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Can Jennifer ever forget Ben and find true happiness?


Was it only two months ago that I wrote the first half of this, when the focus of social media’s feminist ire was Joss Whedon’s serial philandering?

Two things have happened since then. I’ll address the second of these developments in the next, less frivolous post.

The first of the two major things that have happened since I wrote the previous piece is that ‘Justice League’ (directed, in the breach, by Whedon) came out and has lost Warner Brothers between US $50 – 100 million, making it – by this projection in ‘Forbes’, at any rate – along with ‘The Fantastic Four’, the worst performing super hero movie of modern times,.

How is it that the eagerly awaited Rat Pack summit of some of the most readily identifiable characters in popular culture fell so far short of fan’s expectations? Other notable efforts to film DC comics’ main super team never made it to the screen. The ‘lost’ Justice League film which most lamented by geeks is George Miller’s version, which ran aground in the writer’s strike. Snyder and Whedon deserve a little credit for getting the movie made at all, considering the property’s tortured track record.

Yet despite Whedon reshooting scenes of snarky dialogue (“competitive ice skating”, oh my sides, Joss) no amount of embellishing could salvage what Snyder had in hand: a series of Nineties ‘fan art’ screen savers, centred round the threat of the cinematic equivalent of a Photoshop-brush antagonist. Sorry, ‘The Lawnmower Man’, with Thanos following hot on the heels of Steppenwolf, the golden age of lacklustre CGI super villains is now.

It’s painfully clear from the movie’s staccato plot (this is really stretching the meaning of the word “plot”) that ‘Justice League’ was meant to be ‘Part One’, leading to the big reveal of Darkseid as the baddie in Part Two. Personal tragedy and the sheer logistics of rerouting an oil tanker the size of ‘Justice League’ (how does a movie make US $491 million and still lose money?) has not only done for this iteration of the ‘DCU’, most probably, but will lead to a substantial scaling-back of promotion of the forthcoming ‘Aquaman’ film. Which is a shame, because if ‘Justice League’ had given the thoroughly engaging Jason Momoa something to do besides crack wise and get his shirt off, it would have been a far more enjoyable movie.

As it stands, the only point of getting a team of super heroes together is to [spoiler] bring Superman back by dipping him in the crashed Kryptonian ship full of amniotic super soup, so that Kal-El can resolve the plot. In the first Justice League of America outing in 1960, when three giant starfish attack Earth, Gardener Fox avoided this trap by having Superman off smashing asteroids in space, somewhere. [/spoiler] I, for one, was disappointed that Aquaman’s pal Pete the puffer fish didn’t play as pivotal role in the genesis of the cinematic Justice League, as he did in the original comics. Surely this part would have justified a well-earned cameo by Kris Kristofferson.

The bar of expectations is now lowered for Whedon’s ‘Batgirl’ film – which is still on – and with less pressure that may make it a better film. Whedon’s former fans are still not over their sense of betrayal, though. The idea of rebooting Buffy for TV but with Jane Espenson running it, floated by some fans ahead of Whedon’s outing as a creep, doesn’t seem crazy at all in light of events.

Comic book characters, invented in the 1930s to entertain children and adolescents, have become instrumental to careers and to the business plans of giant entertainment conglomerates. This has led to these intellectual properties becoming the subjects of – it must be said, often disproportionately earnest – intense moral and political focus on both their subtexts and mass-production. The source material for super heroes was circus posters, Douglas Fairbanks on-screen acrobatics and hokey movie serials which were, themselves, cheap knock-offs of ‘Les Vampires’ and ‘Fantômas’.

Why is it that the ubergeeks running DC’s film franchises seem incapable of grasping what made ‘Wonder Woman’ a hit compared with their other efforts to date?

The culture wars fought in comics by liberals in the pre-internet Nineties – struggles to raise the overall standard of commercial comics and their derivative versions – have been lost, mostly. The level of social commentary and nuanced characterisation in Marvel’s superior TV shows ‘Jessica Jones’ and ‘Luke Cage’ is a pay-off to the emotional investment that their viewers make in long-form television. ‘Justice League’ is a flop because audiences don’t care about the characters, to put it bluntly. There simply isn’t enough on the screen of, say, Cyborg to really care about him. In ‘Justice League’, Wonder Woman is given hardly anything to do besides the unimaginative “kick-ass” role that male writers routinely assign to female characters rather than write original, fully-dimensional roles for women.

