Daily Reads: The 25 Best Onscreen Female Superheroes, Why Is British Political Satire Better Than America’s, and More

Daily Reads: The 25 Best Onscreen Female Superheroes, Why Is British Political Satire Better Than America's, and More
Daily Reads: The 25 Best Onscreen Female Superheroes, Why Is British Political Satire Better Than America's, and More

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

1. 25 Best Onscreen Female Superheroes.
Last week, CBS premiered its new series “Supergirl” to positive critical acclaim and to almost 13 million viewers. “Supergirl” is one of a small number of female superheroes that have been on screen over the years. Vulture’s Sarene Leeds compiles the 25 best onscreen female superheroes, even though “‘best’ is a bit of a misnomer when there’s so much room for improvement.”

Lindsay Wagner as Jaime Summers as seen in “The Bionic Woman” (1976-1978): The athletic, smart, and beautiful Jaime Sommers embodied the late-’70s ideal of a non-comic-book-originated superhero. Since she was just an ordinary Earth-born woman who acquired some decidedly superhuman limbs, Jaime was a great role model for young girls because she looked and acted like them. Lindsay Wagner’s portrayal of the tennis pro turned spy gave viewers the thrill of watching the girl next door twist a metal pipe into a pretzel, or break into a safe with a flick of her wrist. She was definitely relatable, but her character — like so many other female superheroes — suffered primarily from the chauvinistic attitudes on TV at the time. Sure, she had incredible abilities, but more often than not, she was forced to use them because, for one reason or another, she was entrapped by evil men wishing to exploit her power. Also, the show itself wasn’t entirely original — it was a spinoff of “The Six Million Dollar Man.” So, like Supergirl and Batgirl before her, the Bionic Woman was really just a female extension of a male character.

Michelle Pfeiffer as Selina Kyle/Catwoman as seen in “Batman Returns” (1992):
 Michelle Pfeiffer took the entrancing charisma of Julie Newmar and Eartha Kitt and channeled it into what remains to this day the most multi-layered onscreen interpretation of Catwoman. Her Selina Kyle gave voice to timid women by encouraging them to embrace their playful inner cats as she was reborn courtesy of a very strange-looking form of feline CPR. Unlike Halle Berry’s Catwoman, Pfeiffer’s version leaned more toward the human side — making her more relatable — as the only new power she acquired was nine lives (nothing to meow at). That, and, as minor as it may seem, there was something really cool (and realistic) about her DIY catsuit. Newmar’s and Kitt’s haute couture Catwoman costume was just a little incongruous with a below-the-radar cat burglar. Pfeiffer also took the first real step in moving Catwoman away from her traditional villain definition into that of a conflicted antihero, albeit over her love for Bruce Wayne (you know, it’s a starting point).

2. Why Is British Political Satire So Much Sharper Than American Political Comedy?
When it comes to comedy, Americans have their strengths, but much of the all-time great classic comedy comes from across the pond. It’s not just “Monty Python” or “Not The Nine O’Clock News,” but also “Spaced,” “The Office,” and “In The Loop.” But where the Brits have America beat is in the realm of political satire. The Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg analyzes why political satire is just sharper coming from the British than from Americans.

The kind folks at the Project for the Study of the 21st Century and the Delegation of the European Union to the United States were kind enough to invite me, along with delegation spokesman James Barbour, State Department veteran Ari Ratner and Washington Post Outlook Editor Adam Kushner, to speak last night on what television can teach us about politics. We spent time, of course, on big dramas such as “Scandal,” “Game of Thrones” and “House of Cards,” but the conversation took an intriguing turn when we ventured onto the subject of comedy, and specifically the reason that British political humor and satire is so much darker and more biting than its American equivalent. Most of the American shows we discussed during the panel, from “The West Wing” to “House of Cards,” are dramas, in part because with exceptions like “Parks and Recreation,” recent American television just hasn’t produced very many comedies about politics. Whether they’re inspirational dramas like “Commander in Chief” and “The West Wing,” melodramas like “Scandal” and “House of Cards,” or security-driven dramas like “24,” American television tends to take politics very seriously. One possible explanation I floated to Barbour, who is Scottish, is the possibility that British satirists and comedians are just more confident in their form of government than Americans are in ours. The American experiment in democracy is less than 250 years old, and we’re still trying to finish the work of the cataclysm that tore the country apart. Magna Carta, by contrast, celebrated its 800th birthday this June, and the English Civil War, though longer than the American one, ended in 1652. Maybe with time — and the experience of the decline of the British Empire and the realization that the world didn’t end with it — comes faith that the system will survive, for good or ill, and can stand up to some truly savage ribbing. And maybe Americans’ grand claims to exceptionalism, goodness and moral authority, combined with insecurity that those claims might not be true, run the risk of gentling television’s take on American government.

