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Entries in Comic Book (8)

Tuesday
Jul172012

The Dark Knight Rises

There are few people that would argue The Dark Knight is anything less than a fantastic film. Most tend to agree it’s one of, if not the best superhero movie ever made. There are even those who think it’s one of the best movies ever made, superhero or otherwise. That film raised the bar for superheroes so high that it’s likely to be a very long time before one reaches or surpasses it. That philosophy holds true for director Christopher Nolan’s follow-up, The Dark Knight Rises, but luckily, the film is only a disappointment in comparison. It may not reach the brilliance of The Dark Knight, but it’s still the best and most exciting movie of the summer. Dark, violent, terrifying and exciting, The Dark Knight Rises fires on all cylinders.

When we last saw Batman (aka Bruce Wayne, played by Christian Bale), he was running from the cops. He was taking the fall for the murder of Gotham’s district attorney, Harvey Dent, who the people of the city had put their faith in to clean up their streets. In Bruce’s mind, it was his duty to prove that true good couldn’t be corrupted, which meant making a martyr out of a madman. Now, Bruce has hung up his cape and mask because the city has turned against him, thinking him to be a violent sociopath who deceived their trust. However, a new villain is emerging. His name is Bane (Tom Hardy) and he’s out to destroy the city. He’s a bullish brute and it soon becomes clear that the police force won’t be able to stop him, which forces Batman out of retirement.

The Dark Knight Rises may be a misleading title for the film, seeing as how Batman does more falling (both literally and figuratively) than he does rising, but that’s why these films work. Nolan doesn’t treat his hero as a god. He treats him as he is: a human being. Bruce has demons to wrestle with, first isolated to the anger felt from losing his parents all those years ago, but now combined with the heartbreak of losing his only love, Rachel (played by both Katie Holmes and Maggie Gyllenhaal, respectively), at the end of The Dark Knight. He’s not cracking jokes like Andrew Garfield in The Amazing Spider-Man (despite the occasional witty moment). There’s too much at stake for such trivialities. His desire to fight stems not just from doing what’s right, but from the pain he’s feeling, his need to restore balance to a city gone mad, a city that took the life of everyone he ever loved. The Dark Knight Rises is a dark adult tale told by a masterful filmmaker who knows how to balance the necessary action with character development and relationships.

If anything, it’s the action that dragged down Nolan’s first film, Batman Begins, which was heavy-laden with too much shaky cam and too many cuts. Whether a product of the time, when the Bourne movies were finding so much popularity with the technique, or simply due to Nolan’s own inexperience with staging and filming fast paced action scenes, they were easily the film’s weakest aspect. But with The Dark Knight, Nolan refined his craft. The camera was smooth for much of the action, moving only to give us a better view of it, not to blur it. Nolan carries that maturity over into The Dark Knight Rises. While large in scope, including an absolutely incredible opening and appropriately epic finale, the action is never too much, never overloading your senses like many action movies these days. It’s presented in a way that feels organic, not forced for the sake of keeping action hungry audiences at bay, and Nolan’s steady hand approach ensures we get to savor every second of it.

But regardless of the film’s strengths, it’s impossible to watch The Dark Knight Rises and not compare Tom Hardy’s Bane to the late Heath Ledger’s Joker. When doing so, there is a clear winner. The Joker was a larger than life personality, one that gave the film a quirky feeling, kind of in the vein of a dark comedy, and the man behind the make-up gave one of the best performances ever put to film. Awarded posthumously at the Oscars that year, Heath Ledger created a terrifying monster, one that frightened, yet delighted at the same time. Bane, on the other hand, is too prophetic to be frightening. The majority of the fear instilled by him comes mainly from his size and brute strength rather than from anything psychological. He intimidates visually, but lacks the personality and off-the-wall insanity that made Heath Ledger’s cackling Joker so terrific.

