Henry Cavill is quitting his job.
To be fair, Cavill had not actually done any real work for his nominal employer, Warner Bros., for several years, but there was talk of him returning to work soon. Cavill is an Englishman who gained worldwide fame in 2013 for playing the role of Superman in the Warner Bros. movie Man of Steel. He reprised the role in 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and again in 2017’s Justice League. More recently, he had shot some additional scenes for director Zach Snyder’s expanded re-tooling of JL, and then appeared in an end-credits scene in this year’s Black Adam.
Although Cavill made a great Superman, certainly the best live-action version since the late Christopher Reeve’s four films, we shouldn’t feel too sorry for him. He made a quarter-mil for the Black Adam cameo and another for a similar brief appearance in next summer’s long-delayed The Flash. The word is the Flash cameo will be cut out of the film, so Henry pocketed half a million dollars for essentially two days’ work, only one of which will be used. Cavill also made a million per for 16 episodes of the Netflix series The Witcher, and now has signed on with Amazon to develop movies and series based on the Warhammer 40k video game universe. So, Henry has been doing all right for himself.
Like their counterparts over at Marvel, the WB honchos in charge of the DC characters seem to be unsure of which direction to go. It’s pretty clear that the first generation of heroes–and, in some cases, the actors who played them–in both franchises will return with new bodies filling out the tights, or in some cases won’t be back at all. Over at Marvel, Tony Stark is dead, so Iron Man is likely retired for good, at least the version played so well by Robert Downey Jr. Chris Evans seems to have moved on from Captain America, handing the shield over to his running buddy, the Falcon. Chris Hemsworth’s latest (and probably last) Thor movie, Love and Thunder, bombed at the box office. And at DC, things have been even shakier. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson boasted that he would revitalize DC films with his Black Adam, but its box office probably won’t cover its cost. The Flash has been troubled from the beginning, thanks to the erratic behavior of its star, Ezra Miller. A new Aquaman film is due out next year, but the word is that Jason Momoa will be moving on after that one, and director Patty Jenkins was just told that there will be no Wonder Woman 3 for her to write and direct. (Gal Gadot’s cameo as WW in The Flash is also being axed.) A new Batgirl film was almost set for release, featuring Michael Keaton coming back as Batman for the first time in nearly thirty years, but was axed, with WB eating the entire $90 million cost.
If the WB execs are reading the tea leaves correctly–and that’s always questionable when it comes to Hollywood, being as divorced from reality as it tends to be–then movie audiences are looking for something other than the star-spangled heroes and heroines we have loved for years, if not decades. Characters like Superman, Wonder Woman and Captain America are almost too good to be true, and screenwriters often have trouble coming up with scenarios that would provide them with challenges that would truly stretch their capabilities. Comic book writers, though, have been merrily churning out story after story about then for almost 90 years. Not only are these heroes powerful, they are something else that screenwriters often have trouble with: they are good people.
When heroes can’t be heroic anymore.
There are heroes, and then there are “anti-heroes.” Wikipedia defines them thusly:
An antihero or antiheroine is a main character in a story who may lack conventional heroic qualities and attributes, such as idealism, courage and morality. Although antiheroes may sometimes perform actions that most of the audience considers morally correct, their reasons for doing so may not align with the audience’s morality. An antihero typically exhibits one of the “Dark Triad” personality traits, which include narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism.
I was thinking about this in relation to the news of Cavill’s ouster–or non-return, if you will–as Superman, the ultimate hero. Superman always does the right thing, no matter the circumstances. He will pay any price to save lives and bring criminals to justice. Even when it would be easy for a person with his superhuman abilities to skirt the law and give evildoers what most of us think they deserve, he won’t do it. He has standards, very high standards, and by exemplifying them all the time, he inspires the rest of us to aspire to them, too. That, perhaps, is the best thing a hero can do.
