Marvel’s “grey villains”: Why Thanos, Killmonger and Loki work

Marvel have a villain problem. It’s not just long debated: it’s a fact. For far too long in the 18-strong franchise, villains more complex than your obligatory Big Bad were much needed and hard to come by.

Yes there was Loki, he of Asgard and adopted, emo brother of Thor, burdened by familial woes and self-righteous, glorious purpose. For a very long time, he was the sole purveyor of what could be deemed a more “complex” villain. Be it conquest, forgiveness, betrayal or redemption, the character only earned the marker of “Marvel’s Best Villain” due to the longevity of character development and potential for change, much of which only being allowed thanks to fan-servial resurrection.

Due to this, Loki has graced more films than any other Marvel villain to date, namely three Thor films, the first Avengers outing and most recently, Avengers: Infinity War. By the end of 2017’s game-changing Thor Ragnarok it is debatable as to whether Loki is even a villain at all, which is precisely what makes the character work so well; even when he has committed heinous, murderous acts for his own personal gain, his charming nature makes him engaging, as does his being flawed and relatable in his patheticness.

Whilst not necessarily the same, there are definite comparative dualities that make successive villains Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan, Black Panther) and Thanos (Josh BrolinAvengers: Infinity War) equally as compelling. As the first MCU film to centre on a black lead with a predominantly black cast and crew, Black Panther excelled in its representation of black culture and its portrayal of hereditary historical and societal black issues, touching upon colonialism, alienation and preservation of culture and pilgrimage to a homeland, a compulsion of many a person of colour.

Set in Wakanda – a fictional and technologically advanced African nation that shields its wealth from the world to protect its resources from the potential for colonialism and war – Black Panther celebrates African language, culture and history and offers a glimpse (albeit, a science fictional one) into what African nations may have grown to become had they not been pillaged in centuries previous. Eric Killmonger, the film’s antagonist to its king T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), is an American-born Wakandan with a grudge against his ancestral homeland and a claim to its throne. His belief that returning to Wakanda will offer him a sense of belonging intertwined with his fury results in a quest for dictatorship, acceptance and a longing to fill The Void of ancestry following slavery that so many African Americans continue to feel. Such deeper, more personal motivations provided a more complex insight into the motives of Killmonger than any Marvel villain seen previously, even Loki who – let’s face it – has always been a sly weasel of a character.

As audiences should expect, given ten years of the MCU and six years of build-up, Thanos needed to be the biggest of Big Bads. He did not disappoint, and solidified his status in the opening scene of Avengers: Infinity War – before the credits had even rolled – by slaughtering a whole host of Asgardian refugees and not one, but two major characters.

Thanos – as everyone knows by now – is hellbent on collecting the Infinity Stones, six elemental stones with unknown ability that make the bearer the most powerful being in the universe. But perhaps unprecedentedly, the “Mad Titan” has seemingly altruistic motives. Tired of seeing civilisations burden their planets by relentlessly depleting its resources, he plans to kill half of the universe’s inhabitants so as to allow these worlds to recoup. It is such a rationally reasoned quest for genocide that when Thanos explains it midway through the film, it almost sounds appealing because – as with all good villains – they are the heroes of their own story by their own perspective.

The sincerity with which he believes in his cause is undermined by his hubris. Unlike Loki and Killmonger, who ultimately start their respective crusades for selfish reasons, Thanos believes himself to be a saviour of life and not a bringer of death, and seeing such black and white perspectives juxtaposed onscreen results in a swathe of grey. Such grey narratives make for more interesting conflicts whereby viewers are able to see compelling – and wrong – points of view in places that they did not anticipate.

In equipping Thanos with the “Hero’s Journey” – a traditional storytelling technique that endears the main protagonist to the audience and allows them room to grow into their optimum self – directors Joe and Anthony Russo deploy the character with an unprecedented depth. Thanos is the Big Bad of Infinity War, but the aforementioned endearment and consequent sympathy to the root of his cause – to preserve life and the wider universe – confuses the narrative structure of film that audiences (especially Marvel ones) are so accustomed. You are propositioned with the temptation of power, and what you’d do with it. You are privy to Thanos’ rationalisation of his quest and actions to achieve it. You are invited to like him.

