A Matter of Time: Golden Age Hero vs. Modern Age of Comics

Though it seems strange to say, over the past few years I’ve acquired an appreciation for Superman. Especially in contrast to other DC characters; many of my favorite comic books feature Superman not as the main protagonist, but as an icon the other heroes measure themselves against. They look up to him, they’re jealous of him, some even hate him, and sometimes all at once.

Superman is a mythical creature who signifies a mythical age. A man who can bend steel in his bare hands, but who also bends over backwards to be kind and good to his fellow Earthlings all day every day? Sometimes we can barely find those qualities in a real-life person, even without the bent steel part. Superman may draw his superpowers from our yellow sun, but he draws his gravitas from our nostalgia.

If we watch Man of Steel hoping for just a flashier update of Richard Donner’s acclaimed series, we’re bound to be disappointed. And that’s what I was, for a while. We often think of Superman as the brighter side of a dichotomy with Batman; hope vs. fear, compassion vs. vengeance, blah blah blah. For the first few years after their debut, Batman and Superman both lived and worked in Metropolis, but occupied different thematic venues (i.e., night and day). So there are certain things we expect from a Superman movie, and very few cultural icons carry as much baggage as the Last Son of Krypton. But that’s okay. He can handle it. Or can he?

“Bright” Man of Steel is not, and that can be pretty jarring at first. “Fun” is not even necessarily a word I’d associate with this movie. But I would call it serious, and realistic.

Superman Returns got at least one thing right: it tried to imagine a world after Superman (for a little while anyway), where the greatest superhero of all time had vanished and humanity was once again left to fend for itself. The 1996 limited series Kingdom Come shows us what happens when the World’s Finest Heroes retire, leaving the job of saving the world to a younger generation of “heroes” who have no role models and no moral compass to guide them — and the world nearly goes to hell because of it.

Man of Steel is a mirror image of those stories: Earth is already a dark place, and somehow Clark Kent from Smallville, Kansas needs to learn how to fit into it. It seems like it’d be much harder to fix a world that’s broken than it would be to start fresh, and that’s where both the Man of Steel and Man of Steel struggle mightily (and sometimes fail) to convey their meanings. In Zack Snyder’s vision, Superman isn’t the herald of a Golden Age; he’s displaced and dispossessed in both space and time, adrift in the dark, gritty Modern Age of Comic Books.


For all his attempts to hide himself away, Clark Kent repeatedly collides with (some lazily stereotypical) signifiers of The Modern World: he sticks up for a waitress when a diner harasses her, but steadfastly refuses to hurt anyone; he goes down in flames with an oil rig while saving its workers, whom his shipmates and a rescue party were happy to abandon. The military feels threatened by him, and DC Comics’ most famous reporter wants to expose him. As a child, his peers and sometimes their parents treated him like a freak or an act of God. Even Jonathan Kent tends more toward covering up his son’s abilities rather than praising him for doing the right thing. The film screams at us: this Clark Kent guy just doesn’t belong.

But is he really who we think he is? My first reactions were skeptical. How could Superman allow his Pa to be sucked up by a Kansas twister? How could he be so willing to snap General Zod’s neck? These scenes seem to fly in the face of Superman’s core identity; I even called the film “character assassination” on Facebook. But when we view the movie through the lens discussed above — if we see Henry Cavill’s Man of Steel as an anachronism in an age of moral ambiguity — the movie makes a lot more sense. To his credit, Cavill channels Kal-El heroically; every grin and every grit of his teeth could have jumped straight off the pages of your favorite issue of Action Comics. Too bad he doesn’t have a little more to say; Zack Snyder’s Superman is a rather quiet fellow.

Back to the scene with General Zod. There’s an inherent contradiction among our many expectations of the “S”: the notions that Kal-El is at his best when he’s a down-to-earth “human” character, but also that he never, ever makes mistakes (especially not big ones) are mutually exclusive. If we’re looking at a rebooted origin story of Superman, maybe we should see some kind of pathos that can drive him to become the symbol of hope that the movie so desperately pursues.

