2010s, Action-Adventure, Fantasy, Scifi

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

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Director/Coscreenwriter: James Gunn

By Roderick Heath

The US summer blockbuster season has just passed, and what a dismal time it was for critics, audiences, and studios alike. A parade of banal sequels and listless franchise expansion have meant that some are seriously questioning just what Hollywood is good for right at the time when the mass cinema industry’s basic presumptions are being challenged. Guardians of the Galaxy, the latest in Marvel’s world-conquering, epoch-defining hits, was one of the few real critical and commercial bright spots of the season— an industry surprise considering the source comic’s lack of legacy and its deliberately volatile, tongue-in-cheek take on fantastic fare. The building blocks of Guardians seems at first glance to be quite a distance from Captain America’s boy scout decency or the PG naughtiness of Tony “Iron Man” Stark, offering a hero who seems to have nothing more going for him than the vocabulary, horniness, and general attitude problem of an ’80s movie delinquent and a talking racoon who likes taking out his confusion with a Gatling gun set in distant climes of classic space opera. But audiences seem to have been hungry for a little more bite and jollity in the genre, and Guardians has been generally received as a genuine throwback to the kind of goofy, audience-delighting hit that made the 1980s a rather good time to be a kid—or at least, that’s what the hype reported.

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Director and cowriter James Gunn was not, at first glance, the kind of filmmaker one expected to score such a hit, as his biggest claim to fame prior to this was his dark, unstable farce Super (2011). That work subjected the superhero genre to aggressive deconstruction, exposing its heroes as stymied vigilante wingnuts and sexual fetishists out of their depth, essayed with a blunt and rather obvious method but managed with a spirit that made the film as entertaining as what it was satirising. Gunn emerged from the infamous, outrageous exploitation studio Troma and entered Hollywood writing Scooby-Doo (2002) and Dawn of the Dead (2004) before making his directing debut with Slither (2006). Undoubtedly Gunn’s clear understanding of what he was kidding made Marvel hire him. The studio’s product has been, in the past two years since The Avengers (2012), devolving into bland and shapeless pablum, and new ingredients have definitely been required. Gunn’s writing partner on this film, Nicole Perlman, did script-doctor work on Thor (2011), still my favourite Marvel movie. The hope that something of Super’s corrosive spirit could be blended with Thor’s grandeur to create something as simultaneously wry and spectacular, knowing and unfettered as, say, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) or Flash Gordon (1980) rose in my heart.

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Guardians kicks off with an unabashedly Spielbergian touch, in a prologue set in 1988: a young boy, Peter Quill (Wyatt Oleff), is called in to his dying mother’s (Laura Haddock) hospital room to say goodbye to her. She leaves him a specific and peculiar gift: a mix-tape filled with all her favourite oddball pop hits. When she expires, Peter runs outside to grieve, only for a mysterious UFO to fly over and pick him up in a tractor beam. Twenty-odd years later, Quill (played as a grown-up by sitcom star Chris Pratt) is now a low-rent corsair and space stud zipping about the galaxy using the dodgy nom-de-guerre of Star Lord. He’s trying to escape the influence of his adopted father, Yondu Udonta (Michael Rooker), leader of a band of pirates called Ravagers who picked up young Quill on a contract to deliver him to his real, mysterious father, but kept the kid and raised him as one of their band (sadly, no Pirates of Penzance jokes are forthcoming).

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Quill snatches a chance to make himself rich when he locates a mysterious orb in a wrecked spaceship on a remote planet that every other goon and chancer in the galaxy is after. Yondu is incensed that Quill beat him to it and doesn’t plan cutting him in, whilst warrior Korath (Djimon Hounsou) and his henchmen fight Quill for it. Peter gives Korath the slip and heads to Xandar, a squeaky-clean intergalactic imperial hub that recently signed a peace treaty with the phlegmatic Kree race, after a protracted and bloody war. But once there, he’s immediately attacked by three rivals, one of whom, Gamora (Zoë Saldana), is after the orb. The other two, Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper) and Groot (voice of Vin Diesel), are bounty hunters after Quill, but after a struggle in the streets of Xandar’s capital, all four are arrested by the peace-keeping Nova Corps, led by sarcastic Corpsman Rhomann Dey (John C. Reilly) and flung into a rough prison floating in space called the Kyln. Initially antagonistic and mutually contemptuous, Quill, Gamora, and the bounty hunters soon find themselves bound together by a mutual interest: money. Gamora hopes to make a fortune selling the orb to the omnivoro
us “Collector,” Taneleer Tivan (Benicio del Toro) and offers the others a piece of the action, necessitating an escape plan.

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The constituent parts of Guardians are interesting and occasionally spark, particularly the characterisation of Rocket, whose loyal companionship with Groot stems from their background as products of crimes against nature committed in some genetics lab. Rocket’s unstable, resentful, acidic take on the world around him is used to cover up some major existential pain that leads him at one point to nearly shoot up a bar full of people just to release his anger. Groot has a vocabulary limited to three words, “I am Groot,” with variations of intonation that only Rocket can understand in a ready jest on similarly opaque utterances by Chewbacca and R2D2 in the Star Wars films. Groot tends to express himself more through the language of his “body,” like when he releases glowing buds to swim in the air for both lighting purposes and a little symbolic commentary, and, most strikingly towards the end, when he sprouts a thicket of lush foliage to enfold and protect his friends from harm. For a more dramatic thicket of backstory, we have Gamora, whose body is a literal lethal weapon, trained since childhood along with her sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) by their adoptive father, intergalactic harbinger of doom Thanos (Josh Brolin), who destroyed their civilisations.

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Somewhere along the line, however, Gamora rebelled. She pretends to be in the service of her father and chief bad guy Ronan (Lee Pace) but actually intends to foil them. Nebula chases after her sister in an inevitable, quasi-sibling feud of mythic proportions. Drax (Dave Bautista) is a hulking alien Quill and the others meet in the Kyln who seeks revenge on Ronan for killing his family and signs up for any business that might lead him to his foe. Gunn’s referential framework here, likeably enough, can be seen as encompassing not just obvious touchstones like Star Wars and such predecessors in the space opera realm like Lensman and Buck Rogers, but also John Carpenter’s Dark Star (1974) and some of its pop culture children, most of which have appeared on TV—Red Dwarf, Lexx, and Futurama. There’s also some kinship with much more disreputable ’80s fare like Ice Pirates, The Last Starfighter, Night of the Comet (all 1984), and My Science Project (1986), half-clever, scrappy, rascally movies that blended genre fare with a pop spirit that ironically contrasted the traditionally weird and epic zones of scifi with characters still locked in mundane, earthly zones of understanding. Guardians has clear ambitions to annexing that tradition.

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Well, that’s what Guardians of the Galaxy’s ambitions are. The film’s actual achievement is, by contrast, so minor that it counts as the biggest disappointment from a big movie I’ve had since Gravity (2013). How could I fail to like what’s clearly entertained audiences so fully? I don’t know. I’m desperate for good space opera. Perhaps therein in lies some of the problem. Guardians threw my mind back to the Pirates of the Caribbean films insofar as that, like those works, it’s overloaded with raw material that could make for truly great, weird, original adventure films—perhaps, indeed, too many because neither Pirates nor Guardians have any idea how to put them together. Guardians isn’t a traditional superhero story; in fact, it’s Marvel’s first work that, though based on a comic series and linked via plot elements like Thanos to other strands of the Marvel universe, represents new genre turf. Yet Guardians fails to escape the template Marvel has established of superfluous motivations and static characterisations, without any place of real interest to take its stories. The early films the studio put out had the advantage of being origin stories, a necessity in setting up superhero franchises that frustrates some comic book fans but helps make the phenomenon coherent for the rest of us. A maxim often bandied about in reference to the comic book genre is that second films are the best, because the business of setting up character and situation has been done and the sequel can hit the ground running.

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But Marvel has been proving that maxim untrue, because their sequels have tended to be ramshackle hunks of fan service with plotting that is painfully superfluous. Even this year’s superior, but still highly overrated Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which tried to shift into new territory by borrowing a veneer of hard-boiled cynicism from ’70s thrillers, still readily descended into info-dump explanations and bland, bloodless action. Guardians is technically an origin story but tries to behave like a swinging sequel. Similarly, although Gunn makes many gestures toward placing his work in a grand tradition of zippy fun, the actual product he ends up with is a by-rote work with occasional touches of impertinence that fail to add up to anything substantial. Rather than a flow of loopy, inspired humour and madcap action, Guardians offers up zany ideas harvested from its source material and then lets them sit around serving no function. Guardians wants to act like the usual epic claptrap of its genre is mere background whilst playing up the idiosyncrasies of it heroes, but it remains enslaved to a banal edition of its genre as it overcompensates by stuffing in more plot elements and antagonists than it knows what to do with.

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The biggest lack of Guardians is any faith—or even real interest—in storytelling. The early fight between Rocket, Groot, Quill, and Gamora on the streets of Xandar is a good example, simply allowing the three different plot strands/character groups to collide on the street. The prologue sets in motion a theoretical sense of longing for family that Quill gains through his new compadres and invests plentiful melodramatic thrusts to give the story some charge. Yet Guardians’ attempts to get emotional and exciting flounder without ever feeling urgent or convincing. The team comes together and becomes inseparable mostly because that’s what the story demands they do, without much effort put in to developing convincing camaraderie: we go from Rocket drunkenly threatening to kill everyone to superfriends real fast and a couple of low-rent group bickering sessions. The closest we get to a scene of real emotional bonding, touching almost on a love scene (that verboten thing in this perpetually preadolescent genre), comes when Quill and Gamora take a timeout so they can share backstory, delivered in lumpen stare-into-the-middle-distance manner. Guardians lopes from scene to scene without a clear sense of direction. Drax summons up Ronan and his legions for no better reason than the film needs a bit more banging and blasting at that juncture. We spend ages waiting for our heroes to encounter the perverse Collector. The moment they reach his lair, the film swerves ridiculously as one of Tivan’s servants (Ophelia Lovibond) tries to master the infinity stone to escape his influence and instead causes a big bang in a twist that feels less like a radical blindsiding to keep us on our feet than a clumsy waste of time and money.

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Imagine getting an actor of Del Toro’s calibre and wasting him like that. In fact, Guardians stands as an incidental monument to the decadent lack of interest in the talent Hollywood has at its disposal in the age of the FX blockbuster. Fine actors—Glenn Close! John C. Reilly! Benecio del Toro! Josh Brolin! Djimon Hounsou!—are hurled into the mix and then given absolutely nothing to do. The film even makes a show of this by casting Vin Diesel as a tree that only speaks three words. Quill’s status as intergalactic lady’s man and arrested-development miscreant might have been funnier if J. J. Abrams’ take on James T. Kirk hadn’t already done basically the same thing. Having him flip the bird to the Nova Corps whilst getting a mug shot taken scarcely constitutes investing him with a lode of real character and comes across like a rebellious gesture that’s been relentlessly examined and finally approved by a corporate strategy meeting that thinks it’s being edgy.

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Similarly, Gunn throws up the comic’s wacky ideas—a crazy anthropomorphic racoon! a space hero who’s a total scrub!—and expects us to find them outrageously entertaining and not pay any attention to how little invention has gone into the stuff that surrounds them. For instance, in Ice Pirates, a film usually written off today as an example of what could go wrong with the ’80s fantasy template, there’s a genuinely inspired aspect to the final battle, which takes place in the midst of a time warp where the heroes pass through a lifespan’s worth of events in a few minutes even as they charge about trying to defeat the bad guys. Even the ramshackle charms of Flash Gordon sported more real wit, like the impromptu football match in Ming’s throne room that entwined a great, specific joke about culture shock with slapstick humour. By comparison, Guardians has a dismaying lack of cleverness for all its enhanced budget and technical advantages.

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Gunn and Perlman’s script does throw up some wisecracks that are pretty funny: the most edgy and unexpected comes when Quill, responding to Gamora’s peevish complaint that his spaceship is filthy, tells his other new friends, “Oh she has no idea. If I had a black light this’d look like a Jackson Pollock painting.” But the humour doesn’t add up to much. There are great long patches without anything particularly amusing going on, and really only the fanciful effects that give us Groot and Rocket distinguish them from comic-relief characters in decades worth of second-string westerns. Drax comes from a race that speaks in vaguely medieval fashion but has no understanding of metaphor, a potentially fertile idea for comedy, but the script develops the idea lazily (apparently though Drax can’t comprehend figures of speech like “over your head,” he has no problem using simile). Pace’s Ronan is supposed to be a fearsome figure of genocidal intent and deep wells of resentment behind his status as a vengeful extremist, but he arrives on screen as basically the same glowing-eyed, hooded bad guy Christopher Ecclestone played in Thor: The Dark World (2013). At the outset, we see Gamora close to Ronan, but what side she’s really on isn’t questioned for any narrative intrigue, whilst the relationships are spat at us by the movie without much care for impact or how we connect them, such as who Thanos is, what his connection to Ronan is motivated by, what Gamora and Nebula’s relationship was before Gamora’s treachery.

