Monday, March 28, 2016

Dawn of Movie Narratives

If I start off telling you that Oedipus is akin to Batman or Superman, you're going to think I'm saying the play by Sophocles bears any comparison to the movies which have poured out of Hollywood since the '80's. If I mention the tendency of Shakespeare to use complex double plots in even his comedies, you're going to think I'm trying to compare the work of Zack Snyder to the Bard of Avon.

I'm not doing either of those things.  I'm certainly not trying to elevate comic book stories to the level of the greatest literature of the world.  Frank Miller is good; he's no Sophocles.  Superman and Batman have proven to be enduring characters; but they aren't on the level of Greek myth.  Part of that is because of the way our culture venerates Greek mythology over, say, Anglo-Saxon mythology.  We could have gone with Beowulf over Odysseus; but that's an argument for another time (or an "Easter egg," in modern movie criticism parlance.  And yes, I hope to draw all these threads together before the final scene.  We'll see if I can do it.)

There is a useful comparison between Oedipus and Batman; and it lies in story telling.  Let me start here and see if we can get somewhere.  Aristotle, in his Poetics, identified the elements necessary to a tragedy.  Some of them are so particular to Greek stagecraft (like "melody," which referred to the tune the Chorus chanted to.  Who uses a chorus as narrator as the Greeks did?) they are easily ignored; some, like the "tragic hero," have become touchstones for discriminating tragedy from drama.  But Aristotle insisted the story for a tragedy must be "complete," by which he meant the story began at the beginning of the play, and ended at the end.

And he used as his example of the exemplary tragedy the play he considered the greatest tragedy every written:  "Oedipus Rex," as it has come to us.  The problem is, "Oedipus Rex" violates Aristotle's dictum of "completeness."

Well, it does if you interpret it in a certain way.  Aristotle's standards have been reinterpreted over the centuries, partly out of necessity.  No one presents plays the way Aristotle would have understood them, so the essentials of Aristotle's argument had to prevail over the particular.  In the 18th century this meant discovering the "unities" of time, place, and plot, ideas that expanded on Aristotle's original observations and were used, among other things, to denigrate Shakespeare's "Othello," because it doesn't take place in the time it takes to watch the play (Act 1 begins in Venice, Act II takes up in Cyprus, which must be weeks later) or take place in one place.  It also involves the anger of Iago who, when the play opens, is plotting against Othello for reasons that occurred before the story begins.

Then again, so does "Oedipus Rex."  If you don't know the story of Oedipus and the Sphinx, you're never quite clear on why Thebes made Oedipus king when he showed up after King Laertes failed to return.  The play tells you Oedipus killed Laertes; it tells you the entire Oedipus tale, from prophecy to recognition, but it never explains the story of the Sphinx.  And it's Oedipus' defeat of the Sphinx which earned him the throne that leads to sleeping with his own mother.  It's what we could call a significant plot point, its absence a significant plot hole.

Except everybody in Athens knew the story before they sat down to watch Sophocles' version of it.

Just as most of us (well, certainly those of us going to the movies) know the origin story of Superman (born on Krypton, a planet exploding as he left, though why it was exploding has changed over the decades), or Batman, who watched his parents die in a robbery attempt (again, who shot them and why they were vulnerable to the robbery, whether it even was a robbery or actually an assassination, being details which have changed with practically every telling).  Even Sophocles' version of the Oedipus story is a version; it isn't the only way the story was told.

The same is true for Superman and Batman.   In the earlier days of Batman, Alfred the loyal butler was little more than a butler (that varied over time; at one point in the comics Alfred himself became a costumed crime fighter).  He's always been British because, well, butlers are British, aren't they?  In Miller's telling Alfred has training in military field medicine (a trait that carried over to Nolan's telling).  In "Batman v. Superman," Alfred is a mechanical engineer (rebuilding the "Batmobile" at one point) as well as a drone pilot (and according to at least one website a former SAS agent, though if that came up in the movie I missed it).    The essential, however, never changes:  Alfred is the British butler and closest confidante of Bruce Wayne.  The audience knows that going in; any change in Alfred's capabilities is accepted as a variation on a theme.  It doesn't violate the basic expectation of the characters.

