The Walking Dead 8.01 – Mercy

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When a show reaches a seventh, an eighth, a ninth season, we often begin to notice some changes in the pacing of the story and in the quality of the writing. Truth be told, it’s usually around the fifth season that things start to smell a little funny. This is typically because the show creator, the writers’ room, and the show runners may not, at the very beginning, expected the show to have lasted for so long; the stories become more outlandish and improbable, themes start to repeat themselves, and what may have once been an incendiary and addictive plot begins to wear thin.

This has happened countless times before. When a show proves to be a consistent draw for audiences and ad revenue is consistently high, a show like Dexter or Lost will be renewed for additional seasons again and again, kept on life support until audiences grow weary, until viewership declines and the show dies the death of a million weeping pinhole wounds.

One antidote to this kind of ‘viewer fatigue’ has been the revitalization of serialized story-telling and television show anthologies like True Detective, American Horror Story, and Fargo, where each season is itself a self-contained story. A story can’t grow old and tiresome if the story only lasts for one season.

The real question for our purposes today is this: Is The Walking Dead beginning to overstay its welcome?

Almost all signs point to “absolutely not.” There have been some misfires along the way, but The Walking Dead seems to have maintained it’s momentum. The most common complaint, stretching all the way back to season two, is about the so-called ‘filler episodes.’ This is a legitimate complaint. The pace of the show slows down, audiences suffer emotionally manipulative cliffhangers, and a tremendous amount of time is spent halting the progress of the story. This has certainly been problematic, but it hasn’t made the story measurably less engaging.

In some regards, these ‘filler-episodes’ have been used to exquisite effect, allowing the writers time to explore the emotional depth and complexity of certain characters. Take, as an example, the season six episode “He’s Not Here,” a flashback episode that reveals Morgan’s journey from the edge of madness and back, after a chance encounter with a lone survivor in the woods. This stand-alone episode, with an extended run time of 62 minutes, was undeniably strong and served to temporarily slow the pace of the show.

One of the main reasons The Walking Dead hasn’t lost its luster is because the story isn’t being improvised season-to-season or episode-to-episode like so many other television shows. Like True Blood and Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead is based on material that existed before plans were ever made to adapt it for television. The narrative connective-tissue is already in place; there is already a tried and true blue-print in place before each episode is scripted and before principle photography begins. In fact, some of the more recent problems with The Walking Dead are directly related to story elements that don’t exist in the graphic novels – like the “heapsters” that live in the landfill. The reason it doesn’t feel like these characters have a place in The Walking Dead is specifically because they didn’t originally exist in the source material.

This is one of the main reasons Fear the Walking Dead has struggled to really get on its feet.

All of that being said, season eight starts things off with a bang, a radical shift from the season seven premier. Where one season ago the group was fragmented, weak, and kneeling in the dirt, we now see unification, strength, and resolve. After the despair at the onset of season seven, this is an interesting way to get things rolling. Shifting back and forth with a bearded Rick in an idyllic suburban home, to Rick standing over the graves of Abraham and Glenn, to Rick delivering a rousing speech before mountain an attack against The Saviors, to Rick with battle-weary red eyes speaking of ‘mercy’ (where the episode gets its title), there is still a pattern of emotional manipulation that most fans will find familiar.

We don’t have a clear idea, with these shifting timelines, precisely what’s going on. We don’t know if ‘old Rick and the cane’ are a fantasy or if they’re a vision of things to come. We don’t know if he’s reflecting on his fallen comrades before the assault on the saviors or reflecting about these events sometime thereafter.

The things this episode does, without digging too deep into the plot, is sets the pace for the ‘All Out War’ narrative from the comic books. It starts things out with a bang, with the unified communities organizing a take-down of Negan and his Saviors. We’re still met with the grinning psychopathic confidence of Negan, and it’s difficult to tell how intense the struggle is going to be. But these are fun questions to ask ourselves – questions that will certainly have people tuning in to see what happens next.

One prediction I do have is that the red-eyed Rick with the glint of light dancing on his face will be seen again in the season finale. I believe that this is the moment when the battle with The Saviors is won. When Rick whispers “my mercy prevails over my wrath,” I am confident that the mercy he speaks of will be a mercy he bestows upon Negan. This episode went to great lengths to remind us that Rick has promised to kill Negan personally. My prediction is that Rick won’t kill Negan – that Negan will find a new home in the cinder-block jail Morgan began building back in season six.

Mark my words, reader. Let’s see if I’m right.

