If there’s one thing that I’ve always known about my best friend and podcasting partner (on The Irreverent Cineastes Podcast) Andrew Golledge, it’s that he’s a New Yorker. Andrew loves the city and (almost) everything about it: it’s how he defines himself, and he’s consciously aware of how it has defined him. It’s important to note, however, that he was not born to the city, but came to it as the son of immigrant parents – British and Panamanian – and thus he brings to it the perspective of the outsider. It’s a perspective as viable as that of the native, and for a city forged from the dreams of travelers worldwide, one integral to understanding its history and culture. But with that perspective comes the understanding that this amazing city isn’t necessarily for everyone, and that keeping a forge of dreams means that the hopes of some are going to be burned away…
For Walk With Me, his most ambitious short subject to date, Andrew confronts this understanding of the city’s innate pessimism with a haunting mood piece, wherein a young woman, both isolated and seeking isolation in the city of nine million stories, finds herself haunted by a supernatural being that at once fills her with dread yet provides much-needed understanding. In Andrew’s view, the entity is the city itself, both ominous and enticing, that shadows his character’s steps (or at least, that’s a fellow Irreverent Cineaste’s interpretation), and that ultimately helps her confront the reality that New York itself doesn’t guarantee anything to anyone. If I’m making it feel like a harsh message, it’s to Andrew’s credit that he doesn’t: it’s a message handled with empathy and care, and he, along with his actor Betty Kaplan, successfully internalizes and effectively externalizes that feeling of regret, sorrow, loneliness, and ultimately, release. If I have a criticism of the work, it’s that I feel Andrew could have perhaps been more focused narratively, with added context that could convey more precisely his own interpretation – while I found room to construct my own, some may not, and it could belie the due appreciation for his ever-burgeoning, ever-evolving visual acumen and editing style. In Walk With Me, the content of Andrew’s cinematic voice doesn’t quite yet match his eloquence, but the potential is obvious, and it would not surprise me if someday many will know Andrew Golledge as one of New York City’s clearest and most distinctive cinematic voices.
Walk With Me will be showing at the 2017 Cinema New York City Film Festival on September 3rd, and you can buy tickets here.
Over the last week I’ve been striving, with significant difficulty, to write a review, essay, analysis, what-have-you, of The Dark Knight Rises. Certainly, prior to the film’s release I crafted two overviews on the topic of Batman and his history in popular culture, and naturally I wanted to make my write-up of the movie the best, most comprehensive, most insightful piece that was in my ability to do. That plan hasn’t changed, but the world I expected to write about TDKR in has, and I can’t articulate my thoughts about this movie – nor likely any movie – before I address that which has been weighing most heavily on my thoughts. Therefore, before I can discuss Christopher Nolan’s epic on both its own terms and in terms of the cinema, I feel I must talk about the Aurora tragedy and, to a certain degree, about Batman.
(Note: I had planned to have this up last week, but after learning about the terrible events in Colorado, I though it best to wait a few days. Though it should go without saying, my thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families, who were not only members of our greater American community, but fellow moviegoers and Batman fans. Though far, far, far from the most tragic aspect of this horror, it’s still somewhat unfortunate that it will forever be associated with Batman; as a figure in popular culture, the Dark Knight has always stood as a symbol against guns and gun violence, as well as an idealization that hope and light can someday arise from great tragedy and darkness. Hopefully, as a nation and a society, once we’ve mourned and grieved these events – and learned from them – we will find our own way onward, toward hope and light.)
Today, sadly, we lost another link to the days of Classical Hollywood with the passing of Ernest Borgnine. I don’t typically write obituary pieces here, because I’m honestly someone you’ll typically find disdaining the hoopla that often surrounds the death of major celebrities. However, Ernest Borgnine probably won’t have every detail of his funeral plastered all over 24 hour news channels, nor likely have his death and life fetishized beyond all boundaries of good taste by special commemorative issues of People or Entertainment Weekly, so I feel confident that eulogizing him in my own way will still fall firmly on the side of good taste. Continue reading “Our Marty…”→
With the coming July 4 holiday bringing the anticipated (though not by everybody) reboot of the Spider-Man franchise, The Amazing Spider-Man, it seemed like an appropriate moment to once again trace the filmic and televisual history of another major figure in popular culture. Who? Why, your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, of course!
