So farewell then, Steven Soderbergh

Why Hollywood will miss the wisest man in cinema.

 

You will have heard by now that Steven Soderbergh has announced his departure from filmmaking. His farewell dish for cinema, Side Effects, was released last Friday. And there’s still the tantalising final course to come - we’ll see whether it will amount to dessert, cheeseboard or wafer-thin mint- in the shape of his forthcoming HBO Liberace biopic, Behind the Candelabra, which airs in the US at the end of this month. It certainly has genius casting on its side, as this image proves: Michael Douglas is an unbeatable choice for the shy-and-retiring, discreetly-costumed pianist, while Matt Damon plays his lover Scott Thorson (on whose memoir Richard LaGravenese’s screenplay is based).

As Soderbergh has made clear, he is only retiring from cinema: “But I still plan to direct - theatre stuff, and I’d do a TV series if something great were to come along.” In this brilliant, fascinating interview from Vulture.com, he elaborates on his decision:

“These things - I can feel them coming on. I can feel it when I need to slough off one skin and grow another. So that’s when I started thinking, All right, when I turn 50, I’d like to be done. I knew that in order to stop, I couldn’t keep it a secret - so many things are coming at you when you’re making films that you need to have a reason to be saying no all the time… It’s a combination of wanting a change personally and of feeling like I’ve hit a wall in my development that I don’t know how to break through. The tyranny of narrative is beginning to frustrate me, or at least narrative as we’re currently defining it. I’m convinced there’s a new grammar out there somewhere… If I’m going to solve this issue, it means annihilating everything that came before and starting from scratch. That means I have to go away, and I don’t know how long it’s going to take. And I also know you can’t force it. I love and respect filmmaking too much to continue to do it while feeling I’m running in place. That’s not a good feeling. And if it turns out I don’t make another one, I’m really happy with this last group of movies. I don’t want to be one of those people about whom people say, ‘Wow, he kind of fell off there at the end.’ That would be depressing.”

Side Effects is certainly no disgrace: swansong or not, it’s a dynamic and engaged piece of entertainment. It stars Rooney Mara as a dazed woman whose husband (Channing Tatum) has just finished a prison sentence for insider trading: as she adjusts to having him in her life again, she starts to experience symptoms of depression, and turns for comfort to a new drug prescribed by her psychiatrist (Jude Law). That’s all I’m going to say about the plot - it was a joy to see the picture without having read anything in advance about it, and without any prior knowledge of the direction in which it might be travelling. But it’s giving nothing away to sing the praises of its woozy cinematography, crisp and disorienting sound design, and precision editing; the atmosphere of incipient panic calls to mind nothing less than Rosemary’s Baby, even if the pleasures and mysteries of Side Effects are finite, rather than continually expanding as in Polanski’s film.

I liked Side Effects a lot: that is, I enjoyed it while it was underway, it left no lasting impression on me and I would be surprised if it yielded any fresh pleasures on subsequent viewings. But as a mildly twisted thriller which has an instant emotional effect on the audience, it’s a blast. It is especially encouraging to witness Soderbergh’s encouraging way with actors, none more so than Catherine Zeta-Jones. Again, I don’t want to say too much about her role in Side Effects, but she certainly relishes the things she has to do (even if she doesn’t get to do quite enough of them to excuse the rather simplistic journey taken by her character - ah, you’ll see what I mean).

It’s been good having Soderbergh around: he’s an energising force, keen to turn cinema into a charged discussion of ideas, and ruthlessly self-critical. (Asked by Vulture what people might people mean when they call a film Soderberghian, he replies:I have no idea. But never use that word to describe your movie in a pitch meeting because it won’t get made.”) When he accepted the Palme d’Or in 1989 for his debut Sex, Lies and Videotape, he famously told the audience: “It’s all downhill from here.” He didn’t get it quite right. A corkscrew rollercoaster would have provided a better analogy. His commercial fortunes diminished with each film he made after his Cannes win, until Out of Sight arrested the decline in 1998. The double-whammy of Erin Brockovich and Traffic made it a distant memory. He has squeezed more creative and artistic peaks and troughs into the years since Traffic won him the Oscar for best director than most film-makers manage in an entire career. The Good German, Ocean’s Thirteen? Trough time. Che, Magic Mike, Side Effects? Peak.

After hitting the buffers with his 1995 thriller The Underneath, he purged himself with the free-form Schizopolis, one of the most masochistic works ever committed to film: a portrait of mental, marital and artistic breakdown in which Soderbergh cast himself and his real-life spouse from whom he was separating acrimoniously. After that picture, which he now describes as a “rebirth,” he felt free to reinvent himself with Out of Sight. That was crucial in kick-starting the second, most fruitful phase of Soderbergh’s career, and in bringing him together with George Clooney, later to become his semi-regular leading man and co-founder of their (now disbanded) production company, Section Eight.

Even once Soderbergh was back on track with confident, playful work like Out of Sight and The Limey, he was not one to parrot the party line on the enchanted world of film-making. Do grab the DVDs of both those films if you can: the commentary tracks feature sustained and often bitter arguments between Soderbergh and his respective screenwriters, who berate him for every perceived distortion or compromise. “I get sick of everyone saying everything’s great all the time,” he once said. “I like to hear about the blood and gristle of the creative process. I hate these fucking interviews where it’s like there’s sunshine shooting out of the director’s mouth. So I try to be very careful about the syntax I employ. I don’t want to suggest, ‘We’ve done an amazing thing here.’” Generally, he’s in favour of letting history decide. “All my pleasure is in making movies,” he said in 2007. “Twenty years from now we'll figure out which ones are great and which ones aren't.” Even those who believe Soderbergh is mad to withdraw from cinema will recognise that as the voice of sanity.

"Side Effects" is on release.

Steven Soderbergh (Credit: Getty Images)

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.

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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.