Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Making Iron Man 3: A Geopolitical Perspective

It now appears that Chinese company DMG will invest nine figures in the production of Iron Man 3 – an unprecedented collaboration between a Chinese business and Hollywood, which will also see DMG distributing the film domestically.

I was immediately struck by the irony of the news given not just the fact that Iron Man's most famous antagonist is the Mandarin (as many a comic book fan has already pointed out in the comments pages to various reports of this development), but the story of this particular hero. Tony Stark, after all, is just a Victorian Edisonade protagonist updated for the world of the Cold War-era military-industrial complex – who began his adventures while fighting "Asian Communism" in Vietnam (the Cold War hawkishness of the early '60s Marvel comics being especially pointed here).

Certainly much has changed in world politics in the half century since that tale was first penned. Yet, while some more recent writers (like Warren Ellis) have offered relatively nuanced treatments of the comic, the movies pretty much stuck with the simplicities of the original vision, trading the Cold War for the War on Terror, and Vietnam for Afghanistan, while playing up the idea of Iron Man as an unapologetic embodiment of U.S. military superiority, and military interventionism - which one would certainly imagine to be problematic from a Chinese perspective.1 In the second film, China is even cited as a possible antagonist to the U.S. (when Joshua Hammer names it along with Iran and North Korea while speculating about potential foreign buyers of the Iron Man technology). Moreover, there has been reason to think that such politics matter, in the wake of the complications faced by the producers of the recent remake of Red Dawn.2

Of course, it may simply be that business trumps politics in this case. The attraction of this particular business opportunity, and perhaps, a closer relationship with Hollywood over the long-term, may appear too great to resist (especially with a staggering $3 trillion worth of foreign exchange burning holes in that nation's pockets, and the prospect of the movie being partially filmed in China itself). Additionally, while it is hard to think of a major comic book hero that would be more offensive to the sensibility of a country run by a Communist Party than Tony Stark, China's establishment has long since ceased to be Communist in anything but name – and in the post-Mao era in which "To be rich is glorious," and the Chinese Dream looks not unlike the American Dream, it could be that a figure like Stark (a tech industry Gary Stu if ever there was one) enjoys a greater appeal than may seem the case at first glance.

1. For a critical take of the politics of the Iron Man films, check out Cristobal Giraldez Catalan's review of the first movie and Hiram Lee's reviews of both the first and second films.
2. Worried by Chinese disapproval, the producers changed the absurd premise of a Chinese invasion of the U.S. to an even more absurd one in which North Korea appears as the would-be conqueror of the United States – by editing the already-shot film, a procedure I expect will appear clumsy when the film actually hits theaters. (Incidentally, the scenario of a North Korean invasion and occupation of the U.S. was presented in last year's video game Homefront, written by John Milius, director of the original Red Dawn.)

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Remembering the Titanic

I have at times wondered why, a century after the event, the sinking of the Titanic continues to receive as much attention as it does. There have been bigger ships (the supertankers and aircraft carriers aside, there have been been bigger liners, like today's colossal Oasis class ships), and deadlier maritime disasters (like the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustoff, which killed more than 9,000, and the Goya, which killed more than 6,000, compared with the 1,500 who died when the Titanic went down). The sinking of another British ocean liner, the Lusitania, just three years later, took nearly as many lives (almost 1,200), and had a far greater significance for the course of world history given its impact on international opinion during World War I.

Part of this seems a reflection of the memorialization of the event, which in turn has made it better known and therefore more likely to be memorialized yet again, as has certainly happened on the movie screen – in 1955's A Night to Remember (adapted from Walter Lord's successful book by Eric Ambler), in 1964's The Unsinkable Molly Brown (based on the hit play), and of course, in 1997's James Cameron's Titanic (one of the biggest blockbusters in history). But this hardly explains why the event was memorialized in the first place, or why the retelling of the story as fiction and nonfiction continues to find an interested audience.

It seems notable that the Titanic was a Belfast-built ship of the British White Star line, bound from Southampton, England for New York, which sank off Newfoundland, Canada – and did so in peacetime, when ships might have been expected to safely cross the ocean, and sailing associated with pleasure rather than necessity and danger. By contrast, the Gustoff and Goya were German ships sunk by Soviet submarines in the Baltic in the last months of World War II, denying them such resonance for the English-speaking world. At the same time, the absence of the obvious political freight of events like the sinking of the Gustoff, or the Lusitania, from the story of the Titanic; the remembrance of the ship as the epitome of luxury in its era; and the presence of numerous celebrities of the day on its passenger list (members of the Astor and Guggenheim families among them); makes it suitable raw material for those inclined to present the human experience as a collection of "stories for the amusement of the comfortable classes" (as Gore Vidal once said of a particular bestselling historian).