The core backstory of Spider-Man is well and widely known – Peter Parker, a socially awkward but brilliant young man from Forest Hills, Queens is bitten by a radioactive spider (or a genetically enhanced one, depending on the era) while on a school field trip and soon finds himself blessed (and cursed) with spider-like powers. After a failure to use his “gifts” properly results in personal tragedy, he realizes the deeper meaning of the mantra “with great power, comes great responsibility.” Becoming the superhero Spider-Man, he protects the neighborhoods of his native New York City from both everyday criminals and monstrous super-villains; indeed, Spidey’s rogues’ gallery is second only to Batman’s in depth and popularity, boasting the Green Goblin, Venom, the Lizard, the Scorpion, the Kingpin, Carnage, the Sandman, Mysterio, Electro, and (my personal favorite) Doctor Octopus. Continue reading “Your Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man: The Best and Worst – The Antiscribe Overview”→
“”It’s a basic truth of the human condition that everybody lies. The only variable is about what. The weird thing about telling someone they’re dying is it tends to focus their priorities. You find out what matters to them. What they’re willing to die for. What they’re willing to lie for.” – Gregory House, “Three Stories.” House
“I may be on the side of the angels…but don’t think for one second that I am one of them.”
-Sherlock Holmes, “The Reichenbach Fall.” Sherlock
By Jonathan Morris, Antiscribe.com
Widely regarded as the greatest, the most influential, and certainly the most popular detective in the history of world literature, Sherlock Holmes and his appeal may just transcend that of the mystery genre itself.
You see, while the best of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories were excellent mysteries centered on intriguing and compelling deductions, so much of what makes Sherlock Holmes beloved to the point of devotion for so, so many really lies in the character of the man himself. The world’s first, and only, consulting detective has been interpreted and reinterpreted time and time again, with presentations both vast and varied, but what truly makes him so undeniably interesting is that he’s so unlike any other main character you’ll find in the literature of his time, or even of most times since. Holmes typically doesn’t strive to win the love of a girl. He’s not interested in wealth or fame or power. And only on rare occasions does he take a true interest in upholding or protecting the greater good. He eschews relationships, despises romance, and views the righting of wrongs as less a moral imperative than a source of distraction from, at best, boredom, and, at worst, habitual drug abuse. Continue reading “The Misanthropic Holmes: “House” and “Sherlock””→
This past Saturday, thanks to a former classmate’s random act of kindness, I was granted the opportunity to see the much-anticipated Marvel’s The Avengers at its New York City première on the closing night of the Tribeca Film Festival.[i] Now, as it happened, traveling to the Tribeca Performing Arts Center from my home in New Jersey took me through the PATH station at the World Trade Center. Though I’ve wanted to go down there many, many times over the last few years, due to some deeply-held and overpowering emotions this was actually the first time I had visited the site since after September 11. As I stepped out of the station, located at the foot of One World Trade Center, I gazed up at the still under construction Freedom Tower. Though I expected to be slightly more overcome by emotion than I actually was, I nonetheless experienced a deep sense of poignancy that stayed with me as I headed over to the screening itself.
It has now been about three weeks since the 2012 Academy Awards telecast aka “the Oscars,” aired. Generally speaking, the Oscars represent one of the biggest televised events of the year, typically second only to the Super Bowl here in the United States; unlike the Super Bowl, however, the Academy Awards have not been setting new ratings records each year, instead having struggled with trying to ebb an annual ratings decline. This year saw the Oscars stem that decline, briefly, with the much-ballyhooed return of Billy Crystal to hosting duties; despite that, it still garnered lower ratings than this year’s Grammys (which were admittedly inflated by the death of Whitney Houston the day before), the demographics for the show in the key 18-49 demographic were unremarkably flat with earlier years, and the show received fairly poor reviews almost across the board. What bothered me most about this year’s Oscars, though, was just how depressing and disheartening they were about the movies themselves, and how uncertain they seemed about the very medium they were ostensibly celebrating. Continue reading “A Desperate Nostalgia: Hollywood, the 2012 Oscars, and the Way We Watch Movies Now”→
Released about two months ago into the crowded glut of holiday awards season, David Fincher’s movie version of The Girl with the DragonTattoo has clearly already had its moment in the Scandinavian sun. Arriving with a heavy dose of critical praise and entering theaters with a snarl of assumed feminist defiance, the film left them with surprising rapidity and an almost audible whimper over how little money it made, at least compared to somewhat over-elevated expectations. Based on the first of the late Stieg Larssen’s bestselling “Millennium” novels, which, like many bestsellers, falls firmly into the category of “overrated,” the film will nonetheless likely prove to be the first of a cinematic trilogy, in spite of its modest success. Of course, though it hardly needs to be restated, this was not the first movie version of Larssen’s novel, nor even the first in recent memory. The 2009 Swedish language adaptation, by the standards of foreign films, had a fairly significant cultural footprint in the United States and earned about $100 million dollars worldwide. As films go, the Swedish version wasn’t bad for a straight-forward mystery movie; elevated, if that’s the right word for it, by its unflinching portrayal of explicit sexual violence and the characterization of its singular heroine, Lisbeth Salander. Indeed, the most memorable aspect of that film was Salander, dynamically portrayed by Noomi Rapace, who deservedly has been parlaying that part into international stardom. No doubt Rooney Mara, who plays the character in the American version, has herself already been doing the same.
