Film, Reviews

THE BATMAN thrillingly provides a Gotham and Dark Knight for a whole new generation

There was a moment during The Batman in which it became clear the film was a great piece of cinema.

Following an attack that almost kills him, Batman is cornered by aggressive police officers looking to blame him for the Riddler’s reign of terror before he is assisted in an escape in which he rappels up through Gotham PD headquarters, crashing through to the roof before he abseils down into the murky city below. In and of itself, this could be a sequence from any Batman film since 1989 but it was the point where it dawned on me just how well Matt Reeves’ latest take on the Caped Crusader was working.

Because, let’s be honest, everything was stacked against this. DC Comics, one or two outliers aside, have had a torrid time of it in cinematic terms since the conclusion to Christopher Nolan’s towering Dark Knight trilogy a decade ago. Ben Affleck essayed a fine Bruce Wayne across two (and a bit) dreadful Zach Snyder-led movies but Batman remained in the shadow of Nolan’s modernistic take on Gotham’s corruption and Bruce’s tragic heroic myth that felt, in many respects, quite definitive. There are always fresh avenues to take with a hero who has frequently reinvented himself but where could you go after those films and it have the same scale and impact was the burning question.

Snyder’s answer was bigger, louder and universal. Reeves provides a more satisfying response with The Batman by far.

Continue reading “THE BATMAN thrillingly provides a Gotham and Dark Knight for a whole new generation”
Film, Writing

Film Review: TENET (2020)

★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2

Tenet is the first film in which Christopher Nolan winks to the audience that he, too, understands what a Christopher Nolan film is.
How else to explain that John David Washington’s lead character is not just referenced as The Protagonist, but he describes himself as such at multiple points during the film. Washington’s mysterious, super-trained, probable CIA spy describes people he fights as ‘antagonists’ and positions himself directly at the centre of a narrative in which Nolan culminates everything you would expect from him as a director.
A high concept idea which glances toward the realm of science-fiction, mind-bending physics, powerful technology, concepts of futurism born from theoretical ideas, relentlessly thundering sound design and practical effects where possible. If Nolan appreciates he is making the most ‘Nolan’ movie ever, in contrast to Dunkirk which eschewed his penchant for dialogue driven escapism, then The Protagonist ultimately has a level of hyper-awareness core to his nature.
This is key to Tenet’s palindromic construction, one replete with a narrative that bends in on itself thanks to the fascinating, ‘Nolanian’ gambit of ‘time inversion’ or a level of reversed ‘entropy’. “Don’t try to understand it” suggests Clemence Poesy’s scientist early on, and that’s Nolan speaking to his audience. Just go with it. Allow the inversion to pull you along because it does, for the most part, make sense by the end.
Many will be telling you that Tenet is a puzzle box that leaves you baffled and while, granted, several rewatches might be necessary to get it all straight, as ever in a Nolan film the pieces are in front of us to be observed. His continued prestige, his belief that we want to be fooled, is the key to how he constructs his pictures. In this case, however, The Protagonist—as the inversion himself of an archetype—is clued into the game. He may not understand it all until the end but he knows, at least, that he has a role to play in the grand tapestry of the tale.
These constructs, and the sheer, epic, bravura joy of seeing Nolan weave everything together, is why Tenet is—Dunkirk’s side step notwithstanding—Nolan’s best picture since The Dark Knight.
Continue reading “Film Review: TENET (2020)”

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.
Continue reading “Christopher Nolan has his own Pledge, Turn and Prestige”

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).
Continue reading “Revolution & Rebirth: THE DARK KNIGHT RISES imagined America’s fire almost a decade ago”

Dracula, Season Reviews, TV

DRACULA is a sinewy, self-aware deconstruction of power, control and consent (TV Review)

The funny thing is that this all happened because of a joke. As Mark Gatiss recalls, at a Sherlock premiere, he commented to the commissioner of BBC drama that Benedict Cumberbatch’s attire made him look a little like Dracula and was asked if it was something he and writing partner Steven Moffat wanted to do. The answer, eventually, inevitably, was yes.

In a sense, Dracula feels like the project this duo have spent their entire partnership building towards. A partnership born during Moffat’s tenure running Doctor Who, in which, as he had done for previous showrunner Russell T. Davies, Gatiss would contribute scripts to each season; a partnership which then gained huge success adapting another iconic character in Victorian literature, Sherlock Holmes, for the BBC. Even before this, both were headed in the same direction. Moffat penned Jekyll back in 2007, updating the Robert Louis Stevenson 19th century classic for the modern day, while Gatiss developed The League of Gentlemen which drew on a significant knowledge of Hammer horror and occult, British portmanteau cinema.

