Daily Reads: On the Self-Serious Superhero Industrial Complex, How Science Became Steven Soderbergh’s New Muse, and More

Daily Reads: On the Self-Serious Superhero Industrial Complex, How Science Became Steven Soderbergh's New Muse, and More
Daily Reads: On the Self-Serious Superhero Industrial Complex, How Science Became Steven Soderbergh's New Muse, and More
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Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.

1. On the Self-Serious Superhero Industrial Complex.
If there’s one thing that fans and critics alike can agree on about the latest Zack Snyder film “Batman v Superman,” it’s that it’s a Very Serious Movie about Very Serious Issues. If there’s one thing that fans and critics alike can agree on about “Deadpool,” the new Ryan Reynolds superhero vehicle, it’s that it’s a Very Silly Movie making fun of Very Serious Superhero Movies. The New York Times’ Wesley Morris examines the Superhero Industrial Complex and diagnoses that “Batman v Superman” is the problem and “Deadpool” is one of the solutions.

Like a lot of people last weekend, I spent some time catching up with “Batman vSuperman: Dawn of Justice.” When it was over, I, too, was overcome with the urge to brood, mope and cultivate stubble I could ponderously stroke while asking, “What’s the most ridiculous thing about this movie?” Maybe it’s that a fight between Batman and Superman is fundamentally illogical. (Uh, he’s super, man.) Maybe it’s that the fights are treated with onerous seriousness by real scientists, journalists, cable-news bigmouths and sitting senators. (You, Patrick Leahy? Again?) Maybe it’s that Shostakovich fugue on the soundtrack — Shostakovich! Or maybe it’s the persecution and martyring and pietà-cradling and resurrection done to, and by, a certain Man of Steel — and just in time for Easter weekend! Yes, all that. But what’s really most ridiculous about “Batman v Superman” is its lugubrious solemnity and generic philosophizing. The movie is debating moral absolutism. It’s trying to locate the line between superheroism and nihilism, between virtue and vice, between being good and being a psycho. But those lines were found in early February. They ran straight through “Deadpool,” the scuzziest of this recent rash of comic-book adaptations and one of the year’s most popular films. Where “Batman v Superman” weighs a desperate ton, “Deadpool” mocks that weight. Its opening credits announce, for instance, that it was directed by “an Overpaid Tool,” which the finished product does little to dispute. In Ryan Reynolds, it has a leading man playing a salty mercenary whose face, body and vanity are so badly disfigured that his costume disguises both who and what he thinks he is: ugly. It’s a get-up that lands somewhere between Spider-Man and the Gimp’s S-and-M outfit in “Pulp Fiction.” But where brooding over misfortune typifies this world, Deadpool prattles through action sequences. He prances. Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne tinkers over state-of-the-art gadgetry with his manservant Alfred (Jeremy Irons), while Deadpool and his roommate — a blind black woman (Leslie Uggams) — trade insults and commiserate over the shoddiness of Ikea furniture. This is to say that “Deadpool” is the most insolent example of where the comic-book movie has been headed: anti-serious, acutely aware of its genre’s clichés, arguably satirical, increasingly repulsed by self-consecration and committed to fun. “Batman v Superman” is the sort of movie “Deadpool” is pantsing. So is a series like the “X-Men,” of which “Deadpool” is a spiked offshoot. A great deal of “Batman” revolves around the moral propriety of a great, big public statue of Superman that wouldn’t be out of place on the cover of an Ayn Rand novel. You want to commend this movie’s stabs at thoughtfulness. But it’s stabbing with a spork. At some point you have to laugh.

2. How Science Became Steven Soderbergh’s Muse.
Despite his announced “retirement,” Steven Soderbergh never really left the spotlight, instead he just shifted its direction. He’s directed every episode of the Cinemax series “The Knick” and is executive producing the latest Starz series “The Girlfriend Experience.” For STAT, Dylan Scott profiles the veteran director and explores how medicine became his latest muse.

