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Movies

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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“Am I Not Merciful?!” GLADIATOR, Commodus and the Rise of the Populists

With Gladiator celebrating 20 years since it was released, I had some additional thoughts about the character of Commodus, expanding on my recent piece covering the film as part of my 2000 In Film series

We live in an age of populists. I’m sure you could name a few. A mixture of entertainment capitalists in the West and dictators in the East, with a few tinpot warlords in Africa and corrupt family dynasties in the Middle East. Sprinkled in between that are a few genuine democracies, sure, but the 21st century is not flying the flag for government by the people, for the people. I wonder, in part, if Gladiator saw this coming.

I wrote recently about the film as part of my 2000 In Film series, looking back the number one box office hits in Hollywood that are not a princely twenty years old, and in that piece I wondered about whether the villain Commodus reflected certain 21st century political anxieties that were facing down America at the turn of the millennium. The parallels between a particular US President, if you strip away the ancient Roman details, are quite striking. Yet Commodus as a character, and what he represents, goes beyond one man. He speaks to the rise of a leader who builds his strength and reputation not on trust, not on his own personal record or success, but on how he can make the people love him.

Populists are, at the heart, complete narcissists. The very nature of the word ‘popular’ stems from the Latin and has a strong connection, in fact, to Rome. The adjective populāris is described as “pertaining to all or most of the people, belonging to or used by the common people (as opposed to the military, the aristocracy, or the senators)”, and that sums Commodus up to a tee. He seeks absolute rule, backed by the military, yes, and supported by the Senate, sure, but has a leader he does not expect to be beholden to any of them. They, and by definition the people they support, are designed to support *him*, and if they don’t they, like Maximus, are considered a threat to Rome, and by extention to “the people”.

In that, we can see strong parallels between the world Commodus wanted to create in Gladiator and the political landscape of the early 21st century.

2020: 12 Movies to Get Excited About

As we close out 2019, it’s time to put together a few Top 10 lists based on my key entertainment passions – film, TV and film scores.

I’m taking a little swerve with this final list to look ahead and think about what films we have coming up in 2020, and why I’m excited about them and, maybe, this might get you a little excited too.

So here we go. 12 movies for 12 months, by UK release date. Almost…

2019 Top 10: Movies

As we close out 2019, it’s time to put together a few Top 10 lists based on my key entertainment passions – film, TV and film scores.

I’ve gone back and forth on decade lists but I suspect I’m just going to keep to 2019 releases on the blog, and maybe do something more with the decade on my Twitter or FB, so stay tuned in that regard.

Next up – movies! I’ve done quite well this year, managing to watch a good 50 movies from the calendar year, which is more than I sometimes manage. So I feel placed to at least come up with a reasonable Top 10, even though I know I have a few blind spots & certain films will probably push out the lower films on this list eventually. But that’s for the future, so here goes…

Tony Talks #17: Classic Film Book Goodness!

Hello film fans!

So thanks to the lovely folks at Running Press, I’ve been reading a whole bunch of film books in the last couple of months which I thought I’d badge together in one post, as I wanted to recommend them to any of you who have an interesting in learning more about cinema.

Here are some deeper thoughts on what I’ve been reading…

TV, Movie, Book, Podcast Roundup – October 2019

Welcome to November! Because there’s not enough useless information floating around on the internet, I thought I would update readers of this blog as to what I’ve watched/read over the previous month, each month, in the form of TV, movies and books.

Some of this I will have reviewed on the blog but others I’ve just been watching for enjoyment with Mrs Black.

Let’s start this month with TV…

Blu-Ray Review: FULLER AT FOX – Five Films 1951-1957

By rights, Samuel Fuller should probably be regarded more highly in the annals of mid-20th century American cinema. The fact he made principally the kind of B-pictures evidenced in this comprehensive Eureka Entertainment release is testament to why this isn’t the case.

Fuller at Fox: Five Films 1951-1957 does what it says on the tin, presenting five key pictures from the key cornerstone era of Fuller’s career. While he would again make a critical splash (if not a box office one) in 1980 with his war movie The Big Red One, Fuller’s period working at 20th Century Fox across the 50’s is probably his heyday. Fox head honcho Darryl F. Zanuck tempted him with the promise “we make better movies” and gave Fuller the opportunity to play in different genres while retaining a similar, unique sense of pulp, all-American muscular grit, whether playing war, Western or even international crime thriller. Over these years, Fuller had a run at them all.

This collection presents these films in quite stunning, remastered fashion on BluRay and they arguably serve as a fantastic entry point for anyone looking to explore Fuller’s work. It’s the kind of release long-term fans will go nuts for.

Scene By Scene: STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN – Part V – ‘First Best Destiny’

As voted for on Twitter by followers, I will be analysing Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan scene by scene in this multi-part exploration of Nicholas Meyer’s 1982 sequel…

Running through the broader themes in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan of life and death, birth and rebirth, is the concept of destiny. The idea that James T. Kirk and Khan Noonien Singh are on a pre-determined, fate-driven course.

Following the reveal of Khan and the establishment of the Enterprise crew of foundling trainees, not to mention the Reliant’s mission and the Genesis project on space station Regula 1, Nicholas Meyer works to begin tying these disparate threads together and stitch Kirk and Khan toward their inevitable confrontation. Carol and David Marcus begin to suspect that the crew of the Reliant—now taken over by Khan and his genetically superior Botany Bay crew—have more sinister motivations for taking control of the Genesis device, as communicated by a robotic, we know to be controlled Pavel Chekov. The order is not just political but personal, given Chekov lies that Kirk is behind such an order. “Scientists have always been pawns of the military!” decries a quite paranoid David, even as Carol refuses to believe quite what Chekov is suggesting.

It further underlines a persistent theme in Meyer’s script: his fascination with quite what Starfleet actually *is*, given how loosely defined the organisation was in Star Trek lore up to this point. Even before the Reliant is seized by Khan, David is suspicious of Starfleet’s motives as a naval, militaristic agency, and Chekov’s lies only further deepen that suspicion. “Starfleet has kept the peace for a hundred years. I cannot and will not subscribe to your interpretation of this event.” Carol asserts, convinced that Starfleet’s motivations are about the science, not its nefarious applications. Meyer’s lens is informed by 20th century history, nevertheless. He is fully aware of how Robert Oppenheimer believed he was building a weapon to defeat fascism, only to find the H-bomb corrupted into a terrifying agent of prevention at the cost of millions of innocent lives.

The Wrath of Khan pointedly attempts to wrap up these bigger political questions about Starfleet’s operation around Kirk and Khan’s mutual destiny. Their mutually assured destruction.

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.

Scene By Scene: STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN – Part IV – ‘Death and Life Together’

As voted for on Twitter by followers, I will be analysing Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan scene by scene in this multi-part exploration of Nicholas Meyer’s 1982 sequel…

Though it retains the innate sense of optimism built into Star Trek’s world view, The Wrath of Khan approaches Gene Roddenberry’s universe from far more of a humanistic, historical naval tradition.

Starfleet of The Original Series was a crew of cowboy scientists galloping, as James T. Kirk suggests, through space. Nicholas Meyer’s film recasts the organisation as a respectful militaristic structure riven with rule and tradition. The Federation may not be equivalent to the British Empire of the 19th century, but if Kirk is Captain Horatio Hornblower and the U.S.S. Enterprise his frigate, Starfleet most certainly is a classical ‘space Navy’ in a way that wasn’t apparent in The Motion Picture.

What facilitated this change? Why did Meyer see Starfleet, later described in JJ Abrams’ reboot as a “humanitarian and peacekeeping armada”, in terms of rank and file, of rules and regulations?