JEM AND THE HOLOGRAMS TRAILER: MAGIC AND GLITTER, EXIT STAGE RIGHT

Call me surprised when I opened up Twitter last night after watching a documentary to find most of my timeline to be extremely upset about the Jem and the Holograms global trailer that just dropped. I was only vaguely aware that Jem and the Holograms were making a comeback (mostly in the form of a comic book) so the idea that they were leaping onto the big screen as part of the wave of 80s nostalgia reboots/remakes seemed fairly interesting to me. However, it seemed like most people, even before I had a chance to watch said trailer, were deeply unhappy with the direction that the movie seems to be taking at this juncture.

Granted, trailers are always edited together in a masterful way to give you a sense of the plot but also to get the hype machine cranked up well before a film’s release and might not be accurate to what the movie is really, truly about. However, upon my own viewing, it seems like there’s so much off-key here that I have to agree with the legions of upset on social media.

It is sad because honestly, if this wasn’t called a Jem and the Holograms movie, I would sit down and watch this. It’s no accident in that, especially since I saw this immediately after watching the documentary Beyond Clueless. I’m a teen movie-holic and find myself passionately interested in the genre. This movie, for all of its sentimentality and earnestness, seems like something I’d enjoy. That being said, a Jem and the Holograms movie it is not.

Even if many of us (like myself) watched this cartoon when we were too young to absorb most of the plot (though this has been fixed lately with re-watches), much of the aesthetic and overarching story of the show stuck with us. Jem is and forever remains a superhero story, one that wasn’t popular with primarily boys first. She used magic to change into an alter-ego, she battled opposition forces and she stuck together with her gang of other cool musical superhero band-mates. How is this not similar to the Avengers? So when I watched the trailer and saw that the movie was realistic, earnest and contained no magic whatsoever, I felt cheated. If Hollywood can create an Earth that supports men who are god-like, enhanced by mysterious chemicals or have supernatural abilities, why not one where women can use their earrings to change into rival musical superstars? It is this fundamental change to the nature of Jem that feels the most lacking.

This movie, if the trailer is any indication, is made by someone who doesn’t grasp the fabric of the world, and all of the things woven into it. It honestly feels like a script driven by someone who had no proximity to the show at all. Jem’s story is fundamentally about her struggles with stardom, her friendship with the Holograms and her clashes with the Misfits. (Where are the Misfits too, I might ask.) Pasting the name over a typical story of a young girl who gathers her family around her and then is pushed to go solo is a well-worn trope. It doesn’t jibe with what Jem was really about: sticking together with your friends. Radically altering that story so you can shrink-wrap the franchise on top of it creates a soulless automaton that resembles nothing about the show we all loved.

That’s the thing here, that I think is bugging so many of us: it’s not about the show we enjoyed. Nostalgia seems to be sacred in creative properties if we’re trying to re-create stories from comic books that have origins in the 50s-60s, but girly cartoons from the 80s? Eh, let’s market that to girls who are teens now, who may have never seen the show. At the risk of sounding crotchety, it shows a lack of understanding of who the audience for this movie actually is, as women aged 25 and up are only allowed to be into pre-determined genres like romantic comedies and not the stuff we were into when we were kids. What if we’re parents who want to take our daughters to see things we enjoyed at their age? What if we’re older nerd ladies who want to see a faithful adaptation of stuff we have fond memories of? There’s such a lack of consideration, still, in the nerd sphere for the things we enjoyed as kids, despite the wave of 80s and 90s media making a comeback. (I feel that this ties neatly into why we also don’t have a lot of adult cartoon shows geared more towards women, but that’s another topic for another time.) The ability to enjoy retro is still firmly in the grip of a pretty male nerd culture.

Jem and the Holograms should not be this realistic, this earnest and solely developed for a younger audience. You can’t slap neon face-paint on and call it good. It feels like it was written by John Green with all of the annoying mawkishness that come with it and a lack of experience with what girls or women actually want, just what we’re supposed to enjoy. We’re a group continually passed over and seeing the things we loved writ accurately seems impossible.

Give me the glamour and glitter, fashion and fame. Keep it truly outrageous.

MONDAY ROUND-UP, PART 1: LUCY

LucyI’m going to lay it out here: Lucy is a terrible fucking movie. It barely has merit as a film at all. It’s much like Scarlett Johansson‘s eponymous character in the movie: cool to look at but very little substance beyond that.

I chose to watch this because I like to punish myself.

