Let me just tell you that, in my personal opinion, there was no reason for Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck to vacate their positions as the directors of the Captain Marvel franchise. Was Carol Danvers’ origin story the best-directed film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and did the directing duo do the best job bringing the character to life? No, probably not from a technical standpoint. But Captain Marvel is still one of my favorite films in the entire Infinity Saga, and Boden and Fleck are good directors: their recent work on Hulu/FX’s drama Mrs. America should prove that. But they’re out, and they will not be working on the Captain Marvel sequel (though, intriguingly, it was also reported that they may not be out of the MCU entirely, and could be working on other projects for the studio).
In their place, Marvel is supposedly looking for a woman to direct the sequel, which will probably pick up after the events of Avengers: Endgame, where Carol Danvers proved herself vital to the fight against the Mad Titan Thanos. Though she was underestimated, belittled and demeaned for a large part of her own solo film by an assortment of sexist villains – and by the angry, equally sexist internet trolls who put together an inconsequential boycott that didn’t stop the film from easily crossing the billion-dollar mark and becoming one of the most profitable films of 2019 – the heroine, played by Brie Larson, has proven to be fairly popular with fans, though many claim that the character still needs to find her footing in the MCU, with the help of a great director who truly “gets” her: much like how the Russo Brothers elevated Captain America to the same level as Iron Man, or how Taika Waititi reshaped the character of Thor with his zany, comedic touch. I would still argue that Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck could probably do it, but it definitely doesn’t hurt to occasionally bring in a new vision, shake up the status quo, and give something else a try. If people are honestly still on the fence about Captain Marvel (I don’t get it, but whatever), then maybe she just needs a new director.
And I’ve got to say, Michelle MacLaren is not a bad choice. If it’s indeed true that she is one of several women being eyed for the job, then I would love to see this happen: MacLaren has never tackled a major film before (well, actually, she did try twice, but we’ll get to that), but her resume on TV speaks for itself – Emmy-award winning executive producer and director of some of Breaking Bad‘s most iconic episodes, and director of four fantastic episodes of Game Of Thrones (including The Bear And The Maiden Fair), three episodes of The Walking Dead, two episodes of Better Call Saul, one of Westworld, and The Morning Show‘s pilot. In fact, she’s so ingrained in the TV scene that I have to wonder whether she might be directing a Disney+ series instead – perhaps even one that includes Captain Marvel in some capacity, such as Secret Invasion or Ms. Marvel. Then again, even though it might seem risky to hire a TV director for a blockbuster film, it’s worth pointing out that the Russo’s and Taika Waititi both had backgrounds in TV before moving to Marvel and directing some of the studio’s best entries. It’s just not indicative of anything.
This wouldn’t be MacLaren’s first experience with superheroes either, though it might prove to be a more pleasant one for her than her last encounter with the genre. MacLaren was originally attached to DC’s Wonder Woman before abruptly leaving the project over creative differences and being replaced by Patty Jenkins (who did an absolutely incredible job, of course). The reason for MacLaren’s exit was supposedly that she wanted to make a more epic, action-heavy origin film for the heroine, but her TV background gave studio executives worries that she might be biting off more than she could chew. After a long and arduous pre-production stage, MacLaren left the project. Something similar may have happened with another comic book adaptation she was supposed to direct: Cowboy Ninja Viking, an action film starring Chris Pratt and Priyanka Chopra, shut down production in August 2018 and has been indefinitely stalled ever since. It was rumored that script issues were the problem in that case, but no details have ever emerged that would confirm or deny those suspicions. At least in the first instance, it sounds like MacLaren’s ambitions were simply too big for what Warner Brothers had planned – which doesn’t sound too bad, if audiences are looking for Captain Marvel to get a serious overhaul (again I ask, why does she even need one?), but Disney might not agree with that assessment, and the last thing Marvel probably wants is another director suddenly walking out on them.
