As I left the theater after viewing The Descendants, one thing became obvious while overhearing the other patrons’ after-show assessments: the movie they just watched clearly wasn’t the one they were expecting to see. They came to the film apparently anticipating some kind of broad comedy, and based on the advertising, I suppose I couldn’t blame them for feeling that way. But The Descendants isn’t that kind of film, and it was obvious that the other filmgoers, whether they enjoyed for the experience or not, weren’t quite prepared for it. The best classification I can think for a film such as this would be either “dramedy” or “seriocomedy” – emphasis placed on the “serio” – especially when you consider that the film’s chief running joke comes from characters continuously telling the lead character, Matt, how strong his wife is, and how “she’ll pull through” after her serious injury. Of course, that’s the type of encouragement other people give to make themselves feel better. In truth, Matt’s wife isn’t going to pull through, and he knows it, but never lets on. It can be called a joke because it involves someone making a fool of him-or-herself by stating something we know to be ludicrous. But not all jokes, even when told well, should inherently be funny. Sometimes, the best humor is the kind that reveals tensions more than relieves them. Continue reading ““The Descendants” – The Antiscribe Appraisal”
Near the beginning of the film Hugo, there progresses an elongated tracking shot that follows the title character, a young orphaned boy of eleven, as he rushes urgently through the tunnels and up the ladders and staircases that form the inner walls of a Parisian train station. While the marvelous sequence reminded me of director Martin Scorsese’s other films, it also reminded me of a famous and influential essay by scholar Tom Gunning called “The Cinema of Attractions.” In “The Cinema of Attractions,” Gunning postulated that the appeal of the earliest films was based not on narrative, but on the immersive experience that only the cinema could offer. This early, spellbinding shot in Hugo (all the more so with 3D), a film in which the narrative encourages us to remember some of the earliest achievements of the cinema, indeed had as much that same effect on me as the earliest cinema has on its audience, drawing me deeply into the film before its story could even begin. As I sat gazing up at the screen for much of the next two hours, allowing the visuals and narrative both sweep over me, I never felt anything less than fully immersed in what was happening before me, a rare occurrence these days, where even my most rewarding film-going experiences involve some form of conscious disconnection. As Martin Scorsese’s Hugo emphasizes throughout its story, films can sometimes be our dreams made real; this film itself is a testament to that, a true masterwork from one of cinema’s true living masters. Continue reading “Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo” – The Antiscribe Appraisal”
Nearly six months ago, in one of the first pieces I posted on this site, I wrote an essay discussing the film Super 8 and my impression of its marketing. Specifically, I felt the film’s advertising campaign, built primarily around building intrigue for the film’s mysterious creature, and secondarily on nostalgia for old Steven Spielberg movies, seemed to me an ineffectual approach to marketing a poorly defined film, and that had dulled my already limited desire to see the movie. Six months later, I stand by my assessment of that approach, and if anything, I’m even more critical of it now, especially given how much I appreciated Super 8 once I finally got around to seeing it.
I cannot tell a lie; writing this appraisal of the new movie The Muppets means that I must compensate for a certain amount of bias. You see, I love the Muppets, and always have. They were a huge part of my childhood – not only as a source of entertainment, but as part of my cultural development. It was the Muppets who helped teach me to appreciate humor and parody, and their movies were likely some of the first musicals I ever saw. They showed me what irony was, and unlike most cartoons and other childhood entertainments, they taught me that being different and special, as all Muppets were, was far more important that trying to achieve some unattainable perfection. Therefore, when the extremely clever and funny parody trailers for the first Muppets film in years began popping up a few months ago, I was more than simply intrigued; I was genuinely excited. Continue reading ““The Muppets” – The Antiscribe Appraisal”
In one of his works, A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Karl Marx famously (or infamously, depending on your view) labeled religion as “the opium of the masses.” As it would later come to be interpreted by theorists, Marx’s use of the “opium” metaphor was a way of describing a condition or system which provided an illusory or tranquilizing effect that inhibited a society from both recognizing and correcting its own flaws. In Marx’s opinion, and again, it was his opinion, he saw general religion as an impediment, something that assuaged and clouded the minds of people, so that they ignored the injustices in their own society. So, instead of seeking to undermine or address their own class inequality, for instance, they might seek refuge in the calming belief of a divine power or in the hierarchal authority of a religious organization. Much later, Marx’s concept of the “opium of the masses” became further expanded upon by later Marxist theorists who tried to ascertain the causes of why the much longed for “revolution of the proletariat” that formed the basis for later Communist and Socialist thought never actually occurred en masse in industrialized society, and in most cases moved beyond the idea that religion alone was the impediment. Antonio Gramsci, imprisoned by the Italian Government as an enemy of the state, penned the theory of “cultural hegemony,” the belief that the ideals of the ruling class become the norm for all. Later, Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer, members of the famed “Frankfurt School,” posited that it was the “culture industry” and its creation of mass products of technology, advertising, entertainment, and art that had lulled the mass populace into a sense of complacency. As recently as the early 1970s, Marxist philosopher (and, admittedly, paranoid schizophrenic) Louis Althusser famously formulated his belief that the docile ideology of a people were molded by what he labeled “state apparatuses,” individual cultural forces, such as the government, the mass media, and so forth, of which he claimed the educational system, instead of religion, was the most influential apparatus.
First off, I apologise for what grew into an extended hiatus from this website. It was a largely unintentional action on my part; I ended up becoming extremely busy with other writing work and job hunting in the last month or so, plus I also was somewhat embarrassed by something. You see, when I last posted, I had promised to write about my trip to New York Comic Con. Unfortunately, after going, writing about it ended up being just about the last thing in the world I wanted to do. To be honest, my experiences at NYCC proved to be nothing to write home about…so, simply put, I didn’t. Though to even be more honest, I’d call NYCC something of a personal disaster, for reasons that had to do with the event itself, and for reasons that had to do with me. Continue reading “On New York Comic Con and a State of the Site Address – The Antiscribe Attends”
Over the next few days, I’ll be attending the annual New York Comic Con at the Jacob Javits Center in Midtown Manhattan in a press capacity (representing this blog). I’m pretty excited, all told; the NYCC is always a fun experience, and the event has made tremendous strides in its organization since its initial semi-disastrous debut in 2006. (If you’re not aware, the event was oversold and actually shut down by the NY Fire Marshall on its first Saturday). Though it doesn’t have near the same cultural footprint as the much more established San Diego Comic Con, the NYCC still offers an interesting smorgasbord of popular culture, and in recent years it has been combined with the New York Anime Festival, broadening its scope beyond the world of American comic books. The NYCC generally has usually not been a very star-driven event, especially as compared to San Diego – pretty much the highest profile celebrities are Chris Evans, Jason Momoa, and Rose McGowan – the event does have the advantage of having access to many of the New York-based behind the scenes personnel at many of the major comic book publishing houses. Continue reading “Preview of New York Comic Con – The Antiscribe Attends”
On Tuesday, October 18, 2011, the much-anticipated animated adaptation of Batman: Year One, the latest DC Comics film produced by Warner Bros. Animation, will be released. Beginning in 2007, Warner Bros. have put out eleven animated films, adapted from DC’s most popular characters and storylines, for the direct-to-DVD market. Supervised by the acclaimed producer Bruce Timm, the chief force behind the legendary Batman: The Animated Series, and other series from the DC Animated Universe continuity, the films are generally standalone works set within their own individual continuities and featuring both highly contrasting styles of two-dimensional animation and varying casts of voice actors. Besides being consistently solid and appealing to fans new and old, the films are mainly interesting for demonstrating the rather diversified and anti-canonical nature of today’s highly postmodern comic book media, where famous characters are consistently reinterpreted by different artists and writers while incorporating the zeitgeist of their times. In the process, they sometimes illustrate both the positives and negatives of that approach. Continue reading “DC Animated Original Movies: An Overview – The Antiscribe Appraisal”
What do you do when you have a still functional film genre based around a sport whose appeal and popularity have fallen off pretty dramatically over the last fifteen years? The sport, it should be noted, is boxing, that sweetest of sciences that has played to many moviegoers’ love of individualism, machismo, and violence for more than a century. As a popular sport, however, boxing may be at the lowest cultural ebb that it’s ever been, and it seems likely to continue downward into the niche. Quickly…who’s the World Heavyweight Champion? (To be honest, I’d have to Google it, too.) If nothing else, Real Steel devises a viably high concept, if not especially creative, idea for addressing its problem, and one that plays well into the modern lust for CGI action. The idea that can be summed in three words: big battling robots. And with that, everything old feels new again…or at least, newly repackaged. Continue reading ““Real Steel” – The Antiscribe Appraisal”
For the record, I was born a Yankees fan. I was raised a Yankees fan. I live life as a Yankees fan. And when I die, I’ll die a Yankees fan (I cheated on them a little bit with the Mets during the 1986 World Series, but in my defense, they were going against the despised Boston Red Sox. Also, I was seven). But being a Yankees fan sometimes makes it hard to be a baseball fan, because the system seems rigged for me to root for the bully. Simply put, the Yankees, sometimes by a substantial margin, consistently boast the largest annual payroll in baseball. The idea that it’s a fair game too often feels like an illusion, and being someone who frowns on the ruthlessness of unregulated capitalism, sometimes it’s hard to cheer the Yankees without feeling like I’m cheering for Wall Street. I mean, how fair can a game be when a few teams that control all the wealth play against teams that have to make do with what little they can afford? Once you get past the Americana and the athletic excellence and the legends and the legacy and the pride, it’s hard not to be more than a bit cynical about America’s pastime (and DO NOT get me started on BALCO…) Continue reading ““Moneyball” – The Antiscribe Appraisal”
One of the things I love in reading and studying history is that it is usually both informative and unbiased. While there are certainly polemical perspectives on historical subjects and ideological approaches to historiography, most respected historical texts generally try to research a subject based on documentation and evidence, and then generally form an argument based on what that research supports or doesn’t support. Films, as works of art, generally speaking, are crafted from the opposite perspective – you start with an idea, lesson, thesis or argument and then typically craft a narrative to support that perspective. Each represents two entirely different methods of synthesis, for sure, though in historical films, these methods sometimes find themselves in conflict with one another. History has always been and will always be a prominent source for great dramatic storytelling in film and any dramatic medium. But certainly, it’s not always a happy marriage of content and form, and it’s a fairly common occurrence that dramatized films based on real life or historical incidents, even the best ones, can sometimes be highly inaccurate in regards to their subjects. Typically, creative liberties are taken with historical facts in order to create compelling and clear drama; this creative license, however, then mitigates the authenticity of the film. It’s a consummate Catch-22: you have to make a historical film entertaining to overcome the unfortunate prejudice that history is boring, and history as a popular discipline usually needs movies to makes sure certain historical subjects can enter and remain in the popular consciousness. Therefore, many times people gain the unfortunate misconception that they understand a historical event because they see a movie that depicts it. Continue reading ““The Conspirator” – The Antiscribe Analyzes”
Developments So Far:
Last time the Doctor prepared for his “last day,” and a potential final showdown with Silence by spending it with his former roommate Craig, who helped the Doctor confront both his own sense of regret and the fact that he needs a companion to keep him sane. We also saw the table set for the culmination of the Silence’s final plot on the shores of Lake Silencio, as the Silence and the One Eyed Lady, Madame Kavorian, abducted River Song and placed her in the outfit of the Impossible Astronaut. Our last image of River Song/Melody Pond was her floating underwater in a trance-like state, ready for what we’ve been led to believe is inevitable: the Doctor’s Penultimate Death. Continue reading “The Antiscribe Recap: Doctor Who Season 6, Episode 13: “The Wedding of River Song” (Season Finale)”
Developments So Far:
Last week, in a season that has become defined by its twists and turns, the Doctor and the Ponds (Amy and Rory Williams) went their separate ways, after the Doctor had, rightfully, became concerned that his adventures were too dangerous for them, and for Amy especially. The departure was amicable, poignant, and touching, but it seems to be doubtful that we’ve seen the last of Amy and Rory, especially with only two episodes left in the season (and Amy still narrating the BBC America version of the opening).
The Doctor also confronted, and defeated, a monster that reflected his own existential dilemma – an ancient, world-weary creature drenched in the blood of its unintended victims. Last we saw of him, he was forlorn and alone on the TARDIS, facing his oncoming death with dread and sorrow, but also with a touch of anticipation, having seen himself become the monster that the Anglican Marines in the future took him to be. Continue reading “The Antiscribe Recap: Doctor Who – Season 6, Episode 12 – “Closing Time””
Developments So Far:
In last week’s intriguing and heart-breaking “The Girl Who Waited,” Rory was faced with the choice of having to save either a younger or older version of his wife, Amy (a choice that was forced on him by the actions of the Doctor). Ultimately, the Old Amy chose to stay behind and let the younger Amy live. Though sad, and somewhat unfair, we now see that Amy Pond does have the chance to develop into character far stronger and more proactive than the one she has been. It also began to tease both the Doctor’s irresponsibility and cold-bloodedness, and Rory’s growing frustration with his manipulative behavior.
Going forward, there has been a great deal of concern among the fanbase that major emotional issues, especially in the case of Amy and Rory, have been getting ignored by the writers to a frustrating degree. With two major events in the last three episodes that should rock them to the very core – the loss of their daughter’s childhood and the sacrifice of Old Amy – it remains to be see whether this will continue to be the case, or if more attention will be paid to the continuity of their characters.
Also still looming over all is the fact that the Doctor now knows when he is going to die, and the toll that will take on him as the story goes forward is still to be discerned. Continue reading “The Antiscribe Recap – Doctor Who Season 6, Episode 11 – “The God Complex””
Developments So Far:
Last week’s “Night Terrors” was crafted as kind of a standalone episode, which, as a follow up to the very mythology-laden “Let’s Kill Hitler” left the panoply of previous questions largely unanswered. One point of popular concern that has risen up involves specifically “the Ponds,” Amy and Rory Williams, and how they will be reacting going forward to the current state of their daughter Melody Pond/River Song, who is now a fully grown adult and living off on her own in the distant future. After no reference during the last episode (which, it’s pretty well understood, was written for the first half of the season and then produced later), many have wondered if there will be attention paid to their state of mind, or if it will be awkwardly ignored like the proverbial 800-pound gorilla.
Let’s talk about Amy Pond, shall we?
For those not yet familiar with the history of Amelia “Amy” Pond (Karen Gillan), she has been the constant companion to the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) since his first episode (Season 5’s premiere “The Eleventh Hour”). Introduced initially as an eight year old (who mysteriously doesn’t seem to have any immediate family), she first meets the Doctor when his TARDIS (damaged by the energy given off by his regeneration) crash lands in her backyard. After promising to return “in five minutes” and lead her off to a great adventure (which would be a cover to find out why she seems to be at a convergence for a major temporal event called the Fall), the quick jaunt in the TARDIS “to get the kinks out,” propels him instead twelve years into the future. When he returns, Amy Pond has grown to adulthood after a lifetime of believing in the “Raggedy Doctor.” After helping the Doctor save the world, however, her childhood dream finally comes true: she becomes the Doctor’s new companion, following him throughout space and time, and helping him fight monsters and save the world (as any good companion should). Because of how long she ended up waiting for him to come back, the Doctor has often referred to her as “Amelia Pond – the girl who waited.” After a few episodes as the sole companion, in a move that was considered a little controversial, Amy’s fiancé, the good-hearted but awkward Rory Williams, became a third companion (and sometimes, admittedly, a third wheel). Last season culminated with Amy and Rory’s wedding, and as a couple have been with the Doctor for the entire season so far (well, not counting the fact that Amy was kind of clone…but you get the idea). Continue reading “The Antiscribe Recap – Doctor Who – Season 6, Episode 10 – “The Girl Who Waited””
Ironically, on June 6, 2011, during the same weekend X-Men: First Class was released to theaters, the two top film critics for The New York Times, Manohla Dargis and A. O. Scott, crafted an interesting piece entitled “In Defense of Slow and Boring,” defending the power and importance of the “boring” film, i.e. the arthouse films that are typically not driven by commercial concerns or toward presenting high entertainment, but strive to some greater significance. The central film spoken about in their piece was the Terrence Malick film “The Tree of Life,” and how to some, it was brilliant, and to others, who sought more entertaining fair, found it to be boring and pretentious (I have not seen the film yet myself – though I do want to – so I have no opinion on it). It’s an extremely good essay, even if, in the end, it’s just another entry on the extended debate between cinema as escapist entertainment and cinema as high art. So, you might be asking, what does this have to do with X-Men: First Class, a high concept, big budget, mass-entertainment superhero film (which is being released today on DVD, Blu-Ray, and digital download), of which this piece is ostensibly about? Simply put, many of the best films, and the ones that I think largely stick with us, are those that exist at a nexus between art and entertainment, of escapism and meaning. They address both sides of the debate, and build a bridge between those viewers that just want a thrilling ride and those that want their ride to ultimately go somewhere significant. X-Men: First Class is absolutely not one of those movies, though after I had finished watching it, I couldn’t help but yearn and lament that it is precisely what it could, and should, have been.
