A Superhero Movie Too Far?

Batman slaps Robin

If we don’t talk about it, we won’t jinx it!!

Batman 1999 v 2012

Batman ’99 vs Batman ’12: Pretty accurate portrayal of the public’s view of a comic book movie. From frumpy to bad ass.

If you mentioned that you liked comics back in 2000, people would assume one of two things: a) you’re a small child, or b) you’re probably a bit of a social pariah and that you should probably avoid a). Then a movie came along that changed everything: X-Men. It featured a relatively unknown cast of actors, spare a couple of big names such as Captain Picard and Gandalf (before he was Gandalf), and told the tale of a group of genetic mutants who had fantastic powers. And boy did it resonate with audiences. Sure, there was the brilliant Blade in 1998, which could be argued as the “first” big movie, but it wasn’t that much of a hit! The success of X-Men and Spider-Man two years later opened the floodgates to a slew of superhero movies from major and minor characters alike, culminating this year in the juggernauts of the box office that are Avengers Assemble and The Dark Knight Rises. But now the question is: what next? And more importantly, how much longer can Hollywood’s latest fetish survive before it implodes? Too big to fail you say? Now where have we heard that before…?

Humble Beginnings

Undoubtedly, we’re right now riding the wave that is the Golden Age of comic book adaptations. Marvel Studios’ success with their tales of Iron Man, Captain America, Hulk and Thor, and Warner / DC’s success with Nolan‘s Batman universe have cumulatively brought in over $5,400,000,000 (you need the noughts just to realise how many McDonald’s cheeseburgers that could buy you), with the split being $3.7 billion to Marvel and $1.7 billion to Warner (so far; the Bat is still flying). But crikey Batman, how the golly did we get to such jeeperiffic figures? They’re just comics!

The secret to their success, I believe, is two-fold. On one hand you have a collection of stories that are on-the-whole believable, or at least plausible for the most part, which is something I’ll come to later. And on the other hand you can’t help but notice that they’re somewhat a symptom of the times: gloom. It’s the same perfect storm that results in fast food sales soaring during times of economic hardship; this manifests in the need for escapism and heroes at the box office. Sure, some of the first big hits came pre-2008 meltdown, but all the gargantuan films: the Dark Knights and Iron Man(s) came post-2008. Hell, if you were being really analytical, you could even say the threat of global terrorism following 2001 also fed the public’s need for heroes. That’s a controversial point, but I think it’s valid. So… so long as the world is still at risk of going bankrupt or blowing itself up, the superhero can do no wrong right? I mean, the public tolerated Nic Cage‘s antics as Ghost Rider (twice!), Superman‘s lacklustre return and watched the Blade, Spider-Man and X-Men franchises tie themselves in knots; yet all was forgiven when the latter two returned recently. Not sure we’re going to see Wesley Snipes stopping people “ice skating up a hill” any time soon though. Unless the IRS lets him… Or Twilight takes a hard left turn in its final bow later this year.

Blade: Breaking Twilight

But can the studios sustain this enormous momentum, or is something looming on the horizon that could bring the whole house of cards crashing down?

There’s a Storm Coming…

The Guardians of the Galaxy

The Guardians of the Galaxy: The Four Horsemen (and a Tree) of the Comic Book Apocalypse?

As I mentioned in my round-up of Comic-Con 2012, Marvel made some peculiar announcements this year, namely by choosing The Guardians of the Galaxy as a flagship film franchise. For those unfamiliar with this group, they’re essentially a cosmic group of heroes who fly around in space, preventing intergalactic tyranny. Sounds like a typical sci-fi film right? And there-in lies the problem. The most successful comic book movies have more-or-less had some semblance of reality, whether its being bitten by a spider, having genetic mutations, or building a high-tech suit of armour. Thor, who for all intents and purposes is classed as a “God” was explained through comparing magic and science and saying they’re the same thing (hokey, but it worked). So he’s essentially just a scientific freak who wears chainmail. And is ripped. But I haven’t got to the outworldy part yet… is the public willing to accept a living tree, some aliens and a talking raccoon (cumulatively known as The Guardians of the Galaxy) as superheroes? I know Disney are involved nowadays, but a talking raccoon and tree? Last I remember, the TV series The Raccoons ended in 1991… maybe that’ll have a resurgence? God I hope not.

And in the non-Marvel Studios stable, we hear rumblings that Warner is looking to open Pandora’s box and unleash all manner of oddities on the cinema-going public, now that their baby bat has flown the nest. The Metal Men? Lobo? Really? It’s a case of a studio reaching the “terrible 2’s”, seeing what Marvel has and saying “I want, I want”. Add this to the in-production reboots of failed franchises such as Fantastic Four, Daredevil and Green Lantern and you’re risking meltdown with the public, being the fickle beings they are, not caring any more.

