Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.
1. What We Talk About When We Talk About Batman and Superman. Zack Snyder’s “Batman v Superman” opens in theaters this Friday and has received mostly middling reviews from critics. However, the concept of Batman and Superman fighting against each other has existed in the culture for years, but what does it mean when we talk about it? Vulture’s Abraham Reisman examines the Batman and Superman relationship and what it’s really about.
Are Batman and Superman allies or rivals, at their core? They’re definitely not enemies, and that’s only partly because they’re both superheroes. For long stretches, particularly when the characters were new, they had a deeply chummy relationship, with Batman like a non-superpowered Superman — a lesser, but cheerful, do-gooder who also fought for truth, justice, and the American way. (It was kind of adorable, with Batman almost acting like a kid who smilingly looked up on his star-athlete older brother.) And yet, for the past 30 years, the relationship has been punctuated by a series of spectacular fights — a gruesome tussle over ideology in 1986’s graphic novel “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns,” a dramatic dust-up due to mind control in the 2003 comic-book story line “Hush,” and, of course, an upcoming gladiator match in this weekend’s big-screen tentpole “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” At this point, nobody really remembers that early, sunny friendship — when it comes to superheroes, pure friendship’s boring. Batman and Superman are both, of course, good guys, but what we so often want to see is them fighting. But why? Why are fans so desperate to see superheroes in conflict that they urge superhero writers to employ absurd narrative contrivances like mind control or alternate universes to make happen what would otherwise be vanishingly unlikely fights (a tactic used well over a dozen times in the history of Batman-Superman tales)? One big answer is no answer at all — who wouldn’t want to see them fight? Every comics geek’s inner adolescent is perpetually asking, What’s the point of having two heroes if you aren’t also going to game out who’d win? As comics critic Chris Sims put it in a column on the topic, “When you have characters and all you see them doing is winning, it’s natural to wonder who would win harder if they ever had to compete. For that question, Superman and Batman make the perfect contenders.” But we also want to see them fight because, to an unusual degree even for comic books, the fights mean something. That is, they are about something — or some things. Namely: how to make a better world, with Superman operating through hope and inspiration, and Batman through fear and intimidation. As the villain Lex Luthor puts it in the new movie, it’s “god versus man, day versus night.” Let’s start with “god versus man.” Superman is an alien — which is to say, celestial — creature, born on another planet but here completely alone, completely singular in his powers, which have at times included feats like reversing the spin of the Earth to turn back time. Batman is not just a man but a broken one, who inhabits a broken universe, his parents killed by a petty criminal and raised in an era of rapid urban decay — “an old-money billionaire, a human, an orphan who has seen the worst of the world and let it all but turn him to stone,” in the words of critic Meg Downey. Superman, by contrast, “is a farm boy, an alien, raised with a stable adoptive family, who has seen the worst of the world and let it teach him a profound sense of empathy.” Which leads us to “day versus night.” Superman has faith that humanity will tend toward goodness if you give it trust and hope; Batman lacks that faith and believes the world only gets in line if you grab it by the throat and never let go. The former spends his contemplative moments hoping for the best; the latter spends those moments vigilantly preparing for the worst. But this contrast isn’t just characterological; it’s also historical. The icons were created almost simultaneously, but Superman is unmistakably a figure of his early years — the 1940s and 1950s, an era of buoyant, blinkered wartime and postwar consensus (at least as it might have been felt by most white, boyish comic-book readers), when it seemed appropriate to deploy a godlike do-gooder to do things like help cats out of trees or return purses to de-pursed Metropolis women. (One of his early nicknames was the Man of Tomorrow, after all.) Batman came of age later, beginning in the 1970s, the era of American malaise and urban decay, using cynicism as a weapon for good and training his sights on a Gotham City so broken it often looked like a war zone (often fighting super-criminals who hoped not just to plunder the city but overturn any lingering faith its denizens had in the virtue of compassion and social order). Which of these two worldviews provides the better way to live a good and productive life? You can do both, of course — just as you can love both characters and write them in such a way where they get along with one another. But readers don’t just want that — readers want to see the conflict. And, in a real-world sense, most of them are on one side. Today, Batman is a far more popular character than Superman, and he typically wins whenever they go toe-to-toe in a story — which is, of course, ridiculous, considering he’s just an earthling, but that only makes it all the more remarkable as a reflection of reader preferences and prejudices. Outside of comics and movies, too, his worldview predominates, in the form of a perennially apocalyptic vision of the near future. In all ways, Batman is winning in the battle of Batman vs. Superman, which is especially strange given how little New York today, say, looks like the Gotham of “The Dark Knight Returns.” But we’ve been living so long in Batman’s universe that it can be hard to remember his worldview didn’t always have the upper hand.