Of course, Bane isn’t a bad character and Tom Hardy’s representation of him is just fine; they look worse only because Heath Ledger’s Joker was so amazing. The only true problem with the character comes from his voice, which is so modulated (thanks to the ever present mask covering his mouth) it’s sometimes hard to understand what he’s saying. Why such a problem was left unhandled—despite Nolan’s partial admittance to making select modifications after fan complaints from an early trailer—baffles the mind. A few other problems bring about the same reaction, like Bane’s nonsensical villainous plot that, for some reason, takes at least five months to unravel or why Batman would waste time lighting his logo on fire on a Gotham City bridge when he has mere hours before the city is destroyed. These moments don’t necessarily make sense, but they make the proceedings flashy and tense (and it’s impossible not to smile when that logo lights up).

The Dark Knight Rises is bogged down by a bit too much expository dialogue as well, but it more than makes up for it with a plethora of other brilliant little touches, like a sly reference to Killer Croc, another villain in the Batman universe. In an act of extreme skill, Nolan brings this story full circle, wrapping up his take on the character in as satisfying a way as one can imagine (though that very last shot, which I dare not spoil, should have been taken out). It works narratively, emotionally and on a visceral level—if the final 30 minutes don’t get your blood pumping, nothing will. It’s certainly not perfect and if comparing it to The Dark Knight, then it’s a disappointment, but if that’s the case, this is one of the best disappointments I’ve ever experienced.

The Dark Knight Rises receives 4.5/5

Monday
Jul022012

The Amazing Spider-Man

Rebooting a superhero series means once again going through an origin story. It’s the inevitable nature of the beast. But despite their narrative necessity, origin stories are generally frowned upon; audiences always seem to want to get to the action. I, however, like origin stories because they give our hero something to fight for. They put reasoning behind their actions other than the simple fact that evil is present. Usually they suffer through a life changing tragedy that gives them the will and motivation to fight. Origin stories set up the character for all that is come, making them the most interesting to watch, but The Amazing Spider-Man, coming so close to the end of Sam Raimi’s popular trilogy (only five years after the final installment), feels redundant. If there was ever a movie that had a been-there-done-that feel to it, it’s this one. In a time when most Marvel movies are setting new standards for what superhero movies can and should be, The Amazing Spider-Man falls far short.

Taking over the reins from Tobey Maguire is Andrew Garfield as the titular hero. Peter is still the nerdy kid we know him as and he’s still living with his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field). He has a little crush on Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), a character different than Mary Jane in name only, who eventually reciprocates his feelings. One day after being bitten by an experimental spider, he is given amazing powers, including superhuman strength and the ability to climb up buildings using his fingertips and toes. In one of the only major narrative departures from the Raimi trilogy, he develops a durable web-like substance that he shoots out of a device attached to his wrist, thus rounding out his spider abilities and giving him a means to move about the city. His fun is short lived, however, when Uncle Ben is shot and killed by a fleeing robber, partially due to Peter’s unwillingness to do the right thing and stop him. Vowing revenge, he dons a suit and sets out to make him pay. His attention is soon diverted when a giant lizard begins running amok throughout the city. This lizard is the by-product of experiments with cross species genetics by scientist and former partner of Peter’s father, Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), and he’s out to get rid of Spider-Man and infest the city with a deadly toxin that will turn them into hideous creatures.

And if you’re wondering, yes, Uncle Ben does give the “with great power comes great responsibility” speech, or at least a variation of it. Although restrained somewhat by the source material, The Amazing Spider-Man fails to find a voice of its own, from its redundant opening all the way to its clichéd “ticking clock” ending (where Spider-Man may or may not save the day at the very last second). It’s all so familiar, so conventional of your typical comic book movie that it’s hard to muster up the strength to care, partially because the script seems to forget why Peter’s fighting in the first place. By the end, Uncle Ben seems like an afterthought and his prophetic words forgotten. Yet it’s that tragedy that makes Spider-Man such a compelling character, so by throwing that to the wayside, you lose much of the film’s (and character’s) appeal.

