Could Jupiter Ascending Set a New Trend in Power Fantasy Movies Aimed at Women?

2015-Jupiter-Ascending-Movie-Poster-Wallpaper

I saw Jupiter Ascending this week and had to drive no less than 30 minutes across the smallest state in the country in order to do so because the movie is quickly disappearing from cinemas in the Providence area. Before I saw the movie, I figured that trend was probably a fairly objective judgment of quality on this film. After all, its Rotten Tomatoes rating on the critical side is currently drawing even with 50 Shades of Grey. I expected to have a little fun at the movie’s expense, enjoy the much-praised costume design, and probably a very woobified Channing Tatum, but I was surprised by what I got instead.

This movie loves science fiction in a way that it seems we haven’t really loved science fiction since the mid-80s. There’s no genre-obliged tongue in cheek awkwardness about otherworldly elements; in fact there there’s no eye-rolling at all in this movie. Jupiter Ascending dives into aliens, the expansiveness of the universe, advanced technologies, and genetic splicing with an earnestness that made me nostalgic and didn’t so much beg for my suspension of disbelief as it took it for granted. I bought the ticket to a Sci-Fi movie after all, I find myself wondering what it is I expect of the genre lately. It’s not like we expect a tip of the hat from award shows in genre filmmaking in any category aside from special effects anyway, so why write to the academy or the critics? This movie is a treat for fans.

And when I say this movie is a treat for fans, I mostly mean fangirls. Jupiter Jones is likeable but not in a hyperbolic way, interesting and sharp but not in a way that would ever keep a viewer from feeling like they could also reasonably be a secret space princess who incidentally charms bees. There were moments in the movie in which I found myself thinking, “well that was convenient,” but none of those moments were more reasonably convenient than any logic-defying Die Hard stunt I’ve ever seen John McClane’s American every-man pull off in that series. For example, there’s a point in the movie in which Jupiter finds herself in a refinery that is falling apart beneath her feet and she runs an obstacle course of toppling pillars, crumbling structures, and grates with plumes of flame shooting up through the floors at intervals reminiscent of a level of Super Mario Brothers or Donkey Kong minus the barrels. Flames shoot up seconds after she has stepped out of the way and grates topple from impossible heights after she’s stepped off them as she climbs upward. Most of her successes throughout the film are in fact some combination of coincidence, timing, and nerve; an oft-criticized trait in female heroes and a trait completely taken for granted in the male ones.

We have a hard time defining the female power fantasy and that in itself is probably a good thing since women are not a homogenous group with uniform needs and desires, but we have defined pretty conclusively that the female power fantasy doesn’t include existing for the male gaze, being made one-dimensional, or being objectified. These are not moves that empower women the way that John McClanes and Bruce Waynes are meant to empower men. In a media so overrun by the one-dimensional “strong female character” that calling a character as much has turned from praise to criticism, we need to find authentic female power fantasies to give women a reflection of power they could conceivably own. As a writer, I struggle with the idea that most of these so-called strong female character types are somehow inauthentic as women. I think these women do exist because women come in a nearly infinite variety. The problem with the strong female character type is not her existence (though when she’s poorly written she’s a pain) but that she is the only acceptable option.

Jupiter, though, gets pretty close to female power fantasy in a way that many of our most progressive young superheroines also embody. Her power is not a result of trauma, not forced upon her, or bestowed upon her by a man- it is an inborn trait- quite literally in this narrative because her very own genetic makeup gives her the ability to bestow her inheritance on (spiritually speaking) her own reincarnated soul. At the start of the movie she is an undocumented immigrant housekeeper who loves, works with, and lives with her extended family so she has very little privilege to aspire to, making her an excellent every-woman who can prove that there’s something special about her (and by extension her presumably-average probably working class audience.) If the male power fantasy is about attainability, the female power fantasy should not feel lofty, out of reach, or alien to her intended audience. Jupiter is bright, resourceful, tough enough to go toe to toe with her villain and approachable enough to be befriended by her employer in her underwear. She gets scooped up and whisked away often in the movie, but sets her own terms when the occasion calls for it; flat out refusing to abandon her family when danger comes calling.

