Thursday, September 26, 2013

Freaks of the Week and Whedonspeak: Agents of SHIELD S01E01 Review

From the very first rumblings that Joss Whedon may be planning a return to television to coincide with last year's Avenging triumph at the box office, I was cautiously optimistic. I'm a casual fan of Whedon's previous efforts, but I think I'm a handful of years too young to properly go back and delve deeply into the annals of Slayers and Hellmouths (although I'm certain to eventually). What excited me about 'SHIELD' was that it promised to use entirely original characters unfettered by decades of Sacred Cow mythology, girlfriends that had to die, villains who had to kill them, etc. Whedon was going to create a party of characters all his own, none of whom had ties to the vast, complicated canons of the comics. This was a wholly new addition to the Marvel Universe that wouldn't have an army of naysayers dismissing it before it could ever take off.

And from its inception, it's clear that 'Marvel's Agents of SHIELD' is going to be all the better for that creative freedom. Let me make one thing perfectly clear: Breaking Bad it is not; the show is still constrained by the usual problems of US Network television: it's clear there's going to be 20-something episodes (when really shows as big as this are often better when they only have 10-15 tops), every episode is going to be populated by annoyingly good-looking people rather than meaty actors, and we're likely going to see a lot of procedural 'freak-of-the-week' episodes to fill in the long production schedule of the show's season.

Without giving him too much credit, Joss Whedon seems to be trying to tackle these problems head on. While watching episode one, I had the distinct impression that perhaps Whedon had familiarised himself with previous superhero (or vaguely superheroic) TV shows and had analysed where they went wrong. Like "Smallville" or "Knight Rider" or "Arrow" or even that Internet punching-bag of a show "The Cape" (yes, it's a real show, not just a fantasy dreamed up by Dan Harmon), "SHIELD"'s premiere episode features a likable enough fellow stumbling onto abilities that weren't meant for him and ultimately lead to his psychological undoing. After a lot of battering of keyboards, ridiculous technobabble about hacking into mainframes and deleting every trace of someone's identity, the gang of heroes vanquish the villain and save the day. This was practically the plot of every episode of "Smallville"'s first season.

The involvement of Joss Whedon and Marvel Entertainment however has ensured a style, a gloss and sheen that's been absent from any superhero show I've seen since "Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman" ended in 1997. "SHIELD" is really trying to be upbeat, action-packed and heroic despite the obvious trappings of a TV show.

Character-wise, none of the newbies have impressed me greatly in this opener. Maria Hill, the makey-uppy character that followed Nick Fury around in 'The Avengers', telling him about the plot, is back for a guest appearance, for the simple reason that trying to lure Sam Jackson over to the small screen for a few TV guest appearances is a wildly unrealistic financial absurdity. Cobie Smulders fills the 'Nikita Fury' role well enough and it provides the viewers with a bit of crossover-consistency. Some have complained that this episode went too far hammering viewers over the head with the fact that this is the same world as the one we saw in "The Avengers" and their accompanying films - I thought it was nice. People should remember that not everyone scours websites all day for news and updates regarding what new TV shows are about, and that some viewers need a bit of a reminder as to what they're watching. I didn't feel as though any of it was out of place or forced.

There's a bunch of pretty-young-things rounding out the rest of the cast and I can't really comment on their abilities until I've seen more of them. There's an obvious James Bond analogue, some annoying British (one of them's Scottish, one of them's English, if I'm not mistaken) eggheads and they're rounded out by a genius computer hacker who is basically the exact same character as Chloe Sullivan from "Smallville" or the character Summer Glau played in "The Cape". They're all fine and serviceable, but understandably unoriginal.

The real character-caveat for the show is Clark Gregg's much-publicised return as Agent Coulson. Coulson was always a great inclusion to the Marvel movies insofar as he was an entirely original invention who wasn't hampered by pre-existing fan notions of what he can do or what his history should be. Truthfully, he represents the foundation over which the series will be based and I was pleased that more and more focus was placed on him over the course of the episode. Unlike the films where his character was always harmless and nondescript, in this series it seems like he'll really have an opportunity to shine as the moral heart of the show. I eagerly await the directions the show takes him in and whether it will impact the future of the Marvel films.

