Monthly Archives: July 2008

Why So Serious?

I’m not going to comment on Christian Bale’s arrest before more information comes to light. There’s no point in discussing it until they press charges or release him, but since my blog received ten times its usual traffic yesterday, I thought I would add this gratuitous reference to the event just to keep my hits up! (Does this make me a participant in media exploitation? I suppose it would if I had advertisers or received any financial benefit.)

Meanwhile, in the “good news” category, Nate Marshall has resurrected his film blog and is re-inaugurating it with a series on — what else? — The Dark Knight. Since he has read as many Batman comics as I have, if not more, I’m looking forward to his thoughts.

UPDATE: At the same time I was posting this, Bale was released from custody (as I expected) less than five hours after his appointment to turn himself in.

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Who Hears the Watchmen?

The Watchmen teaser is not as great as the 300 teaser and trailer — perfectly crafted music videos both — but Zach Snyder still knows how to pick the right song for a trailer!

The Dark Knight pReview

Well, having two years of references to Heath Ledger and the Joker certainly pays off when the time is ripe! For three consecutive days my hits-per-day have increased by 50%, meaning today’s hits are 337.5% what they were three days ago. The top post of all time, still attracting tons of hits, is a photoshop manip of Ledger soon after his casting was announced, and this blog appears second in an image search for “the man who laughs“, the original inspiration for the Joker character.

Unfortunately The Dark Knight won’t be released here for another week, but since everybody in the US will be seeing it this weekend, I might as well review the movie as I IMAGINE it to be.

The Past

By way of preface, a few weeks ago I rewatched the 1989 Batman and realized it is probably Burton’s worst film. It is boring and slow, especially due to several gratuitous scenes with the Joker that serve no purpose. The insertion of these scenes feel like a post-production decision to highlight Nicholson’s “revelatory” (but actually just indulgent) performance, but they were probably written in after a pre-production decision to capitalize on Nicholson’s casting and enlarge the role of their marquee name. Either way, the result is story-telling as saggy as Nicholson himself.

Hopefully Nolan resisted the same urge to include unnecessary footage of Heath Ledger just because it is now rare. My guess is that the script was so tight there never were any gratuitous scenes, and that Nolan’s extremely efficient editorial sense is still in tact since he says the only cutting he did was to trim down existing scenes.

Despite its failures, Burton’s Batman still deserves credit for two things: (1) the film’s tone and (2) the design of the Batmobile. Burton returned Batman to his native atmosphere of dark and gothic, which was a creditable accomplishment even if his immediate successor reversed this achievement. The Batmobile itself was the most instantly and enduringly memorable icon of the film, and its introduction — when Batman tells Vicki Vale to get in his car, and she asks “Which one?” before seeing this jet-black jet engine on wheels — is simply perfect.

One more thing Burton might deserve partial credit for is Danny Elfman’s theme, which was later perfected by Shirley Walker for the Animated Series. As a huge fan of the theme, especially as elaborated by Walker, I never thought another score could scream “Batman” to me. But Nolan arrived at an innovative method to achieve just that. His unorthodox hiring of two composers resulted in a score that benefits from the characteristic march of Zimmer while tempering his worst excesses through Howard. Three years after Batman Begins, when I heard the score again in the first Dark Knight trailers, the music just screamed “Batman!” to me.

The Future

So what of The Dark Knight? If Burton’s film ended with Batman’s revelation to the Joker, “I didn’t make you, you made me!” then Nolan’s movie ended on the opposite trajectory, in the words of Gordon predicting “escalation” as a direct result of Batman’s instigation, before handing him the calling card of a new criminal: Batman creates the Joker. And as we heard in the audio trailer for The Dark Knight, Alfred corrects Bruce’s complaint that the mob crossed a line by allying with the Joker: “you crossed a line first, though. You hammered them. And in their desperation they turned to a man they didn’t fully understand.” The difference between these visions is easy enough to account for: Burton’s is an expression of America’s self-image during the Cold War while Nolan’s is a reflection of the current zeitgeist.

I don’t think Nolan’s is a misinterpretation of Batman, because he is by nature the most totalitarian of superheroes (I would say “fascist” but post-WWII that term has become a meaningless epithet slung against any political opponent), precisely because he has no supernatural abilities. If Superman is the epitome of self-restraint and divine condescension, always pulling punches and never manifesting his full power, then Batman is (as always) Superman’s opposite. Batman’s lack of superpowers necessarily drives him “to seek the means” — first psychological, then technological — to extend his authority and control over his jurisdiction (and beyond).

