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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Tag Archives: Tommy Lee Jones

chameleon

The supervillain of Amazing Spider-Man #1 is a little-remembered master-of-disguise called the Chameleon. He later received an alter ego (Dmitri Smerdyakov) and backstory (abused brother/servant of Kraven the Hunter), but in 1963 he was just a guy with a face as featureless as an Oscar statue’s.

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Which is why I’m asking the Academy Awards to name a new category after him: Best Shape-shifting Performance in a Motion Picture.

My nomination goes to Lincoln.

Much of the credit for mutating Daniel Day-Lewis into our 16th President belongs to the make-up team. I think Spielberg tricked a few of the camera angles too (something Kenneth Branagh did to lesser effect for Robert De Niro in the 1994 Frankenstein). And he probably set his casting director a maximum height requirement as well (when Spielberg shot War of the Worlds in my town, all our local extras had to stand below Tom Cruise’s mighty 5’ 7”).

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But Hollywood gimmickry can’t match Day-Lewis’ own Chameleon-like superpowers. At 6′ 2,” he had to stretch himself another two inches to achieve his Lincoln-esque stature. Which might sound easy if you weren’t simultaneously stooping, creating the air of a freakishly tall man desperate to look shorter (because back then Tom Cruise would have been a titan). Add Lincoln’s implausibly high voice, something Day-Lewis imbues with both humility and gravitas, and you have an impersonation equal to the Chameleon’s framing of Spider-Man when he stole those defense plans after the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Day-Lewis isn’t the film’s only successful shapeshifter. But his is the only performance that erases the presence of the actor. For all her talent, Sally Fields in a period dress remains Sally Fields in a period dress. The rest of the equally admirable cast of character actors never quite escapes the Where’s Waldo effect. As in: “Hey look, isn’t that the guy who plays Professor X on Alphas?”

But it’s not Day-Lewis who should accept the film’s Chameleon award. It’s Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner. They’re the ones who shapeshifted 2012 into an improbably identical 1865. They’ve proven that the scifi truism, “the future is just like the present only more so,” applies to the past too. Or at least whichever historical snapshot a film-maker decides to dust off and frame anew.

It’s not hard to see why they tackled Lincoln in the age of Obama vs. the Tea Party. A President synonymous with racial change wins a legislative battle in a bitterly divided Congress through the power of compromise. Sound familiar? Spielberg even timed its release during the current lame duck session of Congress, same political timeframe as the film. If Obama had lost in November, or the legislative battle about the fiscal cliff been averted, Lincoln would lose many of its superpowers.

Instead, majority leader Harry Reid adjourned the Senate early last Wednesday for a 5:00 screening, followed by a Q&A with the director, writer and star. (Spielberg had already attended a screening with Obama at the White House.)

But it’s the House of Representatives who should be watching. Tommy Lee Jones reprises his role as Two-Face to give today’s Tea Party a civics lesson in principled compromise. Are you listening Speaker Boehner?

Political shapeshifting isn’t spineless, it’s noble.

“When you think about what we’ve gone through, ” says President Lincoln, “the country deserves us to be willing to compromise on behalf of the greater good.” No, wait. That was Obama last week, talking about the debt deal. (These time travel plots are so confusing.)

Thaddeus_Stevens_-_Brady-Handy-crop"The Hunted" PremiereJOHN BOEHNER-AP PHOTO

I assume it’s coincidental that Tommy Lee resembles Thad Stevens less than he does John Boehner. To be fair, it’s actually Boehner who is a more attractive version of Jones. As if Boehner had been cast in a real life adaptation of the film. But instead of ending slavery, Boehner has to save America from the Debtpocalypse.

Or is that Governor Norquist’s job? Like Thad, the author of the sacred “Taxpayer Protection Pledge” bit the ideological bullet and endorsed Boehner’s “Plan B,” what would have been a tax hike on millionaires to prevent one on everybody making over $400,000 (the amount, coincidentally, Congress sets for the President’s salary).

But the Tea Party still said no, as they will to any compromise. Lincoln is just too hard a history lesson for the GOP to study right now. They just watched their last flag-bearer, the human Etch-A-Sketch Mitt Romney, go down in ignoble flames after his failed attempt to shapeshift into a moderate a month before election day.

No Academy Award nominations for that performance.

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Even worse for Republicans, the formerly soft-spined President Obama has leaned to flex his re-election muscles. He’s even promising gun control next. It all makes for a thrilling legislative drama. A subgenre of the political biopic I only just discovered. If I’d known the plot of Lincoln wasn’t the President’s life but the passage of the 13th Amendment, I might have stayed home. I’m lucky I didn’t.

If Congress can pass a cliff-averting fiscal bill, the whole country should feel lucky too. Then we can all stay home and watch the Academy Awards together.

I predict Lincoln wins in a landslide.

December 2012 114

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Dear Warner Bros.,

First off, congrats on the whole Christopher Nolan Dark Knight trilogy thing. Sorry about The Avengers, but hey, Batman grabbed both silver and bronze for biggest grossing superhero movies of all time. Now you’re all asking yourselves one question:

How soon till we reboot!

If you follow the Spider-Man model, you have the minimum of a five-year hiatus. That’s a 2017 release date. Which is like, wow, a long time from now. You could jump sooner, but The Amazing Spider-Man took a lot of heat for its accelerated offing of Tobey Maguire. And even though it was a better film than Spider-Man, it grossed a measly $257 million against the original’s $403. Hell, even Spider-Man 3 pulled $336.

