Seven Psychopaths: energetically directed and intermittently amusing

Welcome to the mobsters' ball.

Seven Psychopaths (15)
dir: Martin McDonagh

The hero of Seven Psychopaths, written and directed by the playwright-turned-film-maker Martin McDonagh, is a screenwriter named Martin – Marty to his pals – who is working on a script called Seven Psychopaths. He doesn’t know what it is yet, only that it won’t be another movie about guys with guns in their hands. Marty is played by Colin Farrell, the star of McDonagh’s sparklingly executed first film, In Bruges, which was all about guys with guns in their hands. So Seven Psychopaths is a movie that knows it’s a movie, populated by characters who seem content to be archetypes. The question is whether it will fulfil its ambition to be a piece of violent cinema about the perils of violent cinema. Can McDonagh have his cake and blow it to smithereens too?

It must be said that the cake in question is a little on the stale side. The picture kicks off with a vignette featuring two hitmen distracted from the task in hand by their own incessant chatter. This must be a dig at the films of Quentin Tarantino, in which hoodlums tend to talk first about the pros and cons of the Dewey Decimal System, or grilling versus sautéing – and shoot later. But Pulp Fiction was 18 years ago. From such a distance, McDonagh’s intended sideswipe looks more like a matey punch on the shoulder.

He isn’t the first director to use film as a platform to examine the casually corrosive effects of screen violence, but most of the precedents (Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, Wim Wenders’s The End of Violence, Lawrence Kasdan’s Grand Canyon) haven’t placed fun high on their list of priorities. At least Seven Psychopaths is energetically directed and intermittently amusing. The movie presents Marty as no less blank than the page in his typewriter. The devil on his shoulder is the frenzied Billy Bickle (Sam Rockwell), a budding actor who urges him to write a revenge story with a desert shoot-out. (“What are we making here, a French movie?” Billy asks when his friend resists.) The reference to Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle makes us doubly alert to character names, as we should be in a film where a saintly cancer sufferer is called Kieslowski (after the Polish director of one of the most persuasive of all anti-violence films, A Short Film About Killing).

Billy does his best to get Marty’s creative juices flowing by placing a newspaper ad calling for genuine psychopaths to contact him with their stories. It’s just the sort of unhinged scheme you’d expect from a man who earns his keep kidnapping dogs, which are then returned a few days later to their owners by Billy’s accomplice, Hans (Christopher Walken), in exchange for the inevitable cash reward. Hans is the angel of the film, a formerly vengeful man who has renounced his old ways and now offers to help with Marty’s screenplay as long as it isn’t violent. His notes are suitably withering, pinpointing the absence of decent female characters. It’s a transparent double-bluff that doesn’t let McDonagh off the hook for his own film’s identical shortcoming.

When Billy and Hans unknowingly snatch the beloved pooch of a local mobster, Charlie (Woody Harrelson), LA’s professional criminals come storming into their cosy world of unambitious grifts. But these thugs are not quite top of the food chain: a serial killer is stalking the city bumping off figures in the organised crime business. Perhaps the murderer is a fan of Dexter, the TV series about a killer who kills killers, or maybe that echo is another sign that this script, written before In Bruges, has been sitting on the shelf too long.

The film is shot in zinging gobstopper colours and performed with vigour by most of the cast – the hyperactive Rockwell and the stately Walken, with his kabuki-like face, really have the measure of McDonagh’s firecracker dialogue. But despite the picture’s anti-violence philosophy, it is no more successful than Last Action Hero, the Arnold Schwarzenegger folly that tried to deconstruct the genre for which it was also an enthusiastic advocate. It’s usually the case in these situations that no one really gets what they want – the action lacks the proper sense of abandon and the blood-stained thesis is never quite searching enough. Seven Psychopaths proves once again that the lion may not lie down with the media studies professor.

Colin Farrell, Christopher Walken and Sam Rockwell in "Seven Psycopaths"

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.

This article first appeared in the 10 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Greece: a warning for Britain?

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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.