Sunday, July 22, 2012

Endless Mutation: Reboots and Sequels

All illustrations of this post from 4 Color Process. 

This review begins with a thesis, which is not a hypothesis since it is not my intent to test it but to apply it. The theses is as follows: cinematic reboots are the screening of the relation between the forces and relations of production. At the level of forces there is the ceaselessly revolutionizing technology of special effects, which date everything instantly, justifying a new reboot every few years. However, this technological upgrade can only be successful, can only become a film, if it manages to capture some shift in the political and cultural climate, therelations of production.

Recent years have seen the acceleration of the rate of the reboot. A full sixteen years separates Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins from Burton’s Batman, but there are only ten years between Raimi’s Spider-Man and the recent The Amazing Spider-Man. When it comes to the sequels the gap also shrinks, eight years separate the unwatchable Batman and Robin from the reboot, but only five separates the latest spider-man sequel from the reboot. The fact that these sequels were failures, aesthetically if not commercially, is significant. They end the franchise, exhaust the product line, justifying the reboot in the eyes of the investors, if not the audience.  They produce a frustration and exhaustion that is integral for the desire to begin again. Of course the quickest turnaround is the time between Ang Lee’s Hulk and The Incredible Hulk, add the new iteration of the Hulk in The Avengers and you have a production of new models at a rate that even exceeds the iphone. Of course the endless reboots of comic book heroes could be seen as another example of form matching content. Readers of comic books are accustomed to multiple iterations of the same character coexisting, of Ultimate and Amazing Spider-man, as well different interpretations all identified with different proper names, Ditko’s Spider-man, Miller’s Daredevil, etc.

The twist here is that the remakes are driven as much by corporate ownership as individual creativity. Sony Pictures owns the rights to make movies about Spider-Man, but, if the various rumors online are to be believed, it will lose those rights if it ceases to make films based on the character. The same is true for Twentieth Century Fox’s ownership of the X-men. It used to be the case that comic book fans of all ages could distinguish between DC and Marvel, debating the relative superiority of each brand’s characters, but the contemporary comic book film offers a much more complicated lesson in intellectual property, as different characters are owned by different studios. The question is no longer could the Hulk beat Wolverine, but what sort of multi-studio licensing deal could get them to appear in the same movie.

It is perhaps fitting then that if The Amazing Spider-Man has any thematic subplot, anything to warrant its existence beyond fulfilling the fine print in a contract, it has to do with the corporation. The new Spider-Man is not only a corporate product through and through, bitten by a spider at Oscorp, using Oscorp designed webbing in his shooters, and ordering his costume online, but is one whose entire origin is tied up with question of ownership of intellectual property. The film adds the backstory of Peter Parker’s parents, specifically his father who discovered the formula to make gene splicing possible, the sort that creates spidermen and lizards in lab coats, and disappeared before it could fall in the wrong hands. The inclusion of this backstory does not just give Peter a backlog of angst, but sets a plot in motion that has everything to do with intellectual property as the sought after property is eventually returned to its rightful corporate owner, a return which also paves the way for sequels. 

The inheritance of property, and its return, is tied up with a search for a father figure. Peter’s search for a father takes him to several surrogates. First to Doctor Connors, employee of Oscorp, research associate of Peter’s father, and, eventually, the Lizard. Peter’s next surrogate father is Captain Stacy, father of Gwen Stacy. It is a trajectory that moves from corporate science to the militarized police force. Uncle Ben, Peter’s original father surrogate is somewhat elided in this search for father, relegated to a supporting role. He represents the working class background that Peter is trying to escape, an escape that is aided by his transformation. This spider-man is less a friendly neighborhood variety than an  upwardly mobile wall-crawler, using his powers to bypass doormen and date outside of his economic bracket. In one particularly cruel scene, Peter Parker steals the Oscorp ID of a young intern, an intern with a Hispanic name, in order to meet Dr. Connors. I suppose that this is supposed to be proof of his intelligence and punk nature, but it just seems cruel. A cruelty that is underscored as the scene of the young man being dragged away by Oscorp security is played for laughs. This is the problem with this version of Peter Parker/Spider-man, he makes jokes, as Spider-man is expected to, but these jokes are more at the expense of weaker opponents, Flash Johnson and a hapless car thief, than the Lizard, making them seem more cruel than funny. Perhaps this change in Peter Parker/Spider-man reflects the fact that it is hard to believe the story of a downtrodden nerd turned hero in this day and age. The most contemporary scene of Peter Parker is not the skateboarding scene or the shot of him using bing to search for his father, but a scene in the film's conclusion, when Flash Johnson is seen wearing a Spider-man T-shirt to school. This is the ultimate lesson of this Spider-man: copyright is true power.

The real limitation of this reboot has to do with its omission of J. Jonah Jameson and the Daily Bugle. This is not just because J.K. Simmons was one of the best things about Raimi's films, but because the Daily Bugle's propaganda war against Spider-man gave the story a populist bent. Spider-man was a people's hero, hated by the newspapers and cops but loved by the people. His very existence testifies to a popular knowledge not reflected in the media and authority. 