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The film’s simultaneously flippant yet somehow witless take on employing generic niceties keeps the story from ever seeming important, and thus there’s no vitality to the inevitable wham-bam climax. Guardians makes an outright joke of the obvious McGuffin status of the object that motivates the plot, the orb which holds an “infinity stone,” a source of immense, primeval power. As Quill says, “It’s got a real shining-blue suitcase, Ark of the Covenant, Maltese Falcon sort of vibe.” Rather than amusing me with the plain cheek of this self-referential jive, though, this line highlighted how fed up I am with blockbusters that can’t sustain a proper storyline or be bothered investing real stakes in a plot that connects convincingly to the heroes’ predicaments. Similarly, the film’s soundtrack is replete with the hits that feature on Quill’s inheritance, his mix-tape, utilised as an ironically jaunty soundtrack in place of the usual blaring Wagnerian stuff. There is inherent fun to watching Quill dance across an alien landscape to Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love” or planning battle to the Runaways’ “Cherry Bomb.” But again I felt after a while that the music was being used to disguise the film’s lack of imagination and skill: the songs are patched over the sequences rather than carefully wound into them, unlike, for recent example, the ingenious deployment of Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle” during the best scene in the otherwise insipid X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014). The film tosses out what it sets up as a clever escape sequence in the Kyln, as Rocket lists required objects, only for Groot to almost sabotage it by casually snatching one object and setting off anarchy, and the would-be clever sequence dissolves into so much visual white noise.

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What Gunn is trying to do here is actually quite difficult, certainly more difficult than he seems to have realised. It’s certainly not impossible: the action-adventure film that satirises itself as it goes along whilst not deflating the excitement. Look at a really great predecessor that did this sort of thing: the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The careful deployment of information, the steadily constructed tension, hints of character, unfolding of incident. John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China (1986) nailed exactly the mix this film is after, veering blithely between high myth and low comedy, timeless thrills and fleeting insouciance, as did just about any Hong Kong action of the ’80s. Gunn’s work isn’t particularly interesting visually, zipping by its alien landscapes as just so much more CGI fodder without a sign of wonder or investment in the fantastic, betraying the film’s references to Star Wars and the like as the smarmy pretensions of a second-rate jokester. The film’s action scenes are big and expensive and noisy, and yet remarkably dull, failures as cinematic spectacle just as the script fails at satiric comedy.

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There’s an odd moment in the final battle when a bunch of spaceships join together like a giant Lego set to form a kind of net to catch Ronan’s ship. This is another striking idea, one that comes out of nowhere, performed by a bunch of characters whose presence in the film has been vague at best. Guardians tries to have its cake and eat it, but doesn’t know how to bake and can’t chew. To me, the film’s one real flash of excitement came when Gamora and Nebula finally meet in battle, a conflict where, for all the weaknesses in its set-up, at last showed a buzz of emotional investment in the fight and the sight of physical dynamism in the actresses and their stunt stand-ins that is the essence of this type of cinema. But even this doesn’t count for much because it’s over before you know it and only ends with a set-up for a sequel (isn’t everything?), and it’s thrown into the mix with about 15 other vignettes pieced together without much intelligent scene grammar.

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Finally, right at the end, something of Guardians’ ambitions came to fruition in Groot’s final sacrificial action, and the borderline-mystical joining of the ragtag team who become the eponymous Guardians by virtue of their exceptional weirdness, as well as pith, to defeat Ronan with the infinity stone. Pratt does give Star Lord his all, and he could well be a promising action-comedy star. This and the black-out gag featuring a dancing baby groot almost convinced me that I hadn’t wasted my time. And yet, it is easy to understand why Guardians been such a big hit, and I can’t even discount the possibility that some day it will be as big an object of cult veneration as the ones it invokes. Either way, my personal, dismal movie-going year continues unabated.

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2010s, Action-Adventure

Man of Steel (2013)

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Director: Zack Snyder

By Roderick Heath

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, internet pop culture commentary is essentially split into two camps. There are those who tend to celebrate everything shiny and new and consider it automatically superior to the old, and those for whom all revision is doomed never to measure up to the purity, authority, and warm associations of a classic. In this era of commercial cinema sustaining itself through troubled times by carefully reinventing properties many of us have an ingrained affection for, the schism is all too easy to observe. A caveat here is that in spite of what the selective memory of cinephiles and filtering processes of repute suggest, commercial movie-making has been eating its own tail since its birth, with popular properties remade and reconfigured in an endless tapestry of remakes and reboots, as well as original works that are mostly variations on the same old themes.
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The difference today is not just in the kinds of properties being recycled, but in the stature of this process: audiences of millions don’t just go to see a movie, but await news of the filmmakers’ choices with merciless scrutiny. Every tweak risks stirring frenetic excitement or irrational loathing. For myself, who grew up very happily watching the first two Christopher Reeve Superman films repeatedly, there’s a certain bittersweet sense of both profit and loss from Zack Snyder’s new take.
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I know I’ve really wanted Superman to come back strong. Superman doesn’t exist, of course, nor do I want him to, but his symbolic power is still enormous. We still live in a world where awesome abuses of the weak occur, and the promise of absolute justice represented by Superman is, like Sherlock Holmes, one based in a faded era and sensibility, and yet nothing superior has yet been invented to replace him. Bryan Singer’s strongly felt but deeply flawed Superman Returns (2006) already proved the folly of trying to reproduce past glories, through attempting anxiously to recreate the emotional and audio-visual textures of the Reeve films, but failing through an inert story and half-hearted stabs at modernising its mores. Snyder’s take leaps into the phantom zone of near-complete redrafting, skewing the franchise back toward its rowdier roots. The charming mixture of naiveté and sophistication, mythic feeling and inclusive, good-humoured knowing of Richard Donner’s great take on Joel Siegel and Jerry Schuster’s canonical comic book hero seems now to have been an unreproducible alchemy: none of the superhero flicks that have tried to claim its mantle lately have measured up in more than flashes. Like this year’s Star Trek: Into Darkness, Snyder’s film is cursed, therefore, with inevitable comparison to a near-perfect totem of fantastic cinema, and like J. J. Abrams’ film, stirs divergent responses in me, only more so.
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Donner and his team updated Superman by leaving his overgrown Boy Scout sensibility untouched whilst making the world he inhabited as vividly, energetically disillusioned as the 1970s and presenting analogues for the audience’s delight at the conceit in the characters sharing his world. Donner’s film wasn’t an irony-free zone, but its power lay in deliberately evoking sarcasm and then being seen to nullify it. Snyder’s take comes under the production aegis of Christopher Nolan, and in many respects Man of Steel obeys the basic demarcations Nolan and screenwriter David S. Goyer placed on their version of Batman: an attempt to sustain a coherent and grounded take on material once played purely for incongruity, with emphasis on psychological credulity and a variety of selective realism. That’s become a popular approach thanks to the success of Nolan’s films. And yet blockbuster movies have started to feel like they’re running together precisely because there are so many of them, and they all seem aware of each other because they have to be. This genre specialises in creating worlds unto themselves, where anything is possible, but the correspondingly conversant audience has come to accept it all without batting an eyelid. The fantastic no longer needs introducing, but rather, mere reiteration.
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The wayward elements that helped make Donner’s film great are also its weirdest and most esoteric: the mystically tinged space trip Superman takes during his tutelage by his father’s simulacrum, the Andrew Wyeth and John Ford-esque moments of Americana, the goofy, quixotically romantic nighttime flight Superman takes with Lois Lane. Such quirky, spacious indulgences are verboten in tent-pole flicks now, where a risk-averse ethos of the part of both filmmakers and the target audience favours the creation tolerable entertainment. Snyder’s approach doesn’t skimp on set-up, at least: the difference is one of method. Instead of mythical elegy, here we have chain-lightning pulp pace rendered with an overtone of sombre grandeur. Whereas the early ads for the film suggested a soulful, doleful take on Superman as a Terrence Malick-esque searcher, that quality only emerges in occasional flashes in the film, which opens up the possibility, to me at least, that this version was built in the editing room from a more expansive take.
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Snyder’s stuck remixing a familiar story: again Krypton explodes, again young Kal-El is sent rocketing off to safety whilst his parents Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and Lara (Ayelet Zurer) die. But here things are more baroquely complicated, with Jor-El’s efforts to communicate imminent danger to the Kryptonian high council interrupted by General Zod (Michael Shannon), who is intent on taking dictatorial control of the planet. Jor-El slips through Zod’s clutches and steals a codex that contains the DNA of all Kryptonians, and has this diffused into his son’s body so that he becomes the living vessel for his species. Zod, unable to stop Kal-El’s escape, kills Jor-El. Along with his followers, Zod is then captured and exiled to an acausal space pocket called the Phantom Zone, just before Krypton finally explodes. Kal-El’s spaceship safely lands on its destination: Earth.
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Man of Steel skips the tale of Kal-El’s earthly upbringing, at least for the moment. His adoption by Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane), his ostracism and outsider status in Smallville, Kansas and glimpses of his latent powers, like saving his schoolmates from a bus crash, instead emerge in flashback fragments throughout. This peculiar choice evokes a similar one made by Cary Fukunaga in his fine adaptation of Jane Eyre (2011) for expostulating character genesis quickly; indeed, it works thematically as well as structurally, placing Clark/Kal-El/Superman’s physical and character growth in counterpoint with the great drama to which his entire life seems to have been leading. Stylistically, Snyder quickly declares intent to do the opposite to Singer, and throws out all hangovers from the Reeve series, including John Williams’ unsurpassable score, which Singer leaned on like a crutch. The music here is provided by Hans Zimmer, who offers what is for him an unusually energetic and expressive score, but which still seems all too standard-issue compared to Williams’ dream-conjuring work. That’s the most overt disparity between Superman 1978 and 2013, though there are other qualities to mourn. The hunky grin and humane openness of Christopher Reeve and the husky-voiced, she-nerd vivacity of Margot Kidder are gone. Everyone here is much sterner, more grown-up, more world-weary. There’s a constant feeling in these modern spectacles that some kind of spiritual Rubicon has been crossed and that the jovial, old pulp and comic book world cannot be invoked again. Whereas Donner and company made the very disparity between youthful dreaming and adult disillusion the fuel of their movie, Snyder and Goyer split the difference.
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There’s been no shortage of good and entertaining work in the superhero genre lately, even if it’s often repetitive and lexically limited, its days as major blockbuster material possibly limited now. My own favourites of recent years, Guillermo Del Toro’s Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008) and Kenneth Branagh’s Thor (2011), stood out for their willingness to stretch into blurred genre borderlands, whilst last year’s The Avengers went for plain entertainment by limiting its focus to oddball character dynamics and a big, crowd-pleasing third act. Man of Steel has a similar structure and climax to The Avengers, but it’s a far more ambitious work, refusing to relax into geekfest fun and games. Snyder tries to retell the most famous origin story in modern pop culture, not quelling the memory of previous incarnations but coherently setting up its own priorities, and doing it all in a fashion that recreates the specific gravity of this mythos. The big, make-or-break difference between Nolan’s Batman films and Man of Steel lies in who’s actually doing the filmmaking. I am aware that my own disregard of Nolan and evolving admiration for Snyder is largely opposite to most commentators, but I’m happy with this attitude. Snyder is a technical wizard and messy, dramatic filmmaker, with a compensating passion for the big screen as an expressive space. He has more sense of cinematic show and shape and in his little toe than Nolan and most of his ilk have in their whole bodies.
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Snyder’s last two live-action features, the disjointed but impressive Watchmen (2009) and the rich and strange Sucker Punch (2011), were divisive films, but for me, of course, made Man of Steel a film to watch for on top of its provenance as a comeback of the greatest superhero. Superman has come to be seen, awkwardly and even tiresomely, as a figurative superego for the United States, a noble knight who has to retain perfection or lose his status, as opposed to the malleable, id-inflected figure of Batman. As with the criticisms levelled at the new Star Trek movies, the sensation of idealism slowly being replaced with specious “relevance” looms throughout, though the hovering spirit of real-world anxieties always hangs heavy over such inventions. Superman offered a quasi-Jewish messiah figure at the start of the worst episode of anti-Semitism in history. The idea of Superman as a symbolic bulwark against the bleakest of threats takes its power from such circumstances of birth. Aptly, according to his interpretation, Zod, the Kryptonian rebel who has been promoted in the movies to one of Superman’s greatest adversaries, is here characterised as a both an engineered warrior whose reflexes quite genuinely can’t move beyond the bellicose, and a eugenicist and übermensch-proponent who believes Krypton’s past was ruined by weak stock and that its future must be purchased with species-cleansing.
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Whilst I could wax lyrical about the specific pleasures of the older Superman that this one avoids, Snyder’s take nonetheless achieves authority in part for its sense of sobriety, lending the material much more scifi cred than it’s had before: the opening is a sprawl of ebullient Edgar Rice Burroughs-isms, with Jor-El dodging apocalypse and the wrath of Zod’s attempted coup on the backs of flying lizards to get his son Kal-El launched off-world. The rocket-paced élan of the opening is the sort of sequence that illustrates the painterly zest Snyder brings to CGI spectacle, resolving in the punch-drunk poeticism of Lara watching geysers of flame erupt to consume her world. That sort of scruff-of-the-neck gambit is one many movies can’t recover from, but Snyder tries, with varying levels of success, to keep the sense of relentless, junk-epic storytelling hurtling forth with the same unstoppable force as Superman’s flying—and therein lies some of the discomfort.
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These sorts of films are now expected to do all the heavy lifting that was once dispersed over a dozen modes of popular moviemaking in the 1970s, engaging real-world conundrums and providing parables for questions of morality and political resonance that would have once been only a vague allusion or frosting of agreeable subtext, whilst providing nonstop thrills. Snyder retains, however, a quiescent poetic sensibility, one diffused into his love of spectacle and world-contorting effects, leaking out from such visuals as the glimpses of Clark in youthful exile labouring on a fishing boat, faced with a distant glimpse of a burning oil rig that demands he leap in and save the day. There’s a strong sense of life on the fringe of civilisations here that gives Clark’s status as a man caught perpetually between worlds a grounded, experiential flavour.
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One aspect of the plot here seems to reference intentionally The Thing (1982), as military authorities discover a Kryptonian colonising ship that’s been under the Arctic ice for millennia, and Clark, on the hunt for clues to his hitherto mysterious origins, infiltrates the workforce on the site. There he encounters Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Lois Lane (Amy Adams), and Clark has to save her from one of the guardian sentry robots in the spaceship. Clark encounters his father, whose personality survives as an uploaded programme stored in a device salvaged from Clark’s spaceship, and Jor-El is able to school Clark in his background and nature. Snyder provides a neat piece of exposition as Jor-El explains Kryptonian history to his son, events displayed in a kind of moving art-deco, bas-relief that hurls the mind back to 1930s public artwork, a sort of design in-joke that touches on this mythology’s roots. Jor-El then sends Clark on his high-flying way, now wearing his iconic costume, actually a piece of salvaged Kryptonian utility wear sporting the symbol for “hope” that is his family’s emblem. Snyder stages this scene beautifully, revelling in Clark testing his ability to fly, crashing spectacularly but then gaining more perfect control and shooting across the face of the earth with liberated joy, a sequence that confirms that modern special effects really can communicate the essence of the fantastic.
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Clark finds himself just in time, because soon Zod and his cabal turn up. Released from the Phantom Zone after Krypton’s destruction and having scoured the galaxy searching for remnants of their civilisation, they finally locate Clark through the frozen ship’s homing beacon. Zod, with his incapacity to think beyond immediate blunt-force solutions, demands that the humans hand over his compatriot: Clark gives himself up to the authorities, represented by General Swanwick (Harry Lennix) and Dr. Emil Hamilton (Richard Schiff), whilst Lois, having been arrested for her contact with the alien, becomes interlocutor. Clark agrees to be handed over to Zod, but warns that Zod isn’t to be trusted, and this proves exactly right: with his super-opponent immobilised by immersion in the Krypton atmosphere aboard his ship, Zod decides that with a little redecorating, Earth could become a new Krypton, repopulated with the DNA strip-mined from Clark’s body. One problem Man of Steel develops is that it boils down to plot 1-A of scifi action: supervillain wants to destroy the world with doomsday device, superhero sets out to stop the plot with major whoop-ass. But, of course, that’s the essence of roughly half the comic books ever penned, and who are the filmmakers to mess with that? But the attempts to skew the Superman mythos closer to real scifi are smart, and pay off with some lush and spectacular imagery, rejecting the day-glo neoclassicism of Donner’s Krypton in favour of a more organic world, and building to a superlatively envisioned contrast of Clark’s raw, corporeal force going up against the chitinous cyberpunk styling of Zod and company.
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Man of Steel certainly offers a darker, rougher take on the Superman myth than usual, but to its credit, it tries to take the creation of the most elevated of superheroes seriously on a level that the older films essentially avoided. It’s this element that emerges with singular power: what makes a hero? Man of Steel aptly and coherently reflects the notion, dodged or fumbled badly by most movies of this ilk, that we no longer trust heroes simply for parochial reasons: with several versions of “truth, justice, and the American way” jostling for supremacy at the moment, some of them rather ugly, Superman more or less has to reinvent them. Snyder, who tackled Alan Moore’s cynical probing of the theme with Watchmen, offers a kind of dialectical antithesis here, albeit one that still raises awareness of the dark side of being a messiah figure. Man of Steel actually follows through with it, as Clark’s ethical construction as well as origin story is explicated. The paternal dualism of Jor-El and Jonathan is cleverly paralleled by the structure, each offering versions of self-sacrificial communal care: Jonathan is killed, in an affecting twist on the old mythology, trying to save people during a tornado, signalling to Clark not to save him in his certainty that the time for Clark’s public revelation of his gifts has not yet arrived.
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Clark/Kal-El/Superman’s quiescent mix of anguish and acquiescence at his place in the scheme of things becomes the defining motif of his journey, leading to a surprisingly nuanced moment when he returns home to Martha, happily declaring he knows now who he is, and she responds with a stiff, faintly wounded bromide, like any mother hurt by an adopted child’s location of an alternative identity. The sense of overwhelming import that infuses Clark’s growing experience finally pays off in that great first flying scene, and when the creation they start to dub Superman finally appears fully formed, setting off to battle with motivation and character as well as apparel settled. When he launches himself into the fray, telling Lois with quiet charm to step back before he takes off at full power, it’s a genuinely rousing moment.
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Much less impressive are Snyder’s nods towards religious parallels, which Singer plied tediously. A sequence of Clark consulting a priest to work through his issues hits a note reminiscent of the lost-in-translation, fetishized evocations of Christian iconography in Japanese anime—which might actually be the point. Another element of the film that falls unexpectedly flat is Adams’ Lois. Adams knows how to play neurotic, but appealing energy, and as such, she could be expected to follow comfortably in Kidder’s footsteps. But her Lois never feels very important, and romance between her and Clark is frustratingly dampened until a scene close to the climax when Superman lowers her lovingly to the ground. Kate Bosworth’s much-maligned turn as Lois in Superman Returns was actually one of the better aspects of that film, for Bosworth offered a Lois who was more a frustrated career woman on the verge of being half-willingly domesticated. In retrospect, Bosworth’s Lois feels all the better because Adams’ take remains stolid and functional, a reminder that Snyder’s touch with actors can be weak.
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Cavill’s performance holds up under considerable pressure, however: his characterisation is subtler than Reeve’s, if not requiring much flexibility. Cavill sustains the sense of igneous strength under an essential conscientiousness and self-effacing will. Cunningly, Cavill, whose most high-profile role before this was Theseus in the god-awful Immortals (2011), conspires with the film around him to suggest that Superman becomes all the more human, and humane, because of his exceptionalism, rather than in spite of it. The notion that Superman is a hero for whom killing is an abhorrent act, even though he’s finally forced to cross that threshold, finally emerges with force, unlike many superheroes, such as most of the Marvel crew, who are essentially deadly weapons restraining their neuroses.
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Zod and Clark are counterpointed throughout not simply in the broken fraternity that produced them, but because of different ideals. In a sneaky twist on the film’s insistent religious imagery, Kal-El is the result of the first nonvirgin birth on Krypton in centuries, Jor-El and Kara having had a baby the old-fashioned way. By contrast, Zod was the result of Krypton’s long genetic engineering programme, manufactured as a member of a warrior caste, one who cannot see past the end of his own nose, bellowing in triumphalist certainty at his quarry, except, of course, Superman, a product of deviant influences, proves superior. The contrast between battles of the spirit and battles of the flesh is exacerbated by Zod’s icy number two Faora (Antje Traue). She smashes her way through soldiers, facing off against a hapless but unswerving human opponent, Col. Hardy (Christopher Meloni), for a knife fight that’s going to have an inevitable end, Kryptonian patronising the human in his Horatius-on-the-Bridge moment: “A good death is its own reward.” Fortunately, Clark comes to the rescue, so that, in the film’s best pay-off, Hardy has a delayed self-sacrificing revenge as, firing her quip back at her, he blows Faora, himself, and most of the other invaders up. Traue’s statuesque villainy actually come close to stealing the film: she’s not really asked to provide erotic crackle or narrative depth, but provides both anyway with clinical brutality and genuinely alien regard for a lesser species that surprises her with its gameness. Snyder likes his women kick-ass, so it’s not surprising that he’s more animated by Faora than Lois, who’s reduced to spouting exposition as characterisation (“I’m a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist!”).
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Shannon’s Zod, on the other hand, is effective without being surprising, as the actor plays in essentially the same key of perma-ferocity he’s handled a half-dozen times before. Terence Stamp’s disco-glam Zod was distinguished by Stamp’s projection of imperious egotism and confident psychopathy even when speaking clueless malapropisms (“So this is planet Houston!”) reflecting the disconnection between his knowledge and his assumptions. Shannon plays a far more coherent and motivated Zod, but he’s inevitably less fun. Crowe, on the other hand, is aging into a superbly relaxed and engaging actor: whilst in last year’s dreadful The Man with the Iron Fists he provided the sole source of fun, here he fulfils one of the most thankless roles imaginable, the guy who always dies in the first act of this story (previously played by Marlon Brando, no less!), with a blend of paternal poise and conscientious anxiety, believably projected even beyond the grave as a model for his son. Costner, never one of my favourite actors, nonetheless does well in counterpointing Crowe as the kind of role model we all wish our fathers to be, someone who can die ignominiously and yet still become practically omniscient through pure character—which is, indeed, what both Jor-El and Jonathan accomplish. Laurence Fishburne provides the third corner for the great paternal triangle in Clark’s growth, playing Lois’ boss Perry White, editor of the Daily Planet, in a pitch of sceptical authority.
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The much-deplored last act of the film, depicting Clark’s battles with his fellow Kryptonians, is indeed overlong, but also deeply, beautifully in debt to the essential nature of its comic sources, with superbeings rumbling across cityscapes in fistfights that shake worlds, whilst recreating something of the antiheroic tilt of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns in making the destruction of Metropolis collateral damage. Snyder and his effects team pull out all the stops to translate the suggested nature of the physical tussling in the comics in a manner the movies haven’t quite managed before. There’s a sense of Superman here as both a bulwark against chaos and also unwitting facilitator of it. Particularly great are a couple of fillips of zest, the first coming when Zod, threatens Martha Clark, only for Superman to come crashing through the wall to drive his foe crashing through fields and silos in a pummelling rage, shouting, “You think you can threaten my mother?” If there’s one absolute law in the fictional universe, it’s that you don’t pick on Superman’s mom.
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The second comes as Zod and Superman duel in a world-cracking frenzy, springing from the midst of a devastated city up into space where they kick about a space station before plunging back to Earth: this sequence is so pure in its evocation of the strange logic of the Superman comics that it could be animated pages of the old strip. The finale builds to an effective climax not just of the fighting but also of the essential moral drama of making Superman choose between various evils, making the right choices but with the personal cost for its hero not elided. The howl of anguish Superman releases after snapping Zod’s neck, to save the lives of some hapless passengers, evokes the one he gave over Lois’s body in the Donner film, but with a new dimension. This isn’t actually so new: after all, Superman actually killed Zod far more casually and indeed unfairly, in Superman II (1980), and of course, the interesting question is raised as to who exactly would be Zod’s judge and jailer? No, Snyder’s film doesn’t displace or eclipse Donner’s, but it does earn the right to complement it, proving that a superhero movie can offer a different brand of class. Welcome back, Superman.

