You would think, with Sony having successfully taken Spider-Man away from Disney and Marvel Studios, with all of the character’s huge universe of characters, villains and exciting storylines at their disposal, without having Kevin Feige running the show, without Bob Iger breathing down their backs, without any limitations whatsoever on their creative control over the entire Spider-Verse…you would think Sony would want to do something with all that.
Well, technically, they are. But this latest Sony announcement, one of their first Spider-Man related news-stories since the Sony/Marvel breakup, is confusing at first because of just how bizarre it is. It’s being reported that Sony is developing a Spider-Man spinoff about a little-known character from the Spider-Verse, Cassandra Webb, who goes by the name “Madame Web”. To call her “little-known” is probably an understatement, in fact. An elderly blind clairvoyant, who needs to be surrounded by a giant mechanical web-shaped life-support system at all times, Webb is…well, she’s not the character that immediately comes to mind when you think of Marvel heroes who deserve their own spinoff films. Green Goblin, Black Cat, Venom, Silk, Silver Sable; those seem like the obvious choices, and already have some strong fans from the comics, and/or have appeared in previous Spider-Man films, so they’re not totally unknown to audiences.
Madame Web, on the other hand, is…not any of that. And unless Sony is taking a radically-different approach to the character, she doesn’t seem like a heroine whose story would make for a great action thriller or superhero epic. If anything, a Madame Web movie could be more introspective and thoughtful, focusing on how Webb uses other heroes to do her bidding, and the moral implications of her actions. It seems like a rather dark subject for a Spider-Man movie, too; watching an old woman forced to sit in the solitude of her webs, while wars rage outside her home, unable to do anything to help. Somehow, Webb’s story seems more like awards season fare, rather than a crowd-pleasing, family-friendly popcorn flick: additionally, the script is apparently being written by Matt Shazama and Burk Sharpless, who are currently developing another Spider-Man spinoff for Sony, about the bloodthirsty vampire Morbius. So, maybe don’t expect Spidey to run into Webb on a school field-trip.
Then again, who knows? Maybe Sony is doing what Marvel Studios did; building up the onscreen personas of little-known characters, preparing for some huge crossover event like an Avengers movie of their own. Webb, whose powers include foresight, would be an invaluable addition to the team, and could work from behind-the-scenes, like a puppet-master of sorts. That would be both slightly creepy and very cool, and seems like it would fit in with the edgier approach that Sony is taking with some of their Spider-Verse acquisitions. Then again, going too dark will lose some of the crucial teenage audiences that turn out regularly for Tom Holland’s Spider-Man movies, so Sony should be careful with their marketing decisions here. And they might also want to start trying to lure in the large part of their Spider-fandom that they lost when they took Spidey away from the MCU: there’s still a lot of resentment toward the studio, resentment which could probably be abated if Sony were to finally use characters like Green Goblin, Doc Oc, the Sinister Six, etc. I just don’t know if Madame Web’s fanbase is big enough to make this film a worthwhile investment, especially now, when Sony has to make good choices and show that they can still be responsible with the great power they now have over Spider-Man.
A final note, though: Sony will presumably soon be on the lookout for an actress to fill the role of Casandra Webb, and I’m urging them to get to Meryl Streep before Marvel scoops her up for some bit part. If there’s anybody who could pull off this difficult role (and possibly bring in some Oscar nominations for Sony), it would be Streep.
What are your feelings on a Madame Web movie, and do you think it’s the content that audiences crave from Sony, post-Marvel? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Happy Hobbit Day to all of my readers! Today, we celebrate the shared birthdays of hobbit heroes Frodo and Bilbo Baggins, chief protagonists of the fictional world of Middle-earth (you know, unless you’re counting the heroes of TheSilmarillion, like Beren, Tuor, Húrin and Túrin, Lúthien Tinúviel, Eärendil, and so on). And because this is a movie blog, and not a book blog, I will be discussing The Lord Of The Rings movies rather than The Lord of the Rings novels in this post. Typically, I would only consider writing an extensively long post about a movie I disliked, but I have so much to say about these films, and so much of it is good (actually, almost all of it is good).