Captain America checks many of the same boxes, even though he’s not as powerful as Superman. Wonder Woman, same thing. But then there are the heroes who are on the edge: Batman and the Punisher come immediately to mind. Batman is not above bending the law to bring criminals to justice; assault and battery are his stock in trade. The Punisher, from the Marvel stable, has killed so many crooks and lowlifes in his pursuit of vengeance that comic readers have long ago lost count. There were dozens just in the two seasons of the Netflix TV series that starred Jon Bernthal.
I’m not sure that Batman qualifies as an anti-hero; he won’t kill anyone, for example, even those who certainly deserve it, like the Joker. The Punisher probably falls into the category, although Bernthal portrayed him with a fair degree of sensitivity in the Netflix series. We could probably all think of situations in which a Batman or even a Punisher would come in handy.
There are a couple of main characters on current TV series who certainly fit the description, and I’ve been paying attention to both of them lately. Both are men, and are played by a pair of Oscar-winning actors.
Yellowstone, where Bonanza meets The Godfather.
When it premiered on the Paramount cable channel in 2018, Yellowstone was an immediate hit. Kevin Costner plays John Dutton, patriarch of a vast cattle ranch in southwestern Montana. Owning a spread larger than the state of Rhode Island gives one a certain amount of influence, and Dutton has not been shy about using it to protect his land from real estate developers, environmentalists, politicians and a Native American leader who has openly stated his desire to take back the land Dutton’s ancestors took from his. Dutton and his family, along with their hired hands, have shown no qualms about bending the rules and even breaking the law if it suits their purposes.
The series is filmed on location in Montana and Utah, and the cinematography is breathtaking. Having lived in western Montana for a few years at the beginning of my radio career, I can certainly relate to the geography, not to mention the hard-working, hard-drinking cowboy culture that the show portrays and even celebrates.
I wasn’t impressed with the series when it arrived. I tried a couple episodes and found very little to like about the main characters. I can deal with people who have problems–everybody has them, and we generally expect our fictional characters to have them, too, at least to a certain extent–but it seemed that the Duttons, and their opponents, had very few redeeming qualities. But then last year I watched the prequel series 1883, starring Tim McGraw and Faith Hill as John Dutton’s great-grandparents, who founded the ranch at the end of an epic, and ultimately tragic, wagon train journey from Texas. I’ve always been a fan of Westerns and this was a very good one. Casting Sam Elliott as the grizzled leader of the wagon train clinched the deal. Even at 78, Elliott can still command the screen with his personality, aided by his still-awesome mustache.
So this fall, when Yellowstone’s fifth season debuted, I decided to give it another try. Paramount always runs a marathon of the show at the start of a new season, so I set the DVR to record every episode. The other day I finished the first season, and I have to say that I’m starting to like it. The beautiful scenery doesn’t hurt, and I lust after Dutton’s log home, which is the real-life main lodge at Chief Joseph Ranch near Darby, about 65 miles south of Missoula, where I lived from 1979-82. I broadcast a high school football game at Darby in the fall of 1981, never dreaming that just a few miles away was the log home that would enchant me on TV some 41 years later.
(Spoiler alert!) Dutton obviously feels strongly about the land, so much so that he’s willing to use his rifle to chase a busload of Chinese tourists away when they foolishly enter one of Dutton’s pastures in which a grizzly bear is foraging for food. And that’s one of the milder examples of his tactics. When his oldest son and ranch manager, Lee, is killed in a gun battle with Natives who have lured Dutton cattle onto their Broken Rock reservation, John moves to cover up evidence that would implicate his youngest son, Kayce, in the execution of the tribesman who killed Lee. John protects Kayce by secretly exhuming Lee’s body and having it cremated. Dutton’s political influence is considerable; he’s romantically involved with Montana’s female governor, although the extent of their affection for each other isn’t very apparent. He’s not above ordering his ranch foreman to beat and even murder hired hands who don’t follow the rules. He exerts some sort of influence over a priest, forcing him to convince a parishioner to forget what he saw one night on the ranch.
