Review: Pilgrimage





In a confluence of culture and language, a party of monks takes a trip to Waterford.


Ireland in the early 13th century was a fascinating, and very under-appreciated, historical period. Our understanding of what the situation in Ireland was like at that time is simplistic, in my opinion. Some people tend to think that Ireland was conquered by the “English” in 1169, and was oppressed from then to 1922, but the truth is far more complex. It took centuries for Anglo-Norman dominance over Ireland to be made total – indeed, they weren’t even Anglo-Normans when they were finished – and during that process Ireland was very much the wild west of the day, the edge of civilisation, where law and order extended only as far as the walls of a motte and bailey. There and then, Ireland was a potent, competing and often violent mix of Gaelic, Norman, Norse and Catholic cultures. And it is this world that director Brendan Muldowney, with writer Jamie Hannigan, decided to set his tale of clerical questing. The opportunities here for spectacular story-telling are immense, as are the risks of sentimentality and overly-violent bloodbath film-making. With a surprisingly decent central cast and the backing of the IFB and BAI, was Pilgrimage another Irish film triumph, or a forgettable trudge through the realm of “historical action”?

Ireland, 1209: A Cistercian Monk (Stanley Weber) arrives at an isolated monastery, tasked with transporting a holy relic from there to Rome. Among those going with him on the journey south will be young monk Diarmuid (Tom Holland) and a mute stranger with a violent past (Jon Bernthal). Along the way, they face many dangers, not least the conflict between a rampaging Irish warband and a group of Norman warriors, led by the cruel Raymond (Richard Armitage).

Violence begets violence, would seem to be one of the primary messages of Pilgrimage, which opens with a first century stoning shown in brutal detail, a moment that sets off an historical chain reaction that ends with three different factions killing each other a millennium later, nominally over a “relic” of the first killing. But in reality, they’re killing each other over something that is both grander and lesser: faith, be it in a higher power, or in your own power.

The cipher for this story is Tom Holland’s Diarmuid, a naïve young novice monk who has never left the bare scrap of land his west-coast monastery clings to – exactly the reason he needs to go on the journey, his Master muses thoughtfully – and who imbues the larger story with a coming-of-age plot. He acts as both an audience surrogate and driving moral force of the film, unless his morals get stripped away by what he is witnessing around him. It’s a “loss of innocence” narrative in many ways, and Holland is suited for it, adding something quite important to the “quest” plot, in a quiet and mostly understated performance, absent of the peppy charm from Spider-Man: Homecoming, but no less endearing in many ways.

Alongside him is Jon Bernthal, known only as “the Mute”. The character’s backstory is only hinted at, but is largely predictable when it comes right down to it, and in many ways Bernthal’s presence seems largely to be just so the filmmakers can have a suitable person to start swinging swords in a violent manner when the time calls. Bernthal does try to make the absolute most of what he is given here, but he isn’t quite good enough an actor to make a tour de force out of such a part. Much like some of the Norman characters, the Mute has a kind of agnostic quality to him, combined with some past trauma undoubtedly connected to the Crusades, which does add significantly to a character in need of such rounding out. The Mute serves as an interesting addendum to the action, but the film works better when it focuses on Diarmuid and Geraldus, the third part in the main cast trinity, a monk whose creeping motivations and true faith serve to keep things interesting well into the third act, a representation of the slippery character of the Church in those days, ably played by the unknown Weber.

In Pilgrimage, and in the setting, the Catholic religion comes smack up against ancient mysticism, and struggles to get by. There are constant references to the Holy War being waged to the far east, but in the far west the Church isn’t exactly stamping its authority either. The Irish monks are wary of fairy forts and doors, mush to the disgust of Geraldus, most notably in a scene involving whether to take water from a stream supposedly cursed by Gaelic legend. This could easily be portrayed in a twee, eye-rolley manner, but Pilgrimage takes a different tack, with the older Gaelic culture a vague, shadowy force that indicates little but doom for the Catholics trudging through the countryside.



Violence begetted by violence is never far away in Pilgrimage.


It comes down to faith for many, such as John Lynch’s excellent senior monk, and even Diarmuid’s quieter, inexperienced kind. But for others, like Geraldus, it’s terror, a terror of what might be coming in the afterlife, and what might befall anyone who takes a wrong step in the kind of world that he inhabits. The Church is a distant power in Pilgrimage, but a power nonetheless. Part of what makes Geraldus so interesting is in seeing someone with first-hand experience of the power of the Church deal with being in a land where that power barely exists. In this world, the Church is not just a thing to be revered and to have faith placed in, it’s something to obey and be subservient to. As Geraldus himself puts it, in reference to someone burned at the stake for heresy, “He didn’t lose his faith in the church, he lost his fear of it”.

It’s a suitable footnote to the situation in Ireland today in some respects, to remember that there was a time when the Church had the power of life and death over its subjects (and that’s what they were). More agnostic characters, like Richard Armitage’s fearsome Raymond, a Norman knight with little time for relics beyond the personal gain he can get from them, have no fear of what the Church represents at all, but in not so empowering a way: instead, perhaps having spent too long on the frontier of civilisation, they have abandoned any respect for law and order in its entirety.

But beyond effective commentary on the Catholic Church and where it has been in its grimy, sordid past, there is the focus on Ireland in 1209, the “end of the world” as Geraldus calls it, a frontier defined by opposing languages. Pilgrimage goes all-in on this concept: the Irish characters speak Irish, the Normans speak French, clerics use Latin and Italian, and it’s only when they are talking to each other that English appears. This means a large amount of the film is subtitled, a risky move, as it essentially destroys Pilgrimage’s ability to attract a large percentage of its potential audience, but the gain in authenticity is more than worth it. It’s really fascinating to see Irish, French and English combine in such a production, and gives you a taste of what things must have been like in the time and setting depicted.