As a result, this version of Dracula—based on the 1897 novel by Bram Stoker which has been adapted countless times in cinema and on TV over the last century—would not be a clear, simplistic adaptation. That’s just not how Moffat & Gatiss operate. They are both too cine-literature, too aware of narrative tropes, too ensconced in the lore of classic horror fiction. To take on Dracula, a text that almost everyone even with a passing knowledge of drama roughly knows the story of, would be to invert, subvert and reclassify. As they did with Holmes & Watson in Sherlock, so they would do with the Transylvanian Count played by Nordic actor Claes Bang here. That approach was inevitable, as anyone with a passing awareness of their work would be anticipating.

Their Dracula, as a result, is both exactly what you expect from them, and at times not at all what you expect from this story. It is a Dracula born of the 21st century. The take of an immortal symbol of toxic masculinity seeking to control and dominate not just female, but human sexuality, human life and human death.

Continue reading “DRACULA is a sinewy, self-aware deconstruction of power, control and consent (TV Review)”
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.

Continue reading “THE DARK KNIGHT JOKES: How JOKER builds on Nolan’s revolutionary thesis”
DC, Film, Reviews

JOKER is a male rage manifesto with ugly societal truths (Film Review)

Even for a film devoted to perhaps the most iconic comic book villain in history, Joker has arrived front loaded with a measure of positive and negative hype mixed in with a significant level of anxiety and paranoia.

In that sense, Todd Phillips’ deconstruction of DC Comics villain The Joker, Batman’s eternal primary nemesis from almost a century of comic book lore, befits the approach taken by this detailed, Bat-free examination of the character. Phillips’ film takes a major cue from the work of Martin Scorsese, a filmmaker at the core of the American New Wave movement that defined 1970’s cinema, whose work has particularly concentrated on New York City. Were Joaquin Phoenix’s failed stand up comedian Arthur Fleck not a resident of the fictional, legendary Gotham City, Phillips’ film could easily be set in NYC. His Gotham has the same feel and texture, the same nihilistic cruelty and dystopian economic social and political divide. The early 80’s of Joker is Scorsese’s 70’s, riven through Phillips’ key inspirations such as Mean Streets or particularly Taxi Driver, not to mention the early 80’s showmanship of The King of Comedy.

It would therefore be easy to cast Joker off as a pure Scorsese-homage, or even rip off. Joker wears its inspirations very clearly on its sleeve, lifting Travis Bickle’s righteous fury at society’s decay or Rupert Pupkin’s delusional fantasy of fame and recognition, and porting them into Arthur’s descent into madness. Yet there is a case to be made that Phillips’ film and Arthur’s transformation are one and the same thing. Joker presents an origin story in which a murderous psychopath is created as a product of his environment, of his experiences, and of society’s evolution into the shape it is today. Joker, similarly, is an echo of a cinematic 70’s filled with pictures—such as Sidney Lumet’s Network or Serpico, or Alan J. Pakula’s conspiracy thrillers—that raged at the system, the inequality, and the corruption at the heart of American society. Joker, too, is a product of its own cinematic heritage. It feels like an evolution of the form.

The question is whether Joker, as a depiction of white male rage, is an irresponsible manifesto or a remarkable moment for comic book cinema.

Continue reading “JOKER is a male rage manifesto with ugly societal truths (Film Review)”
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.

Continue reading “Franchise Retrospective: X-MEN: THE LAST STAND (2006)”
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.

Continue reading “Franchise Retrospective: X-MEN (2000)”
Film, Mission Impossible, Reviews

Franchise Retrospective: MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (1996)

Given the direction the Mission Impossible franchise has taken over the last twenty two years, all the way through to the most recent sixth outing Fallout, it is easy to forget Brian De Palma’s original but also to underestimate quite how well it launched one of Hollywood’s most impressively consistent franchises.

Mission Impossible happened just before cinema began to change. It happened just before the post-modernist transformation of Hollywood into a self-referential field of franchises that would go on to metaphorically eat themselves, in the wake of Wes Craven’s Scream and a thousand imitators.

It happened in advance of the rise of the blockbuster which did not rely on the tentpole, marquee name to keep afloat, as The Matrix sequels gave way to the first flourish of the comic-book movie rise across the 2000’s. It happened in the midst of the trend of classic properties being revisited, updated and ‘reimagined’, which began dominating the landscape, coming in the wake of successes such as The Fugitive.

Mission Impossible, quite remarkably for a picture which is now two decades old, feels as a result both uniquely rooted in the 1990’s and decidedly out of time.

Continue reading “Franchise Retrospective: MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (1996)”