The critical orthodoxy has it that Man of Steel is a fine, pastoral origin-story for S******n, before it descends into an overlong, overloud finale. I agree with the second part of that assessment, but I barely noticed any modulation between soft/hard, fast/slow, quiet/LOUD in this movie. The trailer promised a morose, contemplative superhero, thoughtfully bearded, in search of himself. But, after a tacky cod-medieval prologue on Krypton, we get three minutes of shoe-gazing before S******n’s stripped to the waist, on fire, plucking workmen out of a blazing oil-rig. So much for the build-up. Continue reading
With The Last Airbender stinking up UK cinemas, it seemed like a good time to remind myself of the days when M. Night Shyamalan seemed like an exciting talent to watch. Accordingly, this podcast is all about his comic book superhero drama Unbreakable, starring Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson. I’m a big fan of this film, and it would be a shame if it was forgotten as Shyamalan’s career seems to be increasingly marked by disastrous critical failure. Willis plays David Dunn, a security guard who becomes the sole survivor of a train crash, and Samuel L. Jackson’s Elijah Price tries to convince him that his survival makes him a real-life, invulnerable superhero. This episode features clips from the film and extracts from James Newton Howard’s score.
DOWNLOAD: Spectacular Attractions Podcast #7
The last gallery for a while, this one collects a bunch of heroes and heroines, super or otherwise, from a range of countries and time periods. A few of these are for films that don’t actually exist yet. See if you can tell which ones…
See more Spectacular Attractions galleries here.
We probably overuse terms like “bizarre”, especially when reaching for adjectives to describe some of the more colourful corners of Japanese popular culture. If American superheroes are treated with square-jawed earnestness, and given deconstructive exercises that extend only so far as grumbling about the heavy burden of their duties, Big Man Japan sets about the similar task of upending the mythologies of the kaiju eiga (giant monster movie) with a wicked sense of the absurdity of the whole situation. It spoofs it’s target genre with something approaching affection, but primarily pokes fun at it not by mimicking its excesses and taking them a little bit further into comic extrusion, but by juxtaposing the ordinary with the fantastic and showing them to be aesthetically, tonally and, by extension, purposefully incompatible.
Children committing violent and sexual acts should be a matter for concern. Children carrying knives are not cool, but a real and present danger. Underage sex isn’t a laugh. Recent government figures revealed that in this country more than 8,000 children under the age of 16 conceive every year. Worldwide child pornography is a multi-billion dollar industry. In Africa and South America, brutalised youngsters who kill and rape are rightly feared as members of feral gangs or child soldiers.
In Kick-Ass, childish violence of the most extreme kind – hacking off limbs, shootings in the mouth, impalings and fatal stabbings – is presented with calculated flippancy, as funny, admirable and (most perversely of all) sexually arousing.
The film-makers are sure to argue that there’s nothing wrong with breaking down taboos of taste – but there are often good reasons for taboos.
Do we really want to live, for instance, in a culture when the torture and killing of a James Bulger or Damilola Taylor is re-enacted by child actors for laughs?
The “a-vote-for-this-film-is-a-vote-for-child-soldiers-and-kiddie-porn” argument is pretty low, even for the Mail. For a start, the film has no moral equivalence with the killing of an innocent toddler, and it is bizarre to try and argue that it does. As a matter of fact, I remember Chris Tookey once telling his readers that he felt nothing when he saw somebody stabbed outside his home – he had been too desensitised by movies. That’s more of a personal confession than an indictment of the rest of us, Chris. But what’s that noise? Is it the sound of a hammer finally, after much flailing around and mis-aimed lunges at non-existent targets, hitting a nail on the head?:
As a rip-off of its Hollywood betters, it is sporadically funny, efficient, and well shot – hence my arguably overgenerous award of one star. The biggest problem of the movie, creatively speaking, is that it has pretensions to intelligence but is profoundly, irredeemably bone-headed. It starts as though it’s going to expose the huge gulf between comic strips and reality, but ends up reducing the real world to the most morally fatuous kind of comic strip.
Dear readers, it is with a heavy heart that I find myself in agreement with this summary. Daily Mail, let’s just admit that we found some common ground and move on. I’ll finish my review, and you can get back to defending the nation’s morals by hiding round corners to examine girls’ arses as they pass by.
(I should note that, despite the whiny, snitching tone of its professional writers, the Mail‘s message boards are overrun with smart cookies who make a point of deftly undercutting and overwhelmingly voting down the pomposity of most of the actual articles.)
Let’s be clear: Kick-Ass is not a bad film. It’s just not what I thought I’d been promised. For all the credit Kick-Ass is getting, you’d think it had invented the deconstructive superhero story. Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay? M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable? Almost everything Alan Moore has ever done? Even Ang Lee’s Hulk had a go at fleshing out the humanity behind the mythos. An ironic right-wing vigilante revenge fantasy is still a right-wing vigilante revenge fantasy, trading on the belief that some people are just made bad and are therefore bar-coded cannon fodder with no right of reply. That’s why it’s a surprise to find the Mail reacting against a film that so thoroughly celebrates the have-a-go heroes who unquestioningly take the law into their own hands. You might think this is imposing too much real-world on what is plainly a fantasy, but what we are invited to fantasise about is important. The strong urge to lay waste to our enemies is one that might be siphoned off by this kind of dreaming, or it could be one that is teased and indulged; it depends on how you look at it. I’m not calling for anything to be banned or legislated against – I just wish we had something more interesting to say about superheroes. Kick-Ass starts brilliantly: there is real visual and physical wit in the origin story of an amateur masked avenger, who gets his big break when he overpowers a trio of muggers not with brute force, but with stubborn, reckless determination and the combined efforts of gawking bystanders, whose iPhone surveillance repels the would-be killers more effectively than any force-field. Thus is established a circuit of interest and influence between the aspiring vigilante and the YouTube crowd that create and sustain a superhero’s status out of flimsy, messy evidence. Sounds like a fascinating set-up for an impudent take-down of the pretentious demagogic overlording of the classic superhero mythologies, right? Well, let’s just say that by the end, Kick-Ass is flying off into the sunset with a girl in his arms, having blown away all of his foes.
