Thinking back on DRIVE

January arrives, and as usual for me, its time to catch up on many of the films I missed from the previous year. While I plough through the more embarrassing omissions from my viewing list, I cant help reminiscing about one of the few movies I did manage to see: Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive.

It would be no surprise to anyone that the film resonated with me. I’m pretty certain there would be a passport sized picture of me dead centre in the marketing departments graphs and pie charts in fact. What was strange was the fact that Drive became my most anticipated release of the year because of the quiet but steady word-of-mouth that built from its preview showing at SDCC, not any of its pre-release publicity. With just an occasional mention on a podcast here and there many months before release, I was intrigued. While many complained about a trailer promising a traditional crime caper, what they got was a slow and thoughtfully paced drama that builds to an abrupt eruption of violence from a mostly mute protagonist – not the banter-filled gunshow of something like Fast Five.

Some loved the film for Gosling’s internalised performance and the admittedly heart burstingly delicate relationship he forms with Carey Mulligan. Others celebrate Refn’s continued ability to represent the concept of male anger and violence, explored in the directors earlier works like Bronson. Perhaps for some it was the near perfect editing, or the immaculately constructed Eighties synth score. All of which, are valid acclamations of the quality and unique nature of the film.

The element that stood out for me the most however and continues to make me look back on Drive so fondly, was the the secondary theme of self image, and how a person projects themselves can appear to be completely different to the people around them. AV Club’s Tasha Robinson mentioned while discussing Drive, that the films representation of the action hero was of particular importance. Usually a display of masculine competency, the action genres central heroes are infinitely capable despite the heightened nature of their journey. No matter what happens, the confidence and control they project stands true to themselves, their allies and foes alike.

The tense opening sequence of Drive follows this mode to the letter. A man of few words, the driver is calm and cool in fraught circumstances where normal men would be a quivering puddle of post-heist nerves. Drive however, is essentially two films witnessed from two perspectives. The opening sequence is the film that Gosling’s driver is living in his mind, where everything that follows is the reality that everybody but the protagonist sees. An overt example of this would be the “four minutes” monologue he repeats before every job. It sounds convincing enough to be uttered by any real action hero, but does it really inspire confidence when put forth by a man who is barely capable of choking out a syllable of conversation in the real world? It’s easy to imagine the character practicing the delivery in front of a mirror in a crappy motel room, reminding himself that this is the right thing to say, not the quick witted vernacular of a John McClane.

Robinson’s discussion also contrasted Gosling’s character to those portrayed by Jason Statham. Imagine your typical Statham movie. He is nothing more than a badass at every step, saying the right things, throwing the right punches, bagging the model-slash-actress in the process. Events expected by all, including the main character. Now imagine if the deliberate manner in which these events occurred were a complete accident instead, a collection of mis-happenings that somehow fell in the favour of the hero. Now imagine that instead of going fortuitously well, think of how bad the alternative ending to that film could be. Once the drivers hand is forced and the time to take action arrives, he is ill-prepared for what is about to happen unlike the Stathams of the world. At every turn, he is barely aware of what is happening let alone how to deal with it, lost in the chaos of the unexpected. What fascinated me about the character however was the fact that while the horror unfolds, in his mind he just might still see himself as the archetypal hero, a notion that is cemented for him in the films final scenes. He falls back on the only thing he knows, behaviours he may barley be conscious of until they spiral out from his enclosed and defensive self. While we forgive and accept regular action leads decisions wholeheartedly, the drivers actions appear as grotesque. Its not just the audience that sees the depiction of violence as extreme – Mulligan’s character is realistically unsettled and disgusted by witnessing the lengths that her supposed hero has gone to. Had he been  the controlled and unquestionably expert lead we are used to, perhaps she wouldn’t have minded so much.

In the case of Drive, its genuinely tragic to watch but still feels like a fulfilling conclusion thanks to the overall quality of the storytelling and performances. As he drives away into the L.A. sunset, he might not have resolved confrontation in the way of his action movie contemporaries, but he becomes a real hero just as his self image would want, and despite not leading us through our fears with that same confidence and competency we might be accustomed to and need to recognise in order to justify the violence, we still cared enough to forgive him and allow him to complete a heroes journey. In his mind at least.


“You deserved better, kid”. The throwaway death of Bucky Barnes

Characters die in comic book events. Its a rule, and it will never change.

How else can creators show the gravity of a situation without a token death to make everybody realise that the monster of the month is actual serious business?

One thing I appreciate in any form of fiction, is not treating death lightly. Sure people die, but hopefully we would get a decent explanation for such an occurrence. In comics, that usually means that for a couple of issues other characters can look sad and upset and vow to change things for the better in light of the sacrifice their friend made.

In other words, despite the temporary nature of death in comics, it HAS to mean something for how little time the character actually stays dead. Lets take a look.

When Peter Parker died last month in Ultimate Spider-man, his family were crushed, but Parker learned exactly what it was to be a hero.

When the Human Torch sacrificed himself, it was a heroic end for sure.

Other characters in the world cared (and had great covers to boot)

When Bruce Wayne took one in the face it didn’t make any sense at first, but it meant a whole load of awesome would happen in the years to follow.

You get the point by now.

In Fear Itself, Marvel Comics event series for 2011 lots of… stuff… was going on.

People got awesome magical hammers from Serpent who (shock) wants to kill everything, Odin was angry at Thor and the Asgardians left Earth for some-such reason. Then, Sin killed Bucky Barnes in two hits. Literally two hits.

