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Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Arrowverse Succeeds Where The DC Cinematic Universe Fails

Many superheroes and comic book characters have made their way into films and TV shows and the DC Universe is no exception.

DC, though, has had its difficulties capturing enough interest in its Cinematic Universe, as evidenced by the recent Justice League film failing to draw at least $100 million for its opening weekend. The disappointing numbers comes after three more recent films pulled in at least $100M and one film, Wonder Woman, did such a good job retaining its audience that it finished past $400M domestic and won the summer box office crown.

But while the Cinematic Universe hasn't lived up to expectations, DC characters are doing a better job of that with the TV shows that aired on CW, a universe that has been dubbed the Arrowverse. Most recently, the Arrowverse paid off on its continued world building and character development with its most ambitious project to date, this year's crossover, Crisis On Earth-X.

What's remarkable about the four shows that make up the Arrowverse -- Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl and Legends of Tomorrow -- is that they focus on characters who may not be familiar to those who don't closely follow comic books. Ask a person who doesn't know much about comic books about Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman and they'll know exactly who you are talking about. But how many of those people would know anything about characters such as White Canary, Vibe, Killer Frost, Mr. Terrific and Vixen?

There are many reasons why DC has had more success with its TV shows' shared universe than it has had with most installments of the movies' shared universe. But one of the biggest reasons may be how the Arrowverse has been built, compared to how the DC Cinematic Universe has been built.

The movie universe started with the decision to relaunch Superman with the film Man of Steel -- a film that received mixed reviews and generates plenty of debate among comic book fans regarding the portrayal of its leader character. But rather than focusing on films for other individual characters -- Wonder Woman, the one iconic DC character who hadn't been featured on the big screen, was right there -- the decision was made to focus on Superman and Batman in the same film, with Wonder Woman taking a minor role.

Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice drew a huge opening weekend but its box office declined rapidly. While a few people liked what the film delivered, many others found the film underwhelming at best or downright terrible at worst. But regardless of one's opinion about the film, it was clear that the intent with the Cinematic Universe was to jump right into the idea of Batman and Superman squaring off, leading up to the two of them uniting alongside Wonder Woman. There seemed to be no interest in rolling out individual films for other characters to get the ball rolling.

And the next film to roll out was Suicide Squad, in which a number of one-time villains are teamed up to work for the government. Thus the next installment was yet another case of characters teaming up for a common cause, rather than building up characters individually and leading to something bigger. Suicide Squad, like BvS, drew a large opening weekend but couldn't retain its audience.

The Wonder Woman film was well received overall, but now DC was already set down its path to build toward Justice League. They gave brief cameos to Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg in BvS, then decided to introduce them all in the Justice League film. Once again, there seemed to be no interest in giving any of the new characters their own film to allow people to get to know who they were and what made them tick. The end result is cramming in small bits of backstory into scenes, all while trying to find a reason for them to team up, and everything else gets the short stick.

Going right for the big payoff of teaming superheroes up, thus, has proven to be one of several major flaws in the direction of the DC Cinematic Universe. Movie goers are given little reason to empathize with some of the characters and little attention is paid to world building. Additionally, the villains come off as one-dimensional -- Steppenwolf is the perfect example, as he comes off as just another evil guy that only major comic book fans will understand, while general audiences are left wondering why they should care.

Compare that to the Arrowverse, in which it started small and built its world. Certainly one may argue that the creative team had to do that, given that most of the characters they wanted to roll out weren't well known to people who weren't major comic book fans. But the creative team still remained patient in how it build the universe, bringing elements in gradually and allowing audiences to get to know the characters who would be the focus, rather than heading right to the big teamups.

It started with Arrow, in which audiences got to know not only about Oliver Queen, but became familiar with other characters that were either created specifically for the show or were minor characters from the DC universe, who gained notoriety thanks to the patience shown by the creative team. John Diggle (created for the series) and Felicity Smoak (a minor DC character) both became prominent members of Arrow's world and audiences got to learn about characters ranging from Malcolm Merlyn to Slade Wilson in the first season.

By the time the second season rolled out, the creative team was able to build upon what had been established and introduce another character, Barry Allen. He would go on to become The Flash and that allowed for the Arrowverse team to launch a new series. Once again, the creative time took time to build its world there, getting audiences familiar with unique creations such as Harrison Wells and Joe West, while giving prominent roles to minor DC characters such as Caitlin Snow and Cisco Ramon. Flash may have done the best job so far of building its world and, in particular, getting people to become invested in the relationship between Barry Allen and Iris West.