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2010s, Action-Adventure

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

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Director/Coscreenwriter: Christopher Nolan

By Roderick Heath

My antipathy for British-gone-Hollywood director Christopher Nolan and his brand of filmmaking—top-heavy, arrhythmic, moodily ambitious, yet often strangely hollow—has threatened on occasions to become irrationally intense. But it’s hard not to react vehemently when he receives such popular adoration in comparison to the modestly plastic virtues of his films. To his credit, as displayed by Inception (2010), Nolan is one of the relatively few directors in Hollywood who has been trying to use the modern industry’s financial resources, technical teams, and special-effects warriors with a sense of creative wonder to assert will over the personality-erasing tendencies of the CGI houses, and make them serve a fresh vision. The various sequential stunts of Inception were certainly sound and fury signifying nothing, but they were marvellously made sound and fury. In his best film to date, The Prestige (2006), he managed to bind together his themes in a tale where the trickiness actually managed to stand in for the emotional binds and sadomasochistic competitiveness of his characters.

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But always, in scratching the polished surfaces of Nolan’s films, the same disappointment. The silly plot gimmicks. The leaden dialogue. The confused, contradictory, and just plain gutless concepts that profess to populist profundity. The declarative placards of theme, character relations, and emotions in place of convincing dramatic depictions of each. The attempts to sustain high style ruined by muddled, even random-feeling filmic syntax. Just as Inception turned the psyche into a place of ponderously literal video game rules and sucked out all hints of sensuality and polymorphic possibility, so, too, his versions of Batman have reduced the iconography of the original comic books and other takes from surrealism-infused pop art into more theoretically realistic fare that feels no actual responsibility to realism.

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Looking back at my 2008 review of The Dark Knight through the prism of a second viewing, the film fell apart for me, and I wish I had written a harsher commentary. Still, I concluded with a line that, in light of the new film, is relevant: It may take a new, revved-up Catwoman to drag a reaction from this Batman that doesn’t sound like he merely needs a cough lolly. The Dark Knight Rises does indeed sport a new, revved-up Catwoman, though she’s never referred to as such, in the lissom form of Anne Hathaway (more on her later). The Dark Knight Rises sees Nolan’s franchise reach ever more optimistically for a mantle of epic import, and to be fair, the scope of its story does in some regards justify such aspiration.

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Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) finds himself not only up against marauding supervillains, but also his own aging body and calcifying emotional reflexes. For eight years, Wayne’s been hiding out in his rebuilt mansion, having officially retired his Batman alter ego and let it take the blame for the murder of DA Harvey Dent and the deaths Dent caused in his lunatic final hours. Now Wayne limps around on a cane in a Howard Hughes-lite routine. Meanwhile, his former collaborator in crime fighting, Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), has become Gotham City’s police commissioner. Gordon harbours guilt over the way a lie was used to venerate Dent’s name and enact the Dent Act that has seen Gotham cleaned up at last. During a political rally held at Wayne’s estate, but without his participation, cat burglar Selina Kyle (Hathaway), posing as a waitress, breaks into Wayne’s private safe and lifts both his mother’s pearl necklace and a set of his fingerprints. Wayne catches her in the act, but she casually knocks him about and slips away in the limousine of a congressman (Brett Cullen).

