Fans of the DC universe of comic books have learned to deal with a lot of disappointment in recent years.

Whatever Zack Snyder stans will tell you about how the forthcoming "Snyder Cut" of 2017's Justice League will redeem everything, the reality is that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has broken through into mainstream success and become synonymous with "comic book movies," while the DC Extended Universe has mostly yielded a series of embarrassments.

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Culture News

See Celebrities Beat the Crap out of Each Other in "Boss B**** Fight Challenge"

Actors and their stunt doubles coordinated to make some next level social-distancing action

One of the things that has kept quarantine from being completely dull has been watching different media figures adapt to the new restrictions.

SNL has had fun with minimal at-home wardrobe and makeup and green screen silliness. Talk show hosts are making video calls work for interviews and sketches, and abundant free time has made it possible to organize massive, virtual cast reunions from various beloved TV shows and movies. But no other group has had quite as much fun with the challenge of social distancing content as the star-studded cast of Zoë Bell's elaborate new fight scene, "Boss B**** Fight Challenge."

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"I'm crazy, b*tch," screams Jucee Froot on "Danger," the ninth song on the Birds of Prey soundtrack. "But I'm that b*tch."

That could be the central mantra of Birds of Prey's companion album, which features fifteen sparkling, saccharine, vicious pop songs from some of pop's brightest anti-popstars. These songs are aggressive, feminine, sugary, vicious, and off the rails, just like the movie promises to be.

The film—full title Birds of Prey: The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn—debuted this Friday night. It tells the story of Harley Quinn, finally freed from her abusive relationship with the Joker, as she heals from the breakup and develops her own super-villain identity.

Harley Quinn's cinematic emancipation has received mixed reviews. "Birds of Prey is happy to play at provocation with swear words and violence while carefully declining to provoke anything like a thought," writes A. O. Scott in The New York Times. Anthony Lane called the film "unholy and sadistic mess" in The New Yorker.

For others, the film's fizzy brutality is exactly the point, and many argued that the film provides a welcome change from both the self-serious superhero machismo that tanked Suicide Squad and the idealized kind of femininity that defines Hollywood's movement towards corporate feminism. "In a world gone mad, the catharsis of Prey's twisted sisterhood doesn't just read as pandemonium for its own sake; it's actually pretty damn sweet," writes Leah Greenblatt for Entertainment Weekly. "Theirs is a contemporary verve that offers a glimpse of something heartening: a future in which all kinds of people get to tell these stories, and we're all the better off for it," writes Richard Lawson for Variety.

As the reviews roll in, certainly more debates will ensue. But if Birds of Prey companion soundtrack is any indication, the movie will inspire a whole host of women to take their power back by any means necessary—most likely while wearing glitter.

The all-female soundtrack is brutally empowering in every sense. It's the sound of sweetness in a world gone mad, of lady mad hatters sitting around and cutting their losses over egg and bacon sandwiches. It's the sound of women relishing in the tropes of pop music and popular femininity while spinning them on their heads. It's a triumph and a delight in the sweetest, bloodiest of ways.

Highlights include Doja Cat's utterly unhinged "Boss Bitch," which leans into archetypical empowerment and breakup narratives so hard that it shatters and becomes something almost mutated and definitely dangerous. Megan Thee Stallion and Normani do something similar with their aggressive riff on "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend."

Halsey's "Experiment On Me" is probably the most aggressive track on the album; it's also one of the hardest to listen to. It's a yowling, overwhelming tune that layers Halsey's shrill screams over punk-inflected guitar.

Charlotte Lawrence's "Joke's On You" is more palatable and just as powerful, leaning into the darkness and complexity of Harley Quinn's story (and of the idea of female redemption through violence on the whole) while layering sultry vocal lines over a tense beat. "We've had our fun; now your sugar makes me sick," she sings. "My makeup's ruined, and now I'm laughing through my tears." All the world's part-time Harley Quinns are, undoubtedly, feeling seen.

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True to form, the songs are gleeful, dark, celebratory, and free. They're embroiled in the business of shaking up existing power structures; and as the voices grow hoarse and furious, their beats resist pleasantness and neutrality, instead leaning towards hyperactive mania. Perhaps because this is a revenge story, there's a sense of perpetual bittersweetness. Lauren Jauregri's "Invisible Chains" dives deeper into the pain and struggle that accompanies Harley Quinn's liberation from the Joker.

There's also a deeper sense of bittersweetness to the whole project, which celebrates Harley Quinn's story as a clear tale of feminist liberation. When women free themselves from men and take power, only togo ahead and commit evil acts and relish in all of capitalism's and the patriarchy's bitterest signifiers of victory, is that something to celebrate? Are we really looking for female villains who kill others and hoard wealth and don't support others, just like men always have?

Perhaps not, but watching these narratives play out often offers catharsis, providing a fulfilling revenge fantasy for anyone who's ever been in an abusive relationship or who's seen others affected by them. We'll see how the movie ends up, but for now, the soundtrack provides an excuse to celebrate rage and revenge without thinking too hard about what it means.