3. Favorite “Mr. Show Sketches” From Fans, Comedians, and Cast Members.
 In a week, Netflix will premiere “With Bob and David,” a sketch show from Bob Odenkirk and David Cross, the creators of the legendary sketch show “Mr. Show.” Though this series isn’t an official continuation of “Mr. Show,” it features many of the original cast members and writers that later went on to become successful comedians in their own right. In honor of the new series, Rolling Stone’s David Fear speaks to fans, comedians, and cast members about their favorite “Mr. Show” sketches.

Keegan-Michael Key: I was at graduate school hanging out with some friends, and a re-run of it came on; I remember noticing the way they transitioned from sketch to sketch and thinking wait, what was that? What the hell did they just do? Years later, I talked to Bob about it, telling him how incredible I thought the way they went from one scene to the next was so graceful. And he kinda went, “Yeah, we realized later we never really had to do any of that. I don’t know why we did.” [Laughs] I’m sure I’m the 17,000th person to pick this, but my favorite has to be “The Audition.” I’ll argue that this is one of the top five sketches ever written — not just for “Mr. Show,” top five ever written. It has that wonderful quality of letting you know what’s coming next, because they’ve set it up so well and the scene’s comedic game is so strong, but you still don’t know what they’re going to say. It almost feels like an old Second City sketch, but with this surrealist bent to it. For me, that was a big moment: Oh, you can keep the classic and the new? There’s also the one where Odenkirk is playing Jesus, and Cross is one of his followers who’s trying to get him to expand his profit margins and maximize his potential. “Jesus, what if I told you that the meek could inherit something a lot better than the Earth?” So funny. Tom Kenny’s Satanic televangelist would be up there as well…again, simple premise but the execution of it is perfect. And the rock band that kept bragging about how completely and savagely rock and roll they are, while they are watching videotapes of themselves having sex with each other. What’s the name? Right, Wyckyd Sceptre! And there’s one sketch that…I don’t even remember what it’s about, but there’s a character in it called Borden Grote. I’ve always thought that name was hilarious on its own. I remember when I was on “Mad TV,” we were trying to come up with names for characters and they kept saying “Just use the random name generator.” I was like, really, that’s a thing? So we’d go into that site and just have it spit out names, and I remember thinking “None of these are as funny as Borden Grote.” Whenever I find myself getting into conversations about “Mr. Show,” it’s almost always with other artists: comedians, writers, actors. You had the stage element, the transitional stuff, and solid sketch writing, and there was no favoring one over the other. Bob and Dave inspired a whole generation to put sillier stuff into comedy. And it gave us permission to mix shit up.

4. A Eulogy for Daniel Craig’s James Bond.
Tomorrow, the new James Bond movie “Spectre” enters theaters. Though the film itself has garnered a mixed reception, with many claiming it takes its cues from classic Bond formula rather than the reboot’s more mature direction, but with rumors that Craig wants out of the Bond gig, it may be his last go around as 007. Esquire’s Stephen Marche writes a pre-mature eulogy for Daniel Craig’s James Bond and how he reinvented all of the Bond cliches.

Change is inevitable, however, even in Bond movies, and the series, against its will, reflects history. Each Bond is an argument concerning how men felt about the masculine ideals of their period. In the early ’60s, before and during the sexual revolution, Sean Connery exuded the supreme confidence of a man who has never questioned, nor been questioned about, his sense of his own manhood. Through the Roger Moore years, the ’70s and ’80s, Bond devolved into a relic of British gentility and louche nightclub sexuality until the movies veered dangerously close to being parodies of themselves, and sometimes crossed over — in “Octopussy,” 007 literally saves the world as a faded clown in a circus. Many years of confusion followed, during which Bond was little more than a branding opportunity, fulfilling, halfheartedly, a tired contract with fans: the woman in a bikini who utters “James” meltingly, the threat to the world, the capture, the improbable escape, “shaken, not stirred” as a joke somewhere in there. The portrait of male fantasy by way of James Bond was not flattering to men: a sometimes stupid, sometimes violent pompous joke addicted to cheap puns, executive toys, and vacuous women Then came Daniel Craig. He kept all the Bond clichés in place while utterly reinventing all of them; he played Bond as a real character rather than as a cipher for adventure. He refused to take the man as a joke but was willing to laugh at him nonetheless; he helped create a kinder, more thoughtful Bond, who listens when women speak, but also a more dangerous and more selfish Bond, who knows he prefers adultery to sex with available women. You can sense the desperation in this 007. Self-consciously traditional, he believes in the decrepit loyalties to Britain but at the same time feels betrayed by his country and its institutions. In short, Craig is the PTSD Bond. He is the Bond for an era in which a million and a half American men and women, and a significant number of British and Canadian and Australian men and women, have been fighting actual shadow wars against actual madmen with actual dreams of global domination, and have drifted home from their encounters in various states of brokenness.

