The Movies of Fall 2023

We are near the end of another Summer movie season, and it’s one that had an outcome that I don’t think anyone expected.  At the top of the summer season, I’m sure many prognosticators of the movie industry believed that the Summer season was going to be dominated by tried and true franchises that have carried Hollywood to glory in the past.  These included of course new movies from Marvel, Pixar, Transformers, Fast and the Furious, DC, Mission: Impossible, and Indiana Jones.  From the beginning of the Summer, it seemed like Hollywood was going to hit it big with their heavy hitters.  Unfortunately for most, it was a season flooded with disappointments.  The performances of this Summer’s box office was defined by a string of movies that either performed well under expectations to just downright flopping.  Marvel did about as well as expected with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, and their co-production with Sony Animation, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-verse outperformed expectations.  But, other films like Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, Fast X, and Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning – Part One, could not make up for their extravagant costs with sub-par box office.  And then there is the case of DC’s The Flash, which is going to go down as one of the biggest flops in box office history, possibly costing Warner Brothers to suffer a quarter of a billion shortfall on that film alone.  But, the summer was also defined by another odd occurrence that actually proved to be a savior for movie theaters.  The “Barbenheimer” phenomenon will absolutely go down as one of the craziest “out-of-nowhere” things to happen in Hollywood ever.  Both Barbie and Oppenheimer were entering the Summer season with no one expecting much of them, but online communities took notice of the odd counter-programming that each offered with the same release date and decided to turn it into an event.  Thanks to this, both films are now set to become the biggest box office successes of the year, with Barbie now well above a billion globally, and Oppenheimer likewise is climbing the charts in a way that a three hour R-rated biopic shouldn’t.

One other unfortunate thing that has also defined this summer season is the ongoing strike by the WGA and SAG-AFTRA unions.  Even after 3 months of picketing, it looks like neither side is willing to budge, and it is beginning to deeply affect the industry as a whole.  It’s likely that some of the soft box office numbers for this season is due to the lack of publicity that the studios is missing out on with their actors joining the picket lines.  The lack of traction in the negotiations are also affecting the upcoming release schedules in the near future, as movie and show productions right now have been put into a months long freeze.  Because of this, the studios are pushing back movies into next year, much to the frustration of movies fans.  Believe me, when I was gearing up to write this preview for the Fall Movie season, it was going to look a lot different, as one of my most anticipated Must See films, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune: Part Two, was suddenly pushed back to March of next year by Warner Brothers.  It makes me wonder if any of the films that I still have on this preview will be bumped to next year as well.  Hopefully, a fair deal is struck soon and the films we still have set for this Fall still make it to theaters on time.  In any case, here is my preview of the films of Fall 2023, broken into my Must Sees, the Movies That Have Me Worried, and the Movies to Skip.  Keep in mind, these choices are just based on my early impressions based on the film’s marketing and general advance hype.  My predictions don’t always pan out (I really underestimated Barbie this summer), but I hope it’s helpful for all of you for what to expect in the upcoming months.  So, let’s take a look at the Movies of Fall 2023.



If there has been a streaming provider that has navigated the waters of the streaming “gold rush” wisely, it has been Apple.  The entertainment wing of the tech giant is not as financially strained as the other major Hollywood studios, given that they are funded by the biggest corporation in the world.  But, Apple has also chosen their projects wisely; opting for quality over quantity.  The Apple TV+ library of content may not be robust, but they have thus far gained notoriety for award winning productions, including the first ever Best Picture win for a streamer (2021’s CODA).  This year, Apple Studios is making it’s biggest push ever into mainstream success with a pair of highly anticipated epics from two Hollywood legends.  Not only that, they are giving these movies wide theatrical runs before they move to streaming; a strategy that I hope catches on.  First, there is Martin Scorsese’s new epic based on the best-selling historical novel of the same name from author David Grann.  Killers of the Flower Moon looks like another ambitious exercise for the legendary filmmaker; taking his expertise in exploring the seedy underworld of organized crime, but filtering it through the lens of the American Western.  This film about the Osage Nation murders in 1920’s Oklahoma looks to be gritty and multi-layered exploration of greed and violence that Scorsese is the undeniable master of.  Given the already strong buzz out of the Cannes Film Festival where it premiered, it looks like Scorsese has another winner on his hands.  The director unlike many of his other contemporaries has been more embracing of streaming, as his last film The Irishman (2019) released through Netflix, and I think it’s because streaming platforms have allowed him more creative wiggle room than the established Hollywood studios have given him.  Hopefully the near 3 1/2 hour runtime doesn’t scare off audiences; maybe Oppenheimer’s success could be a good sign.  But with a cast that includes two of Scorsese’s favorites (Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert DeNiro), plus a potentially star-making turn for Lily Gladstone, and supporting performances from heavy hitters like Jesse Plemons, John Lithgow, and recent Best Actor winner Brendan Fraser, this should very much be a movie that is going to light up the screen and show that Scorsese in deed is not losing any of his edge.


Here we have Apple Studios other big epic gamble for this Fall season.  It’s quite the flex that not only are we getting a new Scorsese film from Apple this year, but also a new Ridley Scott film as well.  Scott has been hit or miss over the last decade, but when he’s got a project that works to his strengths (lavish period production values and epic scale battles) he definitely delivers.  His last historical epic, The Last Duel (2021), while not a financial success still was a winner with critics and it showed that he indeed has some of the old Gladiator magic left in his arsenal.  For his lavish biopic of the notorious French general turned emperor, Scott re-teams for the first time in over twenty years with his Gladiator star, Joaquin Phoenix.  Phoenix has been on a roll lately with his Oscar-winning turn in Joker (2019) as well as a collection well received notices in indie films from A24 like C’mon C’mon (2021) and Beau is Afraid (2023).  Phoenix is certainly the ideal choice to take on this larger than life historical figure and it will be interesting to see what he and Scott bring to the film in telling his story.  Naturally, you can expect this movie to have some incredible visuals, which is expected of a filmmaker with the resume that Ridley Scott has.  Apparently, this has been a long in the making project for Scott, who has been circling this project for decades.  It’s probably why he was intent on working with Apple on this, because they were likely less concerned about the cost than other studios.  That way Scott could make the film grittier and harder hitting than the usual PG-13 he’s been required to deliver in the past.  And thankfully like Killers of the Flower Moon, Apple is giving Napoleon a full theatrical run, partnering up for distribution with Sony Pictures (Moon is released through Paramount).  That way, we’ll be able to still see good old fashioned Ridley Scott directed epic battles on a huge screen, like we always should.


Marvel Studios managed to hold it’s own in a very unforgiving Summer for most franchises.  Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.3 did about as well as many people hoped, though it wasn’t anything record-shattering.  And despite being looked at as a box office disappointment, this February’s Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania’s $476 million worldwide gross is something that I’m sure most other studios wish they had right now.  Even still, there are troubling signs for Marvel that they are still grappling with.  The Phase Four line up that wrapped last year with Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022) didn’t sizzle at the box office like past Phases of Marvel, and critically the studio is suffering from far less enthusiasm than before.  The box office numbers are solid, but not exceptional, and it seems like Marvel is becoming a victim of their own astronomical success.  At the core of their problems seems to be that they are over-stretched, with too many plates being served with not enough ingredients; something that is only being compounded with the multiple projects exclusive to Disney+.  Even still, Marvel movies are still events that warrant attention, and this sequel to the hit movie Captain Marvel (2019) has an interesting element that helps it to stand out.  This film is the first to incorporate central characters that were already established in the Marvel Disney+ series line-up; in this case Ms. Marvel (Iman Vellani) from the show of the same name, and Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris) from Wandavision,  joining to team up with Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) herself.  Thankfully for Marvel, these two characters are from two of the more successful and critically acclaimed Disney+ shows, so their inclusion here is likely more of a benefit than a hinderance.  Captain Marvel is certainly a divisive film amongst fans, but with so much of the world and character building out of the way, this sequel has the benefit of actually letting the story stand on it’s own.  Director Nia DaCosta has stated that her film is going to be more geared toward a looser, more emotional character driven side, which might be a good change of pace for Marvel after a string of formulaic exercises.  And given that Dune: Part Two’s move has opened up a bunch of large format screens for the movie, it might be the box office hit that Marvel needs to recharge it’s momentum.


