Tuesday, March 29, 2016

A spoiler-filled discussion of BATMAN V. SUPERMAN

Because at least one person demanded* it! My spoiler discussion of Batman v. Superman!

*asked politely

I don't want to repeat too many points from my original review, so if there's something here you're disappointed I didn't touch on, you might want to check the older post out. You've been warned - venture beyond here and you're gonna get spoiled.

The Senate explosion - I already talked about how confusing the whole Africa subplot was, and that storyline comes to an abrupt halt with the explosion in the Senate chamber. It felt completely false that there was zero fallout in the rest of the story. It feels like there's not any urgency at all to finding out who blew up the legislative branch of the government. At a minimum, a dozen Senators and a whole mess of spectators had to have been killed there. You mean to tell me no one cares? Why isn't Batman trying to piece together what happened? Why isn't Clark Kent, investigative reporter on the trail?

Superman's inaction after the blast really bugs me too. I can accept him being caught flatfooted by the bomb, but why isn't he zooming through the wreckage, rushing to help survivors? Or maybe he could at least put out the fire? Check to make sure there's not another bomb?

"Martha" - This is already becoming a much-mocked point in the film. Batman is about to kill Superman with a kryptonite spear when Superman starts begging him to save his mother, Martha. This gives Bruce pause, and several critics have mocked the idea that Batman can't kill him just because their mothers share the same name. I'm a little torn on this point. It does feel a little like the writer is impressed with their own cleverness in noting that the characters have mothers of the same name.

But stepping back, I think the real intent here is that Batman is surprised that this alien has a mother with a human name. It's the first real indication he has that this all-powerful being has some kind of genuine tie to humanity. It's a beat that would have worked better if we sensed real conflict in him about taking another life. Batman's moral code is usually against killing. In this film, he's faced with a threat that he believes MUST be killed or else the entire human race is at stake. (Really, it parallels the same dilemma that Superman was faced with in the earlier film when it came to stopping Zod.) But if he really believes there's no other way to save mankind, what else can he do?

If we believe he can only rationalize this by seeing Superman as some kind of otherworldly being, then the moment that humanizes Superman would complicate that. It might even make him see Superman for what he really is rather than what he fears him to be. All the pieces are there for this, but the execution is only about 50% successful.

The Justice League files - This didn't bug me as much as it did some viewers, but it's still annoying that the film stops dead for three minutes so that Wonder Woman can watch video files that amount to being short teasers for other DC films. Within the context of the film, the idea that Luthor has been gathering intel on other super beings isn't a bad idea, it's the execution that's lacking. I don't think this ties enough back into the main plot, but the greater sin is that none of these teasers are especially interesting.

Too many dreams! - I struggle to see what purpose was served by the nightmare Bruce has inside his parents tomb. Was someone afraid we'd forget his parents were murdered.

That Flash scene -  You know that guy who appears to Bruce in the Bat Cave in what appears to be a dream? That's the Flash. I know he doesn't look much like any version who's appeared before, but the scene itself is a riff on a similar moment in Crisis on Infinite Earths. That moment was a case where Flash - in his final moments of life - is running so fast that he starts popping in and out of the timeline. He appears to Batman at a point just before the crisis starts and offers a warning of what's to come.

So why would they cast this moment as a dream inside the film? It might have been more straight-forward to make it clear to the audience that we're dealing with some kind of time travel. Of course, there's also the problem that this beat doesn't have any relevance beyond teasing JUSTICE LEAGUE. At the very least, Flash's warning should have had some bearing on Batman's actions within this film. As it stands now, it's completely gratuitous and it has the benefit of being incomprehensible to any of the audience not familiar with the comics.

Batman's nightmare - Here's the big one. At first blush, it seems to just be a paranoid nightmare about what Bruce fears Superman could become unchecked. That's a point that's made so many places elsewhere that we don't really need to burn valuable screentime on it here. However, there are indications something MUCH more is going on with this dream. The Omega symbol Batman sees is an icon often used to represent the villainous New God Darkseid, and the flying creatures that attack Bruce bear a not inconsiderable resemblance to Darkseid's parademons. All of this relies on information Bruce doesn't have, so it's likely some kind of premonition.

