Monday, July 30, 2012

Torturing Tolkien: The Hobbit as a Trilogy

"Art or cash?" This question confronted J.R.R. Tolkien way back when contemplating the potential for film adaptations of his works. Despite wishing to preserve his integrity, he couldn't deny the appeal of selling the film rights for a substantial fee to better provide for his family. Unfortunately, it seems like the Professor's worst fears have been realised. The Hobbit is a relatively short novel, especially as Fantasy stories go, and a year ago it was a little difficult to imagine the book as the two films it was being split into. Then came the news that much of the backstory was going to be fleshed out, that the films would effectively be a prequel to The Lord of the Rings. Here my fears were heightened. It seemed that we were going to get a fair bit of the film devoted to what Gandalf and his chums were up to while Bilbo was in the Gandalf-less parts of the adventure, and we'd see them dealing with the Necromancer, who as you hopefully know is Sauron. None of these were sections of story which the Professor described in any particularly great detail, and certainly not with any kind of immediate narrative or dialogue, so it looked like Peter Jackson and friends were getting onto the task of "fleshing out" the bits the Professor hadn't fully developed in order to make a bulkier film. It looked like, by and large, we'd be distracted from Bilbo, that the tone was going to focus much more heavily on anticipating the events of The Lord of the Rings and that overall what we were going to get wouldn't really be The Hobbit at all.
It's becoming increasingly well-known thanks to the publication of the History of the Hobbit, a compendium of the Professor's draft material and commentary edited by John D. Rateliff, that Professor Tolkien himself once sat down in the Sixties and attempted to entirely re-write The Hobbit from scratch. He was dissatisfied with its occasionally childish tone as well as its periods of inconsistency with the more rigorous geography and history he had devised for The Lord of the Rings. Ultimately, however, he gave up when a friend reading over the material told him that as good as it was, it just wasn't The Hobbit anymore.
Apparently that was enough for Professor Tolkien; The Hobbit could stand on its own, and was a success in its own way. Indeed given how successful it had been upon its original publication it was clearly independently sufficient. This is clearly however not good enough for either Peter Jackson, or for Warner Bros. who stand to make a colossal windfall from these films should they reach and maintain something equivalent to the absurd hysteria achieved by the trilogy of The Lord of the Rings adaptations. Peter Jackson I don't know about. Is he a greedy bastard or just kind of incompetent? I get the impression of a bit of a bumbling director who makes these Tolkien films with a sort of hazy, vague understanding from reading the source material once decades ago and keeping a synopsis close at hand. Boyens and Walsh, moreover, come across as just not knowing what they're talking about half the time, deriving most of their knowledge of the texts from a relatively rigorous but ultimately superficial reading of the Professor's published work, with emphasis on what bits can be teased out and made into something Hollywood-digestible and letting the more archaic elements go hang. What disturbs me the most is that people seem to think that these filmmakers are die hard Tolkien fans when by their own admission their knowledge of the books is sporadic and far from intensive.
Given that so much of Professor Tolkien's work is concerned with the futility of preservation and the inevitability of change it disturbs me that adaptations of his books are now being spun out as endlessly as possible. I think he knew as well as anyone how tempting both answers could be to the question: "Art or cash?" As much as I think Peter Jackson is happy to draw his own conclusions about the integrity of the project I think Warner Bros.' stance is obvious. It's cash for as long as possible.
Basically what I'm saying is that the people making these films are both Smaug and Sauron.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Opinions Can Be WrongCast: The Avengers vs The Dark Knight Rises

The Opinions Can Be WrongCast - The Avengers Vs The Dark Knight Rises
In an effort to revitalise the podcast series, we present a shorter and more focused renewal comparing Marvel and DC's latest blockbusters, touching on both companies' respective cinematic futures including the recent teaser for Man of Steel.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

It's been six long years and Christopher Nolan's vision of Batman has finally come to an end. It all started way back in 2005 with Batman Begins, a refreshingly serious and realistic take on the Caped Crusader which was a very thorough and interesting origin story which had never before been fully explored onscreen for the character. This was of course followed with smash hit The Dark Knight, which amped up the gravitas and intellectuality of the concept to whole new levels. If I would aim any criticism at The Dark Knight, it would be that as much as I enjoy it as a film it doesn't feel like Batman. Batman Begins did a good job of blending certain more fantastic elements of the mythos like the League of Assassins (or "Shadows" in this continuity) and Ra's al Ghul, plus grotesquerie like the Scarecrow with his fear toxin into a satisfyingly gothic depiction of Gotham which nonetheless felt reasonably plausible. In The Dark Knight what we received was an excellently confronting and intense crime drama but one which felt very little like a superhero film anymore. In striving for realism and grittiness Nolan possibly began to perpetuate that issue which has always shadowed comic book superheroes since the mid-80s: an element of defensiveness about the inherently ridiculous nature of the genre, an effort to hide what is integral to the concept. You can make the Joker just a nut job in makeup and have plots about mob money and turn Two-Face into a rogue vigilante rather than a crime boss but in the end it's still a film about a billionaire who dresses in a bat costume to fight crime. There's only so realistic you can make it before it starts to feel, in my view, like it's somewhat missing the point.