And so Superman's girlfriend is Lois Lane.  In "Batman v. Superman," Clark and Lois live together, and she knows all about him, even saving his life more than once in the movie.  (She also makes goo-goo eyes at him once too often.  Ripley from "Alien" she's not, and Amy Adams deserves better.)  In the movie the relationship is more frankly adult than anything the comics have ever allowed themselves (or, more likely, been allowed).  Superman grows up in Kansas, his parents are the Kents,  his hometown is Smallville, etc., etc., etc.

If you go to "Batman v. Superman" and haven't seen "Man of Steel," you probably still understand who that woman is Superman goes to visit midway through the movie, and you may understand Jonathan Kent is dead in this version (in the comics the Kents were alive and well for a long time.  In "The Adventures of Lois and Clark" they were a prominent part of Superman's life.  So it goes.).  But if you didn't see "Man of Steel" you may wonder who that guy is talking to Clark in an arctic wasteland, and why he vanishes after he's contributed what he does to the story of Superman (there are two plots here:  the story of Batman, and the story of Superman.  The shortchanged character is Wonder Woman, who only shows up in the last 30 minutes; but we are promised a separate movie for her, so apparently that's okay.)

What I'm getting at is the mythology we create around these characters, and how we provide narratives of that mythology.  I was going to discuss the movie "Batman v. Superman," which despite the general critical consensus (which I think has to despise comic book movies as either unserious or, the critics favorite, a plot-less mess), I thoroughly enjoyed.  Yes, it runs for three hours (nearly!), and yes some members of my viewing party enjoyed it less than I; but I found the story interesting (even as it showed Bruce Wayne in training to take on Superman, which was probably a real low point for the people I was with) and coherent and to have actually a triple plot (as it turned out) which resolved itself into a coherent conclusion, even as it pointed to further story developments in movies yet to come.

And that latter point returns me to my thesis:  how do we tell these stories?  We all know the origin stories of Batman and Superman, yet Hollywood feels compelled to tell those stories again and again.  This isn't a bad thing, necessarily.  The first Thor movie was a bit thick trying to given an "origin" for Thor being on earth, but the origins of Iron Man were compelling (IMHO, anyway).  The origins of the Hulk have floundered (started over twice), as well as the Fantastic Four (don't even ask).  But despite the Christopher Reeves Superman series (where Marlon Brando played Jor-El, and did a terrible job.  I saw "B v. S" at the Alamo Drafthouse, my go-to theater for such movies because of the pre-feature film they put together.  This one did not disappoint, as a "Turkish Jor El", in subtitles, explained how Brando used cue cards for his role as Jor-El, refusing to memorize lines.  They then played the scene where Jor-El sends Clark to earth, but first has to make a speech over him.  It was not only terrible dialogue (I felt for the actor playing the mother, who had to look like she was listening to that drivel), but it was obvious Brando was reading it, not reciting it.  Anyway.....) which gave us the Superman origin (and used it in the end of that first movie), we got the origin again in "Man of Steel" (and again, used it to end the movie; badly, I thought, and I don't mean Superman killing Zod).  Christopher Nolan did the same thing with Christian Bale's Batman, but that was central to the story he told in the entire trilogy.

The point being, each time Batman or Superman appears on film in a new continuity with new actors (discarding the Keaton to Clooney series), we have to act like we've never heard of the hero until we get the origin story.  That this doesn't happen for Batman in "B v. S" just keeps the focus on Superman; Batman's history is presumed (for Superman, see "Man of Steel").  We see a shattered ruin that is clearly meant to be Wayne Manor, but more as it appears in "Kingdom Come" than any other version of Batman (in that story, Bruce Wayne is old, as he is in Miller's telling, but the mansion has been destroyed by the Joker and Bane, he tells Superman.  In "B v. S" Wayne walks through the pillared ruins of the house (he lives in some version, or maybe the original, Philip Johnson glass house, in the middle of the estate (where else would you put a glass house?)), the pillars are covered in graffiti, including question marks clearly meant to invoke the Riddler.  Yes, I'm a comic book geek.....).  There are other comics references, but I won't bore you now (maybe later).  We are supposed to know the story of Batman, and to understand this is a Batman with some experience on him.  He even has a museum of sorts in the Batcave, but it's a grim reminder of failures, not a parade of triumphs.

