Wonder Awards 2009: Rationale of a Conflicted Contrarian

As cinema buffs and Hollywood’s elite await the Academy Awards this weekend, Cinefantastique Online has addressed the unfortunate lack of critical appreciation for films of the fantastic through its 2009 Wonder Awards. As in any other subjective human endeavor those of us who voted on the nominations disagreed at times with the selections of others. While that is to be expected, some of us took it a step further and split our votes in certain areas in ways that might seem in conflict. For my own part, I voted for WALL-E as the Best Film, and also selected THE DARK KNIGHT for Best Screenplay (by Jonathan and Christopher Nolan). In what follows I will explain the rationale for my voting process, and also comment on why, in my view, HELLBOY 2 should have won for Best Makeup over BENJAMIN BUTTON.

I must admit that voting for this year’s Wonder Awards was difficult. Films of the fantastic are now both plentiful and produced with great quality, and in a way I was thankful to be placed on the horns of a dilemma as I voted from the list of nominees. When it came to my selection for Best Film I immediately experienced great personal angst, being torn between WALL-E and THE DARK KNIGHT as two exemplary films for the year. I decided early on to skip this part of the voting process and to make my other selections before coming back to my deliberations in this category. This tactic was partially successful in that it delayed the inevitable in the Best Film Category, but as I scrolled through the categories and nominees I faced similar dilemmas and a developing conflict over not only individual films, but the best way in which to acknowledge their contribution to fantastic cinema in differing categories. I wondered, was it necessary to vote holistically for a given film throughout each of the different categories, or if not, what about the possibility of more diversity in voting that recognizes the strengths of both films in differing ways?

The way I resolved my conundrum, as I mentioned at the beginning, was to select WALL-E as Best Film, and THE DARK KNIGHT for Best Screenplay. How then to explain my conflicting choice? In my thinking WALL-E was the best overall cinematic experience of the fantastic for 2009. This film took computer animation to new heights, from the height of its realism and the detail of its opening scenes as it depicted a dystopian vision of a planet decimated by pollution, to the depth of emotion the animators were able to invest in its leading characters, Wall-E and Eve. In addition to its visual beauty, the film also told a very human story through its robotic characters as well as the humans adrift in space and in need of a healthy reconnection with the Earth, their own bodies, and community. Surely the screenplay was a part of this great film, but in my view it is possible to recognize the overall value of this film as Best Picture, and yet to leave room to acknowledge the value of another strong nominee as a great candidate in another category but which fell short of Best Picture.

This brings me to my selection of THE DARK KNIGHT for Best Screenplay. This film took the box office by storm last summer, which is intriguing in that it was inspired by Frank Miller’s depiction of the character in his graphic novel BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS (1986). As I have commented on my blog, the box office success of THE DARK KNIGHT is somewhat surprising in that it addresses issues related to the Bush Administration’s “war on terror” and, like Frank Miller in the graphic novel, seems to do so in ways that approve of vigilantism on issues like the wiretapping of private citizens and violent means of prisoner interrogation. Through such vigilante actions, the heroes presented in THE DARK KNIGHT, both Batman and Commissioner Gordon, are late modern characters reflecting the ambiguity of our times and a recognition that there isn’t always a clear line between good and evil, no good guys dressed in white and bad guys in black with clear demarcations between them.

This most recent depiction of Batman moves him from the realm of the cardboard comic book characters of the past and places him in a scenario closer to our muddied world where, following Nietzsche’s dictum, the hero has looked into the abyss and the abyss has looked into him. As a result, the hero becomes a little darker, and as Heather Duda notes in The Monster Hunter in Modern Popular Culture (McFarland, 2008), the heroic monster hunter must also be acknowledged as being a little monstrous himself (and now herself with figures like Ripley and Buffy in the ALIEN films and BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, respectively).

I grant that many viewers may not have taken such depth of social commentary away from their viewing of THE DARK KNIGHT, but it is there as some have acknowledged. The more complex and ambiguous Batman may be attributed to the screenplay writers who took the various conceptions and expressions of Batman in the past and then updated him in light of Miller’s graphic novel and contemporary cultural considerations so that he could be a hero for our time responding to our fears and foes. For rising to such a difficult challenge through their writing I believe that THE DARK KNIGHT should be the recipient of the Best Screenplay award, even while the film falls short overall in my estimation as Best Film.

Ron Perlman in waist-up makeup for Hellboy 2In the area of Best Makeup the clear winner in my opinion is HELLBOY 2. Yes, the makeup effects of THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON are impressive as Brad Pitt’s character ages in reverse. They certainly compliment this great fantasy story, but in my view they do not make an overall contribution to the film as HELLBOY 2’s makeup effects do or to the depth at which we see them in the latter’s makeup efforts. In the case of BENJAMIN BUTTON the makeup effects must be believable and are certainly integral to the storytelling as we experience the strange journey of a man who moves forward through time and yet grows biologically younger. But the makeup effects in this case are not as broad or as central as in HELLBOY 2. In Hellboy’s world we shift from a fantasy story within the real world as in the case of BUTTON, to the portrayal of a fantasy world involving elves and fairies who inhabit realms closer to ancient mythologies and fantasy stories like Tolkien’s Middle Earth. The makeup effects created for HELLBOY 2 are thus more broad, rich in expression, and central to the storytelling, and for these reasons HELLBOY 2 is the clear winner over THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON in my thinking.

Surely we can agree to disagree over these issues. I know that my view many times is in the minority. Personally I didn’t find THE EXORCIST scary, and I have no idea how Bravo could include scenes from WILLIE WONKA & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY and THE WIZARD OF OZ in their “100 Scariest Movie Moments,” or choose JAWS as the number one film of fright. But heck, they didn’t include me in the talking heads commentary or ask my opinions in the matter. I recognize that at times my views are outside the mainstream, even among fans of the fantastic. But at least with my selections for the 2009 Wonder Awards readers have a glimpse into my conflict as a contrarian.

About the Author

John Morehead

I work academically and popularly in the area of intercultural studies, and apply these insights to the sociological and cultural study of the fantastic in pop culture through TheoFantastique, my website that explores sci fi, fantasy, and horror.

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