The cinematography too embraces the idea that we are seeing the frontier of civilisation and the very edge of the world. While not exactly dark in tone, Muldowney seeks to frame this Ireland as a grim and uninviting place in many respects, a sort of green desert if I may be allowed the description, where the rainy, windswept vistas of rolling hills and foreboding forests combine to produce a sense of dread in every footfall and nervous glance. A good comparison could be drawn to films like Apocalypse Now and its Heart Of Darkness inspiration, of a long trip into a hostile and deadly environment, where the mental danger is as tangible as the physical. One Norman leaders waxes lyrical that the Irish are hard to defeat as they have a tendency to run into inaccessible bogs and woods at every opportunity, and Pilgrimage gives you a front-row seat to such “wood-kerne” tactics, that conspire to make this emerald isle considerably less friendly than it is traditionally depicted, instead being a place where paths of “bad reputation” outnumber the ones of any other opinion. The filming was actually split between Ireland and the Ardennes forest (Pilgrimage is actually classified as a Belgian film on IMDB, despite being mostly financed by Irish entities, casted and crewed mostly by Irish people and, of course, set and partially filmed in Ireland), and they are suitable locations for the sort of suffocating feel of isolation and encroaching barbarianism that Pilgrimage displays.

The action scenes are actually fairly rare here, with the exception of an ambush mid-stream and a blood-strewn finale. The violence is certainly of the Game Of Thrones-style with an emphasis on sweeping blows of weapons that have a tendency to lodge in the brain. Pilgrimage generally has a lot to thank Game Of Thrones for I think, especially in terms of how it has opened up the possibility of Ireland being used as a filming location for such efforts, something that did not really happen before, excepting Braveheart, in this country.

Other parts of the production also stand-up, for the most part. The score, from Stephen McKeon, is surprisingly effective, usually the first thing to get short-changed in such productions, the choral monk chanting an especially nice addition. The script could do with a bit more confidence in itself at times, especially in the concept of “show, don’t tell”, with some of Geraldus’ lines, especially near the conclusion, being almost laughably expository, but is generally quite strong. Welcome are numerous references to issues of the day, like the conflict between King John and his distant Irish subjects, the denial of Ireland being a peaceful paradise pre-1169 and of course the constant overarching shadow of the Crusades. And the film is edited and paced with skill too, restraining itself from being a constant bloodbath like other films would be, and instead being happy limiting itself to brief small-scale clashes.

While Pilgrimage is destined to be a “straight-to-streaming” option for the most part, having only a very limited theatrical run in Ireland (thanks IFI!) it’s still very much worth checking out. Leaving aside some of its deficiencies, like the script problems, some of the acting and a complete lack of female roles, there is a wealth of stuff to enjoy here: Tom Holland and Stanley Weber’s performances, the cinematography that recreates the era, and the general setting in terms of location and language, the kind of multi-lingual experience that you won’t rightly find anywhere else. Moreover, it’ a confidently-made Irish production that speaks well of our film-making community’s capacity to reach beyond the typical, and one that deserves more viewers than it is likely to get in cinemas. Highly recommended.



An excellent film.


(All images are copyright of Falcon Films and RLJ Entertainment).

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Ireland’s Wars: The Civil War That Wasn’t

Much of the political wrangling around Home Rule in the summer of 1914 was about whether Ulster would be part of the process at all. Early on and at different stages of the legislative process, opposition figures, and even supporters, were suggesting that part or all of Ulster would be excluded from Home Rule, either for a few years, or indefinitely. For many, it was the most logical solution to the issue. Of course, it was not the preference of Home Rule-supporting nationalists, not only because it was a division of the country, but because it would be seen as a surrender to Carson and the Ulster Volunteers’ show of force.

In late June, King George V invited representatives from both sides of the divide to Buckingham Palace for a conference, that took place over two days. The conference would break up without agreement, though it was considered a mostly productive discussion, insofar as a bare minimum of common ground was found and both parties agreed the discussions were civilized. But, when they finished, Ireland still seemed to be headed towards Civil War.

Then, on the 4th of August, Britain declared war on Germany, and the Irish political question was put on ice, nominally for the duration of the conflict.

For the moment, I’d like to discuss the Volunteer Crisis in terms of war, or rather the conflict that didn’t happen, the civil war that wasn’t. Reading historical accounts of the period, both those close by and those written today, it is practically taken as a given that the opposing volunteers were going to be shooting at each other soon, but for the sudden intervention of Germany’s invasion of Belgium.

This is something I have always had difficulty buying, and in a rare moment of counterfactual analysis for this series, I’d like to expand on why.

Firstly, let us consider the situation in Ireland in the event of the most likely legislative solution to the Home Rule crisis: Home Rule being instituted everywhere but part or all of Ulster. If this occurred, the Ulster Volunteers’ raison d’etre would have been largely fulfilled: they would have had no reason to launch any kind of foray southwards, or against the government, so we can logically discount offensive action from them in that event.

Would the Irish Volunteers then have attacked northward? Unlikely too, in my estimation. The Volunteers were supposed to be defensive, and if Home Rule was instituted on the basis of partition, then the local police and British Armed Forces would have been more than justified in stepping in and disarming the Irish Volunteers in the event that they attempted anything of the sort. The Volunteers, poorly armed if at all, would have been unable to resist as a conventional force, and such an action may well have resulted in the suspension of Home Rule after it all.

Secondly, let us consider instead the more volatile situation that would have occurred if Home Rule was instituted in the whole of the island, over the objections of the Unionists. In this situation, we can well imagine a more violent response from the Ulster Volunteers, who were armed, organised and committed. Government buildings may have been seized, a provisional government given more firm operation, armouries attacked. Ulster, or as much of it as the Ulster Volunteers would have been able to effectively control, would surely have made a military stand against Home Rule. The question then becomes about the response of the authorities, and of the Irish Volunteers.

As we have seen, the police and the Armed Forces had demonstrated that their commitment to implementing Home Rule by force was questionable at best, albeit maybe not as dire as has often been suggested. It should be remembered that leading officers of the Curragh mutiny had claimed that they would follow direct orders if they were given, and I would deem this even more likely once the Ulster Volunteers opened fire on police or soldiers guarding armouries and other vital points, thus surrendering the moral ground that so defined their movement (at least in their eyes). While better armed than the Irish Volunteers, the Ulster Volunteers would have been little better able to confront a full British military assault.

But let’s say that somehow the Ulster Volunteers were able to seize Ulster without a shot being fired, thus making the British authorities hesitant to engage in combat, or if the British military en masse refused to follow orders to enforce Home Rule. Then we look to the Volunteers. Would they have been capable of taking up what arms they had, marching north, and essentially invading a territory of people largely unsympathetic to their cause, and likely hostile to their presence? If the British Army put themselves in the middle, would the Irish Volunteers be willing to attempt to go through them?

