A Nostalgia Trigger From the Grotty Floating Hovel: Slipknot’s We Are Not Your Kind

So Slipknot have released a new album and it’s a winner, beating even Ed Sheeran in the charts and delivering a slice of post-nu-metal that satisfies this nostalgic punter on so, so many levels.

But beyond the simple enjoyment of tucking into the fresh material of a band with whom you’ve intermittently come of age, is the refreshingly optimistic realisation that something previously thought irrelevant can be good again; that the adage of ‘has-been’ is something our culture has been getting wrong all these years.

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Neither is it an entirely alien feeling, either: I’ve personally been very glad to fall in love with The Pale Emperor, another latter-day release by a supposed has-been who was a musical guiding star for me even before Slipknot took over in the late nineties.

I still remember popping in a bootleg cassette of Marilyn Manson’s Mechanical Animals and thrilling to the wash of immersive-yet-subversive sounds; the photocopied wrap-around cover not being cut entirely right, so that the album read ‘Mechanical Anima’ in what felt like an apposite error: the pained screams of a mechanised soul, the ghost in the machine aching to express itself in mournful, trickster anger.

But we’ve seen this elsewhere too. The Cure, by all accounts, knocking it out of the park at Glastonbury (wish I’d been there for that one). Actors we thought washed up at the movies returning to shine on the smaller screen, reaping the benefits of the kind of long-form storytelling afforded by the TV Renaissance to character actors whose creases accommodate stories of nuance and depth.

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Weaponised nostalgia: Netflix’s Stranger Things

I’m convinced that this isn’t just the Stranger Things impulse: it’s not just about the indulgence in nostalgia for its own sake. For one, this surely the historical time-frames we’re dealing with here are too compressed, too recent to offer the kind of generational time-hop necessitated by the kind of the thing the Stranger Things does?

Granted, twenty years is a sizeable amount of time. It used to be a lifetime, not all that long ago. But just like we’re getting re-assessments of The Matrix and American Beauty (Brian Raftery’s Best. Movie. Year. Ever. offers an excellent analysis of the cinematic mainstream in that low-key magical year of 1999), this is more about taking stock than sinking in the warm bath of cultural nostalgia.

Maybe it has something to do with the way distribution models have changed. Both American Beauty’s Alan Ball and The Matrix’s Wachowski siblings, with varying degrees of success, have managed to find a foothold in the realm of TV. And with MTV no longer being the benchmark of what’s cool and popular, maybe musicians not being beholden to their cycles also serves as an opportunity.

Yes, social media is hardly ever a good thing. It’s too image-obsessed. It’s too fragmented and fickle. Far too easily beholden to manipulating and manipulateable algorithms to ease our minds into believing that our enjoyment of pop culture is not an expression of some folksy universality. Instead, it’s just us bending the knee to our corporate overlords yet again.

And yet, and yet. Being part of an ever-shifting stream means the ‘has-been’ is an obsolete term. When the hegemonic order is dispersed — again, when MTV is no longer the arbiter — age really does become just a number.

With MTV no longer being the benchmark of what’s cool and popular, maybe musicians not being beholden to their cycles also serves as an opportunity

A number, much like Slipknot’s own members styled themselves, at first. Now of course, their masks and costumes have evolved into something eminently Instagrammable, but that’s a rich discussion to be had on another day.

I’m no music critic and I actually can’t claim to have heard Slipknot all that much beyond their blistering sophomore effort Iowa (2001), but there’s certainly something to be said about how We Are Not Your Kind has burrowed its hooks in me pretty deep.

It comes down to that well-calculated blend of the familiar and the new. In this case, experience doesn’t communicate exhaustion, but depth and maturity. Like a friend you haven’t seen for a while returning from an exciting year of adventuring across countries, continents and galaxies, eager to recount their experience over refreshments in safe and comfortable surroundings.

