Sunday 29 November 2015

Some Gambit suggestions

I first became a fan of the X-Men in the early nineties. Along with a lot of you, it was because of the cartoon and the fantastic runs at the time by Fabian Nicieza and Scott Lobdell. And because of the timing, there were two characters I particularly liked. Wolverine and Gambit. And while Wolverine was the one that became the biggest character in the Marvel Universe, Remy LeBeau always stayed my favourite.

I honestly believe that Gambit is potentially one of the most interesting and complex characters in the Marvel universe. For a whole bunch of reasons. And while the last few attempts to launch Gambit as a solo title have involved concentrating on the adventurous side of his persona, with heists a-plenty, I think there’s a lot that hasn't been tapped into for years. In fact, I think it’s money left on the table.

So I thought I’d outline my thoughts on the character – why I find him interesting and why I think it could make for good stories. And also a defence for some of the most loathed aspects of the Gambit back-story that I think could be the basis for an enormously fun run.

The guilty hero

More than any other characters in the same universe, Remy hates himself. That’s absolutely key to his entire personality, and it dates back for decades by this point. And he pushes everyone else to hate him as well.

He’s been raised as a thief. He killed his wife’s brother in self defence. He unknowingly helped cause a massacre. He spent a long time aware that people thought he’d betray his closest friends. And he became Apocalypse’s horseman, Death.

Remy carries around an enormous amount of guilt. And it’s not deeply buried either. He’s constantly aware of it. As far as he’s concerned, he’s beyond redemption.

And yet… he still tries.  Still tries to do the right thing. Still tries to use what power he has to be a hero. In spite of the fact he knows, deep down, he can never atone.

On top of all of that, he’s a character who gets things wrong. He doesn’t just make mistakes, he’s always one moment of selfishness away from ruining everything. He’s completely, constantly, self-sabotaging, because he can’t deal with being happy. Because he doesn’t believe he deserves it.

His superpower is like a reverse Midas touch. He is capable of literally destroying anything he touches. Every relationship he has leads to people hating him – and if they don’t, he’ll do something that makes them stop trusting him.

But here’s the bit I really like. He doesn't realise any of this. Because, along with all of the guilt, he also has an enormous ego. He’s a show-off. And sometimes, he thinks he deserves more than he’s capable of. He looks at others who are loved with jealousy, and he feels the need to outdo them.
His ego veers wildly between non-existent and out of control. Moments of a need to be the centre of attention and moments where he can’t bear to be around anyone who knows him.

For me, this has some mental health connotations, and they’re part of what I think makes his character so rich and interesting. Whether he’s going through highs or lows, the person he’s damaging the most is himself, and his relationships with others.

If I was writing him, there’s something else I’d want to introduce as well. Gambit’s an addict, as far as I'm concerned. He’s a (former) smoker, and we've seen him go out of his way to drink in the past as well. He’s been enough of a flirt and a womaniser that the idea that he might be a sex addict doesn't seem unreasonable. And he’s absolutely an adrenaline junkie – he’s performed heists out of boredom before. And finally, of course, he’s a gambler.

If you could get away with it, I’d take it a step further. Have some substance addiction problems in the background. He’s got enough guilt tearing away at him already – why not have had him hit rock bottom a couple of times in the past? He’s managed to give it up, but by replacing it with other addictions. And this is all part of the reason nobody trusts him.

Remy’s lived. He’s been through it all, and he’s experienced highs and lows well beyond his years. He’s held down by his past, his weaknesses and his guilt. But even if he doesn’t believe redemption exists at the end of his path, he’s going to do his best to be a hero while he’s still here. And he’s good enough at what he does that he can do it with a huge amount of flair.

This is a character I want to read. This is a character I want to get to know. Hell, obviously, it’s a character I want to write. But I've only embellished on what’s been on the pages in the past a little – the vast majority of what I'm talking about here is text, not subtext. But we’re talking about a hugely conflicted, unpredictable character. One that I think could really be a lot more valuable to Marvel than they seem to believe at times.

The New Orleans War

Another millstone that’s perceived as being around Gambit’s neck is his background. And it’s easy to see why. He’s a very nineties character in a lot of ways. All trench-coat, long hair and stubble (and this informed far more of my nineties fashion choices than I’d like to admit). But even worse than that… the guilds.

If you’re not familiar with the background of the character, Gambit was an orphan, taken in by one of the criminal guilds that runs the underworld of New Orleans. Specifically, the thieves guild – the other being the assassins clan. He was due to marry the daughter of a major family in the clan, but he killed her brother in self-defence, pretty much guaranteeing the two families would continue to be at war.

It’s complicated, but nor has it been particularly fleshed out. It’s not attractive to new readers, and it’s separate to just about every other character.

But that doesn't mean it can’t be turned into a positive.

