Film

Beautiful Lies and False Gods in 'Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice'

Ben Affleck as Batman and Henry Cavill as Superman in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) (Photo by Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture - © 2015 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., Ratpac-Dune Entertainment LLC and Ratpac Entertainment, LLC / IMDB)

Zack Snyder's Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice interrogates two primal drives in American culture through the top characters of the DC pantheon: fear and its trauma (Batman) and naked power and its ambiguities (Superman).

The reaction to Zack Snyder's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) was fierce. The cinematic take on the DC cornerstone characters of Batman and Superman limped to a 28% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, where it's accused of "smother[ing] a potentially powerful story -- and some of America's most iconic super heroes in a grim whirlwind of effects driven action."

Critics were put off by the film's darkness and the moral ambiguity of the heroic characters. This Batman doesn't seem to agonize over the "no killing" rule like Nolan's Dark Knight does in facing the Joker. In saving Metropolis and quite possibly the world in his battle with Zod, Superman is responsible for collateral damage entailing massive loss of life. One reviewer, flatly accuses Snyder of "holding nothing but contempt for the character (of Superman)." The Saturday morning adventures of the Super Friends, it's not.

Superman is the embodiment of pure American force and power that American culture worships. While he has been read through the messianic story of Christianity's lone savior sacrificed for the world, so too has Christianity in American been re-read through the lens of a super hero

However, Dawn of Justice is found wanting because it's been judged in categories of which I don't think the director had any intention of hewing. This is not a tale of clearly demarcated good vs. evil. It would appear that this movie is best viewed in the wake of his 2009 film adaptation of Alan Moore's Watchmen. Snyder's comments about that film and graphic novel in an Entertainment Weekly interview may hold an interpretive key to Batman v Superman.

While he was speaking then of the deconstruction of superhero in Watchmen, the insight is applicable to reading Batman v Superman. "The movie is a challenge -- sort of like the book is a challenge -- to your icons, your morality, how you perceive pop culture, how you perceive mythology, and for that matter, how you perceive God." In Batman v Superman we are issued a challenge: What would it mean to think of our beloved superheroes (who are, after all, projections of the stories we like to tell about ourselves) as "beautiful lies" and "false gods"?

Little Blue Robot by vinsky2002 (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

At the opening of Batman v Superman , we are brought once again into the childhood trauma that marks the origin of Batman. Fans of Batman know what's going to happen. We know that it's a necessary part of the story. So we watch helplessly as Thomas and Martha Wayne are sacrificed again in a retelling of their senseless murder so that, narratively, the hero Batman can rise from the ashes of this primal wound and bring justice to Gotham. Ben Affleck's voice-over narrative to these events points to their mythic significance, "There was a time above. A time before. There were perfect things, diamond absolutes. But things fall, things on earth. And what falls, is fallen."

Right away we are told that this is not just the Wayne's story. This is America's story. A story where the idyllic is an act of imagination and never a perpetual state. Affleck's ruminations on falling accompany the vision of a young, traumatized Bruce Wayne running aimlessly from his parent's funeral through the fields until he falls headlong into an underground cave. Batman fans know that this is the bat cave and that the winged creatures young Bruce will inevitably encounter mark the beginning of his transformation into the Dark Knight. It's a fall that is a new beginning, a story of origins. Like the biblical character of Jacob and his nighttime struggle with an anonymous stranger, young Bruce emerges from these events both wounded and with a new identity.

Snyder's flourish to this familiar tale has young Bruce Wayne at the bottom of this cave surrounded by hundreds of bats whirling around him, creating a vortex that lifts him up out of the dark hole towards the sunny meadow. The voice-over frames the scene and the movie by hinting that this origin is perhaps less of a straightforward statement about "diamond absolutes" and more of a necessary questioning of identity of the hero and what he might represent. "In the dream," Affleck comments on this lifting of the protagonist from traumatic darkness to new identity. "they took me to the light… a beautiful lie."

Snyder's Batman and Superman each embody a manifestation of American self-consciousness in the 21st century. In Batman we see our obsession with fear; an overconfidence in the power of striking fear as a deterrent along with the persistent fear of the threat of the other. In this film as well as in the comics, Batman's "cautiousness" borders on paranoid fear as he keeps a contingency plan on Superman and the other members of the Justice League because trust in the goodness of others is a sucker bet.

