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The Wickedness That Man Do: The Logic, Structure and Morality of “John Wick”

The John Wick films remain a minor miracle.

John Wick was the product of an era where big budget action films were increasingly moving away from in-camera effects and practical stunt work towards computer-generated spectacle. The original film was designed to consciously showcase the craft involved in stunt work, a profession that is still undervalued in filmmaking circles. (Notably, there is no Academy Award for “Best Stunts.”) The original film was designed from the ground up in order to give a group of stunt artists the opportunity to showcase their craft for theatrical audiences, at a point in time where a lot of the best stunt choreography was going direct-to-video.

It certainly works on those terms. The films in the series are among the most impressive action films of the twenty-first century, showcasing the commitment of the stuntmen working on them. The climax of John Wick: Chapter II and the opening thirty minutes of John Wick: Chapter III – Parabellum rank among the most visceral action ever captured on film. The films even acknowledge their influences and inspirations; the opening scenes of Chapter II feature Sherlock Jr. projected onto the front of a building, while Chapter III broadcasts The General on a Time’s Square billboard. This is not arrogance, but aspiration.

However, there is something interesting happening beneath all of this. The story running through John Wick, Chapter II and Chapter III is largely incidental; the tale of a man who lost his puppy and who embarked upon a murderous rampage that sucked him back into a life that he long ago abandoned. The world-building is impressive, but abstract; the characters navigate a byzantine social structure of rules and codes that govern an underworld of assassins, arms dealers and black market surgeons. The whole set-up is incredibly heightened, and incredibly fun. It is absurd, but enjoyably so.

At the same time, these aspects of the John Wick have a strange and powerful resonance. The entire John Wick series is built around the idea of codes of honour and rigid social hierarchies, in a way that feels more than just incidental. This world of gold coins and killer hotels, of a New York City seemingly populated entirely by murderous assassins, is one of the most striking aspects of the series. It also feels the most pointed and timely. The John Wick films are designed as visceral thrill machines, but there are aspects of the films that resonate beyond that.

In their own weird way, the John Wick films seem like the perfect answer to the modern troubled cultural moment.

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“We’re Not Soldiers”: The Cautious Superhero Optimism of “The Avengers”…

Before it was a Bomb, the Bomb was an Idea. Superman, however, was a Faster, Stronger, Better Idea. It’s not that I needed Superman to be “real,” I just needed him to be more real than the Idea of the Bomb that ravaged my dreams. I needn’t have worried; Superman is so indefatigable a product of the human imagination, such a perfectly designed emblem of our highest, kindest, wisest, toughest selves, that my Idea of the Bomb had no defense against him.

– Grant Morrison, Supergods

There was an idea, Stark knows this, called the Avengers Initiative. The idea was to bring together a group of remarkable people, see if they could become something more. See if they could work together when we needed them to to fight the battles we never could.

– Nick Fury, The Avengers

In hindsight, The Avengers looks like a sure bet; a bunch of recognisable characters from successful properties bound together to create a blockbuster.

It is a testament to how profoundly The Avengers has reshaped the media landscape in its image that this appears almost a given. In a world that has seen the release of Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, the original film in the franchise seems almost quaint. Only six heroes? Only one primary villain, and one who was previously defeated by Thor in Thor? Sure, Thor is “the strongest Avenger”, but that seems almost quaint in this era of universe-spanning crossovers that fold on the expansive casts of films like Ant Man or Black Panther or Guardians of the Galaxy. Perhaps it is an ode to the power of  the idea that The Avengers feels so small in hindsight.

At the same time, there’s a maturity and reflection in the original Avengers that is largely lacking from Infinity War and Endgame. One of the most frustrating aspects of Infinity War and Endgame is the way in which the films devolve into unquestioning power fantasies; stories about great men who wield the power of gods for their own benefit with little regard for the obligations or responsibilities that come with that power. The characters of Infinity War and Endgame never question the use of their power for their own benefit, never contemplate their right to hold the fate of four different universes in their hands. Banner never questions the appeal of living as the Hulk forever, just as Thor insists on abandoning his people to have wack adventures with the Guardians of the Galaxy cast.