I don't like the concept of giving Batman psychic dreams, no matter how artfully shot. It seems like an easy way to give him information he couldn't get otherwise. It's even more annoying since this thread isn't really resolved in this film. It's the "Thor takes a bath" sequence from AGE OF ULTRON. It looks great on screen, but it's also kind of a momentum killer.

This is also the sequence that gives me serious misgivings about JUSTICE LEAGUE. One of the very first Darkseid stories I read involved him capturing Superman and attempting to brainwash him into being one of his minions. It's a storyline that's been revisited a number of times, including a storyline on the animated series where Darkseid actually succeeded and a mind-controlled Superman led his conquest of Earth. I really, really hope that we're not teed up to get a JUSTICE LEAGUE movie where Superman is the bad guy. BvS already gives Superman short-shrift, and turning him evil, even temporarily would be an even more gross mishandling of the character.

The Death of Superman - *sigh* Ever since the comic book storyline of Superman's death and return broke sales records, WB has had an itch to retell it onscreen somehow. The death and return of Superman was central to the aborted SUPERMAN LIVES (the 90s project that had Tim Burton, Nicholas Cage and Kevin Smith attached), it was an element in the J.J. Abrams script that was killed to make room for Superman Returns, and it was the first DC Animated film.

The comic book storyline is actually a trilogy and it's pretty great. "Doomsday" is mostly a slugfest that culminates in Superman's death, but the next chapter, "Funeral for a Friend" is a well-crafted, emotional series of stories about how the world copes with Superman's death. It's a high point of that era of comics and it leads into "Reign of the Superman," where four Supermen show up, each one claiming to be the real deal.

Those are some my favorite Superman stories, but they're virtually unadaptable. The animated movie makes the problems abundantly clear. Killing Superman is a major climax. If you put it at the end of a film, with the intent to follow up in the next chapter, your movie ends on a major downer. But if you place it earlier in the story, you run the risk of creating an anticlimax. On top of that, for his death to have ANY weight at all, you're now stuck with a story where your lead character has to be inert for a decent amount of time so you can build up to his return. And if you want to give his return the same kind of triumphant buildup as in the comic storyline, you'll have to jam a lot of story into a two-hour period.

But this is the situation that JUSTICE LEAGUE now has to deal with. We open with a dead Superman, probably who will be resurrected by Darkseid to act as his herald on Earth. Batman v. Superman closes with a funeral (and a small hint of resurrection), thereby killing any feel-good buzz that might have drawn audiences back to theatres for a second viewing.

Worse, they don't just kill Superman - they kill Clark Kent. In the comics, Clark was merely missing and presumed dead during the period Superman was deceased. It forced Clark to be creative in explaining his absence once he was revived, but ultimately it was no real problem for him to resume his life. Right now, the world not only knows Clark is dead, but they've seen the body! It completely screws over any solo Superman stories in the franchise later.

Reporter Clark Kent didn't emerge until the final scene of MAN OF STEEL, and even in BVS, it feels like the script doesn't have much to give Clark to do in his day job. The scenes of him at the Daily Planet feel perfunctory, and Cavill seems robbed of the chance to create a true alter ego in the way that Christopher Reeve did. Clark Kent is a vital part of the mythos and I can't imagine a Superman film where he's a full-time Superhero, with no day job for Kent.

If we're being brutally honest here, even if I focus on the positive elements in Batman v. Superman, almost every moment that was there to set up later films made me actively dread what awaits us down the line. The sole exception to this is Wonder Woman. I don't think that's the reaction WB was trying to foster with all the franchise foreshadowing.

Monday, March 28, 2016

What kind of ignorant fool thinks Batman HAS to be R-rated?

A few weeks back it was announced that when Batman v. Superman hits bluray, it will be with a special R-rated cut that's 30 minutes longer. On the surface, there's optimism that the additional 30 minutes of footage could restore some coherence to story threads I found flawed in my original review. But as a matter of principle, I find it troubling that we've reached the point of an R-rated Superman & Batman film.

