Catching Fire straightwashes its stars

Catching Fire, the Hunger Games follow-up, ranks among this year’s best films, achieving the rare status of a sequel better than its predecessor. Praise for Jennifer Lawrence, fresh from Oscar success and giving one of her best performances, justifiably saturates reviews, but the real revelation is director Francis Lawrence (no relation), who draws magnetic work from the whole cast while dropping the shaky cameras and muffled sound that dulled the first film’s violent edge. Returning actors up their game without exception, none more than Donald Sutherland (whose scenery-chewing villain graduates here from standard beard-of-evil scowler to frame-filling, scene-stealing menace) and Elizabeth Banks, comic and tragic by equal turns as effete mistress of ceremonies Effie; newcomers Philip Seymour Hoffman and Jeffrey Wright impress as gamemaker Plutarch and tech-savvy Beetee, winning me over despite clashing with my vision of their characters, and Jena Malone embodies deadpan, axe-wielding Johanna Mason to a tee. The film’s fidelity as an almost scene-for-scene dramatisation of Suzanne Collins’ novel is its greatest pleasure, hunks of dialogue lifted directly from the page – it’s a shame, then, that the book’s occasional homoerotic frissons are quashed by Hollywood.

Finnick Odair, the trident-wielding, frequently naked victor from District 4 emerges the one character the film gets wrong in my eyes. In the book, he’s described as follows on first meeting Katniss:

Finnick Odair’s famous sea-green eyes are only centimetres from mine. He pops a sugar cube in his mouth and leans against my horse.

. . .

Finnick Odair is something of a living legend in Panem. . . . [H]e was a Career, so the odds were already in his favour, but what no trainer could claim to have given him was his extraordinary beauty. Tall, athletic, with golden skin and bronze-coloured hair and those incredible eyes. While other tributes [his] year were hard-pressed to get a handful of grain or some matches for a gift, Finnick never wanted for anything, not food or medicine or weapons. . . .

The citizens of the Capitol have been drooling over him ever since.

Because of his youth, they couldn’t really touch him for the first year or two. But ever since he turned sixteen, he’s spent his time at the Games being dogged by those desperately in love with him. No one retains his favour for long. He can go through four or five in his annual visit. Old or young, lovely or plain, rich or very rich, he’ll keep them company and take their extravagant gifts, but he never stays, and once he’s gone he never comes back.

I can’t argue that Finnick isn’t one of the most stunning, sensuous people on the planet. But I can honestly say he’s never been attractive to me. Maybe he’s too pretty, or maybe he’s too easy to get, or maybe it’s really that he’d just be too easy to lose.

Note the determined absence of references to gender: ‘citizens’, not ‘women’ of the Capitol; ‘those’, not ‘girls’, who are in love with him; ‘four or five’ per visit, with no appended noun. Finnick, the text seems to imply, courts male and female desire as indiscriminately as ‘old [and] young, lovely [and] plain, rich [and] very rich’. In the third book, Mockingjay, he reveals just as non-specifically his sale by authorities as a sex slave:

‘President Snow used to … sell me … my body, that is,’ Finnick begins in a flat, removed tone. ‘I wasn’t the only one. If a victor is considered desirable, the president gives them as a reward or allows people to buy them for an exorbitant amount of money. . . . To make themselves feel better, my patrons would make presents of money or jewellery[.]’

On film, Sam Claflin’s Finnick seemed to me a womaniser in the classic sense, cocky, objectifying and chauvinistic, another of American celluloid’s preppy, athletic playboys. In a word, he seemed distinctly straight. The sugar cube scene in which he first meets Katniss plays as if he’s making Conneryesque overtures, but Finnick is no Sean Connery. He’s ‘pretty’, as much a sex object as she is if not more, seductive rather than entitled, coquettish rather than just coarse, wooing seemingly both men and women. (Beyond how his public appeal is described, it’s notable that almost all Panem’s higher-up movers and shakers, among whom Finnick is sold around, seem to be men.)

One of Catching Fire‘s more comic moments comes in the book as Peeta is electrocuted striking a force field. Katniss, with next to no knowledge of CPR, outlines Finnick’s attempts at first aid thus:

Finnick props Mags against a tree and pushes me out of the way. ‘Let me.’ His fingers touch points at Peeta’s neck, run over the bones in his ribs and spine. . . . I pull an arrow, whip the notch into place, and am about to let it fly when I’m stopped by the sight of Finnick kissing Peeta. . . . Then Finnick unzips the top of Peeta’s jumpsuit and begins to pump the spot over his heart with the heels of his hands.

Lawrence’s film not only fails to capitalise on this, but crops it conspicuously from the frame, no mouth-to-mouth contact left visibly in shot – something of a slap in the face, it must be said, for fans who enjoyed this moment’s ambiguity. (The pretext is medical, of course, but isn’t Finnick’s every action a double entendre of some kind?) It’s odd to say the least if public floggings, executions and fights to the death were deemed suitable for audiences but even ostensibly non-sexual male lip-locking got cut.

Similar comments could be made of Johanna, whose textual self like Finnick seemed coated in bisexuality. Unlike his, her personality remains intact in the adaptation, but various tense moments between her and Katniss are altered or left out. In Collins’ pages, their first exchange regards sartorial style. ‘That strapless number you wore in District Two?’, Johanna asks her. ‘So gorgeous I wanted to reach through the screen and tear it right off your back.’ The film, on the other hand, skips this line, bringing Johanna in moments afterward as she disrobes before Katniss and Peeta and playing up the safely heterosexual side of this encounter: as she has Peeta undo her zip and winks raunchily at wizened Haymitch, we’re invited simply to think she plans on psyching Katniss out by flirting with her man, where in fact the book’s both the earlier line and Peeta’s dialogue afterward suggest her stripping down, like Finnick’s teasing with the sugar cubes and another tribute’s unexpected kiss, is a come-on intended to fluster.

We’ve seen this kind of straightwashing in Hollywood before, of course – in GatsbyFried Green TomatoesThe Color Purple. I only wish The Hunger Games could have avoided it, since its characters lose out as a result.



Spoiler-free first thoughts on Thor: The Dark World

Just having emerged from Thor: The Dark World since a friend reminded me to see it, I type this from the Carlisle branch of Waterstones. (From the Costa, that is, strangely if typically built in. The Earl Grey satisfies; milk rationing per cup continues to frustrate.)

Conclusive thoughts on films take time to form, and usually, at least in my case, repeat views. It’s very possible then that I’ll write about The Dark World in more detail down the line, and that feelings I have now will change, but it seems worth giving a brief summary of how it left me. Spoilers are fair game in the comments, but I’ll leave overt ones out for now.

First things first, it’s notable Thor is only the second Marvel franchise from its recent, interlinking stand to get a sequel. Before last year’s The Avengers – I refuse to use the UK title – only Iron Man had received a second film, which itself strayed from the usual sequel format – what weighed down Iron Man 2, to many fans’ frustration, was its use as the first proper chapter of the S.H.I.E.L.D. arc, introducing us to Howard Stark, Black Widow and the gears of S.H.I.E.L.D. itself, important elements in films which followed. World-building of this kind is what’s expected of a series’ first instalment usually, and in terms of branching out the onscreen universe in view, one could say Iron Man 2 served as just that. The Dark World isn’t just the first ‘part two’ since then, it’s the first story within its continuity that doesn’t need to be anything else. (Iron Man 3, released this April, was similarly self-contained, but see the number in the title.)

Cutting to the case then, or at least the highlights, there are lots of things in this film to love, above all its cast and their performances. If his place with Tom Hardy and Ben Whishaw as one of film’s next great Britthesps were still in any kind of doubt, Tom Hiddleston’s scenery-chewing, even in barren wastelands and glorified CG slagheaps, clinches the deal, as does his stamina for moral line-treading even three films in. Christopher Eccleston, contrary to almost everything you’re likely to have read, is neither underused nor overkill as villain Malekith (whose skin, disconcertingly I felt, appears to darken as his evil grows). While I wouldn’t have said no to more of him, I didn’t feel like I missed out. Supporting actors round out the cast well on all sides, though there are perhaps a few too many – with names in play like Hopkins, Skarsgård and once-again-sidelined Rene Russo, alongside Alice Krige in a delightful bit part, it’s a shame not to give some of them more time than they get here.

