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Geekly Mailbag: The problem with Storm, and 'American Sniper' talkback

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X Men Days Of Future Past

If it’s a day of the week, then Bryan Singer is probably making a casting announcement for an X-Men movie. Readers reacted to the news that X-Men: Apocalypse is de-aging three famous X-people, with a Game of Thrones star taking on Jean Grey and a semi-unknown playing Storm. There was also some response to the best Walking Dead analysis ever—it’s a war allegory!—and some additional thoughts about snipers. Read on, and email me at darren_franich@ew.com for further conversation.

Something about the popular conception of Sophie Turner as eternally trapped in a Renaissance Fair of her own (and George RR’s) making – combined with the way she glided malevolently down the staircase of the Eyrie in THAT DRESS – makes me think this Jean should just always be the brainwashed Black Queen Jean who thinks she’s an 18th century Tory who’s married to Jason Wyngarde/Mastermind. Like, we’ll meet Jean rescuing her from the Hellfire Club, and viola, Sophie gets to keep her natural accent and her Game of Thrones wardrobe…

Barring this (since it won’t ever happen in a movie, like ever, especially with a teenage Jean), I hope – because Tye Sheridan is the bomb, and it’s nice to see him breaking out of his Southern Gothic comfort zone – that Cyke gets to, y’know, smile every once in a while. I’d settle for two smirks and one all-out grin.

-Charles

The good news for Sophie Turner is that almost anything she does as Jean Grey will be viewed as an improvement over what happened to the character in X-Men: The Last Stand, the movie that forced Famke Janssen—one of the great femmes fatale of the ’90s in Goldeneye—to stand around and fire brain power through a death stare. The story of Janssen in the X franchise is a career of thankless roles—devoted girlfriend, bland heroine, bland villainess, dead dream lover. She did her best; weirdly, she got her best showcase in The Wolverine, where she’s basically a dead wife in a Christopher Nolan movies, if Christopher Nolan movies had any sexuality whatsoever.

You have to figure that Bryan Singer’s long game is to transition out of the First Class X-Men and back around to the original class—and you have to figure that means getting to X-Men: The Dark Phoenix Saga. Hell, I wouldn’t be too surprised if that’s the plan for a 2018 sequel to Apocalypse. But if that’s the case, we need to stress one thing: Cyclops should never smile, never never never. Leave that to Iceman.

I want to talk about Storm.  I think most people can agree that the character has been underutilized in the films, and many people consider that to be because of the actress who played her, Halle Berry. I’m a fan of Halle, I think Halle has had a more interesting film career than she’s given credit for, but she was probably miscast as Storm. We are talking about a character that was worshipped as a god in a few storylines. Storm projects leadership, strength, regality—Halle in the late 90s could not project that.

Which brings me to the recent casting of Storm. I had a conversation with my cousin Ryan a while back and he threw out a name like Angela Bassett as someone who should have played Storm (seriously—do a Twitter search of “Angela Bassett Storm”. The results are telling). Angela Bassett is an actress who projects regality. You could tell me Angela Bassett has secretly been running her own country for the past 7 years and I would believe you. Obviously she can’t play a young Storm at this point, but the actress chosen, as you said, played Aaliyah in a Lifetime movie. I didn’t see that movie, but most of my timeline did, and they destroyed it.

I guess my point is—Alexandra Shipp has a tricky task ahead of her. People expect her to correct the movie version of Storm by adding more gravitas and presence, but she also has to play a character that is probably still finding out who they are and might lack confidence. I’m interested to see how this plays out and willing to give her a chance, but she might have to prepare herself for some unwarranted backlash. Although, as it looks like from the reaction to the Aaliyah movie—she might already be prepared.

Arnold

The treatment of Storm in the X-Men movies is outright embarrassing. We’re talking about a character who has led the X-Men on multiple occasions, a character whose powers are flat-out godlike. And we’re talking about Halle Berry, an actress who–among her many other positive traits—won a freaking Oscar in 2002, midway through the run of the original franchise.

But Storm barely talks in X1 and 2—and has maybe five minutes of screen time in Future Past before she gets unceremoniously stabbed by the T-1000 sentinels.

So again, I think that Shipp might have a surprisingly easy time, since literally anything she does will be considered an improvement. But Arnold brings up a bigger problem with this recasting: Do we really want to see the younger versions of these characters? Wasn’t that the idea behind The Amazing Spider-Man? Hell, wasn’t the whole idea of a “younger” team of X-Men half the reason why The Last Stand didn’t work?

Angela Bassett would clearly be a great Storm. So would Lupita Nyong’o, if we’re going younger. To be honest, though, if I were 20th Century Fox right now, I’d just put all my money into a truck and drive it to Beyoncé’s house and beg her to consider acting again.

Totally agreed with everything about BSG. I re-watched the series this summer with my 18yr old who was too young to see it originally. Still held up, now he gets it also. Best show ever.

But I’m writing to say that Tamar’s letter really struck a nerve with me. I also am a war veteran. She was dead on. I don’t care for the gore of Walking Dead, but I LOVE the show, and I suspect it is that battle familiarity and I didn’t even realize it was happening. Wow. Just wow. Thanks for sharing.