Another essential dimension to Jupiter’s female-power-fantasy status is that she is not the conquest in relationship. She pointedly and confidently pursues her male love interest, Caine Wise, not to the exclusion of all else or to an exaggerated degree, but with a certainty that we typically find very recognizable on a hero rather than a heroine. Wise’s reluctance puts her in a position of seducer rather than object to be won subverting typical princess tropes and putting even romantic agency back in female hands.

My only real criticism of the movie was the surprising lack of queer representation. Tatum doesn’t exactly bring anything to this role that couldn’t have been equally if not more charming coming from Natalie Dormer, Emily Blunt, Rachel Nichols, or my personal pet-casting, Tabrett Bethell. This movie never allows its feet to touch the ground and yet somehow ends up disappointingly heteronormative. The scraps in this genre for queer people are meager enough without queer writers contributing to erasure.

So are the perceived weaknesses and failures of this Wachowski film born in the expectations set on the shoulders of female characters? We may not be able to truly say until after the film’s inevitable cult status is achieved. I know I will be very surprised if this film is not still being written about many years after its DVD release.

Advertisements

Ben Affleck cast as Snyder’s Batman; Why does that piss everyone off?

Image

Since the announcement yesterday that Warner Brothers had cast veteran actor, writer, and director Ben Affleck to play Batman in the upcoming Man of Steel sequel, there have been a number of large reactions, including but certainly not limited to a couple of petitions put up on petition websites, as if a petition by a couple of crank fans has ever turned the tide in a situation like this one.  Those who love Batman were quick to defend him against the accusation that he might ever have Affleck’s face, figure, or most significantly to me, his uncommonly kind eyes.  I tried immediately to picture Affleck’s soft brown eyes menacing from under a cowl and fell short in my imagination.  I have come to think that this knee-jerk reaction says more about the public perception of this character than it does about Affleck’s ability to tackle the role or his suitability as a choice.

As a long-time Kevin Smith fan I’ve had the opportunity to know more about Affleck than I typically would most actors or celebrities, and first of all I want to make one thing abundantly clear.  He’s one of us.  From the enormous backlash from fans, it’s been made clear that few people actually know this.  Ben Affleck is a serious fanboy; he knows his comics and he knows Batman.  He’s sought out roles like the lead role in Daredevil, and playing George Reeves in Hollywoodland for a reason, because he genuinely loves the work.

Image

Isn’t that the greatest thing to be embraced about Henry Cavill?  What’s important about Affleck being a geek is that he will protect the work, he will have the sense to protect Batman and portray him with dignity, and perhaps more significantly, he’s unlikely to be comfortable with story lines that do any disrespect to Superman.  I think Cavill definitely brings similar qualities, but he lacked the star power, at least before Man of Steel premiered, to put his foot down when it matters.  The bulk of detractors seem to be aware of Affleck as far as Gigli and Reindeer Games.

He’s also not replacing Christian Bale.  There’s no possibility of Christian Bale playing Batman again in the Justice League franchise, and while I can understand that people are bound to get very attached to a performance, the regularity with which this is brought up is really disheartening.  It shows a kind of ignorance that could be cured inside a 6-hour marathon of the 90s Batman movies, in which the cowl was passed three times.  It’s been made clear by almost everyone involved in the film that the Dark Knight trilogy and the Justice League movies take place in entirely different universes.  That’s not subterfuge, that’s a very deep chasm that Nolan has put down in order to isolate his “Batman vision.”  Snyder will not be picking up where he left off, and while every superhero movie clearly takes notes from the movies to come before it in the genre, he will not be matching the tone or technique.

I think though, that the immediate negative reaction has more to do with how we feel about Batman.  So, since we obviously have zero power to change Warner Brother’s minds about this, let’s speculate about how this casting decision might affect the movie.

