Marvel’s Avengers Assemble opens this week to unexpectedly unanimous rave reviews. According to Flickering Myth’s very own five star assessment, Avengers Assemble (or simply The Avengers for our American cousins) “has everything”. Joss Whedon has managed to delight everyone from snobby critics to fearsomely devoted fan boys. Somehow he’s crammed several ego heavy superheroes, presumably played by ego heavy actors, into one movie and given them enough interesting things to do for 2 hours and 22 minutes. Which isn’t an easy feat in the modern cinematic universe.
However, critics being critics, the reviews have not been totally positive. The only negative that repeatedly crops up is a lack of threat. Henry Barnes of The Guardian describes Loki’s army, kept secret for so long, as a “horde of faceless, disposable allies” and concludes that “it’s hard to see how they put up much of a threat”. Now you can bet Whedon and his helpers at Marvel put plenty of time and effort into deciding upon a suitable nemesis for their team of superheroes. And crucially, the reviews are not critical of Loki or Tom Hiddleston’s portrayal of the bitter god. Yes he appears to be a caricature and a bit camp and over the top like a pantomime villain, but he’s a delightfully menacing, old fashioned baddie. The problem is with his evil plan.
Avengers Assemble is a perfect example of a growing dilemma for modern movies, which is that the bad guys are running out of evil schemes. It’s just all been done before. Robbie Collin argues in The Telegraph that Avengers Assemble gets away with treading the same old ground because it does it so well, with flair and wit. But he still writes his whole review around the fact that Avengers Assemble says or does nothing new. In fact, the films it copies are relatively recent. Its set pieces, according to Collin, improve upon action we’ve already seen at the cinema in Battleship and Transformers.
The worrying thing is that The Avengers has a lot to work with compared to many movies, but has still failed to deliver anything resembling great originality in the department of villainy. Whedon had reams of source material to draw upon in the form of Marvel’s comics. The writer/director was under pressure to come up with something impressive, to warrant the launch of The Avengers initiative in the story, but had considerable flexibility to do so. With superhero films, the sky is literally the limit. The suspension of disbelief is already sufficient to allow for a farfetched plan to conquer the world.
More realistic stories are more limited. They might still depend on a believable adversary having a horrible plan. The evil scheme in Avengers Assemble is disappointing at worst and covered up by special effects, along with the film’s other attributes. Much of the interest lies with how the heroes compete with each other and overcome their differences. In films with one hero, the challenge presented by the villain can make or break the story. In films without super strength, practically invincible iron suits or The Incredible Hulk, the bad guy’s plan typically needs to be more complex, nuanced and mysterious to draw the audience in.
I first noticed this phenomenon back in December, when I saw Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol in quick succession at my local multiplex. Both films fall back on a classic evil scheme, which has become harder and harder to pull off in recent years: world war. Nowadays a global conflict or a nuclear apocalypse seems like an alien possibility. We’re no longer defined by the Cold War going on around us and even the threat of terrorism has cooled in the last couple of years, especially since the death of Osama Bin Laden. A Game of Shadows was obviously set in the past, making the prospect of a European war spiralling out of control a little more realistic. But it had virtually no impact on me, probably because I’d seen the same thing countless times before. Also, the film was set prior to the First World War and seemed to think of itself as poignant for foreshadowing it. However, to me the inevitability of conflict merely rendered the entire plot pointless.
The saving grace for A Game of Shadows was that Robert Downey Jr. and Jared Harris shared a delicious onscreen chemistry (albeit not as fun as Benedict Cumberbatch and Andrew Scott’s in the BBC’s Sherlock). Any story involving Holmes and Moriarty is really about the battle of their intellects. Thankfully for the film, the actors gave ordinary lines of dialogue hidden depths and piled on the tension, as well as the wit, whenever the enemies shared the screen. Unfortunately for Ghost Protocol, it had neither a compelling scheme nor a charismatic villain. The bad guys are largely unseen. Initially, this adds to the drama. I was blown away to a land of excellent escapist entertainment by the action sequences in the Russian prison, the Kremlin and Dubai. Sadly the climax of the third act was a major disappointment. Not primarily because of the action, even if the car park showdown was less impressive than what had come before. But because Michael Nyqvist’s villain was an uninteresting enigma and his plan to spark nuclear war was just that: same old, same old.
