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The Dark Knight

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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JOKER: A male rage manifesto with ugly societal truths

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.

Threads for the Digital Age: YEARS AND YEARS

There is no doubt in my mind that Years and Years would have been a catastrophic horror show of a television series had it not been written by Russell T. Davies.

This six-part one-shot series shows just how unique Davies is to the landscape of television, particularly British television. It is, completely, an ‘RTD’ show. It is histrionic and human and warm and silly and dark and messy and filled with characters who are both people you know or have met or exist in your family, yet at the same time only exist in the stylistic world of RTD’s fiction. Years and Years feels like a culmination of Davies’ journey as a writer so far. It has the pain and anguish of homosexual love (Cucumber, Queer as Folk) against a backdrop of repression and fear. It has a global and expansive reach, covering a multitude of social and philosophical points (The Second Coming). It rushes head-long into near science-fiction and almost madcap plots against government villains caricatured at times to the point of hilarity (Doctor Who). It throws a hundred ideas into the pot and while not all of them stick, a remarkable amount do.

The reason Years and Years works, ultimately, is that it is full of hope and humanity at the core of what is otherwise a terrifying existential drama – a Threads for the digital age. Threads was a groundbreaking BBC film produced in 1984, in the dying embers of the Cold War (and pointedly before the Chernobyl accident, so brilliantly dramatised recently for HBO & Sky by Craig Mazin), all about the effects of a nuclear apocalypse on British soil. Though I was just a wild eyed, innocent, unaware two year old at the time, Threads very much stayed with audiences who watched it for a long time, even into the present day; a striking argument for why nuclear weapons should never be used on a civilian population. It was a drama about consequences. Years and Years is the same. I thought at first it was a show about the death of democracy and the erosion of a system we have perpetuated for the last century but, in truth, RTD is writing about the death of *humanity* in various forms, literal, psychological and allegorical. He is writing about a Western society that is losing, and has very much partly lost, its way.

His hope lies in the central family who ground the entire story, around whom the world begins falling apart. The Lyons family are RTD’s hope, his hope in us.

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.

Mission Impossible: Fallout (2018)

Given the stature and prowess of the Mission Impossible franchise, the sixth movie is not likely to bring the curtain down on this series, but were Fallout to be the swansong for Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt, it would quite honestly be a perfect way to bow out.

Everything about Fallout has the sense of an ending. Christopher McQuarrie’s second film as writer/director does numerous things. It fully transforms Mission Impossible, in its twilight years, into his personal baby, on which he stamps his mark in a way not seen since Brian De Palma’s original 1996 adaptation of the 1960’s original TV show. Fallout is not just a direct sequel to Rogue Nation, despite being the first Mission Impossible film to pick up where the previous one left off, but it also works to tie together from a storytelling perspective every film from Mission Impossible III onwards, while thematically reaching back to John Woo’s derided Mission Impossible II. It teaches a film like James Bond movie Spectre, which retroactively attempted to link Daniel Craig’s 007 into a string of continuity, how it’s done.

Mission Impossible: Fallout might just also boast some of the most intense, robust and powerful sequences of the entire franchise. This is doubly surprising given just how much of it doesn’t even feel like a Mission Impossible film at all.

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011)

If you ran a poll asking the average film goer, and indeed the average film critic, which of the Mission Impossible films they considered to be the strongest outing in the franchise, you would have a significant amount point to Ghost Protocol. On the face of it, you can see why. Once you scratch deeper, those reasons become more opaque.

The X-Files: Mythology within Mythology

When you apply the word mythology to the fabric of modern television, you have to pay a great deal of lip service to The X-Files, because it was really the first TV show to couch its storytelling in that terminology. Chris Carter’s seminal 1990’s series, one of the most significant pop-culture features of the decade, invented what became known as the ‘mytharc’ – not just a continuing narrative regarding the presence of extra-terrestrial life on Earth and a sinister, global conspiracy to cover their existence up, but a veritable mythological template on which to tell a story, depict archetypal character journeys, and immerse viewers in a world where they could theorise, suppose and contemplate.

The X-Files built its entire success around its sense of mythology, alongside the chord struck by its partnership duo, FBI agents Fox Mulder & Dana Scully, and those fans who didn’t show up to see Mulder & Scully get it on, almost certainly were there to enjoy the kind of continuity, richness and adherence to ‘canon’ with almost the fervour of the Star Trek or Star Wars fanbases. Which is why, when The X-Files finally returned to TV after almost a fifteen year break, it was almost for many fans baffling to see Carter seemingly contradict and downright reject the mythology he had so painstakingly created.

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.

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?