Now, as a scholar, I have focused mainly on Post-September 11 media and popular culture, so the resurgence of the comic book superhero film after its critical and commercial collapse in the 1990s was and is of keen interest to me. While most of the modern superhero films are initially presented as little more than aspiring blockbusters, there have been a select number that, somewhat surprisingly, managed to be both grand popcorn entertainment and intriguing allegorical drama, such as Spider-man 2, Iron Man, and both of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films. Fueled by the deeply held emotions and underlying tensions of a post-terrorist culture, these films incorporated issues of ethics, moral philosophy, personal responsibility, and the tenuous and fluid nature of good and evil into the often ludicrous worlds of costumed superheroes, and as a result managed critical responses that were often otherwise reserved for Academy Award nominees. However, after reaching a creative, critical, and commercial zenith with The Dark Knight a few years back, superhero films have been on a noticeable and marked decline in critical response, fan opinion, and commercial returns. Nearly a decade into the resurgence of the superhero film, the genre (if you want to classify it as that) finds itself at something of a crossroads, critically and commercially. With the global and national economy, natural disasters, and the role of government supplanting the fear of terrorism in the popular imagination, combined with a very noticeable excess of poorer output (ahem, Green Lantern) and less intriguing choices in subject matter (Ghostrider, Fantastic Four), superhero and other comic book films have shown signs of having engendered genuine fatigue with fans, critics, and audiences alike (and it is especially noticeable at the box office). As a result, the films seem to have lost the ambition of the blockbuster exemplars of just a few years ago, and this summer had no less than four major superhero films that arrived with fairly marginal prerelease “buzz” and very specialized hype geared to very limited audiences (namely the sort of people who recognize the name “Guy Gardner” or care what a “Cosmic Cube” is). Stuck in between the fairly flat Thor and the terrible Green Lantern (and safely removed from the strong Captain America) was X-Men: First Class, the latest installment in the X-Men movie franchise, and upon whose shoulders was the future of a film property that had seemingly squandered what was once a world of potential.
Telling the origin (or an origin) of the relationship and development of Professor X and Magneto, the two contrasting ideologues of the X-Men universe, First Class can’t really be called a bad movie, but I certainly think it was given a noticeable surfeit of praise upon its release three months ago. For those unfamiliar with the two iconic characters in their comic or film incarnations, Professor Charles Xavier, or Professor X, is a powerful telepath (mind reader) and the leader and founder of the X-Men, a group of superheroes who believe in Xavier’s vision of a peaceful world wherein normal humans (homo sapiens) and mutants (homo superior) – individuals granted amazing powers through inborn genetic mutations – peacefully coexist. Opposed to Xavier is Erik Lensherr, or Magneto, a ferrokinetic (defined by the ability to manipulate magnetic fields and thus mentally control nearly all metal), who, in contrast to Xavier, believes that mutants are the next step in human evolution, and with the aid of some incarnation of his terrorist/supremacist group, the Brotherhood of Mutants, tries to help the process of natural selection on its merry way by leading mutants to their rightful place as rulers of the Earth. Though Magneto’s presentation often wavers between villain and antihero, his tactics against normal humans typically border on the genocidal. First Class tries to relate the backstory of how the two men, formerly best friends and allies, eventually became mortal enemies. It certainly manages during its 132 minutes to be highly entertaining and, periodically, very compelling, but despite its qualities, it also remains unfortunately shallow and misguided.
Now, to some, that may be perfectly satisfactory, but to one who understands the appeal of the X-Men and their history, this particular story told in a fairly superficial manner becomes a particularly disappointing experience. The X-Men, through its long and tortuous publication history, has come to be defined by a mix of good and bad. The bad comes in the form of its continuity: the X-Men were singular and unique among other comics in that their success came primarily on its appeal to very dedicated, hardcore fans. Stories set in the X-Men universe could often be fairly complex and complicated, told across multiple publications, with legions of characters that ranged from being fascinating, richly layered, unique individuals facing deep, existential dilemmas (such as the noble genius with the body of a monster named Beast, the beautiful, mysterious young woman incapable of touching another human being named Rogue, and the popular postmodern Heracles called Wolverine) to those who were frankly little more than a gimmick. As a byproduct of this, however, the various X-Men comics have become notorious for their dense continuities, which are often criticized (including by myself) for being almost impregnable to the casual reader. However, while the X-Men series falter in their continuity, their success has always been on the strength and appeal of its characters and its deeper subtexts. Truly, what has always set X-Men stories apart in the world of comics media is its shared, core allegory about the nature of prejudice, the evils of intolerance, and the minority perspective. Mutants are, essentially, a racial minority group feared by the majority of normal humans, and though most of the heroes’ battles are typically against Magneto and other megalomaniacal mutants, their victories were always fleeting in the face of their lack of societal acceptance. X-Men comics were also the first to evince and endorse a multicultural society; many of the mutant X-Men, though bound together as a genetic minority, nevertheless came from a variety of different countries, races, religions, and cultures. As a result, despite their shared plight, they were rarely a homogenous unit and the interpersonal conflicts that would develop and be resolved among the various incarnations of the team were sometimes the leading source of drama for the various series, as opposed to the traditional superhero derring-do. It’s often understated, too, that the comics were highly influential in their medium for their portrayal of female characters. Though still crafted to be sexually alluring to the predominantly male audience, characters such as Storm (the first major black female comic book character), Rogue, Jean Grey, Kitty Pryde, Emma Frost, and others demonstrated that strong women could bolster and carry comic book narratives that were, and still are, too often viewed as a “boys only” club.
To understand further where First Class ultimately succeeds and fails must also mean understanding where the film stands within its franchise. Though once lacking significant mainstream recognition, the X-Men were popular enough during the 1990s that a feature film would be inevitable. Directed by Bryan Singer, who was not a fan of the comics or of comics in general, the original, refreshingly intimate, and low-key X-Men (2000) wisely pared down the massive continuity to a core group of key figures, and especially kept the focus on the franchise’s most popular character, the amnesiac fighting machine Wolverine, played near perfectly by Hugh Jackman. The result was a good summer action movie with strong character dynamics that also offered a star-making turn for Jackman. It was successful enough to be followed, three years later, by X2 (subtitled popularly as X-Men United), which seemed to carry the franchise light years forward, using the groundwork laid by the first film to create a tensely paced story that eschewed many of the conventions of the traditional superhero film. Instead of facing a super-powered supervillain, the X-Men, as well as their nemesis Magneto, found themselves opposing a human enemy who was the living manifestation of the prejudice and intolerance that subjugated them all. Cleverly interspersed with allegorical touches about the similarity of possessing mutant powers to LGBT identity politics (director Singer is himself gay), the end result was one of the better super-hero films yet made (other’s opinions may differ), and the franchise seemed poised to set a new standard in quality among what was then a broken trail of collapsed superhero film series.
However, it was clear even then that the streamlining of the X-Men continuity came at a price. Besides losing or marginalizing a vast number of storylines and characters, which was absolutely unavoidable and necessary, the X-Men portrayed in the films were often no longer identifiable as being representatives of various cultures and ethnicities. With the sole exception of the German character Nightcrawler (whose appearance was already entirely demonic), X-Men who had, in their original incarnation been foreign born, such as the Russian Colossus (who was another comic first – the sympathetic Russian), the African Storm, and the Austrailian Pyro were all recast as specifically American (at one point, literally the most exotic character seemed to be the Canadian Wolverine).
Then, as the story goes, it all went to hell. Bryan Singer left the series to take the reins of Superman Returns (a project for which he was regrettably ill-suited), and 20th Century Fox Pictures, demonstrating what would become an emblematic indifference to the quality of their Marvel film properties, hired perpetual critically anathemic director Brett Ratner to helm the series’ third film. X-Men: The Last Stand was a commercial success but a critical and popular disaster that was widely scorned in all quarters. Three years later, Wolverine had his own origin story told in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which was not only terrible but managed to almost completely “de-claw” and thoroughly undermine the appeal of its main character. Both films shared in common an impulse displayed by Fox to throw as many X-Men characters as possible onto the screen, regardless of whether they belonged or could be executed properly. To fans, this betrayed a deeply cynical approach that seemed designed to exploit the gullible archetypal “fanboy” with the expectation that he or she would buy their ticket simply at the promise of seeing their favorite characters oncreen, without realizing such contempt would, and did, yield continuously diminishing returns.
In this context, X-Men: First Class was made as an attempt to bring the franchise back to its earlier standard of quality. And certainly, it would be unfair to ignore the quality the film has on display. As mentioned, the story centers on the meeting of a young Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbinder), whose separate paths – Xavier as a CIA contractor and Lensherr as a Nazi hunting Holocaust survivor – both lead them toward the shared goal of defeating a megalomaniacal evil mutant named Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), leader of a pro-mutant terrorist group called the Hellfire Club. For Lensherr the hunt is very personal, as Shaw, in a previous identity as a Nazi scientist, experimented on the future Magneto after discovering the young boy’s powers while he was interned at a Nazi concentration camp. After learning that Shaw plans to force the United States and the Soviet Union into a nuclear showdown so as to pave the way for a mutant takeover, Xavier and Lensherr, with the help of CIA agent Moira MacTaggart (Rose Byrne), start recruiting young mutants to go against Shaw and his Hellfire Club. Included in this group is Xavier’s adopted sister, a blue-skinned mutant shapeshifter named Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) and closeted mutant science whiz Henry McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), each of whom will eventually become better known as the villainess Mystique and the hero Beast.
As a movie, under helmer Matthew Vaughan, First Class is fast paced, exciting, and occasionally quite witty, with a number of very dynamic set pieces that make excellent use of the nature and mechanics of the X-Men universe. Magneto, for instance, makes inspired use of an enemy’s metal fillings, and in one fun sequence gives new meaning to the phrase, “drop anchor.” However, there are definitely times where the film suffers from its crackling pace, as moments that should have some narrative and emotional resonance are quickly glossed over to make way for things that are far less interesting, therefore causing the film’s best material to lose whatever poignancy it might have otherwise mustered. Among its other strengths, though, the film also makes handsome use of its highly stylized and retro 1960s setting. The costumes are fantastic, perhaps even worthy of an Oscar nod, and many of the sets and scenery are highly evocative of the early James Bond films, especially Shaw’s snazzy submarine-cum-bachelor pad.
The film works best, at least initially, when dealing with the development of the relationship between Xavier and Lensherr. The dashing and dynamic Fassbinder gives a star-making performance on par with Jackman’s in the original X-Men, and McAvoy does a surprisingly good job bringing youth, wisdom, charm, and idealism to the part of the future Professor X. Kevin Bacon, too, hits the right note in playing the villainous Shaw. Benefiting from being cast against type, Bacon brings restraint to an antagonist’s role where a more traditional villain actor might have seen it as a showcase; he doesn’t try to upstage the action or the story, only play his role in it.
On the other side, though, are the frankly bad parts of the film, which unfortunately have much to do with the eponymous “first class.” Again falling victim to the Fox mentality of throwing as many new characters into the film as possible, as well as the decision to make this a prequel more than an outright reboot (an admittedly overused approach that would have actually worked here), the roster of what should be presented as the X-Men’s iconic first class is generally filled out with characters for whom it would be generous to call “B-teamers” in the comics, such as Havok, Banshee, and Darwin. As had been the problem in the previous two films, the characters bear little resemblance to their comic book counterparts. Banshee, for instance, who in the comics is appropriately Irish, is here just a WASPish blond teen pretty boy who happens to boast a high-pitched scream. Even more anachronistic is the plasma-generating mutant Havok, whose main claim to fame is being the brother of the more popular X-Man Cyclops, who in the film’s continuity hasn’t even been born yet. I personally don’t like to get too caught up in the inevitable differences between comics and their films; if the filmmakers truly thought adapting these characters in this way was best for the film, than I was willing to be convinced. But I wasn’t, and with the X-Men, as mentioned, the unique traits of the characters are pretty much the central appeal. In essence, it repeated precisely the same issues on display in the earlier installments: to fans, their characters are unworthy of inclusion here, and to non-fans the film does absolutely nothing to make them appear to be the slightest bit interesting or worthy of being the inaugural X-Men. Worse yet, the written characterizations and performances of the young X-Men are generally terrible, with almost everyone looking and performing like they were rejected by the Disney Channel. Academy Award nominee Lawrence comes across fairly bland as Mystique and Hoult does a pretty awful job as Beast, though he isn’t aided by makeup that seems better suited for a mall opening than a major theatrical blockbuster.
The actual Hellfire Club is also a somewhat underwhelming bunch, featuring a red-skinned teleporter named Azazel and an individual who throws tornadoes apparently named Riptide, neither of whom are ever even burdened with dialogue. As the popular character of Emma Frost, January Jones falls far short in a role that was already underwritten, and which again failed to capture a large part of the original character’s appeal (her scathing wit), though she does look appropriately gorgeous, with her transformation into the character’s diamond-skinned form certainly evokes memories of the gilded gals from Goldfinger.
The film’s biggest and most nuanced quality issue, however, lies firmly in its script. While there are a number of very good scenes and some very intriguing payoffs layered in its plot, the narrative threads aren’t carried through to a satisfactory conclusion and a number of dramatic character changes are simply not earned. Magneto’s transition from roguish avenger to mutant supremacist is eloquently handled but ultimately quite abrupt. The Magneto of the comics and the earlier films was also portrayed as a genius, scholar, and scientist, while in this film he’s not much more that an ideological Jason Bourne. Though his arc is still better than that of Mystique, who performs a completely abrupt about face to join Magneto and betray her foster brother, with the greatest narrative cause seemingly being the fact she was a villain in the first three movies, and thus had to be one at the end of this one. After the film was over, I honestly felt that I needed at least one more film’s worth of narrative to truly justify both character’s changes. As it is, X-Men: First Class shares a problem in common with the previous series installment, which told the story of Wolverine and his lifelong nemesis Sabretooth, and with other prequels, such as the second Star Wars trilogy and its focus on the Vader/Kenobi relationship, where what seemed fairly epic when once presented as a backstory loses a great deal of its grandeur when actually played out before us.
In the end, First Class is ultimately a film that is stylish and glossy but ultimately more sizzle than steak, but its complete lack of real substance is not alone my greatest source of disappointment in the film. As I recounted earlier, the X-Men, as a cultural product, have always risen above others in its medium through the way it has allegorically addressed the issues of prejudice and intolerance. In First Class, sadly, outside of a very muddled and nonsensical subplot about whether Mystique and Beast should strive to hide their inhuman appearance, there are painfully few moments in which the issues of prejudice core to the X-Men’s existence are even tacitly represented. That, in and of itself, is not that a terrible thing, and normally if the movie chose just to be accepted on the terms of being an empty action spectacle, I could forgive it that oversight. Why I can’t completely do that, however, comes in the fact that the filmmakers chose to set the film during the early 1960s, and thus took upon itself a greater responsibility to the era in history it was representing. This makes the omission of much of the identity politics and allegory almost disturbing for a film that is set during an era which saw the peak of the Civil Rights movement. Indeed, to watch the film, one would think that the entire era was defined only by Jack Kennedy, the Soviet Union, and haute couture. A film with even a modicum of ambition beyond being just an easily digested blockbuster would at least have used its fantastical story to give some attention to the racial problems and tensions of the period in which it’s set. Instead, it excludes it entirely, thus not only undermining the subtextual appeal of the X-Men themselves, but suppressing a very important part of American history – and more specifically, African-American history.