Praise goes too to a smörgåsbord of gorgeous moments, from the Ancient-Norse-meets-science-fiction space battle through gleaming towers and spires half way through to the wondrous, under-utilised setpiece of a warehouse found early on by children which defies physics (floating trucks and all) and the climax of the film in Greenwich, where loveably unsubtle Thor looks valiantly out of place in greyscale London (brace for a tube gag almost as good as when Skyfall did it) and which plays out like Man of Steel was made by someone competent. It’s a shame The Dark World opens, in seemingly dogged keeping with the formula from Thor, with a voiceover from Odin, when either of the first two might have made a stunning introductory sequence. The warehouse in particular evokes Guillermo del Toro’s style, which one feels filmmakers hoped to suggest with the Dark Elves’ design.

It’s not as funny as reviews suggest, or at least I didn’t find it so. I’ll grant that I saw it, as I often try to with new films, in a nearly empty cinema, and the group dynamic of a packed house often helps with comedy, but then again, I fell about watching Iron Man 3 in a comparable sparse room. This said, some moments play fantastically. Half way through or so, Loki especially receives some quite wonderful quips, delivered rapid-fire like Roger Moore’s in The Spy Who Loved Me (Bond fans may be reminded, specifically, of Barbara Bach’s van-driving scene). A metereological slapstick sequence in the first hour – yes, this is now a concept – offers surreal genius, as does the groaning slide of battling demigods down the glass side of London’s gherkin. One more serious gambit which impresses is a loyalty-switching, limb-severing development far less expected than it should have been, testament to the acting chops of all involved.

It’s The Dark World‘s script, unfortunately, which lets it down. The picture wanders aimlessly for much of its just-less-than-two-hour length, some elements included for no clear reason – among them, for example, a battle and later callback on a forested, seemingly Asian planet and a sketchy lecture-giving scene from Skarsgärd. The effect is most of the film’s gratifying action and fun being left to its second hour (web commentary so far gets this weakness spot-on), and as Den of Geek note in their spoiler-filled analysis, it never seems quite to know what to do next, and lacks in this sense the integritas of its predecessor. The plot’s MacGuffin, a haze of swirling, evillish red-black mist, and Malekith’s designs for it never quite work; I never really understood, nor cared much about, just what it did or how he planned to threaten/end/rule the cosmos with it. Two major deaths take place, neither of which entirely worked for me: the first, while not the one I expected on buying a ticket, bumped off a character I hadn’t much invested in to start with; the second, conversely, predictable while anticlimactic and emotionally unconvincing. There’d more to be said on both counts, but let’s hold that discussion in the comments.

Joss Whedon, we’d been told, gave this script a once-over polish – certainly, his work shows through in the jokes and camera phone moments. Perhaps producers went to him sensing things weren’t quite right yet, but if so he seems to have been too sheepish to advance the radical rewrites this really needed. Still, as a whole this a quintessentially good film, neither very good nor unsatisfactory – three stars, perhaps. Marvel’s Avengers series has still to give us a bad entry, and while overall this might be one of the weaker ones, it’s pretty fulfilling watched with managed expectations and a sense of fun.

A very British nightmare: 28 Days Later, Danny Boyle’s anti-imperialist zombie flick

Spoiler warning with immediate effect.

Content note: fictional scenarios mentioned of infanticide, racially motivated violence and (separate) sexual harassment, enslavement and attempted institutional and ritualistic rape-to-impregnate in a post-apocalyptic horror context.

Atop the Big Brother house, picking the undead off by long-range rifle through its outer fence, characters in Charlie Brooker’s Dead Set (Channel 4, 2008) wonder why zombies overrunning Britain gather outside. ‘Some kind of primitive intuition’, offers gauche outsider Joplin. ‘Don’t forget, this place was like a church to them.’ It’s a hat-tip to Dawn of the Dead, George A. Romero’s film whose walking dead are drawn by a instinct to a shopping centre where survivors hide; iconic scenes show them traipse brainlessly down retail aisles, hardly distinguishable from their former selves. Dead Set‘s treatment of reality TV reprises this as well, and both stories (if Brooker’s more overtly) are satirical, picturing consumerism’s nosedive into actual flesh-eating.

Zombie narratives make thought-provoking commentaries since they differ from us only in being dead – we see in them a duller, hungrier echo of ourselves, one less pronounced in vampires or werewolves, and their worlds feel instinctively like places ours has the potential to become. Loving genre parody Shaun of the Dead (2004) plays with this theme, and Dominic Mitchell’s social realist horror series In the Flesh, screened earlier this year on BBC Three, is built around it, but Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later was the film to codify the zombie flick as social criticism, reviving and updating it as a cinematic form. Its creatures, not zombies in strict terms at all, are raging, hyper-violent Britons, driven by fictional infection to mindless hostility; the aforementioned stories all owe something to it, and repeat views leave me more and more convinced it’s a horror of national identity.

Released ten years before the 2012 Olympics, whose opening Boyle would stage as a collage of British cultural iconography, the same hand is still visible at work in it. Bleak as it is, the film’s landscape is packed with imagery of this sort: a deserted London’s skyline, silent at its outset, a red bus on its side as if lying wounded; the black cab in which characters flee the city; the ruined castle where they picnic and stately home where they seek refuge; Manchester’s smoking ruins and the Lake District’s glacial valleys. Boyle’s Olympic ceremony leaps implausibly to mind in certain scenes, as a looted supermarket’s trolleys glide balletically into shot, horses canter unaware through English fields and wind turbines whirl next to the M6. Moments like these alternate surreally with ones of undiluted horror, suggesting the two might be sides of one coin. As we switch from pastoral idyll to Wyndhamian hell and back again, Cillian Murphy forced in his first major to end a feral child’s life, the thought occurs that what the script calls a ‘diseased little island’ might itself teeter between the two – that both are part of Britain’s character, infection merely letting them resurface.

Christopher Eccleston’s grotesque but somehow dignified commandant, Major Henry West, leads a troop of human villains who by obvious design (perhaps to emphasise this point) bring empire to mind. Lamenting his soldiers grow lebensmüde in their fortified, once upper class estate and sanctioning the rape of survivors Hannah and Selena (Skyfall‘s Naomie Harris in an early part), he confesses ‘I promised them women, because women mean a future.’ That Selena is black, a fact would-be perpetrator Corporal Mitchell fetishises, gives the soldiers’ planned sexual violence imperialist connotations, and procreation here seems little more than pretext for it: if pregnancy is what they want and not just an excuse, why Mitchell’s harassment of Selena on meeting her? Why no question of her current fertility, or whether ambiguously adolescent Hannah can conceive at all? Why force them, as West’s underlings do, to dress up in scarlet ball gowns?

Aptly-named West’s real motive may be as as colonial as his chaining and yoking the infected soldier Mailer, also black. ‘What do nine men do except wait to die themselves?’ he asks while justifying his scheme, hinting at homophobic paranoia – is West afraid the homosocial interplay of his brigade (‘You killed all my boys’, he later tells Murphy’s protagonist), unchecked by ceremonial sex with women, might flower into eroticism? These attitudes to sexuality, gender and race, ones Britain exported worldwide at its historical brutality’s peak, are dormant mainstays here of its establishment, reawakened by the (not quite) zombie plague. Even West’s voice implies he aspires to this regime, Eccleston’s native Salford showing through the major’s plummier, affected vowels, suggestive of a man with establishment pretensions, determined to appear above his roots.

A newer imperialism features too, if subtly, in Boyle’s film, released a year or so post-9/11 in Britain and mid-2003 stateside. Its opening shot, inserted perhaps during the War on Terror’s genesis, shows scenes of police attacks on British demonstrators, public chaos in the Middle East and topoi which would otherwise become familiar in the years after, before cutting away to reveal these on television screens, shown forcibly to a chimp clad with electrodes. The rage virus’s spread, about which nothing else is indicated, begins when animal advocates release infected chimps from this laboratory; should the fact this is the sole hint viewers get at the infection’s origins tell us, on some impressionistic level, that world politics Britain was entering at the time somehow created it? That the rage of rioters, soldiers and war victims the chimps are made to watch somehow transfers to them, and subsequently infected humans? Major West, at dinner with the film’s protagonists before revealing his men’s plans, comments that ‘people killing people’ is all he remembers seeing before the outbreak, ‘which to my mind puts us in a state of normality right now.’ The violence of the infected stems, it seems, from that already harboured and practised by Britain, especially through military men like him.

