Adventureland - In this very pleasant surprise, Judd Apatow circle-ist Greg Mottola provides Apatow with a lesson in imbuing broad comedy with genuine emotion and pathos. To do this, Mottola relies on an interesting sense of nostalgia and an uncanny ability to find humanity in every situation.
The nostalgiac feel is interesting because although it is very chronologically precise, it still feels universal. My memories of 1987 have more to do with G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero and little league than summer jobs, back seats, and Husker Du, but the feel is deeper than just cosmetic. It creates a fertile milieu for connecting the audience with the awkward emotions and situations. The actors are uniformly good and the script - with few a exceptions - never feels cheap or contrived. The characters act stupidly, irrationally, and angrily when appropriate. The conclusion is optimistic and heartwarming, and anything but false.
At the risk of measuring this movie as much against my expectations as on its own merits, Adventureland is generally not as funny as the similarly themed Superbad, or even some of the other Apatowian features, but I'll happily trade a few extra belly laughs for something the actually resonates. 70.
Wolverine - After watching Wolverine, you can sort of pick through the wreckage and find the skeleton for a decent action movie. Unfortunately, it was overstuffed and undercooked in all the wrong places so that it ended up with no pace or rhythm. And it can't stop shooting itself in the foot. Against all odds, Logan's romance with Silverfox starts to feel authentic enough to serve the modest purposes of this narrative ... before it crashes spectacularly on the rocks of an "old Indian story." Gambit comes off pretty well ... and then you realize that he serves virtually no meaningful purpose in the story. The finale begins to stretch credulity even by the outlandish standards of the X-Men universe and so forth.
At is heart though, Wolverine himself just didn't do enough for me. Maybe this is to be expected with so many other mutants making cameos or easter egg appearances, but Logan himself feels drowned out, almost unimportant at times. I think it's summed up when he saysthe famous line to his girlfriend - "I'm the best there is at what I do, but what I do isn't very nice." In this movie ... not really. He has an ability that the villain needs, sure, but there really wasn't a single guy on that "special team" that you wouldn't bet on to take out the pre-adamantium Logan. 40.
Star Trek - Star Trek fails on two levels - on its own as standalone entertainment and as a cynical bit of brand exploitation. Both were probably fatal, but it is the latter that is the more philosophically interesting.
I would imagine that there is a continuum of views on the level of loyalty that creators owe to a "franchise" property when they set out to produce a new film or program based upon that property. On one end are the loyalists with their undying loyalty to "canon" and on the other those who believe that all that counts is the moment - if you make a great movie with a character called "Batman" who is gay, has nipples on his costume, and kills people with an AK-47, then so be it.
I fall somewhere in the middle. I believe that concept of an artistic property that has an existence beyond a particular, individual work is a valid one. Consequently, some level of respect for the essence of the property as it has been established across a variety of iterations is due from each new creator. I think the key is whether there is something indelible about the new work that would not work - or would not work nearly as well - without using the property in question.
Bringing this back to the new Star Trek then, it is valid to ask whether this was really a Star Trek movie or whether the creators simply slapped a familiar veneer on their story and venally traded on an established brand to make more money. I cannot see how it is anything but the latter. Although there are a myriad of touchstones (familiar production design, dialogue, sound effects, names, etc.), the soul of what distinguishes Star Trek from a random space opera is simply absent. The protagonists solve their quandaries not with wit, logic, and creativity, but with brute force, confident that the writers have stacked the deck in their favor. Pike tells Kirk something early in the move, to the effect of, "we need some people who will leap before they look." Kirk may be headstrong and impulsive, but he is not stupid - he would never take the Enterprise up against impossible odds without a plan better than hoping that he and Spock are better shots with a phaser than the Romulans. The most unfortunate adaptation may have been the casual disregard for the Vulcan philosophy - one of the enduring pillars of the Star Trek mythos. I'm all for a complex portrayal of Spock bridging his Human and Vulcan aspects, but here it's played for cheap laughs and plot contrivance.
But okay, so it's not really Star Trek, it's just a big budget action movie set in space. If it worked on that level, I would more willing to forgive its hijacking of the Star Trek legacy, but it fails just as much in that respect. The movie is riddled with bad screenwriting cliches - the technological milieu is extremely fluid so that the filmmakers can write themselves into and out of any problem that they feel like. This is a problem for the film because it robs it of tension and urgency. Kirk and Scotty are light years away from the final showdown? Hey, no problem - we'll just invent "transwarp beaming" and ... ta da! This infects all of the action - because Kirk is happy to plunge into mortal danger without considering the consequences, those consequences have little weight. The heroes just bull their way through. Even if this movie's compeers are Raiders of the Lost Ark and Die Hard rather than Star Trek, it fails because the heroes behave stupidly and get away with it.
The film's conflict should be compelling - the villain is responsible for unimaginable crimes against Kirk and Spock and yet, he's practically a cipher. His backstory is tossed off in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment and he is imbued with no personality at all. I almost felt sorry for Eric Bana - he's maybe the biggest star ever to do a Star Trek movie villain and he gets less to do than Christopher Lloyd's anonymous Klingon commander in Star Trek III.
What the movie does have going for it is incredible production - it looks and sounds gorgeous and there is something to be said for Star Trek finally getting the big budget summer treatment - it looks brilliant. The big set piece - the "space jump" was amazing stuff in particular (also, it was part of the only time when someone seemed to have a plan that realistically accounted for the situation presented; predictably it was Pike's plan, not Kirk's), but I also loved the conceptions of Vulcan and San Francisco. I enjoyed most of the supporting cast - Bruce Greenwood was great as Pike and Karl Urban's Bones was a worthy successor. In fact, most of the cast was fine or better, the exceptions being Pine and Quinto, both of whom lacked the gravitas needed to make their characters work (and yes, that was a serious problem). So it's not a complete loss and, assuming that those two actors can grow into their roles, I wouldn't be shocked if you can't make a fun Star Trek movie with this group, but I don't think it will be with these creators. 45.
To conclude, a few minor annoyances.
- Apparently in this universe, "captain" is not a rank, it's just something you call whoever happens to be sitting in the big black chair. When the CO leaves the ship, someone else becomes acting CO, not "captain."