I expressed that perspective on Twitter and among the responses was someone who said, "Have you ever read a Batman comic? They're dark! Batman NEEDS to be R-Rated!"

You, sir, are an idiot.

If it was one isolated ignoramus spouting this, I'd be inclined to let it roll off of my back, but in the last week or so, I've seen this attitude displayed with more frequency. Couple that with the rather angry defensiveness of fans defending this film from its detractors, and we have symptoms of a much larger problem within the audience for comic book films.

One of my earliest exposures to Batman comics was a hardcover collection available in my library: Batman from the 30s to the 70s. The volume collected representative tales from the character's first forty years in print, the noir-ish stories of the 30s, the capers of the 40s, the goofy sci-fi of the 50s and 60s, and the more serious takes of the 70s. Shockingly, all of them were all-ages appropriate, even the more maturely written entries from the Denny O'Neil era that concluded the compilation. Concurrent with this, I discovered reruns of the Adam West Batman TV series, which takes a far campier approach to its subject. At the time, my interests veered towards the goofier and light-hearted stories, but there was nothing that made the more mature era off-limits for me, even at the age of seven or eight.

And then came 1989. I watched the Joker savagely beat Robin with a crowbar in a sequence that felt excessively violent for its time, but today feels practically quaint.

This was also the year that Tim Burton's BATMAN film came out. Post-Nolan, the film feels infused with a fair amount of goofiness, but at the time, this felt like a dark, grim interpretation of the Caped Crusader. For every silly Joker antic that threatened to pull the film towards camp, there was a brutal act of violence. The Batmobile is equipped with machine guns, and there are several instances of Batman committing murder - or at least attempted murder. There's nastiness like the Joker frying a guy alive on-screen, the facial scars he gives to his girlfriend, and the intensity of the moment where the Joker (but not us) becomes aware of his transformation.

Somehow my brother and I convinced our parents to take us to see it in the theater. I was nine. He was seven. That was probably just up against the age of being appropriate for the film, but the tone still felt mostly within bounds of what you'd expect in a Batman comic. It wasn't until after that I read Frank Miller's THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS. Up to that point, it was possibly the most violent and most grim Batman story told. Owing to my age, I really didn't "get" the story. In fact, I'm sure I "read" it six or seven times as a kid and I'd still struggle to come up with a coherent synopsis. I just liked the art. The stuff I wasn't ready to get, I just ignored. And by the time I was old enough to "get" it, I decided I really didn't like Frank Miller's take on the character. (YEAR ONE notwithstanding.)

And you know what? Still not R-rated.

My biggest period of collecting Batman comics was a five year range from 1989-1994. A Death in the Family. Year Three. A Lonely Place of Dying. Robin, The Joker's Wild, Cry of the Huntress, Knightfall, KnightQuest, KnightsEnd, Prodigal. All of these were defining Batman tales of that era, and in their worst moments they're probably a tame PG-13.

The Knight saga even ends up being a criticism of those who wanted their Batman to be a brutal take-no-prisoners type. In short, Batman's back is broken and he ends up yielding the mantle of the Bat to Azrael. Eventually Azrael goes further and further over the edge, culminating in a moment where he leaves a criminal to die and indirectly results in the death of an innocent. By that point, the fans were ready for Bruce Wayne to regain his title, and the third act of that storyline saw that indeed happen. It was a clever move during an era where comics seemed to be becoming more bloodthirsty and unrelentingly violent. The creators answered the call for a more brutal Batman by giving the fans exactly what they wanted... and showed them how much they'd hate it.

From that point on, I checked in on Batman sporadically, enough to know that as late as just before the 2011 relaunch New 52, Batman was not a book where you'd regularly find disturbing, lurid violence. Violent things would happen, but only in rare cases would they be depicted in a fashion that went beyond good taste. I can only think of

I'm aware of a few instances in the New 52 storyline where good taste has taken a holiday. But even if everything since that relaunch was drenched in blood and guts, we'd be talking about less than a five-year span in a 77 year history.

