erik lundegaard

Movie Reviews - 2000s posts

Monday July 02, 2012

Movie Review: Spider-Man 3 (2007)

WARNING: UNFORGIVING SPOILERS

Has any final installment of a trilogy sucked as badly as this one? Has any third movie betrayed the legacy of its first two movies the way this one does?

Hell, forget the first two movies; how about the source material? Spider-Man is Spider-Man because of one horrible moment: His Uncle Ben is killed by a petty thief that Peter Parker, with all his powers, couldn’t be bothered to stop. It’s one of the great psychological motivations in superherodom. Spider-Man fights crime not because it’s right, like Superman, and not for revenge, like Batman, but from guilt. Because he didn’t bother to stop the guy who later killed Uncle Ben.

poster for Spider-Man 3“Spider-Man 3” undoes all of this. It pins Uncle Ben’s murder on the petty thief’s partner, Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church), who later becomes the Sandman.

Did anyone on the set question this? Did anyone say, “Uh, dudes, if another guy is responsible for the death of Uncle Ben, what does this do to Spider-Man’s origin? His guilt? His raison d’etre?”

Undoing Spider-Man’s origin absolves Peter Parker of his original sin, the sin of doing nothing; of thinking that with great power comes a lot of kick-ass fun, bro. It turns him into someone else.

So, five years later, I went looking for a culprit for “Spider-Man 3”; and possibly, hopefully, a mea culpa.

Whodunit?
There are entire threads out there in which geeks and outsiders hash it out and bash each other’s theories about what went wrong with “Spider-Man 3.” Some blame producer Avi Arad for insisting that Venom be added to a storyline already weighed down with the New Green Goblin and Sandman and evil Spider-Man. Some blame fanboys who whined about wanting to see Venom in the first place. Some blame the actors for going through the motions. Some blame director Sam Raimi.

Me, I searched for cast/crew differences in the “Spider-Man” movies. Who worked on the third movie, which sucked, who didn’t work on the first two, which were great?

Director?

  • 1: Directed by Sam Raimi
  • 2: Directed by Sam Raimi
  • 3: Directed by Sam Raimi

Nope. Editor?

  • 1: Film Editing by Arthur Coburn and Bob Murawski
  • 2: Film Editing by Bob Murawski
  • 3: Film Editing by Bob Murawski

No. Writer?

  • 1: Screenplay: David Koepp
  • 2: Screenplay: Alvin Sargent. Story: Alfred Gough, Miles Millar and Michael Chabon
  • 3: Screenplay: Sam Raimi, Ivan Raimi and Alvin Sargent. Story: Sam Raimi and Ivan Raimi

Wait. Ivan Raimi?

Yes, Sam’s older brother. He’s an emergency room doctor with many screen credits ... on his younger brother’s movies. According to IMDb.com, he helped develop the stories for the first two “Spider-Man” movies, too.

But those are your culprits. Sam and Ivan. We know because they’ve already confessed. They confessed in the form of bragging.

Whydunit?
This is a part of an interview Sam Raimi did with Wizard Entertainment Group in 2007:

We felt that the most important thing Peter has to learn right now is that this whole concept of him as the avenger, or him as the hero… He wears this red and blue outfit. With each criminal he brings to justice, he’s trying to pay down his debt of guilt he feels about the death of Uncle Ben. And he considers himself a hero and a sinless person, versus these villains that he nabs. So we felt it would be a great thing for him to learn the less black-and-white view of life, and that he’s not above these people, that he’s not just a hero and they’re not just the villains. That we’re all human beings and we all have, that he himself might have, some sin within him, and that other human beings, the ones he calls the criminals, have humanity within them. And that the best we can do within this world is to not strive for vengeance but for forgiveness.

Look at the quote again. These words:

He considers himself a hero and a sinless person, versus these villains that he nabs.

The whole point of Peter Parker is that he knows he’s sinned. He knows the fault lies within himself as with others. By making someone other than Spider-Man's origin in Amazing Fantasy #15: "All my fault!"the Burglar the killer of Uncle Ben, you actually remove his original sin, which is the greatest original sin in comic book history.

In other words, Sam and Ivan removed Spider-Man’s original sin in order to deliver the lesson that none of us are without sin.

Idiots.

Then there’s this line:

The best we can do within this world is to not strive for vengeance but for forgiveness.

Vengeance? When does Spider-Man ever strive for revenge? In the first two movies, which Sam Raimi supposedly directed, when does he ever seethe with revenge?

Just one moment. It’s in the first movie, when he’s going after the petty thief who killed Uncle Ben. At this point, he’s this close to becoming Batman. But that’s before the realization that he could’ve prevented it all, the realization that makes him Spider-Man.

So why did Sam and Ivan insist Peter (Tobey Maguire) learn a lesson he’s already learned? More to the point, how do they do it? How do they make a character who isn’t naturally vengeful, vengeful?

Howdunit?
Two ways. First, they undo the moment that makes him Spider-Man, by placing the blame for Uncle Ben’s death on Flint Marko. Then they infect him with symbiotic black space goo. It lands in Central Park from outer space (I know), adheres to Spider-Man’s uniform (right), and turns it, and his soul, black.

This goo makes him do crazy things. He styles his hair like a little Hitler, struts down the street like an ass, and takes advantage of his landlord’s daughter, Ursula (Mageina Tovah), by allowing her to bake cookies for him. That’s not a metaphor, by the way. She’s literally baking cookies for him. And he has the nerve to eat them in the hallway of his rundown building. With milk.

The goo also makes him web-sling after Flint Marko/Sandman with a vengeance. And he gets his revenge. He kills him, or thinks he kills him, and sneers this final bon mot: “Good riddance.”

Later in the movie, Aunt May will tell Peter that revenge is like a poison. “It can take you over,” she says. “Before you know it, it can turn us into something ugly.” That’s the grand lesson the Raimi brothers wish to impart. Unfortunately, it’s not the grand lesson the movie imparts. Because her words describe revenge less than the symbiotic black space goo. It has taken him over. It has turned him ugly. It has made him eat the cookies that Ursula baked for him. Peter Parker? He’s still a nice guy. So what’s the real grand lesson here? Don’t get infected with symbiotic black space goo?

Shedunit
Should I even get into the whole Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) subplot?

Peter and MJ come together at the end of “2” but at the beginning of “3” they already looked bored with it. Or she does anyway. Hanging in that web hammock in Central Park and looking at the stars? Again? How about we have sex for a change? Or once? How about I bake you some cookies?

Pete and MJ aren’t helped by the fact that he’s oblivious and she’s a bit of a bitch. He’s superhappy and the superhappy are always tough to hang around. He’s so superhappy he kisses Gwen Stacey in front of MJ and doesn’t think it’ll bother MJ.

But by this point her life has begun to turn. She’s on Broadway in a musical, “Manhattan Melodies,” singing some 1940s-era song while descending a long staircase in a long gown. (Wait, what year is it again?) The critics are merciless. Oddly, the producers listen to the critics and fire her. When she emerges from the theater in the middle of the day, it’s to applause, and for a second, being her, she actually thinks it’s for her—the third-billed, recently fired star of a tired musical. Her face darkens when she sees the applause is actually for Spider-Man, that lout of a boyfriend, who just, what, saves people’s lives? As if.

