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Suicide Squad and the Dangers of Critical Consensus

If the critics are to be believed, David Ayer’s 2016 film Suicide Squad represents one of cinema’s greatest failures in terms of artistic vision and commercial appeal. Its record-breaking opening and its 6.2-out-of-ten rating on IMDB (as of 19 September 2017) notwithstanding, moviegoers’ discourse about the film often mimics the film’s critical reception—a 40 out of 100 on Metacritic and a rather stunning 25% on Rotten Tomatoes. On the latter site’s sampling of critical quotes, we find gems such as the following:

  • “To say that the movie loses the plot would not be strictly accurate, for that would imply that there was a plot to lose.”—Anthony Lane, The New Yorker
  • “This is what happens when the comic book fanboys have taken over the asylum. It is damaged goods from the get-go, the kind of film grown in a petri dish in Hollywood.”— Colin Covert, Minneapolis Star Tribune
  • “Sometimes it’s good to be bad. In Suicide Squad‘s case, bad is just plain bad. It gives villainy a bad name.”— Adam Graham, Detroit News
  • Suicide Squad had the potential to be an awesome superhero summer blockbuster, but feels more like a rushed unification of underwhelming action, a disappointing story, and stale character development.”—Chris Sawin, com
  • “Taken from a popular DC comic series… helmed by a star quality director… peppered with a highly skilled, all-star cast … What could go wrong? Nearly everything.”—Leonard Maltin, Leonard Maltin’s Picks (All quotes taken from “Suicide Squad (2016), com)

To be sure, some of this criticism is warranted. When graded on the scale of truly great films to truly awful ones—say, Citizen Kane to The Room, or Casablanca to The Castle of Fu Manchu—Ayer’s movie falls squarely in the mediocre range. If we grade it on a sliding scale in which summer popcorn entertainment gets more of a pass for “not pretending to be any more than what it is,” the film scores a bit higher. Entertainment Weekly’s grade of B- (well above average, far from perfect) seems fairer than, say, Maltin’s claim that nearly everything goes wrong. Many things in the film go right, especially for its comics-fan target audience. Having read John Ostrander’s run on the comics title in the late 80s and early 90s, I felt more excited for this movie than I did for any other summer movie this year, even the superior Captain America: Civil War and the Ghostbusters reboot. This pre-fab investment in the film biases me; I probably came more prepared to like the movie more than the general audience or younger comics fans who have had less time to pine for an adaptation. It should therefore come as no surprise that I enjoyed Suicide Squad.

That does not mean that I am blind to its flaws, of which there are many. Nor am I taking issue with thoughtful critics who provide strong reasoning and textual evidence in their negative reviews. Honest, robust, and passionate criticism is essential to art and entertainment.

I admit to wishing, though, that so much of published criticism didn’t seem petty and mean-spirited, as if some critics are looking for any excuse to excoriate an artist’s work in snappy soundbites aimed more at entertaining than in improving the substance of the art. I am, in fact, unsure of how such criticism, masturbatory and self-important as it seems, differs from the very audience-baiting, cash-grab cynicism that these same critics often bemoan. An article written by Eve Peyser for Gizmodo is titled, “Suicide Squad Sets Box Office Record Because We Don’t Deserve Better Movies.” The only criticism of the film in this short post consists of linking to a Deadspin article about the movie and a claim that Suicide Squad is a “deeply mediocre film” (Peyser par. 2) Fair enough, but I would have been much more interested in reading Ms. Peyser’s thoughtful critique of the movie, rather than a simple statement that she hated it and that others probably did, too. Her thesis, as noted in the title, seems to be that we are to blame for bad movies because we keep paying to see them. That is an idea worth exploring, though to do so, we need to establish a commonly accepted definition of “bad movie” and prove that Suicide Squad fits the definition. Such an essay would require more time and space than was devoted to Peyser’s short post, but it would have been a much more interesting and substantive addition to our discourse about the film, its quality or lack thereof, and what our gravitating to it says about us.

