Talking Movies

August 31, 2013

On Ben Affleck Being the Batman

I’ve been musing with John Fahey about Ben Affleck returning to blockbuster leading man roles by playing Batman, and I feel Affleck’ll probably nail it.


I was, of course, initially disappointed by the casting announcement. But not for the same reason that most people who vented their spleen early on seemed to be disappointed/outraged. It seems harsh on the great Joseph Gordon-Levitt to have spent an entire bloody film being taught how to be the Batman by Christian Bale only to be shafted immediately by Warner Bros at his first chance to be the Batman. The hysteria surrounding Affleck’s casting struck me as very odd; like many people were still stuck in 2003 and reeling from the awfulness of Gigli and Paycheck. Announcing Affleck as the lead in Batman Begins back then, well, yes – outrage entirely justified. But this is 2013, the second act of Affleck’s cinematic life. Have people forgotten Hollywoodland, Gone Baby Gone, The Town and Argo only months after everyone loved him for accepting the Academy’s snub to his directing with dignity?

Ben Affleck has much in common with the equally maligned Mark Wahlberg. They are not the greatest actors in the world, but they’re certainly not bad actors. Yes, they can be acted off-screen by most any actor willing to stop yawning on set and make the effort. But that willingness to be out-acted is important, they provide an invaluable still centre. John C Reilly appeared at Trinity College a few years back and recounted bullying a theatre director into finally giving him the lead in a Restoration comedy, only to be bored silly on realising Congreve gave the best lines to supporting characters. Reilly’s function was to hold the chaos of the comedy together by being the still centre; and he immediately returned to his comfort zone of playing one of the supporting characters upstaging the romantic lead. Wahlberg and Affleck have given memorable supporting turns (The Departed, I Heart Huckabees, Good Will Hunting, Hollywoodland), but as leading men they don’t mesmerise; but that’s not necessarily always bad. Argo couldn’t support Goodman, Arkin & Cranston’s scenery-chewing profane quipping without Affleck quieting it, and The Fighter’s Bale, Adams & Leo OTT-competition would’ve gone into low-earth orbit without Wahlberg’s stoicism grounding it.

And Batman is, to a large degree, cinematically a still centre. The complaint oft made of Bat-movies – that the villains always walk off with the film – is exactly the complaint you’d expect to recur if a character is a still centre enabling craziness around him. (Affleck suddenly sounds like a very good fit…) Batman’s strength derives in part from his silence. Ninjas aren’t chatty. He lurks in shadows, and pounces on people when they least expect it. Batman doesn’t say much; he just appears and beats people up, that’s what makes him intimidating – he’s almost a pure physical presence to criminals, even those who never encounter him but whose imaginations he vividly inhabits. And in the comics even in the privacy of his own thought bubbles he usually thinks like Hemingway clipped some of the floweriness off of Raymond Chandler prose. And if you’ve read Jeph Loeb’s Hush and Superman/Batman you’ll note that a lot of Batman’s dialogue is sarcastic commentary on Superman’s problem-solving abilities. That sounds a lot like Affleck’s main function in Argo.

But whither Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne? He can’t very well play a billionaire playboy as a still centre, can he? Well, Christian Bale has hammered home the difference between private and public Bruce Wayne so this shouldn’t actually be that major a problem. It would, after all, feel like a waste of everyone’s time to have Robert Downey Jr play public Bruce Wayne the way he plays Tony Stark and then morph into terse earnestness for the other two parts of the Bat-persona. Affleck’s performance in The Town is probably a good model for his private Bruce, and if Argo cohort Bryan Cranston really is playing Lex Luthor then life as public Bruce Wayne gets a lot easier for Affleck as he can bounce quips off a fellow billionaire with whom he has existing good comic chemistry. Even if Cranston’s not Lex, Affleck has absurdly essayed an appropriately insouciant charm. Imagine a combination of Affleck’s Click ad for Lynx, his role in Argo, and the end narration of Daredevil and you have his Batman.

And that’s not bad. With the juvenile Zack Snyder directing it’s the Batman we deserve, but not the one we need right now probably the best we could hope for.


November 25, 2011

Last Exit to Smallville: Part I

“And that was the day the boy from Smallville became Superman…” 10 years is a long time for any TV show to run. When that show is the eternally misfiring Smallville, it’s an even longer time for a show to be part of your life…

Put it this way. Smallville has been running for so long that not only have season 1 meteor freaks like Adam Brody and Lizzy Caplan gone on to be the leads in their own TV shows, but Amy Adams has made the spectacular leap from meteor freak of the week to Lois Lane in Zack Synder’s forthcoming Superman: The Man of Steel. By the bitter end the only actor who’d stayed the course of the regulars was Tom Welling as Clark Kent, presumably the cursed role was only finally pried away from his cold dead hands, as even Allison Mack decided to eschew most of the final season and only belatedly arrived as a Chloe Ex Machina, just when John Glover showed up as Lionel Luthor to give some sense of an ending that synched with the 2001 pilot. The parallel careers of the runners-up for the role of Clark demonstrate exactly what Welling gave up by remaining always faithful.