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The nine Iowans comprising Slipknot’s classic line-up wouldn’t be all that familiar with dingy arcades on Mediterranean beaches, but We Are Not Your Kind’s opener ‘Insert Coin’ certainly evokes that for me: these oil-caked, fry-up-stinking hovels are the kind of places we’d get some shade in while dipping in and out of the sea during those carefree summers.

One of these summers was that of 1999, where we’d scratch together pocket-money to get our hands on the band’s scene-changing, self-titled debut album. In a post-Napster, pre-Spotify world this would be a talisman of contemporary metal soon to be joined by the likes of Soulfly’s ‘Back to the Primitive’ and Fear Factory’s ‘Digimortal’, whose cuts we would still get to enjoy in grotty one-room nightclub venues, now closed, and whose single-row metallic pissoirs I remember with markedly diminished affection.

As an overbuilt, overcrowded and overpolluted floating hovel, Malta provides plenty of atmospheric angst of its own

Because while the angst inherent in Slipknot’s repertoire has something of the universal about it, neither should it be all that surprising that the sun-kissed Mediterranean isle I hail from is partial to a bit of metal.

Many of the bands that serve as mainstays of this scene rehearse in badly-lit, terribly under-oxygenated garages located in the depressed industrial town of Marsa and the mushrooming suburb of Birkirkara… as an overbuilt, overcrowded and overpolluted floating hovel, Malta provides plenty of atmospheric angst of its own.

It’s an angst that certainly finds cathartic release in We Are Not Your Kind’s hit single ‘Unsainted’, whose blasphemous undertones speak to Malta’s only-recent de facto liberation from Catholic theocracy while admittedly also existing as tropey metal mainstays. The song is a distillation of just the kind of anthemic perfection that launched Slipknot into the mainstream; boasting a killer chorus limned by jagged but thumping surrounding verses, like an speed-injected Cadbury Creme Egg framed by a Marmite-marinated crown of thorns.

For me, it’s a reminder of the energetic core that’s the true appeal of metal music. The magnetic pull that can’t be denied; that others will find in other genres, but that nothing else really replaces for me even now, when my own tastes have evolved beyond what I’d used to listen to twenty years ago. Yes, I’ll tell myself that I only really listen to the likes of Opeth and Tool anymore, but when songs Korn’s ‘Blind’, or Fear Factory’s ‘Replica’, or Slipknot’s ‘Wait and Bleed’ and indeed ‘Unsainted’ pop back up on the horizon I can’t help but run towards them.

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But neither should we diminish the importance of evolution and maturity; the adding of something new to the mix. The washed-up actor whose career finds a new lease of life on Netflix or HBO should use their hard-won scars and creases to their advantage, not cover them up. Otherwise, that’s how we end up in Stranger Things territory (please accept by continued and non-flattering references to this show as mere shorthand, I actually enjoy it quite a bit).

Thankfully, We Are Not Your Kind does manage to achieve that elusive blend of the old and new. It distills Slipknot back into their essence, but like truly seasoned artists, they still manage to slide in a reminder that they’re aging gracefully.

‘Spiders’ is a kooky Mike Patton-like number that still manages to be true to the ‘Knot’s Halloween-horror roots, while ‘My Pain’ cranks up both the atmospherics and melancholy. But this isn’t a mellowing out so much as a deepening of the musical landscape they’ve created. More than anything, Slipknot feel even more ‘cinematic’ now, wedded to their inspired imagery in more ways than one. More John Carpenter than Cannibal Corpse, and all the better for it.

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And perhaps this is why We Are Not Your Kind resonates with me so much right at this moment. While it’s hard to resist the nostalgia and romance that their debut evokes for me (see above), and I’m in a place where I’d rather fight for the hovel that is Malta to become a little bit less so; to salvage what is left of its green spaces, and for local bands to be able to practice in more than just grotty garages.