To be clear, I am not taking issue with Peyser’s post, which also doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is—a short opinion piece making a provocative statement in order to increase site traffic and generate discussion about a major pop culture moment. What distresses me about American discourse on art and popular culture is that whenever critics overwhelmingly love or hate a film and then phrase their admiration or displeasure in language that is less than measured or thoughtful, their opinions take on the power of fact through sheer force. In simpler terms, once enough critics have passionately declared that Suicide Squad is bad, their opinions become our discourse. We all talk about the film as if it is factually bad to the extent that many fans and writers feel no need to justify their opinion—this in spite of the actual facts that critical consensus often changes over time and that one person’s waste of talent and budget is another person’s fun, thought-provoking entertainment.

The Big Lebowski was a critical and box office bomb, but it has since become a beloved touchstone for its own subculture, and not in the ironic, we’re-in-on-the-joke way that Plan 9 from Outer Space or The Room has become a cult favorite. Citizen Kane, often called the greatest film ever made, received mixed critical reviews upon its release. Conversely, Oscar winners like The English Patient and Crash have lost both critical and popular momentum over time. Donnie Darko has become a cult classic, even though it did woeful box office and puzzled many critics. Often, it is only with time and consideration that we can recognize a formerly overlooked classic or a work we initially rated too highly.

This phenomenon is not limited to cinema. Moby-Dick was a failure it its day and is now considered one of the great American novels. The most popular poets of the American nineteenth century have given way to Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. John Donne has gone in and out of style over the centuries. In spite of all this, we—both professional critics and audience members—often speak about a film as if its fate has been decided definitively, for all time. And for every thoughtful critic like a Leonard Maltin or Peter Travers or Lisa Schwarzbaum, there are a thousand trolls filling comments sections and Twitter feeds with recycled criticism and pure human ugliness instead of original thought.

For those who believe that Suicide Squad is flawed or just plain awful, all I ask is that you show your work. I ask the same of the film’s defenders. I ask that we wait until we experience a text for ourselves before we decide with whom we agree. And for the love of all that’s good and true, let us leave behind the flame wars and the name-calling and just talk to each other.

I’ll start. I’ve said that I enjoyed the movie as a biased comics fan, though I am not blind to its flaws. I loved the performances by Viola Davis, Margot Robbie, Jared Leto, Will Smith, and Jay Hernandez. Jai Courtney disappeared into his role of Captain Boomerang. I found the characterizations and development of Harley Quinn, El Diablo, and Deadshot to be intriguing and fun. The movie had the best soundtrack you could ask for, and many of the visual effects were strong. I appreciate Ayer’s decision to scrap King Shark for Killer Croc, a character who could be rendered by a living actor and makeup. And what we saw of Leto’s Joker whetted my appetite for more.

As for some flaws, here, in what I hope is conciliatory and thoughtful language, are some problems I had the picture. These points contain spoilers, so if you have not seen the film, beware.