So she holds back. She’s actually in the process of leaving Peter, as she left Flash Thompson, and Harry Osborne, and as she left John Jameson standing at the altar like a schmuck. This is what she does. She runs away from one man and into the arms of another.

This time the arms belong to Harry (James Franco) again, who, because he bonks his head and develops amnesia like a third-rate character in a soap opera, doesn’t remember that his father was the Green Goblin, that his best friend is Spider-Man, and that he thinks his best friend killed his father. Instead he’s happy-go-lucky, and he and MJ make omelettes while listening to Chubby Checker and dancing the Twist. (Wait, what year is it again?) Then they kiss. She: “I didn’t mean to do that!” Me: Yes, you did.

Up to this point, the relationship of Pete and MJ is falling apart on its own. But for the rest of the movie, external forces will act upon them to break them up completely.

First, her kiss, like a reverse Prince Charming’s, awakens Harry’s memory, his inner Goblin, who counsels, vis a vis Peter, “Make him suffer. ... First, we attack his heart!” Which he does. Not by wooing MJ—that would be too simple—but by threatening her. We never find out what this threat is. Break up with Peter or I’ll kill you? Break up with Peter or I’ll kill Peter? How come she doesn’t say, “Dude, my boyfriend’s Spider-Man. Screw you and your sad-ass air-board. What, was Rocket Racer having a sale?”

Instead, threatened, she breaks up with Peter, who is already coming under the influence of the black space goo. So he shows up at MJ’s singing waitress gig and steals the show as a 1940s-era jive-talking asshole. (Wait, what year is it again?) Then he decks a bouncer. Then he decks her. Much later, as per usual, she’s the bait in the final epic battle above Manhattan; and at the very end, with Harry dead and the black space goo gone, Peter and MJ get together for a final slow, sad dance. Are they a couple again? Are they saying good-bye? Who knows? Who knows if they’re even right for each other. They didn’t seem right for each other at the beginning, and so much has happened since then.

All of this is part of another grand lesson the Raimi brothers wish to impart: a man puts his woman before himself. The odd thing? Peter usually does this. He just doesn’t do it in “Spider-Man 3” because the Raimi brothers want to impart this lesson. So they make Peter superhappy and thus oblivious to the pain of others. The rest gets tangled up in space goo.

The conflict they wanted was there, too, if they’d just looked hard enough. Every person, every situation, contains a paradox, and Peter’s is in the contradictory sayings of Uncle Ben. On the one hand: With great power comes great responsibility. On the other: A husband puts his wife before himself. So to whom is Peter ultimately responsible? I’d go with the woman in the burning building over MJ reading a scathing review, but that’s just me. But at least you have something for Peter to work through. At least you don’t have to turn Peter into what he is not in order to show us that he should be what he is.

That final, sad, slow dance? It’s the last time we see these characters in this incarnation. I’d say “Good riddance” but that would be too vengeful.

Theydunit
I went looking for the culprits for “Spider-Man 3” and found them. I also went looking for a mea culpa. I found it, too. Kind of.

Here’s Sam Raimi in 2009, when it seemed he still might make “Spider-Man 4”:

I think having so many villains detracted from the experience. I would agree with the criticism… I think I’ve learned about the importance of getting to the point and the importance of having limitations, and I’m hoping to take that into a production where I’m actually allowed to explore with more of the tools to pull it off with a little more splendor.

Everyone thinks that’s the problem with “Spider-Man 3”: too many supervillains. But that’s not the real problem. You could actually do something cool with too many supervillains. I bet there’s a writer-director right now, maybe Joss Whedon, who is thinking of ways to turn this collective wisdom (too many supervillains ruin a movie) on its head.

No, the real problem is that Sam and Ivan had reductive lessons to impart and they imparted them in spite of their characters, not because of them. They imposed them from above. Their characters were A, and they changed them to F or Q, in order to show us that we should all be A.

To do this, they tore apart what is organic and meaningful in Spider-Man’s story (the Burglar; with great power comes great responsibility), then stuck it back together through artificial constructs and reductive lessons (space goo; forgiveness > vengeance). They’re like children who, having removed the wings of an insect, construct papier-mâché versions and stick them on and expect the poor thing to fly. It doesn’t. It fucking falls.

Here’s the final fall. It’s the big moment of forgiveness. Harry’s dead, Eddie Brock is gone with the space goo, and Spider-Man and Sandman square off. With words. Words written by Sam Raimi and his brother, Dr. Ivan Raimi. Enjoy:

Sandman: I didn't want this. But I had no choice.
Spider-Man: We always have a choice. You had a choice when you killed my uncle.
Sandman: My daughter was dying. I needed money.

[Flashback: Flint knocks on Uncle Ben’s car window with a gun]

Sandman: I was scared. I told your uncle all I wanted was the car. He said to me, “Why don't you just put down the gun and go home?” I realize now he was just trying to help me. Then I saw my partner running over with the cash... and the gun was in my hand...

[Flashback: the Burglar shakes Flint’s arm, causing him to shoot Uncle Ben.]

Sandman: I did a terrible thing to you. I spent a lot of nights wishing I could take it back. I'm not asking you to forgive me. I just want you to understand.
Spider-Man: I've done terrible things too.
Sandman: I didn't choose to be this. The only thing left of me now... is my daughter.

[There’s a pause. A long, long pause.]

Spider-Man: I forgive you.

My edit:

Sam Raimi: I didn't want this. But I had no choice.
Me: We always have a choice. You had a choice when you made Flint Marko responsible for the death of Uncle Ben.
Sam: I thought I was teaching a lesson about sin, and revenge, and forgiveness.
Me: Revenge? You think you’re telling Batman’s story here? Do you even know which character you’ve spent a decade filming?
Sam: I was scared. Then I saw my agent running over with the cash... and the pen was in my hand...

[Flashback: Sam and Ivan talk about the story while Ivan performs surgery.]

Sam: I did a terrible thing to you all. I spent a lot of nights wishing I could take it back.

[Flashback to the “Spider-Man 3” premiere and the horrified faces in the audience.]

Sam: I'm not asking you to forgive me. I just want you to understand.
Me: I've written terrible things, too...

[There’s a pause. A very short pause.]

Me: ...but not this terrible. Fucker.

Horizontal poster for Spider-Man 3 (2007)

Oh no! I'm about to turn into what I'm not so I can learn I should be what I am!

Posted at 07:31 AM on Jul 02, 2012 in category Movie Reviews - 2000s
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Thursday May 10, 2012

Movie Review: The Dark Knight (2008)

WARNING: WHY SO SPOILEROUS?

I only saw “The Dark Knight” once in theaters, at a preview screening a few days before its July 2008 opening. Afterwards I wrote an MSN piece about it, “The Smart Knight,” which included the following lines:

There are better superhero movies out there... But “The Dark Knight,” directed by Christopher Nolan, is the smartest superhero movie ever made.

My point: Once Batman stops being a vigilante and becomes a glorified cop he becomes absurd—a cop in a bat suit—and descends into camp. “The The Dark Knight (2008)Dark Knight” ensured this wouldn’t happen by reinforcing his vigilante status and taking an axe to the bat signal. Even so, fanboys jumped on me for implying that other superhero films might be better than “The Dark Knight.”

