Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Review

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How god-awful is the name of this film? Dawn of the Planet of the Apes sounds like a bored screenwriter’s attempt to sell a shitty prequel. I get that people have to recognize the film as part of the franchise, but come on. As if ANOTHER film with an ape protagonist didn’t have enough obstacles. Thankfully, the film’s less than stellar title is barely a factor when compared to its astronomical quality.

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A sequel to Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), Dawn continues the reimagined origin of the classic Planet of the Apes series. Instead of  a modern man placed in an ape-dominated future, this series focuses on the evolution of the apes who will eventually overthrow humanity.

The first film introduced our hero Caesar (played by Andy Serkis), a genetically modified chimpanzee raised by humans who breaks himself and his fellow apes free from oppression by modifying them as well. The second film focuses on Caesar and some humans’ attempts to create peace between the races.

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As with the first film, one of the strongest aspects of Dawn is it’s commitment to making the apes true characters. Most films dealing with CG characters tend to rely on the human actors as a way for the audience to relate ( Transformers, Godzilla, etc). Dawn avoids that by establishing the culture of the apes and their individuality. They have just enough cultural elements to be relatable (military tactics, complex housing, horsemanship) without just being humans who look like monkeys. The film also expands on the previous film’s characters of Koba (Tony Kebbell) – a chimp embittered by a life of lab tests – and Cornelia (Judy Greer) – Caesar’s wife and mother of his children. This allows for us to truly buy into the super-apes as a group we care about.

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Ironically the apes might be more relatable than the actual humans in the film. Our side is primarily represented by Jason Clarke (The Great Gatsby, Zero Dark Thirty), Keri Russell (Felicity, Mission Impossible 3), and Gary Oldman (The Dark Knight, The Fifth Element). The first two seek the helps of the apes to regain electrical power to their city whereas the last one wants to blow their heads off. The virus that brought them to such desperation is given oddly little focus: the first film only shows one victim of the flu and the rest of the epidemic is summed up in the now cliched “opening news montage”. Given the prevalence of post-apocalyptic films, it’s possible the filmmakers just decided to spare us the usual story, which undercuts much of whats supposed to make the humans sympathetic. It’s hard to really empathize with the usual “my son/wife/dog died” story when we actually SEE the hell apes go through in the first film. We do see some of the aftermath of the flu with scenes such as Gary Oldman breaking down when he sees his dead family’s pictures for the first time in years. This shows just how dire humanity’s predicament is and why he feels so eager to kill some apes. In a similar vein, Jason Clarke’s family is focused on as a parallel to Caesar’s growing family. Both of them have to worry not only about their communities, but their children. Despite this, the human family have little impact in the overall story; there’s a subplot due to them being a recently forged stepfamily, but it goes nowhere.. Overall, the flu epidemic never goes beyond being a plot device to explain why the humans died out and why the apes are considered to be threats to man. To be fair, the same was true in the original film as well.

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Despite the shoehorned flu plot from the previous film, Dawn portrays the conflict between humanity and ape-ity with sincere tragedy. The original Planet of The Apes (1968) emphasized the recursiveness of world culture: oppressed apes gained power as the humans lost theirs. Rather than creating a new society, the apes developed all of humanity’s social ills: dogmatism, racism, and worst of all, slavery. Likewise, Dawn shows the apes as being just as capable of evil as man. The threat against the ape society comes from outside and inside as their own member begin to turn against each other. Despite the trailer’s emphasis on Gary Oldman, much of the Ape Vs. Man war arises due to several parties on both sides. Ignorance of the flu epidemic leads man to think apes are a literal virus, and apes anger towards humans makes them overly aggressive. One side overreacts to a slight, the other side misinterprets an action, all hell breaks loose.

And when hell breaks loose, it is pretty awesome. As with the first film, seeing how the filmmakers interpret how smart apes would fight is awesome. Once again, rather than just moving like humans, the apes fight like apes who realized how badass being an ape is. Just imagine a bunch of hairy Spider-Men. With spears! And horses! One scene that straddled the line between awesome and cheesy is one of the apes riding a horse while dual wielding assault rifles. All that needed was a quip like…

Monkey see, monkey KILL!!!

Monkey see, monkey KILL!!! / Just call me Furious George, motherfucker!!! / Now that’s what I call GORILLA warfare, bitch!!!

Speaking of quips, this film did not have nearly enough primate jokes. The original film managed to sneak in gems such as this visual pun with the ape elders.

I know the film is supposed to be more serious, but i would’ve loved to see just ONE ape attempt to fight off  some gunmen with a banana. Alas…

Final Verdict

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is definitely one of the best films of the year. It accomplishes most narrative and visual goals it attempts and entertained me the entire time. See the film if you want to see the summer blockbuster that others weren’t (*cough*Transformers*cough*). Don’t see it if you have a crippling fear of primates. Which would probably mean you’d have to avoid all movies since humans are primates. Take that, creationists.

To be honest; I still like The Simpsons‘ Planet of the Apes reboot better…

 

 

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Godzilla Review

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History shows again and again
How nature points up the folly of men…GODZILLA! – Blue Oyster Cult

In 1954, Ishiro Honda directed one of Japan’s most defining films: Gojira (translated into “Godzilla” for western audiences). Despite the fantastical premise – a beast created by nuclear weapons attacking Japan – many consider it a not-so-thinly-veiled reflection on the bombing of Hiroshima less than ten years prior. The atomic Godzilla laid siege to Japan in a way familiar to survivors of the the attack. As such, the film is quite solemn. Strangely, the character of Godzilla was then adopted by Japan as a national icon. Films like Godzilla Raids Again (1955) and King Kong Vs. Godzilla (1962) made the monster a force for good as well as destruction. The franchise got so popular that it gained prominence in America as well…which led to an American version. That sucked ass. So much ass that the idea of another American version wasn’t even considered until this year’s release of Godzilla starring Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad, Malcolm In The Middle) , Aaron Taylor Johnson (Kick-Ass, Nowhere Boy) and Ken Watanabe (Inception, The Last Samurai).

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I had a bit of difficulty when thinking about how to describe the premise of the film. Not because the plot is confusing or vague, but just because expectation has such a huge impact on a viewing experience. Seeing the trailers for Godzilla with the titular monster hidden in shadow and roaring at the audience communicates a film not so different from the original: monster attacks city, everyone fall down, monster fall down too. I would imagine that for the average moviegoer, a sci-fi disaster film would be the go-to for the Godzilla franchise. Instead, the film deals with the threat of another monster with similar origins to Godzilla. When it becomes obvious that man is no match for the beast, Godzilla appears to be  the only solution.

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So basically Warner Bros created another “Godzilla Vs.” film and covered it up in order to sell it to a mainstream audience. Personally, marketing like this is a pet peeve of mine. I understand that major film distributors have to reach larger audiences, but misleading the moviegoing public often makes audiences feel bamboozled. I went into this expecting a more straightforward disaster movie and was confused when it became a monster battle movie.

So did that ruin the experience? No, not really. This film does what the previous American version failed at: creating sincere emotion in spite of the fantastic concept.