By the end of Infinity War, it is clear who should (and will) win such tussles in the as-of-yet-unnamed Avengers 4, but the parity of good vs evil is more skewed than ever before in the MCU. Then again, isn’t it fun to question your own psyche along the way.

The weight of silence in A Quiet Place

It’s oh. so. quiet.

Shh! Shh! But wait – even a “shh” is a noise. Best to practise stifled breathing, in the world of A Quiet Placefor John Krasinski‘s directoral debut has an originally novel take on suspense.

Set in a world of a never-quite-explained invasion, the Abbott family are some of incredibly few survivors. The majority of the human race have been wiped out by ravenous alien creatures, blind, swift and blessed with hypersensitive hearing that alerts them to potential prey lurking miles away. The sleepy hometown of the Abbotts is desolate and deserted, its inhabitants long devoured and its contents clumsily pillaged by the sightless creatures. The family have only survived this long by communicating silently via sign language. Their eldest daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds) is deaf.

Such fluency is pivotal when even the soft chop of salad or the tap of Monopoly tokens are undertaken with utmost precision, whereas louder activities are presumably avoided altogether. Even footsteps on the earth are muffled by the avoidance of shoes, the sound dampened by sand. All sound is treated with suspicion, and rightly so.

There is an imminent and palpable fear at the prospect of everyday existing, whilst the prolonged silence of the film is the dizzying antithesis of a modern cinema experience. This ominous immersion transplants cinema-goers directly into the world of A Quiet Place, sparking a tense friction and that heart-in-the-mouth feeling that death is lurking with baited breath just outside of one’s periphery.

It is perhaps this that grounds the film emotionally. The endless threat of child harm or death, the sickeningly plausible body horror of pregnant mother Evelyn (Emily Blunt) (and her saga with that damn nail) and a father’s (portrayed by Krasinski) quest to protect them from otherworldly danger are all plausible – if extrapolated – real-life worries. How can one be silent in mortal terror, anguish, childbirth or the unavoidably loud aftermath?

The bold use of amplified diegetic sound is undermined somewhat by Marco Beltrami’s score. In an interview with IGN, Krasinski stated that what he wanted to do was to “make sure that people had some familiarity with movies from before, so it didn’t feel like an experiment.”[1] With the way that A Quiet Place thrives on the tension derived from the paranoia of making any noise at all – a feeling that extended itself to cinemagoers too uncomfortable to dare munch on their popcorn – it would have been interesting to see a different edit where its creators had the courage to stick to only diegetic sound in its most emotive and stressful moments.

The crossing paths of humans and aliens is all but inevitable, but in their actions to avoid, overcome or outwit the mysterious creatures, we learn everything about the family and compare their choices with the ones we fantasise we may have made as people. In A Quiet Place, actions really do speak louder than words.

Jackie: A respect for history

“Do you know who James Garfield was?”

“No ma’am.”

“Do you know who William McKinley was?”

The driver of the ambulance car carrying the body of the recently assassinated President John F. Kennedy knows neither.

“How about Abraham Lincoln?”

“He won the Civil War and abolished slavery.”

Jackie Kennedy, still in shock, turns away and closes the hatch. She looks to Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard), sat beside her. “Tomorrow we must find all of the books accounting for Lincoln’s funeral.” As she alludes many times in Jackie, director Pablo Larraín’s titular ode to the most renowned First Lady, she has a great respect for history.

The assassination of President John F. Kennedy is one of the most notable and shocking events of the 20th century. Young, handsome and Catholic, Kennedy inspired strong fervour and contention due to his Cold War relations and subsequent quest for space. Along with his wife Jackie, the couple were regarded by the media as celebrities, being treated much in the manner of how popstars are in the present.