The corollary of this, embodied in Selena and Jim’s relationship, is that whatever use compassion has as an antidote to carnage, it has here and now. Their love story, a better one than zombie films have often told us, lies improbably at the film’s core: Selena, hard as nails and able to dismember her infected friend initially, regains some measure of humanity from Hannah and Jim during the film, despite initially warning him ‘If it happens to you, I’ll do it in a heartbeat'; Jim, initially reluctant to kill and slowing the party down, unearths his lethal side in order to save her and Hannah at the climax. When Selena, mistaking him for one of the infected as he kills Corporal Mitchell with his bare hands, hesitates to attack, Jim tritely, knowingly remarks ‘That was longer than a heartbeat.’ The moment their attitudes meet in the middle is when we know they care about each other, a balance between callousness and mercy being struck which offers some degree of hope, as if walking that fine line might be what saves them, and stops our own society’s collapse into an abattoir. Boyle’s film is a British nightmare, a horror of things lurking in our nation’s woodwork and what might befall us should we fail to toe the line.



Rowling’s Potter spin-off could be better than the previous films

[Warning: spoilers!]

Yesterday it emerged the Harry Potter franchise isn’t done. JK Rowling’s wizarding world, following her announcement of a spin-off film series, clearly has still to give up the ghost. (Or the dragon. Or the hippogriff.)

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, due for release presumably within the next two years, will be inspired by the fictive textbook of that name, mentioned peripherally in the Potter series, and perhaps the real-world version marketed for charity in 2001. The textbook’s author Newt Scamander, a kind of magical David Attenborough, will be the film’s lead figure, and the story will apparently take place in twenties New York, 70 years before Harry and Hogwarts.

I’m excited about this. As someone who grew up with Rowling’s books, in fact, I’m very excited by it.

The project’s attracted critics already, of course – nestled between rejoicing Potterheads, users on Twitter have labelled it a cash-in, Warner Bros’ attempt to milk a sacred cow for never-ending profit. They’re right, of course: film studios seldom let a moneymaking series die (hence this century’s ceaseless appetite for reboots), and why should Potter be an exception? Like Imogen McSmith at the Independent though, I don’t actually mind.

Plenty of films well liked by critics and by me have been cash-ins. Before its 2008 release, Iron Man was viewed as a barrel-scraping shot at siphoning the last financial dregs of a superhero genre past its prime, more camera-friendly names like Batman, Superman and Spiderman having been exhausted; in fact, it met with acclaim and helped revitalise comic book film. It spawned two sequels, themselves quite definite money-spinners, the first admittedly perfunctory but the second (earlier this year) the series highlight. X-Men: First Class was anticipated much the same way, but tends now to be viewed by fans – in competition with X2, another cash-raker – as the best X-Men to date. Most sequels are, in the end, pursued for profit, but plenty are seen widely as eclipsing their precursors: Terminator IISpider-Man 2, Superman II, Batman Returns, The Dark KnightAliens, A Shot in the Dark, The Bourne Supremacy, Mad Max 2Star Trek II (the actually-second one), Godfather Part II; for my money, Scream 2. Beloved franchises exist, Star Trek and Bond among them, due in large part to studios’ cashing in.

Many a worthy film, of course, has been dragged through the dirt by mercenary trade-drumming. (Highlander producers, I’m looking at you: there really should have been only one.) It needn’t be so, though. Sans Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor, conceived to keep a flagship show in business, it wouldn’t now be toasting its fiftieth year – and what did JK Rowling’s publishers want anyway from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, another sequel better than its predecessor, if not profit? Fantastic Beasts could be something quite special, an exemplary cash-in-done-right – if so, in fact, it may be better far and away than the Potter films preceding it. A devotee for my sins of Rowling’s books, I never cared for Warner Bros’ adaptations; actually, I loathed them. Entering production with the books not yet half-published, they form a case study in how in how not to cash in on something – and, more specifically, how not to film a literary series.

Made much too soon, they had no chance to kit out their narrative with moments of prefiguration, as a film series made now would surely do  – exploring the Chamber of Secrets Horcrux more for instance as Rowling’s novel almost did, to avoid an expodump down the line which works in print but not celluloid, or weaving the Deathly Hallows’ symbol into scenes from earlier books – but in the end, they’re just bad adaptations. Steve Kloves’ scripts don’t just leave out key details and explanations, they make needless changes for their own sake, often (especially late in the series) showing disregard and disrespect for Rowling’s source material. It means something that Harry’s mother’s eyes were the same colour his are, i.e. not brown; that Wormtail exits via redemptive, self-sacrificing hero’s death, not getting knocked out by an elf; that Snape dies where he would have years before without a man he hated, Harry’s father, not in a random fucking boathouse. Characters’ names are indiscriminately mispronounced (the ‘t’ in Voldemort is silent), and they themselves are near universally miscast. The series as a whole feels horribly disjointed, directors, sets, composers, costumes and effects changing as frequently as Hogwarts’ staircases, and aesthetically plain wrong – there’s little to no sense here of a world detached for centuries from our own.

The single biggest problem with the Harry Potter films, in all these respects, is Harry Potter – more specifically, their being adaptations of a pre-existing narrative from Rowling’s books, against which they were bound to be assessed and failed in my view to measure up. In Fantastic Beasts she offers us what is at base a Potter film sans Potter – an independent story, written straight for film, in the same universe. Gone will be Kloves’ unfaithful scripts, with them unflattering comparisons with prior texts and convoluted plots. Newt Scamander is little more than named in the Potter novels; his character and history will be new to us, accepted on their own terms, not weighed against a prior version, and he’ll be twentysomething, played by a full-grown actor from the off. (Daniel Radcliffe, never a natural talent, deserves applause for working at his craft. Ironically, the more he blossoms in indie flicks like Horns and the forthcoming Kill Your Darlings – gasp at his note-perfect Ginsberg in its trailer – the more clearly wrong he was as a blockbusting action lead.)

That this project stands alone is what makes it, and why I hope established people and plots will be avoided. Forget the previous films, however satisfactory or not you found them: JK Rowling has carte blanche here, and she’s giving us her own fantasy film, with monsters and magicians roaming Jazz Age New York. On its own strengths, that’s a mouth-watering prospect – already, I’m hoping Guillermo del Toro directs – and facts to date show that given carte blanche, Rowling impresses.

Bonding with history: Skyfall’s postmodern 007

[Warning: spoilers!]

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.

So recites Judi Dench’s M midway through Skyfall, quoting Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’. As Thomas Newman’s soundtrack swells and Daniel Craig’s Bond tears on foot through Whitehall, it’s clear the text points to him as much as post-imperial Britain: like Ulysses, better known by his Greek name Odysseus, this film’s Bond is an aging sea dog come home, world-weary, after being lost in action, his kingdom fallen into disrepair. Skyfall, Bond’s own odyssey, is the franchise’s most strongly intertextual entry, classicist touches woven through its story. Even the famous Walther PPK, now fireable solely by him, is recast in Homeric terms, mirroring the bow only Odysseus is capable of drawing, proving his identity; Bond too is defined by his prowess as a marksman, not what it was since his exile – ‘Is there’, Javier Bardem’s villain asks during a shooting contest, ‘any of the old 007 left?’ – and it’s only in the film’s third act, when finally he regains his expert aim, that we know for sure Bond isn’t dead. (If the antique parallels seem contrived or unlikely, director Sam Mendes read English at Cambridge and co-writer John Logan penned Gladiator twelve years before.)

M’s speech namechecking Tennyson is itself a defence of old-fashioned, clandestine espionage. Earlier, as future successor Mallory worries MI6 are viewed as ‘antiquated idiots’, he admonishes her, ‘For Christ’s sake, listen to yourself. We’re a democracy, and we we’re accountable to the people we’re trying to defend. We can’t keep working in the shadows. There are no more shadows.’