Jensen Ackles didn’t get the role, and instead jumped straight back into Dark Angel, as his previous one-shot appearance became a regular role. When that ended he hopped onboard the final season of Dawson’s Creek. He was later terrific as the season 4 villain in Smallville, initially Lana’s charming boyfriend before his sinister machinations were unmasked, and then nabbed his signature role as Dean Winchester in Supernatural where his bad boy swagger was complemented by gory horror and sly humour. Ian Somerhalder didn’t get the role, and instead instantly shot a leading role in Roger Avary’s sublime The Rules of Attraction. He was terrific in Smallville season 3 as Adam Knight, loudly rumoured to be Batman. He wasn’t, of course, Smallville never delivered on awesomeness, and limped off to lick his wounds in O’ahu for the first season of LOST. Thankfully Somerhalder’s dark charisma finally found a role to popularly showcase it – the sociopathic vampire Damon in The Vampire Diaries.

Good actors weren’t the only people on the Smallville merry-go-round. Skilled writers came, tried to inject awesomeness, mostly failed, and quickly moved on. Jeph Loeb wrote for Smallville before moving on to LOST and then Heroes, but his contributions were rarely as distinctive as on those later shows. Drew Z Greenberg jumped from Buffy to Smallville where he penned some of season 3’s best episodes (the psychic who sees people’s deaths) before leaving. Steven S DeKnight jumped from Angel and made a pivotal contribution, forming the Justice League and penning damn near ¼ of season 5 to entice his associate James Marsters to star as season villain Braniac. The departure of creators Millar & Gough saw their lieutenants embark on an unintentionally funny Doomsday arc, before using a Kandorian clone of General Zod then a half-baked Darkseid as season villains, even as Geoff Johns simultaneously contributed a stunning two-part Watchmen homage and some terrific comics-based episodes of wit and depth.

The problem was that great writers were always struggling against a mediocre format. Miles Millar and Alfred Gough set up Smallville in such a way as to promote endless angst, and heavy handed hints of Superman adventures to come, while occasionally promising awesome adventures around the next arc, except those adventures never came – for 10 years. Season 2 of Smallville was a prime example. Indeed, it was almost unbearable in its angst quotient, which it mistook for deep drama. Spider-Man 2, which Millar & Gough co-wrote demonstrates to perfection their Smallville agenda for achieving emotional weight. Simply replace characters with their equivalents; Norman Osborn is Lionel Luthor, Harry Osborn is Lex Luthor, MJ Watson is Lana Lang, Aunt May is Martha Kent, Ben Parker is Jonathan Kent, Peter Parker is Clark Kent; and transfer their reluctance to give Superman a cape with Spider-Man’s baffling refusal to wear his mask, and you can see their one-size fits-all approach to writing superheroes.

It became clear as time went on that Millar & Gough didn’t really have a plan for resolving the central dilemma of their own concept – if Lex gradually became a supervillain wouldn’t he then, having earlier befriended Clark, know exactly who Superman was? The decision to kill Lex seemed to resolve that, while also making stark nonsense of the show’s own continuity as Lex’s dark future had been glimpsed by psychics, and foretold by prophecy. But then a cloned/resurrected Lex, possessing all his memories, triumphantly returned for the final ever episode. Only for Tess Mercer aka Luthessa Luthor to mind-wipe Lex, with a super-chemical compound, as her dying act. Lex remembered nothing of his friendship with Clark. And it turned out that all Clark needed to fly was an inexplicable voiceover appearance by Jor-El, after Darkseid had just socked Clark, introducing a montage of 10 seasons of Smallville as being the trials that he needed to embrace his Kryptonian heritage.

Clark just flying like it was second nature immediately after that was far too reminiscent of the ruby slippers in The Wizard of Oz – he had the power all along, he just had to believe it. The fact that he flew in season 4 also made it seem especially ridiculous. As for Lex’s mind-wiping, it was an ingenious save – and, like the equally neat LOST finale twist, entirely unrelated to everything that went before. It may well have been an ‘emergency finale device’ that’s been lying around for years in case the show got abruptly cancelled. But I won’t deny that Lex’s return was a joy. His first lines with Clark were the best written dialogue in Smallville for seasons: “Lex….” “You still say it the same way. Astonishment, with a hint of dread, but a hopeful finish.” The two montages that accompanied these turning points for Clark and Lex demonstrated something that I’ve always argued is TV’s greatest strength.

Its ability to develop character and accumulate experiences over a sustained period of time is unique. I stuck with Smallville despite its shortcomings because it wormed its way into my memories, and not just because for a while episodes were sound-tracked by chart-topping singles. I have vivid memories of discussing different seasons of the show with different people, as few people but me stuck with it for the whole run, and even our viewing motives changed. By season 8 I was chuckling at the stupidity of the show’s writing almost more than I was watching it for comic-book fun, and discussing it with others in that vein. But the montages reminded me why I’d loved the show in the first place – the heartbreak of the young Lex crying at the birthday party no one attended, the thrill of seeing Clark discover various powers for the first time. Smallville ran far too long but its Top 20 episodes would be superb.