Born to a Wall Street broker and a socialite, Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) appears uniquely predisposed to such attention. Regarded as an icon of style during and after her time as First Lady, Kennedy welcomed the public into her’s and her husband’s lives, forging a connection between the Presidential couple and American citizens. That connection soon turned to a thirst thanks to the likes of television and transparency, the Kennedys breaking down the barrier between office and public with their infamous 1962 tour of a restored White House; Jackie’s passion project.

A keen writer and reporter in her time before marriage and then a student of American History in the early years after, her love of literature and – most importantly – tradition centred her time in the White House and later life. The restoration of the White House was undertaken to regain historical pieces that had been removed from the mansion upon the departure of each successive president. Kennedy went on to coin a Congressional bill and founded a collection of trusts and committees declaring historical items property of the Smithsonian Institute, and therefore not fit for private acquisition.

Segmented between the sombre recount of President Kennedy’s death and subsequent aftermath, the televised CBS News tour shows a different Jackie: younger, more amiable, a deer caught in the headlights of the world – one that she has courted. By jarring comparison, the woman that exists following the assassination is harshly resolute and single-minded, an air of emotional detachment shrouding her person. She fixates on giving her late husband the remembrance he deserves, an unshakable drive to cement his place in both American and world history, all whilst living in paranoia of her son and daughter being taken from her along with her husband and two children.

“When something is written down, does that make it true?” Kennedy asks of the journalist (supposedly Theodore H. White of Life magazine) as he tries to lift the veil on the woman who aired her grief for the world to see. Her being interviewed is another attempt to keep her husband alive in the thoughts of her still captive audience: if a person’s name continues to be spoken, do they ever really die? In cementing the memory of President Kennedy, she is also solidifying that of herself. “You understand I will be editing this conversation,” Kennedy says. “Just in case I don’t say exactly what I mean?” The journalist complies, begrudgingly.

As Bill Walton (Richard E. Grant) once said to Kennedy, “People need their history… They need to know real men actually lived [at the White House]. Not ghosts and storybook legends – people who faced adversity and overcame it.” But who gets to decide what is history and what is fiction? Is history not, after all, the fiction of the victor in war? In taking charge of media canon, Kennedy ensured the public perception of her husband and his presidency was largely one of her creation and not one of those intent on smearing his name.

“There won’t be another Camelot,” states Jackie of the Kennedy term in office, comparing that brief tenure to the fantasy Kingdom,  one that had been snatched from her before its time. To her, this period – though marred by personal tragedy – was one of novelistic quality, a skewed narrative of which she chose to indulge.

Fiction or history, to Jackie Kennedy, legacy is all that matters.

 

 

Why going straight to Netflix may have been best for Annihilation

It sucks, doesn’t it, that online streaming services are fast becoming the last bastion of off-beat film? It seems that there is no place for the left-field in multiplex cinemas, home of the cinematic universe, goggle-eyed kids flicks and the Zac Efron vom-com.

When Marvel debuted 2008’s Iron Man they cannot have known that in pushing the boundaries of scale and long-term vision they had in fact spawned the virus that was to be the death of cinema as we knew it. What was explored in decades previous as mere franchise was stretched to breaking point. Cue present day and the concept of franchise has been morphed into mere commodity. It’s fair to say that – outside of children or genre fans – no one really cares anymore, but most feel compelled to make the pilgrimage anyway.

Annihilation, the latest film by buzz-worthy Britsh director Alex Garland, is the perfect example of how present-day habits of cinemagoers have damaged the potential of truly original work. Only the second feature by Garland – who burst onto the scene with his acclaimed 2015 sci-fi Ex Machina – Annihilation is adapted from the Jeff VanderMeer novel of the same name and follows Lena (Natalie Portman), a biologist and former soldier who is enlisted to investigate the “Shimmer” following the suspicious reappearance of her husband (Oscar Isaac), who has been missing for a year.