I read and purchased comics regularly from 1986 up to 2011 and I can count on one hand the number of moments that demanded to be translated to screen in an R-rated fashion. I completely reject the notion that even if we're limiting our range to the "modern" era of Batman where most current readers grew up, the only good Batman story is an R-rated one.

A good Batman/Superman story is the sort of thing that REALLY doesn't need to be ultra-violent. It just needs to understand the characters. One of the more regrettable failings of Batman v. Superman is that for all the time they spend in conflict, the resolution of that conflict is lacking and without real resonance.  I went in expecting the movie might adapt one of my favorite moments involving those two.

In the Post-Crisis continuity, there was tension early on between the two heroes, most of it coming from Superman, who disliked Batman's methods of operating outside the law. That soon turned to a grudging respect of each other, even if there was an undercurrent of mistrust. The storyline "Dark Knight Over Metropolis" resolved that as the two of them worked a case together and Superman gained a new respect for Batman's abilities.

The MacGuffin that brought Batman to Metropolis was a kryptonite ring, though Batman kept that detail private while he and Superman worked to bring down an evil organization called Intergang. At the end of the case, Batman gave the ring to Superman, revealing he had it the entire time. Impressed, Superman later pays a call to Batman in the Batcave in this wonderfully written moment by Roger Stern, art by Bob McLeod.

By entrusting Batman with the ring, all the tension between the two was put aside. It established there was no one more than the Dark Knight whom Superman trusted to get the job done in the name of justice. It also showed Batman that Superman was wise enough to understand his own power could not go unchecked, and that he saw the pragmatic need for countermeasures. This moment would be called back to in stories over the next several years.

That's the moment that Batman v. Superman should have built towards, the connection and resolution between these opposing forces. It even plays into the themes of power and accountability that already permeate the film. And you know what? It doesn't require a single bullet to the head, or snapped neck or barrage of bullets. It doesn't even require a thrown punch.

I'm sure a great many Batman fans would agree with me. No matter how vocal the contingent of the uninformed is, I'd like to think they represent a minority. And yet, there's this weird notion that the more violent something is, the more mature it is. Is it strange to root for the fact that a film is R-rated when you haven't even seen it to know if the PG-13 cut feels neutered?

Even at PG-13, there are moments that feel like they have more of a nasty edge than Nolan's trilogy. An early scene shows terrorists executing a man. Even though the killshot isn't shown, the moment feels ugly in a way that, say, a similar execution of a bank robber in The Dark Knight doesn't.

An audience that cheers an R-rated cut, sight unseen, is the sort of bloodthirsty arrested adolescent that I don't want my entertainment pandering to. I want you to understand I'm not decrying the very concept of graphic violence. I shudder to think of what a PG-13 cut of Saving Private Ryan would look like. Reducing Pulp Fiction to a PG-13 would distort and eviscerate Tarantino's voice. That material demands a certain willingness to push boundaries.

But if you're coming to me with the argument that the only good Batman story can be R-rated, you're an idiot. Seriously, go fuck yourself and educate yourself about the topic. Those glorious blood-soaked violence fests that you DEMAND be reproduced in all their gratuitous fashion? They're aberrations. Just because they're aggressive doesn't make them mature.

In fact, the same goes for you.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

My spoiler-free review of BATMAN V. SUPERMAN

Note: I've taken pains not to directly spoil anything that hasn't been exposed in the trailers. Even when discussing the ending, I've done so in terms that shouldn't blow any of the many, many surprises for viewers. I suspect the comments will be rife with spoilers and if you want, you can find spoiler-heavy follow-up post here.

BATMAN V. SUPERMAN is a complicated film to review for a lot of reasons. There are incredible moments that land with strong visual impact, coupled with some decisions that I struggle to justify. It's not as simple as it being a rip-roaring crowdpleaser or a total off-the-rails mess. Director Zack Snyder and credited screenwriters Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer clearly mounted this film with a lot of ambition. There are some weightier themes here than are usually dealt with in superhero films (though the comics have long covered similar ground.) The risk of flying so high is that now and then, you're gonna glide too close to the sun.

