Comics, TV, Writing

First Impressions: WANDAVISION ‘Filmed Before a Live Studio Audience / Don’t Touch That Dial’

It was never meant to begin this way.

Marvel’s true first foray into expanding their immensely successful cinematic universe beyond the realms of the big screen was not originally designed to start with an MCU take on Pleasantville; a surreal dreamscape inversion of two relatively important but not marquee characters in the Marvel tapestry, yet WandaVision leading the charge thanks to the continued preponderance of Covid-19 could well turn out to be unintentionally inspired. There is a boldness to having audiences tune in to such an unusual and decidedly ambiguous concept as their first salvo of the much-hyped MCU ‘Phase Four’.

The project, from newcomer Jac Schaffer (also boasting a story credit on the upcoming Black Widow movie), directed by Matt Shakman, certainly in the first two episodes at least, is rooted in the kind of pop cultural reference points Marvel have built an entire screen universe around. There will scarcely be an era or artistic style the MCU hasn’t adopted when the day is done, and WandaVision very clearly takes a cue from the classic American sitcom of old – The Dick Van Dyke Show or Bewitched – which encapsulated safe, charisma driven family friendly comedy. In a way, this almost feels like Marvel in on their own joke, having strived to develop a storytelling universe that caters both to hardcore, decades-long comic lore nerds and the common or garden punter.

WandaVision plays up to those accessible reference points with a sense of playful glee, a joy available only to a well-established universe with adaptable rules, an easy going confidence, and an understanding of the tropes it has adopted.
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Comics, Film, Writing

Revolution & Rebirth: THE DARK KNIGHT RISES imagined America’s fire almost a decade ago

This piece was written in 2018 for my upcoming book Myth-Building in Modern Media, but ended up not fitting the final text. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the protest riots engulfing America, my belief is that Christopher Nolan’s final Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises, before Trump, or Covid-19, or walls and trade wars, saw the possibilities now ahead of us coming.
I thought, given everything happening, I would publish it today. I’d love to know what you think about this film and the current situation…
While the stranglehold of Totalitarianism casts a long shadow over fictional mythology, so too does the freedom of Revolution, in which societies break away from the shackles imposed by a system which frequently benefits the few as opposed to the many. It is often inside the heart of Revolutionary systems that heroes are born. A recent example of the power of Revolution as a national myth, and how it can come to define a society, lies in The Dark Knight Rises.
Christopher Nolan’s trilogy of films centred around Batman, the shadowy vigilante who attempts to liberate the fictional Gotham City from the grip of crime, served to transform a character who had been significantly misappropriated and misunderstood for decades. The bright escapist nature of the 1960’s served to turn into a superhero what was originally in comic book lore, going way back to Bill Finger & Bob Kane’s initial series for Detective Comics back in the 30’s, a detective character who just happened to have a secret identity with the symbology of a shadowy, nocturnal creature, the ‘Bat’. Batman in his Adam West incarnation on TV and later a movie, which began seeping into comics once again, was a larger than life playboy turned crime fighter.

After the Reagan-era gloom of 1980’s comics such as The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller again returned the character to even darker roots than his original legend, introducing a tragic backstory for Bruce Wayne, Tim Burton’s successful blockbuster adaptations heading into the 1990’s captured the neo-Gothic feel of Gotham but once again cast Batman as a ‘superhero’, which only edged back toward the camp and froth of the 1960’s by the time Joel Schumacher got his hands on the franchise for subsequent sequels. What Nolan understood, and which came across in all three of his versions of Batman, was that the character essentially is not a hero in the conventional sense of the word. Batman is a symbol – an idea.
The Dark Knight Rises, in ending the trilogy, took this idea to a natural point of conclusion. Batman Begins had given Bruce Wayne an origin story as the Bat grounded in more of a realistic take on Gotham and the character; a city in the vice-like grip of neoliberalism, with corporations such as his own Wayne Industries vying for control against organised crime organisations such as Carmine Falcone’s mafioso. Liam Neeson’s villain, Ra’s al-Ghul, and his organisation the League of Shadows, seeded the conceptual idea at the very heart of Nolan’s Bat-mythology: that Gotham had grown too big, fallen too deeply into injustice, and was in need of ‘saving’.
Ra’s as a villain has a fascinating backstory. Nolan’s films only mere suggest this, but in comic lore, Ra’s is an immortal, supernatural being who has devoted his endless life to destroying civilisations who are losing themselves to despair and darkness. Batman, in Batman Begins, does serve as the ‘hero’ saving Gotham from this external enemy, from an extremism which Ra’s cannot hide, but which ultimately serves a Revolutionary, philosophical concept. What if Gotham’s people *cannot* be saved? What if everything must be razed, turned to ashes, in order for the city to be reborn? Ra’s may be a megalomaniac suggesting mass murder but he is also a rampant anti-capitalist, and Batman has to serve as the vanguard to protect the existing ‘System’ (with a capital S).
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Comics, The X-Files

THE X-FILES: Case Files #1 – ‘Florida Man pt 1’ (Comic Review)

For 25 years, FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully have been shining their flashlights into the shadows, searching for the truth. To celebrate this anniversary, IDW Publishing is launching a new series of The X-Files: Case Files! Under this banner, faithful fans will see the release of numerous micro-series, featuring stories that explore X-Files of the past and present by top talent from comics and prose!

