Friday, June 16, 2017

The Superhero Film Gets a Makeover

As regular readers of this blog (all two of you, unless I'm miscounting by two) know, I have been watching the superhero movie bubble for years expecting it to pop. Of course it hasn't, so far--this, seventeen summers after Bryan Singer's X-Men (2000) (which in turn came a decade after 1989's Batman became the biggest hit of the year, and its franchise the most successful of the 1989-1995 period). And the conventional wisdom seems to be that this longest-running of action movie fashions can go on indefinitely.

I'm less sure of what to think than before. The studios have slates packed with superhero films through 2020, and by now probably beyond it as well, and at this moment I wouldn't care to bet on their shelving those plans because of an untoward change in the market--still less because of three approaches which are proving commercially viable.

R-Rated Superhero Movies
Of course, there have been plenty of R-rated superhero movies before--like the Blade movies, and Wanted and Watchmen. The difference was that they tended to not be made about first-string characters, or given first-rate budgets, with the expectation justified by their small prospect of first-rate grosses.

So did it also go with Deadpool, who was not a first-string character (Deadpool reminds us of this himself, rather crudely, in the early part of the film), and who didn't get the really big budget (Deadpool gabbing endlessly about this too). Rather than original or fresh or subversive (it had nothing on Watchmen here, or even the 2015 reboot of Fantastic Four) it struck me as a mediocre second-stringer, notable only in how heavily it relied on tired independent film-type shtick. Still, the film exploded at the box office ($363 million in North America,nearly $800 million worldwide--a feat the more impressive for it not having played in the ever-more important Chinese market), and has already had a sort of follow-up in a genuine first-stringer--Wolverine--getting an R-rated film, Logan, earlier this year. (The budget was, again, limited next to the full-blown X-Men movies at under $100 million, but the character and the budget were a bigger investment than Deadpool represented, and with over $600 million banked it seems likely to encourage even bolder moves of this kind later.)

What's going on here?

One possibility is the change in the makeup of the market. It seems that R-rated films (and not just raunchy comedies), while far from where they were in the '80s and even '90s in terms of market share, have done better recently than at any time this century, and superhero films have reflected the turn. (In 2014, American Sniper topped the box office and Gone Girl also did well, while 2015 saw The Revenant and Fifty Shades of Grey become top 20 hits at the American box office, and Mad Max: Fury Road claim the #21 spot.) I might add that reading the Box Office Guru's biweekly reports, I'm struck by how much the audience for recent films has been dominated by the over-25 crowd--younger people perhaps going to the movies less often. (Living life online, while having less access to cars and less money in general, I suspect they don't go to the theater so much as they used to do.) This might make an R-rating less prohibitive than it used to be for an action film producer, perhaps especially in this case. By this point anyone who is twenty-five probably has little memory of a time when the action genre was not dominated by superheroes. They grew up on superheroes, are used to superheroes, and so R-rated films about people with unlikely powers dressed in colorful spandex seem less silly to them, and so not such a tough sell as they would have been once upon a time.

Woman-Centered Superhero Movies
Just as we have had plenty of R-rated superhero movies in the past, we have had plenty of superhero films with female protagonists. The difference was that, as I recently wrote here, while there were movies with female superhero protagonists (Elektra, for example), and first-string superhero movies prominently including female superheroes in their casts (Black Widow in the Avengers), the flops of the early 2000s left Hollywood discouraged about presenting really first-string superhero movies centered on female protagonists. The grosses of YA dystopia films like The Hunger Games, Lucy and Mad Max have made the studios readier to go down this road, however--and the success of Wonder Woman is reinforcing this. And I suspect that at the very least the trend will endure for a while, if not prove here to stay.

Where the decision to make big-budget films centered on female superheroes is a case of the superhero movie following trends set by others, in this case the superheroes have led the way. The Marvel studio gambled big and won big with a larger Marvel Comics Universe, which regularized Avengers-style grosses to such a degree that even an Iron Man or Captain America sequel could deliver them. Inspired by this course Warner Brothers gambled (but has not yet won big) with a comparable Justice League franchise. Since then Disney (Marvel's current owner) has given Star Wars the same treatment (and so far, won big again), while Universal, not to be left behind, has decided to do the same with a film franchise based on its classic movie monsters. (The first effort, the recent reboot of The Mummy, is a commercial disappointment, but as the WB demonstrated in plowing ahead with its Justice League despite the reservations about Man of Steel and Superman vs. Batman, the project is too big to be shut down by a single setback.)