The animation landscape has shifted pretty dramatically.  Disney, Pixar, and Dreamworks, once the hallmark brands of the industry have struggled post-pandemic to gain back the family audiences that once turned them into reliable box office power houses.  In the meantime, upstart Illumination has enjoyed back to back monster hits like Minions: The Rise of Gru (2022) and The Super Marion Bros. Movie (2023), and Sony Animation hit both critically and at the box office with Across the Spider-Verse.  Some are saying that these once powerful brands days are numbered, but I don’t think it’s the studios that are the problem, but more that family audiences are more inclined to go back to the theaters for something they know will entertain their kids than something they are not sure about.  Minions, Mario and Spider-Man all succeeded because they already had built in audience awareness.  Original animated films unconnected to built in franchises are what audiences are struggling to embrace.  Disney’s Encanto (2021) was thought to be a box office disappointment, but a few months later, we were all signing about not talking about Bruno. This year, Pixar’s Elemental (2022) likewise also found it’s audience slowly over time, turning around their box office fortunes from costly flop to sleeper hit.  The films aren’t the problem, it’s getting audiences confident in the studio brand again to make them take their kids to the theater instead of waiting for streaming.  Disney’s Wish is such a movie that could achieve this by having the studio return to their strengths from past films.  It’s a musical fairy tale, which has always been Disney’s strongest suit.  It’s also experimental in it’s art style, emulating hand painted cel animation in 3D computer animation, which owes a bit to the Spider-Verse influence.  Having recent Oscar-winner Ariana DeBose on board voicing their new Disney princess is another plus.  And given that this is their release for the 100th anniversary, Disney is also likely to put in some meta elements centered around the story point of the wishing star in the film, like a cameo or two.  Disney’s had mixed results post-pandemic with their string of original films, but Wish might have the right mix of originality and familiar elements to help make it a new animated classic that brings the legendary studio back to the top.


Taika Waititi has been one of the most prolific comedic filmmakers as of late, with a very enviable track record to back that up.  One of his movies, Jojo Rabbit (2019) was in my opinion not just one of the best comedies of the last decade, but also one of the best movies period.  He’s also been a key voice in the Marvel Studios stable of directors, having re-invented the Thor franchise with Thor: Ragnarok (2017).  His follow-up, Thor: Love and Thunder (2022) was much more divisive, though I found myself not minding it too much.  His next upcoming film, however, finds him returning to his roots as an early comedy filmmaker.  The common thread through most of Waititi’s films is an appreciation for lovable losers, and that’s the theme at the core of this film.  In Next Goal Wins, he is telling the story of the Samoan National Football team, which historically had the worst score ever in international competition; losing 31-0 to Australia.  Despite mining all the comedic potential of how bad this team can be, there is a warm human story to be told here as well, about a community often looked down upon by the rest of the world and how they manage to remain bonded together through adversity.  It’s also a lot about how an outsider, namely the new head coach played by Michael Fassbender, learns more about the essence of the game by seeing the literal worst players in the world find so much fulfilment by being on that field as a team.  Taika is so masterful at balancing those moments of hilarity with heart and hopefully this film carries over some of that great mix of both that he so expertly weaved into Jojo Rabbit.  From the trailer alone, we can definitely see that at the very least there will be some pretty hard laughs in there.



Well, with Dune: Part Two off of the 2023 calendar, this is actor Timothee Chalamet’s one and only chance to deliver a hit this season at the box office.  This film is going to be fairly controversial in many ways.  It is taking a beloved literary and film classic and attempting to tell a back story that I don’t know if anyone was clamoring that much for.  Here we are getting the story of how Willy Wonka came to be the eccentric “candy man” that we all know from the classic Roald Dahl tale, delivered as a big musical extravaganza.  It’s not the first time that this story has been revisited before on the big screen.  Tim Burton famously brought his own vision to the famous story, but unlike this film, Burton’s version was it’s own thing, acting more as a unique adaptation of Dahl’s novel, and less of a re-make of the beloved 1971 film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory starring Gene Wilder.  This film, however, is deliberately tying itself to that original film version, and that may be a risky thing to do correctly.  First of all, Chalamet has some very big shoes to fill, as Gene Wilder’s performance as Willy Wonka is viewed by many as iconic and without comparison.  Johnny Depp’s version of Willy Wonka very much fell short compared to Wilder’s performance, and that’s the same kind of harsh scrutiny that is about to come Chalamet’s way.  Chalamet is also not known as a song and dance performer, so he is going to have to disprove a lot of naysayers out there.  On the plus side, this film is being directed by Paul King, the man behind the beloved Paddington films, and this kind of movie is something that very much plays to his strengths.  Hopefully the team behind this film can make it stand well on it’s own, but given the pedigree of story they are working with, the bar is going to be set pretty high.


You’ve got to hand it to Kenneth Branagh; he is a persistent filmmaker.  His adaptations of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot mysteries has become a little franchise that could on it’s own despite some heavy obstacles along the way.  2017’s Murder on the Orient Express became a modest hit at the time, but it’s follow-up Death on the Nile (2022) was a pandemic and scandal plagued production that limped into theaters in early February and was quickly dismissed.  It’s surprising that after all that Branagh was still able to keep going with the continuation of these films, and do so as quick as he did.  At least this time around, his film is not being dogged by pandemic delays or one or two problematic actors in the cast.  A Haunting in Venice, the third film in this Poirot franchise, seems to be playing it more safe after Death on the Nile; modest in scale with less of an all-star cast than previous movies.  Even still, Branagh is still making some surprise choices in his casting of this movie, with performers as diverse as Jamie Dornan, Tina Fey, and newly crowned Oscar winner Michelle Yeoh in the cast, alongside with himself returning as the “world’s greatest detective.” What is interesting though is the big shift in tone.  For this movie, Branagh is far more leaning into horror movie tropes, which is a departure from the tone this series has had up to now.  Is it something that may breathe new life into this series of movies, or is it a doomed “hail mary” play that likely won’t capture any cross over appeal.  I certainly don’t think that Branagh’s making a straight up horror movie here, but then again it could end up being surprisingly dark comparatively for this kind of movie.  Thus far, this Poirot franchise has been a mixed bag, and never quite as exciting as the trailers have made it out to be.  But, I’m willing to see if a fresh approach actually does something good here.  Branagh has demonstrated his capability of being an experimental and venturous filmmaker before.  Maybe it might be interesting to see him explore a darker side.


This is the kind of movie that honestly go either way for me.  I have in the past responded to films from Yorgos Lanthimos in very opposite ways.  I distinctly hated his 2015 film, The Lobster, but I loved his 2018 film, The Favourite.  It seemed to me so unbelievable that I could have such polar opposite opinions to movies from the same director like that, but I guess he’s just that kind of filmmaker.  I feel like this new film of his will likely drive me to either extreme as well.  It is certainly a movie that is going to take some risks, and likewise challenge it’s audience.  It’s hyper-stylized, and I almost think that this might be a bad thing, especially considering that production design on this film feels a bit too much like AI generated art for some tastes.  One thing that could indeed be the film’s best element is the cast.  Emma Stone, who worked well with Lanthimos in The Favourite, takes the spotlight here and seems to be relishing the opportunity to go weird with this Frankenstein-like origin to her character.  Mark Ruffalo also seems refreshingly oddball, which is a nice departure for him, and I do get a laugh out of his awkward reading of the line “Oww” in the trailer.  And of course, if you are going to go weird with your movie, casting Willem Dafoe is always a good choice.  One other thing that I think works in Lanthimos’ favor is that he’s once again working with another writer’s script (The Favourite’s Tony McNamara) which I think is the winning formula.  I find Lanthimos’ own screenplays to be too self-indulgent, so I think he works better adapting a screenplay that is not his own, because his strengths better lie in his direction.  We’ll just have to see if this film falls on the Best or Worst list by the end of the year.