We can care a little bit more about Jennifer Garner as Elektra now that there’s another – equally cool – take on the role to compare hers to. The epic melodrama of her divorce from Sad Batman uh I mean from Ben Affleck is itself like a grim story arc from ‘Daredevil’ comics. It’s the accumulation of meta-narrative that now makes the Affleck ‘Daredevil’ interesting, in a way which his two turns as Batman aren’t (and neither are Clooney’s or Kilmer’s versions, if truth be told).

Whedon can also be thanked, a little, for giving rise to Buffy fandom and Buffy scholarship which continues to critique all of this. This quote, from Trish Salah’s ‘Of Activist Fandoms, Auteur Pedagogy and Imperial Feminism: From Buffy the Vampire Slayer to “I am Du’a Khalil”‘ stood out, recently:

It’s worth considering how the cult of the heroic meets the cult of the auteur director and also becomes the cult of the Feminist Man”

This remark encapsulated, for me, the problem that seems to reoccur in film spaces and fandoms generally, the problem of the male alpha geek, the baby-man superfan ruining everyone else’s fun.

Why is this kind of male fan so monotonously ubiquitous? He crops up with a regularity which has accelerated to the Ragnarok of sexual harassment recently which has included the resurfacing of Devin Faraci, and with Cinefamily folding (losing its woman projectionist in the process).

And what is it about essentially quite childish but often good natured escapism of men in skin-tight costumes harming one another physically for around an hour and twenty minutes that seems to attract as camp followers an interminable inundation of douche bags in cheap-looking, but actually really expensive, suits?

I sense it’s down to three things.

Auteurs making cults of themselves

Firstly, culture wars in politics seem unwinnable so those battles are being fought over commentary on the entertainment industry. Celebrity gossip, and gossip about films in particular, has become the default forum for watershed cultural moments like the Weinstein and Kevin Spacey scandals, and Cory Feldman’s allegations. (Since Bryan Singer is “sick” and off the Queen biopic, we may assume the nexus of proven sexual wrongdoing in Hollywood may be about to expand, exponentially).

Bloggers as film journalists – with access to movie studio’s scoops before release, which took over as the main kind of reportage of cinema fifteen or so years ago, replacing criticism of movies on release – established as its threshold of competence “are you alive, and able to go on a press junket?” Not “are you a good writer and/or journalist?”

That any kind of cultural discourse is now so rigged as to be unwinnable is mainly due to Russian interference in the last few years in the politics of most of Moscow’s geopolitical opponents. Russia’s cultural hacking has boosted the signals of a weird and loosely-knit confederacy of racists, misogynists, evangelicals, eco-fascists and other Nazis, marginal secessionist movements, trans-exclusionary radical feminists, ‘Left’ libertarians and other assorted wing nuts.

While the geopolitical impact of Russian “hybrid wars” can be exaggerated, the cultural impact of the Kremlin boosting the signal of Julian Assange, Breitbart, Milo et al is so obvious as to render any further elaboration of the point redundant. These are not normal times. This is not due to solar flares or a disturbance in the Force, but to the active gaming of civil society – including of the free press – by malign actors.

That Trump and Brexit were possible was to a great extent due to these malign actors capitalising on the habit of politicians in most open societies to chase after votes in an imaginary centre ground, while ignoring everyone perceived to be on the Right or Left wing flanks of a dwindling pool of folkloric, floating middle class-voters.

Political and cultural journalism has reduced itself to an emaciated husk by providing a running commentary on this dreary daytime soap opera of aspirational folk; a narration spewed out for the benefit of a public who were not listening, not interested, or who in many instances don’t exist. (‘The West Wing’ by “All my characters talk like Aaron” Sorkin remains the apogee of human achievement in the minds, not only of many professional journalists but also of professional politicians, too).

In the UK, how is it Ed Miliband crashed out of the Labour leadership by endorsing a racist mug but Jeremy Corbyn is unassailable, while propping up the Tory government’s overtly racist immigration policies encapsulated in a Hard Brexit? Ed only went as far as the mug, a middle class lifestyle widget aimed at Mumsnet bigots. Labour’s mistake then was to go after voters who require all political statements of principle to exist in a ceramic form before they can give them the consideration which they may be due. Corbyn’s retinue of NATO-hating mad Trots know that in order to seize power soon, the hard Left has to embrace the hard Right of Breitbart retweeting ghouls like Kate Hoey, a Member of Parliament who will never face deselection as long as Momentum’s got anything to do with it.