-Bridget

I always love it when someone makes me see something I like in a completely different way. Tamar’s letter definitely did that. I’ve been rewatching old episodes of The Walking Dead ever since. Have you read it yet?

Good morning, Mr. Franich,

I read your article on the top 5 episodes of Battlestar Galactica and I was wondering what your thoughts on the final two episodes were. I loved the show until the end of the final fight. I suppose I was drawn to the nihilistic bent to the show. I felt that the end was lazy storytelling, where everything was explained as a mystical force behind every character’s actions. There were so many loose-ends at the final episode that it seemed like the writers didn’t even bother trying to reach a conclusion to everyone’s story. It simply didn’t make any sense to me. Suffice to say, I was pretty disappointed at the final episode.

Sincerely,

David

It will always be hard for me to hate on Battlestar Galactica‘s series finale for the same reason that it will always be hard for me to hate on the Lost series finale. I can vividly remember watching both finales—and I can vividly remember the FEELING I had watching them, the excitement and the awe and the sense that a whole chapter of my life was coming to an end. The first time I watched the BSG finale, I could barely breathe. The first time I watched the Lost finale, I was a blubbery crybaby mess.

At the same time, both finales have the same fundamental problem in hindsight: They don’t feel very much like the shows they were ending. The thing I loved about Battlestar Galactica was that it wasn’t a science-fiction show about big space battles. The thing I loved about Lost was that it wasn’t a fantasy show about white knight heroes fighting malevolent blackhatted villains.

But Battlestar ends with the show’s space battle-iest space battle, a budget-bursting action scene. You can sense that the writers probably thought that was how they were supposed to end, just like you can sense that the Lost writers probably thought they should end their talky, trippy, tangential story with a fight scene during an earthquake.

Weirdly, I don’t think the problem with either show was “loose ends.” I think the problem was the exact opposite: An attempt to wrap up all the loose ends, to provide a definitive answer. Both shows end with two characters talking, literally, about what their show ultimately meant: Two men in purgatory, two higher beings floating outside of humanity’s consciousness. In both cases, it felt to me like the writers were so afraid of narrative ambiguity that they lost track of their characters. And in both cases, the writers took shows that were fundamentally about the discord between their characters, and suddenly decided that all the characters would get along in order to defeat the Really Bad Guys.

To be honest, Breaking Bad has this same problem. Like, sure Walter White is bad…but the show ultimately comes down to him versus Neo-Nazis. Nazis. There is no villain worse than Nazis—not immortal Island demons, not evil robots.

The one thing that I will give Battlestar Galactica‘s finale credit for: What happens to Chief Tyrol is so sad, so cosmically tragic, and yet so weirdly appropriate for the character. I find myself thinking about Tyrol all the time. He gets the last truly great moment in Battlestar Galactica—the revelation of how Cally died leading to a horrifying act of vengeance—and then he just goes off on his alone, a man who has experienced joys and horrors that few living beings can ever imagine. And this is his exit line:

“It’s an island, off one of the northern continents. It’s cold, it’s up in the highlands, there’s no people.”

Darren,

First of all, thank you for this piece! I didn’t expect to be so intrigued so early in my morning. Up front: I have never seen 28 Weeks Later, but I certainly will watch it soon. I agree with tons of what you said, like the confusion I always feel when watching Black Hawk Down (what the heck were we hoping to accomplish with our presence in the first place?) I wanted to respond to one of the characterizations you made about American Sniper.

“(Then again, nothing in 28 Weeks Later is half as crazy or as insane or as reductive or as flat-out silly as the idea that the War in Iraq was first and foremost for a really sweet showdown between a badass American sniper and a badass Syrian sniper with mad parkour skills and an all-black wardrobe.)”

The luxury of 28 Weeks Later is that Jeremy Renner’s character faces a clear moral choice: to shoot innocent bystanders or not. He makes the choice not to, and becomes the hero. Trying to compare that to Chris Kyle’s position, or the two movies to each other in general, is in my opinion comparing apples to oranges. Watching American Sniper, the intent seemed to me to be that of honest storytelling, from one man’s perspective. This story was not about the justice of the war in Iraq, or any of the moral questions inherent to that conflict that we could debate endlessly. This is Kyle’s story, and he did not debate the merits of the American invasion. He also did not face the clear-cut dilemma of right versus wrong, where the callous American general was ordering him to kill innocents.

He felt a moral imperative to serve his country, to fight against those who would destroy our freedoms and our way of life. That may sound trite, and it is, until you actually have to sacrifice something. Then, to be blunt, s— gets f—ing real. Kyle accepted the call and was sent to war, where he did his duty as best as he could (and I think we can agree he was a lion of a warrior.) You seem to imply that “doing your duty” can be equated with the Nazi excuse of “just following orders.” That’s an insidious suggestion, valid in some cases, but I would argue not in most.