  • There might be less Batman than we originally anticipated.  There have been rumors that Affleck has signed a “13 appearance” deal with Warner Brothers, which if it were true, would significantly limit Affleck’s screen time.  It’s interesting to me that for all the Batman/Superman content Synder has been tossing around, nobody has really confirmed that Batman will necessarily have second billing.  The Snyder/Goyer team seems to trust its actors to have the ability to do a lot when given very little (there’s not a lot of chatting about feelings or monologing in Man of Steel) so I wouldn’t necessarily be surprised if Affleck had a few choice scenes and then in typical Batman style, disappear like a shadow.

  • We might be dealing with a number of non-traditional masculinities in this series.  We’ve already got a physically-desirable soft-spoken introvert for a Superman, and when I heard about the Batman/Superman team up movie, my first assumption was that they were intent on contrasting Batman as a more traditional masculinity up against Clark’s more sensitive portrayal for better or worse.  I expected the Batman pick to be someone who’d play gritty, edgy, mean, and dark to Clark’s sunny and naïve.  Affleck isn’t that choice.  He plays an effective smarmy jerk (hmm, sounds like a certain playboy millionaire I know), and I think he would have been a really fabulous choice for Lex Luthor, but he brings an inescapable tenderness to any role he assumes.  Even with the cowl on, I think we are going to see a very enlightened (maybe even feminist?) Batman.  With Batman and Superman setting the baseline, what would that mean for everyone else in the Justice League?

  • Batman is going to be old.  Ben Affleck just celebrated his 41st birthday, so while Cavill is definitely playing a few years older, there’s no way to pretend that these two are near the same age.  Synder has already been quoted saying that his Batman will be a “seasoned crime-fighter,” and this will undoubtedly affect the nature of their relationship, my only hope being that that doesn’t mean a snarky Batman condescending to Superman for the bulk of the movie.  With Affleck, Cavill, Snyder, and Goyer to protect this story though, I’m less and less concerned about that possibility as the days go by.  Nobody wants to do wrong by Superman, and so far, they’ve done a pretty fantastic job.  The choice of an older actor did bring me pause though, because Frank Miller’s Dark Knightmare features a older Batman, but Miller’s Batman is 55, and Affleck doesn’t yet look 40, so it’s still not a sign of a faithful adaptation.  The fact that Batman is so much older might also mean that they are subverting the idea of Superman as strictly the first costumed superhero in the DC universe.  I know Batman has more work to do to get to a role that Clark tripped and fell into, but I’d be very surprised if they wrote a 40 year old Batman without a bat suit.  How exactly has he been fighting crime all these years without a suit?  It’s not like Superman can just inspire him to put ears and wings on the outfit.

  • The acting is going to be really amazing.  Say what you want, I have seen effortless accomplished acting out of this whole cast and adding Ben just shows a commitment to excellence.  A lot of the detractors are saying the reason they are resisting the casting choice is because of his lack of skill or range, but I would challenge you to put that criticism to the test with some of Affleck’s best movies instead of automatically sighting his worst ones.  When he has good material to work with, he brings a consistently excellent performance.  I wouldn’t necessarily mind him getting his hands in the directing and writing of this franchise, either.

  • They might just be taking their female-dominated audience into account. Ben Affleck is not a man for heterosexual men to look at, and Henry Cavill is so beautiful that he likely makes heterosexual men uncomfortable as they re-assess what they thought they knew about their sexuality.  In contrast, Faora’s armor is practical and she is more of a female-power-fantasy than sex object, Lois, despite being played by the absolutely stunning Amy Adams, is never objectified, and Diane Lane is shot in a way that makes it seem as though having a 33 year old son might be plausible thing for Martha Kent.Image

All in all, I think the backlash to this decision has more to do with the idea that the Batman in this franchise might be a complexly flawed human being with a masculinity that isn’t necessarily so fractured that it can’t be called into question.  I personally think that Batman has started to become the Chuck Norris of comic book fans, and that’s not a compliment.  In the whole Batman/Superman controversy, it seems as though a disproportionate number of Batman fans as really really insistent about Batman winning in a fight while Superman fans are sometimes more inclined to ask why in the world that fight might be happening in the first place.  I’m tired of the Batman who has something to prove.  He’s got the dizzying intellect, the sex appeal, the cool exits and entrances, the title of “world’s greatest detective,” really, what is there to prove?