Most of the major film studios are having a bad year, but DC is having an extraordinary bad year.  The aforementioned The Flash is a box office flop for the history books, and the other entries from the DCEU franchise that includes Shazam: Fury of the Gods and Blue Beetle have not faired any better.  Before James Gunn takes the reigns of the future of the DC cinematic universe, there is one film left from the old regime that is still in the pipeline.  Aquaman (2018) was surprisingly the biggest box office success of the DCEU era, becoming the only film of that franchise to gross over a billion worldwide.  One thing that worked to it’s advantage was that it was able to coast on the wave that was the peak year for the super hero movie genre, 2018, which also saw the likes of Black PantherAvengers: Infinity War, and Ant-Man and the Wasp all making big money at the box office.  Sadly for Aquaman, the heydays of that money train are over, and it’s been especially rough for DC.  It also feels like the movie is doomed even before it hits theaters, not just because of the shake-up in management of DC, but also from the news that the movie has had to go through multiple re-shoots, all of which have ballooned the already high budget of this movie.  Is there anything that can help this Aquaman sequel avoid the same terrible fate of the rest of DC’s 2023 slate.  On the plus side, Jason Momoa is still a generally liked movie star, as opposed to the “star” of The Flash, and his star power could still conceivably help carry the film.  Also, Warner Brothers is remarkably as of right now still sticking with the Christmas holiday release date for this movie.  If Dune: Part Two was acceptable to push to the Spring but Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom was not, it must show a level of confidence that Warner has in this film; at least that’s the hope.  We’ll have to see if DC is going to close this chapter right, or if it’s the final pathetic nail in the coffin of the doomed DCEU.



If there is something that the last Summer season has shown us, it’s that reviving long dormant film franchises is not a winning formula anymore.  Indiana Jones and Transformers learned that the hard way, and I think that the same is likely going to happen to The Hunger Games franchise as well.  In the early 2010’s, Hunger Games was certainly a force to be reckoned with, but once it got into the latter entries in the series, the fuel was definitely starting to run out, and now The Hunger Games no longer feels culturally relevant anymore.  Still, the people at Lionsgate seem to think that there is more to mine from this property and that’s why they are adapting this prequel to the original series.  This to me seems like a big mistake because one, Hunger Games is no longer the power house that it used to be, two, just by knowing the events of the original films we know how this movie will end, and three, the series’ central heroine Katniss (whom was the main thing that hooked in fans from the beginning) is not involved in any way.  Basically, this movie is trying to lure audiences back on the concept and the world alone, which I don’t think is enough to bring audiences on board.  For the original films it was the characters, and in particular Jennifer Lawrence’s performance as Katniss that became the big draw.  There are some heavy hitters on board here, like Viola Davis and Peter Dinklage, but I don’t see them drawing back any of the series’ past fans.  For a series that already had a short shelf life, I feel like this will be a quickly forgotten chapter.


I mentioned before that Dreamworks, along with Disney and Pixar, have had a rough time lately at the box office.  But, unlike the other two studios which has bright spots on the horizon with original concepts and experimentation, Dreamworks’ future slate looks pretty unremarkable with more formulaic sequels for the foreseeable future.  This is even despite having their best film in years last Winter with Puss in Boots: The Last Wish.  This summer, they had their biggest failure with Ruby Gilman; Teenage Kraken, and up next on the slate is the third film in their tepid Trolls franchise.  The first Trolls (2016) was a modest if unremarkable box office success, and their follow up, Trolls World Tour (2020) got sidelined from theaters altogether by the pandemic, sending it straight to streaming.  This film looks like it’s just a repeat of the formula and not adding anything substantial artistically or thematically to the franchise, which is something that the best sequels should do (Puss in Boots; The Last Wish being a shining example).  Like the other movies, this film seems more geared towards selling an album than making a memorable film, and it’s unfortunately another sign of Dreamworks losing it’s edge as one of the hallmark names in animation.


Speaking of another franchise that has lost it’s potency over the years, we are now getting another Expendables movie, nearly 9 years after the last one.  The original concept when this franchise was started was fun enough, with Sylvester Stallone assembling a team made up of some of the most legendary action movie stars all in one movie; including having himself, Schwarzenegger, and Bruce Willis share the screen for the first time.  Two more sequels added even more star power like Jean Claude Van Damme, Mel Gibson, Antonio Banderas, and even Harrison Ford to the roster.  But, time eventually ran out, and a lot of those movie stars either fully retired, or became less interested in returning.  So now it’s just Stallone, Jason Statham and whatever C-Lister they can rope in left.  Part of the appeal of this series is now gone, and it just looks like a tired retread of a now irrelevant series.  Of the cast, only Statham has any real star power left, and even here it seems like he’s phoning it in.  Probably better to have left this team retired.

So, there you have my outlook of the Fall 2023 movie season.  Given the uncertainty brought on by the ongoing stalemate of the dual strikes hitting Hollywood right now, I fear that this will be a movie season that will see a lot of movies struggle at the box office.  Given the dramatic move of Dune: Part Two this week, it seems worrying that no breakthrough is expected anytime soon.  The studios are shamelessly trying to shift blame to the striking talent, but the writers and actors don’t have the power to move movies off of their release dates; that’s entirely on the studios.  I don’t know if they are intentionally doing this as a ploy to weaken the union’s position in the eyes of the audience, or if they are that dependent on star power to sell a movie to audiences.  None of this is deterring the solidarity of the unions, and if anyone is hurt in the crossfire, it’s the movie theaters themselves.  They have had to fight tooth and nail to keep afloat through the pandemic era, and now they are once again in a panic by the effects of strike.  Unlike the pandemic which was a global crisis, the economic impacts of this stalemate in the strike negotiations is entirely a self-inflicted wound for Hollywood.  Had the studios just come forward with a fair deal that took into consideration the things that are important to all their creative workers, they wouldn’t be in the precarious position they are in now.  The unions are not asking for a whole lot (less than 1% of the studios yearly profits) and yet the studios’ greed has ended up costing them billions.  I hate to go off on a rant like this, but sadly we are seeing pettiness on the part of Hollywood executives spoiling what could have been a stellar year at the box office.  Hopefully the whole thing gets resolved soon so that we don’t see any more of our most anticipated movies get pushed further back.  Hopefully there are some good surprises that come out of the Fall festival circuit that helps to make the upcoming awards season interesting.  And with all this considered, let’s hope the Fall Movie season of 2023 makes us happy and eager to go back to the movies again.

Blue Beetle – Review

DC to say the least has had a rough time of it lately.  The last decade they have been playing catch up to Marvel, which has dominated the landscape when it comes to comic book movies.  There have been bright spots to be sure in their output, like the box office success of Wonder Woman (2017) and Aquaman (2018), but their reputation has been more defines by their failures more than their successes.  The controversial Justice League (2017) release proved to be a tipping point for the fledgling cinematic universe, as it just exposed all of the faults of the DC Extended Universe’s lack of cohesion.  The pandemic also effected the success rate of DC, as the highly anticipated sequels Wonder Woman 1984 (2020) and The Suicide Squad (2021) both failed to deliver on the same level as their predecessors, though Warner Brother’s misguided plan to do day and date streaming releases for these movies was probably a bigger factor in their struggle.  Still, the DC brand took a big hit in popularity, and with the Warner Brothers Discovery merger, the powers that be saw that it was a better option to scrap the future of the DCEU and just start anew.  Director Zack Snyder was the chief creative force of the original cinematic universe, which gave the DCEU the nickname of the Snyderverse, but for this new era of DC under new management, Warner Brothers appointed filmmaker James Gunn to chart the course of the DC Universe.  Gunn, coming off of his tenure at Marvel with the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise, is now in charge of giving DC the shot in the arm it needs to re-find it’s footing.  Unfortunately for DC, there are some remaining projects in the pipeline that still needed their release.  The last of the DCEU has been released throughout this year, and much to the dismay of Warner Brothers execs, the films are showing that the DCEU is not going out with a bang, but rather a wimper.

