Three fantasy movies within three days: X Men: Dark Phoenix; John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum; Godzilla: King of the Monsters
The Lacanian feminist Kaja Silverman says about cinema, we go because we need the affirmation, to see the things we hope to see and fail to see in the real world. In Lacanian-speak, Silverman says we go because 'the desire to perceive similitude where there was as yet scarcely a discernible image speaks to the imperative of finding a surrogate with which to cover over the absent real' (1988: 5).
As a transgender woman, I go to see visions of me, possibilities of alterity, not always or even mostly about transgender possibilities but sometimes just other worlds where anything is possible. Fantasy is strangely reassuring; laws are suspended, heroes emerge from nothing, gravity-defying acts become the norm; and transgender people are not monsters, especially in worlds filled with real monsters. The heteronormative structure is barely held together with duct tape, patriarchy is usurped by Godzilla.
Godzilla: King of Monsters
Which is not to say that Godzilla – King of Monsters is anything other than a poorly thought-out movie. Watching it with a friend, I whispered to her early that Risk Assessment isn't being rigorously adhered to in the movie's inner logic, with earth-shattering titanic monsters only a push of the button away from being unleashed. Like Ridley Scott's disappointing Prometheus (2012), we have billion-dollar technologies but no apparent budget for Human Resources and Health & Safety. It's all jarringly myopic for anyone living in the adult world, like watching the theatrical fourth wall of a play with its Wet Paint sign on display. The best thing about Godzilla? We have a giant luminous moth that seems to be female, though in this monster world as in cinema in general, Mothra has a bit-part role while the two apparently alpha males duke it out for the top-dog status. The politics of the film – size and power and nuclear power triumphs over evil – is problematic. Also, the charismatic screen presence of Sally Hawkins (The Shape of Water, 2017) gets wiped out early, while the build up to the decision by Vera Farmiga's protagonist Emma Russell to unleash monsters upon the world, while oddly prescient in this era of Trump and Brexit, has no depth or emotional preparation.
John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum
Depth and emotional preparation are hardly characteristics of John Wick 3 – Parabellum. For the critic Mark Kermode, who appears to love this movie franchise, the magic is in the choreography. Characters fight in ways that are sometimes funny, other times innovative, and always brutal. As in John Wick 2, the film draws on aesthetically stunning settings, including a hotel floor filled with barely visible glass walls and panels, sometimes lit by shows of laser, reminiscent both of the mirror corridor in John Wick 2 and more iconically, Bruce Lee's Enter the Dragon. Keanu Reeves, too, brings his distinctive, loping gait and physicality. Yet to watch this film is to watch a kind of brutal computer game, a gun-porn extravaganza with levels of violence that eventually have you wishing for the end. There are only so many times I can watch John Wick get up from having been run over by a car, or stabbed in the shoulder, or shot at point blank range, before he gets up once again, dusts himself down, before loping down another street or corridor to find the next assassin to kill.
X-Men: Dark Phoenix
Having been bludgeoned by the stylish, wearying, and ultimately quite pointless John Wick 3, I settled down to watch a superhero franchise recently put into the shade by the Avengers franchise. I admit I find the hype about the more highly-rated Avengers bewildering, as a series that seemed to be able to have its cake and eat it by cramming in an impossible number of super heroes, none of whom appear to develop and many of whom barely say anything, but who are praised for their emotional development and tragic (non-) sacrifices, like when Iron Man sacrificed himself at the end of Part 1, while surviving, or when half of everyone dies in Part 3, before returning in Part 4.
Regardless, I prefer X Men: Dark Phoenix to every recent Avengers movie (certainly from Civil War to Endgame). The story is tighter. We have a central character, Sophie Turner's Jean Gray/Phoenix, overwhelmed in a cosmic incident with new powers that she can barely control. We also have a likeable inner-circle of concerned friends, led by Nicholas Hoult's Beast and Tye Sheridan's Cyclops. Michael Fassbender's Magneto and James McAvoy's Professor Charles Xavier are on top form, McAvoy bringing a fragile egotism, while Fassbender exudes a simmering resentment and barely restrained violence. When they join forces in the climactic fight, the violence contains something poignant.
I say this as a transgender woman who sees so many parallels with this final fantasy. In Dark Phoenix we have a school for gifted youngsters with echoes of the moral panic about Gender Identity Clinics, either of which you can imagine Rod Liddle describing as a Frankenstein school. You have an embattled minority with its own divided communities and inner-circles, of which I have experienced in different ways these past two turbulent weeks. These include my own co-organized conference Transgender: Intersectional / International, the Moray House anti-trans symposium, the resignation of the University of Edinburgh's Staff Pride Network after university attempts to silence them, and finally the continued media-political witch-hunt against trans woman of colour Munroe Bergdorf. I find myself torn apart by emotions of tiredness and doubt about the future, accompanying a knowledge of how I inspire fear in others. To return to the words of Kaja Silverman, I seek in dark auditoriums the reassuring similitude of my identity and community. I found it in Dark Phoenix, a film about a figure seen as fearful and threatening, but whose experience is one of fragility and whose desire is not for confrontation, but to be accepted and even loved.