Doctor Who: The casting of the 12th white leading male is not the problem, it’s a symptom.

Image

The 12th doctor was announced this past Sunday and he’s Peter Capaldi, a Scottish actor best known for his role on the BBC show The Thick of It.  My frame personal of reference for him was his other appearances in the whoniverse, in the season 4 episode “The Fires of Pompeii,” and a role I honestly don’t remember very well from the Torchwood special, “Children of Earth.”  He seems like a perfectly natural choice for The Doctor, and since they don’t choose just anyone for these roles and he’s a veteran thespian, I’m sure he’ll be wonderful.

That said, there’s been a lot of talk about the casting of yet another white male in a role that could be played by anyone in the world.  The doctor’s gender or skin color is not the most pressing issue in the current Doctor Who series, and if I were performing a social justice triage on Doctor Who, I wouldn’t start with the doctor himself, not at least the actor playing him, anyway, I would start with the writing.

Now I am a serious fanatic when it comes to the Russell T. Davies years, so I must acknowledge that that level of fanaticism comes with some temporary blindness but I would say that it was one of the most pure and undiluted attempts at social justice on television that I had seen so far.  So maybe I’m spoiled.  But I don’t think anyone will be shutting me down anymore when I talk about Steven Moffat, and that is the reason I find myself a little pleased in the wake of the announcement that may in the end up blowing up in the show runner’s face.

There’s a pretty complete rundown of Moffat’s public examples of blatant sexism on the tumblr Feminist Whoniverse, but I am just talking here about a few of the highlights.  The most clear examples of Moffat’s attitude come from an interview he did in 2004 with The Scotsman, right after he got his writing job for Doctor Who.

“There’s this issue you’re not allowed to discuss: that women are needy. Men can go for longer, more happily, without women. That’s the truth. We don’t, as little boys, play at being married – we try to avoid it for as long as possible. Meanwhile women are out there hunting for husbands.”

This isn’t just sexist, it shows a truly depressing lack of understanding for gender roles in the first place.  When he’s not generalizing about women, he’s talking about what he’s “not allowed” to discuss because apparently he’s so very oppressed that he’s not allowed to say things that might offend someone.  Unless, you know, he’s being interviewed by a magazine.  He goes on to expand on his perceived oppression.

“Well, the world is vastly counted in favour of men at every level – except if you live in a civilised country and you’re sort of educated and middle-class, because then you’re almost certainly junior in your relationship and in a state of permanent, crippled apology. Your preferences are routinely mocked. There’s a huge, unfortunate lack of respect for anything male.”

This quote 100% explains how he writes all the relationships in his series and why no matter how earnest or heartfelt they try to be, they are constantly hamstrung by Moffat’s cynicism.  Examples, the fact that The Doctor and River have no chemistry, the fact that after all they’ve been through Rory magically has no idea what he means to Amy.  This flawed idea of how the world actually literally works deeply affects the directions his series goes in, and is most definitely the main factor in The Doctor being transformed into some sort of weapon-wielding, walking-away-from-explosions-holding-a-fainting-girl action-movie star.

doctorwho_2296620b

Now the defense usually given to these two snippets is that they were such a long time ago (2004), so hey, let’s scoot on into the future, shall we?

