Monday, July 30, 2012

More on Batman

Spoilers for The Dark Knight Rises follow, though at this point I assume anyone who hasn't seen the movie probably doesn't care.

I wanted to take a moment to revisit a prediction I made several years ago after watching The Dark Knight: I suggested that the last act of the third movie would center around a fight between Batman and Superman. I knew it was a long shot, but I thought it actually made sense given the first two films' inspiration and their direction.

I got in several arguments about this theory. Most everyone thought I was crazy for thinking it was a possibility; a few people thought I was even crazier for wanting it to be true. After all, Nolan's movies were set in a realistic Gotham, one without aliens, magic, or superpowers. How would Superman fit into that world?

Needless to say, my prediction didn't come to pass. I wanted to address this head-on, because it's occurred to me recently that Nolan's last movie largely demonstrates the importance of Superman's existence in Batman's world. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that Dark Knight Rises was a $250 million example for why Batman simply does not work without Kal-El and his ilk.

The problem comes down to economics. The Dark Knight Rises focused on the subject intensely. In Nolan's defense, I think he had to: Bruce Wayne is the very definition of the 1%. His absurd wealth was inherited: he didn't even earn it. Batman's training, gadgets, and free time are all made possible because he was born a billionaire. Much of The Dark Knight Rises follows from this. Though his devotion to his city and his willingness to sacrifice make him a hero, Bruce Wayne is compromised by his background. The mistakes he makes in the film are those of the wealthy. He forgets his responsibility to those who are less fortunate, squirreled away in his mansion.

He is unworthy of being the Batman, a conclusion Bruce ultimately seems to reach. It's the logical conclusion, given where Bruce comes from and what he represents: how can a rich man be a hero of the people?

In essence, the concept of Batman collapses under its own contradictions. For Batman to be relevant he needs to be a hero of the people; he needs to be "one of us." But it would take a nearly unfathomable amount of money to make Batman: he can't be an ordinary human.

This is the conundrum Nolan ran into, and it drives the resolution of his trilogy. While his solution may appease a large number of movie-goers, many longtime Batman fans (myself included) are left profoundly disappointed. Ultimately, Nolan failed to make Batman a legend. Looking back at culmination of Bruce Wayne's time as Batman, he only spent about a year in the suit over the course of three movies. It hardly seems worth the six years he spent training or the eight he spent moping. All in all, he was just a rich guy dressed as a bat; nothing more.

I find that portrayal highly unfulfilling. But how do we reconcile the schism between the rich billionaire and the legendary hero? How can Bruce Wayne be anything but the aforementioned rich guy in a cape?

The answer is context. Batman was never meant to inhabit our world; in fact - and I mean this in every possible sense - the concept doesn't work in reality. Batman, as presented in Nolan's movies, can be seen as the pinnacle of what man can hope to achieve: the notion that such an accomplishment can only be achieved by the rich is deeply problematic.

But Batman doesn't exist in the real world: he exists in the DC Universe. And when he was created, it was in response to a simple editorial mandate: give us another Superman.

This is a key aspect of the character that's often overlooked by those unfamiliar with his history. He's a superhero, not a hero. He was always supposed to be "another Superman."

In this context, Bruce Wayne's wealth and physical perfection become less significant. What's important is that he's a human who makes himself into something more. In short, Batman is a self-made superhero. Sure, his money and physique were assets allowing him to accomplish this. But their value becomes far diminished when compared to the might of Superman.

As a cultural symbol, he's supposed to show us that regardless of where we start out, we can be anything. Pull Batman down to reality, and his money makes him seem superior. It gives him an unfair edge, because he's starting at the top. But in a world with aliens, magic rings, and amazons, he's only human. And as such, he's our representative among the gods.

Yes, our representative has all our most useful traits and advantages. He was born with money and connections, just like he was born with a heroic physique, Olympic potential, and a superior analytic mind. He's got the best of everything, but that's because he needs it to compete with beings who were born with much, much more.

Beside Superman, Batman is an underdog. But take Superman away - as Nolan did - and you're ultimately left with either a bully or an aristocrat.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Top 10 Most Dickish Things Batman does in Dark Knight Rises

Wait. STOP READING. Spoilers follow, and I mean MAJOR SPOILERS. If you haven't seen The Dark Knight Rises yet and you want to discover Batman being a complete and total asshole for yourself, don't read another word.

10. Mopes around his mansion for six years while his family's company and legacy dissolves because the Joker killed his girlfriend and he's depressed there are no more super-villains to fight.

