Way down in the hole: Kirk Douglas as Dax.
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The two faces of Kirk Douglas: Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole and Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory

Two reissues show the actor in contrasting roles, one in Stanley Kubrick’s moral drama set during the First World War, another as a hungry reporter bored witless at a small-town American paper. 

This week, audiences will have the chance to see the two faces of Kirk Douglas. Both have a dimple in the chin. Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, which is back in cinemas from Friday, and Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, recently released on DVD and Blu-ray, share an unforgiving analysis of complacency and corruption. In each film, human life is reduced to collateral that can be used for professional advancement. Douglas is positioned on opposite sides of the ethical divide in these pictures. In Paths of Glory, he exudes grizzled nobility as Dax, a colonel in the French army. (Yes, this is one of those movies in which we must suspend our disbelief higher than the Eiffel Tower and accept that American actors are playing foreign characters. Go with it. It’s worth the trouble.)

The film’s re-release now is occasioned by the centenary of the First World War. But while this is set during the third year of that conflict, and is inspired by actual events involving General Réveilhac, who ordered an attack on his own men in Souain, it would be a misrepresentation to call it a war film, or even to claim that it is primarily concerned with war. Conflict is merely the arena in which moral fallibility is exposed.

However, Dax’s principles are steadfast and non-negotiable. He can sniff out the weasels in the officer class and he isn’t afraid to make them pay for their cowardice. He is one of only two characters who appear in both of the film’s key locations: the French army’s trenches, where Kubrick’s Steadicam floats smoothly along the grubby arteries while the anxious and the shell-shocked wait to fulfil their duty as cannon fodder, and the magnificent ice-palace of a château in which the top brass bargain and barter over the extent of acceptable casualties.

We have seen at the start of the movie that the château is a moral vacuum, a place in which carpeting and cognac take precedence over compassion or ethics. General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) arrives there to persuade General Mireau (George Macready) to order an advancement to a German position known as the Anthill, a move which will in all likelihood decimate the infantry. Mireau is aghast. He couldn’t possibly do that. Broulard accepts what he says, and takes him gently by the arm. He leads Mireau around the luxurious room as they talk softly together. Their perambulations—circling a vase of flowers here, strolling toward the bright windows there—suggest a manipulative choreography that has been re-enacted over centuries by their callous forebears. It’s a dance of death. When it is over, Mireau has had his mind changed and his head turned by flattering enticements. The blood of his men is ready for the spilling.

Near the end of the film, when an unforgivable injustice has been visited upon the humble foot-soldiers by their superiors, Dax is summoned to the château for breakfast with Broulard and Mireau. During this meeting, he too is offered a bribe. No one who has got more than five minutes into the film will need a spoiler alert to avoid knowing that Dax wouldn’t accept gold as payment for the blood and bone of his men. Chuck Tatum, on the other hand, would have bitten off Broulard’s arm at the elbow if he had offered him so much as a tin sheriff’s badge. Tatum is the former big-time reporter played by Douglas in Ace in the Hole. “If there’s no news, I’ll go out and bite a dog,” he snarls. But after a year at a dusty Albuquerque daily, he’s going stir crazy. No wonder he leaps at the discovery of a looter who has become trapped in a cave while digging around for Native American artefacts. Tatum manages to reach the poor sap, Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict), and promises he’ll do everything he can to get him out. First, though, Tatum manoeuvres his camera through a gap in the rock and takes a snap for the next day’s front page.

Tatum wants to own the story, to have access denied to his old colleagues from the cities who will inevitably come flooding into town, and he makes a deal with the local sheriff to that end—he even gets his own tin badge. But that isn’t the worst of it. From the moment he gets the first intoxicating whiff of copy, he starts shaping reality for his own gain. Imagine if Leo were rescued too soon: that wouldn’t do. So Tatum prolongs his ordeal, directs the supporting players (such as Leo’s wife, who had been planning to leave him) and keeps the story moving. It could run and run—just so long as Leo can’t.

Douglas shot Ace in the Hole in 1951 six years before Paths of Glory. It may as well have been sixty. Both Dax and Tatum are wind-beaten souls but in the earlier film (made when he was 35), Douglas still has a softness about him which undercuts his blunt instrument of a face; he’s like a marshmallow anvil. In Paths of Glory, as befits the part, he is transformed into a piece of weaponry. The miracle of his performance lies in his ability to convey the humanity thriving within Dax. Distance from the nitty-gritty of conflict has inured the warmongers to the suffering it entails—just like the squabbling puppetmasters of the nuclear age in Kubrick’s later Dr Strangelove (which is really Paths of Glory with the satire dials cranked to Maximum). But after all that time with a bayonet in his hands, Dax remains more man than killing machine.

Three decades separate the action of these pictures but both employ at times a similar tone of appalled comedy. If Dax and Tatum were to somehow come face to face, it would be quite the stand-off. Neither man would be dissuaded from the positions they hold, though Chuck Tatum might at least get some sizzling copy out of the encounter.

Paths of Glory is on release from 2 May. Ace in the Hole is on DVD and Blu-ray now in Eureka! Entertainment’s Masters of Cinema series. 

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.