Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.
1. Why “Supergirl” Is a Better Superman Story Than “Batman v Superman.” The new CBS series “Supergirl” debuted to modest critical acclaim and solid ratings, but over time has caught on with even more critics with its admirable worldview and positive outlook. For Variety, Abraham Reisman explores “Supergirl,” and why its outlook makes it a better Superman story than “Batman v Superman.”
CBS’s “Supergirl” and last weekend’s tentpole movie “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” may share their roots in DC Comics, but they couldn’t be more different in their worldviews. The former is all sunshine, bright colors, and optimism; the latter is funereal, colorless, and ultraviolent. After seeing the Zack Snyder–directed “Batman v Superman” and, like most critics, disliking it, I rewatched the past two episodes of “Supergirl” as a much-needed palate cleanser. One scene from its March 14 installment — a scene that hadn’t had an effect on me when I’d watched it the previous week — suddenly gave me goosebumps. It more or less captured everything that’s missing from Snyder’s approach to superhero fiction. Indeed, by sheer coincidence, it felt like a total rebuke of “Batman v Superman’s” grim philosophy. The episode revolved around Supergirl’s exposure to a mind-altering mineral called Red Kryptonite. Under its influence, all of her angriest thoughts come to the forefront of her mind, causing the usually pleasant Woman of Steel to become cynical and violent, convinced that, in a cruel world, the ends justify the means. In other words, the Red Kryptonite–infected Supergirl was sounding a lot like Snyder’s interpretations of Batman and Superman. The scene in question comes about halfway through the episode and features Melissa Benoist’s Supergirl and Calista Flockhart’s journalism mogul Cat Grant. “You branded me in the media as a Girl Scout,” our accidental antiheroine says, referring to Cat’s past support of the Woman of Steel. “‘Supergirl is brave, kind, and strong.’ Isn’t that kind of a stock characterization? Very two-dimensional. Everyone knows real people have a dark side.” Cat’s retort is terse and pithy: “Yes, but you don’t get to be a real person. You’re a superhero. You get to represent all the goodness in the world.” I’m on #TeamCat here. We tell superhero stories to meditate on power; more specifically, on the proper ways all of us should use whatever power we have in our lives. Good Superman stories argue that all of us have innate power — call it privilege, if you want to use current parlance — and that we’re obligated to use it generously, helping and inspiring those around us. Superman doesn’t get the luxury of cynicism and wanton violence, because if he loses his focus on improving every human life, he could cause immense collateral damage. In this regard, the past couple episodes of “Supergirl” are far more compelling and heartfelt Superman stories than the one in movie theaters this week.
2. The Success of “Batman v Superman” Has No Impact on Criticism. If you’ve been hiding under a rock somewhere, you may have missed the brouhaha over the new superhero film “Batman v Superman.” In short, critics mostly disliked the film, fans loved the film despite many having seen it, movie made a bunch of money, and now critics “don’t matter” anymore. Slate’s Laura Miller examines why the success of “Batman v Superman” doesn’t matter to criticism by responding to a Variety article.
[Variety writer Brent] Lang also quotes Jeff Goldstein, an exec at “Batman v Superman” studio Warner Bros., remarking on “a real disconnect with what some critics wrote and how the fans are enjoying the film.” But that’s studio puffery. Of course some fans enjoyed the film. But in fact the average Rotten Tomato audience rating for “Batman v Superman” has been decreasing since it was released, and the site is fizzing with well-articulated takedowns written by people not employed by glossy magazines or major metropolitan dailies. Each of those disgruntled moviegoers bought a ticket, and paid exactly as much for it as any Kool-Aid-quaffing DC disciple. “Variety” treats every dollar they spent on “Batman v Superman” as an endorsement. But all these box office numbers demonstrate is that audiences are willing to take a chance on well-marketed franchise movies that critics deplore — and given how far in advance tickets for blockbusters go on sale, a good chunk of “Batman v Superman’s” weekend gross came from filmgoers who hadn’t read any reviews at all. But the dumbest aspect of the “Variety” piece is its insistence on treating the success of “Batman v Superman” as a “devastating” rout for the critics who hated it. “Instead of serving as box office kryptonite,” Lang writes, reviewers were forced to watch “helplessly” as the ticket sales racked up. Critics wanted to “kill” “Batman v Superman,” he believes. And the critics, those elitist would-be supervillains, were thwarted! Not so fast. I’ve never met a critic who wanted to “kill” any work, or who truly expected their harsh review to significantly impact the success of a mass-market product like “Batman v Superman.” We know the limits of our power, which is modest indeed. Sometimes, of course, critics hate a chart-topper, but the negative reviews we write in response are meant as a cry in the wilderness, an attempt to speak for and draw together all the far-flung dissenters and grapple with a work whose overwhelming success we hope to understand. Because here’s the thing: Every critic knows that the person most eager to read your take is the person who’s already seen the film, watched the TV series, read the book. They come to you not for consumer advice, but for company and (to use Scott’s favorite metaphor) conversation. They want to compare notes. They hope you can explain why they found the work so profound or so stylish or so ridiculous. Sure, sometimes we critics try to drum up enthusiasm for an overlooked jewel, but it’s much harder to interest readers when they haven’t already invested time in the work.
