Suspended Anticipation: Grayson‘s Pop Art
While fanboyism’s anti-intellectual bent is a well-worn cliché on the Internet, it has a lesser-discussed flipside: the raw ardor and creative spirit of the fans whose claim to ownership of these characters has long vexed publishers and artists. This facet of fanboyism has yielded fierce loyalty, breeding not only commercial success for superhero titles, but also inspiring new generations of artists, writers, and filmmakers. Not to mention the fact that writers like Alan Moore would have no readership if his readers were wholly disinterested in challenging, thoughtful fare. The Dark Knight’s monolithic success was undoubtedly informed by pseudo-intellectual fanboy ravings about the film’s “post-9/11 relevance,” but the fact that it was central to a great deal of stimulating debate about anti-terror policies and politics in the age of the War on Terror can only be a good thing if it managed to provoke genuine critical thought from whatever perspective it was approached.
For years, fans of popular franchises have sunk untold amounts of their own money and time into the creation of (usually short) films featuring their favorite characters from cult or popular genre series in new scenarios that most directly address the elements that they most loved about a program or film. Fanfiction itself has existed for a long time before the advent of fervid chat room fantasies — Jane Austen’s corpus, for instance, spawned a catchall “sequel” called Old Friends and New Fancies: An Imaginary Sequel to the Novels of Jane Austen as early as 1913.1 Of course, fanfiction is commonly associated with pornographic cartoons and novelettes at worst, and at best, it carries the connotation of addle-brained scribblings that have all the imagination of a cup of fat-free Jell-o. But diehard fans are so easy to underestimate. As our own Alex M. illustrated, fanfiction is no longer a dirty word, thanks to radio dramas like Buffy Between the Lines and the inventive and thrilling Doctor Who comics of Rich Morris. Even works of postmodern literature, like Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or perhaps Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next novels are so heavily dependent upon established literary characters and stories that they could be considered an extension of fanfiction.
When it comes to fan films (as opposed to other media), resource constraints tend to impose upon the creativity a little more heavily, since the creation of an aesthetically successful motion picture requires a delicate alchemy combining the best of every kind of artistic medium invented to this point. It can be expensive, and it can be even more difficult to find collaborators whose enthusiasm for a project is matched by their skill. That’s why a fan film as tremendous as Grayson, directed by John Fiorella, is a major accomplishment.2 Beyond being such a great example of the fan film, it arrived at a pivotal moment in pop culture, emerging as the quintessential superhero film of the decade.3 It’s truly staggering to consider the international influence of superheroes in film and comics. In raw economic terms, a superhero film costs millions to make and market, and can generate billions in worldwide returns, especially after considering the merchandizing options. (Holy monetary muscle, Batman!) Then there’s cross-cultural appeal. Every nation on earth has its own modern interpretation of mythological heroes, but the capes-and-tights set of socially accepted vigilantes have now been stamped with the American imprimatur (whether or not they originated in America). These stories greatly affect youth, inspiring them and, in a way, growing with them. Comic books and film are probably the two artistic media that can lay legitimate claim to the 20th century, and superhero tales have become the dominant form of expression in popular entertainment at the dawn of the 21st century. Grayson emerged from this milieu and is probably the perfect expression of the superhero blockbuster as raw commercial force and individualistic American endeavor.
Grayson takes the form of a trailer for an upcoming film. Traditionally, a narrative provides a setting, rising action, denouement, falling action, and conclusion. This is at odds with the trailer format, which demands that the viewer be given a sense of this pattern, while only providing a corresponding sense of rising action — with the climax to be thrillingly experienced in the full film. As a marketing hook, it has proven successful for a century. The earliest films were sensations by virtue of most people never having seen a moving image before. In the classic studio era, trailers were generally longer and more overtly divulged key scenes or money shots. However, the most overt element was the notion of novelty, with numerous taglines promising (and I paraphrase), “You’ve never seen anything like it before!”, “Never before in motion picture history has there been a story so thrilling, an actor so charming, an actress so stunning, or a villain so evil!” While motion pictures are now commonplace (with feature length films now available for download on your mobile phone), the essential selling point of most films is the promise of seeing something you never could have imagined: something never seen before. A trailer then is the highlight reel of wonders yet unseen.
There are no lulls in a great trailer. Even expository info is presented with all possible forward momentum. Though a trailer maintains forward thrust, it need not sequentially adhere to the film’s structure. Moments are juxtaposed or woven together regardless of where they appear in the film. Freed of the film’s context, the trailer creates its own based on isolated moments — usually the most dramatic, funny, and/or visually arresting. Trailers really are an editor’s sandbox, and great ones require the focus and vision of a consummate filmmaker. Modern technology has introduced editing to the gen pop, which has spent the last several years churning out “mash ups” or various unrelated films into surprisingly coherent short films that function almost as Dadaist found art. (Collage!)4
Grayson runs twice as long as most trailers, but it is perhaps the most potent archetype of one of the most pervasive forms of short fiction in the marketplace: the superhero blockbuster trailer. These trailers are partly responsible for one of the biggest economic industries on the planet. They are therefore of enormous consequence, and Grayson takes this for granted.