Things did not start off great, with the sequel Shazam: Fury of the Gods (2023) performing well under what the original film did; grossing a mere $133 million worldwide compared to the 2019 original’s $367 million.  But that lackluster result was nothing compared to the disastrous results of the release of The Flash (2023).  This notorious troubled production underperformed so badly, making only $260 million worldwide against a $250 million production budget, that it looks like Warner Brothers is set to lose $200 million alone on just this one film.  If it wasn’t for the phenomenon of Barbie (2023) right now in theaters, Warner Brothers’ accounting team would be sweating pretty hard right now.  What is likely happening with DC and these back to back failures is that audiences have already lost interest in the DCEU.  With the collection of Justice League heroes now about to be rebooted in the James Gunn DCU, why would anyone care about these relics of a now doomed universe.  This also doesn’t bode well for the last remaining DCEU film, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom (2023), which is scheduled for this Christmas has it’s own set of production woes that are ballooning it’s already high production budget.  And then there is this little oddity in between called Blue Beetle (2023).  Blue Beetle is a film based on the comic book hero that has gone through many different personalities since his debut in 1939.  The film, a first time adaptation for the comic book hero on the big screen, introduces us to the third and current iteration of Blue Beetle, whose alter ego is Mexican-American Jamie Reyes.  Initially, this film was developed to be a straight to streaming film for Warner Brothers’ MAX app, but after being screened for James Gunn and other studio executives, they felt confident that this could be a theatrical release instead.  Strangely, Gunn has stated that this is separate from the established DCEU continuity, but he has also declined to commit this film as part of the new continuity that he is establishing.  So, the question remains, is Blue Beetle enough to reverse DC’s bad fortune at the moment, or is it going to circle the drain along with the rest of the DCEU.

The story takes us to the bustling metropolis of Palmera City, where young Jamie Reyes (Xolo Mariduena) is returning home from college.  He is greeted warmly by his family, including his father Alberto (Damian Alcazar), his mother Rocio (Elpidia Carrillo), his abuela Nana (Adirana Barraza), his sister Milagro (Belissa Escobedo) and conspiracy nut uncle Rudy (George Lopez).  Unfortunately, he learns that the family has suffered hard times in his absence, due to his father’s health problems and the increased gentrification of the neighborhood, known as the Edge Keys.  Jaime hopes to help give his family a boost by putting his degree to work by finding a job in the big city.  Things don’t quite work out the way he planned, as the best he can do right away is get a service job cleaning up a beachfront house owned by the wealthiest woman in town, Victoria Kord (Susan Sarandon).  While on the job, Jamie runs into a young woman named Jenny Kord (Bruna Marquezine), Victoria’s niece and her chief adversary at the omnipresent Kord Corporation.  Jenny responds well to Jaime’s assertive chivalry and offers to give him a meeting at the corporate office at a later date.  Believing that this is a breakthrough for him, Jaime arrives at the Kord headquarters hoping Jenny will give him a job offer.  Unfortunately, he finds her on the run from security.  She eventually runs into Jaime, and asks him to protect something she has hidden in box.  Jaime takes the box home with him, and sees what’s inside.  What he finds is a weird metal scarab, which suddenly comes to life and immediately latches onto Jaime.  Jaime suddenly finds his whole body getting covered in blue colored armor.  Afterwards, the armor, which has it’s own computerized voice (Becky G) takes Jaime for a ride out of his control, demonstrating all of the power the suit holds; including the ability to fly.  Jaime wishes to get rid of the scarab, but it has already been imbedded into his body.  He seeks out Jenny, but she’s being hunted by her Aunt Victoria’s henchmen, led by the fearsome Lt. Carapax (Raoul Max Trujillo), who has a super suit of his own.  Jenny reveals to Jaime that her father Ted was the previous host of the alien scarab, and he used it to become a vigilante hero known as the Blue Beetle.  Jamie can’t get rid of the scarab, but he can learn to master it, and with his family and Jenny Kord’s help, he is determined to set things right and accept his destiny as a hero.

The situation for this movie coming out at this moment is pretty dire for comic book movies.  As mentioned before, DC right now is flaming out as it releases the remainder of it’s DCEU output, but the year hasn’t been kind to comic book movies in general.  The disappointing box office of Marvel’s Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (2023) began a trend of diminishing returns for this once mighty force in the global box office.  Despite that, the Marvel brand still has had bright spots, with both Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 and Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse both doing well enough at the summer box office, albeit not to record-shattering numbers.  Nothing this year has gone DC’s way, with Shazam: Fury of the Gods and The Flash becoming two of the biggest box office bombs ever in the genre.  That’s a lot of pressure to put on Blue Beetle’s shoulders, and it doesn’t look like the movie is going to turn the ship around for DC at the box office based on early predictions.  The upside is that Blue Beetle isn’t as big of a risk compared to the other two, costing a more reasonable $100 million to make; and honestly what it makes at the box office now is more than what was initially planned with it’s original streaming plans.  Still, DC needed a win, and for a lot of longtime fans of the character from the comic books, this is a movie that needs to succeed.  So, does it?  Yes, and no.  As a standalone movie, it does what it needs to do; creating a likable hero worth rooting for and delivering fun and colorful spectacle to please audiences.  But, it’s also nothing that we haven’t a dozen times before in so many other comic book movies.  It comes in with low expectations, performs above average, but does little to actually leave a mark on the genre as a whole.  It’s good enough, and sadly that’s not enough to reverse course for a studio much in need of finding it’s footing right now.

The problem with the movie is it’s familiarity.  We know all of the beats that this movie is going to hit before they happen.  Plot wise, the movie does exactly what you know it’s going to do.  It’s following the same super hero origin story plot that has been done to death over the last several decades.  It’s why Marvel wisely decided to dispense of origin narratives for some of their franchises like with Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017), Black Panther (2018) and Captain Marvel (2019) as it worked better to drop into their heroes storylines already in progress.  In a way, DC also did that too with Aquaman, and it resulted in their biggest box office hit.  It frees up a lot of unnecessary time wasted on world building, which this movie does quite a bit of.  The character of Jenny Kord in particular unfortunately suffers quite a bit from being the exposition deliverer for most of the movie; filling in all the Blue Beetle lore that the movie needs to deliver to the uninformed audience.  The film definitely feels like an early, Phase One Marvel Cinematic Universe movie, where it has to lay down some very heavy handed world building, as opposed to allowing the audience to just absorb the world through the experience.  That being said, it’s not delivered in too clumsy of a way.  While the message may be old hat, the delivery still comes through in an effective way.  The story is very much better handled here than the messy Flash movie, which didn’t really know what it wanted to be.  Blue Beetle may be cliched, but it’s got it’s heart in the right place.  One of the things that is refreshing is that it keeps the stakes small compared to most other super hero movies.  It’s not a fate of the universe story, but rather a simple hero looking out for the ones who matters most to him and stopping a greedy tycoon from causing more trouble.  For a genre that in recent years has gotten lost in the need to keep topping one another in spectacle, it’s kind of refreshing to see a story that just delivers on the basics and nothing more.