In “Florida Man…” Scully and Mulder are sent to a small Florida town to investigate a rash of bizarre crimes only to find themselves in the clutches of an alligator-worshipping cult…

The recent history of The X-Files in comic form has been an interesting one, informed in many respects by the revival of the show on FOX over the last three years. The first part of Florida Man begins a new phase for IDW’s license of Chris Carter’s series called Case Files – an anthological approach to the adventures of Agents Mulder & Scully investigating the paranormal across America.

Joe Harris until last year had been carrying the torch for The X-Files under IDW, firstly with his originally-canonical ‘Seasons 10 and 11’, which picked up roughly from where second movie I Want to Believe left off, and later his own tie-in ongoing issue set within the continuity of the revival. His approach to The X-Files was frequently arcane, mythic and certainly in the ongoing issues set roughly during Season 10, highly political – indeed this caused his run on the series to draw criticism in certain quarters given how unashamedly anti-President Trump and the alt-right he was in his writing. While politics and The X-Files have always been key bedfellows, many wanted more of a streamlined take on Carter’s show. Case Files may well end up being what they wished for.

Delilah S. Dawson takes over for Florida Man, and as I understand it each Case Files story will be two-parts over two consecutive months and feature different guest writers and artists. Dawson immediately imbues The X-Files with a much different tone to Harris, or indeed the neo-mythological secret history of Denton J. Tipton’s tie-in JFK Disclosure last winter (Tipton, the stalwart behind IDW’s license, remains as editor), my reviews of which you can find here. Florida Man intentionally seems to take a lighter touch to the material. 

Set, again, around the time of Season 10 (if we take Season 11 to be around 2018 – the dates of these seasons are admittedly a bit uncertain), it features a recognisably middle-aged Mulder & Scully on what would be a fairly routine ‘monster of the week’ episode of the show, but Dawson doesn’t present a typical monster in this first part, and angles the piece as much on Mulder’s quirks about suffering in the Florida heat than she does unloading a great deal of supernatural paranormality.

For a first part, this is fairly standard comic-book set up. Dawson establishes a sense of place in the small town of Halpadalgi, deep in the Florida jungles, which has an unerring sense of community and population about it, at odds with the environment; the mystery of a local legend, the titular Florida Man linked to a number of disappearances, and a local sheriff who is quite recalcitrant at the FBI’s presence and seems ready to blame the mystery Scully, for once, has pushed for them to solve, on economic deprivation. 

This is where Dawson’s story adds a layer of modern commentary in a different manner to the pro-liberal rhetoric inside Harris’ run; by displaying the disparity between townsfolk in this Floridian microcosm, with a idyllic middle-class environment on the one side and an American trailer park slum on the other, Dawson manages to tap into the kind of underlying sociological ideas that many episodes of The X-Files were really about. That’s not to say this is entirely about class and culture – she layers in plenty of symbolic mysticism with the strange Egyptian painting Mulder buys, which clearly ties into what is really happening in this town, but the brew is all mixed together here.

That leads to a slight tonal uncertainty with Florida Man. At times you wonder if it’s edging towards a Darin Morgan-esque proof and then others it feels more in the vein of El Mundo Gira’s blend of economic social commentary and strange townsfolk. Dawson’s writing is strong in terms of nailing Mulder & Scully, both sounding like the characters we know and love (Mulder would totally suffer the quirks he does here, particularly middle-aged Mulder), and she constructs an intriguing mystery, but it lacks a little in terms of pace and incident. Elena Casagrande’s panels and Arianna Florean’s colours do manage to bring out the bright, hot Floridian atmosphere nicely along the way, plus there’s a great, retro variant cover by J.J. Lendl in the mix.

Case Files is an experiment for The X-Files and IDW Publishing, edging the franchise back more toward the Topps-style from the 1990’s, and while time will tell if the new approach is truly successful in the wake of a divisive (perhaps final) season of the show, Florida Man’s first part is a promising start.

★ ★ ★

WRITER: Delilah S. Dawson

ARTWORK: Elena Casagrande, Arianna Florean

PUBLISHER: IDW