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The film begins with Cranston losing a loved one due to one of the monsters. His grief incites the plot of the film as he desperately tries to figure out what happened, thus placing it in a world similar to the original film where the destruction these creatures cause isn’t a joke. Not that this stems how awesome the destruction is; pretty much from beginning to end something is fucking something else up. The film definitely delivers on monster vs monster action with only minimal human intervention. This isn’t like Transformers where somehow humans are capable of fighting monsters. Any human who tries fighting any of these things gets a quick, meaningless death. As they should.

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Visually, the film’s CG isn’t particularly groundbreaking, but definitely successful. Godzilla himself looks a bit weird since the animators valiantly attempted to incorporate a lot of the original rubber suit design. As such, if you think that Godzilla inherently looks dumb, well then he’ll probably look kind of dumb here. It’s still a great recreation of the classic design. One of the best homage scenes is when inexplicably his back plates light up in before he unleashes his atomic breath. Little touches like that show that Warner Bros sincerely wanted to make a film in the tradition of the franchise. The film doesn’t highlight it’s monster’s designs as often as you’d expect, since the monsters in the film are often obscured by darkness and particle effects. This could’ve been an attempt to get cover up possibly disappointing CG or just a way to make the monsters more scary. Either way it works to communicate the titanic proportions of the monsters.

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Like many sci-fi films, Godzilla has some difficulties when it comes to exposition. A few times in the film scientist literally stand in a circle talking about plot points. This is one of those elements that is a holdover from the original Godzilla film, which also had a good amount of straightforward exposition. On the other hand, some elements are barely explained. The dialogue implies that the film is a sequel to the 1954 film with Godzilla being a known entity, but doesn’t actually tell us much about the specifics of the creature, such as why he’s compelled to heroism. By the end of the film, Godzilla seems to be more intelligent and goal-oriented than any giant monster should be, but this isn’t really touched upon. With that being said, Godzilla’s intelligence makes for one really badass moment at the end of the film.

Final Verdict

For me, this is a decent watch. I’m not really into Godzilla, but this is a faithful iteration of the franchise. The film irked me a little for being slightly different than what the commercials communicated, but what do you expect from Hollywood nowadays. Watch this film if you like Godzilla movies or just want to see a mildly fun action film. Don’t see it if you’re not into “Godzilla Vs.” films or don’t care about Godzilla in general.

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A few lingering thoughts…

  • Is there a rule saying the military has to shoot at monsters even if it has no effect? I don’t think you get purple hearts for getting stepped on.
  • Ken Watanabe speaks perfect english yet calls the monster the japanese name “Gojira”. Even stranger is that the Americans just casually start calling him Godzilla despite NOBODY establishing the translation. Why would they even bother to translate that? Are there other monsters called Gojira we haven’t met yet?
  • Bryan Cranston at one point claims that working at the nuclear plant shouldn’t give him cancer. Irony.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 Review

 

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The Amazing Spider-Man series has had some big shoes to fill. Sam Raimi-directed Spider-Man (2002) was basically our generation’s Richard Donner-directed Superman (instead of, y’know, Man of Steel). It not only reinvigorated the already successful Spider-Man franchise, it legitimized superhero film in general. This led to the current explosion of superhero films and, to quote the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Baron Strucker, “the age of miracles“. With all that in mind, what could the new Spider-Man series distinguish itself beyond adding on an adjective? The first film was both familiar and different. Mark Webb and Sony Pictures used many music and visual elements from the Raimi films but created a lore that impacts each film (Peter’s parents, Oscorp Industries, etc). Probably it’s most contentious element is Peter Parker himself as played by Andrew Garfield. This Peter Parker beckons more to the Stan Lee’s original vision: a smart alecky scientist with a nerdy-but-charming way with the ladies. I wouldn’t personally call this better or worse than Tobey Maguire’s portrayal, since Raimi’s Spider-Man was meant to be more of a “classic” superhero story with a more earnest protagonist. Overall, I think The Amazing Spider-Man was a solid iteration of the franchise. So what about the second film?

The premise: High school graduate Peter Parker is having turbulence in his relationship with Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) due to her father’s last request for them to be apart. Exacerbating his woes is the return of childhood friend Harry Osborn (Dane Dehaan), who believed that Spider-Man is the key to curing his family’s hereditary illness. Further exacerbating things is the arrival of the villain Electro (Jaime Foxx), yet another victim of Oscorp’s piss-poor science regulations.

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Assuming that action is the first thing viewers for looking for, this film’s got a pretty decent amount. As with the previous film, Spider-Man’s acrobatics are portrayed  as more freeform and impulsive than practiced. He doesn’t move like an acrobat, he moves like a normal guy with massive strength and agility. This really shows itself while fighting the villain Electro, who he has to combat more evasively. One can tell that Mark Webb probably got excited when he realized that Spidey’s “Spider-Sense” meant that he could use gratuitous slow-mo, which he seemingly incorporated into every scene. While somewhat cliched at this point, at least it fits here. Unfortunately, the film’s so chock full of everything that there really aren’t many action scenes in it. It appears as if the filmmakers realized that themselves, given that we’re treated to an opening action scene that doesn’t even include Spidey and “action-packed” web-making scene similar to the one from the first film.

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While the film might skimp on action, it has plenty of romance. Now normally I roll my eyes at the cliche superhero romance, but I feel that Spider-Man – as the everyman – makes more sense with a love interest that characters like Thor or Batman. It helps that Garfield and Stone have natural chemistry, probably due to actually dating each other. They both have very natural humor and wit that makes their interactions fun rather than sappy. In a scene where they’re hiding in a closet (long story) they both connect on how cliched hiding in a closet is before having a bit of seemingly unscripted kissing. Many of their scenes wouldn’t be out of place in films like 500 Days Of Summer or Nick And Norah’s Infinite Playlist. Oh that hipster love!

Despite my enjoyment of the film’s romantic elements, it ends up being part of what makes the film inconsistent tonally. While I hate to draw too many comparisons between the Raimi films, one of their strengths was that they knew what they were. They were earnest and melodramatic superhero stories without much irony. These films attempt to be more modern (Peter wears a fucking Thrasher t-shirt at one point), which makes the moments where it slips back into cliche a bit more awkward.

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For example, hollywood nerd Electro wouldn’t be out of place in Batman Forever. Foxx plays him as a nebbish scientist with an inexplicable combover who becomes obsessed with Spidey after he saves his life. One scene has him (hilariously?) celebrating his birthday alone as he talks to a picture of Spider-Man on his wall. While I appreciate the film’s attempt to give him some humanity, because the character himself has no significance thematically, he lacks the same emotional weight of Green Goblin or even Sandman from Raimi’s trilogy. The tragedy of the character seems kind of insignificant to the film’s overall narrative as he becomes a generic villain.

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Harry Osborn also seems to be in a different movie at times; it’s hard to believe that the melodramatic Harry (who has a bit of a Children of the Corn vibe) was ever friends with the more laid-back Peter. To be fair, i’m not saying that Foxx or Haan put in bad performances, i’m just saying that they don’t necessarily fit into the film as well as they could have.

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Visually, the film is as gorgeous as one would expect from a Sony film. Electro is rendered magnificently as an electrical entity. Rather than just painting him blue and calling it a day, the filmmakers took the time to conceive elements such as making his skin slightly translucent in order to portray his vein’s lighting. As he grows in power, there’s visible reds and oranges underneath his skin which give off the impression of electric combustion. It shows that the effects guys really explored the idea of how an electric man would work visually. As far as cinematography, the only thing I noticed was an intriguing inclusion of a few dutch angles (a scene shot at a tilt). I suspect that they’re included just because the 60’s Batman series decided that all superhero shows and films have to contain dutch angles. To be honest, this is more of a stray observation and has little impact.