That it ends on songs by Mika and Taylor Momsen’s (from Gossip Girl) faux-punk group The Pretty Reckless should tell you all you need to know about Kick-Ass‘s pretensions to a radical rethinking of genre and celebrity culture. Elsewhere, the soundtrack is jaunty enough, but embarrassingly Tarantinophilic when citing Ennio Morricone, and repetitive in its use of ascending, crescending rock tunes to generate the visceral thrill of rising adrenaline in almost every action scene in the second half – the steal of John Murphy’s “In the House In a Heartbeat” is especially egregious, given that it was written for Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, used superbly to signify the climactic explosion of its protagonist’s pent-up fury, and has been worn out and cheapened by its inclusion on everything from trailers (for an array of films with much less interesting scores) to Hollyoaks, Peugeot ads and Dancing on Ice.
Hit Girl is undoubtedly the star of the show, but there’s something unsettling about her characterisation. Not the fact that it’s a young girl slicing and dicing a bunch of faceless baddies (take two steps inside a Japanese DVD store, and you’ll find a truck load of movies about schoolgirl assassins), but in the way she has been vacuumed clear of any traces of childishness. And I don’t get the impression that we’re invited to be troubled, but instead we’re asked to be delighted that a film “goes there”. This is clearly a grown man’s fantasy of a child who thinks guns and knives are cool, borrowing all of her interests, imperatives and frames of reference from adult concerns. The perma-sneer on her lips is an affectation of outward cool as misplaced and artificial as the lip-gloss on a child beauty-pageant contestant. Any concerns about her missed childhood are brushed aside by the affirmation of the value of her slaughtering skills. And who does a child have to eviscerate around here to get an ’18’ certificate? Here’s what the British Board of Film Classification, charged with the job of assessing the tone and impact of all sorts of cinematic naughtiness, had to say:
There are numerous scenes of strong bloody violence throughout the film as the various would-be superheros battle the baddies. Many of these violent scenes show blood spray from gunshot wounds as well as the occasional severing of limbs, cutting of throats or stabbing of hands. While there is copious blood loss these scenes do not breach the BBFC Guidelines at ‘15’ by dwelling ‘on the infliction of pain or injury’. This is especially so given that most occur in the context of a cartoonish style of choreographed violence that is rapidly edited and focuses more on the inventive skill and panache of the heroes than the detail of the wounds that are inflicted. Other scenes present violence in a more realistic and less comedic style with vicious beatings meted out to a couple of restrained heroes and one scene in which one of the main bad characters assaults the young girl superhero. However, those doing the beatings have been clearly established as evil characters and the audience is encouraged to feel sympathy for the victims rather than revel in the violence being inflicted. At the same time, the audience knows that the highly skilled good guys are likely to regain the upper hand very swiftly. None of the violence inflicted presents the ‘strongest gory images’ which would be unacceptable under BBFC Guidelines at ‘15’ and the comedic, fantastical tone of the film as a whole means that even the strongest moments of violent action have a lighter counterbalance.
Well, maybe the BBFC’s granting of a 15 certificate, interpreting the violence as the safe product of unchallenging fantasy, is the most damning indictment of Kick-Ass. It doesn’t make its violence problematic – it just shrugs and presumes that the violence is your problem if you don’t “get” it. Or maybe Kick-Ass was meant to be that way: just some fantastical fun for people who can revel in the incongruities of garish art and meagre life. But those who are perturbed by this sort of thing are not necessarily those cannot distinguish between the two. I cut my cinematic teeth on John Woo and kung fu, where the mowing down of random bystanders was part of the excess, the thrill of transgressing the bounds of taste, decorum and permissibility. I remember moaning when the BBFC assiduously removed whole sequences from Bruce Lee movies precisely because of the “panache” of their star in meting out beatings. I had hoped that Kick-Ass was going to smash some stuff which could then be put back together in a new shape, when all it really wanted to do was mess some shit up. Nihilistic, carefree iconoclasm has a place, for sure (give me a minute to work out where to put it, though) but, having swaggered up apparently ready to show what the view is like from the sidelined perspective of the excluded, and how the mythos of superheroism is an inadequate, wishful, wasteful one, it ends up slotting right in there as another case of redemptive massacring.
[Please note. This article contains quite a few spoilers. You can now download a version of this post as a podcast here.]