The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers, the second film in the classic trilogy, is currently available to stream on Netflix: here’s my review. I’m not going to be doing my usual hardcore fan-frenzy, where everything I write about the trilogy is unintelligible screaming, sobbing and wailing. Instead, I am going to write about the movie in a clear, concise way – with only a minimal amount of sobbing.
Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to try and downplay the degree to which these films truly are movie-making masterpieces. The Two Towers is probably the most overlooked and underrated installment in the trilogy, but it still boasts more than most movies can: critics almost unanimously praised it for its epic scope and groundbreaking technology, while the Academy Awards rewarded it for special effects and sound editing (it was also nominated in four other categories, including Best Picture). Audiences loved it, making it the highest-grossing film of 2002, and, for a while, one of the highest-grossing films of all time. It was confirmation, if any was needed, that what had begun with The Fellowship Of The Ring a year earlier was not a fluke: the fantasy genre had redefined itself, stepping away from the shackles of sword-and-sorcery, and become a new, unique form of entertainment – critics debated endlessly at the time about whether it classified as “lowbrow” or “middlebrow” (since, obviously, “highbrow” was out of the question) and it would take another year before The Return Of The King won Best Picture at the Academy Awards, cementing the series in cinematic history and establishing the genre as a respected art-form. But unfortunately, The Two Towers has always been stuck in between its two milestone siblings: it was a crucial step in the process, but it tends to get ignored for that reason. What it did achieve, singularly, is just as important: Andy Serkis’ motion-capture performance as the miserable creature Gollum, one of the first of its kind, was a stepping stone in modern CGI techniques – for more on that fascinating discussion, see here. It also led to the creation of the MASSIVE crowd-simulation technique, which is still used to this day on projects such as Avengers: Endgame and Game Of Thrones. These days, director Peter Jackson is a rather more unpredictable commodity, having largely withdrawn from the world of mainstream film-making: he is supposedly still working on a sequel for The Adventures Of Tintin (as of 2016, at any rate), and he’s working on a documentary about the Beatles, but his most recent venture, Mortal Engines, was a discouraging box-office disaster. So it’s worth looking back at the director’s heyday for a glimpse of what Jackson can be at his best, and what he can hopefully be again in the near future.
The Two Towers is a spectacular and daring film, and it’s one of the rare films that can appeal to book-readers and general audiences alike, balancing humor and drama almost perfectly, allowing a vast ensemble cast to shine in ways that shouldn’t be possible – even modern Avengers movies have struggled to balance screentime for their sprawling casts: The Two Towers is a great example of how it can be done well. The intricacy with which subplots and story-threads are woven together, the themes brought to life through Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens’ script (we’ll talk more about those later), Jackson’s incredible camera-work: not to mention Howard Shore’s phenomenal score – which is used to great effect throughout the film, but most notably in the Fangorn Forest scenes, the arrival of the Elves at Helm’s Deep, and the last march of the Ents. And at the very end, as Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin) monologues about the stories that really matter, and a world worth fighting for, it’s Shore’s score, a grandiose variant on his iconic “Shire Theme”, even more than the narration and the montage of hope triumphing over despair, that brings me to tears every time I watch Two Towers. This score was not nominated for an Oscar because of a long-standing Academy-rule forbidding sequel scores which reuse old themes: a rule that was rewritten a year later to allow Shore’s Return of the King score to win not one, but two Academy Awards. Shore’s score, the most thematically complex in film history, is a true work of genius: even when Two Towers‘ script fails to fully address the theme, hugely important in Tolkien’s original novels, of the earth itself fighting back against those who would seek to destroy it and harvest it for their own gain, Shore’s “Nature’s Reclamation” theme reinforces this message at critical moments, making sure that we are always subtly aware of it.