As an overall narrative, this film is okay when focusing on any of it’s constituent parts, if not necessarily forming a coherent whole. As mentioned, the love story between Peter and Gwen is fun and makes sense in context. Electro’s story is sad despite having a secondary focus. Harry Osborn’s conflict at Oscorp is equally as sad as his sympathetic goals fail to come to fruition. Do these elements sync up? Not really. They do end up impacting each other but more through contrivance than theme. Just look at how disjointed my premise summary was. As a sequel, it’s possible that the film slightly suffers from what happened the Spider-Man 3: there were several plots that they had to get through and no one thought through how they would intersect. What makes this better than Spider-Man 3  is that these plots are all solid on their own.

Final Verdict

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a fun film with an enjoyable love story and some good action. While it’s not as focused or as action oriented as it’s predecessor, it furthers the narrative journey of Peter Parker. While I wouldn’t call this film anywhere near the depth of it’s superhero contemporaries, it does manage to entertain.

Easter Eggs

Ravencroft Institute

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The facility where Oscorp takes Electro is basically Marvel’s equivalent to Arkham Asylum, used to house crazy supervillains such as the symbiotic Carnage and master of illusion Mysterio. It’s founder was Ashley Kafka, the lead scientist in the film.

Vulture’s Wings

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When showing Oscorp’s various powered armors, one of them appears to be a harness with wings. This is based on the villain Adrian Toomes aka the Vulture, who was an old man who invented a harness that allowed him to fly.

Felicia

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Harry’s secretary Felicia is most likely a reference to the Felicia Hardy aka the Black Cat, a thief who alternated between antagonist and ally of Spider-Man. They also had a fling. This sure sounds like another cat-themed supervillain…

Smythe

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The douchey scientist played by BJ Novak is a reference to Alistar Smythe, a member of the Smythe family responsible for creating the robotic Spider-Slayers. He went a little bit further and turned himself into a spider-slayer.

For more reviews:

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

American Hustle

Thor: The Dark World

Gravity

Don Jon

Riddick

Iron Man 3

Oblivion

Fast And The Furious 6

For more thoughts on Spider-Man:

The Journey of Peter Parker From Amazing Fantasy to Amazing Spider-Man

Spidey Tackles The Human Torch: Spider-Man As An Anti-Hero

10 Thankfully Obscure Spider-Man Villains

For more thoughts on superheroes:

The Lois Lane Effect

Superstitious And Cowardly Cops: Police Corruption in Gotham City

Superman As Defined By Lex Luthor

Bats In His Belfry: Batman As A Heroic Psychopath

Ben Affleck As Batman: Why So Serious?

Iron Man: Real American Hero

Three Forms Of Comedy As Seen Through Justice League

Flash: The Quintessential Superhero

Hoverboy: The Most Racist Superhero Ever

From Comic To TV: Arrow As An Adaptation of Green Arrow

10 Freaky Yet Awesome X-Men You Forgot About

10 Stupid Attempts At Rebranding Famous Comic Characters

Captain America: The Winter Soldier Review

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Post-Avengers, I would say the biggest issue with Marvel films is that they seem to have ran out of characterization. The Iron Man sequels reiterate the same points of the first film: Tony doesn’t need the suit, Pepper is important, weapons can be misused blah blah blah. Thor: The Dark World doesn’t even pretend to progress Thor further than giving him an excuse to be on Earth. What’s disappointing about these films is that they don’t really progress anything that happened in Avengers; events are mentioned, but these stories are basically standalone. While I understand that Thor can’t team up with Iron Man, it would be nice if an invasion of fucking elves actually impacted someone outside of Great Britain. The first sequel to actually further  the Marvel Movie Universe is Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

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The premise: Post-Avengers, Cap is now S.H.I.E.L.D.’s elite soldier. Rather than feeling at home, Cap begins to question his allegiance while operating in the shadowy world of intelligence. Things get worse when a threat from inside S.H.I.E.L.D. puts him at odds with the organization. Things get worser (I think that’s a word) when a mysterious assassin appears to oppose him: the Winter Soldier.

For anyone who actually cares, this film is partially based on several comic series I would suggest checking out: Secret Warriors, Fury’s Secret War, and primarily Ed Brubaker’s The Winter Soldier.

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To start, the title of this film is mildly misleading. The Winter Soldier is at best a subplot in this very dense film. Most of the film centers around yet another thinly-veiled “freedom or security” debate which stretches much further than any of the other Marvel films. These plots have become overused in actual comics, but not as much in superhero films so it’s not totally objectionable. What distinguishes the plot is that it serves as a reaction to the events of The Avengers, which would probably lead to an increased desire for world security just as 9/11 did. Since this is a Captain America film, it’s appropriate that the embodiment of American Dream has to weigh in on a post 9/11 world. It would have been great if he could have weighed in a decade ago but whatever.

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The main attraction of the film is action and deservedly so. What’s great about the film is that it combines some of the low-key practical combat of the the first film and The Avengers with a few “holy shit!” superhero moments. As a friend of mine noted, Cap gets to have his “Legolas versus a mammoth” moment that is easily one of the most badass things ever. One of the biggest complaints about the film’s predecessor was that most of the good action was in a montage. While I wasn’t as bothered by this (as an 80’s film fan) , I can assure you that every scene is given a pretty decent run-time without any montages. These scenes manage to have a large variety as well, ranging from car chases, elevator brawls, and aerial combat.

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As far as performances are concerned, it’s par for the course. Chris Evans is still a bit too “kiddy” for the ultimate authority figure at times, but his earnestness contrasts well with Johansson and Jackson’s usual cynical performances. Robert Redford plays his fairly obvious role well and i’ll leave it at that. Anthony Mackie is a great addition as the down-to-earth Sam Wilson aka “The Falcon”, which helps to keep Cap in line with his identity as a soldier. My only real complaint here is that the film, like many of it’s contemporaries, has a very jarring plot twist which should be much more disturbing than how the protagonists react to it. This is the same issue in Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World. I get that the Whedon-esque flippancy of the cast means they can stay deadpan throughout any scenario, but I think given the weight of what happens, I would at least expect a bit more emotion.

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In terms of plot, this film is a bit of a mixed bag. As usual, the “freedom vs security” plot goes in the most obvious direction since this is America, after all.  The original Winter Soldier arc told a tale of a Captain America who had to come to grips with being witness to unsavory government acts during World War 2, particularly with the Soviets. The titular Winter Soldier, a Soviet assassin, was a remnant of World War 2 come back to haunt him. The series was one of the few to show Cap’s incongruity with the real world as a hindrance to his position as America’s spirit. This film goes somewhat against this: Cap’s old timey beliefs in small government and “overt” intelligence are justified in the film’s climax. As always, Cap is never wrong. In the film, rather than being a fellow soldier suffering through war memories, Cap’s relationship to the Winter Soldier is based more on their mutual roles as elite soldiers kept in the dark about their superior’s goals. While the film differs a bit from it’s sources, it isn’t supposed to be an adaptation or a deep reflection on politics, so the plot is passable.