A credulous postmodernist might gush at the possibilities for intertextuality. But the reality is that this is of principally commercial rather than artistic significance--as is the case with the other two trends discussed here. Indeed, by upping the commercial pressure (studios now want not a series delivering a solid hit every two or three years on the strength of the built-in audience, but a hit machine delivering record breaking-blockbusters once or twice a year) the greater synchronization, the higher financial stakes would seem likely to tie the artists' hands to a degree those who still lament the decline of New Hollywood can scarcely fathom as yet. Still, superficial as most of this is (we are not talking about a reinvention of superhero films here), the success of Deadpool says something about how little it might take to keep the boom going longer than the decades it has already managed.

Thoughts on the Wonder Woman Movie Actually Happening

As is well known by now to anyone who pays much attention to films of the type, DC got the Wonder Woman film made, and got it out this summer, and it has already pulled in enough money to be safely confirmed as a commercial success. (Its $460 million is just over half the $873 million the "disappointing" Superman vs. Batman made back in early 2016, and the final tally will probably fall well short of that figure--the Box Office Guru figuring something on the order $750 million. But it was not quite so big an investment, making it a very healthy return.)

In the process DC has realized what I described a few years ago as a longshot.

Of course, quite a lot has happened since--some of it, what seemed to me to be prerequisites for a Wonder Woman film. Warner Brothers firmly committed itself to a Justice League megafranchise comparable to the Marvel Comics Universe, and used the "backdoor" Justice League movie Superman vs. Batman: The Dawn of Justice to introduce new characters, Wonder Woman included.

There has, too, been something of a resurgence in big-budget action movies with female protagonists. Again, the female action hero didn't go away in the preceding years. There were still plenty of really high-profile, big-budget movies featuring action heroines--if as part of an ensemble, like the Black Widow (featured in five movies to date). There were still plenty of second-string action movies with female leads getting by on lower budgets and lower grosses--like the films of the Underworld and Resident Evil franchises (which have continued up to the present).

What there wasn't a lot of were movies combining a first-string production with a female lead between the early 2000s (the underperformance of the Charlie's Angels and Tomb Raider sequels in the summer of 2003, Catwoman winding up a flop in 2004, Aeon Flux becoming another disappointment in 2005, putting studios off) and the middle of this decade, when they began to crop up again. The Hunger Games exploded (2012), and was followed up by its mega-budgeted sequels (2013, 2014, 2015), the initially cautious but later bigger-budgeted Divergent films (2013, 2014, 2015) and the $150 million Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) (with the low-budget but high-grossing Lucy in 2014) reinforcing the trend. Still, even if this makes clear what an exaggeration the claims for Wonder Woman as something unprecedented are (both by the studios, and the sycophantic entertainment press), it has some claim to looking like a watershed moment.

That said, the question would seem to be whether such films will now be a commonplace of the cinematic landscape, or prone to the kind of boom and bust seen in the early 2000s. What do you think?

Saturday, June 3, 2017

On the Historiography of Science Fiction: Info-Dumping and Incluing

When it comes to "info-dumping" and "incluing," a considerable current of thought about science fiction hews to the standards of mainstream literature, down to those misconceptions and prejudices summed up in the truism "Show, don't tell." Simply put, info-dumps (telling) are regarded as bad, incluing (showing) as good; and the fact that we are more likely to do the latter than before is taken as a case of "Now We Know Better," and therefore are better than our more enthusiastically info-dumping forbears. Additionally John Campbell and his colleagues (like Robert Heinlein), while getting less respect from the more "literary" than they otherwise might, are still credited, at times lavishly, with "showing us the light" on this point.

However, Campbell was merely a dedicated and influential promoter of incluing, rather than its inventor. Others had done it before he and his writers came onto the scene. For example, E.M. Forster did so in his short story "The Machine Stops" (1909), and perhaps inspired by this example, so did one of the genre's founding fathers in one of its foundational works, Hugo Gernsback in Ralph 124 C 41+ (1911) (at least in his account of Ralph's use of the Telephot, which seems to echo the opening of Forster's own story). Indeed, the first chapter of Gernsback's oft-mentioned but rarely read classic uses the technique so heavily--and to my surprise, artfully--that it can be treated as a model for doing so, presenting us with a barrage of obliquely treated technological novelties in the first meeting between the titular hero and his love interest, Alice, that manages to be packed with action and novelty, but also lucidly conceived and smoothly written.