And that’s just behind the scenes talent. In front of the camera, Elijah Wood’s wide-eyed Frodo Baggins is the underrated MVP of Middle-earth, and his Two Towers story arc is pure gold: he and Samwise Gamgee, leaving behind their friends in the Fellowship of the Ring, set out towards the land of Mordor, searching for a way into the impenetrable realm of shadow and ash – but when they come face-to-face with the wretched Gollum, previous owner of Frodo’s Ring, everything changes. Frodo sees in Gollum a twisted reflection of himself, a terrifying vision of the reality which could befall him if he succumbs to the daily temptation of the One Ring. He reaches out to Gollum with small, simple acts of mercy – which includes calling him by his long-forgotten true name, Sméagol. He has to believe he can save Gollum, because he has to believe he can save himself. As a rift grows between Frodo and the suspicious Sam (who is technically right for mistrusting Gollum, but doesn’t realize he’s basically paralyzing Frodo with fear every time he says there’s no way to save the wicked, scheming creature), Gollum is slowly being forced out of his own stolen body by Sméagol, who succeeds in establishing a tentative control over himself for barely a day or two, before Frodo’s “betrayal” under Faramir’s orders causes him to slip: the terror in Sméagol’s eyes when Frodo leads him into a trap, his sudden realization that Gollum is back, and stronger, is absolutely heartbreaking. Frodo and Gollum are both victims and abusers of the Ring’s power, intertwined in a tragic spiral: there is poetry in parallels, such as when a scene at the beginning of Two Towers, where Frodo draws his sword on Gollum to protect Sam, is mirrored by a scene at the end where he threatens to kill Sam to protect his Ring. And it’s up to Wood and Serkis, especially, to sell this storyline, and they do it: Astin is not a perfect Samwise, by any means (his line-delivery, especially, is…questionable in dramatic scenes), but he is also an important member of this loyalty triangle, and he manages to do just enough good in the role to excuse his flaws.
On the other side of the Middle-earth map, the story is largely Aragorn-centric, but Viggo Mortensen’s portrayal of the reluctant warrior-king is at its most subdued here, and he delivers less of the Fellowship smolder, and almost none of the crowd-pleasing Return of the King rallying cries. This isn’t a fault of Mortensen’s performance, he’s still excellent, but it does allow his supporting cast to get some more time to shine – especially, unexpectedly, King Théoden (Bernard Hill) and his counselor, Gríma Wormtongue (Brad Dourif). Somehow, it is these two who stand out the most to me on rewatches of Two Towers, for a variety of reasons: Dourif, for his obvious pleasure in embodying this sickly, conniving character, who appears almost as a parallel to Serkis’ Gollum; the role could so easily have been played melodramatically, with Wormtongue laughing maniacally and expositing his evil plans – but instead, Dourif pulls his punches, letting his physical acting speak for itself. He is pathetic, a coward, and an utterly despicable traitor: but he feels like a legitimate threat at all times, even when he’s knocked down and bleeding. And as for his liege-lord, Théoden, he is a bare husk of a man when we first see him, shrunken in his mighty throne, devoured by age (strengthening his niece Éowyn’s fears that age and immobility will also claim her if she stays at home and rots while the men of her kingdom fight). But when Bernard Hill comes alive, through some CGI wizardry, and takes back his sword, it’s a spark of hope: up until that moment, Two Towers moves slowly, uncertainly, meandering through several subplots with no clear purpose – the moment Hill moves, the film suddenly moves as well, and finds focus. And Hill’s performance continues to be a highlight of the film right up to his desperate charge from the gates of Helm’s Deep. While his character was rather betrayed by the screenwriters in Return of the King, I can hold onto this Théoden as the definitive onscreen version of the noble king. Flawed, displaying a Shakespearean grief, Théoden is a man forced to fight a war that should, in a perfect world, have been fought by his son – who was cruelly stricken down in his youth. Sam’s line later in the film about how “by rights, we shouldn’t even be here” applies to the King as well: he shouldn’t be there, on the front lines, sacrificing his last hard-won years on the earth to defend his kingdom from destruction – but there he is, and he will do anything to keep his people safe.
Unfortunately, this is more a testament to Hill’s strength as an actor, and less of a compliment to the script, which tries its best to frame Théoden as a well-intentioned but naive military leader, whose plans to lead his people to safety at Helm’s Deep will ultimately backfire when it leads a caravan of women and children into harm’s way. Thankfully, in this scene, Aragorn is there to save the day and right Théoden’s wrongs.
