For all of the successes of the Marvel superhero universe, most of the sub-franchises haven’t enjoyed uninterrupted upward curves. Iron Man 2 was a mess, Thor: The Dark World was a bit dull, and Avengers: Age of Ultron seemed tired by comparison with its mega-successful predecessor. Only the Captain America movies have shown consistent progress: starting well with The First Avenger, getting better with The Winter Soldier, and now topping the lot with Civil War.
It’s been a surprisingly good year for mainstream cinema so far. We’ve had the best Disney animated movie in years (Frozen), a monster movie that knew it was a monster movie and played to its strengths while referencing 2001: A Space Odyssey and getting away with it (Godzilla), a superhero movie that managed to be way smarter than it had any right to be (X-Men: Days of Future Past) and another two that were way more fun than they were intelligent (Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Edge of Tomorrow), and even an arthouse biblical movie that was one of the weirdest mainstream releases in years (Noah).
Sure, there have been clunkers (Transcendence), overrated local offerings (Calvary) and blitheringly stupid drivel (The Amazing Spider-Man 2), but largely, things have been good. The film that I’m looking forward to the most, though, is Guardians of the Galaxy, not due until August. Why? Well, there’s a great sense of fun about the trailers, but beyond anything else, it looks completely bonkers.
Marvel’s movies have eased cinema audiences into the superhero mindset: from the vaguely realistic Iron Man to the space gods of Thor, the weird science and period setting of Captain America, and the alien invasion of Avengers. GotG, though, has a talking racoon with a really big gun and an ambulatory tree with violent tendencies. It’s Narnia and Lord of the Rings meets Star Wars, and if it’s a success it’ll be the biggest vindication of Marvel’s strategy to date.
My anticipation of the sheer insanity of all of this is something I’ve noted cropping up all over the place lately. While I enjoy straight drama as much as anyone, there’s something invigorating about entertainment that recognises its limits and takes a big hairy step beyond them. The kind of TV or film that can genuinely take you by surprise with its refusal to hew to well-worn plots and character archetypes.
It can be a tough approach to take though. The slightest hint that the writers or cast are winking at the audience and the whole thing can become uncomfortably camp. Take as an example the movie League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Based on an Alan Moore comic series that was itself a perfect example of storytelling beyond the bounds of reason (Victorian fiction’s finest team up to take on Professor Moriarty, Fu Manchu and Martians), it was turned into a movie that missed the mark all over the place. Most notably Sean Connery’s starring role as a character who clearly knew he was the star.
All the stranger, then, that where the LoEG movie failed so badly, there’s currently a TV series treading the same ground (filmed in Dublin no less) that gets a whole lot right. In Penny Dreadful, there are vampires, werewolves, Frankenstein (both doctor and monster), Jack the Ripper, big-game hunters, Egyptian deities and consumptive prostitutes, all thrown together in an over-the-top stew. It succeeds for a few different reasons: a consistent tone of darkness (slathered with gore), characters who are buried neck-deep in their own failings and committed anchoring performances from Timothy Dalton (who seems to be enjoying the latter part of his career far more than the early part) and especially Eva Green.
I had previously watched and enjoyed Dracula, a similarly bonkers TV series that mixed the Prince of Darkness with Thomas Edison and Nikolai Tesla and threw in Freemasons and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, yet never quite managed to make it all gel. Penny Dreadful is working a lot better so far, despite its tendency to have every one of its characters get emotionally or physically involved with as many of the others as possible.
It’s not the greatest TV show ever made, and it’s not going to threaten Game of Thrones or Person of Interest atop my to-view pile, but there are plenty of reasons to catch an episode. In fact, I can only think of one real reason not to, and it isn’t the buckets of gore thrown all over the place. It’s poor old Billie Piper, as the aforementioned consumptive prostitute (a role she really doesn’t want to get typecast in), who is saddled with one of the worst Belfast accents I’ve ever heard. One can only hope it’s less painful to those of you who didn’t grow up in Northern Ireland…