Plus the Nolan trilogy is now a “classic.” There were no street protests when Val Kilmer stole Michael Keaton’s batsuit back in ’95 (or George Clooney in ’97), but you’ll have Bane-style revolution if you yank Mr. Bale’s tights off too soon.

So how do you keep the franchise alive in the meantime? How do you capitalize on the Dark Knight when its success is its own roadblock?

Switch screens.

It’s time for the Warner Brothers Television to answer the bat signal.

You have plenty of TV superhero successes to build on. My Bronze Age generation grew up on Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman, Lois & Clark defined Superman for the 90’s, and Smallville just completed its decade-long run last year. Sure, you’ve had flops (The Flash, Birds of Prey), but the timing is right for the caped crusader to go prime time.

Except not.

And here’s where I worry about confusing you. People say Hollywood only understands things in very simple, high-concept terms, so I’ll try to keep this plain.

A TV show about some new Bruce Wayne gearing up to clobber crime once a week will not work (see “Bane-style revolution” above, except with more yawning). Keeping your franchise alive means shaking up the paradigm. The new show isn’t about Bruce. It’s about Gotham.

Maybe I should translate this into agent-pitch dialect:

“It’s Batman Begins meets Law & Order!”

“It’s Batman: Year One meets The Wire!”

It sounds weird, I know, but Batman can’t be the main character. In fact, he’ll almost never be on screen. Bruce will make a few appearances, but not in costume, and only as a secondary character. The viewers are in the know of course, but everyone in the show has no idea that the loser playboy has any connection to reports about that new vigilante weirdo pulverizing thugs in Crime Alley.

Let me be explicit about this: that means no Batcave, no shots from the Batmobile cockpit, not even a Wayne Mansion interior unless it’s from the POV of a visiting character. “The Bat-man” is just a name a reporter coins after an episode or two of rumor-level sightings. We only know him from his handiwork, via crime scene investigations, usually just details bubbling through the cast of cops and lawyers.

Steal as much as you like from Frank Miller. Year One is already plotted for a first season arc. “Meet newcomer Detective Jim Gordon as he struggles against police corruption in his adopted precinct.” I’d add a tier of uniformed patrolmen too. Maybe Officer Drake? Or, for a Dark Knight tie-in, Officer Blake. Better yet, Officer Carrie Kelley. The first time we glimpse a cape flapping into the dark, it’s going to be from one of their street-level points of view.

You’re going to need a posse of lawyers too, headed of course by District Attorney Harvey Dent. Don’t overdo the Two Face foreshadowing. Dent is a decent guy trying to work within a flawed legal system. That two-headed quarter in his pocket is just a trick he plays on arrested thugs he’s trying to turn, pretends he’s leaving it all to chance, heads you take the plea bargain, tails you walk free. But guess what happens to his meticulously crafted court cases when that new vigilante won’t play by the rules. How do you prosecute the big fish with that idiot warring on the small fries is scaring off your informants? I’d end Dent’s first season with the collapse of his biggest case. Maybe the legal system really is just random. In frustration, he grinds an X across his coin, a talisman of things to come.

As far as the other villains, tone them back too. No costumes, no MHA-HA-HAing. “The Riddler” is another newspaper-coined name for that anonymous guy phoning in tauntingly obscure tips and threats to the police hotline, another season-length plot to play out. The Penguin? That’s what the editorial cartoonist nicknamed the corrupt, old money mayor, scribbling in a monocle and umbrella for comic effect. Keep stealing from Miller and follow Selina Kyle’s gritty travails through Gotham’s underworld of drugs and prostitution as she develops her own brand of Mob-bashing vigilantism and Robin Hood-esque do-goodery.

Remember: the show is doing with Gotham what The Wire did with Baltimore and Treme New Orleans. It’s a portrait of a city. For real world locations, I’d go with Pittsburgh, and not just because I grew up there. It’s another way of building on Nolan’s vision. The city provided the working class feel of Dark knight Rises, something the TV show would need to expand. Plus Pittsburgh is a film-making mini-hub ready to go.

Tapping the Wire/Treme creative team will also provide something else woefully lacking from the history of the Batman franchise:

Black people.

Did anyone notice all the white faces when the police force charges Bane’s stronghold in Dark Knight Rises? I didn’t spot any black faces during the prison break either. Or on the streets. Or at the fundraising gala. Or just about anywhere in Gotham. It’s as if Morgan Freeman beamed in from an alternate dimension. Of course Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns is no better on race. His urban mutants are thinly coded black gangs. And does anyone remember Jack Nicholson graffiti-painting the art museum to the beat of a boom box? At least Tim Burton’s Harvey Dent was played Billy Dee Williams, a cameo made pointless when Tommy Lee Jones camped up Two Face for the third movie.

But let’s not get off track here. We can talk casting after you start the development ball rolling. I’m thinking a Fall 2013 premiere. Not too close to the Nolan achievement to provoke grousing, but close enough to ride some of its wake. Especially when you start the pre-hype now. A year of strategically leaked rumors and production shots, and that massive Batman fan base will have their TVs tuned to their Bat channels before you spend a dollar on advertising.

Also, I assume you heard about Marvel greenlighting Joss Whedon’s S.H.I.E.L.D. show, right? So unless you want to get beat by The Avengers again, you better get the Batmobile in gear ASAP. If you have any questions, drop me a note. I’d be happy to read some of the preliminary scripts. I’m busy with my new semester, but I should be able to free up some time during Thanksgiving break.  Good luck till then!

Sincerely yours,

Chris Gavaler

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