The director colorfully describes this fascination with medicine as “a psychological cicada that’s now emerging.” Looking over his resume, it seems to have been gestating for a long time. Soderbergh came to prominence with the 1989 independent film “sex, lies, and videotape.” In 1996, he directed “Gray’s Anatomy,” in which the monologist Spalding Gray describes his neuroses and his trials with alternative treatment after being diagnosed with an eye condition. “Erin Brockovich,” released in 2000, centered on the devastating health effects seen in a small town polluted by a nearby factory. “Traffic,” for which he won Best Director at the 2001 Academy Awards, is concerned as much with addiction as the law enforcement side of the drug war. Tis recent streak of medical projects was catalyzed by another scientifically minded artist: screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, who wrote the 2009 Soderbergh film, “The Informant!” a dark comedy about a corporate whistleblower that is also a stealthy examination of bipolar disorder. Both of Burns’s parents were psychologists, and his father was a researcher who worked for a time on the space program. He grew up immersed in science, spending hours looking through his telescope, and said he became attached to the empirical method. Burns told Soderbergh on a flight that he had always wanted to do a pandemic film and make it “incredibly realistic.” Soderbergh was sold. “Almost invariably, the reality of what’s going on is more interesting than anything you could invent,” he said. He and “The Knick” creators found the same to be true while bringing to life New York City’s Knickerbocker Hospital in 1900. The Cinemax show debuted in 2014 and has run two 10-part seasons, winning a Peabody Award. Soderbergh directed every episode himself. The show was created by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler, and had its genesis in Begler’s own health problem, an unspecified digestive issue that he says has since improved. “I think what it was: I was so depressed at points,” Begler said in an interview. So he started researching medical history, thinking: “All right, let me make myself feel better. If I lived 100 years ago, I at least wouldn’t be this far in terms of what I can do for myself.” He shared his insights with his longtime writing partner Amiel and the duo soon bought reams of medical history books off eBay, spending hours studying the material. It was an unexpected turn for writers who had previously worked on sitcoms and romantic comedies. “That just ignited something that I think we both didn’t realize was inside us,” Begler said. “I love stories about explorers…There’s something about the life of an explorer that really talks to me. Well, medicine back in the 1900s, these guys were explorers.”

3. “Terriers'” Perfect One-Season Run Defied Description and Marketability.
Six years ago, a show called “Terriers” premiered on FX to little or no fanfare. It’s a familiar story: Despite critical acclaim, it was cancelled after one season because of low ratings, but it has gained a strong cult following. For The A.V. Club’s One-Season Wonders, Weirdos, and Wannabes column, Phil McCausland examines “Terriers'” perfect debut season.

It’s best to call “Terriers” neo-noir. Slightly ahead of its time, the series created an entrance into the genre for audiences who would later came to love the darkness of “True Detective,” or the emotional-yet-comic “Fargo.” “Terriers” was the first in a recent wave of crime shows that explore more than the crime: Beyond the surreal interpretation of film noir found in “Twin Peaks” and a few other short-lived exceptions, broadcasters have largely stuck to the belief that the procedural sates America’s hunger for crime drama, and were unwilling to experiment with longer narratives. But while viewers love watching lawbreakers get thrown in the slammer at the end of each episode, the neo-noir shows of the 2010s prove that they also love tough-to-solve mysteries, unattractive and gritty antiheroes who can crack wise, and ancillary characters who carry hopelessness and cynical outlooks like a badge. It’s not about solving the case or creating a better world, but displaying the mesmerizing complexities of the interior life. “Terriers” accomplished all of that in 13 episodes, but its failure stems from an audience who wasn’t ready for it and didn’t understand it. “Veronica Mars” kept neo-noir on the air in the mid-’00s, but it lacked a certain edge. It’s an excellent show that tackles a number of mature topics — rape, murder, kidnapping, etc. — but its characters still had a shot at reaching maturity. “Terriers” shows characters stripped of that opportunity. Griffin asks us to follow divorced, alcoholic, disgraced former cop Hank Dolworth (Donal Logue) and his P.I. partner, best friend, and ex-con Britt Pollack (Michael Raymond-James) and explore San Diego through the lens of an Ocean Beach townie. It doesn’t take long to realize that these men are socially buffoonish, masochistic, whip-smart investigators who will never be happy. In the first episode, Hank buys the house he lived in with his ex-wife, who he still loves, as a sort of perpetual torture device. Britt appears to have pulled his life together, but in the show’s finale he earns a two-year prison sentence for assaulting a man he thought slept with his fiancée. And though they’re sympathetic, they’re never right or worthy of the trust of their loved ones. Hank certainly cares for his wife, but as she tells him in the first episode, his “life bounces” just like his alimony checks. Britt, meanwhile, nearly pummels a guy to death with a gleeful vengeance. The characters surrounding these two men show the normalcy Hank and Britt could’ve had if they were given the chance. But there’s a sense of destiny to their loneliness, especially after they dispose of the body of a man they accidentally helped kill. “Terriers” is almost as if noir writer Charles Willeford did television, or it’s a story from the old book list of publisher Black Lizard Books. The crime itself is peripheral to the characters and their relationships.

