Strong Male Leads
I’ve discussed strong female characters once before, so I thought I’d try male characters.
The whole logic behind discussing female characters is, despite being influenced directly by a season on film-four, I felt that female cinematic characters tend to fit a certain cinematic conventional mould.
This isn’t always the case, but there has been more flexibility with male roles in film than
female since cinema began.
I’m not one for traditional anything really, so I like to go against type. That being said, I thought looking at some male characters might be interesting and highlight some decent films in the process.
Thus, I’d like to highlight a few characters and discuss some background on the films in which they feature too.
But before we start: How do I interpret cinema?
Cinema deals with ideas and only ideas.
You can analyse those ideas and draw conclusions on them, but ultimately, they are only ideas amongst tricks of the light and enticing imagery.
Life deals with ideas too. Cinema is after all human creation and it stands to reason it would mimic some of our traits in its makeup…but only ideas.
Today’s reality is tomorrows past, and we tend to reshape the past from memory using ideas we’ve experienced in the present. Cinema borrows from the past and borrows ideas and reinvents itself constantly in a similar way.
Drama, spectacle, excitement, wonder, fear, desire, destiny, fate, anger, happiness, power, prestige, unexpected turn of events, wisdom, and importance: these make up humanity and cinema too.
If you watch too much television do you get square vision?
Someone once asked me, what would you do if you only had a day to live. My reply was to have a C.S.I. Miami viewing marathon.
That isn’t supposed to be taken as literal statement. I’m suggesting the common response which may be something perceived profound, or conventionally associated with an assumed profound or romantic nature is far less disingenuous than my more ordinary and yet very conceivable response.
That being said my response may be partially true, but not for the reasons many would think.
It’s the very nature of my response to the question and, indeed, my perception that we attach poetic or romanticised significance to our societies and our environments, that suggests our common perceptions of the world around us may not have any real semblance in reality.
Thus, a seemingly insignificant medium like the television transforms into a form of profound meaning because I’ve chosen to perceive it that way and I’ve given it meaning.
Negative views of staying inside and watching television or movies is derived from this same distorted perception of reality. In the sense that we have such an ingrained or forced value system, as a society, that we feel the need to promote more perceivable wholesome activities.
Let’s look at the movies…
MAX ROCKATANSKY (TOM HARDY)
Director George Miller’s original dystopian trilogy started life as an imaginative independent film in the form of ‘Mad Max’ which stood out on the back of the so-called ‘Ozploitation period’ (lucrative low budget Australian cinema with b-movie aspects) that flourished during the late 1970’s and early 1980s.
The films moderate financial success got director George Miller financial backing from Warner Bros and ‘The Road Warrior’ was born.
Rather than ditch his roots in cinema and follow the corporate bandwagon, George Miller retained his earlier films ‘grindhouse’ low budget aspects, whilst cramming in more vehicles and elaborately conceived car chases, particularly in the form of the films, still pretty spectacular to this day, pre-CGI high octane, gasoline fuelled, chase along the ominous Australian back roads, which retained a character of their own courtesy of Dean Semler’s unforgettable cinematography.
What makes this series so important and memorable?
Despite some bench-mark camera work and buckets of originality, it is the themes the series explores that make it stand out amongst the crowd of similar dystopian cinema (it’s a post-apocalyptic setting but with dystopian political undercurrents).
The nature of a future humanity falling by the wayside and an almost messianic character (in the form of Max), whose riddled with flaws and psychological damage, drifting into the fold and setting things right are just really engaging and tangible human themes, and the menacingly customized vehicles act as a symbolic metaphor for a world fuelled by anarchism, whose human remnants are driven only by an instinctive need to salvage fuel as that was a necessity in the world before the apocalypse, if you like.
Tom Hardy was picked to play the role of Max in the revisionist Fury Road and despite him being very bankable since 2010, I don’t believe they could have got any better.
I’m a fan of the original trilogy but this film surpassed my expectations in every way.
The character of Max Rocktansky is strong because he’s lost everything (his wife, child, and meaning in life) yet still keeps going, whilst retaining his core values and principles.
Tom Hardy’s portrayal just like the film itself is physical. The film tells its story through the visual language of film, and it’s a powerful one.
Max, as portrayed by Tom Hardy, is an outsider, who sees an opportunity to help others and liberate a group of vulnerable women in the process, not even so much as asking for credit in the process.
Fury Road was a great film and the take on the character felt just right to me.
BATMAN / BRUCE WAYNE (MICHAEL KEATON)
After the bench mark set by Richard Donner’s Superman in 1978, comic book cinema was a viable commercial enterprise. But it wasn’t until 1989’s Batman that audiences got yet another comic book bench mark and one, along with Superman, that would influence many more comic book films to follow.
Despite being directed by Tim Burton, 1989’s Batman is very restrained, and despite some
divergences from the comic book, stays true to the spirit of the dark knight himself and the DC comic’s tone.
