Since his debut in 1939, the midnight man who capes and crusades has never been out-of-style. Sure, the gee-whiz ’60s and the bruised, cynical ’70s brought out the mightiness of new kids on the block Marvel Entertainment, but DC prevailed and only came back more haunted in the dark days of the gaudy 1980s. With Batman brought back to his roots in garish German Expressionism in the late 1980s, the character became all the more fittingly haunted for a fittingly haunted turn-of-the-’90s America undone by the failures of Reaganomics and the harsh realities of urban living. The character was also, alas, all the more apt for chauvinist, fascistic abuse by the likes of Frank Miller, who eventually took to dumbing-down the figure to the levels of America’s latent (and often very much more than latent) fixation with harsh individualist justice and uncritical depictions of masculine men keeping the evils of society at bay. A philosophy that was, boiled down, the card-carrying crux of 1980s fiction at its worst.
Christopher Nolan has always had a problem with his inner thoughts drowning out his ability to make compelling cinema, and the companionship of David S. Goyer in the writer’s chair has never been rectifying. Case in point: The Dark Knight Rises is a belabored mass of hang-ups, side-treks, false starts, hasty endings, and ignoble intentions. On the latter, the film’s villain Bane (Tom Hardy) – who turns Gotham’s poor against its wealthy so that he can profit in the end – is a troubling figure of social dejection and husky sooth-saying radicalism, and he is, without a doubt, a symbol for the false intentions of working class leaders, or Nolan supposes. If the superhero genre is a card-carrying caretaker for traditionalist individualism, libertarian democracy, and the American Way, The Dark Knight Rises is the flag-waving stalwart with a mouth for the status quo. It makes no bones about its fear that the working class is a raving groupthink machine defined only by its inability to restrain itself, lying around in wait for an opportunity to search and destroy and just hurting for an anarchist fight. Continue reading
Edited May 2016
Seven years after the rubble has cleared, The Dark Knight feels like a fundamentally different, more elemental film than it did when it arrived in theaters as a sacrosanct mass of loose ends about the fate of the superhero genre and the death of a man who would go on to win an Oscar. Christopher Nolan has released three films in the ensuing years, his cryptic, somewhat belabored style has imposed itself a little more unambiguously onto the viewing public, and The Dark Knight feels like a legitimate product instead of simply a nebulous idea of how to save the comic book adaptation. It also feels, mercifully, like a work that exists on a human plane, and not some sort of holier-than-thou untouchable object, as it has frequently been touted to be by the fan-people of the world.
Admittedly, a sharp, incisive, pointed product when all is said and done, and if The Dark Knight doesn’t conclude the very idea of cinema, its veritable craft is pushed right up to the surface and wholly ready for the tasting. And it’s not all Heath Ledger for that matter, although his maelstrom-of-chaos performance as the evil Ferris wheel of social dislocation named the Joker approaches us more as “villainy” than a specific villain. His performance is also, importantly, a marker for the true essence of The Dark Knight, and the crux of its move away from pure naturalism. We have thankfully moved from the idea that a film being more “realistic” is necessarily a compliment, rather than simply a fact of existence or a feature, and The Dark Knight is at its best when it exists as a parable of the modern age, or a fable, rather than a work of realism. Little about Ledger seems frightening in a naturalist way, because the film doesn’t aim for naturalism; it has much more frightening ideas about the thickets of human nature that can’t be captured in an ascetic commitment to pure realism. Continue reading
`The comic book movie in 2005 was entrapped in its own split-decision bifurcation. On one hand, the likes of Elektra and Fantastic Four were omnipresent holdovers from the 1990s and markers of a genre strangling itself into childish submission. On the other, Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City sought to experiment with the comic book form as an avenue for pure cinema, and David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence was caught taking the medium of cinema to task with the violence of the human condition. Both were attempts to push the comic book medium to new depths, but both also tacitly exposed the limits of the superhero genre by eschewing the likes of Spider-Man or Superman for stories that, at their structural elements, had very little to do with the tradition of the comic book. Just as the comic book had grown up and left some of its inner core back in the minds of teenagers, so too was comic book cinema moving away from the fluff and the puff and toward something a little more brutalized and tragic. Continue reading
Man of Steel is exactly the film its creators were always going to make, and too little of the film it needs to be. Obviously, with director Zack Snyder in the director’s chair, a grotesquely serious, stodgy take on teenage wish fulfillment is expected, and a great deal of the unease about the film before its release was directed entirely at his superficial eye for fetishistic violence-porn. Indeed, the concern was not only valid but imperative. Very little about Man of Steel indicates that Snyder thinks of Superman as anything else than a fist with a body attached, and the final act leaves no doubt. The man in the blue suit being carted around the film hurts and broods and bruises. He has the rippling abs and the stoic back story, but he is an imposter, plain and simple, a mechanical man with a fancy suit.