Take the abandoned motivation out of the equation, however, and you have a movie that does at least one thing correctly: it builds its characters. In particular, Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy build a believable relationship (surely due to an off-screen budding romance between their real life counterparts) while the descent into madness by Dr. Connors isn’t rushed through, but rather approached with a deliberate pace. It nails everything that The Avengers did so poorly except the most important thing: the aforementioned lack of motivation. But where The Avengers suffered in character evolution and creating a team dynamic, it more than made up for with some incredible action (even if the team was separated too much of the time). The Amazing Spider-Man doesn’t come remotely close to matching the awe inspired by that film, or many other recent comic book adaptations. The action is perfunctory in every sense of the word, both unenthusiastic and routine, seemingly there because it feels like it needs to be (aside from the climax, most of it is unnecessary, including a short lived scene where the Lizard bursts through a toilet in Peter’s school and starts attacking him).

Although character growth is more important than flashy action (and always will be), The Amazing Spider-Man is too immature to be recommendable, both in its technique—director Marc Webb, the man responsible for the wonderful, but wildly different, 500 Days of Summer, doesn’t quite have the experience necessary to tackle such a huge endeavor—and in its annoying, cocky approach to its lead. There’s a really embarrassing scene early on, just after Peter gains his powers, where he shows up the school jock on the basketball court, culminating in a painful-to-watch slam dunk that breaks the backboard. This is immediately followed by Peter shredding on his skateboard. This is a Spider-Man for the tween generation, not the mature movie going audience that wants, and expects, more. It may make attempts at being dark, but it’s a faux darkness, similar to something like Twilight: moody, but insubstantial. It may not be one of the worst movies of the year, but The Amazing Spider-Man is certainly one of the most disappointing.

The Amazing Spider-Man receives 2/5

Friday
Jul222011

Captain America: The First Avenger

In a year where superhero movies have been hitting us over the head, the results have been subpar at best. Only X-Men: First Class has managed to impress while The Green Hornet, Thor and Green Lantern have failed to live up to expectations. So I suppose it’s a good thing we have Captain America: The First Avenger bookending our year of men in silly costumes because it’s the best of all. It's a summer popcorn film of the highest caliber and it delivers all the thrills one would expect while also laying the groundwork for future installments.

As with most first entries in a superhero franchise, Captain America is an origin story that chronicles the rise of its titular character. This time, we have Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), a short and scrawny kid living in Brooklyn during World War II. He wants nothing more than to enlist in the armed forces so he can help bring down Hitler, but because of his stature (and laundry list of health problems), he is denied. When Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), a scientist working for the American government, overhears Rogers’ desire, he allows him to enlist so he can be the subject of an experimental operation that makes bad men more evil, but good men great. The operation has only been done once before on Johann Schmidt, also known as Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), a Nazi officer, and it turned him into a tyrannical miscreant. Rogers, on the other hand, receives healing powers and strength beyond imagination that he plans to use for good, so he sets out to single-handedly put an end to the war.

There are plenty of reasons why Captain America is better than the other superhero movies released this year, but all the proof you need is in the character. Thor, for instance, lacked reasoning behind his actions. He didn’t fight for any noble cause. He simply fought because that’s what he was supposed to do. His thin personality made him a character that was hard to care about, but there’s more to Captain America. There isn’t a more noble cause than fighting Nazism, but his motivations go beyond that. He is willing to, and does, lay his life on the line to protect the greater good, even if the odds are overwhelmingly against him. He is courageous and noble, even going so far as to jump on a grenade to save his platoon, which, luckily for him, ends up being a dummy.

Director Joe Johnston, the man behind the magnificent October Sky, does an excellent job of validating this character, allowing us to see his big heart and selfless desires, which allows the drama to surface naturally. There are a number of emotional scenes and, though I doubt they will make anybody shed a tear, they work. Its real strength, however, is its seamless blend of the heartfelt moments with comedy. Tonally, Captain America is perfect, never lacking or overdoing itself in either area. Where Johnston stumbles is in his obvious camerawork that frames the bad guys in ominous low-angle shots, as if a man with a blood red face and a Nazi uniform wasn’t enough. Similarly, he overdoes it with typical “heroic” shots, like slow zooms, tracking shots and slow motion shots as the character rides away from, or even jumps through, a fiery explosion. All of this is usually accompanied by a swelling up of patriotic music, which is a bit overbearing, even if it does fit the idea of the character himself.

