Sunday, July 22, 2012

Falling and Rising

This post discusses the movie THE DARK KNIGHT RISES. Two caveats. First, there are mild SPOILERS in this post. Second, I am not going to discuss the shooting in Aurora, Colorado. The sooner this movie is disassociated from that horrific event, the better.

One of the reasons that Batman has lasted so long as a character is that he is one of those few characters amenable to numerous approaches to depicting him and his caped crusade. Were Batman always portrayed as he was in his earliest adventures -- a stony-faced figure in a stiff bat-shaped cape who faces off against pinstriped gangsters, occasionally with a pistol in hand, breaking necks with his boots, silent except when tossing off "G'nights" like a gentleman detective -- the series wouldn't have survived long. Instead, the Batman character is flexible enough to permit multiple versions of himself to exist -- the silly 1966 Adam West version; the stylish Dick Sprang Batman of the 1950's, living in a Gotham City made of cunningly-composed cartoony dark and light; Carmine Infantino's Batman, the blocky-but-athletic caped detective; Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams's illustrator-style fluid Batman; Steve Engelhart and Marshall Rogers's playful-but-serious Dark Detective; Frank Miller's aging, cranky, right-wing warrior; Tim Burton's stylized reality Batman; Bruce Timm's deco animated Batman; and the gritty Batman of the ARKHAM games, are all close enough to the source material that no one glimpsing them could mistake the lead character for anyone but Batman.

So the character is certainly appropriate for Christopher Nolan's trilogy of films, with THE DARK KNIGHT RISES the latest and final entry. Besides all featuring the unique directorial paintstrokes that mark all Nolan films, each entry in the trilogy shares the same formula. Each draws heavily from multiple storylines in the Batman comics, but with alterations that serve Nolan's themes better. In each, events drive Bruce Wayne to the depths of despair, sorrow, and rage. In each, he claws his way back to some kind of triumph. In each, he seeks to replace his lost father by depending on other father figures -- wisecracking butler and former secret agent Alfred; armorer and executive Lucius Fox; honest cop James Gordon (who generally acts, however, more like an older brother than a father); and, in the first movie, Ducard/Ra's al Ghul, who is both his "dark father" and the buddha he must overcome to progress on his journey. Each celebrates selflessness and sacrifice, which is depicted as the one force that can overcome any problem (although cool gadgets and martial arts skills help). Each is structured around the epigram Bruce's father tells him in the first movie: We fall so that we can get up again.

This movie, which draws on the storylines "Knightfall" and "No Man's Land" as well as some others I won't mention, begins with Wayne stewing in his own juices after the events of the previous movie, as well as other setbacks in his life -- leaving him a Howard Hughes-like hermit, his company almost bankrupt, and Gotham City almost crime-free -- although the reasons behind that last development are far from positive. Enter Bane, who is, as in the comics, a muscular tactical genius who spent his entire life in prison and who has built himself into a physical and mental match for Batman. (I did, however, like the depiction of Bane in the movie much more than the steroid-pumping masked wrestler of the comics.) Bane engineers a scheme that brings Batman out of retirement, and then destroys him. He brings about a purported revolution in Gotham, highly suggestive of the French and Russian revolutions (some scenes resemble DR. ZHIVAGO, and at one point Sidney Carton's speech from A TALE OF TWO CITIES is read out loud). In depicting these events, Nolan does not take sides; he attacks the excesses of all sides of the political spectrum. Bane's machinations ensnare not only Bruce but also jewel thief Selena Kyle (never called Catwoman, but dressed like Julie Newmar in the 1966 TV series), and John Blake, a heroic young police officer, both of whom are called upon to be the sorts of operatives Batman has often used in the comics. And once again, Bruce is called upon to do what the title of the movie says he must do.

All this is told with the sort of visual panache and slam-bang action we've come to expect from the Nolan Batman movies. The fight scenes may sometimes disappoint (Batman's initial physical battle with Bane looks less like two martial arts masters tangling, and more like two brawlers slugging it out); but they more often thrill. And Ann Hathaway is terrific as Selena, all catlike slithers and purring dialogue.

I hope that this movie, as the title puts it, rises above the events surrounding its opening, and takes its place as one of the best comic book adaptations we've seen in an era full of them.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Not Quite as Amazing; Not So Much Spider-Man

[Mild spoilers]

I saw THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN a couple of hours ago, and since then I've been trying to figure out why I did not enjoy it nearly as much as I enjoyed the first two Sam Raimi Spider-Man films.

I mean, it's not a bad film. And I did enjoy the third act -- you know, the one where Spider-Man starts really acting like Spider-Man. And there is some nice acting from Denis Leary as Captain Stacey (not looking anything like the crusty old Captain Stacey that John Romita drew, but still a three-dimensional character) and Emma Stone as Gwen Stacey (looking quite a bit like the John Romita Gwen, and far more interesting a character than her occasionally wan comics counterpart -- and hey, her miniskirt and thigh-high boots have come back into style!). And the movie was visually interesting --again, much more in the third act than the first two. Still, I felt an emotional distance from the film. I certainly did not feel the elation and joy that ran through me when I saw how Raimi had captured in his first movie so much that made Spider-Man a standout comic book character.

I could blame the weird casting of Sally Field as a particularly whiney Aunt May and Martin Sheen (who strongly reminded me of the character he played in WALL STREET) as Uncle Ben. I could blame the offputtingly inarticulate Peter Parker portrayed by Andrew Garfield. (The Peter of the comics was nerdy, but he was never inarticulate -- indeed, his mouth often got him into trouble.) I could blame the fact that Spider-Man does not appear to show up as Spider-Man until deep into the movie, whereas the first Raimi film had him appear in full fighting fettle fairly early in the movie.

But I think the biggest problem was that the director (who was essaying an action film for the first time) was fighting the paradigm. The first two Raimi Spider-Man movies, like the best of the Marvel films generally, understand that Marvel Comics at their best are a strange and entertaining cocktail of adventure, realism, satire, and cartoon. The Raimi movie truly looked like a Spider-Man comic (a good one) come to life. It looked something like our world, but it was not our world; it was a far more interesting one. Those movies did not edge over into total camp, but they walked a tightwire between real and cartoon. Here, however, the director seems to be taking every pain to make Spider-Man as realistic as possible. The visual palate he uses for most of the film would work equally well for a family drama or a romantic comedy.

The result, at least for me, is a film that sort of features Spider-Man; but is not quite a Spider-Man film. I hope people enjoy it, just as I hope it will lead kids to read the comics from whence it came. And it wasn't a waste of time to watch. It just wasn't as much fun as the Spider-Man I saw on the screen 10 years ago.