But we’ll see. There are many talented women who could direct Captain Marvel 2. Marvel President Kevin Feige has said that the MCU will try to be more committed to allowing individual directors the chance to break free from formula and run with their creativity, something that bodes well for the studio’s future – in the past, it was often said that Marvel films didn’t rely on the input of their respective directors so much as Kevin Feige’s overarching vision: which wasn’t a bad thing, since Feige’s vision allowed the studio to get to the place in which it finds itself today – a place where they can now feel free to hire more clever, unique directors: like Chloe Zhao, Cate Shortland, Sam Raimi, and Destin Daniel Cretton. MacLaren would be more than capable of holding her own even among their company.
How would you feel if MacLaren came onboard Captain Marvel 2? Do you think she could give the character the boost she (supposedly) needs? Share your own thoughts, theories and opinions in the comments below!
Well, before we get into the list, let me remind you all that Amazon’s series isn’t a straight-up adaptation of The Lord Of The Rings, the classic best-selling novel. Instead, it’s based on the tantalizing hints, references and scraps of unfinished stories about the Second Age of Middle-earth, a time period in the world’s history when Sauron, Dark Lord of Mordor, first rose to power with the help of the One Ring. That being said, Sauron isn’t the only thing you’ll find in this new adaptation that will be reminiscent of previous books, films and video games: characters like Galadriel, Elrond and Glorfindel will all presumably make appearances; locations like Rivendell, Mount Doom and Moria will be visited; events like the War of the Last Alliance and the forging of the Great Rings will be witnessed.
With that out of the way, let’s get to my list.
10: Sorrowful Elves. It’s important to remember that the Second Age ends about three-thousand years prior to Frodo Baggins’ quest at the very end of the Third Age. A lot of stuff happens in between those two points – including the events that cause the Elves to begin their slow decline into sorrow and grief. At the start of the Second Age, however, we should see the Elves in their heyday: a happy, peaceful people with a flourishing culture, working to rebuild after the traumas of the First Age. That means characters like Elrond, best known for being grim and dour, are going to be cheerful, bright and optimistic in the Amazon series; wise, experienced leaders like Galadriel will still be learning, growing, and making mistakes; aged, brooding wise men like Círdan…well, he’ll still be an aged, brooding wise man, but the rest of them will be different. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they should be singing “tra-la-la-la-lally,” but at the same time it doesn’t necessarily mean that they shouldn’t be, either.
9: A Reliance On CGI. I’m flexible on this issue: on the one hand, I think CGI is an essential element in the making of any fantasy world, and particularly Middle-earth, and I definitely wouldn’t discourage Amazon from using it in many of the same ways Peter Jackson did in his original trilogy (to build fantastical locations, digitally construct armies, certain creatures, etc); but on the other hand, I’d counsel them not to rely on special effects as much as Jackson did with The Hobbit films – practical effects, real location shoots, physical props and sets: for the most part, these can do the job just as well as green-screens and digital wizardry.
8: A Fully Evil Sauron. It would be almost ridiculously easy to depict Second Age Sauron as a purely evil character, but that’s not the Sauron I want to see. Tolkien wrote that, in the beginning, Sauron was a perfectionist, whose plans for Middle-earth were ambitious, but no more evil than those of any reformer’s. He eventually grew to be a tyrant, thinking that Elves and Men could only flourish if they relinquished their own free will and submitted to his rule. Sound familiar? Yeah, that’s because the Sauron of the Second Age has more in common with the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s trickster god Loki (one of the most popular villains there is) than with the flaming eye of Peter Jackson’s films. Sauron, in fact, tried to do good – but his fate had been decided long before, when he turned away from the teachings of Eru and began learning from the devilish Morgoth, whose evil teachings Sauron implemented in his own plans. Amazon could do some amazing things with that storyline.
7: Eru. Speaking of Eru, it’s about time I addressed him. In my last post, I said it would be a mistake to leave the Valar (Middle-earth’s pantheon of gods) out of the series, and I stand by that. But there’s one god I never want to see take a physical form in The Lord Of The Rings, and that’s Eru Ilúvatar, the One Above All. Eru is the highest, mightiest being in all of Tolkien’s legendarium – his song set all of history into motion; his plan is the divine plan, which cannot be undone by any design of Morgoth’s or Sauron’s; near the end of the Second Age, he intervenes one last time in the affairs of the world, reshaping the earth into a globe (it was flat previously), and sending the country of Númenor to the bottom of the sea. But though that means he’ll probably be brought up frequently in conversation, he shouldn’t ever be seen; at most, he should be a voice, but even that feels wrong. Eru is incomprehensible, on a plane of existence higher than any of our protagonists should be able to understand. Keep him offscreen. Leave the mystery intact.
6: Whitewashing. The fantasy genre already has a problem with diversity – series like Game Of Thrones employ one or two people of color in lead roles over the course of several seasons, and the few exceptions to the rule, such as The Witcher, get viciously attacked by an online community that resorts to the same tired excuses for why people of color are simply unthinkable in worlds filled with dragons, elves, orcs and wizards: it’s unrealistic because fantasy worlds are Euro-centric and Europe obviously never had any racial diversity; race-bending white characters is wrong because people of color need to write their own stories if they want to see themselves represented in mainstream media (but whitewashing characters of color is somehow okay?); Tolkien came from a different time period, and the series should reflect that by not having people of color, who clearly didn’t exist forty years ago. The cast of Lord Of The Rings currently includes a handful of people of color – but only fifteen actors have been cast so far, and I hope to see the number increase as more come onboard the project. I want to see Amazon take advantage of the amazing opportunity they have, and use their platform to hire talent of many different ethnicities – not to mention genders, sexual orientations and ages.
5: Gandalf. Gandalf the Grey, along with his partners Saruman and Radagast, were both sent to Middle-earth in the Third Age: to be the enemies of Sauron in that age, and that age alone. They didn’t witness any of the events of the Second Age, and they had never fought Sauron before the attack on Dol Guldur as depicted in The Hobbit; if they had, Gandalf would likely have been able to recognize the One Ring immediately, and Saruman might never have been deceived by Sauron’s lies. Having them arrive earlier in the timeline would be a very bad move – yet people continue to mistakenly assume that Gandalf is either going to be a major character, or a female lead, of the upcoming series. To avoid further confusion, I hope Amazon gives the series an official title soon that differentiates it from The Lord Of The Rings, which immediately brings to mind images of Gandalf and hobbits.
4: Hobbits. Allow me to clarify: hobbits did exist in the Second Age, even though they are only recorded in the Third Age and later. But these hobbits (a) dwelt only in Wilderland east of the Misty Mountains, and not in the Shire, and (b) had no impact on Middle-earth’s history at this time. Most importantly, there should be no interaction between Sauron and the hobbits: he, above all others, should never hear of them or even be aware that they exist. Why? Because the whole reason Frodo’s quest succeeds in The Lord Of The Rings is because Sauron (like Smaug before him) had never dealt with hobbits before. They were the unforeseen heroes of the Third Age, who “suddenly became, by no wish of their own, both important and renowned, and troubled the counsels of the Wise and Great.” So, Amazon: if you want to throw in some hobbits, put them in at the very end of the entire series, during the disaster of the Gladden Fields, when such an appearance might make sense. No sword-wielding hobbit heroics in the Second Age, please.