Yet, Gernsback shifted to info-dumping for the rest of the text. One reason, obviously, might be that info-dumping--telling--is simply the easier mode from a technical standpoint, setting aside the iron cage of what we call "style," and thus saving an author from having to spend five days on the same page while searching for "le mot juste." However, this does not seem the sole concern. There were particular reasons for the author to go in for incluing in that first chapter--above all, to keep cumbersome explanations from getting in the way of the action. These concerns were less operative later in the text, especially as a big part of their interest was that mainstay of science fiction from at least Francis Bacon's The New Atlantis on, the Tour of the World of Tomorrow--on which it is appropriate to have a Tour Guide along.

Indeed, Gernsback was a strong believer in the value of a good info-dump, as an editor at Amazing Stories strongly encouraging his writers to produce them. Simply put, there are things that cannot be shown intelligibly or concisely, only told, but which it is worthwhile to convey anyway; things that are worth info-dumping when one cannot inclue them; and while one may take issue with the use made of them in some of the fiction he edited, the principle is a valid one, in both science fiction and fiction generally (as H.G. Wells, appropriately, noticed and argued eloquently). Naturally, just as the author who always shows and never tells is a lot less common than the truism would have it (even Flaubert had to tell us some things straight out), so is it very rare to find a really substantial work of science fiction totally bereft of info-dumps.

Tell, Don't Show--Again

In his book How Fiction Works James Wood early on sings the praises of Gustave Flaubert as the founder of "modern realist narration," what is often glibly summed up as "show, don't tell" done right. This, as Wood remarks,
favors the telling and brilliant detail . . . privileges a high degree of visual noticing . . . maintains an unsentimental composure and knows how to withdraw, like a good valet, from superfluous commentary . . . and that the author's fingerprints on all this are, paradoxically, traceable but not visible.
Indeed, Gustave Flaubert was a genuine and highly influential master of the technique, frequently managing to convey some quite difficult content with ease and precision in many a scene in classics like Madame Bovary. However, it was worth remarking that even he used a good deal of telling--as you find if you actually pick up the book. To fill in his picture, he did not just rely on the "visual noticing" of such things as the characters' facial expressions, casual remarks and the like, but time and again delved into his characters' heads and pasts and generalized and grew abstract in relating such things as Emma Bovary's school days, and the romantic side of her that developed but was never to find fulfillment in the workaday world into which she was born and in which she had her life.
"This nature, positive in the midst of its enthusiasms, that had loved the church for the sake of the flowers, and music for the words of the songs, and literature for its passional stimulus, rebelled against the mysteries of faith as it grew irritated by discipline, a thing antipathetic to her constitution . . ."1
It is elegant telling, but telling all the same.

1. I cite here the Eleanor Marx-Aveling translation.

James Wood on Flaubert

Having been both impressed and disappointed by James Wood's How Fiction Works--impressed by his lucid exposition of some literary fundamentals, disappointed by his uncritical acceptance of them--it was a pleasant surprise to encounter his article in The New Republic, "How Flaubert Changed Literature Forever," from the opening line forward. In his 2008 book he begins his discussion of Flaubert's establishment of "modern realist narration" with the following sentence:
Novelists should thank Flaubert the way poets thank spring: it all begins again with him.
In his more recent article, however, he begins thusly:
It is hard not to resent Flaubert for making fictional prose stylish--for making style a problem for the first time in fiction.
From there he goes on to a lengthy consideration of how much of a cage that style of narration is, with its stress on the concrete, visual detail, and how in the resultant "obsession with the way of seeing," the "flattering of the seen over the unseen, the external over the interior," all of "the important things disappear," and those who abided by the rule ran the risk of very elegantly telling a story about--nothing at all.

Of course, much of this has been observed before--some of it by Flaubert himself (who did, at times, step out of the cage Wood describes so well). Virtually all of it was said by H.G. Wells when he thought about the problems posed by the kind of style discussed here in his "Digression on Novels." It might be added, too, that Wood's conclusion is rather less radical than Wells'. Where Wells ultimately chose the important things over the obsession with the way of seeing, chose to try and convey what went on in people's heads over the flattering of exterior detail, Wood closes by reiterating his admiration of the "mysterious" way in which Flaubert ultimately managed to transcend the limits of his technique to tell Bovary's story. Still, Wood's discussion of the matter is a worthy consideration of a problem far too often slighted in our age of television shows about nothing, movies about nothing and, yes, books about nothing.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

On the Historiography of Science Fiction

Writing my book Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry I produced a history of science fiction that was most concerned with the genre's most recent decades. This was in large part because it seemed to me that, in contrast with earlier periods, these decades had not been dealt with in a comprehensive fashion.