We must also bear in mind other simple realities that both sets of Volunteers would have had to deal with. What weapons they had were either brought from home or obsolete, for the most part. Would Volunteer armies in the field be capable of supplying themselves with food and water? What of transport arrangements, in a country where motor vehicles were not yet as prevalent as they might have been, and where access to fuel would fast have become an issue? What of forage for horses? What of medical supplies in the event of fighting? What of ammunition stock once the initial supplies had been depleted, which would have happened very fast? What of communications and the chain-of-command, so easily muddled in the case of the Irish Volunteers a few years later?

And even if both sides came to blows along the border or elsewhere, how much would the British military have been willing to tolerate before stepping in with all of their advantages in men, arms and material?

Perhaps we can put it even more simply. The goal of the Irish Volunteers was to preserve Home Rule. This would not be accomplished by attacking the Ulster Volunteers, indeed it would endanger it. The goal of the Ulster Volunteers was to stop Home Rule. This would not be accomplished by attacking the Irish Volunteers. All-out conflict between the two had little to recommend it, and much to be risked by it.

Regardless, the much more likely solution would have been for Home Rule to be implemented in the south only, with all, or part of the north excluded. It is my own opinion that the IPP and the Irish Volunteers would have tolerated this, unhappily, while the IRB continued to work towards an almost inevitable republican insurrection.

The July Crisis in Europe, and the beginning of the First World War, interrupted everything, its eventual scale almost making a mockery of what was occurring in Ireland. Where one day the issue had been the most important topic in British politics, it suddenly only mattered insofar as it influenced recruitment to the army, an army that now set off for foreign fields.

Ireland’s Wars is going to take a short break while I draw up plans for what’s to come. The rest of the Irish revolutionary period after the summer of 1914 will come in time, but in the following weeks and probably months, I will turn my attention to the First World War and Irish involvement in it, from the well-known narratives of the western front, to lesser known portions of the conflict that Irish soldiers and Irish units fought in. It will be a suitable ending to the last mammoth section of this project, that of “the long nineteenth century”, which saw its conclusion in muddy trench-strewn fields where the experience of war changed so decisively. Until then.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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Review – Spider-Man: Homecoming

Spider-Man: Homecoming



OK, lets try this again.

Hollywood can’t get enough of the friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man. 15 years after Sam Raimi’s version of the character helped to revitalised the superhero genre, and five years after Mark Webb’s attempt reminded us how boring and samey the superhero genre had become, the relatively untested Jon Watts is here to steer an odd and somewhat unexpected amalgamation, of a Sony owned franchise with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But the whiff of green is generally enough to make studios and rights holders play ball, or so it seems. Captain America: Civil War provided the opportunity for an effective and entertaining backdoor origin to the MCU’s take on the character, but now it’s time for Tom Holland to step up and show that the web-crawler has a future within film. Is Spider-Man: Homecoming the revitalization of the franchise the Amazing version could never get to be, or more evidence that the genre is too reliant on the same staples?

Two months after first meeting Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr), Peter Parker (Tom Holland) continues his role of Spider-Man, only dealing with stolen bikes and lost old lady’s instead of superpowered battles. Frustrated by inaction, and an infatuation to schoolfriend Liz (Laura Harrier), Peter aims to prove himself by taking on the “Vulture” (Michael Keaton), a wingsuit wearing dealer of weapons crossed with alien technology.

Homecoming is probably the best MCU film of the last few years, at least since Ant-Man. And it’s undoubtedly the best Spider-man film in over a decade, if that means anything. While it follows the formula that the MCU has long since established, it does so with successes in every department of its production, and it makes the most of two ballsy but quite correct decisions.

The first, and arguably most important, is the forgoing of the Peter Parker origin story. This was a baffling error in regards the Amazing version, thinking that audiences really needed to see the spider bite and Uncle Ben dying all over again, and Homecoming very wisely decides to go the Incredible Hulk route, of trusting that whoever is viewing the film can fill in the blanks. The only time Peter’s origin gets brought up here is when the character basically dismisses it as unimportant. I’m usually a big fan of origin stories, but not when they have been well-trod: here, having Peter be Spidey right from the off frees up a great deal of time.

And from there we bounce off into a very enjoyable, funny and relatable tale of a young kid trying to make good of the extraordinary circumstances he has found himself in. Holland being a more appropriate age for the character than either Tobey Maguire or Andrew Garfield helps immensely, as you can actually buy him as a teenager, and a gangly, awkward one at that. Holland’s own performance is great, from action to accent. The usual MCU quips and sarcasm, that fit so oddly into other properties, fit perfectly here, and you can get behind Peter Parker, a fundamentally decent person, whose one key flaw may be that he is simply too eager to impress, to the point of personal recklessness, something that rings alarmingly true for a 15-year-old (there’s something almost revelatory about seeing a version of Parker who doesn’t care about school).

Peter is a breath of fresh air for the MCU in many ways, as its last few protagonists – some of the Guardians, Dr Strange, Cap in Civil War – have all been various shades of asshole (nodded to here in Cap’s case, as Peter’s high school gym teacher muses he might be a war criminal now), whereas Peter Parker doesn’t have enough tough-guy in him to even handle an interrogation right, one would-be informant telling him “You need to get better at this part of the job” when his Batman-esque gravelly voice fails to intimidate. He’s so unceasingly down-to-Earth and nice and pleasant, that it almost becomes over-bearing. Almost.

But more important is his general attitude: here is a Peter Parker who actually wants to be Spider-Man, who isn’t putting on the tights because of an overbearing moral debt owed to a dead Uncle (not a sign of “With great power…” here). Tony Stark, with “RDJ” appearing in maybe five minutes of the film total, provides a sort of strange father-figure role in place of Ben, that openly calls back into Tony’s own paternal problems, and there is something endearing and cute in the way Parker tries to live up to Stark’s expectations, and something depressingly dreadful about what happens when he fails to. In one key scene, it’s almost like the writers are calling the MCU quip-fest out, as Stark curtly tells Peter to “zip it, the adult is talking” when he gives out one glib response too many. But the point is that the relationship is so well defined as to easily manage changes in tone and circumstance.