With Watchmen loitering, smell-like, in cinemas, it seems like a good time to revisit another film that aimed to deconstruct the ethics and boundaries of superheroism. It might have seemed like Moore and Gibbons’ original comic books (published 1986-7) would have been the final word on superheros and their social worth (reaching the conclusion that you’d have to be mentally unstable to want to dress up in spandex to fight crime, and that their brand of tooled-up vigilantism is ultimately more destructive than salvatory), but it seems that it is now difficult to do a superhero film without problematising issues of heroism and direct action; if they continue on their current course, for instance, the Batman films might be swamped by their own agonising about appropriate responses to villainy, crushed by indecision. Pixar’s The Incredibles is a family-friendly version of Watchmen in which outlawed superheroes are forced to adjust to the mundanity of regular lives, and G. Xavier Robillard’s comic novel Captain Freedom: A Superhero’s Quest for Truth, Justice, and the Celebrity he so Richly Deserves, sees its hero’s crimefighting services bureaucratised and outsourced to Bangalore, while last year’s Hancock had messiah-for-hire Will Smith’s character struggling with the existential weight of his super status by drinking too much and washing too little. If the mythos of the superhero, playing out themes of justice and international conflict in colourful, diagrammatic forms, is still hugely popular, audiences seem less prepared to swallow it whole, without the digestive assistance of irony and self-awareness. Or, it might just be that the discursive, speculative nature of super-fictions, always testing the limits and dilemmas of vigilantism, is being brought to the fore.
I would hate for M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable to get overlooked in this flurry of postmodern genre-fidgeting. Here was a director who gained so much attention for his third feature, The Sixth Sense, that it set up a huge dam of anticipation for his subsequent projects. This momentum has gradually drained away with a series of increasingly indulgent flops, the most disastrous being The Happening, which hit new lows of critical contempt. Connecting all of his films is a wish to update and explore genre cinema’s trashiest corners, always driven by an intriguing idea, even when the execution is duff. The Sixth Sense is a ghost story about mourning; Signs is an alien invasion B-movie told from the point of view most of us would actually have on such a disaster (cowering in the basement glued to CNN); The Village is an occult horror film with a twist that is either unfeasibly daft, or an incisive summation of America’s isolationist paranoia; Lady in the Water is impossible to recall without involuntarily shaking my head, but it thinks it’s an urban update of fairy-tales, but is actually a wonderless, jargon-laden dog; The Happening is Shyamalan’s 9-11 movie, and while I like the paradoxical idea of an invisible disaster seen only in the strange behaviour it prompts in its victims, it’s all very dull, enfuriatingly performed, and might be a thinly veiled push for intelligent design. Don’t let this tragic frittering away of talent taint your judgement of Unbreakable, his mature masterpiece that strikes a balance between a populist star vehicle and an uncompromising personal approach, where his rather prissy care over composition finds its affective match in the subject matter.
Unbreakable is the story of David Dunn (Bruce Willis, in an extremely contained performance, drained of all wisecrack), a football stadium security guard who is the only survivor of a train crash; he meets Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson: it’s to both actors credit that I’d completely forgotten their earlier pairing in Die Hard with a Vengeance), a comic book dealer suffering from brittle bone disease, who tries to convince Dunn that his unscathed escape from the crash reveals a superheroic secret identity. Gradually, Dunn is persuaded by portents that he possesses superhuman strength and a psychic ability to locate crime and its perpetrators. Finally, and you should skip to the next paragraph immediately if you don’t want to know the ending, Elijah reveals that he is Dunn’s opposite, his supervillain nemesis-in-waiting: it was he who caused the crash, and a number of other “accidents”, in his search for his invulnerable opposite number.
Judging by the notes accompanying the DVD edition, Shyamalan seems to think that making Unbreakable was a simple case of taking seriously an oft-derived medium (hence the opening titles citing statistics to show the prevalence of comic-book readership in the USA) by giving it the realistic treatment it is usually denied:
All of the scenes are being done in one shot instead of using traditional coverage, so that the movie is much more realistic for the viewer … as if they were right there watching something that is actually taking place in real life and not on a movie screen.
If the director thinks that the use of long takes serves only to confer a sense of Bazinian realism to the film, he’s selling himself short. The tactic is immediately distinctive (the average shot length is around 23 seconds, at a time when the average was 4.7 seconds), but it does more than give the viewer a window on the scene – the perspective is carefully chosen in every case.
Bruce Willis is introduced in a three-and-a-half-minute tracking shot in the train. It’s a tremendously low-key preamble to a massive disaster. Willis tries to pick up the passenger next to him (he surreptitiously removes his wedding ring), and the conversation is captured with a track that shuttles between their faces through a gap in the seat; they are never shown in the same shot. It might be the POV of the child in the next seat, and it might be a gimmick, but the smooth, sinister sidling of the camera succinctly captures the hesitant sneakiness of the exchange.
Following the crash, Dunn wakes up in the hospital where a doctor explains that there are only two survivors. The other passenger is in the immediate foreground. As Dunn looks on, a red patch of blood appears as the patient expires, leaving him as the sole survivor, struggling with the guilt of his privileged otherness (a deleted scene was to have shown him being cold-shouldered by a priest he has approached for counsel). It’s an extremely overdetermined shot, in which Dunn’s alien status is consolidated by the needless death of another, all contained within the same shot to emphasise the growing sense of his strangeness, mirrored in the spread of blood, as if the foreground wound illustrates his own lack of injury. Shyamalan enjoys upsetting the usual hierarchies of cinematic space with the main information being delivered in the background while a separate drama unfolds in front.
