Hollywood’s London in Contemporary Cinema

Dr Christopher Holliday

The city of London in Justice League (2017).


Ten minutes into DC’s ensemble superhero film Justice League (Zack Snyder, 2017), a terrorist organisation descends on a London bank in the shadow of St. Paul’s cathedral, and begins shooting their way up the stone staircases and into the bustling lobby. As they approach the building’s interior vaults and with their hostages cowering frightened in all corners, the terrorists are quickly surrounded by the Metropolitan police who – seemingly without superheroic protection since Superman’s death in the earlier Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Zack Snyder, 2016) – are apparently unconvincing as the first line of defence against such extremist activity. From this sequence inside the bank, Justice League cuts abruptly to elsewhere in the city – to the bronze Scales of Justice that sit atop the Central Criminal court (the Old Bailey) near Ludgate Hill in the City of London.

The camera then rotates dizzyingly around British sculptor F. W. Pomeroy’s statue of Lady Justice that adorns the highest point of the court building, a figure who famously wields a sword in her right hand and the scales in her left. The camera begins its descent around the sculpture, and as it does reveals Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) standing authoritatively – and impossibly – along Lady Justice’s right arm, surveying the city and its encroaching terrorist chaos. Behind her appears London’s iconic skyline replete with its new array of skyscrapers – 20 Fenchurch Street (the Walkie-Talkie), 122 Leadenhall Street (The Cheesegrater) and 30 St Mary Axe (The Gherkin) – all providing a suitable backdrop for Wonder Woman’s own empowered monumentality that itself parallels the bronze figurine’s symbolic function as emblematic of the UK’s judicial system.


My recent article “Contemporary Hollywood Terrorism and ‘London has fallen’ cinema, published in The London Journal, is something of a response to these kinds of provocative scenes – namely the reframing of London’s iconic architecture as spaces for certain forms of blockbuster activity. The image of Wonder Woman standing alongside Lady Justice in Justice League is a suggestive one, a moment that crystallises the playful alignment of London with an unexpected, though not unwelcome, invasive energy. James Russell makes a similar point in describing the action of another superhero feature filmed extensively in the capital, Marvel’s Thor: The Dark World (Alan Taylor, 2013). Russell argues that the very sight of Norse God Thor (Chris Hemsworth) riding the London underground tube network during rush hour operates reflexively, by posing the question of why (and how) “the film came to be made in Britain” (2017: 377).

It was clear that certain industrial forces had shifted to help reposition London as the new locus for Hollywood film production, with numerous features now filmed in ways that exploit the capital’s rich geography. Indeed, Justice League was not Diana’s only excursion into (or involvement with) London. Released in May 2017, the prequel Wonder Woman (Patty Jenkins, 2017) depicted the Amazonian warrior princess’ very first visit to the city, this time hitching a ride via boat with Captain Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) (Fig. 1) in an early scene. Waking as the vessel passes under Tower Bridge (where later in Justice League a black flag will hang in mourning to commemorate Superman’s passing), Diana looks up and around at her new environment. Taking in the space’s ornate CGI-assisted architecture that reimagines the city at the turn of the twentieth-century, Steve proclaims excitedly “Welcome to jolly old London”, to which Diana quickly retorts “It’s hideous”. “Yeah”, replies Steve “it’s not for everybody”.

Fig. 1 – Diana Prince/Wonder Woman awakens in monumental London.

Such lukewarm ambivalence felt by Diana towards her new surroundings is, however, not shared by Hollywood studios and filmmakers. The aim of my article for The London Journal was therefore to examine “the competing industrial and labour forces that have steadily impacted the resituating of London as a viable space for Hollywood filmmakers” (Holliday 2019: 13). Andy Dangerfield gives one reason for this upturn in production, noting that “The introduction of tax breaks for studios choosing to film in the UK has also helped, with Labour announcing a tax credit for film producers in 1997, and further incentives in 2006” (2013). The attraction of London as a filmmaking hub for the creative industries runs alongside the appeal of its industrial set-up. Writing in The Los Angeles Times back in November 2013, Rebecca Keegan argued that “Britain’s production scene is bustling, the byproduct of a decade’s worth of government policy promoting the industry and a robust infrastructure that grew around two of the most successful film franchises of all time, the Harry Potter and James Bond series.” The outcome of these industrial shifts is that numerous blockbuster films have found solace in London as a location for their bombastic action. Fig. 2 below provides a cross-section of Hollywood blockbusters released over the last 5 years, which highlight the spectacle of central London and its tourist centres as central to their geographical expanse (and, in terms of their framing of landmarks, in a remarkably similar fashion).

