Can a Character Transcend Canon?

Some characters are just immediately recognizable, without the context of their film, book, or whatever it is they may appear in. You could show somebody a photo of Michael Keaton dressed as Batman, followed by a drawing of Batman from the comics, followed by Ben Affleck as Batman. Anybody who knows anything about the character would recognize each portrayal was the same ‘Batman’, existing within a certain canon comprised of a series of common denominators—we know Batman is Bruce Wayne, protecting Gotham City from the likes of the Joker, the Penguin, Two-Face, and so on. However, complications lay when the audience tries to piece together a chronology of the films. We may be able to easily define the Christopher Nolan “Dark Knight” Trilogy (2005-2012) as a ‘reboot’ of say the assorted Batman movies from 1989 to 1997 starring first Michael Keaton, then Val Kilmer, then George Clooney. What sort of chronology (besides a somewhat tight frame of release) unites these four movies, and separates them from the Batman films since?

Let’s look at a more concise example: George Miller’s “Mad Max” series. There are four films in the series as of writing, all directed by George Miller, all starring the titular hero Max Rockatansky. Max is portrayed by Mel Gibson in the first three movies, “Mad Max” (1979), “The Road Warrior” (1981), and “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome” (1985). Each movie is a self-contained story that happens to star Max, and each movie follows a loose chronology that can be spotted by small details like scars and items Max earned in the films before. Here’s the wrench: the recently released “Mad Max: Fury Road” starring Tom Hardy as the same Max is not a reboot. It’s not even Mad Max 4. Hints in the film (though never ‘official’) suggest it takes place sometime between “The Road Warrior” and “Beyond Thunderdome”. This may confuse or outrage some, but Miller has said he wanted Max to remain the same young, “contemporary warrior”. So the question is: does canon matter?

There is certainly a place for a story told throughout multiple entries in a franchise, and there is certainly a place for a reboot of that franchise in order to retell a story. But some characters transcend the need for chronology, and simply come bundled with a supporting cast of characters and elements that can concoct a fun, solo story. Long-running comics of superheroes seem to understand this—when you forget about the occasional company-wide reboot, we accept that Superman or Spider-Man have lived through thousands of issues of stories over many decades, without having to come up with some reason why they’re not 80-year old time travelers. It’s when the authors retcon and alter the stuff they’ve already written to better their future stories that it becomes a muddled mess, which can eventually lead to the need to wipe the slate clean; for example, DC’s universal-deconstructing/splicing comic series “Crisis on Infinite Earths” (1985). A good read? Yes. Necessary overhaul? Probably not.

This brings us to look at the man who is probably the biggest source of fan debates, various fictional chronologies, and a downright pointless canon: 007, James Bond. While the books may tell a smaller, continuous story, the famously convoluted film series has spawned a number of actors who, to different people, are “their Bond.” There are some who retain the idea that ‘James Bond’ is simply a codename various agents take on, and that the films do indeed tell a continuous canon. An interesting idea that can be supported by various hints in the movies, sure. When George Lazenby temporarily replaced the Sean Connery as Bond in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” (1969), Lazenby has one liner in the opening of the film that says “This never happened to the other fellow.” Probably more of a fourth-wall breaking wink than anything.

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There is a loose story told in the background of the 60s and 70s Bond films about the mounting power of evil organization Spectre and its ever-face-swapping leader Blofeld, but when you dig too deep into it, it just makes no sense. The stinger-reveals of new villains behind the curtains at the end of each film was just done for the purpose of bringing the audience back for more money. The Daniel Craig Bond films, starting with “Casino Royale” (2006) is said to be a reboot of the franchise. Yet “Casino” and its sequels “Quantum of Solace” (2008) and “Skyfall” (2012) each featured a new set of characters (besides Bond, M, Q, and other staples of the franchise) that could exist on their own, within the megatext of 007. It wasn’t until the presumably last Craig-Bond film “Spectre” (2015) that they sloppily tried to unite the four films under a ‘rebooted’ version of the Spectre organization. It made no sense within those films, and only served to further muddle the audience’s perspective of what James Bond is.

So really, why can’t we just accept that certain characters transcend chronology. If a character is truly timeless (for a stretch of time at least), what’s wrong with throwing together the ingredients that unite the franchise and just enjoying another tale starring the hero the viewer comes to see in the first place? The needless tags of reboots on beloved franchises tend to set up the new entry for failure while also damaging the credibility of what came before. Just enjoy a character. You like Batman? Enjoy a work that stars him.