And that’s a problem that the movie often runs into, trying to pose Aragorn as the answer to all of Middle-earth’s problems, and the sole salvation for the human race. In Tolkien’s novels, this is not the case: yes, Aragorn is in a class of his own, but never to the point where his fellow humans feel like they’re not doing their part to save the world – in the books, Théoden is more than willing to ride out to war, and doesn’t waste time worrying about petty grievances Gondor may or may not have caused in the far-distant past; and in the books, Faramir, here played by David Wenham, is completely different from how we see him onscreen. In Jackson’s version of events, an antagonist is needed to disrupt Frodo, Sam and Gollum’s story from its forward motion, and that antagonist is Faramir: who, in Tolkien’s version, is a quiet, mild-mannered pacifist who is not only a trustworthy ally but a good friend. Here, Wenham (who had never read the books before taking on the role) does his level best to make Faramir unsympathetic and unrelenting, threatening the hobbits on multiple occasions, dragging them as prisoners toward his even more tyrannical father, and nearly falling victim to the Ring. In the film’s Extended Edition, a great deal of Tolkien-derived backstory is glimpsed for Faramir, including his desire to have his father notice him and recognize his great deeds: sadly, we see none of that in the theatrical edition, which is the one I’m reviewing here. Instead, what we get is a low-key villain who appears to maybe be conflicted about what he’s doing, but does it nonetheless. This is one of the biggest crimes of The Two Towers, especially since Faramir, on the page, was the character who most closely embodied all of Tolkien’s own beliefs and philosophies, and whose “sea-green incorruptible nature”, as Philippa Boyens once put it, was supposed to serve as a reason for readers to place their hopes in the faith of Men. But no, we’ve got Aragorn to do that – you know, the guy who, according to Jackson, doesn’t even like being a human and wishes he were one of the Elven-folk (for the record, that change to Aragorn’s character is interesting, but it only increases the need for Faramir to be good).
Anyway, while there is some justification for the butchering of Faramir, there isn’t any for the drastic alterations to the character of Treebeard (voiced by John Rhys-Davies): one of the giant, mysterious Ents who inhabit Fangorn Forest, Treebeard is the shepherd of the trees, a sorrowing remnant of an ancient world, one who remembers the splendor of the forests of old and is watching as his last corner of the world shrinks under the axes of orcs and the mechanisms of the White Wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee). But in the movies, Treebeard is somehow unaware of Saruman’s evil, despite living a few miles from him, and has to be tricked by Pippin Took (Billy Boyd) into seeing the horrors of war firsthand. This one bothers me far more than Faramir, honestly, because (a) it’s completely unnecessary, and (b) having Pippin be the one to outsmart Treebeard only makes the forest-giant look even more stupid, considering that Pippin is not known as the brightest member of the Fellowship. This was justified as a way for Merry and Pippin to have some say in events, but again, it could have been avoided: in the books, Merry and Pippin are the deciding factor in Treebeard’s plans to go to war, reminding him that there are good people in the world outside his forest who still love nature, people who are worth fighting and dying for. Reducing that motivation to a cheap trick robs the story of its emotional impact, and misses an opportunity to reinforce the film’s themes.