With an all-star cast including Portman, Isaac, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriquez, Tuva Novotny, Benedict Wong and Jennifer Jason Leigh, it had major potential to be an alternative success – so much so that Paramount Pictures stumped up $55 million for it. But following poor test screenings and worries that the film was “too intelligent” and “too complicated”[1] Paramount financier David Ellison demanded changes – including an alternate ending and making Lena more sympathetic – to appease audiences. Producer Scott Rudin and Garland refused, and just like that its international release (China aside) was pushed onto Netflix, the movie apparently too risky following the underperformance of similar outings Mother! and Suburbicon.

Garland later said of the debacle:

“We made the film for cinema. I’ve got no problem with the small screen at all. The best genre piece I’ve seen in a long time was The Handmaid’s Tale, so I think there’s incredible potential within that context, but if you’re doing that – you make it for that and you think of it in those terms. Look… it is what it is. The film is getting a theatrical release in the States, which I’m really pleased about.

One of the big pluses of Netflix is that it goes out to a lot of people and you don’t have that strange opening weekend thing where you’re wondering if anyone is going to turn up and then if they don’t, it vanishes from cinema screens in two weeks. So it’s got pluses and minuses, but from my point of view and the collective of the people who made it – [it was made] to be seen on a big screen.”[2]

But why did Ellison, of Skydance Media, and Paramount ultimately decide that Annihilation wasn’t worth the risk? It had bankable actors, critically acclaimed source material and a director whose previous release received a plethora of nominations including Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars. Surely there was an eager audience? Judging on the $11 million it made on its U.S opening weekend – modest by any film’s standards – perhaps Ellison made the right call. But the press generated by the shift to Netflix has only garnered more attention to a film that may have otherwise slipped under the box office radar.

There are positives to the Netflix shift, ones that only benefit the viewer and not the studio. Viewing the film is essentially “free” if we’re not counting the general subscription price. There is no dishing out for overpriced popcorn. Then there is the convenience factor, but despite such flexibility Netflix recently stated that 70% of its users persist in viewing its content on TV as opposed to tablets or mobile phones. [3] No doubt this will be some music to Garland’s ears, given the grotesquely beautiful and colourful visuals best viewed on a large screen.

Currently certified 87% fresh (thanks Rotten Tomatoes) with an audience rating of 67%, Annihilation has clearly resonated with someone. It’s parallels with 2016’s Arrival in being multilayered, understated yet grandiose, continues a subtler wave of science fiction film most notably ushered in by Ex Machina itself. When there is action, it is justified. When there are jumps, death and confrontation, the plot pays off. Annihilation deals in intelligent conversation. Perhaps studios would benefit from respecting their audience a little bit more.

 

“It’s not green, it’s teal” – The use of colour in The Shape of Water

SPOILERS AHEAD

‘It’s not green, it’s teal” grumbles Michael Shannon‘s Colonel Richard Strickland, not too long re-educated himself on the deviant shade of his brand new Cadillac. As the salesman says, teal is the “colour of the future,” but in Guillermo del Toro’s fantasy romance The Shape of Water it traps its inhabitants in the confines of the past.

Set in a parallel relic of 1962 Cold War Baltimore, The Shape of Water centres around Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute janitor at a secret laboratory who falls in love with The Asset, a humanoid amphibian man dredged from the depths of the Amazon rainforest. Eyed for vivisection by the cruel Strickland, Elisa conspires an escape plan with the help of her friend Giles (Richard Jenkins) and her sympathetic co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer).

With a precarious future on the doorstep and the echoes of the Second World War lurking in the periphery, the sense of purgatory is all around. Paranoia is in the air, along with a palpable need to stay one step ahead of Soviet opposition. The eyes of the U.S government are fixed on a fantastical and seemingly unattainable prize amidst the space race: the ultimate proclamation of world power. Who needs Earth after all, when you have the moon in your back pocket?