  • Other than the aforementioned Harley, Diablo, and Deadshot, most of the major characters were underdeveloped. Much of this problem can likely be attributed to having so many major players in one film—eight or nine Squad members, plus Rick Flag’s SEAL team, plus Amanda Waller and her flunkies, plus various military personnel and prison guards, plus the Joker and his henchmen. That’s a bunch, folks. This leads to several other problems, noted below.
  • One major plot point we’re supposed to buy is that Rick Flag is in love with June Moone, a.k.a. the Enchantress, and his love for her is what keeps him under Waller’s thumb. However, we don’t see that love develop on screen, and the characters share so little screen time together that it’s tough to buy even after the fact. Ayer chooses to address this point by having Waller say, “We put the two of them together, and they fell in love just like we hoped, and now I own Flag.” The logic behind this plan makes no sense, and we are given nothing on which to base an investment in this relationship, even though many of the film’s attempts to connect with the audience’s emotions hinge on said investment.
  • Speaking of Waller, those unfamiliar with the comics will likely find her to be, as Deadshot describes her, a gangsta, but as for her methods and motivation, we don’t have a clue. We know she’s worried about the threat of metahumans—that the “next Superman” will be a villain—but we have no idea why she believes that only other villains can fight such a threat. Perhaps we’re supposed to infer that she believes only bad guys can be controlled, but if so, this film’s plot pretty much scraps that notion, since the antagonist comes straight from the team itself. In fact, as the credits’ Easter Egg shows, she already had files on heroes—files that she gives to Bruce Wayne. If she knew of trustworthy good guys, why depend so much on bad ones that you have to threaten and bribe? Why couldn’t she try to form the Justice League, other than the fact that such an act would ruin the plot of the upcoming film?
  • Killer Croc is given almost nothing to do until the end of the film and has no scenes that would require an actor of Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s caliber. He is unrecognizable under the makeup. Croc’s lack of both development and necessity makes the waste of a good actor almost as awful as what the film does with Adam Beach. It’s fine to kill a character to establish that, yes, the neck bombs keeping the Squad in line are real, and Waller or Flag are willing to use them. But why bother with hiring such a strong actor to do so little?
  • Katana is criminally underdeveloped, which makes her big emotional scene fall flat. It’s hard to care about the fate of a character we have spent no time with and know very little about.
  • Why does Deadshot almost never wear his trademark helmet and glowing eyepiece—except that it would rob us seeing Will Smith’s face?
  • Much has been made of how the lead-up to the movie spent so much time on the Joker and Leto’s method-acting craziness, only to give us very little of what was shot. Even Leto has spoken out against how much of his performance ended up on the cutting room floor. I would not want to see the Joker overshadow the main storyline, but it seems unfair to both fans and Leto to give us so little footage, most of which is only marginally connected to the plot.
  • Speaking of the plot, there are holes. Waller and Flag talk about how fighting the Enchantress’s transformed lackeys is useless, but then the Squad fights them and takes them out handily. What was Waller and Flag’s conversation based on, and why were they so wrong, and how did they feel about it? Why did June Moone bring forth the Enchantress in that hotel room, which allowed the villain to escape? Why does it take the Enchantress days to build her machine, and how is destroying military hardware the same thing as destroying all humanity? How does an ancient witch know how to make an intricate machine, anyway? Why didn’t Waller just have her retrieve all the secret information from every country instead of just Iran’s, and what were the generals going to do with that information? Why wasn’t the Enchantress’s big bad brother released at the same time she was? Flag kills the Enchantress by crushing her heart; why didn’t Waller do that in the first place, especially after just poking holes in it didn’t work? Why does Killer Croc never seem to get rattled? Why does finding out that Flag hid letters from his daughter cause Deadshot to complete the mission instead of just, you know, shooting Flag in the head? And so forth and so on.
  • Sound editing—when the Enchantress is speaking English in the final scenes, I could barely understand a word she said. Since these are the climactic scenes, it seems kind of important.
  • Many critics have said that the movie becomes too conventional in the last two acts. I think part of what they mean is that these unrepentant, scum-of-the-Earth bad guys start acting like good guys and doing good-guy stuff. The Captain Boomerang of the comics would never have come back to the team after being given an out; Jai Courtney’s character does, with no real explanation except that he’s apparently been affected by team spirit, the sense of which is then undercut when we learn that he is serving three consecutive life sentences and is therefore unlikely to get any benefits from his work. (For that matter, his trick boomerangs are so underused here that the audience might be forgiven for thinking they are ordinary.) Deadshot, Diablo, Harley, and even Captain Boomerang seem to form genuine bonds and become invested in each other’s fates, just as good guys would, even though they constantly talk about how awful they are. Complications and complexities are fine, even necessary and desirable, but you probably shouldn’t talk constantly about how you’re a vicious killer without a conscience and then undercut that concept with your every act. It would have been better if the Squad had continued as an anti-team, one that worked together out of mutual selfishness instead of an increasing sense of duty to each other. In the absence of that, what separates them from the Justice League, other than their criminal pasts?
  • We are never really certain about the nature of the Enchantress’s henchmen—what they can do, why they look the way they do, what purpose they serve other than distraction.
  • Why does the Joker look like a pimp?