Snyder's Superman raises the questions of the morality of our worship of unfettered power. Superman's cultural mythos has always coincided with the belief that such raw power exercised in the pursuit of justice is good. Batman v Superman asks us to consider the Man of Steel as a "weapon of mass destruction" whose intervention, even if benevolent in its intentions, creates destructive after effects.

While critics and fans hashed out whether the plot was overly ambitious or whether Snyder assumed too much familiarity among his viewers with the deep structures of the DC canon, an argument can be made that the film functions effectively as contemporary myth inviting us to wrestle with the issues of the exercise of power, the nature of humanity, and our proper place in the cosmos. If myth can be understood as "an imaginative narrative that gives [a community] inspiration" and that "novels and films present us with mythic stories about ourselves", then this film is an invitation to examine ourselves and imagine ourselves differently.

Mythology, as Luc Parry claims, is "a response to our questions, as mortals, concerning the good life." Thus it's worth exploring the mythic elements in Snyder's re-telling of the Batman and Superman story for modern audiences. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice utilizes the cultural ubiquitousness of Greek mythology, the Christian narrative mythos, and these understandings of myth as imaginative narratives about ourselves to draw viewers into a sustained critique of American power and hubris in a postmodern world.

The influence of myth connects with our imagination in provocative ways. That has certainly been the case for me. The small, Southern Baptist elementary school I attended in the '70s housed a modest library in a converted room. This room was, as the cliché goes, truly a window into worlds beyond the classroom and, no doubt unintentionally, beyond the religious worldview of evangelical Christianity in the Southeastern United States.

The only book I can remember checking out, repeatedly, was D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths. Here I discovered the pantheon of gods with their fantastical powers and epic clashes played out beyond the realm of human experience. Ensconced in the spiritual womb of the Bible Belt, mythology had been firmly linked in common understanding with fiction. Given such an orientation then, I imagine it was considered "safe" to have such a book available in an evangelical enclave.

At the same time, I was drawn into the world of superheroes by the magic of television. Immune to the ironic camp of Adam West's Batman from the '60s, I was captivated by the "caped crusader" (West's Batman lived in a world too DayGlo to be anything remotely resembling today's Dark Knight) and his exploits were fueled more by duty than the original trauma that is central to current renderings of the Batman mythos.

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Likewise, Superman was an unflappable embodiment of Truth, Justice, and the American Way (which I uncritically assumed were all synonyms) mediated by the barrel chested actor George Reeves in black and white, a mirror of his moral world. Christopher Reeve emerged as the definitive embodiment for my generation of the man of steel in Richard Donner's 1978 Superman, giving color to the portrait and capturing the ache of Superman's fundamental displacement as in, but not of, planet Earth.

With time and age, I came to understand mythology as a form of cultural storytelling that allows us to wrestle with the big questions of life through the heroic journeys of others, be they divine beings or costumed characters with secret identities. In her 1944 article in the Journal of Educational Psychology entitled, "The Comics as Social Force", Sidonie Gruenberg claims that popular comics are reflections of "…what millions are thinking about, what they want, what they fear, and how they feel about matters of social significance." In engaging these stories, we learn something about ourselves and our communities in the particularities of our historical context.

Superman's debut in 1938 spoke to the nation's fears in the post-depression period about the rapid changes wrought by scientific advancement and technology. As prolific comics writer, Grant Morrison describes in his 2011 psychological and philosophical history of comics, Supergods, the early blue and red clad strongman is an embodiment of the hope of individual agency under threat from rapid technological progress. It's probably no accident that many early villains (including Lex Luthor) are mad scientists whose technological manipulations are threats to the common man's autonomy and place in the world. Superman's adventures express the hope in the resilience of the average American in taming a rapidly changing world.

While Superman expresses hope for the future, Batman reveals to us the ambivalence of our fears in a chaotic world where darkness is present within our human psyches and our neighborhoods. This has always been a core feature of the Batman narrative but, as the 20th century gave way to the 21st, Americans view of the future has grown ambivalent. The Batman comics have given expression to the cultural anxiety that things are "falling apart" that we see expressed within much of the current political campaigning.