Stark’s pressure and Peter’s own ambitions also drive the films key theme, namely the ability of the little guy to take his punches and get back up again. Peter fails, underperforms, goes too far, time and again, but he keeps trying, a perseverance that makes the character appear noble in a way that even Tobey Maguire wasn’t really able to accomplish without an American flag fluttering in the background (also parodied here, to an extent). At its most serious, with Peter at his lowest point, Homecoming takes a remarkable turn, reminding you fully that underneath it all Peter is just a kid, putting his life on the line for no other reason than it’s the right thing to do.

Homecoming’s second big call is what it does with a large stretch of that time provided by the absence of an origin story, namely giving a spotlight to its villain, Michael Keaton’s Vulture. The first two scenes of the film revolve around him, with Peter only interjecting after. The MCU has had a consistent villain issue, and by giving Vulture the time and the chance to stand on his own, stamping his presence and authority on the film right from the off, we suddenly get the best Marvel antagonist since Loki. It helps that Keaton is his usual mesmerizing self, fully enjoying this resurgence in his career (and not drawing too many comparisons to Birdman, thankfully). It’s almost strange to think that Keaton was the heart of the superhero genre’s jumpstart nearly 30 years ago now. The character in general is great: a genuinely wronged guy who decides to take advantage of the underhanded opportunities that are presented to him. He’s a villain wrapped up in the consequences of the Avengers’ actions earlier in the MCU, and that adds a delicious twist to Tony Stark’s involvement in proceedings here, with his surrogate son fighting something the surrogate father inadvertently created.


Michael Keaton makes the film as much as Holland does.

It could easily have been so, but no quest for revenge here, no mindless psychopathy or thirst for power: just a slightly unhinged guy who would do anything for his family – up to and including murder, mayhem and robbery. It’s a villain that’s just interesting, and in the MCU that has become an increasing rarity. Only on one occasion does the Vulture fall foul of the MCU’s comedy requirement, and that’s more than made-up for by an enthralling third-act sequence involving him, Peter and one other character in a car, after one of the most clever and surprising twists that the MCU has ever managed.

The rest of the cast is also uniformly excellent, with a huge number of supporting players who all get a little time to shine. Key among them would be Jacob Batalan as Peter’s high-school friend Ned, endearingly charming, Laura Harrier as love interest Liz, distant in most respects, but she grows into the affair, and Marisa Tomei’s Aunt May, not up to all that much really, but still providing the right kind of spark (the MCU’s best recurring joke may revolve around her attractiveness). Aside from them, a multitude of young and older actors prop up the screen, and establish themselves for later movies. Zendaya as one of Peter’s cynical academic decathlon friends, Tony Revolori as Flash Thompson (and every bit as brilliant as he was in The Grand Budapest Hotel), Martin Starr as the decathlon coach (he gets the darkest joke) and Jennifer Connolly as the voice of a somewhat too forward suit AI. The diversity of the cast is also to be noted, though it’s also important to note that the three top-billed are all white. Jon Favreau has his most screen time as “Happy” Hogan since Iron Man 3, and at one point suitably reminds people that the MCU isn’t even ten years old.

Looking at the list of screenwriters that Homecoming has – six names in total – it could easily have turned out as a “by committee” mess, but somehow it turned out all right. There’s an intelligence to a lot of what Homecoming does, little nods and lantern hanging that other MCU films have singularly failed to do. A completely throwaway line early on has Peter notice a Stark plane that flies without a pilot, that becomes pivotal later, as does a throwaway joke about Happy Hogan getting a promotion. Three minor Spidey villains show up in various roles  (one, played by Donald Glover, provides a nice postscript to the previous “movement” to get him cast as Miles Morales), but where other films in the MCU would treat them as bait for fanboys with nothing to actually do – see Sylvester Stallone in Guardians Of The Galaxy, Vol. 2Homecoming treats them as parts of the story. They don’t need big names to play them, but here they are, giving otherwise unexceptional hoodlums the chance to shine, and to set themselves up as something bigger for what comes next. Something potentially quite sinister.

Watts is a relatively untested director, especially at this level, but he does a good job here, without being truly great. No sweeping shots of Spidey swooping around New York skyscrapers, instead Watts limits himself to more down-to-Earth and practical effects, for the most part. This Peter Parker is spending more time on the top of apartment blocks and trucks than the Empire State. When the time comes for action, things can get a little bit too frenetic, especially in the finale, as the back-and-forth becomes hard to follow with the multitude of quick cuts and sudden flashes in darkness, but it isn’t really an action-heavy affair anyway. There are still some sequences to really admire, like Peter’s patrolling montage early on, a chase with a van through a suburban neighbourhood and a death-defying effort to stop a ferry from sinking, that calls to mind the train sequence in Spider-Man 2.

The music too is refreshingly notable for an MCU offering. That’s been a consistent Achilles heel for this general franchise, but in Homecoming Michael Giacchino actually manages to make your ears perk up, for a main theme that can switch between heroic booming and xylophonic quaintness, and a Vulture theme that stands apart, just as the character himself does.

I’ve been slowly turning on the MCU for a while now, if I’m being honest. While still acknowledging their successes and general entertainment value, it has been a while since one of the films really grabbed me in the way the earlier offerings did, or in the way that Wonder Woman did recently from a different avenue. But Homecoming did grab me. It reminded me that it’s possible to write a bright, fun superhero movie without it being overloaded with ill-placed comedy, that superheroes can still be unequivocally pleasant to watch, and that villain characters do not have to be cardboard cut-outs. It also reminded me that superheroes don’t have to get thrown around cities or have a revenge plot to be heroes. This is a well-written, well-acted, well-scored and well-directed flick, one that leaves me with more optimism for the MCU’s future than I have leaving the theatre of one of its films for a long time. Strongly recommended.


“See the boy fall from the sky…”

(All images are copyright of Sony Pictures Releasing).

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Ireland’s Wars: Redmond’s Volunteer Takeover

Between the unreliability of the British military when it came to upholding the law, and the gun-running’s that had increased the armed potential of the Ulster and Irish Volunteers, things appeared to be disintegrating fast in Ireland in the summer of 1914. A side conflict between the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Parliamentary Party did not aid matters, and is illustrative of the continued divide between moderate and radical nationalists. In this short entry, we will briefly discuss in the ins and outs of the IPP’s takeover of the Irish Volunteers.