Thus, viewed in hindsight, one word that manages to describe First Class extremely well is “white.” The film makes use of many institutions and icons of mid-20th century white paternal domination – from the Kennedy administration to the Swingin’ Sixties, Las Vegas, the CIA, Oxford University, the Nazis, and the Soviets. The film acknowledges that Magneto is a concentration camp survivor, but otherwise barely brings up the fact he’s Jewish. Most damning, however, are the ways in which the film treats its other two minority mutant characters, the African-American Darwin (Edi Gathegi) and the Hispanic Angel Salvadore (who is played by the light-skinned black actress Zoe Kravitz), which stand as mind-boggling in their retrograde thinking. Darwin, especially, is just such an amazingly transparent example of tokenism that it almost manages to be sickly funny. Introduced as a cab driver when Xavier and Lensherr find him, which makes me wonder if anyone making this even realized that’s an Amos ‘n’ Andy reference, Darwin is the first and only member of the X-Men in the movie to die, which he does by sacrificing himself early in the plot to the Nazi Shaw to save his other teammates. There is even a painfully obnoxious and awkward moment were Lensherr is speaking about mutants being treated as slaves, where the camera cuts directly to Darwin, because, I’m guessing, he’s black, and only black people can be and should be regarded as representing slaves (the moment actually elicited audible groans when I originally saw the film in the theater). As for Angel, a former stripper, she immediately turns on the nascent X-Men to join Shaw’s group after he promises her power and a better class of life, thus classifying her as ungrateful, selfish, evil, and the stereotypical Latina whore.
Both these examples are themselves disturbing, but sadly not outside the pale for mainstream Hollywood. But the film otherwise seems to do whatever it can to seemingly run from anything that could even be mildly interpreted as their heroes combating intolerance. In a montage sequence where Xavier and Lensherr traverse the United States rounding up the members of their team, none of the young mutants are shown to be victims of prejudice in their own lives – even the future Beast is living a closeted life as a US military scientist. Yet even in the earliest X-Men comics, published in the early 1960s, most of the X-Men joined the team specifically to escape prejudice. The character Iceman, for instance, joins the group after Professor X just barely saves him from a lynch mob after he’s put in jail for using his powers, which for a 1963 comic book audience would have certainly brought up contemporary references to Emmett Till and other instances of anti-black lynching. The film actually includes an obvious variation of this, as Havok is instead the one Xavier and Lensherr find in prison, after he himself asked to be placed there to protect others (!). Even Lensherr’s internment with the Nazis seem to absolve them of any great wrongdoing; it’s fellow mutant Sebastian Shaw, moments after mocking the Third Reich’s dream of a Master Race, who shoots the future Magneto’s mother dead as a way of triggering the young man’s powers.
It’s fairly well known that the very real world antecedents to Xavier and Magneto’s respective ideologies were, always and obviously, the pacifism of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the militant black nationalism of Malcolm X (the comparisons can be obviously problematic, of course). But whether it was Vaughan or 20th Century Fox who made the final decision, the obvious historical contexts that would have enriched the movie tenfold here were ignored, making this already fairly shallow film completely counterintuitive to the X-Men’s long legacy as progressive, mutlicultrual superheroes. By the film’s end, the inaugural class of X-Men are literally a group of young white men (and yes, I do count Beast as being coded as white, despite the blue fur) protecting humanity from nuclear annihilation, not minority representatives looking to “uplift the race.” Truthfully, it seems the reasons this film was set in the 1960s were threefold: that’s when the X-Men were first published, someone somewhere wanted to ape the fashion sense of James Bond and Mad Men (without noticing how the latter serves as an examination of the mores and attitudes of its era), and the filmmakers wanted to tease nuclear annihilation without having anyone feel there was any real threat of anything actually happening. History, after all, clearly went marching on.
X-Men: First Class, as a popcorn movie, would probably make for a mostly entertaining rental, and as long as you try not to think too hard about it afterward, that should be good enough. But in comparison to what it could have been, First Class is exceptionally frustrating. This could have been an interesting, epic, and entertaining story about the forging of a friendship against that backdrop of racial conflict, reflected personally in the identity politics of mutants, and placed in a historic era where race relations in this country made a giant step forward. This honestly could have been something we haven’t seen in years – a truly great X-Men movie. But it’s not. And with prospects of a second film still somewhat undecided after a good but not great box office take, it also may not have been the film to reverse the fortunes of the fading franchise. Someday, hopefully, someone will see the decades of fascinating characters inherent in the X-Men universe and will craft an epic, dramatic, enthralling, and exciting movie on par with The Dark Knight or even X2. But make no mistake: First Class is not that movie.
But where the relative lack of ambition in X-Men: First Class may become truly lamentable for fans of good comic movies is if it is an indication of what the genre may now be facing going forward: ever dwindling blockbusters looking to dazzle you with CGI, gimmicks, and superficial storytelling, but with aspirations of depth, allegory, ideology, and resonance left entirely at the door.
Developments So Far:
Well, you could just read my painstakingly detailed recap here, but, in short, in the last episode we learned the early origin of River Song, and how she transformed from a would-be Doctor assassin and proto-Time Lord into the Doctor’s future human paramour and accused murderer (ain’t that just always the way?). We also learned that her original training came at the hands of the Silence, a religious order trying to either cause or prevent the destruction of the Universe by the asking of the mysterious, unknown “Question.” The Doctor also learned, thanks to pillaging the computer files of the time-traveling robot-ship the Teselecta, the exact time and place of his death at the hands of the mysterious Astronaut, who is likely Melody Pond (though how, why, or if this is even completely true, has yet to be clarified). How this affects the Doctor’s character going forward remains to be seen, especially given how he has begun to confront (and perhaps even embrace) the darker aspects of his personality and reputation. Meanwhile, Amy and Rory both must come to grips with the awkward realization that their daughter is now a fully grown woman and must let her find her own way in the world.
Though regarded as one of the stalwarts of geek culture (and, more recently, geek chic) here in the United States, Doctor Who has been an important part of British mainstream popular culture for almost fifty years. And while the series is predominantly a popular show in the US among adult and teenage fans of science fiction, to British audiences it is regarded predominantly as a kids’ show, which is why it still airs on the “family” viewing hour on Saturday night. Part of its longstanding appeal is that, for younger viewers, it can be a pretty scary program, especially in regards to the famously grotesque monsters the Doctor typically faces week in and week out. A phrase common in the British lexicon that traces its roots back to the early days of Doctor Who is “watching from behind the sofa,” a euphemism for how British children would watch the many scary monsters, such as the Daleks and the Cybermen, while literally hiding behind their living room sofa. For an entire generation, such shared terror was an important part of British cultural experience, and though Doctor Who lacks the cultural footprint it had decades ago, it still pays keen attention to its rich history of presenting terrifying “monster” episodes that provide kids (and maybe even a few adults) the thrill of being scared. Tonight’s episode, “Night Terrors,” written by Mark Gatiss (who, along with present Who showrunner Steven Moffat, created the awesome Sherlock series) appears to be one of those episodes.
So, ladies and gentlemen…children of all ages…ready your sofas.
Tonight’s ep opens in a location atypical to the exotic locales often visited within the Whoniverse: one of urban Britain’s many high rise apartment blocks (well, atypical after the Rose Tyler era). Though modern, the entire landscape takes on an altogether gothic atmosphere of malevolence and dread, which is only enhanced by the eerie musical chimes playing over the soundtrack, like those from a children’s nursery rhyme. (Seriously, does that kind of music ever invoke happy, comforting thoughts and memories for anyone anymore? Yeah, I didn’t think so.) Into this scene we are introduced to some rather innocuous images and sounds: an elderly lady making the long, slow ascent up to her apartment, and kids playing soccer outside a door. Though innocuous, the shadows and atmosphere make these sounds seem almost monstrous, which they certainly do to little George, a ginger-haired little boy who lives in one of the building’s many apartments, whose mother is getting him ready for bed before she heads to her job on the night shift. It becomes immediately that George is a rather timid and anxious little boy. When he becomes scared by the sound of the elevator outside of his apartment, his mother reminds him of what he’s supposed to do when something scares him: “put it in the cupboard.” She knocks on his bedroom cupboard as a way of giving physical representation to her metaphor. As she leaves, her son insists that she turn the lights on and off five times, another comforting routine for young George. When she’s gone, George begins praying, to no one in particular, to “please save me from the monsters.” After a momentary glimpse of the outer cosmos, his mother tucks him in for the night, and tells him that there is nothing to be afraid of. Outside, George overhears his mother and father speaking tensely about him; his Dad is particularly agonized over the fact that he’s “terrified all the time.” The mother responds that they need to get help, an idea to which the father remains . When the Mom states, “he needs a doctor,” George becomes terrified, and begins muttering again, “please save me from the Monsters” over and over again. Strangely, his prayer again seems to travel through the cosmos, soaring through countless galaxies before reaching the TARDIS. Inside the TARDIS, the Doctor gets a sudden jolt and pulls out his psychic paper (for those unfamiliar, the psychic paper is a blank wallet badge that the Doctor uses to give himself false credentials when he needs them; it essentially appears as whatever the Doctor needs it to appear as). He pulls out the paper and reads the message on it, “Please save me from the monsters.” The Doctor informs Amy and Rory that he’s doing something he hasn’t done in quite a while. Amy: “What’s that?” “Making a house call.”
After the credits roll, the TARDIS appears outside the apartment building in Anycity, UK. Rory makes the comment, “No offense, Doctor…” Doctor: “Meaning the opposite…” Rory: “We could have taken the bus here.” Doctor: “See? The opposite.” The Doctor informs him that they are going to be entering “the scariest place in the universe: a child’s bedroom.” Inside his room, young George is still awake and scanning his flashlight across his room, looking for “monsters” while paradoxically making everything in his room appear more terrifying. Outside his window, the sound of the old woman’s labored breathing as she carries her groceries to her appartment scares young George, causing him to pull his blanket up over his chest. While waiting for the building’s elevator, the Doctor shares the psychic paper with Amy and Rory, and they make a plan to try and find “the very scared kid” who sent the message. In his living room, George’s Dad looks over pictures of George as he was growing up; they’re all happy and comforting, a sharp contrast to the terror that presently grips his young son. Inside his room, George is still terrified of all the random noises happening in the building.
At this point, it’s Humorous Montage Time (TM BBC), where the Doctor, Rory, and Amy visit various tenants at the apartment trying to find the source of George’s message. Of key interest is Rory meeting the building’s landlord Mr. Purcell, a gruff, solitary type who owns a large, threatening bulldog, and the Doctor meeting the old lady, Mrs. Rossiter, who’s a bit on the cantankerous side. The landlord, on the other hand, is clearly disliked by most of his tenants.
George is roused from under his covers by the sound of Amy and Rory passing by his window, wear he overhears them talking about how they have to “find that kid.” Rory then jokes that maybe they should just let the monsters “gobble him up.” This, as you have probably already guessed, will become regarded as a very bad move. The Doctor happens to see George nervously spying out his window, and decides that he may have found the child he’s looking for. After meeting up again with Amy and Rory, the Doctor sends them to check the lower floor while he goes to George’s apartment. With George becomes especially terrified in his room, Amy and Rory step onto the elevator, which then takes on a life of its own and sends the couple on an express trip straight down. When the elevator doors open however, Amy and Rory are nowhere to be seen.
The Doctor then knocks on an apartment door, where George’s Dad answers. Apparently, his wife said she was going to call Social Services, which the Doctor immediately claims to be a representative of. Walking into the apartment, he asks the father to “tell me about George.”
Out near the building’s dumpster, Mrs. Rossiter deposits her garbage while complaining about the general lack of consideration shown by her fellow tenants. As she’s walking away, one of the bags on the pile moves, drawing her attention and leading her to scold the person she assumes is trying to scare her (and calling out George by name). As she takes a closer look, the garbage pile sucks her in, and she vanishes…
Inside the apartment, the Dad describes George to the Doctor while the Doctor looks through a family photo album. Apparently, George acts very strangely for a child of eight; he never cries, for instance. The Doctor rightfully surmises that George’s condition has recently gotten worse, and the Dad confirms that they were considering sending George somewhere for help. This only further exacerbated his son’s neurosis, to the point he’s now “afraid of everything.” The Doctor explains that this is “pantophobia,” which, he makes sure to clarify, “isn’t a fear of pants.” After the Dad lists George’s various phobias, he states that he’s “not an expert” and expresses hope that the Doctor can get through to him. The Doctor: “I’ll do my best.”
Amy and Rory the suddenly awaken in a darkened old house. While pondering how they got here after being on the lift, Rory’s first conclusion is that “we’re dead…again.” Amy will have none of this, however, and they begin investigating their surroundings. Rory then assumes that the TARDIS has done something to them…again…while something in the background is watching them.
The lamp in George’s room then falls over, and the Dad and the Doctor come in to investigate. After finding our that the Doctor is, in fact, a doctor, George asks “have you come to take me away?” The Doctor says that he hasn’t, and that he just wants to talk to him “about the monsters.”
Meanwhile, back in the old dark house, Amy and Rory are wandering around their creepy surroundings, where they discover that everything appears to be made of wood instead of metal. They also find a lantern that also uses an electrical switch (like an oversized toy), and open a drawer which contains a giant glass eyeball. Rory and Amy then notice that his pocket flashlight rhythmically turns itself on and off again five times. Appropriately creeped out, they keep searching the house for an exit.
In the apartment, the Doctor and the Dad speak with George, while the Doctor attempts to fix a Rubix cube (and fails, declaring it to be broken…too funny). The Dad speculates that they thought George’s fear maybe have been something he watched on the telly or read in a book (which allows the Doctor to reminisce on some of the classic children stories of his youth, which apparently included “Snow White and the Seven Keys to Doomsday.”) As the Doctor begins getting all manic (as he is wont to do), he then points out George’s cupboard, which fills the young boy with dread. The Dad explains the significance of the cupboard as the place where George places the things that scare him. The Doctor: “Including the monsters, George?” When the Doctor goes to open the cupboard, there is a loud knocking on the front door that causes everyone to jump (nice shocker, actually).
Amy and Rory, meanwhile are still wandering the dark house, but now we get a better glimpse of “the monster” that’s following them: a strange looking doll with a large white head…
The person at the front door turns out to be Purcell the landlord and his dog; the gruff and unpleasant man has come to inquire about the coming rent, and we find out that the Dad is presently out of work. The Doctor, meanwhile, tries to protect George from hearing the conversation by showing off the sonic screwdriver. In a nice little bit, the Doctor uses the screwdriver to turn on all the toys in the room, which immediately makes them all seem far less terrifying. Outside, the Landlord intimidates the Dad. The Doctor scans the cupboard with the screwdriver and finds the readings are “off the scale.” After Purcell leaves, the Dad steps into the room and tries to open the cupboard, but the Doctor stops him, stating that the “monsters are real.”
Inside the house, Rory and Amy discover that they can’t get out, and find further evidence that everything in the building is artificial. They then hear sounds of running footsteps, and children giggling menacingly.
In the kitchen, the Dad tries to ask the Doctor to leave, feeling that his belief in George’s “delusions” are only making things worse. The Doctor refuses, and then tells emphasizes that he has come through time and space based on his son’s distress call, and that what is inside the cupboard is undeniably monstrous and powerful. The Doctor: “Do you see these eyes? They’re old eyes…and what I can tell you is: monsters are real.” The Dad: “You’re not from Social Services, are you?”
In the old house, Rory, Amy, and, in a separate part of the structure, Mrs. Rossiter, are being pursued by the unnatural giggling. When the couple come upon a door, it opens on them, revealing a wooden dummy, which they first think is harmless, but as they walk away, it starts moving after them.
Back in the apartment, the Doctor speculates, in a fashion as only he can, about whether they should open George’s cupboard. While they’re moving off to do it, the landlord Purcell, in his own apartment, is sucked into his floor, as his bulldog watches apathetically. The Doctor and the Dad, meanwhile, cautiously begin to open the cupboard, revealing an old dollhouse…and nothing else. The Doctor then has an epiphany, and runs back to grab the photo album. Looking through it, he points out to the Dad that a month before George’s birth, that his Mom wasn’t pregnant. The Dad then suddenly remembers that his wife actually can’t have kids, which then terrifies him as he realizes that George’s existence is, in fact, a complete impossibility. The Doctor then turns to George and asks, “What are you, George?” Before George can reply, the sound of the elevator again terrifies him, and he begins rhythmically chanting “please save me from the monsters.” The cupboard behind them springs to life and sucks both the Doctor and the Dad inside and then traps them within.