More than anything, though, the sonic architecture makes for a perfect writing accompanyment. It pummels at me to write and create works with uncompromising verve and energy, while offering that break of atmospheric concentration that’s also necessary to the process.

In short, it is a perfect soundscape of horror, which can take many forms, and whose protean variety I am continuing to find utterly thrilling.

Plus, “Horror will never die” says John Carpenter himself… another supposed has-been whose musical career offers a dignified middle-finger to that very notion.

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Feel this: Sense8 and the power of pulp

Sense8 is probably most exciting show in the Netflix stable: flawed as it may be, it combines pulp with thematic ambition and gives the Wachowski sisters’ career a revitalising jolt.

The Netflix series Sense8 is not a perfect show. First of all, its ambitious — and doggedly international — scope exposes it to some infelicitous short-cuts. Perhaps the least problematic of these is a recourse to wooden, melodramatic dialogue. Of course, there’s little time for nuance when you have to cut to characters spanning various continents in any given episode, and when these same characters have to project their qualms and dramas as quickly and forcefully as possible before their allotted time is up.

With respect to one particular mini-universe in this ensemble of eight — that of the Mexican B-movie and telenovela hunk Lito (Miguel Ángel Silvestre) — this has the unintentionally amusing effect of blurring the lines between the deliberately corny dialogue Lito spouts on his day job (which we’re clearly meant to laugh at) and the dialogue of the show proper, which is quite often just as cringe-worthy in its earnestness.

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Make believe: Lito (Miguel Angel Silvestre)

But what’s more problematic is the show’s unquestioning approach to national stereotypes; again, something we can almost justify as a necessity due to time constrains but only up to a point, especially in light of the fact that a ‘right-on’ message of interconnectedness and empathy also appears to be the raison d’etre of the show.

And so Wolfgang (Max Riemelt), the German sensate, reminds us that his folk are not as prudish about nudity as the rest of the world, the Icelandic Riley (Tuppence Middleton), not only has a fey look and predilection towards music (here’s to Bjork and Sigur Ros!), but also has a ‘hex’ hanging over her head — tapping into the Nordic ‘forest elf’ stereotype.

Worlds apart: Doona Bae and Aml Ameen

Worlds apart: Doona Bae and Aml Ameen

Meanwhile, the South Korean big business heiress Sun (Doona Bae) is an expert in martial arts, while the Nigerian van driver Capheus (Aml Ameen) has to remain plucky and resourceful in the wake of his mother’s AIDS diagnosis and the country’s incorrigible drive towards corruption and violent crime. And the Mumbai-based chemist Kala (Tina Desai) is inevitably rent apart between tradition and modernity, as her devout Hindu beliefs clash with the familial pedigree of (the undeniably charming and decent) man she’s about to marry, but whom she doesn’t love.

However, there’s two American characters — the ‘one per country’ quota doesn’t apply to them, it seems — and while Will  (Brian J. Smith) doesn’t stray too far from an ingrained blue collar cop going the extra mile trope, Nomi (Jamie Clayton) is a transgender hacktivist who clearly gave space to the show’s co-creators — the Wachowski sisters — to explore themes dear to them.

Damsel (temporarily) in distress: Jamie Clayton as Nomi

Damsel (temporarily) in distress: Jamie Clayton as Nomi

Taken together, Will and Nomi represent a wide-enough spectrum of American society, at least when compared to the show’s otherwise piecemeal approach to depicting the social context of their globe-scattered cast. Will is the son of a cop in his twilight years, with a clearly working class pedigree which he’s chosen to carry through, while Nomi — formerly ‘Michael’ — comes from an upper middle class stock whose comforts, conventions and trappings she has had no choice but to abandon in pursuit of her own happiness.

But at the same time, it would be disingenuous to accuse the Wachowski sisters and their co-writer on the show, the veteran J. Michael Straczynski, of chauvinism. For flawed as it may be in parts, the length of its reach can only be admired, and its fitting together of disparate characters and emotional journeys shows off a masterful exploitation of the serialised storytelling idiom.