- I realize that there was a passing reference to the need to draft the Academy cadets to man the 6-7 empty ships that happened to be sitting in space dock with no senior crew anywhere to man them, but was everyone on the ship a cadet? How does Kirk go from cadet to "first officer" on the flagship in a couple of minutes? He doesn't even have a commission!
- I know it's from 150 years in the future or whatever, but how does a "mining ship" have the weaponry to annihilate six capital ships in a couple of minutes? Isn't that like the Northwestern from Deadliest Catch going back to 1860 and destroying six steam-powered cruisers? Is that happening? Why does a mining ship have that kind of weaponry?
- How did Nero know when Spock would come out of the singularity? Or did he just wait there for 25 years?
You guys can stop with the PM's wondering why I haven't updated my blog with the last movies I've seen, because here they are.
Coraline - I was born without the unadulterated love for The Nightmare Before Christmas that you find in some, so I was only mildly curious about Henry Selick's newest. I came away with similar feelings this time - I wasn't blown away by it, but it was a nice trip. The movie opens in the real world, glossed with light sense of horror and disquiet that leaves both Coraline and the viewer open to the possibilities presented by the mirror world. As this state of affairs gradually reverses itself, the movie achieves a genuine sense of dread that, for the most part, overcomes the plot's devolution into something resembling the Legend of Zelda. The narrative is ably supplemented by another marvelous technical achievement from Selick, whose use of 3D is subtle - designed to draw the viewer into the world of the film rather than startle and dazzle. The result is the best 3D film since Captain Eo. This movie is a 65.
Watchmen - Zack Snyder's spectacularly bad adaptation of Watchmen plays like out like a teenager's idea of why he loved the comic. Every action sequence is elaborated with slow motion, martial artists and gratuitous, blood-curdling gore. Panel-after-panel is painstakingly recreated on celluloid and much of the dialogue is lifted wholesale, all as if the source material were sacrosanct. All of this is utterly superficial - what's missing is the comic's soul.
The Black Freighter sub-story was excised for time constraints and while this is fine on its face, there is nothing there to replace the crucial subtext it provided for the main narrative. The height of the film's crimes is its significant re-working of the heroes' post-apocalypse interaction. It is keen to give Nite Owl his balls back but it competely excises the conversation between Jon and Adrian - only the thematic centerpiece of the entire book. All of the film's moral complexity is stripped bare.
It's as if everyone knows that Watchmen is the greatest superhero comic of them all (and this seems to be the consensus) and so the filmmakers know they love it, but if you ask them why, they'll quote the dialogue and describe the art, and tell you what a badass Rorschach is but, if you press them, they can't explain why any of this makes Watchmen a great story. All of this would be tragic, except that Watchmen arrives less than a year after The Dark Knight gave us a superhero movie that deconstructs the genre with intelligence and complexity. It turns out that The Dark Knight is the cinematic progeny of Moore and Gibbons' work; Snyder's Watchmen feels more like an exercise in determining what the story would have felt like if published by Image in 1992. This movie is a 30.
I Love You, Man - This is a perfectly solid execution of the now well-worn Judd Apatow formula that manages to avoid the most trite and saccharine aspects of Apatow's style. No one really learns any important lessons or has to change the things about their lives that made most of the movie really funny. While it's not as ambitious as The 40-Year Old Virgin or Pineapple Express and it's certainly not as consistently hilarious as the former or Superbad, I'll take Paul Rudd in a lead role, plenty of quality laughs, and nothing cringe-inducing. This movie is a 65.
2009 Top 10
2. I Love You, Man
3. Paul Blart: Mall Cop
5. The Unborn
This year I'm going to talk about the movies I see as I see them (close to it) and I'll keep a running top ten. Your role is to be excited!
I'm still catching up on 2008's award bait, but I've already seen two of January's offerings that were too enticing to pass up.
The Unborn - Stuck in a small town with a free afternoon, it was this or Twilight and I waited an extra 30 minutes for The Unborn. The most interesting thing about the movie is the question it prompts - exactly how much mileage is David S. Goyer going to get out of Batman Begins/Dark Knight co-credits? Emphasis on "co."
The movie is built around a potentially promising horror conceit that Goyer undercuts through his inability to establish the rules under which the movie operates and his inability to write dialogue that sounds like it would ever be spoken by humans in conversation, even by the Abercrombie & Fitch models populating the main cast. The strength of central conceit is able to sweep all of this aside occasionally to create moments of dread, the atmosphere is dispelled each time - it's impossible to maintain tension when the stakes aren't clear to the audience. This movie is a 30.
Paul Blart: Mall Cop - Paul Blart is a pretty great comedy character dropped into a thoroughly mediocre comedy movie. As Blart, James achieves a terrific blend - pathetic but earnest, fat but desirous of more pie. This is the sort of balance that eludes, for instance, Will Ferrell, whose characters inexplicably transform from supernaturally boorish to caring and empathetic as soon as the script is ready to stop being funny and offer its trite resolution.
Unfortunately, Mall Cop is not nearly as funny as something like Anchorman, even if its main character's arc possesses a modicum of internal consistency. The plot and non-James performances are cheesy and obvious in a way that a sitcom like Family Matters might have been and are entirely unworthy of James's gifts for self-deprecation and physical comedy. The latter aspect is on especially fine display as James hurls himself about the set with reckless abandon; his brawl in a Victoria's Secret might be my favorite bit of physical comedy since Borat.
On the whole, the movie plays like a crass, lowbrow kids movie - which it is - but at least features a loveable schlub character capable of drawing consistent laughs. Worth a look on cable maybe for Blart himself. This movie is a 40.
2009 Top 10
1. Paul Blart: Mall Cop
2. The Unborn
I had to go to the dentist today and the assistant told me that I had "beautiful eyes." That was really nice; I was touched. I don't think anyone has ever told me that before that I wasn't sleeping with. I hope she meant it - you can't just go around saying stuff like that to people if you don't mean it.
This is probably the best thing to happen to me since some guy stopped me on the sidewalk back in May to tell me that I looked beautiful. He wasn't hitting on me or anything, it was a real manly compliment. So that's two pretty good ones on the year which makes it one of my better years in this category.
I forgot another movie that should have been in the last entry - 1997's Steel. I never saw it and it has a horrible reputation, so I'm sure we'll manage.