There is another missed opportunity in Two Towers that baffles me to no end: while Aragorn and his friends are preparing for battle at Helm’s Deep and Frodo and Sam are captives of Faramir, another subplot is introduced, one that initially appears to fit in with the rest of the story – this being the tale of Aragorn and Arwen (Liv Tyler). Arwen first begins appearing through flashbacks and an unconscious dream-sequence, and the audience has to piece together certain events that are…well, vague, to say the least. Arwen’s choice to give up her mortality so she could be with Aragorn should have been that simple, but Jackson chooses to elaborate upon the framework of their romance that Tolkien built – and his attempts to do so get pretty derailed. For some inexplicable reason, it is implied that Arwen’s immortality is bound up with the Evenstar pendant that she gave to Aragorn in Fellowship, but the flashbacks here suggest that, only a short while after she gifted it to him, Aragorn tried to return it to her, telling her that they could never be together, and that he wouldn’t have her die on his account. But he ended up keeping it, because she told him “it was a gift”, and now he starts possibly falling for his temporary traveling companion, Éowyn (Miranda Otto), who definitely has feelings for him: and then he loses the Evenstar, but then he gets it back, and when he does I guess that symbolically renews his love for Arwen – but off in Rivendell, Arwen is teary-eyed and depressed because Elrond (Hugo Weaving) tells her that even if Aragorn does win the war against Sauron, he is still a mortal, and will die eventually. His speech is accompanied by an absolutely beautiful vision pulled straight from the Appendices of the novel, in which a veiled Arwen mourns at Aragorn’s tomb before abandoning the waking world and departing into the forest, never to be seen again. It’s touching stuff, and Arwen is eventually convinced to go away with the rest of Elrond’s people to the Grey Havens, to set sail into the West and preserve her immortality. Except…she already gave that up, didn’t she? What exactly are the mechanics of giving up your immortality? Isn’t that what the pendant is all about? We don’t get to find out in Two Towers, because for whatever reason Jackson chooses to leave that subplot hanging, until it can finally be resolved in the third film. Then, and only then, do we learn that Arwen doesn’t go to the Grey Havens, but has a vision of her own future with Aragorn, and the family they will raise together – a vision which inspires her to turn around, march back to Rivendell, and angrily confront her father with the truth: instead of fleeing, they have to help Middle-earth. They have to reforge The Blade That Was Broken. That would have been an excellent ending for her storyline in Two Towers, and would have been entirely consistent with the film’s themes – but Jackson, once again proving he had no idea what to do with Arwen, chooses to break up the story between the two films. A little cohesion can go a long way, and Arwen’s entire subplot lacks any.
I could go on and on, nitpicking every little alteration to the story and every single detail that breaks with book-canon: Samwise shouldn’t throw precious lembas bread to Frodo while they’re sitting a few feet away from a cliff; even if the old alliances did hold, Rohan wouldn’t be able to send word to Gondor and receive an army of reinforcements within a few hours, as Aragorn suggested; Legolas (Orlando Bloom) mistakenly refers to the Uruk-Hai heading north-east toward Isengard – that one’s especially funny, considering that later in the same movie, excessive screentime is devoted to studying a map of Middle-earth which proves him completely wrong. But talking about these minuscule nuisances would be petty, in the bigger conversation about The Two Towers and what it’s attempting to say.
It’s a story about hope – about finding something to believe in, and to hold onto, even when all around you seems to crumble into ruin. It’s a story about a disunited world coming together to face unspeakable evil, about people realizing that we are all in this life together, and that it’s our duty to defend those who need our help – and that’s why I can’t, for instance, be too mad about the Elves coming to Helm’s Deep to fight alongside the Men of Rohan: because, while it might not be in the books, it still achieves what Tolkien wanted to say, about how we are the stewards of our earth, and, when in dire circumstances, we will stand side-by-side to protect it. In this modern age, a story like that is more essential than ever.
Or, as Samwise Gamgee would put it, it’s a story that really matters.
This news means little, as of right now, with no name attached to Poulter’s character, but I’m going to freak out about it regardless, because it’s casting news, and we haven’t had any in a while, and I’m dying for more. We have so little solid information about this series as of right now, and with other Amazon Prime shows like The Wheel of Time already on their way, with major casting announced, filming locations locked down, and scripts ready to go, it feels like Lord of the Rings (by far superior to Wheel of Time in all regards, sorry) isn’t getting the respect it deserves, and isn’t even being prioritized. How is that fair?
We don’t yet know whether Poulter’s role is a recurring one, though he is specifically described as one of the show’s leads in Variety‘s press release: with the little information we have so far, I’m going to take a wild guess and speculate that Poulter will be portraying a younger version of the immortal half-elf Elrond: his facial features, especially his eyebrows, match up closely with those of Hugo Weaving, who portrayed Elrond in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy – and we already know that this series will combine elements of Jackson’s trilogy with material from J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels and unpublished writings.
How do you feel about the news? Share your thoughts in the comments below – I’ll be over here, hyperventilating with excitement.
