Saturday, 18 July 2009

Comics: Deadpool - hero? villain? does he care?

Wolverine, in some of his significant early solo stories, tells us "I'm the best there is at what I do, bub, and what I do isn't very pretty". Cue Deadpool, assassin and anti-hero wreaking havoc on the Marvel universe, telling us in the thick of his latest “job”: "And now I'm better at whatever it is Wolverine does."

And that is just typical of the way Deadpool in his comics makes quips which reference the medium, being amusingly disrespectful of other Marvel creations. (On another occasion, during his absurdly pitched fight with the Hulk, he even starts singing the theme tune to the old Hulk TV show. Another time he cuts someone short with: "Shhh... My common sense is tingling.")

What keeps drawing me back to this zany comic character though is not merely his unique position in relation to the Marvel universe – but also the way the writers at various times have worked hard to show how conflicted Deadpool is.

My favourite period of Deadpool history so far was when the comic was written by the inventive Joe Kelly* in the late 1990s. So let me give you a run-down of interesting moments: Following the explosive events of miniseries Circle Chase** in which we see Deadpool’s sensitivity about his horrifically scarred face, which he won’t let anyone see, Kelly has Deadpool become creepily obsessed with mutant and former X-men team member, the beautiful Siryn. He values the way she doesn’t reject him as an ugly (and cruel) killer, and so, in a vain (unnoticed) effort to please her, he attempts to refrain from killing, choosing mercenary jobs that only require “capturing” perps. Of course, this doesn’t prove to be easy, and an enemy bounty hunter, T-Ray, claims Deadpool has gone soft. And Siryn still (understandably) spurns him in the end, leading him into a damaging (but brief) relationship with a psychotic killer he is paid to free from a high security prison – bad idea, Deadpool.

Writer Kelly keeps issues of identity as the focus though, as it seems Siryn isn’t the only one who hopes Deadpool can change. It isn’t long before a secret hi-tech agency that has been watching the mercenary abducts him and tells him they think he will one day save the world. Deadpool, not having a very high view of himself, laughs and tries to forget this episode (but of course gets embroiled in "saving the world" eventually, but not in the way you'd think).

So we have a character who is at times seems to be looking for some kind of redemption, but who often finds it is snatched away in the end. He feels that fate isn’t allowing him a chance. There’s even a point at which it seems we find out he isn’t Wade Wilson at all (although this has been changed by a later writer, grrr).

Later Deadpool writers have taken him in other directions, still exploiting this idea of making Deadpool’s life as bad/confusing as it can get, and seeing him try to cope, making quips and jokes as he tries to stay on top of everything. Increasingly he seems to have the ability to break the fourth wall, seeing the big joke that he is in a comic book.

I’m now working through Gail Simone’s story, which has Deadpool seriously beaten up and driven insane, totally losing his aim, and making even less sense than normal – but amusingly, he is still able to take on new jobs and come out on top, much to the annoyance of his new bitter, unseen enemy!! In the process he decides to hire a random bum to be his biographer, and even uses some of Antman’s shrinking gas to turn Spiderman’s old enemy the "rampaging" Rhino into a key ring-size beastie he can wear around his belt – you can bet Rhino isn’t pleased to be this small though!

With current plans for a Deadpool film, and 2 new comic series having started in the US, interest for the character is growing – but, so far, I can’t see much topping Joe Kelly’s work making this funny character relatable, even though he is so ruthless with people, being uncomfortable with close relationships because of his deformed body, which his healing power can not alter; a character at times well-intentioned, struggling to do the right thing, but at other times giving up on that, being totally amoral, and having fun with it, or facing foes in a rage of bitterness against the world. Take a look!

*Kelly is currently working on independent projects, including I Kill Giants, and sharing writing duties on Amazing Spiderman
**The Circle Chase, written by Fabian Nicieza, is basically a race - and battle royale - between lots of mutants to get hold of the will of a guy called Tolliver, who was in X-men comics quite a while back, apparently. It’s good, quite funny and action-packed, and was the first thing that got me interested in Deadpool.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Predictions about Moon

Check this trailer out:

I love how it looks like it is using an interesting concept to examine character, in a place where there is basically no escape from yourself! I guess you have to have some mental strength to be in space for a long time.

Do you think it could be too predictable though (ie. he goes mad?) Is it just Castaway in space?

Monday, 13 July 2009

How Heat (1995) influenced The Dark Knight (2008)

With director Michael Mann’s new film Public Enemies in cinemas, and because of my interest in Batman, here’s a brief introduction to how the latest (and greatest) Batman film picks up on lots of elements from Heat, Mann’s adult crime drama.