Again, if you’re a comics fan, you might overlook some of these flaws. You know about Waller’s motivation and personality, and so when the film doesn’t show us, you can fill in the blanks yourself. As a stand-alone movie, though, Suicide Squad should have done better than that, especially since so many of the characters and events have been altered.

Given all of that, I can understand why many critics and viewers found the film to be mediocre or worse. And if you overlook the film’s flaws because all you want from it is to turn off your brain and go along for the ride, well, fine. What we should not do is let an apparent critical consensus at one moment in time take on the characteristics of fact, so that we ignore why a film might be good or bad and simply yell at each other about how good/bad it is. We cannot let unsupported statements of opinion stand in for substantive criticism. To do so teaches us nothing about the text or ourselves; it only widens the divide between camps, until, like the Suicide Squad itself often does, we turn our slings and arrows inward and leave each other bloody and battered but not enlightened.

Works Cited

Peyser, Eve. “Suicide Squad Sets Box Office Record Because We Don’t Deserve Better Movies.” Gizmodo.com, Gizmodo Media Group, 7 August 2016. http://io9.gizmodo.com/suicide-squad-sets-box-office-record-because-we-dont-de-1784950994. Accessed 28 November 2016.

Suicide Squad (2016).” IMDB.com, IMDB, 2016, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1386697/. Accessed 28 November 2016.

Suicide Squad (2016).” RottenTomatoes.com, Fandango, 2016, https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/suicide_squad_2016/. Accessed 28 November 2016.

MAN OF STEEL, WORLD WAR Z, and Source Material: or, The Film Adaptation Did What, Now?

Since at least 1975, when Steven Spielberg’s Jaws became arguably the first summer blockbuster, the summer film season has evolved—some might say devolved—into a kind of paddock in which every snapping, chomping, exploding, shoot-em-upping, CGI-heavy popcorn flick prowls. If it involves killer robots (giant or otherwise), aliens, super-heroes, car chases for the sake of car chases, debauched partying, and/or monsters, you’re more likely to see it on summer movie screens. You won’t see many Prestige Films from May to August. What you will see are the fanboy flicks meant to generate the bulk of the year’s income; these movies are the engines that drive the studios and, sometimes, allow them to fund movies with stronger plots, better characterization and character development, clearer cinematography, better editing, effects that supplement the plot rather than substitute for it.

That is not to say that all summer films are bad—far from it. Many are fun. Many are well-constructed, well-conceived, well-acted. Some might be equally at home in the fall, when Oscar-bait pictures enjoy wide releases and strategic advertising campaigns that are meant to entice the Academy as much as Joe Consumer. But for the most part, summer is the stomping ground for the kind of movie that inspires theme-park rides, action figures, and ComicCon panels.

And, in today’s ever-more-cynical Hollywood, most of these lumbering, clunky, and yes, often exhilarating movies are built not just to make zillions of dollars but also to jumpstart a franchise.

Two recent summer releases follow this pattern. Both were adapted from beloved source material. Both are CGI-heavy action films, though one also utilizes elements of the suspense thriller. Both opt for kinetic thrill over character development and present some troubling moral quandaries for the viewer.

But make no mistake—World War Z is not Man of Steel.

I wanted to like Man of Steel. I really did.

For over twenty years, I was an avid comic collector. My collection easily numbered in the thousands. I was purchasing around sixty titles a month at one point. Eventually, in the mid-1990s, I quit, the reasons for which could fill another column. Suffice it to say that I grew sick of the lazy, marketing-based storytelling. Should the reader be interested, I’ll break it all down sometime.

