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Daily Reads: How Superhero Movies Became Too Big to Fail, The Renewed Popularity of ‘Friends,’ and More

Daily Reads: How Superhero Movies Became Too Big to Fail, The Renewed Popularity of 'Friends,' and More

Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.

1. How Superhero Movies Became Too Big To Fail.
We’ve heard a lot of stories this week about the irrelevance of critics vis-a-vis “Batman v Superman’s” box office success, and how critically-panned movies can still break records worldwide, but it’s another thing entirely to look at how we got to this place. Rolling Stone’s David Ehrlich examines the forces that allowed superhero movies to become too big to fail.

Audiences have long since come to understand that superhero movies, whatever their virtues, function as glorified advertisements for the next installment of their franchises — just as studios have come to understand that perpetually sustaining the inertia of hype is a better financial strategy than delivering a truly satisfying experience. You don’t have to see “Batman v Superman” (henceforth “BvS”) to know that its title is a farce — not even the film’s trailer has the nerve to pretend that the two most iconic figures of the DC universe are actually going to remain enemies for long. “Fight night!” is what Lex Luthor labels the brief and hilariously resolved clash of the titans, but since we’ve already been informed that these adversaries will be on the same side in the next movie, watching them go at it feels more like having front row seats to an all-star game. And ever since the “Age of Ultron” inaugurated the current phase in which caped crusaders are brawling with each other, it’s become clear that these heroes are throwing phantom punches. Nobody is playing to win. It’s just about putting on a good show for the cameras. One of the great joys of comics and graphic novels is that absolutely anything can happen — matched only by soap operas as Western culture’s most fluid narrative form, they can follow their bliss wherever it leads them, their stories flowing like river water. Superman famously died in the early Nineties, and was thereafter replaced by four different iterations. It doesn’t work like that in the movies. At all. Hollywood literally can’t afford to abide by the same rules. To paraphrase Peter Parker’s Uncle ben: “With great budgets comes great responsibility.” Superhero movies are too big to fail. Denied the flexibility that powers their source material, these films push around their characters like pieces on a chessboard, teasing endless variations and gambits yet only capable of moving in a finite number of directions. Nobody can die; in the rare case that they do, they’re resurrected shortly thereafter for a TV show. Nobody can fall in love, but distant stares and secret families are okay. Nobody can change; they can only have brief episodes of insanity. Lip service can be paid to ideas, and every ideological conflict ends in a stalemate. Characters can only be rebooted if they’re Trojan-horsed into a franchise already in progress (it’s the difference between “The Amazing Spider-Man” and the sleek new web-slinger who drops in to Marvel’s upcoming “Civil War”). The superhero genre isn’t a bubble, it’s a balloon that’s growing more transparent as it inflates to the breaking point. And “BvS” is nothing if not full of hot air.

2. Why “Friends” Is Still One of the Most Popular Shows on TV.
The 90s sitcom “Friends” lost exited pop culture’s zeitgeist after its cancellation, but now that it’s readily available on Netflix, a whole new generation has discovered the inanities of watching people sit around a coffee shop and emote. Vulture’s Adam Sternbergh examines why “Friends” has caught on with a whole new group of twenty-somethings.

“Friends” was not only born of that era but may, in hindsight, embody it more completely than any other TV show. Sexier than “Cheers,” less acerbic than “Seinfeld,” “Friends” existed at the sweet spot of populist mass entertainment and prescient pop escapism. If you were alive and sentient in the 1990s, you already understand this. In fact, if you were in, or near, your 20s back then and ever found yourself seated in a quirkily named coffee shop (e.g., Bean & Gone, Brewed Awakening, CU Latte) with a bunch of your own friends, you might have had the conversation: So, which Friend are you? But while “Friends” inarguably excavated the Zeitgeist, it was a very different geist, in a very different Zeit. For starters, the show’s run, from 1994 to 2004, corresponds almost exactly with that transformational decade when people went from signing up for this weird new thing called “email” to signing up for this weird new thing called “Facebook.” The world of “Friends” is ­notable, to modern eyes, for what it encompasses about being young and single and carefree in the city but also for what it doesn’t encompass: social media, smartphones, student debt, the sexual politics of Tinder, moving back in with your parents as a ­matter of course, and a national mood that vacillates between anxiety and defeatism. (Not to mention the absence of any primary characters on the show who aren’t straight or white.) Which is why you might expect that “Friends,” like similar cultural relics of that era, would be safely preserved in the cryogenic chamber of our collective nostalgia. And yet, astonishingly, the show is arguably as popular as it ever was — and it is popular with a cohort of young people who are only now discovering it. Which is weird. It’s one thing to be young, single, and carefree in the city and drawn to a show that purports to be a reflection of your life, or, at least, some fantasy of how you’d like your life to be. It’s quite another to be drawn to a show that’s a reflection, or a fantasy, of what life used to be like for a bunch of carefree 20-somethings 20 years ago. Because if the allure of the show is, on a basic level, all about wish-fulfillment, well, what exactly is the wish that’s currently being fulfilled?

