Comics

First Impressions: WANDAVISION ‘Episodes 1 & 2’ – a surreal, charming homage to comic Americana

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.

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).

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.

Film Review: JOKER (2019)

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.

Film Review: SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME (2019)

You know when people say “don’t watch this one unless you’ve seen the last one”? Well, that statement may just peak with Spider-Man: Far From Home, particularly when it comes to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The ‘one’ in particular isn’t even the previous solo Spider-Man film, 2017’s Homecoming, because the MCU has changed the game when it comes to how sequels work. Homecoming introduced the supporting characters in Peter Parker’s direct orbit but Jon Watts’ precious picture was neither Tom Holland’s first bow as the character, and Homecoming serves as an important part of the ongoing, overarching narrative in the first era of the MCU which concluded recently with the ‘one’ I am talking about – Avengers: Endgame. That’s the film you need to have seen before Far From Home as Watts’ Spider-Man film serves as an extended epilogue to the epic conclusion to the Infinity Saga, not to mention a coda to that first, decade-spanning era.

Far From Home is about the legacy of an era which reinvented exactly what the ‘superhero movie’ was. Marvel Studios, under Kevin Feige’s aegis, took the formula and tropes we had come to know and understand from the previous three decades since 1978’s seminal first Superman adaptation, through a legion of Batman movies and beyond, and subverted them pretty much from the get-go. Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man didn’t spend half a dozen films hiding his identity as Bruce Wayne did – he came out and told the world right at the end of his origin story. The MCU interweaved characters and narratives to develop the first ongoing, television-style serialised structure in cinematic history. Along the way it brewed up broad comedy, epic action, science-fiction and half a dozen other genres—often within the same films—inside which the traditional ‘superhero’ nestled.

What we have seen in previous Marvel pictures before Endgame, and which Far From Home makes abundantly clear, is that Marvel’s self-aware subversion of that formula has *become* their formula itself.

Rage Against – X-MEN: DARK PHOENIX (2019)

Dark Phoenix is not quite the coda to the X-Men franchise that you might have expected going in.

For quite some time now, general feeling among a large swathe of the movie going audience invested in comic book cinema has been the belief that Dark Phoenix would be a significant let down. Despite the critical successes, even taking into account their flaws, of X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Days of Future Past, X-Men: Apocalypse was a strong case of diminishing returns (critically and financially as it turns out) which took a lot of air out of the X-Men balloon when it came to enthusiasm for the next generation of the franchise – having established new versions of Jean Grey, Cyclops, Storm etc… to help presumably carry the X-Men saga into a new era. With Bryan Singer no longer involved in the production due to the allegations against him, and long-term writer Simon Kinberg making his directorial debut, plus the usual report of reshoots of the final act and the film’s release being pushed back over half a year, the omens for Dark Phoenix outdoing Apocalypse and providing a satisfying end to this iteration of the saga were low. Perhaps the biggest surprise about Dark Phoenix, in which case, is that it *is* a better film than Apocalypse and just about accomplishes what it sets out to do.

Let me state this clearly for the record: Dark Phoenix is not a great X-Men film, or comic-book movie in general. When up against the heights of the medium, be it the Marvel Cinematic Universe at its peak or The Dark Knight trilogy, Dark Phoenix cannot compete. It is at times noisy. It can be unintentionally funny in how overwrought the central story finds itself. It suffers from some of the worst villains in the entirety of comic book cinema. It ignores elements of its own continuity and numerous character arcs for expediency. Plus it lacks a great deal of depth when it comes to the underpinnings geopolitical and social aspects that made the X-Men films more than just effects-driven spectacles. It focuses so tightly on one character journey in particular that much of the saga’s entertaining subtext is rejected. Yet despite all of this, it is not incoherent. It is a better adaptation of ‘The Dark Phoenix Saga’, the 1980 comic story from Chris Claremont and John Byrne, than X-Men: The Last Stand gave us. It does manage to give key characters Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr, as well as Jean Grey of course, dramatic through-lines which tether to the core narrative in a satisfying way.

And, perhaps as best it could, Dark Phoenix gives a level of closure to the X-Men franchise that we can probably live with.

The Third One is Always the Worst – X-MEN: APOCALYPSE (2016)

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 2016 sequel, X-Men: Apocalypse

Perhaps the best way to describe X-Men: Apocalypse is as the film X-Men: The Last Stand wanted to be, which is a significant amount of damning with faint praise.

Apocalypse is a clear and visible step down from X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Days of Future Past. It is, easily, the weakest X-Men movie since X-Men: Origins Wolverine. It is also the most cleanly and directly an X-Men film since The Last Stand, and to an extent the more logical sequel that we could have been given after First Class had Bryan Singer, Simon Kinberg, Lauren Shuler Donner and the rest of the team had gone in a different direction. First Class introduced the idea of the X-Men as a functional unit but, in order to facilitate the darker, multi-generational, time-spanning narrative of Days of Future Past, chose to roll back on their development in order to provide an origin story for Charles Xavier as Professor X. First Class placed everyone where the needed to be for Apocalypse to happen but this film benefits from the depth of characterisation given to characters such as Xavier, Erik ‘Magneto’ Lensherr and Raven ‘Mystique’ Darkholme.