2. The Tougher Thing Is to Feel: “The Flash” and Masculinity. The CW’s “The Flash” has garnered a sizable fanbase of both critics and audiences alike as both find a lot to like in its quick-fire pacing and fun characterizations. For RogerEbert.com, Angelica Jade Bastien examines “The Flash” and its approach to masculinity.
Beneath the intrinsic power of our stories about superheroes is an instructive image of the kind of men our culture values. The way “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” has been marketed illustrates just how restrictive American masculinity remains. Zack Snyder’s film looks like it’s taking a page from the work of comic writer Frank Miller, whose depiction of the characters during the 1980s and early 1990s has unfortunately defined much of them since. The way Batman and Superman are positioned on the looming billboards, and in bombastic trailers, is in the fashion of grim figures who solve their issues with a punch in the face before considering an extended hand. Batman, especially since Miller’s influence, leans far too heavily on the idea that for someone to be a great hero one must be disconnected emotionally from the world you’re trying to save. He’s not the only one. Watching everything from “Deadpool” to “The Avengers” to “Arrow,” one can see a pattern in how the creatives that bring these adaptations to the screen have limited ideas about masculinity. Sure, the film and television adaptations of superheroes we’ve seen in the last decade or so vary greatly in tone, style, and intent at their core, but they have several troubling similarities in how they relate to masculinity. Watching these adaptations one after the other provides a very specific idea about how these men can and should operate: lone heroics, privileging violence as a solution, being emotionally shut off as the only way to be a hero. Sometimes this takes the form of detached irony like in “Deadpool” or an ego so large it causes an inability to be aware of the interior lives of others like “Iron Man.” Perhaps this is why CW’s “The Flash” feels like such a breath of fresh air. In how the show approaches masculinity and heroism, it takes a subversive edge. “The Flash” stands in opposition to the emotionally detached, toxic masculinity found in the adaptations of its peers. While the idea that a hero needs to be connected to the world he’s trying to save isn’t necessarily uncommon, “The Flash” takes it a step further by treating vulnerability and openness as a strength for its hero. Without his sense of empathy and his dedicated, loving team, The Flash/Barry Allen (Grant Gustin) wouldn’t be much of a hero. When “The Flash” first spun off from its predecessor “Arrow” in 2014 it had a lot stacked against it. Would showrunners Andrew Kreisberg and Greg Berlanti make the ideas of legacy heroes and the abilities of its titular hero, which range from time travel to superspeed, believable in its world? Would the show capture the Silver Age zaniness that makes the hero great? Could it pull off villains like King Shark and the Reverse-Flash? The answer to all these questions is surprisingly a resounding “yes.”
2. Voice Matching in Movies. Have you ever wondered how Hollywood records “clean” versions of dialogue, or records additional dialogue for trailers without the principal actors, or even bring the voices of actors from the dead? It’s all in the voice matching, one of the oldest tricks Hollywood has in its back pocket. Business Insider’s Jason Guerrasio examines the technique of voice matching in movies.
Married couple Jessica Gee-George and Grant George are veteran voice-over actors who have imitated stars including Cate Blanchett and Owen Wilson over the years. They say the process usually begins with an email from a postproduction supervisor about the actor they would match and how many lines they would perform. Sometimes they simply agree to the job if the supervisor knows they can do it. Otherwise they audition for the voice match, sending out a file they recorded at home. If they get it, the job is usually no longer than a four-hour day. They record in a studio with the footage in front of them on a big screen. The director often walks them through the lines, ranging from screaming for hours to saying a few lines that got garbled. The work is often needed for action scenes. “Whether it’s a fighting scene or it’s a close-up of someone breathing, the actors don’t come back for that type of work,” Gee-George said, noting that she did Cameron Diaz’s screams and gasps in the car-crash scene in 2001’s “Vanilla Sky.”The recent trend, however, is voice-matching in trailers for big films that kick off publicity over a year before release. Studios will rush to get out small teasers without any audio ready for the footage they want to use. That’s when the voice-over artists get a call. “They often need a nice, clean line of dialogue,” George said. “Sometimes they even use our voices as a temp for when they send the trailers for approval to the studio.” Voice matching also comes up when an actor is deceased. Stephen Stanton is a go-to guy when a film, TV show, or video game needs the voice of an actor who is no longer with us. He’s currently the voice of Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin in “Star Wars Rebels” and Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan Kenobi in numerous “Star Wars” games. He was also the voice of film critic Roger Ebert in the documentary “Life Itself” and legendary horse-racing announcer Chic Anderson in the movie “Secretariat.” “This is not about being an impressionist,” Stanton told Business Insider of voice matching. “You’re all of a sudden being put into the position of being the lead actor in that film for a day, so you’ve got to get into the actor’s head and into the script.” You also have to be able to match up perfectly with the lips on-screen, which goes a lot further than just getting the vocal tone right. And Stanton, who boasts being able to do more than 200 voices on the spot…says you have to be ready to work at a moment’s notice. “Sometimes a trailer house needs you in 10 minutes. They are in a real crunch,” he said. “They are putting something together and it has to get to the studio for approval. There’s no real rehearsal with something like that — you can either do the voice or you can’t.”