Michael Shannon is everything I hoped he’d be as General Zod.

Granted, Man of Steel forgets to play with the thematic importance of Zod’s death amidst a frustratingly hurried conclusion; we only get to imagine what impact it might have on our hero, and that’s just plain bad form on the filmmakers’ end. Maybe Kal-El swears to never again be a bystander while innocent people suffer; maybe after killing the only other Kryptonian left in the universe, he vows never to take another life. As a fan of DC Comics with a good deal of Superman backstory under my belt, I probably have an advantage in projecting where the character could go from here. Other moviegoers may just be left feeling angry and betrayed.

There will be sequels, of course. Hopefully we’ll learn about the consequences of General Zod’s murder in the next installments; given Zack Snyder’s history, though, I think we can expect further Super-movies to be as cold and detached as this one. It’s more operatic sci-fi tragedy than soaring super-adventure, a characteristic cranked to full volume by Hans Zimmer’s stirring score. Man of Steel is something new in the Superman canon, which seems exactly what it wants to be. Whether we like it is, I think, a matter of time — can the Last Son of Krypton forge a place for himself among the dark, cynical superhero narratives of our modern age, or is he better left as an icon of brighter days?

*          *          *

As a postscript, let’s talk about Zod’s death for a bit. Man of Steel wants us to believe that Superman made the only choice that would save human lives: Zod had just finished declaring that he would stop at nothing to kill every last human being as vengeance for banishing his compatriots to the Phantom Zone forever, telling Superman their fight will only end when “you die, or I do.”

So: the gateway to the Phantom Zone is permanently closed, and no Kryptonian technology remains with which Kal-El might safely imprison Zod, a warmonger-general ascended to godhood in the light of Earth’s yellow sun. The only other conceivable solution to this situation would be for Superman to fight Zod (but not kill him) forever. Literally. I would have been thrilled with that ending, as it would’ve signified a terrific break from predictable superhero-movie conventions, one that might’ve even rivaled the truly awe-inspiring conclusion of The Dark Knight. But it also would’ve precluded a sequel, which is of course unacceptable to Warner Bros. and company.

Our hangup with Zod’s murder springs, of course, from Superman’s conviction that no one has the right to kill. Though the film fails to give the scene it’s due time and consideration, are we not big enough to forgive Superman? (He would certainly forgive us if we were wearing the cape.)

Obviously there’s no right answer, and I don’t think I know where I stand on it yet. All I can add right now is this: our other silver-screened superheroes certainly do not measure up to the high standards we have set for Superman — in fact, they don’t even come close. Here are some body counts from other comic book movies, courtesy of allouttabubblegum.com. Take these numbers with a grain of salt, and keep in mind that personal responsibility for various deaths amidst the carnage of an action movie is usually debatable:

Wolverine in X2 (2003): 11

Hal Jordan in Green Lantern (2011): 3

Peter Parker in Spider-Man 2 (2004): 0

Steve Rogers in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011): 26

Bruce Banner in The Incredible Hulk (2008): 25

Bruce Wayne in

Batman Begins (2005): 20

The Dark Knight (2008): 1

The Dark Knight Rises (2012): 2

The Avengers (2012)

Steve Rogers: 17

Bruce Banner: 29

Natasha Romanoff: 27

Nick Fury: 3

Thor: 187

Tony Stark: 678(!)

Tony Stark in

Iron Man (2008): 56

Iron Man 2 (2010): 0

Iron Man 3 (2013) numbers were not available, but they’ve got to be high — at least as high as the original.

Again, many of these are debatable; the only ones I can discuss with any certainty are the Batman films.

The Avengers: applying lethal force to all non-humans (except Thor) since 2012.

