Who I Write For

Saturday, 22 December 2012

The Bubble Film: Will Justice League Ever Assemble?

Originally published on The Bubble Film, 21/12/12, available here.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a comic book character in possession of a solid fanbase must be in want of a screenplay. Frankly, it’s starting to grate a little: the only films being greenlit in Hollywood right now are either sequels or adaptations, and original screenplays are only approved if producers detect Oscar potential. It doesn’t mean there are no good films being made, of course, but they’re all starting to feel a bit similar.

The notable exception to this rule lies with Marvel. Avengers Assemble became the third highest grossing film of all time, and although its cast, characters and hype had just about guaranteed its success from the day it was announced, the chances are it wouldn’t have scored so many repeat viewings if it hadn’t been one of the funniest, most action-packed and sharply-written films of recent times. Despite the varying quality of the films which built up to it (consider Iron Man alongside Captain America, for example), director Joss Whedon managed to turn in the best comic book film never to star Christian Bale or Christopher Reeve. In building this universe of crossovers, Marvel redesigned the franchise business model.

It’s tempting to say that the bug is catching, but the fact is there has been a similar idea bouncing around Development Hell for several years. DC, or The Other Daddies of Comic Books, have been struggling with the concept of a Justice League film – think Avengers, but with Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Aquaman, the Flash and whoever else is free at the time – and with Marvel proving that ensemble superhero films can be done, the green light is finally flashing.

It makes sense to think about doing Justice League now: we know the model works, and technological developments including performance capture, 3D, CGI and even the increased frame rates being used by Peter Jackson in the Hobbit trilogy mean there’s unprecedented scope for spectacle. But there are plenty of obstacles to a DC ensemble film, and some of them might be insurmountable.

To start with, look at the characters. Superman shouldn’t be an issue – Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel is due for release next year, and he openly acknowledges the relationship between his film and Justice League. It could perform the same function as Captain America: The First AvengerGreen Lantern, however, is more complex. The Ryan Reynolds film version didn’t completely bomb, but it was critically panned. As in, a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 26% kind of bad. It’s not the most well-known of properties anyway, so it’s unlikely the character would draw a huge audience; either way, the question remains of whether Reynolds would want to return, if the original is still canon or if a reboot is required for the new plot to work.

Then there’s Wonder Woman and The Flash, both major players in the DC universe with huge fanbases but no prior screen outings. Both have been mooted, and at one point (thankfully idle) speculation was rife that Megan Fox was in talks to play Wonder Woman, but neither has come to fruition thus far. Given the fact that neither has the simplest of origin stories, the writers would have to figure out a way to contextualise both characters without obstructing a self-contained action plot. Plus, as any comic fan will tell you, Aquaman is rubbish.

And, of course, Batman. You may have missed those three little films which slipped under the radar over the last few years, but Batman’s sort of been done. Sorted. Finito. How do you come back from that? Rumours suggest that Joseph Gordon-Levitt might be asked to reprise his role from The Dark Knight Rises as a kind of Batman Mark II, but the overlap still causes problems in itself. Christopher Nolan’s Gotham City doesn’t fit with the kind of tone Justice League would need: the “what if this was real?” approach couldn’t work. The only alternative is a reboot, and who is going to follow Bale and Nolan? One day, Batman will be redone – that’s sadly inevitable – but with people joking about the speed with which Spider-Man has been rebooted, a projected release date of 2015 is far, far too soon.

Yes, 2015. Therein lies another major issue, since that’s also the year set for Avengers 2Avengers Assemble and The Dark Knight Rises were separated by a few months this year, and blockbusters generally like to stay out of each other’s way for the sake of the box office figures, but having both ensembles in the same year will make the comparisons even less avoidable.

Take the villains. As the mid-credits Easter egg in Avengers suggested, the sequel is likely to feature the titan Thanos. Interestingly, Thanos was based on one of DC’s New Gods characters, namely Darkseid – who just happens to be one of the most powerful figures in the DC universe and the rumoured villain of Justice League. They look almost exactly the same, and despite the chain of cause and effect in the development of the two, Marvel’s established cinematic presence will ensure that DC are seen to be copying their rival, at least in the eyes of the uninitiated. Even if that’s not the case, the writers will still struggle to emphasize the differences between two very similar figures.

Currently, the lack of confirmed director or cast makes 2015 a tight deadline for a film of this magnitude – it would probably be sensible to push it back to 2016 at least. 2015 won’t just see Avengers 2: there’s the small proposition of Star Wars: Episode VII.

