Monday, 30 July 2012
The Big Three And The Year The Pictures Changed
No-one would have believed in the early years of the 21st Century that the very same year the world ended* the three most important superhero films of all time would drop into slobber-gilded laps within three months of one another. Three films, three lessons in cinema. You could argue they're not the three best films from comics canon, and I, writer of this very blog, would be inclined to agree with you. But you can't shake a stick at my assertion that these three movies - The Avengers, Amazing Spider-Man and The Dark Knight Rises - spell a new era for funny books writ large across the silver screen or that each in their own way has raised a bar for future filmmakers to hurdle and equally incrementally made, perhaps unwillingly, past efforts seem redundant. Fuck yeah, HIT THE JUMP!
Unlike my hasty colleagues, it took me a little longer to get over The Dark Knight Rises. I find that, as a rule, if I'm that hard in love with something and write about it without a little time for perspective I usually end up scribbling something awesome but for longer-lasting than the opinions themselves. I look over past Amazon reviews alla time and flat out disagree with the younger, slimmer me that wrote them. I didn't want that to happen with this film, and sure enough after watching it for a second time I wasn't quite as hopelessly defensive of it as I was when I emerged physically sore in my heart and face on the initial Friday Night-Saturday Morning screening. I'm not on here to say something bad about it. I think it's a mark of a film's quality when dudes who are hard into film need to get online within days of seeing it to declare what little they didn't like about it. If something is one hunnert pacent shit you're not likely to rush onto the boards to start picking it apart, but when something this good hits every couple of years or so, it's all you can do to maintain your faith that cinema's not reached its peak to find something wrong with it. It's healthy. My counter to any complaints about the film that I've encountered so far come down to its fundamental status as a Big Fat Summer Film and that certain concessions have to be made regardless of the director's status or standing within Hollywood, precisely because that's where the movie was made.
Thing is, though, is that I haven't as much to say about the film that falls onto the spike marked 'didn't like'. The spike that reads 'fuckyes.com', hell, can't even tell there's a spike under the feet-high stack of thumbsuppage. It might, at this point, be best to head back a few months, as Nolan's film is an end to many things, not least (well, probably least) this blog. The trilogy it so finely caps is today not one which was begun and middled by his own films. Man, that reads dumb.
PART THE FIRST: THE MARVELLOUS MASTER PLAN
You may have expected (Marvel's The) Avengers (Assemble) to be good, but no way were you expecting it to be as good or as successful as it was. Nope. You just weren't. Yet, for all the head-steaming thermo-popping levels of excitement it created in my mind and pants, of this summer's big three films it ended up my least favourite. This is in part down to it treading middle ground in regards to knowing what it is. Spider-Man and Rises both have their feet firmly planted in one simile - one's a street level, naturally effected film and the other a grand festival of blackeyed melodrama - but The Avengers flits from by-the-book modern actioner featuring characters who spout garbage like "because we'll need them to" one moment to a game-changing comic comedy populated by God-smashing gamma freaks the next. Every time someone in The Avengers reeled off one of these made-for-blockbuster lines of dialogue I rolled my eyes, and I think that's because elements like the inherent humour of Thor or Black Widow actually having a character this runaround prove that the film can be better than that. It still carries a little noughties weight around the seams but by the time the sequel rolls through I reckon it'll be a lot more Joss Whedon's film than John BigBookOfTiredHackCoolGuyWriting's.