In the old dark house, Amy and Rory meet Purcell, who is also being pursued by the large wooden dolls. When one of the dolls catches him, it transforms him into doll himself, giggling all the time. Amy and Rory then finally realize that they are in extreme danger and run for it. The Doctor and the Dad, meanwhile, wake up in the house themselves, and the Doctor quickly makes the determination that they, like everyone else, are trapped in the dollhouse inside George’s cupboard. The Dad, still trying to come to grips with his altered memories, asks the Doctor to explain what his son is. The Doctor explains that the Dad under the influence of a perception filter (again, for those unfamiliar with it, a perception filter in the Whoniverse is a device which effects people’s perception, causing them to forget or ignore certain elements and details; the TARDIS, in fact, uses one, so people don’t otherwise notice a hugely anachronistic police box just kind of standing around). As they make their way into the house, one of the white[faced Giggling Dolls, or Gigglers, is shown to be watching them. Meanwhile, Rory and Amy are trying to bar the door against the Gigglers, without much luck. When they try to escape the room, Amy gets captured and is transformed into a Giggler.. The Doctor and Dad then realize that George is putting everything in the cupboard that scares him, using it as a kind of psychic repository for his anxieties. One of the Gigglers then shows up, and they then realize that they, too, are in extreme danger. After finding that the sonic screwdriver is useless against them (the Doctor: “I have to invent a setting for wood…it’s embarrassing!”), the grab an oversized pair of safety scissors, which they used to push off the Giggler, and make a break for it.
The Doctor then realizes that George is a Tenza, a kind of psychic alien who are dispersed throughout the universe to find foster parents, into whose lives they assimilate themselves. In this case, George sensed two parents who desperately wanted children but couldn’t have any, and thus filled the void in their lives as well as his own. Quickly cornered in the house by an onslaught of Gigglers, the Doctor realizes that George is causing all of this unconsciously. He tries to communicate with George, telling him that he’s the only one who can vanquish the monsters. Rory then shows up, with the Giggler Amy hot in pursuit. Meanwhile, in his room, George opens the cupboard and then appears in the dollhouse himself. For a moment, it seems everything is fine, but then the Gigglers turn on George.
Remembering the clues from earlier, the Doctor realizes that George is afraid of being sent away by his “parents,” which is what is causing all his other anxieties. The Doctor tells the Dad that he needs to go help his son, but the Dad is understandably cautious with the fact his son is an alien. However, just as George is about to be overwhelmed by the Gigglers, the Dad fights his way through and rescues him, telling him that he loves him no matter what he is, and that he will never send him away. The Doctor, meanwhile, looks on approvingly as the Gigglers vanish.
And with that, everything turns back to normal. At daybreak the next morning, Mrs. Rossiter climbs out of the garbage, the Landlord wakes up on the floor of his apartment and begins cuddling his dog, and Rory and Amy climb off the elevator, unharmed. Amy: “Was I a…” Rory: “Yeah.” Claire, George’s mom, comes home to find her husband and the Doctor making breakfast and George completely fine. As the Doctor leaves, the Dad catches up to him with concerns over George’s future. The Doctor tells him just to treat him as a normal boy, and everything will be fine. He does, however warn him, “that it may pop back again around puberty…always a funny time.” George and his Dad then walk back into their apartment, arm in arm and happy.
The Doctor then meets up with Amy and Rory again, they board the TARDIS, and discuss where to go next. As they talk, their dialogue fades out, and we hear the ominous singing of the Gigglers again:
“Tick-tock goes the clock…even for the Doctor…”
The final shot is of the onscreen data the Doctor downloaded from the Teselecta last episode, stating when and where he is due to die…
Not a whole lot, really, save for reminding us of the Doctor’s impending death in the last beat; this really was the definition of a “standalone episode.” With that said, the alien Tenza/George’s reaction and terror at the word “Doctor” again works into the theme of the Doctor being regarded as a something to be terrified of rather than a figure of benevolence. The Doctor also spent a lot of time in the episode bragging about the number of monsters he has fought and defeated, even though here his final role was as a healer rather than a warrior. Finally, though, after the wardrobe change last week, the Doctor was back to his “junior professor” attire again. Possibly a meaningless change after a one time anomaly, but perhaps indicative of something more.
A good “monster” episode in the grand tradition of them, as well as something of a meta homage to the show’s legacy of children peeking out from behind the sofa (or in this case, the bedspread). One thing I kind of realized in this episode, though kind of by inversion, is that Amy and especially Rory have a tendency to “suck up the oxygen” in many episodes and otherwise prevent some guest characters from developing properly. Here, by trapping them in the dollhouse early in the episode and giving them only brief cutaway scenes, it allowed Gatiss to develop the central dynamic with the father, son, and Doctor, making for an intriguing story and a touching finale. It’s a nice change of pace from what has sometimes been the norm lately. Not a vital episode to the overall mythology of the series, but certainly worth a look on its own merits.
This is a recap of the premiere episode of a split season of the sixth series of Doctor Who, with a first half-season that had no shortage of numerous teases, twists, and turns throughout its loaded seven episodes, including what appeared to be, for all intents and purposes, the permanent death of the Doctor (Matt Smith)! I’ll be doing this for practice purposes, so my style and everything else should be strictly seen as a work in process.
If you’re unfamiliar with the Doctor Who Universe (or Whoniverse), the series relates the adventures of the Doctor, the last of a race of time traveling immortals called the Time Lords, and his adventures traveling time and space in his signature ship, the TARDIS (permanently disguised to look like an old fashioned British Police call box that is exponentially larger on the inside than the outside). Armed with a “sonic screwdriver,” which is basically a high tech magic wand, an unsurpassed intellect, the ability to regenerate when mortally injured (thus taking on a new form and personality), and trusted human companions, the Doctor battles and routinely saves the human race from no end of bizarre and malevolent alien monsters, almost always outthinking them instead of resorting to outright acts of violence. Matt Smith plays the Eleventh incarnation of the Doctor, the third since the series was relaunched in 2005 after a prolonged hiatus.
Background (The Season So Far):
Beginning in the two-part season premiere “The Impossible Astronaut” and “Day of the Moon,” the Doctor’s time-traveling companions, and recent newlyweds, Amelia “Amy” Pond (Karen Gillan) and Rory Williams (Arthur Darvill), along with the mysterious time traveling adventuress (and possible future wife of the Doctor) River Song (Alex Kingston), are called to the United States at the invitation of the Time Lord himself, who tacitly revealed that he had (supposedly) aged about two hundred years since we last we saw him at the end of season 6. Shortly after enjoying a largely uneventful picnic with his friends, the Eleventh Doctor approached a mysterious Astronaut who suddenly appeared in Lake Silencio in Utah, not far from their picnic ground. Resignedly accepting his fate, the Doctor allowed the Astronaut to blast him with something that resembles TARDIS energy; the Astronaut then even did it again as he tries to regenerate, permanently killing him.
Shortly thereafter, though, the much younger Doctor we know and love appears, having also been invited by his older self to the United States. From there, during the period of the 1969 moon landing they confront a race of alien monsters called “the Silence” (a clever amalgam of the grey-skinned aliens of abduction lore and prototypical “men in black,” who are forgotten the moment as soon as you look away from them) who had been secretly influencing the human race for generations. During this time, Amy Pond, who initially thinks she’s pregnant but then decides she’s not, begins having strange visions of a One-Eyed Woman spying on her. It is also soon revealed through subsequent episodes that the mysterious “Impossible Astronaut” appears to be a young girl with red hair (not unlike Amy’s) and who displays the regenerative potential of a Time Lord!
During another two-parter, “The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People,” the Doctor manages to make a nearly perfect clone of himself as a way of verifying that, unbeknownst to even herself, Amy has been a clone for the last few episodes, controlling herself remotely through the One-Eyed Woman. Before destroying the clone, the Doctor promises to find the real Amelia, just as said real (and very pregnant) Amelia gives birth to her daughter, Melody Pond.
This set the stage for the memorable midseason finale “A Good Man Goes to War,” where the Doctor, Rory, and a small army of allies staged a masterful attack on the asteroid base Demon’s Run to rescue Amy and Melody from the nefarious Anglican Marines (the Anglican Church having apparently turned into a paramilitary state sometime before the 40th century). While initially striking what seemed to be a decisive victory over his enemy, the Doctor is again foiled by the One-Eyed Woman, who has replaced Melody with her own clone replacement. Melody Pond, as it turns out, having been conceived on the TARDIS and thus exposed to the Time Vortex, and therefore has many of the properties of a Time Lord. As the episode comes to a close, River Song reappears to reveal the season’s worst kept secret: that she is, in fact, an adult Melody Pond (get it?) But equally important is the revelation that the Doctor, who over the past few seasons and especially since the outset of the Matt Smith era, had grown exceptionally more arrogant and prone to using his reputation as the implacable foe for the most dangerous monsters in time and space to bully and intimidate others, was actually considered a “villain” by the human race, and had made the term “doctor” synonymous with “warrior” instead of “healer.” Therefore Melody Pond was kidnapped to become the ultimate weapon against the Doctor. As the episode ends, the Doctor traveled off to find the infant Melody while River assured her parents that “everything will be all right.”
So as the second half of the season begins there are a number of important questions that need to be answered: Is the Doctor still facing his own inevitable death at the hands of the mysterious Astronaut? What happens to Melody after her kidnapping, and how does she eventually become River Song? Will the Doctor begin to change his ways and become a healer once more? Will he be able to stop the Marines/Silence in the process? And…will Hitler survive?
The Episode: “Let’s Kill Hitler”
The episode begins with Amy and Rory driving through a cornfield, frantically turning to and fro, before coming to a stop before the Doctor and the TARDIS, who has since assumed a wardrobe change: his professorial suit-jacket, white shirt, and red bowtie having been replaced with a brown leather topcoat, yellow shirt, and navy blue bowtie. Well…at least he’s still rocking the “cool” bowtie. As it turns out, Amy and Rory have spelt out “The Doctor” in the middle of a cornfield in order to contact him, which then appeared on the cover of the local paper. After some somber conversation reveals that Doctor has not yet found Melody, Rory notices that the crop circle pictured in the paper suddenly has a new element added to it. It is immediately revealed that the line across the Doctor’s name is created by “Mels,” a n’er-do-well (and Afro-British) friend of Amelia and Rory, never before introduced, who has stolen a Corvette while escaping from the police. After some lugubrious banter where Mels flirts with the Doctor and reveals that she knows everything about him, she pulls a gun and insists that he help her escape. After asking where she would like to go, she responds, “You have a time machine, I have a gun. What the hell? Let’s go kill Hitler!”
After the credits, a cute, humorous montage shows Mels growing up with Amelia and Rory and eventually maturing into a young criminal malcontent as their relationship blossoms into romance. At the montage’s end, we join our travelers already aboard the TARDIS with Mels having inexplicably shot up the big centrifuge in the middle of the control panel, sending the ship spinning out of control through the space time continuum. Meanwhile, in Berlin 1938, a random Nazi officer is tracked back to his room by a robotic shapeshifter, the Teselecta, piloted by hundreds of tiny futuristic people and protected internally by robotic antibodies (wasn’t this an Eddie Murphy movie that me, you, and no self- respecting warm-blooded creature ever saw?). The “antibodies” recognize a person as a crew member by a bracelet they wear on that wrist that glows green for safe (a red bracelet or no bracelet means the antibodies try to kill you). Following the Nazi back to his office, the Robot takes on his form, bit by bit, before shrinking him down, sucking him inside, and feeding him to the antibodies.
The Robot makes his way to Hitler’s office, and there the command crew identifies Hitler and finds him guilty, zapping him with a white light that causes him tremendous pain. Realizing that they have arrived too early in the timestream for Hitler’s death, they begin to abort their assassination attempt when the TARDIS bursts through the window and knocks the Robot to the ground. After getting off the TARDIS, the crew gets their bearing, and the Doctor is suddenly rather horrified to learn that he just saved Hitler. The Doctor: “Believe me…it was an accident.”
After the Doctor warns Adolph that “the British are coming,” the Teselecta revives and is immediately shot up by Hitler (that’s a sentence I’d never thought I’d type). After locking Hitler up in a cupboard, the Doctor examines the disguised Robot, who faints on cue a little too conveniently. Before the Doctor can try to investigate, however, it turns out that Mels was hit with one of Hitler’s stray bullets, and is about to die. The Robot’s crew identifies the TARDIS and links it with a criminal of history that apparently dwarfs Hitler in reputation, which turns out to be Melody – the Doctor’s killer!
As the Doctor, Amelia, and Rory comfort the “dying” Mels, she reveals that her parents are in the room with her. Mels then begins going through the Time Lord regeneration process; as should have been no surprise, “Mels” is short for “Melody.” Amelia: “I named my daughter after her…” The Doctor: “You named your daughter after your daughter.” So, as Melody points out, Amy and Rory actually “got to raise her after all.” And before you can say “Geronimo,” Mels regenerates…into the woman we know as River Song!
After a fun little sequence where Melody “gets to know” her new self (including weighing herself…too funny), the Teselecta crew identifies Melody. A extremely fun little segment then plays out where Melody, who is programmed to kill the Doctor, keeps trying to pull it off, only for it to be revealed that the Doctor has disarmed her ahead of time. After giving the Doctor a brief kiss on the lips, Melody states her attention to head into downtown Berlin to raise some hell. As the Doctor moves to stop her, it is revealed that Melody dosed her lipstick with a special poison, and he collapses. As he struggles to regain composure, he sends Amy and Rory to follow her, being sure to arm Amelia with his sonic screwdriver.
After taking out a group of Nazi guards, Melody arms herself with a few machine guns and hops aboard a motorcycle. Rory then knocks out a Nazi and steals his bike to follow her, but as it turns out, the Nazi is the Teselecta, and sure enough, he joins the chase on a spontaneously generated motorcycle.
Having pulled himself onto the TARDIS, the Doctor cycles through various images in the “Voice Interface” system, including past companions Rose Tyler, Donna Noble, and Martha Jones until he finds one he “hasn’t screwed up yet.” Finally selecting the eight year old version of Amelia Pond, the TARDIS cheerlessly tells him that he has only 32 minutes to live, and that the poison has deactivated his regeneration properties, to which the Doctor replies, “You are SO Scottish…”
Meanwhile, Melody barges into a nearby five star restaurant, where the Nazi elite are dining peacefully, firing her machine guns into the ceiling and claiming that “she has nothing to wear.” Outside, Amy and Rory pull up, wondering how they are going to find their daughter. On cue, the patrons of the restaurant come running out of the front door in their undergarments and screaming in terror. Before the two of them can respond, however, the Teselecta shows up, having already transformed into Amelia. Inside the restaurant, Melody is trying on the latest in Nazi fashions, when the Teselecta/Amelia walks inside the Restaurant.
Amy and Rory then wake up inside the mouth of the Robot, having been shrunken and ingested. Rory: “I sure hope this isn’t a metaphor.” The antibodies try to destroy them, politely informing them that they may feel some discomfort during the incineration process, before a crew member provides them with the green-lit bracelets to protect them. Melody, confronted by the Teselecta for killing the Doctor and otherwise showing no remorse, is then zapped by the white light. But the Doctor and the Tardis again appear in the nick of time, with Time Lord dressed to the nines in a top hat and tails and assisted by an awesome sonic cane. Melody: “You’re dying…and you stopped to change?” The Doctor then identifies the nature of the Teselecta with the sonic cane, but his sickness gets the better of him. Melody tries to run, but the Teselecta stops her and traps her in force field. The Doctor tells the Teselecta not to kill Melody, but the Teselecta Captain is incredulous as to why. The Doctor states simply, “I’m not dead,” and since he is the one being killed, “what does it have to do with you?” The Teselecta Captain reveals that he and his crew are time travelers looking to exact justice on criminals throughout history who have escaped punishment by catching them at the end of their lifeline and “give them hell.”
The Doctor demands to have the details of his death revealed, and with Amelia’s help, the Teselecta reveals that the Silence are the ones behind Melody’s brainwashing. After asking who the Silence is, the Robot reveals that the Silence are not actually a race, but a religious order who believe that “silence will fall when the question is asked.” “The Question,” apparently, is the oldest question in universe and “hidden in plain sight.” Of course, the Teselecta has no idea what the Question is, leaving the Doctor to complain, as only he can.
As the Doctor is about to die, the Teselecta crew “gives her hell,” and Melody begins to be burned alive. The Doctor insists that Amelia save Melody, so she uses the sonic screwdriver to deactivate all of the Teselecta crew’s green bracelets, leading to the crew having to shut down their entire system to prevent the antibodies from killing them. The Teselecta crew teleport away, but Rory and Amelia are about to be killed by the antibodies. While the Doctor struggles to save them, he accidentally calls Melody River for the third time, leading her to wonder who River is. Moved by his willingness to help her parents despite his own imminent death, she insists on knowing who River is. ..