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Logan (Soaring Character Development – Low Budget)

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The struggle between ‘art’ and ‘commerce’ is a real one. Content is regularly stripped of complexity to make stories more accessible to more people. Films are also regularly stripped of violence and profanity to achieve a PG-13 rating, making stories more accessible to the widest possible audience. Material is dumbed-down, focus-grouped, and manufactured ‘by committee,’ and the result is often a muddled, boring, effects-driven dumpster fire.

Wolverine Origins is a good example. It had stunning visuals and a magnificent opening montage to illustrate Logan’s near-immortal status and battle-hardened personality, but it also bastardized many beloved characters and fell flat to a passionate fan-base. More recently, we have the Suicide Squad and Batman V Superman debacles, films that spent a tremendous amount of money only to insult hardcore fans. Sure, these films performed okay at the box-office and appealed to casual fans, but they were roundly dismissed by critics and didn’t perform as well as the studio had hoped. With huge up-front costs, large action set-pieces, and remarkable visual effects – not to mention monumental marketing campaigns – these films ultimately did not pass muster.

Films made by committee, that attempt to appeal to the lowest common denominator, never endure. Marketing may contribute to successful opening weekends, but the numbers predictably dropped-off as the word spread. Home video sales take a huge hit in these situations, and movies like this quickly become bargain-bin offerings at Wal-Mart.

We’ve had a couple of wonderful object-lessons in recent years. Deadpool‘s monumental success is often cited as the only reason Logan was allowed to have an R rating. Both films were made with a modest budget compared to other films of the genre and both films performed exceedingly well at the box office. With smaller crews, practical effects, and lower budgets, the film-makers were given more freedom to execute their vision without interference from the studios.

A novelist doesn’t hire a crew of people to change his story in order to make it more palatable to wider audiences. Why is this model so routinely employed in Hollywood? The most celebrated films of all time are typically the realization of one person’s singular vision. The rise of the writer/director in the 1960s and 1970s is our evidence. Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino are two recognizable names, and they are notorious for their relentless control over their productions. I would shudder to imagine what Pulp Fiction would have been like if Bob and Harvey Weinstein had insisted on focus groups and a rating reduction.

We certainly wouldn’t be revering the film today.

Director James Mangold spun some magic with Logan, borrowing the tone from the ‘Old Man Logan’ comic book series and allowing the titular character to be exactly what he has been on the written page for the past several decades. The budget was modest and the set-pieces weren’t heavily glossed over with digital trickery. The film was concrete and character driven, something that’s difficult to do with a large ensemble cast. The gravitas of a specific character’s arc is difficult to illustrate with an Avengers-style film, with over a dozen major players to consider. Logan focuses mainly on two characters, Logan and Charles Xavier, and the minimalist approach leads to meaningful and emotional character arcs.

Being smaller is a good thing for super-hero and comic-book properties. The source material is serialized story-telling anyway, and we’ve seen several new comic book properties being adapted for the small screen. Daredevil and Luke Cage, Dirk Gently, Preacher, The Walking Dead, and many others have proved to be successful adaptations of comic book stories, capturing the imaginations of not just children, but adults as well. This is where the R rated film comes into play. Comic books aren’t just for kids, as television networks and Hollywood executives have assumed for an entire generation. Comic books are our modern mythology. We’ve all been raised on comic books and there are plenty of 18+ viewers who want to see these stories told in an adult, mature way.

Logan effectively closes the chapter on the Wolverine story, passing the torch to a new Wolverine. It lays the groundwork for a whole new set of stories without overwhelming glitz and glamour, without throw-away exposition and forgettable characters. The film relies on character and story, not effects. It respects its audience, rather than insulting the audience’s intellect. It did something that few of these superhero films has been able to achieve – it has a heart. It has grounded characters whose struggle we can identify with on some level. In over fifteen years of playing Logan and Charles Xavier, Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart ended the saga in a beautiful way, paving the way for new stories.

After the success of Deadpool and Logan, let’s hope that the message has been read loud and clear. Audiences aren’t only ready for more mature stories. They want them.

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The Walking Dead 7.16 – The First Day…

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So here we have it, the finale, titled “The First Day Of The Rest Of Your Life.” We’ve been waiting since the season opener for an episode centered around Rick, and I guess this is what we have to contend with. Last week ended with Dwight (played by Austin Amelio) visiting the Alexandria camp with a truce offering and a willingness to help take down Negan – but this story-line doesn’t really go anywhere here, not to anybody’s surprise. There’s always room for next season.

I guess.

Oh. And a betrayal by the garbage-pickers? Shocking.

