As promised…here’s Part 2.
We were speaking of Attack Of The Clones, weren’t we?
Unlike X3, AOTC isn’t much of a movie for that whole “failing to a purpose” thing, being instead the domain of pure sloppiness and elementary mistakes. I won’t lie; I was rooting for the iceberg in this one. Seriously, those Jedi don’t deserve to live. Well, for one thing, they simply don’t want it bad enough! I was actually a fan of The Phantom Menace, just me and another twenty-odd people in North America (and yet it’s just as somebody said, everybody supposedly hating Phantom Menace didn’t stop twelve guys coming to your Hallowe’en party dressed as Darth Maul, now did it?), and was predicting great things for AOTC…imagine my shock, then, to see how badly it played its hand. Underneath the muck, you can still see the attractive skeleton of George Lucas’ flow chart of plot…but barely, because AOTC is King Among Movies for missing its own point. The Jedi talk, but they don’t think:
SAMUEL L. JACKSON: Hey, Yoda…
YODA: Yeah, Sam?
SLJ: All this trouble we’re dealing with these days…all the mysterious shit that’s going on…you think it might be related to those Sith guys we were fighting last movie?
YODA: What do you mean?
SLJ: Well, remember how we said Sith always travel in pairs…
YODA: To hide their numbers.
YODA: Nothing. Go on.
SLJ: Uh, okay…well, and then we caught one, but the question was always, did we catch the student, or did we catch the…
YODA: Hey, I’m kinda hungry all of a sudden. Wanna go eat?
SLJ: Yeah, what the hell. Let’s eat.
DIE, JEDI, DIE!!! Seriously, I don’t even know who the Sith are, you know? Or anything about what their beef is. Do the Jedi owe them money? Did they steal their girlfriend? No idea. Musta been something…
Worse than this is Count Dooku, who as we discover in the freakin’ credits of the movie is also “Darth Tyrannus”. Now here’s how this went down: moving on from the natural (if unasked) question “who is Darth Tyrannus?”, it seems we’re not supposed to be entirely sure if Dooku is just a misguided good guy, or an out-and-out bad guy, are we? And yet, this tension is blown for us in the very first second he’s on screen, when he says “let’s kill the spunky heroine”. Oh, but that’s not what you do when you’re trying to create mystery, I’m afraid. That’s just bad set-up, damn it. And where oh where is the scene at the end of the movie that reveals Dooku and Tyrannus to be one and the same guy – SHOCKER! But oh, that’s right: that was a dropped stitch, too. So a tension we’re supposed to be feeling is absent, but we have other things to concentrate on, like the army of clones made from the roughest, toughest, most cunning bounty hunter in the known universe…all bought and paid for at no small expense, and yet part of the order was also that everything that made the bounty hunter such hot shit was to be carefully edited out of the clones that were made from him. Uh…what? But, I’m afraid that doesn’t make any sense, does it? Even if it does explain a few things in Episode IV…but never mind, pass on, here’s something else: Naboo is some crazy planet, huh? I mean, not only do they elect their Queen every couple of years, but they draw her exclusively from a pool of the planet’s teenage girls! WHAT?!? And this didn’t merit a line of exposition either? No, of course not, because it was just a plain and simple screw-up; it was clearly not thought through at all – somebody obviously felt some new emotional explanation for Padme was needed, and they just jammed some silly notion of the kind of politics we have, onto the politics that they have. For me, I look at something like this and it screams “INEXPERIENCED SCRIPTWRITER” in fifty-foot tall letters of fire…
Phantom Menace failed (and fared) a little bit better than this: though “Naboo” is unquestionably a silly name, and CGI armies fighting with each other is something my backbrain pronounces eminently ignorable, and the whole idea that somebody had to go blow up a big battle-station of some kind in space to end the conflict made me laugh – is this seriously the only strategy anyone ever has for anything? – there were redeeming virtues here nonetheless. The planets and the vehicles all had perceptible characters, for one thing, and that’s not nothing. The CGI-matte painting was exquisite. Liam Neeson was believable as a Jedi – whatever that means. Ewan McGregor’s Alec Guinness impression was charming. And the story moved along a bit, there was something of a sense of space about it, and it seemed to promise that once the odder ideas about how to blend one generation of filmmaking style with another were worked through, that things would settle down in time for the next movie. And, that did happen, but unfortunately everything that made TPM a success despite the odd ideas got tossed then, too, as a baby and its bathwater. AOTC was a movie with very little in the way of spaciousness to it: everything was quite screwed-down, and I felt bad for the characters, not because I empathized with what they were going through, but because I empathized with how shallow and boring their lives were…but, then again, how could they have been otherwise? As someone said (and I can never remember who), the plot is a beast that must be fed, and woe betide the characters who try to stand in its way. As a viewer or reader, there are times when you forgive, make allowances, tolerate discordant elements. Style goes a long way; stylistic choices may wind up producing failures, but (I’ll argue) it’s usually unfair to call these failures mistakes. After all, they’re not the result of sloppiness, are they? But the result of some sort of misguided diligence instead. They’re more Count Dooku than Darth Tyrannus, if I may be permitted that; they contain lessons even at their worst. They are not just so many rusty nails of plot nailing the characters willy-nilly to the wall.