Now that I’ve actually seen the movie a second time, four years later on DVD, I’d like to apologize to those fanboys. I was wrong in the above quote. “The Dark Knight” isn’t the smartest superhero movie ever made. In fact, it’s pretty stupid.

Battle for the soul of Gotham
The battle between the Batman (Christian Bale) and the Joker (Heath Ledger) is nothing less than a battle for the soul of Gotham City. Batman wants order, the Joker chaos. “Some men aren't looking for anything logical,” says Alfred (Michael Caine), in one of the movie’s most famous lines. “Some men only want to watch the world burn.”

How does the Joker do this? He commit acts of terrorism. He tries to get the citizens of Gotham to reveal that they’re as ugly inside as he is.

First, he announces he’ll kill one person every day until the Batman takes off his mask and turns himself in. What happens? When Gotham’s district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) holds a press conference saying we don’t give in to terrorist demands, the people lash back:

Reporter: You’d rather protect this outlaw vigilante than the lives of citizens?
Man 1: Things are worse than ever!
Cop: No more dead cops! [Other cops applaud.]
Man 2: He should turn himself in!

The Joker wins.

Then when a Wayne Enterprises employee, Reese (Josh Harto), is about to reveal Batman’s true identity on television, the Joker decides Batman’s too much fun. So he demands the death of Reese in an hour or he’ll blow up a hospital. What happens? All over Gotham, people start taking potshots at Reese. It’s up to the Batman, disguised as Bruce Wayne, to save him.

The Joker wins.

Finally, in the film’s climax, the Joker loads hundreds of barrels of explosives onto two ferry boats—one filled with criminals, one filled with civilians—and gives each boat the other’s detonator. At midnight, he says, he’ll blow up both ferries. If one boat blows up the other first, however, that one will be allowed to continue safely on its way. What happens? The ferry full of citizens votes to blow up the ferry full of criminals but no one can push the button. Meanwhile, one of the criminals (former wrestler Tommy ‘Tiny’ Lister), 6’ 5” and glowering, demands the detonator, and tells the ship’s captain: “I’ll do what you shoulda did 10 minutes ago.” Then he tosses it overboard. Midnight passes, by which time the Joker’s been defeated, and everyone’s safe. Our best side has been revealed.

Batman wins.

In other words, threatened indirectly in examples 1 and 2, everyone caved. Threatened directly, in example 3, and people behaved nobly.

“Give up the Batman or there’s a one-in-10-million chance you’ll die.” Let’s give up the Batman! “Kill Reese or I’ll blow up one of dozens of hospitals in Gotham.” Let’s kill Reese! “Kill those murderers and rapists or YOU will be killed!” Uh... let’s take a vote.

Worse, despite his experiences with examples 1 and 2, not to mention his whole raison d’etre, Batman, in example 3, is convinced that both the citizens and criminals of Gotham will do the right thing. At one point, he and Lt. Gordon (Gary Oldman) have this conversation:

Gordon: Every second we don’t [take down the Joker], those people on the ferry get closer to blowing each other—
Batman (low growl): That won’t happen.

As Batman wrestles with the Joker, we get this exchange:

Joker: I’ll miss the fireworks. [One of the boats blowing up.]
Batman (low growl): There won’t be any fireworks!

How does he know? Because he’s the hero? Because it’s the end of the movie? Because it’s time for him to win? The whole thing feels monumentally false.

Yes, you can drill down and say that in example No. 1 the people were asked to give up nothing of their own, just the Batman, so it was easier to cave. Yes, you can say that in example No. 2, the pool of potential assassins was larger than on the ferry boat, so you’re that much more likely to find one, two, or a dozen, willing to kill for a false sense of security. Yes, on the ferry boat they’re fighting for a real sense of security, a do-or-die situation,  but it’s still a tough thing to press a button and extinguish hundreds of souls. Most of us don’t have it in us. But what about the other boat? Could no criminal, who might’ve already killed dozens, push that button?

Bottom line. Threatened indirectly, the people of Gotham got scared and flailed. Threatened directly, the people of Gotham got scared and sat calmly. Maybe that’s what happens when you and your children are threatened directly. But I doubt it.

The Museum of the Hard-to-Believe
There’s so much I don’t believe about this film.

I don’t believe the Joker is able to redirect or misdirect Harvey Dent’s anger. Dent has a gun to the forehead of the Joker—the man responsible for both the awful last minutes of Rachel Dawes’ life and Dent losing half his face—and he doesn’t pull the trigger? Instead he goes after the cops who betrayed him to the Joker. He goes after the family of Jim Gordon, the uncorrupt boss of those corrupt cops. He flails.

And what’s up with that whole ‘White Knight’ crap? If Dent is revealed as less than pure, the good citizens of Gotham—if there are any—would give up hope? How many even know who Harvey Dent is?

Don’t get me started on all the traps the Joker springs in this thing.

Oops. Too late.

Here are the various traps the Joker springs on the people and authorities of Gotham:

  1. He kidnaps and kills one of Gotham’s many Batman copycats, then he hangs the fat corpse outside the Mayor’s high-rise office so it bumps up against the window just as the Mayor is looking out. Nice timing.
  2. He sends a video of the killing to the TV networks, who broadcast it, along with his demand that Batman turn himself in.
  3. He gets the DNA of three prominent Gothamites (Judge, Commissioner, Harvey Dent) on a Joker card, kills two of them (bomb, poison), and goes after Dent personally at Bruce Wayne’s high-rise.
  4. When Dent, pretending to be Batman, is transported across town in a police van, Joker redirects the motorcade into an underpass and attacks it.
  5. After Batman stops the Joker by upending his truck, a stunt which should’ve killed him but merely left him a tad groggy, the Joker has his men kidnap both Dent and Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and tie them to chairs next to explosives in secure locations equidistant from the Gotham jail. (Thank you, Google maps.)
  6. At the same time, or a previous time, he plants a man with a bomb in his stomach in the Gotham jail. Is this Plan B? For when the underpass thing didn’t work? Or was Gordon right and the Joker wanted to be captured? Gotta say, for someone who wanted to be captured, he was making a convincing case otherwise in that underpass.
  7. Plan B works perfectly, though. The jail bomb goes off, killing many but leaving the Joker unharmed, Rachel Dawes blows up, and, best of all, and completely unplanned, Dent loses half his face in the blast that nearly takes his life.
  8. Whew. Breather? No, this is Chris Nolan. Onward.

  9. The Joker gets on a local news show and tells everyone to kill Reese or he’ll blow up a hospital. For some reason, not many policemen guard the hospital where Dent is recuperating. Apparently everyone’s forgotten that the Joker has tried to kill him three times now.
  10. After turning Harvey Dent into a bad guy, the Joker blows up the hospital.
  11. Immediately after, he begins his ferry boat threat. When did he load the  explosives onto the ferries? Just how many men does he have? And does no one ever see him doing these things?
  12. And while all of that is going on, he holes up in a construction site, where he’s being watched by police who have been alerted to his location by Batman’s extra-legal surveillance. Except his men in clown masks? They’re really hostages! The hostages? They’re really his men! It’s another trap! Because he knew they’d be able to find him? Why would he think that? Batman had to break the law to find him. Just how many steps ahead is the Joker?