Captain America: The First Avenger also suffers from the occasional moment of unintentional hilarity and spotty CGI, especially just before the final battle, but it’s so much fun you’ll hardly notice. Too many origin stories spend too much time setting up the mythology of the character and forget about the fun, but not this one. It ensures future adventures without neglecting itself, which makes it one of the most entertaining and exciting movies to be released this year.

Captain America: The First Avenger receives 4.5/5

Thursday
Jun162011

Green Lantern

Ok Hollywood, that’s enough superhero movies. Over the past few years, we’ve had to sit through so many, they’ve lost their novelty. It has become wearisome watching these characters in their tight spandex fight an enemy hell-bent on destroying Earth. We get it. Good prevails over evil. This is my plea to give it a rest for a while, especially if your movies are going to be as atrocious as Green Lantern. In a year that has already been sullied with the inconsistent The Green Hornet and disappointing Thor, the last thing we need is a movie so bad it makes those two look like comic book masterpieces. While I’m sure this plea will go unheard by the bigwigs in their ivory towers, if I can convince you, dear reader, to skip this, I’ll have done my job. In an attempt to prevent a franchise from spawning, here goes nothing.

Green Lantern, in what amounts to one of the silliest, most inane stories to come around this year, follows Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds), a test pilot who never finishes anything he starts and is haunted by memories of his dead father. After crashing his jet one day, he is absorbed a giant green ball which takes him to an alien crash site where he is told that “the ring” has chosen him. This ring gives him extraordinary powers and is limited only by his imagination. You see, for eons, a band of protectors from each realm of the galaxy has worked together to confront evil. They call themselves the Green Lantern Corps. Now, a new enemy named Parallax has reared its ugly head and is on its way to destroy Earth. New recruit Hal must overcome his fears and harness the power of the ring if he wishes to become the Green Lantern and save his planet.

And so begins a movie so sloppy it makes Ryan Reynolds’ Van Wilder look like a masterfully pieced together work of art. The script is so bad it jams together different genres, styles and tones like a two year old putting together a 10,000 piece puzzle. It does such a poor job establishing the histories and personalities of its characters, it leaves no leeway for emotional resonance. It shoves its drama in your face with maudlin flashback scenes where we get to see Hal’s father, in a string of hilarious shots, blow up while climbing out of his jet. Its dialogue is knowingly cutesy, like when Hal’s love interest, Carol Ferris (Blake Lively), compares him to an alien right after he just found and buried one. The film’s problems are scattershot (which evidently translates over to my criticisms), so pinpointing exactly where it goes wrong becomes near impossible.

Similar to this year’s Thor, the characters in Green Lantern are uninspired and boring, a problem which I can only assume stems from the original comic books. The alien creatures are unusually bland and have only one or two distinguishable attributes, like a fish head, red face or pointy ears. That those character designs are created almost entirely by shoddy CGI is the final slap in the face. One could argue the obvious artificiality was done to keep with the colorful style of the comics, but the poor visuals pervade even real life scenarios, like an early scene where Hal and Carol go head to head with a new automated aircraft. For a movie so heavy-laden with special effects, it comes off as surprisingly unconvincing and amateurish.

After the fan backlash from the comical trailers for Green Lantern, Reynolds made an announcement, promising that the movie was not a comedy and was actually serious in tone. He lied. There is drama (or at least attempts at it), as already mentioned, but Green Lantern tries hard to be funny. Aside from one good cliché-busting bit where Carol recognizes Hal in his get-up (“You didn’t think I’d notice you because I can’t see your cheekbones?” she says to him), it fails on all accounts. Reynolds has proven himself to be a charming, whimsical person, but the jokes here are forced and, more often than not, contextually inappropriate.