A sequel would follow in 1992 ‘Batman Returns’ and this would be anything but restrained. So much so, Warner Brothers executives distanced themselves from such wonderful gothic indulgences and reduced Batman to some kind of mass audience commercial by-product for a younger audience. Michael Keaton would portray Batman in both films and would capture the all-important psychological underpinnings of Bruce Wayne and the heart-ache over the death of his parents.
Batman Returns featured some particularly good on-screen chemistry between Cat Woman/Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Batman/Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton).
It was a smart move to explore these characters as it explored a romantic tension that just isn’t going to cool down. The characters are almost mirror images of one another but fighting for different causes and for different reasons, so it’s almost a romantic – yet toxic interlude.
Bruce Wayne known by his alter ego Batman is a strong character because despite his riches and wealth he has a grounded view of the world and seeks to put things right, whilst not dominating the world in anyway.
He is the opposite of the villains that inhabit Gotham City but shares these villainous characters similar psychological frailties, and this was intelligently explored in both
Batman films by director Tim Burton.
Matt Damon would portray Jason Bourne in the 2002 film ‘The Bourne Identity’.
Based on the novel of the same name by Robert Ludlum.
What we have here is cinema engineered to entertain in one way only, and that is via real stunt-work, ‘edge of your seat’ thrills, a certain type of style, and overwrought espionage.
I think the character of Jason Bourne is interesting and he’s strong as he starts off in the Bourne Identity not knowing his true identity and, despite a high-profile background in the military and C.I.A, appears quite grounded and ‘down to earth’ if you will.
This is supported by the casting of Matt Damon who makes the character particularly accessible for a mainstream audience. He has that ‘every-man’/relatable look and appeal that some high-born actors don’t.
Jason Bourne, despite being not exactly un-desirable as far as the opposite sex perceive him, has a particularly mature and respectable attitude towards women, as opposed to somebody like James Bond who presents the opposite of Jason Bourne, and is quite chauvinistic and domineering.
Jason Bourne is almost the anti-James Bond.
As mentioned, these films are high octane, fast paced, fun, and don’t benefit from close critical evaluation. They’re clearly well assembled and do what they need to without any major flaws.
Nevertheless, there is an interesting character in the form of Jason Bourne who’s a slightly distant ‘man of few words’ approach tells you all you really need to know.
JUDGE DREDD (KARL URBAN)
I was very fond of 2012 ‘Dredd’, I caught it at the cinema in Vancouver, and thought it was great. Not enough people went to see it on the big-screen, and this stopped a sequel being green lit.
Like its source material it’s full of imagination, wit, vivid and creative visuals, and zero political correctness. ‘Judge Dredd’ had been produced for the big screen only once before in the form of 1995’s Sylvester Stallone vehicle of the same name. This film was fairly stylish, but it’s Hollywood studio trappings and structure were gravely at odds with the source material, and as a result, the film never achieved its potential creatively or cinematically.
You just can’t or shouldn’t restrain this material if you’re going to make a film of it. I suspect in hindsight, they were aiming for that fairly safe ’15 certificate’ too, as more teenagers means more profit.
2015’s R-Rated ‘Dredd’ takes the politically incorrect and vivid essence of the comic book and gives the character some much needed punch courtesy of original visual techniques and effects; the film is also scripted by ‘The Beach’ novelist Alex Garland and has his common and non-pc psychological themes running throughout.
The passage of time had been long since 1995’s adaptation and ‘Judge Dredd’s’ appeal had waned. However, ‘Dredd’ was critically well received but failed at the box-office. I caught it on the big screen, as I’m a fan of the comic, and I wasn’t disappointed at all. In fact, it surpassed my expectations. I liked the tone, plot, and the unorthodox and politically incorrect ending was just the icing on the cake for me.
The character, as portrayed by Karl Urban in the film, is a strong male character as he stays true to his principles, can’t be broken or influenced, and has his own value system, despite being strongly committed to the rule of law.
I’d argue Judge Dredd is so far right he goes full-circle and has some leftist elements, but I don’t know if I wholeheartedly believe that myself. It’s just a theory.
The film is essentially a story of a very tough ‘trial by fire’ for female rookie Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) who, having failed aptitude tests, is placed under the watchful eye of Judge Dredd who is responsible for evaluating her performance as they enter the notorious slum block Peach Trees to investigate an illegal drug syndicate.
Pretty much everything and anything is thrown at Dredd and Cassandra Anderson, including corrupt Judges, but he never waivers and there is a quick bond formed between these characters that gets them through.
Cassandra Anderson ultimately fails the test, but when Dredd is asked by the Chief Judge for his own evaluation, he states ‘She’s passed’.
BLADE (WESLEY SNIPES)
Blade was a real eye opener when it came out in 1997.
It took a less popular comic book character and brought him smack bang up to date into the 90’s generation, with inspired and very stylish direction by Stephen Norrington. With a focus on light and dark, and a witty, inspired, and interesting script.
