Film, Writing

Christopher Nolan has his own Pledge, Turn and Prestige

Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts…

So states Michael Caine’s Cutler in The Prestige, the fifth film by director Christopher Nolan, and to some still his best, almost fifteen years later.
The Prestige remains certainly the most intentionally tricksy of Nolan’s films; thus far a cinematic lexicon built on the cinematic puzzle box, built on an intentional level of enigma audiences must buy into if they are to become consumed by his pictures. This was evidenced all the way back to Memento in 2001, his first major film after 1998’s low budget impression Following, which subverts traditional storytelling structure to depict a crime mystery in reverse. Ultimately, however, Nolan’s films are often deceptively simple, and intentionally so. “Are you watching closely?” asks Christian Bale early on in The Prestige, as much to the audience as anyone else, and here’s the truth: if we are, we’ll solve the puzzle.

The trick in The Prestige revolves around three key elements. The Pledge, the Turn and finally the titular Prestige, all building to the culmination of the magic act being pulled on the audience. Nolan’s trick in this film is, of course, that the entire movie is one big ‘prestige’, and we are the stooges. “You don’t really want to know” Cutler tells us in the bookending monologue. “You want to be fooled” he suggests, and this may be true. The key slight of hand in The Prestige is clear if you’re looking for it. I contend, however, that this three act magic trick is, thus far, true also of Nolan’s entire career.
It is a trick he has already pulled off and it is entirely possible he’ll do the same thing a second time around.
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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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Batman, Essays, Film

THE DARK KNIGHT JOKES: How JOKER builds on Nolan’s revolutionary thesis

When in 2012 the culmination of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, arrived on the landscape, it suggested a conclusion to a series which defied convention. Batman doesn’t simply defeat the villain and live to protect Gotham City another day. He has to die (or at the least the symbol of him has to die) in order to save his city, only not from a conventional villain we are often used to in comic-book cinema. Batman ‘dies’ to thwart a revolutionary.

The character of Bane, so memorably essayed by Tom Hardy, was as unprecedented an antagonist as Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck is the iconic Joker in the recent film of the same name. Bane had appeared previously, in 1997’s camp, rubbery Batman & Robin, but as a brainless henchman who could do little more than bellow his own name; part of a movie which epitomised the pre-Nolan, indeed pre-Marvel, excess of a cinematic sub-genre which was considered as tacky and disposable as comic-books long were themselves – with a few notable exceptions, such as Tim Burton’s original Batman or Richard Donner’s iconic Superman. Yet even those films, as skilled as they are, were married to convention. DC Comics’ tortured or incognito superheroes would protect their cities from a villain bent on world domination or destruction, not to mention on unmasking their secret identities.

Nolan’s Batman films entirely changed that paradigm. They played off the success of particularly the X-Men franchise, which deigned to take seriously its spandex-clad meta-humans and wrap their colourful, science-fiction worlds with real social and political undertones. From Batman Begins, in which Nolan re-conceptualises Bruce Wayne’s origin story without breaking from canon, through to The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan charts a clear and definable arc not just for Batman but for Gotham City itself. Each of the trilogy has the hero, the villain, the supporting players and the other major character – the city. Gotham. A representation and microcosm of our world today. Nolan’s chief interest in Batman was not simply recapturing Joel Schumacher’s cod-60’s derring-do, but using the Caped Crusader and his world as a framework to show the corruption and self-destruction of modern capitalist democracy.

While a film lacking the breadth, scope and grandeur of The Dark Knight trilogy, Todd Phillips’ Joker picks up the gauntlet Nolan laid down in this respect. It feels like the natural yet grotesque culmination of Nolan’s revolutionary thesis.

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Film, Reviews, X-Men

Franchise Retrospective: X-MEN: THE LAST STAND (2006)

With X-Men: Dark Phoenix on the horizon, a film predicted to signal the end of the original iteration of the X-Men franchise, I’ve decided to go back and revisit this highly influential collection of comic-book movies.

We continue with Brett Ratner’s third film, 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand

If you ever needed proof of the law of diminishing returns, you could look no further than X-Men: The Last Stand.

