Those of you that tune in to the Reverseangle may have noticed that I have been relatively absent as of late. Busy, busy, busy, as they say, but I’m not abandoning the blog as much as checking in less often. If you miss me terribly I can be found these days on a shiny new podcast called Fire in the Hole which I run with my best friend, Richard. Check it out, maybe you’ll dig it.
No doubt you’ve heard the news, Netflix’s Daredevil series is promising to come back with a figurative and literal vengeance in 2016 by finally bringing back the most popular “underground” character in the entire Marvel Comics Universe, The Punisher. This is tremendous news for the character’s fans who have for years been desperately clamouring for an authentic cinematic adaptation of Frank Castle, even before the arrival of the superhero tent-pole phenomenon.
There was the ultra low-budget 1989 Dolph Lundgren romp that arrived the same year as Tim Burton’s wildly successful Batman (but shared none of its success), 2004’s shameful display starring Thomas Jane (and to our chagrin, John Travolta), and worst of all, the 2008 travesty called Warzone (Ray Stevenson) that offended fans on basically every conceivable level.
Strangely, all three films seemed to get the casting down for Punisher pretty well; Dolph’s admittedly limited acting range actually helped in the portrayal of Frank Castle by giving him a really hollow, numb characterization that worked great. He was shocked, barely talkative, brutal, physically impressive. Doplh Lundgren’s Punisher may be the stuff of parody today but a closer look at his rendition is surprisingly on-the-money, even capturing Frank’s black sense of humour when he finds himself in grim situations. Louis Gosset Jr. was a great supporting actor too and brought genuine humanity to the proceedings. Some part of me believes that this version may have actually been the closest to the mark and might have even been a hit today with its 80’s B-movie feel.
Thomas Jane, many will say, has so far been the most successful casting choice for Frank Castle, and his actual portrayal was heartfelt and researched. This of course just made it worse when we had to listen to him recite nauseating dialogue and engage in awkward sitcom-type comedy sequences in the hopelessly tone-deaf 2008 film. Set in Florida (WTF!), this Punisher was barely recognizable as far as the grit and darkness of the comic book are concerned. Then there was the ridiculous plot, the lack of any interesting action or violence (in this case, a capital offense), and the scene chewing stylings of John Travolta. Punisher fans were left confused, frustrated, but most of all, severely disappointed.
A few years later we would get Warzone, a reboot of sorts that promised to set things right. It cast a more mature Ray Stevenson (who dazzled in HBO’s Rome), Dominic West (from The Wire) as Jigsaw, and gave the impression in its pre-release hype that it would finally give the fans the goods. Garth Ennis was involved, Tim Bradstreet was consulted, all the elements were in place for that R-rated Punisher fans had been praying for. What we got instead is a (somehow) even lower-budget piece of garbage that almost murdered the character itself. In a way it actually did; Punisher remained a sceptic topic of discussion in Hollywood with almost no chance of being ever given another big run until last week.
It now appears that Netflix has come to the rescue of Frank Castle in an absolutely unexpected and spectacular way. Daredevil, (the other similarly fouled comic book property) has made it to the big screen to resounding acclaim and opened up an entirely new chapter in comic-to-film adaptation. This humbly produced and intelligently executed marvel (of you’ll pardon the pun) has changed the game by opening up a parallel dimension where we can finally glance into the darker side of Marvel Comics, a side that may now get a fair shake and that has so far surpassed big-ticket properties like Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy in terms of sheer storytelling, substance and maturity.
The new Punisher will come by way of Jon Bernthal, a casting choice that is likely to cause a bit of controversy (when doesn’t it?), but one that could be absolutely perfect. We’ve established however that the casting has never really been the problem with The Punisher franchise, so what’s it going to really take to make it work this time?
*This review may contain very light spoilers
Mad Max: Fury Road is currently the king at the box office (except for being hilariously trounced by Pitch Perfect 2 at its opening) and it seems like there isn’t a media outlet or moviegoer out there that didn’t absolutely love the crap out George Miller’s epic post-apocalyptic comeback. Ok, so there are a few contrarians and bloggers servicing the minority of viewers that hated the movie, but as a whole , your ears are probably falling off from the praise that Fury Road gets from virtually everyone you talk to. Truth be told, I didn’t write this piece to join the haters or to add very unnecessary fuel to the fires of adulation; the fact is that I had a good time and got to see the movie in wonderful and intelligent company. My problem is that this film pissed me off and I needed a platform to really get to the bottom of that feeling.
Fury Road is a visual masterpiece, from its gorgeous art direction, to its intricate costume design, to perhaps its most awe-inspiring feature, those ridiculously badass vehicles (and vehicle battles). The film actually starts off on a high note story-wise. The tension is there, the strangeness, the maniacal rush of imagery and sound; I was probably under its spell for a good 10-20 minutes until Max started to actually speak, and then it seemed to go everywhere and nowhere for the next hour-and-a-half in deafening, confusing, and frustrating fashion.
I guess this is where you have to choose a camp as an audience-member. Are you a seasoned Mad Max enthusiast that’s seen the entire series and recognizes Road Warrior as a quasi-masterpiece? Are you a casual viewer who’s definitely heard of the franchise but otherwise came into Fury Road with a clean slate and an appetite for some Tom Hardy/Charlize Theron? For myself, being part of the former and a little bit the latter, the Mad Max saga is simply iconic. It’s not a Star Wars or Lotr type thing, Mad Max is more of a cultural staple, a series of films that changed the game in cinema and fashion and pretty much gave birth to the post-apocalyptic genre as whole, while also plunging North America into a wonderfully strange obsession with Australians that would culminate with Crocodile Dundee and that freaky Energizer guy. For the record, I love Aussies.