3: Game Of Thrones. Now, I’m not totally opposed to the series being more mature than the adaptations we’ve seen before: Tolkien’s world definitely isn’t grimdark or gritty, but the Second Age is a time of decadence, vice, violence and horrific evils (including, but not limited to, hundreds upon thousands of human sacrifices). So when I say I don’t want The Lord Of The Rings to be Game Of Thrones, I’m not necessarily saying it shouldn’t include violence (I refer you back to the human sacrifices), sexuality, and/or mature themes. I’m saying it should never revel in these things or use them for shock value, as Game Of Thrones was often accused of doing. So no, I don’t want to see violence against women used to subvert expectations; I don’t want to see nudity used to make exposition-heavy dialogue “more interesting” or whatever the excuse was; I don’t want to see fan-favorite characters get brutally murdered just to prove a cynical point. Tolkien’s world is one where hope survives even against immeasurable odds, where light endures in the darkest situations, where heroes are…for the most part…heroic. George R.R. Martin’s world is bleak, pessimistic, and, at least in the TV series, there is no end to its cycle of death, defeat and petty power struggles. That’s not bad: it’s just not Tolkien.
2: Incessant Callbacks. Often, a prequel to some successful film franchise (such as…oh I don’t know, The Hobbit) fails in part because it never tries to be its own thing: instead, with the help of callbacks, references and hints, it simply serves to remind viewers to go check out another, usually better, film or TV property that came before it. Using The Hobbit as an example: remember the really weird shout-out to Aragorn in The Battle Of The Five Armies that makes no sense, considering Aragorn was a ten year-old during the time of that film? Or how they refer to the recently drowned Master of Lake-town as being “half-way down the Anduin” when there’s no conceivable way he could ever have gotten there from the Lake of Esgaroth, as shown by their own maps? How about that bizarrely contrived scene where Legolas learns about Gimli sixty years before ever meeting him? These things serve no purpose in The Hobbit, except to remind us that, yes, we are still watching a prequel to The Lord Of The Rings, as hard as it is to believe. Amazon doesn’t need to make that mistake: focus on telling a good story first, then weave in some subtle foreshadowing or evocative parallels later (also, for the love of Eru, choose better callbacks: one reason why those in The Hobbit fail is because they’re calling back to the weirdest things – athelas? Peter Jackson’s carrot-eating cameo? Why were these things necessary?)
1: Strictly Movie Canon. We know that Amazon wants to maintain some level of continuity with the classic Peter Jackson trilogy, and at one point they even approached Jackson – either for his help as a consultant, or simply for his blessing. It makes sense: Jackson defined Middle-earth with his award-winning, critically-acclaimed, hugely successful three-film magnum opus. He and his team are widely viewed as experts when it comes to worldbuilding of any kind. But there’s no need for Amazon to feel beholden to his specific vision of Middle-earth: while his is certainly the most iconic, it wasn’t the first, not will it be the last. Amazon should feel free to branch out, to use the books more frequently as source material than the movie, and along the way to establish their own unique take on Tolkien’s world. Let’s not forget: Peter Jackson has broken his own canon on occasion – Bilbo’s encounter with Gollum in the prologue of The Fellowship Of The Ring is completely different to the same scene in An Unexpected Journey: different actor, different scenery, set design, clothing design, everything. Amazon should be able to do that too.
So what do you think of my list? Do you disagree with my picks (it’s worth remembering that I’m a pretty positive person, so it was hard for me to even think of ten things I didn’t want to see)? Share your own thoughts, theories and opinions in the comments below!
Considering that I went into The Letter For The King expecting to be bored out of my mind, I was actually quite pleasantly surprised with what I got: which, indeed, is mostly a blend of various tired fantasy tropes and scenes or even entire characters plucked straight from other, better, works of art, but also has just enough new – or mostly new – content to distance itself from the pack.
