Monday, June 30, 2014

"$uccessfu!" Films: "Batman" (1989)


The conventional view of comic-books, particularly of superheroes, consists of the battle between good and evil, the hero and the villain, the right and the wrong. In the early twentieth century, superheroes (including but not limited to Superman) were seen as mere perfect and extraordinary characters that were too great and too mighty to be taken seriously in the real world (apart from, of course, saving various people in the fantastical adventures that real-world comic-book readers would escape into). 

In the late 1930s, however, graphic artist Bob Kane was inspired to create a superhero that was based in reality. His influences (along with that of uncredited co-creator/writer Bill Finger) consisted of Leonardo Da Vinci's diagram of a flying machine known as the ornithopter, and popular masked characters as Zorro and the Shadow. Thus, the "Bat-man" (and his alter ego Bruce Wayne) was born.

Batman's debut in Detective Comics, Issue No. 27
This year marks the 75th anniversary since the Caped Crusader's first appearance in Detective Comics (a.k.a. DC Comics), and 25 years this month since director Tim Burton's dark and mesmerizing film adaptation was released in theaters.

In recent decades, artists and writers have done more than provide escapism for comic-book readers. They've helped form and develop a modern mythology that consists of fantastical characters dealing with real world situations. Many of today's filmmakers, from Bryan Singer to Sam Raimi to Christopher Nolan, have followed suit. But prior to the late-80s, executive producer Michael E. Uslan had long dreamed of producing a "definitive, dark," and serious Batman film, as Kane had intended from the character's inception.

Following in the footsteps of the comics, the character found his way into serials of the 1930s and 40s. However, his popularity would decline in the mid-1950s, due to the nation’s belief that comic books were brainwashing children. As a result, "Batman" was shifted to lighter, more cheesy, fare in the 1960s with the popular television series starring Adam West and Burt Ward.

Adam West (Batman) and Burt Ward (Robin)
The legacy of DC Comics in film became widely successful with the release of "Superman" in 1978. Directed by Richard Donner and starring an unknown-at-the-time Christopher Reeve, it was the first movie of its kind that gave audiences a glimpse at what a superhero story could be on film. It featured a compelling and captivating story with an A-list cast and enough spectacle and action to spare. Batman was to follow, and it would take ten years to get to him to the big screen. 

Many people, however, still had perceptions of the campy TV show. Frank Miller’s “Batman: Year One” graphic novel of the 1980s, however, harkened back to Kane’s original intention of Batman as a “dark vigilante”. The film project did face some controversy, particularly with the casting of Michael Keaton, who had been known for comedic roles like Mr. Mom and Night Shift. (He would star in Burton's Beetlejuice one year before Batman's release.) There was also some concern from producers, executives, and even theater owners, who wondered if the film was going to be too dark. 

To reduce negative speculation (and to prove that it wasn’t another campy version), a 90-second trailer of the film was shown in theaters, much to the surprise of audiences and fanboys. The advertising campaign (featuring the newly-refined and now-infamous bat symbol) became an phenomenon, as well as an unprecedented marketing connection between the comic-book and film industries.

Keaton's Batman
Nicholson's Joker
Shot in Pinewood Studios in London, Batman was the most expensive movie ever made at the time. The minimal effects and set design, including Gotham City and the Batmobile, by the late Anton Furst echoed back to the classic serials and expressionism of the 30s and 40s. Upon its release in the summer of 1989, the film was a mega hit and helped redefined what a comic-book movie could be. It is dark and brooding, to be sure, and should not be taken lightly. And even though it does spend more time with Jack Nicholson’s unforgettable performance as the Joker, and includes a couple of controversial third-act scenes, it does (more than the other movies in the original series, courtesy Burton and Joel Schumacher) tap into the mystery, trauma and darkness of the character of Batman and Bruce Wayne.

Furthermore, what makes this film a distinct comic-book movie is how it poetically and operatically illustrates how the villain exposes who he is to the public (“Winged freak terrorizes? Wait 'til they get a load of me”), while the hero keeps his identity in the shadows. This even creates debate over which of the two ("hero" or "villain") is more dangerous. 

Vicki Vale: A Lot of people think you're as dangerous as the Joker.
Batman: He's psychotic. 
Vale: Some people say the same thing about you.
Batman: What people?
Vale: I mean, let's face it. You're not exactly...normal.
Batman: It's not a normal world, is it.

These themes make Batman the quintessential comic-book movie that asks the central, thought-provoking question: Does the villain make the hero, or does the hero make the villain?

Monday, June 23, 2014

"$uccessfu!" Films: "I-Know-It's-Popular," All-Out Excessiveness, and A Good Reason for Criticism

June 23, 2014

In his review of the 2009 blockbuster sequel Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Rolling Stone film critic Peter Travers mentioned, "I know [this franchise is] popular. So is junk food, and they both poison your insides and rot your brain." He went on to call the film (along with its predecessor) "the worst movie of the decade," and furthermore created, alongside his ever-popular "Scum Bucket" of bad-review movies, a "Transformers Scum Bucket" for any such movie that measured up. 