Though the genesis of Grayson apparently originated with writer/director John Fiorella always being made to be the Boy Wonder while all his childhood friends got to be the big name crusaders, it draws from the immediately accessible iconography of big-screen superheroes, plus a few from the comics that hadn’t yet gotten a 21st century spotlight. Even the most casual fans would recognize Batman, Robin, and their infamous Rouge’s Gallery — as well as (now former) Police Commissioner Jim Gordon. Superman and Wonder Woman are pop icons; other JLA members like the Green Lantern also appear briefly.
These characters are almost too well-established, too storied to make them uniquely Fiorella’s, so he doesn’t try. The plot pulls Dick Grayson back to Gotham after Batman is killed — but the identity of the killer remains a mystery, and the new administration seems to be doing nothing about it. When his attempts at legal civilian detection prove fruitless, Dick comes out of retirement, sliding into his red-yellow-and-greens, and starts pummeling his way through the underworld to get to the truth. Before long, Robin is tangling with everyone from the usual villains (Joker, Penguin, etc.), new villains (the new Commish), and even former allies (Superman, Green Lantern). Were this a trailer for an actual studio film, fanboy tongues would be waging and drooling with rabid intensity. In truth, there are so many twists and teases in Grayson that there’s no way it could be a coherent or compact film. The beauty, of course, is that Fiorella doesn’t have to deliver a great feature film (although he’d certainly be my top pick to helm the JLA movie): by whetting our appetite, he leaves us in a state of suspended anticipation, perpetually worked up to a fever pitch of eagerness for a film that will never materialize (and therefore, it will never disappoint).5
The key to achieving this, of course, is in paring down the essence of what we need out of the potential film into a series of discrete shots. While it is common to criticize films for extraordinarily brief shots and rapid-fire editing, movie trailers thrive on glimpses of the most indelible of a film’s images.
Grayson certainly delivers some wonderful images that harness the power of the characters’ iconography and stitches them together into a narrative that thrives on thrust, flow, and tone, rather than continuity. We get to see Robin futilely socking Superman in the jaw; Supes lifting a tank; Robin leaping across rooftops (a reckless, very real stunt performed by Fiorella himself); a classic powder keg trap in which Robin is dunked underwater chained to a chair (the makeshift contraption built to get the shot is even more incredible than the shot); the Joker breaking into Barbara Gordon’s bedroom (shades of The Killing Joke?); Joker clutching Batman and Robin action figures, cackling maniacally; Dick by Batman’s gravestone; Wonder Woman holding a fallen Superman in the rain, and more.
Fiorella himself plays the grown-up Boy Wonder, and he cuts a plausibly intimidating figure. It might be a little much to say that he projects gravitas, but there’s a real sincerity to the sobriety with which he treats the character — he poses, runs, jumps, punches, and yells like he means it. His presence is woven integrally throughout the trailer, and his fierce, almost desperate determination is well-balanced by the purely outstanding makeup and physicality of Brian Bethel as the Joker. The use of color in the mise-en-scene owes a lot to the old 1960s Batman TV program, except filtered through the gothic art deco design and canted angles of the brilliant early 90s animated series. Each scene is performed with the slight exagerration appropriate to the heightened reality of a superhero tale — paced deliberately enough to be legible, but dynamic enough to deliver a sharp visual jab.
Though the construction of film trailers evolved apart from comics, recent comic book films in particular have been able to draw from the comic tradition of distilling dramatic action into single, dynamic frames. Movies like Watchmen, Sin City, and The Spirit have explicitly treated comics as storyboards, but even Sam Raimi’s liberated, acrobatic camerawork in the Spider-Man movies uses the basic compositions of a comic book sensibility. Trailers function less like comic book pages than comic book covers.
Covers are usually a little more flashy than interior panels, a little more evocative and suggestive, if not outright sensational. Interior panels are more about being sequential and playing off each other, while covers create a one-shot universe that will either suck you in or leave you cold. More than anything else, the cover’s purpose is to grab a potential readers’ attention and make him want to buy the book. Not just read it in the store and put it back on the shelf — purchase. The cover is a promise, a gauntlet thrown down by the book for itself, a standard up to which it must now live.6 Any comic artist will tell you that the cover is a completely different animal from the book. But if it doesn’t succeed in its function (making you want to buy the book to see if it’s as awesome as its cover), it should at least complement the book while standing as a work of art in its own right.