For a madman, the Joker has to be the greatest organizational planner ever. Even while messing with you in Plan B, he’s apparently thinking ahead to Plan Z. The intricacy of his plans make D-Day seem like a sailboat ride on a Sunday afternoon.

It’s tough out there for a Batman
This is a tough movie to be Batman. In the first, “Batman Begins,” he’s proactive, stalking crooks in the night. Here, he’s back on his heels. He’s reacting more than acting. He’s taking punches.

After Rachel is killed by the Joker, Alfred tells Batman, “You spat in the faces of Gotham's worst criminals. Didn’t you think there might be some casualties?” Thanks for the buck-up, bro.Is he slower in this one? He was such a ninja in the first movie that both criminals and moviegoers could barely see him. Maybe fanboys complained. That last fight with Ra’s al Ghul on the train was like a battle of shadows, but, ninja-wise, it made sense. Here, Batman’s not only not a ninja, he’s as stolid as Rocky Balboa in the 11th round.

Thank god he’s got so many good people around him. Alfred, for example. After Batman’s first encounter with the Joker, when Bruce Wayne says, “They crossed a line,” Alfred immediately responds, “You crossed the line first, sir. You squeezed them, you hammered them to the point of desperation.” After Batman saves Harvey Dent but loses Rachel and sits despondent over his role in all of this—in inspiring not good but madness—Alfred tells him, “You spat in the faces of Gotham's worst criminals. Didn’t you think there might be some casualties?” Spat in the faces...? Thanks for the buck-up, bro.

Well, at least Bruce has Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), who, when shown Batman’s Patriot-Act-like surveillance methods, says, “This is too much power for one man to have,” and “Spying on 30 million people isn't part of my job description.” OK, so no Lucius. But at least Rachel loves him. Oh right, the letter.

Poor dude can’t have a conversation with anyone without it turning into some part of the film’s philosophical treatise. I love me some Michael Caine but almost everything Alfred says is in this vein. Harvey Dent, too. “You either die a hero,” he says during a casual dinner, “or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” When I first heard it, before I knew that Harvey would die a hero and Batman would endure as a villain, it felt false to me. It rang loudly and off key. It announced itself.

Movies are only as good as directors allow them to be
I like some of what Nolan does. I like the idea that Batman inspires people in unintended, dangerous ways. I like that someone nefarious rises to reach Batman’s level of madness. I like the idea of blackmailing Batman to give himself up. That’s smart. But it’s lost in the relentlessness of Nolan’s direction and the Joker’s innumerable plans and schemes.

Yes, Heath Ledger is brilliant. And, yes, this is great dialogue:

Don’t talk like one of them. You’re not! Even if you’d like to be. To them, you’re just a freak. Like me! They need you right now, but when they don’t they’ll cast you out like a leper. You see, their morals, their code, it’s a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. I’ll show you. When the chips are down, these... these civilized people, they’ll eat each other. See, I’m not a monster. I’m just ahead of the curve.

Ahead of the curve. Great line.

This sets up our ferry-boat ending that depicts how some people don’t drop their moral code at the first sign of trouble. The problem? The Joker’s actually right. Or he’s half right. Moral codes aren’t necessarily dropped at the first sign of trouble, but, generally, we are only as good as the world allows us to be. Batman knows that, too. He should’ve picked up on it. He should’ve said:

Of course people are only as good as the world allows them to be. That’s why I’m here. I’m allowing them that chance.  

He should’ve mocked the Joker:

You think you’re telling us something we don’t know? You think you’re bringing us news?

And:

It’s easy to bring the world low. It’s hard to lift it up. Why did you choose the easy way?

But all of that would’ve required a Batman who wasn’t on his heels. It would’ve required a Batman unafraid to take the spotlight from the Joker. And it would’ve required a different ending than our ferry boat/fairy tale ending.

But it would’ve made for a better movie. “Sometimes truth isn't good enough,” Batman says at the end of the movie. And most of the time it is.

Audience identification
Listen, I know I’m talking in the wind here. I know “The Dark Knight” grossed the money it grossed, and has the fans it has, and no argument will sway them from their point-of-view.

So feel free to say it’s just a movie, and fun, and you’re not supposed to think about it too much. I’ll understand. Because I know most people don’t go to the movies looking for anything logical. Most people go just to watch the world burn.

Posted at 07:43 PM on May 10, 2012 in category Movie Reviews - 2000s
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Wednesday April 25, 2012

Movie Review: Batman Begins (2005)

BAT WARNING: SPOILERS

Bruce Wayne should’ve truly hated Gotham City. As a young man returning from Princeton, he should’ve voiced his hatred for the city that took away his parents, calling it a cesspool, a place of hopeless corruption. He should’ve flown his Travis Bickle flag and talked about a real rain coming and washing away all the scum off the streets.

If he did, Ra’s al Ghul’s offer to destroy Gotham would’ve had weight. Ghul (Liam Neeson) would’ve handed Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) what Poster for "Batman Begins" (2005)he’d wanted since he was a boy, since he saw his parents murdered before his eyes; and in that moment, Bruce would’ve discovered that what he’d always wanted wasn’t what he wanted:

Ra’s al Ghul: You know Gotham is dying. It’s dying from the inside. It’s a cancer. It’s time to put it out of its misery so more good people like your parents won’t die. Are you strong enough for the task?
Bruce Wayne: I... My hatred of Gotham came from the weakest part of me. I see that now. But I’m stronger now. Thanks to you.

Thus Ra’s al Ghul would’ve trained a man to do a task for which the very training made him ill-suited. The filmmakers could’ve worked this into a major theme: that the desire for destruction is borne of weakness, the desire to save comes from strength. And Bruce Wayne was strong now. He was Batman.

Instead we have what we have. Bruce Wayne carries a hatred for Joe Chill, the two-bit mugger who killed his parents, but not for Gotham, the city that created Joe Chill. Ra’s al Ghul’s offer is the offer of a madman. It’s treated as such. None of it resonates.

Carmine Falcone, we hardly knew ye
The last time we saw a cinematic Batman, in 1997, he was saddled with Robin, Batgirl, erect nipples, camp villains, and a lead actor who emanated the absurdity of playing a caped crusader. “Batman Begins” is, as the kids say, way better. It’s Batman modeled on Frank Miller’s dystopian vision rather than William Dozier’s camp vision. It’s dark and moody and realistic.

So why is it curiously unsatisfying?

I blame the relentless direction of Christopher Nolan, who pushes the story along with the same speed and tone throughout. Every scene has the same weight, the same growling intensity: dining, talking, fighting, falling, fighting again. There are no peaks and valleys. It’s a flat-lined film.

There’s also a problem with the villains.

We don’t see Batman until an hour into the movie. The first hour is all about training to become Batman so Bruce can take on the Carmine Falcones of the world. Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), the leader of the Gotham underworld, is a nasty piece of work. He’s the one who has Joe Chill killed; and he’s the one who sends Bruce on his mission. He tells him:

You think because your mommy and your daddy got shot you know about the ugly side of life, but you don't. You've never tasted desperate. You're Bruce Wayne, the Prince of Gotham. You'd have to go a thousand miles to meet someone who didn't know your name. So don't come down here with your anger, trying to prove something to yourself. This is a world you'll never understand. And you always fear what you don't understand. 