For now, I will simply say this: even at the apex of my comics-collecting frenzy, I never really followed Superman closely. He never really interested me. In the old days, no villain had a chance against him unless he/she happened to find a piece of kryptonite lying around. Superman was “super” to a fault, with more powers than the combined might of your average super-team, plus near-invulnerability. Moreover, I came of age in the 1970s and 80s, a time when comics were growing darker and ever more adult in tone. “The Big Blue Boy Scout” and his utterly pure ethics were much less interesting than the shades-of-gray morality of, say, the X-Men or the everyman struggles of Peter Parker. On the DC side of things, Batman’s neuroses—perhaps even psychoses—provided fecund grounds for character-based storytelling and action-based plots with real stakes. You always knew that Batman wouldn’t die or get hurt too badly—his name was on the book, right?—but he was vulnerable in ways that Superman could never be.

When Richard Donner’s first Superman film was released, I watched it because it was a super-hero film. Christopher Reeve did an admirable job. Superman II was, to my young eyes, pretty awesome. Terence Stamp made for a willowy, aristocratic Zod, but the triple threat of the Phantom Zone escapees posed real problems for Superman. I dug it. Of course, Superman III was really more of a comedy, and the less said about Superman IV, the better. Much like with the comics version, the filmic Superman interested me enough to keep up with what was happening, but not much more.

I never watched Lois and Clark on TV. I still have not seen Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns. Do you get what I’m saying? I respected Superman’s place in pop culture history, but I was never really invested in him, either.

Still, for some reason I can’t quite explain, I got really excited when I saw the trailers for Man of Steel. I found myself rooting for the Big Blue Boy Scout. I wanted the film to be good, a box office success and a critical smash. I bought my tickets and sat among the other drooling fanboys and girls, ready to be dazzled.

As I’ve said elsewhere, Man of Steel is really the first of the various Superman films to demonstrate understanding of Superman’s sheer scale. The leveling of Smallville and large sections of Metropolis provide strong, clear images of what would happen if godlike beings threw down, and, viewing the scope of the wreckage, the ticket-holder could be forgiven for his/her relief that such beings don’t exist in our world. Even if we forget about the potential loss of life, can you imagine the sheer economic devastation that would occur in the wake of just one super-battle? Insurance premiums alone would bankrupt your average citizen.

The problems with the film as a film have already been covered by other critics—the lack of chemistry between the leads, the over-dependence on CGI, the relentless battles that bleed into one another as if good scriptwriting were only a matter of moving from one near-incomprehensible set piece to another (I honestly wonder if the script might have been only 30 pages long), and so forth. To these concerns, I have added my own distaste for the fetishistic destruction of New York-substitute Metropolis, especially the scenes in which the Daily Planet staff wanders about a landscape that looks suspiciously like Ground Zero on 9/11. In fact, why did we even meet Perry White et al. in this film? They never really did anything substantive.

I also don’t like the typical Snyder-film acting style of SHOUTING EVERY LINE AT THE TOP OF ONE’S LUNGS, ESPECIALLY TO SUPERMAN, WHO HAS FRICKIN’ SUPER-HEARING. Michael Shannon’s a fine actor, but he chews too much scenery here.

A sidebar: at one point, Zod says to Superman, “I was bred for this! I was trained all my life to be a warrior! Where did you train, A FARM?” Um, dude, you were the one who got your ass kicked by a scientist in hand-to-hand combat.

Were it not for strong performances by Henry Cavill and Russell Crowe, the oft-dazzling visuals (Snyder’s greatest strength thus far), and the early scenes that ground Clark’s humanity in a typical “Who am I, really?” search, I would have hated the film. Still, I thought it was okay at best, C- material.

Back to the subject of this column, my main problems with the film lie with its ending and how that ending demonstrates the filmmakers’ fundamental misunderstanding of Superman’s character, as well as their own failure to construct a clear sense of ethics for Clark/Superman.