(Hi! Sorry for the unintended hiatus…no drama involved this time, I’ve just been annoyingly swamped with stuff, leaving me little to no time for personal writing. I will be back with two movie-related blogs this week, but in the interim, I’m posting this, which I wrote the other day after the entire Komen/Planned Parenthood debacle caused this unending debate to rear its ugly, polarizing head one more time.)
Here’s my thing: I hate abortion. I hate that it exists. I think it’s cruel, I think it’s sad, and that every potential life ended before it begins represents another example of our global society having failed just a little bit more.
With that said, I am, and always shall be, pro-choice, because a woman has the right to choose whether or not she wants or can handle the responsibility for bringing life into the world. That she had sex, for whatever reason, should not cause her to bear the burdens and experience the joys of childbirth and/or motherhood if she doesn’t choose to. This is especially true since she bears it, physically and perhaps even emotionally, in far greater proportion than the father of that child. Sexual responsibility should never be discouraged, but no woman should face a life-altering experience for showing questionable sexual judgment; that’s simply not commiserate with being a member of a fair, balanced, and just society.
What personally gets to me is that on many areas of the anti-abortion side we have very hardcore conservatives fighting against the kind of social welfare plans that are at least trying to solve many of the problems that in some cases cause abortions, because they find it easier and more direct to outlaw them. I’d rather see us all strive for a world where abortions aren’t necessary, as hard as it would be, rather than a world where abortions are outlawed but with all the problems that still cause them prevalent and everlasting.
And yet, it also annoys me when people who are ostensibly on my side argue and debate about what qualifies as a life and what doesn’t. If it is conceived, whether it be by technicality a life or not, it will forever after have held that potential to be a life. Trying to argue otherwise dehumanizes the argument, the lost potential, and arguer him- or herself; it changes the nature of the discussion, as well as causes the other side to assume that we don’t care. Too many of us do, and too well. Everything else, in a world where once we’re born we’re all essentially reduced to statistics, is little more than a pointless exercise in biological semantics.
I am pro choice, who if it were my choice to make would always choose life, but I’ll never be pro-life, because that would take from me the right to choose life at all.
I have to be honest; I’m just not a huge fan of Christmas anymore. Sure, I know, there are a lot of people like me who decide to use every December as a chance to get snide, snarky, and cynical, to bemoan the commercialism or the often overly-manufactured good cheer that accompanies every Christmas season (or something like that). But I have no problem with Christmas, or Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa, or Ramadan, or even the rampant consumerism that centers on all of them. Well, maybe not on Ramadan, but you get the idea. It’s just that Christmas, for people like me, is always a stark reminder of those in our lives who are missing. For me and my family, that person is my Dad.
My father passed away over eight years ago, but as anyone who has ever lost a parent can tell you, when all the grieving is done, there’s still a void left behind that’s never really filled. And at Christmas, when my admittedly somewhat dysfunctional family gets together to acknowledge, if not necessarily celebrate, the holiday, that void just seems ever more obvious.
So every holiday I’m given the choice: get depressed, or find some way to cheer myself up. Needless to say, I choose the latter, and the way I choose to alleviate my sadness is the same way I choose every year: a mini-movie marathon of two singular 1980s comedies, the seasonally-appropriate A Christmas Story and the significantly less seasonal My Favorite Year. Continue reading “My Favorite Christmas Story of the Year”→
“A plague on both your houses!
‘Zounds, a dog, a rat, a mouse, a cat, to scratch a man to death!
A braggart, a rogue, a villain, that fights by the book of
Why the devil came you between us?”