Avengers Assemble worked so well because of the strength of its characters. With years of films focused on individual heroes, the audience already knew the array of personalities involved and went in waiting to see how they interacted. The result was strong, snappy dialogue matched with spectacular action – there was room for both because there was no need to waste time explaining the heroes’ credentials. The final climactic battle took place against a fairly nondescript, unexplored Chitauri army, because the enemy only existed so the team could be shown working together.

As a result, I can’t help but feel that DC have got it backwards. Presumably the individual hero films would follow as spin-offs from Justice League, but this leaves a situation in which Justice League may well be laid down with story and character exposition without which a Wonder Woman film, for example, might feel empty.

I’d love to be proven wrong, though. Who doesn’t want to see Batman and Superman fighting side by side?

Friday, 7 December 2012

The Bubble TV: SHIELD Takes Centre Stage

Originally published on The Bubble TV, 7/12/12, available here.

Five days after the release of Avengers Assemble, Marvel failed spectacularly to shock the world with the announcement of a sequel. Avengers 2 will arrive in 2015, marking the latest tentpole in a schedule which takes in Iron Man and Thor sequels in 2013, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and the launch of Guardians of the Galaxy in 2014, and then a little Edgar Wright film called Ant-Man. It’s unsurprising, given that Avengers went on to take $1 billion worldwide, but Marvel is moving into Phase 2 of its plans for world domination.

Supposing you need a more regular fix than two films a year. Well, I suppose there are comics. But if you need your Marvel easily accessible for no more than an hour a week, help is at hand. There’s a live action television series on the way, and it’s going to follow SHIELD: Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement and Logistics Division, or Strategic Hazard Intervention Espionage Logistics Directorate, depending on who you ask. Or, The Humans Who Run Around Saving The World While The Superheroes Check Their Reflections.

Although we’ve only seen them in supporting roles in other heroes’ films, anticipation is already higher than Stark Tower, so here’s what we know so far:
  • · The show will be developed by Marvel Television in partnership with ABC.
  • · It will be set within the Marvel Cinematic Universe (yes, that’s actually what they’re calling it these days) but will stay largely autonomous from the films. As Whedon told Entertainment Weekly, “It’s gotta be a show that works for people who haven’t seen the Marvel movies”.
  • · Some parts have already been cast – mostly relatively unknown actors with television backgrounds – and the lead role will be taken by Clark Gregg, reprising his role as Agent Coulson from earlier Marvel films.
That’s it. Of course, this being the Internet, that’s all anybody needs, and the predictions are already flying.

Marvel has been wrestling with the problem of developing live action series for years, and considering the range of potential candidates, SHIELD looks like a wise decision. For a start, the leads are all human: smaller, less green and less radioactive than some previously rumoured properties. In other words, they’re cheap, which makes this a perfect opportunity to test the waters with an episodic format. There’s no reason why this couldn’t be a new X-Files or Torchwood.

What’s interesting, though, is the way that the series could complement the films. Time and again, major Hollywood actors have explained moves into TV work citing the longer format as an opportunity to develop deeper understanding of characters. TV offers more time to get to know characters and more scope to develop complex plots – just ask the writers of Game of Thrones or Mad Men – and while SHIELD may not directly reference films that have gone before, there’s no reason why it couldn’t build new audiences to lead into future projects. That first twenty minutes spent setting up a film’s premise and characters could be done over several episodes, leaving extra screen time for blowing something up.

With this in mind, then, here are some hints at what to expect when SHIELD hopefully airs next year.

Coulson lives. The fact that Clark Gregg will be reprising a character who was killed onscreen in Avengers Assemble is a pretty big deal for the fans, but it also suggests that Marvel are really trying to emphasise the connection with existing films. So how did he survive? There have been suggestions the series may be set before Avengers, but it’s far more likely that he just wasn’t as dead as we thought he was. Comic book characters come back from the dead with alarming frequency, and there’s probably a Sherlock Holmes-style fake death to be written for him.

Don’t expect Avengers to appear. There might be a couple of cameos from some of the Avengers cast, but not even Marvel are likely to pump enough money into the first season of an untested show to pull in Robert Downey Jr or Chris Evans.

Finally, some women. Black Widow aside, the Avengers Initiative is a bit of a boys’ club. SHIELD would appear to be more diverse, with three of the first six characters to be announced being female – and if anyone can write a gutsy heroine, it’s the man who gave us Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Prepare for war. The nastier, more expensive villains will probably be left for the films, but there’s room for SHIELD to enjoy the odd nemesis. HYDRA, formerly the henchmen of Captain America’s foe the Red Skull, appear quite frequently in the SHIELD comics, as do The Hand, a ninja clan with ties to Elektra and Daredevil. Either of those avenues could lead to other fertile ground – and even if they don’t, who doesn’t want to see more ninjas on TV?