Just before Rory and Amelia are killed, the TARDIS materializes around them and saves them, but it’s Melody who is piloting it, not the Doctor. She is shocked by the fact it knows her, and that the Doctor told her that “she is a child of the Tardis.” Returning to the dying Doctor, he asks Rory and Amy to let her speak to Melody, where he asks her to deliver a message to River Song. He whispers the message to her, to which she replies, “I’m sure she knows.” The Doctor then…dies.
Melody asks Amy who River Song is, and Amy approaches the Teselecta and asks it to transform into River Song, which it does, revealing to Melody who she really is. Lamenting her crime, River’s hands begin to glow. Melody: “Tell me…is he worth it?” Amelia: “Yes!” She then touches the Doctor and regenerates him, giving him her trademark greeting “Hello Sweetie” for what is, for her, the first time. She then kisses him, as time vortex energy swirls all about them.
A little while later, River awakens in a futuristic hospital bed surrounded by Rory, Amy, and the Doctor, and it is revealed that she sacrificed all her future regenerations to resurrect the Doctor. The attending nurse tells them “She’ll be absolutely fine.” The Doctor replies, “No, she won’t…she’ll be absolutely amazing.” He then gives her the TARDIS journal that had also previously been her trademark.
After leaving her at the hospital, Rory and Amy lament leaving their daughter behind and ask the Doctor why the future River who they’ve met is in prison for murder. The Doctor smiles, and does not answer them. Moments earlier, it is revealed that the Doctor has downloaded the contents of the Teselecta’s memory, and now knows the date of his confrontation with the Astronaut…and his of his own death.
In a final tag, River Song is asked by a professor in the 5zst century “Why do you want to study archaeology?” Clutching her TARDIS journal, she replies that “she’s looking for a good man.”
How will the Doctor react to knowledge of his death going forward? Is River Song the Astronaut? Will he really die? What is the Ultimate Question that the Silence believes will destroy the Universe (and will it)? And what’s the link between the Silence and the One-Eyed Woman? What’s with the Doctor’s new, slightly more rugged look? Is it a sign he is accepting his reputation as a warrior instead of a healer?
Also, where can I get a sonic cane? I really want one.
What we do know now are the basic origins of River Song…though, as stated, her final role in the Doctor’s death remains unknown.
One final intriguing development is that the series finally answered the question of whether or not a Time Lord can actually change race during the regeneration process, which Melody’s changing from Mels to River clearly establishes it as possible. Likely, this means that we might have a non-Caucasian incarnation of the Doctor in our future. May I personally suggest Chiwetel Eliofor?
A really good episode, and as usual for the series, it featured some of Stephen Moffat’s amazingly clever and creative science fiction plotting in clearing up River Song’s origin story, as well as a slew of very funny lines. It’s also incredibly crucial to the overall mythology of the series. Personally, though, the episode has been the latest to take the series into very serious territory, and that has taken a bit of the fun out of it for me. Also after seeing the Doctor being killed, defeated, and outsmarted throughout the first half of the season, seeing him slowly dying for almost half an hour was a bit of a downer, as well as the fact Melody clearly underwent some serious trauma to turn her into a psychopathic killing machine. I also haven’t really been a fan of the chemistry between Matt Smith and Alex Kingston, though they are both undeniably fun in their roles.
Next Week: “Night Terrors”
(Wanted to start my first book piece with something of a little greater literary value, but I happened to read this the other day and felt passionately enough about it to write this up, so here it is.)
Though I have been a fan of superhero comics since youth, I’ve never been one to defend them, as others have been overeager to, as being anything high brow or of great redeeming cultural value. There’s a really good reason for that; though I’ve certainly read comic books and graphic novels which have shown amazing narrative form, surprising intelligence, exceptional creativity, and brilliant illustrations, there’s something that the vast majority share in common that often precludes them from making that further step toward becoming high art and/or high literature. It isn’t one of the common flaws you would think typical of comic book media, such as the ridiculous costumes, implausible names, and exaggerated physiques (all worthy points of criticism and exclusion, to be sure). For me, simply put, it’s the violence. Comic book worlds are wrought with overly trivialized acts of sometimes random, indiscriminate, and even appalling violence. Few, if any, problems in these universes are ever solved through nonviolent means, and those same problems are almost always initially caused by violent transgressions. With that said, violence is an unavoidable and consistent part of our mass entertainment, and when done with proper tone and restraint it can be cathartic and fun in spite of its relative moral dubiousness. However, far too often in modern comic media over the last twenty or so years, and especially so in the last decade, the violence depicted in American mainstream superhero comics has crossed a real fine line, often becoming morbid, unrelenting, unpleasant, and ultimately unredeeming. For me, Marvel Comics’ Ultimatum represents the textbook example of how violence in mainstream comics may have finally gone so far beyond its tipping point that there may be no return.
A limited series published over five issues between late 2008 and summer 2009, Ultimatum was presented as the major climactic culmination of Marvel’s “Ultimate” line of comics. For those unfamiliar with the particularities of comic book publishing, the Ultimate imprint, which once included the continuous series Ultimate Spider-Man, Ultimate X-Men, Ultimate Fantastic Four and additional limited series such as the three Ultimates series (the Ultimates being the imprint’s version of the popular Avengers), was launched in 2000 and its continuity exists independently of the mainstream Marvel Universe. Faced with a reading audience whose average age was skewing far older than ever before, and with both initial X-Men and Spider-man films being released within a few years of each other, Marvel crafted the Ultimate imprint as a way of drawing a new, younger generation into becoming comic book fans. Unencumbered by the mainstream universe’s very dense (and in some cases, borderline impregnable) continuities, the Ultimate imprint reintroduced many of the famous superheroes and supervillains of the Marvel universe and recast their origins in a more contemporary and relevant setting. Beginning with Spider-Man, and then continuing with the X-Men, Fantastic Four, and so on, the Ultimate line was, in essence, an isolated rebooting of the Marvel universe and its iconic characters presented for a new, younger, hipper generation.
Though many older “purists” never embraced the concept and certain aspects of the presentation faced criticism, the idea was initially very successful, both commercially and creatively. The art and writing were mostly consistent, and sometimes, surprisingly sophisticated. After a few years, though, the concept began to sputter a bit, as some attempts to modernize characters were far more successful than others and the line began to grow relatively stagnant. Before long, the Ultimate imprint appeared to lose interest in trying to present their characters to a new generation of readers and instead fell into the same isoteric traps that had plagued the mainstream continuity. The writing itself felt more concerned with appealing to the stalwart fans than attracting new eyes. New approaches to old characters, instead of being fresh interpretations for a new generation, seemed to be more concerned with intriguing (or annoying) longtime fans with their new variations of old characters and storylines than standing on their own. A possible reason for this was that many many writers and artists who worked on the Ultimate line also worked on the mainstream continuity, and as a result the two separate universes began to feel too similar in tone.
Existing independently of the canonical burden placed on the main continuity, the Ultimate line in recent years became more focused on marketing itself as a continuity where “anything can happen;” major characters could, and would, die, and the seemingly biblical rules that held the mainstream in check could be changed at a moment’s notice. In the very beginning of the run, this was actually a good thing, as one of the core strengths of the Ultimate universe was its relative verisimilitude. While characters in the mainstream universe aged gradually, if at all, in the Ultimate universe they aged with more consistency and in better correlation with reality (the Ultimate Iron Man/Tony Stark, for instance, has cancer and thus only has a set amount of time left to live). And then there was the violence: the Ultimate universe, like the mainstream one, was incredibly violent, but the violence was again treated more realistically than in its mainstream counterpart. In addition to being substantially more graphic, catastrophic damage did not repair itself overnight, and many of the series were very frank about the collateral damage in human lives that battles between superhuman demigods could cost. For a case in point, when the Ultimate incarnation of Bruce Banner changed in the middle of downtown Manhattan into his incalculably strong and perpetually enraged counterpart the Hulk, civilians died by the hundreds. Nothing here was sugar-coated, which in the beginning was a refreshing approach and gave the various series an increased gravitas and a more somber poignancy.
However, the Ultimate line inevitably became symptomatic of the “crisis/event” trend that has emerged as a constant in mainstream comics over the last decade, and really since September 11. The conflicts of good and evil in both the Marvel and DC comics universes have, more and more, been played out on an epic scale, with battles involving hundreds of characters and the threat of complete extinction being a constant, overused danger to each of the many universes. Near-apocalypses are nothing new to comic books (superheroes “save the world” as a natural course), but since September 11, manifestations of the death-obsession and teases of the end times have become too numerous to mention. As someone who was tangentially involved in September 11 and has studied post-millenial anxiety, I have personally found comics’ continued representations of the end times to be quite fatiguing, and it has often made catching up on mainstream comic books feel more like a chore than a diversion. It was inevitable that the overarching doomsday fetish in mainstream comics would eventually coincide with the escalating violence particular to the Ultimate universe. And the result of this was Ultimatum.
The story of Ultimatum is not especially complex; after the death of his two children, the superheroes Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, the mutant supervillain Magneto goes insane and, abandoning his ideological desire for mutant supremacy, attempts to annihilate all human life on Earth. Using his magnetic powers to flip the Earth’s magnetic poles and push the planet off its axis, Magneto spawns countless number natural disasters around the globe and within moments murders millions of people, including a fair number of superheroes and supervillains. Faced with the horrific loss of life, Professor X, leader of the X-Men, uses his telepathy to alert the few remaining superheroes of Magneto’s guilt, before himself being murdered in cold blood by his old nemesis. The remaining story focuses on the heroes essentially regrouping, counting their losses, and quelling some various disastrous conflicts before going directly to Magneto’s home base for a final showdown with the Master of Magnetism.
In many respects, Ultimatum reads very much like the comic book equivalent of a snuff film. Dozens of heroes and villains are killed during the course of the story, and in ways that appear horrifically brutal. Dismemberment, incineration, decapitation, drowning, and worse are continuously depicted as happening to characters that have, for years, engendered an emotional attachment to the reader, and some of the most famous characters in Marvel’s history are not excluded from the death toll (including those with their own movie franchises). Even New York City becomes struck down by a tsunami, killing hundreds of thousands of people, and that’s only in the first few pages! Nothing seems beyond the pale here, including suicide bombers and cannibalism.
What’s worse is that the many of the heroes become the perpetrators of some of these violent actions, especially at the climax of the story. And that really gets to the heart of all of the carnage on display in Ultimatum: there’s nothing ultimately (no pun intended) redemptive about any of it. This is just a depiction of nihilistic pain and destruction, seemingly with the only real purpose to show that it could be done. Though written by the acclaimed Jeph Loeb (who had not written for the Ultimate universe prior to this), this feels more like a tawdry, vulgarized fan fiction written by an extremely embittered and sadistic fan then a work of a top grade publishing house. But instead, this was a major comics publisher’s attempt to appeal to its fanbase by advertising the kind of violence that it could not normally get away with. But this is not entertainment, even by post-millenial standards; it’s a fetish for catastrophe, designed to appeal to a limited amount of fans of horrific violence and gore. For an imprint that was designed to broaden comic book readership, one wonders who this was really supposed to appeal to.
To be fair to comic book fans and critics, Ultimatum was near universally panned and rejected upon its completion. According to IVc2, while the first issue was the best-selling comic released that month (at about 115,000 copies sold), the second issue sold about 20,000 less than the debut (which contained the depicted destruction of New York City), and the final issue was about 10,000 less than that one, meaning that it ultimately lost about a quarter of its audience over its duration. In the aftermath of Ultimatum, the Ultimate imprint was rechristened and streamlined as Ultimate Comics, and this month will be relaunched (yet) again.
Reading something like Ultimatum personally made me feel somewhat sad about what superhero comics have turned into. Once upon a time, they were compelling, action-themed soap operas with moralistic cores and engaging characters both good and evil. After the late 1980s and the work of Frank Miller, Alan Moore, and others, they grew more sophisticated and introspective (and violent), but they still understood their basic core appeal. Now, however, they seem more concerned with appropriating the pain and anxiety of our times and using it as fodder for violent spectacles that have abandoned almost all allegorical purpose. Nothing really embodies this more for me than Ultimatum: with its entire appeal designed toward literally tearing down its own heroic world in a violent spectacle of blood and apocalyptic disaster. While as I said, I’ve never considered them high brow or high art, I’ve always considered superhero comics to be quality escapism. But in the end, something like Ultimatum isn’t escapism; it’s something to escape from.
The release of Disney/Pixar’s Cars 2 last month came accompanied by a certain modicum of notoriety. The film, a sequel to the 2006 film Cars, is the 12th feature film produced by Pixar Animation Studios; the latest output from a studio whose name has been near synonymous with “quality.” Over the last sixteen years, Pixar has established the most unenviable dynasty in motion pictures: beginning really with their first feature, 1995’s Toy Story, each Pixar film has succeeded as both a commercial juggernaut and a critical darling, yielding box office earnings often well into the hundreds of millions of dollars (last year’s Toy Story 3 – technically the most successful animated film of all time – topped $1 billion) and such acclaim that the studio has completely dominated the Animated Film category at the Academy Awards for its entire, albeit brief, existence. Of the ten years the Award has existed, Pixar has been nominated eight times – once for every year it was elligible, and was victorious six of those years (and, in my opinion, the loss of Monsters, Inc to Shrek in 2001 was a travesty). Also, though due admmittedly in part to the expanded pool of Best Picture nominees chosen each year, both Up and Toy Story 3 each received the top nomination the last two years; and despite the brouhaha that built between Avatar and Hurt Locker for Best Picture of 2009, that honor, in my opinion, rightfully belonged to Up. The films are additionally remarkable in that their appeal extends far beyond the traditional family audience of animated/Disney fare, having cultivated an “event film” reputation that has extended itself to a decent-sized legion of adult filmgoers. Even to many cineastes and cinema scholars (and especially anti-auteurists), the studio stands as the paragon for collaborative filmmaking; Pixar has always been purported to function as almost a collective, where many voices are allowed to share their opinions and criticisms, with all films being creatively vetted by personnel at all levels of creation and development. Now with the coming of Cars 2, arguments have developed about the current position of Pixar’s once unassailable dynasty. Some, in the face of such elevated expectations, have attempted to write the eulogy for that dynasty; to others, it’s simply one misstep on an ever-developing and growing legacy of films. What (almost) everyone can certainly agree on, though, is this: Cars 2 just wasn’t any good.
As someone who has always enthusiastically enjoyed Pixar’s output, I’m personally more inclined to the latter of these two stated positions. It’s exceedingly rare when anything so great can last more than a little while; it’s just a simple fact that amazing accomplishments often do not, and cannot, maintain. It was inevitable that Pixar would stumble eventually, at least aesthetically, if not commercially (though commercially speaking, Cars 2 has proven largely underwhelming, if still profitable).
Where the issue of Cars 2 becomes disconcerting for fans and observers of Pixar’s success is in the nature of its failure. This film was not a victim of an elevated horizon of expectation; a good effort that simply missed the chance to be great; it was simply a very weak and flawed concept. It is certainly one thing for a film to aim high and misfire, but Cars 2 stands as inauspiciously unambitious for part of the Pixar canon; a canon that, thus far, has been marked by a sense of creative daring, intelligence, and boundless imagination. In comparison to such recent exemplary recent fare such as Ratatouille, Up, and Wall-E, Cars 2 feels instead like a straight up “cash grab.”
The original Cars itself represented perhaps the previous lowpoint of the Pixar dynasty, which in and of itself is hardly a criticism. Directed by Pixar Animation co-founder John Lasseter and set in a world where all forms of life are living, talking, anthropomorphic commercial vehicles (and mainly automobiles), Cars told the story of hotshot race car Lightning McQueen, who learns about the value of community, selflessness, friendship, and simply living while he spends a few days stuck in a small town in the middle of nowhere. Like all Pixar films, Cars was extremely well made, exceptionally creative in its detail work, with an impeccable voice cast (including Paul Newman in one of his final roles), and a genuinely sweet story that conveyed its message fairly well.