The casting of Ben Affleck was one of the earliest sources of fanboy rage on this project. As I suspected then, the results seem poised to make those detractors eat their words. Affleck's Batman owes a lot to the Frank Miller Batman - for both better and worse - but he's very recognizably Bruce Wayne. His outfit might be the best Bat-costume on film and Affleck looks equally at home in a tux and beating the ever-loving snot out of gun wielding nutcases. There will be rioting from the "Batman doesn't kill" crowd as the Batmobile's machine guns are decidedly non-lethal, but anyone who rationalized Burton's Batman won't have to reach any further than that here.

Continuing the tradition of casting announcements setting of fanboy rage, Gal Gadot got her share of attacks, and again, Snyder knew what he was doing. Gadot's role is small, but when she unleashes the lasso and bracelets, the result is nothing short of crowd-pleasing. There's a glorious moment mid-battle where she's battered back by her opponent and for a moment, almost seems to relish being able to cut loose. Owing to the film's more mature target audience, we'll probably still see more little girls dressed as Rey than Wonder Woman this Halloween, but her solo film next year is going to open HUGE. Seeding her in here was smart, despite the flak the filmmakers got for not jumping straight to a solo film. Most audiences are going to walk out of this movie hungry for more, and a great victory of BVS is how it is an excellent springboard for solo films featuring Batman and Wonder Woman.

I wish I could say that it does the same for future standalone Superman films.

Longtime readers of this site know that I've been a lifelong Superman fan, and so I'm accustomed to vastly different interpretations of the mythos. Generally even if there's an interpretation I don't like, I find it pretty easy to ignore. I'm less concerned with 100% fidelity to the comics I loved than I am in just getting a good story revolving around the character. You can poke around all my old Superman posts for evidence of that, but the fact that I loved both SUPERMAN RETURNS and MAN OF STEEL for very different reasons probably speaks to the diversity of incarnations I can enjoy.

Three years on, the destruction of Metropolis and the killing of Zod is still very much a sore point for a segment of Superman fans. In this film, they find an ally - Batman. Bruce Wayne's been stoking a deep mistrust of the all-powerful being ever since that day in Metropolis. In one of the film's most effective scenes, we experience the Battle of Metropolis from a street-level perspective through Bruce Wayne's eyes. Some see a savior in their visitor from the stars, he sees only a destructive alien who we need a countermeasure against.

Lex Luthor shares that view, though he's decidedly less motivated by the greater good, than by his own power-hungry nature. (And possibly... something else, as the ending suggests.) Jesse Eisenberg proves to be the right man for the job of embodying this interpretation of Lex. He's brilliant, he's dangerous and is possibly insane. There are a couple holes in the logic of his plan. (He claims credit for having masterminded a long-game clash of these titans, but some of that isn't entirely borne out on screen. Also, when he unleashes Doomsday, one wonders how in the world he planned to stop the beast from destroying Metropolis after it took out Superman.)

I like that the film attempts to grapple with the impact a powerful being like Superman would have on the world. When you've got a demi-god who can act unilaterally, there's understandably going to be a concern about whose interests he represents. Superman's entrance into the film comes rescuing Lois Lane from an African terrorist camp. Inexplicably, he's blamed for a loss of life there. The culprit might be either unclear writing or the result of editing, but this plot is unfurled so confusingly it's hard to understand how he's considered culpable. (I'm not even sure exactly who was killed by the actual bad guys in that scene, and considering the only innocent is the reporter ON SCENE who's saved by Superman, I don't get at all how this incident ends up a black mark against Superman.) There's also a big turn in this story about midway through that gets amazing little follow up.

As we see in montage, Superman has done a lot of good for the world too. Most of these gorgeous shots have been revealed in trailers, and I had assumed some of these incidents - like Superman aiding flood victims, Superman intervening in a rocket explosion - would have been awesome set piece sequences. Instead they're a montage and it puts us at a remove from Superman's own internal perspective.

