Monday, February 25, 2013

On The 85th Academy Awards

The 85th annual awards ceremony of the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was last night.

This year there was no clear-cut front-runner, and unsurprisingly, the awards ended up being quite widely distributed.

Ang Li's Life of Pi won four awards, including Best Director, Original Score, Cinematography, and Visual Effects. Steven Spielberg's Lincoln won Best Actor for Daniel Day-Lewis' performance in the title role (an unprecedented third Oscar for Day-Lewis), and Best Production Design, while Silver Lining's Playbook won Best Actress for the performance of Hunger Games star Jennifer Lawrence. Django Unchained won Best Supporting Actor (Christopher Waltz) and Best Original Screenplay for director Tarantino (groan), while Les Miserables picked up Best Supporting Actress for Anne Hathaway's performance as Fantine (as well as prizes for Makeup and Hairstyling, and Sound Mixing).

Despite not winning in the acting and directing categories (helmer Ben Affleck not even nominated in that category, a reminder perhaps of the slowness of his post-Gigli rehabilitation), Argo won, along with Best Adapted Screenplay and Film Editing, Best Picture. Astonishingly, the prize was presented by First Lady Michelle Obama - making for a tableau which, given Argo's storyline and the U.S.'s present confrontation with Iran, had unintended but unfortunate political implications seized on by the Iranian state media. Of course, it could not have been assumed that Argo would be the winner, but the possibility that her role in the ceremony could be taken for government endorsement of the film should have given the responsible PR hack pause. Besides, Ms. Obama's bestowing the award on, for instance, Zero Dark Thirty, or Django Unchained, might have been even more problematic in this regard.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

A Note on The "Cool Stuff" Theory of Literature

Several years ago fantasy writer Steven Brust presented "The Cool Stuff Theory of Literature" to the world. When asked about it in an interview with Chris Olson for Strange Horizons he described it as holding that
all literature consists of whatever the writer thinks is cool, and the reader will enjoy the work to the degree that the reader and writer agree about what's cool--and this functions all the way from the external trappings to deepest level of theme and to the way the writer uses words.
Brust has also remarked (apparently elsewhere, though I have not found the original source) that the novel can be "understood as a structure built to accommodate the greatest possible amount of cool stuff."

As a Grand Unified Theory of Literature, of course, this leaves something to be desired, but as a more limited theory it certainly has its attractions, Brust's position being virtually irrefutable (of course people write as much of what they like as possible!) while still offering something of substance for our understanding of literature. When I look at the difference between genre fiction and literary fiction, what I find at bottom is a profound difference in the idea about what constitutes cool stuff, and the manner in which they advertise their particular sort of cool stuff to the would-be reader. Genre fiction presents sorts of cool stuff for which there are large, clearly established markets, reflected in the very name of the genre or subgenre of which they are examples, from Regency romance to forensic police procedural to young adult urban fantasy. The cool stuff in confirmed, highbrow literary fiction is apt to be of a less easily labeled or marketed kind, because it does not lend itself to formulaic use in cases, or perhaps because it simply lacks wide appeal. (Try, for instance, to picture large numbers of people seeking out the "Unreliable Narrator" fiction section of a bookshop.)

In either case, it is commonly a cause for complaint when the promised cool stuff was not presented in the quantities expected. "Not enough big weapons and battles," a fan may give as their reason for disappointment with a particular military techno-thriller. "But that book was all about plot and action! What about good writing?" a reader of literature may say in dismissing that very same book.

Of course, this is not to say that I take the position that it is all relative, that there are no grounds for suggesting standards - quite the contrary. But Brust's idea is a worthwhile reminder of something too often forgotten in the study of literature, the idea of literature as a source of pleasure to reader and author, reports of whose death have been greatly exaggerated. It is a reminder, too, of the limits to efforts to read literary works entirely and exclusively as a cultural code to be cracked in search of hidden meanings--as much of their content will invariably have other reasons for being there.

Friday, February 15, 2013

The Politics of Dark and Gritty Storytelling

I have observed here many a time before that the words "dark and gritty" are constantly used by critics as "terms of praise, rather than descriptors, as if no other tone is even worth attempting." As I have also remarked, I find this position artistically and intellectually problematic, not only because it narrows creative possibilities in particular instances, because of what this means for our broader cultural life - and inextricable from it, our political life.

Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to see all "dark and gritty" writing as one and the same. In fact, where its politics are concerned, it is worth remembering that the approach can be used to different ends. The "dark and gritty" approach can be a progressive's or radical's indictment of the prevailing order of things - the ways in which it corrupts, degrades and may ultimately destroy us, and accordingly, why that order should and must be changed. Hard-boiled crime fiction largely started that way, with books like Dashiell Hammett's classic Red Harvest. Alternatively, it can be a conservative or reactionary's defense of that order, a lesson in the Fallen, dark or otherwise flawed nature of humanity, the existence of "evil," and so forth, so that attempts to ameliorate the world's injustice and suffering are futile or counterproductive, and harsh measures to keep the worst in us and of us in line far preferable to the alternative. This sensibility underlies a great deal of fiction, too, like survivalist-themed postapocalyptic tales where civilization goes down thunderously, and gives way to a Hobbesian aftermath.

Today it is the conservative version of dark and gritty that we see celebrated by critics, and endlessly enacted by those writers seeking their approval - its popularity, interestingly, extending far beyond those who identify as actual conservatives. It is easy enough to imagine why someone not necessarily subscribing to such politics may embrace it, at least from time to time, like the inclination to wallow in the morbid when one feels down, or in the case of frustrated adolescents, a sense of such a world-view as empowering (imagining a Hobbesian monster inside them letting them think of themselves as tough guys). However, for the most part it seems a reflection of the underappreciated extent to which conservative intellectual premises have become predominant, just like the prevalence of postmodernist philosophy, and the virtually unquestioned standing of neoliberal economics, beneath the superficialities of the political rhetoric of our time.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Jack Ryan Five, Jack Ryan One

The vast success of Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan novels in print during the 1980s and after inevitably led to big-screen versions. Three films were made in quick succession in the early 1990s, between 1990 and 1994 - The Hunt for Red October (1990), Patriot Games (1992), and Clear and Present Danger (1994), all of them major feature films, with the last two released as tentpole vehicles in their respective summers after the success of October. While Clear and Present Danger was a success like its predecessors, and military technothrillers continued to appear on the big screen in the 1990s (like the Harrison Ford starrer Air Force One, which one can be forgiven for mistaking for a Ryanverse-based film), it ended up being eight years before the next one, The Sum of All Fears, hit theaters in 2002.

That film's earnings were respectable, but not much more, the movie taking in a little under $200 million globally - the same money as the three earlier films, give or take, which was decent enough in the early '90s, less satisfactory in 2002, after considerable inflation of film budgets and ticket prices. And the idea of cranking out another big budget movie starring Ben Affleck must not have seemed very appealing in the years afterward, when, as always happens, the press's love affair with the actor gave way to the especially nasty post-Gigli backlash, from which he has only recently recovered fully (in large part because of his work behind the camera, with the process ironically completed by yet another spy drama, Argo).

At the same time the Jack Ryan franchise seemed increasingly moribund as a result of the novels' dating and the authors' declining cachet - the years passing without new Clancy novels (from 2003 to 2010, no Ryanverse books appeared), while thriller fashions changed (the technothriller becoming more Dan Brown than Dale Brown). Consequently it was something of a surprise when I learned that a new Ryan movie, inventively titled Jack Ryan, is now in production - helmed by Kenneth Branagh (who also plays Ryan's antagonist), while the titular character is portrayed by Chris Pine, as if the thinking went, "People accepted him in one reboot; why not another?" At last report the film is expected out by Christmas this year.

I wonder at the logic of the move. That the films have been made into blockbusters in the past can make one easily forget that the books do not readily lend themselves easily to this kind of treatment. The sprawl of the plots is lost as the scripts drop many bits and concentrate others to produce a coherent two-hour film, as they must. Also lost are the particular literary pleasures of immersion in technical detail - the plane or submarine that can seem like the star of the book reduced to a prop or a set on screen.

It is also worth remembering that the plots which the novels furnish the series, like all plots reliant on technology and geopolitics, dated quite quickly. The storyline of the Sum of All Fears, a novel situated in that brief moment between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the fall of the Soviet Union, proved sufficiently the stuff of yesteryear for the cinematic adaptation to appear fairly creaky, despite quite a reasonable effort on the part of the writers.

With all this would seem to go the strongest elements of the books while it is worth remembering too that this is not the first time that Hollywood rebooted the series, this also having happened in The Sum of All Fears (which chucked Ryan's biography in favor of having the character as a young analyst starting out at the Agency rather than its Deputy Director, another stumbling block for the plot).1 Still, Hollywood abhors an unutilized IP, and we will all see how this decision turns out soon enough.

