Gilbey on Film: Against orthodoxy

Beware the over-hasty critical consensus.

A consensus is something to sniff at. Whether a movie is widely fêted as a masterpiece or strung up like a birthday piñata, I can't help feeling a touch suspicious of any kind of pack mentality among commentators. Witness the largely hostile reaction to the unveiling at the Venice Film Festival of W.E., a movie about Wallis Simpson directed by Madonna. Plenty of fine, sane-headed critics found the film wanting, to put it mildly -- among them Xan Brooks at the Guardian, who called W.E. "a primped and simpering folly", and Guy Lodge at In Contention, predicting "future camp-classic value" for an "irredeemably silly, self-admiring ode to life, love and all the fabulous bed linens in between ..."

But it's not the veracity or wisdom of anyone's opinions which worries me, so much as the way these initial impressions will calcify into received wisdom. W.E. has already become a marker of awfulness, despite the fact that only a tiny selection of people in the world have actually seen it; a few days ago, the Guardian asked whether it was destined to rank as a classic of bad cinema, and the comments section has already filled up with people casting aspersions on this movie which they have not yet seen (and probably won't even bother with -- not that this will stop them mouthing off about it).

Reading Mark Kermode's feverishly argued new book, The Good, the Bad and the Multiplex: What's Wrong with Modern Movies?, I came across several mentions of movies which had been comprehensively battered and bruised by critics over the years, and which were given another going-over in passing by Kermode. You know the sort of thing -- Heaven's Gate, Ishtar, Gus Van Sant's Psycho remake. It isn't Kermode's dislike of those movies which rankles, even though I adore Ishtar and have already devoted more than enough space on this site to defending Van Sant's bold and delicious experiment. After all, Kermode has seen and assessed those movies, and they have become for him the sort of touchstones of mediocrity or plain wretchedness that we all have filed away in our memory.

(My own bugbear at the moment, in case you're interested, is the shockingly inept new version of Brighton Rock. It was the surprise movie at last year's London Film Festival. Then again, no one specified that it had to be a pleasant surprise.)

What doesn't sit well for me is when the same titles come in for a bashing across reviews, film history books, blogs, comments sections; I feel the same sort of fatigue setting in when Citizen Kane dominates the Best Of lists. We owe it to ourselves to interrogate the critical orthodoxy wherever possible, even if that means reversing a previously-held position or risking a social faux pas.

Let me give you an example: Michael Winner. No, wait -- come back. His films are ghastly, I know, but I must tell you that some time last year I found myself watching Death Wish 3 on late-night television and... well, I'm not going to say that Winner was rehabilitated in my eyes, but that movie is so gloriously berserk, so detached from any other kind of filmmaking grammar, that I began to admire it (the New York street scenes shot in London are only the start of the madness). The misanthropic nastiness and racism of the first two Death Wish instalments has been replaced by a sense of abandon and excess. It seems I'm not the only one to feel this way about Death Wish 3, as this fond post by Joshua Miller over at Chud.com proves:

As straight cinema, the movie is slap-you-in-the-face terrible, with zero redeeming qualities (other than maybe offering some nice sized roles to senior citizens). Yet the film is also kind of amazing. It is kitsch. But it isn't camp. Nor is it so-bad-it's-good. It is slightly too knowing for that. Yet, somehow, it also isn't tongue-in-cheek. Death Wish 3 belongs to the same bizarro group of exploitation cinema as Commando -- movies that are just so ridiculous and off-the-rails over-the-top that it is almost as though they've pushed the very framework of their genre so hard that it broke and now all we're left with is some ethereal vapour of unquantifiable mad terrible genius.

There's more where that came from, with in-depth discussions of the various perverse embellishments and inconsistencies that help substantiate that claim of "mad terrible genius."

But I am not here to praise Michael Winner, or to encourage you to rush out and buy Death Wish 3, so much as to say that I no longer feel able to dismiss Winner, despite some of his crimes against cinema. I'm sure we all have a Michael Winner in our lives (if you see what I mean). Perhaps yours was once Elizabeth Hurley, who came in for a lot of flak in the 1990s, much of it tinged with misogyny. But if you can be cruel and cutting about her talents once you have witnessed her exquisite timing and jauntiness in the first Austin Powers movie, or her anarchic sense of fun in the absurd Ice Cube action film Dangerous Ground, then you have a hard heart indeed.

All of which is brings me back to W.E. It may be ghastly, and worthy of uncomplicated disdain. But before you add your voice to the clamour, wouldn't you prefer to find out for yourself?

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

Show Hide image

Defining The Defenders: the long history of the superhero team-up

Netflix's new show draws on an established traditon of bringing together disparate characters.

Today Marvel’s The Defenders dropped worldwide. It’s the culmination of Marvel Studios’ interlinked series for Netflix, and all episodes will be available simultaneously as is the streaming services’ wont.

The Defenders, and the Netflix series that have preceded it, seem modelled on how the Marvel Cinematic Universe films have worked in multiplexes. At least superficially. Characters get their own solo films/series, which become increasingly interlinked over time, before all featuring together in an onscreen ‘team up’. Here, they combine against a threat greater than any they could plausibly win against on their own, sparring and generating alliances, friendships and even enmities in the process.

This structure, of course, is Marvel’s film and TV projects aping their source material. Marvel’s comics, and superhero comics more generally, have long relished the "team up" and the "super team". The use of this approach by Marvel’s other media ventures is intuitively right, allowing the mass audience for film and television to experience one of the specific pleasures of how superhero comics work in the characters’ new medium.