It was great being reminded of the sublime moments the show had produced, many from a dynamic almost forgotten because those characters had long since left, but it was even better being told we had at long last reached the destination. In the closing minutes of the show we finally got to see Clark stop whining to Jor-El, put on the damn cape and fly, and rescue Lois by saving Air Force One. We heard Perry White as editor of the Daily Planet bark at Lois while she hassled an Olsen photographer (a dubious touch), as a white-suited (but with one hand black-gloved) Lex become President in 2018, before Clark ran out of the Daily Planet revealing the S under his shirt to the strains of John William’s score as the credits appeared in the 1978 font. Chloe’s statement to her son, “There’ll always be more adventures for another day”, summed up the enduring appeal of this iconic stable of characters.

So Smallville ended its decade long run as the longest running Superman TV series ever. It wasn’t always the best Superman TV series, but that’s something for Part II…

February 19, 2011

In Defence of Comic-Book Movies

Ah inconstancy, thy name is critic. At least when it comes to comic-book movies…

Cast your mind back to the summer of 2005. In June Batman Begins was hailed as intelligent and dark, a triumphant re-invention of the Dark Knight. Fantastic Four was then greeted with a universal groan of “Oh No, Not Another Comic-Book Movie!” in July. In September A History of Violence was enthusiastically received: it was compelling, disturbing, and, um, a comic-book movie. This predominant snobbish attitude towards one particular source of movie adaptations is unwarranted. There has never been, nor will there ever be, enough original screenplays to feed the beast; cinema is forced to cannibalise other mediums. Films have been made of out novels (Never Let Me Go), plays (Rabbit Hole), novellas (Shopgirl), short stories (The Box), poems (Troy), magazine articles (The Insider), TV shows (Star Trek), and yes, Hollywood even managed to get out a two hour film out of the country and western song Harper Valley PTA.

Why then do critics have such scorn for comic-books, just one source among many? The quite often blanket condemnation seeks to encompass a whole medium in one idiot generalisation. Can you imagine ignoring the variety and depth of the novel form which encompasses Cecilia Ahern as well as Fyodor Dostoevsky with howls of “Oh No, Not Another Novel Based Movie?” How then can one condemn a form which includes Maus and Palestine as well as Batwoman and Witchblade. It is odd that comic-books should be so peculiarly obnoxious to some critics as a source of stories given their properties. Comics are perhaps the closest medium to cinema being a combination of words and images. Indeed all films are storyboarded scene by scene, that is, drawn like a comic-book. Sin City finally did the obvious and treated the frames of a comic-book as if they were a storyboard and simply shot what was drawn. It’s just a pity they picked such a goddamn lousy comic to pay such veneration to.

Hollywood is feeding into the production line a whole medium of already visualised blockbuster adventures dripping with characters that possess enormous and positive name recognition. The comic-books that tend to be plundered are probably more suited to the serialisation now possible in television, but have to be Hollywood blockbusters owing to the special effects budgets needed for convincing superheroes. Heroes though showed that it was now possible to deliver convincing effects on a TV show and, utilising the expertise of comics great Jeph Loeb, create a serial story that hooked viewers. Its cancellation though leaves the multiplex as the natural live-action home of the DC and Marvel universes. And with great budgets come great responsibilities. To minimise the risk of flopping mega-budget movies for the most part (Avatar, Titanic) play things extremely safe; quite often it’s not the comic-books being adapted that are dumb but their film versions, as studios dumb then down for the greatest mass appeal. Indeed reviews of comic-book films miss this distinction by sometimes seeming to pride themselves on complete ignorance of the comics, witness Donald Clarke’s pre-packagedly jaded review of Fantastic Four. His sneers at the comic-book sowed doubts that he’d ever read it or he would be aware of the unexpected emotional depth of the original 1961 title. He also elided its importance in creating the Marvel stable, its success allowing Stan Lee and Jack Kirby to go on to create characters from Spider-Man to The Hulk and Iron Man to the X-Men.

Critics seem to regard comic-book movies as being intrinsically juvenile and unworthy of the big screen, but tend to praise the work of Frank Miller and Alan Moore, purely it seems because of their propensity for explicit sex and violence which, apparently, are the hallmarks of ‘mature’ movies. The twinning of Miller and Moore has become ever more farcical as Miller’s pet-project The Spirit exposed the sublimely stupid nature of his aesthetic, while Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentleman comics exposed the gulf between what a mature comic dripping wit and allusiveness and a film dripping CGI and test-screenings can do with the same concept. One can defend comic-books by citing Moore, who always wrote comics with big ideas (V for Vendetta, From Hell) before turning to novels (Voice of Fire, Jerusalem), but most comics merely aspire to be fun. And if a comic is well crafted, clever, exciting and affecting fun, why shouldn’t it be praised in the same way that Kathy Reichs’ Bones thrillers deserve great praise even if they are held to be populist trash next to a far less popular but oh-so-zeitgeisty Jonathan Franzen ‘masterpiece’?

Not every work of art is a penetrating insight into the human condition, not every work of art needs to be, most just aspire to be a good story well told. Is that not an admirable aspiration? Sneering at comics ironically recalls the scorn poured on people who valorised the works of mere entertainers like Hitchcock, Ford and Hawks seriously before the advent of auteur theory lionising them by Cahiers du Cinema. I unapologetically previewed a number of comic-book movies in my 2011: Hopes piece because comic-book movies are Hollywood’s flagship product right now, and a good comic-book movie is a good movie. Comic-book characters and scenarios obviously resonate or talented writers and directors wouldn’t continue to be drawn to them in comic and cinematic form. Indeed comic-book movies will only improve as more risks are taken. Mark Millar’s The Ultimates is the greatest blockbuster you will never see. It is intelligent, subversive, hilarious, outrageous and unfilmable because it would be too risky for the insane budget needed. Before condemning comic-book movies for dumbing down cinema read about Freddie Prinze Jr, trying to revive his flagging career by making a film about the super-team, but instead merely enraging Dr Bruce Banner: “HULK WANT FREDDIE PRINZE JUNIOR!!”