3. “Defending Your Life” at 25: Albert Brooks on Making a Comedy Classic. 25 years ago, Albert Brooks directed a fantasy comedy called “Defending Your Life,” the story of an ad man who dies in a car accident and is taken to the afterlife where he must defend his life to see if he can ascend to heaven or return to Earth to try again. In Rolling Stone Magazine, Albert Brooks examines “Defending Your Life” on its 25th anniversary.
I don’t know how, where, and why the idea for “Defending Your Life” began; the idea had been bouncing around for a while. Stories like that sort of have to bounce. They don’t come out of nowhere. I went through my own period of life with sort of everything turning upside down, and wondering, why is it this way? I went from being unafraid at the beginning of my career, in my late twenties, [to] being like the Roadrunner; I looked down and I didn’t see anything. You don’t wake up one day and say, “Earth ain’t the best place to be.” That’s a brewing type of feeling. We’d all watched “heaven” movies forever, and they always bothered me. They were just like little children’s fairy tales. So I began to think more clearly that, why would anything in the universe be different than what we already see? In other words, our best indication of this vast, mysterious place are the processes that are going on right in front of us. And we see the Darwinian theories working; we see survival of the fittest working. Even in making automobiles, the better automobiles are the ones that keep getting made, so why would anything be different than that? It intrigued me that the whole universe would be run sort of like a business. I also liked not having Earth as a place that’s the best place. You don’t want to go back to Earth — and by the way, they weren’t threatening to send you back as an animal. It was obvious you were going to have to go back as a person and try it all over again; that was failure. So this is an alternative, but it’s at least an alternative that makes some weird kind of sense to me. I had a bigger budget for “Defending Your Life,” which was exciting because I had never done special effects before. “Total Recall” had just come out a year earlier, and we sat in the room with the people who did those special effects. There was a scene in that film where Arnold Schwarzenegger was in a moving train, and the train went across the landscape and you could see his face in the train — and up until that time, that had never happened. So the people who did that enabled Meryl Streep and I to be in the tram as it disappeared off into the universe, and that technique had just been invented. And those trams were miniatures. We had big trams, but we didn’t have 15 of them that could go off into the distance, and certainly we couldn’t be in one of them, and you wouldn’t see us, so that kind of stuff was all exciting. Judgment City and the way things looked there were basically traditional matte paintings that they’d been doing since the beginning of movies. That’s how they did the original “Ben-Hur”; just talented people painting over a city. For example, the Judgment Center, the place where we did the trials, was the Federal Building in West Los Angeles with two large annexes painted onto it, and it’s just done perfectly. That never changes. You can do that today and it looks as good as it always did.
4. “In the City of Sylvia”: An Overlooked Masterpiece About Looking. As its name implies, The A.V. Club’s Overlook column examines overlooked films throughout history, taking a close look at their strengths and virtues. For the latest entry, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky examines José Luis Guerín’s 2007 film “In The City of Sylvia,” an overlooked masterpiece about looking.
