Tag Archives: reconstruction

On Deconstruction, Reconstruction, and Also Batman

A deconstruction takes something apart. Shrek shows how weird fairy tales are by pitting the story from the point of view of an ogre. Suddenly the princess promising herself to whoever rescues her is especially bizarre, as is the idea of there always being a noble prince. The point of a deconstruction is usually to display how tropes and conventions in some narratives don’t work so well when held up to some more stringent logic.

In the same vein, the Batman we meet in at the start of The LEGO Batman Movie (and arguably The LEGO Movie) is a deconstruction of the Batman we got used to in Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. He’s all about darkness and not having parents, singular focused on his mission, and, as we discover, quite a pain in the ass. In essence, we see this singularly focused Batman played out to an amusing end: he’s stuck in a perpetual adolescence and cares for no one but himself (and his desire to fight crime). Of course he’s not well-adjusted, he doesn’t have any friends and doesn’t see daylight. It’s this deconstruction that gives rise to the plot of The LEGO Batman Movie, which lets the movie rebuild Batman into a hero – and leader of the Bat-family.

Thing is, The Dark Knight – and Batman Begins before it – aren’t quite deconstructions; at least not in the way it’s easy to assume they are. Yes, the movies do play out some of the complications of Bruce Wayne’s Batmanning: he has to go on the run, people try to copy him, Bruce Wayne ceases to be much of a person in favor of his alter-ego. And there is the whole darkness-no-parents vibe. Nonetheless, Batman is successful at what he does, and the films make the case that yes, a superhero does work. A dude dressing up as a bat to fight criminals is a patently ridiculous concept, but Christopher Nolan and his team reconstruct Batman into a character and vigilante that makes sense in a realistic center.

Take the scene in Batman Begins where Bruce and Alfred are putting together the Batsuit. They buy the components in bulk from different manufacturers, minimizing a paper trail. Even getting the Batmobile from Wayne Enterprises’ R&D department explains away where he gets those wonderful toys. As a reconstruction it acknowledges the flaws of the Batman narrative but works past them for a fuller, more shaded narrative. A true deconstruction would have played out the final climax with Two Face differently, perhaps having Batman refuse to take the fall or even having both of them be completely vilified. As it is, The Dark Knight lets Batman take his moniker and remain an idealized hero.

There are shades of deconstruction to The Dark Knight — take the Batman-inspired vigilante who gets himself killed — but it’s all in the service of ultimately reconstructing the idea – there needs to be a ‘superhero,’ so Batman will appear the villain so that Harvey Dent can be that person. So it’s easy to mistake the whole movie as an out-and-out Shrekian deconstruction.

Which is arguably what Zack Snyder and team did in Batman v Superman. While Man of Steel wavers, BvS tries its hardest to take apart both Batman and Superman – and superheroes in general. But it doesn’t do so for comedic effect (as in Kick-Ass) or to explore what we take for granted in the genre (see: Watchmen). Instead, it does… Well, nothing. It reads The Dark Knight as a deconstruction and attempts to imitate it, but since the former wasn’t really a deconstruction, the BvS is building with the blocks; it doesn’t take apart The Dark Knight (as LEGO’s Batman does), but tries to use Nolan’s film as a deconstruct-o-lens. The result is a lot of dimly lit scenes and people grunting and growling at each other about big ideas that don’t make much sense. We learn nothing new about Superman and Batman or the conventions that surround them that would warrant it being a deconstruction, nor does it recreate the mythos in a new way that would be a reconstruction. Rather it tells the story straight, just lathered in a murky layer of grit that can’t hide its (many) narrative flaws.

There is room for a solid deconstruction of Batman, Superman ,and superheroes in general – I mean Alan Moore did it in Watchmen thirty-odd years ago. Sometimes it seems there’s a race to take apart beloved genres, and sometimes it works like in Game of Thrones, but there’s room for both, again, Nolan’s The Dark Knight. The trick is to do it for a reason, and not just because you want your story to be about darkness and not having parents.

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Twisted Echoes

I’ve actually got a bunch of half-written posts I wanna post. Stuff on Birdman and the Oscars, or one on the Parks and Rec finale. However something came out, and, well, I can’t help myself.

I’m talking about the new Age of Ultron trailer.

There’s a lot to nerd out about. You’ve got the Vision teaser at the end, all the hints of the Avengers falling apart, Ultron being deliciously evil, and the glorious shot of the Avengers soaring into battle. I’m getting excited. Really excited.

There’s one moment in the trailer that’s particularly significant, and since I’m not above writing a rant essay on a small part of a trailer, we’re going to do so. About 1:36 into the trailer we have one of my favorite bits: Hulk and Iron Man’s Hulkbuster fighting against a building. Obviously, this is another geeky moment; the Hulkbuster has been a staple of the comics since the ‘90s, so seeing it on screen busting the Hulk is grand. But that’s not why it’s important.

Remember the end of The Avengers? After Iron Man has blown up the Chitauri ship he’s falling down to earth. Then Hulk bounds up and catches him, slowing their descent against a building. It’s the culmination of Bruce Banner’s arc, where the Hulk is usually a wild force of destruction now he’s saving someone. Furthermore he’s saving Tony Stark, the first one willing to befriend him not in spite of the Hulk but because of it too (see their first meeting and conversation in the lab).