SPOILER ALERT: if you don’t know how the film ends, stop reading and come back after you’ve seen the movie. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

If you’re still with me, then I can tell you that I am firmly in the camp that believes Superman should never kill. Certainly the actions of the cinematic Superman have no bearing on the source material. But as I said to a friend recently, if you’re coming to an adaptation of a beloved character, you expect some level of faithfulness to what made you a fan of that character in the first place. Superman is not Wolverine, or the Punisher, or Deathstroke, or Deadshot. He always finds a way not to kill. Having Superman kill Zod without even trying anything else (why not zoom up in the air with him? Put your super hand over his eyes? Pull him backward? Bop him on top of the head really hard?) is like a Harry Potter adaptation in which Harry is a heroin-addicted sexual pervert. It is, at best, a fundamental misunderstanding of your source material, one that cannot be whitewashed with creative license. At worse, it’s a betrayal of your audience. You can surprise them without insulting them.

Of course, all that assumes that cinematic Superman believes in the same ethical code as comic-book Superman, and the audience is likely to assume he does because the film does not construct a clear set of moral codes for Clark in his early years. I find this flaw within the film even more troubling than the alteration of the source texts.

As portrayed in the film, Jonathan and Martha Kent seem to exemplify the worst parenting tendencies of the contemporary age, specifically the propensity to teach our children that they are special to the point of exceptionalism. I’m all for building our kids’ confidence and showing them that, as individuals, they are valuable and strong and wonderful. But as an educator, I have seen how many parents take this too far. Children of these parents grow up believing that they are perfect, that anything they do should be unconditionally praised, that success in every endeavor is both a given and their right as human beings, that they are truly and unequivocally the center of the universe.

Jonathan and Martha Kent teach Clark that his safety, his life, is more important than anyone else’s. When Clark saves a busload of children but exposes his powers in doing so, Jonathan implies that letting all those kids die would have been a preferable solution. When Jonathan is about to die in the big tornado and Clark wants to save him, Jonathan waves him off. He is literally willing to die for his son, and I’m wondering why none of the Superman-as-Christ commentaries seem to be parsing this particular scene. So Clark grows up having been told that his own safety is paramount, even if others have to suffer and die.

To his credit, Clark rejects that idea, risking exposure several times in order to help others. Given his upbringing, we might wonder where these morals come from; surely there is an academic nature-vs-nurture article here. In any case, though, he seems to be rebelling against the teachings of his parents and following his own conscience.

Therefore, when he is forced to kill Zod (or isn’t imaginative enough to figure out another way) and subsequently screams in teary-eyed—what? Anger? Frustration? Guilt?—we hope that this will be the start of a contemporary take on Superman’s morality. What effects will this action have on him? How will he ever get over it? Is he becoming more like his Earth father, in spite of his intentions? How much sleep will he lose? How long will he have to wander the Earth doing penance? How will such penance affect his burgeoning relationship with Lois and, more importantly, his ability to help the world become a better place?

Apparently, his reaction to breaking his own moral code—of not just letting someone die for the first time but actually taking that life himself—is to say, “Oh, well.” In the subsequent scenes, Superman trades one-liners with a general. He has a frank talk with his mother about his future, and his solution to his deep and scarring ethical breach is to smile and basically say, “I think I’ll get a job.” How has his relationship with humanity in general, and with Lois specifically, changed? Apparently not at all. He is the smiling, slightly horny, newest member of the Daily Planet staff.  Wow. That’s some deep stuff right there.

In Man of Steel, this ultimate breach of Superman’s canonical ethos and the rupturing of the film’s own ethical continuity (or, rather, the movie’s last revision of its own shaky construction of Clark’s ethics) have no visible consequences whatsoever.  In this world, Superman kills, and he’s momentarily sorry, and that’s about it. On to the next one. One wonders how Lex Luthor will die in the inevitable sequel and whether Superman will even bat an eyelash.

