Category Archives: Comics

Web-Line on the Horizon

Their twelfth studio album is all well and good, but the most exciting U2 news this weekend is their Broadway debut in twelve months’ time:

spider-man-musical-poster

I never thought I’d say I’m eager to see a musical production of Spider-Man, but I admit this interview with Mary Jane (Evan Rachel Wood, from Julie Taymor’s own Across the Universe) has me quite intrigued.

So far the only successful attempt at the superhero lament in pop rock form is Chad Kroeger’s “Hero” which played during the credits of the first Spider-Man movie, so I’m looking forward to hearing what Bono and Edge have come up with. I have a hunch their style is going translate well to the theatre.

Why So Unintelligible?

It’s a good thing I didn’t see this in the library because I’ve been laughing out loud for two minutes now and I can’t stop. (Don’t worry, if you haven’t seen The Dark Knight there aren’t any spoilers here.)

Both the Joker and Batman are played by the talented Raul [surname unknown].

Arkham Asylum

In lieu of a Dark Knight review — don’t get your hopes up, I’ve been writing my authoritative review of Batman Begins for three years now! — here is what is probably the best fan adaptation of Batman I’ve ever seen. It’s inspired by Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s graphic novel and reminds me of the short film by Kevin Conran that got Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow bluelighted (don’t hoot, I loved that movie!)

If anything, it proves that as good as Nolan’s is, there will never be an authoritative version of Batman, that most diversely translatable of characters. Here’s hoping Miguel Mesas is given a shot at the next trilogy in the 2020s:

Hat tip to Beady Eyes Al for the link.

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.

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?

Looking through the chinks in the Dark Knight’s armor

The presumably final trailer for The Dark Knight is now out in very good quality.

Trailers are usually made by marketing departments, not the director, but we know Nolan was responsible for the thematically distinct teasers for Batman Begins. So he is probably in control of the Dark Knight trailers as well, but who knows?

Whomever is responsible, this new trailer shows a lot of leg (though never for too long) including the moment before Harvey’s face becomes scarred (at 1:54), as well as a split-second glimpse of his face post-scarring, barely seen on the away-from-camera side of his face which he’s touching with a revolver (at 2:03).

We also see the Joker tossing Rachel out a window (at 1:56), possibly to her death but — given Batman’s penchant for basejumping and gliding seen at the beginning and end of the trailer — not necessarily.

I am really loving Ledger as the Joker; I think he has more Caesar Romero in him than I had previously realized. One shot in particular reminds me of Romero, right when he says “go” (at 1:39).

For the past three days I’ve been wondering if Iron Man would turn out to be my favorite movie of the year but the Bat has come back with a vengeance in my constantly fluctuating geek leaderboard.

I think Indy 4 is going to be the surprise disappointment of the summer. It’ll still make a bucket of money but I predict that it will, like Spidey 3, make 45% of its total earnings in the opening weekend and have no legs. A bold prediction but I follow my instincts!

IRON MAN

If it is axiomatic that heroes in tights look great on the page but terrible on the screen, then Iron Man was the one exception who was always destined to look better in live action than in ink. Shiny metallic surfaces are difficult to portray in two dimensions without becoming messy, and Iron Man has no supernatural visual elements, like the Hulk, that might strain credulity in live action. Neither does Batman, of course, but his best medium is animation where he can be depicted as a moving shadow, while animation is Iron Man’s worst medium, because the suit not only looks unconvincing but also bends from frame to frame.

Forty-five years after his first appearance, moviemaking technology has finally caught up with the promise inherent in the Iron Man concept. Visually, this is the best comics-to-film translation of a superhero costume yet attempted, and without qualification the best Marvel origin movie ever made — only X2 and Spider-Man 2 can equal it on the Marvel roster.

There was no way Marvel Studios was going to compete with The Dark Knight this summer, but they have managed to do just that by giving us the Anti-Batman: bright and colorful. The origin of Iron Man even follows the same path as Batman Begins, but with the elements slightly shuffled. At the beginning of their journeys, both Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne find themselves themselves imprisoned on the other side of the world but emerged from their ordeals with a newfound purpose that they put into action upon their return home. Both spend lots of time in caves building, with the help of wise older assistants, the first versions of their suits — scenes always absent from superpowered hero movies but apparently crucial for those without powers. Both face the corporate intrigue of attempted takeovers of their companies by rival board members, as well as trusted mentors who may not have been totally honest with them. And of course, both have personal assistants without whom they couldn’t get through the day.

So what’s the crucial difference? Their personalities couldn’t be more different: Stark lives the billionaire playboy lifestyle that everyone believes Wayne does, but Stark enjoys it and, though he also lives in the shadow of his father, does not suffer from an ounce of Wayne’s psychological torment. The star of the show is Downey’s deadpan charisma, without which we might get antsy during the wait for the Red and Gold armor to be finally unveiled. But the movie’s humor is not just doing the job of a warm-up comedian, nor is it the product of on-set afterthoughts.

In this day and age I thought it would be impossible to make a weapons manufacturer a likable character, not to mention a hero. A second-act change of heart would be essential but by then it would be too late for the audience’s sympathy. I never read Iron Man comics because Stark always struck me as too slick and too cool for school (and I never liked his dirty mustache), but by investing the character with a sense of self-irony, Favreau and Downey have made even Stark’s braggadocio endearing and you can’t help but like him from scene one. Even after his personal epiphany, Stark’s refusal to take himself too seriously still does work by neutralizing any direction towards preachiness the script might have taken in other hands — just imagine Arriaga’s Iron Man. Sure, Stark still learns that with great wealth and firepower comes great responsibility, but mercifully nobody articulates it that piously.