José Luis Guerín’s 2007 film “In The City Of Sylvia” doesn’t have much plot beyond what’s implied in the title. An unnamed young man (French actor Xavier Lafitte) is visiting Strasbourg, a picturesque city just off the border between France and Germany. He remembers a woman named Sylvia or Sylvie, whom he met very briefly at a bar called Les Aviateurs while visiting Strasbourg six years earlier. She drew him a map on a beer coaster. Perhaps he hopes to run into her again. The movie is broken up into chapters (identified as “1st night,” “2nd night,” and so on), which presumably correspond to the length of the young man’s stay in Strasbourg, during which he doesn’t appear to do anything except look, draw, and — in a series of scenes that takes up a third of the film — follow a woman that he may think is Sylvia or Sylvie. It’s something of a masterpiece, filled with beguiling intangibles and apparent contradictions. It begs for its own field of study; let’s call it Sylviology. Before we get any further, a thumbnail sketch of Guerín: Born in Barcelona, he is a prolific and original documentary filmmaker who has made only a handful of fiction features, averaging one per decade. He is often characterized as “inquisitive,” is never seen without a flat cap tucked over his forehead, and is fascinated with silent film, meta-fictional conceits, journals, and the relationship between person, place, and memory. “Sylvia” may represent a real person from Guerín’s past (per his experimental companion piece, “Some Photos In The City Of Sylvia”), or she could be someone he made up, a purely rhetorical figure. She is the girl with the white parasol remembered by Bernstein in “Citizen Kane,” a movie that’s all about the way fleeting moments stick like splinters in memory. (See: “Rosebud.”) Or she is Madeleine, “Vertigo’s” woman that never was. In place of the unreal spiral hairdo worn by Kim Novak in the Hitchcock classic — suggestive of a whirlpool and a death plunge — the woman taken for Sylvia wears her dark hair down. She is played by Pilar López De Ayala, the Spanish actress who also plays the title beauty in Manoel De Oliveria’s “The Strange Case Of Angelica,” a film about a young man who becomes obsessed with the image of a dead woman; perhaps she just has one of those faces. In a different movie, the face-to-face meeting between the young man and the woman who might be Sylvia would be staged climactically, at the very end, but Guerín puts it at the halfway point, as a self-effacing and self-reflexive anti-climax. It’s the only scene in the film to rely on dialogue. In fact, it puts “In The City Of Sylvia” in dialogue with itself, unexpectedly casting the young woman as an audience surrogate, after said audience has spent a substantial amount of time in the point-of-view of a man following her from behind. “Sylvia” only does something when it’s essential, and, by this point, it’s essential for the film to address the creepiness of its premise. Yet the scene is more than that. It’s a complex interchange of emotions, hanging on López De Ayala’s expression as her character realizes that the young man’s interest in her begins and ends with the dim image of Sylvia. He doesn’t even ask her real name or who she really is; he doesn’t think to. The moment is a turning point. From here on out, the search for Sylvia will begin to transform scene-by-scene into a more primal form of curiosity, which the movie presents as redemptive. We’ll never hear the young man’s voice again.
5. What You Learn When You’re Not Working. As a freelance writer, it can be tough to handle the work/life balance seeing as the Internet economy rewards people who work overtime and all the time. For his Episodes newsletter, veteran TV critic Todd VanDerWerff discusses the lessons he learned while he was not working, and what it means to work out parts of your brain that don’t get enough attention.
The nice thing about having an office job is that it develops a dichotomy between “work life” and “home life,” one that you don’t really get when you work from home. That means it can be hard to stop screwing around on the internet (perfectly acceptable “at home” behavior), but it can also be hard to stop writing TV recaps (not so perfectly acceptable “at home” behavior). In the early days at the AV Club, 16 hour days were my norm, and there was one time I worked 36 hours straight. I say this not to brag, nor to suggest that anybody made me do this. As mentioned, I did this to myself. And I like to think the fact that I found a way to gradually decrease my workload over the years, and never worked a 36-hour stretch again, is a sign of… something. Possibly not personal maturity and growth, but definitely something. And, of course, working a lot got me to where I am today, which is a place I enjoy being. But I still spent last week, when my wife and I were dealing with a long-planned surgery that we finally got the go-ahead for her to have, doing nothing but caring for her. I took work off, mostly putting up pre-written things that I had been saving for just such a week. I didn’t take part in a daily writing exercise I do for a different writers group I’m in. And I didn’t do this newsletter. I didn’t write. I just watched TV. I played board games. I ate food I loved and watched movies. I slept and slept and slept and slept. I hung out with my wife, when she was conscious. And the thing I realized as I did this was that there were parts of my brain that weren’t getting the proper love and attention they needed. They were like plants without sunlight or water, withering away without me occasionally hanging out with them. Using work brain as much as I do leaves work brain feeling exhausted, the same as if you were doing a workout that only focused on, say, your arms or legs. You need to use the other muscles at some point, too. This is, of course, basic self-care stuff. But it’s easy to forget on the internet, and especially in internet publishing, where workaholics and those who never quit working are rewarded, almost as a matter of course. Vox Media, God bless it, has lots of great policies about work-life balance, but they only really work if you, the employee, decide to live by them. And I’ve been lousy at living by them for years and years now. And I’m just now starting to realize that’s maybe made me a worse employee, writer, and editor than I could have been.
Tweet(s) of the Day:
Imagine the comments section on the French New Wave
— Robert Greene (@prewarcinema) March 22, 2016
MR. SHOW bits that predicted 2016:
MR. SHOW Water Cooler
Report: The President Has Farted
All the awards shows
— maura johnston (@maura) March 22, 2016