The ultimate point of reference for these various “reboots” is of course Nolan’s Batman series. It is the successful business model that all others copy. Nolan’s films have received a great deal of credit for being relevant, for capturing the spirit of their respective times. However, in all fairness it should be pointed out that relevance came cheaply after 9/11, a few remarks about the politics fear, the excess of state power, a debate about torture, or surveillance and everyone would claim that you captured the zeitgeist. Nolan's films had all of this, fear, surveillance, torture, and secrets making them films of their moment Thus it is perhaps no surprise that Nolan’s latest film, The Dark Knight Rises was even interpreted in advance of its release. These interpretations began with rumors that Nolan was going to shoot scenes at Occupy Wall Street, rumors that were given some credibility by the early trailers, which made references to wealth, and  had Catwoman remark that Wayne left “so little for the rest of us.” This advance speculation took a turn for the strange and paranoid with Rush Limbaugh’s accusation that a villain named Bane could not be a coincidence in a year that Bain Capital was such a crucial campaign issue. (Why does the right wing always do cultural critique in the conspiratorial mode?) Of course all of this was silenced with the tragic massacre in Aurora, Colorado, which changed the discussion from the specifics of this film to the generic questions of violence in film.

It shouldn't be surprising that in this case the initial speculations were closer to the mark than Limbaugh. The Dark Knight Rises is a film about class struggle, but one that sides with the wealthy and forces of order. However, it is more accurate to say that the film tries to divide this struggle in two by separating the good and bad wealthy, the good and bad downtrodden. This gesture where there are good and bad of every class a gesture which mires social structures in the infinite variety of morals and character, is perhaps the ideological gesture par excellence.  

This instrument of this division of Bane, who is presented as either the people's liberator or the most unconvincing demagoge ever. Bane's plan involves separating Gotham from the rest of the world, blowing its bridges and holding the entire city hostage with an atomic weapon. The newly liberated (or conquered) Gotham is then subject to the revenge of the repressed, prisoners are freed and the rich are subject to show trials before their exile/execution as they cross the frozen rivers separating Gotham from the rest of the world. However, it is not entirely clear if Bane is truly a revolutionary or simply manipulating Gotham to orchestrate its self-destruction. In the film this question hinges on whether or not he has turned over control of the atomic weapon to a random citizen, a gesture that would symbolize the "withering away" of the supervillan. There is an ambiguous suggestion of the connection between popular rule and tyranny.

Part of this ambiguity has to do with the film's inability to imagine the people. What do the ordinary people of Gotham think of Bane, who blows up their football team one minute and then offers them a chance to "do what they please" the next, appearing alternately as terror and liberator. The film does not even ask this question let alone answer it. The people of Gotham are shown to vacillate widely, demonizing Batman one minute, idolizing him the next, turning against order and then clamoring for it. It is perhaps this absolute distrust of the people, of any popular will or intelligence, more so than the love of billionaire vigilantes, that makes the film fascist. The people need to be lied to, this is the theme that is constant throughout all three movies. 

The film is visually and thematically clear on the status of the police. Part of Bane's plan involves trapping the entire Gotham police force under the city, visually realizing the idea of a city without police. This is presented as a right wing nightmare rather than an anarchist fantasy. The police are eventually liberated, returning to a surface ruled by criminals and terrorists. This gives rise to the film's strangest scene. A group of police marching in unison to restore the city are confronted by a group of Bane's gang, a gang of mercenaries and freed prisoners, and told to disperse. The police refuse and attack the well armed gang and their tanks. Oddly they do this without guns, swinging their clubs. This is the perfect illustration of counter-revolution: the image and logic of revolution put in the service of its reversal. In order to restore authority, to make it look desirable and cool, it must take on the image and affect of rebellion. The film turns wealth, authority, and deception into acts of rebellion and subversion. 

The question is often raised as to how long this superhero trend in movies will continue, how many reboots and sequels will we be subject to? Will we eventually mark time in reboots, differentiating the eras of Burton's Batman and Nolan's Batman, Raimi's Spider-Man and whatever comes next. This question is usually asked cynically, and it is generally assumed that the only logic driving it is one of profits. Maybe it is time to ask another question, one about ideology rather than economics. Given that all superhero films are defined by an absent people, by a hero we can idolize but never become, we can ask how long will we be captivated by these images of our own collective impotence? Perhaps the superhero film will come to end when we can imagine other ideas of the people, other ideas of collectivity, than passive and terrified masses. 


Unknown said...
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seymourblogger said...

I haven't seen it yet.

What if we step back and look at it from a larger frame. What if what is being exposed by Nolan is exactly what you are critiquing? Just a thought.

And it would be nice if you were to use on your site.

seymourblogger said...

Also the endless saturation of reboots is Nietzschean advice. To destroy something, push against it to its limits, then push it over into the abyss. It is happening faster and faster as time increases. Have you read DeLillo's Cosmopolis, and I don't mean the Cronenberg's film of it.

Disqus please.

unemployed negativity said...

I do not really know much about but I will look into it. Thanks for all of your comments.

unemployed negativity said...

French translation here: