K & M Commentary: The Many Reactions to Superman/Batman

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One of the biggest bits of news filtering out of this year’s San Diego Comic-Con was that Warner Brothers and DC Comics would be featuring Batman in the Man of Steel sequel slated for 2015. Now you can imagine the plethora of comments and opinions that immediately followed the announcement. They ranged from childlike jubilation to doomsday prophecies! But considering what little information we have so far isn’t it all just speculation at this point? But ya know, we bloggers love to speculate. That’s half the fun.

There are several ways to look at the announcement and several legitimate points of view. Lets look at some of the prominent opinions coming from the news:

1. Some see this as nothing more than a desperate cash grab and an attempt to catch up to Marvel’s bustling movie universe. Now there’s no denying that there is an element of truth to that. Clearly Marvel has taken a huge lead in the comic book to big screen category. With the exception of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and to a smaller degree the recent “Man of Steel” film, the DC Comics universe has failed to really flourish on the big screen. But that doesn’t automatically mean that this is desperation or a cash in. It’s not as if a Superman/Batman collaboration is completely unheard of. The two have shared a largely successful comic book with each other for years now. Therefore it wouldn’t be a stretch to see them together on the big screen. As for desperation, while I had never heard a confirmation, I had heard that the idea of bringing these two iconic superheroes together in a movie had been played around with before. With Nolan’s trilogy in the books, this would be as good a time as any to bring along the next vision of Batman.

2. Some have already written this idea off as a disaster. They believe this will ruin and undermine everything that Christopher Nolan accomplished in his Dark Knight trilogy. Many think that shoehorning Batman into the new Superman franchise does a disservice to the character and runs the risk of alienating fans of the one great property that their movie universe possesses. Again, these are some legitimate concerns but very premature ones. With such little information out there about how and how much Batman will be used, it’s really impossible to say anything with certainty. Again, there is a wealth if history between these two characters so it’s reasonable to believe that Batman’s inclusion could be done really well.

3. And then there are those that are bubbling with excitement. I must admit, when I first heard the news I fell into this category. As a long time comic book reader, the thought of these two phenomenal heroes meeting on film as thrilling. The possibilities are endless. This could be the launching point into the new Batman series. This could be the launching point of the Justice League film that has been talked about for years. In my eyes the potential for something great is off the scales. But optimistic fans have reason to be cautious. Again, we don’t know very much. Will Batman be utilized in a way that makes for a good movie AND keeps the character on the same firm footing where Nolan left him? Will his role be weighty enough to feel justified and warranted? These are real concerns but none are bigger than this: Who will play Batman? For me this is a crucial ingredient to making this whole thing work. There’s a lot of complexity and layers to the Bruce Wayne/Batman character and poor casting could derail every bit of potential. This is enough cause to be a little cautious.

So is there reason to be concerned? Absolutely. Is there reason to write it off? Absolutely not. In fact I think the sheer potential of the idea is enough to get fanboys and movie fans excited and curious. But whatever your position one thing is for sure, Warner Brothers has everyone talking about this and that’s a good thing. Now here’s hoping they deliver the goods. After all, in the end that’s all that matters.

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REVIEW: “V for Vendetta”

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“Remember, remember the 5th of November”. These are the first words mentioned in the 2005 thriller “V for Vendetta”. It’s a phrase referencing the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. This failed attempt to blow up The House of Lords has oddly become a celebrated event and it serves as the inspiration for this movie’s masked vigilante known as V. This is a film based on a comic book written by Alan Moore which was distributed by Vertigo, a brand of DC comics. The screenplay was written by the then Wachowski brothers which instantly caused concern for me. I’ve had a hard time latching on to their other work but I entered this with an open mind hoping they would avoid the traps they normally fall into.

The movie starts off on a good note introducing us to its fascist dystopian near-future world. It also introduces us to V, an underground resistance fighter sporting a cool Guy Fawkes mask and a belt full of blades. He’s played eloquently by the fluid-tongued Hugo Weaving. He rescues a young woman named Evey (Natalie Portman) from three alley thugs and then goes on to reveal to her his plans to spark a revolution. His methods (which could understandably be called terrorism) disturbs Evey but she also finds herself mesmerized by the words and reason of the mysterious V.

