Now The Wound Has Scabbed Over, Time to Pick at it Again: Sometimes Pop Culture is Terrible

Not being content to let things go, I felt the need to follow up my kinda-sorta “Best of 2013” list with some of its stinkers. Last year was a big movie year–more out of personal need to keep myself occupied and out of the house–which also means I watched a lot more terrible movies as well. So, again, this is mostly a movies list, with cameo appearances by terrible comics and video games.

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Star Trek Into Darkness: J.J. Abrams’ sequel Star Trek Into Darkness was exactly the kind of movie I imagined it would be: pompous, stupid, tedious and chasing after Wrath of Khan glory it would never get. Wrath of Khan was made with middle-aged actors, about fears middle-aged men have (obsolescence, oblivion, missed opportunity). As such, it’s light on fisticuffs and shootouts (despite being an “action” movie). Built instead around naval-warfare-in-space, with frail characters left to the mercy of technology and the cosmos, it’s less Errol Flynn and more Herman Melville. William Shatner was also at an interesting crossroad: aware his career as pretty boy lead was over, but not yet molded into the preening self-parody of today, Shatner played Kirk as a military lifer staring down retirement, set to drink himself to death in a study. He’s briefly stirred to life by the return of one-off supervillain Khan (Ricardo Montalban), only to retreat inward when faced with consequences he couldn’t weasel out of or brush off. It’s the greatest performance Shatner ever gave. Star Trek Into Darkness attempts similar introspection, but with a cast which could model for Abercrombie & Fitch on the side and spastic, overblown action scenes meant to excite toy fanboys. Even if Chris Pine were a good actor, his New Kirk lacks the footing for deconstruction. The others–from Benedict Cumberbatch as New Khan to Karl Urban, Zachary Quinto, Simon Pegg, Anton Yelchin, and Zoe Saldana–are reduced to Wacky Impersonation games, while the script is a convoluted mess of schemes by Cumberbatch and Peter Weller (wasted in a nothing role) compounded with unmotivated character arcs, bad in-jokes, lazy deus ex machina, and Abrams’ misuse of lens flare (despite the film’s slickness, it’s hideous looking). Too ramshackle for thought, too grim for fun, Star Trek Into Darkness only kills brain cells.

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The Wake #1-5 (a.k.a. “Part One”): Another entry in the pompous-yet-dumb category. This first half of the Scott Snyder/Sean Murphy Vertigo series teases millennia-spanning audacity, but delivers cheaply constructed horror sequences littered with what amounts to paraphrased Wikipedia articles about various concepts from myth and folklore. Murphy and colorist Matt Hollingsworth are reliably excellent on the art side, but next to Murphy’s more heartfelt and shocking Punk Rock Jesus it can’t help but pale. The real kicker comes with the close of issue five, and Snyder’s essay promising all the cool shit is coming with the second half, as if blessing readers who already spent the dollars on five issues for the equivalent of a polished Whopper.

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The Great Gatsby: Post-Spider-Man 3, Tobey Maguire retreated from the Hollywood machine, and public limelight, into smaller movies where he gets to act out darker impulses (Jim Sheridan’s American remake of Brothers), playing off the wholesome “Golly pie” act he brought to mopey Peter Parker. All the more baffling, then, he opted to play, completely straight, that same act for a character intended to be bitter and cynical, all while narrating prose like he’s struggling to read. Then again, everything in Baz Luhrman’s adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel hits all the wrong notes at all the wrong times.

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Aliens: Colonial Marines: A shoddy, uninspired FPS relying on franchise appeal? A zeal for fan fiction-level plot points in a desperate bid to reach the hallowed realm of ‘canon’ within said franchise? Buggy gameplay and subpar graphics? Even the failure of Colonial Marines lacks identity. Hobbling around as another gravel-voiced soldier spraying Xenomorph-skinned popups leaves less a feeling of being overwhelmed by unknowable evil and more of swatting pesky flies away, particularly when half the dialogue in Gearbox/Timegate’s production involves meatheads simply parroting militaristic phrases like they’re Hail Marys. But if all Colonial Marines was guilty of was mediocrity, it likely wouldn’t even rank mention. Nah, the real crime is how much effort was taken to cover up the mediocrity: Gearbox insisting its pretty, unplayable demo footage was in any way representative of how their macho fanservice vehicle would look and play. Of course, when the product shipped, and the sham shown for what it was, critics and gamers had a rare synchronicity of justifiable rage. So little else in 2013 showed as much disdain for basic craft or its audience, except maybe…

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The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug: Peter Jackson one-ups George Lucas’ attempts at self-indulgent franchise destruction with a go-nowhere/do-nothing script. CGI-heavy setpieces are far removed from the tactile, horror movie quality which made Fellowship of the Rings the fascinating start to Lord of the Rings‘ cinematic incarnation, and Jackson foists upon audiences ugly, sickness-inducing gimmicks (3D and 48 frames/second) while portraying cardboard cutout characters (it would be easy to simply write “Tauriel,” but that creation is a figurehead for how little concern Jackson and crew have for characterization in these movies. Basically, you could remove half the cast and have changed precisely jack). It’s nothing more than an effort to squeeze just a little bit more out of people far more invested in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth than they are in their families. At least with Lucas, the money-grubbing excess was being done by someone looking to milk their own creation dry; Jackson’s exploitation of Tolkien is much more gross.