1. Ryan's prior career as Marine officer, stock broker and Annapolis professor, and the events of Patriot Games that made intelligence a career for Ryan in the first place, are simply dropped from the film.

Planning a New Dirk Pitt Movie

As of 2013 it still seems not only that no new Dirk Pitt movie is headed to the screens, but even likely to get made in the foreseeable future. The costly failures that were the two previous films, and the particularly sour aftermath of the production of Sahara, cannot but dampen enthusiasm for another Pitt film on the part of prospective producers.

There also seems to be little demand from anyone but confirmed Cussler fans--the kind of action-adventure for which the novels are known, for the most part, taking a back seat to first and foremost, fantasy and science fiction epics, particularly those featuring superheroes; and second, the more grounded action-adventure ushered in by the Jason Bourne series, and reinforced by the turn of the Bond films in this direction from Casino Royale on. The Pitt novels, which resemble the pre-reboot James Bond in many ways, fall into a middle territory which seems to have been less salable to critics and audiences (though I admittedly wonder if there is any real reason why this should be so). At the same time the fascination with mysteries of the sort that rewrite the history books also seems to have waned somewhat since 2005, when The Da Vinci Code was still setting the bestseller lists afire.

Still, what if there were real interest in a new Pitt film? The series would still face a significant stumbling block in its reliance on cutting-edge technology and ripped-from-the-headlines geopolitics for its interest. Such material tends to date very quickly, after all. The essential concept, however--a protagonist whose milieu is the sea--seems more robust. Some version of Pitt, the National Underwater and Marine Agency, and the associated personalities, remain plausible as a concept. Rather than poring over the backlog of adventures looking for something to adapt, the thing to do would seem to be to take this and create an original adventure for the big screen around it which would hopefully have something of the series' swashbuckling spirit--just as the makers of the next Jack Ryan movie are apparently striving to do.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Trajectory of the "Post-Vietnam" Action Movie

Last year Adam Sternbergh published an article in the New York Times titled "How the American Action Movie Went Kablooey." It is an interesting and entertaining piece, but contrary to the title's promise, rather short on cause and effect--on how the American action movies of the '80s (the Rambo series, Schwarzenegger films like Commando, and the rest) took their shape, and why their pattern fell out of use. Still, it is common to view Vietnam and its aftermath as having had something to do with it, and Sternbergh is no exception.

I have to admit that for a long time I was quite skeptical of claims about such a connection, taking them as exercises in that shallow sort of instant cultural analysis that forces every pop cultural hit or miss into an ultra-conventional narrative of national tragedies and triumphs, with the most recent success or failure necessarily a loud and clear expression of popular feeling toward the most recent event.1 And yet . . . these movies about big men with big guns effortlessly mowing down hordes of faceless foreign enemies very plausibly seem the power fantasy of a deeply wounded culture.

There is also no denying the shocks of that period, of which defeat in Vietnam was only one. There was, more broadly, something analogous, if rather weaker, than what Britain went through in the twentieth century, that sense of unraveling empire--in Europe and Japan's turning from militarily occupied aid recipients into politically assertive economic rivals, the end of the Bretton Woods monetary system (still lamented by today's gold bugs), the OPEC oil embargo and the subsequent energy shocks, the end of the post-war boom (a generation which had seen 4 percent a year growth nearly flatline, full-ish employment give way to stagflation), the perceived advances of the Soviet Union in a "hostile" Third World. There was, too, mainstream, traditionalist resentment of the cultural changes that did not begin in the 1960s, but which were widely regarded as having come to a head in it, as marginalized groups (women, minorities, the young) became more assertive, and attitudes toward matters such as sex, drugs and the natural environment changed. That all this was accompanied by rising crime and urban decay did not make it any more bearable for those discomfited by the trends.

Reactions to this succession of economic and foreign policy setbacks, and the cultural changes which accompanied them, varied enormously. Some, like John Kenneth Galbraith or William Appleman Williams, hoped for, and even expected, the United States to change the way in which it dealt with other nations, and the role its government played in the economy, redressing the private sector's failings in areas from health care to the environment, and accommodating the calls of the left for a more egalitarian society.