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Hugo Weaving as V

At first the oppressive and tyrannical world we are thrown into is fascinating. The government has gained supreme power and High Chancellor Adam Sutler (John Hurt) is pulling all the strings. The government controls the flow of information and Sutler ultimately decides what’s acceptable in every facet of the people’s lives. The citizenry sit in front of their TVs in an almost hypnotic state while the government filters and alters the “news” and “entertainment”. The totalitarian rule is realized in a variety of alarming ways which makes V’s passion and cause more sympathetic.

But as with most of the Wachowski’s other work they don’t know when to stop. After drawing us into this disturbing yet entrancing world they created, they don’t focus on unwrapping the story within it. Instead they bombard us with contrived and heavy-handed political sermonettes and pop shots. They throw out a crazy amount of soapbox issues and irrational comparisons which they have every right to do. The problem is they become so obviously forced and they do nothing to help the greater story. The social issues, the Bush bashing, the ‘blame America’ nonsense, the selective religious critique, rendition, blah, blah, blah. The second half of the film is filled with these injections that make it feel like a left-wing political propaganda piece, something the movie is supposedly speaking against.

These things mixed with the sometimes bloated dialogue ultimately made “V for Venetta” an almost laborious experience. That’s a shame because there are things the movie does well particularly in the first half. I mentioned the fantastic early impressions of the world and Weaving’s brilliant performance even during some of the Wachowski’s more blabber-heavy scenes. But the excess crap eventually weighs the thing down and at over 130 minutes it was a tad tough to endure. Director James McTeigue does the movie no favors either. There are all kinds of pacing issues and his dull camera tempered the film which seemed to be screaming for a bit of style. And he never develops enough tension and intrigue past the first act – a problem we also get in his most recent film “The Raven”. Visually the movie underwhelms and, aside from a couple of impressive explosions, it resembles a TV production. All these things left me wanting more.

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Natalie Portman

The most frustrating thing about “V for Vendetta” was that it had me during the first half. Despite its technical shortcomings I was wrapped up in the story and I found myself anxious for Hugo Weaving’s next scene. But when things come unglued I was just anxious for the ending. The Wachowskis don’t seem to understand when they’ve created a good thing. Here they take the great message built around an oppressive government and squash it with their own preachy hard-left politics. There’s nothing wrong with that in the hands of more capable writers and filmmakers, but here the latter politics don’t propel the movie. Instead they feel far more self-serving.

I know this movie has its share of followers but for me it’s a case of squandering a good thing. It goes off the rails and leaves nothing of any substance. There is a good message hidden somewhere under the clunky and peremptory politics but I lost my grasp of it halfway through. That’s unfortunate because I really wanted to like this movie. But in the end I can see why Alan Moore disassociated himself from it even if his overall problems with it were a little different than mine.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

THE SHOWDOWN : “The Avengers” vs “The Dark Knight Rises”

Without a doubt the two biggest movies of the year in terms of box office results and expectations has been Disney/Marvel’s “The Avengers” and Warner Bros./DC Comics’ “The Dark Knight Rises”. Both films were two of the most highly anticipated and heavily promoted pictures leading up to their releases. Now both have hit the theaters, made millions of dollars, and have been talked about by critics, geeks, and movie fans from around the globe. But which is the better movie? I thought it would be fun to put the two side-by-side and see who comes out on top. They’ll face off in several categories and we will see who’s standing in the end.