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Avengers (volume whatever the Marvel Now one is) #16: Indifferent, lumbering nonsense masquerading as an epic. Jonathan Hickman’s faux-mythological slant and mumbo-jumbo plot beats mask a disconnect from any remotely human concern–he’s perpetually fond of “countless” body counts for his city leveling alien attacks, but refuses to depict anything other than the stoic anti-reactions of corporate mascots–which would be downright sociopathic if this were a legitimate attempt at storytelling, rather than another cynical prelude to another cash-grab crossover.

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Dark Skies; The Conjuring: The flip side to last year’s great horror movies Lords of Salem and You’re Next, these Paranormal Activity descendants are essentially clones. Both have the exact same structure, and not in the 80s slasher way which allowed directorial flourishes to dictate the movie (Halloween being different from Friday the 13th being different from Friday the 13th Part 2 being different from Sleepaway Camp). Both movies use the same jump scares, reveals, and camera angles at roughly the same time, with roughly the same level of pseudo-proficiency. The only real deviation is when actors hit their false notes to unintentionally hilarious effect: Dark Skies‘ moment occurs late in the movie, after an hour of mind-numbing drama and limp-wrist scare tactics, when the parents utter a cartoonish, harmonized “Nooooooo!”, getting a belly laugh out of what was intended to be climactic thrill; The Conjuring‘s comes throughout from Patrick Wilson’s deadpan explanations of supernatural phenomena (“That’s to mock the Holy Trinity” or “That’s where the witch hung herself”). It’s as if Wilson were channeling TV home improvement host Bob Vila. Inadvertently, he exposes The Conjuring (given an R-rating for its supposed scariness) as the cheap television formula it is. The movie’s inability to dramatize any emotional toll on either of the families at its heart–the haunted Perrons or the ghost-hunting Warrens, struggling to maintain domesticity in a house stuffed with supernatural relics locked away like guns, leading to a lame third act tease–means there’s no theme or subtext to what it depicts. It’s all artifice.

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Pacific Rim: I’m already regretting putting this here. Not remotely awful like the rest of the list–it in fact has moments of genuine greatness in it–but no other movie represented the worst tendencies of Hollywood and nerd culture better. Championed for all the wrong reasons (even by me for a minute)–“It’s multicultural!,” “It has a strong female lead!,” “It’s a bunch of things you liked as a kid!”–all of which turned out to be utter bullshit. It’s multicultural in the same way every American studio-backed summer explode-o-thon is multicultural (that is, the white American guy is still the de facto main character driving the plot, no matter how uninteresting he is), its female lead (Rinko Kikuchi as Mako Mori) is a fetish object (introduced via Old Hollywood glamor shot) who spends most the movie with a perpetual pout as the boys decide her every action (“But, she beat de facto main character in one fight!“…right before literally regressing to a child)*, and homage to anime, tokusatsu and giant monster movies isn’t substantial enough (especially when your monsters are bluish-gray blobs of indistinct CGI, lacking the voice of Toho stables like Godzilla, Mothra, or Rodan).

*The only good interpretation of Mako Mori I’ve heard was given by a friend who loves the movie. Paraphrasing her words: the character is a woman in a male-dominated situation and acts accordingly. Sensible, yet doesn’t strike me as feminist.

Guillermo del Toro is good enough to make Pacific Rim a single-view, throwaway popcorn flick: with fitfully intriguing world-building (the slums built around Kaiju bones), a great Hong Kong fight scene and reliable performances from Kikuchi, Idris Elba, and Charlie Day, he gets to play with his toys for 2+ hours and not be a complete waste of time. Furthermore, his commitment to themes of extinction and total war means audiences aren’t left with another dumb franchise hook the way all these summer movies end anymore. If anything, the sparse characterization and creaky script indicate del Toro knew this was nothing more than disposable entertainment with a massive budget, slanting his filmmaking accordingly (after At the Mountains of Madness failed to get greenlit, a director as non-prolific as del Toro probably wasn’t being picky).

The hype and excessive fanboy support for this movie is, ultimately, what kills it. Which bugs me a bit: when critiquing a movie, it’s traditional to completely disregard those elements, but the movie not only plays into them, it practically required them.  With broad stereotypes/archetypes for characters (a problem it shares with The Hobbit), and sluggish to get anywhere, Pacific Rim is all about reminding the nerdier crowd they’ve seen these things somewhere before, and that it’s “cool” now to see them this way. This is a movie which had a fan club before it even saw release–just think if back in 1977, there were people camped out front of theaters for a month dressed as Chewbacca before Star Wars was even a thing–whose press release virtues as a multiculturalist, feminist-empowerment movie were parroted all across the internet, accompanied by a gaggle of man-boys who chin-stroked over the Bechdel Test’s “uselessness” (because the movie wouldn’t pass) in the same year they’ve done everything else to discredit, discourage, and disdain women for speaking out about comics/movies/video games’ treatment of them (both in the actual works and industry practices). All of this strikes me as a greater symptom of corporate brainwashing: most of those who loved this movie in fact loved the marketing of the movie, and have thus made the product a cause to rally behind, trampling over dissenters.

This fanboyism isn’t exclusive: it certainly pops up in the psychotic rage over negative reviews of anything from the Marvel Studios Avengers Assembly line, Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, The Amazing Spider-ManThe Lord of the Rings/The Hobbit, or Star Trek Into Darkness. But with those there’s a logic to it, twisted as it is. The fandom there is rooted in books, TV shows, even other movies which took decades to develop their own sub-subcultures. Part of it was aided by marketing, sure (what isn’t?), but it went hand in hand with a genuine emotional response from people who became obsessed with what they saw, read, heard. This? This was packaged with the fanboy mania by shills and marketers, which is the worst kind of toxic.

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