Saturday, 22 August 2015

Cutting Down to Size


Paul Rudd as Ant-Man, embodying superhero grandeur

When we heard of Marvel Studios’ overarching plans for a film series adapted from a few of their comic books, and we heard the number of films to be made and released as part of the series, and we heard that this series would not be known as a franchise but, rather dauntingly, as a Universe, I’m sure there was more than a handful of us who blanched. As we all know, a Bond film every two or three years makes for the right blend of lasting interest and good taste, with just enough disdain shaken in, and no stirring up of desperation. At least one massive CGI-laden blockbuster every six months threatens, initially, a bombardment, and, afterwards, a stream of discrete non-events. For if every entry is a spectacle and a gratifying thrill, then soon enough none of them is all that spectacular nor all that thrilling. We had also learned, from the few superhero movies made before this mighty plan was announced, that the ignorant among us are not often provided for in a superhero movie’s exposition. Of course, by now, even the unschooled heathen such as myself have learned that the hoary, leathery pensioner who ubiquitously crops up in each entry is none other than Stan Lee, whose imagination we have to blame or to thank for the recent insurgence; and that no vat of toxic waste (a trusty MacGuffin if ever there was one) is ever far away enough from a Hollywood star to allow the incredulous among us to settle comfortably in our seats. But still I found, with equal measures of annoyance and disconcertment, that I was required to have seen Iron Man (preferably along with its sequel), some attempt at a film about The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America before watching The Avengers – or at least be familiar with the premises and outcomes of each of these films – unless I wished to be deprived of much of my sure footing for most of that amalgamate film’s setup.

And, now having completed Phase 2 of the overall scheme, the critical reaction to the results seems not to have been overly joyous, though box office success persists. Critics have repeatedly complained of replicated plots and storylines, of thin and uninteresting characters, of over-reliance on digital imagery, and of a general (and, if I may say so, vaguely demonstrated) breakdown in culture. I do not align myself with these consensus critical views: I have written that conventional and simplistic storylines are not inherently weak; I find that a character does not only consist of the text he or she speaks, but also of the actor’s performance, and these have not been found wanting nearly as often or as dismally as some critics would have you think; I think any filmmaker is entitled to use as much digital imagery as he deems necessary or suitable, and this also is not in itself a weakness; and I don’t see how this titanic influx of films to our theatres is in any way a depletion of culture. It’s absurd to think, as it seems some critics do, that if there weren’t Marvel blockbusters, or at least not so many, that those who flock to see them would instead be going to see black and white Polish films about nuns, or adaptations of Thomas Hardy novels. Rather, Marvel is keeping audiences gazing at screens instead of looking away.

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

The Psyche of Gotham

DVD Notes: “Batman Returns”

In Batman Returns, Tim Burton’s 1992 sequel to the initial instalment in the Warner Bros.’ Batman series, starring Michael Keaton as Gotham City’s chiropteran custodian, Burton and his writers give us three separate villains: the domineering and greedy tycoon Max Shreck (Christopher Walken); the trust-fund miscreant, penguinly-constituted to an indeterminate degree, Oswald Cobblepot (Danny DeVito); and the wily vixen, posing as the diffident secretary Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer). But this is not the unwieldy overcrowding of Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (with the unsavoury threesome of Electro, The Green Goblin, and Rhino); rather, when Batman is added to the mix, it’s the staging of an eerie fantasy, a ménage à quatre, complete with leather and psychosis. Imagine, if Emma Stone, as Gwen Stacy, had swathed herself in skin-tight red latex, contorting and unfolding in all imaginable directions, how much good it would have done for the morale of the endangered citizens of New York, not to mention the stamina of Peter Parker.

Each of these unambiguously nasty pieces of work shares with Batman/Bruce Wayne the trait of a dual personality. Shreck’s case is simple and miserably common: he has the businessman's smiling and charming public persona for the people of Gotham, but ruthlessly plots capitalist thievery from them in his board room meetings. Meanwhile, in the less genteel parlours of Gotham City, Cobblepot prefers to travel under a mononym: Penguin. Where Cobblepot (a scam) is an unfortunately misshapen, yet tender and benevolent man, Penguin is a coarse, lecherous, avaricious crime boss, more fiendish fowl than foul human. And Selina Kyle, when she finds herself hors de combat due to a forceful act of Shreck’s (not the usual one you’d expect a CEO to foist upon his secretary), instead of taking a sick day, assumes a feline alter ego, endowed with eight lives to spare. She calls her doppelgänger Catwoman, fixes sharp nails on to the gloves of her new, shimmering black leather suit, and prowls the night in brilliant red lipstick, condescending with equal disdain upon greasy male criminals and their helpless female victims.