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Wayne and his admirable Crichton, Alfred (Michael Caine), swiftly track Selina down, but she proves to be not simply a free agent, but enmeshed in a conspiratorial vortex where rival businessman Daggett (Ben Mendelsohn) is trying to take over Wayne Enterprises and bankrupt it at the behest of hulking mercenary Bane (Tom Hardy). Bane was once, and may still be, linked to the League of Shadows, a terrorist organisation whose boss, Ra’s al-Ghul (Liam Neeson), trained Wayne and whom Wayne turned against in Batman Begins (2005). In one of the most ludicrous action sequences I’ve ever seen, Bane kidnaps scientist Pavel (Alon Moni Aboutboul) from a CIA rendition plane in mid-air by rappelling from another plane, and it was all to make it look like Pavel died in a crash. Bane then sets himself up in Gotham’s sewers to stage-manage the destruction of Wayne/Batman before subjecting Gotham to a punitive purge.

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Wayne, who has expended most of his fortune on developing a fusion reactor that he mothballed when he learnt it could be turned into a nuclear weapon by Pavel, is left further shorn of his previous privileges as his company is bankrupted by Bane during a raid on the Gotham stock exchange. Soon, his belongings are being repossessed, and Alfred, afraid this time Bruce is biting off more than he can chew, abandons his boss mid-fight. Wayne gets Selina to guide him to Bane’s hideout, but this proves exactly what Bane wanted: he traps Wayne, beats him to a pulp, and breaks his spine before exiling him to the same don’t-say-it’s-Afghani prison where Bane himself once resided. Bane is then free to terrorise Gotham, setting off bombs all over the city, bringing down bridges, clogging up tunnels, and managing to trap most of the police underground, cutting Gotham off from the outside world, and taking it over as a supposedly revolutionary city-state.

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As per one consistent flaw in Nolan’s screenwriting (penned as usual with his brother Jonathan), he writes about 10 characters and three plot threads more than he can handle. Chief amongst the busy sprawl of supporting figures is John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Leavitt), a young rookie cop who grew up in a home for orphans once funded by Wayne Enterprises. Early in the film, Blake invites himself to Wayne Manor and reveals that he’s guessed Wayne is Batman because he’s noticed before that Wayne, like him, wears a mask of courteous contempt for the world (if it was that easy, shouldn’t there be at least a few more who have made the link, including Gordon, who’s still oblivious to the point?) and wants him to rejoin the fray. In another development, Alfred deliberately hurts Wayne by stating Wayne’s great, deceased love Rachel Dawes was planning on marrying Dent rather than him. Caine almost makes this poorly written and emotionally incoherent moment (is disillusioning Wayne and leaving an existential void where his romanticism used to be supposed to make him less likely to commit to a foolhardy course of bravado?) work purely by the force of his time-tested emotive quaver. Wayne seems to barely notice his life-long companion’s departure: Caine does return for a few seconds towards the end, with a show of emotion that sadly only made me want to wince for the ham-handed reintroduction. His place is momentarily filled by the agreeable form of Marion Cotillard’s Miranda Tate, an investor who seems to stick by Wayne in his travails, agreeing to help get his reactor working again—both the one he’s built and the one in his pants. Mendelsohn’s Daggett is cringe-inducing as both a piece of acting and of characterisation.

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Normally, as anyone who reads my commentaries regularly knows, I go with the flow of action films: they are, after all, partly about their own absurdity, their freewheeling insolence towards the laws of physics and human feeling. But I find myself critiquing to different rules when the filmmakers obviously want to cloak themselves in a mantle of down-to-earth immediacy and relevant meaning, and when audiences so nakedly want to reward them for lending a tiny bit of viability to their adolescent fantasies. The film does some stunningly jerky, artless leaps of storytelling—or rather story-stating—early on, including Blake’s confrontation of Wayne and Wayne’s locating of Selina, chiefly so it doesn’t have to bother detailing such moments in a procedural fashion; that would demand care in staging. These are marvellous examples of Nolan’s info-dump idea of exposition. Even more clumsily handled is Selina’s “kidnapping” of the congressman, whom she brings as a cover to a meeting with Daggett’s slimy interlocutor Stryver (Burn Gorman, who suggests a middle-management edition of Skelton Knaggs) and still moans in lovelorn fashion after she abandons him on the floor, dazed and…what, drugged? Hypnotised? Shagged into perpetual confusion? Anyway, Selina will later be arrested and incarcerated for this crime.

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On a realistic level, the plotting and story development of The Dark Knight Rises ranges from the infantile to the frankly stupid. To name a few plot holes the size of small moons: Why is Bane’s method of snatching Pavel and faking his death so ridiculous? Why doesn’t it take about 30 seconds of solid police work in conference with some decent computer operators to find out what Bane did in the stock exchange and hack in to reverse it? How does Bane get Wayne to the prison? How does Wayne get back into Gotham after escaping the prison? Why is it that they can get enough food and supplies down to sustain 3,000 trapped policemen, but it’s so hard to get them out? What’s up with that whole trapped policemen thing, anyway? Can’t the highly trained police officers think of a better battle tactic than to march in ranks up a narrow street facing automatic weapons? Why did Wayne chicken because his reactor could be made into a bomb? Was that so frightening, as opposed to the several thousand other nuclear bombs and fission reactors in the world that could be put to the same use? So, after having one’s back broken, it only takes a bit of clumsy quack medical work and some push-ups to come back as a fully functioning superhero? I’m sure all the paraplegics in the world will be happy to hear that. I dare say there might be explanations for many of these points (and I’m sure someone’s just eager to tell me), but it’s clear that The Dark Knight Rises isn’t interested in clarity, but in relentless forward motion.

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More to the point, Nolan still has no fundamental feel for the expressive rhythms of a film. Whilst all of his movies revolve nominally around emotional cruxes—romantic and familial tragedy are at the core of Memento (2000) and Inception and part of the background fabric here, whilst ferocious jealousy drives The Prestige—these seemingly vital aspects always remain sketches for empathy and involvement rather than the real thing. It’s like a 12 year old writing a tale of grand romance: we’re told what it is, but it is never felt. The Dark Knight Rises is supposed to tell the story of its hero’s complete fall before, yeah, rising. Which would be all well and good, except that Nolan and Bale’s Batman remains a blank space where a hero should be. The motif of his proving insufficient to take on Bane lacks force because Bale refuses to suggest any undue cockiness, frantic determination, or any other specific emotion to fight his insecurities apart from terse resolve. Similarly, his struggle to rebuild himself after Bane’s shock-and-awe annihilation of his physical, fiscal, and social prowess lacks any real moment of despair, of bottomed-out feeling or self-indulgent sorrow. Wayne lolls about in his prison bed and looks hairy and dour and then, a few push-ups later (crying out to be scored over with Team America: World Police’s immortal “Montage” song), is ready to try to climb out again. Nolan belabours rather than extracts any kind of thrill from Wayne’s repeated failures to escape. Critic Simon Abrams intelligently compared the insufficiency of these sequences with a forebear in John Frankenheimer’s French Connection II, but I’d rather cite a better superhero movie.

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In spite of all the heady camp buzzing around its hero, Superman II (1980) still manages to offer up a singular scene where the newly human Kal-El is suddenly faced with his loss of strength, his unutterably human degradation, after he’s beaten up by a common barroom lout, spitting blood and attempting to maintain his good humour even as he trembles with pain and fear now that the world doesn’t bounce off his skin. By comparison, Wayne’s struggles here are so perfunctory, mechanical, and lacking personal passion that he seems far more alien than Superman ever has; Nolan can’t give us such a simple, well-felt emotional refrain. The Dark Knight Rises is less a work of epic storytelling than a three-hour montage—an approach that could be exciting if the montage work was at all about stretching the cinematic form, but here serves only the cause of pummelling event and exposition. It’s all too tempting to conclude that for general audiences, storytelling as an art is dead; they are now into the era of stuff happening, and lots of it. There is so much incident, it becomes incidental.

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What can one say about the pretences of The Dark Knight Rises? Class war and anger are repeatedly invoked throughout. Selina is a demimondaine who has risen through thievery and possibly prostitution; her garb hinting at kinky exploits, she’s repeatedly seen hanging around with Jen (Juno Temple), more clearly a hooker and, judging by the way she hugs Selina at some points, something more for her. Bane and his fellow villains are the spirit of the oppressed surging for a spot of nihilistic insurrection. The French Revolution is clearly invoked as the wealthy are assaulted and dragged from their houses, a Bastille-like prison is broken open to release its criminal occupants, and citizens chosen as enemies of the people are given trials clearly meant to evoke the worst moments of the Reign of Terror. These parallels fascinated me deeply, chiefly because they reveal how pig-ignorant Nolan is of political history and how easily he can get away with assuming that of his audience, too. At one point, Gordon reads out the concluding passage of Dickens’ French Revolution novel A Tale of Two Cities, but unlike Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which used that book to invoke the transcendental glory of sacrifice for a common good, this film’s common sacrifice turns out to be a fake. More specifically, Nolan buys into Dickens’ knock-kneed English liberal vision of the Revolution as badly shaven creeps in seamy, raffishly worn uniforms dragging random citizens to trial in an orgy of bloodlust, and bypassing the specific background of political paranoia, war, and high-profile defections, which turned the Revolution’s moment of transformative energy into a grim spiral of political homicide.

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Not that there isn’t a good film to be made channelling the Revolution’s example into a contemporary context, but as in The Dark Knight, Nolan pays only the merest lip service to actual political relevance. Like Heath Ledger’s Joker, Bane and the League of Shadows have no genuine political programme in mind: they are determined to exact…revenge? Punishment? Ritual cleansing of perceived sins? Anyway, they actually intend to destroy Gotham and themselves in an auto-da-fé via the fusion reactor-bomb, an act which makes the rest of their actions pointless. Why don’t they just set the bomb off at the start and leave a big smoking hole in the ground where Gotham was rather than jump through all these ridiculous hoops? I could buy it if their kangaroo courts were being broadcast for the sake of inspiring fear and loathing in places other than Gotham, but they aren’t: they’re just giving their opponents time to rally against them. Rather, their intention is an act of nihilism, which frees Wayne and his allies in the police force and the system they maintain from any culpability, for the opposition is reduced to a perfect bogeyman of inchoate nastiness, and, by implication, anyone opposed to the settled order is seen as similarly, childishly, wantonly destructive. In short, the vision of good and evil proffered in these films is, far from being more ambiguous and questioning than the usual run, actually every bit as black and white as any cornball grayscale print from the ’40s. The key moment of disillusionment, when Bane reveals the truth about Dent to the city’s populace, has no apparent result.

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Perhaps this could be handled in a way that suggests more a conflict of essential spirit— communality vs. anarchy, group will vs. individual, etc.—but I’d still like it to make a lick of plot sense, and the film’s flat-footed imagery and insistent literalism doesn’t communicate it as symbolism, anyway. The constant pseudo-biblical invocations of the villains are meant to sound very impressive, and they do admittedly call to mind the similar language of Osama Bin Laden and others of his ilk. But in the real world, the use of such phraseology tends to be deeply entwined with less abstract concepts, like resentment over historical injustices and inequality, whereas here there is no substance standing behind the statements. The process hinted at throughout these films, that the name “Gotham” is actually standing in for “America,” is now completed. Whilst the opening scene seems to cast a livid eye on the brutality and risky morality of the War on Terror’s renditions, the film goes on to conflate the Dent Act, which is in danger of being repealed or expiring through lack of interest, with the Patriot Act, and just at the point where it seems irrelevant, a handy threat comes along to revalidate it.

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At last, the martial defenders of order must reassert authority and cohesion in the face of terrorists who are either domestics left out of capitalist triumphalism—the army of orphans and outcasts Bane has assembled—or hazily foreign insurgents who have spent formative years in that prison in “one of the world’s more ancient countries.” So, under its surface, the depiction of Wayne as the toppled tough guy who must overcome his privileged coddling to get back on top becomes as naked a metaphor for resurgent American triumphalism as Rocky IV (1987). Selina, who styles herself as a Robin Hood of the underworld, ultimately has to make a choice between the sides, and goes with the guy with the shit-hot car. Incoherent and suspiciously conservative-pandering political dimensions aside, The Dark Knight Rises could still work, if given room to breathe, as a fable. That is, essentially, what Nolan is trying to make, in spite of all the trappings. In this regard, he does make it part way to the heights he’s after, especially in the all too obviously symbolic climb Wayne has to make to escape the jail. (In yet another instance of Nolan’s weak visual exposition, he never bothers to analyse for the eye why escapees can’t just keep climbing up the safety rope they have tied to them instead of having to make a dangerous leap to a distant ledge.)

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In a pretty nice bit of narrative switcheroo that would be worthy of one of The Prestige’s protagonists, the child we’ve seen escaping from the prison proves to be a girl rather than a boy: Talia al-Ghul, alias Miranda, the real engine behind Bane’s efforts, born of Ra’s’ lover in the prison where she was cast by a warlord. Bane was her jailhouse protector and surrogate brother, a late touch that finally gives Hardy’s hulking villain role a touch of pathos. Bane has the body and mask of a Mexican wrestler, the accent of a James Bond villain, and the wheeze of Darth Vader. Nolan clearly wants to endow him with something of the mixture of gentlemanly cunning and perverse intelligence and feral ferocity of a good Bond opponent, but Hardy is awfully hamstrung by having to communicate personality through said mask. Cotillard similarly barely registers in her role, betraying the Nolans’ permanent embarrassment in contending with the intimate in her romance with Wayne. She does at last find purpose when her villainy is revealed, but by that very late stage, it can only be exerted in the most blunt and curtailed of expressions.