You can see it even from the DVD back cover of Heat, where we see Al Pacino standing with shotgun ready, resembling a moment where Gary Oldman’s character Lieutenant Gordon heroically faces the Joker. Or try the opening sequence, a carefully orchestrated and clearly shot armed robbery of a delivery van* in broad daylight by a team wearing white hockey masks. The difference is that in The Dark Knight the Joker’s bank robbery (which opens the film) goes perfectly, with no loose ends (if you have seen it you know what I mean) – while the member of the gang in Heat who manages to escape the rest of the gang becomes an important seed of the group’s downfall.

Battling with hearts and minds

Moving towards some of the big themes of the films, both give an account of a struggle between two factions, with high stakes for each side – but ultimately, these are struggles based on principles. In Heat Robert De Niro plays professional criminal Neil McCauley, who goes after big “scores” with his crew, but who becomes conflicted. He insists that he will live a life without ties – where everything and everyone can be left behind in 30 seconds if the “heat” is on to them. Yet while this is the life he has built for himself, and accepted, he starts working towards another one, longing to leave behind all bank “jobs” and escape with Eady. He is finally spotted by Pacino’s Lt Hanna while trying to clear up loose ends, the betrayal of his own principle – in fact it is precisely the feelings of loyalty (and anger) that he imagined he could ignore which make him go back, and stop him cutting loose from the city at the crucial moment. His philosophy would have worked, but was apparently unliveable – he could not leave behind the relationships he started: it would be denying the worth he felt they really had – in a way, denying himself. This poses the interesting question to us: when the pressure is on, what or who really matters to us? What are we willing to make a stand for, even when it makes things messy and difficult to deal with?

Similarly Lt Hanna (McCauley’s nemesis) attempts to manage his own relationships in quite a brutal way, putting his job first (his wife confronts him with this idea that this hunt for prey is the “only thing you’re committed to. The rest is the mess you leave as you pass through”) – but the difference between the two is Hanna’s fierce, unwavering loyalty to his city and his police department, and to capturing the gang.

In The Dark Knight the ideological battle is more sinister. It seems that the Joker, fascinated with the appearance of the hero Batman, is trying to prove that people in general, and even those who consider themselves to be “in the right”, are not really good, and can be turned towards evil if their circumstances change, and they feel betrayed, or afraid, or come under some other kind of stress, such as suffering an unjust loss or trauma. Unnervingly he seems to face us with the question: “what will it take for us?” He seems to prove in the film that people are fragile and that chaos is easily achieved, as reinforced by his final words in the film, to Batman: “You see, madness, as you know, is like gravity – all it takes is a little push!”

However the Batman manages to restore order and bring an end to the ongoing terrorism, and it seems that (although he comes close) he does not “break”. He proves to the Joker that it is possible to continue resisting evil (even under great strain) without becoming twisted and evil, like the DA does – although for Batman to do this it comes at great personal cost. It is as if the line that the DA crosses in taking a life makes him irreparable, even irredeemable, whereas Batman can remain heroic because he never succumbs totally and kills.

Defending the city

Heat makes a lot of comparing the lives, quality of relationships and motivations of the LA cops with those of the criminals they are after. Again, heroism comes at a personal cost, which at times must be unbearable for Lt Hanna, whose wife loses patience with him and whose step-daughter suffers too from his absence.

In parts it seems the cops in Heat are trying to defend their city with as much self-sacrifice and obsession as Bruce Wayne shows in the recent Batman films. It’s an all-consuming quest for justice which requires ugly action, tough strategy, careful planning, sleepless days and long nights. In many ways you can understand Heat as a revenge tragedy. The police see it as “You kill our men, you disrespect the law – don’t expect us to hesitate in shooting back and taking you down”. Los Angeles has got to be safe, and dead cops have to be avenged.

As in the comics, Batman is also bound by a code and an absolute commitment to protecting his city. Director Christopher Nolan’s take on the character is that he acts out of a belief in the fact that there are good people in the city, which he can not let be swallowed up and bullied by the criminal element. This was a big theme in Batman Begins** (the first in this revamped series), where a young Bruce had to get to a position in which he could trump the “bullies” by creating his own intimidating presence, thereby using their own weapon against them. He is simultaneously purging the city from the clutches of corruption and ransoming the city for society to be able to function. This is why the Joker’s random destruction is so threatening, totally undermining order and the city’s infrastructure (eg the police, the mayor’s office, high society, the prison system, and memorably, the hospitals).