What we have right now are the comic-book movies that we deserve, but arguably en masse not the comic-book movies that we need…

January 28, 2011

2011: Hopes

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In Darkest Night

Ryan Reynolds is Green Lantern, Blake Lively is love interest Carol Ferris, and Mark Strong is renegade alien lantern Sinestro in the biggest gamble of the year. Green Lantern’s ring which allows him to physically project anything he can imagine, but which can’t handle the colour yellow because of the evil Parallax, is the most far-out of the major DC characters; but in the right hands (see the recent resurgence of the comics title by Geoff Johns) he can be majestic. If this movie works it opens up the whole DC Universe for cinematic imaginings. If it fails then Nolan’s Batman swansong and Snyder’s Superman will be the end of DC on film for another decade…

A Knife-Edge

Talking of gambles what about Suckerpunch: can Zack Snyder handle an all-female cast and a PG-13 rating after the flop of his animated movie? The answers provided by his Del Toro like escapade set in a 1950s mental hospital where Vanessa Hudgens and Abbie Cornish escape into a fantasy universe to fight a never-ending war will give hints as to how he’ll handle Lois Lane and the challenge of resurrecting Superman’s cinematic fortunes. Breaking Dawn sees Bill Condon, director of Gods & Monsters, take on the final Twilight book in two movies. Given that the book sounds the epitome of unfilmable on the grounds of utter insanity, it’s a gamble to split it in two when it may make New Moon look competent. On the other hand he may take the Slade/Nelson route of Eclipse and simply play the romance as stark nonsense and be as nasty as he can with what little time for horror is left him after he’s shot Jacob shirtless 20 times. Paul should be a lock: it’s a comedy with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. However, they’re not working with Edgar Wright, co-writer and director of their other two movies, but with Greg Mottola, writer/director of Adventureland, and this film was meant to be released last year. Kristen Wiig has a supporting role created for her and Seth Rogen voices the titular slobbish alien with whom Pegg & Frost’s archetypal nerds have daft adventures, but will this be a mish-mash of styles?

A Grand Madness

Werner Herzog’s My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? has had immense success on the festival circuit and seems to confirm that Bad Lieutenant was no one-of, he really has got his feature mojo back.  Michael Shannon stars in a very loose version of a true-life murder case which saw reality and fiction tragically become fatally confused for a young actor appearing in a Greek tragedy. The Tempest sees Julie Taymor takes a break from injuring actors on Broadway to helm another Shakespeare movie. Her last film Across the Universe was misfiring but inspired when it worked, expect something of the same from this. Helen Mirren is Prospera, while Russell Brand’s obvious love of language should see him Fassbender his way through his jester role.

In England’s Green and Pleasant Land

February sees the release of two adaptations of acclaimed English novels. Brighton Rock sees Sam Riley, exceptional as Ian Curtis in 2007’s Control, take on the iconic role of the psychotic gangster Pinkie in an adaptation of Graham Greene’s 1938 novel. This remake updates the action to the 1960s and mods v rockers, with Helen Mirren as the avenging Fury pursuing Pinkie for murdering an innocent man, and rising star Andrea Riseborough as Pinkie’s naive girlfriend. Greene and Terence Rattigan co-wrote the script for the superb Boulting Brothers’ 1947 film, so this version has to live up to the high-water mark of British film noir. Meanwhile Never Let Me Go sees one of the most acclaimed novels of the Zeros get a film treatment from the director of Johnny Cash’s Hurt video. Can Mark Romanek find a visual way to render Kazuo Ishiguro’s dreamy first-person narration of the slow realisation by a group of elite public-school pupils of the sinister purpose of their isolated education? The cast; Keira Knightley, Andrew Garfield, and Carey Mulligan; represents the cream of young English talent, but replicating the impact of the novel will be difficult.

Empire of the Spielberg

Super 8. I gather it’s about aliens, and monsters, in fact probably alien monsters. In fact really it’s probably Cloverfield: Part II but with Abrams writing and directing instead of producing. Spielberg is producing so it’s safe to say this will be exciting. Whatever it’s about. It’s out in August. The War Horse sees Spielberg breaks his silence after Indy 4 with an adaptation of West End hit which follows a young boy’s journey into the hell of World War I in an attempt to rescue his beloved horse from being used to drag provisions to the front. Meanwhile with Tintin we get an answer to the question does Peter Jackson still have his directorial mojo? His version of the beloved famous Belgian comic-book has a lot to live up to, not least the uber-faithful TV cartoon adaptations. And can the problem of dead eyes in photo realistic motion capture CGI finally be solved?

