Friday, March 23, 2007

 

The Avengers – The Winged Avenger

Tonight’s Avengers episode on BBC4 at 11.40 is one of the most memorable; perhaps not quite one of the best, but if you see it, you’ll remember it. Dark and threatening, knowing and colourful, and all enormous fun, this borrows both sides of Batman – the grim avenger of the comics, the caped campery of the TV series – and turns them into something that could only be The Avengers. It looks great, though to say that it doesn’t look entirely realistic… Well, even for this series, here is an incredibly stylised story that repeatedly bursts through the fourth wall.

Steed goes bird watching – Emma does a comic strip..

A couple of weeks ago, I was a little grudging towards the previous Avengers episode, the curiously lacklustre The Bird Who Knew Too Much. If you want an Avengers take on sinister birds, try this one instead; it’s far more creative and distinctive, and though also far more violent, the violence is of such a stylised nature that it’s far less unpleasant than an ordinary-looking man with a gun. I rather enjoy comic art, but even if you’ve never touched a graphic novel, you’ll recognise Batman here; you might also recognise such guest actors as Nigel Green, an impeccably British authority figure in many films of the time, or a young Colin Jeavons, later the oily whip Stamper in House of Cards. What really stands out about it, though, is the way it keeps reminding you that it’s a television programme – did you see the latest Life On Mars on Tuesday (if not, it’s the fifth episode of the second series, repeated next Tuesday on BBC4 just after the sixth one)? It was a brilliant piece of television, and more like The Winged Avenger than pretty much anything else in the forty years in between, from the stupendous opening Camberwick Green scene to the climax as Sam, in a coma within a coma (probably), watches the other officers in danger against the villain on a TV set inside his head. When the grainy shot that’s on Sam’s TV melts into exactly the same shot in ‘reality’, it echoes the most extraordinary sequence in tonight’s Avengers as, about forty minutes in, the episode switches from the relatively normal ‘mysterious killer’ plot to showing exquisitely drawn pieces of comic artwork fading into exactly the same frame of film of what’s happening for ‘real’…

The rest of this is hurriedly being written before 11.40, but really, if the above doesn’t make you want to watch it, what will?

…OK, finished off now (a couple of hours and a tasty dinner later), so back to the start as the episode opens with a sinister, cloaked figure in rather outré silver boots approaching the office block headquarters of a major publishing firm, within which the ruthless owner is giving his son lessons in how to be a cold-hearted grasper. Before long, a faithful employee has been sacked, and the ruthless businessman torn to pieces by the grotesque claws of a bird-masked thing that has climbed up the side of his offices, to music that’s first ominous and then, in the Winged Avenger’s special four-note theme, positively strident. It’s an arresting opening, though perhaps seeing the man in the bird mask at the first murder isn’t the best strategic decision; much of the first half of the story makes valiant efforts to establish red herrings, or rather herons, but though regular viewers know that the early leads are frequently false ones, having already seen what’s doing the killing is a bit of a giveaway. ‘Mysterious’ news of other murdered businessmen in high places! Books of killer birds studied! Sir Lexius Cray and his falconer’s glove! All wasted, I’m afraid, but watch out for the moment about twenty minutes in when Mrs Peel finds out how this enigmatic killer has managed to scale the outer walls (spoiler coming up in a couple of paragraphs) and breaks the news to Steed, who’s been trying to puzzle it out with the aid of lovingly made models covered in flags and trajectory lines:
“Does it ruin your theories?”
“I have two possible alternatives. The murderer inflates a small balloon – he rises up the nearest building, he fires a rocket line across to the penthouse, he drops a trampoline, he bounces on it, in through the window. Possibility number one.”
“And possibility number two?”
“He bribes the doorman.”
I don’t want you to think the first half of the story isn’t enjoyable; it just has a few structural problems that undermine the tension. Still, along the way the scratches left by the huge claws are rather more graphic than you usually find in the series, and (though bloodless) the various deaths are pretty raw. With the Avengers a little ambiguous but definitely in some way working for law and order, such message as there is in the fairly basic what-or-who-dunnit plot is that they have little sympathy with either the killer or his victims. You’ll have spotted the story’s very broad critique of superheroes as scary vigilantes, but our heroes aren’t fans of the people they’re rushing to save either – at one point they work out who the next victim is going to be by looking in the paper for the day’s rapacious hate-figure and pretty much say, ‘He looks like the sort of complete bastard likely to be knocked off’. Meanwhile, the audience is even more in on the joke than usual, beginning with the ‘Avenger’ title and the first victims; they’re publishers who rip writers off and are mauled to death. Just a little bit of a wink, there. One of the first and best ‘fourth wall’ gags goes to Nigel Green, despite not having much to do as Sir Lexius. A mountaineer first seen with Mrs Peel on a rock face in howling wind and snow, looking as convincing as any ’60s studio set, the camera pulls back to show it’s built in his library and he just likes to keep in practice at home. All his acting ‘suspicious’ goes rather to waste, though at least he’s not as suspicious as his distracting manservant Tay-Ling. This is the least convincing ‘Oriental’ character outside of Benny Hill, with no make-up or any other facial resemblance to an actual Chinese actor; his presumed ethnic background is communicated entirely by the music, a set of false teeth and a feeble cod accent, of which the music isn’t too bad. I suppose a genuine Chinese actor wouldn’t have looked all that Tibetan or Nepalese either – it’s implied he’s from somewhere around the Himalayas – but at least they might have looked less like Nosferatu.