CULTURE

Who Is this Strange Man Lurking Behind Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston?

His face speaks to the pain and fear of renewed hope.

Emma McIntyre/Getty Images

America cannot help itself when it comes to Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston.

Brad Jen Sag 2 Emma McIntyre/Getty Images

Anytime they're in the same room together, a series of sirens immediately goes off in the offices of various tabloids and celebrity magazines. A familiar race kicks off to publish an updated carbon copy of a thousand previous articles with a handful of new pictures and some wild speculation about the two of them getting back together.

It's been happening since they divorced, 15 years ago, but has obviously accelerated since they both became single—Aniston having divorced Justin Theroux in 2017, while Pitt and Angelina Jolie finalized their prolonged divorce process last summer. We seem to have collectively decided that we all know these celebrities' lives better than they know themselves.

The story goes like this: Brad and Jen should never have broken up. The early 2000s were clearly the happiest time in both their lives, and the whole mess in 2005 was just one big misunderstanding orchestrated by Jolie's evil seduction on the set of Mr. and Mrs. Smith. We want them to need each other, and we need them to want to get back together. How we pieced together the entirety of their private lives through telephoto lenses and third-hand rumors remains a mystery, but we've done it, and we know what's best for them. We just know.

Brad and Jen Sag Emma McIntyre/Getty Images

That's what makes the strange man lurking in the background of their latest interaction so upsetting. It's unclear what his role at the SAG Awards was—a member of security? Event staff? Brad and Jen were nominated for their performances in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and The Morning Showthey both won—but what is this tall, broad shouldered stranger doing there? He seems designed to project strength, but he just can't. Not with the scene that's unfolding before him—with Jen's hand pressing against Brad's chest, Brad holding her wrist as if to make that touch linger a little longer. The strange man lurking in the background is allowing his pain to show through his façade of strength. He is wounded. Wringing his hands. He's been burned by this hope before—allowed himself to feel a glimmer of love again through the imagined restoration of this lost, perfect couple.

And now Brad has quit drinking and settled the custody dispute with Jolie. We can't help but wonder if he is finally mature enough to be stable and strong for Jen—who is two years out from her second marriage and looked as amazing as ever in a sheer, silvery-white dress. And there in the background, those pleading eyes are staring at Brad Pitt, begging him not to hurt us again. Don't hold onto her hand like that if you don't mean it. Don't look into her shining eyes with that charming smile if you aren't ready to commit to an entire country full of desperate shippers.

I don't know who the large, sad man in these pictures is, but I don't need to, because we are all him, and he is us—wanting to believe in love again, but so frightened of being hurt.

sag lurker 2 Emma McIntyre/Getty Images

FILM

Here's Quentin Tarantino's Terrible Defense of His Bruce Lee Portrayal in "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood"

A wordsmith as talented as Tarantino should be able to talk his way out of this one in his sleep, right?

Sony Pictures

Quentin Tarantino's portrayal of Bruce Lee in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was pretty awful.

In a movie where Tarantino showed reverence to every star who even came close to the purview of his late '60s Hollywood playground (including convicted child rapist Roman Polanski), he chose to make Bruce Lee—the only minority character in the whole movie—the butt of a joke. While every other star got the benefit of nostalgia goggles, Tarantino depicted Bruce Lee as an arrogant caricature who needed to be knocked down a peg by bravado-filled stuntman/anti-hero, Cliff Booth.

Tarantino's treatment of Bruce Lee scarred an otherwise fantastic movie, and it's been derided by everyone from fans to Bruce Lee's own daughter, Sharon Lee.

Then, at a press conference in Moscow, someone asked him straight-up about the Bruce Lee controversy and Tarantino got his chance to make things right. One important thing to note is that, as far as potential controversies related to Once Upon a Time in Hollywood go, Tarantino is actually pretty lucky it's this one. For instance, people could be focusing on the fact that his positive portrayal of Polanski doesn't mesh well with the fact that he once defended Polanski by claiming that it was "not rape" because his child victim "wanted to have it." But alas, we're focusing on the fact that he did Bruce Lee dirty. A wordsmith as talented as Tarantino should be able to talk his way out of this one in his sleep, right?

Quentin Tarantino explains why Bruce Lee is so funny in Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood www.youtube.com

First, one of the biggest issues people had with Tarantino's Bruce Lee portrayal was the character's claim that he could "cripple" Muhammad Ali. This was a point that Lee's former student, Dan Inosanto, directly disputed, saying: "Bruce Lee would have never said anything derogatory about Muhammad Ali because he worshiped the ground Muhammad Ali walked on."

Here's Quentin's take: "If people are saying, 'Well he never said he could beat up Muhammad Ali,' well yeah, he did. Not only did he say that, but his wife, Linda Lee, said that in her first biography I ever read. She absolutely said that."

He's doubling down. Oh no.