The House of M: Part I

Kenneth Branagh’s directorial resurgence sees him helm Thor, his first comic-book blockbuster. Branagh will no doubt coax great performances from Anthony Hopkins and Natalie Portman, but does Chris Hemsworth have the charisma as well as the physique to pull off a Norse God banished to Earth just as Loki decides to invade it? This is a pivotal gamble by Marvel’s in-house studio. If this flops, it puts The Avengers and Iron Man 3 in major difficulties, and it is a worry. Captain America had fantastic storylines in acclaimed comics by Mark Millar and Jeph Loeb in the last decade, but Thor really has no great canonical tale that cries out to be told. Not that those Loeb/Millar ideas will get in the way of a (How I Became) Insert Hero Name approach to the Cap’n. Chris Evans, fresh from dazzling comedic turns in Scott Pilgrim and The Losers, takes on the title role in Captain America: The First Avenger. He will be a likeable hero but it’s almost certain that Hugo Weaving will steal proceedings as Nazi villain The Red Skull. Joe Johnston’s Indiana Jones background should probably guarantee amusing hi-jinks in this 1940s set blockbuster.

The House of M: Part II

Other studios, content to build one franchise at a time around Marvel characters, will unleash two very different comic-book blockbusters. Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance sees the lunatics behind the Crank films finally get their hands on a blockbuster after their script for Jonah Hex was rewritten to make it vaguely ‘normal’. The prospect of Nicolas Cage, fresh from his brush with Herzog, being encouraged to again find his inner madman while the two writers/directors shoot action sequences from roller-skates besides his bike is an awesome one. Matthew Vaughn meanwhile helms X-Men: First Class starring James McAvoy as the young Professor X and Talking Movies’ hero Michael Fassbender as the young Magneto. This prequel charts the early days of their friendship and the establishment of Xavier’s Academy, before (according to Mark Millar) a disagreement led to Magneto putting Xavier in a wheelchair. The prospect of Fassbender doing his best Ian McKellen impersonation gives one pause for joy.

August 9, 2010

Great Production Disasters of Our Time: The Avengers

Edward Norton was undiplomatically relieved of his role as Bruce Banner/Hulk in Whedon’s forthcoming The Avengers after one disastrous production meeting…

DELANEY, not Mark Pellegrino’s celebrated agent but a Marvel Studios producer who by an amazing coincidence has the same surname, is seated beside JOSS WHEDON at the head of a long conference table. EDWARD NORTON sits at the opposite end with a stack of comics and books, while SCARLETT JOHANSSON and SAMUEL L JACKSON sit beside two empty chairs on one side, with CHRIS EVANS and CHRIS HEMSWORTH opposite them, beside another two empty chairs.

DELANEY: First off I’d like to thank all of you who showed up today, for taking the time to come here to meet your new writer/director for The Avengers, Joss Whedon.
WHEDON: Hi everyone. This is just a sort of informal meet and greet to talk you through some of the broad ideas that I have for the direction I’m going to take the film in and-
NORTON: Well I’m glad that I’ve caught you in time then because I have some creative ideas I’d like to talk about regarding Hulk’s centrality in-

He is interrupted by ROBERT DOWNEY JR exploding into the room with a cup of coffee in each hand and a cell phone nestled under his chin against his shoulder. He precariously keeps everything from spilling or dropping while dancing over to sit next to Scarlett Johansson who he purrs at before facing the others.

DOWNEY: Hello, hello, hello – sorry I’m late, I’m trying to find a Moriarty. (nods) Sam the man. Scarlett witch. Buffy-man. Delaney. (beat) And, two new guys.
EVANS: Chris Evans – Captain America.
HEMSWORTH: Chris Hemsworth – The Mighty Thor.
DOWNEY: You’re both Chris? Oh man that’s too much for me to deal with this early in the morning.
JACKSON: Robert, it’s 2pm.
DOWNEY: Is it? Am I that confused with the time? What time is it London then? I’ve been annoying Ritchie all morning/day/night. I’m just gonna call you Cap’n.
EVANS: Fine with me.
DOWNEY: And I’ll call you Chris.
HEMSWORTH: Okay. Aren’t we short some actresses?
DOWNEY: Oh, Gwyneth’s in London. She said she wanted to spend more time with – iPhone, iPod?
DOWNEY: Yeah, that’s what I meant.
NORTON: Where’s Jennifer Connelly?
DELANEY: We’re not sure if we’re using her yet.
NORTON: Well now hang on a minute!
DOWNEY: Oh, we should totally use her, and I mean that in as sexual a manner as the rating will allow. We should have like three different love triangles in the movie – one for each act. In the first act it can be all crazy Scarlett vs Gwyneth action for me, and in the second act it can be all me vs Ed for Jennifer-
NORTON: It’s Edward actually.
DOWNEY: -and the third act should be totally homoerotic, so that it looks like it’s me vs Cap’n for Gwyneth but actually we really totally want each other and the girl is just a medium for our inexpressible homosocial desires.
DELANEY: Whedon, don’t even think about taking him up on any of those ideas, especially the last. This film has been enough trouble for me already…
DOWNEY: (phone rings) Ooh, Ritchie.

Downey bounds to his feet and dashes out of the room with a cup of coffee.