Another extraordinary composition during the climactic rescue scene is taken from behind billowing drapes which reveal enough of the room to show Dunn entering it, then another gap in the sheets reveals the woman tied up on the opposite side of the frame:
Several shots are taken upside down, partly to show the viewpoint of characters who are themselves upside down, but also to introduce a theme of perspective – his central characters are men who need to adjust their outlook in order to see the codes of predestination working around them.
Shyamalan likes to build his films around patterns and portents: this is how he weighs them down with a sense of fate, an organised universe into which audiences are invited to step, usually just ahead of the characters, who take a little longer to notice what’s going on: primed to expect the fantastic, viewers are far more ready to accept the implausible explanations that the fiction’s inhabitants deny. This isn’t a film that asks you to wait for a shock ending to rewrite the prior events (as with The Sixth Sense), but one which lets you watch Willis’ character arrive at the realisation that has been signposted from the start.
Perhaps the most effective aspect of the film’s form is the way Shyamalan conveys Dunn’s alienation, his separateness, which initially seems like a moody, jaded emotional remove from the people around him, but comes to be a highly economical expression of the superhero’s dilemma, being a protector of society who must secret himself to conceal his essential difference. This is achieved in a series of compositions that distance him from crowds and segregate his sensory information (and, more obviously, by making his character a security guard on the periphery of the circuit of heroic football players in the game he can no longer play).
Often, conversations are conducted from indirect eyelines, or with only one speaker visible in the frame, further accentuating the gulfs between people. A crucial meeting with one of Dunn’s former teachers is conducted almost entirely in an over-the-shoulder shot that never delivers the reverse shot that would allow us to read her face. Some of the long takes might seem wilfully obscure or tricksy, using off-centre framings and unmotivated lateral tracks, but this slightly withdrawn approach always has a motive: if this is a film about a man coming to realise his “place in the world”, to become attuned with the purpose and patterns around him, it is expressed by having him get in synch with the movements of the camera; early in the film, the camera will drift away from him or keep him out of focus in a two-shot, but by the end it is tracking his movements, formalising his attainment of self-awareness. At moments of realisation, the camera strikes up a sympathetic correlation with his movements. See for instance, the weightlifting scene where he tests the limits of his newfound strength, and the camera rises and falls with his lifts, as if flexing along with his muscles, or the beautiful moment where he emerges from the swimming pool, overcoming his aquatic weakness, and the camera reframes, willing him on as he drags himself out of the water.
It’s lucky Shyamalan made this before The Happening, before Lady in the Water. It’s a sombre, mournful affair that would be a hard sell if execs hadn’t been softened up by The Sixth Sense. It doesn’t renege on its aesthetic pledges by descending into spandex and flying: there’s only one action scene, and it’s a halting, desperate event. Plus, Unbreakable allows skeptical viewers to interpret all of its miracles as pure coincidence, a seductive illusion crafted out of suggestive compositions. It shows you so many patterns, so much structure, that you want to believe that the world is this way, and that the extraordinary is in there somewhere, if only you can find the right angle from which to look at it.
- Information and images at M. Night Shyamalan Online.
- Review by Vladimir Zelevinsky at The Tech.
- Speculation about an Unbreakable sequel at Splash Page, and also at Sci Fi Wire. Still more at Screen Rant.
- Daniel Greenfield, “Unbreakable: M. Night Shyamalan tackles the birth of a comic book hero.”
- James Berardinelli’s review at Reel Reviews.
- R Michael Harman’s Review at Strange Horizons.
- “Revisiting Shyamalan’s Unbreakable” at Jabberwock.
- John Atkinson’s review at Kamera.
- Review from a Christian perspective by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat at Spirituality and Practice. And, for good measure, a Hindu interpretation of the film.
- Samuel Asher Effron, “Taking off the Mask – Watchmen Deconstructed.” Interesting extensive essay on the comic books.
- Doug Atkinson, “The Annotated Watchmen.”
This May will mark seventy years since The Batman made his first appearance in Detective Comics #27, and he’s looking pretty good for his age. By the time he got his own comic book in Spring 1940, notes Bill Boichel, he was already “both a resonant signifier and a valuable property.” Here’s how he looked on his first outing, back when he was young and hyphenated:
I once picked up a giant compendium of Batman comics in a school jumble sale for 10 pence. I seem to remember it being as thick as a brick and packed with reprints of every story from his first ten years, but I was seven years old and I might be hazy on the details. I was already a huge fan of the camp, day-glo Adam West version of the franchise, but this book showed a different side to my hero. He was stern, relentless, brutal and sollipsistic. I probably would have just said “a bit scary” at the time – this was my surreptitious, under-the-duvet-with-a-torch reading material of choice for a long time.
Batman is back on my cultural radar thanks to Christopher Nolan‘s steroidal franchise revival with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. The appeal of Tim Burton’s 1989 film didn’t extend me, not even with it’s party-popper scares and Prince songs (did people really get so excited about the Batdance?!). I liked Batman Returns for its full on weirdness and old-school modelwork and matte paintings. But both Batman Forever and Batman and Robin are notable only for the previously untapped reserves of crap they seem to have brought to our screens. My interest in the Batman adaptations has never been measured against expectations of “fidelity” to the comic books – I have no personal investment in the franchise, and the character has changed with the fluctuating tastes of its readership (at least as they were perceived by DC) so dramatically over the years – but I could probably say that they have grabbed my attention whenever they’ve show a self-reflexive bent or taken seriously the task of creating a cohesive alternative world where allegorical dramas of heroism and villainy can be played out. What do heros have to offer us if not treatises on heroism and critiques of popular mythology? It is customary in “these troubled times™” to claim that this is no time for binaries of good and evil, or simplistic notions of heroism. But when has it ever been? Unless you’re a stranger to any literary heroes since the time of Homer and Virgil, you’ve probably noticed that heroes who don’t question, doubt or compromise themselves are the exceptions rather than the rule. So, let’s not injure ourselves in the rush to praise The Dark Knight for catching up with the game, but I’d like to pick out a few aspects of Nolan’s two Bat-films that build up to a striking and cohesive approach to the character. They work really well together, and the progression from Begins to Knight is elegantly handled, but a comparison can illuminate much about how they work.