The Batman Begins count of 20 occurs in Ra’s al Ghul’s monastery; Bruce Wayne detonates those explosives, yes, but is he directly responsible for killing al Ghul’s horde of ninjas? And would the filmmakers really have been so sloppy, considering it was Bruce’s refusal to kill someone that sets off the whole action scene in the first place? Must he save each and every person in the scene to not be considered a murderer? Curiously, this body count does not include Ra’s al Ghul himself, who dies under almost exactly the same circumstances at the conclusion of the film (“I won’t kill you, but I don’t have to save you”).

The one death in The Dark Knight refers to Harvey Dent, which is also questionable. Dent was about to murder Gordon’s son, and Batman had no way of knowing the fall would kill his erstwhile friend, who had already suffered some extremely traumatic injuries. Batman survives the same fall himself only seconds later.

In The Dark Knight Rises, the two deaths attributed to Batman are Talia al Ghul and her truck-driver henchman; Batman fires rockets at the truck carrying the nuclear weapon, the truck crashes, and its occupants die as a result (besides Jim Gordon, who was not wearing a seatbelt and therefore survived). But suppose some police officers were to use force to stop a suspect’s speeding vehicle from hurting innocent people, and the suspect dies in the resulting crash, would they be accused of murder? There’s probably some legal precedent either way, but as of this writing I haven’t researched it at all.

Anyway, what I’m getting at is that it’s not the fact that Superman kills Zod that upsets us; it’s the fact that he made a conscious decision to do so. But does that really matter in comparison to the mass murderers and genocidal maniacs (coughTonyStarkcough) of other recent superhero movies? I don’t know. You tell me.

Star Trek Into Soullessness: Good Riddance to J.J. Abrams

As I write this I am listening to the Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan soundtrack via YouTube, and I find it a significantly more stirring experience than watching Star Trek Into Darkness, J.J. Abrams’ recent bungling of arguably the most important science fiction franchise ever.

In place of “franchise” above, I considered using a word like “universe” or “mythos” (the latter of which I don’t feel very appropriate for Star Trek anyway), but didn’t end up replacing it because that’s what Star Trek has become: a franchise to occupy Abrams’ time while he waited to get hired for the indefinite number of cash-cows Disney wants to throttle out of Star Wars.

Consider the following from Abrams’ recent interview on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart:

“I never liked Star Trek when I was a kid… It always felt too philosophical for me… Some of the writers loved Star Trek, I wasn’t a fan, my producing partner never saw it.”

Everything about these statements is problematic if you understand what’s important and beautiful about Star Trek. To Jon Stewart’s credit, his response was “I stopped listening to you when you said you didn’t like Star Trek,” but the reason why is somewhat lost in the rest of the conversation.

And lest ye readers now proclaim in Abrams’ defense, “But that’s, like, what any fanboi/grl would say about their nerd fiction of choice,” you are totally right. So can we agree that each fiction, and perhaps particularly sci-fi and fantasy, has some sort of nebulous essence or heart, without which they are fundamentally changed?

Star Trek without philosophy — by which I assume we mean a thoughtful blend of rationality, ethics, and compassion — is not Star Trek. It’s like Reese’s without peanut butter, or Back to the Future without Marty McFly. In other words: empty.

In my review of Abram’s previous “Trek” film, I mentioned that further entries into the series should return to some of the TV show’s thematic roots. Seems like they tried with Into Darkness, but ham-handed character transplants and sometimes nearly verbatim scene-stealing from previous (real/good) Trek films doesn’t count.


Except that’s one of the film’s biggest problems. It’s not really a spoiler, because wrangling trendy British bloke Benedict Cumberbatch (“he’s so hot right now“) and calling him “Khan” doesn’t fucking mean anything except that you’re fresh out of good ideas and you’re trying desperately to retain what tenuous cred you had with real Star Trek fans.