Over the years, X3 (as it was never officially known but we will call it for expediency) has developed what could be charitably described as a bad reputation amongst fans of comic-book cinema and indeed fans of Marvel’s X-Men comics themselves. There is no question – The Last Stand is a profound step down from the preceding two films, particularly the strong and layered X2. Brett Ratner’s film is emptier while being crammed with more plot, and more mutants, that you can shake a stick at it. The script is unfocused and at times obnoxious, while Ratner’s direction has none of the poise and subtlety Bryan Singer brought to the previous movies. Several of the key, well-developed characters from X1 and X2 are unceremoniously dumped and numerous key journeys and arcs across those two films are ditched or given short shrift. If X2 was X-Men’s The Empire Strikes Back, this is a poor man’s Return of the Jedi, with 2009’s execrable X-Men Origins: Wolverine probably the Star Wars Holiday Special.

Yet… yet… there is something about The Last Stand which prevents it from being a complete and utter failure. It is perhaps the purest invocation of the kitsch pulp Stan Lee & Jack Kirby gave us in the earliest 1960’s X-Men comics, far more so than the updated, modernised take across Singer’s movies. While churning through at times underwhelming material, key actors such as Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen are comfortable in the skin of their characters and are visibly enjoying playing them. The Last Stand, in how it pits the X-Men against the Brotherhood of Mutants by the climax, is one of the first major comic-book blockbusters to pit a whole team of super-powered heroes and villains against each other, something we would by now come to expect in many Marvel Cinematic Universe films; indeed, The Last Stand introduces the post-credits teaser sequence before Iron Man in 2008 goes on to steal it and make it a staple of the MCU.

Don’t get me wrong: The Last Stand is not a good X-Men film, or indeed a good comic-book movie. We have, however, seen much worse.

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Film, Reviews, X-Men

Franchise Retrospective: X2: X-MEN UNITED (2003)

With X-Men: Dark Phoenix on the horizon, a film predicted to signal the end of the original iteration of the X-Men franchise, I’ve decided to go back and revisit this highly influential collection of comic-book movies.

We continue with Bryan Singer’s sequel, 2003’s X2…

Though far more of a muscular and accomplished film than its predecessor, X2: X-Men United would never have worked without it.

X2 is in danger of being overlooked in our era of dominant comic-book movie franchises and behemoth superhero pictures as one of the key, formative pieces of cinema in the genre, something we must work hard to avoid. Bryan Singer’s sequel is a skilled piece of work which does precisely what a follow up is designed to do – build on the foundations of the previous film, add complications and greater depth, and provide a heightened, meaningful experience. X2 does that very successfully. It is The Empire Strikes Back to X-Men’s A New Hope. It even has strong shades come the denouement of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in how it punches you with an earned sacrifice on one hand, while promising a rebirth on the other. X2 feels like a picture that everyone involved had been constructing in their minds long before it was ever committed to celluloid.

On that basis, X2 feels on some level like the first truly meaningful X-Men movie but one that needed the prologue of the original 2000 film in order to function in the manner it does. When Singer came back to helm the sequel, he combined screenplays by David Hayter—who penned the previous movie—and Zak Penn, brewed up with rewrites from Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris, in order to fuse together a film which develops many of the established character arcs from X-Men, placed the film distinctly in a post-9/11 context, and digs deep into the ideological and existential conflict between Professor X and Magneto – namely whether mutants should believe in humanity or reject and destroy them. It does this while never forgetting the human cost of being different, exploring the difficulty of living with what genetics, evolution, gives you in a less than tolerant society.

X2 does this with a poise and panache that few comic-book movies have equalled since.

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Film, Reviews, X-Men

Franchise Retrospective: X-MEN (2000)

With X-Men: Dark Phoenix on the horizon, a film predicted to signal the end of the original iteration of the X-Men franchise, I’ve decided to go back and revisit this highly influential collection of comic-book movies.

We start with Bryan Singer’s original, 2000’s X-Men…

Though not always discussed in the annals of great comic-book cinema, or even considered the height of its own franchise, Bryan Singer’s original adaptation of X-Men is a seminal moment in superhero cinema.

