Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Over the Top

“Over the top” is always a chancy choice, as is appropriate for a phrase that originates in WW1 trench warfare. Occasionally it achieves some success though, and “some” is what it achieves in three recently visited popular entertainment products.

Empress (2017), a graphic novel by Mark Millar and Stuart Immonen
This retro space opera is the first 7 issues of the Empress comics collected as a hardcover. Those familiar with Mark Millar’s other work (e.g. Kick-Ass, Wanted, and Kingsman: The Secret Service, among others) or with movies based on them should have some inkling what to expect here. Millar typically goes far over the top while eschewing out-and-out parody. The result is both campy and disturbing, two descriptions that don’t usually go together. Kick-Ass and its sequels, as examples, ramped up violence beyond what one ever expects to see in mainstream Western comics (and far beyond what appeared in the two anything-but-tame movies) while presenting the would-be superheroes as the unbalanced characters they would have to be. Wanted confirmed every nightmare you ever had that the world really is run by a sociopathic criminal elite. Kingsman: The Secret Service is Bond and beyond. The derring-do in Empress makes Flash Gordon look like a poser.

The time is 65,000,000 years ago when earth is one planet in an interstellar empire inhabited by an earlier version of humanity. (We aren’t given an evolutionary history of this ancient breed; presumably, evidence of these earth outposts was wiped out by the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs, though that event is not a part of Empress.) The empire is run by King Morax whose governing style makes Flash Gordon’s adversary more appropriately called Ming the Merciful. He is ruthless not just by inclination (though he does have that inclination) but as a matter of policy. He believes the only way to hold the scattered empire together is to respond to the slightest hint of defiance anywhere with overwhelming and savage reprisals in which “collateral damage” is the main point. It encourages the locals to eliminate signs of defiance themselves.

In her youth the beautiful Emporia was infatuated by the bad boy take-charge ways of Morax, but as his wife and the mother of his children she has a change of heart. Not least, she worries for the safety of her children whom, she knows, Morax won’t hesitate to execute if they give him the tiniest cause. Emporia takes her kids and flees with the help of Dane, her square-jawed, well-muscled, always superbly competent bodyguard. Morax is not amused. He is more concerned with Emporia’s public display of defiance than with the flight per se. He cannot be seen to take it sitting down. Is there more to Dane’s relationship with Emporia than just the dutiful loyalty of an honorable bodyguard? Emporia’s daddy-worshipping daughter thinks so, and she may be onto something.

Empress is not just 1930s-style space opera. It is space opera cranked up to 11. Immonen’s artwork suits the story perfectly. If you “get” and like Millar, you’ll like this.
** **

Walkaway (2017) by Cory Doctorow
Dystopias are commonplace in science fiction, but this is a rarer beast. It is a utopia of sorts, or at least the beginnings of one. It brings to mind a line from an earlier time: “tune in, turn on, drop out.” If we take the “turn on” part of that 60s mantra to mean turn on tech instead of something psychedelic, it pretty well describes the philosophy of the main characters in Walkaway.

In near-future Canada, Hubert, Etc. (yes, the “Etc.” is part of the fellow’s name), Seth, Natalie (runaway daughter from ultra-rich family), and others have walked away from the “default” world of jobs, bills, and judges. The walkaways step outside the system. They no longer need it. Modern tech has made possible the end of scarcity, and inequality is maintained only by the elite rigging the economic system through corporate controlled governments. In voluntary ad hoc associations, walkaways occupy and repurpose abandoned factories where they hold “communist parties” with DJs and with 3D printers churning out goods to be given away for free. Hydroponic food is also to be given away. The techies among the walkaways are even on the verge of defeating death by digitally scanning brains; the hope is to be able one day to download them into back-up bodies. Naturally, the current elite of the default world are threatened by all this; their status vanishes if wealth and the whole notion of property become meaningless. They respond with lethal force, but can they stop the walkaway tide?

Cory Doctorow describes himself as emphatically a man of the Left, yet his voluntaristic anarcho-communist vision is weirdly similar (except for labels) to anarcho-capitalist post-scarcity utopias such as James Hogan’s Voyage from Yesteryear or Vernor Vinge’s post-Singularity fiction. This helps explain why Cory Doctorow is a winner of the libertarian Prometheus Award for science fiction. It’s the “anarcho” element that makes me count this utopia as over the top. My philosophical preferences are as anarchistic as anyone’s, but I think Mogadishu has settled the issue of whether those preferences are practical. They are not. In The Dark Knight Alfred tells Bruce that some men just want to watch the world burn. True enough. Some – he didn’t say but also true enough – just want to plant their boots on other people’s faces: domination for the hell of it, you understand. Armed gangs will fill the void in the absence of law.

