Thursday, July 26, 2012
Back in the summer of 2008 when a little movie called "The Dark Knight" managed to both transcend and redefine the comic/superhero movie genre as we know it, the liklihood of a potential third installment, be it the tiniest glimmer on the horizon, became natural and inevitable. During a long and quiet couple of years in which Christopher Nolan, the director and all around master and commander of the hottest comic book franchise to date took a hiatus from the gritty streets of Gotham to direct his mind bending dream caper "Inception" many ideas were postulated by an ever hungry fanbase on were they would like to see a third movie go in terms of themes, villains, etc. I myself was eager for a story involving Batman on the run from the law while at the same time determined to hunt down a certain cerebral assailant obsessed with leaving riddles at the scene of his crimes as a taunting lure for Gotham's shadowy protector. Well, after finally have seeing that long anticipated third installment "The Dark Knight Rises" after a grueling four year turn-around, all I can say is thank goodness Chris Nolan and everyone involved were thinking so much bigger than I ever was.
Taking place eight years after the events of TDK which ended with Batman willingly becoming an outlaw to save Harvey Dent's reputation after the horribly scarred district attorney went on a mad rash of violence prompted by the The Joker's schemes, TDKR sees a Gotham that has since prospered under an era peace under "The Dent Act," which has allowed police to effectively stamp out the remaining elements of organized crime that for many years proved a blight on the heart of the city. Not fairing so well however are Police Commisioner Jim Gordon whose guilt over having betrayed his good friend and confidant in order forge a tremulous peace built on a lie is finally becoming more than he can live with, and eccentric billionaire Bruce Wayne, who, after riding off on the batpod to escape a vengeful police force in the climactic final moments of TDK, has relinquished his crime fighting alter ego of The Batman and since slid away into a life of reclusion and ignominity. Suffering from wounds both physical and mental, the once fearsome hero has let himself deteriorate into a gaunt, disheveled ghost shuffling around in his night gown and haunting the corridors of a sparse and sterile looking Wayne Manor.
But when new adversaries threaten to plunge the city into peril once more, Bruce is determined to dust off the cowl once more, and despite his past prime state, jump back into the fray much to the displeasure of his loyal butler and surrogate father figure Alfred, who yearns for his master achieve a happy and fulfilling life beyond the obsession of being Batman.
One of those adversaries is Selena Kyle, a sultry, crafty con artist who uses a potent combination of feminine wiles and kung fu kick a$$ery to get what she's after. Although she is a free agent and never truly a legitamite threat to the city, Selena (never referred to as Catwoman in the film) nevertheless plays a pivotal role in shaking Bruce, who senses a kindred spirit in Selena, out of his gloomy self exile, and opening his eyes to the economic disparities that are rotting the city from within.
Batman's other adversary, who is very much a threat to the city is Bane. Built like a 200 + pound tank and outfitted with a grotesque mask that evokes the image of a muzzled pit bull from hell and is part heavy metal part Hannibal Lecter, Bane is truly frightening not only in his strengh and size but also in the demeanor of smug casualness he projects while perpetrating extreme acts of violence in pursuit of his ultimate and horrifying goal. He is the biggest dog in the yard and he knows it.
Rounding out Bruce's stable of allies is head of Wayne Enterprises R&D department Lucius Fox, the veriable Q to Batman's 007, who makes his employers decision to resume his nightly theatrics even easier by supplying him with a truly cool and sci fi looking air assault vehicle crisoned "The Bat." Miranda Tate, an attractive and environmentally conscious Wayne Enterprises board member who encourages Bruce to come out of his shell and pursue his father's philinphropic endeavors by means both in the boardroom and bedroom. Lieutenant Peter Foley, a character whose arc is intended to mirror that of Gotham as a whole. And John Blake, an earnest and idealistic rookie cop who refuses to go along with the aura of complacency that has crept into the city and proves an indispensible ally to Batman in his war against Bane.
In the tradition of The Dark Knight, "Rises" taps into many real life contemporary fears including urban terrorism, class warfare, and the threat of total economic collapse. Like modern day suicide bombers eager to give their lives in perpetuation of some "glorious" cause, the villains of the story truly believe in their own twisted ideals of order and justice and are willing to go to any means necessary to accomplish those ends, thus making them far more scary than a giant CG lizard or some anonymous alien army from outer space.