WHEDON: (to Delaney) Are you sure he’s not on drugs?
EVANS: (to Johansson) Scarlett, did he just come onto me?
JOHANSSON: (to Evans) No Chris, he’s just still in Sherlock Holmes mode.
DELANEY: (to Whedon) Downey’s on fire right now commercially, this is one time where he can legitimately be high on life.
NORTON: (perturbed by the skittish nature of this meeting) Right…like I said I had some creative ideas regarding Hulk’s centrality in the film’s mythos. Now, I brought along a copy of Sophocles’ Antigone as well as a Hulk graphic novel by Jeph Loeb and some trade paperbacks of the late 1970s comics and I think that-

Downey re-enters the room talking, tosses his empty coffee cup and picks up his other cup of coffee, starts to leave the room again but his call ends just as he opens the door.

DOWNEY: Couldn’t you get Ian McKellen then? (beat) What do you mean too old? (beat) Well couldn’t we rewrite the part to make it less physical? (beat) Well get back to me with this mystery option of yours as soon as you can.

He turns around and walks back to his seat.

DOWNEY: Right, sorry about that. Where were we?
WHEDON: I was about to say that the broad theme I have for the movie is-
JOHANSSON: Can I just ask if my character will have some purpose other than titillation in a backseat in this movie?
HEMSWORTH: Can I take Jon Favreau’s part in that scene if we’re doing one?

Whedon starts to crawl up into a foetal position in his chair.

JOHANSSON: It’s just a bit insulting that Jennifer might not even be in the film because Gwyneth and I are already there to be eye-candy but not play a pivotal ro-
DELANEY: Jesus, Johansson! Do you have push the feminist line so hard at this point?

He starts to stroke Whedon’s head soothingly while cooing to him.

DELANEY: (Accusingly to Johansson) Doesn’t he have enough to do without making every female character he ever writes Buffy as well? He’s got to somehow combine four different franchises into one coherent film and also-
JACKSON:  Possibly save the Thor franchise, no offense, Chris.
HEMSWORTH: Hell, none taken, I haven’t even seen a rough cut of it yet.
DOWNEY: I think they should have just released the table read where Branagh did all the parts for the production heads, no offense.
HEMSWORTH: Starting to take offense, but broadly I agree that was fairly awesome.
JACKSON: How’s your film looking Cap’n?
EVANS: Okay, not great, but Hugo Weaving’s going to steal it, the Aussie bastard.
JOHANSSON: Where are we with villains for The Avengers?

Whedon suddenly comes alive again and crawls back into an upright position.

WHEDON: Villains? Villains! Villains, villains are important. Villains should have some depth and-
NORTON: Exactly, (takes a deep breath) now I figured that a conflict between legal duty and human feeling like Creon suffers would be perfect for giving a villain some depth and sympathy and that if Hulk were to be the Antigone to Fury’s Creon then-
DOWNEY: (phone rings) YEAH! (beat) WHAT?! (beat) Let me call you back. (hangs up) He wants to cast Jason Statham as Professor Moriarty for the next movie now. Thoughts, people?
WHEDON: (to Delaney) How come Ritchie gets to cast his regulars and I don’t?
DELANEY: (to Whedon) When you make a film that makes as much money as Sherlock Holmes I’ll let you use motion-capture to cast Nathan Fillion in every part, but until that day…
JOHANSSON: I like the idea of Statham, sounds like it could be a lot of fun.
DOWNEY: But I don’t want a Moriarty who spends his time telling his minions they’re ‘bang aht of order’.
WHEDON: You realise that in England if you met a guy on the street and he got in your face you’d be terrified if he sounded like Statham and just amused if he sounded like McKellen.
DOWNEY: I want someone who sounds proper British! Not Dick Van Dyke British!
NORTON: (lunges into a micro-second of silence) So, my concept would not only give a villain depth and problematise notions of heroism it would also give Jennifer a pivotal role. It raises interesting ethical questions and subverts expectations! (beams)
JACKSON: Whedon, man, could you move this along? I’ve got three other meetings to fit in this afternoon.
DOWNEY: Do you have to constantly make films now that you’re off drugs because you have an addictive personality?
JACKSON: How many cups of coffee have you had in the last hour? How many topics have you talked about since you came in here and how fast have you talked? Hm? Now talk to me about addictive personalities…
DOWNEY: Touche. I can see why your character is the boss of my character.
NORTON: And I think that basing the film around Hulk’s ethical dilemmas and introducing Iron Man as a Deus Ex Machina in the third act when all seems lost would utterly confound audience expectations and wow the critics globally.

There is dead silence around the room instantly, as jaws drop down and hang there

WHEDON: Edward, three things. (1) I’m directing this film, not you. (2) I can’t base a franchise cross-over around the weaker performer of the two franchises to date. (3) The story-lining stage is kinda over. We’re already thinking sets and costumes.
NORTON: You mean you won’t even consider playing this as a Greek tragedy?
DELANEY: NO! NO!! Look that where sort of craziness got Ang Lee’s Hulk!!
NORTON: Do I at least get some input into the editing process then?

Samuel L Jackson falls off his chair, he then drags himself up to table height.