SPECIAL EFFECTS

When judging the special effects, it’s hard to come up with a fair and conclusive winner. Both movies approach their action sequences in significantly different ways. “The Avengers” uses a lot more CGI and much of director Joss Whedon’s vision is dependant on it. What’s truly amazing is that the movie really pulls it off. The massive CGI set pieces are sights to behold and this is easily the best looking Hulk yet to hit the big screen. Director Christopher Nolan chose a more traditional approach to special effects and they are perfect for the movie he was making. While he did use CGI, he relied much more on intense stunt sequences and traditional set designs. Explosions, flipping cars, and large-scale battles make up the thrust of the action. So judging the two by the same standard is impossible. Therefore I’ll just go by the impressive scope of the vision that’s brought to life on-screen through the effects. WINNER – “The Avengers”

SCORE

Both films have booming, energetic scores but take two very different approaches. I’m a huge fan of Alan Silvestri and he certainly delivers a solid score in “The Avengers”. It works nicely alongside of the action sequences and it’s never overdone or out-of-place. But perhaps the one negative is that I don’t remember one detail about it. Scores that have really resonated with me have also stuck with me. Hans Zimmer’s powerful score in “The Dark Knight Rises” stuck with me on several occasions. His score is ever-present and some have had problems with that. But I found it gives a cinematic pop to so many of the action sequences and in other instances really builds the intensity. His use of familiar tunes from the earlier films are perfectly used and at times had me wanting to pump my fist. Nolan may overuse the score some, but for me it really made an impression. WINNER – “The Dark Knight Rises”

ACTING

One thing both movies were blessed with were remarkable casts. The fantastic collection of actors and actresses give both movies huge dramatic lifts and when combined provide one impressive list of talent. “The Avengers” is led by Robert Downey, Jr.’s razor-sharp, wise-cracking performance that only he could deliver. The movie also introduces Mark Ruffalo who undeniably gives us the best Bruce Banner yet and Jeremy Renner who is wonderful but underused. And then throw in Tom Hiddleston and his Oscar worthy performance as Loki. But while “The Avengers” has a great cast, “The Dark Knight Rises” is a much heavier and more dramatic picture which gives it’s equally phenomenal cast a broader range of material to work with. Christian Bale gives his best performance of the entire series. Gary Oldman is simply perfect as Gordon. Anne Hathaway makes her series debut and really surprises. Tom Hardy is wonderfully brutal. And of course there’s Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Marion Cotillard, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. They’re given much more to do and they each shine. WINNER – “The Dark Knight Rises”

VILLAIN

Both movies have fantastic villains but also very different villains. “The Avengers” finds the heroes up against the mischievious meddler Loki. While he’s not that intimidating in stature, Loki manages all sorts of chaos through manipulation and trickery. But what really makes Loki so impressive is Tom Hiddleston. Without a doubt he is having a blast with the character and he carries over his great work in “Thor”. He makes Loki a viable threat and an incredibly fun villain to watch.

In “The Dark Knight Rises”, Bane is an entirely different creation. Tom Hardy stars as the intelligent but psychotic brute who intimidates more through violence and force than mischief. Bane is a vicious presence and he’s stands out in every scene he’s in. Hardy’s physicality helps give the fight scenes a gritty realism and his swagger shows his fearlessness. From the first scene he’s in, you know that Bane is a villain not to be messed with. So both movies feature villains that are very different yet equally menacing and ultimately engaging. WINNER – DRAW

STORY/WRITING

Both movies feature some outstanding writing. “The Avengers” is faced with the task of taking a handful of earlier films and bringing them and their characters together in a good, cohesive way. It’s a daunting task and Joss Whedon makes it work. He makes “The Avengers” a climax movie that all of the individual superhero pictures were building up to. He also manages his large cast wonderfully. Another strong point with Whedon is the fantastic injection of humor throughout the picture. There are some truly laugh-out-loud moments and Whedon is respectful of the material but never takes it too seriously. It’s really well done.