Still, to provide a proper foundation that discussion it seemed to me necessary to look at what came before--and going over the relevant history I quickly found that it was not quite as well-studied as I thought it was. Certainly a vast number of works gave overviews of it. However, it always seemed to me that Jonathan McCalmont was quite justified in declaring at the time that
science fiction lacks the critical apparatus required to support the sweeping claims made by people who use [the historical] approach. Far from being a rigorous analysis of historical fact, the historical approach to genre writing is all too often little more than a hotbed of empty phrases, unexamined assumptions and received wisdom.
So did it go in the works I found. By and large the history was a "folk history," rather than rigorous scholarship--empty phrases, unexamined assumptions, received wisdom that, even when essentially correct (as, in hindsight, it often seems to have been), explained its claims vaguely and supported them poorly, and in the process not only left us understanding it all less fully and well than would otherwise have been the case, but inhibited further work rather than encouraging it.

Of course, there were numerous exceptions to this, but these tended to be in relatively obscure, specialized works dealing with relatively small pieces of the field. Colin Greenland's The Entropy Exhibition is excellent at treating key aspects of the New Wave, while Brian Stableford's The Sociology of Science Fiction was particularly insightful in its discussion of John Campbell's work as an editor--and more recently, Mike Ashley's outstanding The Gernsback Days was truly formidable in its study of the formative, "pre-Campbell" period, deeply rooted in close examination of the relevant material.

By contrast the larger, more general works, even at their best, tended toward the folk history approach, as with Brian Aldiss and David Wingrove's Trillion Year Spree (an old review of which you can find here). The book, again, has much to commend it. Its coverage of the field is vast, the highlights all mentioned, and certainly it is packed with interesting insights that, after many years of additional reading and consideration, still strike me as valuable. But on such topics as the pulps of the '20s and '30s, for example, the book largely settles for the received wisdom, summing it all up as "Gosh-wowery . . . Bug-Eyed Monsters . . . [and] the trashy plots that went with them" (216-217). To be fair, there is truth to this--and Aldiss and Wingrove do manage to say some interesting things about the material for all that. Yet, this is less specific and well-grounded than it might be (just as it is more dismissive than it ought to be).

It seems to me that the situation is getting better, the body of better-researched, more useful coverage increasing, but all the same, the synthesis of it all has really lagged. And all that being the case one can hardly avoid the question--why has this situation persisted for so long? Certainly one factor would seem to be the history of the genre having been a fan enterprise to such a degree, for so long a time--while the scholars took little interest. (While there were earlier precursors, it was only in the 1970s that academics began to pay very much attention to science fiction, which sounds like a really long time but is not really so long in academic terms; the more so because science fiction is still a fairly marginal area of study next to more canonical work.)

Another would seem to be the conventional wisdom of literary scholarship itself, much more interested in some things than in others. To be blunt, scholars who unquestioningly embrace Modernism and postmodernism as defining what is "important" literature, who take technical experimentalism, epistemological apathy and obsession with identity as the sine qua non of what is worthy of study, and whose non-literary study has been of kindred schools of philosophy and psychology (Foucault, Lacan and the rest), are either disinclined or unequipped to deal very well with key concerns of science fiction, and accordingly much of the work that, from the point of view of the genre, is most important to its history. Instead they gravitate to those works that happen to fit in with the intellectual preoccupations they bring with them, without much interest in how they fit into the history of the field. (Consider as an example the level of attention, and the kind of attention, that Ursula K. Le Guin gets from more academic students of the genre.) And of course science fiction practitioners themselves have been influenced by all this, at least since J.G. Ballard's efforts to remake the genre in the image of the Modernists. (Tellingly Aldiss and Wingrove, while interested in and often insightful about science fiction as a genre of ideas, still tilt in favor of the more purely literary in their analysis--not least in their tracing science fiction's history not to Scientific Revolution/Enlightenment/Industrial Revolution interest in natural and applied science, and its implications for the increasingly studied shape of society, but to Romantic-Gothic sensationalism.)

The result was that in developing my image of the genre's pre-1980 history (which the first four chapters of the book are devoted to outlining, because of how foundational they are to what follows), I found myself having to spend much more time just figuring out for myself what the facts were before I could settle down to figuring out the larger picture than I'd initially planned on. The folk history had enough in it to be a guide along the way (there were at least presumptions I could investigate, test out), but alas, it was just that, such that I had as much work to do in this supposedly well-covered territory as I had in the less well-charted decades that were my original concern.

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