So, since Abrams’ himself has invited the comparison, let’s compare.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan wrestles mightily with the concept of mortality; in fact, nearly every plot element in the film revolves around this single theme. The very first scene introduces the “Kobayashi Maru,” a test that evaluates how up-and-coming Starfleet officers face certain death, a test which the captain of the Enterprise notoriously defeated; Kirk and “Bones” lament getting old right after the ever-cantankerous McCoy gives his old friend a pair of antique eyeglasses for his birthday. Even the Chekhov’s gun is codenamed “Genesis,” invented to create wondrous new life but also capable of utterly erasing it. All of this drives the film to its heart-rending and well-known conclusion: the demise of one of the most beloved sci-fi characters of all time. I can’t even think about that scene without getting all misty-eyed; Spock’s unwavering altruism contrasts gorgeously with Khan’s hunt for petty revenge.

Star Trek Into Darkness begins with its head held high, espousing the pits and precipices of the Prime Directive and rehashing the fundamental differences between Kirk and Spock. But then “John Harrison” blows up a secret Starfleet weapons factory, and Into Darkness decides it wants to be about terrorism. And warmongering, and the militarization of a beloved exploratory institution, and other trendy shit that every other dumb-ass bullet-riddled action-adventure movie since 9/11 has wanted to be about. Star Trek Into Darkness could be read as a reflective title: this movie unceremoniously tosses Trek’s customary high-mindedness into oblivion in favor of (shocker!) mostly boring, predictable, belabored action scenes.

On to the films’ antagonists. When the eponymous villain of Wrath of Khan reveals himself on the dead planet to which he was exiled, he drives home the last nail in Kirk’s as-yet proverbial coffin. Not only is Kirk’s mortality catching up with him, but his past is, too. (The dead planet Ceti Alpha V and its “exploded” sister, Ceti Alpha VI, offer a cosmic perspective on the film’s theme — even worlds must eventually die.) There is a history between these two old foes that the audience can feel, even if they haven’t seen the original episode featuring Khan Noonien Singh, a genetically modified superman from late-20th century Earth’s Eugenics Wars. Khan seems genuinely anachronistic in the 23rd century of the U.S.S. Enterprise: he is cunning and ruthless, possessed of a tyrannical arrogance. He represents the worst of the world in which we currently live, and that’s what makes him unique in a future where humanity constructs, or more pointedly, can afford to construct massive spacefaring vessels solely for the endeavor of exploring the universe and for the betterment of all humanity.

But in Darkness, Khan is not unique or anachronistic. Everybody and their mums is out for blood in this picture. Khan caps good old father-figure Chris Pike, so Kirk wants to whack Khan. Admiral Robocop– er, Marcus holds Khan’s super-groupies hostage, so Khan wants to hurt Marcus. Kirk pulls a Spock and gets himself irradiated saving Enterprise, so Spock blames Khan and tries to beat him to death with his bare fists in the most absurd, un-Trekish action scene in the whole movie. And lest we forget, the Big-Shot Fucking Admiral of Star-Fucking-Fleet (which defends the 23rd-century version of the UN, for fuck’s sake) wants to spark total war with the Klingon Empire. These are not the ethics of Star Trek. These are the barbarisms of the Dark Ages. This is a movie about weregilds in space.

Further — it doesn’t really mean anything at all that “John Harrison” turns out to be “Khan.” Star Trek II rekindles a rivalry and enmity 15 years old that fits perfectly with the film’s thematic interests. Into Darkness, on the other hand, merely pays lip service to one of Trek’s most iconic villains. Had “John Harrison” neglected to reveal his “true” identity, the film still would’ve played out in exactly the same way. Cumberbatch, while a terrifically compelling actor, isn’t given much at all to work with. He’s a glorified Rambo who is denied even the chance to utter any of the real Khan’s most memorable lines or sentiments. (I mean, as long as you’re recycling the entire latter half of Khan for your “new” Trek movie, you might as well use the good stuff, right?)