An example would be the Cataclysm and No Man's Land story arcs from the late '90s where a 7.5 magnitude earthquake decimates Gotham City and leaves it cut off and abandoned by the rest of the country. This survivalist arc is an invitation to consider the cultural anxieties at the end of the 20th century. We engage these stories of superbeings and suprahumans as ways of wrestling with our realities and their attendant anxieties. In so doing we are drawn to consider that the pursuit of truth takes us beyond a simple binary of fact or fiction, as presented to a child such as myself.

I carried all this as background into the theater, cautiously optimistic about Zack Snyder's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. While ostensibly a comic book film, it lacks the sheer fun of mindless escapism that one saw in the depiction of DC's cornerstone heroes in the late '50s where, in the wake of Frederic Wertham's critique of comics as damaging to children, Batman and Superman gained “families" including cape and cowl clad pets, engaged in light hearted adventures on other planets, and dealt with the irritation of impish intra-dimensional beings by "pranking" them. Such escapism continues in campy film iterations like 1983's Superman III with Richard Pryor or 1997's Batman and Robin that nearly killed the Batman cinematic franchise.

Instead, Snyder's Batman v Superman is comics as modern mythology in that entertainment seems secondary to crafting a story that engages questions of the human condition, good and evil, and the exercise of power within the clash of heroes with superhuman abilities. From the very opening the particularity of this story is framed in a story of origins, not the origins of the particular characters, but of the loss of “diamond absolutes", a fall, and the longing for return that marks a tragic vision of human reality. Superman and Batman within Snyder's story are ciphers through which we are invited to wrestle with ourselves, our desires, our gods and idols in order to discern a path forward in our world.

The messianic mythology of Christianity is certainly woven into the film, having been established in Snyder's earlier Superman story, 2013's Man of Steel. The story of Superman lends itself easily to comparisons with readings of the Christian messianic story with its tale of a god-like man who walks among us. In Man of Steel, Snyder seems to self-consciously invoke this comparison. The movie evokes the messianic thrust of the Christian religion while reading it through the mode of superhero.

While struggling with the decision of confronting Zod, Clark visits a small church in Smallville. As he talks with the priest in the empty sanctuary about his struggle with the decision ahead of him, the camera moves in for a close up where Clark's anxiety-worn face is framed by a stained glass window depicting Christ in the garden of Gethsamane. Clark's moments of doubt are narratively inscribed within the story of Christian messianic narrative.

Coming to Terms With America's Postmodern Ambivalence

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Similarly, in Batman v Superman such heavy-handed imagery is repeated. Rushing to Mexico to rescue a young girl trapped in a burning building, Superman descends from the sky, bringing her to safety where he is surrounded by a throng in Day of the Dead makeup lifting their hands towards him in an act of adoration. As a scene, it's hardly subtle and seeks to underscore the connection between the character and notions of divine power as interventionist rescue.

In fact, theology emerges throughout the film. CNN panels discussing the role of Superman refer to our desire for messianic figures who, nonetheless, remain under our control. Lex Luthor explicitly raises the classic dilemma of theodicy: Can an all powerful being be considered all good? The inability to reconcile these two fuels the quests of both Luthor and Batman to stop Superman.

Superman is our unquestioning faith in the goodness of America's exercise of raw power with little awareness of the collateral damage. Batman embodies the perversion of justice into a brutish force that deems any means necessary if we decide the threat warrants the suspension of the rules.

Given these heavy theological overtones, it may have been no accident, as my son pointed out to me at the theater, that a film involving the death of Superman opened on Good Friday. On that note, in what would seem to be an ironic twist or a flat out marketing snafu, the latest cinematic expression of American evangelical Christianity's persecution complex, Harold Cronk's God's Not Dead 2, opened on April Fools Day; an unintentional hint as to which of these two movie more honestly wrestled with questions of theological ambiguity. In a sense both of these films are expressions of certain forms of uneasiness in American culture.

God's Not Dead 2 is a reaction to the perceived cultural marginalization of predominately white, mostly southern, evangelical Christians in American life, a marginalization which is received as an accusation of God's impotence. Rather than such insecurity being met by a quiet, but firm, trust, it gives birth to fevered defenses of superiority ironically dependent on human efforts to affirm the divine.