‘You don’t get this, do you?’ M replies. ‘Whoever’s behind this, whoever’s doing it, he knows us. He’s one of us. He comes from the same place as Bond, the place you say doesn’t exist: the shadows.’ When interrogated at a government inquiry, she says this:

Today I’ve repeatedly heard how irrelevant my department has become. Why do we need agents, the double-0 section? Isn’t it all rather quaint? Well, I suppose I see a different world than you do, and the truth is that what I see frightens me. I’m frightened because our enemies are no longer known to us. They do not exist on a map, they’re not nations. They are individuals. And look around you: who do you fear? Can you see a face, a uniform, a flag? No. Our world is not more transparent now, it’s more opaque. It’s in the shadows. That’s where we must do battle. So before you declare us irrelevant, ask yourselves: how safe do you feel?

That Skyfall should be Dench’s final Bond film seems fitting, since this perfectly inverts the modernist aesthetic of the Pierce Brosnan era, in whose opener GoldenEye she first appeared. (Both films, incidentally, are named for Bond’s infant homes – in the latter case, the Jamaican house were Ian Fleming first conceived of him.) When Casino Royale rejigged the series continuity, depicting 007’s first mission, producers impressed by Dench’s M reportedly kept her on despite this complicating the timeline; to view her in GoldenEye and Skyfall side by side, it’s clear her two Ms are very different characters. On first meeting Brosnan’s Bond in 1995 that M – formerly a finance executive, dubbed ‘evil queen of numbers’ by Michael Kitchen’s Tanner – famously called him ‘a sexist misogynist dinosaur, a relic of the Cold War’, while the Craig era’s M has by contrast been a spymaster for decades, even declaring in Casino Royale that she misses the Cold War. By Skyfall M has come full circle from dogged forward progress to nostalgia, and so has the franchise.

Just as the First World War prompted literary modernism, so the USSR’s collapse prompted GoldenEye and films that followed – in a world where things had fallen apart, establishment and status quo crumbling in on themselves, they reached for innovation. Brosnan’s Bond wore a European businessman’s Brioni, wielded gadgetry more colourful than ever at the dawn of the online age and embodied the Blair governments’ fetish for New Britain: this 007 scaled the Millennium Dome, rappelled down the side of the Eden Project and worked at Vauxhall Cross, the new, nineties home of MI6, with Samantha Bond’s more PC Moneypenny, romantically emancipated and (in GoldenEye at least) dating someone else. In Tomorrow Never Dies and Die Another Day, Bond’s love interests (Michelle Yeoh and Halle Berry) were fellow agents from China and the U.S., whom he, filmmakers seemed overkeen to show us, was adept at satisfying sexually. As women of colour, in both cases, became his lovers, so MI6 grew interracial, Colin Salmon’s Charles Robinson replacing Tanner as chief aide to M.

The urge to modernise was, in the end, what alienated fans and almost tanked the series – particularly via 2002’s CGI-laden, bullet-time-ridden Die Another Day. Bringing Bond and his setting up to date meant bringing it away from Fleming, whose hero was an anachronism even at the time of his invention. Bond is an Eton old boy and naval Commander, pitched in Live and Let Die – written in the prelude to the U.S. civil rights movement – against criminally violent black people, and against cat-eating Koreans in Goldfinger. (‘Bond intended to stay alive on his own terms’, Fleming writes. ‘Those terms included putting Odd-Job or any other Korean firmly in place, which in Bond’s estimation was lower than apes in the mammalian hierarchy.’) He is the gamekeeper, as Den of Geek’s James Peaty writes, of an Empire whose absence his creator gravely mourned, and which is being fast deserted by the world around him. With his colonial instincts, ‘corrective’ seduction of Pussy Galore – her name originally refers not to what she has, but what she gets – and rage at fifty years of female emancipation, Bond is written as a man out of time, or steadfastly refusing, at least, to move with it.

The same could easily be said of him in Skyfall, which makes a point of its heroes feeling out of date. ‘You know the rules of the game’, M tells Bond. ‘You’ve been playing it long enough.’

‘We both have,’ he replies. ‘Maybe too long.’

It’s not just MI6 here which faces being deemed antiquated. Bond himself is older and slower than when we saw him last, ‘made weak by time and fate’ like Ulysses, struggling to stay in what Mallory calls a young man’s game. He is matched, moreover, against Bardem’s technoterrorist and with Ben Whishaw’s millennial Q, who chides him as a mere triggerman in the age of cyberwarfare. Bond’s argument, M’s, and the film’s as a whole is that triggermen today are needed; that as espionage and global conflict post-9/11 have been individualised (Silva, the film’s villain, rigs national elections from his solitary lair), so shadowy, individual cloak-and-dagger spies have become relevant again. Where keyboard warrior Q is tricked by Silva, after all, it’s Craig’s low-tech, antediluvian 007 who finally undoes him. The Brosnan era argued Bond could be modern, keeping up with a world turned on its head; now that the world has turned again, and late nineties modernity itself seems dated, Skyfall suggests Bond is needed because he’s old-fashioned.

It’s not by accident that this film uproots all its own most contemporary elements. At the outset, M and Tanner (now played by Rory Kinnear) supervise Bond in Turkey from Vauxhall Cross, all flatscreens and gizmos – the same gizmos, it turns out, which allow Silva to access MI6’s computer network and destroy the building, prompting a change of scene to underground Churchillian bunkers of 18th century origin. Bond only gains the upper hand, in the film’s third act, by isolating himself and M on a Scottish moor, no servers or cables in sight: between the restoration era house of the film’s title, the 1964 Aston Martin unearthed to journey there and the family rifle with which Bond finally shoots straight, nothing in Skyfall’s climax belongs to the present. Here, too, Dench – sole remaining cast member from the Brosnan years – is written out, replaced by Ralph Fiennes’ Mallory, whose gender and background return us to Fleming’s M. Like Tennyson’s Ulysses, declaring ‘Some work of noble note may yet be done’, Bond returns to adventure at the film’s close, finding himself back in M’s oak-panelled, leather-doored office of old. (HMS Victory even hangs in painting on the wall, touching multivalently both on Bond’s and MI6’s revival – the ‘grand old war ship’, in Q’s words, may not after all be ‘ignominiously hauled away to scrap’ – and the vessel which ‘puffs her sails’, calling to Ulysses in Tennyson’s poem.) Eve, previously a field agent in the vein of Brosnan’s leading women, is revealed to be Miss Moneypenny, seated at the familiar desk to flirt with 007.

Skyfall is a truly postmodern Bond film, a metafiction about the series’ own continued relevance, by far its most thematic and thoughtful entry. Ironically, I wonder if as a standalone film on its own terms, this stops it working as successfully – if in its reliance on the intertextual, it sacrifices self-sufficient storytelling. Did I, for example, want or need particularly to find out about Bond’s childhood home? Isn’t he, on a certain level, more interesting as a killer with no clear provenance? It’s a wonderfully indulgent moment as a fan, moreover, to rewatch Bond, M, Tanner and Moneypenny in the courtroom sequence, Fleming’s most familiar lineup reunited in a pitched gun battle, but I also have to wonder: what were Eve and Mallory doing in this film, other than awaiting unveilment in more famous roles? Aren’t we, by suspecting this, perhaps distracted on some level from their self-contained characterisation, just as we might have been had Sean Connery, as considered at one point, played groundskeeper Kincade instead of Albert Finney? Just as the elements of classic Bond here – the DB5, say, or M’s office – feel somehow hollow in diegesis, stripped of their meaning in the series’ broader context, these characters never quite seem fully formed and immersive, as did Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale and her interplay with Craig’s Bond. Likewise, Silva’s relationship with him never seems quite as real as that of Mads Mikkelsen’s blood-weeping Le Chiffre.

Where some knocked Royale as a great film but unsatisfying Bond film, I wonder if the reverse applies to Skyfall. (I’ve a great deal of time for both, and more regard than most for the much-derided Quantum of Solace in between, but still think Royale edges ahead.) How will the old-school aesthetic re-established by the close of Sam Mendes’ film serve Bond 24 on his directorial return? How will the new-old world of oak panels, secretarial flirting and mission dossiers stamped TOP SECRET serve its plot, when these things’ purpose is no longer just semiotic? I’m not sure. One thing is certain, though: after reflective, thought-provoking Skyfall, I trust that Mendes can deliver.



You want sex? So stop asking for coffee

If you weren’t aware by now that arguments about harassment are burning through the skeptosphere again, you can’t have been paying much attention. I won’t be entering that fray myself just yet, except to say – in general terms, in principle – that reports of abuse or harassment should always be taken seriously and investigated. For the moment, in fact, I’ll stick to discussing the issue in general terms, in principle, for reasons I hope are obvious.