That’s good. And it’s why Bruce goes on his seven-year trek: to find those who don’t know him; to understand the underworld; to face his fears. He does all of this. And he brings it all back to Gotham to face Carmine Falcone ... who is dispatched in like two minutes of screentime.

Really? That’s it?

Turns out Falcone, for whom we’ve waited an hour, is just a pawn. The greater power lies with Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), AKA the Scarecrow, who, with his magic powder and scary mask, makes Falcone mad.

But Crane, too, is a pawn. The greater power lies with ... wait for it ... Ra’s al Ghul, the man who trained Bruce Wayne in the first place. The man who made him Batman.

Batman is thus a product of criminals. Joe Chill gives him the thirst for revenge, Carmine Falcone sends him on his mission, and Ra’s al Ghul trains him to be Batman.

But that’s not the problem with the villains. The problem with the villains is that we wait an hour for an encounter with Carmine Falcone, and, poof, he’s gone. Falcone is more interesting than Ra’s al Ghul, too. That speech above is brilliant. It’s savvy. Ghul? He spews vaguely eastern nonsense.

  • “The training is nothing!” he tells Bruce Wayne ... as he trains him.
  • “What you really fear is inside yourself. You fear your own power.”

Can I answer that one? I’m not sure about Bruce, but the last thing I fear is my own power. Probably the last thing you fear, too.

Guhl’s logic, as the head of the League of Shadows, is bizarre stuff. Cities are dying so let’s kill them off. He mentions three: Rome, London, Gotham. He says:

The League of Shadows has been a check against human corruption for thousands of years. We sacked Rome, loaded trade ships with plague rats, burned London to the ground. Every time a civilization reaches the pinnacle of its decadence, we return to restore the balance.

But Rome survived. So did London. So will Gotham. Shouldn’t someone have mentioned this? “Restore what balance, you self-important twit?”

Got guilt?
Most classic superheroes were created by young men in the 1940s, or by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in the early 1960s, which means there’s always room for improving their origins. Modern movies usually oblige. That’s not an “S” on his chest but a Kryptonian family crest (“Superman: The Movie”). “A weak man knows the value of strength” (“Captain America: The First Avenger”). “I missed the part where that’s my problem” (“Spider-Man”).

Nolan and screenwriter David S. Goyer introduce two improvements, or complications, to the classic origin of Batman. Back in 1939, Bruce chose a bat as his symbol because “criminals are a cowardly lot”; Nolan’s Bruce chooses a bat because he is a The last time we saw a cinematic Batman, in 1997, he was saddled with Robin, Batgirl, erect nipples, camp villains, and a lead actor who emanated the absurdity of playing a caped crusader. “Batman Begins” is, as the kids say, way better. It’s Batman modeled on Frank Miller’s dystopian vision rather than William Dozier’s camp vision. So why is it curiously unsatisfying? cowardly lot. As a boy he fell down an abandoned shaft and startled the bats in the caverns under Wayne Manor. It led to a lifelong phobia. As an adult we see him overcome this phobia, standing tall as CGI bats flit all around him. It’s a cool scene but... Doesn’t it recall, a bit much, Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy? It’s bats instead of rats, but both phobias are overcome with willpower. Bruce Wayne just doesn’t grill and eat his.

The second complication borrows from Spider-Man’s origin, which—alley oop—borrowed from Batman’s.

Batman was the first costumed hero to have a psychological motivation for fighting crime. He saw his parents killed before his eyes and is out for revenge. He wants to get the bastards. Twenty years later, Spider-Man was the second superhero to have a psychological motivation for fighting crime, but Stan Lee added a twist. When Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben is killed by a burglar, Spider-Man, seeking revenge, gets the bastard, then realizes the killer is a petty crook he had the opportunity to stop days earlier. So Spider-Man fights crime less for revenge than from guilt. He’s trying to cleanse himself as much as society.

Nolan borrows this idea for “Batman Begins.” The Waynes leave an opera early because young Bruce is afraid of the bat-like characters on stage, and they wind up in a nasty back alleyway where the mugging/killing occurs. If Bruce hadn’t been afraid, he realizes, they wouldn’t have left early. If they hadn’t left early, his parents would still be alive.

Except Nolan doesn’t do much with this. Alfred (Michael Caine) soothes young Bruce’s guilt; and as a young man, training in the ninja arts in the Himalayas, Bruce tells Ghul, “My anger outweighs my guilt.” That’s about the only time the word “guilt” or “guilty” is even spoken in the movie.

Batman is a character obviously associated with anger rather than guilt so I’m not sure why Nolan even introduces the concept. Besides, Nolan’s notion of guilt is Catholic rather than Jewish. He thinks it can be cleansed. Stan Lee (né Stanley Lieber) knew better.

The ghost of William Dozier
So Bruce Wayne spends seven years abroad learning about the underworld and ninja arts, returns to Gotham as an avenger, creates a bat persona, and slowly, with the help of Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), the weapons developer for Wayne Enterprises, arms himself. “Where does he get those wonderful toys?” the Joker (Jack Nicholson) asked in the 1989 version. That Batman created his own. Nolan’s outsources.

Some traditions are kept: Bruce still slides down the batpole to the batcave, where the batmobile still resides. The batmobile is now like a tank with big wheels, and after one of the best scenes in the movie—Batman’s descent through the bats at Arkham Asylum—we get one of the worst: an extensive chase scene around Gotham. It’s the kind of car chase, common to Hollywood, where the chased performs impossible stunts (literally driving over church rooftops; literally chewing the scenery) only to find several police cars right on his tail. If Gotham cops were really that good, Batman wouldn’t be needed in the first place.

The entrance to the batcave is improved upon. It’s now hidden by a waterfall and a chasm, which requires jet propulsion to leap over, all of which beats the flopping vehicle barrier of the ’66 TV show. But surely any interested party could follow the tire tracks? Hey, they lead here. Hey, it’s under Wayne Manor. Hey, maybe Batman is Bruce Wayne. No matter how gritty and realistic they try to make these guys, there’s always some absurdity sticking out. The biggest absurdity being, of course, a man who wears a bat costume to fight crime.

Second-half plot? In his effort to “restore the balance,” Ra’s al Ghul imports Dr. Crane’s crazy powder to Gotham, where minions pour it into the water supply. The plan is to use a microwave emitter, stolen from Wayne Enterprises, to evaporate the water and cause everyone to go nuts and tear each other apart. Dark and gritty but ... a bit of a William Dozier vibe, no? I can see the ‘60s version of the microwave emitter: silver, with knobs and an antennae, wheeled in by a middle-aged, hipster-dressed minion, while Ra’s al Ghul (Roger C. Carmel) rubs his hands together and whoops it up. There’s also the problem of Ghul reappearing and burning down Wayne Manor. It’s poetic justice, yes, since Bruce burned down Ghul’s Himalayan hideout, but Ghul handles Bruce so easily here it feels a trifle convenient. I get another Dozier vibe. Will Wayne Manor burn to the ground? Can Alfred return from his mission in time to get Bruce out from under the heavy log beam?

