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Should We Be Excited For WESTWORLD Season 2?

Westworld 2

I suppose now that my HBOGo has temporarily stopped working in the middle of my Westworld rewatch, it’s as good a time as any to write this up. HBO flexed on us all and dropped their Season 2 trailer during the Super Bowl. Twitter caught fire, Facebook caught fire, even Neopet Island is probably burning (RIPinpeace). We were afforded a quick break from the 24-hour news cycle based around the geopolitical landscape that has purposefully bastardized itself into pop-entertainment and created a distrusting, uninformed public. BUT, I’ll give that rant another time, it’s all very disconcerting.

Getting back on track…the large majority seems super pumped for the show to return, though not all were jazzed about the trailer itself. So, Westworld Season 2, let’s talk about it.

Right off the bat, let’s just discuss how crazy this is. I have invented a brand new type of blog post, addressing whether or not to be excited for something new. Instead of taking a paycheck for it I will be receiving 20% off the back end. Now putting my finances and incredible inventions aside, hear my words, children.

Westworld is a complicated subject for me. On our old podcast, I proclaimed that it would win the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series. And ultimately, I was uhhhhh…wrong. Which I completely understand, because my biggest takeaway after Season 1 was a huge feeling of disappointment. The trailers for the first season were jaw dropping, I was so incredibly excited for it. The involvement of Jonathan Nolan, the variety of big screen actors, the promise of gunslingers and whores, what could be better?

But like I said, I was disappointed. V disappointed. V V disappointed, if I’m being completely honest with myself. I thought this was going to be the series of the year, if not the decade. I thought that HBO had seamlessly created their next big hit in preparation for the post-Game Of Thrones world. Well, all of that expectation played a major part in my final opinions of the show. I hopped aboard the hype train and when it didn’t deliver what I was looking for I was quick to write it off. Westworld is not as bad as I thought immediately following the season, but I’m going to walk you through some of the very real problems it has.

My most minimal complaint: the NOLAN-STYLE EXPOSITION DUMPS. The world within the show that they present to us has so many profound differences from ours; they need to establish the rules as soon as possible to help us enjoy it. Upon rewatching, however, these exposition dumps are GLARING. If you’ve never noticed that Chris and John Nolan favor pretty overt exposition scenes in their films, you won’t be able to unsee it now. A confused character, an outsider, a new guy: they all represent the viewer and get to ask the questions that the viewer would ask. The wiser character onscreen explains the rules of the universe and voila! We get to kick back and enjoy it from that point forward. They shell out massive details about backstory and plot just so we can catch up.

With Westworld specifically this creates a larger problem. This show is like a parfait, there are a ton of layers. With each layer comes different rules, different backstory, and different intrigue that needs to be set up. For example, we get exposition about the real world, and then about the people in the real world. We get a shit ton of exposition about the park, and then hosts within the park. Then we start getting exposition from and about the humans within the park. And this goes on and on for the first few episodes and serves as pretty ineffectual storytelling. This technique might work for a 2-hour feature film but it really sucks you out of a TV show, especially when it’s right out of the gate.

A bigger issue: THE STORY IS KINDA FUCKING DUMB. Don’t get me wrong, certain elements are fascinating. Machines on the quest for awareness and intelligence, great. There’s a lot of meat in that. But following the least attractive Hemsworth (maybe he’s the friendliest, idk) brother as he apprehensively walks around the park and then literally disappears while no one addresses the head of security vanishing — kinda fucking dumb, dude! How about the story arc of Lee Sizemore? Oh, you don’t know who Lee Sizemore is? Obviously that’s the sign of a great character within a great story! Lee Sizemore was the angry little developer that was trying to head a coup and overthrow Ford. Do you remember where his plot line ends? Me neither! And it’s upsetting because this wasn’t sleight of hand. They weren’t drawing our eyes to one side while having the real story creep up from the other. They were attempting to thicken the world but it ultimately meant so little.

And Sylvester and Lutz (the two scientists that give Maeve way too much leeway which results in mass human murder and possible total robot overthrow and genocide) make a series of the dumbest possible decisions in the realm of character. The story needs to get to its final destination though, so someone has to make these dumb decisions. The story, in its current form, NECESSITATES stupid/unlikeable characters. Maybe it’s a commentary on human hubris? Except eh, because it is a story about human hubris, just not in that way. We created our own replacements, we can’t fathom intelligence rising and surpassing us, what does it mean to truly be alive? All great questions, but tech specialists not resetting a host once she has the ability to murder humans? Blahhhh.

While John Nolan’s contributions to “Christopher Nolan” films go largely unappreciated by most people, his work is usually great. But if you think that stories like the one found in Inception are brilliant and everyone who doesn’t appreciate them are just idiots, then I wouldn’t be surprised if this is your favorite show. Inception is far superior to Westworld, but each is pretty heady in its own way. Westworld is complicated like a maze, okay yeah like a maze. Except this maze also has fire shooting from the walls, kind of a hat on a hat.