If Begins concerns itself with the origins of the character, ascribing his drive to fight crime to a perfect storm of influences (the murder of his parents, a childhood trauma in a cave of bats, an injunction by his father to master his fear, mentoring from a group of mystical vigilantes in China), then Knight moves on to exploring the consequences of the Bat’s symbolic stance against crime. Tying the two films together is an ongoing discourse on theatricality that defines the character and opens him up for analysis. Here lies the self-reflexivity of the Nolan films – in examining the means by which Batman constructs and controls his own mythology, they draw attention to the constructedness of broader notions of justice and heroism.
Between the two films, Nolan has stripped away much of the digital augmentation of Gotham City to give it a more palpable sense of closeness not just to the real world, but to contemporary crime dramas. When Batman is forced to destroy the futuristic overhead railway at the climax of Begins, it’s not just the passing of his father’s legacy to the Gotham architecture, but also the clearing aside of the fantastic to make way for the down-to-earth, General Motors traffic of Knight.
The Dark Knight removes a lot of the quasi-mystical bullshit of the first film, aiming to demythologise the character, showing myth to be a mechanical construct devised for public relations and manipulated to meet the changing needs of the status quo. In both films, we get countless shots of gadgetry being devised, tested, prepared for use and finally put into practice. It’s like a behind-the-scenes documentary on the making of Batman’s public performances as an insuperable figure. We, the films’ spectators get to see the cuts and bruises he sustains beneath the impermeable exterior, and we get backstage access to the spectacles he creates: Batman “flies” on wires, takes high falls and death-defying leaps, can disappear in a puff of smoke (though Liam Neeson teaches him how to use smoke bombs for distraction or vanishing, I can’t recall a scene where he actually uses them – instead he simply vanishes between shots) or intimidate through sheer force of symbolism and superstitious dread. A lot of this theatricality is played down a little in The Dark Knight, since the manufacture of imagistic power is repositioned as a facet of government and law enforcement. Batman becomes one component of a broader system of public display, a circuitry where public fear can be regulated and stage-managed. It might seem like an obvious case of the Joker being a twisted mirror image of Batman; the opening scene is that most lo-tech of set-pieces, the bank robbery, with the Joker eliminating his clown-masked accomplices one by one, followed by a mirroring sequence in which Batman eliminates a group of bat-masked imitators to assert his dominion over a criminal transaction. But it’s not always that simple. Instead of a Batman/Joker binary, The Dark Knight sets up a circuit of characters whose interrelationships will be repeatedly rebalanced. The Joker might equally be seen as the polar opposite of stable, unconflicted Commissoner Gordon (Gary Oldman; although Gordon himself indulges in a bit of public spectacle by staging his own death), with Batman closer in principle to Harvey Dent/Two Face. Nolan literalises this network of interdependence visually:
It has become a truism of the superhero genre that the hero is defined in relation to the villains he fights. Batman’s blackness, blending into the mise-en-scène and subsuming his personality and his biography behind an armoured cloak of depersonalised signification, provides a blank canvas onto which his flamboyant foes will paint themselves. Scarecrow, played in Begins by Cillian Murphy, is not a physically powerful foe, but a psychologist who, like Batman, conducts experiments in fear, manifesting himself as an embodiment of his victim’s deepest fears.
While Scarecrow has to use chemical agents (I remember when Batman comics were all about nerve gas, acid and nasty chemicals) to induce a traumatic vision, with his cloth-bag mask a screen onto which his victims project their deepest fear, Batman has to engineer his fearful image from scratch with a few symbols and gadgets. Batman’s scare tactics are marked as purer than this drug-induced hallucination, not just because he doesn’t use it as a weapon against the innocent, but because his resources are mechanical, homemade (albeit with massive funding) and therefore fairer. Given more space and time, I might extrapolate from this a broader argument about the discourses of authenticity that cohere around the films’ use of special effects. Christopher Nolan has expressed a wish to cut back on the CGI, as if digital effects contain the toxic side effect of inauthenticity, bringing with them the baggage of easy simulation and intangibilty. Here’s an extract from Wired magazine’s discussion of the film:
Nolan has a cogent Theory of Applied Batmatics: Insist on reality — no effects, no tricks — up to the point where insisting on reality becomes unrealistic. Then, in postproduction, make what is necessarily unreal as real as possible. “Anything you notice as technology reminds you that you’re in a movie theater,” Nolan explains. “Even if you’re trying to portray something fantastical and otherworldly, it’s always about trying to achieve invisible manipulation.” Especially, he adds, with Batman, “the most real of all the superheroes, who has no superpowers.”