But sometimes style doesn’t come into it so much. Sometimes, things are just plain mishandled, and then it’s much harder to tolerate and make allowances. Certainly the Wachowski brothers had good intentions with V For Vendetta, and out of those intentions they did in fact produce a movie that practically vibrated with the stylistic choices they’d made…and yet, was it really any good? Because, it was more than a bit clumsy, too. What shines in the movie is what’s lifted basically in whole pieces out of the comic, but the problem there is that it’s rather difficult to adapt cinematically: Evey’s ordeal is of course indispensible, and (to say the least) hard to improve on, but it suffers from not being much of a part of the rest of what’s going on, and as a piece of cinema it just kind of lays there. And yet, to get rid of it is to make a completely different movie! Some parts of the comic, such as V’s address to London, fit snugly into the expectations of the filmgoer, and on top of that they work well, too; additionally, some parts of the movie that were made up specially for it also work pretty well (the scenes of Evey under the bed spring to mind). But, even given this, most of the movie-parts work against the comic-parts quite strongly, and in the end you have to ask, whose fault is that? Many, many parts of this movie are just too much, as far as sloppiness goes…certain parts even made me physically start with shock, such as the music over the closing credits. Ouch! What? Oh my God. No, you’re joking. I’m a fairly forgiving viewer of movies, and I can tolerate a lot of things that I’m not necessarily crazy about, but the whole trick of cinematic-adaptation surgery is to get closer to the essentials of the original story, not farther away; so that the Wachowski brothers’ V For Vendetta starts to look more and more like something its titular character would enjoy blowing up, as it moves on…that’s not good. And it doesn’t exactly raise one’s hopes for Watchmen, does it? Particularly for those of us who might’ve been unlucky enough to have read that treatment of it that was floating around online a while ago…you know, the one where Dr. Manhattan goes back in time to prevent Jon Osterman’s accident from taking place…V, I’ll meet you and Rorschach at the train station…if I’m late, just start without me…
Still, something might have been made of it. It didn’t simply stink. But as with the matter of Rogue in X3, you get the sense that a big chunk of this story is just a bit too hot for its adapters to handle; the Wachowski brothers do seem to be pretty good scriptwriters, but they also seem to be not quite good enough, to reshape all of Moore’s material and expect it to be neat and tidy and picture-perfect. No doubt there is someone out there who could have brought this off a bit better, could have relied less heavily on the old Hollywood spackle to get the job done. Even scenes that I didn’t like, might have worked. But just making stylistic choices doesn’t automatically mean you’ll also be making art, or even very very good trash. V For Vendetta is not so bad, and must seem pretty neat to those coming fresh to the story, but it’s not so good either, and some parts of it are actually awful. And that’s a problem, damn it: because “awfulness” is not something we should be willing to overlook. Back in X3, things fall apart, and as a result the wrong messages emerge from the script…style, yes, sure. But these messages are really quite bad, too, and so whose fault is that? Mine? Nope, not mine; I just rented the thing. You can’t pin this on me. If I’d’ve made it, it would’ve been different.
But there it is: you have to be bloody careful when you’re dealing with other people’s expectations. Basically, it’s a no-win situation: you have to push the envelope in order to succeed at all, but pushing the envelope also entails a certain amount of failure, no matter what you do. It’s just, what kind of failure is it, that you’re going to choose?