On the other hand, Christopher Nolan is an incredible storyteller with his own unique visual presentation. His movies are generally more complex and layered and often times he challenges his audience. “The Dark Knight Rises” is no different. The story twists and turns and Nolan injects it with just the right amount of action and intensity. He also does a fine job of connecting it with the previous film as well as wrapping up his trilogy with a near perfect ending. Nolan doesn’t dumb things down and gives us a glorious and rousing ending to what is arguably one of the greatest trilogies in film history. WINNER – “The Dark Knight Rises”

AMBITION

With “The Dark Knight Rises”, Christopher Nolan finishes his spectacular vision of Batman and his universe. It’s most certainly an ambitious film. Nolan introduces new characters, connects us to the previous film, gives us an evil and brutal new villain, tells another deep and satisfying story, and wraps the entire series up, all in one film. It’s quite a vision. For Joss Whedon the task was quite possibly tougher and more ambitious. As mentioned above, Marvel had created several individual superhero franchises and each pointed to the Avengers project. “The Avengers” movie was a culmination of all of those movies and characters and Whedon had to bring it all together – a tricky job. A movie that ambitious had so many things that could have gone wrong but instead we were given one of the best times at the theaters this year. WINNER – “The Avengers”

DIRECTION

Both Joss Whedon and Christopher Nolan had the advantage of directing material that they were instrumental in creating. As writers, they had strong and distinct visions for their movies which carried over into their direction. Whedon wonderfully visualizes his wild superhero world, creates some astonishing action sequences, and nicely utilizes his great cast. Whedon draws everything together with an almost seamless result. Nolan is also a visual storyteller and his style is evident from the opening scene. Again, he is directing much weightier and more layered material and his ability to translate it on-screen so vividly is a testament to his rock solid direction. While “The Avengers” is sharply directed and a huge accomplishment, “The Dark Knight Rises” does go down more challenging roads, features a more hands-on approach to its action, and requires a more complex use of its characters. Nolan’s direction is spot-on. WINNER – “The Dark Knight Rises”

CONCLUSION

Both movies are exceptional examples of why the superhero genre is a legitimate form of cinematic entertainment. These are movies that aren’t just seeking box office numbers and millions of dollars. These are two strong movies with great storytelling, amazing special effects, phenomenal casts, and writers/directors that not only care for their projects, but put a great deal into making them the best movies they can be. But out of the two, “The Dark Knight Rises”…well…rises to the top. The deeper more layered story, the extremely high stakes, the more realistic grounding, and the wonderful way it wraps up Christopher Nolan’s Batman vision give it the edge over Joss Whedon’s fine film. Both films met some really high expectations, but for me “The Dark Knight Rises” was a better film that I will still be talking about for a long time.

THE OVERALL WINNER

Batman & Warner Bros. – What Comes Next?

I still remember anxiously waiting in line at the movie theater during June of 1989. It was the weekend for Tim Burton’s “Batman”, a movie I had been anxiously waiting for. Warner Bros. had done an excellent job building up the film in an era (unlike now) with no easy access to the internet and other modern methods of promotion. The film was a huge success and it ended up raking in over $400 million dollars. After it came “Batman Returns” in 1992 – a movie that had its moments but still fell terribly short of the first film both in quality and in money earned. Joel Schumacher took over the franchise with 1995’s “Batman Forever” and although the box office take went up, the quality went down even more. Schumacher then finished his execution of that Batman series with the hideous “Batman and Robin”, a movie that made considerably less money and remains completely unwatchable.

After a lengthy layoff, Warner Bros. brought Batman back in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, a series that has already been heavily discussed on this blog. The Warner approach was a good one – place the character in the hands of a capable visual and intellectual storyteller and let him share his own vision of the Dark Knight. It worked wonderfully both in terms of box office revenue and the quality of the films. For my money, the Nolan trilogy features the greatest superhero story ever told on film and it’s a rousing cinematic accomplishment.

But now Nolan is done. “The Dark Knight Rises” has hit the theaters and once again Warner Bros. has no strong chess piece on the superhero movie board. “The Man of Steel” is due out next year but we all know how their last attempt at bringing back Superman went. I was a fan of that picture up until the end where Bryan Singer and company completely blew the entire film. “Green Lantern” was the studio’s most recent attempt at getting another major superhero franchise going. And while I enjoyed parts of the movie, it was a cramped and poorly conceived story that both fanboys and casual moviegoers couldn’t latch on to.