JACKSON: Good God Man! We’re just actors!! Actors!!! (he falls to the ground)
EVANS: What he said.
NORTON: Wait, you have no interest at all in any creative input by me into this?
WHEDON: Interest in your acting ability, everything else creative I can handle…
NORTON: FINE! FINE! Well I can see I’ve been wasting my time taking this seriously when apparently all the rest of you want to do is make phone calls, drink coffee and bitch about casting choices. Well I am not just an actor but also a writer/director and an editor, and I had a vision that would have wowed millions around the globe and tapped into Jungian undercurrents but FINE! I’m not upset!!
HEMSWORTH: (giggles) ‘Don’t make him angry, you wouldn’t like him when he’s angry’.

Norton sits quietly fuming, fighting it, but then, he turns pale green and swells in size, but manages to restrain himself so that only his shirt bursts open, and then storms over and lifts Hemsworth in his chair and throws him thru the office window.


Norton/Hulk storms out of the room, yanking the door off its hinges as he goes.

DOWNEY: Hulk/Edward doesn’t play well with other children.
DELANEY: Shut up.
EVANS: Looks like we’re going to need a new Hulk.
WHEDON: If you write something that means ‘Edward doesn’t play well with other children’ in the press release then I won’t push Nathan Fillion to replace him as Hulk.
DELANEY: Okay, I’ll write something like “We need an actor who embodies the creativity and collaborative spirit of our talented cast”. Deal?
DOWNEY: Ooh! I think I know someone who’d be good for Hulk. I’ve been hearing a lot about him – some wiry guy with real intensity, name’s James Marsters I think…
DELANEY: Frak My Life.
EVANS: (beat) Should we tell people that Edward Norton actually is the Hulk now?
JACKSON: (to himself) I had no idea his method went so deep! I’ve gotta apologise to the man, that’s a level of commitment all actors should aspire to.
JOHANSSON: (looking out the window) I’m just glad we’re on the ground floor…

May 27, 2010

I once was LOST, but now am found

So, predictably enough, ‘The End’ of LOST didn’t answer any questions (it probably raised more) and wasn’t really interested in providing any sort of actual coherent conclusion to the rambling nonsense that had preceded it.

Interestingly it seemed a mea culpa by Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse as the reunion of all the most beloved cast members in Ultimate Los Angeles (which it was really – like Marvel’s Ultimate universe all the same characters appeared, slightly different, but still connected) was dependent for its emotional impact on flashbacks from the days when LOST was concerned with characters not plot mechanics and quantum mechanics. The moment when Ultimate Juliet and Sawyer remembered their life together and its horrific end had me in tears, but this season of LOST had little of that character development. The death of my favourite character Juliet was almost a summary of everything that went wrong. Characters were sacrificed to a material, (time-travel, Jakob, Desmond) that was never as interesting as Lindelof & Cuse found it, and evermore characters were introduced and killed rather than grappling with the show’s enduring and original problem of having too many characters.

When we talk abstractedly of ‘the writers’ it’s worth noting that no show could have sustained continuity over 6 seasons given the shocking revolving door of writers that the escalating absurdity of the show’s mythology just seemed to burn through – and this is a brain-drain of very talented writers like Jeph Loeb, Paul Dini, David Fury, Drew Goddard and Brian K Vaughan. The last season of LOST introduced new and uninteresting characters and then killed them off within weeks and got lost in creating at the last minute a ‘mythology’ that was meant to have been central to the show… The sure sign that a show is losing its way (24) is when the writing room starts to resemble this:


DIGGORY: I’m not sure this episode is working, it seems a bit boring.

LINDELOF: How many characters have you killed off?

DIGGORY: Just the one.

LINDELOF: Well no wonder it’s boring! Kill off at least three people! It’s not like we’re short of characters, and we can always bring the actors back in flashback, or in parallel universes, or as ghosts.

CUSE: Or as ghosts in flashback within a parallel universe.

LINDELOF: Would you stop being silly?

CUSE: Sorry. I, uh, noticed that your script is a bit short on dramatic conflict too.

DIGGORY: Yeah, sorry. No conflict seemed to grow organically from the characters-

LINDELOF: Grow organically?! What are we? A communist eco-friendly farming co-op? Just get Sayid to torture someone for God’s sake! Instant dramatic conflict!

DIGGORY: We don’t have Naveen around for this episode, he’s shooting a film in-

LINDELOF: Then just get someone else to torture someone for some reason! Sheesh, do I have to write every little thing around here?!

The ‘resolution’ of the mythology on the island was merely a means to an end – the fearful symmetry of a dying Jack lying down in the exact place where he first woke up, so that the show’s first image, Jack’s eye opening, was mirrored in its final image, Jack’s eye closing. It was a clever-clever ending but what preceded it on the island answered few questions. As for the Ultimate ending… I wrote in a 2005 piece on the first season that one of the most popular theories was “All the survivors are dead and The Island is Purgatory”, which was strenuously denied by Lindelof & Cuse, and rightly so. The Island it turns out was a complete irrelevance, which led the characters to Ultimate LA, which was Purgatory… Before the finale aired I listened to Coldplay’s Parachutes, especially ‘Everything’s Not Lost’, which I bought around the time LOST premiered in 2005. Thinking back I realised how I experienced LOST was by increasingly making fun of various absurdities as the show progressed and discussing the season finales, especially the third season’s which seemed to dominate conversation at a friend’s 21st. All those conversations were pointless it now transpires as apparently the point of the show was the moment when Christian Shepherd revealed to Jack that all the Ultimate characters were dead. This reunion of beloved characters was the spur for them to move on to heaven as he opened the church doors to an enveloping white light. As moments go it was quite beautiful, if not as powerful as Charlie blessing himself before dying peacefully, and the situating of this event in a Unitarian church with a stained-glass window depicting symbols from all the major world religions showed Lindelof & Cuse trying to make this a warm group-hug.