The general conceit of the movie is that Lucy, through some vague machination of a man she’s been dating a week, is forced into being a drug mule for Korean drug lord (Choi Min-sik) in Taiwan. While in captivity, the bag holding the drugs that have been sewn into her organs is busted open and she suddenly gains the ability to use more than 10% of her brain. The rest of the movie is the even more improbable events of her trying to reconcile with this fact and seek revenge on the organization that put her in this state, along with a professor (Morgan Freeman) and a french detective (Amr Waked.)

Movies have been playing around with the idea of drugs that somehow give us superhuman mental abilities (like Limitless) but have done a way better job of maintaining believability; this movie harps visually on Lucy’s numeric brain potential rising over the course of the story and it’s ridiculous. The idea that we only use 10% of our brain’s “potential” is trash science (imagine if you didn’t have access to the 10% that controls autonomic functions) but the ultimate conclusion that we’d be able to access X-Men level powers of telepathy and time-control just sort of spirals out from there. It doesn’t even try to make the movie logically consistent, and I consider myself willing to swallow quite a lot of science-fiction (except that the Flash can move faster than the speed of light.)

Narratively, the movie is cob-web thin. Both plot and dialogue are insubstantial and wholly unbelievable. Lucy moves from location to location, beating up people, using her powers inconsistently as she grows more and more into a supercomputer of terrifying proportions. No, I am not even being metaphorical on this count: she literally turns into a giant oozing black supercomputer, Akira-style, and then dissipates into the electronic ether. (My head-canon for this is that she eventually transforms into the voice-activated AI from Her, in a cruel twist of fate.) Characterization is also in short supply, as well. Characters are no more than talking heads or action-doers, simple organisms that shoot or throw out lines. The only characters who seem to merit names or individual personalities are Professor Norman (who provides the flimsy scientific plot hooks and awed expressions), Pierre del Rio, Mr. Jang and that’s it. It would be clever to say that they are merely obstacles to Lucy’s ascension into a pure being but that would imply a level of depth that is not found here.

Lucy’s characterization is similarly shallow but in a more problematic way: I noticed that the larger her brain capacity grew, her humanity fell away. I know this is intentional, as several times through the film they make a point of her remarking that human beings and their “lower” brain capacity are ruled by base desires and fear. It is a really gross and fairly ableist view of intellect and emotion, positing that rationality and pure knowledge rule out over feelings or that people with more brainy pursuits are somehow a higher echelon of human being. It comes across to me as a more artistic interpretation of gendered views on reason, that rationality is better and emotionality is not. Lucy moves from the beginning of the film where we are given nothing but a scared lady wearing typical club gear, scared out of her wits, to being transformed into a robotic, and even god-like (there’s an actual scene where she touches a primate ancestor’s finger in the exact method of Michaelangelo’s famous Sistine Chapel painting, I shit you not) being that is “so much better” then her former self. This leads into where I felt the real problems of the film were from a feminist perspective.

When the movie’s marketing engine first cranked up, there were some initial salvos that this was the “feminist film” we had all been waiting for, with a particularly bad-ass Johansson wending her way through Taiwan with a flurry of gunshots and kicks. Feminist it is not, not in the slightest. Not only is Lucy’s transformation presented in a very flat, unappealing “strong female character” way that relies entirely on masculine traits of violence and stoicism, but there is nothing feminist about the staggering amounts of racialized violence that occur in this movie. All of the aggressors in the movie are portrayed as some combination of Asian gangster stereotypes without acknowledging that one of the biggest aggressors in the movie is Lucy herself. I guess a white woman shooting down several Taiwanese people (one of whom is merely on a surgical table at the wrong time) is totally “kick-ass”? I was not really seeing how this was some feminist triumph when Lucy is basically a white female version of a thoughtless white male action hero with even less concern for human life.

It was not surprising to me that this movie was written and directed by Luc Besson. Besson has a pretty solid body of work that features complicated women characters like Nikita, The Messenger, and my favorite The Fifth Element. This movie felt weighed down by a huge CGI budget, confusing visuals and a really shoddy script. It felt like the typical Besson “girl” on the surface but the rest is phoned in, offensively so. In other films, particularly Fifth Element, the woman’s “chosen one” status is played artfully or at least in a clever way; Lucy is just incredibly hamfisted and empty.

Overall, I’d say that this movie was disappointment, but that would imply that I had high expectations going in.