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Nolan’s sense of scene grammar and expositional logic haven’t improved: characters go in and of focus, disappear for long stretches and then come back with a startworthy suddenness, travel around the world in the blink of an eye, and turn up where they shouldn’t be. Cillian Murphy’s Jonathan Crane, alias The Scarecrow, from Batman Begins, turns up presiding over the revolutionary court out of nowhere. Presumably, he’s been released from the prison, but he then disappears, his presence just another momentary diversion for the eye that feels a little like a Laugh-In sketch; here come the judge, indeed. Selina tells Wayne that she’s led him into Bane’s trap because she’s afraid his men will kill her, and Stryver does indeed try to do that, but later Selina is able to move among Bane’s cohorts and even give orders to lesser underlings: why and how she can do this is again left frustratingly fuzzy.

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In spite of the general problems with his filmmaking, Nolan does have a talent for weaving together some striking individual scenes and movements, and here is where The Dark Knight Rises ultimately does offer interludes of nagging power. Batman’s first return to the fray is a little rousing, and Nolan goes to town in the lengthy sequence in which Bane’s plan begins to move, commencing with his breaking of Wayne, and then moving out for a spot of mass terrorism, causing grandiose carnage at a football game that sees, like some particularly malicious gag from The Simpsons, a player making a dash for the goal line only to turn and see the entire field and his fellow players swallowed into a crater. Here, at least, Nolan’s perpetual-motion editing strikes the right notes of frantic dissolution of order as Gotham falls to its conquerors. Hans Zimmer’s score works best here, too, though elsewhere it combines with the barrage of sound effects to form a wall of bullying, Pavlovian noise. Ultimately, whilst it clearly wants to rise to the level of the Star Wars films and the best moments of James Bond’s long franchise, The Dark Knight Rises felt to me more like the capper for another pop phenomenon I could never warm to, The Matrix Revolutions (2003). Like that film, it attempts to sustain the superstructure of a genuine saga, and yet still manages to wind up with a fist fight, preluded by Batman and Bane swapping the most laboured taunts I’ve heard in all my born days.

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What does finally keep this film afloat, however, is Hathaway’s presence and performance as Selina. It probably won’t prove as much of a lightning rod for neo-punk fervour that Ledger’s Joker did, because the sex appeal of spunky female characters so often tends to get in the way of more general appreciation and because she’s less of a gnomic force. But in many ways, Selina is an even better play on the familiar comic book character, transferring her essential spirit from the sources intact. In her inevitable skin-tight outfight and dominatrix heels, every inch of her is deadly in one fashion or another: in one of the film’s wittiest moments, one of Dagget’s henchmen asks her, “Do those heels make it hard to walk?” Selina promptly cripples him with a kick of those wicked spikes and asks ever so coldly, “I don’t know, do they?” She alone finally brings to Nolan’s series something of the essentially Freudian edge of the comics, where every character feels like pieces of a schizoid personality, the feminine, criminal flipside to Wayne’s masked warrior, a perfect mirror-mate.

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Whilst not as keenly self-aware as a self-constructed icon of antipathetic sexuality as Michelle Pfeiffer’s great incarnation from Batman Returns (1992), Hathaway sharpens to a point the character’s sense of impudent humour and strident, self-willed individuality, as well as her edge of fetishist provocation. In so doing, she gives The Dark Knight Rises some desperately needed comic relief and the Dark Knight himself a desperately needed personality, by dint of having enough for two. The only problem is that Nolan doesn’t always know what to do with her: Selina disappears from the movie for a great chunk of running time, and she’s almost buried under a heap of unnecessary gimmickry, like her efforts to get hold of some doodad that can erase her past. Finally, however, Selina gets to play Han Solo to Batman’s Luke Skywalker, coming back to save the day in the nick of time. In spite of her faint Sapphic associations and proclaimed contempt for good, she falls enough for our hero to share a marvellous farewell kiss with him, representing the first time in this series I’ve ever felt a hint of emotion with a protagonist. Selina is good enough a thief to steal the movie out from under everyone’s noses.

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2010s, Action-Adventure, Fantasy, Scifi

The Avengers (2012)

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Director/Screenwriter: Joss Whedon

By Roderick Heath

The Avengers could well be the most hyped movie ever made, surpassing the likes of Gone with the Wind (1939), Ben-Hur (1959), and other singular icons of globe-conquering audience awareness, if you consider that some of the predecessors in the series of Marvel Comics adaptations were basically teasers, primers, and set-ups for the cast of superheroes it features. The task of living up to such hype would be unenviable for any director, let alone one with only a single, middlingly successful feature to his credit, but the job of tethering together a dizzying sprawl of characters and plot gimmicks from other films into a single, grandiose bash-‘em-up finally fell to such a man: Joss Whedon.

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Whedon, who has long been known as the nerd’s nerd thanks to his engaging TV series Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Firefly, and Dollhouse, and stints writing storylines for some of the proper source comic books, inspires cultish devotion from many and an equal detestation from others. I confess to considering him rather a talent with great but hitherto unfulfilled potential. Whedon’s actual filmography is slight, having directed the cinematic conclusion for Firefly, Serenity (2005). Serenity suggested that Whedon’s talent for creating interesting characters in a stylised genre milieu, and witty, if occasionally gratingly arch, dialogue could be transferred to the compressed demands of a feature film, and that he could mount an exciting adventure story.

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But it also frustrated with its lack of visual imagination and blandly TV-shaped sense of staging, and faltered in clarifying the whirl of storylines being resolved from the show for a new audience. Neither lack in Whedon’s touch was a good sign in approaching The Avengers. The first 20 minutes or so of The Avengers could be switchback-inducing for anyone who hasn’t watched the earlier Marvel films, Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) and ” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener”>Thor (2011) in particular, and, indeed, for those who didn’t wait through the end credits of those films to see their hidden kickers. Whedon also has to revive a rather different kind of film, one with deep roots in Hollywood but which has been fairly quiescent for a long time now: the all-star extravaganza, a form not simply defined by featuring a number of famous faces, but by having to sustain and balance them in parts that suit their aptitudes, fans, and dramatic necessity. Yes, this is the Grand Hotel of superhero flicks.

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Thus The Avengers hits the ground running with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), director of the clandestine SHIELD security service, and scientist Eric Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard), trying to deal with the sudden coming to life of a powerful alien artefact, the Tesseract, which was retrieved along with the frozen Captain America from a watery Arctic grave. For a few minutes even I, who did watch those earlier movies, felt a little riled at such a headlong introduction, and the film takes a while to settle down, as it reintroduces the characters and sets the story into motion: because we already “know” the team, Whedon only goes through the motions of the Seven Samurai-esque gathering of the heroes. Loki (Tom Hiddleston), exiled brother of “god” Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and former usurping king of the alien realm of Asgard, has hooked up with a race of mysterious and very ugly extra-terrestrials who control a galaxy-crossing portal, and the Tesseract, as it happens, is the other end of that portal. Loki, having successfully sold the aliens on invading Earth and installing him as ruler, teleports into the SHIELD headquarters and takes psychic control of Selvig and Agent Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), dubbed “Hawkeye” thanks to his awe-inspiring prowess with bow and arrow, and Fury fails to prevent the Tesseract’s theft by bringing down the headquarters about their ears. Fury, recognising that the sort of situation he’s been preparing for has arrived, calls in his sinuous superspy Natasha “Black Widow” Romanoff and sets about tracking down the various powerful weirdoes who will comprise his Avengers team.

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Bruce “The Hulk” Banner (Mark Ruffalo) is tracked down to where he’s working as a medic in an Indian slum. Captain America, aka Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), is still trying to adjust to life in the new millennium. Tony “Iron Man” Stark (Robert Downey Jnr) has just built a New York skyscraper powered entirely by his miraculous arc reactor and resents being called away from the arms of his lover-assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). Thor is still apparently trapped on Asgard, having demolished the portal between the two worlds. Whedon’s rush of opening action betrays an uncertainty, perhaps inevitable, about how to get this contraption off the ground: still, I don’t think David Lean could have taken on such a burden and managed to make it flow perfectly. The opening offers a little tough-gal action with Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill, a cool and sturdy SHIELD agent who continues to bob up distractingly throughout the rest of the film, but whilst Whedon does snap into focus, unsurprisingly, when he can focus on a kick-ass female hero, it is in this case Johansson, who, after enlivening the torturous Iron Man 2 (2010), maintains her form as Natasha in a droll introduction. In the middle of being tortured by sleazy Slavic arms dealers, Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) calls Natasha’s mobile phone and she irritably resists having her mission cancelled now that the “interrogators” are inadvertently telling her everything she needs to know, but, obediently, she clobbers her captors whilst still tied to a chair and makes her escape. She is sent to track down Banner, whose Hulk alter ego, although he’s been keeping a lid on it successfully of late, is regarded as an unreasonable danger; it’s Banner’s scientific knowledge SHIELD wants.

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Ruffalo, taking over a seemingly cursed role after Eric Bana and Edward Norton, far outshines them for grasping Banner’s essence, not having the physical presence of Bana and more convincingly anxious than Norton; he instead pitches his performance as a savant gnawed at by the beast within, his skin sallow and his soul seeming to droop nearly as much as his purposefully oversized wardrobe, and so the Hulk stands as the Most Improved Superhero in this movie. Loki makes his presence known in Stuttgart, Germany, where he tries to browbeat a crowd into kneeling before him, only for an old man (Kenneth Tigar), having seen all this before, to resist. Before Loki can blast him away, Captain America arrives to block the exterminating bolt with his shield: he too has seen this sort of thing before. Such a scene is a punchy reminder that Whedon grasps not only the essence of good melodrama but also the powerful underlying thematic ties of this material to the anxieties of the last century. Whereas Stark’s Iron Man, who arrives to give Rogers some needed aid, constantly trails the association of the Cold War his father fought and the American hegemony and embodies the cognitive dissonance of this age, Rogers is still the WW2 fascist-fighter, and recognises Loki’s übermensch mentality. Interestingly, as the least colourful and the most old-fashioned of the heroes, Rogers emerges as the film’s axiom, all the more surprising as Captain America was saddled with the least inspired of introduction films. But Rogers’ air of faintly forlorn, antiquated idealism is compelling as Fury states apologetically that “we’ve made mistakes…some very recently”, and inevitably grazes against the post-modern wise-assed diva act of Stark.

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Evans, a surprisingly restrained and grounded actor considering that he first came to attention playing the insufferable Johnny Storm in the Fantastic Four movies, absorbs Downey’s stream of flip with a shield of earnestness far more impressive than the metallic one he carries. Whedon aptly makes Coulson a closet Captain America fanboy, and wants his childhood hero to sign the trading cards he’s collected. Rogers offers Whedon an obvious avatar for exploring not simply the boyish fantasies at the heart of the superhero mythology, but also the powerful pull of nostalgia, and the sense of being a devotee to any creation with a legacy, not just seventy-year-old comic book heroes, which means living both in the past and the present. Rogers searches for something, anything, to give him purpose and direction: when, having sat through a stream of modern techno and military babble, someone’s crack about “flying monkeys” makes him shout with joy that he recognises the reference. Rogers however instantly adapts to crisis situations, and emerges in the finale as the team’s natural leader, as an experienced soldier and strategist, barking out a stream of instructions to the team to take up positions, ending with the immortal last order to his least sophisticated warrior: “Hulk…smash!” That said, Downey, so beleaguered in Iron Man 2, is in fine form here, especially as he mocks Thor’s initial appearance as “Shakespeare in the park,” (“Doth your mother know that you weareth her drapes?”) and later dubbing him “Point Break”, and, surprised to recognise in Banner a fellow genius, taking pause to praise him for his work, including turning into an “enormous green rage monster.”

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Hemsworth’s Thor, still charmingly arcane in speech and unsubtle in method, arrives trailing fraternal issues, and makes several ill-advised attempts to talk his brother into ending his campaign of violence. Loki’s familial status is key to one of the film’s funniest lines, as Thor demands respect for the villain from the humans because he’s part of the Asgard royalty: when Natasha points out he’s killed eighty people, Thor can only bleat, “He’s adopted.” Whilst it would be easy to make The Avengers sound like a stream of Whedon-speak, the erstwhile writer-director actually for the most part contours his style into the material, which demands a more consistently classical sense of weight than Whedon’s usual pitch offers, with success. Somehow, he manages to squeeze in the great Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski, an early sign that Whedon’s aiming higher than usual, as the leader of the baddies Natasha bests at the start, and Jenny Agutter and Harry Dean Stanton also make some wryly stirring cameos for the movie fan with more than the goldfish memory of current pop culture. The Avengers takes some time to find its groove, in part because there’s so much going on, usually the opposite problem to what comic book adaptations have to deal with, and Whedon’s experience at smoothly drawing together story elements as an audio-visual as well as literary entity still isn’t that strong. Whedon instead feels his way along through what is for him the much more comfortable device of making The Avengers, in essence, a TV episode about forty minutes long, getting his characters into a small space, in this case on SHIELD’s amusing new command base, an aircraft carrier that turns into a near-invisible flying fortress, and listening to them argue, snipe, quip, cajole, threaten, butt heads, and bond. Rather than hurting the film, this segment gives the film its traction and the vitally needed human element, as Whedon carefully exposes the raw nerves of the team, their isolation, traumas, guilty legacies, and potential weakness. This puts The Avengers unshakeably on track for the first of the film’s two genuinely epic-scaled action sequences.