The Matrix has you, but it’s not what you think

For better or for worse, The Matrix trilogy remains the hallmark of the Wachowskis’ career. The Keanu Reeves-starring cyberpunk pastiche was one of those ‘once in a generation’ things: a pair of barely-tested filmmakers were given the chance to realise an ambitious (that word will keep popping up) project in a move that paid off handsomely, and in the Wachowskis’ case even resulted in the birth of a franchise.

That the Matrix sequels proved to be bloated and ultimately unsatisfying affairs has now become common knowledge, but the core of the Matrix lay in the Wachowskis’ successful harvesting of cyberpunk literature and culture in a way that renders it palatable to a new generation which — crucially — had  just begun to experience the phenomenon that the genre itself prophesised: the Internet.

Will love tear us apart? Brian J. Smith and Tuppence Middleton

Will love tear us apart? Brian J. Smith and Tuppence Middleton

Fast-forward to 2015, and Sense8 refines that commentary further, by telepathically linking its global cast through a shared hallucination-cum-memory and forcing them to empathise in mind, body and soul with their fellow sensates. For us digital natives, the constant communication among the global cast does not feel at all alien: it’s no different than toggling from one browser tab to another (or better still, one chat window to another). To reinforce the point, Nomi’s partner Amanita (Freema Agyeman) actually describes the process as being like Facetime, only without any devices to facilitate it.

But the body wins

However, just like The Matrix showed us that what happens in the eponymous virtual reality has a real stake in the physical world, so Sense8 takes our for-granted approach to global communication that one step further by allowing its characters to physically inhabit and influence the world of other senseates. While this allows for other shortcuts and convenient ‘here comes the cavalry’ moments (more on that below), the Wachowskis are also clearly invested in exploring the power and impact of physicality for its own sake.

Nowhere is this made clearer than the infamous orgy scene from Episode 6, ‘Demons’. It was of course much talked-about on release for obvious reasons, and certainly makes for titillating television even on its superficial merits. But I would like to suggest that the decision to ‘bond’ the characters in this way is far from a random choice.

Sure, in a lot of ways it ticks some necessary promotional and narrative boxes — it gives the show a spike in viral visibility, and helps bring the disparate narratives together for a brief but memorable sequence — but the crescendo that it builds and the framing choices the Wachowskis employ in presenting it suggest that with this scene, the show is after more than just Game of Thrones-style clickbait-headline-grabbing.

Zoning in on the characters already engaged in some form of physical activity — the bulk of it being sex, of course, but Will gets in on the action simply by dint of spending some time at the gym, while the oft-nude Wolfgang ‘hosts’ the entire party at a sauna — the scene ramps up the passion not by focusing on pornographic money shots and a linear drive towards orgasm. Instead, it makes it a point to concentrate on the pleasure of all involved, and the Wachowskis are careful to give an identity and purpose to each of the participants.

To bring the point home that this is about the body first and foremost, and not about sex in particular, poor Will has to keep a straight face while lifting weights at the gym when he suddenly finds himself driven to orgasm by his newfound telekinetic brother-and-sisterhood.

Conflicted: Tina Desai

Conflicted: Tina Desai

And the fact that not all the sensates participate in the scene is further evidence that this is not just a cheap attempt to get a rise out of the audience. Because at that point in the story, Riley, Sun and Kala aren’t in the right emotional place to partake in a joyous orgy.

The virginal Kala — crucially, she waves off sex ed advice from a fussy aunt by invoking the wisdom of “the Internet” — is fending off both an unwanted marriage and a sudden attraction to fellow sensate Wolfgang, so that participating in the orgy in which he’s present would make little sense in her arc. Sun, while certainly no stranger to physicality owing to her — subsequently quite handy — combat skills, is biding her time with monk-like patience after making a heartbreaking sacrifice for the sake of her corrupt brother.

