Tuesday, August 7, 2012

A Tale of Two Superheroes

This has been an especially good summer for superheroics. Even if we were only entitled to the Avenger's assembly, and the Dark Knight's ascent, we would be well-off over most year's offerings. But a third contender, maligned as an unnecessary reboot, deserves your attention: The Amazing Spider-Man is a hell of a lot of fun.

The poster's palette effectively conveys the film's darker tone.

The first thing you need to know about the Marc Webb reboot is that it easily has as much humor as the Sam Raimi trilogy, but with less goofiness. Despite the darker and edgier aesthetic, the film is never lost to the murky waters of Emo-dom.  The most important thing to note is that Andrew Garfield is a marked improvement over Tobey Maguire's dopey, doughy take on Peter Parker. Garfield plays the part of a genuine nerd; an outcast by choice as opposed to an aspiring popular kid who fails miserably at ever step, and  it is a welcome change. More importantly, the fight and action choreography has been completely re-done to reflect a superhero who is agile and spry as opposed to burly and hard-headed.

Emma Stone is another reason to watch this reboot. She nearly steals the show from Garfield as a more active, memorable, and appealing heroine than Kristen Dunst. She and Garfield share an easy, convincing chemistry that is compelling to watch, despite a familiar set-up of Nerd meets Nice Girl. Marc Webb's prior work with 500 Days of Summer leaves him well-equipped to capture an cultivate the quirky chemistry between these two young stars.

The supporting cast for this film is also top tier. Martin Sheen puts in a brief but satisfying performance as Uncle Ben, though disappointingly, he never utters the greatest aphorism in the history of comic-books: "With great power comes great responsibility." They do paraphrase it, and I realize they harped on it in the Raimi trilogy, but it still would have been nice to hear it spoken as-is in this reboot. Dennis Leary also puts in a solid performance as a more conservative cop caricature of himself.

Rhys Ifans doesn't do a bad job as Dr. Curt Connors, AKA "The Lizard," but the villain is ultimately something of a letdown. The character's descent from respectable scientist to insane crocodilian mutant lacks the relative finesse present in the rest of the film. He feels like he belongs to the Raimi trilogy as opposed to Webb's reboot. 

I think the thing I like most about this movie is that Spider-Man actually moves like a spider and thinks like a super-scientist. He is an agile, impossibly flexible fighter as opposed to a bruiser like Superman or Captain America. And even though he relies on gadgets, he is distinct persona from Batman. He doesn't have a ridiculous R&D budget, or special training. He is a tinkerer. A bedroom-bricoleur. A champion of jury-riggery. 

So I hope we will be treated to a sequel in the same vein. It looks like the plot is curving back towards Norman Osborn/Oscorp/Hobgoblin, which is a little disappointing, as ol' Greenie struck me as a poor man's Joker on a hoverboard, but I'm more than willing to give Webb another shot with the wall-crawler.

On to The Batman.

The new Bat Symbol, born from Gotham's burning ruins 
is just one example of the brilliant design aesthetic 
that pervades the movie. 

You have probably already seen the grand finale to Nolan's Batman trilogy once already. I've been fortunate enough to see it twice, and found that I actually enjoyed it more the second time around. That said, I don't think it quite lives up to the high bar set by The Dark Knight. Nolan, Goyer and Ledger tapped into something too potent and primal with the Joker. I think letting the character rest in honor of Ledger's memory was absolutely the right call, but I cannot help but compare Bane to him and come away feeling shortchanged.

Tom Hardy does a damn sight better than your average superhero villain. He outclasses the Lizard, and even the Avenger's Loki. Nolan and Goyer give him a reasonably intriguing anti-heroic journey as a back-story. But at the end of the day, he's an eloquent brute with a crab-like mask and a scary voice. The Joker not only felt like a criminal force of nature, but a harbinger of modern times. He was the evil side of the internet incarnate. To a certain degree, Bane feels like we are backsliding into post 9/11 territory. The jingoism is as understated and a-politicized as it possibly can be, but at the end of the day, Batman is dealing with a terrorist born from a distinctly desert region who hates Gotham for it's "way of life." There are also a few war-like action sequences at the ending with Bane's fanatical commandos that make the movie feel a little like Batman by way of Call of Duty; too much "gritty realism," and not enough escapism. 

But there is more to the movie than Bane. Anne Hathaway's Catwoman is a hoot. A delight. She steals every scene she's in, and watching her flip from demure flirt to self-interested cut-purse to harlot with a heart of gold is a joy. Honestly, she injects a lot of levity into what is otherwise a relentlessly grim movie.

Don't get me wrong. I like grim. I vastly prefer it to the Saturday Morning Wackiness that followed Tim Burton's creepy take on the Batman film series. Grimness is what made Batman: The Animated Series a truly groundbreaking cartoon show. Grimness is a big part of why Batman is (and always will be) more compelling than Superman. But Christian Bale hits one note the entire movie and sticks with it. Weirdly, his scenes as Batman are more emotive and complex than his mopey, obsessive and injured stints as Bruce Wayne. And I like that. It drives the point home that Bruce is the fabrication, and Batman is the man's reality. Significant spoilers follow through the end of this paragraph: unfortunately, that awesome dynamic utterly contradicts the optimistic spirit of the ending; Bale gives us no evidence that Bruce can persist without the cowl. I want to believe he escapes Gotham with Selina and lives happily ever after. But it comes from left of nowhere.

For all that, I enjoyed the ending. And I love the scenes where Bale is being Batman. Swooping around in his jet, playing with his wonderful toys, taking out bad guys with one punch in the blink of an eye. It's what Batman should be.

The supporting cast is, in my mind, undoubtedly the finest of all superhero movies to date. Michael Caine, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman are again, exquisite. And they are joined by two other star performers: Cotillard and Gordon-Levitt. Gordon-Levitt in particular continues to impress with maturing acting abilities and expanding range. His character also has an enjoyable, emotional arc that concedes little despite its expediency. Cotillard feels under-developed for most of the movie, especially when weighed against Hathaway, but she eventually has her moment to shine.

It is a good movie, and a fitting end to Nolan's trilogy. As to which Superhero movie is better? If I had to give the nod to one, I'd go with Batman, but seeing as I'm a hardcore Batman fan, that's hardly fair. Really, its Apples and Oranges. I realize these movies are both pitched to the comic book nerd crowd, but they both deserve your attention for different reasons. Nolan finishes a epic story and he finishes it well, and Webb successfully starts a new saga batting against steep odds and an unforgiving fan-base. Watch them yourself, and let me know what you think.

1 comment:

Jonathan Lee said...

Great read. Still haven't yet seen Spider-Man yet, and I agree with you on most of Batman (although I'm rewatching Dark Knight to see which one I like more). Bane is definitely not nearly as frightening as Joker, and in fact, he seems like a lesser Ras whose desire was to wipe out Gotham to save the world (it never made much sense to me why this plan would work).

However, Batman's optimistic end is foreshadowed throughout the movie by Freeman's Fox, Cain's Alfred, and Hatheaway's Catwoman.

Bale never changes his note because the twist ending wouldn't be as iconic or hard-hitting, and it provides the nuance that his character understood what everyone else said even though he lashed out against it like a petulant child (a harsher term than what Gordon-Levitt says). From a story standpoint, I like how it wrapped everything up.

From an our world perspective, it's also the style of Nolan to have these kind of twist endings. To be fair, Nolan's other two batman films didn't have such impactful twist endings, but this being the last of his trilogy, I'm assuming he was given a little more leeway. And as a superhero trilogy, it's important to end on an optimistic note.