Along the way, we saw a number of other DC characters get dropped into the two shows, with Ray Palmer appearing in Arrow and Martin Stein showing up in The Flash. Each show also introduced its own creations, Sara Lance and Jefferson Jackson, in recurring roles. The four, along with other characters, became integral parts of the next Arrowverse show, Legends of Tomorrow. That show allowed the creative team to build these once-minor characters in the other two shows and allow them to shine more. All the while, it got across the idea of having characters team up for a common goal.

And when Flash had been launched, immediate plans were made to have Flash and Arrow cross over into each other's show to allow Oliver Queen and Barry Allen to team up. Combine the heightened interest in those episodes with the launch of Legends of Tomorrow, and it was only fitting that you'd want to see these characters all come together to tackle a major task.

But there was one more player added to the table when the Arrowverse creators reached a deal with CBS to launch Supergirl. Though CBS didn't show enough interest to pick it up for a second season, the creative team teased the idea that Supergirl could show up elsewhere when The Flash crossed over for an episode. And after CW agreed to take Supergirl into its lineup, the stage was set for the first major crossover.

Things weren't exactly smooth sailing with that crossover, as Supergirl being switched to CW late in the game meant the creative team wasn't able to seamlessly pull the show into the crossover (even as CW advertised it as being part of it). And when it did jump into the alien invasion, Supergirl tended to be awkwardly wedged into the shows, which each acted as a self-contained episode -- a big issue was Arrow commemorating its 100th episode at the time of the crossover.

Still, building up to the epic showdown between the superheroes and the alien invasion gave fans enough satisfaction and, more importantly, built interest in what could be done to have a true crossover that incorporated as many characters as possible and allowed them to go against a common enemy.

It was earlier this week that the Arrowverse creative team rolled out Crisis on Earth-X, in which those involved not only did well in tackling the major plot but did a good job incorporating the subplots and allow so many characters their moment to shine.

This crossover was filmed as a four-hour miniseries rather than four separate episodes, allowing them to seemlessly flow together rather than resemble exactly what each show was all about. And the moment that brought everyone together wasn't the crisis at first, but the wedding between Barry Allen and Iris West. What brought everyone together allowed the creative team to explore a bigger theme of relationships and love, both in the romantic sense and the family sense.

Of course, once the heroes are confronted with the chief antagonist -- individuals from Earth-X, on which the Nazis won World War II -- there's plenty of reason for fans to root for the heroes to save the day. And while exploring the subject of Nazis might be sensitive to some people, the creative team allowed those who have been the target of Nazi repression to step forward and be among the primary heroes. Along the way, certain actors got the chance to explore an alternate version of their characters and what things might look like if their characters had chosen the wrong path.

It made for the most satisfying teamup of DC superheroes in filmed form. And it all started with one series that was built up over time, with additional characters introduced along the way, new series launched and the world being built piece by piece, rather than a quick charge to the finish line for that first big team-up.

Not every season of every Arrowverse show has excelled, nor is everybody a fan of every character. This shared universe is far from being perfect in every way. But the creative team was patient in building things up, making the payoff of that huge teaming up of everyone something that generates more excitement from fans.

Now the creative team plans to roll out Black Lightning, but will give him his own series to start and keep it independent of the other shows. That's a wise move, because it allows viewers to get to know another minor DC character well, before he makes his eventual appearances in other shows and gets incorporated into a crossover, too. And, once again, the fans will have many reasons to be excited for it.

It goes to show that it's not always a good idea to make a mad dash for the finish line and roll out the big payoff right away. Taking your time to get to those big payoffs is what makes for a more satisfying experience. And the way they've done things so far with the Arrowverse, it's safe to say that future crossovers will do more to satisfy than to disappoint.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Max Headroom Episode 13: Lessons

Episode Name: Lessons

Premise: The Blanks are targeted for pirating educational programming that viewers must pay for and Edison Carter is censored for any attempt to uncover what's taking place.

Themes explored: The first is censorship. A computer program is designed for Network 23 to censor any material deemed sensitive. The program's intent is to settle any debates network executives have about appropriate content for viewers. But the program does more harm than good as Carter seeks to reunite a girl with her mother and every attempt of his to report on a raid by the Metro cops is censored by the computer.