It was good, maybe even very good, but it wasn’t great; besides Monsters, Inc, it was the only other Pixar film to lose the Animated Film Oscar in the year it was nominated. It also wasn’t Pixar’s greatest commercial success at the box office, but nor was it the worst. Where it proved extremely successful, however, was in merchandise. With the notable exception of the Toy Story brand, Cars merch remained viable and the brand durable during the five years since the film left theaters. According to the Los Angeles Times just prior to Cars 2‘s theatrical release, revunue from Cars merchandise over the last five years has totalled about $10 billion in revenue, or over twenty times the first film’s overall worldwide box office. The other, very remarkable films I’ve mentioned, such as Up, Wall-E, Ratatouille, or even the far more commercial Incredibles are all superior films by far, but in many cases their profitability did not extend to far past the box office and home media. Two months prior to the release of Up, many alarmist Wall Street analysts actually downgraded Disney’s stock because of their fears about the film’s commercial viability and merchandising potential. They were certainly wrong about the former – the film was a massive success – but merchandise was initially limited to Disney stores and specialty retail outfits. With eyes toward the bottom line, one can see why making a sequel to Cars would seem incredibly practical from the perspective of brand strengthening alone.
In and of itself, there’s nothing wrong with that; Pixar’s track record with sequels, as displayed with the excellent Toy Story films, are hardly anything to sneeze at. For all that the panegyrical praise I (and certainly others) have placed upon Pixar Animation here, they are, and have always been, a commercial enterprise. That they have always managed to maintain creative and qualitative standards while doing so is exemplary, but that doesn’t change the fact that Pixar is about producing blockbuster film properties, first and foremost, and now as the property of the Disney Media conglomerate (their former corporate partners who bought them outright in 2006), it answers that master, or monster, above all.
Whether it was simply a hollow attempt to add longevity to a successful brand or not, it’s actually shocking how antithetical Cars 2 presents itself to Pixar’s traditional standard of filmmaking. Though showing the level of computer-generated, animated artistry typical of the Pixar brand, the movie remains a remarkably ill-conceived endeavor. While the first film was something of a smalltown fish-out-of-water comedy combined with touches of a sports/racing movie, Cars 2 presents itself as something from an entirely different genre – a spy movie, of all things. It’s a jarringly schizophrenic about-face, that’s for sure. According to Lasseter, who returns here as a co-director (and is now the head of all Disney animation), the idea was to create a spy movie without making a parody of one. A large part of the problem, besides the stark shift in tone, is that really doesn’t lend itself to being entertaining. There are moments here that are intended to be funny, and certainly, being set in a world of talking cars is inherently a silly premise, but there is really no farce at play here; it’s pretty much a straight arrow spy movie in a world that is inherently comedic. The film also makes the very strange, and pretty much fatal decision, to give the starrring role to the tow truck Mater (voiced by the comedian Larry the Cable Guy), who in the previous film played a supporting role to Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) and who otherwise defines the phrase “a little bit goes a long way.”
In the film, the incompetent Mater’s borderline uncomfortable boundary issues with Lightning lead to him being confused for an American spy by a pair of British secret agents (Michael Caine and Emily Mortimer), and subsequently drawn into an espionage plot involving alternative fuel sources in a manner that, even by the standards of a film populated by talking cars, feels contrived and threadbare. Overall, the plotline and narrative development felt like a half-hour Saturday morning cartoon (or is it Friday evening nowadays?) stretched to nearly two hours. The characters, who were fairly nuanced in the previous film, are now too simplistic, and their journeys feel especially tiresome and nowhere near compelling enough for the film’s length.
Certainly, one of the film’s greatest problems is the focus on Mater. A.O. Scott, in his review of the film, made the exaggerated but astute comparison that the character feels like Pixar’s equivalent of Jar Jar Binks – a crude, pandering, simplistic, and even offensive stereotype, who wears on our patience instead of earning out interest. Unfortunately, though, unlike Jar Jar, Mater is not a supporting role, but the lead, and it doesn’t help that the character’s social faux pas are often squirm-inducingly awkward instead of endearing and empathetic. The appeal of Larry the Cable Guy (real name: Daniel Lawrence Whitney), whose Southern hick caricature embodies Mater (Whitney is actually a Midwesterner from Nebraska), can be called limited. Whitney’s act is basically designed to be an outrageously unfair caricature designed to appeal to a demographic that is often unfairly caricatured; a backwards hayseed designed to be laughed at by “backwards hayseeds.” Other films featuring the character have been box office failures, and one can only wonder what Lasseter and Pixar were thinking spending $200 million on what amounts to a Larry the Cable Guy vehicle. It’s not my intention to sound elitist here; I’m sure there is plenty about the character that, in the right situation, may possibly be amusing, even funny, and Whitney certainly does have his following. But Cars was smart, in retrospect, to surround Mater with other sources of humor so those not really impressed by Whitney’s act could find other things to be amused by. Here however, it’s all-Mater, all the time.
What feels almost mind-bogglingly stupid about this choice is that Cars 2 has no shortage of amazing comedic voice talent. Besides Wilson, voice actors include Eddie Izzard, Bruce Campbell, John Turturro, and Caine, almost all of whom could be hilarious given the right material but here are provided with few, if any, opportunities to be anything better than occassionally amusing. Caine especially feels wasted; as a movie star, Michael Caine is a creature of two faces – Caine the Actor and Caine the Persona. Caine the Actor is a great, classically trained thespian and one of the most consummate professionals remaining from his generation. Caine the Persona is a self-aware, constantly winking comedy figure with a inimitable cockney dialect, endless charm, and a constant twinkle in his eye. What this movie should have utilized was Caine the Persona. Instead, Caine the Actor has little to do but play things fairly straight and even. The idea, certainly, of Michael Caine giving voice to a spy character lends itself to farcical and satirical potential, but he was consistantly funnier playing superspy Harry Palmer over forty years ago than he is here.
Though generally antithetical to the Pixar approach, Cars 2 still illustrates the studio’s strong point – it’s unmatched standard in computer animation. That element here remains peerless and unbelievably detailed; the plot traverses three countries as part of a Worldwide “grand prix” series of races, and Pixar holds back nothing in recreating Tokyo, Rome, and London as reminagined in the Cars universe. Some sequences are even quite breathtaking, including an opening action set piece involving the Caine character on an oil platform. Clearly, the flaws in Cars 2 are not of craftmanship; the work of Lasseter and many different visionary minds with hundreds of clever ideas are on display here, retaining the collective approach that has made Pixar an amazing brand. But in the end, it all serves a mediocre central concept, one that seemed ultimately more designed to be an ungodly expensive toy commercial than a suitably entertaining and engaging motion picture.
Right now, it’s too early to tell if Cars 2 will be able to maintain the strength of the Cars brand or if it will be a brand killer; I personally suspect that the end result will lie somewhere in the middle. Certainly, children may even enjoy Mater’s low brow antics enough to want to keep buying Cars themed products for years to come. Hopefully, though, this may mean the end of Cars films; while Cars 2 is on track to do nearly as well as its predecessor, its box office success has been dramatically inflated by increased ticket prices and the premium price placed on 3D screenings.
So what does this say about Pixar and its dynasty going forward? It’s hard to say. As flawed as Cars 2 is, one misfire does not make a trend. Given however, that the fiduciary imperitive seems to have superceded all questions of quality here is so atypical of Pixar that one must wonder whether it remains a key concern for the studio. And with the Cars franchise being so much “the baby” of John Lasseter, in many respects, makes one wonder if one voice has come to dominate the direction of the collaborative Pixar Studios too much.
The hope remains, however, that in the overall scheme of Pixar’s approach, that Cars 2 stands as an anomaly: an obvious merchandise builder that will allow the studio the leeway to continue making films such as Up and Wall-E without concerning its corporate master with worries about stock downgrades. If Pixar’s track record has shown anything, it’s that they are not stupid, and I’m sure the failings of Cars 2 will be something the studio ultimately learns from. One can even make the argument that taking such a misstep can actually be a good thing, as failure can be the mortal enemy of complacency. It’s possible that Cars 2 may force the studio to up its game over the next few years to ensure that such a misfire does not repeat itself.
While hardly a perfect comparison, I can’t help but view the Pixar dynasty as similar to that of Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock may rightly be called the greatest and perhaps the most important commercial filmmaker of all time, who rarely let his passion for the artistic side of his craft get in the way of its commercial viability. Though while he has an endless list of legendary films, such as Psycho, Notorious, North by Northwest, Vertigo,and Rear Window, he also had his misfires (Torn Curtain, Jamaica Inn, Topaz, and The Trouble with Harry, to name a few). In the end, however, those films did not undermine his amazing canon; if anything, they may have given it more character.
So, in the end, Cars 2 should not be seen as the end of the Pixar Dynasty, but the nature of its failure, I feel, should be seen as a crack in the foundation the studio has built upon for the last sixteen years. What matters most is how Pixar Animation responds to it: will they ignore it, sit on their laurels, count their merchandise money, and let the foundation crumble further (which, in many respects, is what happened to Walt Disney Studio’s feature animation division back in the 1960’s all the way through the late 80’s)? Or will they learn from it, reinforce their foundation, and make their dynasty stronger as they carry on into this new millenium? I personally hope the answer to the latter is yes. Because truly, in the end, sometimes true greatness isn’t found within the measure of success, but in the ability to recover from failure.
So much has been written eulogizing the American western that to continue heaping laments on it can only be seen as repetitive and utterly redundant. Needless to say, the Western has been more or less dead for a long time now, with a few fleeting reprises every now and then reminding us how great they used to be. Sometimes very rarely, like the excellent 2007 film 3:10 To Yuma or the Coen brothers’ recent True Grit (both, it should be noted, are remakes), they remind us of how great they could still be. Cowboys & Aliens is not one of those Westerns, nor even that fond reminder of how great they used to be. Instead, it just reminds us of the very stubborn mentality that has kept the Western a dead commodity; the belief that Westerns can no longer be just Westerns…that they somehow have to be hybrids instead.
As anyone who has seen a commercial for Cowboys & Aliens already knows, the film mixes Western and science fiction genres (the latest in a largely unremarkable line), telling the story of a group of Western types and archetypes colliding with alien invaders who want nothing more than destroy the human race. Chief among the Westerners is Jake Lonnergan (Daniel Craig), an amnesiac stage coach robber, and Colonel Dollarhyde (Harrison Ford), a rough hewn rancher and veteran of many of the major American wars of the 19th century, who must lead a rag tag posse of average townsfolk to rescue their assorted loved ones after they’ve been captured by mysterious “demons” who plunge out of the sky and lasso people like stray cattle.
An initially large problem with Cowboys & Aliens exists in its choice in tone. The film plays its subject matter almost entirely straight, which I normally find appropriate, but here I would have preferred it if they went either far more tongue-in-cheek or, alternatively, more allegorical and earnest in tone. When I first heard about the film, and that director Jon Favreau would be the one helming it, I personally hoped, and even expected, something along the lines of The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., one of my personal favorite one season wonders and among the best, and first, of the Western-Sci-fi hybrids. Brisco County was a rousing, clever, funny series of romps filled with old fashioned derring-do that never took itself too seriously. After enjoying the comedic flourish that were key to both Iron Man movies, I somewhat expected Favreau to add that same touch to a film with a title as silly as Cowboys & Aliens, but that was not to be, and the film is far less entertaining, and certainly more blase, for it.
On the other hand, Cowboys & Aliens could have also worked better by going the opposite direction; there were many deeper themes that the film could have incorporated that were ultimately left untouched. The obvious one to me was the notion inherent in most Westerns, Manifest Destiny. I mean, there really is an obvious irony when the predominantly white Europeans attempting to conquer the untamed West and its assorted indigenous cultures themselves face extinction from an another eradicating race. The role of technology and the Industrial Revolution (a theme featured prominently in the 3:10 To Yuma remake) in the taming of the West would have been another. Or even, if they just wanted to go the sentimentalized route, they could have made something out of the idea that the strength and toughness of American character of those who lived in the West was enough to conquer invaders from space. Instead, in a reoccuring action that almost becomes an unintended running gag, the Cowboys and Indians fighting the aliens are best able to hold their own because they have horses that can be killed before they are. The film, however, doesn’t touch upon any of these themes, and generally does its level best to stay subtext-free. The only exception on hand involves the Indians (as in, Native Americans) with whom the Cowboys eventually form an alliance. The film treads upon the tired theme in contemporary Hollywood cinema of revising the horrors of colonial genocide by making the white characters ultimately benevolent to the colonized. But really, it’s hardly special in that regard.
Cowboys & Aliens is not without its qualities. I found some of the little touches of UFO and abductee culture referenced by the film to be pretty clever, and many of the action scenes were perfectly solid. The supporting cast is superb, including Sam Rockwell, Clancy Brown, Keith Carradine, Paul Dano, and Walton Goggins. But they represent a double edged sword as well, given that some of the material simply falls short of the quality of the actors. Harrison Ford was also something of a disappointment; one would think he would be in his element in a Western, but there were many times his performance felt overly anachronistic. The lovely Olivia Wilde, too, as a mysterious woman trying to help Lonnergan regain his memory, also demonstrated that she hasn’t yet found her breakthrough “superstar” role.
The script itself felt like it could have used additional rewrite or two (of course, given the credited four writers, the opposite might be more accurate). The film has a good first act, and introduces some potentially interesting characters, but then they are subsequently abducted by the aliens and remain offscreen for the rest of the story. The Dollarhyde character, too, seems in his introduction to be a villain, but before long he’s very clearly one of the film’s heroes. It’s actually a really jarring situation, and it may be why Ford’s performance suffers as much as it does.
It would be highly unfair to call the movie overtly bad, but it would be equally so to call it good; it’s ultimately just kind of there. For me, Cowboys & Aliens falls firmly into the category of what I call a “cable movie”: if you come across it on a cable channel some afternoon or late at night, it may suck you in. You may watch it, moderately enjoy it, but then barely remember it twenty minutes after it’s over.
In the greater scheme of the post-Western era, Cowboys & Aliens will probably be little more than a footnote, if that. But while watching it, as I watched so many of the modes and methods, types and tropes of the Western genre getting subsumed by elements of science fiction, they almost felt atrophied. And it made me think about where the Western stands now, and where it may stand going forward. Thirty and forty years ago, many of the emerging visionaries that redefined the culture of American filmmaking learned to be filmmakers by watching the great and classic Westerns of Ford and Hawks. Nowadays, when Westerns are referenced, those references seem to go back no further than Sergio Leone and the spaghetti Westerns. It made me wonder if the time may someday come where filmmakers may no longer ween themselves on Westerns at all, and if all that will be left representing it to future generations will be movies like Cowboys & Aliens. If that does happen, then they won’t make them like they used to…only like what we’re used to.
“No matter what happens tomorrow…remember to be true to who you are. Not a perfect soldier…but a good man.”
Call this sort of a companion piece to my previous entry on Green Lantern, where I discussed why I felt it was such a tremendous failure. Having just seen Captain America: The First Avenger, which was a wonderfully fun “popcorn movie” that fired on nearly all cylinders, I felt compelled almost to use it as a way of reemphasizing my point by discussing why, in contrast, this film worked so very well.
Certainly, Captain America has some advantages that Green Lantern did not – for starters, most people could probably pick the title character out of a line-up. All things being equal, Captain America is better known as an image than he is as a character, and for many years, like the Lantern has been considered a B-level hero in popularity. But unlike the Green Lantern, whose backdrop is wacky, alien landscapes with extraterrestrial populations, Captain America is grounded very much in our history and cultural memory; a walking piece of wartime propaganda who lives on as a dependable exemplar of American ideals. Nevertheless, Captain America can be a slippery slope all his own – a superhero whose image screams “corn,” and who can, at first appearance, seem as two-dimensional as the parchment Thomas Jefferson wrote his little Declaration on some 235 years ago.
In that regard, the makers of Captain America tried to, successfully, invoke a different time – when patriotism was non-partisan and non-ideological, and good and evil were questions of existence instead of existential thought. It’s the type of movie that kind of reminds us of why people ever really cared about superheroes to begin with…they were amazing, they were fun, they were idealistic, and they were unequivocally good. Set during the Second World War, during the era where the superhero first made his appearance as a short-lived but popular patriotic character in Timely Comics (where he was created by Joe Simon and the legendary Jack Kirby), the film evokes a vibrant retroactive nostalgia for what is probably best called “the myth of World War II:” the illusionary narrative where the good guys always conquered bad guys, everything came up wine and roses, and the decimations of war and genocide were subsumed in favor of patriotism and inspiration. And in the right situation, there’s really nothing wrong with that all. It’s important to remember, it was the creation of that myth that helped win us that War in the first place. And there is no more lasting vestige of that myth than old Captain America (or Cap, to his friends and fans).