It is bitterly ironic that while Abrams really, really wants Into Darkness to be hip and cool and bad-ass, he fails to do justice to easily the most bad-ass character to ever appear in Star Trek. I mean seriously, while he might be a huuuuuge tool sometimes, Khan Noonien Singh is the reigning BAMF of the Alpha Quadrant, even when you just consider some of his dialogue, particularly in the following scene, which I would rather watch 14 times in a row than sit through the 127 minutes of Into Darkness again:

All of this ranting is to say: J.J. Abrams has abandoned the heart and soul of why Star Trek is important in pop culture. Real Trek looks forward to a future in which war, poverty, and disease are extinct on Earth; in which the petty concerns of individuals like Khan do not threaten the stability or justice of society as a whole; in which we reach ever farther in our understanding of the physical laws of the universe and leave those barbarisms of a war-torn planet behind us where they belong.

True Trek celebrates the intoxicating truth that we are the only species among millions on our world across billions of years who have cultivated the knowledge and the skill to strap ourselves to a bomb, hurtle into outer space, and come back safely with new knowledge that will benefit all of humankind. Star Trek Into Darkness is a rather aptly named film after all — it chains us in the darkness of our own real world, and we’ll never leave that world behind for a better one if this is all we can muster from the brightest, most hopeful science fiction franchise of all time.

Radagast the Brown Does Not Allow Birds to Shit on His Head, or “What Dale thought of the first Hobbit movie”

As a matter of fact, nobody ever shits in Middle-earth. Ever. This also applies to an offhand complaint from Bilbo about something the Dwarves did to the plumbing in Bag End. If you want a fantasy story about people tending to their various bodily functions, go read A Game of Thrones.

Many reviewers have decided The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is long and repetitive, bloated by Peter Jackson’s attention to detail and his insistence on three films featuring additional material from the Appendices to The Lord of the Rings. The cleverest comment from the critics comes from Rob Humanick at The Projection Booth: “Butter scraped over too much bread, Bilbo might say.”

All of these observations are true. But I don’t think all of them need be criticisms. I probably shouldn’t comment on The Hobbit‘s running time, given I would have gladly drooled over a six-film series of LotR (one for each “book” in the novel) and would gladly do the same for movie versions of… yup, anything else Tolkien wrote that hasn’t been filmed yet.

But a complaint that the film is repetitive implies a poor familiarity with both the novel and the medieval genre upon which it’s based. Excepting PJ’s additional material (some of which is pure invention), Unexpected Journey more or less exactly follows the first 100 pages of Tolkien’s novel, which is indeed a children’s story but also a romance. And not like Danielle Steele, but Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Romance as in a swashbuckling tale in which the hero embarks on a quest, takes part in adventures and divergences of varying dangers, and encounters other fascinating denizens of the world, both good and evil.

In that sense, Unexpected Journey is precisely what it should be. Once it gets going — which admittedly takes a good while — Thorin and Company get themselves into nothing but fires and frying pans, often literally. And said Company is made up of quite likeable fellows, who are alternately somber or merry, feisty or funny. The background on the Lonely Mountain, the Line of Durin and their misfortunes is all spectacular (though the fleeting shots of Smaug are clearly meant to tease), and it’s all mostly accurate with one big exception.

Which is where I begin to list my complaints. Azog? And he’s got a hook? (Linz thought it looked more like a rake.) Really? I don’t feel like this movie needed a Lurtz, and especially not Lurtz with a hike in his pay-grade, who has lines in some mystery language — the legitimacy of which I cannot comment on at this time. Except that is to say: PJ and Co. almost certainly made up words in Tolkien’s fictional world, and I really haven’t decided how I feel about that. Non-canonical Uruk-hai I don’t necessarily have a problem with as long as they’re minor, but making up words in Middle-earth? If there was ever a case for Tolkien blasphemy…