Where Apocalypse stumbles is how it attempts to start re-creating the conditions of the first two X-Men movies while lacking their depth of subtlety or clear dramatic through-lines. X-Men had the X/Magneto conflict fully formed at the turn of the millennium whereas, in Apocalypse, X is still building Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters into the functional X-Men team we saw in the 2000 film, and Erik has attempted to abandon the Magneto persona after the events of Days of Future Past instead of becoming the ideological, anti-human uber-villain he was in Singer’s first film. Apocalypse wants to be both a First Class-style groundwork-laying origin story *and* a functional, standard X-Men film—a counterpoint to how offbeat and format-breaking DOFP was—all in one go, and as a result it ends up a busy, silly, often unfulfilling concoction recalling the heady vacuousness of The Last Stand. The fact it also wants to be meta and subversive at the same time just adds to the cluttered mix.

Apocalypse *is* a better film than The Last Stand. It is not, however, the sequel that either First Class or especially Days of Future Past deserved.

The Trask at Hand – X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST (2014)

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 2014 epic, X-Men: Days of Future Past

Though ostensibly designed as a new beginning for the X-Men franchise, Days of Future Past oddly works better as an ending.

Bryan Singer’s return as director of the franchise, after abandoning the third intended X-Men film in 2006 for Superman Returns, gives the film an unexpected level of continuity back to his original first two pictures and allows it to work as a capstone for the original X-Men cast, the majority of whom return for this adaptation of Chris Claremont & John Byrne’s legendary 1981 Uncanny X-Men saga set in a dark, post-apocalyptic future where both humans *and* mutants have been subjugated by the Sentinels, a force of man-made, mutant-killing robots. Days of Future Past ends up allowing Singer to both tie-off many of the loose ends left remaining after X-Men: The Last Stand, and continue the rebirth of the saga after Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class. As the film brings together two different generations of X-Men and these characters, so Days of Future Past unites Singer and Vaughn, who co-developed the story with First Class writer Jane Goldman, in developing a unique fusion of continuation and conclusion.

Days of Future Past is the most tangibly connected X-Men film to X1 and X2, even beyond Singer back in the director’s chair. It tackles the core ideological difference between Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) that formed the backbone of those first films, as it does in the original Stan Lee/Jack Kirby comics, and naturally evolves that conflict from its foundation in First Class. Though the plot is driven by Wolverine in his role working to change the past, and it hinges on the historical actions of Mystique, Days of Future Past is as much an origin story for Professor X and his school as First Class was for Magneto. The script is cleaner, the dramatic through-line more directly apparent (at least in the first half), and it manages to both give the original X-Men trilogy a sense of closure while spiralling the franchise off into a new direction. This does for the X-Men franchise what JJ Abrams’ 2009 reboot movie did for Star Trek – new life born of old characters.

X2 may be the stronger movie by a yard or two, but Days of Future Past could well be my personal favourite for how it satisfies the viewer on multiple levels.

Origin of Species: X-MEN: FIRST CLASS (2011)

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 Matthew Vaughn’s 2011’s prequel, X-Men: First Class

As prequels go, X-Men: First Class is a pretty great offering. As saviours of an entire franchise go, First Class is pretty much a miracle.

To suggest the X-Men franchise was in the doldrums at the end of the last decade would have been an understatement. The Last Stand, meant as a capper to the first two initial Bryan Singer helmed X-Men films, made a decent profit but was roundly trounced by critics and many fans, as indeed was X-Men Origins: Wolverine in 2009 – technically both a sequel *and* prequel, intended as a character study for Hugh Jackman’s breakout mutant from the previous trilogy, it turned out a critical failure that set 20th Century Fox onto a path they had been toying with throughout the first trilogy of pictures: a film about the youthful origins of the X-Men. With no clear path forward, producer Lauren Shuler Donner started looking back, in order to gain a fresh perspective the franchise by this point sorely needed.

The result, First Class, turns out to be far more of an assured triumph than, off the back of the previous two films, it had any right to be. Matthew Vaughn’s film does not just go back to the origin story of characters who Singer introduced us to fully-formed and established in X-Men—principally Professor Charles Xavier and Erik ‘Magneto’ Lensherr—but takes the franchise further back to its essential comic-book roots than ever. While the name First Class was grabbed by writer Simon Kinberg from a modern X-Men comic he chose not to directly adapt, the 1962, height of the Cold War setting, with a narrative underpinned by geopolitical tensions between the US and Soviet Union, very much calls back to Stan Lee/Jack Kirby’s original 1960’s comics—which debuted around the same time—filled as they were with anxieties about nuclear conflict and Communist fears.

In going back to the beginning, First Class is remarkably successful in charting a way forward that was inconceivable two films earlier.

From the Ashes – 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.