There’s a girl. I haven’t mentioned her yet. Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), Bruce’s childhood playmate, who grows into a tall, girlishly attractive, forever threatened assistant D.A. She’s disappointed in young Bruce (slaps him when he talks about killing Joe Chill); she’s disappointed in playboy Bruce (“It’s not who you are underneath,” she tells him, in the movie’s most famous line, “it's what you do that defines you”); but after Batman saves her  from Dr. Crane, and after he reveals his true identity to her, she shows up in the ashes of Wayne Manor and says she’s never stopped thinking of him. Then she kisses him. Yay! But no. We get this exchange:

Rachel: Then I found out about your mask.
Bruce: Batman's just a symbol, Rachel.
Rachel [touches Bruce's face]: No, this is your mask. Your real face is the one that criminals now fear. The man I loved—the man who vanished—he never came back at all. But maybe he's still out there, somewhere. Maybe some day, when Gotham no longer needs Batman, I'll see him again.

What the hell? Throughout the movie she’s been bitching that Bruce doesn’t care about Gotham the way she cares about Gotham. Now she finds out he cares more, now she finds out that the man she loves is the true avenger of the city she loves, and she still blows him off? And I thought I had problems with women.

The above dialogue might’ve resonated if Bale, as Bruce, had seemed hard, cold and distant around Rachel, but his face and voice actually soften when she’s around. He’s constantly revealing his true face to her. She just doesn’t see it. Neither does Nolan.

British invasion
Good cast, though. Bale is tall, dark, good-looking, and plays intense and off-kilter well—probably because he’s intense and off-kilter. Still, he’s a straight man here, so, as with 1978’s “Superman: The Movie” and 1989’s “Batman,” you surround him with talent: Freeman and Caine and Wilkinson and Murphy and Gary Oldman, wonderfully plain as Jim Gordon. That’s a lot of Brits. Too many? Who isn’t British in this thing? Batman is. So is Alfred, Ducard, Gordon, Crane, Falcone, Finch, Loeb, Joe Chill, Judge Faden, and Thomas and Martha Wayne. Americans are allowed Fox, Dawes, and Flass (Mark Boone Junior), this movie’s Lt. Eckhardt. “Hey, we need a fat, scummy cop.” “What do we have in Yanks?”

“Batman Begins” is acclaimed among fanboys, and currently has an 8.3 rating on IMDb, but to me it’s mid-range stuff. We push aside interesting villains for dull ones, twiddle our thumbs during car chases, and wait for a girl who isn’t worth it. Nolan misses opportunities even as he maintains a pace that’s overly relentless. It beats erect nipples but it hardly makes my nipples erect.

Still, the Joker card at the end set up the sequel well. Wonder how that went?

Posted at 06:35 AM on Apr 25, 2012 in category Movie Reviews - 2000s
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Monday April 16, 2012

Movie Review: Iron Man (2008)

WARNING: SPOILERS

In “Iron Man,” we learn that one man can make a difference.

No, not Iron Man. I’m talking Robert Downey, Jr., who turns one of the most boring Marvel superheroes into one of its most engaging. That frenetic, super-intelligent quality Downey had way back in 1987’s “The Pick-Up Artist”—mouth unable to keep up with mind—has, by this film, been disciplined and tempered. He’s less wild-eyed. There’s a stillness to him as he talks to and over people. His lines are free of bullshit and niceties. They’re lean and clever. “Give me a scotch,” he tells a bartender, “I’m starving.”

Here he is in Afghanistan before the shit goes down:

Soldier: Is it cool if I take a picture with you?
Stark: Yes, it's very cool.
[Soldier poses with a peace sign]
Stark: I don't want to see this on your MySpace page. Please no gang signs.
[Soldier lowers hand]
Stark: No, throw it up. I'm kidding. Yeah, peace. I love peace. I'd be out of a job for peace.

poster for "Iron Man" (2008)The soldier says the first line, Stark the next three. It’s monologue as dialogue. Iron Man flies rings around people but it’s not nearly as fun as watching Tony Stark talk rings around people. “Iron Man” is a superhero movie, and thus wish fulfillment, but, for me, the wish fulfillment is less the power of Iron Man than the quick wit of Tony Stark. What I wouldn’t give.

Is he too engaging? He makes a great change in this movie—from weapons manufacturer to weapon; from worry-free, playboy billionaire to worried, playboy billionaire—and we like him on either side of this chasm. Worry-free, he tells a Vanity Fair reporter, “Peace means having a bigger stick than the other guy,” and it makes sense. There’s something horribly cynical in Stark Industry’s “Freedom Line” of missiles but it barely registers against Downey’s great line readings:

Stark: That's how Dad did it. That's how America does it. And it's worked out pretty well so far.

Until it doesn’t.

His most indelible partner
In Afghanistan, Stark’s humvee caravan is attacked and he’s taken hostage. The scenes are chilling and familiar: the captured, helpless westerner; the gun held to his head; the shouted demands.

Stark loses consciousness clutching at his chest, against which a pool of blood is slowly spreading, and he wakes up in a cave with wires coming out of his chest and hooked up to a car battery. Nearby, a tall, thin Afghani calmly washes his hands. “What have you done to me?” Stark demands in a kind of “Kings Row” moment. Saved you, it turns out. The shrapnel is inching toward Stark’s heart. The battery keeps the shrapnel in place and Stark alive.

Throughout the movie, Downey plays well with others—Rhodey (Terrence Howard), his military buddy, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), his gal Friday, and even Jarvis (voice of Paul Bettany), his household-wide computer system—but his most indelible partner is really this tall, thin Afghani. Yinsen (Shaun Toeb), another captive, not only saves him physically but spiritually. The lines he says to him are lean and existential.

First, he gets him going again:

Stark: Why should I do anything? They're going to kill me, you, either way. And if they don't, I'll probably be dead in a week.
Yinsen: Well then, this is a very important week for you, isn't it?

Then, as they work on what’s supposed to be the new “Jericho Missile” for the terrorists, but is really the Iron Man suit to combat the terrorists, Yinsen makes him realize the emptiness of his life:

Stark: You got a family?
Yinsen: Yes. And I will see them when I leave here. And you, Stark?
Stark: [quiet] No.
Yinsen: So you're a man who has everything, and nothing.

Finally, Yinsen sacrifices himself so that Stark, and Iron Man, may live. Stark creates a powerful arc reactor for his chest, which keeps his heart going and powers the Iron Man suit. But the bad guys are closing in, the progress bar is taking its own sweet time (as progress bars in movies do), so Yinsen creates a diversion that lets Tony suit up. Of course Yinsen’s shot. Of course he dies. Dying words in movies are usually lame, but Yinsen’s are poignant:

Stark: Come on, you're going to go see your family. Get up.
Yinsen: My family is dead, Stark... and I'm going to see them now.

Then he gives Tony his raison d’etre: “Don’t waste it.” Afer that, Iron Man, in that clunky original outfit, goes out and wastes him some terrorists.

The incredible shrinking brain of Pepper Potts
A Yinsenian question: Does the movie waste its stellar beginning? “Iron Man” is one of the great superhero movies as of this writing (Spring 2012), but it’s not without its problems. And its two biggest problems are both from the second half.

Here’s the first: Pepper Potts gets stupid.