The one event I will name is the one to which these spats always return.

Reliably, at least one person will say a version of the following whenever ‘Elevatorgate’ comes up:

For goodness‘ sake, he only asked her for a coffee! Why would she think that was a sexual advance?! He even said ‘Don’t take this the wrong way’. What a professional victim – she must just have been desperate to be offended.

There’s a great deal that response ignores: that the proposition was made in the small hours of the night, in an enclosed space; that it followed the part of the average conference schedule most associated with pass-making; that the man in question invited Watson back to his room – that is, his bedroom – rather than somewhere ‘coffee’ could mean nothing else. It’s the kind of conduct most effectively excused, as Stephanie’s pointed out before, by cutting all contextual detail.

This post though isn’t about Elevator Guy or any other individual. Revisiting that incident just crystallised a feeling that’s played on my mind a while. That feeling is this:

We need to stop asking people for coffee.

Not that we should stop asking people for sex, in appropriate contexts, at conferences and elsewhere; not that we should stop asking people on dates. We need, specifically, to stop saying ‘for coffee’. If that sounds prudish or odd, let me explain.

Some months back, a friend got an online message from a stranger who’d found him in an online student group. The sender, having seen his comments, asked if he was ‘up for a coffee’. It took my friend three days, and hours of advisory IM exchanges, to know how to respond.

Exactly what was ‘a coffee’ in this case? What invitation had been made? Was this coffee and socialising, as in German Kaffeeklatsch? Was it a coffee date? Socialising, with the option of dates to follow? With the option of dates and/or sex? Of no strings attached sex, specifically? A date with the option of staying friends?

‘Coffee’ is popular, I think, due to this ambiguity. It works both as euphemism and get-out clause, putting sex or romance on the table with plausible deniability. Ask to hook up, and your neck is on the line; ask them for coffee, and rejection can be parried with face-saving assurances you ‘didn’t mean it like that’. (Ewan McGregor, in the film Brassed Off, walks Tara Fitzgerald home after a night out. ‘D’you want to come up for a coffee?’ she asks. He doesn’t drink coffee, he says. ‘I haven’t got any’, she replies.)

The trouble is, that ambiguity puts the other person’s neck on the line. Inviting someone neither to dating or sex, nor to a meetup, but to something that could plausibly be either puts on them the burden of interpretation – of negotiating properly an advance chosen for its ambiguity. My friend didn’t want to hurt a stranger’s feelings, but returning their message was a minefield. Guess wrong – that a sexual or romantic invitation was a purely social one, or vice versa – and he faced huge chances of creating awkwardness. He’d no doubt have felt bad if that had happened, but the deck was stacked against him. To avoid taking a social risk themselves, the other person put his feelings at risk by making him guess what they meant.

We’re all somewhat culpable for how what we say will likely be construed; part of communicating well is being hard to misinterpret. It doesn’t matter, in the end, what Elevator Guy meant to say; his job, especially where and when he said it, was to think about how it would sound. When you’ve said something used often as an overture to sex, you’ve no right to blame or guilt-trip somebody for taking it that way. Doubly so if you said it because it’s used that way. Triply if you said it hoping to hide behind its vagueness if they turned you down.

It’s not just about coffee. That’s a prime offender, but the attitude behind it – indirectness about what we want, expecting others to divine it magically and blaming them for guessing wrong – has implications for our wider sexual culture. I don’t think it’s by chance behaviour reported as harassment – unwelcome touching, inappropriate comments, furtive photographs – can often be presented as benign. Central to solid sex-positivity is stating clearly what we want or like. Not doing so means if and when we breach someone’s boundaries (as can happen with the best intentions), the message they get is that their feelings don’t count, and they’ve just ‘misunderstood’.

If it’s sex you want, ask – appropriately, in appropriate contexts – for sex. If it’s a casual date, then ask for that. If it’s fine-ground aromatic Italian espresso, well, all right then – ask for coffee. The rest of the time, steer clear, and say what it is you’re after.



Secular synthesis and why we need it – or, Hello Freethought Blogs

You already know that I’m a #FTBully. Of all the letters after my name (admittedly, there aren’t very many), those are the ones I’m proudest of. My feeling is, that tells you all you need know about me. Keep reading though.

I’m 22, secular, British, poly, queer, tall, ex-Christian, “left wing and long-winded”, a nerd, a graduate and a keyboard warrior. What that actually means is fallacious discourses piss me off, and so do faulty ideas they transmit. I’m skeptical, you might say, in that sense.

The backdrop to my joining this network is an organised skepticism more divided than ever, teetering toward civil war. I have no problems with that division. If our blogosphere and the community around it become the dogfight expected right now, things will get worse before they get better – but they will, I think, get better. There are problems in our movement – racism, misogyny, transphobia, harassment, wage theft, corruption – that we need to fix, and any chance we take by addressing them is a chance for self-improvement. Should skepticism implode in the coming weeks or months, there’s no point letting it implode again a year or several down the line: the time for staring down internal conflicts, all of them, is now.

Because of that, there won’t just be posts here on UK atheism – that is, on why our image as a godless paradise is unwarranted, our secular community underdeveloped and our strains of fundamentalism growing. There won’t just be posts on leaving extreme religion – how Hallowe’en once terrified me, how my niece was an evangelical at four years old and how I thought aged eight that Satan had possessed me. There won’t just be posts about mainstream and LGBT culture’s myths of sexuality, about sex and relationships, about the nerdsphere or about far-right religion’s fast-forming grip on UK campuses. There will be all of those, sooner or later, but not just those.

I named this blog Godlessness in Theory because I think we need new secular dialectics. I first encountered things like feminism and social justice largely through the atheist scene – I came of age reading Skepchick, Butterflies and Wheels and Greta Christina’s Blog – and I think it’s valuable, vital in fact, to view our movement through those kinds of frameworks. I’m not convinced, though, that it’s enough to switch between discourses as I’ve found myself doing; to blog on atheism some days and queerness others. The most exciting thoughts I’ve had in skepticism have been listening to Pragna Patel, Sikivu Hutchinson or Natalie Reed, in whose work secularity and social justice collide and complete, coherent modes of thinking germinate which speak to both. I love these writers’ work, because this is more than intersectional action; it’s an innovative, synthetic analysis. Pursuing secular synthesis as they have – bringing godlessness into theory, and vice versa – is my long-term stated aim. That’s what I’m here for, and what I think can repair our movement – even, perhaps, make it stronger than ever.

Wish me luck.

For the moment, an overview: if you haven’t read anything by me before, or you’ve read a post or two and you want to read more, the following ten posts are a good place to start.

I’m looking at archiving the rest of my past writing here; to stay updated in the mean time, go and Like this blog on Facebook. If you feel like you still want more, browse through my writing in the areas linked or see my blogroll here for the people I like reading. You can also drop me a line via email or Twitter, and believe me, I’ll be reading the comments.

Hello if we don’t know each other. Hello again if we already do. And hello Freethought Blogs – you’re the greatest network of them all. I’m thrilled to be here.

In defence of Quantum of Solace

[Warning: spoilers!]

Everyone seemed to love Skyfall on its release. Papers listed it among the top few Bond films, reviewers heaped praise on it and Sam Mendes and Adele’s return for Bond 24 met with popular demand. I liked it a lot, myself, though in hindsight slightly prefer 2006’s Casino Royale, in which Daniel Craig debuts and Mads Mikkelsen’s villain (seven years pre-Hannibal) chews the scenery into succulent, meaty chunks. The interceding entry in the series, Quantum of Solace, is the one fans and critics alike seem to have hated – and no, Quantum isn’t brilliant. It’s not on the level of the other two by any means; equally though, it isn’t terrible. Certainly, it isn’t the car crash often recalled.

I recognise the film’s problems. It’s the shortest of all the Bonds, sandwiched between the longest two to date, and also the most violent – an entirely unproductive combination. Royale was gritty in its depiction of a bruised and bleeding hero, but its glamour, humour and storytelling finesse meant it never relied on action; Quantum exhibits not much else. To a large extent, this comes down to the 2007-8 writers’ strike – by the time of filming, the film’s script was only partially completed, leaving the cast and director Marc Forster to devise scenes. It shows: one moment Craig’s Bond is dispatching the icy pith familiar to viewers of the previous film, the next he’s left dependent on pick-up lines like ‘Come up and help me find the stationery.’ (Seriously. Bond says that.) Beyond technical and visual aspects, much of the film just feels underdeveloped, and it suffers greatly as a result. Still though, I don’t think its faults sink it.