9. More or less fires Alfred for trying to protect him.

8. Knocks the gun out of Catwoman's hands when two dozen mercenaries with machine guns are trying to murder her. I'm a big fan of Batman observing the "no killing" rule, but it really seems like he's risking her life over his obsession.

7. When Bane attacks the New York Gotham City Stock Exchange, Batman goes out to play with his new toys. He manages to both do an immense amount of property damage and distract the police long enough for Bane to escape, but that's about it.

6. Builds a NUCLEAR BOMB under Gotham, then allows it to fall into the wrong hands rather than destroying it when he had the chance.

5. Doesn't bother to check on any of those charities he's supposed to be funding with the profits he doesn't bother finding out no longer exist.

4. Hands the legacy of Batman over to someone who doesn't have the training to survive a week.

3. Contrary to his promise to Gordon at the end of Batman Begins, at the end of the trilogy, Scarecrow is still at large.

2. Bangs the daughter of his late mentor and kills her. Okay, yeah: there are a few dozen addendums I should be adding, but he basically just takes Talia out at the end. Whether it was necessary or not, he really didn't seem too bothered by it. Guess the "no killing" rule was more of a guideline.

1. Lying to the people who loved him, making them think he's dead, and letting them bury him and grieve FOR ABSOLUTELY NO REASON. This sequence was basically lifted from the end of Dark Knight Returns, when Bruce had to fake his death since the world knew he was Batman. But his identity's safe here. As far as I can tell, Batman lets Alfred - the man who raised him - bury him in tears BECAUSE HE THINKS IT'S FUNNY.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Movie Review: The Dark Knight Rises

If I tell you not to see The Dark Knight Rises, will you listen? If I tell you it's a bad movie, will you care? I assume not. I assume that, as a cultural touchstone and the follow-up to the most successful superhero movie of all time, you'll see it anyway. And you probably should. This is one of those movies you kind of need to have an opinion about: it's divisive. And I'm sure a lot of you will like it. There are things to like. It's fairly well shot, the action is pretty good, and Catwoman is really quite amazing. 

But it was nowhere near enough.

According to the internet, Dark Knight Rises was budgeted at around $250 million. Avengers, in contrast, was a relatively low-budget art house film at $220 million. Keep in mind that Disney still managed to squeeze out a 3D version at the lower price-point, as well as a Hulk. While I'm sure Warner Bros. will get their money's worth at the box office, I certainly felt ripped off.

There are many diverse and valid interpretations of Batman. This wasn't one of them. It's cribbed from some great versions of the character, but only superficially. There are elements of the character lifted from Kingdom Come, Dark Knight Returns, and Batman Beyond, but they're taken so far out of context as to be laughably stupid. For example, Bruce Wayne retiring and wasting away in his mansion is far more believable if he's 70 than 34. Also, Bruce is a total dick in this movie.  

As bad as Batman was, this Gotham is even worse. Rather than go through the trouble of creating a city with its own character and complexity, Nolan stole New York. Sure, there was a prison and a football stadium in the middle of Manhattan, but other than that, it was just New York City. As in, you can actually see the half-finished Freedom Tower. It's right there. Oh, and now they're on Williams Street: didn't even bother to digitally change the street sign. This is at least as much a New York movie as Ghostbusters.

I'm sure it's all intentional: Gotham was Chicago in the last movie; New York in this one. Gotham's every city (or something). It's a real city, with real problems, real villains. And the real villains in this movie are basically Occupy Wall Street protesters.

Regardless of the justification, it comes off as lazy. Actually, a lot of this movie does.

Like the other movies in the trilogy, the plot's lifted from a handful of famous Batman stories, stuck in a blender, then sewn back together. But this time it lacks nuance. Comic geeks will see the threads a mile away: Knightfall, Dark Knight Returns, and No Man's Land seem to make up the majority of the structure. Again, don't get excited: none of these stories were given the treatment they deserve, just faint echoes of elements sacrificing what made these stories worth telling.

To put it bluntly, this was to several of the greatest Batman stories ever told what X-Men 3 was to the Dark Phoenix Saga. This is by far a better movie, but there was a similar sense of sacrifice; by touching on these ideas, the filmmakers have made it less possible for them to actually ever be adapted faithfully.

Like I said earlier, there were some solid aspects, first and foremost Catwoman. But it should be noted that she doesn't actually belong here. She's superimposed on a story she doesn't fit in. Ironically, the best part of the movie actually makes the movie as whole worse by slowing it down and dragging it out.

Meanwhile, the plot is a mess. There are holes, non sequiturs, and even a key section I'm pretty sure was out of order. Things happen which make absolutely no sense. And, finally, the end may pull on your heartstrings if you don't think about it, but if you're paying attention, Batman just comes off as a total asshole.