So if you’ve seen at least one of the original Mad Max films, even the saxophone-infused Beyond the Thunderdome, you might have noticed while watching Fury Road that this film seems to take an almost complete departure from the universe set down in the first three films. Max’s wasteland was a strange and enigmatic frontier of killers, survivors, and weirdos, but in Fury Road we seem to have left this planet and landed somewhere between John Carter’s of Mars and Tatooine. George Miller’s dark post-cataclysmic universe may have always been filled with outlandish things, but they had always made sense up until this point, at least they were based in the realm of the plausible.
Sure, Lord Humongous (the baddie from Road Warrior) was absolutely bizarre. This well-spoken tyrant trapped in the body of hockey-masked WWE wrestler who liked to preach through a loudspeaker while his indian-punk wasteland biker gang roasted their victims alive, but the whole thing was still possible in an extreme setting. Everything technological was cobbled together, ugly, barely functioning. Fury Road seems to be vaguely exist in this space, but then there’s a guy with steampunk respirator, an impossibly sophisticated water pumping system, dieselpunk stock cars, super speed bikes, and wasteland gangs that all seem to employ the services of very talented costume stylists. These same gangs like to attack in waves using an assortment of Cirque du Soleil acrobatic stunts that end up costing the lives of their soldiers more than giving them any kind of edge.
The film is also impossibly loud an obnoxious-sounding with a score that is neither memorable or fun. I hoped that Miller of all people, having mostly stayed true to his films at in the special effects department, would opt for a more subtle score, or something that meshes with the previously established bleakness of Mad Max. Instead we got ear-shredding tent pole noise the likes of which made me want to vomit during the last 20 minutes of Man of Steel and The Dark Knight Rises.
I could pick out several other problems I had with Fury Road, but I think there was one detail above all that deflated this film for me; they screwed up Max. The character development was nearly absent from the film entirely (Charlize Theron in particular is to be lauded for breathing any life into her character), but nothing stung me as much as George Miller’s apparent amnesic treatment of Max. Mel Gibson’s Max was a deeply burnt soul, a total PTSD case who had to make a concentrated effort to form words and eye-contact when he was forced to socialize. He was a lone wolf with a broken spirit that just wanted to drive on into the unknown and never feel again. This portrayal is what made Max so compelling when he would be forced into the role of a saviour and protector. He was the quintessential reluctant hero who would never fall in love again, never become your friend because he knew that eventually he would be the only one to survive the NWO. He didn’t have music video flashbacks or supernatural ghost apparitions telling him which way to go. He didn’t smirk and do physical comedy.
This Max, as little as we get to experience him in Fury Road, is a bad pastiche of the original. One minute he’s a silent madman, then a mumbling lunatic, then a bumbling hijacker, and suddenly a touchy-feely hero that warns Furiosa, “I’m so sorry about this” as he performs a completely ridiculous blood transfusion in the back seat of a truck. I think I could deal with all the other inconsistencies that Fury Road threw at me during its exhausting two-hour romp, but how can I get behind a film that couldn’t even get its protagonist right?
I recently watched the retrospective video of Paul Miller’s (The Verge) 12-month experiment where he unplugged completely from the internet to see if he could “find himself again” as a human being. Beyond its fascinating insight into the life of an individual whose whole world revolves around online activity, Miller’s journey immediately got me thinking about the impacts of the omnipresent internet on traditional filmmaking.
Much has been written and said (with just cause) about the incredible power of the web for artists from all walks of life, be they studio moguls or basement content creators. It has breathed new life into the independent scene and, coupled with emerging low-cost digital technology, given a voice to legions of creators everywhere to express and share their works across distances never before imagined in their wildest dreams.
What is naturally less discussed is the detrimental effect that this mass information tool has had on the quality of the material being created in the first place. Instant access to data at all times has also created a feeding frenzy for content that is reaching 1980’s nuclear arms race proportions.
The net has given people from all walks of life the instant ability to harness the knowledge of the greatest thinkers, plunder archives and boundless resource databases, and educate themselves on virtually any topic imaginable. It has also given rise to unprecedented plagiarism and imitation and broken the sanctity of privacy and intimacy in a way that we will never be able to come back from.
For someone of my generation (born at the end of the 70’s), the net has had a mostly double-edged effect on our social and creative lives. On one hand it has opened horizons that existed only in our imaginations (and science fiction) and empowered us with tools for almost any endeavor, but it has also deafened many of us with a tidal wave of information that we were not prepared for.
We are old enough to remember a life without internet, smartphones, laptops, and 24-hour media, and while a great number of us have fully embraced the digital revolution, some part of us is reeling from the noise, short-circuiting. We are in many ways the first generation of cyborg experiments that periodically suffer critical failures and physically reject new technology.
The greater question I have is how all this is affecting my ability to be creative. What is all this technology doing to my brain? Am I writing better, more relevant material? Have I fallen victim to the pressures of an all-knowing-ever-present technological regime where every thought and sensation I experience is measured and edited for maximum appeal for the masses? What is becoming of the private me, the part of me that sees and hears and tastes in such-and-such a way as to give me the ability to speak with a fresh and original voice?
Maybe I should also unplug to find out.