It is not the moon within reach however. The amphibian man is a creature fit for pulp reader salivation, albeit a lot closer to home. Shades of green are omnipresent, from the sheen of The Asset’s scales to the shade of Elisa’s scrubs. In the darkly cynical and clinical setting of it’s laboratory dwelling, The Asset’s shimming scales and green palette make a pleasant change from the bleak, industry standard of grey. As pleasing as it may be to the eye, the blue-green hue and 50s architecture implies a suspension of societal imbalance between the wild implications of the space race and the comfort of a post-war past.

Teal – and also, green – in The Shape of Water  denotes the aspirations of mankind to conquer new, unknown territories, and when the world has been afflicted by war, what better distraction to look to the stars? Societal recovery following the Second World War propelled itself on an unprecedented scale, a revelry of innovation twisted into simulacrum. This hyperreality culminates in the alien nature of The Asset itself, and the woman whose perception of self  is so rooted in “otherness” that the only entity she feels a connection with is the non-judgemental nature of a newly discovered species. Elisa does not feel at home in her world, just as The Asset itself is – quite literally – a fish out of water, both forced to inhabit a space which does not suit their natures amidst humans who do not understand them and wish to inflict their own means of oppression.

The same could be said for Giles. A gay illustrator renounced of employment for not hiding his sexuality, Giles’ employer opts to string him along rather than admit their own bigotry. He rejects his illustration of a family mealtime, stating that the red jelly in the picture be replaced with green: the colour of the future, replacing classic imagery with a flavour altogether more faddish. As it transpires, Giles’ employer soon decides that his illustrations are not as good as a photograph. His subsequent inhalation of the greenest key-lime pie you ever did see – and aggressive rejection by his crush, the pie-shop assistant – only reinforce Gile’s otherness in the more conservative 60s.

Smattered amongst the teal is a red awakening of a blossoming love. Upon consummating her relationship with The Asset, Elisa’s dress introduces ruby shoes and a scarlet headband, showcasing her desire for the world to see. By the end of the film, even her dress is red, so consumed by love that she follows it until its end. Set upon a background of the “Red Mist” of communism, instances of red are regarded with deviance and suspicion despite being the most sincere. The red velvet of the cinema below Elisa’s apartment implies the purist creativity of film, one that was tainted with the anti-communist propaganda of the era, one that perpetuated the hyperreal “all-American” family, and dream.

In 1960s sci-fi, the alien entity was only ever hellbent on world control, quite often so by stealth. By comparison, The Asset merely wants to be left to its own devices in a peaceful coexistence far from the gaze of the human world. Elisa’s transformation and movement from the human world to the amphibian shows that humans have more to gain in trying to comprehend which they do not understand, rather than destroy it. Elisa’s acceptance and love of The Asset is the core of this film, reminding that amongst the machinations of futurism it is the most earnest and honest values that survive through time. A teal innovation may signal the quest for a new beginning, but through touches of red Del Toro evokes acceptance, purity and a heartfelt nod to the past.

 

LA LA LAND

Stylish, flawed and self-aware homage to the Golden Era ★★★★★

What can I say about La La Land that hasn’t already been said by now? After all, by the time it gets to Joe-Blogg’s-public it has already been skinned, sliced open, dissected, stuffed and sewn back together again less graciously than those poor creatures on Crap Taxidermy (please can we make “crapsidermy” a thing?)

I have little knowledge of musicals — they were devoid in my household. Perhaps it was their unabashedly melodramatic nature that made them so unbearable to my mother, who — despite not being a dragon — struggled with silliness and overt joy. Alas, I am my mother’s daughter, reserved and criminally afflicted with overthought and cynicism. I have never watched a Carry On… film (Americans, you’re probably better off) whilst Golden Age Hollywood pomp and ceremony has always felt false and overly articulated. Not once have I twirled in the rain and cried “Gotta dance!”