Nonetheless, Doctorow’s vision is entertaining and much of it is plausible. We really are in the midst of another industrial revolution that will shake up society profoundly. Also, even if the world as a whole is unlikely to shed “default” power structures, as a matter of personal lifestyle “tune in, turn on, drop out” wasn’t bad advice (properly understood) in the 60s, and the reinterpreted version isn’t bad today.
** **

Atomic Blonde (2017)
Based on the graphic novel The Coldest City by Anthony Johnston, Atomic Blonde is set in 1989 Berlin in the final days of the Wall and the Cold War. It’s a particularly risky time for intelligence agencies and their contacts because their unsavory double-dealings could be exposed in the power shake-ups underway. The movie is structured as a backflash ala Murder My Sweet or DOA as MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) recounts events in an interrogation room.

Lorraine is an ice queen who appropriately takes ice baths. She is sent to Berlin when a British agent is killed and a list of agents stolen from him. An East German trying to get to the West is the original source of the list and he has memorized it. Lorraine is to get the list, extract the East German, and find a double agent. But who in Berlin isn’t a double agent? Her contact in Berlin, David Percival (James MacAvoy) is particularly unreliable. Her task might not seem enough of a reason for the unrelenting violence and mayhem that follow, but it’s the only explanation we have.

The over the top stunts, car crashes, bullets, punches, and general kickass-ery rarely pause for a breath, and through it all Lorraine is an unstoppable force of nature. In a hypothetical matchup, Bond wouldn’t survive 30 seconds with her. One of the few nonviolent interludes is Lorraine’s lovemaking with a female French agent, who is playing a spy game of her own. So, who among the primary characters is really working for whom? It’s complicated, and at the end of the day we really don’t care. It’s hard to believe Lorraine cares. We are left to assume she likes the danger and mayhem for their own sake, and that one assignment is as good as another. Personal sharing is not her style, however, so that’s only a guess.

The camerawork and cinematic style are well suited to the subject matter, the stunts are impressive, and the fight choreography is extraordinary. And there is Charlize. For those reasons alone the movie is worth a look, which is good because there aren’t any other reasons. Don’t worry too much if you have trouble following the plot. The various intrigues and betrayals are just excuses for more violence, so the details aren’t important. Perhaps that’s the point.
** **

I assume that Blondie’s Atomic was not in the '80s soundtrack of Atomic Blonde because the song was released in 1979. Or maybe it wasn’t included because it was just too obvious. I don’t mind being too obvious, so:


  1. I've never given Miller's work a try, but "Empress" sounds like my cup of strong over the top tea. I might have to give that one a try.

    Everything I've seen about "Atomic Blonde" makes it sound like my kind of movie. I'm surprised that they didn't include Blondie's "Atomic" on the soundtrack. I mean come on!

    1. Millar made his name with Marvel, and he still does work in the Marvel-verse, but of course (and quite appropriately) that involves a lot of constraints. He is at his best with the constraints removed in indie comic books. If you enjoy the classic '30s Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers comics and serials, "Empress" should work for you.

      There is some good 80s nostalgia in the sound track to "Atomic Blonde." The director David Leitch also shared direction of the John Wick movies, which explains the competence of the fight scenes. As for Blondie's glaring absence, I'm wondering if the producers just didn't come to terms with Deborah Harry or her reps.

  2. I would probably like Empress as I've enjoyed some of Millar's other work whether on page or screen or both. He does have a knack for storytelling, although as you said some of it goes over the top, but I don't mind. I'm sure he doesn't either as so many of stories have been optioned for film. I wondered if you'd ever read Saga.

    I don't know how I feel about these super heroines. I guess it's all on how it's handled. It looks to be another film with style over substance. I prefer the latter.

    1. Not everyone gets Millar (or likes him even if so), but if you’ve enjoyed his other stuff, you’ll probably have fun with Empress.

      I’m aware of “Saga” (Amazon recommends the comics to me every now and then) and I see that critics by and large like it, but I haven’t given it a whirl. I’ll give the listings for it a second look. Yes, like good business suit in business, style in movies only gets you so far: sooner or later you have to say something, too.