Emotional centre: Tuppence Middleton

Emotional centre: Tuppence Middleton

But while Riley’s harried state of mind — the narcotics-happy DJ has fallen on the wrong end of a drug deal gone wrong — also excludes her from the seratonin-spiking get-together, this doesn’t mean that the character, calibrated masterfully as the show’s emotional centre by a tender, raw and vivid performance from Middleton, has no claim on physicality.

But rather than sexual congress, it is childbirth that marks the most significant blot on her emotional journey, and another attention-grabbing scene depicting a live birth confirms the Wachowskis’ commitment to depicting how the physical nature of life will always trump arbitrary, remote connection.

In way, it’s almost a direct affront to a strong and consistent strand in one of the Wachowskis’ key influences for the Matrix trilogy: William Gibson’s landmark work of cyberpunk fiction, Neuromancer. In Gibson’s 1984 novel, hackers — or digital ‘cowboys’ — often derisively refer to our bodies as being simply “meat”. With Sense8, the Wachowskis appear to be determined to reinstate the value of what goes on inside our meat-containers while still operating in a genre that taps into the cyberpunk modus operandi.

Binge-watching towards empathy

But there’s another way in which the mechanism of Sense8 works to put the Wachowskis’ humanist message forward… though in this case, it’s probably Straczynski who can take the bulk of the credit for putting his vast experience of serialized writing into play.

In a way that’s both counter-intuitive and shrewd, the creative team behind Sense8 tapped into the pop culture reservoir originally opened up by Marvel Comics’ X-Men and their various multi-media iterations, by uniting a group of ‘special’ individuals under the tutelage of two sage renegades — Angelica Turing (Daryl Hannah) and Jonas Malicki (Naveen Andrews) — partly as a warning shot that their ‘kind’ is in danger, and being pursued by an errant member of their erstwhile species, ‘Whispers’ (Terrence Mann).

But for the bulk of the series, this isn’t the main motor of the narrative; it’s more like a ghostly nudge that turns into a bona fide push as the first season accelerates towards its climax. What hooks us instead are the individual narratives of the various characters, and when they interlace it feels like an added bonus.

The Great Joiner: Daryl Hannah

The Great Joiner: Daryl Hannah

An ancillary — but certainly not trivial — side-effect of this structural choice is that it places all of the various questions on an almost equal emotional footing; so that a romantic discord between Lito and his beloved Hernando (Alfonso Herrera) is placed side-by-side with the comparatively much harsher realities Capheus has to contend with.

Intentional or not, this has the wonderful effect of reminding us that, while the characters day-to-day situations and national, cultural and economic context vary greatly, we can come to understand their emotional priorities and respect them accordingly.

In a world where discourse is dominated by the — sometimes blinkered — drive to “out” who is more privileged than whom, and where empathy is limited to either dry facts or sensationalised sob stories, Sense8 reminds us that the way to understand someone is to first understand that, just like you, they have a day-to-day life in which they reckon with things wonderful and mundane, life-altering and life-threatening, at nearly every turn.

Say hello to my little friend: Max Riemelt

Say hello to my little friend: Max Riemelt

And while the Wachowskis have left details about the sensates‘ overall purpose and mission tantalizingly open to interpretation (read: ripe for exploration in subsequent seasons of the show), perhaps one thing we can assume about the reason why they exist, is simply to remind us that it is in fact possible to tap into something resembling a common wellspring of humanity… but that taking the importance of the flesh into account — as life-giving, pleasurable, deadly and prone to death and termination as it may be — is crucial to this process.

Just like you can’t hashtag your way into social justice — as recent developments all over the world have shown — so you can’t truly appreciate the value of other human beings without doing your damnedest to quite literally walk a mile in their shoes. Or, you know, temporarily possess their body to vanquish evil henchmen thanks to the martial arts skills you happen to have, and they don’t.