Unfortunately this descent into morbidity and hyperrealism only continues in The Dark Knight Rises. Following the conclusion of the previous film, Batman has retired and Bruce Wayne has spent eight years as a recluse. The film hybridises elements of the The Dark Knight Returns, Knightfall and No Man's Land storylines into a film about Batman returning to work to fight Bane who has cut off Gotham from the outside world and placed it under mob rule. The film owes a lot, narratively, to Batman Begins more than The Dark Knight, and it's obvious that Nolan was trying to make the film feel like an effective sequel to both previous instalments simultaneously. The League of Shadows is heavily referenced, Ra's al Ghul appears in a brief cameo and Batman is returned to far-flung and exotic parts of the world but simultaneously much is made of the death of Two-Face and Commissioner Gordon's efforts to cover up his killing spree at the end of The Dark Knight. What makes this jarring is the complete absence of any mention or reference whatsoever of the Joker. It was increasingly obvious to me over the course of the film that Heath Ledger's death had thrown an even more massive spanner than was already expected in the proverbial works in terms of making an effective sequel to The Dark Knight. Nolan and co excised any account of the Joker out of respect for Heath Ledger, and while this tact is commendable it feels awkward when they reference the events of the previous film. He is, to put it simply, conspicuous by his absence.
The main villain, therefore, takes the form of Bane. I wonder if, perhaps, given Joker's absence, it was a mistake for Nolan to have eliminated Two-Face in the same film, arguably Batman's next most dangerous villain, or to have reduced Scarecrow to such a secondary antagonist. It feels like Nolan was scrabbling around for another Batman foe who could be portrayed as realistic; obviously characters like Mr. Freeze, the Penguin, Poison Ivy and Clayface were out of the question and it would be impossible to make Riddler realistic without putting him in the position in which he so often finds himself as little more than a poor man's Joker. Personally I always thought that Black Mask would have been a good choice of enemy in Nolan's Batman-verse but perhaps having a skull-themed villain so soon after Captain America wouldn't have worked anyway. Deadshot might also have had potential as a supporting foe, or perhaps Professor Hugo Strange.
Nonetheless we get Bane, and I suppose he's one of the more plausible members of Batman's rogues' gallery. However instead of a luchadore-masked Venom addict criminal mastermind, this film portrays him in a rather more bland "realistic" style as a terrorist trying to fulfil Ra's al Ghul's legacy with the assistance of a mask which provides him with constant anaesthesia, necessary after sustaining never-fully-disclosed injuries in his past. Instead of being Hispanic he speaks with a rather bizarrely exaggerated English accent and always walks around the place clutching his lapels. At first I thought it was an interesting depiction of Bane as an affably evil monster, and satisfying to see him depicted as the genius brute portrayed in the comics. However as his aims as a boring movie terrorist were increasingly established and he developed a propensity for delivering tiresome, cliché-ridden monologues I became increasingly exhausted with his presence. Some would argue that it would be impossible to have another villain as successful as Heath Ledger's Joker but I believe they made a mistake in turning Bane into a jovial English gent. It would have been more effective, in my opinion, to have had a villain which contrasted to both the humorous insanity of the Joker and the collected self-assurance of Ra's al Ghul by depicting Bane as still calculating and intelligent but furious and raging. Sadly it was not to be, and Bane becomes increasingly tedious as the film continues. Tom Hardy does as good a job as he can in the restrictive mask to portray Bane but he's let down by a weak script which leaves the character ultimately unfulfilled.
The other classic Batman character introduced in this film is Catwoman. Never referred to as such, only on a newspaper headline as "the Cat", Selina Kyle is once again a master thief and cracksperson intent on discovering a device called the Blank Slate which can erase one's existence from all records. The film maintains the typical depiction of Catwoman as a relatively neutral and self-interested character who turns to good only in duress or out of affection for Batman but in this case she's also trying to start afresh by erasing her criminal past. Shame she's got to commit crimes to stop being a criminal! Anyway if any character felt like a forced love interest for Batman in this film it was her. As the ultmate successor to Rachel it seems as if they just wanted Batman to have someone with whom to settle down. She disappears about halfway through the film and seems to have been practically forgotten about by the writers until the end. To be honest, I've never been much of a fan of Anne Hathaway in anything I've seen her in and this didn't change my mind. The film takes the predictable route of making Catwoman into a hybrid action girl-femme fatale as usual and doesn't really achieve much with the character. She changes her mind about being completely selfish and saves Batman in the end. Whoop de do. Maybe if Bat-fans hadn't seen this exact scenario last year in Batman: Arkham City it would have seemed more original, but probably not.