There’s even less to like about Beth (played by Kelly Reilly), Dutton’s only daughter, a single woman of 34 who is still emotionally scarred by the death of her mother in a horse riding accident when Beth was 13. The mother had been tough on her daughter, even to the point of accusing her, with her last words, of causing the accident. Beth has become a ruthlessly effective banker, specializing in mergers and acquisitions. Based in Salt Lake City at the start of the show, Beth comes home to the ranch at her father’s request to help deal with the turmoil surrounding Lee’s death and the burgeoning conflicts with the Broken Rock tribe and a California businessman who is planning a subdivision adjacent to the ranch. A borderline alcoholic, Beth isn’t above using her female charms, shall we say, in advancing her own interests. There’s some history between her and Dutton’s ranch foreman, Rip, which is evident when she seduces him in one of the early episodes.
Middle son Jamie (Wes Bentley), an attorney who handles the ranch’s legal work, is actually an adoptive child. We don’t know much yet about his history with the family, other than the fact that his sister despises him, constantly questioning his manhood and belittling his skill as an attorney, which is in fact considerable. Jamie has political ambitions, and at the end of Season 1 he begins a campaign for state attorney general, a move his father opposes to the point of actually selecting a candidate to run against him.
Kayce (Luke Grimes), the youngest child, defied his father as an 18-year-old by refusing to take his newly-pregnant Native girlfriend to the clinic and have their child aborted. Instead, he and Monica (Kelsey Asbille) kept the baby, married and moved into a small home on the reservation. She’s a teacher at the rez high school and Kayce earns a few bucks by training horses. He served a stint in the Navy as a SEAL, earning several commendations for valor in combat, and at one point considers re-enlisting to better support his family. Instead, he defies his wife by accepting his father’s offer to return to the ranch and take Lee’s place. The couple separates, with Monica taking a position as a history professor at Montana State U. in Bozeman, determined to make sure her students understand that the European colonization of the Americas was a campaign of genocide against her people.
Rip Wheeler (Cole Hauser) is another central character, taken in as a teenager by Dutton after he clubbed his abusive father to death and ran away. Rip has worked on the Yellowstone for some 20 years by the time of Season 1, has an on-again, off-again sexual relationship with Beth that he’d like to have grow into a real romance, and is quick to use his fists to keep the ranch’s cowboys in line. He also has a large hand in Dutton’s occasional dirty work, particularly in helping to destroy evidence linked to Lee’s death.
Toward the end of the first season, John Dutton is starting to see things differently. He’s had a bout with colon cancer, which he kept secret from his family. He dotes on his grandson, all the while knowing that at one time he wanted Kayce to make sure the boy would never be born. The constant battles are beginning to wear him down, and with Lee gone, he’s worried about what will happen to the ranch when he’s dead. Beth has already made it clear she’ll sell her share of the ranch to the developers, and while John doesn’t like her attitude, he does like the fact that Beth is willing to bring her cutthroat business instincts into play in defense of the ranch. As for Jamie, John doesn’t think his adopted son is as loyal as he should be. He was disappointed in Kayce for his choice of a wife–although he now treats Monica with respect and courtesy–and his decision to distance himself from the ranch, but after Lee’s death John realizes that Kayce is the only hope he has of ensuring that a Dutton will still be running the Yellowstone well into the 21st century. So it is that by the time of the start of Season 2, we are seeing another side of John Dutton, making us think more about Bonanza’s Ben Cartwright and less about The Godfather’s Vito Corleone.
It’s hard to root for anybody on Yellowstone. John Dutton is imperious and demanding, willing to cross lines or ignore them altogether to protect his land. Beth is manipulative, rude and borderline sleazy–although by season’s end she has quit drinking, probably in response to her father’s order to “man up.” Jamie has the brains to run the ranch but not the stones. And Kayce, perhaps the most likable of the family members, is conflicted about his place, torn between loyalty to his father and devotion to his wife and son, which often come into conflict. In fact, it’s easy to think that the most admirable character in the cast was Lee, and he was killed off in the opening episode.