Themes of suffering and redemption pervade as (spoilers!) after being beaten nearly to death and tossed in a hole to suffer and die, Bruce must rise from the abyss and truly become the symbol of hope he originally set out to be in the first movie, (2005's "Batman Begins) in order to save his city and perhaps finally overcome his need to be Batman.
Epic in every sense of the word, The Dark Knight Rises is truly a moving and bittersweet finale to the most outstanding superhero film franchise there has ever been and perhaps ever will be again. Batman truly rises to his highest height and the film's simple yet profound rational for what constitutes a hero really stikes at the core of why people love Batman in the first place. That any of us can be him.
Tuesday, July 10, 2012
Among the pantheon of superheroes, Batman's origin is certainly one of the most compelling and identifiable. Scarred by the trauma of witnessing his parents gunned down by a mugger during a harmless family outing young billionaire Bruce Wayne literally puts his life on hold and vowing justice against the evil that robbed him of the two most precious people in his life thenceforth committs every fiber of his being to achieving the peak of mental and physical perfection. Eventually developing the alter ego of the Batman, Bruce assumes the facade of a vacuous and narcassistic playboy during the day while at night, strikes fear into the hearts of Gotham's criminal underbelly while inspiring hope in its good people as the city's Dark Knight.
There have been quite a few interpretations of Batman's origins both in comics and cinema. The most noteworthy probably being Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli's grim and gritty Batman: Year One series, pretty much considered as cannon to any current reader of the comics, and Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins, which is just as much a thought provoking psychological exploration into Bruce's drive and motivation for putting on the cape and cowl and choosing to be a hero as it is a rousing action/adventure story.
And now, just in time for The Dark Knight Rises no less, we have Batman: Earth One, the long awaited graphic novel by writer Geoff John's and artist Gary Frank in which The Caped Crusaders origins are re-imagined for a new generation of reader's. I had been looking forward to this for a long time and, John's definately takes some liberties with the mythology, probably to the disdain of more than a few hardcore purists, I found myself liking the book quite a lot.
Undeniably one of Earth One's most compelling aspects lies in its very human and fallible presentation of its central character. Contrary to his current depiction in comics and, to some extent, on film, this Batman is not yet the brilliant crime fighting strategist, not yet the cunning martial arts master, and not yet the stealthy sleuth who can creep beneath his enemies noses completely undetected. No, the Batman we are presented with in Earth One is a reclusive and angry young man not as interested in protecting the innocent and inspiring people for good as he is the single minded goal of uncovering the conspiracy behind his parents murders and dispensing violent revenge against the people ultimately responsible. He does not have the convenient amenities of a batcave or batmobile and his gadgets, or "gadget" I should say, does not always function properly in the heat of the moment. He is brash, arrogant, and his forays into to constumed vigilantism do not usually end with the bad guys lying in an unconscious heap on the floor. While I found this version of the character to come off as cold and not quite as sympathetic as the Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins who gained a sense of closure for his parents murders yet chose to become a hero anyway, I thought he was nonetheless a very compelling character as we see him grow from a snobby and entitled little rich kid to a penitent and almost tormented adult for the role he unwittingly played in the tragedy that claimed his parents lives. On a purely ascetic level, it is interesting to note that this is really the first depiction of Batman in comics were you can see his eyes, as they are not whited out and hidden like they have always been in the monthly books. The result is pretty striking as rendered by Gary Frank's exceptional, life-like artwork, causing the reader that extra degree of identification with the character's vulnerability and humanity.
Some gymnastics are made with the supportive characters of Batman's mythology especially Alfred who, in a true departure from the fastidious, dry humored and stiff upper lipped domestic housekeeper we all know and love, is a gruff and gnarled veteran of the Royal Marines who forged a close friendship with Bruce's father, Thomas Wayne, after saving him in combat. Contrary to his virtuous "against the grain" depiction in Batman: Year One, police sargeant Jim Gordon, Batman's loyal alley and confidant, in this book, is rather a disenfranchised and world weary drone in a hoplessly corrupt system he gave up trying to save after his wife died under "mysterious circumstances." Perhaps the most radical character re-imagining is that of Detective Harvey Bullock who, in a far cry from the slobbish, outspoken, in your face cynic he was shown to be in the comics and to a greater extent, in the 90's Batman animated series, is a handsome, squeaky clean, agonizingly cheery and all around naive ex reality t.v. star from the west coast looking to re-invigorate his career by making a name for himself in Gotham City though his confidence is eroded later on when he witnesses first hand the horrors the city breeds. Earth One also feature's one of the most creepy and immoral versions of The Penguin I've ever seen on page and a truly terrifying serial killer who looks like he came right out of the pages of a Thomas Harris Hannibal Lecter novel.