The line is a sly, winking homage to all the ink-stained writers and artists who created the superheroes and then saw the companies they worked for make billions while their creations were taken from them.What happens? She’s so smart initially. “Taking out the trash.” “I hate job hunting.” Then, in the last half hour, she begins to act all flustered and female and running-around-on-high-heels dumb.

After captivity, Tony returns demanding a cheeseburger and a press conference, and while eating the former at the latter he tells the assembled that Stark Industries isn’t making weapons anymore. He’s got his new raison d’etre from Yinsen, he’s seen American soldiers killed with his weapons, and he wants no part of it anymore. Others, notably Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), attempt to wrest control of the company from him, but Tony, even as he creates a newer, better IM suit, stays the course. At one point, suiting up, he tells Pepper, who already knows he’s Iron Man, “I’m going to find all my weapons and destroy them.” She says, “Well, then I quit.”

Really? Does she like Stark Industries as is? Does she like making her living off of weapons that kill millions of people?

But that’s not her rationale. She says, with a loud, tremulous voice, “You’re going to kill yourself, Tony. I’m not going to be a part of it!”

She cares. About him. The millions who die because of his weapons? Whatever.

Don’t even get me started on the push-the-damn-button-already finale:

Iron Man: [under fire] Time to hit the button!
Pepper: You told me not to...
Iron Man: JUST DO IT!
Pepper: YOU'LL DIE!
Iron Man: PUSH IT!

Seriously, you think with his money he could get better help.

The sudden omnipresence of Obadiah Stane
That’s the first big problem of the second-half of the movie. Here’s the second: the sudden omnipresence of Obadiah Stane.

He’s a background figure for most of “Iron Man” ... until it’s revealed that he’s its main villain. The attack on Tony by the terrorists? He orchestrated it. He wanted Tony gone. He didn’t like being in the shadow of this 40-year-old wunderkind who created all the weapons that made him rich and famous. He tries to kill his golden goose. We’ll leave that one alone.

But not this one. Suddenly he’s everywhere. Here’s what he does:

  • He goes to Afghanistan, stuns the Ten Rings terrorist leader, and orders him and his men killed and their camp destroyed.
  • Then he shows up in LA, where Pepper is downloading his secret “ghost” computer files that reveal all. (Cue progress bar again.) By the time he goes after her, she’s already hooked onto Agent Coulson of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Clark Gregg, in a great, recurring role), and that’s that.
  • Instead he goes to the lab and berates his scientists for not coming up with the necessary components to make his own iron suit. A great line-reading here from Bridges: “Tony Stark was able to build this in a cave! With a box of scraps!”
  • At which point we cut to Tony Stark’s place, where someone is coming up  behind him. We assume it’s Pepper with a warning. But it’s Obadiah with the paralyzing doohickey. After which he takes the arc reactor from his chest, taunts him a bit, and leaves him to die.

You’re free to ask, as I did, where the hell Pepper Potts and Agent Coulson are during all of this. Writing reports? In a debriefing? I assumed when they left Obadiah’s that they were going to secure Tony’s place. Instead, they’re driving around town, on what errand, and send Rhodey to meet up with Tony. Rhodey shows up late. Tony, heartless, saves himself.

Basically Pepper and Coulson leave the Stark Industries building only to return to the Stark Industries building, by which point Obadiah has managed to, 1) berate his scientists, 2) get the arc reactor from Tony’s chest, and 3) make the Iron Monger suit operational. Basically Pepper and Coulson do what adults do when racing children: they take baby steps. Otherwise the story wouldn’t have its slam-bang finale.

The CGI battle between Iron Man and Iron Monger goes on too long for me, but I know I’m in the minority. I would’ve ended the fight with “How’d you solve the icing problem?” It’s Tony winning through smarts. Instead he wins with luck.

But the movie ends on a high note: “I am Iron Man.” Can’t get much better than that.

Homage to Stan and Jack and Don and Jerry and Joe and...
Overall, “Iron Man” works as well as it does because it’s got something for everyone. It’s got explosions and CGI fights for those folks, and it’s got wit and energy for me folks. It’s got three gigajoules worth of energy.

But let’s talk smart for a moment. One of my favorite lines is during the scene when Obadiah paralyzes Tony and takes his arc reactor and leaves him to die. Here’s what he says as Tony lies paralyzed:

Obadiah: You think just because you have an idea it belongs to you?

It’s my assumption that one of the screenwriters, Mark Fergus or Hawk Ostby or Art Marcum or Matt Holloway, and/or director Jon Favreau, meant this as an homage to Don Heck, who helped create Iron Man back in 1963, and to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, who created almost every decent superhero in the Marvel universe in the early 1960s, and to Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, who started the whole thing with Superman in the 1930s, all of whom never owned their own characters. They had ideas that never belonged to them. The line is a sly, winking homage to all of those salaried, ink-stained writers and artists, wretches all, who did the work and created the heroes and then saw the companies they worked for make millions and billions off of these ideas while their creations were taken away from them; while they were given take-it-or-leave-it offers; while they were pushed aside.

“You think just because you have an idea it belongs to you?” If intentional, that’s one of the great smuggling jobs in movies; if not, it’s still wonderfully resonant. The villain says it to the hero as he’s taking life from the hero, but he’s just restating the bottom line of corporations like Marvel Comics and DC Comics and Paramount Pictures, all of those logos you see before the movie starts. In this context, these entities are the villains. We know who the heroes are.

Posted at 06:45 AM on Apr 16, 2012 in category Movie Reviews - 2000s
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Thursday March 29, 2012

Movie Review: The Incredible Hulk (2008)

WARNING: PUNY SPOILERS

How do you live down a box-office bomb of gamma proportions? How do you reboot a movie without starting from scratch? “The Incredible Hulk”—the one with Ed Norton—does both. It starts out very, very smart, like Bruce Banner, and winds up kinda dumb, like the Hulk, but it’s still better than its predecessor. Its trajectory is its hero’s trajectory. That happen often?

The box-office bomb of gamma proportions was Ang Lee’s “Hulk” from 2003, and, no, don’t tell me these two movies basically grossed the same amount. They did, of course: domestically ($134m to $132m) and worldwide ($263m to $245m); and if you adjust for inflation, Ang Lee’s movie actually grossed more in the states: $171m to $147m. But the 2003 version came to us fresh. There was excitement about it. It had nothing to live down. The 2008 version came to us with a stink attached, Ang Lee’s stink, and a general used quality about it. Really? That story again? Didn’t we just do this thing?

Poster for "The Incredible Hulk" (2008) with Ed NortonMore and more, that’s how we feel about the movies these days: Really? Didn’t we just do this thing?

Hanging out in Rochina Favela
First, “The Incredible Hulk” is definitely a reboot. None of the actors are the same. Ed Norton replaces Eric Bana as Bruce Banner, Liv Tyler replaces Jennifer Connelly as love interest Betty Ross, and William Hurt replaces Sam Elliott as nemesis Gen. “Thunderbolt” Ross. No one replaces Nick Nolte as David Banner, Bruce’s batshit dad, because they jettison that storyline. No argument from me.