Age of Ultron looks to be turning it on its head. Instead of going down a skyscraper, Iron Man and Hulk are going up one. Instead of Hulk catching Iron Man, Iron Man is propelling them upwards while Hulk attacks him. It’s visually reminiscent of the beat from The Avengers, only turned on its head into a twisted reflection.

Now, the reason for Iron Man and Hulk’s battle isn’t overly important (there’s a theory floating around that it’s a result of Scarlet Witch’s mind-altering powers). Rather, let’s focus on the visual significance. Beyond being a callback to the first film, we have two friends fighting. This, along with much of the rest of the trailer, brings up the idea of division among the team. It’s somewhat dialectical materialist in its approach; having been brought together by the first movie, now the opposite has to happen. Because a sequel can’t just rehash the first, it has to go deeper. We have a positive, let’s hit the negative of that now.

In a way, Age of Ultron is looking to deconstruct elements of the first movie. Joss Whedon’s said that one of the driving forces of the film is “the idea of heroes and whether or not that’s a useful concept.” So where the first film had Nick Fury straight up telling the World Security Council that, yes, we need heroes, Ultron turns this on it’s head and questions if they’re really necessary after all. The new film will probably take each stance (“We need heroes” / “we don’t need heroes”) and synthesize a new idea from the product. This bit of dialectical materialism, playing a defense against a rebuttal to come to a new consensus, serves to reconstruct the themes of the superhero films.

Back before the first Avengers was released, Whedon was asked how he’d try to top it with a sequel. He said he wouldn’t try to, rather he would by “being smaller. More personal, more painful. By being the next thing that should happen to these characters…” Now, he’s since admitted that Ultron’s gotten bigger than the first, but there remains the throughline he set forth three years ago. Age of Ultron is going deeper into these characters, figuring out what makes them tick, and pushing them to their breaking points. From a storytelling point of view, I am beyond pumped to see this movie.

That and, of course, this shot.

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Manners Maketh A Genre

Spy movies are old hat. Well, least the slick James Bond ones are. Movies like Goldeneye have either been deconstructed by the Bourne movies (or even by more recent Bond flicks, to an extent) or lovingly lampooned by the likes of Chuck and Archer. Now, this isn’t bad (I love Chuck and Skyfall). Spies aren’t the sort to smoothly enter in a suit with a myriad of fancy gadgets, they’re gritty people in dark, realistic worlds. If you aim for a more lighthearted approach, chances are the genre’s used as the setting for another story, be it a workplace comedy or romance. There’s been a dearth of pure spy movies.

Enter Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman. Though it may seem like a deconstruction — it plays with and pokes at a couple tropes — ultimately, it’s a reconstruction. Now, Skyfall was to an extent a reconstruction in its own right as it defended the relevance of the government-run spy agency (as opposed to, say, rogues like Jason Bourne) in a very modern world, keeping as much of the spy-gadgetry we’d allow in a grounded film. Kingsman on the other hand, decides to amp things up a couple notches.

The throwbacks to classic gadgetry are present in Kingsman: the heroes have weaponized pens, hidden shoe-blades, bullet-proof umbrella shields, and hi-tech glasses. The agents dress in tailored suits and a great deal of emphasis is put on the way one carries oneself. And, of course, this is a slick movie with good guys being awesome and an evil madman trying to take over the world. It’s a straight up spy film.

Now, it’s not all spies-on-missions. The first half of the film focuses on Eggsy training to be one of the impeccable spies. But even though he’s not actively going after the villain, it still feels spy-ish as the candidates go through increasingly harder trials with more and more flair. It’s over-the-top, sure but it’s great fun to see this kid from the wrong side of  the London’s tracks grow into a super-spy.

I think what really makes Kingsman such a wonderful ode to its genre is its tone. Classic Bond had this strong sense of romantic adventure to it and many of its imitators followed in its steps. Kingsman returns to that spirit, though it does so older and wiser. The movie knows that a jet pack’s been done to death, so the film uses a mothballed high-altitude balloon from Reagan’s SDI. Similarly, the gadgetry feels appropriately futuristic for a more modern setting (see the AR glasses mentioned above). This keeps it from feeling too old-fashioned, but a technology update alone wouldn’t push it from good to great. The movie knows it’s a spy movie, as do its characters; Eggsy and the others are almost Chuck-ish in their knowledge and meta-commentary on spy tropes. This doesn’t diminish it, rather it keeps the film feeling decidedly present while still keeping a decades old tradition alive.

This is how you breathe new life into a genre. You take all of its flaws and preposterousness and roll with it, accepting its prior deconstruction and morphing it into something new — in other words: reconstruction. Pacific Rim created a world where Mecha made sense and where Kaiju were cool; Godzilla once more had the titular monster a force of nature while still making sense; Star Trek accepted Roddenberry’s idealism and made space opera cool again. Kingsman makes being a suave, well-dressed badass integral to being a super spy. Manners maketh man and all that.

Writing off a genre as being silly unless you take it apart bit by bit is foolish. But every now and then deconstruction needs to happen. Casino Royale had to show the ramifications of being a super spy so Skyfall could ultimately show why it’s still needed and so Kingsman could deliver its pulpy fun. It’s fun to see things deconstructed — it’s what makes The Cabin In The Woods such fun — but it’s not the only way to make an old genre new again. Look at Kingsman, Skyfall, Star Trek; you take the thing apart so you know how to put it back together better than before.

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