– William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act 3, Scene 1
It’s fair to say, I think, that we’ve all been trained by popular culture to think that there’s something thrilling, even sexy, about being a spy. Foreign intrigues, exotic locales, elegant luxuries, strength of purpose, national pride, and beautiful women and/or men who represent the exemplars of their countries’ breeding; all these noble elements are what many of us of would think of when we hear the word “spy.” But these things are not the trappings of a real spy, but a secret agent. Secret agents are works of fictional fun and fantasy; engines of pleasure that assuage us with the notion that the conflicts of nations are just a game played out in the landscapes of someone’s imagination. Spies, though, have always been a sordid, painful reality of the international sphere, and there’s very little that’s sexy about being a spy. Real spies live in a world of pressure and paranoia that can be ugly, dark, and merciless, yet also technocratic, bureaucratic, and banal. A spy who is especially good, especially lucky, or most often, especially ineffectual, might easily make it through their career with their life. It’s unlikely, though, that that life could ever be a happy one. Continue reading ““Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” – The Antiscribe Appraisal”→
Even before the release of the original Batman: Year One almost twenty-five years ago, there were probably few origins in popular culture better known than the one for its eponymous character: a young boy and his parents go down the wrong alley one dark night, and after a chance encounter with a trigger happy mugger, the parents lay dead and the young boy is scarred forever. Decades later, that boy, after spending his life training to be the world’s greatest crime-fighter, grows to become the Batman: protector of Gotham City and arguably the greatest superhero of all time (and certainly the most culturally versatile). If the origin was well known 25 years ago, it’s positively burned into the popular imagination now, with the beginnings of Batman having been reiterated in different ways, through two major blockbuster films, three (or arguably four or five) animated series, a major video game release, and numerous other comic book reinterpretations. Yet through all of it, Batman: Year One, written by the legendary Frank Miller and illustrated by David Mazzucchelli, though not the first and hardly the last of Batman’s origin stories, still stands as perhaps the best and most resonant. Therefore it’s not surprising that DC Animated films and Warner Premiere would produce an animated adaptation of Batman: Year One; besides being entirely in keeping with their stated intention of reproducing and reinterpreting classic works of the DC Comics canon, the project would seem to be an almost commercial and creative slam dunk. Unfortunately, DC Animated’s Batman: Year One proves to be a fitting illustration of the difficulties that can sometimes transpire in transposing one medium to another; even two mediums that seem as inherently similar as comic books and animated film.
Recently, on our trip down to Philadelphia for an academic conference, my good friend and respected (if decidedly rakish) colleague Andrew Golledge and I visited the Philadelphia site of the Occupy Wall Street movement and came away with varied impressions and strong opinions over what we had seen there. With Andrew having agreed to come aboard Antiscribe.com as a full-time contributor, we decided that a very cool introductory project would be for each of us to write our own thought piece about OWS and, in keeping with the intellectual focus of this website, channel our impressions of it through some facet of popular culture. The two articles below, “#OWS for Vendetta” and “Radical Failure,” represent the culmination of this project. I must say, as owner of this website, I’m damn proud of both our efforts and I’m honored to be able to present them each to you here.
I also want to take this opportunity to welcome Andrew to Antiscribe.com! Andrew Golledge, whose site nickname is Don Manifesto, has been my trusted compadre and colleague for a few years now. He’s also a brilliant scholar, terrific writer, and now budding amateur filmmaker with a distinctive, passionate perspective that equally compliments and contrasts my own. If his work on this project is any indication, we’re all in for some excellent reading in the weeks and months to come. (Just don’t tell him I said that…I have enough trouble with my own ego…)
“The truth is: there’s something terribly wrong in this country, isn’t there?”
Early last month, my friend and colleague Andrew Golledge and I took a trip down to Philadelphia, PA to take part in the yearly academic conference hosted by the Mid Atlantic Popular and American Culture Association (MAPACA). In addition to serving as a panel chair, I presented a paper on American film comedies released in the aftermath of the Great Recession, in which I discussed how certain comedies captured the zeitgeist of our current era, one defined by widespread frustrations with both our society’s class inequality and class immobility. In essence, I spoke about how these comedies, though meant to be funny, really expressed how most of the middle and working classes, because of the economic climate and the growing income gap with the wealthiest citizens, have come to see the once closely held belief in the American Dream as something of a delusion. The next day, with our presentations out of the way, Andrew and I explored the city, and made a specific point of visiting the settlement for “Occupy Philly,” the Philadelphia branch of the Occupy Wall Street (#OWS) movement established just outside the City Hall. Having yet to see the original New York version, I wanted to witness the movement firsthand, and see the kind of people who were actively protesting the same issues that I myself had only written about.
While I was there helping Andrew take photographs and generally soaking in the ambience of the information booths, placards, live musicians, and ad hoc lending libraries, I happened to look skyward to the uppermost spire of Philadelphia’s City Hall, upon which stands the statue of Benjamin Franklin, the man whose stature in the Eighteenth century was such that his mere affiliation with both the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution gave them instant international credibility. At that time I wondered how Franklin, the man who so famously said, “we must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately,” would think and feel about what these people were doing at the foot of this grand memorial. Would he have approved of the new “Occupation” movement, and seen it as reflecting the spirit of the ‘76, or would he dismiss it as the actions of a group of misguided malcontents? I don’t know the answer, but I couldn’t help but feel a certain visceral symbolism going on around me, as an icon of US history was forced to gaze down upon what the fading of the American Dream had wrought. Continue reading “#OWS for Vendetta: Viewing Occupy Wall Street through “V for Vendetta””→
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.
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”→
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.
(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.
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.)