The Irish Volunteers, in terms of numbers anyway, had been going from strength to strength, with more units being founded all over the country, even in the nominally Unionist north. Cumann na Mban, a similar movement for female nationalists – albeit with serious societal restrictions still evident – had been founded in April by Irish language academic Agnes O’Farrelly, and had seen a similar explosion in membership. Though in most ways subordinate to the Volunteers, a status made semi-official by 1916, Cumann na mBan were arguably more militant and radical in their rhetoric, which espoused the pursuit of Irish liberty directly. The women of Cumann na mBan were largely seen as an auxiliary service by those in the Volunteers and the IRB, but some would receive rudimentary training in arms. Fianna Eireann, a boy’s youth organisation of nationalist ethos, a counterpart to the Boy Scouts, was also popular, having been founded in 1909 by Bulmer Hobson and Constance Markievicz, a notable revolutionary nationalist, suffragette and socialist.

But something was still seriously holding the Irish Volunteers back, and that was the support of the more moderate IPP elements, who in many cases still balked at combining their brand of conservative nationalism with the carrying of a gun and the wearing of a uniform.

John Redmond was wary when it came to the Volunteers, largely because it was a mass nationalist entity that he had little control of. Some members of the IPP did have Volunteer membership, and IPP members did sit on the executive of the Irish Volunteers, but were outnumbered by separate and radical elements, many of whom were part of the IRB. Unit leadership and financial control were also almost entirely in the hands of those who were not members of the IPP, as the IRB continued to shape the Volunteers as an entity that would better suit their agenda when the time came.

Redmond wanted to change this, thinking that a combination of the IPP and Volunteers would solidify the passing of Home Rule, provided that such an arrangement had the IPP in the most prominent position. Huge numbers of Volunteers were IPP supporters, and Redmond used this as a crutch. Throughout 1914 he was in touch with Eoin McNeill on this issue, wanting to increase IPP representation on the executive council, something MacNeill was reluctant to accede to, for obvious reasons.

But the danger of coming under IPP domination at the highest level had to be balanced against the danger of a split in the Volunteers themselves, if Redmond was to take a hard-line stance. If the IPP were to become more antagonistic to the Volunteers, it was likely that a large proportion of its membership would either leave or form their own separate militia under Redmond’s control, leaving the Volunteers with the more radical rump.

Even committed IRB members like Hobson thought the possibility of a split a horrifying outcome. The Volunteers were growing ever stronger, and for the IRB, being in control of such an organisation was a level of success – and potential – that they had not known in over a generation.

On the 9th June, Redmond outlined what was essentially an ultimatum to the Volunteers, demanding that 25 members of the IPP, to be chosen by himself, be immediately placed on the executive. The debate over whether to accept or oppose the ultimatum produced lasting divisions in the upper circles of the IRB, with Hobson coming out firmly in agreement with the proposal, if only to avoid a split, while others, like Tom Clarke, being outraged by the suggestion. Hobson’s gradually diminished status in the nationalist movement stems from this point, as Clarke and others become more enemies than comrades.

In the end, Redmond’s ultimatum was agreed to, by a vote of 18-9, and soon 25 hand-picked IPP members, including Redmond’s son William, were sitting on the Volunteers’ executive. However, while there was an element of control handed to the IPP, in reality much of the Irish Volunteers’ daily functions continued as normal. The smaller units saw no real change in their commands, allowing the IRB to maintain control of the Volunteers’ direction and leadership on a local level, exactly how they preferred to operate, and the Volunteer finances remained in the control of its treasurer, the O’Rahilly, and his deputy, a Dublin-born clerical officer named Eamonn Ceannt: Ceannt was a leading member of the IRB, and while the O’Rahilly was not, he was not a Redmonite either. Volunteer membership boomed in the aftermath of the subordination, as those previously on the fence suddenly flocked to the banner of an IPP-approved entity. By the time the Volunteer crisis would come to an end, almost one in five Irishmen could be counted as a member of the Volunteers, gigantic numbers for a voluntary militia with so few arms.

Hobson had himself predicted such an outcome – a du jure takeover being overwritten by a de facto status quo – but this was of little comfort to men like Tom Clarke, who saw the cause of complete Irish independence being eroded. For him and others, the subordination was proof that the IPP was potentially as much of an enemy to the higher cause as the British, one that would eventually have to be taken on politically in line with military campaigns. And those military campaigns would go forward, as Hobson was frozen out and others more deadest on violent uprising took over the direction of the IRB. Of the nine men who voted against Redmond’s ultimatum, four would be facing fire squads in 1916. But, for the time being, the Irish Volunteers remained a cohesive entity.

In the end, the Volunteer split was only delayed, not prevented completely, yet another consequence of the larger European conflict soon to break out. Before then though, the British government would keep trying to avoid a Civil War in Ireland.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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Review: Baby Driver

Baby Driver



Edgar Wrights’s Baby Driver is brilliant take on the heist genre.

Edgar Wright is a very good director. Shaun Of The Dead is a deeply amusing and affecting dramedy. Hot Fuzz is a satirical masterpiece. Scott Pilgrim Vs The World is a rip-roaring delight. Even The World’s End, that I personally disliked more than liked, was still directed by a man who, perhaps more than anyone else, understands the balance between comedy, drama and action in terms of script and visual direction. Unfortunately booted from Ant-Man – still a great movie, but could have been spectacular – Wright since turned to a very different vehicle for his talents, moving away from the British realm of comedy and into the very American. A truly all-star cast to work with here, and a premise to intrigue: is Edgar Wright back on the good path, or is he in steep decline?

Suffering from tinnitus after a childhood car accident, Baby (Ansel Elgort) drowns out the ringing with a constant medley of classic hits. It helps with his primary employment: being the getaway driver for heist planner Doc (Kevin Spacey) and his numerous hold-up operations. Embedded with a motley collection of criminals – crazy Bats (Jamie Foxx), hedonistic Darling (Eiza Gonzalez), reckless Buddy (Jon Hamm) – Baby dreams of getting out from under Doc’s sway and making off with Debora (Lily James), the singing waitress at his favourite diner, but there’s always one more score to accomplish.

After Wonder Woman, here is the next big stand-out hit of the 2017 summer season. For Edgar Wright, in my eyes, Baby Driver is a stunning and much welcome return to form, a film that encapsulates some of the best aspects of long-form film-making in its easy mixture of themes, genres and production specifics. It’s an utter delight from start to finish.