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Before they start working as a team, in time honoured tradition the heroes clash incessantly, even violently, as they first come into close proximity, as when Thor first appears on the scene, manifesting on the back of a plane and snatching the captured Loki away from Stark and Rogers, sparking a forest-levelling tussle between the demi-god and the mechanical man, which finally the thawed-out ‘40s square has to quell like a teacher interrupting a schoolyard brawl. Later, as it turns out that Loki is plotting to destroy the Avengers before they even really get going by exploiting their fractiousness and unleashing the supposedly uncontrollable Hulk, Hulk rampages first after Natasha, who, although tough as nails, finishes up a quivering foetal ball in hiding at the spectacle of the green monster, and Thor finishes up having to take him in a ship-shaking brawl. In terms of story structure and imagery, it wouldn’t be too inaccurate to call The Avengers a cross between The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003) and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004). Like the former, there’s a team of famous if conflicted and volatile personalities drawn together to fight a nefarious villain, and they initially prove their mettle by saving a super-futuristic craft from sabotage, a craft which looks like something out of the latter movie, as do the flying alien invaders they take on in the finale. Perhaps that merely reflects the relatively limited lexicon of the supposedly endless permutations of such fantasy material. It does however behove me to point out that Whedon’s film does everything bigger and, more importantly, better: better detail, better effects, better characterisation, better drama.

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Most vitally, Whedon knows that this sort of tale has to reach a moment of iconic power where the heroes click as a team, and he offers this as the heroes gather in a circle with their enemies about them, but also that the heroes have to all have their distinctive moment of glory, which requires coherence in the style and saves the finale from being a singular mass of tedious action. And everyone gets one, from Natasha pulling off an astounding hijack of an alien flying craft thanks to her gymnastic skills, to the Hulk, irritated by Loki’s mockery, grasping him and slapping him about like a rag, finally reducing the sneering hunk of malevolence to a groaning wreck in a moment that could well come out of a Chuck Jones Looney Tunes cartoon. Loki isn’t as interesting a villain as he was in Kenneth Branagh’s terrific Thor, where his pathos and pathetic neediness underscored his treachery; now he’s a mad and unrepentant would-be dictator, but Hiddleston still serves him well, playing him as the most vicious English boarding school bully imaginable, with a strut archer than Ziggie Stardust-era Bowie and a nice line in antique insults. Renner has the most thankless task in the film, playing the one team member who hasn’t had a substantial prior introduction, and he spends half of it under Loki’s mind control to boot. Hints of his and Natasha’s connection through a personal debt and perhaps, although she denies it, something deeper, does nonetheless clear the way for some emotional urgency in Hawkeye’s return to the fold. Renner projects the same taciturn sensibility of a warrior wit honed to the finest edge that caught the eye in The Hurt Locker (2008), with an added hint of reserved gallantry: thus Hawkeye seems, in his way, the most “real” character in the film.

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Of course, whilst the outlay of story elements is busy, the actual plot, once in motion, is actually very simple, even scanty, an excuse to give the Avengers a decent threat to go up against – not always an element these films remember to provide, as Superman Returns (2006) sadly forgot. The real stress is on character conflict, and Whedon smartly makes this the essence of Loki’s plans as well as the general story dynamic: he pricks the heroes, especially Natasha, with their own hang-ups, in his attempts to divide and conquer. The team comes close to disintegrating when they learn Fury and SHIELD have been trying to create new weapons with the Tasseract’s power, the act which alerted the aliens to its presence in the first place. But when Coulson is fatally wounded by Loki, Fury gives them a little propagandist push by soaking Coulson’s trading cards in his blood and presenting them to the team as a spur, an interesting stab at trying to complicate the film’s morality, and consider how such spurs can be both manipulative and dishonest, but perhaps sometimes also necessary. Fury himself has to defy unscrupulous masters in trying to hold off a shadow World Security Council from using the nuclear option on Manhattan, something he fails in, demanding a final sacrificial effort from Stark. On a purely incidental level, it’s cool to see Jackson’s Fury finally get to do some proper badass work, and I kind of wish someone would make a “Young Nick Fury” movie: surely there’s room for a black superhero with ‘70s Blaxploitation motifs in his background and atomic-age power in his hands in the modern pantheon.

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When it comes to the crunch, The Avengers provides a properly spectacular and visually well-organised special effects extravaganza, in production terms one of the best ever done, staged with ebullient energy: it’s certainly trying to be such, although it can’t reach the level of imperative Peter Jackson managed in The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003), where there’s a dizzying sensation in the action of multiple elements long in the setting up colliding head on, or the finale of George Lucas’ Star Wars: Episode III – The Revenge of the Sith (2005), where the settings and the effects ebulliently describe the emotions being enacted. This is more spectacle for spectacle’s sake, turning a basic punch-up into something like three-dimensional chess using a city as a playing board, but damn, what spectacle. Whedon, or at least the special effects team provided him, invokes the dreaded Transformers movies at points, especially as the final battle in a cityscape superficially resembles the climax of the first of Michael Bay’s series. The always unpleasant sensation Bay’s films radiate, with their unreconstructed militarist fetishism and sense-contorting editing styles, has been seen by many as transmitting a kind of covert fascism; Whedon answers this by not simply emphasising democratic themes in his tale, but by making his film entirely fluent and thrilling through access, not assault, for eye and mind. I don’t know if it can yet be said that Whedon has any kind of definable visual style, but he does have a fondness for long-take sequences as a way of facilitating that democratic spirit, and this strategy culminates in one utterly bravura shot that seems to move along the breadth of Manhattan, finding each of his individualist heroes engaged in their station of battle in a fashion that unites them strategically and emotionally, from Captain America brawling on street level to Hawkeye atop a skyscraper to Thor and the Hulk riding the back of one of the grotesque mechanical leviathans the aliens employ.

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The sight of Thor’s red cape swirling as he rides a colossal beast of dull grey steel over the equally dull grey New York skyline catches the eye like the essence of some secret genre poetry, in which both fantastic invaders and familiar urban architecture are equally complicit in a war against the unrelieved colour and power of the primal individual, and both lose big time. Whedon shoots for some of the supercharged emotion glimpsed once upon a time in the climaxes of the early Superman films or Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan (1982) as Stark tries to call an oblivious Pepper for a goodbye as he prepares to sacrifice himself for humankind, an act Rogers earlier said he could never consider: Whedon doesn’t quite hit those heights, but it’s nice that he tried. Some touches do become repetitive, especially characters falling from great heights for bruising landings, but all in all this is a brilliantly made sequence that dwarfs almost all rivals. The Avengers doesn’t escape all the familiar blind spots of this kind of filmmaking. In addition to the stuttering start, it sadly forgets to include a satisfying ending where the characters have a proper farewell, there’s a tacked on promise for another sequel, and a certain amount of fragmentation sets in with Whedon’s need to keep all his elements in some sort of focus.

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There’s a constant, uncomfortable reminder with these Marvel movies that they can never just be movies sufficient unto themselves. Romance is mere theory, and sexuality is expressed through the tight pants of its heroines. It’s these lacks that repeatedly stand in the way of the superhero genre truly becoming the heir of the swashbuckler, which was always defined not only by its basis in the immediate reality of the athleticism of its actors, but also by the incision of personal concerns that are definably adult – looking forward to the future, trying to reproduce, and reshape nominal barriers of gender and class to find a place in a society worth living in – rather than the kind of pouting angst, detached from such concerns, so often found in modern superheroes and which makes them so relatable for teens; the reasonably strong romantic element of Thor was one reason it stood head and shoulders above most of the recent pack, and Tony Stark’s former playful licentiousness is down for the count. But it feels a bit churlish to stress such lacks considering that The Avengers as a whole really does hit the mark as surely as one of Hawkeye’s arrows. It has to be said that between this and the fiscally ill-fated but still glorious John Carter, 2012 has seen the blockbuster bar raised pretty darn high for the next few years.

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1970s, Action-Adventure, Fantasy

Superman (1978)

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Director: Richard Donner

By Roderick Heath

Love them, hate them, or prefer Jane Austen movies as your cup of escapism, the superhero tale has evolved from ephemeral, junky, adolescent power fantasy into the major mode for expressing distillations of the mythic sensibility in modern Western pop culture. Perhaps this is due as much to a dearth of alternative sources as to the evolution of postmodern literary theory and the maturation of geek culture. Since we’ve mostly lost what were once the common resources of classical mythology, and where it was once a great communal act to sit down and listen to stories of Achilles or Roland or Beowulf or Heracles, today, tales of Spider-Man and Batman and X-Men bring us in for that shared love of figures who can resist the limits of mortality and find the larger-than-life quality in everyday moral quandaries. So comic book adaptations and superhero flicks are everywhere these days, to the partly justified exasperation of many, the steady employment of large special-effects teams, and the generally consistent ring of cash registers. With most of them, it’s not hard to admit that few really bear the weight of such elevated references. Even the best ones, like Tim Burton’s Batman Returns (1992), Kenneth Branagh’s Thor (2011), Bryan Singer’s X-Men 2 (2003), and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 (2003), lack in some degree the internal integrity and willingness to stretch their generic and fiscal reasons for being to become truly great fantastic cinema.

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For me, still standing high above the pack of superhero movies is Richard Donner’s 1978 film of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s fabled, definitive superhero. Donner, a director who had served a long apprenticeship in television and who debuted in films with the tacky war movie Submarine X-1 (1968) and weird jailbait romance Twinky (1970), emerged most properly with the hysterical, stylish, deliciously pulpy 1976 horror movie The Omen, where Donner’s peculiar capacity to tap, through dynamic staging and care of craftsmanship, the passionate force of even the trashiest material, proved the saving grace. Donner showed in the next quarter-century that he could invest a lot of apparently factotum Hollywood product with integrity by his storytelling and cinematic shaping: his was not a fan’s indulgent touch, but that of a professional willing to invest anything with rigour, even if finally too many Lethal Weapon movies and other third-rate action flicks fill up the latter part of his oeuvre. Superman was also certainly the product of many cooks, and it displays the divergent impulses and creative touches that went into it, with a script initially penned by ’70s epic specialist Mario Puzo but refurbished by other hands, including seasoned writing team David Newman and Robert Benton and Newman’s wife Leslie, and Tom Mankiewicz, who though uncredited, provided, so Donner testified, most of the final screenplay. For the most part these many influences keep each other in check and even work to facilitate the film’s richness, and Donner’s overall instinctive solidity resists fragmenting under pressure.

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The idea of a superhero film taking itself seriously in 1978 was a pretty wild one: comic books and superheros had been the ’60s emblems of pop art and camp, evinced by movies like Barbarella (1968) and the Batman TV series. But the success of Star Wars (1977) gave an impetus to the notion that there was something larger and deeper—emotionally, if not intellectually—behind the old pulp pantheon. So Donner, in taking command of the colossal budget and all-star cast handed to him by the cantankerous, abrasive, but certainly effective father and son producing team of Alexander and Ilya Salkind, fashioned Superman not simply into a dynamic adventure yarn, but as an honest-to-god mythopoeic saga of the birth and maturation of a demigod that Homer would have understood.

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Superman is also a calculated hymn to the pleasure of rediscovering half-forgotten heroes of youth and naïve fantasies long cast off, a note immediately established with the first shot, of a movie theatre’s curtains opening and a child’s voice recounting the roots of the comic book in the 1930s: the miseries of the Depression and the world of New York publishing emblemised by the Daily Planet building with its iconic globe logo, filmed in black and white. What follows is a plunge into the depths of space over which the swooping credits and John Williams’ heroic score unfurl in what might count as the longest travelling shot in movie history, resolving at last on the planet Krypton under its red sun, the sun that will soon explode and take Krypton and its people with it. The true first scene is nominally just a set-up for a sequel, but it also serves a deft thematic function, as it depicts Jor-El (Marlon Brando) trying and condemning a trio of destructive Kryptonians (Terence Stamp, Sara Douglas, and Jack O’Halloran) to a grim imprisonment in a “Phantom Zone.” Superman’s father, we see, is the embodiment of all patriarchal authority, and a crime fighter, just as his son will be. Brando was paid a ludicrously large sum of money for his few minutes of screen time, but if anyone was worth it, he was, because he fills the part with a gravitas very few actors could have wielded.

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Jor-El is also a scientist, and with overtones that now seem distinctly familiar from real life, his warnings of planetary endangerment are dismissed by his fellow Kryptonian overlords (including Trevor Howard, who still hadn’t forgiven Brando for acting up whilst making 1962’s Mutiny on the Bounty), who force his silence and cooperation by threats to him and his family. Jor-El, bound to remain on Krypton with his wife Lara (Susannah York), loads his infant son Kal-El into a spaceship and sends him to Earth in a dazzlingly staged sequence that sees the spaceship crack through the ceiling just as the last act of planetary disintegration starts; Krypton’s icy civilisation crumbles in a scene of apocalypse that evokes De Mille in its gusto. Donner’s reach for the unapologetically fabled fully invokes the original comic’s basis in half-digested versions of the Moses and Samson myths, and images of the infant within the capsule evoke Buddhist depictions of infant bodhisattvas absorbing all the knowledge of the world, cross-bred with imagery right out of old Amazing Stories covers.

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When young Kal-El crash-lands on earth, he moves directly into a different mythology: that of a Middle America that’s vast and big-hearted and reassuring in its simplicity. Jonathan and Martha Kent (Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter), visions straight out of an Edward Saroyan tale, adopt the amazing youngster who crawls out of a smoking pit and immediately lifts a car over his head. Dubbed Clark, he grows into an awkward teenager (Jeff East), albeit one defined by astounding gifts he has to hide, crippling him in his attempts to communicate properly with the world around him, in other words, exactly like every teenager sees themselves. Flirting with cheerleader Lana Lang (Diane Sherry) but dismissed by the football-playing jocks he can easily best, Clark wears off his frustration by indulging his hidden brilliance alone.