In hindsight, what is most striking about The Avengers is how fascinated it is with the question of what superheroes are, and what function they serve. Perhaps in keeping with the general enthusiasm of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or perhaps reflecting his own affection for the genre, Joss Whedon keeps coming back to the suggestion that superheros represent an idea and an ideal. They represent an idealised manifestation of American power and identity, quite literally contrasted at the end of the film with the horror and majesty of the atomic bomb.

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“… Because That’s What Heroes Do”: The Curious Definition of Heroism and the Politics of Power in “Infinity War” and “Endgame”…

Note: Obviously don’t read this if you haven’t seen both Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame.

Superhero films are the most ubiquitous form of twenty-first century blockbuster.

The summer season is increasingly crowded by blockbuster superhero releases. This year is actually a fairly tempered year for Marvel Studios. Only Captain Marvel and Avengers: Endgame are on the docket from the company, with Sony handling the release of Spider-Man: Far From Home later in the summer. However, the space between the two Marvel Studios releases included films like Shazam! and Hellboy. Later in the year, X-Men: Dark Phoenix will effectively close off Twentieth-Century Fox’s superhero blockbuster slate before it is folded into the Disney machine. Indeed, even the non-brand superheroes look to have had a fairly decent year; other releases this year include Glass and Brightburn, both movies with original characters playing with genre tropes.

There are lots of discussions about why the genre has become such a dominant feature of the pop cultural landscape. Perhaps it is simply down to technology, with advances in computer-generated animation allowing for more convincing depictions of the scale and drama expected in these sorts of stories. Guardians of the Galaxy would have been very difficult to make even a decade earlier, when it would have been next-to-impossible to animate Rocket Racoon on a workable budget. However, it may also be cultural. The rise of the modern superhero blockbuster film roughly coincided with the War on Terror, a connection rendered explicit in films like Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and Iron Man. Old-fashioned heroism was undoubtedly appealing at a time of political crisis.

This is interesting in the context of Endgame. In many ways, Endgame looks to be an event of biblical proportions. There is a reasonable chance that Endgame could become the most successful movie of all-time. There is a good chance that Endgame could have a one billion dollar opening weekend. Within hours of opening, the film film had already placed (highly) on the Internet Movie Database‘s list of the top 250 movies of all-time. Endgame is a bona fides pop cultural phenomenon. It is a film that shakes the world underneath its feet. It is the culmination of a twenty-odd film journey, but it is also something of a conclusive statement on (at the very least) the modern iteration of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the most high-profile example of the superhero in modern cinema.

What is that statement? What is the film actually saying? To be fair, this was an issue with Avengers: Infinity War. It was very difficult to distill a singular thematic point or moral thesis from Infinity War, largely because the film was structured in such a way as to deny its central characters any agency or autonomy within the narrative. Infinity War was a breathtakingly cynical piece of corporate logistics, occasionally veering into downright nihilism. After all, the climax of the film unfolds in the way that it does simply because Stephen Strange sees that it is supposed happen that way. No choice that the characters make has any impact on what happens, because there is only ever one way that it could happen.

Endgame is interesting in how it builds on this. In particular, how Endgame chooses to define its central characters. If Endgame is to be the defining superhero story of the modern era, its definition of “heroism” is very esoteric.

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An August Tribute: “The Avengers” and Deconstructing Bond…

This Saturday, I’ll be discussing The Avengers on The 250, the weekly podcast that I co-host discussing the IMDb’s Top 250 Movies of All-Time. However, I had some thoughts on the film that I wanted to jot down first.

This is not a defense of The Avengers.

There is no defending The Avengers. The film is legendary and spectacular failure. There is no belated reclamation project under way, no attempt to salvage its reputation twenty-odd years after it landed in a smoking crater. The film’s production history is storied, and disastrous. The film was subject to internal power struggles within Warner Brothers, falling between a changing of the guard and sabotaged at a test screening with a hostile audience. Twenty-five minutes of the film were unceremoniously cut out, and the score was radically rewritten. The result is monstrous.

