Thursday, August 11, 2005

Superhero Movies

I've seen a bunch of featherweights lately, and they're always so much easier to dispatch. I'll get to some higher calibre films soon.

We caught a show of The Fantastic Four mainly out of interest in Chris Evans. Drop-dead gorgeous, the hunky hero of Cellular walks around nearly naked or in skin-tight superwear, cries (a-hem) "flame on" when he wants to ignite his fire (that's his super-power), and somehow, despite being referred to as a generic underwear model type and sporting a generic haircut, manages to be one of the film's key assets as Johnny Storm. What's esp. refreshing about Evans is that he plays a superhero who has no angst about being a superhero. Plus, his hotness melts a jacuzzi in the mountaintop snow! Michael Chiklis is the other major asset, much to my surprise, because in previews the design of his character seemed like the film's biggest handicap. Gruffudd and Alba are tolerable, though their angsty relationship storyline tried our patience. The story goes down pretty easily, though it borrows from a lot of other superhero films (a guilty pleasure genre for me): the chamber that takes away or restores superpowers (Superman II), action setpiece on a NYC/Gotham bridge (Spidey, Batman), goofy radioactive source of their powers (too many to name). For good measure, it steals the famous ending from Raiders of the Lost Ark. Geekily, I was thrilled by the Stan Lee cameo (look for the mailman). Overall, disposable, downright laughable at times, but enjoyable enough. But, as with the X-Men, I have to say I prefer the silly colorful outfits of the old comics.

Rating: 2 out of 4 stars.

I loved the idea of Sky High, an unabashed Disney family film that manages to parody superhero stories while telling one quite well. Witty and unpretentious, the film is like an American Harry Potter minus the epic angst. (While the Brits have a long tradition of elves and faeries and wizards and the like, we've got a long tradition of comic book superheroes.) The talented Michael Angarano (so cute in his guest role on Will and Grace as Jack's son) heads up an uncommonly likeable cast as Will Stronghold, son of the world's two foremost superheroes, the Commander (Kurt Russell) and Jetstream (Kelly Preston). Expectations are high as he enters Sky High, headed by Principal Powers (my beloved Lynda Carter, tv's Wonder Woman, in a fun minor role). The only problem? Still in his puberty, Will still hasn't gotten his powers, and may not. Will he be placed as a mere "Sidekick" rather than hero? Will the son of his father's arch-enemy become his enemy? With excellent comic supporting roles for Bruce Campbell and Kids in the Hall's Dave Foley and Kevin McDonald, the film was a delight from beginning to end.

Rating: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars.

Batman Begins is perhaps the best Batman movie yet, thanks to Christopher Nolan, given the kind of carte blanche to be cool and smart here that Sam Raimi was given with the excellent Spiderman movies. DC obviously realized it had a lot to learn from Marvel, and given that they hired another wunderkind director, Joss "Buffy" Whedon, to do Wonder Woman, you have to give them credit. But there have been so many Batman movies already, this one seems a little pointless. Having gone with the idea of a prequel to get a fresh start, they still ended up covering a lot of territory we've seen before (like the death of his parents). But the cast here is an embarassment of riches: Caine, Nesson, Oldman, Wilkinson, Hauer, Watanabe, Freeman. Any single one of them could be a draw for me, let alone the talented Christian Bale, the best serious Batman yet. Then there's up and comer Cillian Murphy, and a hero and heartthrob of mine, Linus Roache, so good in Priest (1994) but whose career inexplicably never gained much traction. He plays Bruce Wayne's rich father memorably. The pleasures of this film are numerous, from a fresh look at beloved but neglected characters like Alfred the Butler and Commissioner Gordon getting a chance to shine, to the excellent look of the film, incorporating a great deal of some of the best architecture of Chicago and who knows how many other cities? The film has a fascinating new tone, no longer a simple dark cartoon but now a mix of the gritty realistic and a timeless futuristic yet retro American metropolis. Its Depression Era ingredients add an edge of class conflict that lends a timeliness and greater weight to the film. The script uses some top-drawer genre ideas that raise the bar for the genre. Nolan, a real talent, clearly took the job seriously. Batman is a special superhero, as many have pointed out, because he has no supernatural powers. He's also an aristocrat, not a regular Joe, which is a problem for all who take on the character. So in the end, it's an excellent film, fresh in all the details, but still the franchise feels old and tired.

I also was upset by the fact that the new film became an occasion for a ritual denunciation of the campiness and homoeroticism of earlier incarnations. (I'd be willing to bet that the word "campy" has been combined with "Batman" more than any other word in the language.) Watching the 60s tv show this spring (which I hadn't seen since in decades), I was impressed by its wit and ability to combine action wit comedy. Truly sophisticated at its best. I can't help feeling that the movie franchise from 1989 on has been a step back into the juvenile. I'm also tired of the relentless attacks on director Joel Schumacher, many of which are clearly anti-gay. He's not a genius but nor is he a worthless hack, and one of these days I plan to write more on the subject.

Rating: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars.

Speaking of superheroes, I didn't know John Glover, who enjoyably plays Lex Luthor's evil dad on the ever-disappointing Smallville, is gay. How cool. I'm so clueless. I'm always the last to know this stuff.

Song: "Batman's Boogaloo" by Bobby Valentin



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