It’s time for another Marvel theory! (I feel like I randomly make up times for Marvel theories because I don’t actually have a well-defined schedule for anything: well, we’ll say today is MCU Theory Saturday).
For today’s theory, we’re looking at some interesting comments made recently by Ant-Man And The Wasp actress Hannah John-Kamen (star of Netflix’s new series, The Dark Crystal: Age Of Resistance): the actress hinted coyly that her Marvel character, Ghost, might make an unexpected return to the big screen. Obviously, she can’t reveal too much about details – she mentioned that signing a contract with Marvel is like taking a blood oath not to spoil anything – but her words have already sparked a fair amount of debate among Marvel fans over where the quantum-phasing antihero could show up again.
Some speculate that John-Kamen could be referring to a voice-acting role in the upcoming animated Disney+ series What If…?, which will explore 23 alternate timelines branching out from each of the 23 Marvel Cinematic Universe films: presumably, the Ant-Man And The Wasp episode will feature at least a bit part for Ghost, who was the central antagonist of the 2017 summer blockbuster. But that’s too easy an answer for me: I like a little more substance to my theories, so I’m going to say that, even if Ghost does show up there, there could be another place for the villain-turned-heroine to make an appearance – and in the main Marvel timeline, at that.
Over and over, for the past year or two, we’ve seen rumors that Marvel is considering a film (or even film franchise) based off the Thunderbolts or Dark Avengers comic runs, two relatively similar stories that could easily be merged into one cohesive whole. In Thunderbolts, the one most likely to be adapted, a group of reformed villains and antiheroes comes together, sometimes under the leadership of Norman Osborn, sometimes under Helmut Zemo (who has already shown up once in the MCU, and will return in Falcon And The Winter Soldier next year). to sell their services to government organizations: lots of chaos results, as some of them revert back to their villainous ways, backhanded deals get made, and political mayhem erupts in their wake. The actual team roster has been pretty fluid throughout the years, but one notable iteration (Osborn’s Thunderbolts) included Ghost. Since Norman Osborn is a Sony character, and Sony isn’t sharing with Marvel anymore, it looks like Zemo could take his place as leader of the team, with no problems. Other Thunderbolts members have also been featured in the MCU already, but in bit parts, such as Justin Hammer, and Thaddeus Ross (the human alias of Red Hulk). Yelena Belova and Taskmaster, both of whom will make their MCU debuts in next year’s Black Widow, are also key members of the comic team.
It’s always a tricky business, handling villains and antiheroes and trying to make them sympathetic, but Marvel has done a pretty good job in their movies of achieving this: Ghost, for instance, was originally Ava Starr, who was debilitated by a condition that made her body literally fade in and out of existence and visibility – something which also allowed her to walk through walls and disappear from sight. While Ghost’s condition was at least temporarily healed by Janet Van Dyne and her Quantum Realm powers, it seems that she wasn’t fully cured by the end of Ant-Man And The Wasp, since the whole reason that Scott Lang went microscopic and got trapped in the Quantum Realm for five years was because he was looking for more antidote for her. She and her guardian, Bill Foster, haven’t been seen since, but John-Kamen confirmed that Ghost, at least, never died. Whether she was snapped by Thanos is unknown: it’s possible that she survived, and had to endure five more years of her excruciating pain – perhaps she’s been driven back to her dark ways, and is once again wreaking havoc? How long did she hold out hope for Lang’s return? Where is she now? All these questions could be answered in a Thunderbolts movie.
Then again, maybe she’s going to have a role in the third Ant-Man film: however, as of right now, there actually isn’t a third Ant-Man film, so…that’s a bit of an obstacle. Personally, if there is an Ant-Man 3, I hope that we get to see one of Marvel’s craziest villains (and another part-time Thunderbolts member), Gypsy Moth, on the big screen, but I wouldn’t mind seeing Ghost show up again, whether as an antagonist or in a supporting role.
