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Tag Archives: superheroes
Having posted every other bit of Tintin promotion, it seems remiss not to post the full trailer released the other day. I don’t really have anything to add to what I’ve said before: parts of the animation (particularly the comic “falls”) look a little off; computer animation is a strange choice; but the retro look of the world has a really nice, indefinable Tintin-ness to it.
The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008)
I was not one of those who flipped for Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins: as I said in a brief write-up at the time, I thought it was poorly shot and thematically muddled. But the more serious problem was just that it was too not fun. That, of course, was supposed to be the point: Nolan was taking us back to a dark version of the Batman character after the more comic bookish 80s and 90s movie version (although I can remember when Burton’s 1989 take was considered the return to a dark take on the character). However, while I applaud the concept of taking a genre project seriously, part of doing a serious superhero film is that you have to make the superhero side of the equation work also. In Batman Begins, Nolan and his co-screenwriter David S. Goyer dropped that ball through their determination to make Batman plausible as something other than a genre conceit. There was a feeling that they were ticking off explanations for things the audiences would have taken for granted: look – it kind of makes sense that he has all these gadgets, because the Wayne foundation has this big R&D branch! Look – here’s an explanation of how he can use his cape to fly! Look – here he is putting together his damn suit! We didn’t need to see that stuff, and by seeming simultaneously apologetic about Batman’s ridiculousness, while at the same time trying to make the most earnest Batman movie ever, I think Nolan came across as a little foolish. A Batman film can explore serious themes, sure, but at the end of the day it is still, as Jaime Weinman put it, about “a rich kid with no powers who decides to avenge his parents by fighting crime in a bat suit.” The best way to sell that kind of idea is to relax and have fun with it, and on that score I don’t think Batman Begins worked very well at all.
By now you have probably heard that Nolan’s sequel The Dark Knight is the ultimate descent into hell for Batman, and you are probably thinking that I would feel it suffered the same problem. It is after all, a very grim film indeed, in which Heath Ledger’s psychotic Joker wreaks widespread havoc and inflicts real and lasting harm to several major characters. Yet, oddly, despite all the carnage that unfolds, The Dark Knight is much more fun than its predecessor. And it’s the nifty trick of making such a dark film so enjoyable that makes it something really worthwhile.
I saw Iron Man the other day. I enjoyed it, but don’t have enough to say about it to warrant a full review. Suffice to say it reminded me a lot of the first Spider-man film; well-written, with good characters and performances and a healthy sense of conviction in the exercise by all involved, but at the same time lacking the really big show-stopping scenes that would have made it more memorable (the climax is really just two guys in metal suits punching each other.) It made me think of these comments by Paul Rameker in an article I’ve linked to before, over at David Bordwell’s page:
I have a theory. In the contemporary comic-book blockbuster, the sequels will always be better than the first entries. Spider-Man 2 is better than Spider-Man, X-Men 2 is better than X-Men, and I will bet that The Dark Knight will be better than Batman Begins, just as Batman Returns was better than Batman. The pattern seems to me to be that the first film in the series is relatively impersonal – the franchise must be established as a franchise, meaning that few boats will be rocked, and the director must prove that they can handle both a film on that scale, and can be trusted with the property with all the investment it represents.
But once they’ve done so, in the above cases where the first films enjoyed significant economic (and critical) success, the directors are given a bit more leeway, are allowed to drive the family car a little further and a little faster. In each case, the second film in the series by the same director has been significantly more idiosyncratic. Batman Returns has much more of Burton’s sense of humor and interest in the grotesque; X-Men 2 is a much more serious and ambitious film narratively and thematically, more obviously the product of a prestige filmmaker (Singer’s never been an auteur by any stretch, so that will have to do). Spider-Man seemed sort of anonymous in terms of style, but Spider-Man 2 had a much more extensive and playful use of classic Raimi techniques: short, fast zooms; canted angles; rapid camera movements; whimsical motivations for techniques, like the mechanical-tentacle POV shot (virtually a repeat of his flying-eyeball POV from Evil Dead 2).
I would second all that and also add that these days, the sequel will get more money spent on it than the original; this and the more straightforward stories allowed once the “origin” story is out of the way means the second film in a series can usually be more action-focused. (Yes, this is a good thing.) The old idea that sequels gradually fade away in terms of quality should be considered completely dead, at least as far as first sequels go; third films in series remain much dodgier propositions.
One of my happy discoveries of the last few months has been that David Bordwell has his own website (with longtime writing partner Kristin Thompson); Bordwell is one of the best film academics around, and his writing is always stimulating. (I also have his latest book The Way Hollywood Tells It on my shelf waiting to be read – only the fact that it arrived with Michael Barriers’ The Animated Man and J.W. Rinzler’s The Making of Star Wars has kept me from it).