The best part of this movie which really helps to put it above average is the winning cast.  In his first starring role, Xolo Mariduena (best known for his work on Netflix’s Cobra Kai series) is really charming as Jaime Reyes.  For one thing, he really nails the reluctant hero aspect of the character; not jumping into his role right away, but over time learning to accept his duty as a super hero.  Given his martial arts background, he also does a good job of selling the fight scenes in and out of the suit.  It’s a physically demanding performance, which sometimes requires the actor to go mask off for close-ups, and Xolo does his best, while at the same time making the character endlessly likable.  He is also surrounded by an exceptional ensemble.  The Reyes family is just as important to this movie as it’s hero, and they get involved in a surprisingly large amount of the action too.  The movie does a surprising job of making each of the family members an important part of the story, and each one a distinctive personality in their own right.  The standouts are definitely Uncle Rudy, who obviously is the movie’s most comedic character given that he’s played by legendary comedian George Lopez, and Nana Reyes, played wonderfully by award-winning Mexican actress Adriana Barraza (Babel) who shows a few surprising skills of her own.  Susan Sarandon does the best she can with a rather cookie-cutter villain, and Raoul Trujillo likewise brings surprising depth to his big bad that otherwise would’ve been missing in a lesser performance.  But, the most pleasing aspect of this movie is that it is unapologetic with it’s cultural representation.  This movie proudly displays the Mexican heritage of it’s main hero and wears it like a badge of honor.  From the way the movie is cast, to the cultural references found throughout (Guillermo Del Toro films, telenovelas, and a very Latin flavored soundtrack) to the very frequent use of Spanish throughout the movie; the filmmakers definitely wanted it’s audience to know that they were taking the introduction of the first Latino super hero on the big screen seriously and it really helps to give the movie a strong identity as a result.

Visually, the movie carries those cultural inspirations over too.  The location of the fictional Palmera City is very much meant to be the DC universe equivalent of Miami, Florida, and the flashiness of that city’s identity really carries over into this film.  The movie is awash with a bright neon color palette, which recalls the visual look of shows like Miami Vice.  This is very evident in the depiction of the city, but the filmmakers also did a fine job of creating the look of the Edge Keys where the Reyes family call home.  It definitely feels like an authentic Latin ethnic neighborhood that you find in most big American cities, with the Reyes home feeling like it has been lived in for generations.  It’s not a Hollywood depiction of what an inner city neighborhood looks like, but something that clearly feels closer to reality; rough around the edges because it’s a poorer part of the city, but still warm and inviting because it’s built out of love for the community.  You can tell that the film’s director, Angel Manuel Soto, wanted that authenticity to come through and help dispel the outdated view of Latinx communities that Hollywood has perpetuated over the years.  At the same time, the movie also does well with the visualization of it’s titular hero.  The Blue Beetle suit itself looks pretty sleek, without deviating too much from the comic book.  Obviously, it’s trading in tights for more metallic looking armor, but the design sticks pretty close to how the character currently looks in the comics.  I like how it continues the trend of allowing expressiveness in the eyes through the mask that we’ve seen in other recent comic book movies like Deadpool (2016) and the MCU’s Spider-Man.  The way that the Blue Beetle powers work also is well utilized, even if it at times feels a little too similar to Iron Man.  One thing that is refreshing is that it looks like the filmmakers made an effort to incorporate more live action stunt-work into the movie, using CGI more as a tool to support the action on screen rather than replace it.  It helps to give the action scenes more of a tangible feeling of ferocity, knowing that in quite a few moments it’s real stunt men on the set rather than digital rag dolls.  It’s not a particular game changer on the graphical front, but the movie does have a flavor all it’s own that serves it well.

Overall, the movie’s biggest weakness is that it largely plays it safe.  It tells us an over-familiar story with not a whole lot of surprises.  But, at the same time, it does so with an earnest approach with a cast that is irresistibly likable.  Putting so much emphasis on Jaime Reyes place within his culture and more importantly his family is what helps to lift this movie up above what would’ve otherwise been more super hero mediocrity.  I still think the two Shazam movies were better executed comic book adventures, but Blue Beetle is infinitely better than the messy Flash.  For one thing, Blue Beetle is a character worth rooting for, and he doesn’t spend the movie making obnoxious low brow comedy.  The movie, despite the familiarity, does remain engaging throughout, with it’s faults only coming when the movie has to set up the rules of it’s world.  Thankfully, the movie knows when to kick into gear, and it leads to a very engaging and satisfying finale.  It’s hard to know how well this movie will do in the long run.  It already seems like the film will not reverse DC’s box office woes at the moment; which may hurt it’s chances for a sequel, or a future in James Gunn’s re-launch of the DC Universe.  That’s too bad, because the star of this movie, as well as the people who play his family, are delightful enough to make me want to see more adventures with them.  And there was one other thing that made me appreciate the film as well.  Because I live in Los Angeles, there was a strong chance of me seeing a Latinx family at my screening, and sure enough one such family was seated right next to me.  They were really digging the movie, especially the young boy who must’ve been so delighted to finally see a super hero on screen that had a family just like his.  That’s the kind of impact a movie can have that goes beyond just the nuts and bolts that I was analyzing.  The movie may not have been speaking the same way to me, but to a kid like the boy at my screening, it was speaking a whole lot louder.  That is something that I can really appreciate beyond just the movie itself.  Like Wonder Woman and Black Panther before him, Blue Beetle can be another super hero icon that can transcend culture and help give a face to an underrepresented group of people within the most powerful box office genre in the world and help break down more barriers as a result.  Blue Beetle is a decent enough entry into the overly crowded super hero field at the box office, but it’s impact could lead to some very, much needed changes in the halls of Hollywood if it manages to successfully find an audience.

Rating: 7.5/10

Off the Page – A Clockwork Orange

Stanley Kubrick is no stranger to literary adaptations in his body of work.  In fact, the bulk of his filmography is sourced from previously published works of literature; from best-sellers like Stephen King’s The Shining (1980) to obscure novellas like Arthur Schnitzler’s “Traumnovelle” which was the basis for his final film Eyes Wide Shut (1999).  And all of those adaptations range from faithful, to completely divorced from the original text.  For Stanley Kubrick, it’s always been the stories that have captivated him the most, or to be more exact, how the story can be shaped through his vision.  Kubrick was always a visual filmmaker first and foremost, so the appeal of these stories more or less based on how they formed within his own imagination.  That’s probably why he was so drawn to the futurism of Arthur C. Clarke, or the unflinching war stories of Gustav Hasford, or the class critiques of William Makepeace Thackery.  More often than not, Kubrick’s stamps on these stories become so iconic that the stories become more identified with him than with their original authors (such as with The Shining, much to King’s dismay).  But if there was one film where the author’s voice still manages to shine through even with Kubrick’s vision, it is with Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange (1971).  It was a bit shocking when Kubrick decided to adapt Burgess’ 1962 dystopian novel about violent street thugs and authoritarian regimes as his follow-up to his massive space opera 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).  It wasn’t unusual for Kubrick to adapt controversial novels to the big screen, like he had with Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1962), but A Clockwork Orange had since it’s original publication been known to be a notoriously hard to adapt to the screen as well as controversial for it’s content, which was scandalous for it’s time.  Still, Kubrick saw something in the story that appealed to his tastes as a filmmaker, and with the surprising backing of a major studio like Warner Brothers, he set to make the un-filmable filmable.

Anthony Burgess, the author of A Clockwork Orange, never saw himself primarily as a creative writer.  He was foremost a musician and a scholar, finding vocation in linguistics, where he would provide translations for various literary and musical works from around the world.  In his time as an academic, he would write satirical works, which often ran afoul of the social establishment in England at the time.  In the early 1960’s, Burgess suffered a health scare, where he was misdiagnosed with having a brain tumor.  Worrying that his time would run out soon, he frantically put his writing skills to work to create a novel that he hoped to sell before his death in order to give his wife support after he was gone.  The tome was completed in a remarkable three weeks, and not soon after, Burgess learned that he was not in fact dying.  Still, he had a book now that he could sell and it would end up becoming the the novel that he would be forever known for; A Clockwork Orange.  Based on a real event that occurred to Burgess and is wife during the London Blitz, where they were robbed and assaulted in their home by deserters from the American army in the blackout, Clockwork Orange was a dark, satirical look at the extremes of society.  Those extremes would of course be the fanatical violent indulgences of an un-disciplined population of youth and the authoritarian over reach of law and order trying to pacify it.  Essentially it was a novel examining the exercise of free will, and the fine line that society walks between freedom and order.   Burgess ultimately had written a novel that would cause controversy, but to what extant he didn’t know.  Many critics believed that his novel, with it’s frank depictions of sex and violence, were almost endorsements of those kinds of actions.  The novel is entirely told through the eyes of it’s young “ultraviolent” protagonist, who for long passages in the novel relishes in the horrific actions that he undertakes.  But, with Burgess putting us in the POV of such a violent character, he is also asking us to consider what the best course of action would be right to deal with such a character.  As we watch his re-habilitation through his perspective, Burgess is making us consider the idea that the solution may be even worse than the problem.