The cutbacks in GGI and the grounding of these fantastic characters in a sense of reality borrowed from urban crime dramas transfers to the subtext of Batman’s own efforts to construct convincing imagery of himself as a public spectacle within the limits of the human body and contemporary engineering. When, at the end of The Dark Knight, he finally “goes digital” by enhancing his human senses with the agglomerated data from the city’s mobile phones, it is judged to be a step too far, an unfair advantage: “too much power for one man“.
The real challenge to Batman, on his own terms, comes from The Joker. The character was originally inspired by Conrad Veidt‘s performance as the disfigured clown Gwynplaine in the film adaptation of Victor Hugo‘s 1869 novel The Man Who Laughs (1928).
Jack Nicholson’s Joker, in Tim Burton’s 1989 film, was a pantomime figure. He committed some atrocities, for sure, but the actor was always winking at you from behind the facade, letting you know it was all OK. He was still Jack. Heath Ledger’s death authenticates the sense of a troubled soul underneath the make-up. Ledger is undoubtedly the main attraction of The Dark Knight; it’s hard to say anything novel about his performance, and perhaps redundant to praise it, except to add that it gains power from a subtlety that need not be demanded by such a nihilistic figure. A mess of tics, skips, shrugs and darting eyes, with a voice that fluctuates unpredictably between Tom Waits and Tigger, he is primarily a catalyst for the main battle for iconographic primacy between Batman and Dent/Two-Face.
Like Batman, the Joker meticulously plans his spectacles, in the service of what he describes as chaos, but what might also be interpreted as an alternative kind of order where he commands fearful obediance to his terror campaign. He uses the apparatus of municipality against Gotham’s citizens: he appropriates police uniforms, corrupt cops, a garbage truck, a school bus, a fire engine, TV news and an entire hospital. It’s never made clear what sort of world he wants to create: he is, in his own words, “a dog chasing cars”, and wouldn’t know what to do if he caught one. The ending of Batman Begins implied that Batman’s dramatic (in every sense of that word) stance against criminality would escalate the criminal response. It might deter the part-timers, but would bring the truly committed agents of vice into the open. The Joker is painted as Batman’s bi-product, a symbol divorced from context or motivation. We get no backstory – there is “nothing in his pockets”. While Batman needs both of his personae, one to buy political influence and fund his night job, and the other to punch people in the head without besmirching that public profile, the Joker has no alter-ego, no ambitions which can be thwarted; to fight him is to make him exist. How is this kind of threat to be countered, and is it possible to remain heroic in the process?
This accretion of conflicting symbols can’t help but attract politicised interpretations, and Batman generates a range of views. Gotham City might be an eloquent articulation of a world where tough choices face anyone wishing to bring peace and stability by force. Or, as Andrew Klavan wrote in The Wall Street Journal, there may be a very different reading up for grabs:
There seems to me no question that the Batman film The Dark Knight is at some level a paean of praise to the fortitude and moral courage that has been shown by George W. Bush in this time of terror and war. Like W, Batman is vilified and despised for confronting terrorists in the only terms they understand. Like W, Batman sometimes has to push the boundaries of civil rights to deal with an emergency, certain that he will re-establish those boundaries when the emergency is past. And like W, Batman understands that there is no moral equivalence between a free society – in which people sometimes make the wrong choices – and a criminal sect bent on destruction. The former must be cherished even in its moments of folly; the latter must be hounded to the gates of Hell. The Dark Knight, then, is a conservative movie about the war on terror. And like another such film, last year’s 300, The Dark Knight is making a fortune depicting the values and necessities that the Bush administration cannot seem to articulate for beans.
Klavan’s article attracted criticism, derision and a few astute rebuttals. But it reveals the troubling malleability of mainstream film texts, which are rarely given the wriggle-room to espouse a fixed ideological stance, at least not one without space for counter-readings: it doesn’t make commercial sense to alienate a large portion of the audience and besides, to put a more positive spin on it, ambivalence and dilemma are much more dramatically compelling than the affirmation of any particular values, whatever your political persuasion. The Bush/Batman comparison is a bit ridiculous, but there is a troubling conclusion to The Dark Knight. As my colleague Joe Kember pointed out to me, the final message of the film might be that “you don’t need to know the truth”, whether it’s the concealment of Harvey Dent’s killing spree, the identity of Batman, or the content of Rachael’s letter. Batman is only able to save the day by giving himself a bat-like sonar capacity through mass surveillance, as if monitoring the city is a natural, quasi-biological extension of his superpowers.
The public persona of Batman takes on another layer of facade. Even those who seek to judge him and reconcile the spectre of vigilantism with the benefits he brings don’t know the full story of how he achieves his effects. More theatrics, more sleight of hand. And watching the films again, I noticed that their signature image is a shot/reverse-shot sequence of Batman gripping someone by the throat to extract information. Torture and intimidation are his main weapons against crime.
Even if the films problematise the use of force in this way (the Joker gives up misleading information under duress), we are never encouraged to doubt that his victims are deserving, and as long as it stays hidden from the public, it’s not shown as a serious transgression. And it usually gets results. There’s even a scene in The Dark Knight that cuts from Batman throwing Eric Roberts off a balcony to the next scene, where he upbraids Dent for doing the same to one of the Joker’s followers. Ultimately, the theatricality metaphor pays off with a conclusion that appearance is all-important, and Batman the empty signifier can be scape-goated and burdened with the sins of others. It doesn’t matter whether it’s true or not.
- The Dark Knight Official Website.