Now we’re entering the most important spoiler territory: the BIG twist of the season. It turns out that we’re watching multiple timelines and that William is the Man In Black. I did not think this was executed well. In this media age, people sniffed it out from the first episode. I was mostly onboard the denial train, because this wasn’t a clean getaway. There are mistakes in the timelines, some that can’t be explained away by “employees are hosts.” Two general rules for a good twist: you have to make a clean getaway because people can rewatch whenever and look for your mistakes, and you have to provide such a strong story that even the most discerning of people don’t look for twist — because they’re so enraptured in the story that you put in front of them. The latter is the trick.

HBO seems to favor the “big twist” ending to shows. When that’s your m.o. you need to come up with new and inventive takes. The best way to do that seems to be, hire me to write your movie and give me the life I deserve. That’s just a fact. That’s completely without bias.

If Westworld is your favorite show, cool. I’m not going to take anything away from you, I’m glad you enjoyed it. I want every show, every movie, to be great. I just can’t be complicit in pretending that this show is objectively great. It is good. The production value is off the charts, and the fact that they could pull it off as well as they did was an amazing achievement. I’m just spoiled and expected more.

To answer the initial question: “should we be excited for Season 2?” Plain and simp — yes. Watching it for the second time, it’s much easier to take a step back from criticism and enjoy the ride. It’s an impressive technical feat with strong performances and fascinating themes. I’ll enter Season 2 with tempered expectations and go with the flow. Get your milk ready for April 22nd.

Oh…and the THEME! The music on this show is perfect.

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Capes And Tights: Fixing What’s Broken In The DCEU

This is not going to be some guy just shitting on DC movies. Because frankly, I take some serious enjoyment from some of them. It’s undeniable, however, that the DC superhero films are in a state of disarray. Plagued by overarching tonal issues, unappealing characters, and a Zack Snyder-aesthetic that all films following Man Of Steel had to somewhat abide to.

There have officially been five films that we can categorize in the DC superhero subgenre: Man Of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice, Suicide Squad, Wonder Woman, and Justice League. It’s colloquially referred to as the “DCEU”, the DC Extended Universe (DC publicly stated that they have never used this name, and it instead picked up steam in the media). But for the sake of convenience, I’ll be using the name throughout. It’s foolish to assume that movie studios are driven by anything other than profit, so it is not a leap to imagine that DC (a subsidiary of Warner Bros.) saw what was happening with Marvel Studios and felt some serious dollar envy. Putting aside any artistic passion or fan satisfaction gained from the masses seeing their favorite characters on the big screen, Warner Bros. realized just how much money they could make from an interconnected cinematic universe. You know when you copy someone’s homework but they tell you to change it a little so that you won’t get in trouble? That’s what DC tried to do.

It started with their first swing, Man Of Steel, in 2013. Critical and commercial reception aside for now, DC immediately began announcing slated superhero movies through the year 2022. They had a plan, and they needed us to know what was on the horizon. Iron Man kicked off the Marvel Cinematic Universe with a bang, and up until about the early 2000’s he was a C-level character in popularity among fans and little known in the public eye. The most popular fictional character in the world vs. “some guy,” and some guy helmed a better and more popular movie. The big wigs at Warner Bros. have been scrambling ever since, so let’s discuss ways that they could improve:

The Zack Snyder Aesthetic

For many years Snyder was described as a “visual director.” That seems to be a friendly way of saying that he had a tendency for style over substance. In certain situations it definitely worked…his films looked different, they stood out, and people enjoy variety. But you can watch any Zack Snyder film and see that he opts for a desaturated color palette. His choice to color-correct/grade his films to an inhuman visual level has not gone over well with fans. Snyder has an affinity for his protagonists to come off as “badass,” and he sees some sort of connection with gritty/rough coloration and that portrayal.

In a world full of superhero movies, this just looks fucking weird. We’re used to seeing colors flying across the screen. Superman wears bright red and blue, and there’s a genuine connection between his bright world and his optimistic, hopeful personality. Snyder abandons both in his films, and the movie fails to connect. In his follow-up crossover, Batman v Superman, the coloration is the same. Superman flies drearily around a muted world, mundanely saving his worshippers in grey skies. Then came along David Ayer’s Suicide Squad where the colors came knocking. And to be totally frank, it looked wrong. The colorful characters inside a world that had been constructed by someone else just didn’t quite fit. But this is what leads us to Wonder Woman. Patty Jenkins constructed her own world, and while color and lighting weren’t the only strengths that made this movie superior to its cousins, they definitely helped. (The time period shift probably had something to do with Warner Bros. allowing it.) Diana clearing no-man’s land in her shining armor, defiant against a maelstrom of bullets, is like the symbolic champion of her color over the palette of war-torn Europe.