Films in the mode of the God's Not Dead franchise ignore grappling with the reflection and re-imagination provoked by such cultural shifts. Instead, they align the legitimacy of their perception of the divine with the triumph of a particular subset of the world's population. And, given the explicit religious overtones in American patriotism, it's a small step to collapsing expressions of American power into theological mandates.

The PureFlix films like God's Not Dead 2 are utterly unconcerned about interrogating this connection. Instead, their role is to affirm it. In contrast, this worship of unfettered power in the hands of a subset of the world's population is precisely what seems to be interrogated in Batman v Superman, making it theologically the more serious and important film.

Dawn of Justice interrogates two of the primal drives in American culture through the top characters of the DC pantheon: fear and its trauma (Batman) and naked power and its ambiguities (Superman). One can close one's eyes and imagine that it's Dick Cheney rather than Bruce Wayne explaining to Alfred that if there's even a one-percent chance that Superman could turn against the rest of us, he must be treated as an enemy and taken out.

While his role in Detective Comics might focus on his heightened rationality, the Dark Knight of Snyder's film prefers the realpolitik of torture and surveillance. Superman is a red and blue clad weapon of mass destruction. He's the embodiment of pure American force and power that American culture worships. While he has been read through the messianic story of Christianity's lone savior sacrificed for the world, so too has Christianity in American been re-read through the lens of a super hero. There's little patience for the suffering servant in the shadow of the conquering hero.

In America, this power is seen as an unqualified good only within the caveat that it's wielded by and on behalf of America. This myth is maintained by ignorance of any after effects of such exercise. In their song "Waiting for a Superman", the Flaming Lips ask with intentional irony, "Is it overwhelming to use a crane to crush a fly?" Such questions are suppressed as the exercise of raw power needs ignorance for its continued practice. However, as the warlord (or, as he might self-identify outside Western hegemony, freedom fighter) tells Lois Lane, "Ignorance is not the same thing as innocence." In this way, Batman v Superman directly confronts the mythology of American exceptionalism and its presumptions of innocence and benevolent power.

Snyder's vision of these DC characters comes in the wake of this faithful 2009 rendering of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' epic deconstruction of the superhero in Watchmen. That work interrogated "Truth, Justice, and the American Way" as it is yoked to Superman and, by extension, to the rest of the leotard clad pantheon. Watchmen ripped off the mask to expose the underside of its "heroic" myths. In Watchmen the Comedian is basically a stand in for American covert ops, working outside of the Geneva convention or democratic oversight and intervening with impunity and ruthlessness. The book's only superhuman, Dr. Manhattan, raises the issue of the unquestioned raw power of nuclear weapons and, not accidentally, is the character most detached from humanity.

Similarly, in Snyder's latest film, Lois Lane confesses to Clark/Superman that she has doubts as to whether he can be himself (as pure power) and love her. Where Watchmen wrestled with philosophical questions raised by human progress and hubris, Batman v Superman expands that exploration by weighing the theological freight inherent in American cultural mythology.

Batman v Superman is not a Christian film, of course, but it does employ the narrative mythos of the Christian story as well as the cultural memory of Greek mythology and American civil religion to lead us into an examination of whether Americans' blind worship of its power does not breed the fear that constantly justifies its use, as well as the indifference to its effects. Just as Snyder describs Watchmen as a challenge to our icons, morality and our theology, so too, Batman v Superman is a continuation of that challenge. When the Wayne Financial security guard who lost his legs in the collateral damage of Superman's battle with Zod hoists himself onto the bronze statue of the Man of Steel and tags the monument with the spray painted indictment, "False God", Snyder's film has thrown down the gauntlet.

In the Metropolis alien, Batman recognizes the existential threat of Superman's apocalyptic powers and, similar to the knight in Bergman's Seventh Seal, seeks to give his life meaning with one final significant act. This act is not simply the elimination of a threat. It's arguably a deicide, for Superman is not only god-like, he's also a totem for our worship of the myth of benevolent power.

There's a scene during the semi-climatic battle between the two titans in which Superman, weakened and pummeled by an armor clad Batman and his kryptonite tipped "Excalibur" finds himself laying, cruciform, on a stack of wood. Arms outstretched horizontally, ankles crossed or touching, and his cape regally flowing up from his seemingly lifeless body, emerging from his broad shoulders and crowning his head. As the camera pans back, the scene evokes the atmosphere of a Catholic cathedral.

