfocused, overwrought and (perhaps) too long-overthought mistakes. Sometimes, you can sit the egg so long that what hatches just doesn’t smell right.

I absolutely believe Emmerich has wanted to make this movie for almost two decades… I also believe it’s clear he didn’t update his thinking or approach to it in all that time. 20 years ago, STONEWALL would’ve been a revolutionary culture-bomb (“G-g-gay stuff!? Gay p-p-power!? As a mainstream-aspiring crowd-pleaser!?”) that would today be analyzed as “of it’s time, but problematic.” Arriving today, it’s too little, too late, too focused on the wrong stories.

Too bad.

So That Happened

If you follow my social media (which I assume most reading this blog must, as it’s updated exponentially more often) you may have noticed me pulling back or posting cryptically over the last two days. There are a few reasons for that, but the main one is that I’d been waiting to hear back on some test-results from my doctor (newly-acquired, along with my new health insurance). The tests came back today, and… well, it wasn’t great news.

I have what’s called Type 2 Diabetes.

Briefly: No, this isn’t (in most cases and mine) the “needle of insulin daily” Diabetes. This is a less-dangerous, manageable condition that presents basically the same symptoms – or, at least, thats my understanding of the matter, I’m really still learning. The bottom line is, I’m sick. Which is a place I never wanted to be, which scares the hell out of me and which has left me feeling beaten, depressed and (most of all) mad at myself because I’m keenly aware that it’s my own fault.
Here’s the thing: 3 years ago when I moved into my current apartment, one of the things I resolved to do was lose weight and get in shape – I had to budget myself, and I figured cutting down on food/snacks/etc would be a win-win for my wallet and my wasteline. Weight had been a problem of mine since High School, and through a combination of cutting down portions, avoiding excess carbs, not keeping sweets or soda around the house and a self-imposed exercise regimen of walking and lifting I tried to get a handle on it. I watched what I ate. I chugged water instead of anything sweet. I bought a bicycle and a heavy-bag and used both of them frequently.
And it worked. I dropped a bunch of weight (you can see the fluctuations across old OverThinker episodes) and felt great about myself. I never stopped being hungry all the time, never stopped wanting to eat a giant dish of lasagna or a full rack of ribs for dinner with cake and/or cookies for dessert (which took work, since I’m a decent-ish cook and can just MAKE that stuff if I wanted it badly enough) but I got there. I was productive, getting healthier, turning out more and better work than ever and making more time for family, friends and relationships.
Unfortunately, around the tail end of this same period, a family issue that had been building for far too long was starting to come to a head. The details are, with respect, not for the public – suffice it to say: If someone you love is doing something that is damaging to themselves and those around them, don’t wait to confront them about it until they’re so far gone that the things that need to be done to help them have to happen against their will.
So that went down. And then, shortly after (or, rather, in the midst of the rebuilding process) I lost my regular professional gig at The Escapist suddenly and without warning. The fallout from that has been getting better, thanks in no small part to the generosity of my fans, but remains unsure and a source of constant stress. And while this was going on… yeah, I got into a depression. That’s not to say that I HAVE Depression, but that I was regularly depressed. Down. Feeling bleak about the state of my life and my ability to escape it – like the man said, I don’t want to survive… I want to live.
And so I fell into the stupid trap of justifying lapses in any type of self-care that wasn’t altogether enjoyable. I couldn’t control the economy, or the lack of employment opportunities around me, or the behavior/misbehavior of loved-ones; but I could control my leisure time and my food. So I ate what I wanted, when I wanted, in the portions I wanted. And I stayed home and slept late and did anything but exercise for fun.
I gained back my weight and then some, I lost energy, and now here I am.
Thus far, it mostly… “existentially” sucks. The idea of self-improvement is something I’m all about, but I sort-of loathe the idea of it happening out of medical-necessity instead of self-drive. I love food, particularly the sort that helped get me here, and I find myself literally tearing-up at the thought of potentially having to cut certain things out of my life entirely. I know that sounds pathetic in general and especially in light of people starving elsewhere etc., but… yeah, that’s going to be rough. Walking through the supermarket to the pharmacy to get my new medications today felt like a surreal hell: Cookies, pastry, sherbert… will I ever get to enjoy them without thinking about blood sugar and medicine?
The good news is, it’s a manageable and (in my case) potentially beatable condition, under the circumstances. I’m on medication, have a regular physician and an appointment with both a condition-specific counselor and a nutritionist (NONE of which I’d have without insurance, which I wasn’t be able to afford before Obamacare, FYI) and with that plus the necessary changes in lifestyle I intend to beat this thing. I’m not terribly fond of my own mortality (one reason I’m 999% pro-science in almost all circumstances: I want that brain-in-robot-body/cloned-replacement-parts near-immortality shit in MY lifetime) and I certainly don’t plan to die early.
So… that’s what’s going on with me. I’m aware that I’m opening myself to a lot of “what’d you expect, fatty?” from the usual suspects, but the fact is I’m not good at separating my “public persona” from what’s actually going on with me, and I don’t want my profile to become a mess of cryptic allusions to “life changes” and “doctors.” I have a condition, I’m working to overcome it, the end.
Where this effects you, the fans? Hopefully, not at all. Ideally, this shouldn’t prevent me from doing my job as I have been and seeking out more of it to do as well. GAME OVERTHINKER will continue. IN BOB WE TRUST will continue. THE MOVIEBOB PATREON is still up, running and appreciates your continued support. And fans should stay tuned to OverThinker this weekend especially, for some teases about upcoming October programming that should make long-time fans very happy.