How would you feel about Ghost returning to the MCU as a semi-reformed villain? Could Marvel pull off a Thunderbolts movie? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Right up front, I’m going to express my disappointment that my review of Netflix’s new original series is not quite as glowing as certain others are. Not only do I disagree with Rotten Tomatoes’ 89% Fresh rating, but I don’t understand it. I do notice, though, that the series is not rated Certified Fresh, which is some relief to me, writing this ballad of a sadly underwhelmed audience-member. Audiences across the world seem to be greatly enjoying The Dark Crystal: Age Of Resistance, but it’s rather hard to figure out whether that excitement comes from hardcore Dark Crystal fans or mainstream Netflix-watchers. I’m going to guess the former, because this show seemed, at least to me, to have very little mainstream appeal. Let’s discuss.
Firstly, puppets. Puppets can be wonderful fun, and, if done right, with charm and humor, they can even be fun to watch onscreen: countless Muppet movies (great Muppet movies, at that) and the huge success of Sesame Street prove that. But unfortunately, charm and humor are two noticeable absences in the Dark Crystal franchise, which is both grim and serious, and incredibly macabre – even nightmarish, but we’ll get to that. Where Jim Henson’s other movies had fun and dance, musical numbers, cameos from human actors and a general atmosphere of carefree recklessness, his original Dark Crystal was an attempt to pivot away from that image. It deserves praise for the fact that it was one of the first big fantasy epics, and its creation was a huge undertaking. However, when it released in 1982, it was not the massive success that Henson had hoped for, receiving a mixed response from both critics and audiences. Those who did fall in love with it, however, never fell out of love, and so the new Netflix prequel has a small, but loyal niche fanbase that it wants to attract. As for me, I have never loved the original movie: I hated it, in fact. The puppets, with their strange, glassy eyes and grotesque rogues gallery of bird-like Skeksis, all living on what was supposed to be a barren alien planet – not my thing.
That’s probably at least partly why this new series just wasn’t for me. The puppets haven’t changed in the decades since the original movie was released. I am not an expert on puppet technology, but as far as I can tell, an effort has been made to use the same sort of techniques as Jim Henson did all those years ago: over-zealous loyalty to a project is not unheard of, and can be understandable, if said project doesn’t really require major changes for modern audiences to enjoy it. Dark Crystal, however, is outdated, and makes no effort to change that: the story is still a huge, intricate mess of mythology, religion, philosophy and fantasy cliches; the puppets are still obviously puppets, and their glassy-eyed stares remain their signature feature.
I intend no disrespect to the series’ puppeteers, who do an excellent job: their work is incredible, and I can’t imagine how difficult it must be. I also have huge respect for the amazing voice cast: many of the actors are quite good in their roles, though there are more than a few who only show up once or twice and have barely any dialogue: Alicia Vikander, Natalie Dormer, Hannah John-Kamen and Mark Strong are some of the latter – of the former, we have Taron Egerton, Anya Taylor-Joy, Nathalie Emmanuel, Donna Kimball and Lena Headey to thank, for making this show ever so slightly more entertaining than it would otherwise have been. I’ll spare some praise for Sigourney Weaver, who gets to narrate the opening of the first episode.
As for the characters these hugely-talented actors and actresses are voicing, well…watching their individual stories isn’t always quite as interesting as playing Who’s Who with the voice cast, but there are a few I can think of: Mother Aughra (Donna Kimball), the benevolent but cranky guardian of Thra, is especially fun to watch, and the puppeteers gave her enough quirky little traits, from facial movements to her distinctive style of dancing, that make her seem like an actual character, rather than some of the thin, underdeveloped cardboard cutouts that pass for protagonists in this series. Tavra, Seladon and Brea, the three sundered daughters of the All-Maudra (Helena Bonham-Carter), are also especially interesting, and the way that their stories diverge and reunite is imaginative. But of these, only Brea (Anya Taylor-Joy) is a main character: for the most part, we’re stuck watching Rian (Taron Egerton) either walking from place to place, or stopping to share his memories with literally everybody he meets (after the third or fourth of these long, redundant, dream-sharing encounters, I was ready to turn off the show). Deet the Grotten (Nathalie Emmanuel) is somewhat more interesting, but her story takes a bizarre and unexplained twist in the last few episodes. As for Maudra Fara, she’s actually quite likable, which is somewhat conflicting, considering that she speaks with the villainous voice of Lena Headey, who portrayed the evil Cersei Lannister on Game of Thrones.