The origin of the Hulk is rebooted. Rather than, as in Ang Lee’s version, David Banner passing on his genetic modification to his son, who accidentally gets an insane dose of gamma radiation while running the same kinds of science experiments his father ran—even though he knows nothing of his father—this Bruce attempts to modify Prof. Reinstein’s WWII-era super soldier formula, which made Steve Rogers Captain America, for the military and under the watchful eye of Thunderbolt Ross. Then he experiments on himself. Oops.

The most fascinating aspect of the rebooted origin? They encapsulate it in the credit sequence. Consider it shorthand: experiment in lab, wink to Betty, oops, Hulking out, Betty bruised in the hospital, Gen. Ross injured and angry, Bruce on the lam and ... done.

This allows the movie proper to start in the same place the last one left off: with Bruce on the lam in Latin America. That’s smart.

Smarter? Our protagonist. He’s a scientist, and, for the first half of the movie, he never stops being a scientist. He’s stopped running in Rochina Favela, the largest shantytown of Rio de Janeiro, where he’s gotten a job at a bottling plant and is tackling his rather unique problem by pursuing both temporary solutions and permanent cures. The latter involves rare flowers and blood samples and microscope slides and never pan out (or we’d have to change the title of the movie). The former involves heart-rate monitors and yoga and martial arts lessons. “The best way to control your anger is to control your body,” his teacher tells him. Then he slaps him. We’ve just seen Bruce watching a TV re-run of “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father” in which Bill Bixby, who played David Bruce Banner in the 1970s “Hulk” TV series, gets slapped, so that’s a nice echo. His teacher then tells him to drive his anger from his chest into his stomach. Days without incident? 158.

Unfortunately (OK, fortunately), the bottling plant has the usual volatile elements: an impossibly pretty girl, Marina (Débora Nascimento), who likes him, and a bully (Pedro Salvín), unnamed, who doesn’t. At one point, interceding for Marina, he tells the bully, in his fractured Portuguese, and in a hilarious homage to most famous line of the TV series, “Don’t make me ... hungry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m ... hungry.”

“The Incredible Hulk”—the one with Ed Norton—starts out very, very smart, like Bruce Banner, and winds up kinda dumb, like the Hulk, but it’s still better than its predecessor. Its trajectory is its hero’s trajectory. That happen often?Gen. Ross is still looking for him, of course. “As far as I’m concerned,” he says with his usual Capt. Ahab tunnel-vision, “I consider that whole man’s body the property of the U.S. Army.” And when some of Bruce’s blood spills on a bottle that makes its way to Milwaukee, Wisc., where an elderly man—our Stan Lee cameo—drinks it and collapses, Gen. Ross is alerted to the whereabouts of Banner, and, per James Monroe’s doctrine, or at least Teddy Roosevelt’s corollary, he sends in the troops. Which leads to a great chase through the shantytown—a chase in which the pursued can’t let his heart-rate get above 200.

Director Louis Leterrier uses Rochina Favela well. In the beginning, we get a great panning shot over the shanties, which seem to stretch on forever. The chase sequence through the shanties is fun. But we’re 23 minutes into this thing. Time to Hulk out already.

Extra credit at Culver University
What’s the worst part of being Bruce Banner? Is it the Hulking out? Or is it that everyone watching—you and I—want you to Hulk out? Everything Bruce is trying to prevent is what we’re there to watch. He’s second billing to his alter ego. If he ever succeeded in curing himself we’d be pissed.

Unfortunately, the Hulk isn’t that interesting, either. He’s just rage in a 10-foot-tall, CGI-created, green monster. He smashes and leaves. We want him to smash, certainly. We want him to take out the bully. He’s the ultimate wish fulfillment for the weak, a Mr. Hyde for the superhero generation. But then what? Run, leap, wake up as Bruce Banner under a waterfall in Guatemala. Oh, the places Hulk takes you.

Holding up his pants, Bruce heads back to the states and Culver University, Virginia, where it all began. He’s been in contact with another scientist, a Mr. Blue (to his Mr. Green), who, to help him, needs more data, and that data is at Culver. So is Betty Ross.

Culver is also where we get our other, requisite Hulk cameos. Bruce’s old friend, Stanley (or ‘Stan Lee’), a pizza shop owner, is played by Paul Soles, who provided Bruce Banner’s voice in the 1966 cartoon; and, to retrieve his data, Bruce bribes a campus security guard, with a pizza. The guard is played by the original Hulk, Lou Ferrigno.

But the data’s gone, expunged by Ross, and Bruce is about to go on the lam again when Betty sees him, intervenes, and they have a few scenes in the rain. The movie slows here, as mushy girl stuff usually does. It picks up again when the couple, betrayed, are set upon by the U.S. Army, including Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), a Russian-born, British-educated soldier with a love of battle, who wants to take on the Hulk, who wants to be the Hulk, and who will become, with the help of Gen. Ross and Mr. Blue, the Abomination. But first, a good chase on campus. Bruce is trapped in a glass overpass, into which they shoot gas canisters, but ... too late.

While this CGI Hulk has more weight and personality than Ang Lee’s CGI Hulk, it’s still pretty boring. Hulk smashes, looks around, is attacked and smashes again. Ross almost incinerates Betty, his daughter, whom Hulk protects, and, after an angry glance, the two fly off to a safe location: a cave under a cliff during a lightning storm. I like Hulk roaring at the thunder. That’s good, impotent rage. I like Gen. Ross being told off by Betty’s now-ex, Leonard (Ty Burrell), and then muttering to himself, “Where does she meet these guys?” It’s a glimpse of the father we don’t see enough.

A rage in Harlem
The third act in New York should be better than it is. Bruce and Betty go there to meet Mr. Blue, Tim Blake Nelson, who gives an inspired, loopy performance as Samuel Sterns, the scientist who will become the villainous Leader. Eventually. In the sequel to this reboot. If there is one.

But Bruce, here, is more acted-upon than acting. The one time he does act, purposely falling from a U.S. Army helicopter to take on the Abomination in the streets of Harlem, it’s pretty dumb. He’s already told Betty he doesn’t remember much about being the Hulk; just fragments, images. So how does he know Hulk won’t cause more damage? How does he know Hulk won’t team up with Abomination to smash? But Hulk is hero. So Bruce drops. And we get our giant CGI battle, which, to me, is as interesting as watching two dudes play a video game. Which is to say: not at all.

I’ll say this for Ang Lee’s version: It gave us that moment when Bruce admits: “You know what scares me the most? When it comes over me, and I totally lose control... I like it.” We should have something like that here. Instead: CGI battle, Hulk wins, leaves. Is the Abomination still alive? What happens when he wakes? Has Gen. Ross learned his lesson? Shouldn’t we get a mea culpa from the son of a bitch?

Nothing.

The end implies that Bruce, via meditation, is learning to control the Hulking out, which sets up “The Avengers” movie but which goes against all Hulkian principles. His eyes open, green and knowing, and the movie ends. Not a bad end, I suppose. Unfortunately, it’s the last we’ll see of Ed Norton as Bruce Banner. They’ve replaced him with Mark Ruffalo, a good actor, who I’m sure will be fine. But some old, Marvel-style continuity would be nice now and again. Some sense that actors matter. Some sense that we’re not all the stuff of CGI.

Posted at 06:31 AM on Mar 29, 2012 in category Movie Reviews - 2000s
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