I know not everyone is having the same reaction, but I've noticed some trends worth considering. The people who love this movie, by and large, aren't Batman fans: they're Nolan fans. If you've never read the stories this is taken from and you love Nolan's first two installments, this might satisfy you. But if you're a diehard fan, I think this is mostly just going to piss you off.

I mean, come on. At the very least, they could have gone with "Richard."

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Movie Review: The Amazing Spider-Man

Surprisingly, Amazing Spider-Man was pretty damn good. The appropriately named director, Marc Webb, came at the production from a dramatically different perspective than what we've seen from this franchise. Raimi's movies were fundamentally a blend of superheroics and camp, with some light horror thrown in for good measure. I'd argue that Webb actually drops all three components of Raimi's genre mash-up, including the superheroics. Instead, he's telling a much more grounded story, more sci-fi than fantasy and at lower power-levels than we've seen in a while.

It's a surprising twist, given that the trend seems to be moving in the opposite direction, as evidenced by this summer's spectacular Avengers. The more "realistic" comic book fare was starting to feel like a product of the previous decade. This Spider-Man feels like he'd fit right alongside Singer's first two X-Men movies. This version, for instance, would likely lose in a fight against Jackman's Wolverine - can anyone seriously claim the same is true of Maguire's character?

It's all the more surprising, because the one standout in the gritty realistic millennial comic book hero movies was Raimi's Spider-Man. He was the one superhero who seemed lifted from the page, absurdities and all. This version, while ostensibly the same character, is more subdued. He's a character with powers beyond human, but he's nowhere near the lightning-quick, unstoppable hero portrayed by Maguire.

Longtime readers of this site will likely assume I see that as a negative: it was, after all, the reason my reviews on Thor and the Nolan Batman movies have been a tad muted. This time's a little different, though: since we've already seen an authentic superhero version of Spider-Man on the big screen, I didn't feel cheated. Actually, by virtue of being different, Amazing Spider-Man felt worthwhile. If this had been a facsimile of Raimi's origin movie, it would have been a waste of everyone's time.

It didn't hurt that Webb pulled off the details. Comic fans will be thrilled to see Gwen Stacy portrayed flawlessly on the big screen, especially since neither of the love interests in Raimi's trilogy were really all that convincing. Likewise, contrary to a lot of early buzz, the Lizard was fairly well executed. He wasn't perfect, but he felt like a decent adaptation of the concept. I also really liked the supporting characters: Captain Stacy, Uncle Ben, and Aunt May all worked for me, and Flash was spot-on.

But the best aspect of the movie had to be Peter Parker. This version of the character is actually something of a departure from the comic. He's less traditionally "nerdy": more an outsider than a dork. This Peter caries a skateboard everywhere and comes off as something of a troublemaker. It's the sort of alteration that usually enrages geeks like myself, but it works so well I have to go with it. The character is well constructed and rounded, rather than a simple archetype.

There are several other twists to the "classic" origin, but most feel organic and refreshingly believable. You're with Peter as he gains his powers, has a falling out with his adoptive parents, and eventually embraces his new identity. There's far more story here than there ever was in Raimi's film.

The price, of course, comes off the other end. The hero of this movie is Peter Parker, not Spider-Man. And when the movie briefly shifts course, it's rarely to its benefit. You've likely seen enough of the trailers to realize that he spends a lot of the movie without his mask: what you may not realize is that this doesn't feel out of place. When he invariably lost it in the last act of all three Raimi movies, it felt forced. Here, it just makes sense.

Likewise, the fight scenes are generally underwhelming. Not bad; just less exciting than we're used to. While I don't think it's entirely good or bad, it's worth noting that the sequences where Peter's experimenting with his powers and discovering what he can do are far more engaging than his fights with the Lizard. And don't expect a grand payoff: the last fifteen minutes or so were probably the weakest in the movie.

As a whole, this is really good science-fiction flick with touches of drama and a fantastic love story. It's fun, intriguing, and surprisingly touching. The relationship between Peter and Gwen may be the best superhero romance we've seen since the first two Superman movies (though I'll entertain arguments on behalf of Xavier and Magneto in First Class).

Stacking it against the Raimi movies is tough. Obviously it's better than the third; that should go without saying. Other than that, it's a better Peter Parker movie but a far inferior Spider-Man flick. Personally, I prefer Raimi's, but that's a reflection of preferences, not quality. This is a fairly major revision of the character, but it comes together almost seamlessly.

Just don't go in expecting a superhero movie: this is something different.