There will be superpowers. SHIELD comics have featured entire units of agents with telepathic powers, and notable employees have included the likes of Jessica Drew (Spider-Woman), Carol Danvers (Ms. Marvel) and a certain Jennifer Walters. That’s She-Hulk. Maybe the series finale…

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Spooky Isles: Mary Shelley and the Birth of Frankenstein, Part 5

Originally published on Spooky Isles, June 29th 2012, as the final instalment of a five-part series; available here.

By the time of her death, Mary Shelley was the respected author of seven novels, at least twenty-three short stories, and even some children’s literature. She was also an accomplished biographer, poet and editor of the works of her husband Percy, whose status as one of the major poets of the Romantic period was largely assured by her efforts. Despite the significance of works such as The Last Man (1826), however, her full importance as a writer is only just beginning to be understood: it’s interesting that, when her later work was more critically acclaimed at the time, it has mostly been forgotten, while Frankenstein’s reputation continues to grow.

It’s one of the most accomplished Gothic novels of the period, borrowing heavily from the conventions pioneered by her father among others, but at the same time its voice is unique. Mary’s own chequered personal life provides themes and preoccupations which are not articulated as strongly by anybody else – her insight into the traumas of childbirth and parenthood, as well as her own struggle to live up to the reputations of her famous parents, shine through in Victor Frankenstein’s struggles to create a human being and then to make a man. The suggestion that the two are not the same is one of the keynotes of the novel.

Science fiction as a genre in English largely owes its existence to Frankenstein, which is probably the earliest and one of the most influential examples. Even modern writers acknowledge its influence; elements of Shelley’s work have been in detected in the shocking twist of Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory and Stephen King’s It. Perhaps most interesting is that fact that science itself has been influenced by Mary’s thinking: the technology she envisioned became an inspiration for real innovations.

There are as many reasons for the novel’s perpetual success as there are readers, but the truth is that everyone who comes to Mary’s masterpiece now brings with them certain expectations. The image of Frankenstein’s Monster is burned into our cultural memory thanks to nearly two hundred years of adaptation for stage and screen and even modern music: think of Metallica’s ‘Some Kind of Monster’ or Alice Cooper’s ‘Feed My Frankenstein’. The name has entered everyday use, and we all have our own idea of what it means.

In fact, it’s often surprising to encounter the novel for the first time and notice how it differs from the image we’ve inherited. The ‘monster’ isn’t green. There are no bolts through his neck. There are no hysterical screams of “It’s alive!” and, most importantly, Frankenstein is the name of the scientist and not his creation. Still, that the creature and his maker are identified with each other would have pleased Mary: it supports her argument that corrupt political systems make victims of the empowered and disempowered alike.

It’s the politics that are often overlooked by Shelley readers, mostly thanks to the Victorian habit of domesticating women’s writing and relegating Mary’s work to the status of ‘romance’. In many ways, though, the political element is what holds the rest together: questions of responsibility, control and the abuse of power remain at Frankenstein’s core. Over the intervening years, it has continued to strike a chord in the wake of scientific as well as political progress – whether it’s the governing class or the scientist in the laboratory, in the end, Frankenstein explores the consequences of men playing God with the lives of others, and that theme never dies.

Spooky Isles: Mary Shelley and the Birth of Frankenstein, Part 4

Originally published on Spooky Isles, June 22nd 2012, available here.

When Mary Shelley published her debut novel in 1818, nobody knew it was hers. The first edition was published anonymously, leaving reviewers free to speculate; though no attempts seem to have been made to name an author, some reviews came close.

“It is formed on the Godwinian manner, and has all the faults, but many likewise of the beauties of that model.” (The Edinburgh Magazine)

“It is piously dedicated to William Godwin, and written in the spirit of his school.” (The Quarterly Review)

Comparisons of Mary’s novel with those of her father William Godwin are clearly warranted, although another school of thought suggested that it could be Percy Shelley’s work.  The use of Godwin’s tropes and themes was less important, however, than the revolutionary politics he shared with his daughter, and the potential threat they posed was keenly felt by more conservative voices.