We don’t really see what happened, but when the smoke clears, he is missing his cybernetic arm and has a massive hole in his chest. Then he dies (off page, confirmed in the recap page of issue 4).

This, surely should have been one of those huge death things like the ones pictures just a little way up the page. Bucky Barnes, the new Captain America, greatest ally of the original Captain America Steve Rogers, who himself came back unexpectedly as the awesome bad-ass Winter Soldier guy that we came to care about over, what, only six years of brilliant storytelling? Yeah, he deserves a decent send-off even if his actual demise was a pathetic confrontation that lasted two pages.

No. Actually he doesn’t. The most we get from any character, comes from the eternally warm and emotionally connected Nick Fury.

“You deserved better, kid.”

Then, minutes later Steve has his old uniform on and joins Iron Man and Thor in going to fight things.

See ya, Bucky! Was great while it lasted son.

The issue at hand isn’t the nature of event comics, or even how we treat death in the medium, but more the fact that one writer can undo the work of another with just a couple of misplaced pages.

Ed Brubaker made Captain America a book that could be appreciated by everyone, not just the die-hard comic book nerds or the even more die-hard super patriots of the USA.

He was a man adjusting to the world with its new views on right and wrong, good and evil, fighting not for any country or allegiance, but because it was the right thing to do. His supporting cast were fleshed out, and the long dead Bucky was reintroduced as a complicated and affecting character who also had to bear the brunt of being a man-out-of-time with no real place to belong. We really grew to accept that not only was Bucky alive again, but that he was a meaningful presence in the world.

I preferred this version to the Fear Itself one.

Then at the pen of Matt Fraction, he becomes nothing more than a plot point. I cant help feeling that had this occurred in the actual Captain America series, this would have been a death actually worth happening.

There are other reasons of course. Steve Rogers needed to become Captain America again, especially with a new #1 issue being released to coincide with the Captain America movie that’s just around the corner. This I’m sure we all understand. But as a rule, try not to throw characters into the grinder just to advance a plot, especially if they aren’t your characters to deal with anyway.

Still. Its not quite as bad as this questionable moment in the career of Jeff Loeb. Don’t even get me started on the deep seated issues behind this beauty.

Seriously, this happened.

Not Another Crisis: Thoughts on the DCU Relaunch (Part One)

Much publicized across pretty much every internet outlet, September 2011 sees DC Comics relaunch its entire catalog with 52 (very clever) new titles. And lo, The Internet exploded.

Jim Lee's new look JLA. Collars!

To the normalfolk, the idea of grown men and women displaying such a strong reaction was most likely laughable. It is a little embarrassing, I’ll admit. I didn’t cry I’ll have you know. I may have succumbed to mild panic attacks, but I’m revealing nothing more. Even as a relatively casual reader, it got to me.

After my initial… reaction, my personal perspective remains mixed. I’m curious as to what the new books will bring for the familiar characters moving in to a new era of fiction, disappointed at the early indications of the directions certain characters will take, but most of all I’m left  understanding the need for a clean slate.

Marvel comics, regardless of the relative importance of the character, do a great job of offering new readers and casual followers the chance to jump in at any singular issue or trade paperback and follow the subsequent pages without feeling left out or in the dark about what is happening and why (X-Men aside of course, it’s a universe all of its own at this point).

For some reason, DC never achieved this.

It is often said that Marvel characters are simply more recognizable to the wider audience, and as such, DC has less reason to cater for the mass market. I feel it has nothing to do with mainstream awareness. DC’s animated series have been both critically well received and popular with viewers of all ages. I don’t know a single human who didn’t see ‘The Dark Knight’, or the Donner Superman films of old. These characters are everywhere. Even my mother knows who The Flash is.

When I stopped reading comics in the nineties, it was because they sucked. When I got back in to comics, I maintained a strong Marvel only habit, with the happenings of Infinite Crisis retold to me by a colleague of the time. My reactions were simple, usually laughter and confusion. Superboy Prime lost his shit, threw a tantrum, and the world went wrong. To this day, it sounds awful.

While the Crisis events are considered to be a clearing house of continuity, you can’t make something confusing appear simpler by adding more confusion. It remains a mess.

While my mother knows who The Flash is, she won’t understand why there are so many of them. While I love unconditionally Grant Morrison’s work on Batman and the stories it gave rise to, explaining what happened to Bucky and Cap is far less of an undertaking than interpreting  ‘Batman Inc.’ to a puzzled onlooker. While there’s plenty of madness in the Marvel universe, it cuts away at the debris with an elegant catch up page and little more. I doubt the same could be workable for DC without this relaunch.

So, the reasons for the relaunch are clear. It’s all in the tireless quest for the “new reader”, that most nebulous of beings, constantly pursued by publishers of all media,  like catching fairies with a bug net. Hopefully the old consumer base, the ones with the disposable income to spend on all that lucrative merchandise, wont be alienated in the process.

Perhaps seeing the giant “Issue 1” on a cover will help the nervous make the jump from furtively stuffing Spider-man into their briefcase on a lunch break and try a DC book without having to study Wikipedia when they get back to their desks. If we take it at face value that the characters are nothing more than who we see on the cover having adventures, finding their allies, beating their enemies, it works out more fun for everybody.

Something tells me that the fan community, who invested so much in the history of the DCU, may not want everybody to be given that point of ingress.

To be continued