<rolls eyes>

“We’re going to war.”
That’s all that really happened in this episode. Sasha died (we’d been expecting it) and Eugene is a coward (which we already knew). And we all knew that there wouldn’t be a conclusion to the ‘Alexandria Versus The Saviors’ plot in an hour-long episode. So we get to see an angry Negan, more tactical maneuvers, plotting, and intrigue in the next exhausting season.

I think I’m about done.
This is getting stupid.

Great finale. Huzzah…

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The Walking Dead 7.12 – Say Yes

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The last several episodes, in my humble opinion, have been misfires. This is pretty apparent if you’ve read through my previous write-ups. It isn’t as though fans aren’t aware of the abundance of “filler episodes” in the show, and it isn’t as though any of us are unaware that there can be an effective use for these episodes when it comes to illustrating the growing connections and tensions between the show’s characters. The trend that I’ve noticed is that all of the material invented specifically for the show – rather than material taken directly from the comic books – straight-up isn’t as dynamic, interesting, or well-thought-out. And no, this isn’t “fan boy” territory, as though I personally would want to see on television exactly what I’ve already read in the comics; that’d make watching the show exceedingly boring. I adore that the writers and show-runners are actively trying to make the television show distinct from the comics in several inventive ways in order to maintain interest among pre-existing fans, create suspense, and keep audience members guessing.

The point is this: the “Oceanside” and “Garbage Picker” (as I’ve come to call them) communities have absolutely no personality to speak of, no heart or soul, and no reasonable explanation as to how they even exist. They deserve little, if any, sympathy from the show’s established communities, or from the audience. How does Oceanside surveil their town? And why haven’t they migrated to territory further away from Negan’s clutches, where they’re less likely to be discovered by scavengers under Negan’s employ? And no men, you say? At some point, this community is going to realize that the trauma delivered by The Saviors won’t be enough to quell a woman’s need for sexual intimacy – at least not indefinitely. And what of the Garbage Pickers? Surviving after making a home in the most unsanitary place they could find, a landfill, despite a massive shortage of medical professionals, medical supplies, not to mention clean food and water? In a landscape filled with rusted nails, rotting food, pack rats, and flies? Yeah – that makes perfect sense. And how are we to honestly believe that they’ve forgotten how to speak English less than two years after the collapse of civilization? No linguist is going to accept that any new form of distinct English dialect would surface from a semi-isolated community in such a painfully short period of time.

The following is a transcript, verbatim, of the words spoken by Jadis, the inexplicable leader of the Garbage Pickers, at the time when Rick delivers several dozen new firearms: “Operational? All? Yes, yes. But operational? No. Not enough. Enough to fight your fight. Us. Nearly twice. Need nearly twice. No. Our guns to take. Our deal. Still on.”

Following that ridiculous, truncated word salad is a negotiation between Rick and Jadis regarding how many of the guns Rick can keep in order to protect his people while they search for even more guns. During the negotiation – as a part of the negotiation – Jadis demands Rick give back the wire cat sculpture he took from the dump – the dump! – after his gladiatorial fight with pin-head, to give to Michonne as a gift. How could such a trivial, stupid goddamn thing enter into a serious negotiation about armaments?

Because of these things – and many, man more – these communities haven’t really earned any empathy; audiences aren’t devastatingly concerned about what’s going to happen to them. This is specifically why I think both communities are going to be decimated in the war to come. The introduction of these new communities feels almost like an afterthought. They absolutely reek of the same wooden, unsympathetic personalities that we see in Fear The Walking Dead, the ill-begotten spin-off series. Why do these things – the Garbage Pickers/Oceanside characters and the Fear The Walking Dead characters – feel so similar, you might ask? Once again,  because they aren’t inventions of Robert Kirkman, who created the whole Walking Dead universe. With no solid source material, there are no solid characters.

None of this means there isn’t an awful lot to celebrate about The Walking Dead, and it would be overly cynical of me not to admit that this week’s episode definitely got a lot right.

The series has spent far too many episodes neglecting the impact of Abraham and Glenn’s deaths on Rick’s emotional well-being. In some ways, I suspect that the season premiere – focused predominantly on Negan breaking Rick’s spirit – was intended to do just that. At the same time, I think it would’ve been better to sporadically reinforce how Rick is (or isn’t) managing his emotions in a few little ‘reminder moments’ scattered throughout the season. He is, after all, the main character of the series, and the audience largely sees the world through his eyes. It was a breath of fresh air to finally see him opening up about that sarcastic young pizza delivery boy, Glenn, who saved his life in the very first episode, when he was trapped inside that immobilized combat tank.

