Russell Crowe

GLADIATOR: an epic, bravura examination of Pax Americana (2000 in Film #18)

This year, 20 years on from the year 2000, I’m going to celebrate the first year of cinema in the 21st century by looking back at some of the films across the year at the turn of the millennium which took No #1 at the box office for their opening weekends.

This week, released on the weekend of May 5th, Ridley Scott’s Gladiator

One of the defining films of the 2000’s, Gladiator might also be the first epic piece of blockbuster American cinema released in the 21st century.

It had been decades since Hollywood had produced a film like Ridley Scott gives us here. The sword and sandals epic went out with the birth of the New Hollywood movement in the late 1960’s, which swopped the pomp and exuberance of languid historical epics such as The Fall of the Roman Empire, Cleopatra, even Stanley Kubrick’s superior Spartacus, for a leaner, grittier and more contemporary cinematic aesthetic. By the time cinema once again dipped its toe in grand storytelling, the blockbuster gave birth to fantasy, science-fiction and adventure which, again, put paid to audiences wanting to see large scale historical recreations of the ancient world. A decade earlier, Gladiator would have struggled to even be made.

Stepping into the new millennium, Scott nevertheless saw an opportunity, as DreamWorks pictures believed there was the space to develop a revision, a reimagining, of such classical Hollywood storytelling for a new age. Saving Private Ryan two years earlier, which revolutionised how to depict the visceral nature of World War Two, arguably inspired how Scott and DreamWorks envisaged bringing the harsh world of the ancient Roman Empire to life; a world filled with war, bloodshed and a copious lack of sanctity for human life in the face of a populous bating for blood. The space was created for the very Spartacus-influenced tale of Maximus Decimus Meridius, the beloved Roman General who sees his family murdered by envious new Emperor Commodus, before slaying his executioners and fighting his way up through the gladiatorial pits of Rome to challenge the very notion of Empire itself.

What strikes me, looking back with two decades distance, is not just how impressive Gladiator remains in vision and scope, even if at times it falls into melodrama, but how it speaks even more potently now than then about what the film was really about: America at the end of the 20th century. It continues the refraction we have seen thus far in 2000 in American cinema about the nation’s legacy and place in the world.

BOMBSHELL: the haunted, toothless response to a destructive political culture

Bombshell never lives up the explosive promise of its title.

While satire has caught up with the age of Donald Trump, what with Alec Baldwin’s razor sharp Saturday Night Live impersonations which have infuriated the humourless Bigly-in-chief, cinema has to date struggled with how to capture not just this most divisive of Presidents but also the culture he has fostered in American politics and mass media. Jay Roach’s Bombshell is one of the first significant efforts to explore what this means for a country Hollywood has struggled in since 2016, defined as it is by ostensibly liberal values – even if economically they are far more conservative than they would ever let on.

The doorway opened for screenwriter Charles Randolph, best known for penning Adam McKay’s The Big Short, to detail this fairly recent chapter of American political life following the death in mid-2017 of Roger Ailes, the long-standing CEO of Fox News, as controlled by the global conglomerate under Australian tycoon Rupert Murdoch. Ailes no longer being able to litigate allows Bombshell to tell the story, primarily, of Megyn Kelly, the Fox News host who with previously dismissed host Gretchen Carlson stood up to years of pervasive, institutionalised sexual harassment by Ailes within the Fox News system, triggering a lawsuit that saw Ailes reputation in tatters and cost him his position. Within just under a year, that failure apparently killed him.

Bombshell, therefore, could easily have exploded as such and entirely destroyed Roger Ailes and the broader, Trumpian culture of old, white male abuse in the public eye. So why does it end up so remarkably toothless?

Mutated Anxiety at the Millennium: 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.