The Authorial Intent Battle Royale

Is there a right way to advise people to care about authorial intent? My instinct would be to tell most people that they can disregard it, but I think that—as a whole—that can rob us of some really fascinating perspectives.

Obviously without authorial intent movies can feel “of the moment” in the wrong (or at least, unintended) way. Battle Royale hit the U.S. at a time when it was recovering from its first school shooting; the notion of paying to watch kids killing kids seemed to fly in the face of the idea that violent culture breeds violent kids. And so it was largely “banned” and made difficult to access in the U.S.

Battle-Royale-Class-Photo-But in Japan it was a whole different ball game. Director Kinji Fukasaku came up during WWII, working in a munitions factory that kept getting bombed, as a 15-year-old (the same age as the students in his film). When bombs came the kids sometimes used each other as human shields, and survivors would be left to bury the dead. It made him “understand the limits of friendship,” and he realized that the government had lied to Japan about why they were even in the war to begin with.

“This was his film kind of giving a finger to the Japanese government,” said film critic Amy Nicholson on The Canon. “I love that the last film he made is [like] ‘You can’t trust adults, you can’t trust the government; they grind up kids and use them for meat.'”

This seems like a crucial block of knowledge to bring to a Battle Royale viewing; it colors the culture of Japan (which, during the movie’s release in the ’90s, was also going through some changes reflected in Battle Royale like high unemployment) as a post-war state, and informs viewers about how that makes Fukasaku feel. As authorial intent goes, this one is wide-reaching and savage. It touches on the war, the nation, and human (or at least, survivalist teen) nature.

But that only makes it all the more peculiar when directors like Christopher Nolan say that the wiretapping debate had no impact on their decision to give Batman the ability to wiretap the citizens of Gotham in The Dark Knight, or the clash of grassroots protesters versus the police just happened to make its foray into The Dark Knight Rises after #OccupyWallStreet. It seems disingenuous for audiences to implicitly trust that Nolan wasn’t affected by these things. It seems wrong to think that there’s no way the two worlds could bleed into each other.

Dark Knight Rises protest still
I mean, come ON

Which is what makes The Birth of a Nation controversy so irreconcilable. How can a movie, centered on a graphic rape, be trusted to be appropriately handled by someone who committed (alleged and murky) sexual assault? How can the audience react to a movie organically, knowing that fact in the back of their minds? Will they be able to divorce authorial intent and the creator from their viewing? Should they have to?

It’s easy to cast off a notion like Nolan’s when you see parallels in The Dark Knight trilogy. Incorporating Fukasaku’s past is a fascinating spotlight that only illuminates the statement of Battle Royale all the more. But with Nate Parker the line is murkier. And I’m not sure there’s an easy answer there.

Surprise! You already know.

Has surprise casting ever worked? I don’t mean like Kevin Spacey at the end of Se7en. More like casting a notable actor in a film (typically a reboot or franchise) as a rando new character before ultimately revealing that—surprise—they were this character all along. Think Benedict Cumberbatch as John Harrison Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness or Marion Cotillard as Miranda Talia Al-Ghul in The Dark Knight Rises.

At this point fandoms have become accustomed to the studio’s schtick: There’s no such thing as adding a new character to an established franchise, they’re only there if it’s a bait-and-switch. Whether it seems to happen because they want to withhold some plot development later on (see Dark Knight Rises) or they want to be able to justify not casting a POC (Star Trek Into Darkness, and arguably Iron Man 3) without fan outrage, it’s a common enough practice that audiences—especially those that leak, clamor, and obsess over anything released by the studios regarding franchises—aren’t buying it anymore.

KhanSequel_FEAT-970x545.pngI’m all for spoiler warnings and avoiding knowing the plot ahead of time before movies (if that’s what you want, I don’t really see the harm in reasonably facilitating that for yourself). But too often it seems producers just straight up lie in order to avoid—what, controversy? Discussion? All they’re really doing is hoping the can is kicked far enough down the road that viewers will be more sympathetic, or at least understanding, of the artistic junket choices they made. But in my experiences no one likes feeling conned. And when these experiences don’t pay off artistically it makes it all the worse. It’s too simple to say that witholding information like this should enhance a viewing experience not dampen it, because that’s probably what creators thought they were doing with Talia and Khan.

But compared to something like (to grab another Spacey-villain-reveal joint) The Usual Suspects, where the person pulling the strings the whole time is played in a bit of misdirection—even acknowledged misdirection, as we see Spacey orchestrate the initial robberies even as he tells us that it was someone else. It’s nuggets like that that can create repeat and rewarding viewing experiences. Compare that to trying to reboot and slip a villain in under the radar in an established franchise under the wire while keeping it under wraps that it’s what you’re doing and the game is considerably more dicey (and as we’ve seen in both Rises and Into Darkness, prone to failure and letdown).

Perhaps the latest comes with the news that Zendaya won’t be playing a random “Michelle” in Spiderman: Homecoming, she’ll be playing none other than the red-headed heartthrob Mary-Jane. Though I’m hardpressed to believe that (if the rumors are true) there’s any real reason Marvel would withhold this information other than to have a couple more months without the ire of racists on the internet directed towards them, at least for once it’s being used to get a person of color into a white role, rather than the other way around.

Why Marvel is optimism prime

In the name of Pulp Diction, friendship, and love of films, I have had many a heated argument over opinions on movies with my best friend and writing partner. Though perhaps none as heated as the time we started to review “The Dark Knight Rises.”

We had gone to see it with a large group of people, shelled out for the gaggle of us to see it in eye-popping IMAX, and built up the potential in our minds for eons. Walking out of it though, I seemed to be the only one who seemed skeptical of how the end of the great Nolan/Batman trilogy had turned out. Surprising, since my bestie and I are normally so far on the same page it’s scary.

We debated, back and forth, for a couple hours when it came time to write the review. The argument came to a head when I asked him if he really liked “The Dark Knight Rises” over, say, “The Avengers,” or if he just felt like he did because it had a more somber tone. Though I would say in the end we found a common ground in the voice of our review, the debate struck a chord with me that I haven’t been able to shake.

Though my sisters and I have often scampered around the comic realm, we’ve always been slightly more partial to Marvel over DC. I’ve heard it said that “DC comics are about superheroes who happen to be humans, Marvel comics are about humans who happen to be superheroes,” and I think that’s reflective of the tone picked up in most comic book movies that I didn’t full realize until my debate around “Rises.”

Where DC seems to be reveling in their shade and gloominess, Marvel is celebrating in the sheer absurdity of its comic universe. It’s a tonal reflection that often happens in pop culture, believing that a serious setting is worth more than a comical, or more palatable framing (see also: almost any Oscar ballot).

But it’s a little exhausting, that universal bleakness. I could probably tell you a handful of points I enjoyed around last year’s “Man of Steel,” but it is tiring, following Superman–who has a symbol for hope on his chest–fly around such a dreary mis-en-scene.

What’s refreshing, as both an independent viewer and a reader of comic books, is how Marvel doesn’t seem to be ashamed of its zany elements or its outlandish schemes, costumes, or acronyms. Sure it might tone them down a bit–change the time frame, make the costumes a bit more realistic (or at least VFX friendly)–but at no point in its production does it seem to be doing anything but going balls-to-the-wall when building their universe up, with enthusiasm fully engaged.

So while there’s cases to be made for each side’s television, movie, and minority representation, you’ll have to drag me away from Marvel kicking and screaming. And, likely, from a line of Marvel fans all doing the same.