Is Zack Snyder Worse Than Michael Bay?

Yes.

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But I’ll try to explain why.

Michael Bay is the Donald Trump of filmmakers; his movies are big and loud and dumb on scales previously unimaginable. The Transformers franchise contains overt racism, misogyny and even a little bit of incestuous longing sprinkled on top…and yet they are among the highest grossing films of all time, a franchise whose insane popularity raises uncomfortable questions about what ‘the people’ want.

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And yet Bay has some sense of self. If he’s not introspective, then he’s at least clear about what he wants: to make money. Other fools label him an auteur, but Bay himself gets extremely defensive when his movies are attacked for being stupid or mean or poorly edited; all of that, to him, seems to irrelevant. His movies are popular and Bay himself has said at times “I make movies for teenage boys.” To him, there is nothing higher, or lower, at play.

But Zack Snyder is different. If Bay is Trump, Snyder is Ben Carson: wholly aloof and unaware, seemingly sleeptalking through interviews and public appearances, Snyder yearns to be thought of as an ‘intellectual.’ The meta-text of all his superhero schlock is that his films are important and he’s thought and felt very deeply about all the comic books he’s been reading. Superhero stories aren’t fluffy or fun, they have significant significance. Like a thirteen-year-old smoking pot for the first time, Snyder blows his own mind with the new thoughts he generates–What if Superman was REAL? What if we had to burn down the farm to save the village?–and expects these epiphanies to astonish other people as well.watchmen-zack-snyder-director

That’s why he’s now made his version of Watchmen, considered by some (NOT ME-I did not like the “Graphic novel” or the film) to be the greatest, most introspective superhero story ever told, not once, not twice, but thrice. His adaptation of that comic, and the two Superman films he’s made, all revolve around similar themes and concepts, most notably what responsibility superheroes have to the plebes (Superman goes back and forth on this! He’s conflicted! There are no easy answers! It’s deep!) and how much crowd-pleasing wanton destruction (and death) is justifiable.

Christopher Nolan also makes movies about heroes and takes himself too seriously, but he’s pretty smart. Snyder thinks he can one-up everyone with his crazy shit sandwiches. He tried to Dark Knight Superman, placing the Man of Steel in a gritty post-9/11 environment, seemingly without once questioning whether an outer space alien who speaks English, looks like a slice of British Beefcake and lives in a giant crystal place is the right character to place in this context (compare this to the pulpy Superman II with Terrence Stamp’s glamor-fab General Zod shown at right). general-zodHis one “original” film, Sucker Punch, is an exercise in convoluted world-building and pointless “layers” of story-telling so empty and ridiculous it is almost unfair to compare it to Inception, yet that’s what Snyder is aping with his dreams-within-dreams-within-dreams-within-dreams-within-dreams approach to what amounts to a creepy fetish fantasy. Sorry, I meant an “empowering”, “feminist“, “deconstruction”, of…something.

Snyder is the worst kind of stupid. He’s an idiot who fancies himself an artistic genius. Michael Bay doesn’t ruin properties. He takes ideas that were already dumb and keeps them that way. No ‘better’ director would have taken on Transformers. Or Benghazi. Or a film that celebrates roid culture. That’s bayhem and nothing else. But Zack Snyder has taken artistic control, at least in the medium of film, of some of our modern culture’s most beloved icons: the men and women who comprise the Justice League. And there are plenty of people who believe he completely mangled the integrity of Watchmen (even though he used the graphic novel for storyboards? But I digress…). Hell, for someone who is supposedly a master of visual composition, a lot of his work–Superman, Watchmen, 300, that movie about owls–is basically paint-by-numbers transcriptions of comic book art.