One of the last things i’d like to note about the film is that it’s oddly subversive of usual gender dynamics. The film doesn’t go in the Cap/Black Widow route or any romance route for that matter. Hell, he’s more obsessed with  saving his male buddies in the film, while the three female characters get to be (gasp) competent partners. There’s not even a “save the girl” moment! This in contrast to most superhero films, where most women have big “kidnap me” signs on their backs. While this might sound minor, it’s a big step in a mainstream film like this.

Final Verdict

Overall, this is an enjoyable film. The plot isn’t anything new, but at least gives a new dimension to the Marvel films. Chances are you’re going to see this for action and one-liners and that’s here in spades. The only reason not to see this is if you’re un-american. If so, get off my site you damn commie.

 

 

Bullets and Bushido: The Cultural Exchange of Samurai and Western Films

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American and Japan has had lots of cross-cultural exchanges. We gave them baseball, karaoke, and cheeseburgers. They gave us karate, sushi, and women-shaped body pillows. One of the most prominent exchanges was through our films, particularly Westerns. The quintessentially American genre unexpectedly impacted Japanese filmmaking through legendary director Akira Kurosawa. He cited John Ford, director of Stagecoach and The Searchers, as one of his primary inspirations. His love of the Western backdrop was showcased in his ‘Chambara’ (“sword-fighting“) films Seven Samurai and Yojimbo. Both films dealt with hardened soldiers fighting equally hardened villains against the endless countrysides of Japan. These films were so iconic that they inspired Western remakes themselves: The Magnificent Seven (1960) and A Fistful of Dollars, respectively. This begs the question: what connects the two genres so closely?

Stagecoach (1939)

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To start: lets look at the work of Ford. While the Western genre existed well before his influence, Ford turned it from light fare to grand opera. His Western frontier stretched beyond just shootouts to the very core of human nature, especially class. Stagecoach focused on a group of obvious class caricatures – a greedy banker, a haughty socialite, etc – riding on the titular stagecoach towards a far off destination. We see class distinctions at play as one of the occupants, a prostitute, is only on the stagecoach due to her being kicked out of town for her profession. Likewise, she’s treated like a disease during the trip. That is until the arrival of  fugitive ‘The Ringo Kidd’ played by John Wayne in his breakthrough role (he’s in the middle of the photograph). He joins the stagecoach party to avenge his father and brother’s murders at the hands of outlaws living at their destination. Along  the way, he falls in love with the prostitute without interest of her background. He, of course, is treated as badly as her due to his criminal status. This is despite his competency in a shootout, shown in a Navajo raid on the stagecoach and his eventual defeat of his family’s killers. Once their trip ends and he learns of his love interest’s profession, he still decides to marry her and they live happily ever after.

Unlike many Western heroes before him, The Ringo Kid was neither a ‘black hat’ or ‘white hat’. He was on the lowest rung of society but had an ethic that transcended its highest rung. He believed in honor and equality; risking his life for vengeance and seeing past his love’s low station. Several culture theorists say that the Western Gunslinger archetype is America’s version of the knight. Both figures of power and discipline; the gunslinger is distinguished by his democratic appeal. Rather than being of noble birth, the gunslinger merely needs to be handy with a revolver. He can be a man with no name.

Seven Samurai (1954)

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Likewise, Kurosawa’s heroes didn’t even need to be actual samurai. Seven Samurai‘s protagonists don’t serve a master (samurai means “those who serve in close attendance to the nobility“) making them technically ‘Ronin’, which basically means ‘vagrant”‘. They are hired by a farming town to drive off a group of bandits who constantly rob them. We see that the samurai’s allegiance isn’t due to money, but the destitution the farmers had been reduced to under the bandits’ tyranny. The not-so-subtle parallel is evident when looking at the time period: 1587 Japan was going through it’s “Warring States” period where the lower class objected against elitist oppression. The government was the real life bandit. As with Stagecoach, the heroes of Seven Samurai straddle the line of distinction and commonality: they were government officials themselves until circumstance left them as vagrants. They had the discipline of their former station along with common wisdom.

Not all of the connections between the two genres are positive. Part of the reason Samurai and Gunslingers were becoming increasingly more “common” was because they were losing their status in both fiction and reality. Seven Samurai showcases the degradation real-life samurai faced as social hierarchy was being challenged. Not only were they reduced to vagrants, but their moral impunity was beginning to lapse as well. Kikuchiyo – one of the Seven who was an orphaned farmer and never even a real samurai –  calls out the other six when they consider killing the farmers for robbing other samurai:

[Farmers]  pose as saints but are full of lies! If they smell a battle, they hunt the defeated! Farmers are stingy, foxy, mean, stupid and murderous! But then, who made them such beasts? You did! The samurai did it! You burn their villages! You destroy their farms! Steal their food! Force them to labor! Take their women! And kill them if they resist! So what should farmers do?

Despite the romance of samurai lore, they were kind of dicks. Like knights, samurai were noblemen first and gentlemen second (if at all). As Kikuchiyo alludes to, many abused their stations. Hell, for all we know, the bandits who’ve been robbing them could have been ex-samurai: it wasn’t that uncommon for unemployed samurai to resort to crime. This narrative reflects a changing cultural attitude in 50’s Japan. Post-World War 2, Japan took a hard blow to its nationalism. The government lacked much of the moral high ground it once had. The Samurai was iconic of the nation, therefore it was only appropriate that they would lose much of their veneer as well.

The Searchers (1956)

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Despite being on the winning end of World War 2, America too began to question the heroism of their icons. As with samurai, real-life “Wild West” gunmen were mostly ex-soldiers; veterans of the Civil War who fought for the Confederacy. As you can imagine, the burgeoning civil rights movement made these guys look pretty bad in retrospect. For the Western hero, racism often replaced the samurai’s classism. Ford’s The Searchers has as it’s protagonist another iconic John Wayne character: Ethan Edwards. Like The Ringo Kidd, Edwards is implied to have a criminal past after his Civil War service. Unlike Ringo, he’s not nearly as liberal in his sentiments. Edwards is established as prejudiced towards Native Americans when he rejects his adopted nephew due to his partially Comanche heritage. This isn’t helped much when most of his family is killed by Comanches who then kidnap his two nieces. In his quest to retrieve them, he resorts to tactics such as desecrating Comanche graves in order to keep them from going to the afterlife and driving off their cattle to starve them. He even uses his nephew as bait to lure out an attacker. As the quintessential Western hero, Wayne’s trajectory from noble cowboy to racist sociopath is pretty jarring. Just as the Samurai represented unsavory elements of Japan’s past, The Searchers signalled a growing cynicism towards the “good ol boys” of classic Westerns.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

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Ford’s next major western – The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance – established the death of the classic Western hero. The film takes place in 1910 after the death of veteran gunslinger Tom Doniphon, yet another iconic role of John Wayne. His body is visited by Senator Ransom Stoddard, played by Jimmy Stewart (to the right of the photograph), who begins to recount to a local newspaper the story of their conflict with local outlaw Liberty Valance several decades prior. After being assaulted by Valance, Stoddard vows to stop his tyranny. Of course, he attempts to do this legally, which is scoffed at by Doniphon, who believes the only way to put an end to his gang is with a bullet. Their ideological conflict is the centerpiece of the film: Stewart tries to civilize the town as a lawyer, educator and eventual governor candidate, while Wayne clings to the ways of the cowboy. They even end up fighting over the same woman. What makes this different from previous Wayne films is that he doesn’t get to be the hero. Stoddard succeeds in bringing civics to the frontier town, allowing it to resist Valance’s criminal control. He gets the girl too. But the real tragedy is that the actual shooting of Valance, which was attributed to Stoddard, was actually Doniphon’s attempt to save Stoddard’s life and boost his reputation. Doniphon’s heroic act allows for Stoddard to have an upward climb to Senator. What does Doniphon get? He loses his girl, his ranch, his sobriety and is forgotten in history. Yippie ki yay. Even though men like Stoddard began the work that would bring the frontier into civility, it was men like Doniphon that allowed those men to reach that point. And yet, like a gun-toting Moses, Doniphon never got the enjoy the fruits of his labors.