Bruce dedicates himself to cleaning up the city, carrying on the proud tradition of his parents (like a knight archetype who reveres and continues the work of past martyred saints – it is not too far-fetched to make this the equivalent of a holy cause for him); and in The Dark Knight, he enlists other “knights of the realm” to stand guard alongside him, deepening his partnership with Gordon and the police force, utilising big business, even the city hall.

While The Dark Knight seems to cover a lot of intellectual and mythological angles on this battle against corruption, Heat is a more personal tale, tugging at our emotions as we see the way circumstances, words and actions bring tension between families, and hurt partners. The gang gamble on making some big scores, to support their chosen lives, but the promises they make and break are significant beats of the story – and the horrific final shootout has reverberations on all those close to McCauley’s crew, and beyond. I salute the writers and directors for making such fascinating worlds to lose ourselves in, and whose strong characters create gripping ideological (and physical) struggles in each film.

(NB: Heat clocks in at 164 mins, so it feels like quite a long watch. If you like it, Al Pacino is also interesting to watch in crime drama Carlito’s Way (1993), a film which is slow-burning, leading to a thrilling 20-25 minutes finale section, as Carlito makes his run for freedom from his past gangster life, similar to De Niro’s final run in Heat. I won’t recommend the film wholeheartedly though due to gratuitous sex and nudity, just to let you know.)

*The Dark Knight also has an armoured delivery van which is attacked as the focus of one of the Joker’s crimes, and so the similarities continue! British director Christopher Nolan acknowledges that Heat influenced him, and it probably was the reason he went for the kind of freeway landscapes he did for the big chase scene, to show a similar kind of world: a heavily built-up, industrial city.

Other similarities between the two films: Incredibly strong casts, and both films have brilliant sound, building tension through it using some strikingly similar long drone sounds.

**In Batman Begins there is a scene which reminds us how utterly irrational and evil extremist terrorist groups can be. While razing Wayne Manor to the ground, villain Ra’s reveals his motivation – a plot to burn the city down, as was done in the days of ancient conquest – all in order to produce a “better” world afterwards. I love how the language sounds kind of earnest and rational, but when you think about what they are saying it is utterly evil and mad! This reminds us that all evil is ultimately irrational, coming out of a faulty, broken understanding of the world and ourselves, and we can’t ultimately explain it away, or excuse it: it just is wrong.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Currently reading: The Way We Write

I’m glad I picked up this book. It is basically a collection of interviews with some successful, award-winning authors about the way they started writing and how they write, their methods, and writing habits, what inspires them and what direction they are seeking to go in with their writing. And how they feel about it all.

The latter is revealing, with a few being really anxious about the quality of their work, seeing how lucky they have been with being noticed by (or connected to) publishers, with others quite straight-forwardly pointing out their strengths, showing their own excellence in capitalising on and developing their skills in forming plot or dialogue or verse.

They speak from a world of success, and some fulfilment, where they are doing what they want to do, despite mentioning difficulties and frustrations and loneliness. You can see how for some of them their sense of purpose and identity is wrapped up in doing what they do, and in feeling they have contributed to the lives of others, touching people in far-off countries, as one writer puts it “adding towards some worldview that is in constant flux and change” (p.72). In a busy market these are the guys reaping the reward that others long for.

It is instructive to see how novelists, poets, children’s writers and playwrights have at times sweated over their work, determined to forge a work with the right kind of words, with the right kind of connotations, the “right” interactions between characters, the “right” sense of place and the perfect harmony between a tactile world, an atmosphere or feeling they want to evoke and the symbolic themes they want to explore. Often the ideas and the expression of them take a while to come together, it seems. The computer can also be a trap too, as you’re in danger of losing your original work and the flow of a whole piece, because editing is so easy.

As my first time writing about a book actually all about writing, what ultimate effect is it having on me? I think it is encouraging me to keep working on my writing, to be more critical about the choices I make, more ready to research and rework, and to find the right times and ways I work best – even my own way of writing poetry (for instance, what do I want people to have to work at understanding in my poetry?) The book too inspires us to make the most of that idea that comes to you in the night, or the scraps hastily written on the back of the envelope or bill that was lying around!

Authors interviewed include Terry Chevalier, author of Girl With a Pearl Earring, poet Al Alvarez, the Oscar-winning script-writer of Gosford Park and the creators of The Snowman and The Gruffalo.