Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Curious Case of Christopher Lee

So hey, speaking of people who, like Mick Jagger, are remarkably spry, let’s chat a bit about Christopher Lee. Dude is 91 years old!!! Just the fact that he's still with us and was still making movies is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Lately I’ve been thinking about his gloriously prolific career.

(No big mystery as to what set me off thinking about Lee: I recently started working my way through Martin Scorsese's film adaptation of Hugo. Yes, working my way through, slowly, as I don't find it terribly interesting despite its recent honorific as one of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. Maybe that distinction was bestowed due to some seriously amazing 3-D cinematography, and it loses something as I watch it incrementally on my Kindle because it's free on Amazon Prime. Anyway, forget the debatable merits of the movie, Christopher Lee has a small part as the train station bookseller. So here we are.)

Christopher Lee's career is exemplary in another sense, in my highly subjective estimation, besides sheer length and quantity of movies. Because his array of roles over the years happens to encompass certain foundational touchstones of the geek universe. It's become more and more trendy this millennium (or maybe even starting in the 90's) for serious artistic actors to do work in what were formerly the ghettoized genres: sci-fi, fantasy, horror, &c. Thus it's not hard to find a beloved Oscar contender in ridiculous, non-human makeup playing someone with a silly name. But Christopher Lee has hit the trifecta in just about the most iconic of possible ways:

Horror? It all goes back to Horror of Dracula, the Hammer Films classic where Lee plays the titular baddest monster of them all.

Fantasy? I don't think I'll get much opposition to the statement that the Lord of the Rings is the gold standard of fantasy epics, and of course Lee plays Saruman the Sorcerer in that trilogy (plus The (ongoingly bloated) Hobbit!)

Sci-Fi? Star Wars, for better or worse, is the 900-pound gorilla in that room, and Lee got to play the fallen Jedi Count Dooku in a couple of those. Yes, they were prequels, which don’t hold a candle to the original trilogy. But it still counts!

And, you know what, just for good measure let's throw in The Man With The Golden Gun, Scaramanga!

Because the Bond franchise is huge and venerable and you know you love it.

You can hold up your Ian McKellan, who has the one-two punch of Magneto and Gandalf on his C.V., or for that matter Patrick Stewart’s indelible turns as both Professor X and Captain Jean-Luc Picard. But Star Trek is not Star Wars (and even if you throw in Stewart’s turn as Gurney from Dune, I still don’t think you quite get to Galaxy Far, Far Away levels), and McKellan apparently has yet to find a sci-fi property that really does it for him, just as Stewart hasn’t done much fantasy (not since he played Guinevere’s father in Excalibur, anyway). Don’t get me wrong, I respect and enjoy the nine hells out of McKellan and Stewart in just about everything they do. I’m simply pointing out that Christopher Lee has a deeper resume of roles than either of them if we’re specifically talking about embodying major characters from the all-time legendary geeky franchises.

But let’s not be too hasty in moving past the counter-examples of Sir Patrick and Sir Ian, since they do loom large on a stage as yet untrod by Christopher Lee: comic book adaptations. This. Is. Mindboggling. The really juicy parts of comic book stories are, of course, the villains, and Christopher Lee is basically typecast as a villain pretty much every time. Yet he has never played a super-villain. We’ve gotten everyone from Peter Fonda as Mephisto to Kevin Bacon as Sebastian Shaw to Willem Defoe as the Green Goblin to Liam Neeson as R’as al-Ghul - and that’s just the 21st century stuff, I could go back to Christopher Walken as Max Schreck and Terence Stamp as General Zod and on and on and on. How has Christopher Lee never even been considered for any of these roles (as I am operating under the assumption that had his name even been breathed, he would have gotten the part)?

(Technically, Lee was cast in a 1979 CBS made-for-tv movie entitled, I swear, Captain America II: Death Too Soon. He played a character invented for the movie named General Miguel, who is not a costumed, super-powered villain but just a “revolutionary terrorist” who plans to hold an American city hostage and meets an untimely/grisly end in his showdown with Cap. I had no idea this even existed until I ran across it on Wikipedia while fact-checking this rant. Now of course I kinda want to buy myself a copy. Anyway.)