So the question remains, what’s next? Warner Bros. and DC Comics are both desperate to tap into some of the success that Marvel Studios has had through a series of highly successful and genuinely good superhero flicks. And while “The Man of Steel” is on the horizon, questions certainly remain about it. Other DC Comics properties are in the works but let’s face it, now that Batman is gone, Warner Bros. doesn’t have a single heavy-hitting superhero film franchise to call their own. And when it comes down to it, Batman has been shown to be the studio’s anchor in the genre. So when Batman returns (and he most certainly will return), my advice would be to follow in the footsteps of the Dark Knight trilogy not in terms of the story but in how the studio approaches it. Find a creative visionary – someone with a unique but intelligent visual storytelling style – and let them share their vision. But (and this is a huge but) they had better choose wisely.

REVIEW: “The Dark Knight Rises”

The superhero genre has been going strong for several years now and I’ve been wondering when was it going to run out of steam. At what point was the quality of the films going to suffer leading audiences to say enough is enough? In 2005 Christopher Nolan made a great contribution to the genre with “Batman Begins”. He followed it up with 2008′ s phenomenal “The Dark Knight”, a film that was not only one of the best sequels ever made but a demonstrative statement showing that superhero films can be legitimate and powerful forms of cinematic entertainment.

That brings us to “The Dark Knight Rises” the final film of Christopher Nolan’s Batman run and the end of what could easily go down as one of the best movie trilogies in motion picture history. “The Dark Knight Rises” is smart, layered, gritty, moving, and action-packed. Nolan not only wraps up his series in a competent and satisfying way, he gives us one of the most potent and energetic movie experiences you’ll find – a near perfect mix of comic book action, socially reflective drama, and expert storytelling. If these are the kinds of films we could get regularly from the superhero genre, I see no limit to their lifespans.

This film takes place 8 years after Batman rode off into the shadows at the end of “The Dark Knight”. Batman is a fugitive, unjustly but willingly, wanted for the murder of Harvey Dent. There have been no Batman sightings during this time and crime in Gotham City has declined due to an inspired city leadership and law enforcement armed with the Dent Act. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has become a hobbled recluse, spending all of his time in a closed off wing of Wayne Manor where long-time family friend and faithful butler Alfred (Michael Caine) is his only contact with the outside world. Gotham has become lethargic in its approach to crime and peace time has made the city leaders careless. Everyone except commissioner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) and Officer Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a devoted young patrolman. With their guard down, the city is hit head-on by a brutal but calculated terrorist named Bane (Tom Hardy). Bane’s destructive assault on Gotham cripples the city and as all-out anarchy takes hold, the need for Batman is greater than ever.

Morgan Freeman also returns as Lucius Fox, Bruce Wayne’s close friend and acting president of Wayne Enterprises. Fox is struggling to keep the company afloat following the poor position Bruce left him in. In addition to Hardy and Gordon-Levitt, Anne Hathaway joins the series as Selina Kyle, a cat burglar who steals out of Robin Hood-like motivations but also with a single more direct purpose in mind. Also new to the cast is Marion Cotillard. She plays Miranda Tate, a Wayne Enterprises board member and philanthropist with a great interest in green energy technology and Wayne’s investments into it. Matthew Modine plays Deputy Peter Foley, a spineless officer who is more interested in making a name for himself by catching Batman than stopping the coming storm at the hands of Bane. We also get Ben Mendelsohn as a slimy self-serving Wayne board member with his hands in deeper in than they should be.

Nolan takes this amazing collection of acting talent and throws them all into his smorgasbord of plot lines and dramatic twists. But he never loses control of the film and everything comes together in an extremely satisfying way. Nolan incorporates several relevent and current issues into the story, none more prevalent than the entire class warfare theme. Selina has a very anti-rich people mindset seeing the wealthy as a key cause to society’s ills. Bane himself seeks to take the power out of the hands of the wealthy, the local government, and law enforcement and give it to the poor and downtrodden. But Nolan doesn’t sugarcoat or promote anything. In fact he shows where an extreme and unbridled class warfare position can lead. Some may say that his presentation is heavy-handed but I felt it worked perfectly in the greater context of the story.