However, the dominant reaction was conservative, and ultimately expressed in the policies and attitudes of the once improbable-seeming Reagan era. As this developed much of what had seemed threatening went into retreat, or was tamed, or was simply ignored, as bad memories faded, old failures were apparently redeemed, and big problems ameliorated or simply papered over.2 The Gulf of Sidra, Grenada, the famous and infamous PR of and for the era, weakened the memory of the last war's defeat and divisiveness. The decade's bubble economics, the constant emphasis of the media on how well the rich were doing (and the tendency to overlook how the non-rich were doing) made the stagflation of the '70s look like trouble overcome (even as the problems which became so prominent in that era--deindustrialization, financial instability, rising trade deficits, falling wages, urban decay--kept worsening).

Pop culture played its part, not least on the movie screen, replete with images of avengers "setting the world to rights." Harry Callahan cleaned up streets overrun with hoodlums and radicals and other such types, while John Rambo refought the Vietnam War--as did the legions of imitators who made the loose cannon cop and the killing machine commando clichès of '80s cinema.3 However, in the process they helped diminish their own appeal, while at the same time also using up their potentials in the way that all intensively mined genres do, fairly quickly attaining the limits of concept and scale (quite evident in the absurd finale of the third Rambo movie). The box office receipts tell the tale: the summer of 1988 saw those two biggest icons of the post-Vietnam action movie, Dirty Harry and Rambo, each snubbed by moviegoers as The Dead Pool flopped and Rambo III underperformed badly.4

In the years that followed, American triumph in the 1991 Gulf War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the stagnation of Europe and Japan, the (mis)reading of the tech bubble and bull market of the '90s as signs of endless good times ahead, made all those '70s-era frustrations that much more distant by repeatedly reassuring American conservatives time and again that "the American way" was the only way. Even the September 11 terrorist attacks drew forth a new wave of triumphalism that lasted for much of the first decade of the twenty-first century. And all the while, a new generation was coming into the world for which "post-Vietnam" was as distant as post-Peloponnesian War.

Quite naturally, the cops and commandos, their old relevance lost, were succeeded by protagonists with a more "everyman" quality, evinced in such things as domestic troubles (already evident in the buddy cops of Lethal Weapon or John McClane), or outright superheroes (starting with 1989's blockbuster Batman). Instead of mean streets, Third World landscapes and villains from the nightly news, their adventures featured science fiction and fantasy elements like imaginary CGI-based creatures (which really came of age with 1993's Jurassic Park), and junkets in outer space (the mid- and late 1990s seeing more of these than any other period but the post-Star Wars rush, circa 1979-1984), and the bigger, more exotic spectacles they afforded.5

The transition certainly took its time. Much of the '80s action movie remained in the films of the '90s, from the continuation of the Lethal Weapon and Die Hard series' in that decade (Lethal Weapon in 1992 and 1998, Die Hard in 1990 and 1995); to later Schwarzenegger movies like the affectionate if ill-conceived parody Last Action Hero (1993), True Lies (1994) (the biggest action hit of its year) and Eraser (1996); to high-tech military thrillers like Air Force One (1997); to the special forces action of The Rock (1996) and Con Air (1997) (each prominently featuring American soldiers wronged by their governments). However, by the 2000s the transition to a different cinematic universe was virtually complete, the older style of action film persisting on lower budgets and pure nostalgia, as quaint to younger moviegoers as yesteryear's fascination with the Western.

Of course, this second decade of the twenty-first century, a time of financial crisis, frustration in overseas wars, and deep national divisions, echoes the 1970s in many ways. One may wonder if this does not imply a return to something like the movies of the '80s in a more than imitative or nostalgic way. For the time being, though, the defining action movies of recent years--superhero films like the Spiderman series or The Avengers, grand-scale fantasy epics like the Lord of the Rings and Pirates of the Caribbean sagas, or The Transformers movies--have tended less toward fantasies of forcing reality into line with right-wing populist images of how the world should be than a politically less contentious escape from reality altogether.6