“Real horrorshow! Initiative comes to thems that wait.  I’ve taught you much, my little droogies.”

It is interesting to examine Kubrick’s take on the writings of Anthony Burgess in the film A Clockwork Orange, because out of all his adaptations, this is the closest Kubrick has ever gotten to making a film exactly like the source novel.  Initially, Anthony Burgess was commissioned by Warner Brothers to draft a screenplay for Kubrick, but the director ultimately declined to use it.  Apparently, Burgess’ screenplay was even more violent that the novel.  Ultimately, Kubrick would adapt the book himself, and some would argue that he barely even followed his own script on set.  Sometimes he would just show up on set with the novel in hand, and plan his scenes based on that.  That’s why when you read the book and watch the movie, you will see almost complete parity.  There are of course some minor tweaks that Kubrick made to get the source material to a point where it met his vision.  One of the very obvious changes was in the ages of his characters.  The protagonist of A Clockwork Orange, a hoodlum teenager named Alex, commits horrific acts like violent assaults, robbery, rape, and even murder, and all at the age of 15.  This, of course, wouldn’t fly with any film studio, so Kubrick made the choice to age up Alex to a young man on the verge of adulthood.  The same goes for his victims, as some of them are also underage in the book.  But, even with that, the film maintains nearly every other aspect of the novel; from it’s first person narrative point of view, to it’s near futuristic setting, to the graphic depictions of sex and violence which in it’s day earned the film the ever dreaded X Rating.  Yet, even with it’s risky nature, the film was success in it’s time, and probably to an extent that worried both Kubrick and Burgess in the years to come.


One of the aspects of the movie that wins praise from the literary community is the incredible realization of the character of Alex.  Alex DeLarge, as he is named in the film, is one of the most fascinating characters to have ever been put on screen.  The success of the film largely is due to how well the character works on screen, considering that it all revolves around him.  One of the things that mattered in the casting of the character was finding an actor who could embody the entire arc that the character goes through, from the out of control delinquent that we literally meet in frame one to the broken down reformed young man who struggles to adjust in a world that he had a hand in making worse.  For the part of Alex, Kubrick found his ideal performer in young actor Malcolm McDowell.  McDowell, who was in his mid-twenties at the time of filming, managed to embody the anarchic teenage fury of the character to perfection.  What probably helped McDowell land the part was his breakout performance in English filmmaker Lindsey Anderson’s If…(1968), where he played a rebellious student at a stuffy English boarding school.  McDowell would proved to be not just right for the part, but he even brought elements to the character that made him stand out from the page even more.  Apparently, the now iconic white uniforms with bowler hats black boots, and codpieces that Alex and his gang of “Droogs” wear in the film were inspired by Cricket gear that McDowell would come to the set wearing.  Another thing that Malcolm is famous for bringing to the film is an entirely improvised scene where Alex and the Droogs attack an author (played by Patrck Magee) and his wife.  The moment from the book is clearly inspired by the real life incident that Anthony Burgess endured, but Stanley felt it needed something more, so he asked Malcolm to do a little dance while he was in the middle of the attack.  Malcolm, as a result broke into a rendition of “Singin’ in the Rain,” making the already horrifying moment all the more darker with the inclusion of such a cheerful song.  After shooting the scene, Kubrick got on the phone and called Warner Brothers to secure the rights for the song, knowing that Malcolm had made the perfect subversive choice.

One other thing that is remarkable about Malcolm’s portrayal of Alex in the film is that he was able to master the unique language of Burgess’ novel.  Anthony Burgess invented a special dialect spoken by Alex and his gang called “Nadsat,” which is a combination of Russian and Cockney slang.  Not only did the Yorkshire born and raised Malcolm have to wrap his mind around this unusual new accent, but he had to do so as part of the character’s inner monologue as well.  The effect works out really well, as it makes Alex even distinctive within the film amongst the other characters also speaking this new dialect.  Malcolm gives Alex’s inner monologue this eerily sinister tone, which shows that even as his violent tendencies are suppressed by his reform, the dark aspect of his character is always still there underneath.  A lot of the Nadsat dialogue that is found in the novel is something that may given the novel the reputation of being un-filmable, so it is interesting to see Kubrick not only embrace it in his adaptation, but also keep it intact word for word.   In many ways, the dialect is key to the satire of the story, as it is representative of the social divisions between generations that drive the people in the story to their extremes.  The authoritarian government types that mean to suppress Alex’s violent tendencies speak with an authoritative and refined tone, much in contrast to Alex’s free-wheeling slang.  But of course as we see in the novel and the film, civility is not necessarily defined by the manner in which the character speaks. The upper class and highly educated types in the novel, from the government officials to the doctors conditioning Alex during this treatment, to even the radical political writer all have their own evil ends on which Alex finds himself in the middle of.  For Burgess in his writing, he is showing that no one is blameless in the story; Alex is more a product of the evils of polite society rather than just an anomaly within it.

“The pain and sickness all over me like an animal.  Then I realized what it was.  The music coming up from the floor was our old friend, Ludwig Van, and the dreaded Ninth Symphony.”

One of the interesting aspects of the novel is seeing how the extremes play against each other.  We see Alex for the monster that he is from the beginning, and know from the start that he is a character beyond redemption.  But, Burgess also challenges the idea of how we must as a society respond to such a monster.  In the story, Alex undergoes a treatment called the Ludavico Technique, which is a form of behavioral modification done through aversion therapy.  Mainly, it involves Alex being subjected to images of violent actions while being administered a drug that induces sickness, thereby causing him to revert to sick feelings whenever he feels a tendency to act in a violent manner.  Unfortunately for him, while they are administering the treatment, he recognizes the background music as that of his favorite composer Beethoven (“Lovely Ludwig Van”).  As as result, the same treatment now renders him docile with his favorite music as well; which is even more torturous for him.  Both the novel and the movie do an effective job of portraying the benign evil of this experimental treatment, and the de-humanizing aspect of it.  As much as Alex is deserving of punishment for his crimes, the Ludavico Technique is portrayed as an especially gruesome form of torture.  It for one is especially shocking to see actor Malcolm McDowell strapped to a chair with his eyelids clamped open, and have it not be a special effect.  McDowell really put himself through that, and the clamps at one point did really scratch his eyeball, which he thankfully recovered from.  But one can’t help but watch that scene and feel unease about what is being done to Alex.  As bad as he is, the solution should not be equal or worse to the crimes committed.  And this is what Anthony Burgess intended his readers to think about.  He must of thought of horrible things that he wanted to see done to his attackers, and then he began to self-reflect on what that reveals about him.  A society too comfortable with violence as a response to violence is one that he saw as especially perceptible to authoritarian leanings.