Talking of villains, it’s time to discuss those which dwell in Thra, and present the main threat to our Gelfling heroes. The Skeksis, repugnant vulture-people from another world, who have subjugated the Gelfling people and enslaved the Crystal of Truth to their will. I want to take a moment to point out that, somehow, the Gelflings, who are shown to have vaguely-human aesthetics and personalities, are completely oblivious to the fact that gigantic, hulking anthropomorphic vultures living in a claw-shaped Gothic castle might be evil. The Skeksis are absolutely revolting and repulsive, with zero redeemable qualities, and no actual personalities to speak of – so why, then, do we spend about fifty percent of the show’s screentime watching them squabble pointlessly, in a boring parody of Game of Thrones‘ layered dynastic rivalry and wars for the throne. There are so many pointless scenes of Skeksis eating, I thought I might lose my mind: if not my appetite. This is a personal preference, but I cannot stand two types of villain: (a) the CGI-construct with no personality who yells “Kill them all!” and dumb stuff like that (Azog from The Hobbit fits the bill), and (b) pompous, swaggering, disgusting buffoons (such as the Master of Lake-town from The Hobbit). The Skeksis combine the worst elements of both of these villain cliches, and take them to the next level. Only The Hunter even came close to being an intimidating antagonist, but his supporting character-status was undeserved and infuriating.
All this is truly saddening, because the Skeksis could have been excellent. If I had been the showrunner, I would have probably changed their appearance, first of all: wouldn’t resplendent peacock-feathers or gaudy, glorious plumage have done the trick of showing Skeksi greed and avarice just as well as bald, wrinkly faces and harsh, raspy evil laughter? This is a prequel, for Thra’s sake – they could have done anything with the Skeksis! The possibilities were endless. There were themes and shades of some of the great fantasy villains at work here, but none ever reached full potential: the Skeksi fear of death and their desperate attempts to evade it, for example, resembled the actions of Tolkien’s Numenoreans, clinging to life at all costs, warring on the earth and the gods in the faint hope of winning immortality.
It’s not the only Tolkien theme glimpsed in Age of Resistance: in the very first episode, while a Skeksi narrates about the inevitability of evil and how the strong will always conquer the weak, we watch a montage which proves otherwise, showing various Gelfling heroes starting out on their individual quests for justice and truth, in a reverse of Sam Gamgee’s “stories that really matter” speech at the end of Peter Jackson’s The Two Towers (which is also on Netflix, now, by the way). The series has very Tolkienesque ecological messaging, and the Gelflings, bound up with the fate of Thra, are nothing if not a hybrid between Tolkien’s hobbits and elves. But sadly, these themes get buried under so many fantasy plot points (magic sword! prophecies! mystic arts!) that it’s hard to find them at first.
All in all, the series is far too long. I flew through the first three episodes, even if they were rather weak, and the fourth through sixth episodes were actually quite good: seven through ten, however, drag the story out far too long. The eventual finale lands with a resounding thud: a more disappointing climax, I could not envision. That might be because the series tries too hard to make you want to go watch Dark Crystal after it’s finished, which is something I do not want to do, and don’t ever want to do again. So many things are left unanswered, and the final showdown between Gelflings and Skeksis is so underwhelming – was it because full-out puppet war is rather hard to manage? Did the budget not allow for it? I don’t know: all I can say for certain is that I was hugely disappointed.
It’s unfortunate. I really wanted to like it. The trailers showed off stunning visual beauty, Gelfling heroics, and epic warfare: unfortunately, in the actual series, these things are few and far between. If you’re a puppet nerd, a hardcore sword-and-sorcery fan, or a Henson completionist, I urge you to watch this series, since you might enjoy it far more than I did. But all that I’m left with is the feeling that I wasted time on this series, when I could have been…oh, I don’t know, watching The Two Towers instead. It’s all the same stuff, but it doesn’t have creepy vulture-puppets.