While 'Agents of SHIELD' has in no way reinvented the wheel, it's provided a most-satisfying romp into the inner annals of the Marvel Cineverse and I look forward to enjoying the fun-filled action-packed adventures from week to week. Marvel have once again proved that they can be superior in their simplicity.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Batfleck: Hunt the Dark Knight

 So the dust has settled and somehow the world has continued to turn despite the supposedly cataclysmic news that Ben Affleck has been appointed as the next Dark Knight in a film where the eponymous character will do battle with Superman. As the internet is wont to do when a well-known, talented, good-looking actor (particularly one that may have appeared in suspect romantic comedies at some point in their career) is cast as a superhero, they riot.

My stance on the matter is that despite the venom that surrounds some of his work (Gigli), I genuinely like Ben Affleck both as an actor and as someone who is clearly a comic-book fan themselves. I’ve been admittedly blessed in that I’ve thus far avoided the horrors of his back catalogue (Armageddon, Paycheck, Gigli - was he any good in that one Jack Ryan film he was in?) but as a fan of Kevin Smith’s ‘View Askewniverse’ (read: Jay and Silent Bob) films, I feel like I’ve been following him from the humble beginnings of his career up until now. While he’s certainly not my first choice (my first choice would be no choice - I don’t want more Batman films just yet, but more on that later), it truly feels like the man who has taken the torch from Christian Bale is not only a movie star, but a fan just like us. Not to mention an enormously successful Academy Award-winner in his own right.

At this point in time, I should probably mention the film that seems to be on everyone’s lips when discussing this recent casting kerfuffle - ‘Daredevil’, the 2003 film that seemed to only exist in order to cash-in on the recent might of Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man film.

Can I be honest? I liked Daredevil. Admittedly I was 14 when the film was released, but after the colourful psychedelia of Joel Schumacher’s view of Gotham City, it was actually refreshing to be back in the world of an urban vigilante dealing not only with society’s woes but his own demons. Affleck was a large part of why that film worked for me. Certainly watching the film now reveals that an awful lot of it is a cheddar-ridden disaster (the playground battle scene has justifiably fallen victim to the ‘Hank and Marie Watch’ meme), but I would lay the blame squarely at the film’s ridiculous action (why can Daredevil leap entire city blocks?!) and its nauseatingly adolescent screenplay (“I didn’t kill your father, Elektra!” “Liar!”). None of the actors are too blame. It’s still worth a watch for fans of the genre, especially the Director’s Cut which is largely a completely different film.

Outside of Affleck’s writing and directing credentials however, another large part of why I’m excited to see Ben-the-Bat is to see how he might try and recall his highly publicised fall from grace - possibly (??) exhibited in the above J-Lo video - in his performance. Robert Downey Jr. has explained on occasion that some of the electrified eccentricity he brings to Tony Stark is rooted in his wild days of abuse (there’s even an in-joke in the first Iron Man involving a cheeseburger). Well in 2003, the tabloids were painting Ben Affleck in much the same way as they do Bruce Wayne in the Batman films - a partymad layabout. We’ve since learned that there’s quite a bit more to Affleck than meets the eye, primarily in the films he’s written and directed. My hope is that perhaps he’ll inject some of that initial perception into his scenes as ‘public’ Bruce Wayne to give us something truly interesting and unlike what we saw from Christian Bale in that regard (who remained suave and debonair in scenes where he was playing the insufferable bastard).

As for the cape-and-cowl portion of Affleck’s new occupation, one need look no further than his oft-mentioned directorial efforts. In both ‘The Town’ and ‘Argo’ (and in Daredevil for that matter) he plays a character who has become exhausted, haunted and even a bit broken by that which he excels at. So many of Batman’s stories show us the toll that years of crimefighting have taken on Bruce Wayne’s body and soul - his very ability to be happy has been taken away from him.

And yet, I’d be lying if I said I was wholeheartedly excited about the film Affleck is appearing in.

After ‘Man of Steel’ didn’t quite wow critics or audiences as the studio hoped it might have, Warner Bros, in their infinite wisdom decided to shoe-horn the Caped Crusader into Clark Kent’s neck of the woods for a film that appears to be titled ‘Batman vs Superman’ to be released in 2015. They even used a quote that confusingly recalled a scene in the seminal Frank Miller graphic novel “The Dark Knight Returns”.