Based on an obscure Dutch fantasy novel from the 1960’s, The Letter For The King simply doesn’t have the name recognition that would enable it to jump into the midst of Netflix’s crowded schedule with a built-in fanbase. In English-speaking countries, there wasn’t even a proper translation of the novel until a few years ago. So it’s unsurprising that the six-part series has to look for inspiration elsewhere: almost the entire plot is comprised of original content, and almost all of that original content is…shall we say, lifted, from fantasy books, films and TV series as wide-ranging as The Lord Of The Rings, Game Of Thrones, The Witcher, The Chronicles Of Prydain and Starlight. The latter two, with their largely simplistic worlds, basic magic systems, and archetypal characters, are by far the most obvious source material – even with Lord Of The Rings trilogy production designer Ra Vincent working behind the scenes, The Letter For The King still looks and feels like a small-scale children’s fable (and that’s not a criticism of Prydain or Starlight, by the way: both are fabulous) that might have attracted more attention if it had been released fifteen years ago, when studios were trying desperately to replicate the success of The Lord Of The Rings by using as little money and effort as possible. These days, as the hunt for the next Game Of Thrones heats up, The Letter For The King, with its antiquated fairytale style and low stakes, has little chance of being an underdog champion like its protagonist, Tiuri (alternately pronounced “Tiuri” or “Churri” – I doubt it was intentional, but the constantly changing pronunciations of his name often reminded me of a similar problem in Ralph Bakshi’s cult classic TheLord Of The Rings, where the villain Saruman’s name was changed halfway through production to “Aruman”, leading to a perplexing continuity error).
Oftentimes, adaptations of fantasy and sci-fi literature fail because they try to excessively build their worlds rather than doing the same with their characters or plot: cramming detail and deep lore into every inch of your expansive world is certainly much more fun than patching up plot-holes or charting character arcs, but if done incorrectly, it can bog down a film or TV series within minutes, as the audience struggles to catch up with a constant flow of place names, history lessons and nonsensical exposition dumps. The Letter For The King somehow does the exact opposite and still runs into a problem: because it does the bare minimum to flesh out its world (for example, the world actually has no name: its simply referred to as “three kingdoms”), it ends up looking like any of a thousand generic fantasy worlds – a sprinkling of vague magic, Medieval European societies dotting a map, and an obligatory Chosen One prophecy.
But once it becomes apparent that this is a problem (about five minutes in, I think?), the show starts hurling things at you that give the impression of depth: specifically, actors from other fantasy franchises. David Wenham, who portrayed Faramir, the young, idealistic son of a stern and demanding father, in The Lord Of The Rings, has here been upgraded to playing the stern and demanding father of a young, idealistic son (and make no mistake: he does a fantastic job of it). Andy Serkis, whose revolutionary motion-capture performance as the creature Gollum earned him worldwide renown, here delights in a brief cameo as an actual human being: something of a mix between the Master of Lake-town from The Hobbit and Capricorn, the villain of Inkheart (who, coincidentally, was also portrayed by Serkis in the film adaptation of that novel). Serkis’ daughter Ruby Ashbourne Serkis also shares the screen with him, playing his character’s daughter Lavinia, and then goes on to become the female lead of the series – her acting career is off to a good start, judging by the strength of her performance here. And in a very smart move, Kim Bodnia plays the sword-fighting abbot of the monastery at the edge of the world: Bodnia will portray the Witcher Vesemir in The Witcher‘s second season, and this is a tantalizing first look at what he could do in that role – Witcher fans would be smart to check out his fighting and acting skills here, and simultaneously give The Letter To The King some much-needed views.
Because despite being derivative, the series actually does have quite a lot of strong elements: especially if you’re into the more romanticized, outdated style of fantasy that was popular throughout the middle of the 20th Century. It has charm, for one thing – the series is TV-PG and family-friendly: a welcome break from The Witcher‘s gothic horror and Game Of Thrones‘ vicious brutality. And the core cast of characters are all fairly well developed: Tiuri, played by Amir Wilson, isn’t exactly a memorable hero, but he’s also not quite as dull as Starlight‘s Tristan or Prydain‘s Taran (what’s with all the T names, may I ask?). His character also has interesting things to say regarding the racial dynamics in his world – none of which ever actually get said, but still exist in subtext. Thaddea Graham’s hardened rogue Iona evolves into an Arya Stark prodigy (her final scene in the series actually seems to direct imitate one of Arya’s memorable scenes with The Hound from Game Of Thrones, season 8). Jussipo, initially one of the most annoying characters in the series, quickly shows his true colors as a delightfully smarmy, wickedly sarcastic bard. And along with gender and racial diversity, there’s even some surprising LGBTQ+ representation among the main cast – which, after all the recent queer-baiting from other studios, deserves a round of applause for how direct and straightforward it is.