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It’s telling that many subsequent superhero tales, including both the comic books that followed Siegel and Shuster’s creation and the films that followed this one, are always in Superman’s thrall. Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man movie couldn’t help but recreate nearly note for note the scenes depicting Clark’s fateful last interaction with Jonathan, with wise, doomed father figures played by suitably august movie stars. The moment of Jonathan’s death—realising he’s having a heart attack and releasing a plaintiff “Oh no!” before collapsing—is one of the two remarkable moments of mortality that define the film, and the keenest in the genre; the subsequent scene of his funeral evokes no lesser figures of film than John Ford and George Stevens in the employment of careful contrasts of the homey little church ground and the small collective of grieving humans framed against colossal vistas. That’s the world Donner wants us to feel Superman is staked in, that world of grandiose Americana and a cinematic tradition from before that damned New Wave. He gets even cornier, and even more effective, when Clark says farewell to Martha amidst the wheat fields that sway in Andrew Wyeth-esque beauty above their house.

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Donner’s sense of the epic, of course, invokes many other filmic references, with the early scenes nodding to the Bauhaus-era fantasias of Fritz Lang and William Cameron Menzies. Finally, heading into the Arctic wastes and using the green crystal that is the last totem of his inheritance to build from the ice a recreation of Krypton that will become the Fortress of Solitude, Clark encounters the ghostly image of his father, who takes him through an epic schooling from which he finally emerges in his full regalia, reborn as Superman, in the body of Christopher Reeve.

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Superman makes a radical mood shift at this point, as the pitch of classicism and mythology collide headlong with a version of Metropolis that’s indivisible from New York circa 1978, a heady, hectic, skeptical, grubby place. Whilst the familiar figures of the Daily Planet, like puppyish young photographer Jimmy Olsen (Mark McClure) and gruff editor Perry White (Jackie Cooper), step directly out of their corny comic book origins, the world about them is contemporary, and that’s the film’s most inspired idea. In opposition to later variations where superheroes are made “darker” and more “believable” a la the endless reinventions of Batman, Superman mainly leaves the hero as exactly the same overgrown Boy Scout he always was and updates the world around him, making him initially a self-conscious ambassador of embattled ethics and retro values in a world of cynics, swingers, fads, and women’s lib, and where only a fly black guy is capable of appreciating Superman’s fashion sense. Thus, Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane is cleverly pitched as an audience avatar, utterly up to date in her blithely overeager savvy, delighting in the horrors she types up with fiendish energy (“There’s only one ‘p’ in rapist,” White says as he corrects her spelling when looking over her latest story) and pondering with Cosmopolitan-era shamelessness whether Superman’s anatomy is as righteous as his decorum. Yet she harbors a secret longing for a world that’s more romantic, a longing answered when Superman turns up. The humour in the film is mostly knowing rather than satiric, which is its other good idea, as when first called into action, Superman is momentarily confronted with a lack of phone booths and uses a revolving door instead.

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Superman’s first adventure in character—saving Lois from a crashed helicopter hanging over the edge of the Daily Planet building’s roof—is a terrific action set piece in which Donner and editors Stuart Baird and cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth work painstakingly to create a realistic sense of danger. No matter how many times you watch the film, it’s impossible not to feel the flicker of exhilaration when the man in the bright red cape swoops up against all sense to catch the falling Lois and easily fend off the falling helicopter to boot, the essence of childish fantasy made solid.

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It’s interesting to note that the crash sequence utilises the same building blocks as the accidental butcheries of The Omen, as trivial physical incidents cause a calamity that leaves Lois hanging by a seatbelt high above a crowd of horrified spectators. Indeed, Superman is entirely the logical antithesis to The Omen, where the excesses of the ’70s give birth to unseen Satanic forces and an Antichrist who will exploit and avenge all sins: Donner’s Superman is, by that logic, the returned Messiah. Some critics have stated that the revival of the Superman figure at precisely this juncture was a perfectly timed exploitation of an audience exhausted by the relentless savagery of the horror and disaster movies that had preceded it. Conscious or not, these parallels work their way into the film on a production level, as Donner had insisted on a credo of “verisimilitude,” a feeling of solidity, immediacy, and engagement with the world as is. Into this landscape, Superman bursts with special effects that have been, for once, carefully employed to evoke the spirit of the original comic books and the absurdist visions of the early TV series but in a more dynamic, convincing fashion. Keen examples of this spirit occurs when Superman digs through the city sidewalk and into the earth by spinning around like a drill, and when he stretches himself out as a replacement for a missing hunk of railway track.

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Donner offers halfway through the film a sequence where Superman takes the ardent Lois for a flight far above Metropolis, and the style takes a turn towards outright theatricality, befitting a scene that nods to depictions of Peter Pan and Wendy; the film also treads awfully close to risibility as Lois recounts in voiceover what sounds like a bad schoolgirl poem (actually what was originally going to be a song), though in its own way, it adds to the effect of otherworldly romanticism. Debatably, Superman falters when it introduces the true foil of the movie, Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman), and his half-witted comic-relief assistants Otis (Ned Beatty) and Eve Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine). Luthor, always the most potent of Superman’s human enemies, is here a strutting egomaniac often at the mercy of his assistants’ clumsiness, though the maliciousness under his archness is signalled early on when he casually ejects a policeman in front of a train. More than anything else in the film, Luthor’s team come closest to evoking the reflexes of self-satire in the genre, somewhat at odds with Donner’s hitherto carefully constructed fantasy. But it’s hard to get too upset about it largely because the trio of actors are so much fun, with Hackman delivering a peach of a comic performance, and because it takes a lot of the sting out of Luthor’s plan, which if played too straight would seem grotesquely psychopathic. Obsessed with owning real estate, Luthor wants to direct a nuclear warhead into the San Andreas fault to make California fall into the sea and make him the new king of the West Coast, with another warhead casually programmed to fall on New Jersey just for the hell of it. Luthor’s hideout, a forgotten wing of Grand Central Station refitted into the perfect Park Avenue pad, is a brilliant visual gag, and Perrine’s Eve is pitched as another woman who, like Lois, is tired of negotiating modern New York—er, Metropolis—and acts as crypto-fag hag to Luthor’s queeny villainy, moaning sadly that she can never get it on with the goody guys when the time comes for her to save Superman’s life. No wonder Perrine later turned up in Can’t Stop the Music (1980), which deliberately patterned one of its protagonists after Clark’s milquetoast masculinity.

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Of course, a great deal of what makes Superman work so well is the cast. As Bryan Singer discovered with his attempt to recreate the Donner aesthetic with Superman Returns (2005), his roll call of good-looking, fairly talented young actors somehow still seemed horribly callow in comparison with the spiky, lively personages Donner employed from all over the ‘70s film world. The tragic Reeve will always be associated with this role, which is certainly fair, though he was possessed of real acting chops that were often ignored. Reeve, who was completely unknown when he landed the role, finished up third-billed behind Brando and Hackman, but he sustains the film with such ease you almost don’t notice it. His Clark Kent is a hunky bumbler whose guise recalls Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby (1938), whilst his Superman is a charming, dashing mensch capable of both good-humour and a little risqué by-play with Lois, but really a frustrated romantic with an arsenal of deep moral seriousness that seems to be the true source of his physical prowess. Reeve’s best moment comes after Superman has an entrancing first date/interview with Lois, and then returns in his guise as Clark to take her out, barely noticed by the dazzled Lois. When she’s out of the room, he suddenly gets an idea to tell her the truth. He takes off his glasses, rises to his full height and seems to inflate within his clothes, voice dropping a half-octave in new confidence, before thinking the better of it and sagging back into his human character again. Reeve was uncannily good in the role, and managed to effectively expand on the characterisation in Richard Lester’s two sequels. Similarly, Kidder made the best of a role cast not for whichever starlet was hot at the moment but for real aptness: her Lois combines adult spunk and an independent vigour that isn’t facile or undercut, but with a dash of winsome girlishness under the surface.

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Lester’s first sequel, Superman II (1980), is a tighter film than Donner’s, and arguably a more urgent one, partly because the villains are more threatening and because the more comic-minded Lester’s sense of humour and depiction of the threat to a Superman suddenly prone to human weaknesses—physical, emotional, and moral—blends in a volatile mixture. But Donner’s film sustains a far greater scope and a deeper emotionalism that really seems in touch with the essence of the fabulous. The sweep of action is formidable in the lengthy finale as Superman chases down Luthor’s rogue rockets and tries to singlehandedly patch up a rapidly disintegrating California. Here the ’70s special effects are often strained to breaking point, but Donner’s sense of rapid, illustrative action glosses over the occasional tackiness. For Donner and company, it’s a moment of real confrontation when Superman finds Lois dead in her car, falling earth having suffocated her, and his scream of rage and denial is, again, gut-wrenching no matter how many times you see it. All superhero stories are about defying the laws of mortality we have to live by, but this moment jabs right at the heart of the way the fantasy and the fear coincide with an intensity that flattens the competition.

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Despite his father’s injunction not to change human history, Superman does just that to save one woman, obeying, ironically, the words of his human father, not his Kryptonian one. It could be the most forceful portrayal of the myth of the demigod who literally wrestles with death and saves the unfairly claimed woman since Euripides’ Alcestis. And that’s what finally makes Donner’s Superman legitimately great: it is, in its own peculiar fashion, fearless in courting primal parts of ourselves. The grin Superman flashes the audience right at the end is a shattering of the fourth wall that works perfectly, confirming that Superman is one of the singular examples of a mega-budget special-effects flick that radiates a feeling that the people who made it really wanted to make it the best way they could, purely for the audience’s sake.

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1980s, Fantasy

Batman (1989)

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Director: Tim Burton

By Roderick Heath

Yeah, I can’t believe it’s been 20 years, either. And it’s been at least 15 since I last saw Tim Burton’s grandiose redesign of the classic comic strip and the campy TV show derived from it. I remember the hype around its release exceptionally well, because it was impossible to get away from. In commercial terms, as other writers have noted lately, Batman altered how Hollywood conceived and sold its blockbusters. Whilst ’80s cinema had been replete with sequels and spin-offs, Batman ushered in the carefully maintained, prepackaged franchise. Yet this gamble relied on the antic wit of Tim Burton, then still a kooky outsider, whose ideas provided a template for many an event movie and comic-book-derived series to follow, and its visual and thematic patterns echoed long into the next decade: it’s hard to imagine The Crow (1994), Dark City (1998), The Matrix (1999), Fight Club (1999), or Watchmen (2009) without its influence.

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Amongst other things, it made “darkness” the must-have appendage of any new or rebooted franchise spun from fantastical material, most such darkness being a kind of schoolyard Gothicism and affected moral probity, here about vigilantes and scarring traumas. Burton had, of course, been paying attention to the work of Frank Miller and Alan Moore as they introduced rawer violence and more psychologically pungent employment of the comic’s ready metaphors in the past few years. Where Richard Donner had turned Superman into an effective hero for the ’70s with the ironic touch of leaving him unchanged but updating the world around him, Burton went the opposite route. He transformed the jut-jawed, dashing Bruce Wayne into a troubled misfit and his Gotham City into a deliberately unreal, teeming hodgepodge of eras and images.

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Even when I was young, I was uneasy with the resulting film, and in revisiting it, much of my unease was confirmed. My admiration of it as a design classic doesn’t elide the flimsy script, and Burton’s alternately scurrilous and disengaged attitude to his nominal hero—much of the result has a disjointed, patchy flavour. Moments of near-genius sit alongside a painfully stillborn romance and half-hearted superhero shenanigans. The movie looks like a rough draft for something Burton would later pursue with more intensity: he’d match up flagrantly styled backgrounds, high adventure, and a wimpy-but-resolute hero with far greater vivacity in Sleepy Hollow (1999), and delve more darkly and deeply into the Pandora’s Box he opened here with his grungier sequel, Batman Returns (1992). And there’s a certain period perversity in the flat comic relief of Robert Wuhl and the attempt to turn Jerry Hall into an actress.

Although Batman instigated a new era in Hollywood screen culture, when I look at it now, it also looks like a curtain call for some aspects of what had once defined that culture, a time when production values were very important, especially in terms of the design. Anton Furst’s great, Oscar-winning sets dominate this film’s imagery, and Batman came right at the end of a high-style period in big-budget film, which, in the decade before, had produced movies like Blade Runner (1982), One from the Heart (1982), and Streets of Fire (1984). Soon, digital effects and kinetic editing would become the recognised signposts of Hollywood product. Batman’s special effects were grand, but also often deliberately ropy, not so far in intent and effect from David Lynch’s even more forcefully unreal efforts with Dune (1984). And yet a lot of the staging, in terms of physical action and pace of editing, looks stodgy and limited now in comparison to more recent product.

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Likewise, the colossal sum of money and attention that Jack Nicholson received for his appearance as the Joker was the apotheosis of a star-centred industry that’s been in decline ever since. It was a tactic borrowed from Marlon Brando’s contribution to the hype avalanche of Superman (1978), but where Brando’s short, restrained performance provided a bridging point of credibility between the otherworldly and the familiar, Nicholson was called upon to be the avatar of Batman’s mix of the insane and the inspired.

