Tor.com content by

Joe George

20 Years Later, the Message of The Iron Giant Is More Urgent Than Ever

With its opening shot of Sputnik in orbit and its milieu of Red Scare paranoia, fallout drills, and cool beatniks antagonizing shady government agents, The Iron Giant was a throwback when it premiered in August of 1999.

All of the rich flavoring director Brad Bird (working off a screenplay he co-wrote with Tim McCanlies) peppers into his debut feature comes directly from the earliest days of his childhood and those of his original audience’s parents. But while the film may reach backwards to 1957, it has gradually become one of the most important superhero movies of the modern era.

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Annabelle Comes Home Could Be the Avengers: Endgame of Horror

Even aside from its massive box office draw, Avengers: Endgame was more than a movie. It was a bonafide social phenomenon, with people from all walks of life coming together to share in the stories of their favorite characters.

To a certain extent, this anticipation makes sense. Superheroes have been crowdpleasers for nearly a century now, and Captain America, Iron Man, and other heroes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe have been building a following almost as long. Furthermore, Endgame and its predecessors enjoy both consistently competent (if sometimes unremarkable) filmmaking and the full marketing machine of Disney, one of the world’s most powerful corporations.

But as demonstrated by the failure of Universal’s Dark Universe and Warner Bros. so-called DCEU, no one does shared universes like Marvel. Well, Marvel and The Conjuring. Sprung from the 2013 meat-and-potatoes horror film directed by James Wan, The Conjuring Universe has blossomed into an interconnected story across seven films and counting, pitting Catholic heroes against demonic forces.

With the most recent entry Annabelle Comes Home pulling together each of those parts, we might have something like the Endgame phenomenon in a darker, scarier hue.

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“Not My Batman” Is No Way to Go Through Life

As a superhero-obsessed eleven-year-old, I had a head start on the Batmania that swept the country when director Tim Burton’s Batman hit theaters in June of 1989, almost 30 years ago. I already read the junior novelization, I bought the Toy Biz action figures, and I wore way too much tie-in clothing (including a pair of boxer shorts my dad dubbed “Buttmans”).

To me, Batmania was a naturally occurring phenomenon. After all, Batman was the best: of course everyone wants to see him in a movie! And although I had read enough fan letters and newspaper editorials to know that some people were dubious about Michael Keaton in the title role, Beetlejuice was the greatest movie ten-year-old me had ever seen, so why shouldn’t he be the star?

Because first-run movies were too expensive for my family, I didn’t see Batman until it was released on VHS in November. Clad in Batman footie pajamas and swinging my toy crusader by his plastic retractable utility belt, I shrieked with glee when my hero dangled a crook off a ledge and growled, “I’m Batman.” It was exactly what I imagined when I read the comics, exactly what I saw when I animated the panels in my mind, and now everyone else could see it, too.

But after that opening bit, Batman mostly disappears… and instead, the movie focuses on reporters and gangsters and their girlfriends?And it’s kinda more about the Joker? And when Batman does show up, he kills a bunch of people in an explosion? And his muscles aren’t even real?

[This was not my Batman.]

Where the Fiction of Ursula Le Guin and Octavia Butler Meets Jordan Peele’s Us

One of the unexpected pleasures of Jordan Peele’s Us has been tracing its various influences and allusions. In the weeks since its release, culture writers have been going nuts pointing out the movie’s overt references and placing it within genre traditions.

But as useful as these discussions have been, they’ve largely focused on movies. Of course, that makes sense—Us is a movie, and its main point of reference is other movies.

However, Us is not the first piece of science fiction to address troubling issues of community and inequality through fantastic ideas and imagery—not by a long shot. Two of the most accessible pieces working on this theme are the short stories “The Ones Who Walked Away From Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin and “Speech Sounds” by Octavia Butler. While readers of sites like Tor.com are likely to be quite familiar with both of these authors, the film is such a rich, overdetermined amalgamation of ideas, purposeful echoes, and pop cultural references that it encourages excavation—so let’s take a look at both stories, and the points where they connect with or reflect the film. While Peele may not have had these specific stories in mind while writing and filming Us, it’s clear that all three works share some thematic DNA, and that the ideas and anxieties expressed in each overlap to a significant degree.

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Attack the Block Helped Set the Course for the Last Decade of SciFi Films

When I recently took my seven-year-old daughter to see The Kid Who Would Be King, I did so out of parental obligation, not out of personal interest. Much to my surprise, I was rewarded with an exceptionally well-crafted adventure film—one with a winning and diverse cast, exciting setpieces, and entertaining supporting performances by Patrick Stewart and Rebecca Ferguson. None of this would of been a surprise to me, however, had the trailers touted the fact that the movie was directed by Joe Cornish.

Then again, I shouldn’t be too surprised. With only one directing credit to his name, and a few co-writing credits alongside Edgar Wright on The Adventures of Tin-Tin and Ant-Man, Cornish is hardly a household name, especially since his directorial debut came out in 2011. But, oh, what a debut it was…

Like The Kid Who Would Be King, Attack the Block could be mistaken for standard genre fare at first glance. The story of a group of London teens fending off an alien invasion, the movie raises questions about what makes a community and what (or who) we call a monster.

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The Self-Mocking, Self-Destructive Masculinity of the Predator Franchise

Even if you’ve never seen the 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi action classic Predator, you’ve probably seen this scene: A musclebound Arnold grins slyly as he saunters toward an equally brawny Carl Weathers. The two men clasp their hands together in the center of the room, creating a thunderous clap that resounds even as director John McTiernan holds his camera on their rippling, bulging biceps.

