Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.
1. How an Entertainment Weekly Critic Came to Help Write Disney’s “Tomorrowland”. Jeff Jensen had written about movies as a critic for years, so when Jenson was invited to lunch by Damon Lindelof, he thought it was for a big scoop. Instead, Lindelof had something else in mind. Over at EW, Jeff Jensen tells the story of how he contributed to Brad Bird’s “Tomorrowland.”
One of my favorite memories was a writers’ retreat at Lucasfilm’s Skywalker Ranch. Here, many ideas were tested and discarded. One that stuck: a fight sequence set inside a comic-book store involving a weapon that froze time. It would be an intricate action ballet full of character, comedy, and real peril. Listening to Brad talk through and act out how he’d direct it was thrilling. I was watching “Tomorrowland” become a Brad Bird film right before my eyes. While Brad was finishing the script with Damon, he was also working with a team of artists to imagine what our city of the future could look like. I remember seeing their work for the first time. I was supposed to give notes, but I was struck speechless. Damon recognized the look. “Sh-t just got real, didn’t it?” he said.
2. Marvel’s Female Superhero Renaissance. Though the Marvel desperately needs more female superheroes for their feature films, but the comics are already catching up. Vulture’s Claire Landsbaum traces the history of women in comics and how Marvel’s succeeding now with a diverse lineup than ever before.
From the 1930s to the 1950s, comics were sold at drugstores, in grocery-store checkout lines, and at gas stations; in short, they were much easier to find than they are today. But their “golden age” ended in 1954, when psychiatrist Dr. Fredric Wertham published “Seduction of the Innocent,” a book in which he argued that comics — specifically the romance, thriller, and mystery genres — were corrupting young readers. (It was recently discovered that Wertham faked a great deal of his research.) Wertham’s testimony led to the establishment of the Comics Code Authority, a self-censoring group formed by comics publishers, which closed countless publications and forced many of its boldest creators out of work. This stigma meant comics were harder to find in public areas, and comics sellers earned a reputation (somewhat deserved) as seedy men in seedy, hard-to-find shops, hawking their collections out of cardboard boxes. Publishers emphasized superhero comics because they were among few genres not deemed “harmful” by Wertham. However, the superhero genre was dominated by male creators, and therefore male characters.
3. A Week of Goodbyes: Mourning Pop Culture Death and Actual Death. During this past week, we’ve seen the end of “Mad Men,” the final appearance of David Letterman on late night television, and the unfortunate death of blues legend B.B. King. Though obviously those endings don’t carry the same weight, it’s interesting to track how we mourn pop culture and people. The Boston Globe’s Ty Burr explores the various ways we mourn cultural fixtures.
So we celebrate pop-culture death and mourn actual death, and I wonder whether it shouldn’t be the other way around — whether we shouldn’t grieve for the passing of pop moments and celebrate a life well lived. B.B. King was one of the greatest of American success stories, a sharecropper’s son abandoned by his parents, who grew up black and poor in the Jim Crow South, and who crossed the finish line with 15 Grammys, an honorary doctorate from Yale, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He was one of the nicest guys in show business, he played almost until the end, and he died in his own bed at a ripe old age.
4. How Amy Schumer Became This Generation’s Latest Truth-Teller. With the runaway success of “Inside Amy Schumer” and the upcoming release of Judd Apatow’s “Trainwreck,” Amy Schumer is having a phenomenal year. The Village Voice’s Inkoo Kang argues that Amy Schumer has elevated herself to that coveted position every comedian desires: truth-teller.
Through funny and frank appraisals of everyday sexism, Schumer has become comedy’s latest truth-teller, a rightly romanticized role that elevates comedy as an art form and allows the performer who takes up that mantle — and can keep it — to define his or her generation. In the past few weeks, Schumer has taken over truth-telling duties from Louis C.K., who of course has predecessors in Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle, Fey, Sandra Bernhard, and Janeane Garofalo, as well as Bill Hicks, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and Lenny Bruce before them. Once in a while, a cultural commentator, usually during election season, will express dismay that some of our most trenchant pop-political commentary comes from a Jon Stewart or a Stephen Colbert. But comedians have occupied the truth-telling role since the days when court jesters were the only people who could voice criticisms of the king to his face — as long as the dagger was cloaked in a joke — and not have their heads lopped off for it.
5. In Praise of Average, or Why It’s Necessary To Recognize Stuff That’s Just OK. The unanimous critical praise of “Mad Max: Fury Road” has sparked a lot of conversation about the benefits and dangers of critical hyperbole. Over at the Salt Lake City Weekly, Scott Renshaw explains the importance of recognizing “average” work and why we don’t always have to fall back on extreme responses.
It’s a brutal, depressing scenario, since — as cable news has proven over and over again — there’s no economic incentive to talk about anything except as Greatest Thing Ever or Harbinger of the End of All That is Good and True. But critics need to aim for something better, and that starts with recognizing the value of the point at the top of the normal curve. We all might have a different definition of what “average” is, but it exists for all of us, and it matters as a baseline for recognizing truly exceptional works of art — even if it’s “just” popular art. And by extension, it matters as a baseline for understanding the things in life that are truly consequential, as opposed to the stuff that someone is trying to convince you is earth-shattering, when it’s barely earth-nudging. Writing about mediocrity is hard — far less rewarding than writing about greatness and less amusing than writing about awfulness — but it’s important work. We can teach people that it’s OK to think something is just OK.
6. A Friendly Reminder That “The Shield” Had The Best Final Episode Ever. With “Mad Men” ending last Sunday, critics and audiences alike have been reminiscing about their favorite series finales. But many seem to be leaving out an important one that’s faded from memory in recent years. Grantland’s Steven Hyden reminds the world of “The Shield’s” fantastic final episode.
Three months after “The Shield” premiered, another show about complicated cops started airing on HBO. We all know what “The Wire” became, but for a few years, “The Shield” was better known and more celebrated. A decade ago, “The Shield” was routinely mentioned among the best TV dramas, along with shows like “Deadwood,” “Six Feet Under,” and “The West Wing” that over time have been similarly relegated by critics to TV history’s junior varsity squad. (Meanwhile, 20th-century phenomena like “Hill Street Blues,” “L.A. Law,” and “NYPD Blue” might as well no longer exist.) For those inclined to compare “The Shield” to “The Wire,” the latter’s elegant storytelling style and progressive politics jibes better with the tastes of the modern TV aesthete than does the gritty grindcore of “The Shield, with its screaming nu-metal theme song and coterie of macho character actors who bust heads and ask questions later. But what I think really diminished “The Shield” in the view of history was the emergence of “Breaking Bad,” the most action-oriented of modern TV’s four-sided A-list canon (with “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” and “Mad Men”). Like “Breaking Bad,” the drama on “The Shield” usually hinged on putting the protagonist in an impossible situation and then watching him squirm his way out. For Mackey, this mainly involved slipping out of IAD investigations into his various crimes, the most egregious of which was committed at the end of the pilot episode. What elevated “The Shield” (and “Breaking Bad”) beyond standard genre fare was the acting, the cinema-level quality of the filmmaking, and the writing, which infused Greek tragedy into the barrage of shootouts and screaming matches.
Tweet of the Day:
Every time I deliver a script to a studio, I always catch a mistake. Like a typo, or the fact that this movie has no superheroes.
— John August (@johnaugust) May 22, 2015