For once, it won’t be plot or narrative that I start off with. Instead, let’s talk about visual direction and cinematography primarily, because this is as film where Edgar Wrght – with The Matrix’s Bill Pope- demonstrates his skill in this craft so expertly he may need to be declared films’ primary genius on the subject. Baby Driver is a symphony and ballet rolled into one: a near perfect demonstration of the merging of picture, movement and sound, in every other scene. It’s not just the numerous one-shotters, all pulled off amazingly well, it’s everything: when Baby dances around his apartment while having a sign-language conversation with his elderly guardian; when he goes back and forth with Debora in the diner; and, of course, whenever he drives.

The action scenes in Baby Driver are, and I may end up using this word a lot, masterpieces, a great blend of tight cuts, interior and exterior shots and thumping excitement in every gun shot, banged fender and oh-so-close moment when it appears Baby might just be about to lose control (but will he ever?). Unconstrained by the primary purpose of the film being to make people laugh, Wright is free to showcase his understanding of how to shoot action brilliantly, raising and lowering the tension with ease, keeping things inventive at every turn and keeping the audience on the edge of their seats.


Lily James’ character is a weak link in the film, with Wright’s persistent difficulty with female characters coming through again.

And, as noted by nearly everyone else, a large element of this is the films soundtrack. Comparisons have been made to James Gunn’s Guardians Of The Galaxy franchise, but that’s a negative one in my opinion. With a few exceptions, and especially in Vol 2Guardians uses it’s 70’s and 80’s contingent of classics for transitionary and establishing shots and montages, of little consequence save for stoking the audiences nostalgia. Wright uses the music to actually enhance scenes: not just to set mood, but to make your heart beat along to whatever is happening on screen. A few wonderful examples may suffice: Bob and Earl’s “Harlem Shuffle” as Baby goes about his routine of buying coffee for the heist members, a great introduction to the character outside of a car; a whimsical yet premature departure from the criminal world to The Commodores’ “Easy”; and, my favourite, a thumping frenetic foot chase late on to the strains of Focus’ “Hocus Pocus”. Wright just gets music and how it can be applied, in a way that Gunn just doesn’t. Gunn picks songs. Wright fits them.

And it isn’t just that music makes the film, improves everything that it plays over. Music is at the heart of the film, through the main character who suffers from such a debilitating affliction. Baby needs music both to drown out the ringing, and to make himself effective: it’s the spinach to his Popeye, his source of strength that he’s lost without. He’s a different breed of superhero, but he’s one nonetheless, and music is what drives him. Music is how he connects to his guardian, to Debora and even to the criminals he is forced to buddy up with. There’s something really fascinating in all that, and in all of the conversations over music that Baby Driver offers, whether it is of the playfully flirty kind or the more dangerous back-and-forths with Bats and Buddy.

The general narrative of Baby Driver is nothing especially noteworthy or revelatory, but it is entertaining and engaging at every turn. We are introduced to Baby the ice-cool yet quirky getaway driver, who never fails to shake the police or confirm the score. But then we see someone different, especially from Ryan Gosling’s Driver, to whom plenty of comparisons have been made: this is a sweet guy, who dotes on his elderly guardian, stumbles in his conversations with Debora and is caught up in a criminal organisation he really doesn’t want to be caught up in. This is all very important, and especially for Wright: One of the biggest problems with The World’s End was that its main character was a thoroughly unlikeable cretin that I didn’t care about in terms of his successes and failures. Baby might be a criminal but he’s one with a shining heart of gold, and you want him to succeed in his primary goal: getting out of the business, once and for all.

We must also give kudos to Elgort’s performance as a big part of what makes Baby Driver great. Baby could easily come off as weird or unlikeable wing to the generally “off” nature of the character. It really is no surprise that so many others take an automatic dislike of him. But Elgort, in every half-smile, desperate look and pitch-perfect shuffle, makes something more of Baby, an inherently relatable guy just caught up in events much too big for him.

The supporting cast are a somewhat mixed bag, victims perhaps more of some of the films only real flaws than poor performances. Spacey is largely channelling Frank Underwood – something he does a lot nowadays, unfortunately – but is quietly menacing as Doc, though he suffers from a late in the game direction change. Foxx is better, playing a holdup artist who reeks of genuine danger and ruthlessness with every manic syllable he utters. Hamm and Gonzalez play a suitably demented couple, though again they suffer from some late in the game narrative choices, where the lines between ally and enemy get blurred. More of an obvious weak point is James, whose character is generally quite weak and subordinate. Wright doesn’t have the best track record with female characters, who tend to be of the token variety in otherwise male-dominated stories in his filmography, and while James does her best, Debora is largely just a prize at the end of the race.

The principals make the overall product better than the sum of its parts certainly. Baby Driver is a sometimes slick, sometimes violent crime story, and part of the fun is getting this disparate personalities together in a room, in a diner, in a car, and seeing what happens when they bounce off of each other. The usually silent Baby is a suitable audience surrogate for such interactions, and Wright’s script does the rest, in every snarl, insult and jab, alongside the usual smooth criminal stuff. The multitude of potential obstacles for Baby’s quest for freedom does mean that the last act has a certain haphazardness to it, as the title of “film’s primary villain” bounces around between a few different candidates. In much the same way that The World’s End disintegrated into nonsense in its closing stages, Baby Driver does stutter as Wright confronts the end of his “life of crime” tale, unable to restrain himself from an elongated ending and epilogue that the film doesn’t really require, caught between the idealistic and the pragmatic.

But, in much the same way that George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road has the deficiencies in its narrative and character effectively negated with the strength of its other aspects, Baby Driver rises triumphantly above any of its apparent shortcomings. It’s a breath-taking and nerve-wracking tour de force, with a strong central performance, excellent visuals, thumping action scenes and a soundtrack that improves and enhances everything that it touches. It’s one of the most fun and inventive films of 2017, while having enough of a brain that you don’t feel as if you’re watching a Bay-esque parade of dunces. A wonderful film, and a great way to continue the summer. Highly recommended.


A fantastic movie.

(All images are copyright of Tri-Star Pictures).