Yet, even if one can approach the story in this way, the event also lends itself to an extraordinary range of allegories and comments. One can see in the disparities of wealth and position among those who journeyed aboard the ship, the collision with the iceberg, the handling of the accident and the aftermath a story of the technological hubris, corporate irresponsibility, and social inequality of an era that in its fundamentals is not much different from our own. (James Cameron, certainly, has highlighted this side of the story in his comments about his film.) At the same time, the 1912 disaster can appear like one of the last moments of the long nineteenth century that has been such an object of nostalgia, and a foreshadowing of the disasters that lay ahead. (Indeed, the first episode of Downton Abbey opened with a telegram regarding the ship's sinking, and the death of the heir to the titular estate.) Indeed, the fascination of the Titanic appears a miniature version of the hold that period has on our imaginations – the Victorian-Edwardian era both as we knew it, and as it might have been.

Monday, April 9, 2012

The 50th Anniversary of the James Bond Film Series

As fans of the James Bond film series know, this is the fiftieth anniversary of the franchise's launch with 1962's Dr. No. Naturally, the fact is being commemorated in manifold ways big and small, from a highly publicized reissue of the films on Blu-Ray, to exhibitions at film festivals from Toronto to Muscat, to retrospectives in the press.

Those offering comment on the subject typically note the series' "reinvention" of itself during its half century of life. However, such reinvention is not unproblematic. Indeed, I have found myself wondering about a question that no one in the entertainment press ever seems to ask: at what point is it time to let an IP go? To stop rebooting and updating and just leave things be and move on to something else?

The answer Big Media offers is "NEVER!" Anything their companies hold, and for that matter, anything with a name recognizable enough to be suitable for the high concept approach, is to be milked for all it can possibly give and beyond, for reasons I've already discussed here many a time. But for those with art rather than money on their minds, this answer is unsatisfactory. Instead I would say that it is time to let go when what is distinctive about the original ceases to be credible or acceptable, when it can only be presented to the audience ironically or apologetically or in exceedingly sanitized form, or with enormous strain.

It seemed to me that this had already happened with the Bond films when I wrote "The End of James Bond?" back in August 2010. Certainly a few stylistic touches remain to the present, like the opening shot through a gun barrel, the John Barry score, and the line "The name is Bond. James Bond." However, at the core of the earlier films there were also the following, rather more substantive elements:

1. A charged context of high-stakes conflict between world powers (like the Cold War, especially its early phase, in which détente had yet to come about, and the British Empire was breaking up but the metropole not yet reduced to the standing of a "normal" country).
2. The particular model of sophistication, machismo and hedonism represented by the central character (black tie settings, hard liquor, tobacco, skill at upper-class pastimes like golf and baccarat, gambling, flings with numerous women).
3. The plot formula, originally developed in Fleming's novels but ultimately perfected by the films, which has Bond up against freakish megalomaniacs with massive resources and global ambitions, and their even more freakish henchmen. The battle typically begins with Bond engaging the villain in games (golf, cards, etc.) in social settings mixing gentility with murderousness, evading the subsequent assassination attempts, becoming involved with girls good and bad, getting captured and escaping from elaborate death traps, and in the climactic confrontation (usually at the villain's over-the-top fortress) saving the world as the clock ticks toward oblivion – typically with the help of an arsenal of gadgets.

Due to the changes in Britain's international position (and the broader international situation) since 1953, 1962 or even 1989, the first of these has become possible only with a retro approach, as in Sebastian Falk's Devil May Care (2008) - an experiment which has not been repeated in print, and seems an even less likely bet on screen. The second has largely been quashed by changing conceptions of glamour, luxury and the action hero (a guy in a tux no longer making the impression he used to), to say nothing of concessions to feminism and the New Puritanism. The third, deeply worn by heavy use (twenty films between 1962 and 2002, excluding 1967's Casino Royale and 2002's Never Say Never Again, as well as profuse imitation and parody) has also been abandoned in the aforementioned concessions, and more significantly, the pursuit of "gritty realism." Indeed, in their playing off the Bond films the Austin Powers movies (and to a more modest extent, 2002's xXx) differed from the innumerable earlier books, TV shows and films parodying 007 in their presentation of the series' tropes as not merely cartoonish or silly, but as dated, and the dating of aspects of the series from the playboy attitudes to the villains' schemes central to many of their gags.

The result is that this anniversary seems to me rather a hollow one – like that of a marriage in which each spouse has forgotten what they ever saw in the other.

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