Nolan and his brother Jonathan wrote the screenplay and even with the heavy exposition in the first 30 minutes – clearly intended to fill the audience in on what has transpired during the missing 8 years – the movie moves at a crisp and fluid pace. As with all of Nolan’s pictures, there are layers of story that unfold to reveal deeper meanings and cool dramatic twists that should please both comic book fanboys and lovers of good storytelling. He doesn’t dumb things down nor does he ever patronize the audience. The film sets the table for us then causes us to attentively hang on for dear life – a most pleasing challenge. Much like “The Dark Knight” there are no shortcuts here. The film isn’t just a loud summer studio comic book adaptation. It’s brilliant cinematic storytelling that takes a superhero concept, laces it with a true sense of reality, and presents it to us in a beautifully crafted package. Another example of why Christopher Nolan is one of our best directors and visual storytellers.

I’ve mentioned the cast but they deserve more than just a few words. Bale IS Batman and this is his strongest work of the entire series. We see him as a broken and vulnerable man as well as the growling caped crusader. Bale has no problems relaying either to the audience. Anne Hathaway is also very good as Catwoman (even though she’s never called Catwoman) and while I wasn’t certain she completely belonged in Nolan’s more realistic Batman universe, he never overdoes the character and Hathaway sells her well. Tom Hardy will undoubtedly face comparisons to Heath Ledger’s Joker from the last film but that’s terrible unfair. The two villains couldn’t be more different and Hardy’s Bane easily stands on his own. Hardy spends the entire film behind a mask but his body language and brute swagger makes him a most menacing villain. Gary Oldman is fantastic as always as was the lovely Marion Cotillard. Michael Caine is wonderful and has some of the best exchanges with Bale. Unfortunately he disappears in the second half of the film. And Joseph Gordon-Levitt continues to prove he is a solid young actor. Perhaps the only weak spot was with Matthew Modine who I never really bought into. His character only adds one small thing to the story and Modine never makes him all that compelling or interesting.

Technically “The Dark Knight Rises” is the jaw-dropper I expected it to be. Nolan’s stylistic flare and incredible camera work do a great job of capturing the panic and dread of a city under siege. The special effects are stunning and the action sequences are big and boisterous. Nolan gives us some new Batman toys as well as some old favorites and they’re used in several cool crowd-pleasing ways. I also loved the fight choreography. You know by the trailer that there is going to be a Bane and Batman showdown and Nolan builds it up with undeniable intensity. Then when the payoff comes, we aren’t hampered by herky-jerky camera movements. Instead Nolan lets the fights take place without any fancy gimmicks. It was incredibly satisfying. I also loved Hans Zimmer’s score. Some have voiced dislike for his ever-present pounding music but it worked for me. I felt it contributed to the intensity that the film is going for just as Zimmer’s scores have done for the previous two Batman movies.

“The Dark Knight Rises” once again plunges the people of Gotham and us into the depths of fear and dread while examining evil and the darker side of society. Yet the film always allows us hope. This is certainly another dark story but the stakes are high and the ending is exceptional and rewarding and the perfect goodbye to a phenomenal trilogy. I wanted to stand and applaud. The film stretches the boundaries of the comic book genre. It’s large in scale, full of story, and absolutely engrossing throughout it’s almost 3 hour running time. “The Dark Knight Rises” is far more than simply great. It’s a modern classic featuring mesmerizing performances, fist-pumping action, and genuine intelligence. It’s a visual spectacle. It’s emotionally and intellectually stimulating. It’s a text book lesson on the melding of big budget flamboyance with smart and challenging storytelling. It’s hard to accept that this is Nolan’s final Batman film but he has given us a gift – a groundbreaking series of films capped by a truly glorious finale. What a ride it’s been and what a way to end it.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4.5 STARS