3. “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” and the Search for Happiness.
The CW’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” has become one of the most critically acclaimed show on TV, with many praising its dynamic musical numbers, its boundless energy, and its surprising poignancy. NPR’s Linda Holmes examines the series and why it’s largely about how to find happiness in ordinary lives.

Rebecca isn’t actually unhappy because she moved to California to be with Josh, after all. She certainly doesn’t wish she’d stayed in New York. (The show has great fun with the idea that while her new friends may be tricky goofballs, her old co-workers are practically hell-born demons.) And she’s not unhappy because she doesn’t yet have another boyfriend. Rebecca has been most unhappy during the times when she has been so hyper-focused on her love life as the only lever that can move her interior world that she misses the fact that she’s creating a fresh family for herself in California including Greg and Paula and her boss Darryl (Pete Gardner), whose unexpected and funny story has picked up in recent weeks. She’s winning where she’s not looking. It’s as if Rebecca bought a dilapidated house so she could grow pineapples outside. And even though it turned out she couldn’t grow pineapples, she fixed up the house beautifully, only to spend all her time staring out the window and being sad about failing. (Hey — it’s a musical. Allow me my similes.) What originally looked like a story about a cringe-inducingly unwise pursuit has become a story about the fact that people play different roles in your life at different times. No relationship is devoid of context — that’s part of what “timing is everything” means. “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” has become a goofy, but often a quite touching, story about the ways we all meet each other imperfectly because we’re all so imperfect. Greg has his own hangups, Paula gives Rebecca perhaps too much of the encouragement she needs…everybody messes up, but everybody is important. In fact, you can look with your head tilted at times and see that Greg is getting from Rebecca some of what Rebecca gets from Josh — his attachment to her is partly about her but also partly about what he, as a frustrated sad sack, needs because of where he is. Rebecca is needy, but honestly, everybody is needy.

4. “Sucker Punch,” Zack Snyder, and the Illusion of Control.
To put it mildly, Zack Snyder’s work causes strong reactions from audiences. Many think he’s a misunderstood auteur, while others think he’s a hyperactive young man who’s too faithful to whatever source material he adapts and ends every one of his films with a CGI light show. Uproxx’s Charles Bramesco examines Snyder’s “Sucker Punch” on its fifth anniversary and how it presents the director with ideas he can’t control.