As we saw last time, the mid-1990s were a bad time for superhero movies. The dominant Batman franchise descended into camp and then further into almost malicious self-parody. Nothing else stepped up to fill the void - Superman was in a legendary bout of development hell with a variety of creators attached to a movie loosely based on the 1992 "Death of Superman" event. Spider-Man was tangled in a legal morass. There was a minor bright spot with the success of The Crow, but that couldn't make up for these failures to get the big properties to the screen. All of this began to change when Marvel formed Marvel Studios in an effort to bring focus to the development of their characters for film, a move that paid off almost immediately.
Blade (1998) - Coming just 14 months after Batman & Robin killed the previous era of superhero movies (and 12 after Spawn pissed on its grave), Blade was a fairly low-key beginning to the current era of superhero proliferation. Obviously, Blade is not one of the more prominent characters, so much so that I would imagine now that he is almost entirely thought of by the mainstream audience as a creature of his 1998-2004 trilogy, rather than as a comic book character.
The movie itself is not spectacular, but it works. The opening sequence is easily the most effective, with the palpable panic and the growing horror of the man in the nightclub before Blade makes his appearance, a moment of quiet, Eastwoodian badassery. The rest of the movie doesn't quite live up to this promise - we get some scenery-chewing from Stephen Dorff as Deacon Frost, a rather convoluted and outlandish (one of the weaknesses of these movies for me is that they aren't content with just having a secret society of vampires, they have to bring in all of this crap about blood gods and cosmic evil and whatnot) plot, and a finale riddled with bad CGI. Still, it adds up to a satisfying action movie with flashes of, if not brilliance, impressive competence.
Blade was well-received and was probably just the sort of pleasant surprise that Marvel Studios needed to get rolling. Having turned an unknown comic book character into a mild hit capable of spawning (as it turned out) two sequels, my guess is that this success helped pave their way with other studios (although the next Marvel release had been in development since 1996).
X-Men (2000) - The X-Men had been Marvel's cornerstone franchise for years, the most popular property in comics since at least the mid-1980s. For all of that, they didn't have the pop culture penetration of Superman and Batman or even fellow Marvelite Spider-Man, largely because the X-Men didn't reach real prominence in the comics until the late 1970s and consequently had missed out on the mass media ubiquity of those other characters.
Looking back, the movie is quite modest and unambitious. We start off with a team of three(!) X-Men - Cyclops, Storm, and, um, Jean (poor Jean never had a cool codename; I'm pretty sure they don't use Marvel Girl in the movies at all). Wolverine, destined to be the central character of the trilogy, makes four. Although the final battle at the Statue of Liberty is pretty cool, the movie is really bereft of a lot of effects-laden set pieces and what is there is very restrained. It's not cheap, it's just kind of small compared to its sequels and stuff like The Fantastic Four and Iron Man.
Lack of grandeur aside, this is a worthy film debut for the X-Men. The movie is grounded by the weighty presence of Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan. Although I think it's unfortunate that Wolverine became essentially the protagonist of the X-movies (it's a team book, after all), at least Jackman delivers in the role and his and Rogue's dual arcs of self-discovery are an ideal vehicle for bringing not only them but the audience as well. It's not spectacular, but X-Men did a perfectly good job of establishing a new world and the key characters within, giving one hope for a sequel that could expand on this accomplishment. This will be a recurring them.
Blade II (2001) - Guillermo del Toro takes over from Stephen Norrington for the second Blade outing, which one would think would be a positive since one is very familiar with Del Toro seven years on and Norrington committed career suicide with The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but I think I might prefer the simpler, more direct Blade. Del Toro does bring some wit and panache to the proceedings (especially in the person of Ron Perlman, who takes ownership of every scene he has), but the movie is filled with awful CGI and the super-vampire plot only exacerbates the problems I have with over-complicating the series' mythology. While this is generally a fine piece of entertainment and a worthy enough sequel, it's not a real step forward. Mostly, it exists to give us this.
Spider-Man (2002) - Finally, the last holy grail of superhero movies. In this genre, no matter how many magazines the X-Men sold in the 80s and early 90s, Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man remain the holy trinity. While Superman reached the big screen in 1978 and Batman followed in 1989, the wait for Spider-Man was seemingly interminable - right up there with the wait for the Star Wars prequels (although the parallels between the two more or less end there).
After over a decade of development hell, Sony acquired the rights in 1999 and got the ball rolling; Sam Raimi was attached by January 2000. While the success of X-Men thus didn't really set the stage for Spider-Man to be made, I do believe that it whet the audience's appetite and helped it shatter the opening weekend record.
The movie itself has a great deal in common with X-Men. Although it benefitted from a much greater budget, Spider-Man isn't, I don't believe, would anyone would want to call an ideal Spider-Man movie. It does a good job of introducing the character and realizing the most familiar origin story in comics, is satisfying in its own right, but mostly leaves the viewer wanting a little bit more. Rather than the "realistic" approach of X-Men, Spider-Man opts for a little more camp, a knowing wink to the simplicity of the original material. This allows for the appropriately breezy atmosphere that a Spider-Man movie should probably have, but also for some occasionally awkward dialogue and acting (especially from the younger cast members).
Maybe the highlight of the movie is Willem Dafoe, whose Norman Osborn turn deserves to be recognized as one of the best-performed villains in the genre. Unfortunately, it comes with one of the worst character designs of any superhero movie, bar none, not to be topped until Galactus five years later. Although he looks regrettably absurd every time he goes into action as the Green Goblin, he does provide a sturdy spine for the movie. The other standout performance is J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson, which has remained throughout the trilogy one of the most perfect realizations of a comic book character.
On the whole, Spider-Man is not a home run, despite the record-shattering box office. It's too burdened with working out the kinks of the adaptation and with developing the origin of its hero - even the most iconic origin story often feels too much like going through the paces. What it does, like X-Men before it, is successfully adapt the core concept to live action and create a platform to go forward with a second film fully devoted to a Spider-Man story, rather than the story of Spider-Man's birth.
Had a couple of solid dreams last night, neither of which I remember very well. In the first, haziest, of the dreams, my family and I were on a road trip/vacation in a mountainous area - very much a horror movie vibe. Visceral dread and fear without going into a full-fledged nightmare. Just wish I could remember it better.