More important than the level of the sort of humour that's not just good in a comcs film but good in ANY film, though, is the fact that a studio made five films over the course of four years, developed a solid base of front-row capes (plus Jeremy Renner, sure to feature a lot more in the sequel cause dude's gonna be huge this time next year) and then just fucking stuck them all together in a big film that bore so few signs of the conceit it was built on that, outside this sentence, they don't deserve a mention. Now, this is not one of those historic cinematic developments that's going to spawn countless imitators like the Avatar 3Devolution Of Movies or Platinum Dunes' template for horror revivals - this is something that took half a decade and came out damn near perfect. Marvel Studios has already a five year jump on their nearest rival. It's not only unprecedented, it's downright ballsy. It IS some balls. It is the balls of an enormous ethereal cinematic mangod. The enormity of its success didn't hit me 'til earlier this month (like I said - perspective) and it all but erases Marvel's minor failures and makes DC look like big silly geese. What's best about it is that by throwing all their eggs in the bat-basket they've essentially precluded themselves from making use of him in the should-be-but-now-kinda-isn't-quite-as inevitable Justice League movie. They destroy a universe, Marvel destroys a universe. Marvel outs a superhero, THEY out a superhero. Back and forth, back and forth. It's what these guys do. To think that one of them put something so fucktabulously gigantrous in the win column and the other team has no hope of matching them? Shivers, man. Shivers.
Still, the film is flawed. Despite five films' worth of prep, it takes a good twenty minutes too long to get going. The patriotism bugs me, and despite their claims to the contrary, The Avengers' Avengers feel far too much like an American peacekeeping force. One thing I wasn't bothered about was the lack of any identity or drive for the film's climax-enabling alien race. Frankly, any attention paid to their machinations would have stretched an already overlong film and with Tom Hiddleston carrying the film like The Next Big Thang it seemed redundant. Still, there's no pleasing the hardest core. Lastly, I'll register my quivering anticipation of the 50-years due Decent Hulk Film. If anyone can do it it's Ruffalo the Magic Man, and if it's ever gonna be doable it's doable now.
PART THE SECOND: BONDING IT
Amazing Spider-Man, helmed by the suitably named man Marc Webb, can boast big successes not only in making its titular webslinger hugely relatable but also in making a lot of people eat hot buttered ownword for saying it was too soon to 'reboot' a film series. Haven't they read this article?** Don't they KNOW this is a summer for new precedents? Fuck sake, they've been doing it with Bond for 50 years now, and who complains? I'm not going to act like I had this one in my imaginary bag of defensive ploys from day one but once the realisation that comics creators, the very people to whom the cinemagoing public owes such incomprehensibly large kudos to, shift positions so often to near-equally often critical success made it so much easier to accept that this filmmaking equivalent is not only wholly justifiable but probably the best option. If comics hadn't been Bonding It we wouldn't have had the advances in characterization that led to some of the best moments in the printed word, let alone these very three films. Also, once again, delayed perspective = cool revelation. I might just go by Paul "Delayed Perspective" McDaniels from now on. (Cause McDaniels is a cool surname, allright?)
Amazing Spider-Man's chief success is in its Spider-Man. Sure, that sounds like a stupid thing to have to say, but purists need only point wearily at the simpering, bleeds-when-you-punch-him Tobey Maguire for proof that Peter's hard to pin down onscreen, and further beyond and back to Burton's Batmovies for evidence of sidelining your should-be star in favour of his increasingly extravagant gallery of Rogues. I'll wear my heart on my sleeve on this one, but see for the whole night after I watched that film, I was Peter Parker. When I fell asleep that night, I fell asleep as Peter Parker. In my mind's eye, I'd have to put on my glasses in the morning, Whatever delusion it was that allowed me to think I was a 16-year old resident of Queens passed, but nevertheless, that film was able to craft a Peter Parker - and not just as Spider-Man - that really and honestly got to me. I'm talking deep resonance and relation, here. Sure, I'd like to party with Thor or Tony Stark, but in no way can I relate to those characters. With Batman it's sort of a different breed of relativity, but with Peter it's fairly simple: been there, felt that, wanted superpowers to facilitate fighting of crime. Wait, not that last part.
Why the film is so important is because it launches with an earned grin of told-ya-so glee an egg barrage at the face of naysayers. Bond is no longer the only one to benefit from as drastic a facelift in as short a time period. In addition, it captures for the first time a real sense of Spider-Man's behaviour in a way that sets him apart from other characters who punch jerks and save kids (minor insertion - this film's 'save a kid' scene is my favourite ever). I'm not going to say he acts like a spider, because that would be hideous, but he acts like a kid who realises the potential for arachnid behaviour within him would act. His dealing with the goon in the Internet's favourite 'small knives' clip was the best translation of Spider-Man's kinda-a-dick style of criminal dispatch and miles away from the rote punning of the worst of media he's appeared in, but his use of his webbing while looking for The Lizard in the sewer was the first time outside of a comic - and that includes more cartoons and games than I care to remember - that I can recall seeing him doing something that interesting, that alien to human behaviour and that downright nutty. It's awesome.
