Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Smallville, Lex Luthor, and the Superiority of Television

I am still often perplexed when people view scripted television shows as inherently inferior to film. The fact is that television provides some opportunities for creative storytelling that simply do not exist in the movie industry, due to the truncated nature of film. When a filmmaker wants to tell a story, he or she must compress that story into a two-hour time block, give or take. Much has to be sacrificed in the story in order to do that as anyone who has witnessed the transfer of a beloved novel to film knows well. Yet, a television series plays out over extended periods of time, with one season of an hour-long drama equalling about 15 hours of screen time compared to a two hour film. One thing that allows for is much greater character development on television.

I was reminded of this recently while watching the seventh season finale of Smallville. The steady evolution of this character over the course of seven seasons has resulted in the single most well-developed portrait of Lex Luthor in any live-action medium. Consider the various Superman Movies. Whether played by Gene Hackman or Kevin Spacey, the character of Lex Luthor in all of those films was exceedingly one-dimensional. He was a power hungry megalomaniac with a penchant for selecting dim-witted criminal associates. Now certainly those films could have developed the character with more depth had they chosen to do so, but nonetheless the possibilities would still be horribly constrained by the format.

Smallville, by contrast, presents a Lex Luthor who at different times is sympathetic, tragic, evil, misguided, noble, loyal, deceitful, and murderous. In other words, a complex and multi-faceted character. A character who at the beginning of season one was Clark Kent's best friend and who, for all intents and purposes, wanted nothing more than to earn the love of his father and live up to the person Clark Kent believed him to be. When the series started, I thought, Okay, this will be like every other series. Lex will seem like a good guy for a few episodes and then transition into the villain. Yet to my surprise and delight, that transition took seven seasons to be accomplished. We viewers were treated to the slow and methodical creation of one of the most iconic villains in all of popular culture. We witnessed the various competing affections that tore at his soul -- the tyranny of a demanding father, the ghost of a loving mother who died too young, the task of living up to an impossible ideal. And at his core, Lex always seemed like a person who really only wanted one thing -- the unconditional approval of the people he loved, most notably his father and Clark Kent -- but who had no idea how to attain it. By taking such a villainous character and making us root for him even as we cheer against him, Smallville provides just another testimony to the power of television narrative.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Shack

I recently finished reading The Shack, a rather popular recent work of Christian fiction. I am not a fan of Christian fiction particularly. In fact, I believe this is only the second work of Christian fiction I've ever read. My reasons for that is that I find Christian fiction, as with most forms of contemporary Christian art - including music, drama, etc - to be shallow and boring. This is because the focus is almost exclusively on putting a Christian message up front and center with the result that the artistic side becomes an afterthought. Fiction simply becomes a vehicle for preaching rather than a way of telling a good story. This is, of course, only my own personal opinion and I am aware that many find Christian fiction to be very meaningful to them.

As a whole, I was not terribly enamored of The Shack. I found the writing style to be predictable and not very polished, the theology at times to be lacking in depth and accuracy, and the story to be too forced. There were too many instances where the desire to engage a certain Christian issue at a certain time became more important than allowing the story to flow naturally.

Having said all that, however, there is one thing that I really like about the book. One of the things that makes much Christian fiction come across a bit shallow is a tendency to ignore the darkness in life. Christian fiction, like many Christians themselves, often tries to present a face to the world that says, "Being a Christian is easy and wonderful and if you would only make that choice, then your life will become easy and wonderful as well." We want people to believe that we possess all the answers to life and so we avoid anything difficult, challenging, and dark. The Bible doesn't do that. It is a book full of violence and humans doing horrible things to other humans. It doesn't shy away from such darkness but instead meets it head on. And to its credit, The Shack does the same thing.

This is not a book that pretends Christianity has all the answers to the messiness and seeming senselessness of life and it is a book that is not afraid to probe the darkness. It is a story about a young girl brutally murdered by a sexual predator and her father who meets God in the aftermath. In fact, he encounters God in the very shack where his daughter was killed. Even though I believe the author never achieved the potential that is inherent in that setup, I applaud the fact that he was willing to tell a Christian story that unapologetically met the darkness head on and didn't flinch. All of us, and even Christians in particular, I think, need such stories. The Shack was a self-published book because every Christian publisher that the author approached rejected it. According to the author, the reason given was that the book was "too edgy." Of course, it is now a nationwide bestseller. What Christian publishers failed to recognize was not just a secular justification that edgy sells,  but that edgy stories are capable of speaking to Christians and non-Christians in meaningful ways.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

What I've Been Watching

During the last nine months or so while I laid off of writing on my blog, I spent part of that time taking in many of the new television shows for the 2007-2008 year. Many of them have already fallen by the wayside, though a few will be returning next year. Of those returning or likely to return, there are six new shows that I watched this year and will continue to watch in the Fall. I present my thoughts on those six in ascending order:

6. Pushing Daisies
This is one of those shows that people seem to either love or hate, so oddly I fall right in the middle. I like it, but am not enamored with it. Lee Pace is perfect as the lead character (The Pie Maker) who can bring people back to life with a touch -- although if he does so for more than sixty seconds, someone else will die. The relationship between he and his childhood sweetheart never really moved me. What I do like, though, is the curious juxtaposition between the look and tone of the show (vibrant colors, fantasy landscapes, lighthearted banter) and the very dark and serious themes of the show: death and forbidden love.