The second dream saw me involved in a trial of some sort. I don't think it was criminal, but it was definitely a jury trial - one that saw me and, in the storyline of the dream, my former lover Gillian Anderson. I'm not sure I've ever dreamed about Gillian Anderson before. It was great though - the trial brought us closer together, rekindling our former passion. I woke up just as we had locked in a tight embrace. Oh, and the jurors were all characters from The Simpsons.
Before moving on to the rich vein of super heroics tapped in the last decade, a final look over the miscellaneous entries in the genre during the two decades prior - while the Superman and Batman franchises had the highest profile (and studio support), there were other attempts of varying levels of success and obscurity.
Speaking of Superman and Batman though, I've always thought that those two franchises had some striking parallels (and forgot to note them in the previous entries). Check it out:
- Both first entries were highly successful pop cultural phenomena.
- In the first movie, the actor playing the villain (Gene Hackman and Jack Nicholson) got top billing over the actor playing the hero (Christopher Reeve and Michael Keaton).
- Each first sequel carried on the tone and feel of the first movie before the second sequel marked a drastic change in same.
- The third movie in each series put a significantly greater emphasis on comedy and added a hot comedian of the moment (Richard Pryor in Superman III and Jim Carrey in Batman Forever) to the cast.
- At least retrospectively, the third films have a critical reputation far below that of their predecessors (III did a 23% t'meter on the heels of 93% and 87% returns for the first two; Forever has a 43% t'meter after 69% and 77% performances from the first two) and have largely been disowned by fans.
- Despite the reception, the third movies in each series were successful enough to justify a fourth movie which turned out even worse (11% for Quest for Peace and 12% for B&R) that were so bad that they did kill each franchise.
- Despite their success, the originator of each franchise, Richard Donner and Tim Burton, were shunted aside for various reasons and their successors (Richard Lester and Joel Schumacher) oversaw (and were largely responsible for) the crashing and burning of each series.
Turning then to the stuff that was overshadowed by those two series.
Supergirl (1984) - This is how much I care about you, blogreader(s). I rented this movie and watched it just for purposes of this entry. And that wasn't easy, I assure you. It's dreadfully boring and honestly kind of sad - poor Faye Dunaway vamping about as the two-bit magician who becomes an omegahedron-powered sorceress, Peter O'Toole as someone named Zaltar, and countless references to Superman (Supergirl/Linda Lee introduces herself to virtually everyone else as the cousin of Superman or Clark Kent, depending on the identity she's currently using). All of those make it feel like a real cash-in and the entire effort feels rushed (although not necessarily cheap). Helen Slater is pretty hot in it though.
The Punisher (1989) - Eleven years after Superman, Marvel finally gets a feature in the can (admittedly they were doing plenty of live action stuff for television throughout this period). Who is it? Spider-Man? The Hulk? The height-of-their-popularity X-Men? No, it's the Punisher! He is also, admittedly, also at the height of his popularity. He's also not even really a super hero, just some guy who kills people. Of course, I'm attributing far too much intent to Marvel, which had sold the film rights to Spider-Man and others but no one could get anything made even while Warners was raking in millions with Batman. I haven't actually seen this movie, which was only released theatrically in some overseas markets, but I thought it was worth a mention. It stars Dolph Lundgren.
Captain America (1990) - I'm not really doing direct-to-video stuff, which this is, but I thought it was worth a mention too. Check out this poster:
This would have been in your theater probably in late 1989, right on the heels of Batman. It is reminiscent of the iconic 1989 Batman poster (although not quite as stark and thus not nearly as effective) and probably suggested to fans that Marvel was about to get its feature film due. Instead, where Batman was a big budget tentpole event, Captain America was cheap and indifferently made. The Red Skull (actually a pretty good makeup job in the WW2-era scenes) gets plastic surgery after the war and looks like a normal guy for most of the picture! After this, it's pretty obvious why no one was getting Marvel movies made - there was something fundamentally wrong with the entire approach.
The Rocketeer (1991) - This one slipped my mind, in large part because I usually forget that it's based on a comic book. Like most of these, I haven't seen it in a very long time, but I would say that it's probably the best of the group - unassuming, whimsical, and quite fun. In keeping with the overall theme of this grab bag entry, it's pretty fun that The Rocketeer gets made in the wake of Batman, but Spider-Man doesn't.
The Crow (1994) - I'm not sure if the Crow counts as a super hero; my gut says no, but I can't come with a definition of super hero that would include, say, Batman, but would exclude the Crow. At any rate, this film was a reasonable success and became a bit of a cult classic. I haven't seen it in years so I'm not going to try and review it, but it's worth a mention - while Spider-Man remained in development hell, something as minor as the Crow was getting made and becaming a big enough to hit to spawn a mini-franchise of its own.
Spawn (1997) - When creating and launching Spawn in the early 1990s, Todd McFarlane spouted some ridiculous things, such as announcing his goal to be to make Spawn as well-known as Superman and Spider-Man. Of course, Superman and Spider-Man aren't characters who died, went to hell, were empowered by Satan to be the commander of his armies, and returned to Earth to bloodily butcher evildoers with his hellborn magic. And, in case you were curious, you didn't miss Spawn Returns, Spawn Forever, or Spawn & Twitch, so I don't think McFarlane has quite made it, although he is really quite rich anyway (which, given his stated goal for the character, is what he was really after anyway).
As for the movie itself, it is not good. The Spawn mythology is more outlandish than most super heroes, I suppose, but they're all pretty far out there, so I think that the inherent silliness of this movie is down not to the concept but to the screenwriters inability to ground the viewer in it. The really lousy CGI doesn't help - why doesn't the devil's mouth move? I haven't seen it since release, so I read up a bit and found out that Roger Ebert gave it 3 1/2 stars. This is from the period when Ebert would give anything with unusual or groundbreaking visuals a good review. I guess he'd never seen a crappy CGI hell in a movie before.
And that's about it for live action super hero movies through 1997. There are some comic strip movies (1990's Dick Tracy, 1996's The Phantom) and some original super hero movies (1990's Darkman) and at least one pulp magazine hero movie (1994's The Shadow), but none of those come within my scope here.
Dick Tracy (1990), The Shadow (1994), The Phantom (1996)
As always, assume spoilers.