Where to start with the problems: First of all, ‘Man of Steel’ despite the bursting shell of hope and expectation I had for the film - was absolutely a disappointment. Zack Snyder and David Goyer recklessly squandered their stellar cast and the limitless potential of a story about Superman in the cynical age of information, for the sake of a ho-hum sci-fi ‘grimdark’ grudge match that in no way believed in Superman. Despite repeated claims to the contrary, it was a film that was too dark, too juvenile and too dull to truly capture the magic and the might of the Man of Steel, constantly apologising for the character's greatest inner strengths. For me it was neither a crushing failure nor was it a bombastic, runaway success (various corners of the Internet have set their tents in either camp) - it was agonisingly adequate; a disturbing indication that perhaps the golden age of superhero movies is coming to an end and that we may be entering an era where cynical studio formulas reign supreme.

With this in mind, the news that a ‘Worlds Finest’ film was on the way for release a mere two years later, how could I possibly be excited? In what way was the insertion of Batman going to suddenly legitimise this new Superman’s agency and environment? Was Bruce Wayne going to make Perry White and the rest of the Daily Planet crew more interesting?

I doubt it.

In addition to this, the film will be coming a mere three years after the end of The Dark Knight Trilogy. While the end of ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ polarised some, it was undoubtedly an epic conclusion to one of the most definitive interpretations of Batman there has ever been. The fact that Warner Bros are churning out yet another vision of Batman so soon, rather than allowing the franchise to rest for a few years is further indication that the superhero genre has reached its creative nadir and its industrial peak - every character will ultimately be dusted off and restocked within a few years, no matter how conclusive their last adventure was.

Finally we come to the perplexing use of ‘The Dark Knight Returns’ as a means of marketing the upcoming film. We’ve been told that Ben Affleck's Batman will be 'weary' and 'seasoned' (as he should be) and that the script will draw upon elements of ‘The Dark Knight Returns’, which sees an ageing Batman return to crimefighting after fifteen years retirement. Sound familiar? That’s because it is: ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ also drew heavily on the story’s material, featuring an out-of-action Batman returning to Gotham with many specific references to the story’s scenes, as well as its overall themes and concepts.

The only thing ‘Rises’ left out was the epic battle with Superman - which Hack Snyder is unsurprisingly interested in.

Since the original graphic novel’s release, writers and artists have often experimented with how Batman might physically engage with Superman (should one of the two heroes turn evil, steal the other’s girlfriend, eat the slice of toast etc). The idea that Batman, ostensibly a normal human being - albeit an incredibly resourceful, physically fit example - should be able to do battle with a Sun-God from outer space has intrigued the comic book world for decades after ‘Returns’ to the point that every big comic-book event seems to have to feature the same tired battle between the characters (almost every time Jim Lee has drawn the two character together, they’ve fought each other).

Almost every time this happens, Batman uses some kind of gadget that either enhances his strength or neutralises Superman’s (a kryptonite ring, an Iron Man-esque suit of armour, etc) and the battle always ends in Batman’s favour. While this is certainly acceptable in the comics, doing this in a film series not only recklessly stretches audience credibility, it also once again doesn’t do Superman’s image any favours. It’s a really questionable tactic for a series of films that is trying to make Superman truly popular again in the eyes of filmgoers. It’s truly saddening that Superman’s chances at a high-quality contemporary film series to rival that of Batman, Spider-Man or Iron Man may have been dashed once again by poor decisions.

While it’s not fair to jump to conclusions (I haven’t seen the film and they haven’t made it yet) it’s just hard to be excited. I firmly believe Superman and Batman to be the best and most individually interesting superheroes in existence and their respective worlds and agencies work perfectly fine without the inclusion of the other. Admittedly great stories have been told that feature the two bouncing off each other (intellectually as well as physically) but the time is not ripe for such a story to be realised cinematically. Batman needs to rest and Superman needs to grow.

Bizarrely, it’s Ben Affleck that I’m most looking forward to moving forward in the supposed DC Comics Cinematic Universe. His involvement in this project is the only thing that in any way assures me that there’s some level of care, commitment and cinematic ambition going into these films. If there’s any chance that he may contribute to the writing or directing of any of these films (particularly future Batman films or a Justice League film), then I could actually become truly excited again. In an era of uncertainty regarding these characters, I think it’ll be him who surprises people and delivers a performance worthy of the Dark Knight.