SUPERGIRL IS NOT A SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE SKETCH

It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it might fetch you a latte – CBS dropped a first look of their new series Supergirl yesterday, amid a weirdly mixed audience. I watched the six-minute trailer/edited plot summary and walked away feeling pretty positive about it. If I had any complaints about this at all, it is that this feels targeted at a much younger audience than CBS’ typical demo, if not something that I’d expect on the CW. The fact that the pilot and second episode are written by some of the people from Arrow and The Flash, as well as Glee doesn’t surprise me, though I feel that a show like this might lean closer to The Flash than Arrow in terms of pure grit.

Don’t get me wrong though – I just think the show is on the wrong channel. As far as love for the new generation of comic book-adjacent TV shows, I have much of it. I watch everything from Daredevil to The Flash to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. The reasons I think some of these shows are so popular is often because they draw in a much younger, female audience. If anything, I feel like including gratuitous shots of Oliver Queen doing pull-ups with his rippling abs and biceps makes their target demographic pretty clear. All of these comic book shows have pretty cool ensemble casts, often with an emphasis on a cute, younger male protagonist and some level of more emotional interpersonal drama. It is a marked contrast from how male-dominated comic books have been written and marketed in the past. However, these shows have been lacking are a female protagonist, even still. This could be due to the fact that it’s seen as risky business to pitch a show like that or get ratings (Agent Carter springs to mind, same with the failed Wonder Woman venture). This is why I want to see Supergirl ultimately succeed.

However, some of the reactions to the first look video had me a touch annoyed and unsure if my fellow nerds feel the same way. A lot of people took the more breezy, feminine approach to task, stating that it felt very “rom-com” and also reminiscent of a recent SNL sketch that lampooned how Marvel handles female protagonists, notably Black Widow:

While I think the sketch is absolutely ferocious satire, I don’t think that and the Supergirl trailer are alike. For one, Supergirl is earnest, and not in a way I find offensive to the character. Black Widow, much like many other women characters in that universe being underutilized or badly written has been a long-term critique of Marvel for a while, particularly now after the debut of Age of Ultron. Supergirl as she stands herself, is a younger, feminine woman who is struggling with her super-identity as well as her “real” one at her job and social life. It feels very much in-step with some of other Superman series like Dean Cain’s portrayal as well as Smallville – a contemporary take on how to balance it all. The fact that she is a woman who wears skirts or does menial tasks for her boss doesn’t mean that it’s shoehorning the character into a romantic comedy situation, particularly given that she rebuffs her “nice guy” friend from the jump. There’s a difference, a marked one, between writers leaning into boilerplate stereotypes for “what women act like” and writing a woman who is young, fashionable, office-working and has to navigate that particular space. So far we haven’t seen Supergirl crying into any pints of ice cream or talking to her cat. As someone who has watched far too many rom-coms, there’s a distinct difference here. Kara Jor-El feels, so far at least, like her own person and not a construction. A certain empty construction of femininity applied to every woman character is not always on-key but it doesn’t mean that femininity itself is what is the problem. The bigger context we should be looking at is just that we have so few women characters that there’s just a very narrow spectrum of the kinds of characters they are allowed to be.

Now, none of this is to say that I don’t think these types of shows are above critique, far from it. What Supergirl might still suffer from, as many other comic book shows do, is often relying on offensive gags/jokes, under-casting (if not completely whitewashing) characters of color as well as yes, sidelining female characters. Some of the writing I saw in the heavily edited first look definitely fell into the former category: the “oh your big secret is you are a lesbian and that’s why you won’t date me” joke as well as the speech Calista Flockhart’s hell-boss character (WHERE ARE HER EYEBROWS) gives to Kara about “hating being a girl.” (Hey, girl is a pretty annoying diminutive if you are over the age of 15, writers!) I don’t think Supergirl will be entirely free of issues, but it is nice to see something like this come out.

The ultimate takeaway I got from the first look is that it will be awesome to see a 20-something lady try to balance her life and her attempts to save the world, especially in the shadow of her famous older “cousin” that was mentioned several times. Melissa Benoist’s Kara feels sympathetic and relatable as she tries to do it all, and Mehcad Brooks’ Jimmy Olsen seems like a really cool mentor-type character. I don’t have a lot of love for Rick, the best friend-type character but if he ends up filling a more “Cisco” role of engineering Kara’s costume and tech over the course of the series, it might be slightly more palatable.

Overall, I am excited to see yet another female-lead show finally take off. Too often I think we expect that every superheroine or bad-ass has to always have her shit together and this might be a nice departure from that.