Batman (1989) - As noted in our last exciting episode, aside from Supergirl, we had only the first four Superman movies as entries in this genre through its first eleven years. The goddamn Batman property had been in development hell since the late 1970s - roughly when Superman was actually in production - but not even the massive box office for that franchise's initial installments had been enough to fast track Batman.
Whatever the case, Batman was finally made and it has a special place in my moviegoing heart. Up to this point, my parents were sort of weird in that they assumed that the MPAA must know what it was doing, so I wasn't really allowed to see PG-13 movies. Even so, I read and bought everything about Batman that I could get my hands - the big feature in the paper on its opening weekend, the entire collector card series, and a companion magazine that revealed basically the entire plot (in fact, this magazine's references to some of the film's influences - like The Dark Knight Returns and The Killing Joke - were my first introductions to those works, so this movie was a milestone for my comic-reading self as well). By the time my parents finally relented and let me see the thing after everyone I knew had seen it (you know what - kind of mean of my parents), I knew pretty much the entire movie by heart. Still loved it. This movie ranks just a bit behind Star Wars as one of the foundation blocks of my geekdom.
After the zany comics of the 1950s and 60s culminated in the quintessentially campy Batman television show of 1966-68, it much cemented that comical view of the Batman character and mythos as the definitive representation for the mainstream, even though DC had made the editorial decision almost immediately after the show was cancelled to take Batman back to his 30-year old roots as a grim avenger beset by serious, deadly threats. That view of the character dominated the comics for nearly two decades, reaching its apogee in the milestone Dark Knight Returns in 1986. This sort of seeped into the mainstream, but it was the decision of the men behind this movie to look to O'Neill, Englehart, Miller, and Moore for inspiration that finally defined Batman as the darkest of the major super heroes in popular culture.
Definitive personal pop culture moment or not, I think the holds up quote well. Keaton's Batman/Bruce Wayne isn't so much the tortured obsessive that Frank Miller brought into the comics, but rather a man who has been lost and detatched for 20 years. His Batman is wry and distant; when he's out of costume, he seems almost distracted rather than foppish like most modern interpretations in the comics. It's a different take, but it works in that he's particularly comfortable with or interested in being Bruce Wayne. Nicholson's Joker has now been rendered obsolete by Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, but so have all Jokers and Nicholson's remains above average - a gleefully sadistic anarchist who avoids self-parody.
Beyond those two characters, the strength of the movie is setting and atmosphere. No other superhero movie milieu - and few movies of any genre - feels as otherworldly and timeless as Tim Burton's noirish, art deco Gotham City. It's a sharp contrast to Superman's Metropolis, which was so obviously late 1970s New York and gives the modern viewer an odd sense of disconnect. Batman might have worked in that kind of real world setting (The Dark Knight essentially followed the Superman blueprint, for instance), but it never would have had the same fantastic allure.
While the movie is largely true to the modern spirit of the mythos, there are some departures. This Batman kills - not cavalierly, but without much hesitation. Perhaps this isn't so much a departure as it is a harkening all the way back to 1939, but it's a long-dead element of Batman and one that more wisely eschewed (for psychological reasons as much as anything else). This Joker is given a definitive origin - never before done in the comics - and, more pointedly, is the culprit in the murder of Bruce's parents. I don't like that move because I think it personalizes Batman's mission in an unnecessary way, but in some respects the sequel addresses those concerns.
Batman Returns (1992) - A sequel that kept the dark, brooding tone of the first film and, if anything, grew even darker with its resurrected-from-the-dead-by-alley-cats Catwoman and its disgusting, oozing, dirty Penguin. I don't mind all of this doom-and-gloom though; Burton and his team carry it off well with another magnificent combination of set and costume design.
Returns is, nevertheless, a cut below its predecessor. While Pfeiffer's Catwoman is a tremendous realization, she's playing both sides against the other and can't alone replace the villainous energy and focus of the Joker. DeVito is energetic enough, but his Penguin matches Nicholson's Joker neither for menace and magnetism. In this he is done no favors by the complicating presence of Max Schreck. I don't really dislike the character, but as the true manipulator of events, he upstages both the Penguin and Catwoman as the ultimate villain of the film. It just doesn't seem right or fair to the far more elaborately realized Penguin, whose final struggle with Batman is thus rather anticlimactic.
With two major villains and a third quasi-villain, we've already hit upon one of the things that will bring this franchise down - the focus on the villains in both quality and quantity. Batman has less to do here than in the previous film and much of the screen time is taken up with Selina's development or Schreck's scheming. It's still a luscious piece of moviemaking and a satisfying follow-up because the villains are done well for the most part and Keaton is still strong enough to command attention when on screen, but it's ultimately too busy to match the focus of the Batman-Joker war that gave Batman its spine.
Batman Forever (1995) - Although successful, Returns was something of a disappointment, earning only about 65% of the original's box office (by comparison, Superman II did about 80% of its predecessor's business). Apparently blaming this on the further darkening of the tone and mood in Returns, Tim Burton was eased out of the franchise and replaced with Joel Schumacher and an edict to make the series more family-friendly. As a result, the franchise took a sharp turn back towards the 1960s, from its Tiger Beat-esque title on down.
Val Kilmer replaced Keaton as Batman and while he plays the character similarly, he seems almost bored where Keaton was detatched and emotionally distant. It's sort of a subtle difference, but it seeps into the entire film. While Batman is still more or less Batman, the new direction manifests itself in other ways. Gone is the gothic grandeur of the first two films, replaced by immense statuary and garish blasts of neon. Also present for the first time is that traditional antidote to darkness in the mythos, Robin, who joins Batman in significantly camping up the decor and attire.
As in Returns, we get two major Batman villains - Jim Carrey's Riddler and Tommy Lee Jones's Two-Face. Of course, this time, the movie doesn't have the benefit of doubling one of them into a love interest (that's Nicole Kidman's gratingly acted, written, and named "Dr. Chase Meridian), so it saves time by scrimping on Two-Face's development, reducing the most thematically complicated Batman villain into a low-rent Joker knockoff. Though he gets consequently more of the spotlight, Carrey's Riddler comes off little better. The core of the character is here, but the realization is tepid - this Riddler is silly, goofy, and pretty much completely mid-1990s Jim Carrey. Even Frank Gorshin's television work (which essentially re-invented the character) always managed a layer of menace underneath the mania.