What may be the most monumental difference between the book and the film is the famous “missing chapter.”  Anthony Burgess’ original novel is comprised of 21 chapters.  Broken into three parts, the 21 chapters show the progression of Alex’s character from out of control youth, to pawn of the state’s response to the problem of violence, to ultimately a victim himself.  The book’s title comes from the cockney phrase, “queer as a clockwork orange,” which provides an even deeper meaning as the main argument of the novel itself.  The idea of a “clockwork orange” is the absurd idea of taking something that is supposed to grow organically and force a mechanical working upon it.  Mainly, a “clockwork orange” is something, or someone, who has been forced to change their own nature in order to conform to society.  The movie follows this aspect from the novel, except for the end.  In Burgess’ original novel, the final 21st chapter finds Alex returning to his old ways after the treatment wears off.  But, as he has a run in with one of his old Droogs, who has changed on his own to live a better life, it makes Alex reconsider his own choices.  And the novel concludes with Alex finally choosing to change; with his own free will and not through the influence of social pressure or forced treatment.  In this final chapter, Burgess states a hopefulness for humanity, where even the worst kinds of people are capable of change, if they are allowed to naturally grow up.  Kubrick on the other hand leaves out this final chapter, which was also excluded in the published version in the United States.  Kubrick’s interests were more geared towards the corruption of the society that forced it’s morality on Alex while not addressing it’s own evil inclinations.  The movie concludes with Alex reverting back to his old ways, but not with the hopeful note of personal growth.  In a way, it makes the movie more cynical than the book with regards to it’s view on violence, showing that the opposite sides of Alex’s anarchy and the oppressive government meaning to eliminate him are in for a never-ending cycle.  In some ways, the oppression possibly made Alex even more inclined to villainy, as he sinisterly claims “I was cured alright.”

“Goodness comes from within.  Goodness is chosen.  When a man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man.”

Despite winning acclaim upon it’s release, Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange proved to be a little too potent for society at the time.  A string of gang violence took off in the months after the film’s release in Great Britain, with some of the thugs imitating the likes of Alex and the Droogs in their crimes.  Kubrick was so worried about the effect that his movie was having, that he took it upon himself to have it pulled from exhibition in Britain, and the film would remain out of print in the U.K. for the rest of his lifetime; though it still was widely available in the U.S., where it developed a classic status.  Anthony Burgess did praise Kubrick’s work on the film adaptation, but in later years he tried to distance himself from the film and the novel, believing that it unfairly painted him in a scandalous light.  Over time, people have come to recognize the film less as a dangerous, exploitational film and more as the darkly comic satire that Burgess intended it to be.  There will still be debates over whether Kubrick was right to excise the more hopeful final chapter, but there is little doubt that he created a masterpiece that has greatly withstood the test of time.  From that unforgettable first opening shot (one of the greatest in cinematic history) in the Korova Milk Bar, to the anarchic energy of the film’s opening act, to the way that Kubrick uses music in his story telling (both in the classic renditions as well as the synth modified recordings by composer Wendy Carlos), the movie is a film that continually surprises in every scene.  Of all of the adaptations that Stanley Kubrick put onto film, Antony Burgess’ writing feels more in line with his tastes as an artist than anything else he has made.  It’s like the two were meant to be; Kubrick needed a story with a voice as unique as Burgess’ and Burgess needed a visionary eye like Kubrick’s to make his world come to life.  And of course the unforgettable performance by Malcolm McDowell helped to make Alex an icon of cinema that will forever be remembered.  You just know that you’re in for a wild ride when the first thing you see after the titles is the main actor staring creepily right down the barrel of the camera lens.  Kubrick’s artistry makes a statement to be sure, but the message from Burgess about the need for free will in the human experience also shines through, even with all the extremes.  Viddy well, little brother.  Viddy well.

“Great Bolshy Yarblockos to you.”

The Summer of Strike – What’s At Stake with the Dual SAG-AFTRA and WGA Strikes

As a society, we the audience have been overwhelmed with an abundance of entertainment over the last few years.  The streaming revolution of the 2010’s began a flurry of investment in new tv shows and movies on a scale unseen before.  While it was fortuitous for us the consumers, who were witnessing what we saw as a Golden Age of Television and a mega-blockbuster period at the box office, all of this unfortunately came at a cost.  The talent behind these shows were working doubly hard to meet the high demand of the new order of things in Hollywood, with streaming becoming the newest platform for distribution, but they were doing so under an outdated compensation standard.  Contracts for all the actors, writers and directors over the last decade have been made under the standard that was set after the 2007-08 Writers’ Strike, which had an ill-defined definition of what streaming content would be.  Back in 2007, YouTube was still in it’s infancy and Netflix was still sending out disc rentals in the mail.  What we know now as streaming wasn’t even on Hollywood’s radar at the time, so the deal made to end the writers strike in 2008 was based on the idea that internet based entertainment was experimental and work done on the platform by Guild talent needed to be compensated differently from the model of residuals for television and home video.  Since then, the streaming platforms, which have grown to become a major part of the Hollywood ecosystem in the 15 years since, have exploited this outdated system of compensation, paying their talent a fraction of what they normally would get through the old residual model for television and yet they were expecting the same talent to work double time to meet the high demand for new content on their platforms.  Of course, the Guild recognize this is a problem and they are now exercising their right to demand a new deal.

The Writers’ Guild of America (WGA) made the first move at the start of this summer, initiating a strike for the first time since the monumental 2007-08 strike.  While the original strike 15 years ago was rough on the industry and ultimately fruitless, this strike has been much differently received, not just within the Hollywood community but on the national stage as well.  The vote to authorize this strike was approved by near unanimous consent in a vote by both wings of the Guild, and without an eleventh hour deal struck by May 1st of this year, the strike would proceed with all members stopping work.  Now, the immediate effect may not have been felt too far and wide in the industry, at least to the outside consumer.  Movie deals made before the strike would continue.  Movie premieres would go on as scheduled.  The only noticeable immediate effect was the abrupt halt on production of daily and weekly talk shows on television (your Jimmy Kimmels, your Steven Colberts, you Drew Barrymores, your Saturday Night Live’s, etc.)  But, the longer the strike runs, the more projects in the pipeline for the studios dries up, and at this point, it becomes a waiting game to see who feels the pinch first; the writers or the studios.  Thankfully for the WGA, the widespread support from across the industry has been tremendous.  One thing that the WGA has this time around that they didn’t in the last strike was the backing of not just the other Hollywood Guilds, but also the Teamsters and IATSE unions that provide the crews for so many productions in the industry.  These incredibly powerful unions have pledged to not cross any picket lines on productions that have not received a waiver from any of the Hollywood guilds, which helps the WGA union out greatly with putting the pressure on the studios.

The WGA also received another boost this last month as they were joined on the picket lines by The Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA).  The 160,000 member strong guild has comparatively much bigger pull over the industry than the 25,000 in the DGA, and having them marching alongside the writers for the same cause at this crucial time is a big deal.  Hollywood hasn’t seen a double strike like this since 1960, when SAG and the WGA fought to get residual compensation from the then burgeoning industry of television.  Ironically, the SAG strike at that time was led by their then president Ronald Reagan, who in later years would become a notoriously anti-union President of the United States.  This time around, actress Fran Drescher of The Nanny fame is leading the charge against the studios, and her resolve to get a fair deal for her union thus far seems to be genuine and passionate.  One thing that the two unions have done well so far is taking control of the narrative of the strike.  Utilizing social media to spread the message (something that they didn’t quite have to their benefit during the last strike), both the actors and writers have made their case very well to the public at large.  One of the smartest moves has been for the individual members of the guilds to post on their social media pages an image of their most recent residual checks that they receive for their work on some of the biggest shows and movies on streaming, and spotlight just how little they are actually getting paid for their hard work.  This is to counter the typical argument made by the arbiters of the studio side of the negotiations, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), that the Guild members are rich ungrateful prima donnas; essentially millionaires fighting against billionaires.  The idea that this fight is to make the already wealthy even wealthier is absurd, as the vast majority of Guild members would be considered working class, and these social media posts of the residual checks are a great way of showing that they are indeed paid much lower than you would expect.