It’s a problem well-known to the creators of superhero comics: you get a “run” on Batman or Spider-Man, and that’s your piece, and you know you’ll be judged on it. It’s actually part of the job description. So there’s very little room to run completely free; the neat ideas in your head can’t all come out, just because you happen to have them (current Marvel editorial policy notwithstanding), because the toys have to go back in the box at some point. Which I imagine can be a bit frustrating.
So…you think maybe this is what happened to John Byrne?
Here’s a guy who has become actually a little notorious for not putting the toys back in the box, starting with the tail end of his work at Marvel on the Avengers teams and moving on smartly into his owned properties. I’m still surprised by how casually he can drop a series, just stop working, leave it forever, never resurrect it or tidy it up or polish it off. It’s astounding. But, that’s creator freedom for ya! It’s like bachelor living: don’t wanna pick up those socks? Leave ’em. Wanna eat nothing but fish sticks for a week? Go for it. There’s no doubt Byrne knows how to construct characters and stories and plots, and words and pictures. He’s very good at it. But, remember when I said Grant Morrison was a lot more conventional a writer than he lets on? I think Byrne is a far more unconventional writer than he lets on. He’s impatient and mercurial, calculating and capricious, sometimes even a little savage…and, above all, he goes for it. How strange; because “it” is still just all the standard spackle of superhero comics, the grunt-issue Marvel boilerplate. Byrne’s not going off and doing The Invisibles or From Hell or Beanworld (oh my God, John Byrne’s Beanworld, can you imagine? But then in a way, every Byrne story is a little bit like Beanworld…um, yes, I should probably elaborate on that at some point…), he’s going off and doing Next Men and Danger Unlimited. And why? Basically, because he’s a man of his time; a genre specialist who works in science-fictional superhero stories that are oriented to the “hard” style of (let’s say) Larry Niven, in a way he’s just like Ditko: his prejudices and preferences always shine through whatever he’s writing. Because wherever he goes, Byrne has the same point to make about human nature. And he does make it: we expect to find a lot of sentimentalists working in the mainstream of superhero comics, but Byrne’s anything but that. He believes in systems, and conflicts, and engineering problems big and small as the right road to explicating the human psychology. Think I’m praising him? Well, he’s no Alan, and he’s not the Two Steves either, and he’s neither Kirby nor Ditko (all my usual touchstones, eh? God, I’m so transparent), but he does get a certain kind of a job done. He just wants the freedom to do it. Or, he did.
It all starts with Alpha Flight.
(Gee, I hope all these connections hold up…)
Alpha Flight was a pretty interesting comic book, for John Byrne and Marvel and me. Meticulously planned-out (in both the good and the bad sense of the word), every character had every bit of their backstory prepared for them by the time the first issue hit the stands, and their character-logic was tight even as their motivations and choices and thoughts were (at least by Marvel’s standards at the time) a lot looser than what you’d find in Spider-Man or the Fantastic Four. This looked a lot like complexity, at the time, and maybe it even was – Heather and Mac’s decision not to have children was definitely something I had never seen before in a superhero comic, and probably won’t ever see again, the fact of Sasquatch and Aurora’s sexual relationship is tossed off so casually in a few panels that it almost seems like it shouldn’t be that shocking (but of course, why should it be?), Northstar is gay from issue #1, Mac is prone to depression, self-doubt, and impulsive behaviour, Puck is a dwarf – but at the same time things were more simplified in Alpha Flight, than they were complexified. Byrne’s self-inked art and boldly unadorned titles tells us almost right away that he’s making a departure from a lot of standard Marvel clutter – many people don’t like Byrne when he inks his own pencils, but most of the time I believe they’re referring to situations in which they perceive that he doesn’t really care, or he’s being a prima donna, or something like that. In Alpha, though, the decision to self-ink strikes me as much more of a deliberate stylistic choice on his part, a way of making art that better serves his storytelling goals. Alpha is simplified: the characters are moral, but unencumbered by the logic-loops typically found in superheroic ethical codes – it’s natural to want to kill your enemy, for example, and that motivation rarely results in paralysis – and human frailties and imperfections are acknowledged, but they’re not fetishized. In Alpha Flight, to borrow a phrase, it isn’t what you’re like inside that matters, but it’s what you do that defines you, and that made for unusually stripped-down storytelling at the time – Byrne’s