But hey, maybe he'll properly address the other main grievance––that the first Asian actor to break through as a leading man in Hollywood, a hero to a whole generation of Asian Americans, is used as fodder to show how powerful a random fictional (white) stuntman is. I mean, this one has an easy defense. The scene is Cliff Booth's flashback: He's recalling the story, and Cliff is an arrogant dude. He's probably just aggrandizing himself in his own mind, right Quentin?

"Could Cliff beat up Bruce Lee? Brad [Pitt] would not be able to beat up Bruce Lee, but Cliff maybe could."

Oh god.

"If you ask me the question, 'Who would win in a fight: Bruce Lee or Dracula?' It's the same question. It's a fictional character. If I say Cliff can beat Bruce Lee up, he's a fictional character so he could beat Bruce Lee up."

Okay, so Quentin Tarantino ultimately falls back on the kindergarten defense. "The guy I made up is the strongest so he wins because I said so." Very cool, Quentin!

FILM

Did Cliff Booth Really Kill His Wife in "Once Upon a Time In Hollywood?"

Did Cliff Booth actually kill his wife or was it just a rumor spreading around the Hollywood backlots?

Sony Pictures

Cliff Booth, the ex-stuntman and current gofer played by Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time In Hollywood, is one of the most complex movie characters in recent memory.

Keeping in line with Quentin Tarantino's nostalgia-drenched period piece, Cliff represents a breed of male lead we haven't seen on-screen in over a decade. He's a man's man oozing with machismo, ever-composed. He's affable and good-natured with an edge of arrogance, casually racist but somehow still likeable. And yet, there's something cold and dangerous just beneath the surface, a willingness to engage in violence at a moment's notice without ever breaking a sweat. Cliff doesn't come off like a killer, but one gets the sense that he could easily kill.

Cliff Booth Sony Pictures

Partway through the movie, we find out that Cliff might have gotten away with killing his ex-wife—or at least that's the rumor spreading around the Hollywood backlots. While the truth of this rumor is largely irrelevant to the plot, its thematic import might shed light on some of the more dubious elements of Tarantino's vision.

The details of the supposed murder play out through the following context:

While Cliff's best friend/boss Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) works on a Western, Cliff is stuck at Rick's house working on the roof. A little bummed out, Cliff reminisces about the last time he booked a gig. Flashback to Rick pleading with a stunt coordinator to give Cliff a shot. The coordinator refuses, citing the fact that he doesn't want to work with a guy who killed his wife. Flashback again (yes, a flashback within a flashback):

Cliff is on a boat with his wife holding a harpoon gun. She's nagging him incessantly, insulting everything about him. That's it. We never see what happens next.

cliff booth bruce lee Sony Pictures

The movie leaves it up to debate whether or not this is even Cliff's memory of what actually happened or the stunt coordinator's reflection of the rumor. The truth is obfuscated even further: As the main flashback continues, Cliff proceeds to best a cartoonish Bruce Lee in a fight. This scene in particular is incredibly problematic for a lot of reasons, but even within the bounds of the narrative, it's hard to say whether or not Cliff's memory is a reliable interpretation of events as they really happened.

Both potential readings make sense. If Cliff really did kill his wife, that fits in line with his character. Even though the story of the murder comes off as a bit of a shock when we first hear about it, Cliff proves his capacity for extreme violence again and again throughout the movie—first when he beats the Manson Family guy who popped his tire and again during the movie's ultra-violent finale. If anything, knowing Cliff killed his wife works as a setup for his violence later on in the movie. Then again, if Cliff killed his wife and everyone knows about it, how did he get away with it scot-free?

Alternatively, if Cliff didn't actually kill his wife, the fact that he still lost his ability to continue getting stunt work speaks to the nature of rumors in Hollywood. Cliff is shown time and time again to be a talented stuntman who can parkour jump onto roofs and take blows with ease. But Hollywood is also an industry notoriously subject to the whims of perception. The idea that a talented person might be unable to get work due to a false story seems culturally prescient, albeit problematic.

Cliff Booth Sony Pictures

Ultimately, both interpretations point to questionable morals at the movie's core. If Cliff didn't kill his wife, Once Upon a Time In Hollywood centers around a talented, capable guy whose career was ruined by a lie involving a woman. That's not exactly the best look considering the current landscape of Hollywood, especially when Tarantino arguably covered for Harvey Weinstein in the past and defended Roman Polanski's rape of a minor. Polanski gets a very kind depiction in this movie, too, all things considered.

But if Cliff did kill his wife, Once Upon a Time In Hollywood suggests that maybe, just maybe, that's kind of okay. After all, Cliff's capability for brutal violence ultimately saves his friends and Sharon Tate from the whims of the Manson Family. Every other instance of Cliff's violence is righteous and, at least within the moral framework of the film, "good." So if Cliff killed his wife, she probably deserved it—at least that's what Once Upon a Time In Hollywood seems to say.

In the end, it's impossible to know whether or not Cliff actually killed his wife, so it's probably best to pick the interpretation with the least troubling implications for you. Then again, which is the lesser of two evils?