Something similar could be said in the USA of Howard Dean, who did a weird scream once, and killed his Presidential ambitions. Dean’s mistake wasn’t acting crazy. His mistake was not acting crazily enough. What he needed to do in order to get the Presidential nomination of the Democratic party, it transpires, was to satisfy the kind of demographic that wants their biases confirmed so badly that they’re prepared to believe Bernie Sanders or Jill Stein supporters when they tell them Hilary Clinton (a far from blameless candidate) would have been as bad as Trump.

Serious political and cultural commentary having reduced itself to reporting the applause on ‘The View’, movies now have a larger news footprint than most political events. With celebrities, especially film celebrities, there’s more attractive and compelling human melodrama to narrate than there is in politics. Agents and publicists exist to feed a tranche of clickbait-y websites that are part Social Justice-outrage talking points, and part celebrity gossip. The Marina Hyde ‘Lost in Showbiz’, chin-stroking variety of clickbait – which hides its celebrity gossip coverage behind a gossamer-thin pretence of meta-commentary on the significance of the unalloyed variety of gossip – can leech off more honest and hard working tabloid drivel, while harvesting page views to satisfy their dwindling advertiser-base. (What was once a serious newspaper now pays someone to put Instagram celebrities in their place).

A lot of that gossip is about dumb super hero movies because studios are also struggling to find audiences, in much the same way that corporations that used to run “newspapers” are struggling to find readers and advertisers. The cost of marketing ‘Justice League’ was US $150 million, half the production cost. It’s far less of a risk to market 70 year old comic book “brands” in the hopes of attracting a few generations to movie theatres, than to try new stuff. (And even then the ‘Justice League’ posters have picture of the character, their name and unique logo, and a branding element in case we can’t read and are face blind). This is why, although I like super heroes, the last thing Hollywood made which left any real and lasting impression on me was 2014’s ‘Nightcrawler’.

The cult of the heroic meeting the cult of the feminist male fan

The second reason that film spaces and pop culture forums, especially to do with comics, have accumulated so many predatory male alpha geeks is that fandoms, especially comics and movie fandoms, offer anyone trying to monetise online content an endless cycle of hot takes, blogs to respond to, and intense dissections of subtextual meanings. It’s the sheer quantity of deeply interconnected and emotionally-charged verbiage which gives it commercial – if not monetary – value.

All of this has been gift to both movie studios and to the likes of Harry Knowles and Devin Faraci. Being a socially dysfunctional obsessive is a powerful motivation to win the internet. The abuses of trust and power that went with that are obvious in hindsight. Yet for Hollywood, giving Faraci and his ilk exclusives meant their loyal geeks then aggressively and competitively boosted the signal of the studio’s products when more seasoned film journalists may have been more sceptical. You only have to look at the ridiculously easy ride that the music press has given R Kelly to see how inherently dangerous this kind of slavish and uncritical media coverage can be.

The downside is that, now, we can see that along with favouring bearded oddballs who sat up all night arguing on phpbb web bulletin boards about how awesome the new Hellboy movie is, with exclusive on-set photos, movie studios were also making celebrities of weird beardy men who used the same communications platforms to stalk, harass and organise their hectic schedules of assault and unwanted attention. Why do so many predatory creeps like Weinstein and Faraci claim to be feminists? Why do people rob banks? It’s where they keep the money.

In a similar way, when the cultural history of the hacker culture is written – following on from Bruce Sterling’s study of its beginnings – the recent era of Anonymous, Occupy, Julian Assange and his boy wonder Jacob Appelbaum will be partially explained not only by 4chan but also by the DNA lounge in San Francisco, often frequented by doyens of the web forum run by and for the comics writer Warren Ellis. While I’m not party to any evidence of any sort of criminality on Ellis’s part (and no juicy gossip, either, I’m afraid) I’ve personally witnessed him behaving in the most extraordinarily crass and unkind way to utterly blameless people, seemingly for no good reason whatsoever.