The first half of the film makes a deliberate decision to stage most of Superman's heroics from a street-level vantage point. The flood moment is a good example. We see the victims looking up to their savior, and while Snyder's shot composition is gorgeous, it projects Superman as a god hovering above the peasants. He's not rushing to the rescue, he's floating above them, observing. There's an emotional distance between him and us.

Contrast that with the best sequence in MAN OF STEEL, the moment when Clark first takes flight. There's genuine elation and joy in that moment. We see Clark's face at every step. We feel his exhilaration at being finally able to cut loose. It's a WOW moment that invites the audience to experience that own power fantasy and wish fulfillment. We relate to the guy who feels the wind in his hair. It's harder to feel anything for the cold demi-god who's seemingly staging his own Messiah imagery.

And that's why despite the presence of a lot of a lot of elements of the Superman mythos - Lois Lane, Lex Luthor, Perry White, the Daily Planet, Ma Kent - this feels very much like a Batman story with special guest stars from another franchise. The movie doesn't give Clark Kent's perspective quite the same emotional identification as it does Bruce Wayne's. This is not to say that we don't get scenes that try to let us in to Superman's thought process, but the overall tone and imagery tips the balance to the Bat agenda.

Particularly in the first half, it's troubling how alienated the film is from Superman's inner arc. The angst mined here doesn't land as successfully as it did in MAN OF STEEL, and even though Superman's arc eventually comes around to a place where I felt more positively towards him, that's not without its own problems. This isn't entirely the sacrilege committed upon the character within Frank Miller's work, but the film misses an opportunity to make the clash of champions more effective by playing Superman in the same tone as Batman.

There's a brutality to some of the violence here that exceeds even the Nolan Batman films - and I'm not talking about the superhero feats. Snyder doesn't quite drag things all the way into WATCHMAN levels of bleakness, but he gets a little too close for my comfort. Surely that's Snyder's prerogative but it would have been great to walk out of this movie with a little more of an uplifting sense. A film need not be as weightless as some of the weaker Marvel installments to achieve this.

As I exited the theater, I found myself wishing that Snyder and his collaborators had attended one of The Black List's talks with renowned "script whisperer" Lindsay Doran. I hope I don't mangle her point, but the focus of her talk is how positive psychology can help craft a more satisfying viewing experience. One example she uses is ROCKY. The hero loses the big fight there, but few remember that because the emotion of that moment is still uplifting. Rocky "goes the distance" and he shares that achievement with Adrian.

Not to get too far afield, but I encourage anyone interested in writing to check out this NYT article focusing on Ms. Doran.

"Ms. Doran’s second 'aha!' moment came when she consulted a veteran market researcher who oversees hundreds of previews annually. 'I listed the five elements of well-being, and he said, 'I can already tell you one thing: Audiences don’t care about accomplishments.'' She was thunderstruck. Wasn’t the Hollywood ending about accomplishment?

"No, he said, adding: 'Audiences don’t care about an accomplishment unless it’s shared with someone else. What makes an audience happy is not the moment of victory but the moment afterwards when the winners shares that victory with someone they love.' So she mentally rewound the concluding scenes of these 'accomplishment' films. Ms. Grey leaps into the arms of Patrick Swayze at the end of 'Dirty Dancing,' and after that she reconciles with her father. Jaden Smith performs that impossible kick at the end of 'The Karate Kid,' but afterward makes peace with his opponent and shares the moment with his mother and trainer. Colin Firth conquers his stammer at the end of 'The King’s Speech,' and then shares his victory with his wife, daughters and the crowds cheering outside the palace. The film closes with a title card that reads that the king and his speech therapist remained friends for the rest of their lives."

That element is missing in BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE. The film very deftly sets up other pieces of WB/DC's cinematic universe, including a completely surprising dream sequence/vision that appears to homage a major storyline familiar to longtime fans. (This is NOT the dream that has been teased in the trailers, by the way.) But any anticipation for future installments comes from those, not the ending, which left me more emotionally unengaged than I wanted to be.