- Wall Street Journal article about the film’s marketing after Heath Ledger’s death.
- Article in Wired about special effects in The Dark Knight.
- Andrew Klavan, “What Bush and Batman Have in Common“, Wall Street Journal, 25 July 2008.
- Check out Olly Morris’ cool design for an alternative Dark Knight poster.
- The Dark Knight Movie Chronicles. Unofficial blog.
- Batman Begins production notes.
- For a detailed list of characters from the Batman comics, go here. Or, if you want an incredible summary of who drew what in the Batman comics, visit the same site here.
- Want to see what the Japanese Batman comics looked like in the 1960s? Sorry, trick question – everybody wants to see that. It’s been scientifically proven, with sums and everything, that Batmanga! is the coolest thing ever. Well, maybe.
- Take a look at brand new pages from Neil Gaiman and Andy Kubert’s two-part Batman story Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?
It’s been over a week since I’ve blogged – towards the end of a semester, things seem to get much busier, and I start to feel a bit stupider, so it’s harder to sustain my more prolific bursts of writing. Perhaps my previous post was long enough to keep you busy (or fed up of me) for a while. Thanks to all those who’ve commented on my Cloverfield paper: I always enjoy receiving feedback, negative or positive, so feel free to add your thoughts to the discussion. Hopefully, things will ease up a little and I can devote a bit more time to this. To reboot things, I thought I’d play to my specialism and start a series of short posts about special effects. This is partly to expand upon and clarify points from Performing Illusions, and also to include some ideas that were too late to make the final cut of the book. I’ll be making these up as I go along from time to time, but I’m happy to take requests. It’ll be a good way for me to take notes as I go, and hopefully provide some interesting reading.
To kick things off, here’s a little analysis of a great sequence from a far less great film, Spider-Man 3. About halfway through describing the plot of a superhero film, I usually pause for breath and realise how ridiculous it all sounds. Teenage boy sprouts web-spinning glands and dresses up in natty spandex togs to fight crime. Meanwhile, some other dude gets exposed to some sciencey stuff that turns him into sand. It’s not exactly Death in Venice, but this kind of story has become so familiar that we barely bat an eyelid when some new fancy-dress vigilante takes to the screen. Stop and think for a moment. Peter Parker is at school. Then he gets bitten by a genetically modified spider and picks up some arachnid tendencies. Why are we not laughing this stuff out of town? Partly, I think, it’s because of the familiarity: we’ve seen a lot of superhuman heroic figures over the years, whether it’s Achilles, Aeneas, Hercules, Perseus, Jesus, Beowulf, Gawain, King Arthur, Superman, Batman, Iron Man, Barack Obama or token female Wonder-Woman. But also it’s because we understand the allegorical function of these characters. Whether it’s Superman as a refugee migrant who has to change his name and act like a local to gain acceptance in society (while secretly saving the world’s collective ass), or Spider-Man playing out his awkward years of bodily change and early-career anxiety, we know that these are not portrayals of how things really are, but re-imaginings of things that are easier to talk about and popularise if we dress them up in shiny clothes and pit them against a series of similarly allegorised embodiments of villainy/social evils.
That’s my starting point here, but I suppose it’s not strictly relevant, except to say that Spider-Man 3 operates (because it is a sequel) in a pre-existing alternative world where scientific exaggeration is an accepted form of expression, with certain agreed limits on what may occur: there’ll be no “magic” here, just scientific principles extruded to a degree that probably constitutes impossibility, all the while remaining anchored in a logical basis (however tenuous) that isn’t there to make incredible events believable, but comprehensible.
The scene in question is an origin sequence. We get to see how the Sandman came into being: as such, it offers a spectacle of incarnation, animating an apparently living body out of inanimate materials. It is structured between the bookends of these two states, beginning with an extreme, near-microscopic close-up of grains of sand, which gradually cohere into an image of the actor Thomas Hayden Church. This demarcation of the set-piece is a common trope in this kind of foregrounded spectacle – it has clear entry and exit points and stands alone as an autonomous performance, even as it offers some narrative information; It possesses a limited colour scheme of browns and greys (er… it’s sand-coloured), and the lack of dialogue or peripheral characters further enforces the self-containment.
Witnessing the birth of the Sandman, one of the pleasures comes from seeing a two-dimensional comic book character transplanted into a three-dimensional, digitally rendered figure. The Sandman is the perfect CGI character: the kind of particle-system modelling used to make swarms of particles take on shapes and patterns is something that computer-graphics are equipped to do – it would be extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, to do this in stop-motion or another kind of pro-filmic object animation. So, while the scene references older media, it focuses on graphic qualities that exude novelty and technological specificity. The virtual camera (the scene is entirely computer-generated, so it’s not entirely accurate to think about the camera being situated within the scene) executes a slow track around the central focus of the emerging Sandman. The stressed dimensionality of the sequence thus puts further distance between this and two-dimensional animation, optical process shots and puppet animation where camera movements are much more difficult to pull off. In short, the scene’s novelty value is to be understood in terms of its differentiation from prior instances of animation and effects shots.