That aforementioned cynicism reared its head when I first saw La La Land on the cover of Sight and Sound; was this an old film regurgitated from a shallow grave (in some ways, yes — but we’ll get to that) or was it some grotesque, ill-informed adaptation akin to 2012’s Les Miserables? To discover it was a new tale starring two of my favourite actors was a surprise; if it had starred lessor artists than Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling then I am loathe to say that I would have most definitely brushed it off in a heartbeat — but it didn’t — and ultimately it was that factor alone (alright, plus those 10,000 nominations) that convinced me to give it a shot.

For those blissfully uninitiated, La La Land is the tale of Mia — a budding actor who works as a barista — and Sebastian — a jazz pianist cursed with playing Christmas songs in overpriced restaurants. Both are more than accustomed to the unrewarding slog that comes with trying to turn a passionate dream into a reality, whether it be being ignored by a casting director eating a sandwich in an audition or slinging a keytar in an 80s cover band to pay the bills. Their mutual frustration is palpable and relatable; both have a sense that they have potential for something bigger and better yet neither know how to realistically claim their break.

Fate (though I prefer coincidence) entwines the two together — much to their disdain, as both display a mutual dislike for the other that is softened only by Mia’s ribbing of Sebastian’s uptight belief that he is a serious musician — and from then on we are privy to the ups, downs and compromises of their whirlwind relationship. And it is important to call it such, because part of what makes La La Land so compelling is that — despite it being so *nudge-nudge, wink-wink* self-aware — it never satisfies viewers in the way that they presume it will. Just when you think that the pair are home and dry to their happy-ever-after does it start to ungraciously unravel, and only when you think that they will please you by doing the right thing do they disappoint by doing the opposite. They are flawed and, despite the idealised unideal of their individual narratives, all the more human for it.

If it had starred lessor artists than Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling then I am loathe to say that I would have most definitely brushed it off in a heartbeat

This can be stretched to Stone and Gosling themselves, who deliver compelling and committed yet imperfect performances. Wheras classic Hollywood musicals prided themselves on their cut-glass vocals and en-pointe choreography, the charmingly clumsy footwork and occasionally stretched singing only adds to the sense that these characters are just like you. There are moments where a comparatively perfect vocal would have proved a disservice and nowhere near as stirring; take Stone’s aching and melonchy rendition of ‘Audition (The Fools Who Dream)’, her voice cracking as the camera slowly closes in on her tearful face, or Gosling’s down-toned ‘City Of Stars’ (though rest assured, he is no Pierce Brosnan).

It is unclear what is the real anchor of La La Land, whether it is the narrative or the songs. Quite impressively, both balance each other out in equal measure and neither are compromised for the sake of the other. Mia and Sebastian’s theme, which initially begins as a sweet dalliance to their blossoming romance becomes ominous and bittersweet as the tides begin to turn. As the story ticks on, you will come to dread its presence, though whether you like it or not you will be humming it for days.

This is style and substance, and between them collaborative duo, writer and director Damien Chazelle and composer Justin Hurwitz have crafted a score filled with soon-to-be-classic earworms that none could have predicted from their previous jazz-dense (though stunning) soundtrack for Whiplash. Visually, it is a treat, too, be it the single-take show and dance of the striking opening number ‘Another Day Of Sun’ or an intimate, pastel-hued serenade at Sebastian’s piano, time and again will you consciously marvel at the contemporary reimagining of classic filming.

So, is it worth all of the fuss? As a dragonous cynic who has merely viewed Moulin Rouge! and not Chicago — yes! If you, like myself, dread the mere notion of all that floundering and fuss, then you are set to be pleasantly surprised. If you are a vintage America die-hard then you may not get exactly what you were hoping for, but there is enough knowing references to the past to make it pleasingly digestible for the present. *Nudge-nudge, wink-wink*


Watch if:

  • You want to get ahead of awards season
  • You appreciate both style and substance
  • Quirky love stories are up your alley
  • You love a good musical and can sing your childhood Disney tunes word-for-word