The rudiments of story win, too

Of course, there’s another reason why the conceit of interconnected body-hopping humans is handy for Straczynski and the Wachowskis. To wit, it’s a clever way of legitimising deus ex machina. They don’t always get away with it: there will be points when you’ll ask yourself why a sensate manages to interfere in certain instances, and not others.

But on the whole, it works in tandem with viewer expectations and makes for great moments of catharsis. This is particularly evident in the climactic episode, where the story slots into the kind of ‘chase’ sequence that you expect from X-Men-style narratives of marginalized super-powered beings fleeing from, the confronting, those persecuting them.

Inciting incident: Daryl Hannah and Naveen Andrews

Inciting incident: Daryl Hannah and Naveen Andrews

In a lot of ways, Sense8 works despite its niggles because it meshes form and content in a way that other shows don’t. The very idea of the sensates suddenly forced to come together and reckon with each of their individual life stories, and feed on each others’ abilities, works perfectly with the serialised television format, where multiple character arcs are not only possible, but actively encouraged.

It’s also clearly in line with the Wachowskis’ own ambitions, which have often resulted in stillborn feature film productions, but are finally given space to flourish in a 12-episode format.

Sense8 is a heady, febrile tumble that does suffer a few bumps and scratches on its breakneck descent. But it’s also a positive flip-side to the Wachowskis’ narrative sincerity and ambition; where their cinematic output has all too often revealed how such an approach can backfire. How a second season fares is still up in the air, of course, but the fact that its course remains touch-and-go already makes it a more exciting prospect than your usual TV fare.

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Please consider donating to the Patreon page for MIBDUL — the comic book series I’m currently working on with the artist Inez Kristina. 

Gotham Nights | Top Three Batman Adaptations

Carmen Bicondova as soon-to-be Catwoman Selina Kyle in Fox's Batman prequel series Gotham

Carmen Bicondova as soon-to-be Catwoman Selina Kyle in Fox’s Batman prequel series Gotham

The Fox network’s Batman prequel series Gotham looks to be a solid but unremarkable bit of hokum, if this week’s pilot is anything to go by. An otherwise competent-enough police procedural, it relies far too heavily on Caped Crusader brand recognition, hoping that none-too-subtle “a-ha!” moments revealing an early version of Batman’s rouges gallery will be enough to make us sit up and pay attention for longer than a couple of episodes.

Still, its inaugural episode made me look back at some of my favourite Batman stories in non-comic book media. I’ve narrowed it down to a top three – a top three of features I don’t mind re-visiting on occasion.*

3) The Dark Knight (2008)

The late Heath Ledger as The Joker

The late Heath Ledger as The Joker

There are only a handful of films I’ve watched in my life time that were bona-fide ‘events’ at the cinema. Not even a handful… off the top of my head I can think of two, maybe three films, tops, that weren’t just successful genre blockbusters but long-awaited, almost social events by dint of their pre-screening buzz and subsequent pop culture impact.

Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999) was the first. Despite the fact that it disappointed me even though I was an easy-to-please kid at the time, George Lucas’ return to the sci-fi/fantasy world that made him a Hollywood pioneer felt like some kind of watershed moment: never mind its intrinsic worth as a film – it was a monumental gesture on Lucas’ part that bridged two generations of fandom, right at the cusp of the internet revolution, which lent fuel to the fire of its many detractors.

Following closely on its trail was a far less controversial film – though its sequels proved to be a fast-tracked mirror image to the disappointment caused by the Star Wars prequels ­– which I won’t hesitate to call a modern masterpiece: The Matrix; a cyberpunk collage which wore its homages proudly on its sleeve but which was also animated by a pioneering energy.

The Dark Knight was the third and final one that comes to mind – the only example I can think of from past adolescence.