style here, in both script and art, strongly resembles, and perhaps is even made to suggest, something like a fanzine aesthetic of roughness and economy, only wedded to an obvious confidence in the author’s mastery of his craft. He mixes things up a lot: sometimes he provides lovingly-detailed backgrounds in a particular style, and sometimes he provides those details in quite another style, and still other times he shows himself to be a fan of the solid-colour background. In fact, he employs the solid-colour background with such frequency here, it’s almost like he’s being inked by Vince Colletta! The panels are big, blocky, and square; the perspective rotates fluidly; instructive captions are everywhere, exuding a detached, but very specific, narrative voice. Virtually every panel contains an explanation, of something, as Byrne continues to develop the authorial tone he first employed in his story “The Man With The Power” back in FF Number Whatever-It-Was…of course he’s more restrained than (say) Englehart, a bit more of a bricklayer, but his stylistic allegiances are quite visible regardless: unlike many of his colleagues at Marvel and DC, he’s not writing New Wave melodrama but old-school thriller, and he’s terse because he intends to be terse. Because bricklaying is an honourable profession too, you know…just try building your houses without it…
But the terseness of Byrne’s plotting (if not always, exactly, his scripting), when combined with another couple of little details I’ll get into directly, brings us interestingly close to the aesthetic on display in X3 (remember X3?): as the backup “Origins Of Alpha Flight” feature shows us repeatedly – and this was probably my favourite backup feature of this type ever – what goes on “off-screen” is even more important than what goes on upfront in plain view. In Alpha Flight, the past is inescapable, and the past controls everything…not that there are no coincidences, but there is pattern everywhere, that creates momentum in character arcs that can’t be overcome. At the beginning, this is sensed as a tantalizing impression of order underneath the accidental happenings and circumstances of the plot, encouraging the idea that this comic book will be worth buying for years and years, as it gradually explores the possibilities inherent in its detailed backstory…then, more towards the middle, tension mounts, and a real feeling of worry develops, that things are beginning to move pretty fast…too fast, maybe, as we suspect it might be best not to get too attached to these characters…and then finally it becomes apparent that things really are moving too fast, rushing with unseemly speed into a crushing end-point of pattern from which the possibility of liveliness is unlikely to re-emerge. This cycle actually goes around about three times under Byrne’s pen, each time more tightly than the last, until at the end it becomes quite frustrating: as readers, we feel that we have not had as much time with Alpha as we would have liked, as though we’ve somehow come into the story too late…
But, we’re not alone in that. Alpha’s own members have all come into their story too late, too. Snowbird is late, Talisman is late, Shaman is late, Marina is late, even Mac himself is late…in fact the only person who’s not late is Heather, because she’s been a constant presence since the beginning. Of course this is really Heather’s story, so perhaps that’s fitting…on the other hand, it wears on you after a while. If poor Marina’s arc flashes past faster than anything I have ever seen, what about Tom Smallwood? You’ve got to feel for the little bastard; he’s barely there at all. Aurora and Northstar practically flicker and strobe as they pass through their intense changes…hey, wasn’t it just a minute ago that they were parting the waters of the St. Lawrence, mirror images of each other? Weren’t we going to stop and take some time to explore how Jeanne-Marie’s different personalities dealt with her brother’s sexuality? Or, at least weren’t we going to build that tension up a little bit? We didn’t, though; instead, at some point it was all just gone, and so quickly…
And yes, I’m complaining. But, the X3 conversations I read online remind me that maybe I shouldn’t just complain. On re-reading, this frustrating “coming in too late” thing isn’t just Byrne getting bored and dropping stitches, not at all: the thread of latecoming is woven right through everything in Alpha Flight from the very first issue. It isn’t decompression. It’s something else. And I may not agree with it, but I don’t think it’s simply a mistake. In the battle against Tundra, Shaman arrives to deal with the monster by trying to reach the human soul within it. This would’ve worked in an issue of X-Men! But here, he can’t even try; it’s just too late. It’s too late! Just as Marina and Puck are “too late”, even though it’s Marina who nevertheless provides the means to defeat Tundra. Puck just shows up at the Hudsons’ door after the thing’s all over, for heaven’s sake. But it doesn’t end there. The examples really are far to numerous