Saturday, 28 April 2012

10 Greatest Fictional Anti-Heroes: Codename V

  V for Vendetta was one of Alan Moore’s finest hours. It was bleak and nasty, without wallowing in adolescent darkness. It was peopled with traumatised, despicable, human characters. As the man himself said when lambasting the Wachowski’s film adaptation, “It was about England”, ploughing into that restless, seething netherworld that is the English national psyche. And it sported one of the most vivid, fascinating and enigmatic anti-heroes the medium of comics has ever produced.

  Codename V is a preternaturally skilled, eerily masked, ruthlessly determined figure, pitting his formidable uniqueness, his terrifying essence, against the squalid, blandly vicious collectivism of Norsefire, a fascist regime who lord over the crippled England of 1997 (as imagined by an 80s radical) like the National Front with a budget. One of the most effective aspects of V for Vendetta is how convincingly it evokes what a successful British fascism might look like. Norsefire draws upon the seediest aspects of Britishness to create a dreary landscape of the most banal evil imaginable, in which all the football hooligans, pub-ranting bigots and petty authoritarian bureaucrats crawled out of the woodwork and formed a government. Norsefire’s Britain is a land of tame journalism, vacuous entertainment, hypocritical High Church piety in service to the regime, official posts staffed by posturing bullies, a discrete social etiquette about the fate of all the minority groups, and of course, casual, cowardly violence.     

  V counters the regime’s grey, everyday nastiness by being flashily wicked. He makes no pretence of being some saintly redeemer or even an avenging angel. He isn’t a latter-day Robin Hood or Hereward the Wake; his sober yet dashing get-up references Guy Fawkes, that infamous 17th century troublemaker and Catholic terrorist. Like Fawkes, the once-man known only as “V” (the shadowy offspring of vile experimentation at a British concentration camp) is courageous and murderous, passionately idealistic and shockingly cruel. In his embrace of violent, illicit methods in the service of romantic goals, V’s anarchist ideology has ironic shades of 20th century fascism. Moore plays upon the readers (presumed) culturally-programmed preference for charismatic loner heroes and instinctive loathing for fascism to get his audience on the side of a fiendish killer and torturer; a demonic imp who rips gaping holes in the civilized façade of the established order through which mayhem and riot can pour, all in the name of a dream of national rebirth that is hazily defined at best.

  Yet V is also capable of a vital human tenderness that Norsefire has almost drowned out of existence in a tide of social and political slurry. He is the self-appointed caretaker of a vast array of lost cultural treasures at the Shadow Gallery, one of the coolest hideouts ever. He is a fierily righteous voice of dissent that blasts through the regime’s suffocatingly insipid media narratives. And for all his lack of moral restraint, he is at least capable of envisaging a more moral age, in a time when the mere capacity for hope, optimism and imaginative invention has been choked out of the cowed populace by the iron hand of the state.

  V is the incarnation of a rebellious, volatile spirit that runs through English history like a streak of lightning through a placid sky. As a force of nature who scorns civilization’s morality as much as its brutality, he might as well be the archetypal anti-hero.    

First Impressions of the Avengers Movie

The tone might be a little bit pompous, but these are my impressions the morning after the night before. I haven't been especially enthusiastic about Marvel's little cinematic universe project (not actively opposed, just uninspired), so this might explain why I enjoyed it less than the cinema audience, who were lapping it up for the most part.

How much you enjoy Joss Whedon’s super-powered ensemble piece, in which some of Marvel Comic’s biggest names unite to stave off an apocalyptic threat to the Earth, depends on how invested you’ve been in the preceding five movies in Marvel Studio’s expanding continuity. There’s been an off-putting whiff of cynicism about the affair since the beginning, with films increasingly acting as bloated trailers for promised further delights, fanboy-pleasing guest appearances and wallet-baiting post-credits stingers slotting into oft-underwhelming narratives with cold and rather impersonal efficiency.

   This doesn’t necessarily mean that there is nothing of merit to be found in this long-hyped climax to four years of slick marketing build-up. But after all the glitz, the glamour, the industrial-strength foreshadowing, it is a little underwhelming to find that the Avengers finally assemble for something as prosaic as a MacGuffin hunt followed by an extended battle with generic alien aggressors.

  It is perhaps to be expected that the studio machine would play safe with their prized properties, preferring a rote plot to any more adventurous….adventuring, in order to ensure broad appeal and cosy profits. But within the inevitable restrictions that come with the multi-million pound territory, Whedon and crew do manage to slip some nice touches in amongst the plot nonsense. The stand-out is Tom Hiddlestone as the villainous Loki, an embittered, ruthless demi-god with a magnificently towering contempt for the human race he plans to rule. The silliness of his glossy costume and the blandness of his motives fade into insignificance beside the sneering bravura with which Hiddlestone delivers every line, gloating and raging with convincingly unfettered malice. It’s a shame that he’s only a front for faceless Space Invaders, with little soul behind impressive visuals. The heroes get their moments as well; although some of their interactions seem a little forced, the ratio of sparkling dialogue to dull cliché is a healthy one. Mark Ruffalo in particular is a more convincingly world-weary Bruce Banner than Edward Norton was, while Robert Downey Jr. and the rest of the crew fit snugly back into their old roles, with no obvious spot-light hogging.

  And of course, there is enough eye-popping acrobatics and physics-defying explosive brawling to dazzle the most jaded action fan. 

Friday, 27 April 2012

100 Greatest Fictional Villains: T-Bag

  It’s not the character, let’s make that absolutely clear. The character is the lowest of the low, the vilest of the many reprobates our hero Michael Scofield encounters on his ridiculous-yet-awesome sojourn into the bowels of Fox River Penitentiary. T-Bag is a bigoted rapist and murderer lacking the merest hint of a conscience, homing in on the vulnerable like a human shark scenting blood.

  It’s the actor. I imagine that the day he was cast in the role, Robert Knepper must have decided that parts like this don’t come along very often, and that he was going to make Theodore Bagwell (eight counts of murder, life without parole) into a fiend for the ages. Every line is delivered with salacious glee, sullen menace or twitchy animal dread. Knepper’s portrayal is articulate, cunning, playfully sly and savagely cruel, the Prison Break universe’s answer to the Joker. He’s one of the most watchable members of a cast where the acting quality varies considerably (coughcough Peter Stromare coughcough).

  As the most feared and despised man in Fox River, Theodore is perhaps unrealistically far from the type; rather than the dull-witted brute you might expect, T-Bag’s back-story reveals him to be surprisingly intelligent, with his early academic promise ruined by parental abuse. The combination of calculating plotting and primitive survival instinct, of disarming charm and casual viciousness, produces something unexpected for mainstream American genre television: a rounded monster.