More than that, there is little to indicate that The Avengers could ever have been a good film, even its pristine and uncut state. The flaws with the movie run deeper than those definable absences. The two leads share no chemistry, despite the fact that the film hinges on their dynamic. The plot is complete nonsense, haunted by the shadow of countless rewrites rather than simply lost in the edit. The film’s surrealism is halfhearted rather than committed, flirting with deranged brilliance but always landing somewhere on the uncomfortable side of mere camp. The Avengers is bad.

And, yet, in spite of all that, something interesting beats at the heart of The Avengers. Part of this is a result of the movie’s intrinsic late-nineties-ness, the way that it captures the mood of that moment. It is very much a post-Cold War story, its stakes framed in environmental terms that reflect the anxieties of the cultural moment. (Remember when mankind healed the hole in the ozone layer?) Similarly, the movie’s flirtation with the surreal and the notion of collapsing reality echoes (better) films like The Truman Show or The Matrix or Dark City or eXistenz or Fight Club.

However, the most interesting aspect of the film remains its central performance from Sean Connery. At the time, Connery had just successfully reinvented himself as a box office draw in the late nineties, building off the success of his collaboration with Michael Bay and Nicolas Cage in The Rock. The late nineties were were busy time for Connery, with projects including Entrapment, Playing by Heart and Finding Forrester. The actor was undergoing what might be characterised today as a “Conneraissance.”

In the middle of that “Conneraissance”, there is something rather strange about The Avengers, in large part because it’s a performance that exists in dialogue with his most iconic role. Of course, there’s no getting around Connery’s time as James Bond. The Rock rather heavily implies that Connery’s character was a version of James Bond arrested around the time of Diamonds are Forever. However, The Avengers goes one step further. The Avengers doesn’t just cast Sean Connery as a Bond villain. The Avengers casts Sean Connery as James Bond as a Bond villain.

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Not So Super, Hero: What Modern Superhero Blockbusters Could Learn From “Akira”…

This Saturday, as part of the annual “Anime April”, I’ll be discussing Akira on The 250, the weekly podcast that I co-host discussing the IMDb’s Top 250 Movies of All-Time. However, I had some thoughts on the film that I wanted to jot down first. You can listen to last week’s episode on Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind here. You can listen to our episode on Akira here.

Akira is a startlingly influential film.

Even if a person hasn’t seen Katsuhiro Otomo’s animated masterpiece, they have undoubtedly felt its influence rippling through popular culture in various media. In music, Kanye West cites it as his “biggest creative inspiration”, to the point that his video for Stronger is almost a shot-for-shot remake. Rian Johnson has cited Akira as a major influence on his own Looper. Josh Trank and Max Landis’ Chronicle has a number of obvious similarities to Akira. Even outside of these direct references, individual elements of the film continue to have an outsized influence on American popular culture. The iconic red bike pops up in Ready Player One. Even individual shots have been mimicked and imitated, such as the fantastic “Akira bike slide” from early in the film.

Inevitably, there has been much talk of a potential Americanised remake of Akira. After all, there have been other big-budget live action adaptations of cult Japanese projects like Ghost in the Shell or Alita: Battle Angel, and so it is surprising it has taken so long. There were rumours of an adaptation by Albert Hughes that might star Morgan Freeman. (James Franco might have headlined.) More recently, Jordan Peele declined the invitation to direct the adaptation, despite his affection for the source material. The most recent rumours suggested that Leonardo DiCaprio might be producing a version directed by Taika Waititi, which would shift the action from Neo-Tokyo to Neo-Manhattan. There were other significant changes made to the source story.

There are a variety of reasons why Akira has been so difficult to adapt. Most optimistically, it may simply be a case that so much of what made the original film iconic has already been filtered through to audiences in the movies indebted to it, like Looper or Chronicle; this is the challenge adapting John Carter of Mars following the success of films like Star Wars or Flash Gordon. More pragmatically, Akira is a story rooted in a very specific cultural context. It is not an American story, it is a story anchored very specifically in eighties Japan. Of course, this is not necessarily a problem; samurai films like Shichinin no Samurai or Yojimbo could be reworked for American audiences as cowboy films, their cultural context shifted in the journey across the Pacific. Still, it is a challenge.