In the comics his totalitarian tendencies most notoriously came to a head (as exploited by others, of course) in 2000’s JLA: Tower of Babel and 2005’s The OMAC Project. Despite Frank Miller’s influence it is usually Grant Morrison who is blamed for turning Batman into the omniscient control-freak who would keep files on how to defeat his superpowered friends, should they go rogue, as well as on his enemies.

Batman’s oath not to murder is literally the only thread keeping him from being a villain, but as Harvey Dent says in the trailers, “you either die a hero or live long enough to become the villain.” Sure, it’s self-referential foreshadowing, but for Nolan I think it applies as much to Batman as to Two-Face. In the third movie, if not this one, I think we will see Batman declare some kind of martial Batlaw over Gotham — but maybe that is what the Dark (k)Night is?  As I predicted twelve months ago, I assume the creation of Two-Face will represent some kind of synthesis of Batman and the Joker, if not just a simplistic moral equivalency that Batman is as bad as the Joker.

In defense of Batman their difference, however small, lies in their intentions, but intention has no place in today’s black-and-white utilitarian conception of morality. (For instance with respect to casualties the moral distinction is no longer made between civilians unintentionally killed and intentionally targeted.) But I doubt The Dark Knight will go that far — one can’t enjoy an action movie that acknowledges human collateral damage — and keep Batman’s dilemma down to the classic “Should I kill the Joker or not?”

But at least it will be interesting (however played-out the same dilemma has become in the comics) and unlike Burton’s cop-out, where the Joker fell to his death without being dropped by Batman personally. Even Batman Begins was more ballsy by having Batman say “I won’t kill you but I don’t have to save you,” a very un-Superman-like thing to do. (That said, Bruce had already gone out of his way to save Neeson’s life in the first act, an act of compassion left un-reciprocated, so in terms of movie-morality he had no obligation to do it the second time.) But Neeson’s last words were a question that seems to haunt Bruce in the new film: “Have you finally learned to do what is necessary?” In the trailer we hear Bruce’s arrival, temporary or otherwise, at an answer: “I’ve seen what I have to become to stop men like him.”

That’s enough Batruminating for one night. But without ruining it for me, are my predictions generally on target or has Nolan psyched me out yet again?

HANCOCK

It’s Independence Day so what would be more appropriate than reviewing the new Will Smith movie?

Unfairly I think, Hancock is getting absolutely ravaged by critics. Please do yourself a favor and don’t read any reviews (including my links below) because many of them reveal the film’s third-act twist. Admittedly this is the cause of most of the critical dissatisfaction with the film. According to Tom Charity at CNN:

Writers Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan have concocted an outrageous, mind-boggling twist that comes so far out of left field you would need a crystal ball to see it coming.

Then call me Professor Marvel because the twist had occurred to me fairly early on and I became certain of it at least five minutes before it happened. You could say the twist occurs unexpectedly but the groundwork is laid throughout the first two acts and I found it in keeping with the themes of the film.

I actually appreciated the change of direction because I like sudden tonal shifts in movies, like From Dusk to Dawn or even Sunshine, that surprise but at the same time fulfill genre expectations.

Most refreshing, Hancock is just different from most other superhero movies so far. It doesn’t spend the first half of the movie on the hero’s origin story but flings us into the world of Los Angeles and its recalcitrant protector in media res. It’s also different from most other Will Smith movies insofar as Hancock never smiles and the one time he tries results in a horrible grimace revealing even worse teeth.

Its emphasis (perhaps repetitive) on damaged infrastructure during superpowered confrontations mercifully acknowledges the pink elephant in the room of every other comic book action movie, in which urban centers are laid waste on a frequent basis but the population still loves the heroes. It is helpful to remind ourselves that if superheroes really existed and operated as they always do in movies, we would probably be neither pleased nor amused.

And unlike most superhero films with huge supporting casts, this is more like a three-person play about Will Smith, Jason Bateman, and Charlize Theron’s characters. Bateman benefits the most from this arrangement with much more screen time than the trailer would lead you to believe; he is more like the co-star of the film. And for possibly the first time in his career his character is completely likable, optimistic, and compassionate without any lurking creepiness (Juno most recently) or pathological denial (Arrested Development).

It is not perfect but thanks to some judicious cuts the movie is in better form than its May preview and is a thousand times better than the uninspired script it was originally based on which went absolutely nowhere (spoilers throughout this script review). That may be a backhanded compliment, but I found Hancock a fun departure from the usual fare in the most superhero-laden year since 2004.

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