 This was an even greater concern given that the book became commercially successful very quickly: it was translated into French as early as 1821 and popularised through a range of melodramatic dramatic adaptations from the likes of Richard Brinsley Peake. Anxiety about the dangerous influence of the novel on the young and vulnerable, especially in light of its apparent moral ambivalence, is tangible in nearly every surviving review from this period.

Nonetheless, the reviews do generally tend to acknowledge the author’s considerable “original genius and happy power of expression” (Sir Walter Scott), suggesting grudging respect for an aesthetic talent coupled with disquietingly radical attitudes. In fact, the initial reception of Frankenstein was mixed, ranging from outrage and disgust to fascination and qualified praise.

Once the author’s name was released, however, the tone of her critics quickly shifted. Her colourful private life may have been enough of a deterrent to certain groups in society, but above all, readers were driven by the view of politics as a man’s subject. Though Mary was tellingly often credited with a “masculine mind”, commentators treated Frankenstein (as they would her later novels) as a ‘romance’ if, indeed, they heeded it at all:

“The writer of it is, we understand, a female; this is an aggravation of that which is the prevailing fault of the novel; but if our authoress can forget the gentleness of her sex, it is no reason why we should; and we shall therefore dismiss the novel without further comment." (The British Critic)

A great number of critics followed suit. Despite the success of the small print run of the 1823 edition, the bestseller was ignored by many intellectuals for years. Even the 1831 edition, which had undergone several revisions and finally gained a mass audience, did little to cure this, and the lack of new editions in the following five decades meant that Frankenstein was studied relatively little and valued less. Like so many groundbreaking artists, Mary saw her work met by critics unequipped to judge it.

Around the same time, Mary’s life was becoming even more difficult. Relations with her husband had always fluctuated wildly, but she was left devastated when she suffered another miscarriage in 1822 and, weeks later, Percy drowned off the coast of Italy just before his thirtieth birthday. After a year with friends in Genoa, she returned to England and devoted her life to her surviving son, Percy Florence, and a career as a professional author. Much of her life was spent in terse discussions with Percy’s father, Sir Timothy, over the allowance he granted her for his grandson’s upkeep; continuing to write novels and short stories; and in editing and promoting her husband’s poems, assuring the literary appreciation he had largely been denied in life. She never remarried. By the time she died of a suspected brain tumour in 1851 she was a respected author, but predominantly for her later work.

Frankenstein was, however, as alive as its central Creature. Stage adaptations continued, and the characters remained in the public consciousness though the novel was out of circulation. Perhaps this is why its resurgence was so strong: only in the 1880s, when it had come out of its original copyright conditions and the benefits of mass literacy were beginning to appear, that Frankenstein found a truly huge readership. The first reprint sold more than all the previous editions combined, and from that point it grew into the global phenomenon that has had such impact on the modern world.

Spooky Isles: Mary Shelley and the Birth of Frankenstein, Part 3

Originally published on Spooky Isles, June 15th 2012, available here.

Of the coterie that spent the summer of 1816 at Lake Geneva, Claire Clairmont must be by far the least renowned. Among the few who know her name, she is Mary Shelley’s step-sister, a friend of Percy Shelley and one of many lovers of George Gordon, Lord Byron. It was thanks to her, however, that the group came together at all. Her brief affair with Byron that spring had clearly exacerbated her infatuation – introducing her step-sister to the poet enabled her to arrange for Mary, Percy and herself to stay in a house near the grand villa the poet had leased.

For Mary, who was increasingly known as Mary Shelley although the couple were not yet married, this was one of many complications in her life. Travelling for the sake of Percy’s poor health with an infant child would have been stressful enough without the controversy that followed them at home and abroad. Although we don’t know exactly when that summer Claire learned she was pregnant with Byron’s child, nor indeed when Byron tired of her and the affair ended, it’s almost too tempting to suggest that this was another trauma of procreation on the list that inspired Mary’s unique representation of a monstrous birth.

The group found themselves together on the dark, stormy night of June 16th, the atmosphere perfect for a ghost story, when a plot was hatched: instead of telling other people’s stories, they would write their own. Percy struggled to find inspiration and quickly gave up. Even Byron, who was incredibly prolific all summer, began a vampire novel and abandoned it. The successful writers were, ironically, the ones who were not yet known. Byron’s physician Dr. Polidori took up the poet’s ideas and developed them into The Vampyre, the short story that catalysed the subgenre eighty years before Bram Stoker put pen to paper for Dracula. Mary, meanwhile, struggled with her assignment, but refused to give up so lightly. According to her introduction to the 1831 edition of her novel, several days passed until, after a long night talking of contemporary experiments in galvanism (reanimating dead flesh using electrical currents), she had a peculiar waking dream:

“I saw—with shut eyes, but acute mental vision, —I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world. His success would terrify the artist; he would rush away from his odious handywork, horror-stricken.”

