Home > Uncategorized > How Bond’s “Skyfall” Apes Nolan’s “Batman”

How Bond’s “Skyfall” Apes Nolan’s “Batman”

Has Christopher Nolan killed action movies? The typical response would be: Of course not! The Batman triology and Inception are some of the most innovative, exciting, even thoughtful pieces of a genre gone stale! He’s blended action with ideas! Thrills with moral dilemma! Heroes with psychological depth!

And yet I wonder. Not only has Nolan’s strengths been way overestimated, but it feels like his personal style has mutated into a generic benchmark for what might be called “serious action” movies. The fun, free-wheeling summer blockbuster still lives on (think AvengersSpiderman, etc.) but Nolan’s success at the box-office and with critics has led Hollywood to lick their chops at the thought of achieving the movie industry’s holy trifecta: ticket receipts, cult followings, and critical success. Nolan flicks are becoming the model for directors who want to do car cashes and explosions and shoot-’em-ups and all that–but as art!

Pardon me if I sound cynical, but my taste of this new genre has me crinkling my nose. Janelle and I saw Skyfall last night, and the movie could have not have been more indebted to Nolan if he had footed the production bill himself. Think fast: what movie(s) involve a troubled orphan with psychological scars; a climatic battle at a childhood manor; a creepy, disfigured, erratic villain; a hero triumphing over age and injury; the bad guys dressed up in police uniforms; and moralistic speeches about public safety and the need for shadowy figures to maintain the mirage we call civilization? Skyfall follows the formula to a T, but second helpings are never as good as the first time around. While we forgave Nolan’s suffocating moral seriousness and labyrnthic plot lines because the feel was fresh, and Heath Ledger was so mesmerizing we would have watched him read the dictionary, Skyfall was largely boring.

It might be Ledger’s performance that’s the biggest obstacle for this wave of action movies. Ledger was so brilliant that good directors are wasting good actors trying to recreate the Joker in their own film (we see this same problem with Moriarty in the BBC Shylock). Javier Bardem, in No Country for Old Men, was a force of nature, a menacing figure of brute fate wrecking havoc across the desert like a hurricane. His stature and stare has all the makings for a good Bond villain. In Skyfall? He comes dressed up in a ghastly blonde wig, prone to bizarre analogies and giggles, and is driven to senseless violence by a Freudian attachment to M. In a “Do you want to know how I got these scars” moment, he pulls out his fake teeth to reveal the burned and blackened gums he received for eating an emergency cyanide pill that was supposed to kill him. The moment is supposed to be revolting, but the audience has already lost its lunch long ago staring at the hideous yellow caterpillars stapled above his eye sockets.

Bardem’s character, Silva, not only tries to resurrect the Joker’s evil pranks, but he comes fully loaded with that same inexplicable omnipotence that lets him hatch a plan with unlimited resources anywhere at any moment. Once again, we have to endure a frantic character screaming the line “He wanted to be caught!” and reenact another litany of contingencies that the villain has impossibly foreseen and meticulously planned for. Bond’s chasing me through an underground sewer? No problem, I’ll push a button, blow a hole in perfect spot in the ceiling right as a train barrels through and blocks him from me. Piece. of. cake. Granted, action villains have always had access to seemingly unlimited resources, but Nolan’s Joker took that standard trope to the extreme by giving him total control anywhere at anytime, dressing up his gang in police uniforms whenever he liked and rigging riverboats with explosives like was stocking party snacks. Silva’s control of every situation is equally unlimited (he and his lackeys also march into Parliaments’s chambers wearing none other than–you guessed it!–police uniforms) and equally frustrating.

Nolan’s other flaw has been pretending that “character development” can be reduced to “troubled childhood” or “fear of weakness,” which bestows an aura of depth while exonerating the character from exhibiting any real, you know, change or emotion or that kind of thing. In Skyfall, Bond is a deep character (we are bludgeoned to remember) because he is an orphan or he stares into mirrors sometimes or he struggles doing pull-ups…or something. My point is not that Bond needs to be more developed–some characters don’t need any “development” at all, their stolid predictability is what makes them so memorable in the first place. But placing the facade of complexity over an action-hero we don’t need to care about is one of many ways of being condescending to your audience.

Maybe what’s frustrating is that Skyfall shows glimmers of excitement and style that, less constrained by Nolan’s presence, might have developed into an impressive movie of its own making. I like Daniel Craig, and Sam Mendes is a fine director overall. He has an eye for catching the mood with a brief but poignant shot; he makes full use of his sets. The best scene of the movie involves a Chinese skyscraper draped in darkness with the soft glow of advertisements lighting up the outer walls. It also leads to the best fight scene of the movie–not the crumbling train or motorcycle chase you see in the trailers, but a silhouetted Bond facing his equally shadowed nemesis, their fist-fight painted against the tranquil night sky behind them. Here, less is clearly more; the powerful yet frantic movements of an action-move standard come alive. For a moment, the movie has a scene as cool as its character. For a moment.

[For an account of my the movie’s sexism–which is worse than usual–see this post]

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