The movie is weighed down by too many characters and developments. Batman gets a full arc exploring his motivations and romance with Dr. Chase Meridian (you have to say the whole thing for effect), Robin has to go from acrobat to junior avenger of the night, and the Riddler from anonymous lab tech to sci-fi criminal overlord of Gotham. It's all a bit much, and it's all dressed loudly and garishly. I think the movie's worst offense is that it has stopped taking itself seriously. It's one thing to make B-movies like this with a (Harrison) Fordian wink in the eye, but it's another to lack respect for the material, and I think that non-seriousness of purpose, that tendency to treat the entire enterprise as a toy commercial, rotted the entire movie from underneath.
Batman & Robin (1997) - Everything wrong with Batman Forever was multiplied by an order of magnitude in its sequel. Forever saw camp creep into and infect the somber vision established by Burton - Batman & Robin reduced the franchise to the level of the 1960s with a budget and cutting edge technology.
George Clooney replaces Kilmer - rather than bored, he seems almost embarrassed, and well he should be. Virtually every frame mocks the central conceit, from the very first scene on (what are the odds that Batman and Robin would come equipped with ice skates - ha!). The costumes and equipment are now hopelessly ridiculous.
This movie crams in not two new villains but three - Mr. Freeze, Poison Ivy, and Bane - as well as a new hero in Batgirl. At this point, Batman is almost a spectator in his own movie. Arnold Schwarzegnegger's Mr. Freeze is pretty much the embodiment of everything wrong with the movie. Freeze speaks in a series of terrible puns; no actor could have saved them, but Schwarzegnegger's accent and non-acting render them all the more absurd. Uma Thurman's Poison Ivy is pure ham and Bane is reduced from the ultra-dangerous anti-Batman to a brainless thug in a terrible rubber muscle suit.
It is clear from watching this movie that the filmmakers found the entire premise behind Batman to be ludicrous - as though they were embarrassed to make the film unless they planted their tongues firmly in their cheeks. While there is nothing inherently wrong with mocking or satirizing super heroes, it's foolish to see that as the only respectable path, and it's foolish on both an artistic and a financial level to choose to express that opinion in a movie about Batman - established less than a decade previously as the coolest, darkest of super heroes. Joel Schumacher's legacy is that he reduced Batman from the pop culture event of 1989 to a laughingstock that left the entire property radioactive just eight years later. The final judgment would be left to Marvel Studios, which just a year later would begin to resurrect the genre that Schumacher and his colleagues disdained by daring to treat the material and the audience with respect.
Note - Assume spoilers.
Continuing to bask in the afterglow of The Dark Knight, I've been feeding the super hero bug by re-watching a few old movies and filling in some of the gaps that I've missed. Sitting here in the golden age of superhero movies, I've been intrigued by the slow build of the sub-genre into something that has flooded theaters in the last five years instead of once in a blue moon as when I was a kid, in the patterns that have developed in the various series, and in the relationship between faithful adaptations and success.
So I'm just going to get all of this out of my system and try to trace the evolution and output of the genre from beginning to present. I should probably re-watch a lot more of them than I have, and maybe seek out a few minor entries that I missed, but it's not like this is a term paper. Also, to keep things streamlined, I'm only going to look at superheroes adapted from the comics, so no Hancock or Darkman.
We'll start off with the original Superman franchise, which is appropriate since it was first.
Superman (1978) - Richard Donner's Superman is the first real superhero feature movie, though it is actually, as best I can tell, technically the third superhero feature, following 1952's Superman and the Mole Men and 1966's Batman. The former (which I've not seen) is little better than a low-budget test run for the George Reeve TV series that debuted later in the year while Batman was essentially a feature-length episode of the Adam West TV show that hit theaters between the first and second seasons.
Donner's movie is therefore the first serious attempt to adapt a comic book superhero to the big screen with all of the power and resources that a major Hollywood studio could bring to bear. It also fortuitously had Donner, a director who saw past the silly trappings of the superhero genre (unlike the producers of the 1960s Batman show and the then-running Wonder Woman series) and set out to realize a rich, modern myth in the style that George Lucas helped to turn into a Hollywood cornerstone.
Superman is the first and quintessential superhero, and Superman is a truly seminal encapsulation of both the character and the genre. Like virtually every superhero movie that has come down the pipe since, this one begins with the character's origin and earliest adventure, and I don't know if anyone has matched it since then for the sheer romance and joy evoked by the simple conceit. The tagline was "you will believe a man can fly" and, corny though the special effects now seem, no other movie has so perfectly captured the sheer wonder of that and similar ideas. This seminal interpretation of the super hero is bolstered and reinforced by John Williams's score, the greatest ever conceived for a super hero movie. I can't watch the opening credits to one of these movies without getting gooseflesh, and seeing it revived for 2006's Superman Returns was one of the best things to happen in a theater in a while.
The focus on Superman's exceptional nature is emphasized by the setting of the movie. Although termed Metropolis, it is very much late 1970s New York - the real world. Even Lex Luthor barely qualifies as a supervillain in this incarnation - he's a genius and his grand scheme is outlandish, but he never seems of another world like the hero. We're left with Superman as the only thing out of place in the otherwise familiar milieu and it somehow results in a truly pure distillation of the superhero genre. I think that the movie's finest moment comes as Luthor has lured Superman into his underground lair, chained him with kryptonite and thrown him in a pool to drown. Luthor's assistant Mrs. Tessmacher is left behind and Superman, having seen her reaction to Luthor's abominable plan, pleads with her not to help him, but to "help me to save them" (meaning those due to die in Luthor's nuclear blasts). It's a simple moment, but delivered with such earnest desperation by Reeve that it manages to encapsulate the selfless altruism that has defined Superman as he's defined the genre.
Even if you look past the dated effects (which pale next to contemporary movies like Star Wars), it's not all sunshine and roses. Lex Luthor is too often played for laughs - even if he's playing straight man to Tessmacher or Otis, his scenes are the movie's primary source of comic relief, and that's a difficult pill to swallow. Luthor and his plan are the gravest threat faced by Superman in the movie, and the relentless comedy of Luthor's scenes (abated only when he leaves Superman to die, but by then it's a bit too late) sucks a lot of the tension out of them. Worse is the resolution to the narrative, in which Superman saves Lois by reversing time to "undo" her death. That's a copout that implicitly and retroactively robs the movie of its tension. Despite these problems, it's mostly a rousing start to the franchise and a fine introduction for the genre.