There’s nothing much to like about Dutton’s adversaries, either. Dan Jenkins (Danny Huston), the developer, tries to kill Dutton in the opening episode by having one of his semi-truck drivers force Dutton’s pickup into a crash. Tom Rainwater (Gil Birmingham), chief of the Broken Rock, is determined to destroy Dutton and claim the ranch for his tribe by whatever means necessary, even to the point of manipulating the two sides into a gun battle that leaves three of his people dead. Governor Lynelle Perry (Wendy Moniz), a widow, is sleeping with Dutton, but we have the feeling that she’s just using him for her own political ends, since having the state’s most powerful private citizen on her side is certainly better than the alternative.
My initial dislike of the series has evolved into a grudging respect for Dutton, and the hope that he’ll now start turning things around, doing things more ethically, perhaps in a last-ditch effort to right his many wrongs. Other questions abound as I enter Season 2. Will Jamie finally grow a pair? Will Beth finally meet her match? Will Kayce be able to reconcile his love for wife and family with his desire to please his father? And how will Dutton fend off the repeated threats from the tribe, the developers, the environmentalists, and everybody else in Montana who seems to want the Yellowstone? As the stories unfold, I’ll at least have the beautiful scenery and the gorgeous lodge to carry me along.
The mob comes to the West.
Taylor Sheridan is the writer-director who created Yellowstone and the prequel series 1883 and its successor, 1923, which premieres this weekend and stars Harrison Ford as Jacob Dutton, the brother of the ranch’s founder. Helen Mirren is Jacob’s wife, Cara, adding even more star power to the series, which promises to generate huge ratings. Sheridan’s been a busy guy in the last few years, creating the Yellowstone world and planning even more series. One of his creations premiered a few weeks ago, and it hooked me and Sue right from the beginning because its star is Sylvester Stallone.
It took someone of Sheridan’s horsepower to lure Stallone into TV, along with a script that gave him a role he’d always wanted: a mobster. Stallone plays Dwight Manfredi, a Mafia capo who has just been released from prison after serving 25 years, taking a murder rap for his boss. Dwight kept his mouth shut for a quarter-century, waiting for the day when he would be released and then rewarded for his loyalty. But when that day comes, he discovers that his mob family, now run by the don’s son, wants him to go to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to set up a branch of the business.
Undoubtedly they think Manfredi will fail out there in the West, probably getting himself killed in the process and thus eliminating their problem, but he doesn’t. Instead, he quickly strongarms his way into the burgeoning medical-marijuana business, assembling a crew that includes a young cab driver who becomes his personal chauffeur, the reluctant owner of the pot store, and an ex-con who runs a cowboy bar.
Stallone’s “swaggering charm,” as one reviewer called it, carries the show. There’s occasional humor as Dwight tries to get up to speed with 21st-century things like smart phones. He begins a tentative relationship with Stacy (Andrea Savage), a fortyish woman who works for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. She meets him at the cowboy bar and spends the night with him before she knows who he really is. When she finds out, she’s appalled (and also, strangely, uncomfortable with the fact that she’s just had sex with a 75-year-old man), but she gradually works her way into a thing with Dwight when she realizes that in spite of his record and his profession, he’s a gentleman and treats her with respect, something she rarely gets from men closer to her own age.
We’re halfway through the first season now, and Dwight’s crew has come into conflict with a motorcycle gang that are the real bad guys of the series. A showdown is coming, and we can’t wait. We’re not the only ones; the show’s imbd.com viewer reviews average 8.4 stars out of 10. (Yellowstone’s average is 8.7.) Tulsa King’s audience is certainly rooting for Dwight. Yes, he’s a career criminal, but as he points out to Stacy, he served his time. He doesn’t claim to be a “legitimate businessman” by any means, but he’s managing to build up his new enterprise with a flair that has to bring grudging admiration from the viewer. He hasn’t killed anybody–yet–nor has he had his crew doing anything that is seriously felonious. The pot store owner, Bodhi (Martin Starr), has been enriching himself by selling recreational marijuana under the table, and Dwight is now showing him how to safeguard his sideline against seizure by the Feds, while taking a healthy cut for his trouble. His young driver, Tyson (Jay Will), is finally finding a mentor who can provide the guidance that he’s rejected from his overbearing father. As for the bartender, Mitch (Garrett Hedlund), we suspect that he’s been bored with that kind of work and has just been waiting for somebody like Dwight to come along and inject some excitement into his life. We’re not quite sure about Stacy, the ATF agent; will she eventually rat out Dwight, or will she use her inside info to help him stay one step ahead of the local law? The cops, by the way, have shown that they’re more than willing to look the other way when it comes to the bikers, so Stacy and her ATF colleagues have even more to worry about as they try to nail the gang for gun-running.