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Ireland’s Wars: Gun-Runnings

Starting in 1913, the British government had brought in new legislation to clamp down on the private arms trade into Britain and Ireland, with a mind to curtail the possible arming of both the Ulster and the Irish Volunteers, that coming into the summer of 1914 were still mostly carrying only personal firearms, and in most cases, nothing at all beyond hurleys and sticks. But the leaders of both were of a mind to change this, with the Ulster Volunteers the first to launch an audacious scheme to import the arms they needed in order to become a truly viable threat to the idea of Home Rule.

The UVF’s operation was largely the work of a Frederick H. Crawford, a former Major in the British Army, and, somewhat ironically, the ancestor of a United Irishman. Crawford had been approached by the Ulster Unionist Council, a predecessor of the modern UUP, to be a middleman in the quest for arms. Crawford dutifully approached foreign arms manufacturers, most notably in Germany, and for a few years before 1914 was involved in plans to smuggle arms into the north, that all largely ended in failure, beset by naval patrols and RIC raids.

In 1914, using funds supplied by the Ulster Volunteers and UUC, Crawford secured a deal with an arms trader in Germany, and further secured the use of a boat, the SS Fanny, to transport them. The cargo consisted of nearly 25’000 rifles of various make, mostly Austrian and German, along with five million rounds of ammunition. In late March, the ship departed from Hamburg.

After narrowly avoiding Danish custom officials, wary of guns being sent to arm Icelandic nationalists, the Fanny made it to Irish shores, where Crawford, desperate to keep things under wraps, transferred the cargo to the SS Clyde Valley off the coast of Wexford, subsequently re-named the Mountjoy II in honour of the man who had broken the boom during the relief of Derry centuries before. At the same time, orders were given for the UVF to undergo a full mobilisation, nominally as a training exercise, with those based in the surrounds of Larne, County Antrim, to be in place at the port with vehicles in the early hours of the morning.

The planning that went into the operation was extensive: the coordination of vehicles, the setting up of guard-posts and check-points along the intended routes, the provision of car repair supplies if needed, the organisation of hiding spots, the tapping of official communications, Crawford and the leaders of the UVF left very little to chance. A decoy ship, the SS Balmerino, was even hired to steam into Belfast with a “suspicious” cargo, with the local police suitably tipped off.

Meanwhile, in Larne, the landing of the guns went about as smoothly as anybody could have suspected: the weapons and ammunition were unloaded, transported and hidden by a cadre of well-ordered and well-directed volunteers, who went about their mission with a purpose and clarity that drew comment from nearly all observers. The authorities, if they wanted to or not, were paralyzed with ignorance of what was really happening, and by the time that any of the local police were in a position to do something, the moment for such intervention had passed.

The incredible operation made headlines throughout the Empire, and caused a great deal of consternation among the Irish Volunteers. It was already clear that the British government wanted to institute a partition policy, and that the British military could not be counted upon to go toe-to-toe with the Ulster Volunteers if called upon to defend Home Rule by force. Now, the Ulster Volunteers were, or at least appeared to be, heavily armed, in a way that the Irish Volunteers simply weren’t, even if, in subsequent commentary, it has been suggested that a great deal of the Larne guns were antiquated models. Very quickly, members of the Irish Volunteer leadership made efforts to rectify this situation.

Initial attempts at gun-running had been attempted by the IV earlier that year, in response to the Curragh Mutiny, with no success. After the Lane gun-running, efforts to find arms intensified, spearheaded by Eoin McNeill, and including figures like Darrel Figgis, a future Free State parliamentarian, Michael O’Rahilly, better known to history as “The” O’Rahilly, Alice Stopford Green, an Irish historian, Sir Roger Casement, a famous government diplomat, humanitarian and anti-imperialist and Erskine Childers, a famous writer and Boer War veteran. Casement, Figgis and Childers met with arms dealing agents through O’Rahilly, and paid for guns with a loan from Green, amounting to 1’500 rifles.

The purchased guns were fairly antiquated, some of them as old as the 1870’s, but the IV purchased them nonetheless. Childers volunteered the use of his own pleasure yacht, the Asgard, to transport the guns. Braving storms and patrols from the British Navy, the Asgard, packed to the gills with guns and ammunition, crept its way into Howth, Dublin, on the morning of the 26th of July 1914.

With less guns to unload than at Larne, the process did not take that long, aided by members of the IRB and Fianna Eireann, the youth wing of Irish nationalism, using hand-carts and wheelbarrows. On this occasion the local police were warned in time, and a violent clash erupted in Clontarf between the DMP and the Volunteers. Shots may have been fired at this meeting, but no-one was killed, and the Volunteers were able to secret most of the guns away.

The drama of the day was not yet over, and unlike Larne, blood was going to be shed over the Howth gun-running. A unit of the British Army, the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, had been called out as part of the unsuccessful attempt to impede the Howth gun-running. Upon marching back to their barracks, the soldiers were the subject of taunting from a largely pro-nationalist crowd on Bachelors Walk. However it happened, a volley was fired into the crowd, possibly an unintentional reaction to a single misfire meant to serve as a warning. Three people were killed, and 38 others injured, causing widespread outrage in Ireland and abroad.


While the Howth gun-running largely paled in comparison to the scale of the Larne gun-running it was still a very significant moment in the history of Irish nationalism. Now, for the first time in decades, maybe a century if you want to be technical, a regular entity dedicated to the cause of Irish self-government was armed, albeit in a limited manner. Many of the guns brought in at Howth would later be used in 1916 and beyond, and in simple propaganda terms the effort was a huge moment, especially in combination with the shooting on Bachelors Walk. Indeed, as the Howth gun-running was carried out in broad daylight, in comparison to the night-time Larne operation, the Irish Volunteers’ plan has often been seen as predominantly a propaganda exercise, one that undoubtedly succeeded.


Both the Ulster and Irish Volunteers had now upped the ante in the quasi-conflict between the two, putting the gun into Irish politics decisively, and creating an even greater headache for the British government, which at the time of the Howth incident was dealing with a rapidly disintegrating continental crisis. Things were at a fever pitch, and we must also realise that, even while all of this was going on, internal squabbles were threatening to tear the overall cause of Home Rule apart. The IRB’s internal control of the Irish Volunteers was inevitably going to lead to conflict with more moderate elements, namely the Irish Parliamentary Party, and in the summer of 1914, John Redmond would make his move to gain control of the Volunteers.


To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.