Superman II (1980) - Probably as famous for its behind-the-scenes controveries as anything else, but as a kid, I preferred this to the first movie largely on the strength of the battle with Zod and his henchpersons (Superman fighting people > Superman not fighting people, I thought at the time). Even now, I think it stands as a worthy sequel or, rather, companion to the 1978 movie as it plays out the Superman-Lois romance to a logical conclusion and wraps up Superman's assumption of the destiny set for him by his father by delivering the people of Earth from his father's enemies, even if the whole thing feels a bit more disjointed than I ever noticed before.
The lack of cohesion is of course the product of the aforementioned behind-the-scenes fiasco. Donner filmed about 80% of the movie simultaneously with the original production but, even after that success, had a falling out with the producers and was replaced by hack Richard Lester, who had none of Donner's earnest conviction about the material and was willing to move towards camp. He refilmed some scenes, enough to get the director credit, and as a result the movie doesn't always feel right.
Warners later allowed the Donner footage to be recut into a practically new movie, released on video in 2006 as the Richard Donner Cut. If you've seen Superman II but not that cut, it's worth a look. It's a tighter film that really does feel like the second half of one large Superman movie. Unfortunately, the RDC breaks out the time reversal device again and literally undoes the entire movie. So, I'd say that the Lester version might be superior for that alone, but if you just stop your DVD player after Lois says "up, up, and away," then you're left with a pretty great re-imagining of Superman II that ties everything together quite nicely.
Superman III (1983) - With Donner out of the way, the series take a sharp turn into camp. Out are Lex Luthor and (for all intents and purposes) Lois, in is Lana Lang (actually one of the few pleasant things in the movie) and a high school reunion in Smallville. Oh, and Richard Pryor as a computer programmer. And Robert Vaughn as a low-rent Luthor. The movie honestly plays like a sitcom. A hilariously technophobic sitcom in which computers do pretty much anything that Robert Vaughn thinks to tell Richard Pryor to ask them to do (seriously - he just types in what he wants on those old-timey computers with the green DOS type). Oh, and Superman gets drunk. And then has what may or may not be a metaphorical fight with himself (I guess you'd have to ask the owner of the scrap yard if his equipment was actually damaged in the proceedings).
This is just an inexplicably bad drop-off from the first two movies. Not only does the series lose almost all of its non-Superman/Clark touchstones, but it completely alters the tone of the series. It also helped put the kibosh on the planned Eddie Murphy Star Trek movie. I'm not sure if that's good or bad.
Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987) - Superman III was a critical disaster and, although it made some money, it left a bad taste in everyone's mouth and it took some doing to get a fourth movie rolling. They brought back Luthor and Lois, but the downward momentum was inexorable. The budget was slashed by the struggling studio and the already tepid script just collapsed on itself. I did rewatch Superman III for this (actually only because the store didn't have the Donner cut of Superman II) but I don't have much interest in trying to revisit this disaster.
Superman IV brings this franchise to a close with a pathetic whimper. The unusual thing about it, to me, has always been that the 1978-87 decade didn't see more super hero movies. Aside from 1984's quasi-spinoff Supergirl (not screened by your blogger), there were no other super hero movies made during the period, bar a couple of cheesy Captain America telefilms in the late 1970s and the Hulk series, which spawned a few telefilms in the 1980s. Compared to the onslaught that we've experienced in the last decade, it's a rather comic (ha) failure to capitalize on what could have been a trend in the wake of the massive success of Superman and Superman II. At any rate, we'd really have to wait until 1989 for the next super hero movie, though it was a doozy.
The two people who read my last blog probably want to talk about Batman some more. Since I've been twitching with anticipation for Batman 3 ever since 2:45 am on July 18 and after the OT thread about it, I thought I'd go through the pantheon of Batman foes looking for some new villain fodder.
David Goyer has said that they don't want to use villains who were used in previous movies. That explains Begins, which used Ra's al Ghul and the Scarecrow, the two most prominent Batman villains who didn't make it into the 1989-97 series, but not TDK, because the Joker and Two-Face obviously did. So I'm not sure how much stock to put in that comment. If TDK was just making an exception for the two most important Batvillains, then this would take the Penguin, Catwoman, the Riddler, Mr. Freeze, and Poison Ivy out of the running (I doubt it would apply to Bane, who was barely a presence in Batman & Robin). Those are probably the five most prominent Batman villains that Nolan hasn't used, so that could really blow things wide open, though I think it would a policy worth re-considering.
The Penguin - Nolan has said he doesn't think the Penguin works within the vision they've established for these movies, and maybe he doesn't in his Golden/Silver Age incarnation with colorful umbrellas shooting bullets, poison gas, and turning into helicopters. The comics of the last few years have turned him into a shady businessman who is sometimes an underworld boss and sometimes just dabbling in crime. I would think there's room for a character like that in a Nolan Batman movie, but probably not the main heavy - he's not enough of a Joker-like freak.
Catwoman - Of the five villains who showed up in 1989-97 and haven't in Nolan's series, Catwoman is maybe the only one was done exceedingly well, in Batman Returns. That might be an obstacle to including her under Goyer's theory, but in her favor is the fact that she would fill two vacant roles - love interest and the spot occupied by Harvey in between hero (Batman) and villain (Joker last time, Two-Face or someone new this time). Also, Batman's femme fatales have always had far more staying power than Bruce Wayne's respectable girlfriends (Julie Madison, Silver St. Cloud, Vicki Vale, etc.). I liked Pfeiffer's turn, but I wouldn't mind seeing a more hard-bitten, rugged take on Catwoman reminiscent of Miller's Year One. She also features prominently in The Long Halloween, which provided the germ of several of TDK's ideas.
The Riddler - I've always had a problem with the Riddler, he's never menacing enough. I think Frank Gorshin's take is probably better than Jim Carrey's, but they're both too playful for the Nolan-Bale world. As I said in the OT thread, if they upped the ante on the Riddler and made his puzzles deadly and murderous, a serial killer like Seven's John Doe, then you'd have something: a guy afflicted with self-doubt, obsessed with proving he's smarter than Batman and killing everyone he can to do it. I think that would be a hell of a main villain and could carry a movie opposite Batman, especially given the recognition of the name. This has my vote for next main villain.