1. An instance of this is the reading of the success of Sam Raimi's 2002 Spiderman as a matter of its analogy with post-9/11 America, which I have always found unconvincing. A country which has taken its position as the world's dominant superpower for granted for generations is hardly comparable to a nerdy orphan who has just received superpowers as a windfall, and only secretly regards himself as a hero.
2. There was, too, a measure of mainstream acceptance of the social changes that had earlier been troubling--if with caveats and modifications. As Chris Hedges put it in Death of the Liberal Class, Martin Luther King was turned "into a red-white-and-blue icon . . . [like] Most of our great social reformers . . . sanitized for mainstream public consumption."
3. Paramilitary action-adventure on TV and in print, and the military techno-thriller, also played their parts.
4. The Dead Pool was the end of the Dirty Harry series, Rambo III virtually that for the Rambo films. (Not another such movie was made until 2008, and that a comparative small, low-profile release.)
5. There was even a spurt of renewed interest in the Hong Kong action film, with directors and actors like Jackie Chan and Jet Li featuring prominently in a number of Hollywood films--Woo helming Broken Arrow and Face/Off, Jackie Chan making up half of the last really successful buddy cop duo in 1998's Rush Hour, and Jet Li's minor role in the last fourth and installment of the '80s-vintage Lethal Weapon series played up in the press to capitalize on the interest.
6. Of course, this is not to deny that some of these films have been taken as conveying political messages, including messages of the type discussed here. Christopher Nolan's Batman series has frequently been read as not merely political, but political in this manner, and one may say the same of Iron Man. Still, this seems less common, and when it does appear, more ambiguous than in many of the films of the '70s and '80s.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Leon Trotsky's Transhumanism

Back in June I commented on Dale Carrico's critique of the Singularity as a neoliberal fantasy. As I stated then, there is much to his critique of the ideas of Ray Kurzweil and company as such, but it would be a mistake to regard them as the whole of transhumanist and posthumanist thought, which has seen contributions from all across the political spectrum. Indeed, in the early part of the twentieth century leftist thinkers may actually have been more closely associated with such thought than the techno-libertarians who dominate the discussion today--Marxists like J.D. Bernal (via The World, The Flesh and the Devil) and Olaf Stapledon (who pioneered the fictional treatment of the theme in novels like Last and First Men).

Nor was such thought wholly the purview of scientists making forays into futurology, or writers of science fiction, and nor have they wholly belonged to the West. Russia's late nineteenth and early twentieth century Cosmists were perhaps the first modern school of such thought. Given that this is the case, it does not seem a very great surprise that Leon Trotsky expressed such expectations--notably in Literature and Revolution, a work which may have had as its primary focus the state of Russian letters, but in which, far more than in his works of political theory, commentary and history, he painted a portrait of what he thought socialist society might be like decades or centuries on. These speculations extended beyond the artistic to the technological, Trotsky predicting the tapping of "inexhaustible sources of super-power," "the regulation of the weather and the climate" and even the transformation of the world's surface through techniques for moving mountain and river until it has "rebuilt the Earth."1

Indeed, he held that just as humanity collectively liberated itself from the "dark," "unconscious" element in economic, political and social life with theoretical and applied science, human beings would liberate themselves individually from their own unconscious through "artificial selection" and "psycho-physical training," producing a "higher social biologic type . . . immeasurably stronger, wiser and subtler," and continuously improving itself further still, this vision of transcendence in fact the book's closing words--with transhumanism another aspect of humanity's broader social and political liberation rather than an alternative to it. And indeed, it was one of the more long-term issues, too far away to be of really serious concern for the present-day artist, Trotsky criticizing "Cosmist" poets as essentially escapist, and even lazy, taking the easy way out of the difficulties of understanding, depicting, making art out of the present-day world by "jumping into another world" altogether.

One could imagine the same being said of those promoting the more facile versions of Singularitarian thought today.

1. An echo of the thought of Nikolai Fedorov? It does not seem unlikely.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

David Walsh Reviews Django Unchained

David Walsh, always one to challenge the conventional wisdom, recently took a sharply critical look at an almost universally acclaimed film nominated for Best Picture at this year's Oscars - Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained (available here).

Walsh attacks Django for its weak plotting and shallow treatment of its ostensible themes (the story "treat[ing] slavery in an entirely false and ahistorical fashion" and "pivot[ing] on inconsequential or contrived incidents . . . nothing more than the clumsy preparation for the final bloodbath"), its similarly shallow handling of its characters (its "stereotypes . . . a decent, journeyman Hollywood studio director of another day would hardly have dared to bring to the screen"), and its sheer mean-spiritedness and sadism ("Almost everyone is filthy, even leaving aside the psychotics and racist maniacs who dominate the goings-on"). Walsh, who had previously reviewed Tarantino's work unfavorably, takes this latest film as proof that Tarantino is "a seriously unskilled artist," better thought of as "a cultural huckster, with a minor talent for pastiche, reworking genres and creating blackly comic moments" than a genuinely significant filmmaker.