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Like a religious icon, the man of steel's body is surrounded by Roman columns and illuminated in bluish light from a massive window that could have been at home at either Grand Central Station or St. Patrick's. With a cable wrapped around Superman's ankles, the Dark Knight yanks him from his iconic position and swings him, hammer-like, bludgeoning the quasi-religious artifice that had just a moment ago framed the red and blue clad warrior in worshipful repose.

The scene is not a random outlier in an otherwise straight-up comic book story. It's a metaphor for the death of a certain form of hero worship.

While there are obvious issues with the film (its plot is bloated, it assumes depth knowledge of the "canon", and it tries to tell a story while setting up a franchise), much of the negativity misses its importance. Snyder asks us to gaze at what we value and the objects we worship. American civil religion is a potent amalgam of the Christian narrative structure, a belief in the benevolence of America's colonialist tendencies and unreflective worship of American power.

Superman is our unquestioning faith in the goodness of America's exercise of raw power with little awareness of the collateral damage. Batman embodies the perversion of justice into a brutish force that deems any means necessary if we decide the threat warrants the suspension of the rules.

Ironically, it is Lex Luthor who declares himself a philanthropist, a lover of humanity. Is it love for the whole that drives his orchestration of this clash of titans? None of us is ever motivated by unmixed motives as his hatred of Superman reveals, not a critique of power, but a reaction to a threat to access to power.

If there is hope, it perhaps lies in the words of Holly Hunter's Sen. Finch, "In a democracy, good is a conversation, not a unilateral decision." The mythology of Batman v Superman draws us into this conversation precisely by helping us see the wreckage we have wrought and our idolatry of power.

Is it too late for us? Or, as the Flash muses when he appears vision -like to deliver a warning to Bruce Wayne about Superman, have the messenger and the message come too soon, much like Nietzsche's raving fictional prophet Zarathustra in declaring the "death of God"? Are we not ready to bear the loss of our innocence and the unveiling of our ignorance?

By recognizing the theological weight of these cultural issues, Snyder's film is the more important cinematic effort of coming to terms with American postmodern ambivalence than its lighter and more entertaining Marvel counterpart, Captain America: Civil War. Both deal with ambiguities of raw American power, but Marvel's iteration lacks the awareness of the quasi-religious weight these issues carry in America culture. It would be a potential loss if poor reviews and market forces result in the removal of Snyder from unfolding this vision (and hopefully sharpening it) in subsequent films.

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The film closes with concurrent funerals, one for Clark Kent and one for Superman. In the background of Kent's casket being laid to rest, Bruce Wayne muses on what must die. Raw power is being mourned in a “circus" in DC over an “empty box". His Amazon compatriot replies that we (America) don't know any other way to honor him but as a soldier, deified a hero solely by virtue of symbolic proximity to raw force. Soldier and hero are collapsed together in public consciousness. Ironically, this honor comes at the cost of considering him human, potentially courageous or callous.

Back in Smallville, the handful of dirt scattered on the pine coffin begins to levitate. We know there will be a return, a resurrection of sorts. But the conversation Snyder invokes revolves around the questions of what, precisely has died, and what will re-emerge to live.

Perhaps it's past time for America to grieve the death wrought by the messianic belief in unchecked power. Perhaps then America's dominant religion can let go of its need to transform its founder into a superhero.

Works Cited

D'Aulaires, Ingri and Edgar Parin. D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths. Penguin Random House. March 1992 (reprint).

Faraci, Devin. "Superman and the Damage Done". BirthMoviesDeath.com. 30 March 2016.

Ferry, Luc. The Wisdom of the Myths: How Greek Mythology Can Change Your Life. Harper Perennial. 2014.

Gruenberg, Sidonie. "The Comics as Social Force". Journal of Educational Psychology. Georgia State University. 2007.

Jensen, Jeff. "'Watchmen': A chat with director Zack Snyder". EntertainmentWeekly.com. 17 July 2008.

Morrison, Grant. Supergods. Random House. 2012.

Rotten Tomatoes. "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice".

(uncredited) "Get literate in myth, religion and theology". TheConversation.com. 19 March 2016.

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Editor's note: This article was originally published 14 July 2016.


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