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The Villain Checklist: Capability

We have established our villain, we have given him some character, now we need to start looking at what makes them loom large over the audience, in terms of the power or abilities they have, their willingness to use these things, and how they reflect in the eyes of those experiencing the story. First, we need to look at the very simple concept of capability:

Capability– The audience must believe that the adversary, through his/her own power or through the resources they control, poses a threat to the hero.

More dirt simple, almost obvious stuff here if I’m being honest, but still easily messed up. The antagonist character has to be capable of exerting influence over the hero and the story, capable of carrying out their goals, capable of being a threat. This goes hand-in-hand with credibility – the next entry – but for the moment I’m just going to focus on the possessing of this capability, the different kinds, and how important it is that we understand that the villain has it.

Capability can be mental, material or physical, but it has to be present. Whatever the villain wants, it’s no good if he/she isn’t capable of getting it, or capable of finding additional capability. The con-man has to be somewhat of a smooth-talker if they are going to cheat the old lady out of her savings. The villain trying to take over the world has to have access to lots of resources, maybe a doomsday weapon or two. And the planet-destroying galaxy-conqueror presumably has to have access to something that can destroy a planet.

Take that away from them and they are nothing; a con-man who stumbles over his words and can’t lie his/her way out of a paper bag isn’t an effective antagonist. A villain trying to take over the world without a penny to his/her name isn’t an effective antagonist. An overlord trying to destroy a planet by chucking a few missiles at it from orbit isn’t an effective antagonist.

Good portrayal of capability is simply done: we have to see, early, but not necessarily very early, what power or resources the villain controls, in a demonstrable fashion. It’s the same whether the capability is physical, material or mental. It doesn’t have to spelt out at all – seeing the evil overlord with legions of troops massing behind him is enough to let us know that he controls armies for example – but it just has to be done in such a fashion that it doesn’t come as a huge shock later, when the evil overlord suddenly sends his legions into battle.

Let’s look at some examples:

Vader’s capability is manifest right from the off. In the opening scene he’s clearly in command of vast resources, in the form of spaceships and soldiers, that attack and kill on his command. Physically, he’s very quickly lifting rebel soldiers up and throwing them around in his second scene. His intellectual capability comes to the fore later, in his expanded efforts to hunt down the Death Star plans. The point is made quickly, and largely wordlessly, that Vader has differing kinds of capability, and that this is more than enough to lead him to the fulfilment of his goals.



“Leave that to me…I’m a capable guy”


Maul too is capable in his own way, even if his flaws as an antagonist are manifest in other departments. His goal is to track down the Naboo Queen and defeat the Jedi guarding her, and he does the first part with nary a problem, and is clearly physically capable of going toe-to-toe with Jedi where it counts. So, there is clearly at least a little bit of mental and physical capability there. Materially is where Maul suffers, despite the fact that he is the right-hand man of Darth Sidious/Palpatine, as he sent after the Queen and the Jedi alone, for some reason, so there is only so much of a threat that he should be considered capable of being.



“At last I will prove my capability to the Jedi”


Bond villains tend to be a mix of physically, materially and mentally capable, insofar as they can face up to the hero in a fight, have the resources to back up their plans, and can generally outwit the hero too. Silva in Skyfall is, yet again, another good example of this in action. Long before we actually meet him, his intellect and material capability have been exemplified, in his attack on MI6 and general strong-pulling, and towards the latter half of the film his physical capability also becomes apparent as the bullets start flying.



“Mommy didn’t think I was very capable”.


On the other end of the scale, the likes of Dominic Greene succeed in some areas, but not in others. Greene obviously has material capability owing to his part in the criminal Quantum organisation, and in the goons he controls, and the film tries to showcase him as having a mental advantage, though that really only extends to outsmarting other bad guys, and not the hero himself. Physically, as previously mentioned, Greene falls down, lacking the kind of action-villain prowess that Bond films generally require, as becomes obvious by the time we get to the last act of Quantum of Solace.



“I am not capable of pulling this off”


On the comic book side of things, we can look as far, again, to The Dark Knight’s Joker, whose mental capability is obvious in his intricate plans and organised chaos, and who also manages to mass material capability through the course of the story. But The Dark Knight also goes one better in flipping Joker’s apparent lack of physical capability into a positive character trait, having the Joker acknowledge and be aware of the physical limitations, and be capable of working around them: “Did you really think I would risk losing the battle for Gotham’s soul in a fistfight with you?”. As such, the Joker’s lack of physical capability thus leads to an increased respect for his mental and material capability.



“Do I really look like a man who is capable?”


The last comic book film I re-watched, Marvel’s Ant-Man, has plenty of problems with Darren “Yellowjacket” Cross. Unlike the Joker, Cross’s lack of one kind of capability is not made up for in another department. Materially and even physically Cross is a threat, but it’s the intellectual side of things wherein the problem lies, as the film struggles to showcase him as having any kind of mental parity with the heroes. A damp squib of a revelation that Cross is onto the heroes’ heist plot all along comes way too late and somewhat out of left-field, and feels forced in comparison to the more subtle and patient attempt with the Joker.



“I was capable of being in this movie!”


We’ll look to animation for my last two examples. Gaston in Beauty And The Beast is all about the physical, and in contrast to my comic book examples this sort of works, as the whole point is that Gaston has no kind of mental capability beyond ignorant rage, and the character is defined by this. His physical capability, alongside his ability to whip crowds into a frenzy when it counts, is what he is all about in terms of threat. Beauty And The Beast doesn’t try and showcase Gaston as smart, not from the start, and not late-on in an attempt to make him seem like a more capable character. It trusts that physical is the way to go, and its right.



“I’m capable of eating a dangerous amount of eggs”.


Lastly, the perfect example of a villain whose capability makes him utterly wimpish: South Park’s Professor Chaos, a deliberately incapable character created for comedic purposes. The deranged side-personality of Butters Stotch, Professor Chaos boats about his plans to destroy the world and bring humanity to its knees, but he has neither the physical, material or mental capability of doing it, as demonstrated vividly when his efforts to flood the world amount to turning on his backyard tap and letting it run. Poor Butters, I mean Professor Chaos, lacks the intelligence to recognise his limitations, the physical power to do anything other than talk, and the material advantages needs to be a threat to the world. But, he still works, because the purpose of the character is to make you laugh.



“Bringer of destruction and incapability!”


So that’s capability, but as stated, this goes hand-in-hand with the focus of our next entry, namely credibility.

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