31 August 2011

Superhero Appreciation 2: Superman, Spider-Man, and Batman

    Superman is, of course, the archetypal, classic superhero. He has awesome powers-- super-speed, flight, X-ray vision, not to mention invulnerability. Speaking of, does anybody else think that Kryptonite shows up waaay more than it has any right to? I mean, writers have to bring it in since it's basically the only thing that can defeat him and add any interest to the story. Without Kryptonite, Superman is just an unkillable dude who goes around saving people. It's nice, but it's not very heroic-- he's not risking anything by fighting for truth, justice, and the American  International Smorgasboard Melting-Diversity Pot Awareness Way. In fact, he'd kind of be a tool if he didn't fight crime. I mean, what was he gonna be like? "Duuuude I can totally  punch this kid in the face and no one will even be able to do anything about it cuz I'm the MAN OF STEEL!"
    But anyway, back to wherever the Kryptonite comes from. I'm certain there are plenty of comic-book explanations, and maybe they even address it in the movies and I just don't remember but...Krypton was destroyed, and yet somehow anyone who's even casually interested in fighting Superman can get a hold of some kryptonite.
     Also, apparently he has an asthmatic son and something about whatever whatever, did anyone even watch Superman Returns?
     Oh, Spider-Man. That superhero of superheroes. That paragon of virtue, patriotism, and strength. Also, he's my favorite.
     Now, I know there's a whole slew of you comic-book lovers out there who look down on my generation for our Sam Raimi-derived impression of Spider-Man and our zealously willing suspension of disbelief that accepts Tobey Maguire as a high-school-aged Peter Parker. But I mean...come on, those movies are awesome! The first one was a classic, the second was considered by some to be the greatest superhero movie of all time (at least until The Dark Knight came out). And the third one...well...it was at least...amusing? I guess? Oh, and it had Bryce Dallas Howard in it.
     But anyway... I know everyone's affection for the webslinger might not be as fervent as mine, so let me get a little more personal for a second and try to explain why Spider-Man resonates so much with me. First reason: Peter Parker. Hard as it may be to believe, especially considering this post's topic, I am a nerd. So of course I love Peter Parker and identify with him (and did so even more when I was twelve).  Even after Peter becomes Spider-Man, he's not perfect. He still messes up, he shrinks from heroism-- but then he tries to do what's right. And while most other superheroes have hallow alter-egos that just kind of fill the space in between crime scenes, you always know that Spider-Man is Peter, and he's going to react like Peter and share the same priorities.
    One other reason the Spider-Man movies are so awesome: the supporting characters aren't cardboard (even if Franco's acting is). Yeah, Mary Jane is super annoying at times (and she totally doesn't deserve Peter at all, but I've gotten over that and I'm not even a little bit bitter even slightly), but she comes across as a real person. Real people can be annoying at times. And yes, Willem Dafoe  is super creepy and all (seriously, freeze frame his face at any given point in the first Spider-Man, especially during those internal monologue scenes? Terrifying.), and I seriously wonder sometimes if Franco's acting is satyric performance art, poking ironic deadpan fun at bad acting-- you know, like he would shoot a scene and then post on some secret password-protected website about it, like, "haha guys, just did a scene under the influence of 3 different drugs-- im still better than tobey lol l8r" and then he'd shoot another scene the same day and be like "Just shot a scene that is, without a doubt, my magnum opus. Never has such perfection, such nuance of emotion, been captured on film by the human hand, soon to reach the human heart." and then later been like, "Lol, just kidding, I was on four drugs when I did that scene". And he only showed that password-protected blog to his three best friends, two homeless guys and a deformed trumpet player, so he could monitor their reactions for the documentary he was planning to do about them. Because that's totally something he would do, and what else could be going on? He just can't act? No no, I saw this man host the Oscars, and he is cinematic and charismatic gold, I am telling you--
    Whoa. I think that paragraph just bit its own paranthetical-statement-laden head off. But anyway, the point is, even if Norman and Harry are unconvincing at times, the tension in their relationship is anything but and really adds a dimension of personal feeling, both to the villain story and Peter and Harry's friendship.
     Or if you want the short answer....I'm just in love with Spider-Man.
Alright, I'm afraid it's hard for me to be objective about superheroes. If I have an abnormal amount of love for Spider-Man, I likewise have an abnormal amount of dislike for Batman. The dislike isn't without basis though, I mean, look-- when any other superhero comes to a crime scene, there's an immediate sense of comfort, relief, and imminent deliverance from danger. When Batman arrives at a crime scene, he makes it at leas 10X creepier. Another pet peeve: his only super power is "having lots of money". He's a superhero only on the absis of equipment, which I understand is kind of a thing now, what with Iron-Man, and even Andrew Garfield is supposed to swing into the May 2012 Spider-Man reboot with mechanical webshooters. But it still just feels like cheating to me.
    Also, Bruce Wayne just isn't that relatable or compelling. His only motivation seemes to be, "parents dead, scared of bats" and his whole alter-ego life consists of social galas and special invitations. Additionally, back to my first point...Batman's just creepy. Tim Burton's stylized, comic-book Batman and the recent, brooding Dark Knight are both wonderful movies with very distinct feels, but they're both dark and they're both creepy in different ways. The only time Batman's not scary is in the movies that came out in the late 90s, like Batman Forever and Batman and Robin. In those, he's just goofy and possibly homosexual.
     A caveat in the anti-Batman screed: The Dark Knight is an amazing movie and deserved every bit of hype and praide it got. It knew the tone it wanted and just went for it-- no attempts to lighten things up, just a plunge into the depths of human nature, sin, and despair. It succeeded because it was so original-- it's not what most superhero movies are like.
     I'm sure Batman Begins was going for a similar dark feel, but I don't think it succeeded. Watching Batman Begins feels kind of like watching the opera that Bruce's parents go to, if you mixed in Kung-Fu Panda, Qui-Gonn Jinn, and set the whole thing on a mountain with Katie HolmesMaggieGyllenhaal noonewillnotice. I did not care for Batman Begins.