One of the things I enjoyed most was how each of the featured characters experiences their own unique arc throughout the course of the story which, by the end renders them all the more recognizable to their counterparts in the DC Universe proper, particularly Batman who, (spoilers!) after saving Gordon's daughter from certain death at the hands of one of the story's villains, begins to comprehend the bigger picture of the symbol he could represent to Gotham and starts to transcend his former role as a mere vigilante lost in the scramble for his own gratification to a hero committed to an ideal greater than himself.
Overall, I really enjoyed Batman: Earth One and would definately recommend it to fans of the comic book medium. It is a fresh and engaging look at Batman, not as just a super hero, but truly and inescapably one of us as well.
Wednesday, July 4, 2012
Maybe it was the jazz dancing or the Jared Leto eye liner that did him in, either way by the end of Spiderman 3 it was painfully apparent that the character had lost a good portion of his "amazing-ness." A fresh start was needed. Enter "The Amazing Spiderman," a witty, edgy and innovative re-telling of the character's origin and ultimate decision to become the hero, Spiderman.
What's that? Why are we getting another origin story when we've already covered all that in the 2002 Spideman film you may protest. Well, unlike it's predecessor, which was in such a mad rush to get Tobey Maguire in the suit that they barely scratched the surface of who Peter Parker was, "Amazing" really provides an in depth look at the character, from his earliest childhood memories of his parents leaving him under mysterious circumstances, to the strong sense morality instilled in him by his aunt and uncle as featured in the scene were he stands up for a kid being harassed by the token highschool alpha jock/meathead and takes a pounding for his troubles. In short, the movie makes you care about Peter Parker before he puts on the costume. Much of the credit for this goes to Andrew Garfield for turning in such a genuine and memorable performance. Tall, lanky, and awkward, Garfield's Peter Parker just comes across as more in line with webhead's original comic book incarnation than the diminutive maguire, and although he is fundamentally a good kid, I liked how the movie is not afraid to portray Peter Parker as just that, a kid, who can be reckless, selfish, arrogant, and even a downright snarky little a$$hole a times. When his uncle is shot and killed after trying to stop a robber, Peter does not immediatly shape up and commit himself to the lonely and selfless road of the road of the hero as he did in the previous franchise but instead becomes an angry and unpredictable vigilante acting out of a self-centered desire for revenge against his uncle's killer. It is not until later, when he uses his powers to save a young boy from falling to his death in a flaming car that Peter begins to realize his responsibility to use his abilities for good and his motives take a more altruistic bent. It is these added dimensions of moral ambiguety and wrestling with the ego that make Peter's journey as compelling as it is gratifying.
All the performance were pretty top notch. Martain Sheen is Uncle Ben to a t. evoking both wisdom and a rascally sense of good humour. The intimate and dramatic scenes between he and Garfield really shined and, although it is really small part, one of my absolute favorite bits of the movie happens near the beginning when the two are talking and Peter just tells him, "Your a pretty great dad." Sally Field, is likewise perfectly cast as Aunt May who, as in the comics, acts as Peter's moral anchor throughout the film, believably conveying the fear and heartache a parent feels when a child starts to meander down a dangerous path yet all the same never giving up on them no matter what. Emma Stone was was very well cast as Peter's classmate and love interest Gwen Stacy and ended up bringing a lot more to the table rather than just being the requisite "damsel in distress." Unlike the agonizingly forced chemistry between Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst in the Raimi films these two were a lot of fun to watch on screen together and root for as a couple. Rys Ifans was solid as Doctor Curt Conners who winds up turning himself into a giant, scaly lizard man after trying to regenerate a limb through gene splicing. There was kind of a been there done that feeling of repitition however as Peter is forced to defeate his surrogate scientific father figure, a part represented by Norman Osborn/The Green Goblin in the first film and Otto Octavius/Dr. Octopus in 2004's Spiderman 2.
Even though I have been harping on them, I still really love the Raimi/Maguire films (the first two anyway) they have a sense of wonder and fantasy about them that is infectious and makes you want to put on a red unitard and start scaling walls, but, at the end of the day, I think Amazing Spiderman's honest depiction of the complex, confusing and often times messy nature of life along with a very strong character focus on Peter Parker is what makes it soar, or should I say "swing" higher than what has come before.