This episode made for wonderful character progression for Rick and Michonne. It has been a long time since we’ve been able to feel this kind of sympathy for Rick. He’s typically written in such a way that we almost always know he’s going to survive: outliving his wife, outliving a rival in love (Shane), making it through the governor’s assault, the swine flu, the hacking off of his girlfriend’s arm when Alexandria was overrun by walkers, and persevering when he had to fight that ridiculous pin-head super-walker for the Garbage Pickers earlier this season – and that’s just to name a few. A very few. And it even happens again in this episode, when that love-struck fool tries to shoot a deer in the middle of a walker assault and gets himself trapped by an encroaching wall of the stumbling but savage undead. The saving grace here is that the majority of the episode was executed incredibly well.

We are finally reinvigorated, seduced yet again into wishing for success for Rick and the gang. We want them to overcome the horrors they’ve endured. Episodes of The Walking Dead are always wonderful when they remember to let the audience see the characters smile and enjoy a small victory, despite their bleak surroundings. It’s affecting to have a moment of levity in an episode (or a whole season) mired in struggle and heartache.

How often do we actually see Michonne smile in The Walking Dead? We see her smile just about as often as we ever hear any character actually laugh (unless, of course, it’s a mustache-twirling villain preparing to bash somebody’s brains in). Hearing Rick and Michonne cackling just after falling through the roof is arguably one of my favorite moments of the episode. It was unexpected bliss, rather than an unexpected jump-scare or a tragic and untimely death.

The episode ends with the Garbage Pickers insisting they still need more guns, despite the cache delivered by Rick and Michonne. And, how convenient that we have Tara at the end of the episode – the only one who knows about those well-armed ladies in Oceanside – with something important to confess. How unutterably convenient. Ten bucks says that this plot-line won’t be addressed, at all, in next week’s episode. We’ll have to wait a week or two, if not several months into the future when the next season begins.

Cliffhangers aren’t even cliffhangers anymore. Not in The Walking Dead. You won’t tune in next week at the same bat-time, same bat-channel, and learn what happens to our heroes next. No, no. We’re all going to learn something completely unrelated, in one of the other communities, about a whole group of other characters.

In the words of foghorn leghorn: I ga-rohn-teeeee!

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The Joker – Why So Serious? (pt.1)

The Joker, A New Illustration From LenseBender Studios

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The list of complaints about last years’ ‘Suicide Squad’ is a long one. The machined-gunned roll-call character introductions, the underdeveloped personalities, the ethnic stereotypes, and the ‘walk like an Egyptian’ Enchantress – and this is just to scratch the surface – earned across-the-board negative reviews and a deeply conflicted audience.

One of the biggest complaints I’ve been hearing? The prison-tatted goth-juggalo Joker. And while this version of The Joker has earned such disdain, Jered Leto’s performance has simultaneously garnered some of the film’s highest praise. In fact, many moviegoers are hopeful for a ‘Joker & Harley’ stand-alone movie(although this is looking less likely with the announcement of ‘Gotham City Sirens‘). Audience responses to both the film and this new iteration of the ‘ganagster’ Joker perfectly illustrates how polarized audiences are.

What many moviegoers aren’t aware of is that The Joker has undergone several transformations over the last seventy-five years. After Batman was given his own stand-alone comic title in 1940, creator Bob Kane needed to introduce a new villain. Interestingly, The Joker was initially supposed to die in the first issue – with a knife through the heart – but the decision was ultimately made to keep The Clown Prince Of Crime on deck as a recurring character.

It’s easy to assume that the earliest depictions of The Joker would more closely resemble the 1960s television series – whimsical and cartoonish, rather than sociopathic and violent. The truth is, in his earliest story arcs, The Joker was a ruthless killer similar to more recent cinematic portrayals. It wasn’t until editor Jack Schiff was hired that The Joker’s persona was softened in order to market the Batman comics to a younger audience. After the establishment of the Comics Code Authority in 1954, The Joker was nothing more than a puckish, thieving trickster.