It's also an ending that complicates any future solo Superman films, as some key elements to the mythos have been taken off the table in a way that will be hard to reverse without massive contrivance. Doors are opened for Batman and Wonder Woman, but I'm left with the concern that no one will walk out of this movie craving a return of the Henry Cavill Superman. Candidly, that might even be acceptable if I felt this film dealt with Superman in a way that satisfied at least within the constraints of this installment. Alas, I don't.

The R-Rated cut is supposedly 30 minutes longer, so perhaps there are sequences that restore the balance to Superman's story there. I can only judge the movie in release. Despite the presence of a lot of awesome, the big miss on Superman mars it. I don't think it's a bad movie, and I respect its ambition. When I'm hungry for superhero battles, I'll probably turn to it before THE AVENGERS, but when I'm hungry for a great Superman film... it won't be my first choice.

This is not a film that invites passive viewing. More than likely viewers will walk out with plenty to process and certainly elements to argue about. I wish I looked forward to that conversation, but after three years of seeing fighting about MAN OF STEEL, I lack faith in substantive discourse.

Monday, March 21, 2016

"It gets really good 7 episodes in"

TV shows evolve over time. Certainly if you were to watch the first couple episodes of Seinfeld, you'd find them to be strange, slightly stilted and slow affairs, lacking the complex structure and quotable dialogue that made the show one of the last true mega-hits of the TV boom. And yet, you can still see the germs of genius, the voice that was unlike anything else on TV at the time. It's not honed or polished yet, but it is distinct.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is another show that took a season and a half to evolve into its ideal form. The moment "shit got real" is when Buffy lost her virginity to Angel, triggering his reversion to his evil personality and completely upending any sense of safety within the show. For that matter, the spinoff show starring Angel himself took at least 11 episodes to truly find its footing. It needed that time before its voice emerged and it found where it was going to fit into the Buffy-verse. Still, I'd argue that if you watch the first season of Buffy, it might be a little campier, cheaper and less ambitious than what followed, it still is distinct and unique in a way that draws you in. Joss Whedon's voice is there - he's just still finding his best keys.

One of my problems with the way network TV is run today is that programmers seem to have itchy trigger fingers. A new series could find itself canceled after two or three airings, which hardly seems like a fair amount of data on which to judge a series. Of course, it's important to realize that by the time most network shows have had their premiere, the series has probably shot six or seven episodes and may be working on the script for the 9th or 10th episode. At that point, the studio and the network have a pretty good sense of what they've got creatively, and if that's not working for them, a limp debut isn't going to convince them to throw good money after bad. (Though streaming figures and the Live+3 and Live+7 viewing numbers can end up extending a show's life just by virtue of the fact they take longer to compile.)

I bring all this up as a way of saying "yes, I get it. A show won't always be a home run right out of the gate."

That said, it's really exhausting hear a particular phrase with increasing frequency - "It gets really good six episodes in."

Look, back in the 90s the vast balance of our original programming was limited to 4 broadcast networks, sometimes 6 when The WB and UPN were in play. The idea that FX, TNT, TBS, and AMC would be major content providers really wasn't there. Today there are so many outlets for original narratives and there's already an abundance of good stuff on TV and all the various streaming channels. I feel like I watch a TON of excellent original programming and there's still probably an almost equal amount of excellent series that I don't watch.

So when I'm presented with a new show to fit into my already crowded life, I don't have time to give it a quarter of a season to figure itself out. This is especially true if the early episodes of the show seem devoid of anything compelling. I don't want to keep beating up on AGENTS OF SHIELD, but its first season was the epitome of a series that didn't know at all what its identity was supposed to be. The fallout of THE WINTER SOLDIER gave it a stronger mission statement and forced to show to redefine itself some 17 or 18 episodes in, but even then, I can't say I found it to be all that great. I gave it another half-season due to the addition of Reed Diamond as a bad guy, but to me it never felt like it got any better than the kinds of shows that would have been canceled by The WB and UPN back when Buffy was breaking new ground.