The film relates the story of Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), a scrawny, sickly, scrappy kid from Brooklyn desperate to fight for his country, and his journey and transformation into becoming the eponymous star-spangled super hero of wide renown. After being rejected repeatedly from Army enlistment stations as unfit for duty due to his diminutive physical stature and medical history, Rogers, through a chance meeting with emigre military scientist Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), is given the chance to potentially take part in the government’s top secret Super Soldier program. Impressing Erskine and project leaders Colonel Philips (Tommy Lee Jones) and Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwill) with his ingenuity, bravery, and compassion, Rogers becomes the first and only test subject for Erskine’s transformation process, which grants him heightened physical abilities including enhanced strength and increased size. When the process is sabotoged by members of the Nazi breakaway group Hydra, Rogers is still denied the opportunity to fight, exiled into performing as the character Captain America at bond rallies in vibrantly splashy stage numbers. Going into action on his own and rescuing American and Allied troops from the clutches of Hydra, Rogers earns himself the respect of his fellow soldiers and the opportunity to see battle as a real, genuine Captain America. Opposing Cap at the head of Hydra is his Nazi supersoldier counterpart Johann Schmidt, AKA the appropriately named Red Skull (Hugo Weaving). Along with his henchman Dr. Armin Zola (Toby Jones), the Red Skull seeks to harness an otherworldly power source that may allow Hydra to take over the world…
Captain America, on its own merits, may not be a great movie, but it would be almost impossible to call it a bad one. It’s one of those cases where not all the parts are great, but nearly all of them are good, and as a result you have a movie that hits a certain level of quality and manages to maintain it all the way through. At the core of it is an outstanding cast – Evans is extremely likable and grounded as Rogers, and avoids the broad caricature that other interpretations of Cap often fall victim to, and the lovely Atwill has what is likely a breakthrough role as his love interest. Tommy Lee Jones is as dependably gruff and lovable as ever, and Tucci gives the film’s best performance as Erskine; his scenes with Rogers are by far the film’s most poignant and philosophical. As for Weaving and Toby Jones, they reminded me a great deal of Basil Rathbone and Claude Rains in consistency if not in approach; they can probably play villains like these in their sleep yet still do them better than anyone else. The film also offers some of the best use of CGI I’ve seen in quite a while; to present the effect of the pre-Cap Rogers, Evans’s head was digitally placed on the body of a much smaller man, and the effect is remarkably seamless (admittedly, for issues of personal adequacy, I desperately wanted to believe that Evans’s Captain America physique was some miracle of CGI, but no such luck) . The script is alternatively funny, touching, and exciting, but never so much of any of the three that it manages to overwhelm the material. And director Joe Johnston, himself a veteran of so many period films, such as the thematically similar The Rocketeer, knows very well how to evoke the nostalgic elements of these earlier times.
But there is more to the success of the whole of Captain America than the sum of its admirable parts (and I’m not talking about Cap’s ludicrous pecs). Just as Green Lantern failed by never understanding its character or the world around it, Captain America succeeds because it precisely understands the appeal of its hero, and it’s creators crafted the film outwardly from there. A shining example of this occurs in an absolutely marvelous montage sequence that could have been drawn directly out of a 1940’s musical (Yankee Doodle Dandy comes directly to mind), which encapsulates Cap’s touring as Captain America, performing an Alan Mencken-penned song-and-dance number. In these numbers, Rogers wears a cheesy felt version of the “classic,” and admittedly silly, Captain America outfit, where he sings a song and basically makes a fool out of himself, before knocking out a Hitler lookalike at the climax of each performance. The beautiful thing about the sequence is that it is postmodern and self-aware without being ironic. It sends up the cornball aspects of the Captain America image to emphasize the more authentic one. It displays a level of awareness and sophisticated understanding about this character that the makers of Green Lantern probably couldn’t even fathom.
The thing that has always made Captain American unique in the world of Marvel Comics (within which he reemerged in the early-sixties and has maintained a constant presence ever since), is that he is, within the Marvel continuity, something of a straight man to everyone else. While Marvel has always been known as the home of “heroes with issues,” Steve Rogers has always been the “normal” one, whose main conflict has always been that the world around him is gray when he mainly sees things in black and white. In this film, we’re given the earlier version of Captain America – the one before the world went irrevocably gray, and where superheroes were superheroes because they were heroes.
In a separate piece that I’m currently been revising for publication here, I partially discuss how the duality of good and evil have become blurred in the new millenium, and in ways that have been positive and negative. Certainly, Captain America embraces the sharp duality of good and evil, but what I greatly appreciated was that it precisely champions the qualities of good and demonizes the qualities of evil. It’s hardly a searing examination of either, but often other stories of heroes and villains are dependent on motive and psychological impulse. Batman, for instance, is driven to fight crime by the death of his parents and Spider-man by the guilt over failing to save his uncle from being killed by a criminal he let escape. Captain America, however, is a hero because he understands the difference of right and wrong, pain and loss, triumph and sacrifice due simply from his own quality of character in the face of a life of adversity as “the little guy.” Everything we understand about Steve Rogers he wears on his sleeve, and from the first time in the film he laments that others are giving their lives for his country and the he should not be expected to do anything less, we know everything about him that we need to know. Captain America deftly reminds us that the main job of a hero is not simply to fight evil, but to help his fellow man – who, with simply a little change in circumstances, could have been a hero themselves.
In contrast to Rogers – who, ironically, would be the physical embodiment of the Nazi Ubermensch – is the Red Skull. Like Cap, he wears his personality skin deep (though perhaps more literally), but his character’s evil within the film is the thematic opposite of Cap’s goodness. While Cap sees himself as just another soldier, the Red Skull sees himself as a god among all men. Many reviews I’ve read have commented a great deal on how this film upholds the tradition of using Nazis are such dependable villains, but the film actually takes great pains to establish Hydra as a rejection of Nazism, and Schmidt actually makes a point of disparaging Hitler’s fascistic ideal. The Red Skull of the film certainly does share the Fuhrer’s own self-deification, but his evil is almost more a byproduct of objectivism than fascism. This Red Skull is not about finding the ideal, he’s about placing everyone beneath him, and therein lies the contrasts between both he and Hitler and he and Cap. For a movie so heavily steeped in nostalgia, I think there is a contemporary point being made here.
What, in many respects, separates Cap from so many other heroes, truly, is that he is not a Demigod made flesh, but the Ideal Soldier – one who defends his country, regardless of the sacrifice, regardless of the odds; who fights bravely and for the right reasons, and ultimately, albeit in slightly altered fashion, gives his life so that others may live. And certainly, from Cap’s enduring heroism comes the film’s almost wonderful nostalgic feel, from its excellent Yankee Doodle Dandy inspired USO montage, to its almost newsreel like sequences (well, if newsreels were ever directed by Michael Bay) depicting Cap’s heroic career, to its romance, to its humor, to its pure uncynical heart. Of course, Captain America: The First Avenger, is not, in and of itself, the end of our hero’s journey. But that story gets told on another day. (That “another day,” of course, is coming in May 2012.)
Of course, the one real problem I had with the film was that the studio felt the need to tack on the awkward subtitle of The First Avenger, which will actually be used as an alternate title in foreign markets where it is felt that anything with “America” in it will foster resentment and drive away business. It’s a sad and deeply cynical state of affairs when the image of our country, that so many people over the last 235 years have given their life for, has come to this. I wonder what old Cap would have to say about that?
Well, after seeing Green Lantern, the long-awaited if not necessarily anticipated film version of the popular DC Comics superhero, I kind of knew I had to write about it…but for some reason, a regular old review didn’t seem to be quite enough. Or perhaps I should say “bad review,” because this movie was plenty bad. But for me, the reasons why a movie is bad, especially when it costs a ridiculous amount of money to make, is always far more interesting that just outright emphasizing how terrible a movie is. And hopefully, for someone somewhere, more constructive.
It bears significant emphasizing, though, that Green Lantern is pretty terrible, and the tepid response it has received from fans and critics and at the box office – $52 million it’s first weekend, with a large portion of that inflated due to 3D – only cements that fact. Nearly two weeks in, it has made only about $125m, or less than 40% of its estimated $325 million production and marketing budget (numbers courtesy of BoxOfficeMojo), essentially rendering what was intended to be new movie franchise dead on arrival. The film rather underwhelmingly tells the origin story of the Green Lantern, Hal Jordan, played by Ryan Reynolds – who does a lousy job, but he’s honestly among the least of the film’s problems. An all around hotshot test pilot in the cliched Top Gun mold, Jordan ends up recruited by a dying member of the Green Lantern Corps (kind of an intergalactic police force made up of aliens of various races), to be its newest member. Armed with a green ring that projects energy constructs fueled by its wearer’s will (or something like that), Jordan must win acceptance from the elite Corps members, including the hard-nosed alien chief Lantern Sinestro (Mark Strong), battle a planet consuming entity named Parallax, defeat the insane psychic-powered, cranial enhanced villain Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard), and woo his boss and true love Carol Ferris (a miscast and overly gamine Blake Lively). Chosen by his ring because he apparently knows no fear, though the film stupefyingly takes great pains to emphasize that the opposite is true, Jordan’s journey takes him to Oa, homeplanet of the Guardians of the Universe – sort of the governing body of the Corps – and, well, a few particular locations on Earth, I guess. The relative lack of scenery change in such as supposedly epic movie is another of this movie’s issues, actually.
Its hard, really, to choose simply one place to start to describe the relative “badness” of this movie, but I’ll try to keep it to the macro. The film isn’t attrociously bad, like this year’s Green Hornet, or even entertainingly bad, like, oh…let’s say The A-Team. It’s just a flat, boring, numbing kind of bad. The script feels like it was culled together from the best,or perhaps I should say the most functional, scenes from a number of writers’ drafts (the film credits four), with expositional dialogue by Geoffrey Rush (who voices one of the ancilliary Lanterns) filling in the gaps in the story. Hal Jordan as a character just feels like a hodge podge of types ‘n tropes – he’s a womanizer, he lacks confidence, he’s sarcastic, he’s good to his nephew, he has issues with his father’s death – more than a defined character taking a journey we actually care about, and his relationship with his love interest Ferris is just a non-starter. The villain Hector Hammond, seems here like a refugee from another super-hero movie, since he has almost no real thematic or narrative conflict with Jordan or his girlfriend, and again, though the movie takes great pains to emphasize that Hammond is “driven by fear,” he’s never actually afraid of anything. He’s still better than Parallax, though, who is basically little more than a talking cloud of golden smog.
Perhaps worst of all, as mentioned, is that this film just feels small. The CGI often looks painfully bad and woefully inartistic, as if it was more concerned with looking expensive than looking believable, and as such the movie never conveys any of the sense of wonder that Jordan (and by proxy, the audience) should be feeling from his situation. It’s jokey, though never funny, dialogue also serves to suck whatever urgency there should be in the story, especially from a story that needs to take itself seriously since so many of its elements are borderline ridiculous (I personally also think that any movie that shows skyscrapers being knocked over and people being killed en masse should take itself seriously to a point). What remains is movie that should have been epic, but never even feels intimate – it’s just one scene or set piece happening after another, without momentum, excitement, and scarcely a quantum of fun.
As has been made clear in much of its publicity, Warner Bros. had pinned a lot of hopes on Green Lantern to supposedly be the beginning of a new franchise that will produce future blockbusters now that the Harry Potter series is about to end, and with Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy apparently having its denouement next summer. It seems though, that in being given custodianship of the Green Lantern franchise, that Warner Bros has done nearly everything wrong in trying to build excitement for a character that, paradoxically, has an ardent (pun not intended) following among comic book fans but almost no mainstream recognition (as this spot-on bit by the Onion News Network makes quite clear). While I was in New York City last week, I couldn’t walk a block without seeing an advertisement for Green Lantern, none of which would have been moderately appealing to someone who did not know the character. In comparison, the Harry Potter novels were already a cultural phenomenon before its first movie was released, and Batman has been one of the best known characters in popular culture for decades. Faced with an already uphill battle, Warners did nothing to account for that familiarity gap, and the comparatively low opening weekend numbers reflect that.
I should state, before continuing, that I am, and really have been since I was 12, a fan of Green Lantern comics, and especially of the Hal Jordan character – the most famous, but certainly not the only character to wear the mantle (nor was he was even the first). Certainly, Green Lantern has always been one of those demarcating lines between true comic book fans and casual comic book fans: if you read Green Lantern, you were a genuine comic book nerd…if you didn’t, enjoy your Spider-man and X-Men, poser! It’s an exaggeration, but only a mild one…Green Lantern was a fan’s hero because he often felt like the standard bearer of an isoteric secret society. In recent years, DC comics, who publishes the character, has found great success in making Hal Jordan more of a central character in their overall continuity, especially as the audience has hewn closer to the older collector’s market and less toward a juvenile audience, and it’s only natural that they, as well as the fans, would be enthusiastic to build upon that increased stature by seeing him as the subject of a major movie franchise. I suppose that would include myself, but I can honestly say that my expectations about the quality of this movie were already so dimmed that this movie did little to offend me as a fan when I actually saw it. But I do think it gives me some perspective as to what the appeal of Green Lantern is, and where Warners went completely wrong in their approach to adpating it.
Now why has Green Lantern had such a die hard fan following in the first place? There are two primary reasons. The first, is that he plays well with others, in that he is at his best playing off of other superheroes. While this works extremely well in the “crossovers” that are commonplace in comic book literature, it naturally doesn’t translate well to the realm of motion pictures. Secondly, though, unlike Batman, Superman, or Wonder Woman, all of whom are god-like in their own particular ways, Hal Jordan is, at his best, an excellent audience surrogate. Jordan is not and has never been a wisecracking, one-liner spewing alpha male with deep-ceded angst and anxiety. He is actually more subtle and nuanced than the relatively straight arrowed, lantern-jawed do-gooder he initially appears to be. Jordan is usually portrayed as a genuinely a good person, and authentically fearless; he’s also compassionate and thoughtful, but not always completely knowledgable, and capable of making mistakes and learning from them. His traditional arch-nemesis, the rogue Lantern Sinestro, is his opposite: equally fearless but also distant, cold, unyielding, and ruthless. But what his character’s greatest strength, and in some ways it is also his greatest flaw, is that he is judgmental. It’s not the world Hal Jordan lives in that is the appeal to his character, it’s how that character reacts to that world. Hal Jordan is always quick to point out hypocrisy and injustice – in say, how the Guardians of the Galaxy react to a crisis effecting a less developed civilization – and that’s why he appeals to the comic book reader: in worlds wacky, weird, and wild, he is not a cartoonish byproduct of those worlds – he is the reader’s voice of reason who is capable of articulating their response and acting on it.
Now, realisitcally, film and comics are completely different mediums and certain sacrifices have to be made when transferring a character and his universe to the screen. I’m not saying Warners needed to show a slavish devotion to cannon nor should they not have had reasonable latitude in adapting the character as they see fit. In fact, I often prefer it when a character or mythology is adapted significantly from its base material – one of the unique traits of comics mythologies are their relative malleability, which only enhances the strengths and timelessness of their character’s myths. Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight series has been much and justifiably praised, but in truth it is not a very strict adaptation of Batman’s comic origins. But Nolan and company still captured the core dynamic of Batman’s mythos that made it so interesting for decades, and it carried through despite its many adaptive alterations. Where Green Lantern goes wrong, at its very core, is that director Martin Campbell and the executives at Warner’s clearly did not understand what they had with the Green Lantern myth, and it shows every step of the way. Looking at the marketing of this movie and listening to a number of the things that were said by its creators publicly, its clear they thought the appeal of Green Lantern was in the more sci-fi/outer space/alien aspects of the character’s universe, and otherwise assumed that the otherwise vocal minority of Green Lantern fans’ entusiasm would compensate for the mainstream’s lack of familiarity.
Posters and advertisements showing a glowing Ryan Reynolds flanked by other alien Lantern Corps members does not engender interest or excitement – it makes one think of Star Trek and Star Wars, and makes it either pale in comparison or just overly nerdy. Indeed, the main problem with Green Lantern as a property is that to sell it you have to find a way to overcome the (for lack of a better term) geekier elements of the mythology, and instead emphasize what ultimately works about the character and clarify why someone would want to see it.