By the late 60’s, the few Westerns being made were increasingly subversive of the genre. As the iconic John Wayne became a dinosaur, he was replaced by a much darker gunslinger: Clint Eastwood.

A Fistful Of Dollars (1967)

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Whereas John Wayne’s heroes were always local protectors, Eastwood was always an anonymous drifter. Whereas Wayne had clear intent, Eastwood schemed. The film that established this new kind of gunslinger was Sergio Leone’s A Fistful Of Dollars (the first of the Man With No Name trilogy). But the film that established this hero beforehand was the film A Fistful Of Dollars was an adaptation of: Kurosawa’s Yojimbo.

Yojimbo (1961)

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Before there was Clint Eastwood, there was Toshiro Mifune, one of the stars of Seven Samurai. His character of Kikuchiyo established him as being able to play honorable vagrants. This continued in Yojimbo, where he plays a nameless drifting ronin who plays two violent gangs against each other in order to save a town. We’re not given a clear rationale for why he wants to do so, but he helps the town nonetheless. Rather than gaining a wife or getting paid, he simply moves on once he’s done. As with Tom Doniphon in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and the Man With No Name, being a lone samurai hero turns out to be a pretty thankless job. As Kambei Shimada of Seven Samurai alludes to at the end, what these men accomplish is only beneficial to ‘The People’ and not them. Since these soldiers were meant to be in service to the public (at least in theory), it makes sense that these idealized heroes were a catharis for filmmakers and audiences. The soldier acts for the good of The People and then fades away into obscurity like a good boy. This idea is explored in Yojimbo‘s sequel Sanjuro.

Sanjuro (1962)

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Once again, Mifune’s nameless ronin has to help out those weaker than him. Ironically, they are nine well-meaning but incompetent samurai under threat of a corrupt superintendent. As you can tell, the implied politics of Seven Samurai is quite explicit here. The ronin protects the samurai from the superintendent’s forces in his usual lethal way. Except this time, we see that his actions have more personal consequences. He’s called out by the wife of the samurai clan’s master, who says he’s like a “glittering sword…but a sword should stay within it’s scabbard“. This statement is contradictory: putting the sword in its scabbard not only hides its “glitteriness”, it renders it useless. She’s asking the ronin to nullify himself. Despite his abilities, men like him are a destructive breed who need to be contained and not celebrated. Upon hearing this, he attempts to use less violent methods, but is forced to kill when the other samurai act out their incompetence. As in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, martial and civil authority must work in concert to achieve the best ends. Unfortunately, the best ends mean a world without soldiers. Once the superintendent is defeated, the ronin leaves before he can be invited to the clan. Their master thinks that the ronin knew he would be unable to serve a master. More importantly, their master thinks he shouldn’t be part of the clan due to his wildness. Sure enough, once the other samurai catch up with the ronin, they see that the superintendent’s top man, an equally strong warrior, is unwilling to let him leave without a duel to the death.

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The ronin refuses out of respect, but the man doesn’t relent. So they duel.

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Guess who won?

Rather than celebrating another victory, the ronin departs in anger and sadness. He chastises the samurai for praising his abilities and bitterly tells them to “stay in their scabbards“. He then walks away, never to be seen again. Not only does our hero get nothing for his efforts, we realize just how tragic a life of constant battle really is. Even though he wanted to be the man the master’s wife wanted him to be, he’s unable to fit into their world. As with Doniphon, the ronin helps usher in a more civil and democratic Japan that he doesn’t belong in.

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Despite cultural boundaries, people often have more in common than they think. While the lone gunman cast out from society might seem like a particularly American notion, we see that it’s not too far off from the former samurai who lost his position in the world. Time and circumstance can often be great equalizers. The gunslingers and samurai were once paragons of virtue, but history often casts them as savages. At best, they’re regarded as nostalgic ghosts of the past. But history is multi-faceted. While we might realize that these guys probably shouldn’t exist now, we also realize we’d be in deep shit if they never existed. For better or worse, they helped carve their respective nations (when not carving up each other). And as society evolves, figures such as these will be part of our cultural fabric. Just replace The Ringo Kidd with John McClane or Yojimbo with Luke Skywalker. Despite some unsavory elements, these archetypes represent several things we hold dear: discipline, bravery, and most importantly, heroism. The best we can do is accept the good and the bad in order to appreciate our collective history.

For more thoughts on film and history:

You Only Live Twice: The Deconstruction of James Bond

The Unfortunate Undeath of Chivalry: The Implications of Romance in Hollywood

Django Unchained: Reflections on Calvin Candie

The Decay of the American West in Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Black Masculinity in Narrative Media: Noble Savages

 

You Only Live Once: The Deconstruction of James Bond

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With 23 canon films under it’s belt, the James Bond franchise is a media juggernaut. It’s so popular that it’s imitators (Austin Powers, Mission: Impossible) are iconic themselves. Despite this, there’s an underlying reality that even the franchise’s producers can’t ignore: James Bond is fucking old. No matter how many reinventions, the character will continue to be a relic of a bygone era.

Author Ian Fleming, a British intelligence officer himself, created Bond in 1953 as an Imperialist fantasy. Ironically, Britain was steadily losing it’s imperial power as the series continued due to mass decolonization and political failures such as the Suez Crisis.  Journalist William Cook noted in the British magazine New Statesman that “Bond pandered to Britain’s inflated and increasingly insecure self-image, flattering us with the fantasy that Britannia could still punch above her weight. This insecurity took the form of an Anglo-Saxon ubermensch who always got the girl, got the villain, and got his wine identifications correct. To further emphasize Imperialist authority, most of his villains were effete and/or foreign.

Dr. No (1962)

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The film series went in the same direction, but drifted toward political correctness as the times changed. Despite this, the writing was on the wall since the end of the 60’s: Bond was becoming a joke. Films like 1973’s Live And Let Die and 1979’s Moonraker, pandering to Blaxpoitation and Sci-Fi respectively, revealed a franchise struggling to keep up with popular trends.

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Audiences’ suspension of disbelief was waning; Bond didn’t seem relevant. When yet another Bond (Pierce Brosnan) was cast in 1995’s GoldenEye, the only act left to do was self-examination.

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GoldenEye took the first big step in the franchise’s reflection on itself. In-story, Bond was repeatedly cited as historically obscure. The topic is broached again in 2002’s Die Another Day and 2012’s Skyfall. Let’s take a look at how each film handles this idea.