It's worth saying that Emma Stone is my favourite movie star, I think. Yeah, to the extent that I couldn't fairly represent her in court. I've not let this influence my decision, but as a comics reader of many, many years, I can honestly admit that sitting in an Odeon screen in 2012 was the first time I have ever, ever cared about Gwen Stacy as she existed until Amazing Spider-Man #121. Ditto Martin Sheen as Uncle Ben. He reminded me an awful lot of my own dad as I imagine he has done for a lot of this film's audience. Uncanny casting.
Now, if I was in the business of comparing it to the other films I'd highlight a lot of things I could champion, but it feels unfair doing so from such an exaggerated position of advantage. Without trolling, I honestly feel that for everything Raimi got wrong, Webb got right. He hit a few snags himself, of course. The score, while aesthetically pleasing in how obsolete, naive and devoid of synthetic percussion it is, is not a patch on Danny Elfman's work from the last set of films. The Lizard looks too much like DC's Killer Croc and simply can't support the weight of an origin story in a film series. There are issues with pacing, plot... Right, cheesecake analogy. Raimi's films were built on a crumbly dryance of shmaltz and corn. It'd be fronting if I didn't say that elements of the sweet sweet cheese on top weren't appealing in some measure, but I'd sooner grab my ass a Petit Filou than sit through another shot of kids you'd like to make cry staring in toothy wonder as a man swings overhead. Webb's analogous foundation is a compact, moist Digestive triumph, and if it took 'rebooting' to get the foundation right, I can forgive a couple stumbles up top (like slices of kiwi or a drizzle of plain chocolate).
Getting back to that point about it really 'getting' Spider-Man. Could have happened before now? Possibly. Doesn't matter a fuck, though, because it didn't. It took America 'til 2012 to do Spidey proud on the big screen, and that suits me and my bloggin' just fine. If these three films were to be represented in a line graph, there'd be something like a 45 degree angle to the line that connects The Avengers to Amazing Spider-Man, but the line the connects Amazing Spider-Man to The Dark Knight Rises appears to vanish on account of the fact that it merges with one of the vertical lines on which the graph is set. 'Cause, you know, it's so good that the line just went straight up the ways.
This would have worked better if instead of thinking and writing that, I thought and wrote something else.
PART THE THIRD: BATMAN, BANE AND THE BEST EVER
Now, it could be argued that Nolan's films are overly (or overtly) serious, and it's been more than a few times I've seen this criticism leveled at them. Well, fuck you. This is a character who needs to be dealt with seriously, and it is with deadly seriousness that Christopher Nolan's final Batstalment lands in our laps, laced with emotional nitroglycerine and guaranteed to blow***. The Dark Knight Rises is the best representation of how comics feel to live in, in terms of behaviour and interaction. I say 'live in' because when you're immersed in the middle of a really good 40-issue run in the dead of the night you goddamn live the story. Perhaps more than any other medium, comics have come to mean a lot to me as far as character definition, artistic legacy and pretty much every factor in the enjoyment of entertainment are concerned. It was from this position that approached The Dark Knight Rises, not as a film fan or even a fan of Nolan's previous films (I can take or leave The Dark Knight, to be honest). Having watched the film twice - once prepped by pivotal and relevant storylines such as No Man's Land, The Cult and of course Knightfall, and once after watching the preceding trilogy instalments a day beforehand - I still feel it's the best, but not just the best representation of the comics reading experience but the best that films based on comics can be, period. It is a testament to adaptation and translation both. Let's start from the beginning.