There are several reasons why Christopher Nolan’s sequel to Batman Begins (2006) struck a chord with me (along with many, many others worldwide). Its escalating tempo perfectly mirrors the chaotic, all-pervasive nature of a terrorist attack (relentlessly topical for all of us post-9/11), with Nolan perfectly balancing blockbuster friendly action with what is now referred to a ‘grimdark’ approach to superheroics. But instead of coming across as too sombre for its own good, Nolan’s seriousness is both gripping and infectious. He commits to the material in a way that doesn’t feel preposterous or disproportionate, in a way that’s been justifiably compared to Michael Mann’s Heat (1995).

But it’s unsurprisingly Heath Ledger’s performance as the film’s key antagonist, The Joker, that keeps me returning to the film. Over and above the tragic romance of Heath Ledger being reported dead soon after the shoot wrapped, there’s something magnetic about his performance that makes it a joyous thing to experience.

Yes, it’s disturbing and dark – like his director, Ledger grabs the role by the collar and doesn’t let go, diving head-first into the nihilistic psychosis of his character. But despite being the orchestrator of the film’s panic and chaos, he’s above all fun to watch, a spirited grotesque in the spirit of Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow who is enjoyable to experience even in isolation, as his introduction to the parliament of Gotham mobsters amply displays (and rewards in repeat viewings).

2) Batman: The Mask of the Phantasm (1993)

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm

The Paul Dini/Bruce Timm Batman Animated Series – as transmitted (and dubbed) on Italian TV – was one of the defining cartoons of my childhood. Apart from bolstering my love of Batman lore, it also imbued in me a love of film noir and Art Deco.

It gives us a Batman origin story beyond the my-parents-were-murdered sequence, as well as an uncharacteristic and finely fleshed out romance. There’s no bimbotic Vicki Vales here; in Andrea Beaumont Bruce Wayne gets a mirror image of his traumatic obsession. Also packing in a great Joker story, the feature-length ‘Phantasm’ exquisitely built on the foundations set by the animated series.

Playing into Batman’s noir appeal while remaining kid-friendly, it also maintains a certain decorum absent from subsequent – and concurrent – movie adaptations. It certainly has none of the camp excesses of the much-maligned Joel Schumacher films, and neither is it particularly close in tone to the comparatively toned down Tim Burton opening salvos.

That’s not to say it doesn’t have a flair for the theatrical ­– just wrap your ears around Shirley Walker’s theme tune for a rousing introduction to this inspiring labour of love.

1) Batman Returns (1992)

Feline fling: Michelle Pfeiffer and Michael Keaton in Batman Returns

Feline fling: Michelle Pfeiffer and Michael Keaton in Batman Returns

Nolan gets all the accolades and Schumacher gets all the hate, but it’s Tim Burton’s second (and final) sequel to his soujourn in Gotham that stays with me to this day – to the point that I re-watch it every Christmas (the period in which the film is set, all the better to amplify its Gothic excess).

It is the only Batman film in the franchise that takes on the core absurdity of the DC Comics character and runs with it.

But it doesn’t run with it in the same way that Burton’s successor Joel Schumacher ran with it; turning it into a camp carnival of steel bat-nipples and shiny gadgets and architecture. In pitting Bruce Wayne/Batman against the double-menace of feral jewel thief Selina Kyle/Catwoman (the never-sexier Michelle Pfeiffer) and the orphaned freak-cum-underground mobster Oswald Cobblepot/The Penguin (the never-uglier Danny De Vito), Burton showed that he understood the inner workings of Batman and his rogues’ gallery.

It’s about watching mad people in costumes tearing each other apart (which is as far as you can get from the moralistic, dead-serious drama-thrillers of the latter-day Christopher Nolan trilogy).

The snowy pall of Christmas time over Gotham city only reinforces the stylistically-heightened panorama: a truly Gothic sight if there ever was one, and a more than apt rehearsal for that other Burton-sponsored classic, The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993).

*This, incidentally, remains the ultimate litmus test for me when it comes to deciding what is a ‘favourite’ – particularly in this day and age when daisy-chain social media gimmicks keep requesting us to make a favourite list of this or that. If you truly love something, you’ll keep coming back.