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Still from the title scene

Out of the three films, GoldenEye is the most rooted in history. The first scene showcases Bond infiltrating a Soviet base in 1988, a year before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The timing of the mission links it with the twilight of the Cold War, and thus the twilight of Bond’s golden years. The new ‘M’ (Judi Dench) directly asserts that Bond is “a sexist, misogynist dinosaur. A relic of the Cold War”. She goes on to note that she’d be fine sending him to die in the field, which is a recurring element of these three films. This is a pretty dark way to start the beginning of Brosnan’s tenor, but I would suspect it’s an attempt to lampshade how dated the character is. For the most part, GoldenEye is a very straightforward Bond film (gadgets, women, cars, etc). Bond’s emasculation serves to engender him to a modern audience who aren’t as accepting of the patriarchal tone of the series. Hence why the film’s other two women challenge him as well: orgasmic assassin Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen) challenges him physically, whereas the computer expert/love interest challenges him emotionally by questioning Bond’s moral grayness.

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The ultimate challenge to Bond’s identity is his own reflection: Agent 006 Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean). In the 1988 mission, Alec was Bond’s partner until he was “captured”. In actuality, Alec’s decade long gambit was to get revenge on Britain for the betrayal of his parents.

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Turns out that Alec’s parents were not British at all but Russianspecifically World War 2 Soviet POWs who were sent back to Russia as part of an international treaty. This real-life act sent many to their death (or worse) at the hands of the Communists, which the British were aware of. Bond aptly remarks “not our finest moment. Alec’s background sheds light on the grim reality of the war Bond’s been fighting for years: there are no real heroes and villains. Alec is as much a “heroic Brit” as he is a “dirty commie”. The distinctions of the Cold War are shown to be as much of a fantasy as Bond is.

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Despite it’s initial deconstruction, GoldenEye is ultimately a straightforward Bond film. Alec is still a standard villain, the love interest still falls for our hero, and Bond still saves the day without consequence. Questions of Bond’s relevance evaporate once he impales a man with a satellite dish.

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If GoldenEye is the quarter-life crisis of Bond – a moody and inconclusive period of reflection – Die Another Day is his acid-dropping, motorcycle-riding, hooker-boning mid-life crisis. The film’s title scene sums up the tone perfectly: after being arrested for killing a North Korean general’s son, Bond is subject to various tortures (including hallucinogenic venom) demonstrated through an acid trip sequence combining his imagination and reality. Likewise, this film attempts to recreate the camp of Bond’s heyday, but ends up losing it’s grip on reality in the process. Remember that scene in Goldfinger (1964) where Bond is threatened by one laser?

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Now there’s THREE of them!

Most of the film’s tone is due to the fact that it marked the 40th anniversary of the series. This made creators feel they had to shallowly reference EVERY Bond trope imaginable. The premise itself has several references: after Bond is liberated from North Korea, he finds that an evil diamond-based organization (Diamonds Are Forever) is attempting to build a solar weapon of mass destruction (The Man With The Golden Gun). Bond then has to team up with an attractive female agent (The Spy Who Loved Me, License To Kill, Tomorrow Never Dies) to take down their eccentric billionaire leader (pretty much every film).

Many fans consider this film the ‘shark-jumping’ moment of Brosnan’s run and possibly the franchise as a whole (and not just because it had Madonna in a cameo).  The series had reached the point of self-parody. Stunts such as an obviously CG’d Bond surfing on tidal wave with a makeshift sail suggested Bond was trying to prove he’s still ‘hip’.

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Assuming he didn’t break his hip

Despite it’s silliness, the film still has historical roots.

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As with GoldenEye, we have a return to Cold War elements, but with a more black and white conflict. The villain’s father, General Moon, actually desires to create a bridge between North Korea and the West. He regards his son’s – Colonel Moon’s – warmongering as disgusting. Colonel Moon’s admiration for Communist North Korean ideals is portrayed as an affectation rather than a legitimate political stance: in one scene he criticizes Western capitalism only to have Bond note his visible legion of luxury cars. Despite his claims, Colonel Moon is a mercenary more interested in impressing his father than anything else;  allowing for him to be an acceptable target for Bond.

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Die Another Day once again has Bond face ‘himself’, albeit a version that is more pretender than worthy opponent. In order to gain support in Britain, Colonel Moon has a geneticist create a Caucasian visage for him. His new identity is a mockery of the 007: he’s disgustingly smug, unfailingly confident, and shallowly patriotic. His introduction succinctly establishes the character:

Moon/Graves ‘mixed’ cultural identity is similar to Alec Trevelyan, but Moon/Graves has significantly less historical justification for his actions. Colonel Moon’s North Korean patriotism is as shallow as his other identity’s British patriotism. He never considers that using the solar cannon to start a conflict with the West could embroil North Korea in a World War that they might not survive. When his legitimately patriotic father points this out, he proves his ‘nationalism’ by killing him. Moon justifies Bond’s relevancy by being a distorted cultural remnant of the Cold War; a rabid dog that has to be put down by good ol’ Britannia. Accordingly, the film is otherwise another standard romp where Bond gets his usual rewards.

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Even though Die Another Day and GoldenEye both focus on the ‘end’ of Bond, Skyfall serves the most as a send-off. The title theme begins with a lifeless Bond sinking into the depths with Adele assuring us that this is the end. Unsurprisingly, this was not true. Just as Die Another Day marked the 40th anniversary with Bond’s death and rebirth, Skyfall marked the 50th anniversary with resurrection. Overall, Craig’s entire tenor is meant to be the rebirth of Bond. The death of the previous Bond isn’t so much commemorated as it’s mocked with gusto: in 2006’s Casino Royale, Bond responds to a request for his martini to be shaken with “who bloody cares? The series went out of it’s way to not look back on the camp of it’s predecessors. With such an acidic attitude towards the Bond of yesteryear, it’s only fitting that the in-universe decline of Craig’s Bond is the most bittersweet.

The premise: after suffering friendly fire during a mission and being thought dead, Bond returns home to thwart a government hacking scheme orchestrated by a disowned agent. Unlike in Die Another Day, Bond’s return is more akin to a rising zombie than a rising phoenix. He’s physically diminished and his superiors believe he would have been better off dead. He and M’s failure to succeed in his aforementioned mission ends up putting both of their relevance into question. Ironically, M, the woman who asserted the end of Cold War-era spy tactics is now their greatest champion. While detractors of the ‘old guard’ claim the world of secret intelligence is more transparent due to the information age, she believes that the world is more opaque than ever.

