Saturday, May 16, 2015

Chapter 116: In Which I Discuss Nostalgia and Continuity

This track gets me so pumped up. I listen to it and start feeling like this guy.

I just saw Mad Max: Fury Road. My lord, it is glorious. An instant classic. Proof that George Miller needs to direct every movie. There is so much heart and imagination and pure joy fit into those two hours that I'm still reeling. What a masterpiece of fantasy.

One thing (of many) that I found interesting was that it's a reboot that doesn't feel like one. Reboots/remakes/sequels are all the rage now. They seem to be rebooting Spider-Man faster than they can release the things in theaters. But Fury Road feels like it could easily fit into the established canon. Like its the lost film between Mad Max and Road Warrior. It's no surprise to find it was originally supposed to film in 2001 with Mel Gibson before it got pushed back.

George Miller has said the Mad Max films are supposed to be mythic Sergeo Leone-style movies with no real continuity. I suspect he's a bit of a troll. There are both visual cues and character beats that establish a continuum over the trilogy. Even without these cues, I felt no real disconnect between the new film and the old, except Max has a new face.

Also, thank Poseidon Mel Gibson is nowhere near this film. Some movies might need the nostalgia value he brings to sell tickets. Fury Road is making money based purely on quality. He would be nothing but an albatross around the film's neck. His presence is absolutely unneeded and Tom Hardy is great as the new Max. (Needless to say, Charlize Theron is an acting goddess.)

It seems to me that Miller did the impossible: he resurrected a franchise after thirty years without a bit of nostalgia. All the gags and storytelling and action beats feel fresh; you don't have to have knowledge of the old Mad Maxes to enjoy this movie. Miller is looking ahead with his filmmaking, to the point I can't even really call it a resurrection.

After all, you can't resurrect what was never dead in the first place.

In our current milieu, "new" is uncool. It seems that all of today's entertainment is geared towards making adults relive their 3rd grade summer vacation. Later this year, Star Wars is reemerging as part of Disney's campaign to mass market everyone's childhood under their umbrella. I would not be surprised if we soon got Lisa Frank: The Movie. And as a genre fan, I'd really like to see something new. Even anime, which has yielded some of the freshest shows and movies I've seen, has descended into moe, otaku-made, otaku-served navel gazing.

There are upsides to this nostalgia, of course. The main being that a lot of the stuff from our childhood actually sucked. I've never watched My Little Pony, but by all accounts it's a better-written toy commercial than the toy commercial it was based on. I hear there's going to be a new Masters of the Universe flick. Hopefully, since the studio can see the dollar signs, they won't kneecap it like Cannon did to the almost-good 1987 version.

Then there's a part of me that's like, "Wait! That He-Man cartoon sucked in the first place. Give me something new." Is the future so bleak that we're all trying to be kids again?

I just answered my own question. I live in California, where we're facing a water drought that will inevitably end with rich people having water while poor people have to pay out the ass for it. Water privatization is coming. Water riots are coming. We're staring at the world of Mad Max in real life and I can see why a lot of adults with the time and money (i.e. mostly white people) would want to throw on their Ninja Turtles jammies and pretend like none of this is happening.

But back to entertainment and the hipsterization of American culture. The last blockbuster movie I can recall that offered something new was The Matrix. They took a little bit from anime, a little bit from John Woo, a little bit from Grant Morrison, but in the end it was their creation. And it was a great movie. I thought the sequels were bloated and tension-free and nonsensical, but they were all the Wachowskis'. They stand alone as works of art.

Compare this to the nostalgia-drenched trailers for Star Wars. It might be a great movie. I hope it is. But the trailers are filled with cues to the original. So far, a lot is banking on people's love for a 38-year-old movie. My fear is that the new characters and their storyline will suffer. A bold move would have been to cut out the old characters entirely. Everyone's excited that Luke, Han, and Leia are back. That's pure nostalgia. The original actors also made Return of the Jedi. There's things to like about that movie, but it certainly doesn't come from Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher sleepwalking. The original cast are 2 for 3.

And it's frustrating after seeing Fury Road. Here you have an old school, honest-to-god filmmaker who crafting beautiful images and stirring sequences. He is obsessed with the craft, not at what callbacks he can make to something from long ago. There's no Mel Gibson cameo or gratuitous shots of a dog or putting a Tina Turner wig on Zoe Kravitz to signify she'll be the next Aunt Entity. It's a vibrant, alive movie. I don't know if modern big-budget filmmakers have the space to do that kind of auteurship anymore. Maybe Christopher Nolan, but who else?

George Miller pretty much created the post-apocalyptic genre. Everything from Borderlands to Fist of the North Star to every 80s metal band to the entire existence of Burning Man stems from Mad Max. If our current zeitgeist existed in Miller's heyday, we would have never gotten The Road Warrior. After making Mad Max, he would have been scooped up to do the third Dick Van Dyke Show movie in the 50s Sitcom Cinematic Universe.

I mean, they're resurrecting Jem and the Holograms (in a shitty manner, judging by the trailers) while we still don't have a proper Avatar: The Last Airbender film. Come on, people. Get on it.


New creator = new continuity. That is my policy.

Mad Max has me thinking about this, as it is the only "soft" reboot I've seen that I would put in canon with the original films. That is because it remains Miller's singular vision. If they'd brought on a new director, it would automatically be new canon for me. This philosophy has saved me a lot of grief as a fan of spec-fic shows and movies. Big studios own the rights to intellectual property. In such a world, art is seen as capital, and artists as product creators. How to determine canon in such a world?

I came to this philosophy after reading a Wikipedia article on Alan Moore's Watchmen. For the character profiles, they included background info from Before Watchmen. And I asked: how could this info be listed in the bios for Moore's character's when Moore had nothing to do with the comic? When he was against it from the very beginning? How can you just insert your ideas into someone else's story without their say-so?