Its clear, from marketing through to the finished product, that the people behind the film just did not know what that was, and ultimatley tried to define their movie by taking from what worked elsewhere. Certainly, watching Green Lantern, I honestly kept being reminded of 2008’s Iron Man. Iron Man shines as one of the best examples of blockbuster moviemaking over the last decade, for the simple fact that it managed to create a successful superhero film and franchise seemingly out of almost whole cloth. Given a B-level superhero with a marginal following, a faded but well known and undeniably talented Hollywood burnout as a star (Robert Downey Jr.), a fledgling LLC movie studio (Marvel Studios), and a comedy actor/writer/director as a helmer (Jon Favreau), the film could have been a catastrophe. Instead, from its first, much-lauded trailer through to its ultimate finished product, Iron Man was a complete success because it understood its character and the appeal that character ultimatly had – a high-living, saracastic capitalist learns the meaning of responsibility and redeems himself by becoming a superhero, who happened to be played by a formerly high-living movie star who learned the meaning of responsibility and was redeeming himself by making a blockbuster. It struck a chord at the outset, and then when it came time to play the song, knew all the words and music.
Green Lantern exists as a marked contrast, where the filmmakers clearly didn’t know what they had with Hal Jordan and his universe, nor had they any idea what they should do with it or what it should be about. They thus went with what was most superficial about the character, his iconography and his acoutrements, as well as imitated what they had seen work before. Indeed, like Iron Man, they cast a mostly comedic actor and gave him a great deal of sarcastic dialogue, because that’s what worked for that hero, so why shouldn’t it work for this one? But just like no one saw Iron Man just to see someone walking around in a red and gold CGI suit, no one was going to see this movie for some guy in green day-glo hanging out with phony looking aliens. There needed to be something more, and in the end, it was clear there was nothing at the core because the filmmakers didn’t know what that something should be. In the end, why Green Lantern failed was because someone committed nearly a third of billion dollars toward something they did not understand nor tried to make into something understandable. Without that, all the issues I listed above simply fell over like dominoes, one problem after another after another compounding themselves until all that was left was a multimillion dollar green turkey.
As a fan of the Green Lantern, I’d like to think some day a Christopher Nolan or Jon Favreau will come along and create an interpretation that works, and maybe even get a successful movie out of it to boot. If so, in the long run, this blip on the pop culture radar ultimately may mean nothing. But on its own, the movie Green Lantern is just another lesson that Hollywood never seems to learn, that it’s not what you spend, but what you earn; it’s the thought and care and consideration that ultimately yields the best results; even, and perhaps especially, for a movie based on a comic book. If Green Lantern‘s publicity, marketing, and rationale have yielded any triumph, its as a lesson of the power, and danger, of Hollywood’s self-equivocation.
If you are actually interested in reading/watching suitable adaptations of Green Lantern’s origin I would wholeheartedly recommend Darwyn Cooke’s graphic novel DC: The New Frontier, which casts Hal Jordan as a pacifist and Korean war veteran whose fearlessness against the scorn of others earns him his power ring (it was adapted into a decent animted movie entitled Justice League: The New Frontier). Current DC Comics chief creative guru Geoff Johns also wrote Green Lantern: Secret Origins, which is available as a trade paperback and would have been perfectly suited for being the basis of the film verison, as it captures the character of Hal Jordan and his psychological underpinnings rather well. Finally, I would also recommend the animated Green Lantern: First Flight, which does a pretty good job with establishing for the uninitiated the Green Lantern Corps mythology and the Hal Jordan/Sinestro arch-rivalry.
(Wow, those are lousy trailers…)
A few people have sent this to me, so I thought I would post some brief comments here about it. Overall, it’s an interesting list. I don’t particularly agree with all of it, but I think they did a good job including a more varied listing of films than one would probably expect from such a narrow classification. I’m listing them here in reverse order, with my thoughts next to each.
10. Iron Man (2008) – This probably would have been on my list, too, and maybe a little higher. Actually a terrific mix of humor, gravitas, and allegorical content, with perhaps the best casting of a lead role in the history of super hero films. It also proves that you could produce a blockbuster film using a secondary superhero, provided that it was done right.
9. Watchmen (2009) – Hmmm…I’m reminded of what Mario Puzo once said about The Godfather as a novel versus a film – in essence, the movie may have been one of the twenty greatest films of all time, while the novel wasn’t even one of the best books of its year. The inverse is somewhat true about Watchmen – the original graphic novel is still perhaps the best ever written, but what worked on the page did not always click on screen, much of which had to do with historical context and conformity to mainstream filmmaking. It’s still a very good movie, and maybe top ten worthy, but I’m not positive of that.
8. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993) – Inspired choice, though the actual animated series (still holds up as one of the best of all time) had many episodes that were actually far, far better. Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker was also probably just as good.
7. The Rocketeer (1991) – It’s been probably close to two decades since I’ve seen this so it’s not exactly fresh in my mind, but I remember it being more likable than good. I might want to give it a second look.
6. Blade II (2002) – Guillermo del Toro did a very good job with it, but the first film was better overall. Wouldn’t have included.
5. Superman II (1980) – A good effort that didn’t quite follow through on its potential, no doubt in large part due its script problems and the creative upheaval that came from Richard Donner’s firing during production. Might have made the cut, but not over the first film.
4. Unbreakable (2000) – Another very good idea that didn’t live up to its potential. I had actually read the script long before the film was made, so it’s twists weren’t actually surprising to me at the time. This is a case where I think Shyamalan’s script would have been better served in the hands of another director.
3. Spider-man 2 (2004) – If they had selected this for number 1, I wouldn’t have argued with it. A thoroughly human story interwoven in a superhero adventure, with perfectly realized casting.
2. The Dark Knight (2008) – Would have been my number 1 – arguably the American film of the first decade of the 21st century – a trenchant allegory of the War on Terror and Post-9/11 consciousness, disguised as a superhero film, but treated with the reverence of an epic urban crime drama.
1. The Incredibles (2004) – Another choice I wouldn’t argue with, and certainly would have been in my top five. Another of the true gems of the Pixar dynasty.
Notable (Questionable) Exclusions –
Superman (1978) – Still the progenitor of superhero movies, not without its flaws, but unmatched for its sense of grandeur and wonderment.
Batman (1989) – one of the most significant films in Hollywood history for the impact it had on blockbuster filmmaking beyond simply superhero films, and it still holds up fairly well.
X2: X-Men United (2003) – One of the better sequels you’ll ever see, with an exceptional third act. Certainly the best superhero “team” film yet made.
Batman Begins (2005) – Perhaps the best origin film, that perfectly captures the psychological underpinnings of perhaps the most famous of superheroes.
This entry contains spoilers, specifically for those who have not yet watched Game of Thrones.
This week was a somewhat interesting one for me, as I was able to screen two pieces that essentially epitomize two polar ends of a particular genre – the fantasy epic (or “high fantasy.”) On Sunday, I watched what will likely go down a benchmark installment of the series Game of Thrones, entitled “Baelor,” in which the series’ closest approximation to a main character, Eddard “Ned” Stark (played by Sean Bean, also the series’ “star”) was killed off in what was only the ninth episode. Two days later, I began what will be three straight weeks of rewatching, in theatres, each installment of Peter Jackson’s blockbuster adaptation of JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy with The Fellowship of the Ring (these will be remastered versions of the Extended Editions – which have rarely been shown in theaters, having been produced mainly for the home DVD market). This coming Tuesday, I’ll be attending the screening of the next installment, The Two Towers, and the week after that will be a viewing The Return of the King. In viewing each film, I was struck by their obvious similarities and dissimilarities, and the ways in which each succeed on their own terms and in their own way. They also put into perspective how each of the works, and their source material, broaden the view one can take of a film and literary genre that most would perceive rather narrowly – myself included.
I’m sure The Lord of the Rings (or LOTR) really needs very little introduction for those who are reading this now – based on the fantasy epic first published in the 1950s and which represented a major literary milestone in the true maturation of the “epic fantasy” – the films are among the most financially successful and best remembered movies from the last decade. Made simultaneously by Jackson and a massive cast and crew, the three films generated billions in box office and merchandising, as well as substantial critical acclaim and awards recognition (the last film Return of the King, was awarded the Best Picture Academy Award and ties the record for most Oscars won by a film in a single year). It tells concurrent stories, the main of which focuses on Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood), a young hobbit (or halfling) from the pastoral Shire who must make an epic journey, against all odds, into the heart of the land of Mordor to destroy the magical ring of the Dark Lord Sauron and vanquish him forever. (Why any Dark Lord in good standing undertake the seemingly self-defeating strategy of putting all of his evil power into a ring still has been never been explained to my satisfaction, but in tales within which orcs play a significant role, sometimes logic must abide). With the distant support of his friends, including the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan), the exiled king Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), and the elf-turned-teen heartthrob Legolas (Orlando Bloom) , and the immediate support of his fellow hobbit Samwise (Sean Astin), Frodo ultimately completes his mission and saves Middle Earth from the forces of evil.
Game of Thrones, which began airing earlier this year on the premium cable channel HBO, is based on another epic fantasy series, begun in the 1990s and still progressing, A Song of Ice and Fire, by New Jersey’s own George RR Martin (the television show takes its name from the series’ first novel). The series relates the political and familial intrigues of the royal houses of the very tenuously aligned Seven Kingdoms of Westeros – a massive continent-sized nation in an alternate fantasy world where seasons are known to last years – as each family tries to impose their will over the future of the kingdom. Predominantly, the series thus far has told the story of the Starks (headed by patriarch Ned), a good-hearted and honorable noble family from the Northernmost Kingdom of Winterfell, who are drawn into the machinations of the wealthy, powerful, but also highly dysfunctional Lannister family, who are in-laws of the reigning king, Robert Baratheon. Having read and recently re-read Martin’s original novel, I can attest to the fact that the Game of Thrones or GOT, thus far, has hewn very close to its source, right up to the shocking and heartbreaking execution of Ned.
Though each represent the genre of high fantasy (so defined by the fact that the action is set in an alternate fantasy world), LOTR and GOT are thematically, stylistically, tonally, and aesthetically incredibly different (despite the fact that characters played by Sean Bean die relatively early in each). LOTR is an all-ages, epic story of very well defined good characters battling obviously evil characters, set against a backdrop where magic and monsters are commonplace, and war is righteous and noble part of tradition. Characters from various races (such as hobbit, elf, dwarf, and man) fight side-by-side with or against each other, and good ultimately conquers evil with almost all the noble characters seeing their way through in the end (LOTR is also a phallocentric world centered on the exploits of men, with the only women present being those who ultimately choose to define themselves in masculine terms).
Alternatively, the very R-rated GOT exists in world that is unsparingly gritty, brutal, uncompromising, and, perhaps shockingly, highly realistic. Magic exists in the universe of the show, but its occurrences are fairly rare, and its existence, as well as the existence of mythical monsters, regarded as superstitions by the majority of the show’s characters. In GOT, concepts of good and evil really do not apply, as the very political nature of the stories dictate that the best characters are those that are able to balance their ability to be cruel and kind in the face of extremely realistic dilemmas. Nothing emphasizes this better than the fate of Ned Stark. Though noble at heart and committed to honor, Ned is ultimately destroyed by the fact that he is unwilling to place the good of all over his own personal honor, leading him to fall prey to the much more devious Lannisters and the series’ closest thing to a true villain, the scheming Littlefinger (Aiden Gillan).
Yet even the villains themselves also often have motivations that are empathetic, and even sympathetic. And again, it must be emphasized, this series earns its R-rating – sex, incest, prostitution, rape, molestation, gore, and violence are all fairly par the course in Westeros. One important character is even graphically executed by having molten metal poured on his head.
In many respects, GOT represents a similar step forward in fantasy filmmaking, just as Jackson’s LOTR had ten years ago. But whereas Jackson’s trilogy brought the fantasy genre up from its strictly B-movie sword-and-sorcery antecedents, GOT strives to elevate to the level of the adult prestige drama, using extremely well drawn characters, intense, adult situations, sex, violence, and moral ambiguity to present the fantasy genre in a way many have never see before (and, gratefully for me, does it without the self-reflexive and obnoxiously smug irony that seems to permeate so much genre material these days). The series is not unworthy of criticism, however. Being an HBO series, the sexual content is often ratched well into overdrive, to a degree that is sometimes rather uncomfortable to watch. Another scene from the series that has also garnered some degree of infamy, featured the villainous character Littlefinger describing his motivations while “auditioning” two female prostitutes for his high class whorehouse, leading to a fairly explicit and prolonged lesbian sex scene. Another of the major story threads, involving the exiled teenage princess Daenarys (Emilia Clarke), involves her being married off to a barbarian king who rapes her on her wedding night, which is filmed in extremely voyeuristic fashion, leaving little of Daenarys’ body to the imagination. Simultaneously, as Jace Lacob pointed out in an article on The Daily Beast, the horrors of rape, an aspect that the novels emphasize as a way of illustrating the unpleasantness and brutality of medieval life and sexual politics, is largely downplayed for overly-titilating softcore. However, I would largely lay most of the blame for this on HBO itself, as the overabundance of nudity and sex is a staple for the network’s original series, occassionally to their detriment (see the award-winning The Pacific for some notable examples of this). With that said, I don’t think it has compromised the series’ overall quality and drama, though it has certainly diminished its prestige and mitigated my enjoyment at times.
This past Sunday’s episode, one of the best of the series thus far, took the series’ ambitions to yet another level when it chose to follow through on the death of its star character (just as it had occurred in the novel). When I went on the internet on Monday, while checking up on how well Super 8 did at the box office (in relation to my previous blog post), I found myself drawn into reading much of the certainly vitriolic response that was formulated in response to Ned’s execution. Fans and previous readers of the book like myself of course knew it was coming, but for most everyone else the event seemed to be quite the shock. Many appeared to be up in arms, and called it an abomination to have actually killed off the main character just as the first season was about to come to a close (the season finale is this weekend). Some even claimed to have sworn off the series, and stated their intention to essentially badmouth to everyone they know. On the other end of the spectrum, many are in awe of the raw audacity of it all, and applaud the program’s willingness to break the rules of normal televisual series narrative. As someone making his way through the rest of the books in the still-incomplete series, I find both sides to be somewhat wrong.
Certainly, I think the first group is overreacting and being overly dogmatic to the rules and comfortable expectations of series television. And I love Sean Bean, too (Sharpe rules!), but I don’t see how anyone can doubt that Peter Dinklage, as dwarf and black sheep of the Lannisters, “The Imp” Tyrion, hasn’t completely stolen the show at this point.
Perhaps surprisingly, I also disagree with those admiring the, for lack of a better term, “balsiness” of this move – it would be one thing if a newly original series had decided to go off and kill the main character a few episodes in, but Martin has laid a lot of groundwork that the showrunners are now following, and I can tell you, it’ll only get better from here.
But as I sat down and waited for Fellowship to begin two days later, I couldn’t help but feel concerned that perhaps I would now look back at this film I loved when I first saw it ten years ago (when it really rekindled my love of movies after September 11 had made them all feel so insignificant) with some feeling of triviality. I wanted to leave that theater still holding the movie in my heart, and I was worried, that in a post-GOT, that it might not be possible.
Thankfully, it was. Granted, certain parts of Fellowship don’t completely hold up. Peter Jackson, to his credit, sought to wring every drop of drama and impact out of Tolkien’s narrative, but as a result, there were more than a few moments that felt extremely overwrought (like Samwise’s needless near-drowning at the film’s end). And frankly, the multiple teases of Frodo’s demise get pretty tiresome.
But the magic was still there – the effects held up brilliantly, the characterizations hold up perfectly, and, like I have many times before, I found myself wilfully getting lost in this world of elves, orcs, and magic rings of ridiculous power (I mean, really, if I have God-like power, why on Middle Earth would I put it all in a RING?!? Why don’t I…I don’t know… JUST KEEP IT? I’m digressing…).
So fortunately, I find that looking forward to both the end of this season of GOT (not to mention future seasons, as it’s already been renewed) and two more weeks of LOTR (and two installments of The Hobbit) to not be mutually exclusive concepts. More than that, though, watching two such radically different exemplars of the fantasy genre in this fashion makes me realize that we all may be looking at something that only has room to grow and mature in the meta sense, just as the western, the space epic, and the superhero movie have done before. As LOTR showed then and GOT shows now, worlds of magic need not be looked down on as escapist subject matter for young children, nerds, or stereotypical maladjusted adults. They can also be art.
(I’ll be posting my thoughts of the next two installments of LOTR when I see them, and Game of Thrones, as warranted.)