5. Back to You
I enjoy this sitcom a lot, although it is not as funny as it could be. 

4. Moonlight
This variation on Angel (good-guy vampire who does detective work) is nowhere near as good as that show. However, it does have promise. Unfortunately, it has gone through so many different show runners and creative teams that it doesn't seem to have figured out yet exactly what it wants to be.

3. Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles
Good story and action, with the heavy dose of apocalyptic speculation always welcome, but it can also be too grim and serious. Needs to lighten up a bit.

2. The Big Bang Theory
Easily the best new sitcom. A hilarious and spot-on presentation of intellectual geekdom. I must admit that I tend to laugh and cringe at the same time when I watch it, because I often see little pieces of myself in Sheldon and Leonard.

1. Chuck
My favorite new show of the season. The interplay between Chuck's geek lifestyle and job at the Buy More and his budding life as a super spy is expertly played.

I'm looking forward to seeing where these shows take me in the Fall, as well as welcoming any other worthwhile newcomers into the fold (I can tell you right now that "Dollhouse" will be in the mix -- more on that later).

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Iron Man and the Future of Comic Book Films

My son and I saw Iron Man the other day. It is the first of three high-profile comic book movies coming out this summer (the others being The Incredible Hulk and The Dark Knight). If Iron Man is an indication of things to come, then this will be a good summer indeed. The movie does an excellent job of capturing the essence of both Tony Stark (the man behind the iron) and Iron Man. What is intriguing about this film is that it is the first one produced by Marvel Comics, which recently decided to get more directly involved in the movie-making business. What is significant about this is that Iron Man represents a comic book movie made by the people who know comics the best. The problem with many comic book movies in years past is that they were often made by people who saw comic books as campy adolescent fantasy. These producers sought to force the comic book property into previously defined molds and often it was a poor fit. This resulted in atrocities like Batman and Robin and Elektra

By having comic book films produced by the company that made them, what we get in return (if Iron Man is an indication) is faithfulness to the original source material, a greater understanding of the characters, and a situating of the story within the larger Marvel universe (this is represented in Iron Man with the presence of S.H.I.E.L.D). It also, hopefully, may lead to a greater use of crossovers. Marvel recently released plans for an Avengers movie due out in 2011. The Avengers, for those not in the know, are a team of Marvel Superheroes, usually Iron Man, The Hulk, Captain America, and Thor. It's an exciting time for comic book fans. I just wish this development had occurred earlier. Daredevil has always been one of my favorite Marvel heroes and he has not gotten the cinematic treatment he deserves. Although I liked the Daredevil movie that came out several years ago, I would greatly have preferred to see what Marvel would have done with it.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Back in the Saddle

It's been awhile since I've done any blogging (as many of you have kindly reminded me). Frankly, I just got a little burned out on it. However, after a nice little sabbatical, I find myself once again with the urge to share my unsolicited opinions on popular culture, religion, and related topics with people who probably couldn't care less. 

I've been keeping myself sufficiently busy during my self-imposed sabbatical: watching a lot of television and playing video games. Oh yeah, I also did some work. In April I delivered a paper at the University of Toledo on "Aesthetics and Moral Discourse in Narrative Television." I also wrote an essay on the television show Supernatural for Benbella Books (the same publisher for whom I wrote the essay on Gilmore Girls last year). It's titled "Is Supernatural Really Supernatural?" That was a lot of fun to do. Next, I have two more pop culture related research projects that should keep me busy throughout the summer. Both are for Sheffield Press out of England for a series of books they are doing on the Apocalypse in Popular Culture. The first is an essay on the influence of the Book of Revelation on comic books.  So if there are any comic book fans reading this who know of some good comic titles that utilize the book of Revelation or apocalyptic in interesting ways, please let me know. Currently I am working with Watchmen, Kingdom Come, Strange Girl, Judge Dredd: Judgment Day, and issues 666 of Batman and Superman. I would welcome recommendations on any others. The other project is a study of the apocalyptic metaphor of war as used in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Supernatural, and Battlestar Galactica. So you may be treated to (or subjected to depending on your perspective) snippets of my thinking on these topics over the months to come. Well, that's what I've been up to. Next, I may write about what I've been watching during my sabbatical -- either that or Iron Man which my son and I are heading out to see right now.