We have a word for that. It's called fanfic. I never wrote fanfic; having taken creative writing classes since I was a kid, I had it drilled into my head not to write something you can't market. But fanfic has it's place and people seem to get a lot out of it. What they don't get is the original creator's vision.

In fact, lately I've become, if not partial to fanfic, intrigued by it. Fanfic is the realm of the happy ending. For every individual fan, there is a realm where Spike got with Buffy. There is a sphere where the werewolf kid hooked up with Bella instead of with her infant daughter. There is a world out there where Charlie Brown hooked up with the Little Red Haired Girl. All you have to do is find it in the labyrinthine universe of online fanfic. I'm glad fans have their happy endings out there. Everybody ends up happy. The ones that tickle me the most are the Song of Ice and Fire fanfic, which usually take place in some sort of AU where the characters are high schoolers. Then, you know, Arya hooks up with Gendry or Sansa gets with Sandor and they all go to the prom. It seems like the only way to squeeze a happy ending out of George R.R. Martin's crapsack universe is to get rid of the universe entirely.

But Martin himself will tell you: those aren't his characters, that's not his story. Neither is the TV show Game of Thrones. It's head-canon, the same as Before Watchmen. The fact that DC chose to market that comic makes it no less fanfic.

I believe in artistic integrity. I loathe the idea that a different artist's take on a universe can ruin a good story or validate a bad one. Say what you will about the Star Wars prequels, but they were overseen by the same guy who directed and produced the originals. Lucas may have messed it up, but it was his story and his imperative to do so.

J.J. Abrams' sequels? Whole new canon.

People say The Simpsons got bad. No, it didn't. The Simpsons we all grew up on was a brilliant show that lasted for an unparalleled nine great seasons. After that point Matt Groening turned his focus to Futurama. What followed was a series of mediocre shows with the same name and character designs. The Simpsons you loved ended when Groening left and remains untouched. Those who came after him were following a separate vision. Their artistic faults (as well as Fox's continuing to renew the show long after it had anything to say) has no reflection on what came before.

Greg Weisman and the other creators of Gargoyles had the cartoon wrested from them by Disney to make the inferior third season. All Gargoyles fans consider this season non-canon. The creator disavowed any part in it. But it exists as a separate continuity. Weisman's is a cautionary tale: he tried to continue Gargoyles in comic form, but had to quit because he couldn't afford to keep licensing his own characters from Disney.

But what of when the original artist cedes the story reins to a minion? What if they say it's part of their continuity? If so, then it is for me.

Until . . . continuity errors.

The moment continuity errors emerge, it's a new story for me. Simply put, if the artists don't care enough to keep things consistent, I'm not going to jump through hoops to do the storytelling myself.

An example of this is True Blood. Alan Ball left after season 5 and the new team was left to clean up the mess he'd left, with a dozen story arcs and a massive cast and a human-vampire war they couldn't possibly film. The spent much of season 6 retconning away season 5.

In that season, the character Terry gets glamored (read: hypnotized by a vampire) to forget his PTSD.
The problem? It was established in the first season that Terry couldn't be glamored because he has a metal plate in his head. This entire plot development is impossible based on what has come before. Everything falls apart.

Unless you accept that this Terry and the one before are two different characters.  Yes, you go into the season knowing Terry is a short order cook with PTSD from the Iraq War and a wife named Arlene. You also go into every Robin Hood movie knowing he's a lord who went off to fight in the Crusades. They're still separate works of art.

The original True Blood ended on the cliffhanger of Bill drinking Lilth's blood and becoming a god. Then there was an unconnected two-season show with the same name.

When I was a kid in the 90s, there were a lot of Elfquest offshoots made by artists other than Wendy and Richard Pini. Warp Graphics was expanding and with it the EQ Universe. Most of those comics were of debatable quality, and twenty years later are entirely unmarketable, so it's best they're available for free online. Nobody would ever buy them.

This sucked.

One such comic called New Blood was just . . . bad. In a lot of ways, starting with the art. And it played fast and loose with the rules. Part of Elfquest lore is that elves use telepathy. But Barry Blair totally wrote a scene where some elves are stuck in a tree or something and don't know how they're going to contact their friends.

Nope. Elves use telepathy. It's always been this way. In New Blood, these powers can apparently short circuit. Different rules = different universe. New Blood is non-canon for me, and not just because it's a crappy comic. It's rules don't align.

I like the Elfquest Rogue's Curse comic a lot. Wendy Pini herself did some Rogue's Curse one-shots, so it's safe to say the original creator signed off on the storyline. Still, I remember that story having some parts that didn't gel with the Pinis' canon. Henceforth, it becomes non-canon, AU, What If?, Elseworlds, whatever you want to call it.

This theory feels liberating as a fan, but also frees up artists to tell the story they want to tell. Really, the new True Blood team shouldn't have had to abide by the set rules if that doesn't suit the story they want to tell. (Which is not to say I loved those two seasons. They were awful. Just a different kind of awful than what came before.)

There are exceptions for things like pro wrestling or superhero comics, where lack of continuity is the point. If you're asking yourself why Batman never ages, that's the point you put down the comic and pick up a novel. If you need to find reason in-character as to why CM Punk is a fighting champion one day and a cowardly heel the next, then you're over pro wrestling. The storylines are meant to be fluid. Then there are comics that follow a linear storyline, like the Dark Horse Conan comics. But the moment a new writer forgoes canon, or embarks on a complete tonal shift, it becomes a different Conan universe for me. And I get to choose which I like best.

Whew! That was a ramble. I haven't gone on a nerdy rant in a while. Feels good.

Watch the new Mad Max. It will kick your ass.