Azog is the lesser of two evils, though. Peter Jackson seems to have read some dialogue from the traitorous Saruman (“Radagast the Bird-tamer! Radagast the Simple! Radagast the Fool!”) and taken it as literal truth. The Brown Wizard bumbles about in his forest totally perplexed as to why beasts of all kinds are dropping dead before his eyes, and then is nearly eaten by giant spiders before he figures out, “Ohh… but it is magic… a black magic!” In a later scene he totters into Dol Guldur and jostles loose the Witch-king, who had apparently been napping inside a statue (lolwut?) and we get a sneak peek at the Necromancer. The whole sequence feels rushed, anti-climactic, and untrue to Tolkien’s customary description of an encounter between such powerful representatives of good and evil. One does not simply pop in on the Lord of Mordor — and in any case Sauron would certainly not reveal himself so brazenly to someone so powerful as Radagast. And didn’t PJ’s own Fellowship of the Ring movie claim that Sauron “cannot yet take physical form”? Yet there he is, flashing the poor Brown Wizard from the front stoop of Dol Guldur.

Two final gripes: the “White Council” scene not only felt wooden, but it suggests factions within the Council that just don’t make any sense, and indeed conflict with everything Tolkien wrote about the group. Specifically, why would Elrond seem to ally himself with Saruman rather than Gandalf and Galadriel, with whom he shares far more of his (ahem) counsels? Further, they hold the Three Rings of the Elves, which would naturally bind them closer together rather than fracture their loyalties. All this is to say: the conflict seemed contrived for the movie’s sake, but it’s important that we remember Gandalf, Elrond and Galadriel were all united in their belief that something should be done about the Necromancer of Dol Guldur, whereas Saruman was the only one arguing against them — and for very sinister reasons, as we learn in The Fellowship.

And last but not least, the rabbit-sleigh was embarrassing. I can’t help but be reminded of one of the most infamous exchanges in modern cinema, pertaining to the airspeed velocity of unladen swallows and the question of weight ratios.

Back to the good stuff. Martin Freeman as Bilbo was delightful — stodgy or comical as required, and definitely the character to whom the audience could most easily relate. His scenes with Andy Serkis approached perfection — high praise given that they’re arguably the most significant few moments in the entire story. He and Serkis provide a charming relief from the main storyline, which by this point has become a (mostly fun, but somewhat long) string of action sequences. Really the highest praise I can offer is this: at some point during the riddle game I realized I was leaning forward in my seat, hands gripping the chair, grinning ear to ear. Any movie that can make a grown-up feel like a little kid again is a good movie, and I’m quite sure Tolkien would agree.

And as long as I’m gushing over Bilbo and Gollum… there is a moment in The Fellowship of the Ring film in which Gandalf shares a very important bit of his legendary foresight:

One of the most disappointing scenes in The Return of the King is Peter Jackson’s handling of the destruction of the Ring. When Frodo goes back for Round 2 of struggling with Gollum over the “Precious,” eventually knocking himself and Gollum over the edge, he robs the scene of its most significant moment: in the novel, Gollum unintentionally steps too far and topples into the Crack of Doom. This is the Fate with a capital-F of which Gandalf spoke — the fleeting but sincere Pity Bilbo feels for Gollum leads to the salvation of Middle-earth over 60 years later.

Thankfully, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey captures that moment between Bilbo and Gollum perfectly. No dialogue, minimal soundtrack — just a few close-ups of some really beautiful, nuanced acting from Freeman and Serkis.

I could still go on for a while yet. The action scenes were a bit tiring at times, but they were fun nonetheless. PJ has done a lovely job balancing some of Tolkien’s more complex, adult themes with the child-like wonder we should always find in Middle-earth. I expected to hate the Great Goblin no matter how they interpreted him, but he was an even blend of the novel’s most common flavors: whimsical, wicked, and just a bit scary. I do miss the real people in real costumes as opposed to an entire race of digital lemmings, but it does tone down the fright-factor on the orcs and goblins, which seems fair for a story intended for children anyway.

Bottom line: I had a lot of fun watching this movie, even if I was having to shush my inner Tolkien-fanatic from time to time, and I cannot wait for The Desolation of Smaug (12/13/13) and There and Back Again (7/18/14). Everything that happens in Mirkwood should be a blast to see on the big screen, and if I know PJ, there will most likely be a big ol’ showdown between the White Council and the Necromancer, too. He might muck it up — but then again he might blow us away, too.