In this origin story, Clark never comes close to reconciling the varied sets of ethics with which he is presented, so the viewer is left wondering just what kind of Man of Steel we have been given. This kind of egregious and, thus far, purposeless dismissal of the source and the audience’s history with the character is unforgivable. And it undermines Man of Steel as a stand-alone story.

So why is World War Z, a film that radically departs from its source text, any better?

For one reason, World War Z does not carry so much historical weight. Superman’s first appearance, in Action Comics #1, occurred in 1938. Along with Action Comics, Superman appeared in his own eponymous book, various incarnations of Justice League of America, spin-offs, team-ups, and special issues, not to mention the various television shows, cartoons, and films that featured the character. Whole generations grew up with Superman, who, my own tastes notwithstanding, is still the most iconic super-hero of them all.

World War Z appeared, if I am not mistaken, in 2006. Though it enjoys a devoted following, particularly among zombie culture aficionados (among which I count myself), it has not enjoyed the kind of generational, wide-ranging cultural saturation that Superman has. If nothing else, its very recent appearance on the cultural stage assures us that a comparative iconography with Superman is, as of this moment, impossible.

Because World War Z does not and, at this point in time, cannot mean as much to as many people as Superman, the filmic version’s alterations of the source text seem less problematic.

World War Z the novel also eschews typical narrative conventions like point of view. As an “oral history of the zombie war,” its goal is to present as broad a view as possible of how a zombie apocalypse might evolve, as well as its effects on the global community. Instead of reading about the zombocalypse from the perspective of one central intelligence or one set of core characters, we jump from country to country, character to character. In doing so, we see how the zombie apocalypse affects various strata of humanity: men, women, and animals; the rich and the poor; first-world countries and undeveloped nations; religious and secular communities.

We don’t get much depth in terms of character development or setting, but the tradeoff is that we finally see the apocalypse for the world-wide cataclysm it should, by definition, be. It’s a different kind of story-telling that some love and some aren’t so crazy about; I find myself somewhere in the middle, liking the book but wishing that it were longer or the scope smaller so that the elements that make stories worth telling could have more time to develop. Still, the book does what it does well.

In terms of the film adaptation, it could not possibly tell the story in the same way. The book’s structure tries some audience members’ patience but still succeeds because it can fill a few hundred pages with vignettes. In the movies, though, telling the story that way would completely deconstruct any narrative through-line. You would have to spend only a minute or two at most with each vignette, leading to an experience that would be fragmented to a fault, or you would have to focus on just a handful, meaning that you’re leaving out most of the text anyway and would have little time to do more than establish the basic narrative situation of each before you cut to the next one.

Now…films like Cloud Atlas remind us that it is possible to utilize a fragmented narrative with shorter narrative arcs set in varied locales and time periods. In that film, the arcs focused on different characters and their interconnected plotlines; it used careful scripting and masterful editing to create a narrative that makes sense. However, Cloud Atlas concentrated on five or six locales and character sets; World War Z the novel covered many more. Therefore, the same problems mentioned above would still arise. What do you keep, and what do you leave out? Any omission would limit your devotion to the source text. Filmmakers are limited by budgets, running times, and actors’ schedules, among other things, none of which a novelist has to consider. So Marc Forster and his producers would, in adapting World War Z, have to leave out most of the novel or cover everything at far too fast a pace and in far too jumbled a way. You could, perhaps, faithfully adapt World War Z into an ongoing television series, but there seems to be no way to do so in a two-hour film.

Knowing that material would have to be left out anyway, the filmmakers decided—rightly, I believe—to focus the narrative on Gerry Lane and his family. Gerry still nation-hops, much like the correspondent does in the novel, only now we are seeing the apocalypse as it happens, rather than hearing about it second-hand. Forster and company might have chosen to shoot the film documentary-style and hewed closer to the book, but this approach allows for more action and less talking about the action—more showing and less telling. And while showing rather than telling is always good narrative advice, it is crucial in the visual medium of film.