Much like “Spring Breakers” and “Pain and Gain’s” double-underlined pronouncements about the American Dream, “Sucker Punch’s” intended feminist subtext makes itself glaringly clear. A troubled young woman known as Babydoll (played by Emily Browning, her already doll-like features a good get from the production’s casting director) is remanded to a mental institution by her rapist stepfather after accidentally murdering her sister, where she awaits a frontal lobotomy. She then retreats into a fantasy realm in which she’s the newest charge at a strip club, where she is sexually violated again, this time by the sleazy proprietor (America’s newest sweetheart, Oscar Isaac), and held until she can be sold to an unseen “high-roller,” who will presumably sexually violate her some more. As a method of escapism from this method of escapism, she and a bombshell-squad of fellow strippers drift off into elaborate, heavily-CGI’d fantasy missions which will somehow enable them to escape the strip club, and then in turn, the mental asylum. The general outline of Snyder’s idea — that women tap into male fantasies in order to get what they really want, which could’ve offered a potent commentary on film acting as ugly livelihood — is abundantly obvious, and yet close inspection reveals that his expression of this notion makes no sense. Rosenberg’s first point about the impracticality of such skimpy fetish gear in the heat of battle is the thread upon which a critically-minded viewer tugs, revealing the whole of Snyder’s faulty ideological apparatus. Nagging questions creep through the film like kudzu: Why would Babydoll construct an elaborate escapist fantasy that’s worse than her actual plight? How are the magical totems they retrieve in their imaginary quests supposed to help them in the brothel, which isn’t even real, and then how does that translate to the asylum? And moreover, why should we care about any of this when the characters onscreen are little more than scantily-clad mannequins onto which Snyder heaps sexual punishment? This pseudo-feminist framework operates like a reverse Trojan Horse, wherein the promise of hidden Greek soldiers allows a tactical deviant to smuggle a gigantic wooden horse into the city walls. The answers to the film’s many unanswered questions all lie in Snyder’s commitment to propagating the same exploitative pleasures he would appear to subtextually denounce. The script has no real interest in the plight or well-being of Babydoll, or any of her colorfully named companions; they’re avatars which Snyder can upload to the video game-styled war zone of his choosing, whether that’s a feudal-era Japanese temple plagued by zombie samurai, World War I trenches beset by steampunk automatons, or the final set piece of “Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.”

5. Her Own Story: A Nora Ephron Appreciation.
It’s Women’s Writers Week at RogerEbert.com, so all of the pieces, reviews, and interviews will be written and conducted by women. Here’s one of the first pieces run during the week: Nell Minow writes an appreciation of Nora Ephron.

The Ephrons often entertained their friends, mostly other New York writers, and Nora grew up listening to complicated, challenging, witty — sometimes relentlessly witty — people. She remembered Dorothy Parker playing word games at her parents’ parties. Nora dreamed of being the Parker-esque queen of a new Algonquin Roundtable: “The only lady at the table. The woman who made her living by her wit.” The Ephrons did not hesitate to use each other’s lives as material. Even Nora’s son, Jacob Bernstein, produced a superb documentary about his mother, which is of course titled “Everything is Copy.” It tells the story of Nora’s sister Delia putting her head through the bannister rails in their house, so that the fire department had to come and get her out. The Ephrons made that into an incident in a James Stewart film they wrote called “The Jackpot.” “My parents just took it and recycled it, just like that,” Nora says in the film. Later, Nora’s letters home from college inspired her parents to write a successful play called “Take Her, She’s Mine,” which became a movie starring Sandra Dee as a free-spirited (for 1963) daughter and James Stewart as the lawyer father who tries to keep her out of trouble. Phoebe and Henry were not the kind of parents who came to their children’s school events or comforted them reassuringly. Phoebe would respond to her daughters’ stories of heartbreak or disappointment by telling them it was all material for them to write about. She had a biting humor, sometimes at her daughters’ expense. But the Ephrons taught their daughters how to tell stories, especially their own stories. After college, Nora went to New York to work as a “mail girl” for “Time” magazine. News magazines of that era did not allow women to write bylined articles; the most they could expect was to be researchers for the male journalists. The fictionalized but fact-based Amazon series “Good Girls Revolt” depicts the experiences of the women who fought this system, and it includes a character named Nora Ephron, played by Grace Gummer. Nora was in the right time and place when two great upheavals came together in the 1970’s: the feminist movement and the arrival of “new journalism” — vital, opinionated, very personal writing that powered popular and influential magazines like Clay Felker’s “New York Magazine.” This was the perfect place for her distinctive, confiding voice. Her essays were deceptively self-deprecatory—her first collection was called “Wallflower at the Orgy” and one of her best-known pieces describes her insecurity about having small breasts. But Nora’s columns, especially the series about women collected in “Crazy Salad” and the series about media in “Scribble Scribble,” are fierce, confident, devastating takedowns of those she found pretentious, hypocritical, or smug, including her former boss at the “New York Post” and the President’s daughter, whom she described as “a chocolate-covered spider.”

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