And again, if you don't catch the references, it's because you don't know the mythology.

Sophocles, as I say, did the same thing.  Everyone in his original audience knew the story of Oedipus and the Sphinx, Sophocles had no reason to add that particular bit of exposition to a play redolent with exposition (everything has happened to Oedipus before the play begins; the action of the play is just Oedipus learning about it).  I prefer "Antigone," actually, on this point:  the action of that play is the tragedy.  The story unfolds as we watch, not as new characters arrive with another piece of the Oedipus puzzle.  But if you don't know the story of "Oedipus Rex," "Antigone" doesn't make a lot of sense; and, of course, without those two, "Oedipus at Colonus" is a closed book.  Shakespeare's tragedies, by comparison, are much more self-contained and complete (and yes, Shakespeare did repeat characters:  Falstaff from the Henry IV plays reappears in "The Merry Wives of Windsor").

Comic books are not tragedies or plays, but movies are plays of a sort.  Comic books are closer to modern mythology, although they are mythology of the "Beowulf" class:  the heroes embody virtues society praises and venerates.  The Oedipus myth is mostly about the Greek concept of creation and reality (chaos v. logos, and chaos eventually wins.  Think comic books where the villains aren't vanquished and generally prevail).  But movies being plays is where we run into the problem, and it's because of the salient feature of plays that sets them apart from every other form of literature.

No narrator.

This is actually a key factor in Aristotle's definition of tragedy.  The story, he said, must be presented, not told.  "Presented" means it must be acted, not described or recited.  Movies have struggled with this since their beginning.  There's a portion of "B v. S" which is without dialogue, as we watch Bruce Wayne train to build up his muscle mass.  It might be a slow part of the movie for some, but it gives us a physical Batman who wears a fabric (not kevlar reinforced rubber) costume, and who looks like he has the muscles for the suit (rather than the suit making him look muscular).  He's competing with Superman, after all, who clearly doesn't have to work out (what would Superman bench press?) in the  "looks like a comic book super hero" competition.

So movies have to present, but they also now have to tell a story that is connected to other stories (as comic books have been doing for decades).  This, however, is a problem.

We accepted that the Harry Potter movies were a series because we knew the books they came from.  Each book was self-contained, but each book also built on the one before; try watching the last Harry Potter film if you haven't seen the first 7.  In the last Avengers movie there is a scene with Thor which makes no sense in terms of the plot of the film, except to inspire Thor to return for the final battle (although why is still a mystery).  Presumably that's answered in a movie yet to come; and, of course, what happened to The Hulk?  Will he never be able to play hide the zucchini with Natasha? (Don't blame me, Tony Stark started it!).  Do these things spoil the movie, or fit within the framework of the MCU the audience for these films is probably interested in?

Here's the thing:  movies either stand alone, or they create a series with a series of improbabilities.  "The Thin Man" was so popular it spawned "After the Thin Man," a movie that takes up where the first movie ended.  You don't need to know the first movie to enjoy the second, but it helps to keep you from wondering what some of the dialogue is about, and some of the opening action.  James Bond, on the other hand, has no continuity at all, save for M and Spectre and Moneypenney, and soon that overall lack of continuity became ridiculous; except the Daniel Craig story arc (which tried a new direction) didn't last much beyond "Quantum of Solace" and petered out entirely in "Skyfall."  "Spectre" was, by all accounts, a disaster, so maybe continuity and James Bond movies are just incompatible.  Continuity can create the soap opera effect:  the next film is impenetrable to the uninitiated.  But lack of continuity creates a cartoon character, as happened to James Bond.  So there is always this narrative problem:  how complete is complete enough?  And is complete sometimes too complete, allowing for no further storytelling without massive and deadening amounts of exposition, or just a cartoon character whose story is retold in a series of ever more ridiculous movies that all come to resemble each other?

The other problem is:  movies are not novels; they are short stories.