 

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Digging Deeper – Black Mirror: Season 1

When did anthology shows become such a rare gem? Looking at the most-watched television shows of the 2014-2015 season, the charts are topped by sitcoms such as “The Big Bang Theory” (21.3 million viewers), sports programs like Sunday Night Football (21 million), and continuous drama series like “The Walking Dead” (19.9 million). Maybe the idea of a new set of characters, story, and production crew for each episode is too demanding for the creators of anthology shows, and the viewer, who lack that underdog hero they can latch onto. For many reasons, anthology shows can be hit-or-miss, with each episode being a gamble—but the British Zeppotron-produced series “Black Mirror” is all hits, at least what it offers from it’s first season (produced in 2011).

Season 1 offers just three episodes, the pilot running about 75 minutes, the other two running 45 minutes. There are underlying themes throughout each episode, such as using dark and often ridiculous science fiction to satirize our current society’s addiction to social media, but each episode is so unique in it’s own right, it’s best just to dive into an episode-by-episode analysis:

“The National Anthem” serves as the pilot, directed by Otto Bathurst and written by Charlie Brooker, the creator of Black Mirror. It’s the least outlandish of the episodes, taking place in modern UK, yet it’s also the most twisted reflection of our world. Prime Minister Michael Callow is woken up early one morning to find the fictional darling Princess Susannah has been kidnapped, her only ransom being one, carefully outline request: the Prime Minster is to have sex with a pig on live, national television, by 4 pm that day. The demands are made via Youtube, so despite Callow’s attempts to hide the event, it’s immediately spread across the Internet until #Snoutrage is trending on Twitter by mid-morning. Every conceivable alternative is attempted so as to spare the PM his beastial affair, and it’s handled in such a hopeless, yet realistic way; it’s some of the most mesmerizing and daring television I’ve seen in a long time, all leading up to the inevitable deed.

Slight spoilers for the episode: The Prime Minister is forced to go through with it. The focus of the episode is tastefully not on the pig-sex itself, but more on how the public perceives it. It’s declared illegal to watch the event, yet the streets of London are seen completely empty, every pub filled with eager viewers, ready to watch ‘history in the making.’ We watch the crowd’s faces go from cheering and jeering, to unbelieving, to complete disgust, as they realize the horror they were so excited to watch. It’s Black Mirror holding up a reflection of us, the viewers of the show—not so much in an attempt to shame their audience, but to just force us to come to a harsh reality. Every plotpoint of the episode is driven by social media—this is not a story that could have ever happened in “The Twilight Zone”, or anything before the last decade. It may not even be a story that will always work, but it serves as an important marker for the sick, excitement-starved point we are all at. I won’t go into every spoiler of the episode, as the reason why all of this went down and who was behind it, is just as important as the act itself.

The second episode of the series is “Fifteen Million Merits”, directed by Euros Lyn and written by Charlie Brooker and Kanak Huq. It’s a jarring shift from the realism of the last episode, placing the audience immediately in an Orwellian-like future where people have to pedal on exercise bikes all day while being bombarded with constant screens filled with advertisements and throwaway television. Bored and disgruntled cyclist Bing Madsen is alienated from his complacent fellow cyclists, as he seems to be the only one who craves something “real”. He falls in love with another cyclist, Abi, when he hears her singing, and he insists on spending his massive life savings—fifteen million merits (seemingly thousands of kilometers biked) to land her a spot on a televised talent show. The whole thing mocks the shallow state of current television, while also presenting a clear metaphor to the average man working his whole life without knowing why. The promised land of fame proves to be a distant hope to most, while the power that comes with it changes even the most morally-strong. It seems like a ridiculous exaggeration of how we live now, but Brooker himself notes how each episode of Black Mirror is “about the way we live now—and the way we might be living in 10 minutes’ time if we’re clumsy.”

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The final episode of Season 1 is “The Entire History of You”, directed by Brian Welsh and written by Jesse Armstrong. The view of this near-future world is limited, but what we do know is that the wealthy have a ‘grain’ implanted in them that allows them to ‘rewind’ in their heads to experience past events, while also allowing them to edit out the bad parts. Liam Foxwell becomes jealous when he meets his wife’s ex-boyfriend, leading him to painstakingly overanalyze every interaction the two shared—before he finally confronts his wife and forces her to show her past with the man. The grain becomes the focus of conversation at every, with people projecting their memories on television screens to brag about their past. The whole thing can be seen as a reflection of social media sites like Facebook, where people meticulously craft online identities that only show the greatest hits of their lives. By living in the past—and lying about it—people tend to ruin their lives. What’s interesting is the viewer gets the impression that although grains are optional and seemingly expensive (like say, Facebook and an iPhone), the characters in the episode can’t imagine how empty their lives would be without the grain. While say, “The National Anthem” discusses the infectious nature of social media, “The Entire History of You” reflects on the dangers of becoming addicted to it.

