By Wil Forbis
When I was a little kid, I would have had the little kid equivalent of an orgasm if they'd made a film about Spiderman. You see, I loved Spiderman. And I knew lots of people who loved Spiderman. And nothing validates your devotion to a fetish than having a movie made about it. It says to all the doubters, look, a major Hollywood studio was willing to sink tens of millions dollars into making a movie about my superhero. It makes the case that you're not some weird little dork living vicariously through stories about a guy running around in brightly colored underwear, but someone invested in a legitimate cultural movement.
Well, maybe not.
Back then, we had to make do with the Superman movies. And while Superman's a great guy --- don't get me wrong, there's nothing I wouldn't do for him --- there was always something antique about him. This wasn't a movie Hollywood producers were making for little kids like me, it was a movie Hollywood producers were making for the little kids they used to be. As a child of the 70s, Superman never felt like he belonged to me.
Nowadays, of course you can't go 3 feet without tripping over a superhero movie. We've got Spiderman, Batman, Daredevil, Elektra, the Ghost Rider, and The Punisher all making their way to the big screen. Comic book heroes have more than proven their box office appeal and significantly boosted their cultural cachet. If anything, the past three or four months have felt like the summer of superheroes. First "Iron Man" flew down to earth, then "The Incredible Hulk" busted through the walls, and finally Christopher Nolan's Batman sequel, "The Dark Knight" crawled out of the shadows. And as a noted connoisseur of comic book characters I thought I might jot down my thoughts on all three.
I have to say, "Iron Man" was a pleasant surprise. I was never really a collector of the Iron Man comic book but he did seem ripe for a movie translation. The metallic warrior has one distinct advantage: his costume does not appear insanely gay once on film. (As opposed to Batman, Daredevil, and pretty much anyone zipping around in a brightly colored skintight ensemble.) Actually, Iron Man's menacing and un-flexible outfit is fairly in-line with the kind of space age, armored super characters Hollywood's been dishing out for years --- in another universe Iron Man could've been a storm trooper in the Star Wars saga. It might seem nitpicky to focus on this point, but I find the absurdity of a lot of the costumes in many of the recent superhero films so distracting it's almost impossible to enjoy the movie. If I'm looking at the screen thinking, "No right-thinking person would swing around town in that outfit!" it becomes a lot harder for me to focus in on the pathos of the character.
In addition to an admirable costume, "Iron Man" was just a good film. Robert Downey Jr. showed again that he's a great actor and deserving of a 457th chance in life. He gives us something much needed in the superhero genre: a character who isn't a seething cauldron of inner turmoil, but rather a confident, swinging cat who genuinely enjoys his life and his turn as a superhero. The plot moved along swiftly, tying in credibly with real-world concerns about terrorism, and subtlety swinging from the jingoistic, nationalistic fervor parodied in "Team America, World Police" to almost Noam Chomsky-ish criticisms of American imperialism. And I was surprised to find myself laughing during much of the film. It was surprisingly funny.
The only downside of "Iron Man" was Jeff Bridges as archvillain Stane. Not that he didn't do a great job of acting, but come on, this is Jeff Bridges. This is Dude from "The Big Lebowski." This is Jack Lucas from "The Fisher King." He shouldn't be smashing through buildings in a giant robot suit. It's just wrong.
I realized while watching the new "the Incredible Hulk" film that I had completely blocked out all memory of the Ang Lee Hulk film from a few years previous. It's not that I thought Lee's version was bad, just boring and stupid. The 2008 Hulk film, replacing improperly cast Eric Bana with Edward Norton as Bruce Banner, and replacing properly cast Sam Elliott with improperly cast William Hurt as General Ross, is a far superior film. Gone are the rather fuzzy headed ruminations on the dichotomy of the Hulk as a man/monster, and in their place are scenes of Hulk smashing cars, Hulk smashing helicopters, and Hulk smashing entire buildings. (Dear Lord, please let the next Hulk film be called "Hulk Smash.") "The Incredible Hulk" was a summer blockbuster in the most literal sense.
Edward Norton, a lean ectomorph, looks as Bruce Banner should -- his trim physique is the exact opposite of the Hulk's Schwarzenegger-overdosing-on-steroids appearance. The digital Hulk still doesn't look quite real, but is impressive enough. The plot was, well, not bad. It had a nice "The Fugitive" vibe to it, with Bruce/Hulk and lover Betty Ross running from General Ross and the entire military-industrial complex. ("The Incredible Hulk" like "Iron Man," deftly skirts around the edges of having a political viewpoint.) But the movie never forgets its place in the universe, and is more than willing to serve up the appropriate amount of bang for your buck.
I wanted to like "The Dark Knight Returns." Really, I did. But it's perhaps because the new Batman film is so audacious in its scope that I found it so disappointing. Both of the two most recent Batman films have drawn heavily from Frank Miller's various comic book reinterpretations of the Batman character published over the past 20 years. But Miller never had the constraint of trying to tell a story within two hours. Because the new Batman movies do, they've always seem rushed to me, as if director Christopher Nolan is trying to cram too many themes into too small a space.
There's been a lot of discussion on the supposed gravitas and complex discussions of morality embedded in "The Dark Knight Returns," but frankly I didn't see anything I haven't seen handled better in Miller's early work or the breakthrough "The Watchmen" graphic novel by Alan Moore. The Joker is waved around as if he has some sort of profundity, as if the concept of a character totally dedicated to chaos for its own sake is a breakthrough for movie villains. My reaction: blah, seen it before. (I have to confess I wasn't all that blown away by Heath Ledger's interpretation of the character. Certainly it was better than Nicholson's Joker, but hardly lived up to all the hype heard since Ledger's death.) The transformation of Aaron Eckhart's Harvey Dent from crusading prosecutor to villainous Two-Face was interesting but didn't make a lot of sense. If anything I would've expected Dent to become an enraged vigilante, à la The Punisher, desperate to wreck vengeance on the criminals that killed his lover. Indeed, this would've been an engaging plot twist, playing off our expectations of the character and setting up Batman with an interesting moral dilemma about how far one should go to protect the innocent.
More so than "Iron Man" and "The Hulk," "The Dark Knight Returns" addresses political issues. Before I watched the film, I came across an article by conservative author arguing that the movie endorsed George Bush by presenting the Batman as a character willing to make difficult and unpopular decisions informed by his unwavering morality. I brushed it off at the time, but there's some truth to the argument. Batman's technique of using every cell phone in Gotham city as a kind of sonar to find the Joker is a clear allegory of the Bush administrations attempts to gain access to international phone calls and e-mail to fight terrorism. (As any civil libertarian will tell you, the Clinton administration had hands just as dirty on these matters.) And, Batman's plan works --- he does track down the Joker, and as a result, saves lives. Is the movie arguing that some incursions on civil liberties and privacy are justified to protect the greater good? "The Dark Knight Returns" is far too smart and nuanced a movie to attempt an answer, but even asking the question is as pointed as Batman's ears.
When it comes to the topic of superhero movies, I'm curious when the backlash will begin. Some of these movies have been good, some of the great, but a number of them have been absolute garbage. (I hold very little hope for yet a third interpretation of "The Punisher" that's coming out.) There's much anticipation for the movie version of "The Watchmen" but I can't possibly fathom how the depth and detail of the original comic book can be fit into a movie. In a way, the failures of comic book movies, are a tribute to comic books themselves. Such failures argue that comic books are a unique form of storytelling, one that can't simply be transferred to alternate forms of media without something being lost in the process. With that in mind, perhaps the deficiency of superhero movies during my childhood wasn't such a bad thing.
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