There Will Be (Ridiculous Quantities of) Blood — Daybreakers

Gary Oldman as Dracula in Francis Ford Coppola’s rendition.

Around the turn of the last century, Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula was hard at work turning the vampire into a staple of horror fiction. The not-so-fictional count of Transylvania was cunning, vicious, bestial, and of Slavic origin — all things that terrified and titillated the delicate sensibilities of Victorian England. Further, there’s an element of sexuality in Dracula’s interactions with Lucy and Mina (and the Count’s wives’ with Jonathan Harker) that serves as a thin veneer for some very predatory, very BDSM urges. This seems largely what Francis Ford Coppola was trying to tell us with his 1992 rendition of the original tale, which strips that veneer away to reveal a bunch of bloodsuckers who copulate whenever (and with whomever) possible.

So vampires, and specifically vampire films, are definitely about sucking of one kind or another. But they’re also definitely about blood. Lots and lots of blood. Consider, for example, the old Hammer Dracula flicks (featuring the eternally villainous Christopher Lee), in which even the slightest laceration often spurted red fountains of epic proportions. The only exception, of course, was when Dracula was biting somebody — can’t have blood spraying everywhere and staining his perfectly starched collar. In any case, motion picture tradition clearly tells us vampires are supposed to be wicked, animalistic, and horny as hell, and the hemoglobin needs to be positively dripping from the ceilings wherever they may roam.

The legendary Christopher Lee.

Well, with three of those four criteria, Daybreakers squarely punctures the jugular (that’s the first and last pithy vampire pun, I promise; more on the lacking fourth criterion later). Michael and Peter Spierig waste no time showing us they can blow up heads and coat the walls with velocities and quantities that would turn Zack Snyder red with envy. Perhaps the best scene in the film features all three of four, in which the protagonist Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke) and his brother Frankie (Michael Dorman) are at home when a burglar calls. But this prowler is looking for blood, not bling. He’s a “subsider,” this flick’s name for vampires who haven’t been drinking lately and have become hideous, bestial man-bat creatures who’ll gladly drink even another vampire’s blood for nourishment, which only worsens their condition. The scene is quite intense and quite gory, possibly the only occasion in the movie when the graphic violence feels justified. The subsider is truly disturbing, being only one of two such movie monsters in recent memory (the other being the Pale Man from Pan’s Labyrinth).

But alas, that scene is rather early in the film’s 1:38 running time, and it can’t carry the whole burden by itself. The premise of vampires as growing majority rather than hunted minority is unique, but it doesn’t get developed much beyond that (except to hear lots of reporters and pasty-faced citizens say: “We’re running out of blood! Panic in the streets!!”). The characters are painfully two-dimensional, even with considerable talents Willem Dafoe and Sam Neill on the job. Even Ethan Hawke, who has always impressed me, seems more weary of his lines than depressed at being unable to save vamp-humanity from starvation. The film is also mostly devoid of the barely-concealed sexual overtones mentioned earlier, which I think are usually the more thought-provoking elements of vampires flicks. There’s one scene that sort of skews in that direction, but it plays out more as a brief, bizarre arranged marriage (“It’s for your own good, dear”) than anything else.

When the credits roll, we’re drowning in blood and gasping for some breath of reason behind all the bodily explosions — some thoughtful themes must surely be lurking somewhere in this shiny, gothic near-future. But the concept is wasted and the fleeting attempts at social commentary vanish as quickly as the vampires when exposed to direct sunlight. If only there had been a more complex relationship between vampires and humans (beyond predator-and-prey), we might have perceived at least some kind of elementary metaphor for exploitation of minorities by a privileged class or something. If you’re looking for a recent sci-fi that lives up to the loftier aspirations of its genre, find yourself a copy of District 9, Avatar, or  Watchmen. Daybreakers turns out to be nothing more than a worthy successor to those old Hammer Dracula flicks — gallons of blood and not much meat.

2 stars of 5.