It’s an incredible gift to have the kind of clarity that Renner has in 28 Days Later, that blunt right vs. wrong question. I don’t think American Sniper is about that dilemma at all. It’s also not about the war in Iraq writ large: it’s about one man’s story, from his point of view. It’s not trying to speak for the entirety nor the complexity of that conflict. And his story, the story of a normal man (albeit a badass SEAL) in the midst of an impossibly complex conflict that people at every level cannot agree on, and what he does in that position, doesn’t that story matter just as much as the heroic (and fictional) sniper in 28 Weeks Later? I would argue it matters much, much more.

Renner dies a flaming, self-sacrificing death. Boy, that wraps his tale up with a nice pretty bow. He doesn’t have to come home, wracked with PTSD and guilt and self-doubt, trying to reintegrate with his family and country. But, I would argue, that is where fiction and reality separate and another way these movies are about entirely different things. I don’t deny that fiction can teach us some of the most important truths about who we are (I was an English major in college.) However, the reality is not as simple, or sexy, or easy. It’s just true.

Thanks again for your piece! I always enjoy your writing.

LT Ashley, U.S. Navy

Ashley wrote a long email which I wanted to print in its entirety, partially because it’s filled with good points and partially because—at least based on the signature—Ashley is actually serving in the armed forces, whereas I am a human being whose entire experience of war comes through heavily mediated sources—TV news, books, movies, videogames (sigh), a couple stories my grandfather told me.

This is why I feel a bit conflicted about the general reactions to American Sniper. As a movie, Sniper is B-grade Eastwood: The story is a mess, but the acting is great. Eastwood isn’t really an action director the way we think of the term today—he prefers a still camera and quiet closeups on faces—and in that sense, he’s probably a better action director than any of the heli-cam mini-Bays who dominate the movie landscape now.

But nobody is really talking about American Sniper as a movie. The film has kind of become a weird reflection of everyone’s political feelings about a very political era. For liberals, it brings back all the horrors of the George W. Bush presidency; for conservatives, it probably confirms just how far our country has fallen.

I say “probably” because I can’t pretend to know the conservative perspective. I’m pretty liberal. (I was raised forty minutes from San Francisco, and I’m a writer. What’d you expect: Dwight D. Eisenhower?) But I don’t necessarily know how much my politics should matter with regards to a movie—especially not a movie by Clint Eastwood, who’s sort of a Republican the way that the Punisher is a superhero. By which I mean: Sort of, but not really, and never the way you think. (As my colleague Anthony Breznican pointed out to me, anyone who thinks American Sniper is propaganda should watch Flags of Our Fathers, a movie which is literally about the American military-propaganda complex.)

What matters to a movie is the movie. And the filmmakers have basically taken Ashley’s argument: “It’s about one man’s story, from his point of view. It’s not trying to speak for the entirety nor the complexity of that conflict.” First of all, I don’t think that’s actually possible—and I disdain any filmmaker who explicitly states that they just wanted to make a movie from “one character’s point of view.” That’s a euphemism for saying that you wanted to make a movie without casting any judgments—an argument that, somehow, by focusing all your energy on one person’s perspective, you’re coming closer to “reality.”

Bull, bull, bull. American Sniper is a fictionalization of fact, like all movies based on a true story. It is not reality. Bradley Cooper is not Chris Kyle. I’m not sure it’s my place to pass judgment on Chris Kyle; I know I’m allowed to pass judgment on what the filmmakers do with his story. And what do they do? Well, at every turn, they wrap his story up in a tight bow. They take the semi-mythic character Mustafa—a sniper who barely appears in Kyle’s book—and turn him into the movie’s supervillain. They skip over all the things that make Kyle’s story more complicated—this is a guy who quite possibly lied about shooting looters after Katrina.

The best movies challenge their characters, but American Sniper doesn’t even try to challenge its version of Chris Kyle. Like, this is a war movie where the people who aren’t American are either victims or co-conspirators or supervillain snipers. There’s no sense that the people through Kyle’s scope are actual real characters. You could argue: “Oh, but that’s how Kyle saw them, not really as people.”

But Kyle isn’t making this movie. The filmmakers are. And if the filmmakers are making a movie where the only character who really matters as a human being is the guy holding a gun–and if the only drama of the movie is that the lead guy is having a really tough time being a hero—then to my eyes, they’ve taken a very real and complicated story and turned it into a superhero movie.

Listen: No American movie about the last decade and a half in the Middle East has ever really figured out what to do with characters who aren’t white American people. The Hurt Locker actually works better if you pretend that it’s a science-fiction movie set on Mars. I loathe Zero Dark Thirty for a lot of different reasons—not least because it’s basically Chicken Soup for the CIA Agent’s Soul. And this is not a new problem! We tend to rave about Vietnam war movies like Apocalypse NowFull Metal Jacket, and Platoon—but the most memorable Vietnamese character from any of those movies is probably the hooker promising “Me love you long time” in Full Metal Jacket.

If you want an indication of how much smarter war movies can be, I recommend everyone watch The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, a movie made in Britain during World War II which is very clearly a movie about how Britain is awesome and should definitely beat those dastardly Germans, wot wot, but which also finds time to place the conflict in a vast historical context—and which gives all the best lines and the most complicated story arc to a German guy, who ages from a soldier in WWI to an emotionally brutalized refugee in WWII.

As a bonus, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp does not feature any scenes where Sienna Miller cries.