This is not going to beat me, and one of the reasons for that is that I’ve promised my fans and followers cool stuff and hard work and don’t intend to let anyone down.

Thank you,


P.S. if nothing else, I’m in elite company:


So. You’re probably waking up to hear about a particularly-bright, science/engineering inclined 14 year-old boy in Texas who was arrested, detained, taken from his school and interrogated about “terrorism” by police. Why? Because his name is Ahmed Mohamed, and someone thought the homemade clock he’d brought to school looked like a bomb.

Here is the kid explaining what went down. Saddest part: He had already taken pains while designing the clock to make it not look suspicious – which means that, at 14, this child has already had to internalize “adjust your behavior so you don’t make anyone whose already made a racist assumption about you uncomfortable.”

As this was hitting the news overnight, I tweeted spontaneously about it and now I see those tweets getting shared around a lot, so I figured I’d copy said tweets into proper paragraphs. You can hit the jump to see them:

(From around 12:30am EST)


This shit has been happening since 9/11, and because people (including me) were (rightly) scared we turned a blind eye to it as just part of the “well, we all have to be more aware of things now” ephemera like airport screenings sucking. And it’s bullshit. This isn’t “Don’t yell fire in a crowded theatre. This is “Don’t do ANYTHING to get noticed if you are Muslim/Arab/etc. And it’s our fault.

One more thing about that story to consider: That kid is in the 9th grade. 9/11 was 14 years ago. This has been his ENTIRE. LIFE. He doesn’t have any “America before, the way it was supposed to be” memories. His entire life has happened in a country where he is IMMEDIATELY suspect of the worst things imaginable because of his name, his skin and his parents’ religious heritage. 

This isn’t 1955. This isn’t “that ancient time before that man made dream-speech when we were bad.” This is TODAY. This is your world NOW. All because we decided 14 years ago “The Guy Who Didn’t Act When He Saw Something” was the ONE thing you must avoid becoming at any cost – while, ironically, we gave a second term to the “leaders” who did EXACTLY THAT.

So now, barring an immediate miracle, this *14 year-old* has two choices (assuming the charges are dropped):

1. Keep his head down and get ahead without drawing MORE undue attention. 2. Become a cause-celeb for (mostly) white liberals to rally around for feel-goods, which will “stick” to him and be used to undercut any achievement he makes for the rest of his life.

Mark your calendar for 2020-23. That’s when the first generation of Muslim/Arab/ME/etc Americans born immediately before/during/after 9/11 are going to be graduating College. Some of them to write books, make films/TV, report news, tell stories, etc; and they are going to have stories to tell and images to share about how THEIR lives were during what YOU probably think of as an overall pretty-good era to come up through that are going to shame you and infuriate you and shake you to your core. Our children will look back on how U.S. treated people of ME/Muslim-descent in the decade post-9/11 the way we look at Japanese Internment.

For [all] the talk of individual/communal resilience (which was/is VERY real) 9/11 really did successfully leave a lasting, debilitating injury on the U.S. It hobbled us, we stumbled, we reacted badly and we are still paying for it (and still acting badly.) We went backward. We’ll get out of it. We always do. But historically, it’s place is next to FDR’s “Second Bill of Rights” not being fully adopted, JFK’s death, Challenger exploding etc as a tragic historical “If Only…”

Also, something I mentioned in follow-up that I feel is especially relevant: Internet activism community? Please resist turning this child into a hashtag. If you want to help, send him support, emotional or otherwise – maybe scholarships, if you’re in position to do so. Give to his family’s legal defense fund, if it comes to that. But it’s wrong to make a “martyr” of a living person unless they volunteer for it. And while it might feel like the “big picture” righteous thing to do, I promise you that using support (however sincere) for this kid to mark YOU as “one of the good guys” will end up “marking” him in ways that could ultimately be detrimental (or even “just” frustrating and stifling) as he goes on.

Prepare For Trouble.

Everyone expected that Nintendo would make their first major push into Mobile gaming POKEMON-related. That’s just good branding.

But I don’t think anyone was expecting… this:

“The money. We’ll take all of it.”

State of The Blog 9/6/2015


So, I haven’t posted anything in about a week. There are some personal/time-constraint reasons for that which are neither here nor there, but it was mainly an effect of not a terrible amount “going on” of late that I felt compelled to comment on. That part will change as we head into the “busy season” of movie screenings and conventions, but something else will likely be changing too.

I’m actively exploring the “replacement” of both this blog and the Game OverThinker blog with something like a unified “official site.” This was, some followers will remember, something that was supposed to already be happening but was delayed by my professional shakeup back in February. I’m probably leaning toward a WordPress-type service (any advice from web-designer followers would be appreciated) and looking to keep Disqus for comments, but we’ll see.

In any case, new content coming this week regardless. Until then, please enjoy this cool thing you probably already saw: