Hey, it’s BlockBluster, our seasonal feature in which Benjamin Sutton and Henry Stewart find out during what sorts of movies regular people all over the country are forging their swords. This week they get barbaric on Marcus Nispel’s Conan the Barbarian.
Hey, Ben, of course Lionsgate would tap Marcus Nispel to direct this, right? The Platinum Dunes hack-for-hire has become the modern master of the schlockhouse reboot. Proving he could capably revive the Friday the 13th and Texas Chainsaw franchises, why not move him on to some other cheesy 80s property like Conan? This new movie has been in the works for almost a decade, did you know that? As part of a carefully rolled out rebranding of the Conan character, who dates back to Robert E. Howard’s Depression-era fantasy stories but “had grown plain weird,” as Brooks Barnes recently reported. The company that owned the rights withdrew all Conan merchandise from the market in 2002, and has been slowly reintroducing new stuff ever since: new comics, a strong-selling computer game, and now the film. This carefully controlled strategy has culminated in a movie tailor-made for boys, who’ll be thrilled into buying new things by the copious gore and bare breasts without being bored by things like character development or smart pacing. (Here’s the structure: violence-violence-violence-exposition-violence-violence-violence. Repeat for 110 minutes.) But what’s inoffensive for one demographic is exhausting, exasperating for another, eh? What’d you think of all that blood, Ben?
Actually, Henry, I kind of liked it. Not the movie, which was awful, but its shameless displays of blood, guts and golden model bodies. We often complain that very violent summer action movies try to downplay the diegetic effects of that violence, presumably in hopes of avoiding an R-rating, but not Conan—or Conan (Jason Momoa)—which opens with the ultimate Caesarean section performed in the middle of an already blood-soaked battlefield, and maintains that level of bloodlust throughout. Life was hard in ancient Cimmeria, especially for its working-class inhabitants. Lowly Northerners Conan and his father (Ron Perlman) live in a humble village with farms, a mill and a forge. Evil Khalar Zym (Avatar baddie Stephen Lang) and his queer-coded daughter Marique (Rose McGowan, looking like ex-fiancé Marilyn Manson) dwell in a fortified castle on a cliff, quintessential feudal lords in this steampunk-infused medieval epic. But class politics aren’t the only area in which this movie lags centuries behind, Henry. How does Conan treat the ladies?
Well, let’s put it this way, Ben—there are seven women credited as a “Topless Wench.” Ladies figure into this mythology mostly as accessories. One of adult Conan’s earliest battles in the movie is against slave traders: on the one hand, he’s a freedom fighter (what American boy doesn’t love freedom?); on the other, he’s liberating some half-naked slave girls who love 2 party!! (What American boy doesn’t love topless chicks who love to party?) Conan may be muscular and dumb, but in “The Hyborian Age” (a.k.a. a 12-year-old’s conception of our modern age), that’s what women find attractive: Conan’s love interest kisses him, which leads immediately to steamy sex as kissing often does, only when he admits to having no depth or self-awareness. (“I live. I love. I slay. I am content,” is the line Conan uses to get ladies into his Flintstones bed.) So, women are sexy, but they’re also a lot of fucking trouble, right? Quite a bit of the violence here is for the sake of protecting one woman, whose capacity to provoke war rivals Helen of Troy’s. And the bad guy’s entire motivation for his evil plan—reassembling an ancient magic mask and hunting down a woman of pure-blood (totally Nazi, that)—is to resurrect his dead wife. (His heretical quest for divinity is how you know he’s bad. Barbarians might be godless but they do believe in something—forging weapons!) Get over it, dude. Ron Perlman, right, who plays Conan’s father, his wife dies in the first scene, but you never see him destroying the entire civilized world about it, do you, Ben?
Well, Henry, obviously we could all stand to be a little more like Ron Perlman, that’s neither here nor there, really. What is there, and glaringly so, is Conan‘s intensely repressive attitude towards any sexuality other than the conventional
Edward-on-Bella Conan-on-Tamara type. This is mainly evident in the portrayal of the Marique character, whose capacity to smell women across great distances is repeatedly expressed as a type of arousal; her closeness to her father continually verges on the incestuous (they even get out of bed together in one fleeting shot!); and she later compliments Conan on how hard his sword feels, noting that Barbarian steel is said to be so sharp that getting cut by it creates a feeling of pleasure. Whoa, Henry, who is this BDSM-loving bisexual lady?! (Spoiler.) Quickly, impale her on something super-phallic! As if Marique’s monstrous sexuality weren’t sufficiently overt, near film’s end her father dons an evil mask that not only allows him to rule the world, but also makes his forehead look like a vagina. Minutes earlier, a bad guy’s lower half is gobbled up by a giant underwater vagina dentata. Predictably, conventional straight male sexuality—as epitomized by the hulking, sword-wielding meathead Conan—triumphs over monstrous femininity. I guess a film whose male lead is so intensely sexualized has to portray feminine sexuality as threatening and potentially world-ending, otherwise the kids in the audience might grow up healthy and sexy, and that would be as terrible as this movie.