But let’s give Snyder the benefit of the doubt on his skills with the canvas of the camera, a man who can construct beautiful shots and even scenes. That’s why he gets all these projects he doesn’t deserve; he’s has VISION. The trailer for Watchmen even said so: it was brought to you by “visionary director of 300.” In this way, he is exactly like Ben Carson, a self-promoting huckster whose narrow skills are oddly combined with a worldview which ought to undermine them. It is possible that Ben Carson is just as skilled with the knife as Snyder is with his cutting tools in the editing room.

But I wanted to compare Snyder to Michael Bay! The Snyderian worldview is just as ugly as as Bay’s, but he doesn’t know it. It also has a somewhat sharper focus. Snyder seems hell-bent on presenting his version of Objectivism. He even promises us his own remake of The Fountainhead at some point, maybe after Warner Brothers take shim off the Justice League project.sucker-punch-snyder2

Bay just follows his nose to the ID of the worst impulses of modern culture. The stupid white man wants boobs, so he gives them boobs. They want explosions, so he gives them that. Robots. Vulgarity. Racism. Military fetishism. It’s all there, smashed together on the screen.

Snyder’s films are also sexist. But he thinks he’s promoting feminism. His films are also violent and vulgar. But that’s not just because the thinks violence is fun. He also thinks its more serious. Dark. Edgy. And it helps him prove his point. Which is that special people are special. People like King Leonidas (as cartoonized by idiots). Like Superman (blech). Like the Watchmen. Like Zack Snyder!!!

It seems as if all his films are trying to prove that heroism is not defined by doing things to help others, or to make difficult choices, or having principles. No, heroism is just about being awesome. And not letting others get in the way of that. In 300, Gerard Butler rebuffs a cripple from joining the all-star team, because cripples are ugly. In Watchmen, the heroes are either aloof, psychotic, fascist, plotting to blow up Manhattan, or worst of all, impotent, and this is all in the name of “deconstructing” what it means to be a superhero. And his version of Batman, Superman and even Wonder Woman are simply godlike creatures who answer to nobody and whose attempts to save people from themselves never work so why bother?

In other words, Bay has a funhouse mirror that shines our stupid back at us. It’ll go away when we do. But Snyder, knowingly or unknowingly, keeps some really unpleasant and wrong theologies in circulation. Yes, there are absurd think pieces about Bay’s bombast, weakly pushed by his alma mater (Wesleyan) and the Criterion Collection. But nobody seriously gets into an argument about Bay’s contribution to culture. Nobody argues that Transformers is a movie that empowers young girls.

But Sucker Punch? Wonder Woman? Do we not know the difference between strong female characters and weak female characters who are physically strong (or not even)? Do we not know the different between superheroes and super-powered sociopaths? Maybe we do, maybe we don’t. But here’s hoping sooner or later Snyder’s toxic brand of pseudo-intellectualism makes its way to the C-list Circle of Hell. e

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Game of Thrones Ripped Off Thomas the Tank Engine (2016 Update)

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Author’s Note: Several years ago I wrote a post comparing the two classic British (accented) television shows. This is an updated version. 

I knew there was a reason why Game of Thrones felt so familiar. I experienced the same emotions, learned the same lessons, eye-rolled at the same gratuitous nudity, lived vicariously through the same characters twenty years ago. Except back then, I wasn’t following the front lines around the country of Westeros, I was rolling along the branch lines of the Isle of Sodor.

Game of Thrones is a blatant rip-off of Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends, the British TV show which was filmed using narrow-gauge model trains and featured the sturdy yet subtle voice-over narration of Ringo Starr.

You won’t win this argument, but if you dare try, here are the clinching irrefutable facts:

ONE: Like Game of Thrones (abbreviated hence forth to GofT), Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends (abbreviated hence forth to TtheTEandFbitchez) takes place on a fictional island that is vaguely meant to represent Great Britain. Yes, technically Sodor is meant to be between GB and the isle of Man but really its meant as a fictional fantasy-land copycat of the real place. And Sodor’s topography, geography, demographics, history, rail map, etc etc, is all inspired by the history of the British Isles. So forgive me if I’m not impressed that you know can point out King’s Landing out on a map. You don’t know shit if you can’t tell Culdee Fell from Ffarquhar.