Mr. Freeze - Mr. Freeze's freeze gun is probably a step too far for Nolan's "realistic" vision for the movies. There are sci-fi elements to the movies, and you could probably make Freeze's cryogenic condition work, but not the freeze. And without that, I'm not sure how much you're left with. Mr. Freeze is a character that benefited incredibly from Batman: The Animated Series, going from a run-of-the-mill villain to one with real depth and motivation. I'm just not sure I see him as much of a threat to Batman and Gotham without the over-the-top freezing devices and so forth. I think Freeze is probably best left in TAS, where he was in good hands.
Poison Ivy - They could make her work mechanically - dropping the manipulation of plantlife in favor of an environmental terrorist with a penchant for poison. That would make her fit in the milieu, but I'm not sure how much of a movie it would be. It just doesn't feel big and dangerous enough. I could see her in a smaller role, such as in The Long Halloween where Carmine Falcone hired her to chemically seduce Bruce Wayne, but not as a major villain in one of these movies.
The Mad Hatter - Arguably the most historically prominent Batman villain who hasn't yet managed a movie appearance. The Hatter's gimmick is fine - he relies on mind control and that could work in these movies much as the Scarecrow's toxins did, but the Alice in Wonderland theme would have to go, and probably the name as well. At that point, you're left with a guy named Jervis Tetch, which is a great name, but doesn't really draw you in like the Joker or the Riddler would for a major movie villain. I could see them using Tetch as a lackey for a mob boss or a fellow villain, as with the Poison Ivy suggestion, but not necessarily as the main villain unless they completely revamped his look and name - at which point he's not even really the Mad Hatter.
Talia - In the comics, Ra's al Ghul's daughter and, along with Catwoman, the most frequent contender for Batman's heart. Not only could she, like Catwoman, fill the love interest void, but she already has a perfectly good reason to be in the movie - Batman's battle with her father in Begins. Her presence, for good, bad, or in-between, would help bring the narrative of a trilogy (if that's where it ends up) full-circle. Because she doesn't wear a costume or flaunt a garish name, she also drops into the Nolanverse without any cosmetic problems. Very high on my wishcasting list.
Bane - One of many "anti-Batman;" a peerless (actually drug-infused) physical specimen with a keen tactical mind and a proclivity for inspiring terror. He's not as famous as the group brought to prominence in the TV show and the earlier movie series, but he has a simple look and he would provide an intense, worthy challenge to Batman. Also, since the next movie would likely involve Gotham warming back up to Batman after he took the fall for Harvey, a demonstration of what Batman would be like if he were a megalomaniac and not altruistic plays into that. Up there with the Riddler for me as a candidate for main villain.
The Ventriloquist - A split-personality type whose domineering gangster persona manifests itself in a ventriloquist's dummy named Scarface; the Ventriloquist himself remains meek and timid. He could step in as a new, freakier sort of underworld leader, but it's a silly character and the Penguin could do the same thing more iconically.
Harley Quinn - Introduced in TAS as the Joker's girlfriend. This is a terrible idea, because as soon as the Joker has a girlfriend, he's not the Joker anymore. Happily, I don't think anyone could imagine Ledger's Joker having a girlfriend. Rather, I think Harley could work as a copycat, echoing the Batman copycats in TDK. In fact, I think it draws such a stark parallel that I hope they do it, but without giving much more screen time to Harley than to those faux-Batman. Otherwise you're just rehashing the Joker in the next movie.
Clayface - See Mr. Freeze, basically. I guess you could have a master-of-disguise with sci-fi elements and call him Clayface, but that seems more like an easter egg type, a henchman for a bigger villain.
Man-Bat - A scientist who turns into a bat; basically Batman's version of the Spider-Man's villain the Lizard - both are often feral and dangerous when transformed, but upstanding and allies of the hero as humans. Too outlandish for this world, I think.
Black Mask - A gangster who was a contemporary and peer of Bruce Wayne growing up. His gimmick involves wearing a mask and requiring his others to do the same. I could see him working in a story in which, just as freaks like the Joker have made normal gangsters like Maroni almost obsolete, the mob becomes more freakish as a reaction, but I wouldn't want it as the main thrust of the plot. Like the Penguin, Black Mask would work best as a replacement for the Falcone and Maroni characters.
Deadshot - Assassin with a death wish. He was already featured in Gotham Knight, so that may be an obstacle, or it may demonstrate that he's a guy who could work in these movies. Certainly not very outlandish if you tone down his costume. Probably not interesting as a main villain, but like many others here, he would be at home as a hired gun.
Killer Croc - Also in GK; feasible probably for similar reasons. Gained some prominence from TAS, where I thought he had some good episodes, but Croc is at best a modest gangster and at worst just a brute. Like Black Mask, he might weird up Gotham's underworld (though this would be inconsistent with his GK appearance). Otherwise, he's just a fight scene.
Anarky - They've already touched on the ideas of copy-cat vigilantes; Anarky is a kid who made a costume and tried to put his anarchic beliefs into action as a vigilante in Gotham. Way too V for Vendetta probably, in the comics and in a movie.
Killer Moth - Like Anarky, slides into the copycat vigilante role. Also an anti-Batman, as he hires himself out to the underworld to help them as Batman helps the citizenry. Silly name and kind of a silly concept (which would echo too closely the Joker's purported offer to work for Gotham's collected criminals).
Hugo Strange - A psychologist who learns Batman's identity and replaces him. Originally appeared as a vital part of one of the great Batman runs in Detective Comics. Opens the door to exploring Bruce/Batman psychologically, but I can't see them doing much more than that with him.
Firefly - Psychotic arsonist whose costume allows him to "fly" on the thermals he creates. Nah.
Hush - Yet another anti-Batman, this one was Bruce's best childhood friend. Instead of losing his parents tragically, he tried to murder them to inherit their fortune. He turns up years later trying to kill Bruce/Batman because Bruce's father saved Hush's mother and ... you know, the Hush arc ending up being a lousy read and let's hope that Nolan thought so too.