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This opaqueness is represented by hacker antagonist Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem). As with Trevelyan and Moon/Graves, Silva is an enemy from within. Like Bond, he was a top agent allowed to die by M. After undergoing torture by enemy agents, he becomes convinced of MI-6’s (and Britain’s) triviality. His response is to destroy M and everything she represents. This film is as much about M as it is about Bond. Q’s allusion to an “old warship being hauled off for scrap pertains to both of them being considered obsolete “relics of the Cold War. As before, the film asserts that the two won’t go down without a fight. While explaining the relevance of MI-6 to a committee, M quotes Lord Tennyson’s poem Ulysses:

Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield

If you’re not aware, Ulysses is the Roman name of Odysseus: the protagonist of Homer’s Odyssey. The Greek tale chronicles his quest to sail home after the Trojan War. Several threats claim his crew and vessel. Stranded, he falls in with the goddess Calypso who offers him an island paradise, but Zeus declares he must return to his kingdom. This sounds familiar…

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Parallel to Odysseus, Bond inevitably is compelled by the Nation (by virtue of his unbridled patriotism) to return home, despite being in his own personal paradise on a notably undisclosed island. M also parallels Odysseus as a “soldier-turned-king” of MI6. Tennyson’s Ulysses examines how the titular hero felt after regaining his throne. M’s quote expresses that Odysseus was “not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven”, just as Bond, in-universe and in franchise, lacks the power he once had. But she continues; “that which we are, we are”. Despite losing some of his resonance, Bond hasn’t lost his cultural identity. And more importantly he, M, and Britain are still “strong in will to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”. Skyfall marks the end of M’s reign, but not her spirit. Her replacement is shown to realize the merits of her and Bond’s tactics, thus allowing for their ideals to continue. Our film ends not with grief over what was lost, but an assurance that Bond and MI6 will continue to serve.

Tennyson’s poem postulates a Ulysses who, despite barely surviving the Trojan War, still has a warrior’s spirit for challenge. Likewise, despite outlasting the Cold War which defined it, the Bond franchise still has potential. It’s possible that the reason these three films couldn’t help reasserting Bond is because Bond should be reasserted. Looking past unsavory cultural attitudes, Bond represents patriotism, public service, determination, bravery, among many other virtues. Each film showcases that he acts for a good greater than politics. He’s not just a fictional character, he’s an international hero. While the trappings might change, Bond will always be a cultural standby. This is as true for the franchise as it is for Britain (and other major nations for that matter). The mercurial nature of politics makes tradition all the more important, even when it requires modification. Just as Bond continues to survive and adapt, so will all of us who grew up with the character.

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For other posts on film franchises:

The Matrix: Reflections on Neo and Morpheus

Hail To The King: The Progression of Ash in Evil Dead

A Gullible Breed: What Men In Black Says About Humanity

Top 5 Bullies in Fiction

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Everyone’s had a bully at some point of their lives. If not, then you probably are / were a bully ( if so: not in the face, please ). Either way, we can all relate to bullying, which is why bullies are so familiar in fiction. The stereotypical bully is bigger than the protagonist, an athlete and most of all, monstrously violent. And yea, many times a bully really is just a brute with a gland disorder, but they are people as well. People who can fuck you up. So i decided to compile a list of some bullies who are particularly noteworthy.

5. Terry Filkins – Drillbit Taylor ( 2008 )

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This school is boring. Watching you freak out amuses me.

Fun Fact: This film was written by Seth Rogen and John Hughes under his pen name “Edmond Dantes” . Yes: “Breakfast Club – Sixteen Candles – Home Alone” John Hughes. This was also the last film he was involved with before his death. The premise: three nerds hire a bodyguard to protect them from two bullies. As a final film it’s…ok. Owen Wilson has his moments but the nerds are fairly trite and nothing else stands out either…except for the main bully, Filkins. Whereas the nerds in the film are a little too generic to be interesting, Filkins’ takes the equally generic bully stereotype to new heights. He begins as a standard bully, stuffing nerds into lockers and whatnot, but then quickly shifts into outright insanity. It turns out that he’s an extremely wealthy emancipated minor, which in the film’s logic means he can get away with destroying a student’s laptop, driving a car through people’s yards, attempting to run over people in broad daylight, and cutting off a man’s arm with a katana ( offscreen, unfortunately ).

Normally I hate the casually violent bully cliche because it’s hard to imagine in a modern school where adults are more reactionary. But the combination of Seth Rogen’s brashness and John Hughes’ 80’s nostalgia makes it more of an homage to the cliche itself. Rather than pretending as if he’s a normal bully, the film portrays Filkins as a violent psychopath who couldn’t and shouldn’t possibly exist in a modern school. His comeuppance at the end of the film is due to him chucking a sword at the nerds in the middle of a partyThis guy is so committed to being a bully that he’ll literally murder someone in front of several witnesses. I don’t care how you feel about bullying, that’s admirable.

4. Alan White – Freaks and Geeks ( 1999 – 2000 )

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” You like Bill Murray? Oh yeah? Bill Murray sucks! “

The stereotype of the bully is so ingrained that few writers actually question it’s validity. Bullies are the jocks. They’re the big men on campus. Everybody likes them, right? More often than not, no. Kids who often become bullies are often just as marginalized as the people they pick on. One of the few bullies to embody this is Alan White from Freaks and Geeks. Paul Feig and Judd Apatow’s short lived dramedy series is well known for subverting many high school tropes. The designated geeks’ oppressor Alan is even more odd than they are. Skinny and awkward, the “threat” of Alan is more due to his aggressiveness than his physicality. The pilot of the series builds up to a fight between the geeks and Alan, which amounts to this:

After such a pathetic show, Alan’s bullying became more verbal, throwing out brilliant jabs such as changing the name Sam Weir to Sam Queer. Ah high school. The character gained some depth in the episode Chokin’ and Tokin’. Thinking his allergies aren’t life-threatening, Alan tricks one of the geeks into eating peanuts, leading to him become hospitalized. Whoops. Concerned, Alan visits him in the hospital and has a candid moment while the geek is unconscious ( you can watch the actual clip here )

” I’m sorry. I was just goofing on you. It’s not like you guys were ever nice to me. In the 4th grade i used to think you guys were really cool. I remember when you guys brought a model of the Saturn 5 in for show and tell and I asked if I can shoot off rockets with you and you said no. So i’m supposed to be nice to you? I like comics and sci fi too but you never ask me to hang out. “

We see a great commentary on one of the often overlooked causes of bullying: the cycle of victimhood. Alan, clearly lacking social skills already, perceives the geeks’ probably unintentional dismissals in the past as rejection. Afraid of being vulnerable, he strikes back against them in order to justify his alienation. This blurs the nerd / bully distinction, since it forces us to view the protagonists as part of a culture of abuse. Earlier in the episode, two of the three geeks abandons plans to attend a convention. When one of the other characters in the series, a fellow geek with weight and odor issues, offers himself to go, the geek seems less than excited. Later on, he claims he can no longer go due to an issue at home, but it’s suspect whether or not he’s just blowing him off. Alan’s view of the geeks now has a bit of credence to it; it’s possible that their desire to be insular marginalized him. This scenario highlights the often murky milieu of high school power dynamics.

3. The Tannens – Back To The Future Series ( 1985 – 1990 )

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” Make like a tree and get out of here! “

Bullies come in all shapes and sizes. Nowhere is that more true than in the Back To The Future trilogy.

Back to The Future ( 1985 )

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To start, lets look at Biff Tannen: the definitive bully. He hits every single trope: he’s bigger than the protagonist, he’s a jock, he’s popular ( for no apparent reason ), he’s dumb, he extorts favors, he’s a rapist ( ! ), he’s a racist, and most of all, he’s a murderer ( at least in one timeline ) ! Tom Wilson puts in an underrated performance as Biff; he manages to be as funny as he is threatening, vacillating between being just obnoxious and being a physical threat.

Back to the Future 2 ( 1989 )

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He also portrays the settled nature of an older, more sinister Biff well in the second film. Rather than being a negligible schoolyard bully, he becomes a deeply corrupt sadist. This version of Biff is a Mr. Potter-esque figure who’s so evil that it permeates all of Hill Valley, turning it into a dystopia.