What’s my opinion? Hell, I love the comic book genre, and was one of those little kids that read about Spider-Man and X-Men and religiously watched the cartoons on Saturday mornings. And I’ll no doubt watch every movie that comes out, even the Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance‘s, Elektra‘s and The Punisher‘s of this world. The only fear I have is that we’ll return to that pre-2000 mindset, where only us nostalgic fans remain… in our rooms… talking of the now mythical Golden Age of comic book movies. But then again, people have been predicting this bubble will burst for years now, so maybe I’m barking up the wrong tree. Possibly a tree that isn’t a superhero.

Sound off in our Comments section below…

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The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

The Dark Knight Rises… and Soars.

No-one can question the monstrous popularity of Chris Nolan‘s take on the wealthy guy with the gruff voice, cape and penchant for telling women his secret identity. So with the final entry in Nolan’s trilogy rolling into town, can the film live up to its hype to surpass the success of its predecessors and the other tentpole superhero movies of the summer?

Let’s just skip the formalities and foreplay and bare all – this is a stunning film and a fitting climax for the current iteration of “The Batman”. Without explaining anything substantial about the plot, this essentially picks up the story some years after the events of The Dark Knight and follows Bruce Wayne / Batman (Christian Bale) as he contends with Bane (Tom Hardy) – the new bad boy on the scene, who’s got a number of plans for the city of Gotham. That’s all I’m going to say about the plot, so safely read on…

Casting was once again spot on. Just as with Heath Ledger‘s casting announcement in The Dark Knight, Anne Hathaway‘s selection as Catwoman was a bit peculiar for some, myself included. But it worked. It really worked. But for me, it’s the role of Bane that held the movie together, with Tom Hardy proving a great choice.  His role in last year’s criminally overlooked Warrior showed his physical capabilities and he’s clearly trained hard to achieve the juggernaut-esque build of Bane, much like he did with Bronson. Thankfully the ‘roid raging, grunting imbecile in a luciador’s mask from 1997’s Batman & Robin is no-where to be seen; this one is far smarter, more devious and more sinister. Kudos to Nolan and his wardrobe team as the costumes, especially Hardy‘s, just worked so well. The only real under-used element is actually Bale himself for reasons that will become apparent when you watch the film. For a guy with such fantastic acting skills (The Machinist, The Fighter) it’s a shame, but that’s the nature of the beast that is Batman. A further honourable mention has to go to Joseph Gordon-Levitt who continues his run of form from Inception and 50/50 and really rounds out the lead cast despite his lack of cowl, mask or “I’m in disguise”-voice.

Batman and Bane tussle over which is more fashionable: cowl with ears or ventilator.

Sure, the film had its flaws and plot-holes, such as a teleporting Bruce Wayne and a seemingly unclimbable rope (like the one from your gym class when you were 12), but it’s called the ‘suspension of disbelief’. Maybe it’s a compliment to Nolan‘s world that we pick up on these inconsistencies as you almost forget that this is a comic book tale. It’s not a documentary, don’t treat it like one – the guy’s dressed as a bat gallivanting around New York (Gotham) afterall…

People will inevitably ask “Ok Phage, who is the better villain? Ledger‘s Joker or Hardy‘s Bane?” and “Oi, Phage, which is the better comic book movie of the summer? Avengers Assemble or The Dark Knight Rises?” And if you weren’t, you probably are now. Or you’re at least mildly curious. Well, I’ll ask you – what do you prefer: breathing or eating? Unless you have a grudge against staying alive, you’ll say both because they’re things you can’t choose between or compare, and the same is true here. The two villains are stylistically and ideologically distinct and both Ledger and Hardy do those characters real justice. You’ve also got to take into account that Hardy’s Bane wears a huge piece of breathing apparatus on his face – you’re not going to get nuanced facial ticks – it’s all based off of physical presence, dialogue and manner of delivery (I truly loved the King of the Gypsies-inspired accent). Similarly, Marvel and DC’s summer blockbusters are worlds apart in tone, with Avengers Assemble arguably sticking more to the ‘comic book’ template than Nolan‘s grounded take on the Bat. Both are great examples of adapting comics for the silver screen.

Attentions will now turn to Nolan‘s next turn at being (partially) involved with a superhero: Man of Steel, due in June 2013 (check out the trailer here). Will lightning strike twice and it now be the turn of Superman to get his moment in the sun? Or will Zack Snyder oversaturate the screen, add some little skirts and put the whole film in slow-mo? Time will tell. Until then, we have the hero we need right now up on our screens.

Nolan‘s Batman began, became a knight and has risen to unassailable heights at the cinema, but you can’t help but have mixed feelings about his final entry in the Batman franchise. On one hand it’s a fantastic slice of cinema and is what summers were made for, but on the other… what can we next expect from the world of Batman, which the public has clearly taken to heart? Hopefully Warner make some good decisions before we see the inevitable reboot in 5 years time.

And in a summer choc-full of superhero shenanigans, people will argue over which was the “hit” of the year, regardless of box office figures. Ultimately, the only winner is the general public getting two great, must-see movies in a summer (and Spider-Man…); unless you’re a Marvel (Avengers etc) or DC (Batman etc) fan-boy then you’ll blindly argue that ‘your’ film was best and the other was ‘bloated and predictable’… A bit like your comments.

Enjoy the comic book adaptation Golden Age!

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