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At least the great Rev W Awdry was from England. George RR Martin is just some dude from New Jersey.

TWO: I watch GofT for one reason and one reason alone: amazing special effects I want to know who is going to win the game! Who is going to get their head cut off? Who is going to mount an assault on the capital? Who is going to buy a slave army? The machinations of all these crazy houses and noble families is titillating to the maximum. It’s well written, sure, but it can get a little campy. A little gratuitous.

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And that’s also why I wanted to watch Thomas.  Like GofT, Thomas and Friends offers a decentralized world of industrious and ambitious engines fighting to maintain control of their various branch lines, often at the expense of one another. They are both soap operas at heart. The title character doesn’t even appear in most of the stories; it’s usually the big engines like Gordon or Henry who are fucking up and causing trouble and dumping on each other. And when these engines fuck up, it’s an awesome shit show. The best episodes are the ones where an engine does something stupid and gets derailed into a mine pit or the ocean or something.

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Okay, so the engines never “die” in “The Railway Series”, but characters come back to life in GofT too! There’s that priest character who’s been cut seven times. And all those zombies north of the wall who’ve been reanimated.

Update-And Jon Snow, who is “dead” but he’ll be back someday soon because if he isn’t, his lame narrative will be nothing but a “deconstruction” of the epic hero quest, which is to say it’s just a badly written character who was killed off to shock fans. But they won’t let that happen. So he’ll be back. 

In both universes, it is often difficult to discern some kind of overarching plot arc. Moves are simply behind made, wheels being turned, until winter comes or diesel power replaces steam power as the main source of locomotion.

George RR Martin is a true fan of history, and that’s where many of his storylines come from. Supposedly he based the battle of the Starks and the Lannisters after the fight between the Lancasters and the Whatevers in ye olde timey England. The good Reverend Awdry liked history too. And trains. He liked train history. Almost all the trains in his original stories are based on real trains, although the real ones don’t have faces or talk.

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March 2016 Update: It is fairly clear now that not only is George RR Martin pulling his storylines from the pages of “The Railway Series”, he’s also stealing characters as well. The sad saga of Stannis Baratheon is beat-for-beat the same as that of Henry the Green Engine, a noble 4-6-0 steam locomotive done in by cruel gods and tragic hubris.

Always second fiddle to the biggest engine (Gordon), Henry’s lays claim to the turntable, which is similar to the iron throne, in that it is possibly made of iron as well. Unfortunately he is plagued by misfortune at every turn, including a dour personality which gets him stuck in a tunnel for months, a pessimistic outlook on his routine, and a bad coal box. In “Game of Thrones”, Stannis makes a terrible sacrifice to bring about favorable weather conditions, only to see his army abandon him. Henry makes a similar gambit by stealing another engine’s tenders (coal boxes), only to realize too late that they are filled with boiler sludge. And then he crashes spectacularly carrying a special freight load known as the “Flying Kipper.”

THREE: This is a man’s world. Both offer a complex and sometimes contradictory take on the role of women in their respective societies. GofT is a world full of wenches and whores and rich girls doing their hair, but it also has a dragon lady and a warrior woman and a wise cracking grandma. Some of the women get good lines and reflect on their plight in society, and yes sometimes the women have to do things to the men to get power but that’s just “the way things were back then.” And at the end of the day there are plenty of women pulling the strings in various parts of Westeros and the outlying lands. I think the character of “Margary” is my favorite since she so obviously is now pulling the strings on evil Joffrey (who is now dead).

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In “Thomas” there just aren’t many ladytrains. There is a caboose passenger coach named “Henrietta” that doesn’t have a face and doesn’t speak, but I’m assuming that might be a lady train too. New “Thomas” stories have added a “main character” named “Emily” to try to be more politically correct but that doesn’t count, since those stories were written after 1990.