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Editor Julius Schwartz took the reigns in 1964, leading to the near-abandonment of The Joker character altogether. Evidently, Schwartz wasn’t a fan of the character. If it wasn’t for the 1966 Batman television series, The Joker might have faded into complete obscurity. The show was a hit, however, and actor Cesar Romero provided the first ever live (non-comic-book) performance of the iconic character.
romero-blogAfter the end of the television series – and despite its success – comic sales were flagging. The Joker was reintroduced in 1973, after a four year hiatus and a decision to change formats. Editors wanted to begin telling more mature Batman stories and shed the whimsical camp of the 1960s. This reincarnated Joker was brought back to his original concept: a ruthless serial killer on equal footing with The Caped Crusader. He was also, for the first time ever, depicted as being completely and undeniably insane.
joker-70sIn 1975 The Joker was granted a stand-alone comic series by DC Comics – this would be the first time that a villain would be portrayed as the protagonist in a comic book serial. The series was short-lived, but The Joker’s popularity expanded rapidly. This would culminate in some of the most iconic graphic novels of the 1980s, spawning feature-length animated films, a reinvigoration of comic book culture, and one of the most ambitious films based on a comic book intellectual property, Tim Burton’s 1989 release of ‘Batman.’

(stay tuned for our exploration of The Joker’s depiction in the 1980s though Suicide Squad)
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How Long Was ‘Batman v Superman’ In The Works?

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From the ‘Wilhelm Scream’ to things like Hitchcock’s cameos – often little inside jokes between Hollywood director friends and family – so-called “Easter Eggs” have always been a part of cinematic storytelling. In the age of the internet and the renaissance of the film trailer, super-fans and comic-conventioneers now fill YouTube with theories, frame-by-frame analyses, and share the fun details they’ve uncovered in highly anticipated IP’s. In many ways, fandom has exploded, and audiences are enjoying greater inclusivity in the cinematic worlds they love.

Before this practice really took off, though, audiences really had to look. Sometimes clues were right out in the open, and sometimes they were menacingly hard to identify. But you can rest assured that the comic book fan – not unlike science fiction fanatics – are the ones who search the longest and the hardest. Consider “I Am Legend,” a film that was released in 2007, almost ten years before “Batman V Superman” hit the silver screen. It’s in an establishing shot in the early minutes of the film, as Robert Neville (portrayed by Will Smith) walks through the post-apocalyptic ruins of Times Square.

As clear as day, what do we see at the top of the frame? A “Batman V Superman” billboard.

I discovered that a few people, obviously, have already noticed this and it’s been making the rounds on social media, but this sure was news to me. According to the sources that I trust (namely comicbook.com and collider.com), ‘I Am Legend” screenwriter Akiva Goldsman wrote an early draft “Batman V Superman,” although that draft was later rejected. This Easter Egg was an early concept of what Goldsman and director Francis Lawrence thought a “Batman V Superman” promo piece ought to look like.

It’s always fun to be a fan.

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Harleen Quinzel – Suicide Squad

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Get ready for Halloween – we’re going to be seeing a lot of Harley Quinn costumes.

There’s nothing wrong with that. This is one of the most unique characters in the DC world, a precocious student of psychology who falls victim to The Joker’s manipulations. In many ways, her story arc is a parable that mirrors abusive relationships; she relentlessly pursues acceptance from an abusive partner in a way that many real-world victims of emotional abuse seek acceptance from their abuser.

Harleen Quintzel, on the surface, seems like little more than a pornographic film star – hypersexualized and weak. That’s how she was initially written – the hapless victim of a masterful psychological tormentor. I think one of the reasons this character has captured the imagination of so many fans recently, however, is because, beneath the sexual facade, she possesses genuine agency. As penned by co-creator Paul Dini, she is a preternaturally brilliant psychologist who falls under the spell of The Joker. She isn’t a mutant or a meta-human. Her superpower isn’t superhuman strength or extraordinary skill with any kind of weapon; her talent lies in identifying and capitalizing on emotional weakness.

Not easy to portray on the silver screen, unfortunately.

But the relationship between Harley Quinn and The Joker was, undeniably, one of the most enjoyable elements of David Ayer’s ‘Suicide Squad,’ and rumor has it that a stand-alone feature-length film is in the works. Hopefully we’ll see more from Dini’s original story, a comic book titled ‘Mad Love,’ as the flagging Warner Brothers Studios continue to struggle to catch up with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Harley isn’t just a hot chick in revealing clothing – she’s a viper, whose superpower is her devotion to a madman.

I hope that you, like me, are looking forward to seeing this character evolve in the burgeoning DC Cinematic Universe. Yes, there have been plenty of misfires, and I think that ‘Suicide Squad’ was a big swing and a miss. I’m a little gun-shy, too, after ‘Man of Steel’ and ‘Batman V Superman.’ But that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of material to work with. And the new Robin – ahem, sorry, I mean Joker – is going to be a fun new character to follow.

You fan-boys know what I’m talking about.

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