3. Can The New Wave of Faith-Based Filmmaking Transcend Propaganda? Though the secular moviegoing public may not have noticed, there’s a whole new wave of faith-based films being produced by production houses like Pure Flix Entertainment and Sony’s Affirm Films. But can these films transcend propaganda and truly preach the gospel. The A.V. Club’s Randall Colburn examines the recent trend to find out.
“Miracles From Heaven” and “Heaven Is For Real,” for example, aren’t content to be moving stories about parents using faith as a way to cope with their children’s illness. Rather, the emphasis is placed on validating the children’s respective visions of Christ and the reality that a Christian heaven exists. “God’s Not Dead” anchors its myriad storylines on a college student who tries to convince his philosophy class that God exists; his arguments are apparently so persuasive that they sway his staunchly atheist professor to give his life to Christ when on the verge of death. The common thread coursing through the new wave of successful faith-based cinema is that they’re less concerned with exploring faith’s power in the life of the individual than they are in asserting Christianity as an inarguable truth and the solitary path to salvation. A similar lack of nuance can be found in their politics, which often paint evangelicals as crusading martyrs. 2012’s “October Baby,” for example, argues against abortion in the most tone deaf way possible, while Daniel Lusko’s 2014 film “Persecuted” pushes the martyr trope to its extreme by having the U.S. government frame an evangelist for rape and murder after he publicly opposes anti-Christian legislation. That Christians are an oppressed culture in modern society is fertile ground for evangelical filmmakers — this idea forms the spine of “God’s Not Dead,” as well as Kirk Cameron films like “Saving Christmas” and “Unstoppable.” This week, “God’s Not Dead 2” will tell the story of a Christian teacher who’s taken to court for quoting the Bible in her classroom. The movie could be a layered exploration of faith and the academic system. But if the trailer’s any indication, it just looks like more “us against them” proselytizing. “We’re going to prove, once and for all, that God is dead,” declares a sneering Ray Wise. All of this is, like any piece of propaganda, as troubling as it is alienating. As much as Christian producers and filmmakers speak of their films as a form of evangelism, their movies more often than not operate on a path of logic that’s completely foreign to non-believers. In films like “Miracles From Heaven,” “Catching Faith,” and “War Room,” the characters presented as the most level-headed are the ones who tell characters to pray and “have faith.” “War Room,” in particular, builds an entire philosophy around the idea of being a “prayer warrior,” something that, as “The A.V. Club’s” Vadim Rizov noted in his review, is both “oddly specific and totally vague about [its] larger theology… presuming (correctly) that the target audience is already familiar with it.” Just as limiting as this coded language is the moral strongholds of these films, which rarely allow their characters any kind of relatable transgressions. In “War Room” and “Left Behind,” sinful characters don’t cheat on their spouse, they merely consider it. Kirk Cameron’s protagonist in Kendrick’s “Fireproof” apparently has a crippling porn addiction, but the movie’s idea of porn is nothing more than an innocuous pop-up ad. In “Catching Faith,” a teenager getting drunk is spoken of in hushed, mournful tones. This is filmmaking as ministry, not outreach.
4. Ethan Hawke on How Music Shaped His Film Career. Ethan Hawke stars in the new Chet Baker biopic “Born To Be Blue” and follows Baker as he mounts a comeback after a serious of personal and psychological setbacks. Pitchfork’s Ron Hart sits down with Hawke to discuss how music shaped his film career.