The two that get story lines are both diesel engines, so by their very nature are more important and powerful than the other trains. Daisy the trolley diesel railcar is kind of like Cersei Lannister; she’s not nearly as smart as she thinks she is and both characters got this major attitude/chip on her shoulder since they don’t want to be stereotyped as a “woman” but then they don’t assert themselves or transcend gender politics.

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Mavis the tram diesel is more like Danaerys; at first Mavis starts out as a dainty waif engine but gradually comes into her own as she learns to work with the other engines and become the most important train on Thomas’ branch line.

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Also you never hear any of the women in “Thomas” talk about “boys” or complaining about their periods or taking time out of scheduled journeys to “go shopping.” When a lady train is running on all cylinders, that lady train is judged on her own merits, same as the guy trains. Come to think of it all of the trains on Sodor are too busy with business to get down to any kinky business.

So both worlds are very obviously being told from a “male gaze”, but they at least half-ass an attempt at fully realized characters of both sexes.

FOUR: A well-established hierarchy and social order. Every engine knows his make and model and place in the world. Status is everything. In GofT are you a Lannister or a Karstark or a wilding or a whore or a butcher’s boy? In “Thomas”, better to be a tender engine (and by tender I mean the thing on the back with coal that couples to the rest of the train, not a gentle loving nature) than a tank or tram engine, or even worse…a freight truck! As GofT has its troublesome eunuch army, “Thomas” has its troublesome trucks who can’t even move on their own but almost universally resent their inferior anatomy. They are always just a bunch of assholes.

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I could go on about how some characters get “direwolves”, some trains get to pull the passenger coaches, some characters get henchman or guards, some trains get personal break vans, some characters get their own personal castle, some trains get their own branch lines, some characters are twins, some trains are twins, some characters who are twins have incestuous relationships…but I don’t need to go on. I think my point was very well made.

FIVE:  The looming threat of ultimate doom. The meta-narrative of “Game of Thrones” is that all the petty squabbles among houses and spouses is a dangerous distraction from the real enemy, the White Walkers. It’s a cool thread, and props to George RR…until you realize that like everything else in his universe, its cribbed again from “The Railway Series.” In the Rev WW Awdry’s epic saga, the narrow-minded gamesmanship of the engines to curry favor with the fickle God of the Rails, The Fat Controller, is all for naught when the diesel engines reach Sodor.

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The threat of built-in obsolescence is palpable among the engines of Sodor. The steam engines are no match for diesel power, they know it, and so do the diesels. Their only hope is to continuously appeal to the Fat Controller’s misguided sense of loyalty and nostalgia, despite the fact that all readers know eventually the laws of economics and progress will force his hand, and Thomas and Friends will either be scrapped or sold to China. But nine decades and hundreds of books in, this hasn’t happened yet.

4102641915_5ec6f7a9d7_zHowever, where “Game of Thrones” makes the Nights’ King a complete cipher (for now), in the “Railway Series”, the leader of the diesels, Diesel, is a real SOB. He’s smarmy and self-righteous and secretly (or not so secretly) ‘racist’ against the other engines who he begrudgingly works with, envisioning a time when the Diesels/Aryan master race with “rule” the tracks and all the steam-powered engines are lying in a scrap heap somewhere. He also has a nasty temper that he can’t control. He’s one of the few trains with a square face instead of a round one. That’s spooky. I used to have nightmares about this train running me over, or trying to.

SIX: Dragons

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SEVEN: George RR Martin wears a cap just like Mr. Conductor. (except really Martin is like GofT’s “Fat Controller” in terms of his ability to manipulate the narrative)

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FUN FACT: GofT was originally going to be called “Peter Dinklage the Sexy Dwarf and Friends” but they were worried about copyright infringement.

Nobody knows whether or not “Thomas the Tank Engine” was originally going to be called “A Trance of Trains” or “A Feast of Freight.”