Steed and Emma’s look is rather better than Tay-ling’s – even the butler’s jacket-and-t-shirt ensemble is unflattering – and this week Mrs Peel definitely has the best time of it. She gets a couple of catsuits, a mustard-yellow and maroon one that doesn’t quite work but a vivid blue one with pink highlights that’s very striking, as well as a rich green jacket over a black top. Even the pink frock looks good. Steed has a more variable time; quite a nice navy pinstripe, and of course that grey suit with gold tie, but he spends altogether too much of the episode in a pond-slime-brown checked jacket that he really shouldn’t. But back to an outfit that’s important to the plot… In the absence of a giant killer bird, the murders turn out – gasp! – to be being committed by a man in a stylised bird costume, climbing walls with the aid of special magnetic boots, as invented by the eccentric (boy, does he try to be eccentric) Professor Poole. The Professor lives in a huge gothic pile at the top of a rather fabulously vertiginous set of stairs, and has a serious case of bird envy: he tries to do the calls; he tries to fly; he hangs upside-down from the ceiling. Yes, I know, they’ve forgotten that this is Batman ‘Birdman’ for a moment, haven’t they? He’s made the mistake of flogging his boots to someone ever-so-slightly unstable from the offices of Winged Avenger Enterprises, Britain’s premier judge, jury and executioner superhero until Judge Dredd came along ten years later (and he’s got an eagle on his shoulder, you know, so think on). Our heroes have also found copies of Winged Avenger comics at the scenes of the crimes, and noticed some of the splash frames of bodies ‘executed’ by the Avenger bear an uncanny similarity to the real dead businessmen. Could it be a coincidence? Of course not. Check your watch: ‘red herring time’ expired five minutes ago, along with the bloke on the duck shoot.

Ee-urp! The Secret Identity Revealed

The remainder of the story appears to be shaping up as ‘which of the Winged Avenger staff has gone bonkers in the nut’, and that’s not too tricky to spot. There’s Julian, who dresses in the costume and poses for the drawings (note: this is not, in fact, how comic artists work outside of The Avengers), but he’s too dull and has too few lines to be the villain; there’s Stanton the writer, who’s prissy, highly strung and on the edge of losing it – yes, the one with the ‘I’m so obvious it can’t be me’ sign from the Agatha Christie job lot hung round his neck; or there’s Arnie the artist, who seems completely in control but wants to abandon the successful partnership and take over in his own right. Almost as if he needs to decide everything in the world himself, from the story to life and death! Well, all right, the plot’s not a complex one even by Avengers standards, but here’s where the style really starts delivering. Not just the enormously entertaining variations on the word “Ee-urp!” (which like “KKLAK!” must be experienced rather than explained), but the gorgeous panels of artwork that suddenly become the stars of the show. They’re beautifully inked and coloured panels by the extraordinary Frank Bellamy, but it’s the way that among pictures of all the victims we suddenly see Professor Poole on the ’phone to Emma, then see him ‘really’ do just that, then his double-take at the claw coming into shot, which reverts back to artwork again… That’s what has a touch of genius about it. Forty minutes in and it’s suddenly hit creative overdrive with the way that, abandoning even the most meagre pretence of realism, Steed and Stanton start following the story by using impossible artwork as if it was CCTV. It looks absolutely fantastic, even if the drawn Emma going up the enormous stairs has a much bigger bum than Diana Rigg, or even her ‘double’ on location (though to be fair, the Winged Avenger outfit looks a lot more stylish in comic strip form than in fluffy costume).
“I am the eradicator of all evils. I deal out justice and vengeance to those whom the law cannot touch. And to those who stand between me and my purpose!”
Of course, much of this sounds like the job description of the Avengers themselves, and the title is a subtle clue to that line of commentary, but you can spot the difference: Arnie really only gets one scene to speak ‘in character’, and he’s rather less ‘diabolical mastermind’ than just maaaad. He does, however, threaten Mrs Peel in an upside-down fight after he’s finally revealed, and who can save her now? Well, usually she would herself, but those claws are jolly mean, so after a story of implying ‘that grim vigilante chap who hangs about dressed as a Bat; he may not be entirely stable’, and as it’s the mid-1960s, where else could it go for the grand finale than Adam Ward’s camp TV Batman? In dashes Steed, still holding those artwork panels, and uses them to batter Arnie before he can strike out. You’ll never guess what the boards have on them here, either. Oh! It turns out you have. Being hit by “POW!” “SPLAT!” and “BAM!” distract him sufficiently for Mrs Peel to be able to kick his legs away, and he plummets through the window to a music you might also be able to recognise (and it’s amazing the lawyers didn’t object to). All that remains is for Steed to draw a meal at Emma’s flat and convert it into reality, serving it with a “PING!” as she pops the champagne with a giggle. It’s a very satisfying end to a very stylish story, one that started well, fumbled several times as it went along, but teetered on the edge of genius as it veered unsteadily to its climax. Very funny, very silly and very good fun, this is a fitfully brilliant fusion of comic strip art and ’60s pop art. Just watch out for the day when Gordon Brown starts dressing up as a giant buzzard.

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