Except for single-filmer George Lazenby, each of the past Bonds had a misstep or two: Connery had Thunderball and Diamonds Are Forever, Moore had Moonraker, Brosnan had Die Another Day. (Moore’s Man with the Golden Gun and Octopussy, plus Timothy Dalton’s Licence to Kill, are borderline for me.) If Quantum of Solace is remembered as Craig’s weakest note, it still stands tall next to most of these.

In fact, thanks largely to the talents of its cast, Quantum is far, far better than its half-baked screenplay might have meant. Beside Judi Dench’s reliably spiky M, both main villains deserve special credit: with his Jokeresque laughter under interrogation and quipping, ‘Tosca isn’t for everyone’ disdain, Jesper Christensen takes previously nondescript Mr. White straight to magnificent bastard status, and Matthieu Amalric radiates creepiness, predacity and danger as Dominic Greene, particularly when onscreen with Olga Kurylenko’s Camille – the scene where he threatens to throw her from a balcony is a rare moment in which a Bond villain feels genuinely unsettling, someone you wouldn’t ever want to meet.

Camille herself won’t be going in the Bond woman hall of fame any time soon, but feels like the major casualty of the partial script; had she been given more time and development, perhaps she’d have come across in deliberate contrast to predecessor Vesper Lynd, as a grittier, less refined but similarly wounded and courageous character instead of an inadequate stand-in. The climactic moment when Camille hunches panicked amid a fire, Bond trying to get through to her, echoes his and Vesper’s shower scene from Royale, and it seems her story might have been just as compelling if fully developed. Gemma Arterton feels equally neglected as agent Fields, though her scenes with Craig and Giancarlo Giannini’s René Mathis crackle with wit and charm, and her death scene – an oily twist on Shirley Eaton’s in Goldfinger – is legitimately harrowing.

This film, unusually for Bond, devotes earnest attention to violence against women: where elsewhere in the franchise this is fetishised, here it’s a theme. Camille’s mother and sister were raped, as quite possibly Fields is before her death, and Greene’s relationship with her is shown transparently as abusive; that a trail of murdered women follows Bond is even commented on by M. (‘Look how well your charm works, James’, she says, surveying Arterton’s nude corpse. ‘They’ll do anything for you. How many is that now?’) Unlike other ‘kept women’ in prior films, however, Camille is not seduced by 007 – in fact, in Bond’s closest encounter to date with feminism, it is she who ultimately abandons him, acknowledging his damaged emotional state. Seeing Bond’s torment play out through alcoholism and sleeplessness is itself captivating – Craig is at his tense, brooding best in these moments, and it’s a shame, again, that he’s left little else to do by the film’s unfinished script.

My inner jury is still out on Marc Forster’s direction. Certain cosmetic elements visibly jar: the stylised title cards for the story’s locations feel out of place, for instance, and like the dialogue’s subtitles, don’t match their components in Royale. (It may not seem important, but I notice these things – you have no idea how much it bothers me that the colour and size of the onscreen text changes.) I’m still not sure, moreover, why Forster provides subtitles for two Bolivian extras’ in-taxi exchange. Footage of villagers during a drought captures the travelogue flavour of Fleming’s writing perfectly, though, and in a film over-reliant on action, it’s a good job Forster directs it exquisitely – the scaffold sequence in the opening minutes, in particular, is executed perfectly, and if anything feels like a more natural place for the opening titles to have gone; the rooftop chase leading up to it, similarly, is amazing even as a lesser retread of the Parkour chase from the previous film, and the aerial confrontation just before the final act, while at moments difficult to follow, spectacular. Other highlights include Bond’s hand-to-hand battle with Edmund Slate, one of the whole series’ best fight scenes in terms of both choreography and camerawork, and the entire, breathtaking showdown at the Bregenz opera.

There and elsewhere, Dennis Gassner’s set designs channel the sixties cleanliness of the Connery era: while we don’t get the Shanghai skyline’s modern mystique or the natural beauty of Scotland as in Skyfall, the backdrops of MI6’s new headquarters, M’s apartment, Mathis’ villa and Bond and Fields’ hotel are effortlessly cool. In the case of the operahouse, too, Gassner’s forensic aesthetic helps create a real sense of menace, framing the ensuing shoot-out’s violence like meat on glimmering ice in a butcher’s shop. Quantum, the organisation whose meeting Bond disrupts here, is a superb creation – a kind of global capitalist, 21st century SPECTRE, manipulating world politics for the highest bidder. ‘We’ll supply the private security,’ Greene tells Medrano. ‘We’ll pay off the right officials, and we have twenty-six countries ready to recognise your new, official Bolivian government.’ Chilling indeed. With its boat chase, embattled lead woman, political corruption and gangsterism, and with Bond out of place in a deprived area, the film sometimes brings Live and Let Die to mind – it’s pretty good, too, seeing Jeffrey Wright’s Felix Leiter caught up behind the scenes in shady manoeuvring.

Louise Frogley’s costuming often feels uninspired, particularly in the case of Craig, on whom wider ties and conservative-cut suits just don’t sit right (compare them, for example, to his narrow three-pieces in Skyfall). Bond’s clothes, however, are used to good effect – we see him start out in one outfit at Port au Prince, requisitioning a jacket when needed to cover a knife wound, fly to Austria thus dressed, scavenge for a dinner jacket in the opera’s laundry area, then switch back to his previous outfit keeping the dress shirt. These might seem like trivial details, but deployed in the film, they enhance the sense of a spy on the run, improvising with all resources available – somehow I’m more invested than I would be with Bond’s usual Barbarella wardrobe.

More and more, I’m convinced Quantum’s biggest flaws are in its first few minutes. The opening shot, gliding across Lake Garda to David Arnold’s throbbing strings, has a real air of menace, but the car chase it introduces feels perfunctory and empty. (And why, additionally, has Bond paused to remove his waistcoat since the end of Casino Royale, supposedly only minutes earlier?) ‘Another Way To Die’, the much-loathed theme song by Jack White and Alicia Keys, has greatly grown on me since I first heard it – White’s lyrics and the shrieking, orgasmic guitars of the middle eight blend passion and danger as only Bond can, and the composition hangs more elegantly together than I thought – but the recut three-minute version used for the opening titles does the song no justice, and I wish Arnold had been in charge of its brass and horn sections. Again, the titles should have played after a moment more dramatic than a car’s boot being opened, and Forster’s freeze frame feels distinctly wrong, but while on seeing the film I wished Daniel Kleinman’s chunky graphics from Royale had returned, I’ve come to admire the sequence’s motifs – Bond roaming the desert, gun pointed in every direction, shadowy female forms rising from the sand.

Both films’ theme songs, in the end, epitomise them: where Skyfall was stylish and classic but sometimes slipped from homage to pastiche, Quantum initially felt crude and structureless, too seemingly reliant on percussion, but improves on repeated encounter. Maybe it wasn’t a Royale flush, but if you loathed it in the cinema five years back and haven’t seen it again since, give it another chance – you might find it’s better than you remember.

See also: Bonding with history – Skyfall‘s postmodern 007



Man of Steel: you’ll believe this turkey can fly

How unjust it is that a sequel to Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel was announced even before its premiere, while Superman Returns, Bryan Singer’s 2006 effort, spawned none in the years which followed its release.

The failure of Returns is largely mythical, despite fans’ recollection of it as a flop prompting DC’s reboot, as Ang Lee’s dismal Hulk prompted one several years before. While its grosses were modest rather than spectacular, the film made only slightly less than Batman Begins – viewed now as one of the great comic book films, whose sequels broke box office records and no doubt landed Nolan a production role on Man of Steel. On release, too, Singer’s film impressed most of its critics, and holds very respectable ratings at Metacritic (72%) and Rotten Tomatoes (75%). As it turned out, it was Man of Steel which reminded me of watching Hulk, a feat I’m sure no current production hopes to accomplish.