Any good fantasy needs a good villain – a Cersei Lannister, a Smaug, a wicked old witch. The Letter For The King has an up-and-down relationship with its villain, Gijs Blom’s raven-haired goth necromancer Viridian: first it depicts him as a cartoonishly callous sadist without any moral complexity; then it tries to turn the tables on our heroes and reveal Viridian’s noble purpose, which actually works until said noble purpose turns out to be thinly-veiled racism; then it underutilizes him in its own finale before turning him into an overpowered Morgoth knock-off.
Speaking of which, we have to talk about the series’ poor use of action. Action, in a fantasy series, is something of a given: even if its special effects wizardry, you need some sort of action. The Letter For The King, being almost exclusively the story of Tiuri intercepting an incriminating letter from Viridian and trying to deliver it to a neighboring nation’s king, relies heavily on horseback fight and chase scenes. Now, these are easy to do right, with the help of a good cinematographer: in The Lord Of The Rings, Arwen and Frodo’s flight to the fords of Bruinen is a thrilling, suspenseful sequence where horses interlace between trees in a graceful, dangerous dance while Howard Shore’s score wails hauntingly in the background. Unfortunately, the thousands of horse chases in this series never once come close to paralleling that one epic scene, no matter how many times they pan over beautiful landscapes: the music accompanying these scenes is unmemorable, while the cinematography is questionable – mounting a camera on a horse’s head probably seemed like a good idea to make one chase scene more realistic, but did no one stop to consider that it takes the viewer out of the world completely?
It’s the same situation with the special effects budget. Most of the CGI seems to have been used up on Viridian’s finale transformation, meaning that throughout the rest of the series there’s just a bunch of patchy fire and smoke effects and one truly horrific CGI castle wall in the city of Unauwen – which was made doubly inexcusable because of how many times the city was made out to look like Game Of Thrones‘ Winterfell from afar, despite the fact that the one is a mess of bad special effects and the other was an almost entirely practical set.
So is The Letter For The King a must-see? Not by any means. But while we’re all self-quarantining, I don’t know if we’ve got any better options right now. And it’s actually not that bad. Pretty bad? Yeah, just a little. Game Of Thrones season 8 bad? No. Not even close.
With production supposedly set to begin on Amazon Prime Studios’ The Lord Of The Rings prequel series in February, the streaming service has found a new lead to replace departing star Will Poulter: Game Of Thrones‘ Robert Aramayo will take over the coveted role.
There is no indication, as of yet, which role Poulter and now Aramayo are set to play, though the Tolkien fandom had largely arrived at the conclusion that Poulter, who bears a striking resemblance to actor Hugo Weaving, would be playing the younger version of Weaving’s Lord Of The Rings character, Elrond Half-Elven. Aramayo, on the other hand, is best known for his role as a young Ned Stark (also played by Sean Bean, who portrayed Boromir in The Fellowship Of The Ring) on the HBO fantasy drama Game Of Thrones, a character he played for just four episodes – I bring up that last point in an attempt to allay Tolkien purists’ fears that casting Thrones actors automatically indicates that the Lord Of The Rings prequel will be a knockoff of the former series, despite the fact that only two Thrones actors have thus far been cast in LOTR, and neither had any sort of substantial role on Thrones.
Aramayo’s casting is an exciting addition to the high-profile series, which recently cast Welsh actress Morfydd Clark as a young Galadriel in the epic fantasy, which will explore a period of time long before the events of The Lord Of The Rings, during the War of the Last Alliance, the heyday of the kingdom of Númenor, and the first downfall of Sauron. So far, Galadriel is the only named character to have been cast, though Aramayo’s character is being referred to by a codename, Beldor.
How do you feel about Aramayo joining the series? Share your thoughts, theories and opinions in the comments below!