Virtual Borders, Virtual Wars | Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Toby Kebbell (left) as Koba and Andy Serkis as Caesar in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Toby Kebbell (left) as Koba and Andy Serkis as Caesar in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Watching Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – an entertaining and effectively realized action-blockbuster, by all accounts – reminded me of just how much the idea of home is related to complete, all-out aggression. It is one of the key justifications for war, and if it isn’t Hollywood blockbusters that remind us of it, real-life world events will, unfortunately, persist in doing their darndest to ensure that we do not forget.

From my sheltered and privileged standpoint, obsessing over national borders instinctively feels doubly surreal, as I – like many people of my generation, and many of those living in some kind of diaspora – have made the internet their second home. Cultivating and negotiating a virtual identity has become a direct part of who we are, and the more that shapes itself into the fabric of our day-to-day life, the more it will assume the likeness of an undeniable, self-evident and near-physical ‘space’ which we may feel justified in fighting over.

Even my workspace has apes in it

Even my workspace has apes in it

Beyond the fever dreams of cyberpunk – from William Gibson to The Matrix – the web has become so ‘normal’ that it’s not far-fetched to assume that it will soon adopt other, less pleasant features of human ‘normality’ – our insistence on waging border wars being just another one of them. The ongoing debate over net neutrality is one explicit portent of the above, but I’m sure there will be many related polemics to come.

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Another thing that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – or DOTPOTA, an acronym I love – brought to mind is the panicked and often messy way in which pop culture responds to contemporary anxieties, and processes ‘universal’ themes.

To my mind, the film is great because its ‘message’ doesn’t feel like a tacked-on imposition, but part and parcel of its conceit. Of course, Matt Reeves’ continuation of the Planet of the Apes mythology reboot doesn’t really say anything new about the enduring phenomenon of border conflicts, or our stewardship of the earth. But I’d still like to think that it contributes to the discussion in its own way.

Though even the word ‘discussion’ feels wrong here – it assumes a lilting, rational conversation about carefully ironed-out topics. Because what we in fact get is far more chaotic: the necessities of crafting a crowd-pleasing blockbuster in which talking apes do battle with economically compromised humans only allows lucid allegory to slip through up to a point.

The presence of Zero Dark Thirty actor Jason Clarke is significant here.

Like DOTPOTA, Zero Dark Thirty is an action-intensive mainstream film shot with a gloomy palette that has become par for the course among blockbusters which aspire to court the critical consensus as well as the box office success that it is often assumed they would secure anyway.

(Largely blaming Christopher Nolan’s stratospherically successful Batman film The Dark Knight, critics of this pervasive aesthetic trend have taken to name-calling it ‘grimdark’.)

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

But unlike DOTPOTA, Zero Dark Thirty is about a very specific and very real event – a persistently controversial one, to boot. Katheryn Bigelow’s treatment of the steps taken to ensure the assassination of Osama Bin Laden is a fascinating watch even if you – like me – were unconvinced by its narrative thrust and troubled by its murky ethics.

Whichever way you slice it, ZDT was a brave attempt at tackling a very recent and morally, politically fraught scenario. In the end its internal contradictions forced it to devour itself, but only because Bigelow aspired to tackle her subject head-on, with as little aesthetic filters as possible.

This is where genre allegories like DOTPOTA have the upper hand. The way the message is processed is of course open to cynical interpretation: “It’s not really saying anything, they’re just re-treading secure narrative and thematic ground to ensure they make money at the box office”.

But the mere fact that it’s out there, doing its thing for a large audience who will enjoy it – or not – on the surface level to begin with feels like some kind of potential triumph.

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Final question: as more of the world goes online, as more of the world does ideological battle online and as more of our personal identity is shaped and justified by our online presence, will the web be treated by poets much in the same way as the natural world has been treated in earlier times?