For many years, the tone of Ellis’s web forum mimicked his signature brand of adolescent temper tantrums. It was a space where the aggressively homophobic, snarky voices that previously hid under rocks on IRC channels found momentary validation from a somewhat famous comic book writer and his devotees. While the Guardian and Nick Davies must shoulder a lot of the blame for creating Julian Assange, the swamp that Assange slithered out of flowed from a minor tributary of Warren Ellis fandom in the late Nineties and early Norites, populated with hackers, cybergoths and “fetish models” on the make.

While film and theatre companies and TV shows are liable to reputational meltdowns due to an over-reliance on the public’s familiarity with “talent” to sell their wares, comics companies and the franchises linked to them have tended to tread a careful path. No one star or director is too big to fail and thereby take the entire franchise down with them, as Spacey’s career demise has nearly done for ‘House of Cards‘.

I was somewhat surprised by the aura of anti-Trump, feminist sentiment woven around ‘Rogue One’ by the male film-makers, since one of the screenwriters is the only house guest I’ve ever had cause to consider throwing out or calling the cops on. This was due to his borderline abusive treatment of his then-girlfriend, who’s also my friend. A film armada that can swap directors mid-shoot could have dumped a hooligan from Walthamstow and kept on going, I dare say.

It will be interesting to see how Marvel comics handles the incredibly disturbing accounts of writer Nathan Edmondson’s pattern of harassment of young female comics professionals at conventions. (His run on ‘Punisher’ earned the label “fascistic” for a character whose fascism is normally assumed, which must be some kind of achievement). The story about Edmondson pressurising a 20 year old woman to be photographed on his phone, so he could send the image on to Russell Brand, is particularly unsettling. And oh look, a “British TV presenter” and comics writer was sitting at the table saying nothing as all of this was going on. What a small world it is.

By not budging an inch to accommodate either Edgar Wright or Joss Whedon, Marvel has show that no talent is bigger than the brand. In a way this is an insurance against any devastating revelations in future (though the documentary ‘An Open Secret’ clearly indicates that Singer has left a breadcrumb trail that will, at least, sully Stan Lee’s memory retrospectively, assuming Singer’s moment of reckoning is close). People grumble about the dinosaur attitudes of former toy company boss Isaac “Ike” Perlmutter, Marvel’s chairman and former CEO, for example his scaling back Black Widow merchandise because he reckons “girl” super hero products don’t sell.

Yet, at least in terms of Marvel’s movies, Perlmutter has been sidelined by Kevin Feige, who seems to be an unobjectionable character. Marvel barely survived in the late Nineties and owes its existence to the merger with Perlmutter’s company in 1998. It’s hardly going to risk a Weinstein company-style melt down now.

Warner Brothers’ DC films are not so free of rancour, though. Wonder Woman star Gal Gadot, the nearest thing DC has to indispensible talent, won’t sign on for a second movie if Brett Ratner is involved, the producer having been accused of sexual harassment or assault by six women. This mirrors the firing of producer Andrew Kreisberg from DC’s ‘Arrowverse’ TV shows. Has DC just been unlucky or is there something about the group of properties besides their commercial value that’s made it more prone, somehow, to attracting dubious characters?

This brings me to the third and final factor that I feel has led to so much attention on movies based on intellectual properties that were only ever meant as lighthearted diversion for teenagers: financial speculation, and the toxic fanboys that often come with it. Along with the internet destroying journalism and democracy, and co-opting fandom, it’s helped turn everything into a commodified widget that can be traded and speculated on.

You can see the ruinous effect of this fire sale of culture in real time with the scandalous purchase this week of the LA Weekly by an empty suit called Brian Calle, who once wrote an article which started “Putin had no choice but to annex Crimea.”

Early on in its renaissance with Christopher Nolan’s ‘Batman’ films, DC got involved with private equity. This was in keeping with the way that the portentous ‘realistic’, collectable super hero art of Alex Ross was exhibited near to where bankers work and play.

There hasn’t been a mass shooting at a Marvel movie. There has at a ‘Dark Knight’ film bankrolled by the yacht-owning, Instagram supermodel-collecting types vilified in Costa-Gavras’s ‘Le Capital‘; the kinds of investor now familiar from Trump’s address to the Boy Scout’s Association of America and stories of Putin-backed oligarchs trapping politicians in compromising situations.

These facts may not be unrelated.