Ghost Protocol remains a much better film than A Game of Shadows on the strength of its set pieces alone. Brad Bird’s vision, born in the limitless environment of animation, gave the Mission: Impossible franchise a much needed dose of creativity and imagination. However, if Bird’s film had an inventive evil scheme and villain to match its bold stunts, it would have been extraordinary, rather than just great entertainment. This is something that James Bond fans will be bearing in mind in the ongoing build up to the 23rd film in the franchise. Sam Mendes has a background in theatre and the plot details we know about, involving Bond’s family ancestry, seem to be there to give our suave hero some heart. Javier Bardem is a worthy opponent, capable of bringing to life truly menacing baddies, as he did No Country for Old Men. But what’s the story? What’s the evil plan?
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the first official Bond film, Dr. No. From the very beginning, the threats in the films have moved with the times. In 1962, Dr. No was disrupting American rocket launches, stirring up the Cold War. In 2002 the villain was a bitter North Korean soldier. In 2006, for Daniel Craig’s reboot, the writers reinvented Ian Fleming’s first Bond book to make the banker, Le Chiffre, someone who financed terrorists. In 2008’s Quantum of Solace, effectively a sequel to Casino Royale, the writers attempted to tap into unease about global resources, by having an evil organisation pretend to be after oil, but actually snapping up reserves of drinking water in barren countries. The story was a disappointment, again largely because the filmmakers failed to nail either the villain or the evil plot.
So whatever the evil scheme is in Skyfall, it will probably reflect the times that we live in. You could argue that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to think of evil schemes because the world is a better place today than it used to be. You could equally argue that the immorality in the modern world is simply harder to see and pushed behind closed doors. You could also say that there is something hilarious about the idea of bad guys running out of ideas. This is undoubtedly true, it is funny. Imagine Blofeld sitting around with nothing to do but feed his cat and watch The Voice on Saturday nights.
But it is also worrying. The lack of creativity when writing for villains may hint at deeper issues. There are always people with villains in their lives. Do we need to empathise more with these people, and make our stories more personal? Are we simply being complacent or deliberately ignorant about the problems in the world? We all need to a little drama in our lives to drive us forward and as societies we need challenges to overcome, goals to aim for. Perhaps more than anything else, we need good movies to fuel our imaginations. It’s about time filmmakers bucked their ideas up and gave us some 21st century villains, with 21st century ideas.
“FAR UP! FAR OUT! FAR MORE!” reads the poster. As a youngster I would have scoffed at this. I would act superior to my friends whenever a Bond film happened to be on TV. I would dazzle them with my knowledge of the films. And if I was ever asked what the worst film in the entire series was I would always reply – “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, obviously”.
Why was this? There was only really one reason; George Lazenby. It was his only Bond film, he did less than everyone else and therefore it was the worst. OHMSS (as I shall refer to it from now on) was an unwelcome aberration before the jolly rebirth provided by Roger Moore. As I grew up I was taught to love and treasure Roger’s cheeky eyebrows. But now, just as You Only Live Twice has slipped since childhood from one of my favourites towards the bottom of the pile, OHMSS is one of the very best in my personal Bond canon.
This is because the dated but charming slogan on the poster was spot on for a change; you really do get far more from OHMSS than any other Bond film. Not in every department of course; the range of locations is European and perhaps ordinary by modern standards, the gadgetry is minimum and the action less frequent than some would like. But for Bond fanatics, particularly those familiar with the Bond of Fleming’s books, this is the most faithful adaptation. A film with a storyline that really lets us get to know a little of the man behind the agent, the icon and the image.
As the excellent review from Kinnemaniac (which says everything I’m going to say more amusingly and precisely) points out, it is perhaps inevitable that diehard fans pounced on the instalment least popular with the general public. OHMSS is rarely picked for Bank Holiday TV schedules like other outings from Connery and Moore. Again as Kinnemaniac points out though, OHMSS attempts a tone not seen in the franchise again until the Dalton films and then properly in Casino Royale with Daniel Craig’s Eva Green love interest. Indeed perhaps Lazenby has Craig to thank for a new generation falling with renewed vigour for his solitary outing as 007.
Producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman no doubt fretted over replacing Sean Connery. For cinemagoers of the sixties he was THE embodiment of James Bond. Unlike audiences of today they were unaccustomed to the regular replacement of the actor playing Britain’s top secret agent now and again. The way in which they chose to tackle the casting and the whole creative process of the sixth Bond outing was bold and experimental.
Lazenby was nothing more than an Australian model, director Peter Hunt had been an editor for the early films. Or perhaps OHMSS was a safer bet than it appears. Saltzman and Broccoli might have gone back to the books through caution rather than ambition, and the whole project delayed the business of thinking about Bond’s future properly until Connery could be lured back for Diamonds are Forever. In any case the special features of my Ultimate Edition DVD reveal the bitchy arguments and distrust on set that never looked likely to form harmonious or long lasting foundations, despite frequent praise for Lazenby’s surprising ability.
Lazenby of course unavoidably remains the film’s defining feature. Nowadays I am more than happy to overlook his occasionally dodgy acting. The reason many fans of the books take to him is that he simply looks like James Bond. Rather than acting out aspects of his character, he is simply being Bond and our selective imaginations can iron out the creases in his portrayal. Re-watching OHMSS this time I noticed just how good Lazenby’s acting is on occasion though. He pulls off subtle little looks as well as the more obvious love scenes.
You hope to discover something new each time you watch a film and I found out that I like OHMSS best when Diana Rigg is on screen as Tracy with this viewing. I knew I loved the opening scene with Peter Hunt’s teasing direction of a mysterious driver, John Barry’s sublime soundtrack to the seaside action and Lazenby’s fourth wall breaching line; “this never happened to the other fellow”. And indeed I rank the scenes until Bond heads off to Piz Gloria in the Swiss Alps (surely the only base of villainy to match YOLT’s volcano?) as some of my favourites in the whole franchise. But then things simmer down with Bond undercover as Sir Hilary Bray. There’s occasional hilarity, an interestingly un-mysterious Blofeld and lots of girls, but not that same look at Bond as a man in love. When Rigg turned up again my interest was ignited again and turned up a couple notches.
Lazenby and Rigg’s chemistry is important, indeed vital for Bond’s first true love story, but the main reason I enjoy her presence on screen is because of what it does to the story. And the creative execution of the storytellers must be praised when talking about OHMSS. It’s evident for Bondians familiar with the whole series that the reins are looser here. They are telling a story rather than following a formula.
The two key architects are John Barry and Peter Hunt. I’ve already mentioned my admiration for the scene that introduces us to Tracy and reveals Lazenby as Bond. It just might be my personal favourite out of all the films. But aside from my preferences it’s the perfect illustration of Barry’s musical talent and Hunt’s ahead of his time direction.
The OHMSS soundtrack was one of the first that I bought. Its got a brilliant title theme, along with a gorgeous mix of thrilling synthesised ski chase accompaniments and romantic themes inspired by the sublime We Have All the Time in the World by Louis Armstrong. And then there’s Hunt’s evident ambition as both an editor and director.
Supposedly Lazenby got the role as Bond after he demonstrated his aptitude for fight scenes. The punch ups in OHMSS swing between the comical and the innovatively magnificent. Long before the creators of the Bourne films would claim that Craig’s Bond copies their style, Hunt and Lazenby filmed frantically paced and edited brawls in hotel rooms and the froth and spray of Portuguese waves. There may be the odd inadvertently funny grunt or strange bit of camerawork but Lazenby’s exciting physical Bond foreshadows Craig’s by almost forty years. If Hunt were working today his action scenes would be hailed as visceral and hard hitting. But back then change wasn’t embraced.
Even this fresh, frenzied approach to fisticuffs came back to underlining OHMSS’s USP; Bond is a man! He may still be a dapper chap with a trio of ladies actually making appointments to pull his trigger but now and then he’ll need to smother a man into submission rather than K.O. him with a single swipe. And his heart is as prone to silly somersaults as the rest of us male apes. Haters of Lazenby’s emotional depths though will not have long to wait for Bond to haul his armour back on. Within two years he’ll be protected by a 70s haircut, pink tie and drawling Scottish accent.
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