If you were to take all the covers of the last twenty years of a long-running book — say, Batman — the covers would tell you Batman’s story. Not in detail, but in a general sense. Superhero films can’t help but echo the ethos of the comic book cover, since each discrete shot is used in the same spirit. Perhaps this is a big reason why fans with the innate intelligence to appreciate comic books as an artistic medium respond so strongly to the latest leaked trailer of the summer’s comic-based tentpole films. The trailers are both incredibly focused, forceful items of aggressive marketing and skillful executions of a particular kind of unique artistry that refines some of the most potent aspects of two rich media.
While taking the form of a grab-you-by-the-collar trailer, Grayson is an entirely independent labor of love that was released into the cyber-ether for the viewing pleasure of fellow fanboys and cinephiles, not for profit. Perhaps as a calling card, it will eventually generate commercial success for Fiorella, but as it stands, its very production and release contradict the ethos of the narrative format it takes (a trailer). More to the point, the fact that Fiorella built an independent film upon famous character that have been copyrighted and trademarked by massive corporations, he precluded himself from ever making a profit on this film right from the beginning. It is a film that literally cannot have been made for any reward other than the satisfaction its creators would feel by following their artistic muse.
By uniting the arenas of genuinely independent filmmaking and major studio filmmaking in the form of something that itself unites two narrative formats (the self-contained short film and the “highlight reel” of a marketing tool meant to hint at the awesomeness that the trailer film doesn’t contain), Fiorella has crafted a truly maverick piece of cinema. Grayson is a love letter to pop culture, filmmaking, the entrepreneurial spirit, superhero blockbusters, artistic passion, and narrative economy. Its production design and tone marry the grit and darkness of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films (actually predating Batman Begins by a year) to the colorful vibrance of Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy (the second film of which came out in 2004, the same year as Grayson), which are the most artistically, commercially, and culturally successful superhero film franchises of the decade. Yet by making the film independently and receiving no recompense for it besides the accolades of his peers and fellow fans, Fiorella has firmly demonstrated that the real power of this kind of film doesn’t lie with the corporate interests that underwrite the multimillion dollar films; it lies with the fans whose enthusiasm and critical thought has made comics and film sustainable media throughout the last hundred years.
Grayson is symbolic of the progressive nature of the relationship between superhero franchises and their fan bases: it is clearly the work of a dedicated, thoughtful filmmaker that reconciles marketing, filmmaking, and viewership. It stands as perhaps the most imaginative, creatively rewarding superhero film of the decade, and is most definitely a masterpiece in its own right. How else could we respond to the big-screen heroics of a character relegated to being the perpetual sidekick/underdog? After all, Grayson was prescient in one other key point: it presaged the ascent of Dick Grayson to Bruce Wayne’s cowl in the official comic continuity. Grayson was never just a second banana; Fiorella knew what Wayne knew all along: when it came down to it, Dick Grayson isn’t just Robin, the Boy Wonder. He’s a full-blooded superhero.
He’s the goddamn Batman.
Edited by Isabelle M. and Tracy McCusker.
- I can’t think of any other writer in the English language besides Shakespeare that has generated such a cottage industry of sequels and spinoffs besides Austen. Some of it is reportedly quite good, and has managed to encompass continuations of the romantic comedy format as well as detective stories and zombie horror. Can Shakespeare boast that? ↩
- Check out Fiorella’s official Web site, Untamed Cinema, to download Grayson. Right. This. Instant. ↩
- I’d like to say at this point that I’m no authority on fan films. There are just too many for me to keep tabs on, and most of the ones I’ve seen really are pretty bad. My hunch is that they will generally get better, and attain a nigh-professional level of quality that will make them an almost standard stepping stone for a lot of aspiring filmmakers who are cutting their teeth outside the system. I’m optimistic about it, anyway. ↩
- My remains a remix of the audio from the monumental trailer for The Dark Knight with images from the first two Toy Story movies. ↩
- Fiorella actually wrote a full-length script for the prospective feature film, and it’s available at Untamed Cinema. I’ve chosen not to read it, for the same reason that I don’t read the leaked scripts for any films I eagerly anticipate: I’m avoiding spoilers. Whether the script is dynamite or crap, I can maintain my state of suspended anticipation. As much credit as Fiorella gets for circumventing inevitable fan disappointment, the fans themselves can avoid it, too. At least in this case Grayson enables them to do so, which is another reason why it’s so great. ↩
- I paraphrase the way Quentin Tarantino described his use of “Misirlou” for Pulp Fiction, by the by. ↩