We get a couple more new faces as well in the shape of Marion Cotillard's Miranda Tate and Joseph Gordon-Levitt's John Blake. To be honest at this point with these two plus Michael Caine, Tom Hardy and a small role for Cillian Murphy returning as ever as the Scarecrow the film starts to feel like Batception at times. Miranda Tate serves as an initial romantic interest for Bruce Wayne in a contrived and implausible love story as well as a protector of the Wayne Enterprises financial interest due to bizarre economic factors which are over my head. Of course, spoilers beware, she turns out to be none other than Talia al Ghul, daughter of Ra's, out to complete her father's mission. John Blake, on the other hand, is a "hot head" police officer, a straight-edged "good cop" who helps out Batman and Commissioner Gordon and, as revealed by his birth name at the end of the film, serves as Nolan's extremely realistic interpretation of the character of Robin or effectively any sidekick to Batman. It is of course heavily implied at the conclusion of the film, in a revelation as predictable as possible due to an early scene where Bruce Wayne tells Blake that "anyone could be Batman" and in a later one where Batman suggests that he wear a mask, that he will become the new Batman. Indeed Batman himself spends a good deal of the film incapacitated, imprisoned or otherwise unavailable and as our supporting protagonist Blake fills the void of a hero very well, but it only serves to compound the impression that Nolan wants to make a Batman film which is as far removed from Batman as possible. You could believe, I think, that Nolan wouldn't have objected to making a film where Blake himself was the main character without any kind of comic book elements.
This leads me into the narrative of the film. It's all rather disappointingly simple; Bane is gathering a secret army of terrorists underground. When the time is ripe he blows up all the ways into and out of the city, has a scientist turn an experimental fusion reactor into a bomb and gives the citizens of Gotham a month or so of total anarchy before the bomb blows them all to Kingdom Come. This is all revealed to be part of Talia's effort to live up to her father's plan to destroy Gotham. Ultimately it feels far, far too much like nothing more than a re-hash of the plot of Batman Begins. Terrorists appalled at the decadence of Western civilisation want to destroy the city. Both of these plots end with a vehicle chase in which the relevant weapon of mass destruction must be hunted down and eliminated before time runs out. They both have a character twist where an associate of Batman is revealed to be orchestrating the entire plot. It is of course in the serialised nature of superhero comics to repeat some of their narrative conceits from time to time but this is ludicrously overt and, in this regard, seems to detract from Nolan's efforts to divorce the series from the less realistic aspects of superhero comics.
There's also a subplot where Bane injures Batman's back and leaves him in a prison in what appears to be the Middle East somewhere from which he must escape by mastering himself in some fashion. It's all awfully similar again to bits from the first half of Batman Begins. Once he's out he heads off to Gotham, there's a big battle and he apparently sacrifices his life flying the bomb out over the bay to save the innocents. Of course it turned out in reality he survived and is off living a wonderful old life with Catwoman in Europe. How lovely.
My point is that really it feels like a whole lot of nothing. The film drags on and on, going for nearly three hours, and at no point, in contrast to its title, does it really rise above its precursors and deliver something new to the plate. We are beaten over the head with neon signs advertising hard-edged psychological realism and character trauma but none of it feels especially profound or moving. Batman needs to recover value in life; that's about it. I realise that Nolan wanted to provide closure to his take on Batman and it's satisfying to at least see the property treated with that kind of literary seriousness; we don't end with alarm bells and someone shouting out that Killer Moth has just robbed the bank as Batman swoops back into action or anything. This feels conclusive and final, but it doesn't change the fact that it's long-winded, dull, and takes itself way too seriously. Batman Begins had, as I've said, elements of the fantastic and gothic, and while The Dark Knight moved perhaps a little too closely to the real the Joker's unique worldview was another important intrusion of the outlandish. The Dark Knight Rises lacks these elements in anything beyong a reprisal of what has gone before. The ticking time-bomb plot is devastatingly unimaginative and stale, Batman's inner journey takes him nowhere special and the other characters are underdeveloped and underused. The mere fact that Batman spends so long locked in a prison rather than out fighting crime as Batman, which is what we all want to see, is teeth-gnashingly frustrating. Perhaps Nolan understands this and wants me to be frustrated; perhaps in wanting to bring the normally endless world of a comic book hero to absolute closure he knew that we had to want it to end. Maybe in that regard the film is a success; it's an ending that left me not wanting any more, and I guess that's the best kind of ending.
Technically it's all very good and the direction is up to Nolan's usual high standard. The action set pieces and effects are all well done and the horrific unpleasantness of anarchy in Gotham is impossible to ignore. It is, perhaps, as good an end as could be expected while bringing the series to a realistic conclusion, but in this way it again reinforces the notion I can't shake that trying to make superheroes realistic is an interesting experiment but ultimately misses the point. There are a number of funny moments, although perhaps not enough, but the script is inconsistent overall and even in the time it takes it tries to do too much. It is, in my view, definitely the weakest instalment in an otherwise very good series, and feels too much like Batman-minus-Batman. If it taught me anything, it's that superheroes shouldn't be realistic - because they're not.