5. “To Save and Project” at Museum of Modern Art
. Film preservation is essential not only to the lifeblood of the artistic medium but also to 20th century history. As digital has become the de facto mode for the modern director, it’s important that we do everything we can not to let celluloid completely disintegrate in our lifetimes. Film Comment’s R. Emmet Sweeney examines Museum of Modern Art’s “To Save and Project” festival, which celebrates and advocates film preservation by showcasing works from different archives.

The history of film is a history of loss, of studio archives dumped into the Pacific and nitrate prints melted down for silver. That is why the Museum of Modern Art’s festival of film preservation, To Save and Project, feels like a yearly miracle. Now in its 13th edition, it celebrates the work of film archives the world over, and though the fest has slimmed down from previous years, it still offers a cornucopia of heretofore unknown pleasures that range from silent German monster movies and Clara Bow comedies all the way to experimental documentaries and Canadian pulp pastiches. The starring archive is the Munich Filmmuseum, which is presenting a program of rare Orson Welles films, including a work print of the unreleased ocean thriller “The Deep” (67), a reconstruction of his shot-for-TV “The Merchant of Venice” (69), and an extended version of Norman Foster’s “Journey Into Fear” (43), which Welles supervised. The most unusual item presented by the Munich Filmmuseum however, is Otto Rippert’s “Homunculus” (1916) a six-episode German science-fiction serial about a test-tube baby who grows into a world-destroying monster. Only one episode was thought to have survived, but the Filmmuseum’s Stefan Droessler has painstakingly restored it to an approximation of its original length. Originally released in 1916 while World War I still raged, it was cut down into three parts and re-released in 1920. The original structure and inter-titles from the original version were lost, and had to be reconstructed from publicity and other materials from the 1920 release. The end result is seamless and utterly gripping, as if Frankenstein’s monster had become enraptured by German Romantic poetry. The Homunculus (Olaf Fønss) looks like a hastily assembled Dracula costume, with black cape and charcoal applied under the eyes. He is possessed of super strength, but in the early chapters is on a search for how to love and be loved, a melancholic vagabond who pours out his sadness into a diary. He is a Heinrich Heine who could rip a door off its hinges. He channels the rage from his romantic failures into super-villainy, eventually setting the whole world on fire. The emphasis on scientific experimentation on humans, a proto-eugenics, lends the film a troubling foreshadowing of National Socialism, as the only way to destroy the Homunculus is to create another lab-created superman and point them against each other, a policy of mutually assured destruction that ends the film on a literal cliffhanger.

6. Inside “Out 1”: A Revisitation of Sorts.
This weekend, in many places across the country, theaters are screening Jacques Rivette’s 1971 12-hour opus “Out 1.” Across eight episodes, Rivette examines the world of real and unreal, and the fallen ideals of post-1968 riots. Though our own Sam Adams republished his own writeup of “Out 1” yesterday, we wanted to highlight another one. On his blog, Bilge Ebiri examines “Out 1” and its surprising power.

Jonathan Rosenbaum and others have described “Out 1” as a rumination on the dashed ideals of the 60s, “a bohemian reflection on the aftermath of May 1968.” The theatrical troupes in “Out 1” cling to a kind of idealized communitarian philosophy, and Rivette himself has said that he wanted to “make a film which, instead of being predicated on a central character presented as the conscience reflecting everything that happens in the action, would be a film about a collective, about a group.” In contrast, Colin and Frederique are out for themselves, duping and annoying strangers into giving them money. But as the film progresses, they seem to find themselves wanting to belong to something: Colin’s search for The Thirteen leads him to a small group of hippies who congregate in a small shop, and then to love. Frederique’s discovery of the conspiracy leads her to make connections that are more than fleeting, and finally to a desperate, doomed love affair of her own. All of these strands ultimately connect in furtive, passing ways, adhering to something resembling dream-logic, where slight associations and chance encounters grow into something larger, only to drift away again. The surprising power of “Out 1” – I say surprising because it so rarely seems to take itself seriously as a narrative – lies in the way that it plays off the human desire to connect with the similar human desire for selfish action. The theater troupes, we come to understand, have come to the end of their days, and for all of Colin and Frederique’s attempts to belong to something greater than themselves, their hopes will fade away. The potential re-emergence of The Thirteen, it is hinted, is due to an enigmatic member’s nostalgia for the glory days of the group. The whole film begins to take on a strangely elegiac tone. Our characters all exist in the dim twilight of an uncertain, impulsive communal awareness. (Could this twilight in some way also be Rivette’s acknowledgement that the “Nouvelle Vague” had, by the end of the 60s, become a mythical shell of itself?) As such, it also makes sense that “Out 1” moves from the theatrical to the cinematic: In sharp contrast to the loose early scenes of lengthy improvised rehearsals by the final episodes, as the theatrical troupes begin to fray, we see only glimpses of performances, and they’re fragmented, edited: The filmic artifice has asserted itself, imposing organization onto this previously loose, free-form world.

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