“You have to hand it to the Doctor for dumping a slightly needy girlfriend by palming her off on a copy of himself. He tried leaving her in a parallel universe, and that didn’t work.” (2008)

I can’t tell whether he’s purposefully or honestly misunderstanding the relationship between Rose and 10 here, but either way it’s really foolish and honestly pretty disrespectful to more than the characters.  It’s disrespectful to the writers who carefully crafted a relationship that redefined expectations for the way the Doctor would interact with his companions for a generation.  Defining Rose as a “slightly needy girlfriend” minimizes her role and minimizes the contribution that Billie Piper made to breathing new life into the series, and characterizing the sacrifice 10 makes in parting with Rose as “palming her off” cheapens the sacrifice and the emotional weight of the moment.  What kind of man can the Doctor possibly be, by the way, that he wouldn’t be able to break up with a girl except sending her off to a different universe?  Moffat’s approach to these stories isn’t problematic just because he habitually demeans the female characters, this sort of writing about gender is equally disrespectful toward the men he writes.  He doesn’t draw the line at fictional characters, however, when asked about Karen Gillian, he seemed delighted to objectify her, as well.

“And I thought, ‘well she’s really good. It’s just a shame she’s so wee and dumpy…When she was about to come through to the auditions I nipped out for a minute and I saw Karen walking on the corridor towards me and I realised she was 5’11, slim and gorgeous and I thought ‘Oh, oh that’ll probably work’.”(2010)

But all of this mounting evidence can for the most part be excused by apologists because it’s in the past, and Moffat has been watching his mouth lately to a certain degree, but during the announcement-special in a pre-taped interview, he responded to the folks who were hoping for a female doctor as such:

“I like that Helen Mirren has been saying we should have a female doctor, and to go on record I think it’s time that the queen was played by a man.” (5 DAYS AGO.)

He then went on to dig an even deeper hole, as is his habit, by letting everyone know that he was hearing from women that they didn’t WANT a doctor, which is hilarious mostly because Moffat seems to believe that women are incapable of sexism, but Jill Pantozzi over at The Mary Sue responded in what has been the most eloquent article written on the subject so far.

 “Although many fans (men or women, and even myself) didn’t want a female Doctor for 12, some of those fans didn’t want one simply because they were horrified at how Moffat would write such a character, not that they didn’t want one full-stop.”

And this is really what it comes down to; I have read around and I agree most with the articles that are ready to chuck out Moffat but feel just fine about Capaldi taking on the role. The battle cry against Moffat may on the whole have more to do with the way the writing has declined than Moffat’s brazen disregard for anything approaching social justice, but Moffat’s stance on his female characters, and really his male ones, has been a source of annoyance and frustration for fans for a long time.  A blogger on zap2it.com pulled a few punches on the whole “is Moffat a sexist” question, but ultimately pointed out what many are observing, that Moffat’s casting was indeed focused on criteria that is completely outdated, and that that isn’t just bad for women, it’s bad for the creative direction of the series itself.

“The issue is NOT that Moffat didn’t cast a woman (or a non-Caucasian of either gender). It’s that the thought of casting one NEVER SEEMED TO ENTER INTO THE EQUATION. It’s as ludicrous to him that a woman would be the Doctor as a man would portray The Queen. Both represent a type of drag performance that might be amusing but certainly not authentic. And given that science fiction/fantasy is a place where “what if” and “why not” have their safest homes, it’s disheartening to see limitations put on a show that is, by its design, utterly limitless.”

While it’s entirely true that socially we shouldn’t put up with this kind of behavior from any public figure, the fact that Moffat is or the thin argument that he might not be a sexist is far beside the point.  The point being that his perspective and the way that he writes is negatively affecting the show as a whole.  This is a point on which there are fewer and fewer dissenters as time goes by.  The New York Times published an opinion piece by YA author Jennifer Finney Boylan  on the subject, RogerEbert.com ran an article with the title, “Steven Moffat: Destroyer of Hopes and Dreams,” and the last two seasons have seen a growing negative backlash from Who fans of all kinds.   After this announcement and accompanying remarks, I would be very surprised if Moffat’s run lasts more than another year.   The concern that draws is whether or not Doctor Who will survive him, at least in the immediate future, or if this disaster is running headlong toward another extended hiatus.