If you’re going for the action (and I imagine most of you are), you won’t find many thrills either. Most of the action scenes are abrupt and uneventful, like one where a band of Green Lanterns decide to take Parallax head-on. Prior to the scene, the decision is played up as a major turning point, but it lasts what seems like no more than 30 seconds. The Corps does little more than throw a net on the creature, which breaks free almost instantly, before the scene ends and the film moves onto something else.

Green Lantern is a bad movie, perhaps the worst based on a superhero since 2003’s disastrous Hulk. In some areas, it tries too hard, and in others, it doesn’t try hard enough. It never hits that middle ground where the magic happens, a magic films like The Dark Knight and Iron Man know all too well. Even mentioning those movies alongside this train wreck is laughable, but to outright compare them is cinematic blasphemy. Green Lantern doesn’t do as well as the worst aspect from those films and is practically guaranteed to be one of the worst movies of the year.

Green Lantern receives 1/5

Friday
May062011

Thor

With the summer movie season officially taking off this weekend, there’s one question on everybody’s mind. Is Thor any good? The word on the street seems to be a resounding “yes,” but having just sat through it, I’m forced to counter with an unfortunate “no.” It’s not a disaster by any stretch of the imagination, but it lacks what many of the other Marvel properties have: an interesting central character. While more problems pervade Thor than just that, it’s more than enough to keep it from becoming anything more than a mediocre attempt at pleasing the comic book fan base.

Odin (Anthony Hopkins) is the king of Asgard. For centuries, he has protected the universe from evil, namely the Frost Giants (who are as bland an enemy as their name suggests). After defeating them, he took their source of power, the Casket of Ancient Winters and kept it safe in Asgard. Now, in the present day, he is preparing to step down from the throne and hand his legacy off to his son, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), but before he can do so, the Frost Giants attack, somehow finding their way into Asgard. Despite his father’s wishes, Thor heads to the Frost Giants’ planet and starts a war. Because of his arrogance and stupidity, he is banished to Earth and stripped of his powers. Now his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is king, but he has an unforeseen hidden agenda.

Thor, quite simply, is not a compelling character. On his own merits or when compared to other superheroes, he fails to muster up any reason for us to care about him. The rationale behind his fighting never goes further than “just because.” Think about Spider-Man or DC Comics’ Batman. Those characters didn’t fight “just because.” They fought because they felt compelled to do so. They had demons from their pasts that gave them a reason to combat evil. They never asked for that life, but suffered through tragic events that led them in that direction. In their recent movie adaptations, they have been written and portrayed as three-dimensional characters. Thor, on the other hand, has no emotional pain scratching at him. He just fights because he’s told that’s what he is supposed to do. He even finds pleasure in it in the film’s early moments, starting a fight when none is needed.

This is no fault of the actor, I should say. Chris Hemsworth has everything required of this character: a deep voice and muscular body, which is to say very little. That’s not to suggest he’s a bad actor (his short stint as the soon-to-be-dead Kirk at the beginning of 2009’s Star Trek was quite good), he just isn’t given the tools to do anything other than run around and yell. Like most first entries in a superhero film franchise, Thor is an origin story, but the character simply doesn’t have a deep rooted past like many other superheroes (or at least he doesn’t as presented in this movie). This provides little leeway for emotional growth and prohibits Hemsworth from developing the character.

Thor is a film that is incredibly hard to take seriously, yet it asks you to do so for the majority of its length. One can’t help but look at the goofy costumes (some of which look like they were purchased for $9.99 at a local Halloween shop) and laugh. What really holds it back, however, are its fake looking effects. While it’s probably safe to assume they were rendered that way to keep with the film’s comic book origins, it strips away any sense of realism or danger. When a character gets hit and goes flying through the sky, your sense of fear for the assaulted is quickly replaced with disbelief because of the film’s obvious artificiality.

I can't explain the admiration flooding in for Thor. While I’m sure many have completely valid reasons for enjoying it, I suspect just as many are too easily dazzled by special effects and fail to see how shallow it is. Spectacle is fine, but without a compelling story to drive it along, it means nothing. Unfortunately, Thor sacrifices its story for the spectacle. If anything, it should be the other way around.

Thor receives 2/5