Which doesn’t necessarily make for a bad film – that is David S. Goyer’s job. Goyer, who somehow found his way into Christopher Nolan’s overly-dense Batman movies and generally made a mess of human activity and thought, does for Superman what he did for the Caped Crusader – indulge with him. Which was fine when he and Nolan were opening up a maelstrom of pure chaos in The Dark Knight, but that film was still hampered by Goyer’s over-worked, exposition-heavy writing style that frequently feels more like a lecture than a script proper. In comparison, the behemoth that is Man of Steel is, for one, far too long, itself part of the Nolan/ Goyer aesthetic, and far too mechanical, exposition-heavy, and clinical – frankly, part of the Nolan/Goyer aesthetic as well. Continue reading
The found footage subgenre really has a hard time making a big deal of itself, and, as the kids say, it deserves the shade. Calling it a gimmick is a less worthwhile criticism than calling it a poor gimmick, but the point stands: very few films have managed to develop an altogether convincing reason for the technique, and as of 2015, it has been a good eight years since the last great work in the subgenre (REC). You see, it becomes a gimmick not by its existence but by becoming a crutch rather than an artistic tool, and in Chronicle, it serves as both. The problem, specifically, is that the hand-held camera is only particularly useful in the early portions of the film, and the texture of the technique contrasts somewhat wildly with the film’s eventual climax and conclusion, and that is a somewhat unavoidable pratfall and a pit the film never manages to claw its way out of. Continue reading
Joe Johnston is not much of a director, perhaps because his heart lies outside of the modern sensibilities of film and he has proven unable to scrounge up the money to make the passion projects that lie in his dreams, and the dreams of so many children who went to the movies in the 1940s and 1950s. This is a reach, but his two best films are of a kind: 1991’s off-hand ode to old-school matinee thrills The Rocketeer and its spiritual successor, 2011’s Captain America, suffixed with the unfortunate subtitle The First Avenger. It isn’t a particularly exploratory or demanding film, or even a particularly fun one, but its mild geniality and melodramatic sense of charisma and fascination with comic book panache combine for a somewhat indifferent but well-meaning and usually well-playing exercise in pulp. It doesn’t always work, but unlike so many other superhero movies in the 2010s, it tries to work not by playing to the rafters, but to the matinee. Continue reading
Iron Man 2
Another day, another ho-hum superhero film, although at least this one has Robert Downey Jr. smirking up the place with levity, breathing a dose of sarcasm into a generally too-aimless sequel. Iron Man 2 feels like it is just coasting on its existence and passing the time. The whole “advertisement for another movie” trend of the Marvel Studios movies is in full effect, which is less of a shame than the fact that Iron Man 2 isn’t a particularly good advertisement.
Downey Jr. as Iron Man/ Tony Stark pays for a great many sins, but Jon Favreau’s increasingly mercenary direction is not among them, nor is the endless tepidity of the screenplay which forces everyone’s favorite resident bad-boy billionaire with a suit of gold …well, iron … up against Whiplash (Mickey Rourke), a hurting victim of Stark’s company’s history of violence, and a fellow weapon industrialist played by Sam Rockwell. Unfortunately, the talented Rourke is saddled with a one-note character and given even less time to play that note effectively. Rockwell is given little more to do, but his buoyant snark and charisma shines through nonetheless, and he makes a capable foil for Stark precisely because of how much Stark exists within him.
With America, always thinking twenty years back, in full-on transition from early ’90s nostalgia to late ’90s nostalgia, I’ve decided to take a quick look back at the state of the cinema world in the middle year of that decade, 1995, fittingly a time when films were really just a curious mix of the past and the future, stuck with one foot chaining them to the rotting corpse of the ’80s and another leg stumbling over itself to reach the 2000s while that decade was still a glimmer in the eye.
A Bond film released in 1995, a shocking and unprecedented six years after the previous film in the franchise, had to be something. It had to be an event, spread by rampant corporate ’90s chic advertising and the pungent aroma of word of mouth. It had to be a success, even if future films in the franchise weren’t. The filmmakers had to prove themselves once. 1997, 1999, and 2002 brought future Pierce Brosnan Bond films before things were rebooted yet again, and they were all dismal affairs, among the worst in the series. But, as it turns out, once was enough. Martin Campbell’s Goldeneye is a gas of an action thriller, spoken with brash candor and a superfluity of styyyyyle to spare. It’s not great cinema, but it understands Bond more than any film released since the Connery era. And it knows that to understand Bond, it has to move forward with Bond, to take him in new directions, to adapt him without losing his essential essence. Continue reading
It’s been a couple weeks, so here’s a double-dip of classic cult comic book movies for you, and some prime so-bad-its-good filmmaking on both counts.
It’s been a long way for Batman, and superheroes in general. Over the past fifteen years, comic books have been codified and examined and re-examined until there’s nothing left, but very rarely do they ever bring anything new to the table. This can not be said of the ’60s Batman television show, nor can it be said of the film spun off from it. The show was an absurdist trip through modern society’s fascinations as they had been captured on celluloid and in other well-worn forms of media. Undeniably campy and decked out to the teeth with kitsch, the whole affair worked like a playful rib at the cheerful superficiality of a day and age where the world was changing around its inhabitants so fast they couldn’t even comprehend it in terms of reality. It was on a dangerous path to surrealism, and Batman, like a less vicious Bunuel, was there to catch it with its pants down.