4. How “Horace and Pete” Made the Network Suits Look Good.
We at Criticwire have published more than a couple pieces about the great, fascinating experimental web drama “Horace and Pete” created, written, directed, and starring Louis C.K. Though many critics have liked it, it’s obviously not everyone’s particular cup of tea. The New York Times’ Jason Zinoman argues that the series makes network suits look good.

“Horace and Pete” takes place primarily in a bar run by the title characters, played by Louis C.K. and Steve Buscemi. Shot like the filmed plays on “Playhouse 90” and other acclaimed midcentury anthology series, the show had weighty themes belonging to the mid-20th-century tradition of Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller; it examined ways that the past haunts the present, as well as the dangers of delusion and a repressed id. In this series, Louis C.K. fuses this golden-age-of-Broadway drama with our contemporary theater, since its moody, lingering silences owe a debt to the playwright Annie Baker (she is thanked in the credits), and the most thrilling moments are because of its cast, which includes an all-star team of stage actresses: Rebecca Hall, Nina Arianda, Edie Falco, Laurie Metcalf, Karen Pittman, Maria Dizzia and Jessica Lange. To see them is reason enough to buy the series. (Ms. Metcalf’s epic monologue in Episode 3 is not to be missed.) The bar Horace and Pete run has been around for a century, and in the first episode, Horace’s sister, Sylvia (Ms. Falco), arrives with her lawyer, looking to sell it. Her lawyer orders a drink. “That’s the most incredible whiskey I’ve ever tasted,” he says after tossing back the shot glass. “It’s like drinking time.” It’s a clumsy line, a mock-poetic flourish that doesn’t suit this character. It would be petty to single out this misstep if this series were not packed with them. Far too often, a stand-up comic voice jarringly interrupts the melancholy drama, whether through jargon (“I bombed”) or in the distinctive cadences spoken by one of the many comics cast in the show. That distinctive stand-up rhythm takes the viewer out of the series and into the comedy club. (An exception is Kurt Metzger, in a committed performance.) The show is also filled with indulgent tangents, like David Blaine’s showing up and doing a magic trick, or a character’s confessing to having murdered his wife, a nod to “The Iceman Cometh” but not much else. When the show shifts into broad comedy, it can lean on tired tropes, like a woman suffering from Tourette’s syndrome and loudly cursing. The formal looseness that makes Louis C.K.’s stand-up and his FX series so pleasingly unpredictable undercuts the gravitas of this show’s subject matter, which jumps from stories of suicide to abuse, racism and cancer. Mr. O’Neill and Ms. Baker tackle tragedies great and small by gradually enveloping their audiences in their cohesive worlds. Louis C.K. has more of a kitchen sink approach, tossing disparate styles, a jumble of plotlines and a few winks at the audience that take us out of the scene, making little effort to integrate the comic banter and the dramatic heavy lifting.

5. “Everybody Wants Some!!” Is Richard Linklater’s Most Autobiographical Movie.
The new Richard Linklater film “Everybody Wants Some!!” follows a group of college baseball athletes as they drink, flirt, and hang out in the weekend before classes start. A former college baseball player himself, Linklater knows a thing or two about the film’s material. For BKMag, Jesse Hassenger explores how “Everybody Wants Some!!” is Linklater’s most autobiographical movie.