Fallen in its Prime
Mr. Travers may have been harsh in his criticisms, but at least he was honest and made a solid point in that a movie's (or franchise's, for that matter) popularity doesn't necessarily solidify that it's going to be a great movie nor that it will be worthwhile. 

When the first Transformers came out in the summer of 2007, I, like many moviegoers, was excited to see mind-blowing special effects in the form of space robots. In other words, it was actually really cool (and somewhat nostalgic) to see such attention to detail and visual imagery at the time. And it was, perhaps, that sense of anticipation alone that made the first movie (directed by none other than Michael Bay, and based on the popular toys from Hasbro) entertaining, as well as on the same par of such revolutionary visual film experiences as Jurassic Park and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. 

The 2007 original--when it was cool and exciting
That same feeling seemed evident with the release of the aforementioned sequel. As it would turn out, negative reviews and bad word of mouth from critics (and audiences) resulted in possibly the most disappointing summer blockbuster to end all disappointing summer blockbusters. It did go on to become one of the highest-grossing films of all-time. But for many, it became the equivalent of nothing more than a cinematic migraine--an assault on the senses and emotions.

What disappointed me personally wasn't so much the endless action and special effects in the second film--well, all of that was extremely overdone and ugly to a fault--as was the appalling amount of crassness and sexual content, especially the immodesty and objectification of just about every female character in the movie. This is suppose to be entertaining?!? I thought to myself, "Does anybody remember that this movie is based on kids' toys?" And they're marketing this kind of stuff (humping dogs, robot testicles, and scantily-clad women) to children?!? In addition, as another review implied, is this really what audiences want to see? Lest we forget, this film runs an unapologetic two-and-a-half-hours! 

The experience of watching this film (along with writing notes and considering Mr. Travers' critique) helped me grow in my understanding of film criticism and taught me a lot about the difference between a movie's success based on money (e.g., how many people go to see it) and a movie's success based on the impact it has (e.g., a critical and thorough point of view). As previously mentioned, just because it's a big, loud, and action-packed experience, and just because it makes a lot of money (and let me emphasize a lot), and furthermore just because a lot of people go to see it, doesn't mean it's worth seeing. 

The 2011 follow-up, titled Dark of the Moon, was somewhat of an improvement, with eye-popping (and more steady, less shaky) 3-D visuals, courtesy the same visual effects team that brought the world of Pandora in James Cameron's Avatar to life, as well as a grittier tone. Yet, the film is still unbearable in its action and mayhem, and strangely echoes the effects of a post-9/11 world. Plus, a retrospect of the story's altering of the history of the space race as a cover-up bothers me, as does it's dopey humor, immodest shots, and the destruction of buildings in its action sequences (especially the 40-minute climax that takes place in Chicago). 

Bumblebee amidst destruction (2011's Dark of the Moon)
The film went on to become one of the ten all-time highest grossing films in the world. But after the third movie, I told myself, I think I've had enough of smashing CGI metal. 

Michael Bay, as just about everybody knows, is no stranger to such "blow-'em-up" extravaganzas. He burst onto the scene with the 1995 Will Smith-Martin Lawrence vehicle Bad Boys, and continued with such "hits" (so to speak) as Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, Bad Boys II, and last year's Pain and Gain. And he's not alone in his mass appeal of all-out action sequences and destruction. Director Roland Emmerich emerged around the same scene with another Will Smith vehicle, Independence Day, in 1996. He has, since then (for the most part), been blowing up cities and almost the whole world in the 1998 remake of Godzilla, as well as in The Day After TomorrowWhite House Down, and especially in 2012.

Action superstar Sylvester Stallone could fit a similar though different category, what with his recent Expendables franchise and its all-star casts, endless gunplay and explosions. Even critically-praised filmmaker Peter Jackson has, in recent years, emphasized the use of extended (and nearly endless) visual effects sequences in his 2005 remake of King Kong, as well as his current Hobbit trilogy. (Actor Viggo Mortensen has recently spoken out against this.)

More recent (and more acclaimed) films as The Avengers, Man of Steel, Pacific Rim and this year's Godzilla portray equally destructive action. Yet what keeps these films compelling and engrossing (and different from something like Transformers) is the emotional core of their stories and characters. Kudos to directors Joss Whedon, Zack Snyder, Guillermo del Toro, and Gareth Edwards, respectively, for their attention to detail, for the most part.

And here we are in the summer of 2014 with current releases of such action-adventures as Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, X-Men: Days of Future Past (all three of these films are currently the highest grossing in the world this year); and upcoming releases of The Expendables 3 (August) and a fourth Transformers later this week (titled Age of Extinction). This time, instead of Shia LaBeouf and company, we get Mark Wahlberg and a new cast in a story set a few years after the events of Dark of the Moon. According to the trailers, this film may promise a more serious and gritty tone, and may have a more engrossing story than the previous films combined. But I've been wrong before.

Can Mark Wahlberg save the world from Extinction?
It will be explosive, mind-numbing, and a big moneymaker, to be sure. A colleague of mine recently mentioned, "If you've seen one, you've seen 'em all."