 Fast & Furious 6 (Justin Lin, 2013)

 Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (Kenneth Branagh, 2014)

 Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman, 2014)

 Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (Christopher McQuarrie, 2015)

 Jason Bourne (Paul Greengrass, 2016)

Criminal (Ariel Vromen, 2016)

The Hitman’s Bodyguard (Patrick Hughes, 2017)

Mission: Impossible – Fallout (Christopher McQuarrie, 2018)

Men in Black: International (F. Gary Gray, 2019)

Above: Images of London landmarks in contemporary Hollywood cinema

What my article seeks to argue, then, is that as a popular filming location (including its functional ability to both play itself, and to double for a variety of international locations), London’s growing centrality in US cinema has resulted in its more explosive and vivid portrayal, and a city that is more available to the codes and conventions of particular action-oriented genres than has hitherto been the case. Yet more than this, I wanted to reflect on the terrorist imaginary that has come to dominate the way that London was being presented in such contemporary cinema, with specific emphasis on its representation as a fallen, destructive and desolate cityspace. My article therefore coins the “London has fallen” cycle of films as a way of understanding the tone and shape of London’s growing Hollywood presence, which when taken together has crafted an image repertoire of the city indebted to the attacks that took place on the morning of 7th July 2005. Several films show London under threat from a foreign presence, whether this is the destruction of the Millennium Bridge by the Death Eaters in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (David Yates, 2009) or the devastation of Tower Bridge in Spider-Man: Far From Home (Jon Watts, 2019), two moments among many that I look more closely at in the article. The result is a repeating, recurring depiction of London’s fallen, crumbling state that bears more than a passing resemblance to the images of the city under terrorist attack that dominated media culture over a decade ago.

Fig. 3 – The spectacle of Diana Prince/Wonder Woman and London.

I argue, “London has fallen” films are thus emblematic of how popular Hollywood cinema has fully embraced the threat of global terrorism and its politically-motivated violence, presenting London as a terrorist target through the use of persuasive computer graphics and digital VFX to raze its iconic architecture to the ground. This is why Diana standing tall in Justice League, surveying the city from the safety of the Old Bailey (Fig. 3), becomes such an appropriate symbol of this contemporary cinematic trend. The recent resurgence of superhero cinema (as perhaps the genre of post-millennial US cinema) has shaped them into vital “redeemer” spaces in which “superheroes and saviors […] risk their lives for the sake of a city, a nation, or all of humankind” (Kord & Krimmer 2011: 87). As a result, “superhero films demonstrate effective and inappropriate responses to a crisis” (ibid.). It makes perfect sense, then, that given its recent terrorist history London would play host to and invite protective characters like Diana (and superhero/action cinema more broadly) with such increasing regularity.

The movement of London into specific blockbuster generic frameworks has permitted a cathartic ‘working through’ of the event of July 2005, with “London has fallen” cinema borrowing from its new superheroic inhabitants to becomes its own redeemer space in the post-7/7 period. These are films that exploit the possibilities of digital imagery ‘make sense’ of terrorist acts and images, perhaps providing spectators traumatised by the fallout from these tumultuous attack with much-needed critical distance. As Diana’s place overseeing the city in Justice League makes clear, then, Hollywood blockbusters have now become purposively ingrained into the geography of the city, firmly part of its imperial landscape and indistinguishable from its most enduring icons.


Bibliography

Holliday, Christopher. “Contemporary Hollywood Terrorism and ‘London has Fallen’ cinema,” The London Journal: A Review of Metropolitan Society Past and Present (special issue on: Terrorism in London): doi.org/10.1080/03058034.2019.1649515.

Keegan, Rebecca. “Britain is Hollywood’s home away from home,” Los Angeles Times (November 10, 2013), available here.

Kord, Susanne, and Elisabeth Krimmer. Contemporary Hollywood Masculinities: Gender, Genre, and Politics (London: Palgrave, 2011).

Russell, James. “Hollywood Blockbusters and UK Production Today”, in Ian Hunter, Laraine Porter and Justin Smith (eds.), The Routledge Companion to British Cinema History (New York: Routledge, 2017), 377-386.


Christopher Holliday teaches Film Studies and Liberal Arts at King’s College London specializing in Hollywood cinema, animation and contemporary digital media. He has published several book chapters and articles on digital technology and computer animation, including work in Animation Practice, Process & Production and animation: an interdisciplinary journal (where he is also Associate Editor). He is the author of The Computer-Animated Film: Industry, Style and Genre (Edinburgh University Press, 2018), and co-editor of Fantasy/Animation: Connections Between Media, Mediums and Genres (Routledge, 2018) that examines the historical, cultural and theoretical points of intersection between fantasy and animation. He is also the co-founder of fantasy-animation.org.

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This article is copyrighted ©  and belongs to the author. You can read the original London Journal piece here.