“Everybody” may offer certain somebodies a jolt with its jock sympathies, especially for anybody who always kind of assumed that Ethan Hawke represented the on-screen version of Linklater. Of course, it can be two things, as the comment-thread meme goes. In general, Linklater has always extended empathy to most of his characters; his movies contain few outright villains (even the worst of “Boyhood’s” succession of bad dads are more pathetic, albeit sometimes scary, than truly evil). Two of his earliest films, “Slacker” and “Dazed and Confused,” follow dozens of characters, and the film seems to have affection for all of them. It was easy enough to assume, though, that Linklater most identified with the underdog freshmen of “Dazed,” not the bullying jocks or mean girls. “Everybody Wants Some!!” has an ensemble nearly the size of “Dazed,” and a similarly limited timeframe, but aside from glimpses of the drama clique via love interest Beverly (Zoey Deutch, the only female character with any dimension), the movie immerses itself in one group. And Linklater makes hanging out with this group of knuckleheaded jocks a delightful experience. Maybe this doesn’t sound so miraculous outside of nerd-skewing film critic circles, but as jock-friendly as American culture can be, there aren’t that many movies that really dig into it, especially outside of those that trade on some kind of mythically heroic sports team (even in those cases, there are often token dummies and/or assholes). “Everybody Wants Some!!” does include one long baseball sequence, but it’s set at a coach-free practice, where egos and joshing dominate, freed as the team is from any serious outside competition. Linklater clearly knows this world well, which may be why the movie reminded me of “Super Troopers,” of all things, a broad comedy (soon to be sequelized) from 2002 made by bro-ish comedy collective Broken Lizard (formed at a college, of course). The aims are different (Linklater isn’t a gag man, though this movie is quite funny), but the shorthand feels similar. The group’s endless mixture of bravado, immaturity, and insecurity gives off a kind of beer-free intoxication that somehow avoids glamorizing all of the debauchery. Few of the movie’s characters would be immediately described as “gentle,” yet there is a gentleness to the movie itself.

6. Group Therapy: “Only Angels Have Wings.”
The Criterion Collection recently released Howard Hawks’ “Only Angels Have Wings,” one of the very best Hollywood movies of all time, spawning many critical assessments of the movie. On TCM’s Movie Morlocks blog, R. Emmet Sweeney examines the Hawks film in depth.

“Only Angels Have Wings” keeps growing stranger with age. This studio-era classic is about a group of nihilist flyboys who enact their dreams of self-destruction out of an imaginary South American cabana. Howard Hawks insisted on the film’s realism, as he based it on the stories of some ragged pilots he met in Mexico, but the movie is as realistic as the “Star Wars” cantina. The invented port town of Barranca is pure Hawks country, an extension of the death-driven pilots he depicted in “The Dawn Patrol,” “Ceiling Zero,” and “The Road to Glory.” Revisiting “Only Angels Have Wings” in the new DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection (out today), one is struck by the sheer lunacy of the fliers, ready to sacrifice their lives for the chance to deliver the mail. “Only Angels Have Wings” pushes Hawks’ love of professionalism to the extreme – death is a natural part of the job, and beyond just accepting it, they seem to embrace it. In “Only Angels Have Wings,” to work is to die, and these jokey nihilists, including the the female interlopers who are integrated into this group – cheerily embrace the void. When film critic Robin Wood was diagnosed with a perforated intestine and was told he might not survive the subsequent surgery, “what immediately came into my mind was the work of Howard Hawks and specifically the way his heroes confront death (actually, in ‘Only Angels Have Wings,’ and potentially in ‘Rio Bravo,’ where only one minor sympathetic character gets killed). I felt completely calm, and like to think I was smiling (though I probably wasn’t).” “Only Angels Have Wings” confronts death early on, when the flirtatious pilot Joe Souther (Noah Beery Jr.) crashes on his return from a mail run, rushing to make a date with traveling musician Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur). Bonnie is shocked to discover that the mail crew boss Geoff Carter (Cary Grant) and his team do not mourn but instead carouse at the bar. When Bonnie asks them how they could be so crass after Souther’s death, Geoff replies, “Who’s Joe?” His job is over so they wipe away his identity. They are not heartless, but the only way they can carry on is to proceed without a heart. They embrace nihilism in order to survive. And they usually don’t – like Kid (Thomas Mitchell), who asks Geoff to leave his deathbed since he’s never died before and doesn’t want to screw it up. It’s like going on your first solo flight, he says, and he didn’t want anyone watching that either.

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