Sunday, January 9, 2022

Redemption Songs

at GamingSF posted recently to say how tired he is of grimdark storytelling in contemporary Science Fiction and Fantasy. It's a trend I've complained about myself, although in my case what I object to most is the interpolation of what would once have been specifically horror genre tropes, themes and settings into just about every other genre ever invented.

As I said in a comment on Telwyn's post, it's particularly the use of violence as an unquestionably acceptable solution to pretty much every problem that irritates me. Even then I'm generally fine with it so long as I'm convinced by the context. In practice, so long as something is well-written and doesn't contradict what I already know about the IP or characters, I'm fine with things getting as grim or dark as they need to make the story work.

Where I have more of a problem is when an amoral, violent or just plain brutal filter gets fitted over IPs that previously felt a lot lighter, brighter or sprightlier. And even then it can work. It just has to be done with thought, care and imagination.

One property I've written about before, where the bootlegger turn from source to revamp gave me whiplash, was the DC superhero show, Titans. I went into the reasons for that and the history behind my concerns in some detail last time so I won't rehash it all again here. 

What I will say is that I recently finished watching the third season of the show and some of the problems and issues I had with the first two have been addressed. It's still a dark and disturbing show but the number of occasions on which any of the Titans are seen acting with the kind of casual, thoughtless brutality that characterized the previous seasons are much fewer and farther between. 

There are still several scenes where one or other of the heroes chooses to deal with a situation by killing someone but in each case it forms a plot or character point that has some meaning or relevance. There are also numerous occasions when members of the team disagree on whether such actions are appropriate, acceptable or effective. 

Differences of opinion on what a "hero" can do and still be thought of as a "hero" form a major part of the series arc, which focuses strongly on transgression and redemption. It's a big improvement but although I would say the show as a whole feels less brutal, I definitely wouldn't say it's any less violent and certainly not any easier to watch. If anything it's worse.

The brutality, which was the most shocking element of the show for me, has been replaced by an element of sadism, which wasn't particularly present before. I find that even harder to watch than the brutalism but I wouldn't dispute that, contextually, it makes sense. It's not something I personally want to see but sadistic violence is inarguably an intrinsic part of the established characters who employ it. If you're going to bring in the Batman's rogues gallery, twisted psyches and extreme violence come as part of the package.

That does beg the question of whether you really need the Joker or the Scarecrow in a Titans story at all. The answer is yes, you do, if you're going to use the entire season to tell a Batman story. And telling a Batman story here does make a kind of sense. 

Titans' leader is Dick Grayson, who is Nighthawk, who was Robin. Jason Todd, who is Robin, is also a Titan, or was. The main story arc of the season revolves around the tripartite relationships between the two of them and the Batman. And it's not a bad story, at that.

The first episode opens with the team established in sunny San Francisco, where the lightness in tone and texture clearly only exists to make the shadows of the rest of the season deeper and darker. By episode two we're in Gotham, which is where we stay. I won't attempt to rehash the plot but it's safe to say everyone has a rough ride and a bad time, not least the audience.

The first five or six episodes are strong, coherent and satisfying. Then everything goes off the rails. Titans die. Supporting characters die. Bystanders die. Hundreds of them. Maybe thousands. Then most of them get better. 

All the arguments about whether heroes or villians should be given the second or third chances, whether sins can be forgiven or redeemed, all the things that looked like they were going to matter or mean something, melt away in the magic rain that makes the dead rise. By the end of the run it's as though the writers are daring each other to see how wide they can stretch a loophole. Wide enough to slip a city through, it seems.

It shouldn't work and it doesn't but I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy myself, even if there were scenes where I literally had to look away and others where I literally couldn't believe what I was watching. I'd have preferred a season that stayed as tight and closed as the first few episodes all the way to the end but I have to remind myself it is a show about DC superheroes. Asking for realism isn't necessarily reasonable or rational. 

Asking for believabilty is, though. I guess, within the parameters of the form, Titans Season 3 is believable enough. This is comic-book reality, after all. At least I got to the end of it and didn't wish I hadn't bothered so I guess it worked. I do hope season four, if there is one, happens anywhere but Gotham though, even if Iain Glenn is one of the best Batmans I've seen.

If you're wondering about now why all these really old songs are gumming up the post, it's because all of them are heavily featured in the show. One of the oddest things about the whole season is the music. I don't know who the producers imagine their audience to be but based on the music I can only guess they've been screen-testing the show in retirement homes.

Almost every episode had me open-mouthed at the choices they'd made. Take a look at this list. It's not every song in the whole season but it's most of them and the ones I left out weren't much younger.

  • Ça Plane Pour Moi - Plastic Bertrand
  • Spirit In The Sky - Norman Greenbaum
  • Sloop John B - The Beach Boys
  • Oh Bondage, Up Yours! - X-Ray Spex
  • Bad Life - Public Image Limited
  • In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida - Iron Butterfly
  • Zombie Eaters - Faith No More
  • Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn't've?) - Buzzcocks
  • Le Freak - Chic
  • Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood - Nina Simone
  • Livin' On A Prayer - Bon Jovi
  • In The Mood - Glenn Miller
  • Back To Black - Amy Winehouse
  • Waterfalls - TLC
  • Waterfalls - Death Cab For Cutie
  • New Rose - The Damned
  • Tell Me Something Good - Rufus
  • Just Like Heaven - The Cure
  • What A Wonderful World - Joey Ramone

It's a list that suggests it must have been put together by someone of both a certain sensibility and a certain age. I was very confused until I spotted the name of Clint Mansell in the credits. Mansell, now a respected composer of film music, was the prime mover in eighties' sample-happy satirists Pop Will Eat Itself, providers of yesterday's post title. I saw them live once. I don't remember much about it.

Clint is about five years younger than me. It explains a lot, although  not so much about what any of these songs have to do with the scenes they're in. I'm not complaining, though. It was nice to hear some of them again. 

It's a bit of a theme with superhero shows and movies, anyway, this rifling through the jukebox of the past. That's another wish I have for Season Four: some songs that are less than forty years old. If they're ones I haven't heard before that would be even better.

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