Before Singer brought Stan Lee & Jack Kirby’s formative 1960’s Marvel Comics property to the screen, after over a decade of attempts by a range of filmmakers (most notably James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow), comic-book cinema was principally dominated across the 1980’s and 1990’s by two heavyweights: Superman and Batman. The former ruled the late 1970’s into the 80’s before falling from grace with a succession of sequels whereby the budget went down as the schlock went up, while the latter moved away in the 90’s from Tim Burton’s initial Neo-Gothic vision into a high camp, overblown blockbuster confection. Beyond these behemoths, comic-book films were curiosities – The Rocketeer, The Shadow, The Phantom, The Crow, Darkman, Spawn – films which either garnered a cult audience or disappeared from the radar entirely.

X-Men changed all that. While not the first Marvel property brought to bear on the big-screen, Singer’s film was without doubt the first adaptation of their source material to go mainstream as a major box-office success – two years earlier, the Wesley Snipes-fronted Blade arguably also did well but was too violent and pulpy to reach a wide audience, and many to this day are unaware it even is a Marvel adaptation. X-Men changed the game. X-Men showed that comic-book movies could be more than kitsch spectacle or showy theatrics. Superheroes could be real people with heart and soul, their villainous antagonists complicated foes, both morally and psychologically; plus, these films could, much like the related genre of science-fiction, work as powerful allegory and social commentary. In other words, comic-book cinema could do what actual comic-books had been doing, without much in the way of critical respect, for decades.

While X-Men absolutely gives in to some of the silliness that weakened comic-book movies of decades past, it also shows what is possible in this sub-genre, and unknowingly lays down a template for the eventual rise and domination of superhero cinema.

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Film, Reviews

Franchise Retrospective: MISSION IMPOSSIBLE III (2006)

Mission Impossible III may not be the strongest outing in the franchise, but it may be the most human.

Surprisingly, this works as both a strength and to the film’s detriment in the eyes of many. For everyone who considers Mission Impossible II the weakest episode of the saga, which you can find my thoughts on here, not far behind will be a detractor of JJ Abrams’ sequel to John Woo’s own take on Bruce Geller’s kitsch 1960’s series. This, to me, is hard to fathom, and not simply as a big fan of Abrams and the dominance his works have achieved on pop culture, both in television and cinema.

The reason this revisionist disdain for MI:3 is strange to me is because Abrams’ movie arguably saved the franchise, and allowed Tom Cruise to not just reinvent his character Ethan Hunt but position Mission Impossible as a series which blended fantasy escapism with a relatable heart and soul.

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Essays, Film

Christopher Nolan, DUNKIRK and his Cinematic Ideology

Across the last week, since the release of his latest movie Dunkirk, much has been written about Christopher Nolan, as always happens whenever he puts a picture out. Nolan may be the most divisive mainstream, heavyweight filmmaker working in cinema today. Some believe he’s a genius. Some believe he’s Stanley Kubrick reborn. Some even believe he’s a rampant Conservative and his films are nothing more than ‘Tory Porn’.

You would do well, incidentally, to read the writing of my friend and super-talented pop culture writer Darren Mooney on Nolan recently, as its insightful, filled with wisdom and there’s every chance he’s not done on the subject yet, simply because the gaggle of voices weighing in on Nolan once again has reached fever pitch. Is Dunkirk a masterpiece? Or is it yet another piece of super-overrated cinema from a filmmaker who can’t see past his own delusions of grandeur? For me, it’s the former, but this is coming from someone who has always considered Nolan to be, if not the greatest living cinematic auteur, then at least among the top five.

Dark Knight Rises

What interests me is the accusation he is a Conservative filmmaker when a titanic weight of evidence suggests quite the opposite. Do read the above linked article with the accusation, much as partly I’m loathe to link to it – despite having been written by someone very pleased with their prose, someone with visible disdain for modern film criticism and a level of bitterness toward politics in general, it nonetheless outlines an argument with a level of brevity.

Frankly it’s not a piece worth dwelling on and picking apart because some of the arguments are lunacy, but what it does is raise an interesting question: just where does Nolan, and his films, stand on the political spectrum?

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