Asteroid City (2023) & The Flash (2023)
THE FLASH HAS FAILED. In a bold play to best its competitor, Marvel/Disney, the film could cost Warner Bros. as much as $200 million.1 Dumbness is the culprit. Example: the main character is a young man who can run faster than the speed of light. I know what you’re thinking; Sam, that’s insane. But no, it’s true, he got struck by lightning and splashed with chemicals so, yeah. The story reaches back to the dawn of Superhero films, to 1978’s fondly-remembered Superman, isolates the film’s worst moment—the Man of Steel flies around the Earth so fast he reverses time—and gives it its own movie.
The vehicle for the besting of Disney / Marvel was one-upmanship. Three years ago, Spider-Man: No Way Home brought back the previous Spider-Men from non-canon, non-Disney films. The movie made almost $2 billion, and is the sixth-highest grossing film of all time. DC extended this concept out to its absurdist conclusion.2 The Flash hyped up the return of Michael Keaton’s Batman, but kept secret the other, weirder callback cameos: Adam West and George Clooney as Batman, Christopher Reeve, George Reeves, and Nicholas Cage(?) as Superman, Burt Ward’s Robin, Helen Slater’s Supergirl, Cesar Romero’s Joker. Although some de-aging deepfakery is afoot, much of it looks like the kind of ‘salute to Hollywood’ type presentation you might see playing on a TV set in the lobby of a wax museum. I’d read about the grand finale beforehand, but hadn’t fully prepared myself for the reality of it, a colossal fart machine explosion of cameos and guest appearances that felt both hostile and powerless, a major movie studio throwing a temper tantrum.
These are the last days of bad CGI.3 I enjoy still being able to spot the markers of where we are, not just the inevitable triumphs but the necessary failures: the shiny plastic alien brains in 1996’s Mars Attacks; the talking-death-mask Jeff Bridges in 2010’s Tron: Legacy; the ghastly Nicholas Cage impersonation in last year’s The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent. And now The Flash, which, gloriously, opens with a gangbusters scene in which a maternity ward worth of falling babies are each threatened with slow motion cartoon gags (bottle of acid, falling knives), which Flash dispatches, one by one, in his own due time. When he runs, he looks like a bit in a Tim and Eric sketch, which is the kind of bit so boisterously bad it feels intentional.
ASTEROID CITY OPENED ON the same day. Whatever you think of the films of Wes Anderson—whether you find them dazzling, affected, masterful, or pompous—your view will be validated by this, which is all of those things and more. As in his past ten features, an eccentric cast of characters meet in an improbable situation of equally improbable beauty. There are two visual themes, like a birthday party for twins: ‘50s Westerns and Early Space Age. But the backgrounds are something I haven’t quite seen before, matte paintings as physical props, so that the surrounding outcroppings and cacti resemble a Monument Park that is 18% cartoon (the fake town was built on a plain in Spain).4 I paid to see The Flash in Imax, but I’d have rather seen this desert. Everything has been color-corrected to the hue of a sun-bleached postcard.
The emotions are bleached as well, another hallmark of this one-director genre. It’s not a coincidence that Anderson’s style lends itself so well to AI art. His signature portraits inadvertently mimic the limits of current AI video, in which figures can talk and blink but no more (soon they’ll be able to move; it’s July now, so... by Christmas?) And this film, being wrapped in a second Thornton Wilder / Tom Stoppard style story-within-a-story device, offers even less emotional connection to its characters. Asteroid City is Anderson’s most meta film. We’re not supposed to empathize with the main characters because the characters themselves are actors, unmasked at the outset. This is a film you examine, like the wing of a museum. You don’t lose yourself in the story, because there’s barely a story there. The emotional stakes are near zero.
THE FLASH GOES LOWER still. For as high as the stakes were for DC and Warner Brothers, the stakes inside this film plunge below zero, into the negatives. The Flash’s powers dispense entirely with the wink-wink “deaths” of superheroes; he can change history as much as he wants (in Avengers movies, multiple geniuses and unlimited resources grant the heroes a few precious trips backwards in time; in this film, the main guy just has to run fast). There’s not much reason to care about any particular hero because another actor will play the character shortly. Likewise, in the films themselves, there’s no reason to mourn one version of a hero when there are infinite other heroes from infinite other universes. Reading the film’s plot on Wikipedia, I was shocked to learn that Batman dies. What kind of superhero film is it if I can’t remember that Batman died??
Writer Amber Sparks:
The thing about Wes Anderson is that people who like his films *know* he tends to slip into preciousness, but we’d rather watch slightly precious but radiantly pretty films about small human desires than a succession of poorly lit soul-killing movies of CGI saving the world.
Recently, I watched the Making Of video for the retirement home explosion scene in Breaking Bad, a 23-minute documentary for a sequence less than thirty seconds long. At the end, show creator Vince Gilligan shakes his head in wonder, saying, “the sheer work that goes into this... just astounding.” I thought of this quote while watching both films. 1,400 people worked on The Flash. Wes Anderson’s dolly grip, Sanjay Sami, does resistance training to prepare for the 900 lb. camera rigs he must push and pull for each film. As AI roars towards on-demand, voice-prompted video—soft content—I increasingly find myself noticing the labor involved in filmmaking. Just the other day, I caught the trailer for Martin Scorsese’s upcoming Killers of the Flower Moon, and I saw it as I’d see it ten years from now, as the result of antiquated labor. All those grueling shoots, the early hours, the late hours, stitching each costume, the time it took to master accents. In a few years, either of these types of films will be makeable for anyone and everyone, on a limitless variety of devices, with almost no learning curve.
Just so I’m clear: I personally enjoyed the shit out of both films.
Although by the rules of the Cold War arms race, they did best the competition: the new Indiana Jones film may lose even more money for Disney. For some perspective, $200,000,000 is what California just spent to move 7,300 people out of tents and into housing.
Movies don’t actually work that way. The Flash was in production for years before the last Spider-Man. But capitalism makes these types of escalating callbacks inevitable. Multiverses expand the boundaries of canon out towards infinity, which often means more and more intellectual property on tighter and tighter deadlines, all of it rendered in increasingly rushed and repugnant CGI.
Of course, there could be films with bad CGI in the future, but these films will read as intentional, and thus as affected as any Wes Anderson film today.
But there are some echoes. 1934’s Heat Lightning, with its lone desert diner/garage and eerie, painted landscapes, surely influenced this. I was also reminded of the indoor Nevada built for Francis Ford Coppola’s One From The Heart in 1982, and The Cars Land inside the Disney California Adventure theme park, with its fantasy buttes.