The concept of the super team goes back a long way. The Justice Society of America, from Marvel’s Distinguished Competition, is usually considered the first. They debuted in All-Star Comics #3 (1940) and the team consisted of the Flash (the Jay Garrick version, Flash TV fans), Green Lantern, Hawkman, and now lesser known characters like Hour-Man, the Sandman (not the Neil Gaiman one), the Atom, The Spectre and Doctor Fate. Within a few issues Wonder Woman would join: as secretary. Because it was the 1940s.

What’s interesting about this initial super team is that half of these characters were published by All-American Comics (who actually published All-Star) and half by DC Comics themselves, making this an inter-company crossover. (The companies would later merge). It also used to be claimed as the first example of characters created separately, and with no intention of them being connected, interacting. It isn’t. There are countless examples in the pulp fictions of the late nineteenth century, but the claim stood for so long because it felt right that the original super team should be the source of such meta-fictional innovation.

The Defenders were created much later in comics history and first appeared in 1971’s Marvel Feature #1. The team, though, had its origins in the "Titans Three" an informal grouping of heroes who appeared in a three part story serialised across Doctor Strange #183 (November 1969), Sub-Mariner #22 (February 1970), and The Incredible Hulk #126 (April 1970).

All three of those comics were written by Roy Thomas. Caught on the hop by the sudden cancellation of Doctor Strange (#183 was the final issue), he wrapped up ongoing plotlines from the cancelled comic in other series he scripted, bringing the now title-less Strange into those other series in the process. A couple more appearances of the group together followed, before the team was formally named in the aforementioned Marvel Feature #1.

Dr Strange. The Sub-Mariner. The Incredible Hulk. It’s quite likely that anyone reading this who is only familiar with the publicity for Netflix’s The Defenders would be surprised by that roster of headline characters. (And that’s assuming they’re even familiar with Namor the Sub-Mariner, a character of 1939 vintage who has not yet reached the MCU.) This is a radically different group to Daredevil, Jessica Jones (a character not even created until the 21st century), Luke Cage and Iron Fist, the stars of the current TV series. None of the telly team are characters a Marvel zombie would associate with The Defenders, although Iron Fist has been a very occasional member of the team’s roster, as has Luke Cage. (In which context, it’s unfortunate that Iron Fist has been the least liked of Netflix’s series, with a mere 17 per cent approval on Rotten Tomatoes.)

The complete absence of all three of the original Defenders from its television incarnation could be seen as an odd decision. Neither Benedict Cumberbatch’s Steven Strange nor Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner are expected to turn up, even for cameos. Marvel Studios has policed a strict division between its Netflix series and its cinematic outings, despite announcing them as being set in the same "continuity". The fourth "classic" Defender is even less likely to turn up. The Silver Surfer (who joined the team in 1972, less than a year after it was formed) is, due to some bad deal making in the 90s, off limits to the MCU. His film rights sit with Fox, who utilised him in the rightly all but forgotten Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007). 

One of the reasonably consistent features of previous incarnations of The Defenders is that the characters have generally faced mystical threats. They first teamed up to fight monsters from HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and generally their antagonists have operated on that kind of scale. With Stephen Strange in the gang, that makes sense. You don’t need the sorcerer supreme to take out organised crime. But organised crime is largely what you’d expect Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist to take on, especially based on the Netflix versions of the characters. All four are "street-level" heroes, operating in New York, interacting with characters like murderous vigilante The Punisher and Kingpin of Crime Wilson Fisk. Perhaps splitting the difference, their team up series will see them take on The Hand. This is a ninja organisation, with mystical origins, that is nevertheless involved in organised crime and can be presented, as it has been so far for Netflix, within the context of crime stories.

Marvel’s Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada has defended The Defenders being The Defenders by pointing out that the original team are largely unknown outside comics fandom, and their name means nothing to the public at large. (Although they have, of course, heard of all three of its constituent members.) Of course, for some this might sensible provoke the question "Why use it then?" What is this series called The Defenders at all?

The (original) Defenders were seen as a "non-team", a phrase occasionally used in the pages of their appearances. There was something deconstructive about this kind of team up. It was the pairing of characters who were unsuited to working, even to appearing, together and who would really rather not. (They had, after all, been brought together in the first place simply because Roy Thomas happened to write their separate titles.) The stories told with the group in some ways challenged and confronted the cliches of the decades old form that had begun back in All-Star Comics #3.

The line-up, and tone, of Netflix’s Defenders more resembles that of another, deliberately slightly interrogative non-team, that of the short-lived Marvel Knights book of 2000-2001. This did share The Defenders somewhat abstract definition of "team", featuring characters who didn’t like each other and didn’t want to work together, albeit without any mystical element to how they were brought together. Marvel Knights was also, in theory, the flagship of the line of the same name, at the time edited by... Joe Quesada. Hmm.

In recent years, Marvel have frequently cheerfully remodelled their comics - the original medium for almost all their characters - in order to incorporate changes and innovations pioneered as part of their film and television projects. Remixing their characters and the way they are grouped together in response to the success of their screen empire. The Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, have become more prominent in the comics, while characters whose film rights lie with film companies other than Marvel’s own, such as the aforementioned Fantastic Four, have been pushed to the margins. Accordingly, this August sees the launch of a new The Defenders title, featuring the lineup of characters from the television series.

Some loyal comics readers see this a case of the tail wagging the dog. Others might like to take notice of the metaphor used by comics writer Grant Morrison in his 2011 book SuperGods: Our World In The Age Of The Superhero. There, Morrison argued that comic books, while the medium in which these characters were created, was essentially the discarded booster section of the rocket in which they had been fired into the public consciousness, reaching vastly greater audiences in the process. 

“That’s not The Defenders,” commented a friend of mine on seeing a publicity photograph for the series a few weeks ago. It is now, mate. It is now.