There is also no discernible breach in the source text’s established ethos. In zombie texts, the undead are monsters, no longer human. There is no moral compunction to consider; you cannot feel guilty for protecting yourself against something that is already dead. So when Gerry kills zombies, he echoes what the various characters of the novel do.

We see the Lane family act in the midst of the zombie outbreaks: they steal a vehicle; they run away from the zombies, leaving other people to die; they protect themselves at the expense of others. When possible, as seen with the family in the apartment building, they help their fellow survivors. When no hope for help exists, they save themselves.

You can argue the moral relativity of their actions from now until the zombies bash in your own door; such arguments have and will probably continue to provide fodder for academic and cultural studies of zombie texts. Here, though, the point is that the Lanes act no differently than your average survivor in the novel. Sometimes they are selfless, risking their lives for others. Sometimes they flee in terror, probably glad that they can outrun their slower brethren. They fight on the side of humanity but exhibit human fears and the realistic tendency to break social and ethical codes when the society built upon those codes breaks down. They are no better or worse than the characters in Brooks’ novel. Therefore, while some readers might take issue with the altered structure and the focus on Lane, it is likely that fewer would find themselves deeply offended by Lane’s actions or how they fit within the framework of the narrative’s world.

In terms of how it functions as a film, World War Z is above average, but not perfect. It is very well-acted, especially for a genre film. Brad Pitt is particularly good; I forgot that I was watching Brad frickin’ Pitt in a zombie movie and found myself invested in the character’s survival (which, really, isn’t much a concern until the film’s final scenes; he’s the main character, after all). The action scenes were mostly well-done. The final scenes in the WHO labs positively drip with suspense; even if you can see what’s coming, as I did, you still want to know how it happens and who will survive. Like the character played by Christopher Meloni in Man of Steel, World War Z’s female Israeli soldier (whose name, like Meloni’s character’s, I cannot recall) was compelling. She endures physical and emotional trauma and still comes off like a badass.

If we are left wondering who Superman/Clark Kent really is, we know Gerry Lane well enough. He is a former U.N. operative with strong family ties. He is highly competent. He values his family more than other people but never abandons anyone when the possibility for saving them still exists.

Does World War Z leave questions unanswered? Yes, and it admits to doing so. We don’t know how the plague started or where it originated. We don’t know how well the solution will work. We don’t know exactly how it will be implemented. Yes, it’s that cynical Hollywood machine in action again, setting up a potential franchise at the expense of the stand-alone story. Yet this story does stand alone. The first stage is over. Some fans may feel cheated that the whole story was not covered, but at least they should not feel as cheated as Man of Steel viewers might. Marc Forster and company didn’t create a race of zombies that kill humans but raise puppies and daffodils or something equally insulting to the source mythology.

Even if you ignore the novel, World War Z isn’t flawless. I would like to see more development of Gerry’s backstory. The subplot with his daughter’s asthma fizzles out. Thomas the orphan boy seems to have little place in the film. Mireille Enos has very little to do other than look concerned. And, as my wife rightly pointed out, two of the major screw-ups in the film happen because a woman does exactly what she should not do at exactly the wrong time—not exactly gender-progressive.

While all these issues are troubling, though, they aren’t film-killers. World War Z is better acted, more coherent, and much less insulting than Man of Steel. I would grade this one in the B+/B range, significantly higher than Man of Steel’s C-. If these two films do indeed jumpstart franchises, which is clearly Hollywood’s hope—and the jury is still out, as both opened very strongly, but Man of Steel suffered a 71% dropoff in its second weekend—I hope that the second Z film (World War Z II? World War II-Z?) is even better than the first. And I hope that the Man of Steel team finds a way to redeem Superman. He deserves it, and so do we.

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