Somewhat unexpectedly, Iron Man is also the best casted superhero movie since Batman Begins. It’s not Jeff Bridges’ fault that his voice is forever inextricable from The Dude, but his bald/bearded combo does a lot to defamiliarize the actor. I’m not a Gwyneth Paltrow fan but her Pepper Potts surpasses 45 years of accumulated workplace sexual tension generated by Miss Moneypenny. The conflicted emotions in Paltrow’s face during the dance scene, moreso than the subsequent balcony scene, actually made me feel her heartache. Given the audience investment in her character, it is all the more to the filmmakers’ credit that Miss Potts’ relationship with Mr. Stark ends on the perfect note.

Not to say the movie doesn’t push the boundaries of comic book fare. A one-night stand early on is only implied but later on the film’s true “sex scene” provocatively inverts the male/female roles. Stark calls his female assistant to his garage where she finds him shirtless and reclining. At his insistence that he can’t do it without her, she tentatively inserts her hand into Stark’s narrow chest cavity, feeling for a highly sensitive wire that she can’t find without his guidance. The slightest movement of her hand affects his whole body and when she pulls it out her hand is covered in fluid. But rather than out of place, this 25th anniversary nod to the insertion of a VHS tape into James Woods’ abdominal vagina feels entirely appropriate to Iron Man’s Cronenbergian integration of man and machine.

The scene is one of the freshest elements not inspired by Warren Ellis’ updated origin for the character in 2004. It’s literally the only Iron Man story I’ve read in my whole life but I recommend it, thanks largely to the art of Adi Granov whose designs were the basis for the film’s suits. The only shortcoming of the film was the climactic battle which should have lasted a few more minutes.

The best trailer before the movie was Will Smith’s Hancock, which should prove yet again that most original superhero movies are better than adaptations of comic books. Iron Man, however, is one of the few exceptions to that rule. I can’t help wondering if Favreau could have made the Spider-Man franchise even better than Raimi, who marginalized Spidey’s most distinctive comic book trait: his indomitable commitment to wise-cracking. With the only lighthearted superhero adaptations until now being the Fantastic Four, it’s great to see a good movie finally fill that niche.

This Post-Ledger World Is Strange

The post title above is not mine but a statement of my friend Al which I think well expressed the somewhat unexpected feelings prompted by this least expected of all Hollywood deaths.

There are some interesting comments in Variety about how the marketing of TDK, if not the film itself, will be affected by Ledger’s death:

Principal photography on “The Dark Knight” finished in the fall; as of Tuesday, the pic is still skedded for a July 18 bow. The status of the pic’s marketing campaign, however, is uncertain. The first phase is built around the Joker and pics of his character are particularly ghoulish. Warner execs were still grappling with the news on Tuesday and had no comment on how they would proceed. . . .

The “Dark Knight” rollout will present more than a few challenges en route to opening weekend. One poster shows the Joker character drawing a clown’s smile on a mirror with red lipstick and scrawling the words, “Why So Serious?” Tagline was also used to launch a Joker-centric website that the studio used to bow new photos from the pic and a viral scavenger hunt, among other games.

“The Joker character is dealing with chaos and life and death and a lot of dark themes,” one insider with knowledge of the campaign said. “Everyone is going to interpret every line out of his mouth in a different way now.”

I just hope that Nolan & Co. resist the temptation to re-cut the film for sentimental reasons, either to include more Ledger screen time or to make it less disturbing than what was originally intended. But I’m fairly confident Nolan will trust and stand by his pre-Jan. 22 artistic intuition. Hopefully the studio won’t lean on Nolan to exploit Ledger’s death more than the movie is already going to do anyway.

But it sounds like the Joker might not have been too important to a third Batman movie, as Nolan said a couple weeks ago that he doesn’t really have a character arc in TDK:

“Harvey Dent is a tragic figure, and his story is the backbone of this film…. The Joker, he sort of cuts through the film — he’s got no story arc, he’s just a force of nature tearing through. Heath has given an amazing performance in the role, it’s really extraordinary.”

It will be impossible ever to enjoy this performance on its own terms now. His role, and the movie itself, will now be so overshadowed by everything outside the film, that it will be difficult not only to evaluate the movie sensibly but even to experience it without thinking about the actor instead of the character whenever Ledger is on screen.

However, Ledger is an extraodinary actor — his was the only good male performance in Brokeback Mountain, I remind you — and he may just be good enough to make us momentarily forget about his own death during his farewell performance.

Heath Ledger on Ambien

I found the source of the actual quotation everyone has been citing in reference to Ledger and sleeping pills, even as the quote gets further and further from its source. It’s from a New York Times interview on November 4th:

He is here in London filming the latest episode of the “Batman” franchise, “The Dark Knight.” … It is a physically and mentally draining role — his Joker is a “psychopathic, mass-murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy” he said cheerfully — and, as often happens when he throws himself into a part, he is not sleeping much.

“Last week I probably slept an average of two hours a night,” he said. “I couldn’t stop thinking. My body was exhausted, and my mind was still going.” One night he took an Ambien, which failed to work. He took a second one and fell into a stupor, only to wake up an hour later, his mind still racing.

What those who blame his insomnia on the aftermath of the Joker role are leaving out is the “as often happens” part of the quote. He had just been filming a Terry Gilliam movie in London before he died, so he was in the middle of a role again and thus having trouble sleeping.

The NYT story also has this ominous comparison from the director of I’m Not There:

“Dylan was completely inspired by James Dean, and Heath has a little bit of James Dean in him, even physically, a kind of precocious seriousness,” Mr. Haynes went on.

But I suppose you could find lots of “prescient quotations” about anyone after they die. Forunately most such comments never have the chance to become prescient.