Censorship is still a subject of debate to this day, but it's interesting that the idea of a computer deciding what will be censored is becoming reality these days. Think about the algorithms designed for social media platforms and search engines that are supposedly created in the interest of protecting viewers from malicious material, but have the effect of censoring legitimate discussion.

The second theme explored is education. Network 23 offers PETV, or Pay Education Television, which is educational television only available to those who can afford to pay for it. That means the people who live on the fringes (who happen to be poor) are unable to access it. The Blanks pirate a signal to help educate children, but program executives are backed by Metro cops to ensure that pirated signals are cut off.

But it raises the biggest question about how access to education and knowledge can impact children -- those who learn to read and write gain a greater understanding of the world around them, while those who don't may never do so. And what happens when children from lower income families aren't able to access education and knowledge? It's not difficult to figure out that those children will find it harder to understand the world.

The issue is further raised when it's revealed that the Blanks are in possession of a printing press and are creating books. In this dystopian world, printing presses are forbidden for most people to possess. Losing access to the press means the Blanks lose a greater means of ensuring the children in the fringes learn to read and write, and thus gain more access to knowledge.

The education theme is a reminder about why public education, though it may have its own faults, is nevertheless important to a free society.

Max Headroom quotes:
"Have you any idea how successful censorship is on TV? Don't know the answer? Hmmm... successful, isn't it?"
“As a famous person once said, you can fool some of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time. And as I, another more famous person, once said, if you don’t teach them to read, you can fool them whenever you like.”
“You know, writers have no freedom on TV. One rude suggestion and the censors are straight on their back... not on their back in a rude way.”

Personal observations: Another episode of the series that was timely in some ways and ahead of its time in others. Computer algorithms designed to determine what is and isn’t appropriate can do more harm than good if we aren’t careful how they are implemented. And to this day, it’s still important to ensure everyone learns to read, because it’s the most important step in acquiring knowledge and learning more about the world.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Max Headroom Episode 12: Neurostim

Episode Name: Neurostim

Premise: The Zik Zak Corporation is selling Neurostim bracelets, which are designed to stimulate the brain to experience a fantasy, but at the same time, stimulate people into buying Zik Zak products.

Themes explored: Consumption behaviors are what's mainly the focus of the episode. The Neurostim bracelet prompts people to keep buying products, with some people doing it to the point that they go into debt. It raises the issue about advertising tactics that prompt people to buy things that they might not necessarily need.

But a larger purpose of the Neurostim bracelet is to allow Zik Zak Corporation to advertise its products without the need to broadcast advertising or sponsor shows on Network 23 or other television outlets. And after Zik Zak pulls its advertising from Network 23, causing the network's stock to drop, Zik Zak is able to buy cheap shares and put a member of its company onto the Network 23 board.

That raises the question about what happens when a corporation acquires a media outlet and how can the media outlet be expected to stay impartial when what it intends to cover may conflict with other business interests the corporation has. Today's media environment is like that, with corporations or individuals who acquire media outlets and then attempt to control the message. How can a media outlet operate independently if a corporation acquires it and forces the outlet to bend to its will?

One might also see a parallel between how Neurostim allows a company to advertise its products in a new manner, as opposed to traditional methods of advertising. (Did someone mention how newspaper advertising declined with the rise of the Internet?) It illustrates how much of our media is dependent on advertising to stay in business, so what happens when that revenue stream dries up?

There is a subplot regarding how Edison Carter and Max Headroom clash over who should be dominating the airwaves -- Carter's investigative reporting is popular, but Max Headroom is just as popular and the two are put into conflict. It's only after they each learn to accept one another in terms of how they bring in an audience that they learn to co-exist again.

Max Headroom quotes:
"A quick thank you goes out to the real sponsors: you. Yes, you. You buy the products, you give them their profits, so you're sponsoring the game."
"You buy the burgers, you finance the game, and you have to go buy a ticket to watch it. It's that funny old world."
"As long as it's the truth, does it matter which of us tells it?"
"That makes a lot of sense. He yells, I apologize."