Black Mirror is a modern sci-fi / horror anthology show that manages to shock and challenge an audience that has become jaded and overly reliant on technology. As of writing this, Season 2 and a Christmas special are already out, while a 12-episode Netflix-produced third season is on the way. Hopefully the rest of the series can impress as much as the stellar first season has.

Punk Subcultures and The Struggle With Being Heard

“The worst of the punk rock groups I suppose currently are the Sex Pistols. They are unbelievably nauseating. They are the antithesis of humankind.” (Bernard Brook-Partridge, Chairman of the London Arts Committee, 1977)

Loved and adored by teenage outcasts, hated by the parents of those same outcasts—that’s just what the Sex Pistols wanted. Often accepted as starting the punk movement in the United Kingdom (which would quickly spread to the United States) in the late 70s, the Sex Pistols proudly bore their self-proclaimed “anarchist” and antiestablishment status. It didn’t just stop at intense, obscene, music; an “anti-fashion” punk style also formed, with torn jeans, leather jackets, and wild hair becoming a sort of uniform for youth dedicated to declaring their frustration with the mainstream culture.

According to the Pistols, money was never the goal. Reviewing the band’s debut album “Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols” in the February 1978 issue of Rolling Stone, Paul Nelson wrote “In a commercial sense… the Sex Pistols will probably no one but themselves, but theirs is a holy or unholy war that isn’t really going to be won or lost by statistics…”. Nelson would go on to say that though the music wasn’t exactly accessible to the average listener, it was one of the most exciting rock records of the 70s. Intentional or not, in the decades since their formation, the Sex Pistols have sold millions of records, their cultural acceptance only growing with time…

Fast-forward to March of 2006: The Sex Pistols, whose members have now past into their 50’s, sell their musical backlog to Universal Music Group—a huge deal that no doubt would be the ticket to the promised land for many aspiring bands. The same year, the Pistols are inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—for many, the ultimate honor and recognition a rock group could hope to achieve. For Steve Jones, the longtime guitarist of the band, it’s the ultimate nail in the coffin: “Once you want to be put into a museum, Rock & Roll’s over.” As of 2015, the Sex Pistols and their music has appeared in everything from television commercials for butter to the logo of their debut album appearing on Virgin’s 2015 line of ‘convention-challenging’ credit cards.

Are subcultures doomed from the start? In his 1979 book “Subculture: The Meaning of Style”, Dick Hebdige analyzes the underlying similarities between youth subcultures in the UK during the late 70s. Looking at a variety of movements including punks, skinheads, and black reggae subcultures, Hebdige notes a similar trajectory in each, with only a handful of final results: either the subculture represents a threat and becomes normalized, materialized, and otherwise absorbed by the mainstream (thus nullifying its rebellious power), or the subculture is simply laughed off and dismissed. One could argue that by absorbing the previously shocking, society is growing more and more desensitized—so how does punk retaliate? By branching off deeper and deeper into enclosed categories, becoming more underground and more inaccessible.

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As early as the 80s, punk had spread overseas to America, where youth adopted the style and the music made popular in the UK. However, new subgenres of punk began appearing, with more specific ideals and goals set by the music and notably different fashion statements. Hardcore (made popular by American bands such as Black Flag) emerged as a faster, more aggressive retaliation to the more standardized punk rock—hardcore fashion favored simplicity and efficiency over the more flamboyant mohawks and safety pins of its fathering subculture. Other sub-subcultures appeared, with devout fanbases who were often heavily opposed to the idea of being compared to their cousin subgenres. These subgenres became so enclosed in their own constrictions that they essentially faded to the background within a decade or so—they still exist, for those determined enough to find and join them. The markets became increasingly niche; the music became increasingly shocking and inaccessible.

As the 90s approached, ‘mainstream’ punk (arguably the malformed vision of the Sex Pistols) was more popular than ever, with huge bands like Green Day, Sublime, and Blink-182 hogging radio airtime and creating what other punks would pointedly refer to as ‘Pop Punk’. But as the 2000s and later the 2010s drew on, even these widely accepted punk bands have faded into the background. There’s an interesting paradox with being heard: the more your words are spread, the more diluted they become—do you keep the rebellion to yourself or risk losing the power of your words?