If anything, comic book movies are becoming more and more dominant in the pop culture arena, with Marvel’s Avengers leading the charge. Presumably they’re going to be cranking out a couple of movies a year for at least the next ten years, so there should be plenty of time to correct this gap in Lee’s filmography and secure his standing as Greatest Geek Movie Actor Of All Time. I’ve been trying to think of various heavies I could see Lee bringing to life in his mid-90’s; most comic book characters tend to skew young, with the heroes being young adults and the baddies being maybe middle-aged authority figures, but there are some senior citizens in Marvel’s villainous ranks. I’ve just about narrowed it down to five:

5 - Silvermane

This is never going to happen, let’s just get that clear right up front. Silvermane is one of my pet characters and probably lacks the crossover appeal to be greenlit as the villain in a 200 million dollar blockbuster. The high concept is magnificently off the chain, though. He’s basically a cross between Robocop and Montgomery Burns, if Mr. Burns were the head of an organized crime family. Technically he’s more of a Spider-Man/Daredevil opponent, but he could play off the version of Iron Man that exists in the cinematic Marvel universe, and there were comics storylines where he created an alliance between his mafia and HYDRA, aka the goons last seen in the Captain America movie. Still, it’s a longshot. But it would be cool.

4 - High Evolutionary

This seems a little more plausible for the movies, since the High Evolutionary is an archetypal mad scientist, Marvel’s answer to Doctor Moreau, basically, if Moreau also had a rad exoskeleton and super-powers controlling everything vaguely related to genetics. The High Evolutionary not only hyper-evolved animals to sentience but trained them in codes of chivalry and made them his knights, complete with flying steeds (hoverbikes) and atomic lances (self-explanatory). For some reason, the High Evolutionary is kind of a joke amongst a lot of comics fandom, possibly because his New Men were given names like Sir Lyan (the lion) and Sir Tygar (the tiger) and Sir Porga (the pig. yeah.) Those ridiculous names aside, though, the High Evolutionary was always written with a certain amount of gravitas (not to mention a lifespan prolonged by superscience, something something telomeres) which Lee could obviously sell. Oh, and the High Evolutionary was originally a Thor antagonist, and he’s fought the Avengers as well.

3 - Baron Zemo

Another bad guy with a long backstory! Baron Zemo is one of the Nazi villains from the World War II segment of Captain America’s heroic exploits. Christopher Lee is probably exactly the right age to play him! He’s actually one of the rare cases of a legacy villain, where Baron Heinrich Zemo eventually died and passed all of his wealth and title (and evil superweapons) on to his son Helmut Zemo. I’d be fine with an Avengers movie where Lee played the elder Zemo in a few flashback scenes and someone else (?) played the inheritor of the villainous mantle, and subsequently organized the Masters of Evil to confront the Avengers, just like in the comics.

2 - Count Nefaria

You may have noticed that both the High Evolutionary and Baron Zemo sport full facemasks (and both in purple, no less) which is often a disincentive to an actor taking a role. (See James Purefoy leaving V For Vendetta mid-production, replaced by Hugo Weaving. Oh man, Hugo Weaving - aka Agent Smith from The Matrix aka Elrond from Lord of the Rings aka Red Skull in Captain America - is kind of nipping at Lee’s heels here, isn’t he? If Weaving winds up in Episodes VII, VIII or IX of Star Wars my head will asplode.) Granted, they always find ways for Robert Downey Jr. to lift his faceplate a lot in the Iron Man flicks, but maybe we should be looking for roles involving fewer workarounds for Lee.

Hence, Count Nefaria! Like Silvermane, he has ties to organized crime, and like Baron Zemo, he’s an aristocrat (Italian), and like the High Evolutionary, he’s extraordinarily powerful, in essence an evil Superman (strong and fast and indestructible and able to fly and shoot lasers and all kinds of crazy crap). He’s fought everyone from the Avengers to the X-Men, and he even looks a bit like Lee, what with his salt-and-pepper ‘do and his penchant for facial hair. Maybe, technically, his comics backstory would make him a little too young to be embodied by our nonagenarian, but I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: things change from the source material to the screen and that’s OK. I’d love to see an Avengers Vs. Count Nefaria movie, really, but I think there’s an indisputably better choice for Christopher Lee to finally play a supervillain ...

1 - Immortus

Who the heck else are you going to cast as the undying manipulator and time traveler who is the future, semi-reformed version of one of the Avengers greatest foes? Frankly I would consider it twenty dollars well spent just to see Christopher Lee wearing that gigantic helmet-crown up on the big screen. Immortus has literally seen it all, from one end of the history of the universe to the other, and takes no guff from anyone, not even his younger and more volatile self, Kang. An Avengers Vs. Kang movie should rightly be the culmination of an Avengers trilogy (not to mention the lifelong dream of any devoted fanboy) and we already know that Avengers 2 is going to be about Ultron (the only other Avengers villain on par with Loki and Kang) so this is a total no-brainer.

I eagerly await e-mails from Christopher Lee’s agent, as well as Joss Whedon to discuss potential plot points. Let's make this happen.

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