As a philosophical thought it was a nice interpretation of Purgatory – learning to take all that was best from your life and leaving behind all that was worst – but it had nothing to do with the violent mayhem it ‘resolved’. In the final analysis LOST occasionally hit sustained patches of greatness in spite of the mythology rather than because of it, and the mythology will sink its long-term reputation.

May 9, 2010

Saving Superman – Some Suggestions

Christopher Nolan has been formally entrusted with ‘mentoring’ a new Superman film for Warner Bros (before 2012 in order to avoid nightmarish legal complications). This means he’ll be inundated with inane ‘The Dark Man of Steel’ scripts, witless nonsense featuring a fight with a giant spider in the third act (yes, Jon Peters, we’ve all seen Kevin Smith’s routine about your idée fixe), and disastrous attempts to follow on faithfully from Superman fighting a giant island in the third act… So, here are some suggestions for angles that might help make the original superhero soar again.

Clark Kent is the base of reality on top of which you build the fantasy of Superman, creating what Richard Donner carefully described as verisimilitude rather than realism. Why not really go to town with world of the Daily Planet so that it comes off as a bustling amalgam of His Girl Friday and All the President’s Men? Clark’s ability as a journalist has propelled him into the world’s leading newspaper – he doesn’t have to bring down the President but have you ever seen him do anything at that office besides fall over the furniture? It would be nice to see Clark file some copy… It would also be refreshing to see Lois Lane engaged in investigative journalism rather than just being in peril – how typical that she won her Pulitzer in Singer’s film for an Op-Ed piece. Jeph Loeb and Darywn Cooke write Lois terrifically because in their stories it’s her overpowering hunger for nailing a scoop that always gets into her danger: Lois is a ‘newspaperman’, she lives for breaking news and will do anything to get it first – she’s not a particularly nice person but she’s charismatic, tough as nails and you’d always want her on your team rather than playing against you.

Writing Lois as nastier than recent anodyne versions of her also helps solve the ‘problem’ of Superman’s uncomplicated morality about which essays of unsympathetic comparisons to Batman and Wolverine have been written. Lois sneered at Superman’s motto ‘Truth, Justice and the American Way’ in 1978 but he reclaimed the phrase for righteousness – it didn’t have to mean Watergate in that film, and it doesn’t have to mean the War on Terror now. The meaner you make Lois, the harder it becomes for Superman to melt her cynicism, and the better the film will be as a result in selling audiences on his Boy Scout ethics. Superman was released after the disaster of the Nixon years, surely any new film would tap into a similar shift in the zeitgeist of American self-perception?

As for the other side of the Supercoin enough with the shady land deals of Lex Luthor already! We don’t need a new rendering of Superman’s origin myth but it would be nice to re-imagine his first encounter with Lex Luthor to cinematically introduce Lex not as a dodgy estate agent but as a billionaire bent on world domination. What makes Lex the best nemesis for Superman is his challenge to Superman’s code. Superman could snap this puny human’s neck in a fraction of a second except he would never do that. Equally Lex would never be sloppy enough to leave any incriminating evidence of his wrongdoing. It would be nice to see Superman’s immense and growing frustration from being unable to expose or punish a white-collar criminal who he knows to be corrupt and depraved while the world only sees and sympathises with a noted philanthropist being unjustly victimised by an alien with the powers of a god. This is to say nothing of the potential for dramatic conflict if Lex Luthor was to run for President testing Superman’s code to the limit as the greater good would be imperilled by his moral insistence on bringing Lex to legal justice. As for sequel villains, Singer was unwilling to stray from the Donner template of General Zod, but if the preposterous Smallville was able to pull off a fine Brainiac when Steven S DeKnight wrote the part for James Marsters in T-1000 mode as the Kryptonian A.I., surely a similarly styled Brainiac can work as a filmic villain too?

All anyone talks about when it comes to re-launching Superman are the problems – from the blandness of Superman, to the weakness of Lois, to the dramatic inertia of invulnerability, and the scarcity of traditional super-villains with universal name recognition compared to Batman’s extensive Rogues’ Gallery. Would it not then make sense to hire comics writers who deal with these problems on a monthly basis? Mark Millar alleged two years ago that he had an outline for a re-booting trilogy. Ask him for that outline! Hire Jeph Loeb to do a draft of a script. Beg Darwyn Cooke to write a treatment. Contact Paul Dini, Grant Morrison and Mark Waid. Round up all these guys and stick them in a writers’ room in the Warner back-lot. Hell, even see if Alan Moore could stop filing law-suits for long enough to contribute some ideas.

Superman is tricky to pull off cinematically but if the thought of writing

INT. DAILY PLANET-DAY Clark moves towards the window and opens his shirt.

doesn’t make the hair stand up on the back of the necks of some of these writers then and only then will the possibilities of re-launching Superman have been dwarfed by the difficulties.

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