Two major criminal groups vying for control of the criminal underworld? That’s something that can be fleshed out. Each of them have their own traditions and histories? And there are families within that are battling as well?

I think there’s plenty of mileage in this. Game of Thrones that shit up. Let’s learn a little bit about who these families are, and let’s trust the readers to keep up. Because the point here is that the more complicated it is, and the more at each others throats everyone is, the more in the middle of the whole thing Remy is. And that’s before you get into how the upbringing has affected him.

Finely balanced battles can be fascinating – just look at the power struggles in shows like Breaking Bad. Make it very clear that the slightest advantage on either side can lead to utter destruction of the other.  Take it from a cold war to full-on hostilities. And in the middle of the whole thing, against his will, is Gambit. Having to play everyone against everyone, without getting himself killed.

But I’d go a step further. I’d introduce other groups in New Orleans – other clans and guilds that are struggling for power. Make sure that Gambit has to step carefully at all times.

And if you really want to shake things up? Bring in an outside element.

How about this? You have a truce meeting agreed between the clans and guilds. For the first time since Gambit’s marriage, there’s the opportunity of real peace in the area. Some of the higher-ups meet together in an hotel.

And then the hotel blows up. We don’t know who did it yet. But the clans and guilds blame each other, and it causes chaos. And in the middle of all of this, there’s a hostile group trying to take over. Wilson Fisk has seen the anarchy in New Orleans, and he sees an opportunity.

So, now, you have a situation where you have multiple factions and groups all against each other. Outright war in New Orleans. And right in the middle of all of it, you have Gambit – both in debt to everyone, but also playing everyone against everyone else, and just desperately trying to keep as many people alive as possible. When he fails, he deals with it badly.

But when he succeeds, when he plays people the right way, manipulating and chancing his way into forcing the right things to happen… he uses all of his darkest elements to show the hero that he can be.

What are your thoughts? Is Gambit a character that could be a player in the Marvel Universe? Do you have favourite Gambit moments? Would you be interested in my take on the character? Or do you think I've missed the mark? Let me know in comments or on twitter.

Saturday 28 November 2015

Black Mass review

Black Mass has been hyped quite a lot, not least as a return to form for Jonny Depp. But it’s also a story about one of Boston’s most notorious crimelords, and one within living memory at that – James “Whitey” Bulger only went on the run in 1995, after all.

So, to start with the biggest selling point – Jonny Depp is a magnetic presence throughout. But you never quite forget that you’re watching Jonny Depp. And that’s a problem. It’s as mannered a performance as he’s given in many other films, but usually, that matches the film better. Here, it’s Depp playing a real person, and that real person never convinces.

There’s a scene where he’s sitting at the kitchen table with Benedict Cumberbatch (who plays Whitey’s Senator brother), and this shows the difference between the two. Cumberbatch comes across as far more natural and believable. Depp is far more mannered and far less believable. 

However… you watch Depp. Your eyes are drawn to him. While it may not be great acting, it’s a hell of a performance.

That’s indicative of a larger problem with the film. It’s ultimately shallow. It’s very much “and then this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened”, and rarely slows down to find out what that means to anyone.

The best performance in the film by a country mile is Julianne Nicholson’s, and it’s squandered. She plays the wife of an FBI agent (Joel Edgerton) who grew up with Bulger, who sees the effects of the corruption of her husband. She plays it well and subtly, and was the only character in the movie that I ended up caring about. But she’s in about five scenes, and her story is played out in shorthand. It never feels like her story either – it’s there to enhance the men’s stories only.

This is what separates it from achieving the sort of connection that Goodfellas made. In that, the stories felt real and felt like they had real impact. We were made to care about the characters more, so as the degradation hits them, it matters to us.

In Black Mass, the film is so concerned about showing us what happened that it skips over taking the time to make us care about why it’s happening. That’s a scripting issue, and it may be one that’s occurred because it’s been hamstrung by having to keep close to what actually happened.

There’s an example of this in the opening, actually. The opening focuses on Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons, who you may remember as the creepy Todd from Breaking Bad) turning informant on Bulger. As a result, the first ten minutes are all about him, which make you think that the film is going to focus on him more throughout… but it’s not his story. He’s a background player in the film. But he’s a background player that took a large real life action, so he has to be there. In a film more removed from the recent past, he’d probably have been combined with another character (likely W Earl Brown’s portrayal of John Martorano), and the film probably would have been better for that.

All this said, the film’s actually pretty good. It’s brilliantly shot throughout – every fifth shot looks like it could have been the movie poster. And while I have issues with the plotting, almost every individual scene is fairly strong and giving some more-than-capable actors plenty to do.

The problem is that this could have been this generation’s Goodfellas, and clearly wants to be. But it falls short. It’s worth your time, absolutely, but I doubt it’ll stick in your mind years later.