Friday, August 10, 2012

The Not-So-Amazing Hollywood and the Long, Dark Reboot of the Soul

I recently had the chance to sit in briefly on two films I had previously seen. I lasted five minutes in The Amazing Spider-Man and walked out feeling conned; I then spent 15 minutes in The Dark Knight Rises and had to tear myself away. As I said, I’d already seen both and had liked them at the time; it was less than two weeks since I had seen both films. What changed?

Easy: I had watched the earlier versions.

I’d watched Sam Raimi’s Spider Man a day or so after I’d seen the current one. My opinion of Raimi’s film hasn’t changed since the time I first saw it: the first 30 minutes are gold, but after Norman Osborn mutates into the Green Goblin, the plot meanders. A lot. It’s still a good adaptation of a comic book brought to the big screen; it captures the feel and the themes of Stan Lee/Steve Ditko’s creation, as well as the humor and humanity of Marvel’s web-slinger. At only 10 years old, however, it was already feeling campy in the hard-edged times of 2012, much as the Tim Burton Batman film now seems, to me, as hammy as the Adam West film of ’66 must have seemed to me in the 80s.

That’s not the problem, though.

[mild spoilers about Amazing Spider-Man and The Dark Knight Rises follow]

Mark Webb’s (I do sense a conspiracy of irony with that director’s name) The Amazing Spider-Man is a visually spectacular reboot for Sony Pictures in a way that could never be accomplished in its original 2002 version, and it’s dark. Andrew Garfield gives a naturalistic performance as the shy, awkward, loner Peter Parker (as opposed to the traditional “dorky” Pete), and Emma Stone *is* Gwen Stacy—perhaps even a more interesting Gwen Stacy than the one on the printed page. Weak lizard effects aside, Rhys Ifans gives a solid performance as Dr. Curt Connors, but the villain’s story – and this is probably more a fault of the source material – is the same story we saw in 2002, only with William Defoe as the Goblin, in an equally unconvincing green mask. In the first film, once Peter is faced with the death of Uncle Ben, the Aunt May subplot—which, when it comes down to it, is the heart of any Spider-Man series -- is dropped. The part where New Yorkers come together is replicated from the first film, but on a larger scale. J. Jonah Jameson is absent, and Denis Leary barely cracks any jokes. These are dour times for non-Marvel Studios produced superheroes.

So apart from Garfield’s distinct portrayal of Peter (and I do think he has more presence and better wisecracks as Spider-Man than Tobey Maguire did, which is not to say that MacGuire wasn’t a good Peter Parker), and apart from some teases about Peter’s unknown history, what did this reboot accomplish?
Not much.

The Amazing Spider-Man is an entertaining two hours, and, to the filmmakers’ credit, holds the attention longer than the second half of the original, but it’s not a film that has or will set the world on fire. It is what it is: A way for Sony to keep making Spidey movies.

Now, The Dark Knight Rises…that’s another story!

The Dark Knight Rises is Nolan’s final film in his Batman trilogy. Honestly, when I heard that this was the last one of the current Batman incarnation, after only eight years, I thought, “What a waste. There are so many more stories to tell.” And even after seeing the new film, I’d loved to have seen more—maybe films set between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. I originally didn’t think The Dark Knight was “all that” when I saw it – I found it overrated, pretentious, and confusing in places (not story-wise, but in terms of the film editing of certain sequences, namely the fights). But now that I’ve seen it again, in the context of the series—it shows what a master craftsman Nolan has become.

I’m pleased to say that not only did Nolan rectify the problems of his earlier work, not only did he take from his previous films and draw on their themes, but he did it in a way that honored the Batman legacy (as opposed to “franchise” -- a crucial distinction), borrowed from the source material (see “Knightfall,” “No Man’s Land,” Talia Al Ghul and the modern Catwoman series), and made it all his own – and all the while, made it about the individuals, the characters who populated Batman’s world and who have to deal with the harsh reality of that world in Batman’s absence.

In the end when Blake enters the Batcave in a moment which suggests he will take up the mantle of the bat, we see that while his is a literal takeover, Nolan is telling us that the fight to keep society social, to keep humanity humane, is not fought by those wearing cowls and capes, but by those who make the right decisions, who advocate for integrity, and who are willing to sublimate (if not sacrifice) their needs for the greater good. The film has twists, turns, and surprises, not the least of which is that the acts which the characters and the audience believe to be acts of terrorism end up being just another revenge tale—and even then, we have to wonder if Nolan isn’t trying to tell us something political there, too.

The Nolan Batman series has no neon or bat nipples; it maintains continuity through storylines and through actors (with one exception, but we’re not here to discuss the Tom Cruise effect). It deviates slightly from the source material to tell a good cohesive story, not to fulfill the longings of the director or writer to put their own mark on established icons. Unlike the Amazing Spider-Man “mystery” of Peter Parker’s parents (a mystery that we never knew or needed to know existed), there’s nothing artificial as far as the storytelling goes, unless you count a flying vessel that’s brought in at the end to destroy a bomb (and sell toys to young moviegoers). It adapted a beloved comic mythos nine years after the previous efforts by Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher, and showed that the mythos was rich and could be reverential and relevant to the source and to the times. Love it or loathe it, The Dark Knight Rises and the other films in Nolan’s series show us how a reboot can and should be done. As Hollywood brings us more “re-imaginings,” whether they are Thors, Treks, Total Recalls, or Trons, it should be mindful of these two textbook examples.

Up, up and – stay tuned!