to list, so just a couple more big examples: Marina is hatched from an egg forty thousand years too late, Michael Twoyoungmen is too late to save his wife, too late to see his grandfather before he dies, waits and waits before beginning his training…is too late to recapture his relationship with his daughter. Snowbird is too late in recognizing the secret of Walter Langkowski. The whole of Alpha Flight is too late to the history of the Northern Gods’ struggles against the Great Beasts, only participating in it after the fact. The secret identity of Cpl. Anne McKenzie consumes about a page of storytelling space over five issues or so, her budding workplace romance simply (well, apparently) eliminated, just plain run out of time to get started as we hurry on to the end of her time on Earth. Northstar and Aurora we’ve covered. Kind of. Covered the Newfoundland Superman story that is Marina’s origin, too. Oh yeah! Almost-forgot about Snowbird’s post-cognitive powers! That one’s kind of a gimme, isn’t it…
You see it’s the same as X3. Things that nearly happened. Things that could’ve happened, but didn’t, should’ve made more solid and satisfying connections with the other things that were around them, but just missed them. And it’s all the fault of the causes of events being buried so deep in the past that nothing can be done to alter their inevitable outcomes – we’re all “too late”, characters and readers and viewers alike, and Omega Flight (can I say that again? Omega Flight,) just keeps coming back, and back, and back and back. X3 tries to fuse the double plotlines of Phoenix and Cure, and fails; Alpha Flight tries to fuse open-ended seriality with the completion of a cycle, and it fails too. Heather’s assumption to the role of main character is great, but we don’t take long enough to get there to feel comfortable saying goodbye to the status quo; the Final Battle against Somon the Artificier is the acme of Byrne’s experimental stylings, but then once it’s over, there’s not much more to do. By the time the Great Beasts are permanently defeated, Byrne’s painted himself into a corner, having not much left to say, and practically no undamaged characters left to say it with. The dynamics of the Alpha team that debuted back in issue #1 have been comprehensively demolished, and the only thing to do now is go back to square one and start building up something different out of what’s left behind.
Byrne isn’t up for it. He makes it as far as the West Edmonton Mall, then tries to put a big fat padlock on his changes in an (ultimately futile) attempt to save them permanently, and then he’s out.
Alpha Flight goes downhill from there. I love Bill Mantlo, but…yeah. It goes downhill. It never recovers. It just ends.
Like, perhaps, the X-Men movie franchise?
Hmm…you know, over on that inexplicable Make Mine Marvel blog, there’s apparently some PR going on that’s to do with the possibility of future X-Men movies. It really makes you think. How could this be done? I mean, the final scene of Xavier and Moira in X3 clearly tells us that there is, indeed, more X-nonsense on the way, but somehow while I did absorb the implication, I never really thought about it ’til now. Having dispensed with all Scott/Jean/Wolverine/Rogue material, having made Magneto right, and “killed” Charles Xavier, having taken X3 to the point of implosion that all dreams finish up in, and (not least) having interested me a little bit while simultaneously pissing me right off, what’s left to be done here? Obviously we all know that there will be, can be, no sequel to V For Vendetta…but that’s true in another slightly less obvious way too, because look at the Wachowski’s final interpretation strategy (which I disliked, of course) in film-only terms: how do you follow on from the crowd of detonation-witnesses all taking off their masks to reveal you, and you, and him, and her, and you were there, and you, and you…taken strictly on its own, in filmic terms, it’s an announcement that there’s nothing else to say. Well, this is kind of what I dislike about it: because there is more to say, specifically all the stuff in the comic book that they didn’t bother to say, but once all those masks come off it’s like parliamentary closure has been invoked. There’s just not going to be any more discussion about it. You might as well go home. We’re finished. That was the end. Sorry.
The third Star Wars prequel does pretty much the same thing. There were Sith, there were Jedi, you got R2D2 and C-3P0, a Clone War, Anakin turned into Darth Vader, Luke and Leia got born…we’re DONE. Sorry, that’s it. You’re back to 1977, this is as far as we’re going, we hit the stops we needed to along the way and now it’s OVER. Out of the car, please.
Can the X-franchise really do any more than this?
Well, I suppose it’s possible. But I’m not exactly sanguine about it.
“Kill me,” Jean begs Wolverine.
Well, he killed her.
Okay, we’re done here. I’ve finally touched on everything I said I would at the beginning, so…
Out of the car, please.
(p.s. Ed, what phone number can you be reached at now?)