The AMPTP has tried in vain to paint this strike as a ploy for publicity for the elites, and as a result they have foolishly shown their hand in the game.  Disney CEO Bob Iger made a huge mistake early on in the strike by publicly calling the guild demands unreasonable; a statement that resulted in the Guild becoming even more emboldened.  Another anonymous member of the AMPTP also was exposed by a statement where he or she said that the aim was to see the Writers and Actors loose their homes and Apartments before they would be willing to negotiate.  This rather ruthless statement was probably put out there to strike fear in the other Guilds to prevent them from striking out of concern that it would ruin their careers, but the opposite effect actually occurred; solidarity is stronger than ever.  There is concern about how long each side can endure, however, because the longer that the two side refuse to negotiate, the more it puts pressure on the rest of the movie industry as well as all of the other industries that rely upon them.  Movie theaters, which have been on shaky ground since the end of Covid, were hoping a return to normal business would’ve occurred by now, and instead they are anticipating another round of movie release delays and fewer films to fill their screens.  And there are of course the local economies that depend on having their populations of guild members receiving steady income to help boost their local businesses.  With the two sides at a standstill, it may come down to the state and local governments to intercede to help mediate a fair deal.  The 2007-08 Writers Strike cost the California economy billions of dollars, and that’s something that the government and tax payers across the southland don’t need right now.

So, what is the thing that has caused the stalemate in this season of striking.  The primary sticking point would seem to be the residual part.  Residuals are an extended payments to people who worked on a film or television series based on the re-airings of those programs after their initial release.  If a show like Friends gets to play multiple times in re-runs on a variety of different stations, the cast and crew of that show will get a piece of the profits made from that re-airings, based on the frequency of airings and the percentage that was agreed upon in their contracts.  This was a revolutionary deal made after the 1960, which insured that no actor or writer would lose out on the extra money that was being made off of their work long after it was complete.  This helped to make both acting and writing a lucrative profession that could help support a robust work force in Hollywood with strong living wages.  Then, alone came streaming.  Streaming for the most part has been exempt from the residual standards made after the last deal in the pre-streaming era.  Because the income for streamers is subscription based, the money made is not based on things that had become industry standards before like total viewership and ad revenue.  Instead, the total viewership on streaming has been kept a closely guarded secret, which some believe has been the streamers way of exploiting a residual loophole.  The disparity of what the actors and writers make in residuals versus how the shows are performing is becoming very apparent.  Actress Kimiko Glenn spoke about her experience of overhearing Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos gloating about the high viewership of a show she was on called Orange is the New Black (which according to Sarandos was being watched more than Game of Thrones on HBO) and yet she was not seeing any of that success reflected in her residuals for the show.  From what we are hearing from the Actors and Writers on strike, it is much more the streaming side of the AMPTP that has refused to budge when it comes to the residual side of the contracts, because to meet the Guilds’ demands would be opening themselves up to more transparency on the actual viewership numbers of their programs, which I don’t think they are keen on exposing.

One other troubling aspect is how the studios are abusing the hard work that has been put into these movie and shows in the streaming era.  As stated before, the industry has been operating under contracts made with the Guilds that pre-date the standards of streaming.  As a result, the different studios have been able to undermine Guild guidelines under the definition of this being “new media,” therefore able to be more flexible when it comes to staffing and compensation.  When streaming was more experimental and something of a start-up, this was more acceptable under the standards set by the Guilds, but now that streaming has grown to encompass nearly half of all the theatrical and television markets, upending the previously recognized network and cable package standards, it can no longer be acceptable to call streaming a start-up.  Almost every studio has jumped on board the streaming craze, with Disney, Warner Brothers, Universal, and Paramount all launching their own platforms in the last five years, competing with mega-corporate competitors like Amazon, Netflix and Apple.  Sure, this has led to an insane amount of new movies and shows to watch in that time, but at the same time, the studios are also exploiting the work of their creative talent in order to meet that high demand.  This includes the elimination of extensive writers rooms that helped to deliver quality scripts in a timely manner.  Now, the streamers are favoring what is called “mini-rooms” which is the practice of having big shows made with fewer writers.  If you’ve noticed a lower standard of writing on many streaming shows in recent years, this is a direct result of these small teams of writers being stretched too thin.  In some cases, entire seasons are now being written by a mere handful or even just one writer, which is not helpful in creating a well-balanced show.  But even more troubling for creatives in the industry is that because of streaming being a digital based distribution model, the studios have more control over the lifespan of a film or show put on their platform.  If the movie or show doesn’t perform well, the studio can choose to pull it off the platform completely and collect a tax write off for the loss.  If the media didn’t get a physical copy release to coincide along with their streaming premiere, then that program is just gone, because in order to get that tax write off, the studio cannot profit off of it ever again.  We are now seeing a disturbing rise in what is called “lost media” and it should anger the creatives in the business that the studios are cashing in by eliminating their hard work from existence.

And then of course there is the increasing existential threat that is hanging over the heads of creatives on all sides of Hollywood; the rise of AI technology in filmmaking.  While AI hasn’t quite reached the level of creating a whole movie or show whole cloth out of nothing, the emergence of AI platforms like ChatGPT which can replicate informative text based on user prompts has rightfully raised concerns amongst many creatives in Hollywood.  Like most unionized industries, the WGA and SAG-AFTRA are concerned that Hollywood will someday replace man power with robots and computers, and that that day is coming sooner rather than later.  If “mini-rooms” was a concerning result of the streaming era, than the threat of AI eliminating writers rooms altogether is even more alarming.  One argument that the writers do have in their arsenal against this is that while platforms like ChatGPT can produce a lot of text very quickly, it can’t create something new.  It is basically advanced plagiarism; scouring the vast amount of information on the internet to form something resembling a new script, but is really just a jigsaw puzzle of things that have already been written.  One of the best picket line signs that went viral on the internet at the start of the strike read “ChatGPT does not have childhood trauma,” which is a good way of stating that AI cannot replicate the lived in experience that writers put into their own work.  Sure, Hollywood can just keep repeating old and tired gimmicks ad nauseum and AI would help churn those projects out quickly, but what really keeps the industry going are new and surprising things.  Could AI create something like the Oscar-winning Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022)?  I doubt it.  The threat of AI also extends to the concerns of SAG-AFTRA too.  It’s been discovered that some background actors in the Guild had been offered a fee to have their likeness scanned into a database and then the studios that own those scans could use them in perpetuity in whatever they want without the consent of the actor to decide what it’s used for.  This is a disturbing abuse of technology to move more creatives out of the process of filmmaking, and making it more possible for studios to have their entire creative output become more automated.  The Guilds are rightfully using this opportunity while this technology is still in it’s infancy to put up guard rails and ensure that the studios do not misuse this technology, and more importantly, ensure that ordinary actors and writers have the power to consent to how this technology based on their input is used.

Much more than perhaps any other strike to hit Hollywood, this one represents an inflection point that will determine the future of what the movie industry will be for generations to come.  This is much more important than pay raises; this is about preserving the ability to make filmmaking a career pursuit worth striving for.  People want to be in the movie-making business because they are story tellers and have been inspired by the films and television shows that ignited their creative flames.  But, the way that the streaming era has upended the previously agreed upon standards of the industry, we see a Hollywood that seems less concerned about pleasing their creatives and their audience, and more concerned about pleasing their shareholders.  The streaming wars have grown into this unsustainable arms race to have the most robust subscriber base in the market, while at the same time undercutting the compensation for the creatives that worked hard to deliver this glut of new content for the streamers in order to keep costs down.  The Guilds are rightly raising the alarm and showing that they are increasingly being pushed out of the creative process as studios are driving the creative decisions more and more, and even looking to AI technology to eliminate the human factor altogether.  It’s become less about what stream has the best shows and movies and more about who has the most.  The studios have felt the strain as well, as the Big Five studios are all seeing their investments into streaming turning into a money pit, while the mega-corporate giants like Apple and Amazon can endure the strain of this increased competition longer.  Those streamers as we learned are the big holdouts and it’s likely that the executive who was cheering on the financial woes of the striking writers and actors probably came from from one of them.  What matters now is that the WGA and SAG-AFTRA continue to stay strong in solidarity.  The WGA strike is now over 100 days old and the SAG-AFTRA is over 20, and the studios are no closer to getting the unions to their breaking point.  In fact, support has only increased.  The picketers are braving a heat wave here in California, and their spirits have not been deterred.  Hopefully, for everyone’s sake, a fair deal is reached soon and that it will hopefully lead to a brighter future for the industry.  SAG-AFTRA and WGA Strong!!!