Stallone’s characters have always been heroic in nature, from down-and-out boxer Rocky Balboa to Vietnam vet John Rambo and so many others. We don’t know much about the details of Dwight’s life before his prison term, so we can sort of pretend that whatever he might’ve done, it wasn’t that bad, certainly not like what these motorcycle gangsters are up to. The classic mob families, at least those we’ve seen on the page and the screen, generally earn their money by taking advantage of vices that many people in the law-abiding public can’t seem to give up: gambling, drugs, prostitution, all the way back to Prohibition and its disastrous attempt to eliminate alcoholic beverages from American society. They’re not choirboys, by any means, but they do have their own sense of honor and loyalty, which are traits anyone can admire.
Real-life mobsters might very well be different, not quite as noble, not very honorable at all, at least outside their inner circles, and they’re certainly violent. Dwight Manfredi can be violent when he absolutely has to, as we’ve seen, but he likes to get his way through charm, persuasion and, of course, the implied threat that it would not be wise to refuse his offer to do business together.
Dwight is also dealing with some serious family issues of his own. His wife divorced him when their daughter was young, and he hasn’t talked to his little girl in eighteen years. He finally meets her at his brother’s funeral in Brooklyn midway through the season, and it’s painful for us as we see how much he wants to reconnect with her–and meet his grandsons. Then we gradually understand why she came to resent her father’s profession and cut him out of her life. When Dwight learns what happened to her as a teenager, it’s a stunning moment for the audience, and we know that he is going to have his ultimate revenge against his main rival within the mob family…and we’re rooting for him all the way.
My wife, who is not easily impressed by acting performances–and who’s never been a real fan of Stallone–has remarked that the writers and Stallone should win Emmys for this series. High praise from her, indeed, and I heartily agree. Dwight Manfredi might not necessarily be a real hard-core anti-hero; he’s closer to Batman than to Superman, if you want to use that comparison. But, he’s a man of honor and trying to do the right thing by his employers, to whom he’s given his loyalty for more than fifty years, and he’s also protective of his new employees, who quickly come to admire him, if rather grudgingly in some cases. The rest of the series should be even more fun than the first few episodes have been.
Sheridan’s sharp writing certainly helps the series, as does the location photography in Tulsa. We don’t get into the politics or the cowboy culture like we have in Yellowstone; this series is much smaller in scale, but that can be an advantage, as it allows the viewer to become more interested in the characters without being distracted by things like, well, magnificent vistas and gorgeous lodges.
There’s no doubt that great actors like Costner and Stallone have a lot to do with the success of these series. Whether Tulsa King has the legs of Yellowstone remains to be seen; it’s gotten a renewal for Season 2 already, so that’s a big plus. I also have a lot of admiration for Costner and Stallone, who could easily be sitting on a yacht someplace and counting their money, but they’re still working and making quality productions at age 67 and 76, respectively.
Costner and Stallone chose to embrace the anti-hero personas of their characters in these shows, and that’s why the characters work. While we don’t approve of everything John Dutton or Dwight Manfredi do as they work to advance their particular causes, we find ourselves rooting for them anyway. They’re not truly bad guys, we think, and maybe they’re struggling to let their inner heroes finally come out. We hope so, because we like heroes. Lord knows, we need them.