However, this challenge of cultural translation suggests one of the fundamental issues with adapting Akira for American audiences. It is hard to define Akira in terms of a single genre; it is a coming of age science-fiction deconstruction of masculinity infused with a psychedelic sensibility. However, in terms of visual style and narrative flow, the movie’s closest relatives in contemporary American cinema are superhero films. Superheroes are, after all, the dominant American cinematic mode of the twenty-first-century to date. Indeed, a modern audience approaching Akira might be tempted to read it in the context of that genre. If Chronicle is to be considered “the American Akira”, it is notable that it uses the language of the superhero genre to translate the story.

However, there is something fundamentally different about the way in which Akira approaches the idea of the superhero figure as compared to mainstream superhero films, and this difference might demonstrate why an adaptation of Akira for American cinema might pose such a challenge.

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“The Undiscovered Country… the Future!”: Star Trek VI and the Unexpected End of History…

Early in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, the Klingon Chancellor Gorkon offers what appears to be a fairly dramatic misreading of Hamlet.

Opening a dinner between the representatives of the Klingon High Council and the senior staff of the Enterprise, Gorkon raises his glass of Romulan Ale in salute. “I offer a toast,” he states. “The undiscovered country, the future.” By most accounts, this isn’t what Shakespeare meant when he allowed the Danish Prince to monologue about “the undiscovered country.” The dialogue is quite explicit that Shakespeare was talking about death rather than the future. Hamlet is reflecting upon the possibility of “something after death, the undiscover’d country from whose bourn no traveller returns.” To be fair to Gorkon, this may be a simple translation error; after all, the Klingon Chancellor boasts that “you have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon.”

However, increasingly, The Undiscovered Country suggests that Gorkon’s toast is not a simple misreading of the Bard. In the most obvious of senses, Gorkon himself gets to travel to “the undiscovered country” almost immediately after the dinner, murdered by two assassins in Starfleet uniforms as part of a plot to destabilise the possibility of peaceful relations between the Klingon Empire and the Federation. Indeed, even within the larger context of the Star Trek franchise, there is a sense that the future of the Klingon Empire is inexorably associated with death. Gorkon’s peace with the Federation sets in motion the gradual decay and decline of the Klingon Empire that runs through stories like Heart of Glory, Sins of the Father, The Way of the Warrior, Tacking Into the Wind.

However, watching The Undiscovered Country more than a quarter of a century removed from its original context, that seeming misstatement seems increasingly deliberate and calculated. The Undiscovered Country is perhaps the most under-appreciated of the Star Trek films, in large part due to how it consciously and deliberately twins the notions of “death” and “the future”, insisting that perhaps the past must die so that the future might live. In the world of The Undiscovered Country, death is still frightening and mysterious and uncharted. However, it is also a necessary part of growth and evolution. In the years since the release of The Undiscovered Country, it seems like more franchises could take that idea to heart.

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That’s “Entertainer”-ment: “The Sting” in the Tale, and the Art of Movie-Making…

Last Sunday, I discussed The Sting on The 250, the weekly podcast that I co-host discussing the IMDb’s Top 250 Movies of All-Time. However, I had some thoughts on the film that I wanted to jot down first. You can listen to the podcast here.

The Sting is a remarkable movie in a number of ways.

The film is somewhat overlooked in the annals of Best Picture winners, its victory in the category nestled between The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II. More than that, the film feels positively old-fashioned when compared to many of the Best Picture winners of the decade; The French Connection, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Annie Hall, The Deer Hunter, Kramer vs. Kramer and even Rocky. Many of those Best Picture winners offered a sketch of America as it existed in the seventies, a more grounded and realistic approach to cinema reflecting a broader range of experiences and perspectives than had otherwise bubbled through mainstream popular film.

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