The long take is the core of this sequence. The sustained performance of a technical illusion would seem to imply its pro-filmic authenticity: the camera never needs to cut away to or fragment the trick to hide its mechanisms in montage. However, there is no longer a logical reason to attach such notions of presence and solidity to things we see onscreen, even when the camera’s unflinching eye seems to be hinting that there are no sleight-of-hand edits, nothing up its figurative sleeve; a virtual camera tracking through virtual space to “film” a virtual object never needs to cut, and those connotations of authenticity can just as easily be translated into indications of artifice, of a lack of presence or ostentatious virtuality. But digital effects still exploit our residual expectations of photographicness. You can see it in the use of artificial lens flare to suggest that the camera is physically present, its mechanism overloaded by the scene in front of it. Lens flare is a side-effect of a camera’s registration process, and in a virtual scene it is added in order to offset the true origins of the shot.:
These techniques subtly purchase your understanding of the sequence as a wholly situated moment, recoding it not as a flurry of algorithmic manouevres, but as a live recording of an event, where some of the unplanned markings of the photographic apparatus might come into play. To cut through my verbose description, the shot, which was actually constructed in a computer, is dressed up to look like it was shot on a set. So, computer-generated effects do not erase or evade the properties of photographic media. Instead, they extend those properties to supernatural lengths: the power of the illusion arises out of the distance between the acknowledged impossibility of the event, and impression of authenticity lent to it by the markers of a situated apparatus.
I could start by fabricating the excuse that I was queueing for the Jia Zhangke screening and it was sold out, but whatever lie I come up with, I ended up foregoing more edifying entertainment in order to watch Iron Man. I’d been softened up by some warm reviews, and the assurance that its politics couldn’t have been more right-on if Hans Blix himself had been transformed into a cyborgic weapons inspector and spent two hours of screentime failing to inspect any weapons.
How surprised was I to find out that Iron Man is not the liberal avenger and “ally of the United Nations” that he was purported to be in a Guardian Guide cover story? A bit surprised. This is the latest in a long line of films that deals obliquely with America’s post-9/11 situation, tentatively probing areas of moral ambiguity, but rarely with a whole-hearted commitment. Certainly, it seems to be about an arms dealer who makes a moral choice to withdraw from his position of complicity in the networks of retributive, territorial destruction that his trade fertilises, but it is actually less a fantasy about how a moral interventionism might work and more a vision of how the Bush administration seems to think it already acts.
The film dresses up tortuously complex geo-politics in a fantasy of precision-engineered bodies, a convenient replacement of diplomacy with kicks and punches. To most of us, a Middle Eastern warzone is a distant, scorching, no-go area of torn limbs, twisted wreckage and unreasonable locals. Iron Man can be there at a moment’s notice, picking off bad guys (with no stray “friendly fire”), thumping some sense into those toothless desert types. He can get in and out unscathed and withdraw to his default position of non-involvement, the ultimate in convert interventionism. Surely this is meant to be cathartic, a vision of weaponised body armour that does its job as surely and precisely as the algorithms used to make the CGI happen. Digital effects make it all seem effortless – there’s little in the way of tangible physicality, so there’s an over-compensation in the thudding sound effects and rock-solid violence, and since all the effects are plotted so carefully, there’s little in the way of chaos to make it feel like real, rough-and-tumble combat with lives and limbs at stake. If nothing else, this kind of eye-defying, lightning fast action can only show up the elegance of the superheroic mayhem in Ang Lee’s much maligned Hulk. In Lee’s film, the customary “get me the president” sequence that announces the monster as a national threat finds the Leader of the Free World on a fishing trip, barely interested in news of the green giant that is currently trashing the fixtures and fittings of the military industrial complex. There’s a grander political statement in that one moment than in all of Iron Man‘s hand-wringing.
As a character, Iron Man is not as interesting as Robocop, whose metal prostheses were permanently forced upon him, bringing on an existential crisis that makes Tony Stark’s yearning for a cheeseburger seem like a state of luxury. (Neither character is as afflicted as the protagonist of Colossus of New York, which deserves more recognition than it gets, if only for having a mournful solo piano score at a time when the theremin was the 50s sf instrument of choice.) After Spider-Man, Hulk, Daredevil and Batman, it has become customary to see superheroes grappling with the internal crises created by their public status and physical difference, so it’s a big surprise to find Robert Downey Jr’s character embracing the diplomatic impunity and celebrity that goes along with his alter ego. It’s just a bit of a boring surprise.
P.S. The pun in the title of this post no longer matches the way my argument turned out, but I liked the sound of it, so rather than teasing out some sense of irony from my reading of the film, I thought I’d just leave it there anyway. Who’s going to notice?
P.P.S. I should also note that in Iron Man Gwyneth Paltrow ‘tackles’ the most thankless decorative role offered to an Oscar winner since Orson Welles advertised fish fingers. But I have nothing substantive to say about that fact. Unless a sigh of resignation counts as comment.
“[The] middle section, in which the newly energized Tony tinkers with his emerging superpowers like a kid in shop class, is the movie’s finest and funnest hour. But when he starts to actually use those powers, zooming to random corners of Afghanistan to save cowering villagers from evil warlords, the movie’s sharp intelligence gives way to a dopey wish-fulfillment fantasy. This is what we’d like our wars to be: a clearly defined moral crusade against a bald, glowering meanie who proclaims his Genghis Khan-like ambition to “dominate all of Asia.” (With an eye on potential box-office buzz kill, the movie cannily stays away from the mere mention of the Taliban, the war in Iraq, or domestic terrorism.) Tony’s invulnerable, omnipotent, impossibly expensive armor is an almost touching overcompensation for the moment of extreme vulnerability in which our country finds itself.”