So much has been made, in the trades and the comic book fandom circles, about the dream of bringing Johnny Depp into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He would have made a perfect Tony Stark or Dr. Strange (finally name checked in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, so its on), how about Depp as the Sorcerer Supreme, and I suppose the minds of those in the know (especially a critic like myself who counts Marvel’s comic lore as part of my foundational underpinnings) wouldn’t be able to deny the obvious appeal of his casting in either role. Personally, I would have reeked out far more over the notion of a younger Depp as Michael Moorcock’s royal albino Elric of Melniboné, another master of sorcery and wielder of the soul-stealing sword Stormbringer, but in this day and age of the comic book adaptation as a studio tentpole, well, you would be hard-pressed to go wrong with casting Depp.
And while, as of yet, such a move has not been made within the official Marvel cinematic canon, it seems we might want to turn our attention to cinematographer Wally Pfister, long-time collaborator with Christopher Nolan, and the man at the helm of Transcendence, because he’s given us a taste of what could have been, and possibly what might still be awaiting us out there on the horizon.
You see the man there, Depp as Dr. Will Caster, one of the foremost experts on sentient technology, on the leading edge of a movement to self-aware artificial intelligence. Caster has one of those curiously beautiful minds, inspired by the challenge presented, but not at all driven by the resulting applications of his findings. He leaves that to his research and life partner Evelyn (Rebecca Hall). She’s the practical one, the equally brilliant thinker with an understanding that in order to have the resources to devote to such study, you’ve got to have funding (which means a willingness to schmooze and give the financial backers something they can sell). This isn’t quite a binary team though; there is a third member of the conceptual team, Max Waters (Paul Bettany), a scientist with the soul of a human ethicist, a willingness to question the impact of such technology on humanity.
But, this is really Depp’s show – he is, after all, the face out there on movie’s posters – and that immediate shot above captures him, in mid-presentation, where he sure looks like an alternative cinematic version of Tony Stark. He’s not the playboy showman that Robert Downey and the Marvel team has given us, but we know, with a little tweaking, he could have been that guy. You can almost hear him utter that game-chaning line from the end of the first Iron Man movie, “I am Iron Man,” sending shockwaves through the room. Here, he’s more subdued, but a brooding genius; his mind always working to solve the next unsolvable piece of the technological puzzle.
What’s truly fascinating about Transcendence is how closely it comes to mimicking the premise of Iron Man 3. An anti-technology terrorist group emerges (RIFT) that fears the far-reaching applications of artificial intelligence, attacks a number of the various projects that could be united to create the inevitable threat, and in particular, targets Caster, wounding him with a radiated bullet. The only hope for Will’s team to upload his consciousness into their would-be sentient machine’s hard drive, and before you know it, the transcendent Will copies and spread across the Internet. The accumulated knowledge leads to the astronomical development of nanotechnology able to transform the human body beyond its potential. Sounds a little like Extremis, right?
And the ethical questions lurking on the periphery are exactly like those explored in more detail in the comic book storyline from which this all sprang. Film though is a more demanding master, forcing even the most creative adaptors to excise much of the heart and soul of the argument away, replacing it with a visual shorthand of computer generated sequences aiming to dazzle popcorn munchers.
Yet, up there in the mix, Pfister offers up Hall, a role player in the Iron Man 3 movie, and with a tantalizing flourish, he teases us with the physical presence of Bettany who up to now has served as the voice of Tony Stark’s AI man-servant system Jarvis, but it has been confirmed that Bettany will emerge as the embodiment of the android known as Vision in the upcoming Avengers sequel Age of Ultron. Terribly fitting since, in Transcendence, Bettany’s Max is the conscience of the scientific trio, less burdened by love and loss.
While embracing melding of human drama and action set pieces, I longed for Transcendence to replace Iron Man 3, which is an opinion likely to run counter to the prevailing sentiment amongst Marvel movie enthusiasts. While far from perfect, Transcendence more effectively sets up the framework for nano tech as a more suitable (ready-made) union of man and machine – the next generation of the Super Soldier program that spawned Captain America. In addition, its handling of the real world terrorist element weaves better with the 1970s espionage angle the Russo Brothers fashioned for The Winter Soldier. If you’re looking for seamlessness between the Marvel titles, you could do far worse than Transcendence as Iron Man 3 with its spot-on lead-in to the next Avengers extravaganza.
As hokey and horrid as some of the blathering platitudes spouted in Transcendence can be, you have to admit that it is those very characteristics that propel some of the classic comic book narratives. Too bad, we’re left wondering what might have been, but hopefully the Marvel brain trust is paying attention to Pfister. He could fit right into the stable of talent they’ve assembled.
Stranger things have happened.