Plenty of substandard comic book films have passed through over the years, from Hulk to Fantastic Four, Green Lantern to Ghost Rider. These weren’t good films, but neither were they terrible films: if they were bad, it was only by dint of not being very good. Man of Steel, on its own terms, is an actively terrible film – muddled, humourless, shallow, unfaithful – toward which I felt not just indifferent or unimpressed, but actually angry. The instant I left the cinema, I determined to write down everything that’s wrong with it. You’ll understand, then, that this is going to be a long post. (If it’s any consolation, it’ll still be substantially shorter than the impassioned, 17,000 word all-caps rant at Film Crit Hulk.)

Perhaps most frustratingly of all, many supremely talented people were involved somehow or other in this film’s production – from Nolan to Kevin Costner, Amy Adams to Hans Zimmer, whose score squelches immemorably along for most of the film, though not without its moments of greatness. (Still, I challenge you to hum his main theme ten minutes after you’ve first seen the film.) It’s hard to know, though I’ll try to dissect as best I can, what went so wrong – and harder still to know where to start, for the problems are legion and many.

In no particular order though, let’s consider some of the glaringest plot flaws.

[Major spoilers, I warn you, from here on out.]

Why does the black hole hovering daintily above Metropolis spontaneously vanish at the right time, and not continue swallowing the city? (Black holes, by the way, are formed by collapsing suns. They are usually much, much larger than this.)

Why don’t Zod and his followers, on retrieving their species’ genes, just terraform an uninhabited planet rather than Earth? Why terraform Earth at all, in fact, when its current atmosphere gives them superpowers?

Why do Krypton’s leaders, faced with impending planetary doom, evacuate only their world’s most dangerous criminals, bizarrely staying put themselves? Doesn’t it occur to them the planet’s destruction will free the prisoners?

Why is a working simulation of Jor-El, up to date with Krypton’s collapse and his son’s history, on a scout ship from millennia ago – equipped, no less, with a form-fitting bodysuit perfectly tailored to Kal-El’s adult physique? Why, when this Jor-El takes control of Zod’s ship to free Lois and Kal-El, doesn’t he programme it to self-destruct or fly into the sun? (Lord only knows what HowItShouldHaveEnded will do with this film.)

Speaking of the Kryptonians: given the scope of their terraforming science, why weren’t they able to fix their planet in the first place? And why does Faora, part of a clearly scientifically advanced society, think natural selection favours ruthlessness and individualism? Come on – this was debunked in The Selfish Gene.

Speaking of Lois, apparently a successful professional journalist, why does she leak her story to obscure conspiracy hacks when Perry White refuses to print it, rather than pitch it to another paper? If she wanted plausible deniability of authorship, why try to print it in the Planet at all? And how does she deduce Kal-El’s identity in a matter of onscreen minutes, simply by asking around? Surely Clark, having sacrificed his father’s life for anonymity and wandered off-the-grid around the world in the years since, would have been more careful?

When bodies fall through the air by the dozen in Metropolis, why does Superman only try to save Lois? Why doesn’t he care about everyone else? Actually, why does this Superman demolish building after building full of people, only to flinch when Zod threatens a family of four – and at killing Zod himself? (And why is he strong enough to break Zod’s neck, but not to break his ribs or inflict bruises in the preceding battle? Either their powers cancel each other out, or each is equally invulnerable to the other, but both can’t be true.)

Plot flaws alone don’t kill a film, by any means; while much discussed, for example, those of The Dark Knight Rises didn’t detract from its good reception. But the holes in Man of Steel are so many and so deep, the makers of Prometheus must feel imperilled. (Don’t worry, though. They’re getting a sequel too.)

These incoherencies, moreover, point to the flaws of David S. Goyer’s script, never fully possessed of its characters. Until Zod’s spine is snapped, the Kryptonians appear immune to each other’s attacks, making any battle between them a guarantee of extended devastation: surely, especially after witnessing this in Smallville – infernos, collapsing power plants and all – the first instinct of Colonel Hardy, or anyone(not least Kal-El himself) tasked with protecting the civilian population, would be to avoid the cataclysmic, city-destroying showdown of the film’s third act? Had the military characters had been written at all thoughtfully, they would have demanded Superman lead Zod and his forces away from Metropolis, to battle him in the desert or above the ocean.

Goyer’s charactering of Superman himself, as evidenced by his indifference to tumbling skyscrapers, lacks even internal consistency. He is the supposedly counter-dynastic heir to a heroic father, wearing his family’s emblem on his chest; the anti-militarist figure embodying U.S. individualism and the American way; the nameless pilgrim travelling the world to hide his superhuman powers, who nonetheless uses them at every opportunity; the noble, serene Christ-figure symbolising hope and optimism, who pummels enemies with hurricane force for insulting his mother. As to the latter, a violent Superman has comic book precedents, but one can’t help feeling producers overcompensated for the controversial punchlessness of Superman Returns. In a film which aspires to rugged realism, it’s a trap to make Superman himself a fist-slinger. A gallant, straight-backed hero figure – like Christopher Reeve’s Superman, a moral rudder in a storm – is if anything more welcome in a dog-eat-dog present day setting, as The Avengers so clearly understood with its out-of-his-time Captain America. When buildings fall and cities burn, Superman should care. To quote the Film Crit Hulk review,


And why did Lois Lane, for her part, have nothing to say so much of the time, despite being a professional commentator? As the alien ship descended upon Superman at the army base, I hung on a Whedonesque quip from Amy Adams, but as with the later truck-in-the-living-room scene, no punchline came – and as the daughter of one general, a fact stressed in her dialogue at one point, surely she’d have words for Zod, another? (A waste, too, that they never had a one-on-one face off. How much more interesting would that have been than the incongruously lurid dream sequence where Cavill’s Kal-El is out-presenced by a pile of skulls?) For all the 9/11 imagery in the film’s climax and its pretensions of real-world grit, it never makes good on its potential subtext of militarism and occupation, due largely to a Ms. Lane who fails in spite of herself to articulate anything.

Say what you like about the casting of Kate Bosworth, but the scripting of Lois in Returns was arguably one of the film’s best features. This was a woman whose journalistic thinking was foregrounded, even one who’d snatched a Pulitzer for a column entitled ‘Why the world doesn’t need Superman’ – who, even while authoring a contrary piece by the film’s conclusion, has moved on from him in her romantic life. He, moreover, actually accepts this, making no attempt to steal her back and respecting, by the time the credits roll, her choice of a new partner. In a film with a retro aesthetic, that’s a pretty progressive gender politic. Certainly, it easily beats that of Man of Steel, where Lois, her journalism restricted to reporting what the viewer already knows, kisses Superman for no apparent reason once he saves her life, and where Jor-El’s wife Lara, whose death seems to be her only role in the plot, loses all will to survive when her husband is killed. (Seriously, though: why are women in films overcome with desire for any man who prevents their death? Isn’t this a pretty problematic trope, the logical conclusion of Nice Guy culture, where women dispense love in exchange for benevolence?)

In a film which seems preoccupied via jolting, ever-intrusive flashbacks with the theme of Superman’s humanity, it’s the Kryptonian elements which dominate the story from its first scenes, their swooping alien lizard-birds as derivative of Avatar as the later kamikaze runs and terraforming Genesis device are of Independence Day and Star Trek II. Unfortunately, while front and centre in the plot, these are its least inviting parts – how much do we honestly care about the details of Kryptonian reproduction or what Jor-El did with his civilisation’s codex? (Why does he even preserve it, anyway, after determining Krypton’s society has met its natural end? I’m sorry. This belongs in the list above.) Michael Shannon’s General Zod is sadly no exception, a dull and pedestrian villain, not least when compared with Terence Stamp’s icy BDSM ruler, for whom the phrase ‘imperial leather’ could serve as a byline; it’s one of the Man of Steel’s ironies that as determinedly uncampy as the film sets out to be, Shannon’s character does nothing even faintly as antagonistic, menacing or downright nasty as when Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor attempts to drown Superman in his pool, Kryptonite necklace weighing him down, or Kevin Spacey’s stabs him in the side, tossing him into the ocean below. This Zod is as disjointed as his enemies, stabbing Jor-El with a concealed blade and clear, cold-blooded intent, then later claiming this wholly avoidable, deliberate act haunts him – and his dullness, like so much here, expresses the filmmakers’ misguided aesthetic.