So there it is-- as objective a critique as it is humanly possibly for me to write concerning the Big Three of the Superhero Universe.

24 August 2011

Superhero Appreciation 1: Captain America

     I started this post originally as a commentary on superheroes and superhero movies in general, but then I realized it was getting way too long for one post and I'd need to devote several posts to these masked crusaders. And yes, I also realized that I'm a geek. So, up first and most recently, Captain America. Captain America is the only superhero movie I went to this summer--Green Hornet slipped by me (and was not sorely missed), I still do want to see Thor (if only because the titular character will be in Joss Whedon's 2012 The Avengers), and I joined millions of theatergoers in joyfully not seeing The Green Lantern.
    Anyway, even without having seen any others, I think I can venture to guess that Captain America was the best superhero movie out this summer, judging by what the critics have said and how enjoyable it was. I don't know if it "redeemed the superhero genre" as some critics went so far as to say, but it certainly had a fresh, original feel, engaging characters, and a basic element that a lot of superhero movies lately have skipped over-- the protagonist is a decent human being (more on that later).
     One thing I loved about it was the period feel-- and while it was shockingly not the only World War II Superhero movie out this summer (X-Men: First Class shared the setting, if  not quite the box office returns), it's still unusual to see superheroes in an old-timey setting, and it's a lot of fun.
    The best thing about this movie, in many ways, is the protagonist himself-- Steve Rogers/Captain America. He's not angst-ridden and tormented like The Dark Knight's Batman, and he's not snarky and lackadaisical like Iron Man's Tony Stark. He's just a good guy who wants to fight Nazis, and that's kind of refreshing after seeing egotistic heroes in most recent superhero movies-- think Peter Parker's selfish emo transformation in Spider-Man 3 and Wolverine's personal quests and gruffness in Origins and even the first X-Men. But the winner who absolutely takes the cake for least likable protagonist has to be Ryan Reynold's Hal Jordan-- like I said, I skipped The Green Lantern but the trailer alone was enough to reveal that his character was a cringe-inducingly arrogant jerk (which probably contributed to the movie's flop-- most protagonists like Spider-Man and Wolverine, even with their flaws, are deep down likable, while Hal Jordan is...not).
    Some of Captain America's secondary characters are pretty strong too, especially Dr. Abraham, Tony Stark's dad, and Steve's best friend Bucky. However, the few things that fall flat about the movie also come as a result of secondary characters; the love story involving Peggy, the stern British soldier is unconvincing (we're not really too sad to hear that he ended up missing their date by *SPOILER ALERT* 60 years, and he doesn't seem to be either), and the villain (Hugo Weaving, who should probably have taken the blue pill and stayed in the Matrix) is well...silly. At least he is after he pulls his face off-- before, when he's just a regular ol' Nazi, he is genuinely kind of creepifying, but the second that Elrond mask comes off to reveal a crimson Voldemort, he loses all dignity.
   Okay, sidenote: speaking of the villains, and this is probably just me but...the aquatic symbolism in this movie is whack. Okay, so Red Skull's organization is Hydra, but their symbol is an octopus...why?? Octupi have multiple legs, Hydra had multiple heads. Not the same thing. And then towards the end of the movie, Red Skull's ship is shaped like a manta ray, which is super cool but still left me wondering...is every aquatic animal fair game for the Nazis to exploit to represent themselves?
    The storyline is pretty strong, although as some of the reviews point out, the second half lapses mostly into  a lot of indeterminable battle scenes, which is a bit of a disappointment after the unique situations of the first act. Other elements of the plot are not given sufficient explanation, for example, the exact powers and properties of the tesseract are unclear, which is kind of frustrating when it's something so central to the plot. Until further knowledge is revealed I'm just going to have to go the L'Engle route and assume that Red Skull is now chillin with Mrs. Who, Mrs. Whatsit, and Mrs. Which. I also have to say, the last scene is genuinely surprising, although I knew something had to happen to get Captain America into (SPOILER ALERT) present day if he was gonna join Iron Man, Thor, and the rest of the crew in The Avengers ( please allow me a *Joss Whedon squee!!!!*).
   Anyway, all in all Captain America is a pretty strong superhero movie and a fairly strong movie in general. It has some language, but other than that ends up being fairly appropriate (since, after all, "fondue is just bread and cheese, buddy"). It actually exemplifies some pretty strong morals, and while it's only "Christian" in the sense that most superheroes are Christ figures, a lot of its core principals are worth holding onto. Self-sacrifice is portrayed clearly, especially one instance when Steve is training at the army camp and a grenade is thrown into his group (the grenade is a dummy, but the soldiers don't know that). The general shouts "Grenade!" and everyone ducks for cover, except for Steve, who jumps on top of the grenade and tells everyone else to run away. Additionally, the night before Steve is to undergo the experiment, Dr. Abraham tells him, Whatever happens tomorrow, you must promise me one thing. That you will stay who you are. Not a perfect soldier, but a good man." We too have to stay true to who we are in spite of changes and circumstances-- not in a cheesy, follow-your-heart-and-be-whoever-you-want-to-be sort of way, but in an identity-found-in-Christ kind of way.