One thing I enjoy about his writing is that he avoids the same complacent narratives you hear all the time. He knows his film history and film art better than anybody – he’s co-author of Film Art and Film History: An Introduction, the books from which just about everybody else learnt what they know – and he doesn’t just settle for the simple familiar story we always hear. So, for example he and some similarly minded colleagues have responded in this article here to the common refrain that sequels are the ultimate creative cop-out, that Hollywood just wants to sell us the same idea over and over again, blah blah blah. (Bordwell is too polite to put it quite this way, but for my own money the way the film press tediously recycles this basic premise every American summer is as good an example of autopilot as the summer sequel season itself).
Spider-man 3 (Sam Raimi, 2007)
There’s a really good scene at the end of Sam Raimi’s second Spider-man film that embodies everything I liked about that film and hoped for from the third one. Peter Parker, having battled with this belief that he can’t balance his life as Spider-man with his relationship with childhood sweetheart Mary Jane Watson, has just been told by Mary Jane that he can have it all. The happy ending of that film is that Mary Jane declares she will stand by his side, despite all the compromises this will involve. Just as they kiss, there’s a siren outside the window, which distracts Peter. “Go get ’em, tiger,” says Mary Jane, and we get an exultant shot of Spider-man whooping in joy as he jubilantly swings down the street. Yet Raimi doesn’t finish on that shot. Instead he cuts back to Mary Jane, watching him go, as doubt spreads across her face, and it’s on that note of ambiguity that Raimi rolls the end credits. It’s a little thing, but it’s a sign of the extra thought and attention to character that distinguishes the best genre movies. Those kind of small touches made Spider-man 2 one of the best genre films of recent years, and had me eager to see how Raimi would resolve his plot threads in third instalment. So it’s really disappointing that Spider-man 3 has turned out to be a bit of a mess.
Before the disappointing Spider-man 3 there is a trailer for the next Fantastic Four movie: my possibly unfair assumption is that it will suck, which might burst the recent superhero revival bubble somewhat (although there is still the next Batman film to come).
But it could be so much worse. For example, had you realised that in 1994, Roger Corman produced a version of The Fantastic Four? The rights to the series were contractually tied to the production of a movie by a certain date; if no movie was made, the producers’ option would lapse. So a movie was produced, on an absolutely rock-bottom budget, with no intention of ever releasing it (at least not through conventional channels). And of course, it now circulates as a bootleg.
Ain’t It Cool have a very cool video showing the process used to create a three-dimensional Marlon Brando for Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, using the old footage from Richard Donner’s 1978 movie. While you have to suspect there would have been simpler ways to achieve much the same effect, it’s still pretty nifty.
Brando was used in the original Superman as a sort-of ready made icon of gravitas and respectability (in a film that was, frankly, not that good, and therefore needed help in that regard). Singer obviously wants to harness that same aura.
I finally caught up with Batman Begins last weekend. I don’t plan to do a full review, for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s too late in its run to be worthwhile; secondly, the guys at Hoopla pretty much covered all the points I would make about it. I didn’t like it as much as they did: I thought as soon as it moved in to action film mode it was pretty poorly made, and that its take on vigilante justice was fairly confused (I actually think the deceptively light and frothy Spiderman films, particularly the second one, balanced substance and action with considerably more finesse). But they got it right about the political undertones of the film, and I certainly found the film much more interesting than its predecessors. This is the other reason I don’t want to write a full review, however: having written so much about the political undertones of Revenge of the Sith and War of the Worlds I didn’t really want to wade too deeply into those waters again.
The Incredibles (Brad Bird, 2004)
Brad Bird’s The Incredibles is the latest in the extraordinary winning streak of the Pixar animation studio, but it is also a film that challenges everything we thought we knew about Pixar films. In their first five features (Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, Monsters Inc, and Finding Nemo) a house style emerged based largely on the sensibilities of John Lasseter, director or co-director of three of those five films, and generally we know what to expect from the studio. Their features are unashamedly kids’ films, albeit ones rich enough to entertain all ages. They use non-human characters (toys, insects, monsters, fish) for their central cast. They centre on a pair of “buddy” heroes (Woody and Buzz, Sulley and Mike, Marlin and Dory), or a troupe of friends who all work together. The tone – warm, gently sentimental, and without cynicism – strongly recalls the best of the early Disney animated films. This consistency in approach surely derives from the use of in-house directorial talent, with the directors other than Lasseter (Lee Unkrich, Pete Doctor and Andrew Stanton) having learnt the ropes working alongside Lasseter.