Pitchfork: The 1988 Chet Baker documentary “Let’s Get Lost” helped introduce a new generation to Baker. Were you among them?
Ethan Hawke: That movie came out the year I graduated high school. I didn’t really know anything about jazz at the time, but I saw that movie when it came out anyway. I think it was because he was in the news because he had just died. It was films like “Let’s Get Lost,” “Round Midnight,” “Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser,” “Bird” [about Charlie Parker] that were my first entry points into jazz. They really taught you about the music and got you thinking about it. With regards to Chet, I really found him just so odd and mysterious and hypnotizing in a strange way. He was a real rock star.
Pitchfork: You can hear Baker’s vibe throughout some of rock’s more romantic undertones, especially Britpop.
EH: Right? Like would there be a Morrissey without a Chet Baker? It’s a good question. And to do that with a horn, it’s just so interesting. He was so interesting, particularly during that William Claxton era, he was like Baudelaire as a jazz musician.
Pitchfork: His singing voice also played a key role in differentiating him.
EH: What I find most interesting about his singing was that the real jazz elite at the time really looked down on his singing and mocked it and used it as a reason not to take him seriously. But time has been such an interesting ally for Chet Baker. His vocal records still sell; it’s not an intellectual decision. His singing, while maybe not as conventionally beautiful as people wanted it to be, conveys emotion and it’s powerful and it has meaning to it. Those guys back then were wrong about how to define jazz in that way. There’s a great jazz critic who said of Chet, “He’s not really someone singing, he’s the memory of someone singing.” I thought that was really articulate and I totally agree with it.
5. Patty Duke: 1946-2016. Yesterday, the film community suffered a devastating loss with the death of actress Patty Duke. At RogerEbert.com, Susan Wloszczyna pays tribute to Duke, and discusses her relationship with the actress from her childhood to adulthood.
Like many in this still-young year, I have mourned the too-soon passing of such incredible talents as David Bowie, Alan Rickman and Garry Shandling. But, for me, Tuesday’s news of the death of Patty Duke at age 69 from sepsis after suffering a ruptured intestine hit me especially hard. Her passing represents the loss of a treasured part of my childhood, one that taught me about the magic of cinema, its power to both move us and allow us to step into another person’s shoes, trying their life on for size. As a grade-schooler in the early ’60s, I had seen more than my share of Disney films and animated films. As kid fantasies went, they kept me thoroughly entertained. But Kevin Corcoran as Toby Tyler was not exactly Olivier-level acting. But one day, as I was flipping through a copy of “Look” magazine, I spied a glossy pictorial on the making of the 1962 movie version of “The Miracle Worker.” There was a photo of Helen Keller, the deaf and blind woman who triumphantly overcame her disabilities and became an inspirational positive force and motivational influence upon the world, and a young actress named Patty Duke who played her as a girl both on the Broadway stage and on the big screen. I was transfixed by the image. There was something so wonderfully profound in the connection shared between Keller and Duke that was reflected in their mutually admiring smiles as they touched hands. I became obsessed with both of them, but primarily this teen performer who appeared far wiser than her years. I didn’t get to actually see “The Miracle Worker” — for which Duke won an Oscar at age 16 for Best Supporting Actress, the youngest person to claim a competitive Academy Award at that time — until it finally aired on TV. I spent the evening with my brother in a New York City hotel room while my parents went out to dinner, my eyes riveted to the black-and-white images before me of a feral-like child violently tussling with her sight-impaired teacher Annie Sullivan (Anne Bancroft, who would win a lead Oscar) as she struggled to teach her how to communicate. Among the more memorable moments was an extended dinner table interlude between the two that still makes the hair on my arms tingle. Sullivan violently wrestles with a wildly thrashing Helen while forcing her to sit and eat at a table instead of indulging her habit of grabbing food from other people’s plates and shoving it into her mouth. This electrifying battle of wills went on for eight or so minutes and taught me there was more to acting than “The Wonderful World of Disney.”
Tweet of the Day:
For critics, there really is functionally no difference anymore between reviewing a superhero film and reviewing a Bible movie.
— Matt Zoller Seitz (@mattzollerseitz) March 29, 2016