Film interview: Mark Kermode

"The worst multiplexes are like supermarkets that close the village shop"

You say in your book that blockbuster movies as events nowadays will do well regardless. How did this situation come about?
In the past it was possible for a proper blockbuster failure to actually damage a studio. Then, because of the way that ancillary markets and the international media expanded, it became more and more of a secure bet that if you spent a newsworthy amount of money, included an A-list star, and put in an eye-popping spectacle the chances were your movie was going to recoup.

This situation also went hand-in-hand with the peculiar dumbing down of mainstream blockbusters.

Are they dumb by default?
Transformers is incoherent beyond any form of craftsmanship. But it being a blockbuster is not an excuse. Jaws was a blockbuster, as was the Exorcist, and they are both brilliant movies.

The idea that Hollywood executives have to satisfy all the multiplex punters by talking to "this here idiot" is wrong, because multiplex audiences are not stupid after all. We had all just got used to this level of corporate dreadfulness and accepted how blockbusters are meant to be. If you want to know whether people like a film, ask them to pay on the way out.

Is there some cynicism on the part of writers and directors?
I think there's massive cynicism on the part of people like Michael Bay. How did we get to such a terrible place? The short answer is Michael Bay. The long answer is Michael Bay, Cleopatra, Heaven's Gate, Waterworld.

I think the Transformers movies are cynicism made flesh. There is something really grotty about the idea of taking a kid's toy and bringing that kind of soft porn sensibility to it. The camera spends its time running around Megan Fox's backside when it's a movie made about kids' toy robots hitting each other over the head.

Cinemas aren't always the nicest places to visit, either?
If you create an environment in which people are watching movies in a faceless box which has no ushers, so there's no sense of order or occasion... that's just like being in your front room. The roots of cinema are in theatre and showing a film should be a performance every bit as much as a theatrical performance.

The worst multiplexes are like supermarkets. You have a village in which you've got a shop that sells home-grown produce and organic fruit; a supermarket opens three doors up, great, you've got more choice, haven't you? Yes, until the supermarket causes the other shop to close down and it is all you're left with.

Is it dangerous for critics to be friends with the celebrities?
I'm not friends with anyone. In an ideal world, a film critic would not have any friends in the film industry, or any friends full stop. I'm an antisocial old bugger anyway, to be honest with you. I don't go to parties.

How important is the personality of the critic?
If you pretend that there's such a thing as an objective critic then you're kidding yourself. There was a very sniffy review of my book in the Metro that said my inability to distinguish between analysis and opinion is "frankly alarming". I said to the publishers, "I want that on the front cover". I want: "frankly alarming inability to distinguish between opinion and analysis".

If everyone in the west lost their phobia of subtitles, what difference would that make to the industry?
It would open people up to a wealth more movies. There are many territories in which every movie you see has got three sets of subtitles -- Mandarin, Cantonese, whatever -- they're all over the picture and nobody minds about it.

I saw a film recently and I really liked it. I was talking to somebody about it a day later, and they said, "is it subtitled?", and I couldn't remember. If you get into the habit of watching subtitled movies, you genuinely don't notice. And I talked to somebody else and they said they'd had exactly the same thing -- when they remember the movie, they don't remember subtitles, they just remember understanding the language. They remember understanding the film.

Does reading subtitles not require more activity on the part of viewer?
There's a very small amount of effort. But I guarantee if you stick with it, it will very soon become habit. And the joy of that habit is that it's like putting in the effort and riding a bicycle. Once you can do it, you can cycle off into the countryside, into the hillsides and explore strange new worlds. I'm the least well-travelled person, but I feel I've been everywhere because of all these national cinemas I've been exposed to.

That certainly isn't about elitism.
It's quite the opposite. There's something very perversely snobbish about saying, "I will only watch English language movies". There's a whole world of cinema out there, and we're only one part of it.

And as Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ proves, under the right circumstances anyone will watch a subtitled movie.

Passion of the Christ is both a foreign language film and a blockbuster. What did you make of it?
It is an insane movie. It's genuinely insane. It is a movie of really prolonged brutality, about somebody being tortured even until death. Mel Gibson has what I think is charitably described as a "muscular sensibility". And that film's gruelling. Obviously, for some people it was a spiritual experience. I thought the funny thing about it was that the people who most often say, "Gory cinema is horrible and bad for you", have just made a gorier movie than I've ever seen before.

In the book, you talk a lot about Zac Efron...
I love Zac Efron. He's an old fashioned performer, cut from that same cloth as Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. Silent cinema began with physicality (before it all became verbal), and he's a throwback to that. Plus, I met him once and he was dead nice. He reminded me of Elvis, referring to everybody as "sir".

You make a strange argument for restricting the cinema release of art house films. Can you explain it?
Late of a night in the Bristol Watershed bar after one too many pints of Johnny knock-me-down (we were setting the world to rights as you always do), I said, "The multiplexes should be forced to show foreign language films", and [someone] said, "No they shouldn't, they should be banned from it because independent cinemas survive on the few breakout art house, foreign language, or English niche movies that happen every year.

So if the multiplexes skim this off -- our bread and butter -- that's going to damage [cinemas]". There's a twisted logic in it.

And the allusion to the NHS?
Both my parents worked for the NHS. What's always struck me is that the state funds all these doctors and trains them, and then the private health industry says, "Yes, we'll have that, thank you very much". Then, that's the old lefty in me.

Mark Kermode is a film critic for the Observer and BBC's The Culture Show, and co-presents the Radio 5 Live Friday afternoon programme "Kermode and Mayo's Film Reviews". He is currently touring the UK, until 29 November, in support of his new book "The Good, The Bad and the Multiplex".

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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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.