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Wilson’s performance as his great- grandson, inventively named “Griff”, is wonderfully uncanny. The implication is that he’s a cyborg, which comes through in his staccato movements and manic pitch. He’s a futuristic fantasy version of the schoolyard bully: Biff was a slow, Archie-style meathead while Griff is a robotic speedfreak.

Back to The Future 3 ( 1990 )

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The Tannen line stretches back to the Wild West, where Biff’s ancestor was a cowboy ( the closest thing to a bully in that backdrop ). Fittingly, Wilson based his performance on Lee Marvin in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance? ( 1962 ). Lee Marvin’s titular Liberty Valance begins the film by robbing an honest lawyer ( Jimmy Stewart ) and then beating him savagely just for talking back. Likewise, Buford Tannen has a massive sense of entitlement that makes him think something as minor as a $80 dispute is worth murder. Overall, this family shows that evil is sometimes in the blood.

2. Butch Deloria – Fallout 3 ( 2008 )

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” I could be out there and kicking butt in my own gang and everything. The Tunnel Snakes could ride again! Or, y’know, slither again. Whatever! “

Most media that depicts 1950’s American youth incorporates the gang subculture of ” Greasers “,  a primarily Italian and Hispanic social group associated with hot rods, leather jackets, and their titular greased hair.

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Given Fallout 3 1950’s influences, it was natural for them to draw upon this culture for the Lone Wanderer’s lifelong tormentor. We see this primarily through his design, but also through a deconstruction of the archetype. For example: his obsession with hair makes him want to be a barber, which a career assessment test refers to only as a ” hairdresser ” to his chagrin. Butch is generally characterized as a chump: when his room is infested with giant roaches, Butch enlists the Wanderer to save his mother because he’s terrified of them. You can also beat the shit out of him and his entire gang as a teenager. It’s funny to think that in a post-apocalyptic world where violence becomes a norm, the resident gang-banger is a a bit of a pussy.

In spite of ( and partially due to ) these aspects, i feel as if Butch is a pretty interesting character. As with Alan White, the character is marginalized from the insular vault community. His mother is a promiscuous alcoholic, which led him to be born not knowing his father. This is probably the cause of his asshole behavior. Once the character makes it to the wasteland, he becomes interested in expanding his vault gang, the Tunnel Snakes. Which consists of just him and the wanderer at that point. At least the jackets are pretty cool.

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So why is this guy such a big deal? Well honestly, he isn’t in the canon of the game; he’s statistically the worst partner you can have. His starting weapons are a switchblade ( being a gang-banger and all ) and a 10 mm handgun. Mind you, this is a game where powered armor exists. The only unique thing he offers the player is, I shit you not, free haircuts.

Despite his gameplay shortcomings, i always felt the character had great potential as a foil to the Lone Wanderer. Like the Wanderer, he’s a teenager from the vault without battle experience. He also has a missing dad as well. Whereas the wanderer wants to leave to find his Dad, Butch just wants freedom. If Fallout 3 was more character-driven, he’d probably be the most interesting guy in the game. One of the primary themes of the Fallout series is letting go of the past and looking to the future. That fits in perfectly with Butch and the archetype he draws from: in West Side Story ( 1961 ), the greaser hoods have all been marginalized into their paths by their race and economic backgrounds. Even Fonzie from Happy Days, a heroic greaser, was shown to have redeemed himself from a tragic urban back-story with a missing father and gang connections. Imagine a story that powerful, but with laser guns! And i’m not the only one who thinks the guy has potential; some players have even modded Fallout: New Vegas ( 2010 ) to include the overlooked Butch Deloria. Hopefully, the actual game creators could take note and include the guy in the future of the franchise.

1. Eugene ” Flash ” Thompson – Spider-Man ( 1962 – Present )

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Puny Parker!

In a heroic tale, antagonists elevate a protagonist into heroism. For superheroes, this is mostly accomplished by supervillains. Given that the Spider-Man franchise draws much of it’s appeal from how the fantastic affects the mundane, Peter Parker also got a high school bully. As you can tell from the panel, the initial conflict in their first appearance ( Amazing Fantasy #15 1962 ) was pretty standard: Thompson was a popular and attractive jock and Peter was an unpopular and unattractive bookworm. While now a cliche, it’s important to remember that there weren’t as many bully / nerd stories then, which makes the conflict more specific. Despite being a smart dude, Peter does lack several heroic qualities. In the mundane high school world, the primary qualities he’s lacking are humor, confidence, and sexual charisma.

The Amazing Spider-Man #2 ( 1963 )

Umm...yea. Great comeback.

Umm…yea. Great comeback.

This is something most modern media don’t get about these archetypes: while audiences are often either “nerds” themselves or sympathize with nerds, that doesn’t mean nerdy characters are inherently admirable. This is a problem in media such as The Hard Times of RJ Berger, The Big Bang Theory, and the aforementioned Drillbit Taylor that create one-note nerds who never grow into compelling heroes. In contrast, once Peter Parker’s dangerous and thrilling lifestyle as Spider-Man allows him revisit his conflict with Flash from a competitive position. Peter is able to return Flash’s insults, fluster him with his bravado, and get his girl to make eyes at him.

The Amazing Spider-Man #13 ( 1964 )

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The conflict between the two isn’t always the same in every iteration; several versions portray their relationship more violently. While Flash does threaten Peter, their relationship almost never incorporated violence in the original series. Both Spider-Man film series turn Flash into a psychopath who would beat Peter’s face in for sneezing on him. This of course sets up the inevitable fight where Peter beats his ass and we all cheer. Stan Lee, rather than going for immediate gratification, builds a relationship between the two that remains playfully combative through clever wordplay and one-upmanship. While not witty, Flash’s combination of machismo, deluded confidence, and goofy Steve Ditko-drawn mugging makes him pretty funny.

The Amazing Spider-Man #25 ( 1965 )

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Granted, they have a formal boxing match at one point that turns out exactly as you think it would.

The Amazing Spider-Man #8

ASM8 - Fighting Flash

Slowly, Flash begins to realize that Peter is more admirable than he originally thought.

The Amazing Spider-Man #39 ( 1966 )

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Flash himself became more admirable as well; his obsession with Spidey makes him want to be a hero himself. He later joins the military, loses his legs, becomes an alcoholic, and gains the Venom symbiote. Comics are weird. In a totally not gay way, Flash is sort of like Lois Lane, given his Peter-hate-that-turns-into-respect and admiration of Spidey. A combative yet not-overly-malicious teenager relationship is a hard thing for modern writers to do, which makes all the more impressive how well Stan Lee handles it. Flash challenged Peter, but as a shortsighted rival and not as a sadistic thug. Likewise, rather than backing down or becoming violent, Peter finds the inner strengths he’s always had to measure up. Their mutual growth embodies the constant progression of The Amazing Spider-Man series throughout the decades.

So what have we learned from these characters? Bullying is wrong…except when part of a well crafted story.

To read some more of my pop-culture lists:

10 Underrated Movie Characters That Fans Really Hate

10 Cover Gimmicks That Cheapened Great Characters

10 Stupid Attempts At Rebranding Comic Characters

8 Most Iconic Slasher Movie Death Scenes

10 Thankfully Obscure Spider-Man Villains