It’s a very manly moment from a very manly movie, the first of three (and soon to be four) entries in a very manly franchise. Even when Arnold and Weathers cede the series to actors not known for their massive physiques (Danny Glover in 1990’s Predator 2 and Adrien Brody in 2010’s Predators), and even when women get to play a more active role (Maria Conchita Alonso as a tough cop in Predator 2, Alice Braga as an Israeli sniper in Predators), these movies remain fixated on a specific type of exaggerated masculinity. And that sort of makes sense, as the series is about alien hunters who test their might against Earth’s greatest warriors.

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The Philosophy of Self-Destruction in Alex Garland’s Annihilation

28 Days Later was the first movie that had me stumbling out of the theater in a mind-fried daze. Back in 2002, I knew director Danny Boyle from Trainspotting and The Beach, both movies with some troubling themes, but I went in expecting nothing more than a fun zombie romp (this was, after all, long before zombies had infected every part of popular culture). But the movie sold the “humans are the real monsters” trope in a way I had never before seen. By the time Jim (Cillian Murphy) nearly attacks Selena (Naomi Harris) in his bloody rage, I no longer knew what to believe or expect. My friend and I were so shocked by what we’d just experienced that we drove 20 minutes in the wrong direction before realizing our error.

16 years later, I left Annihilation in a similar state. Working here as both writer and director, 28 Days Later screenwriter Alex Garland uses sci-fi tropes to raise questions about identity and existence, with a level of urgency found only classics such as Solaris, Stalker, and John Carpenter’s The Thing.

(Spoilers ahead.)

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Returning to Twin Peaks: The Return One Year Later

“We are like the dreamer who dreams, and then lives inside the dream. But who is the dreamer?”

Few lines from Twin Peaks encapsulate the cult television series better than these, spoken by actress Monica Bellucci, playing herself inside another character’s dream. The declaration doesn’t just serve as a thesis statement for the famously surreal director David Lynch, who co-created the series with veteran TV writer Mark Frost; it also reminds the viewer that Twin Peaks operates according to a dream logic, rarely cohering into an objectively clear narrative. Interpreting the series means acknowledging incongruities and accepting that our readings are deeply personal, and even the most brilliant connections and explanations are likely to be undercut by other aspects of the show. That slippery, open-ended quality is the very essence of Twin Peaks, and nowhere is that clearer than in the third season, set 25 years after the events of the original show. [“I’ll see you again in 25 years. Meanwhile…”]

Perfect Faults and Inconsistent Communities: Hope Larson’s A Wrinkle In Time

As the heroes of Madeleine L’Engle’s 1962 scifi novel A Wrinkle in Time prepare to face off against the evil being called IT and rescue their missing father, their angelic mentor Mrs. Whatsit presents them each with a helpful talisman. To budding psychic Calvin O’Keefe, she gives increased communication abilities; to five-year-old super-genius Charles Wallace Murry, she gives the “resilience of childhood.” But to his older sister, our awkward teen protagonist Meg Murry, Mrs. Whatsit declares, “I give you your faults.”

Moments like these, when L’Engle eschews familiar hero’s journey beats, are part of why A Wrinkle In Time has become one of our most beloved young adult novels; but these bits are also why it’s taken 56 years for a proper film adaptation. The novel may have everything we like to see in a modern adventure movie — including a misfit protagonist who topples an authoritarian regime while growing secure in her identity — but it makes for a far stranger story than your standard Marvel or Star Wars franchise entry. The example above just hints at the story’s peculiarity, and that’s before mentioning the book’s mix of Christian mysticism, theoretical science, 60s psychedelia, and Cold War-era resistance to conformity.

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Watchmen: A Tale of Care and Understanding

At the end of November, DC Comics released Doomsday Clock #1, the first in a twelve part sequel to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ legendary superhero deconstruction Watchmen. Doomsday Clock writer Geoff Johns, aided by artists Gary Frank and Brad Anderson, feature in their story not only Watchmen characters Ozymandias and Rorschach, but also two figures unconnected to the 1985 original: Superman and Lois Lane, the first of many popular DC heroes slated to appear in the series.

Doomsday Clock is the culmination of Johns’s year-long project enfolding the Watchmen characters into the mainstream DC Comics Universe. Or, more accurately, enfolding mainstream DC characters into the Watchmen universe. Various stories by Johns, beginning with 2016’s DC Universe: Rebirth #1, have revealed the company’s line-wide reboot—which largely erased the characters’ past histories so their stories can begin anew—to be the result of meddling by Watchmen’s godlike Doctor Manhattan.

On a plot level, these stories find Batman, Flash, and others fighting to defend decency against Manhattan’s machinations. On a metatextual level, they pin the blame on Watchmen for the comics industry’s turn from away from optimistic do-gooders toward gritty anti-heroes such as Wolverine, Lobo, and Deadpool.

I find this move doubly disingenuous. It ignores both Alan Moore’s super-hero reconstructions, like 1963 or Tom Strong, and Geoff Johns’s own tendencies to mix sex and violence into his stories. And worse, the move subscribes to an intensely shallow reading of Watchmen.

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Targets: Horror Movies in the Age of Mass Shootings

Like many Americans, I began this October indulging in Halloween traditions, including a marathon in which I watch a horror movie every day of the month.

Like most Americans, and people all over the world, I also began this October in mourning, shocked by the news that gunman Stephen Paddock killed 59 Las Vegas concert attendees and wounded hundreds more.

This month, in the wake of such a horrific event, in a country in which such attacks are growing increasingly common, the question is unavoidable: Why choose to watch terrible or scary things on a movie screen when we see them all over the news? What’s the point of horror movies when the world seems filled with unavoidable horror?

It’s a fair question—even a necessary one. But I do think such films serve a purpose, for many fans. Especially in times like these, in which fear and violence have become an all too familiar part of our daily lives.

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