I think time has been very kind to this film and it will grow in appreciation as time moves forward.
An excellent sequel followed directed by now well-established film-maker Guillermo Del Toro, which ramped up the style tenfold.
He borrowed the dark & light orientated visual style from 1997’s ‘Blade’, but created a much more physical, and visceral film.
The narrative is deliberately much looser, and the film is set almost entirely in an unconventional, subterranean setting.
‘Blade 2’ just has a lot of visual energy and I’ve found this to be a calling card for Guillermo Del Toro, I think this visual energy is a real gift which he possesses creatively.
I particularly liked the scene involving natural born vampire Nyssa (Leonor Varela) and her final wish that Blade let’s her see the sunrise before she succumbs to a virus she’s been infected by. It is a final wish to feel what it’s like to be truly human.
Blade, as portrayed by actor Wesley Snipes is a strong male character as he’s got an unorthodox background concerning his birth and the nature of his vampirism (his mother was human), and this makes him a sort of misfit who respects who and what he is but cares about humanity at the same time.
He’s kind and well meaning, but he’s an anti-hero as he is a vampire of sorts and I just wouldn’t trust him.
THE CROW / ERIC DRAVEN (BRANDON LEE)
In cruel twist of fate Brandon Lee would be killed on the set of ‘The Crow’ accidentally. When a gun fired at him, containing an improperly-deactivated bullet cartridge, which had become trapped was forced out of the weapon at the force of a live round.
It’s equally tragic as he followed the same pattern as his father – reaching a critical and commercial cinematic peak and dying shortly afterwards.
Bruce Lee died during the post production of his final film ‘Enter the Dragon’ which would be his best work and a film that went on to be an iconic classic.
‘The Crow’ isn’t ‘Enter the Dragon’, but it’s close.
In 1994, comic book films were still few and far between in terms of just existing let alone quality.
Important Comic Book Character
‘The Crow’ did the unexpected and presented a dark, intelligent, multi-layered film which stayed true to comic book style tropes whilst digging a little deeper as a work as a whole.
Actor Brandon Lee truly embodies protagonist Eric Draven ‘The Crow’.
He has the physicality, good looks, sorrowful ambiguity, passion, and presence to really glow amongst the blanket of darkness and corruption present in the film.
‘The Crow’ is a subversive character because he has his own twisted value system and despite clearly being good-hearted, has a god-complex and enjoys revenge.
Eric Draven is a strong male character, because despite his subversive nature, he is fuelled not so much just by vengeance but by a need to put things right and help others. The film depicts Eric Draven as having an almost guardian-angel like presence.
He appears when situations are at their most cruel or desperate, puts them right, and elegantly disappears into the night.
The Crow presents a complex and important comic-book character and since 1994 no one has come close to replicating what was achieved in this film.
Overall, a rare comic book highlight of the 1990’s, which defied all odds and became something of a minor cult classic.
I was inspired to write this, in part, because I’d written one about strong male character’s and wished to do the opposite. However, the dynamics here are polar opposites in every way.
I felt, and still feel that cinema is more comfortable selecting male characters for more male ‘typical’ roles. And in the past, female characters have been neglected in terms of choice of roles and/or roles that would be perceived to not suit a female.
There have been exceptions over the years, and in recent years there has been an effort to put female actresses in more male orientated roles, such as Charlize Theron’s turn as ‘Imperator Furiosa’ in ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’. A role in which she is essentially taking the lead, and Max is a subordinate character.
‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ took some criticism as the central conceit of the film, which revolves around a strong battle hardened woman rescuing a group of young women, who have been subject to repression and confinement. Courtesy of an oppressive male overlord, attempts to explore themes relating to the oppression of women and with an angle on liberation weaved into the story. But this is at odds with the fact that the women are all particularly attractive and are all models – which could be perceived as undermining what the film is attempting to convey.
This may be true, but ultimately cinema and real-life are two completely opposite things and ultimately, are such claims not more rooted in repression themselves?
In the sense that a need to repress aesthetics or deny a cinematic exploration of such themes feels rooted in an anxiety concerning aesthetics or beauty in and of itself, which to my mind feels much unhealthier.
We don’t go to the cinema to explore real life.
Cinema is a form of escapism or letting go of reality for 2 hours.
There was and always has been a certain formula to cinema that most, if not all, film-makers adhere to. And that’s the nature of aesthetics (though there are exceptions).
Film is a visual medium and through technology and theatricality we create worlds, scenarios, people, and places that have a degree of heightened aestheticism and attention to aesthetics and this includes casting.
It’s part of the fabric of cinema and I think it’s reflective of part of us as a race, in terms of what we enjoy.
If you take the visual aspects away, you’re defeating the object of cinema’s inception in the first place and what millions of people around the world go to the cinema for, and that is to see a story told in a visually eye catching and arresting way, with a cast that draws you in, that engages, entertains, and may even enlighten you.
This is the power of cinema, and it’s endured for many years, and hopefully for many more
years to come.