The James Clayton Column: the intertextual movie character encounter

As McG’s This Means War pits Tom Hardy against Chris Pine, James Clayton looks forward to seeing Kirk and Bane face off in an intertextual movie encounter…

New movie This Means War is directed by McG, is about CIA love triangles and stars Reese Witherspoon, but these are not the reasons you want to see the film. The main appeal of this spy romcom – and this is something that’s been amped up in the pre-release buzz – is in the meeting of the two leading males. Essentially, what This Means War offers is Kirk versus Bane.

By Kirk we mean American actor Chris Pine, and by Bane we mean British screen hero Tom Hardy. In this flick they’re playing secret agent buddies who find that they’re both dating Reese Witherspoon and subsequently become rivals. There’s potential for a rumble and should it come to that, that fight is inevitably going to be a pop culture punch-up tagged as Kirk vs Bane.

They’ve played other characters, of course, but Hardy and Pine’s encounter won’t have anyone thinking “It’s Eames from Inception tackling the uppity kid who chased the runaway train in Unstoppable!” Big blockbuster franchises like Star Trek and Batman have a stronger hold over the audience’s hearts and minds and the impact on pop cultural iconography is far more potent than standalone movies that don’t really have a ‘cult curio’ edge about them.

See, for example, how Johnny Depp has been Hunter S Thompson, Willy Wonka, Ed Wood, Edward Scissorhands, Sweeney Todd and the Mad Hatter but is most popularly proclaimed as Cap’n Jack Sparrow of the Pirates Of The Caribbean series. Likewise, Alec Guinness had an astounding, eclectic career yet in the mainstream mind he’s an icon as Obi-Wan Kenobi thanks to Star Wars.

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It’s a good thing we’re not dealing with Mr Spock here as there’s little logic and reasoned thinking in this fanboy/fangirl mindset. For a start – focusing specifically on the clash of This Mean WarThe Dark Knight Rises hasn’t been released yet so the world only knows Tom Hardy’s Bane from some fleeting preview footage and photos showcasing the bulky physicality he’s bringing to the role.

It’s also difficult, for me at least, to think of anyone other than William Shatner as Captain James T Kirk. The whole Bane vs Kirk notion is therefore flawed, but getting picky about these things isn’t in the spirit of geekdom and cultish affectation. I’m not a huge rom-com fan so I’m more likely to go into This Means War thinking “Yeah! Kirk versus Bane!” than “Oh, it’ll be funny watching Reese Witherspoon two-timing a couple of hunks!”

This type of intertextual exhilaration will only get stronger in an industry dominated by franchises, where the meeting of two major characters promise is increasingly played up in the pre-release hype by all parties. It’s seeping into the language of how we talk about films and into the actions of movie producers, the media and the audience.

A case in point – the key draw of last year’s Cowboys & Aliens was arguably not that it mashed the sci-fi and western genres but the fact it brought James Bond and Indiana Jones together to join forces for some blockbuster action.

It wasn’t, of course, anything along the lines of an Indy-007 crossover. It was simply Daniel Craig playing amnesiac Jake Lonergan and Harrison Ford playing a chap named Colonel Dolarhyde alongside him, both joining forces to rout out the extraterrestrials bothering 19th century Arizona.

As appealing as that premise is, it doesn’t make people freak out as much as the idea of everyone’s favourite spy and everyone’s favourite archaeologist appearing in the same motion picture. The games of Fantasy Film Cast are running, and the merest hint of popular character combos sends geekstreaks surging and imaginations running into overdrive. Going to ludicrous extremes, you could possibly conceptualise The Expendables 2 as ‘Rambo plus Chev Chelios plus He-Man plus Wong Fei-hung plus Walker, Texas Ranger plus the Terminator” and then aneurysm as you face an action movie hero overload.

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I’m guilty of this as well. Returning to The Dark Knight Rises, I’m eagerly anticipating the film because it’s the third and final Nolan Batman epic, the climactic clash between the Dark Knight and Bane (the villain who breaks the Bat’s back in comics lore) and because we’ll see the battle between two of this generation’s most powerful, possessive actors (Hardy and Christian Bale).

Bizarrely though, part of me is extra psyched up for Bronson versus Patrick Bateman. Hardy versus Bale means I get a moment to fantasise about a fight between the titular moustachioed crackpot of Bronson and the yuppie sociopath of American Psycho. In my mind it’d make for an excellent episode of Celebrity Deathmatch. I’ve got glorious visions of two claymation gladiators going at it, one of them naked and ordering his opponent to spread Vaseline across his arse as the other wields an axe while waxing lyrical about how much he loves Huey Lewis and the News.

Bale’s Bateman and Hardy’s Bronson aren’t even characters from a franchise – I’d call them incredibly captivating, endearingly insane cult movie psychopaths – but it doesn’t really matter. The overall point is that once you start to apply this template you can run amok with it and drag it out to ridiculous lengths. People are up for this because it celebrates their own nerdy knowledge, shows how well-versed they are in pop culture and is fun, fizzing with geekish imaginative spirit. From a commercial point of view, it also helps market movies, drawing in viewers with the pull of the familiar that appeals to them.

It’s all very meta and potentially distracting but it isn’t necessarily a bad thing if it doesn’t totally undermine a film and if it gets people excited and in an enthusiastic relationship with cinema.

The onus, I’d say, is on the actors themselves and the mark of a truly good actor is their ability to disappear beneath the skin of the role they’re playing and make the viewer momentarily forget their real off-screen identity or other works they’ve appeared in. Hardy, Bale and Johnny Depp, to name a few amongst the multitude of stars who’ve become iconic franchise characters – all succeed in breaking through that character worship within moments of appearing on screen.

The impression their characters have left on our collective memory serves as testament to the performers’ abilities to act and create captivating, unforgettable protagonists. Altogether, I approve of this sort of ridiculous fanboyish fervour and don’t mind talk of inconsequential metafictional character encounters. Bane versus Kirk, then – William Shatner beats everyone hands down.

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James’ previous column can be found here.

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