Archive for the ‘Comic Books’ Category

George Lucas and Star Wars Redux

April 22, 2015

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There has been a good deal of talk recently about the JJ Abrams reboot of the Star Wars franchise. This prompted a friend of mine to comment on Facebook: “I haven’t had the chance to get all excited about the new Star Wars trailer, what with me being an adult and all.” Judging from some of the comments on her thread, it appears that some people weren’t pleased with her comment. Yet I think there is an arrested development aspect to this whole Star Wars phenomenon. Most of us first encountered these movies when we were young and our tastes were still largely unformed. Since then, we insist on believing that there is something magical about these films, even though they’re actually not that good. I think we have all had the experience of going back to a favorite book or movie or TV show from our childhood and being dismayed to find that it’s not nearly as good as we remember it being. Our continuing obsession with Star Wars, and our desire for more Star Wars films seem to be an attempt to deny this experience.

What bothers me about the Star Wars films is that they invite us not to think. Because when you think about them, you begin to realize that there are all sorts of things in them that don’t really make sense. (Science fiction purists hate these movies because they make a mockery of the notion that sci-fi is about “ideas”. By the way, the recent film, Ex Machina shows that science fiction really can be thought-provoking.) So, better not to think and to just be awed by the spectacle of it all. As someone who has always valued films that challenge me to think, I can’t help but see Star Wars as a denial of what I most value about cinema.

Lucas has occasionally been compared to Wagner, which is not always meant as a compliment. For example, Lucas is, like Wagner, obsessed with prequels. (Wagner had originally set out to write just an opera about Siegfried, but he felt he had to explain everything that happened before, which resulted in the Ring cycle.) But the comparison isn’t just about size. Critics have accused Wagner of cheapening the myths upon which his operas are based. Likewise, the afore-mentioned science fiction purists have accused Lucas of cheapening the genre. They object to the way these films wallow in all the hackneyed conventions of comic books and Hollywood B-movies.

Perhaps the single best comment I’ve heard about these films came from my father. He was an engineer, and he went to see the first Star Wars film when it first came out. I asked him what he thought about it, and his only comment was: “The spaceships banked when they turned. Why? They’re in a vacuum. Why would they bank?”

He should have been a film critic.

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The Dark Knight Rises

July 24, 2012

I remember a Batman comic book I read when I was a kid. In it, the Joker kidnaps Police Commissioner Gordon. When word of this gets out, the citizens of Gotham City immediately begin smashing windows and looting stores. The absurdity of this made me laugh. I realize now, however, that this was no joke. This was the logic of the police state: the lower orders must be kept in awe of authority, otherwise all hell will break loose. This is why some people see nothing wrong with police officers beating up Occupy protestors or shooting black teenagers. It is also the logic behind the exaggerated fear of mob violence that exists among the ruling elites in this country. After the earthquake in Haiti, shipments of food and medicine were held up, because, we were told, “order” had to be restored first. Much the same thing happened when New Orleans was flooded.

Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan, who wrote the screenplay for The Dark Knight Rises, must have read that same Batman comic book that I did. When, in this movie, the bad guy, Bane (Tom Hardy), traps the entire Gotham City Police Department in the subway, angry mobs suddenly appear out of nowhere and start looting people’s homes. Lest there be any doubt as to the film makers’ political inclinations, Bane has his followers storm a prison and release all the prisoners. This is clearly meant to put us in mind of the storming of the Bastille. It’s been over two hundred years since the French Revolution, and conservatives are still fuming about it.

The story of this film boils down to this: a group called the League of Shadows wants to destroy Gotham City, because it is “corrupt”. It’s not clear why they find this objectionable, or why they consider Gotham to be worse than other cities in this respect. League member Bane takes over the city and subjects it to a reign of terror, while cutting it off from the outside world. He takes a fusion reactor and reconfigures it into a nuclear bomb. The bomb is unstable and will eventually go off by itself after some months. My question is this: if the idea is to destroy Gotham City, then why not just detonate the bomb? It appears that he wants to play some sort of mind game with Batman (Christian Bale), though the film is not too clear about this.

One of the things I liked about both The Avengers and X-Men: First Class is that these films don’t take themselves too seriously. The Dark Knight Rises takes itself extremely seriously. This film just oozes self-importance, starting with the title. (Why not just call it “The Return of Barman” or something like that?) The characters give overwrought dramatic speeches. Lots of them. Hans Zimmer’s musical score ranges from lugubrious to bombastic. It is perhaps fitting that Batman is played by Chirstian Bale, the most self-important actor in Hollywood.

At 165 minutes, The Dark Knight Rises is way too long. You could cut a lot out of this film, and it would be a better movie. There is, for example, a subplot about Joseph Gordon-Levitt rescuing a bunch of orphans that does nothing more than slow down the story. Also, the action sequences are sometimes confusing. During a motorcycle chase scene, it looks as though Batman has captured Bane at one point, but it subsequently turns out that Bane has actually gotten away.

I must say, though, that I did like Anne Hathaway as Catwoman. Unfortunately, she is off screen most of the time. I would like to have seen more of her and less of Bale and Gordon-Levitt.

The Avengers

May 16, 2012

I must confess to being a sucker for superhero movies. I even enjoyed The Green Lantern, which is considered silly even by the standards of this genre. Maybe it’s because they make me feel like a kid again. Or maybe it’s because they are just fun to watch.

Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is the head of a super secret and well-funded intelligence agency, SHIELD (Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division). The agency has a physicist, Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård), who is carrying out experiments on a an object called a tesseract, which is a source of unlimited power. Things are going along swimmingly until Loki (Tim Huddleston), a Norse god with defective social skills, shows up. He steals the tesseract while turning Selvig and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) into his mental slaves. Loki has made a deal with a group of beings called the Chitauri (they appear to be robots, although the film is not clear about this). In return for giving them the tesseract, they will make him ruler of the world.

Fury decides to activate “Avengers Initiative”, a gathering of superheroes dedicated to saving Earth from extraterrestrial threats. They are: Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). They also include Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), who, when he gets angry, turns into an enormous green monster called the Hulk. Not surprisingly, he has deeply mixed feelings about this.

There is an element of moral ambiguity in the film. The Avengers see themselves as being on the side of good, but they discover that Fury isn’t what he appears to be, and the people he works for are downright sinister.

Joss Whedon has written and directed a stylish and entertaining movie. My one criticism is that I thought the characters spent too much time arguing with one another. I guess this is meant to make them seem more complex, but it just got confusing and annoying.

Whedon has been a very busy man lately. He also co-wrote and produced the horror film, The Cabin in the Woods, which I also enjoyed a great deal. Whedon seems determined to become some kind of pop culture colossus.

In his curiously sour review of The Avengers, Roger Ebert – who thinks Horrible Bosses is a good movie – makes some snippy comments about the film’s lone superheroine:

    Then there’s Natasha (Scarlett Johansson), aka the Black Widow. After seeing the film, I discussed her with movie critics from Brazil and India, and we were unable to come up with a satisfactory explanation for her superpowers; it seems she is merely a martial artist with good aim with weapons. We decided maybe she and Hawkeye aren’t technically superheroes, but just hang out in the same crowd.

In an early scene in the movie, Black Widow beats up three beefy guys while being tied up in a chair. No mere martial artist can do that. Later, she fights off robotic monsters from Outer Space without even breaking a sweat. I’d like to see Ebert try to do that.

Ebert ends his review with this:

    “Comic-Con nerds will have multiple orgasms,” predicts critic David Edelstein in New York magazine, confirming something I had vaguely suspected about them. If he is correct, it’s time for desperately needed movies to re-educate nerds in the joys of sex. “The Avengers” is done well by Joss Whedon, with style and energy. It provides its fans with exactly what they desire. Whether it is exactly what they deserve is arguable.

Jeez, what a grouch. He can’t even see that Edelstein’s comment was meant jokingly. If anyone needs to be re-educated, it’s Ebert.

The Adventures of Tintin

March 9, 2012

In The Adventures of Tintin, Steven Spielberg has given us a visually hectic and sometimes confusing film that fails to capture the flavor and charm of Hergé’s comic books. Spielberg crams so much visual busyness into each scene that the story and the characters are sometimes overwhelmed. Although the film is less than two hours long, you weary of it well before the end

Hergé prided himself on his attention to detail, expressed through his clear line style of drawing, yet there is a lack of attention to detail in this film that is annoying at times. When, for example, Tintin and Captain Haddock need to get into a sultan’s palace, they suddenly appear inside without any explanation as to how they got in. Later, when they are chasing bad guys, Captain Haddock pulls out a bazooka, which he inexplicably got off a palace guard. Why would a guard be carrying a bazooka? What’s more, the film appears to take place during the 1930’s, before bazookas were even invented. Another anachronism occurs when Thomson and Thompson are referred to as being members of Interpol, although that agency was referred to as the International Criminal Police (ICP) at the time. And when Bianca Castafiore is introduced to the sultan, she says, “This is my first visit to the Third World.” This line makes no sense on any level, especially since the term “Third World” wasn’t used until the 1950’s.

The film’s ending promises a sequel, but I honestly don’t think that Spielberg should bother. It’s much more fun to read the original Tintin books.

X-Men: First Class

August 13, 2011

After watching such highbrow fare as The Tree of Life and Hobo with a Shotgun, I felt the need for something light, so I went to see X-Men: First Class. I have to admit that I was never really into the whole X-Men thing. I belong to a generation for whom Spiderman and the Fantastic Four were the really cool superheroes. So I probably didn’t get all the in-jokes, although I noticed some moments that clearly had that in-joke feel to them. Personally, I don’t like it when they put in-jokes in movies, but they seem to be a requirement with these genre films.

X-Men: First Class gets off to a slow start. The problem is that it spends too much time establishing the origins of the main characters. About twenty minutes in, however, it starts to take off, and soon it’s like a roller coaster ride. I won’t go into too much detail about the story. Basically it takes place in the early 1960’s, and it’s about a group of evil mutants who try to start a nuclear war between the United States and Russia. They want to destroy non-mutants so that they and other mutants can rule the world. They are opposed by a group of good mutants, who at the end become the “X-Men”. As you may have guessed by now, the words “mutants” and “mutations” get tossed around a lot in this film. I guess this is supposed to sound scientific, although I’m not aware that it’s possible for a mutation to allow one to violate the laws of physics, as the characters in this film frequently do.

One of the things I liked about this film is that some of the characters are remarkably complex for an action movie. Indeed, the characters in this film have more depth than the characters in some supposedly “adult” movies such as Horrible Bosses. Even though they have super powers, they can't help feeling like misfits who aren't wanted. I suspect this is the secret to the comic books' success: they appeal to adolescents who feel they aren't appreciated for their talents.

This film mixes historical events with fictional ones in a manner that I did not find objectionable. Indeed, I was struck by the fact that the movie makes it clear that it was the U.S.'s decision to place Jupiter missiles in Turkey that led to the Cuban missile crisis. When I was young, if you had pointed that out to someone, he might very well have called you a "traitor". It's funny how things have changed since the end of the Cold War.