She thought she had the beginnings of a short story. Over the next year, with Percy’s encouragement and collaboration, including his frequent alterations and suggestions on the manuscript, it became a full length novel, drawing on the traumas that marked their early relationship. The first four chapters were written after Mary’s half-sister Fanny Imlay committed suicide, depressed after Mary and Claire’s departure and having learned of her illegitimacy. In November, Percy’s heavily pregnant wife Harriet also killed herself, breeding lasting guilt for both himself and Mary; when the lovers finally married just a few weeks later, it was in part to help Percy’s suit for custody of his two children by Harriet. By the time Frankenstein was finished in May 1817, it was built on over a year of painful childbirths and childrearing that shine through in the relationship between creator and creation.

When eventually published in January 1818, with a preface by Percy and dedication to her father William Godwin, Frankenstein didn’t even bear Mary’s name – it was anonymous until the second edition was released in 1822 – but her masterpiece was given to a world that had no idea just how important it would be.

Spooky Isles: Mary Shelley and the Birth of Frankenstein, Part 2

Originally published on Spooky Isles, June 8th 2012, available here.

11 November 1812 proved a milestone in Mary Godwin’s life. A brief return to her father and step-mother’s house from a stay with family friends in Dundee saw her introduction to the Shelleys. The lives of the couple had already been tempestuous. Percy, the son of a Whig MP who later inherited the title of Sir Timothy, had been educated at Eton and Oxford, until his authorship of the atheist tract The Necessity of Atheism resulted in his expulsion from University College in 1811. Relations with his father, already strained as a result, finally disintegrated later that year when Percy eloped with and married Harriet Westbrook, a sixteen-year-old school-friend of his sister who, as the daughter of a wealthy coffee-house owner, was his considerable social inferior. Sir Timothy cut off his son’s allowance, and financial problems plagued the couple as Percy continued to write and publish poetry as well as his politically revolutionary tracts. They moved around a lot, and even spent time in Ireland where Percy aided efforts repeal the Act of Union and ensure Catholic emancipation. After their return, the Shelleys finally met one of Percy’s idols with whom he had been corresponding for much of that year: William Godwin.

Godwin’s daughter was fifteen at the time, and it was to be two years before Mary’s acquaintance with the Shelleys was renewed. By that time, the couple’s first daughter, Eliza Ianthe, was nearly a year old, but a rift had grown between Percy and Harriet that was never to be healed, and a passionate relationship began to form between Shelley and the daughter of his mentor. In early summer 1814 the pair met frequently, often at the grave of Mary’s mother Mary Wollstonecraft, and in late July, accompanied by her half-sister Claire Clairmont, Mary and her twenty-two-year-old lover eloped.

This was to be the start of a hectic if brief life together, taking in extensive travel, literary creativity and, of course, financial instability. By the time they returned to England in September they were all but penniless and Mary was already pregnant – but Harriet was always a constant presence. She gave birth to Percy’s second child Charles in November 1814, and his letters to his wife demonstrate barely suppressed guilt for abandoning their family: when his grandfather died in 1815 and his immediate financial difficulties eased, he made arrangements to pay Harriet £200 a year for their maintenance. The relationship was viewed with universal disapproval, even from Godwin, despite his earlier philosophical arguments against the institution of marriage that probably influenced Percy. Mary’s sister Claire was also a source of tension, her close friendship with Percy causing considerable jealousy on Mary’s part even after Claire had an affair with Lord Byron. The couple’s first daughter died before her first birthday in early 1816, twelve days after the birth of their son, William. Though Mary does not seem to have begrudged Percy’s support of Harriet – after her eventual suicide Mary supported his efforts to gain custody of the children – their relationship was under constant strain, yet clearly kept intact by strong mutual affection.

By mid-1816, when ‘the Shelleys’ travelled to Lake Geneva to spend the summer with Byron, Mary found herself grieving for the death of one child while trying to raise another, in a relationship with another woman’s husband and facing public recrimination for her unconventional lifestyle – at the age of nineteen. Given her mother’s scandalous reputation, having cohabited and had a child with a man out of wedlock before meeting Godwin, Mary would have been even more keenly aware of the position in which she had put herself, and it is in this unique climate of loss, guilt and uncertainty that Frankenstein was born.