If the 1990s are to be reassessed in their legacy for comics, The Dark Knight Rises should be the first port of call for defence. The Knightfall arc that ran from 1993-1994 marked both the culmination of a series of breaking points for Batman that the darkening of material the 1980s had ushered in, and the birth of the mega crossover - storylines that lasted in excess of a year and required buying multiple lines in a series to get the full picture. Most importantly, it did it with a new character. Though he'd tried and tried again, it was not The Joker who put the Bat out of commission and served him his longest lasting spell of self-doubt, but Santa Priscan genius Bane, who made short work of mentally exhausting and physically destroying Batman. Bane's importance never really stretched beyond that storyline, and he was essentially consigned to the bargain bin after Joel Schumacher decided he should appear as a mute simpleton in The Film That Shall Not Be Named. Tom Hardy's and Nolan's resurrection of the character for the casual audience at last honours his achievement (that came off wrong) in a way that serves comics readers a big plate of edible or tenderable marzipan gold as well as throwing an instant classic villain at the screen, screaming "you've never heard of him? Tough". He may sound like Goldfinger, but Hardy's Bane commands the screen like no fucker's business.
The Dark Knight Rises is the Good, the Bad and the Ugly of supes films. There's so much going on that you're left with little time to dwell on anything and there's not a second or plot strand wasted on a party not pulling their weight. Anne Hathaway's Selina Kyle was sure to have people worried that there's no place for a slinky sexpot cat burglar in Nolan's films, and instead she went and made us all, I... I mean them all, look and feel as stupid as they look and feel. Gordon's apprentice John Blake damn near steals the film and in many ways the film is as about him as it is Batman, but it's not in AS many ways (which I said) and Christian Bale makes up for getting a little lost in The Dark Knight by offering a truly memorable performance as Bruce Wayne and drawing you into the film in a way that's emotionally draining and intensely involving. As in actually feeling involved. Like concerned about a man who does not exist. Once Batman's first encounter with Bane was finished I realised I hadn't been breathing and spent the following minutes overcompensating and got all red and sweaty and my head hurt a little. If I'd had the werewithall to shout "you're not READY FOR HIM" at the screen I'd have done it, but I was too busy cowering on his behalf. No film ever has affected me like that.
Speaking of it as a film (like I sorta promised to), I devoted most of my second viewing to scrutiny to see what I could discern I didn't like about it (as well as trying to hide my gaze when Miranda Tate was on screen in a considerably less populated cinema screen) and cinematically it holds up really well. It makes a good hash of tying itself to the first film and injects a great deal of the mythological membrane of Batman that The Dark Knight was largely missing. The music cues for Bane and Kyle are welcome and distinct, the film looks stunning...yeah. Basically, those who go to see it based on their love of Heath Ledger in the last film or residual nostalgia from Adam West or the 1990s' animated Batmen should not leave disappointed.
Where does it fit in to the 'three lessons in cinema' I mentioned earlier, though? Well, I guess it may be too early to say, but it seems obvious to me that this is the best of the three films, and can you remember the last time such a well-like sequel was bested by its own? I'll tell you when: The Good, The Bad And The Ugly. In its scope and bravery, The Dark Knight Rises owes more to that film that may easily register. Its significance is in the level to which it defied expectations, surpassing one of the few true classics of the modern age, and all without as iconic a character as a jester in a purple suit. My brother said he can see it having the same effect on today's kids as Return Of The Jedi did on him. I'm a little sad that I never got to have an experience that defining in the cinema until I was 25, but even in a sweaty local hotbox with a roomful of people I've never met, I'll never forget the first time I saw the best superhero film ever made.
There's nowhere left to go but down. The Avengers was too big, Gwen's gotta die and Nolan's thrown the towel. So sayeth the cynic. The same cynic that doubted films as good as these three could possibly exist in the filmic landscape of the early 21st Century? Maybe not. I'm imbued with at least a little hope that we can continue to get things right and they may...they may get better. Three for three, though? I doubt we'll ever look back and say it beat the summer of 2012.
Most of the cats above get regular mentions over at my own blog, Rambleast, so get yo ass.