Despite the fact movies are more often adapted from novels than short stories, movies are not novels. They cannot portray a story with the complexity of a novel.  "B v. S" runs for nearly three hours, but it cannot go any deeper into any of the characters (Amy Adams' Lois Lane gets particularly short shrift:  is she a strong, independent adult, or a woman who needs Superman to take care of her physical and emotional needs?  The movie can't seem to decide, and fails toward the latter, poorer choice.)  Minor characters are adjuncts, major characters must be limned in broad strokes in order to get on with the story.  Even a movie version of the Iliad reduces the story to as bare a narrative as possible, and any version of the Odyssey inevitably dwells on the spectacle (Cyclops!  Men turned to pigs!  Sirens!) rather than the complexity of the character of Odysseus.  What we expect of movies is what Poe expected of short stories:  if you can't tell the story in one sitting, you're doing it wrong.  And if you need more than one movie to do it, again:  you're doing it wrong.

Except we also like it this way (narratives overlapping and connecting with other movies), else why  would Marvel and Disney imagine an MCU, and make it happen?  Besides, does anyone think they're going to stop making "Star Wars" movies anytime soon?

So it comes to this for movie critics:  they can fight a rearguard action defending an idea of movie story telling that they think must be defended ("No plot" is my favorite.  Damning when the movie is a comic book movie, but not when it's a Marx Brothers movie or "Napoleon Dynamite."  And then there are the reviews where I wonder if the critic and I saw the same film, because the plot summary provided is so wildly off what I just saw.  This is where Shakespeare's multiple plots comes in (see., e.g., "Midsummer Night's Dream"):  are modern critics incapable of following the action, or do they just think sneering at plot is a kind of insight?), or they can climb on board the shiny new bus and extol another blockbuster whose only real purpose to exist is to sell tickets.  "B v. S" is clearly in the latter category.  It provides what I (and apparently many others) go to movies to see:  enormous spectacle.   I realize that puts "B v. S" on par with "Cleopatra," but so be it.  If Shakespeare hadn't included sword play in his tragedies, as well as word play, his actors would have been splattered with food long before the fifth act.

Interestingly, and if I get a chance to see it again I can comment more intelligently on this, there is a lot of religion in "Batman v. Superman."  Not in the hyperactive way we're used to now, but more as part of the lives of the characters.  The film opens with the final fight from "Man of Steel" as seen by people on the streets the buildings are crashing into and, in one case, a man standing in an office as the heat vision of the Kryptonians slashes through the building.  He offers a prayer to God for his own soul before we know he is a body in that pile of rubble that crashes to the ground.  There are other references that don't involve Lex Luthor's obsession with Superman as an earthbound god which add an unusual richness to an otherwise comic book movie references I don't recognize from any of the source material clearly used in this film (that being "Kingdom Come," as I mentioned; "The Dark Knight Returns" by Frank Miller, and "The Death of Superman," at least.).  Those references are not casually thrown in for "color," and also are not dominant themes of the film.  But an examination of religion in this movie (it was badly overstated in "Man of Steel," casually understated here) might repay the effort.  I'm sure Religion Dispatches will be on that before I am; I'm also sure I won't like what they have to say.

Go and please the world.

We continue to use myth to tell ourselves stories about who we are and who we want to be.  As of old, these myths are not rooted in actual events which have become distorted over time (that's a condescending view of myth that we should have discarded by now), they are metaphors for making concrete things that are too abstract to discuss easily.   Wonder Woman, for example, is a warrior in this telling.  She gets the sword I only know from "Kingdom Come" and a warrior's zeal that made my wife think she was supposed to be Xena (the costume, too, is not the star spangled panties and American eagle breastwork we've come to expect, so that threw her; that, and the character is never called "Wonder Woman.").  It's that retelling that's most interesting, just as Batman's costume is so monotone the huge flattened bat logo on the chest is almost invisible, but all the more sinister for being so.  And don't get me started on a Batman who kills with impunity....

We continue to try to make sense of who we are and what we want from the world; and we continue to tell stories in order to help us do that.  As ever, the medium is at least part of the message.


  1. And don't get me started on a Batman who kills with impunity....

    Sheesh! I just hope he doesn't waterboard Lex Luthor's henchman to find the secret evil lair.

    I'm sure you recall as well as I that never taking a human life was absolute for both Batman and Superman in the old DC comics. I guess it looks kind of Pollyannish now, but it got me thinking along those lines as a kid in a way I've never gone back on.

  2. Even Miller's Batman won't kill, not even to stop the Joker, who is a mass murderer in that telling.

    Of course, in this version, Superman started it.....