The moment I saw production photographs from Man of Steel, Henry Cavill in costume, my hackles were raised. Superman’s literal depantsing suggested an approach to the source material where elements deemed dated, campy or ridiculous were going to be excised, as they were from the Nolanised Batman. But Superman doesn’t suit this approach, as Batman did. Attempting to apply it was a fool’s errand, because Superman, at root, is dated, campy and at least faintly ridiculous, the spandex superhero of underwear-as-outerwear, laser eyes and shiny-green-rock death. To cut the daft parts leaves almost nothing left – or at least, it leaves the joyless, hollow rehearsal that is Man of Steel, aiming for grit but achieving only grime. The trick is to contextualise the campiness so that it works, as did the Reeve films, and here I include Returns among them. Yes, as a love letter to the mythos it was more romantic than Serious-with-a-capital-‘S’, but on its own self-set terms it mostly works. (I still defy fans not to shiver at its teaser trailer.) Singer’s film has meaning, pace and poise; Snyder’s has none of them, and is a film in which little actually means anything.

As Richard Lawson writes at the Atlantic Wire, the director ‘spends so much time grasping for profundity’ with grandiose imagery and allusion, ‘trying to create a towering mood, that he doesn’t actually tell us a story’. Christian imagery abounds – Clark’s conversation with the priest, Kal-El’s crucifixion-pose above the Earth, his father’s salvific (if false) statement, ‘You can save all of them’ – but what does it actually symbolise? In Superman Returns, there’s a point to the Jesus comparisons: Superman is stabbed in the side, falls to Earth in the shape of a cross and rises from his apparent death because in this, a deeply melancholy film, he’s a hero who suffers for the world he saves – abandoned by Lois, forgotten by humanity, beaten, tortured and left to die by Luthor. The religious tropes make sense because there’s a logic to them largely absent from Man of Steel, and the same is true outside its godly moments.

The point in any adaptation when Clark first dons the cape and tights, stepping into his Superman persona, is a crucial moment of becoming – either as an embrace of his alien heritage, a vow to save humanity as he failed to save his father or the first step in a quest of moral leadership, it ought to mean something. In Man of Steel, as far as I can tell, Clark simply finds an outfit on a hanger and puts it on: there seems no clear reason he then makes his first flight, as there later is in Zod’s case, where levitation comes as a symbol of rapid adaptation to Earth’s atmosphere and soldierly prowess. Taught by his mother to focus his Kryptonian senses, as Zod learns to focus his in order to fly, why isn’t Clark takeoff-capable before he meets Jor-El? What this transformation symptomatises is completely unaddressed, and therefore so is the whole business of being Superman, beyond vague suggestions about hope and freedom. Past films have used Lois, especially Margot Kidder’s incarnation, as a lens through which to ask what Superman really embodies – but because the character is so underused here, the meaning of the Man of Steel persona, as opposed to that of Clark Kent, is equally lost.

Nowhere is this lack of depth more evident than in the Metropolis showdown, as tower blocks come crashing down and satellites are smashed. So much pure spectacle is on show here, and so little soul, that the single room of hostages in The Avengers feels more important than the citywide devastation as Kal-El and Zod duke it out. Beyond Laurence Fishburne’s Perry White, conveniently character-shielded, and a single Planet worker trapped under rumble who appeared to have been created for that sole purpose, no one we know or care about is threatened by the Nagasaki-esque destruction; where Joss Whedon showed us the fear-lined faces of the Chitauri’s hostages or the scrambling of the city police, Snyder only shows us the bird’s eye view.

I’m sure that, if I went on, I could write my own 17,000 words on the faults of Man of Steel: it’s a flapping, squawking turkey of a film. Yet as it stands, sequel in the works, the film has already grossed two and a half times what Returns, a far superior film, managed, so it seems we’ll have plenty of time to keep up our complaints and hope the sequel’s an improvement. All this success, frankly, is enough to make me believe a turkey can fly.

How I learned to celebrate Hallowe’en

This time two years ago, I wished someone at university a happy Hallowe’en. Then I realised I’d never done that before.

Alom Shaha, an ex-Muslim, writes in his memoir The Young Atheist’s Handbook about not being allowed to celebrate Christmas as a child. For me, the forbidden festival was October 31st. ‘As Christians’, a woman named Doreen told us in school, who also ran the Operation Christmas Child collections, ‘we don’t celebrate Hallowe’en.’

Of course not: it was a celebration of witchcraft, demonic creatures and evil spirits, and thus verboten, as the Harry Potter series is to thousands of children. Oddly, I was never one of them, reading the books without any parental resistance and introducing one teacher to them – though that teacher, Mrs. Walker, did still issue me with a spiritual warning against Warhammer, when I mentioned aged ten that players could cast soul-rending spells. (She needn’t have worried: I was, and am, a Dungeons & Dragons purist.)

One irony of banning Hallowe’en, a festival of fear, was that I always spent it terrified. At school, I would join in the collective prayers with extra vigour. In the evenings, I would stay in my room, inwardly chanting ‘Jesus is Lord’. If my mother was at work and I was home alone, I would chant it out loud in the sitting room, with curtains shut and all the lights on that I could reach. All this, in a foetal huddle below the front window, so as not to be seen by trick-or-treaters peering through the curtain gaps.

Only once or twice do I remember ever opening the door. Perhaps I was absent-minded or determined to face down whoever was outside. In fact, all I managed was to meet the mask-clad pairs of eyes and retreat inside again, slamming the door after telling them ‘No!’ with all possible force.

You have to understand: to the ten-year-old me, these were not children in white bedsheets and Frankenstein masks. It wasn’t those which scared me. I honestly believed they were the devil’s unknowing servants, engaged unwittingly in his hellish schemes, glorifying the powers of night.

A part of my current self, especially whilst writing about it, still hates the people who raised me this way: rarely, if ever, have I since felt the abject terror that I did on Hallowe’en into my early teenage years.

I know that my upbringing was far more extreme than many believing children’s, and I generally stop short of calling religious upbringings child abuse, but when I make myself recall my own, few other phrases seem sufficient.

At the same time, I don’t doubt my parents and teachers believed what they preached, which means their victimisation, unlike mine, continued into adulthood.

Fittingly for today’s date, what I’ve just told you is a kind of horror story. (A scarier kind than most, in fact, since its central monster – faith – really exists.) There is, however, a happy ending: at 21, I love Hallowe’en, just as I’ve always loved Bonfire Night. These celebrations are my favourite of the year: the collective appeal of hot food on cold nights, fireworks and flames satisfies me on a very primal level. Moreover, since that first ‘Happy Hallowe’en’, I’ve learnt to love this carnival of monsters.

The sight of children dressing up as their greatest fears is, I think, an encouraging one. Put on the clothes of your nightmares, and you become them; take their power to petrify, claim it for yourself, and suddenly you’ll realise that being frightening is just as easy as being afraid. Confronted with our fears, that lends us hope.

Also, of course, Hallowe’en teaches skeptical inquiry as an antidote to terror.

In my post-religious years, my rebellion has stretched to becoming a seasoned horror fan – not so much of contemporary horror films, but very much of classics from the seventies and eighties. In Aliens, the hero Ripley finds a petrified girl, her parents violently killed by the titular creatures, about which both characters have bad dreams.

The girl, Newt, is played by the then ten-year-old Carrie Henn. During the picture’s filming, which includes a slew of gruesome and highly graphic deaths in a dimly-lit abandoned structure, rumour has it that Henn was guided through the puppets and special effects used by producers. The finished movie, as a result, wasn’t frightening for her.

Show child actors the mundane fakery behind chest-bursting aliens, and suddenly their wellbeing is at much less risk. Teach five-year-olds to dress as Dracula, and the sinister powers of the Count are much less imposing. Teach my teenage self the baselessness of Christianity, and the demons at the door are no longer such a threat.

We can use Hallowe’en to teach valuable lessons about fear – namely, that scrutiny rather than panic is the best response to ghouls, including the emotional kind: it was skepticism that stopped Hallowe’en from traumatising me.

At the end of Aliens, monsters vanquished and planet escaped, Ripley and Newt are settling into their cryochambers for the journey back to Earth.

‘Are we going to sleep, now?’ Newt asks Ripley.

‘That’s right’, she replies.

‘Can we dream?’ tries Newt, still wary of nightmares.

‘Yes honey,’ Ripley says. ‘I think we both can.’