Personal observations: The episode primarily focuses on Zik Zak providing Carter with a bracelet that's designed to excessively stimulate his impulses to buy things and keep his investigative reporting from interfering with its business strategy. That means that plot's resolution tends to dominate, while the subplot of Zik Zak taking over Network 23 tends to be resolved too quickly -- Zik Zak gaining, then losing, a spot on the corporate board gets wrapped up in the final acts. So it's not as good of an episode as previous installments of the show were, but the themes touched upon are worth consideration.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Max Headroom Episode 11: Whackets

Episode Name: Whackets

Premise: Big Time Television has the most popular TV show on air, the game show Whackets, which is actually broadcasting a video signal that addicts people to their TV sets.

Themes explored: Addiction. The video signal broadcast during the show is the equivalent of a narcotic, which stimulates the brain to either feel pleasure or counter pain. It's so strong that victims of an apartment building that collapsed are so focused on recovering their TV sets from the wreckage (despite free TVs being made available to those who can't afford them) and that the injured no longer feel pain or discomfort while watching the show.

Of course, addiction doesn't have to be limited to a video signal -- we know all about the various forms of addiction in today's society, all because of the pleasure we feel in our brains or how it allows us to ignore pain. Opioids. Social media. Alcohol. Junk food. Shopping. These and many others can become highly addictive if we aren't careful about moderating their usage. And, yes, leaving a TV set to drone on, featuring one network or program can be just as bad for our brains.

That's particularly true with the underlying point of Whackets -- take away the addictive video signal and people realize Whackets is a bad show. It's worth thinking about regarding anything we watch, use or consume for pleasure. Is it really that good of a product to begin with? Or would our lives be better off if we didn't spend all our time with it?

Max Headroom quotes:

"I was dumped for some ninny trying to win a trash compactor?"
"Caught you watching the competition!"
"I want my Whack TV!" (An obvious reference to MTV's catch phrase back in the 1980s.)
"It's just TV with a twist."

Personal observations: The show was timely back in the 1980s when the anti-drug movement was at its height. It remains timely today, though, because all throughout society, we can find things that people become addicted to, when we should remind ourselves to moderate our usage and, in some cases, not use it at all.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Max Headroom Episode 10: Dream Thieves

Episode Name: Dream Thieves

Premise: Edison Carter meets a former colleague, Paddy Ashton, who introduces him to a business in which people are paid for their dreams. The next day, Carter learns that Ashton has died and pursues an investigation.

Themes explored: The episode centers around Dream Vu, a subscriber-based channel in which people pay to watch the recordings of other people's dreams. The business is run out of an old movie theater (in this world, movies are a thing of the past, replaced by other forms of visual entertainment) and people are paid to have their dreams recorded while they sleep. But the process can be lethal when someone has a nightmare and suffer from brain trauma when those nightmares are pulled from the subconscious.

It begs the question about what price are people willing to pay for entertainment -- especially in an environment in which traditional forms of entertainment that involve originality and creativity (movies, books, episodic TV) and are replaced with another form. Though in today's society, we aren't taking other people's dreams and passing them off as entertainment, there are other variants of entertainment that replace original ideas and sell them to the public as a replacement. We just call them by different names. On this episode, games shows and chat shows are mentioned -- we'd refer to the latter as debate shows. And then there's the obvious example: reality TV. How far are we willing to go to seek out entertainment, especially if we are replacing people's original ideas (which may cost more) with cheaper programming?

There's also the previous friendship between Carter and Ashton -- the two both worked at Network 23 together, but each had different principles when it came to pursuing a story, with said principles influencing Murray's decisions. Carter's aggressive drive to get the story got him a promotion -- with Murray choosing to promote him -- while Ashton was passed over. Carter's aggressiveness to get the story comes to a head here, when he gets too personally involved in his investigation because he's upset about Ashton's death, while Murray realizes that his choice to promote Carter because of Carter's drive had its downside and that he perhaps shouldn't have pushed Ashton to the side because he thought Ashton was willing to meet his full potential.

Max Headroom quotes:
"But if dreaming is all your subconscious desires coming out, why do people wait until they're asleep to do it?"
"I don't mind being the projectionist, but don't forget that no one's paying me to be the censor."
"Looking at other people's dreams is as bad as reading their diaries."

Personal observations: Though the technology to record people's dreams hasn't been developed, it would raise ethical questions if it were to become reality. But it's worth raising those same ethical questions regarding entertainment that isn't based on an original concept, but merely following the trials and tribulations of everyday people as they happen. It may seem trivial on the surface, but if everything that's produced is merely based on real-life developments, we can lose something when it comes to the original ideas we imagine.