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And yet the film is more ambitious than almost every other comic adaptation not made in Japan, and it achieved its core ambition: to turn the aesthetics of the printed page into total cinematic stylisation, and to invoke the broad mythic potential of the comics in addressing more ideas than mere wish-fulfillment. Burton used it as a vehicle to further his pop-art vision of the Gothic subculture to examine the seamier side of the psyche. Many ’80s genre flicks readily played out reactionary fantasies of vigilante and extra-legal justice, but many others gleefully sublimated more critical and satiric perspectives, most easily noticed in works like Paul Verhoeven’s vicious Robocop (1987). Where that film looked acerbically at yuppie and Reaganite culture, Batman is slightly more circumspect in its through-a-glass-darkly portrait of ’80s New York, with a fretting, ineffective Ed Koch-esque mayor (Lee Wallace), and glam high-lifers who ignore the destitute, pony up huge sums of money for pointless parades, and bunker down within citadel-like houses and art galleries whilst ignoring the rot of gangsters who infest and control their city.

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However, the chief gangster, Grissom (Jack Palance, relishing the too-brief villainy that reenergised his career), wants only the same perks as any other patrician: model girlfriend Alicia (Hall), good scotch, penthouse apartment. When he arranges to have his underling Jack Napier (Nicholson) rubbed out for banging Alicia behind his back, Napier survives a bullet in the face and a douse in a vat of chemicals, in a sequence patterned after White Heat (1949). He returns as the disfigured Joker to kill Grissom and establish himself less as a kingpin than a kind of post-punk performance artist, specialising in mass terror and murder. In the film’s single best sequence, he and his goons invade the city’s hoity art gallery after gassing the patrons, and then to the impudently jaunty strains of Prince, prance about defacing the art works like demonic Duchamps. He announces himself as the “world’s first fully functioning homicidal artist” to Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger), a gorgeous photographer who has herself moved from glamour portraits to grotesque accounts of third-world atrocities, and displays an acid-scarred Alicia as his first “sketch” of the new aesthetic.

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Meanwhile, Burton announces his troubled take on the efficacy of violent repression, portraying his Batman as a sullen, emotionally distant loser who battles an arch enemy locked in a yin-yang balance: just as the young Napier (Hugo E. Black) killed Bruce’s parents, so Batman contributes to turning Napier from regulation mob enforcer into loony terrorist. That Keaton hovers, spare and spry as Wayne, and yet looming menacingly when in his vigilante garb, captures the idea of a man who only finds self-expression in a costume. Batman and the Joker become, in effect, rival artists (“Where does he get those wonderful toys?” the Joker frets) playing for the favour of the crowd, one wearing the trappings of darkness and threat but firmly on the side of good, the other utterly evil, but wearing the perverted garb of a jovial entertainer.

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There’s a humour and conceptual depth in all this that’s completely missing from the glumly naturalistic, tediously square Nolan-Bale revivals, but also inconsistently played out. The familiar narrative is an encumbrance, afflicting Wayne with Vale’s insipid romantic interest, not helped by Basinger’s wooden acting (and she gives practically the same performance she got an Oscar for!). The plot is only made to look all the more weak through Burton’s discomfort (then) with action, and disinterest in both story and traditional heroics until the rousing finale, when Batman flies his Batwing jet to save the day when the Joker cynically tries to gas all of Gotham’s citizens by luring them to his parade of poison-filled balloons. The airborne hero soars out of the night as the personification of nocturnal wrath, and rising for a moment to strike a drolly emblematic pose silhouetted against the moon. Much of the film’s dramatic heft comes from Danny Elfman’s great score, still his best film work to date, with its woozy waltzes and mocking carnival themes mingling with vast, sonorous anthems that thoroughly evoke the sepulchral valour at the fantasy’s heart.

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Burton’s choice of Michael Keaton as his Bruce Wayne/Batman actually struck me as more inspired than ever. Keaton’s low-key performance, radiating both everyday charm and faintly uneasy energy, his eyebrows hooked in the same demonic angles as Nicholson’s, reflects the doubling that Burton sees at the core of the fantasy. Nicholson’s efforts, on the other hand, so raved about at the time, are as wobbly as the movie, sometimes delicious, sometimes just hammy, certainly in comparison with his far more intricately funny and menacing performances in The Shining (1980) or, in a far worse film, The Witches of Eastwick (1987). It’s a reminder that Nicholson set an example of going broad and big for fellow Method heroes Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. But some of that fault lies in the script, which often locks him in variations on the same scene (e.g., shooting the television twice) and provides little in the way of truly malicious wit for him to wrap his lips around. Calling to mind Keaton’s own grotesque from Burton’s previous Beetlejuice (1987), Nicholson compensates by leaping around like a dirty-minded schoolboy, waggling his butt and forcing the heroine to dance whilst Batman battles sundry assassins, in a wacko conclusion that manages to conflate Vertigo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and King Kong in a heady sequence.

It’s both more and less of a success than it once seemed. A contradiction? Very well, I contradict myself.

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2000s, Fantasy

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007) / Transformers (2007)

Directors: Tim Story/Michael Bay

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By Roderick Heath

I had me an old-fashioned fantasy double-feature by watching these back to back. Alright, yes, I’m a nerd—a nerd with a strong bladder. Or more accurately, I have nerdish leanings; any hard-core nerd would sneer laughingly at my lack of knowledge in all but Doctor Who, where even though I haven’t watched the show in 15 years, I bet I can still flay most challengers in detailing the political structure of Gallifrey. Nerdishness is, of course, the proving ground of intelligence, where the young and bright test their capacities for information regulation, retention, and systematisation by using information of no consequence whatsoever. Of course, the way so many of us love to soak up the myriad detailing of the Marvel comic universe or the Star Trek Federation is an old human impulse; the intricate web of ancient Greek myths used to be familiar to goatherds and kings alike, and everybody rolled up to see what new and even, like, kinda deep twists guys like Euripides and Aeschylus could make out of comic book characters like Achilles and Ajax in their blockbusters.

So our affection for this stuff isn’t just juvenility run amok—it’s attachment to the mythic. Now, having justified my total geekout, I can move onto state that I was about the only person, it seems, to nakedly enjoy the first Fantastic Four. It was the sort of candy-coloured, weightless confection for which the idea of the comic book movie was invented, standing in thankful contrast to the overstuffed, ever-more-tedious seriousness of Batman Begins and Superman Returns et al. I’m not so dazzled as to pretend Jessica Alba can act, but the jokey appeal of the era’s leading pin-up girl done up in girl scientist dress, indicated, as in the 1950s, by having her wear glasses and heels rather than being clad in sweatpants and pierced to the nipples like any modern self-respecting geekette is a good laugh in the spirit of Julie Adams being stalked by the Creature from the Black Lagoon or Faith Domergue contending with It Came From Beneath the Sea. Ioan Gruffud, long beloved in my household for his incarnation of Horatio Hornblower, is always welcome, though his Reed Richards is pretty plastic in more ways than one. Most entertainingly, Chris Evans as the egotistical, show-offy Human Torch and Michael Chiklis as grumpy, stony Ben “The Thing” Grimm struck sparks off each other.

Rise of the Silver Surfer maintains this blithe mood of inconsequential fun, with the added appeal of Marvel’s most seriously cool character, the Silver Surfer himself, embodied by Doug Jones, who played the fish guy in Hellboy and the faun in Pan’s Labyrinth, and voiced by every fanboy’s man-crush, Laurence Fishburne. The Surfer doesn’t actually get to make much of an impression as a character, but Jones and Fishburne manage to conjure some pathos out of the sadly purposeful Surfer, serving a galaxy-sized dust cloud called Galactus that likes to eat little green planets like ours as an appetizer, on the promise that he stays the hell away from the Surfer’s own planet. The Silver Surfer is perhaps the most referenced comic book character in movies, from Richard Gere’s obsession in Breathless (1983) to Quentin Tarantino inserting him into Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Crimson Tide (1995). Why? Like, he’s Zen, dude, like all surfers, plus being silver, he doesn’t have bling, he is bling.

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The Fantastic Four films have worked for me also because Tim Story knows how to direct them. He keeps everything short and simple—the new film clocks in at barely an hour and a half. The auteur of Barbershop also maintains a tone of faux-naïf zip that perfectly captures comic book aesthetics. like when, in the action finale, our heroes, battling Dr. Doom, fight along the length of the Great Wall of China and then crash-land in the middle of Tokyo in the sort of geography-defying leap that comes straight off the printed page.

Transformers comes from material that’s closer to my bosom; yes, when I was seven years old I obsessed over the animated series where the goody Autobots rumbled each week with the wicked Decepticons, courtesy of the glorious tradition of Manga comics and associated toy marketing. The Autobots having crash-landed their spaceship on Earth, decided crash permanently, whilst the Decepticons, still in possession of their home planet Cybertron, occasionally, like litigious neighbours you want to hide from when they knock on your door, came down to create havoc. Manga inspires such strong affection amongst devotees because of its bold designs, its strong tradition of character and story, and its solidly sci-fi inspired realms, much more so than American comic books, which usually borrowed sci-fi ideas to justify power fantasies. Transformers was notable chiefly for having a well-defined bunch of robots as its heroes, with vigorously defined personalities; Last Mohican-ish noble leader Optimus Prime, hep-cat Jazz, venal Starscream, malevolent Megatron.

Which is the prime failing of Michael Bay’s mammothly expensive and stratospherically noisy film of the series; despite some nods to lore, Transformers lacks…well, the Transformers. The Autobots don’t even turn up until more than an hour into the film. Most contemporary action films have degraded exposition; Transformers makes almost the opposite crime of stretching one hour’s worth of plot and character set-up into two and a half hours, and still doesn’t really give me what I want.
Megatron%20edit.JPGThe Transformers have come to Earth looking for the All-Spark, an alien cube (even they don’t know where it came from) that has the capacity to generate living DNA from any material, even machines, which is how these shape-shifting robotic extraterrestrials got started. They’ve destroyed Cybertron in civil war, so both sides want the device to regenerate the place. Megatron came down a century earlier, got himself frozen in the Arctic, and was found by an explorer whose glasses—and this makes no sense—got imprinted with the navigational details to Earth. Obviously, these also become an object of need for the Transformers. Currently, they’re in the hands of the explorer’s great-grandson (Shia LeBeouf) who’s trying to sell them in his quest to buy a car to help him get laid. As you do. He does get the car, which turns out to be Autobot Bumblebee, his stalwart defender and cheeky helpmate in said mission to get laid.

Since Armageddon, no one in Hollywood has proven as adept as Michael Bay for channelling the aesthetic of 1950s B war movies—and not in a cool way. His portrayals of military and government types always splits evenly between whoop-your-ass caricatures and tinny incompetence, and too much of Transformers seems to aspire to a kind of contemporary, pseudo-patriotic relevance as the initial attack on a Qatar inspires a group of Special Forces soldiers to trek across the desert stalked by a robot Scorpion—an explicitly Soviet reference in the land of Al Qaeda. Bay trucks in familiar, boring, Republican, visual fetishism, like loving helicopter shots of Washington, backlit shots of pilots mounting aircraft, et cetera, fit for an Army recruiting ad. Even when I was a kid, it wasn’t lost on me that the Autobots’ guises were all civilian or helpful—Optimus is a haulage rig, and others were ambulances, rescue vehicles, Volkswagens—and the Decepticons militarist—Megatron a gun, the rest tanks, jet fighters, police cars. Bay’s fascist chic is completely at odds with this conscientious symbolism. In comparison, Rise of the Silver Surfer is cynical about militarism. Andre Braugher portrays a jerk of a general whom Reed reams in a memorable turn-the-tables speech about the joys of not having been the quarterback, and who subjects the Surfer to a Guantanamo-esque session of torture. Which is not even to touch on Bay’s uncomfortable, instantaneously digestible ethnic types; his black characters especially are loud almost to the point of minstrelry. Story plays his gentle embracing humanism with a deft lack of self-consciousness.

But this isn’t Bay’s worst failing. For an “action” director, he’s notoriously poor. His camera jerks and wobbles and rolls and leaps, and what so much time and money and anticipation have been spent on (38 hours of animation per single frame) is lost in his shitty filming; Story looks like Spielberg compared to this guy. The plotting is incredibly senseless, borrowing dashes of Terminator 2, The Thing, and Independence Day before having our heroes decide for no particular reason to go and hide the All-Spark in the nearest city from where it’s previously been kept secret, basically so Bay can stage his 45-minute-long action finale in an urban area. Bay seems determined to make the action look more like Black Hawk Down than Clash of the Titans. (Ray Harryhausen, come back!) Even the moment we all look forward to, when Optimus and Megatron rumble, is garbled and anticlimactic. The finale tries to grind us into dust with spectacle, yet provides none, and when the film finishes, it feels like it’s only just getting started. By comparison, the Silver Surfer’s final man’s-gotta-do determination to go kick some Galactus ass is much more fitting.
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But I don’t want to wail on Bay completely. His pacing numbs the faculties, and he has a gift for hyped-up comedy, largely absent in his worst films, like Pearl Harbor and The Island. He often populates his films with screwball-style pairings of bickering types who engage in endlessly facile pop-culture riffing. His usual neurotic, fast-mouthed, geeky-cool hero is here embodied by LeBeouf, a rising young star and it’s easy to see why. Like Nicholas Cage in The Rock, Le Beouf works to hold this film together by sheer eccentric personality. The part of Edible Young Miss who is his object of desire is filled by Megan Fox, who certainly lives up to her name, and even brings some substance to her part as neighbourhood hottie with a dark secret and a magnificent torso; her act of heroism in the finale is one of the few coherent, cheer-along moments. The best touch is retaining several of the voice actors from the original series, like Peter Cullen, the voice of Optimus. Hugo Weaving (V for Vendetta) is a newcomer, providing Megatron’s hissy menace. Best of all is John Turturro, who plays a cracked government spook clearly inspired by Jeffrey Combs’ brilliant turn in The Frighteners. Whatever they paid Turturro, he was worth it and more.

Bring on the sequel, but please, next time bring the Transformers themselves and leave Michael Bay at home.

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