This begs the question: did punk rock burn out early on, or did it die/lays slowly dying even now? The answer changes depending on who you ask. Underground followers of a punk subgenre would say “no”, while the general public may look fondly back on what was once a movement that rocked and shocked the world.

Perhaps Sex Pistols’ singer Johnny Rotten knew the outcome of what he helped to create in 1978, screaming the chorus of “God Save the Queen”:
“Don’t be told what you want / Don’t be told what you need / There’s no future, no future / No future for you.”

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Sources 

Dick Hebdige, “Subculture: The Meaning of Style” (1979).

Paul Nelson, “Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols”. Rolling Stone. February 23, 1978. http://www.rollingstone.com/music/albumreviews/never-mind-the-bollocks-heres-the-sex-pistols-19780223

Are Superhero Movies Here to Stay?

Disregarding early films like “Superman and the Mole Men” (1951) and “Stamp Day for Superman” (1954), Richard Donner’s “Superman” (1978) brought superheroes to the big screen with a certain dignity that captivated audiences unfamiliar with the archetypes of comic books. It was a box office gamble that made it’s (relatively large) budget back sixfold—Warner Bros. biggest success at the time. It would spawn sequels like “Superman II” (1980) and… well some other sequels we’ll try to forget. Batman had already won viewers hearts over with the Adam West 1960s television series and accompanying movie, but it was Tim Burton’s “Batman” (1989) that reminded viewers how dark and brooding the character was depicted in the comics. “Batman” would also spawn three sequels throughout the 90s.

Marvel meanwhile were forced to sell off the film rights to their biggest characters to make up for weak book sales, a decision we can still see the repercussions of today. New Line Cinema created a trilogy of gritty movies based off the vampire slayer “Blade” from 1998 to 2004; Columbia Pictures published Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” trilogy from 2002 to 2007, as well as the 2011 reboot “The Amazing Spider-Man” and it’s 2014 sequel; 20th Century Fox have had a string of X-Men and Fantastic Four movies since 2000. The financial earnings of these franchises have only gained momentum since; “X-Men: Days of Future Past” (2014) grossed about $750 million. Don’t feel bad for Marvel though. The self-published Marvel Studios films have established a cinematic universe (beginning with 2008’s “Iron Man”) that has included twelve movies up to “Ant-Man” (2015), with a combined income of about $3.6 billion (or about $300 million per movie).

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Enough number crunching. Since Disney’s purchasing of Marvel in 2009, their films have only gotten wilder and the audience has only gotten wider. We’ve reached a point where ‘Rocket Raccoon’ or a man who can talk to ants are recognizable enough to carry a smash-hit movie—where does it end? Many of the Marvel Cinematic characters are reaching their third standalone movies (Iron Man will soon be followed by Captain America and Thor) leading up to the third “Avengers” movie (to be released in two parts!). “Ant-Man” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” have met success despite their obscurity, and 2016’s “Doctor Strange” will no doubt do the same, but to what degree. Marvel seems to be grasping at straws at this point, but how long until a) they simply reboot their Cinematic Universe or b) regain the rights to characters like Spider-Man and the X-Men? More importantly how long until these characters are run into the ground?

Since 2013, legendary director Steven Spielberg has faced Internet fanboy rage over his prediction that the superhero subgenre would ‘go the way of the Western’, basically imploding from big studio’s overreliance on megabudget flicks about caped crusaders. Apparently DC Comics didn’t get the memo: Zack Snyder’s Superman film “Man of Steel” (2013) has set the course for DC’s own ‘Extended Universe’. After the upcoming release of “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” (2016), nine—no doubt costly—movies based on DC characters are scheduled for release up to 2020. The promise of standalone movies based on the likes of Aquaman, Shazam, and Cyborg suggest DC is very confident in their product, but how long will the audience be so accepting?

Superhero movies have been around for the better part of a century, but there has been more density and popularity with them in the past decade than the rest of that century combined. With both Warner Bros. and Disney feeding the money train that is superhero franchises, and millions of fans devoting themselves to collective cinematic universes, perhaps we’ve become deadlocked. Now we just have to sit through decades of reboots and crossovers until the eventual Avengers vs. Justice League two-film crossover event that will bring the utter collapse of the United States of America.

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Sources

Box Office Mojo, “Marvel Cinematic Universe”: http://www.boxofficemojo.com/franchises/chart/?id=avengers.htm

Graeme McMillan, “Steven Spielberg Says Superhero Movies Will Go “the Way of the Western”, The Hollywood Reporter: http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/heat-vision/steven-spielberg-predicts-superhero-movies-819768