We don’t need every character wearing hot pink or bright yellow. Maybe just give us a world where the trees are green and the skies are blue. Move away from the Zack Snyder established aesthetic and into a world that lends itself to the stories being told.

Unappealing Characters

This is an obvious make-or-break for any film franchise. Individual films can sometimes get away with poorly constructed or unappealing characters, but in a franchise the viewers demand growth. Superman has been a sad boy, Batman murders everyone, The Flash never shuts the fuck up, and everyone in Suicide Squad (excluding the extended edition) is only defined by their intro scenes.

Again, I do believe that Zack Snyder’s take on characters is that good guys are badasses, villains are nerds, and bad guys just want to punch you. This is why we got two entire films about Superman feeling sad and isolated and then saving humanity…for what reason exactly? Batman’s .50 caliber killing spree bewildered everyone, just everyone. As an audience, we weren’t ready for any of this. Because these aren’t the characters that we know. These characters are not living up to their previous depictions – the Superman symbol and the Bat insignia are two of the most recognizable symbols in the world. The Flash was Justice League’s comic relief, but instead of just quipping or hitting one-liners, he was given a personality that didn’t know anything about the world. As if he had never communicated with a human being before, or even seen human beings communicate on TV. Presumably the studio thought this would make him more easily digestible, so that we know we are supposed to laugh every time The Flash talks.

There are decades of valuable source material that show fully constructed blueprints to get the characters to a place that audiences appreciate. People who love Batman blowing up henchmen and claim, “that’s what happened in the comics”…yeah they clearly don’t read comics. Because almost anything imaginable has happened with EVERY character. People are always switching to the evil side, becoming zombies, betraying their allies, and every other twist that you can think of — it comes with the territory when you’re in constant publication for 75 years. But GOOD comics exist, and they aren’t hard to find. Those are the ones that people talk about, and those are usually paramount in the construction of the characters that we pay money to see. Warner Bros. needs to shift their focus to telling stories about characters with human personality and problems. (“But he’s a Kryptonian!!!” Fuck off.)

And no, I won’t talk comics with you because I’m too busy reading comics getting chicks.

The Tone

You can probably guess my thoughts on this one. It’s weird to watch Clark Kent kill tens of thousands of innocent bystanders fighting Zod and then make out with Lois Lane in the wreckage. Sad Boy Superman is the wrong tone…check the earnings for any Marvel movie to reaffirm that. Now I don’t think Marvel gets nearly enough criticism for throwing in humor and undercutting their own dramatic climaxes, but DC could undoubtedly use a bit more levity. Batman v Superman is a slog through the mud, a war of attrition between viewer and screen. Morose, macabre, and oddly pessimistic, fans did not respond well. Suicide Squad spends the entire film selling us the idea that these bad guys don’t play by the rules. When push comes to shove they’ll break from convention to serve their own interests, which is what makes them interesting. But once the final act rolls around, the characters follow all of the normal tropes and conventions. They sacrifice themselves for the team and the greater good, and their personal altruism wins out over self-preservation. And the quirky characters can stand out against a tone, that’s what makes them work, but the characters’ quirks control the tone.

justice league

Justice League made strides to work towards a lighter tone. It had the fingerprints of two directors, but I think the decision was a correct one. Hopefully as the franchise continues, they keep moving in that direction. There is a direct correlation between the characters in DC and the tone they should strike, especially in the crossovers. The Justice League is NOT The Avengers. The Avengers is much closer to a private strike force, and the Justice League is much closer to a pantheon of gods. The Justice League has to be facing world-ending threats, and even then, that might not be a problem for them. So, the tone has to match that. The appeal of the film has to come from the characters and the story. Not a dramatic tonal shift in the final act that makes us believe a big ol’ fight where some of our characters may die is the key to our enjoyment. More than anything, DC would benefit from a consistent tone throughout, ideally one of more lightheartedness than what we have seen so far. These characters have the power to inspire and empower; within their worlds, and into ours.

 

Despite the clear problems that we all see, I find plenty of things that I like. Yes, I’m carrying over some serious bias. Yes, I’ve loved these characters my entire life, so I give them a pass on a lot of things. But I’m not so blinded that it makes me love the movies unconditionally. The magic of seeing these characters on screen can only hold so much weight. It’s been very hip to refer to Justice League as a box office bomb, but it has a reported budget of $300 million and is about to hit $600 million in worldwide earnings. So, let’s not pretend like the sky is falling. There have been some incredibly beautiful moments. When Clark Kent takes his first flight, when Diana realizes that Men can be evil on their own, when Bruce Wayne charges into the collapsing skyscraper…these flashes give me hope. Even in a world full of negativity and entrenched cynics, I am eternally optimistic. I want every one of these movies to be good. I want to love them all. Maybe they just need a few changes.

Follow Alex on Twitter @AlexIanGarcia