Family values: Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Dido and Sarah Gadon as Lady Elizabeth Murray in Belle
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Race and sensibility: Belle by Amma Asante

As the illegitimate mixed-race daughter of an admiral in 18th-century England, Dido Elizabeth Bell’s status is too high to allow her to eat with the servants, yet too low to permit her to join guests for dinner.

It should go down as one of the disgraces of British cinema that it took ten years for the writer-director Amma Asante to get the chance to make a follow-up to her 2004 debut, A Way of Life. That picture, which explored the tensions contributing to a (fictional) racist murder in Cardiff, showed a director capable of keeping her nerve when faced with the dual temptations of melodrama and blame. Each character, no matter how monstrous their actions, could count on being the beneficiary of her insights and her mercy.

Several follow-up projects collapsed during the economic crisis but Asante has finally made a second film. Like her first, Belle is a story of race seen from an oblique angle. Its focus is a real woman whose horizons were narrowed by prejudice but who nevertheless enjoyed a life of greater privilege than some white members of society and even of her own family.

As the illegitimate mixed-race daughter of a Royal Navy admiral in late-18th-century England, Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) grows up at Kenwood House with her father’s family while he returns to the sea. Her great-uncle Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) talks her through the canvases that gaze imposingly from the walls. The only black subjects in those paintings are subservient to white masters but Dido’s life is more complicated than that. Her status is too high to allow her to eat with the servants, yet too low to permit her to join guests for dinner.

She has a guaranteed income for life from her father, which perversely makes her a lesser priority than her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon) when it comes to finding a husband. A man of good breeding, she is told, would be unlikely to marry her. Any other kind of suitor, however, would lower her rank. Her fate is to have fallen between a multitude of stools, racial and economic. She has the wealth and standing of aristocracy and none of the leverage.

Asante (who also worked on the screenplay, though only the original writer, Misan Sagay, is credited) can’t correct history. What she can do is restore some of the power that must have been denied to Dido in life. (Diaries from the Mansfield household formed the spine of the research, while a painting of Dido and Elizabeth was the film’s springboard, but the screenplay is predominantly speculative.)

Dido is made the lynchpin of social transactions that appear to exclude her. When Elizabeth is disparaged by the cad she hopes to marry, the film puts Dido in a position to blow the whistle. When Lord Mansfield, the lord chief justice, presides over the court case involving the Zong slave ship, from which 142 Africans were thrown to their deaths, Dido is the one who discovers incriminating inconsistencies in the ship’s log. She might have come across as a proper Nancy Drew if not for Mbatha-Raw’s screen presence, gentle to the point of faintness but brimming with inner hurt.

She and the film are never better than in the brief scene in which a black maid, Mabel (Bethan Mary-James), notices Dido struggling to brush her hair. Mbatha-Raw has to cram layers of conflicting emotion into the petulant scowl that Dido shoots across the room at Mabel. She is smarting at the servant’s impertinence in staring but she is also curious and embarrassed at the disparity in status between them: two black women kept in their respective places by racism of varying strengths. There is envy, too. After all, Mabel knows from her childhood how to take unruly African hair in hand, which Dido does not. The scene’s genius comes in the next shot, a brisk and brilliant cut to the pair of them in front of a mirror – Dido seated as she is groomed by Mabel, both women wearing girlish slumber-party grins.

Never content to give a scene a single flavour when she can squeeze in two, Asante is careful to show that Elizabeth is the gooseberry in this moment of sisterhood. But then one of the points of Belle, expressed in its central metaphor of the portrait for which the cousins pose, is that someone is always at risk of being painted out of history. The film paints everyone back in.

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 11 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The last World Cup

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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.