At least as interesting as his criticism of the film itself is what Walsh has to say about the reason why critics have heaped so much praise on Tarantino's films for two decades now, namely that an artist
simply cannot be too bleak, sadistic, pessimistic or contemptuous of humanity for the so-called 'radical' or 'left' critic. Cynicism and misanthropy are one’s admission ticket. Anyone who believes in the betterment of mankind is automatically excluded.
Reading Walsh's comment, which rather neatly sums up not only the celebration of Tarantino's work, but that exaltation of "dark and gritty" material, I found myself thinking of that current of critical opinion holding that the deeply flawed Battlestar Galactia is a staggering work of heartbreaking genius while pre-reboot Star Trek is relentlessly bashed as a "microcosm of everything that's wrong with science fiction"; that holds that "We prefer the Cylons, who school us about humanity by screwing and killing us" to Data, The Doctor and other "clueless wankers with Aspergers who teach us what it means to be human."1

Walsh takes a similar view of Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty, another celebrated Oscar nominee, his examination of which is likewise well worth checking out.

1. The Doctor, of course, is the holographic doctor on Star Trek: Voyager. I was not a particular fan of that fourth incarnation of the series, which did indeed feel rather creaky and outworn, but must say that I consistently found the Doctor the most engagingly written character on that show.

David Walsh on The Life of Pi
My Posts on Battlestar Galactica
My Posts on Star Trek
My Posts on Postmodernism

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Thoughts on Green Lantern

While recent years have seen comic book superheroes perhaps the single biggest trend among box office hits, Hollywood's treatments of the theme have also produced their share of flops. Perhaps the biggest from a financial perspective was 2011's $200 million-plus Green Lantern.

The film certainly had its weaknesses - a miscast Ryan Reynolds in the lead (as might be expected, he proves far more convincing as snarky jackass than galactic hero), the astonishingly underwritten backstories of the characters, particularly Hector Hammond (which makes the connections of many of them to one another a surprise), the lack of freshness about the whole (too much of it seeming overly familiar, even where strictly speaking it isn't, this being the Green Lantern's first live-action film). Yet, the films' biggest liability with mainstream audiences and critics was not the execution, but the material itself, which was very much of comics' long-ago Golden Age, and E.E. Smith-vintage pulp space opera.

As those who have noted the difference between science fiction's financial successes on the big screen, and its marginality on the small, have often noted, science fiction blockbusters sell on spectacle rather than concept, which tends to be a liability. From a commercial perspective world-building is best kept to a minimum, and the dubiousness of those not ordinarily interested in this kind of subject matter avoided rather than challenged. (Star Wars and the Lord of the Rings have been the exception, not the rule.)

Relatively grounded films, relying on pseudo-science or technobabble (about which audiences can be surprisingly credulous) rather than out-and-out magic (or pseudo-science and technobabble that look too obviously like magic), and preferably not too much of any of these elements, have tended to be the easiest sell, especially with the generally Earthbound, generally contemporary superhero genre. Brian Singer's take on the X-Men and Christopher Nolan's Batman films (a far cry from where the earlier Batman series had wound up by the time of Batman and Robin) exemplify this approach. So too the Spiderman and Iron Man series, which together make up almost the entire list of the most successful superhero-based films.

By contrast, this probably worked against the Hulk, and the Fantastic Four with its rubbery Reed Richards. Thor was clearly a real hit, but more idiosyncratic, split between sword and sorcery-like spectacle in Asgard and a very grounded central hour on Earth, and the magic covered over by a patina of pseudo-science - and at any rate, a much more modest earner than the films named above.1

Green Lantern, with its rationales about the significance of the Lantern Corps' color, Hal Jordan's use of his ring to save the day (preventing a helicopter crash from taking a massive toll of human life by putting it on a race track conjured through his powers), its CGI galactic empire - even the Corps' uniform - was simply too much for skeptical viewers. (It may even have been too much for the filmmakers, who never quite seem to believe in what they're doing, which certainly didn't help.)

The result of all this is that a Green Lantern 2 seems a longshot. And while the point rarely gets acknowledged, I suspect that this same issue of concept has been a major factor in keeping the long-planned movies about the magical-mythological Wonder Woman and the deeply space operatic Silver Surfer eternally in development.

1. Catwoman (2004) and Jonah Hex (2010), of course, also rooted their heroes' abilities in magic, but the failure of those films was already overdetermined in other ways. Catwoman offered the silliness without the spectacle, while Jonah Hex had the additional liability of playing like a sharply scaled-down and much more serious version of Wild Wild West (1999).

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