I'll give the show this - they had loyal fans. Their fans were so loyal that after the first half-dozen episodes I saw a LOT of angry responses to reviews pointing out the emperor seemed to be bereft of garb. When they weren't arguing the judgment was wrong, they seemed to be willing it to be a better show, convinced it was building to something. The makeover that followed THE WINTER SOLDIER allowed them to feel vindicated, leading to a rallying cry that translated to: "It got really good 17 episodes in."

When you say it like that, it almost sounds silly, right?

And if I'm being honest, this "give it 7 episodes" plea feels even more ridiculous in an era where streaming services are dropping an entire season's worth of content on us at once. I'm supposed to hand over seven hours - fully half of the season's running time - just to wait for something that feels like it's being delivered in its final form?

Apply the same patience the Marvel geeks gave SHIELD to the Warner Bros DC Comics film universe. Can you even imagine it being acceptable to tell someone, "Just keep watching until AQUAMAN. Then it gets really good." Can you imagine if the first Marvel film to be REALLY good was CAPTAIN AMERIC--

Okay, I kinda walked into that one.

(Before you send me angry comments, allow me to disclaim that the first hour of IRON MAN is one of the strongest things Marvel's ever done. Robert Downey Jr. is brilliant in the role, and most of my issues with the film come from the rather weak second hour, and Obadiah Stain is a pretty uncompelling villain.)

Daredevil just released its second season on Netflix. I rather enjoyed the first season, so I was interested in checking it out, even though I'm generally more of a DC guy. So far, I've watched the first three episodes and... it's not really my thing. Maybe I can attribute some of that to the fact that I find The Punisher profoundly uncompelling as a character, but I can weather the punishment of a disconnected story arc.

The larger problem - and this is one that I'm really noticing with streaming series - is many shows are now doing the TV equivalent of "writing for the trade." That's a comic book phrase, based on the premise that it's far more common for publishers to collect storyarcs that spanned several issues into trade paperbacks. What results is often a decompression of the story, padding out what might have once been a two or three issue arc into six or seven stories. A result is often that each issue feels less like it tells a complete story and more like something completely dependent on the other parts.

I felt it in Jessica Jones, where we got maybe two too many episodes early on where Jessica seemed to do little but follow Kilgrave. I've felt it in several seasons of House of Cards, particularly season two. It's a curious side effect of television drama becoming more strict in its serialization - we get fewer stories that standalone, even though in a long-running series, those are often the plot threads that allow creators to build out the world. In practice, it means that one, or perhaps two stories are told across the 13 episodes.

I understand how the standalone episode is anathema to the streaming model of cliffhanger-after-cliffhanger. A self-contained chapter completely halts that momentum, but there must be an alternative to a structure that demands several episodes of buildup while holding the compelling moments for much later in the run. There might be different causes for this malady - possibly plot constipation, or alternately, it's the natural result of a show finding itself.

So many of these streaming services are championed for how they give much more creative control to the writers. I bring this up because I don't think we can blame "executive interference" for things that displease us on Netflix and Amazon Prime. I do think that what might be more valuable is time. Give the creators more time to develop before they shoot. I can't remember the figure but there's some interview out there with Vince Gilligan where he reveals the final seasons of Breaking Bad spent much more time than is typical breaking story. It gave them the freedom to find ideas that they never would have hit on with tighter constraints. "More time" won't be a popular option, as it means the writers are entitled to additional weeks on the payroll, but maybe it can keep a third of the season or more from feeling like a throwaway.

The second change is one I'll address to the showrunners. Don't assume you have a patient audience. I know when you're launching a network show, you're under extreme pressure to spew plot twists. Every pilot season, that's more than clear than ever as pilot scripts spend only 50ish pages burning through twists that would have been stretched across as many as 6 episodes in the old days. The last couple of years it's been easy to perceive the flop sweat within the scripts, and that serves neither you, nor the audience very well.

And you, dear reader, should you pass this rant forward for others to read and they complain about how long it is, just assure them -

"It gets really good eight paragraphs in."