Category: Superheros

Comics, not the funny ones!

This too was rejected by The Federalist. Check out my mini reviews of my two favorite contemporary comics series Here

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Why Cinema Superheroes are Here to Stay

(This is another old post from my old Blogger blog entitled “As Film Goes By,” keep in mind that this was originally written on 1/28/11, and I think I was essentially correct in most of my predictions and theories)

The two greatest directors working in Hollywood right now are Christopher Nolan and Darren Aronofsky. They are the main reason that I have great hope for Cinema’s future. They are the Hitchcock and Kubrick (respectively) of my generation. The one deals with intelligent and highly entertaining psychological thrillers, which also happen to turn a profit. The other existential dark dramas that often border on the surreal. Hitchcock and Kubrick, exactly.

Nolan and Aronofsky’s films represent the very highest ideals of true auteur cinema: visual story telling that seeks to enthrall and entertain while asking the central questions of human existence. This is art at its best. To quote Steel Magnolias: “Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion.” To be entertained and yet heart broken by the same piece of storytelling is incredibly difficult and yet these artists have done it time and again.

In an age where the word Auteur has lost all serious meaning in popular film criticism these two men have almost singlehandedly taken hold of the idea Sarris and the French film theorists were proposing and fully embodied the Director as Filmmaker and artist. Not only are they making great films but they are involved in every aspect of the film creation process and have formed lasting relationships with wonderful composers and cinematographers. So they’re humble and honest Auteurs as well. They are aware that their success has been related to their trust and relationship with other artists.

The similarities between these two filmmakers start in 1998. They both released black and white low budget independent films. Both films were met with critical success. Both films were odd and unique. Since then their films have differed dramatically. But next year their filmographies will intersect again in a big way. Nolan will be releasing the climax to his Batman Trilogy and Aronofsky will be rounding out his second thematic film trilogy with his first foray into mainstream commercial fair (though it will most likely look like neither). Both films just happen to be about comic book superheroes.

Not much is known at this time about Aronofsky’s The Wolverine. But I predict that it will be the capstone to his second trilogy of films. His first trilogy is about obsession and the forms it can take. The first two end with pretty bleak solutions to the problem of human existence and obsession. The last film has the key to the solution. And this second trilogy is the same, though more complex emotionally.

The Wrestler and Black Swan are character studies of a person whose whole existence is based around a performing art and their subsequent isolation (to be before others is to be truly alone). The Wrestler’s focus is on a low brow performing art, masculinity, and absolute realism. Black Swan is about a very high brow performing art, femininity, and surrealism. Both films end with the Character’s becoming the very embodiment of their particular art and then possibly (spoiler alert) that thing consuming and ultimately killing them. The Wolverine will do all these things as well, except probably not emphasize Logan’s performance of his profession before others. But it will involve Logan being consumed by The Wolverine, just as The Wrestler and Black Swan dealt with their respective characters being consumed by those things. But Aronofsky will have a less bleak ending for Logan, maybe even positive. The Fountain in many ways displays the synthesis between addiction and scientific obsession that are the major themes of Pi and Requiem, while also giving the solution to these respective problems: death to self and union with the divine. The Wolverine will show something similar. And its also interesting to note that Hugh Jackman is playing the main character in both films. Also a comic book film can be considered a sort of half way house between Realism and Surrealism. A serious study of how masculinity and femininity relate to each other will also be involved.

Logan must embrace his destiny while maintaining human relationships, this is where both main characters from The Wrestler and Black Swan failed. He is a killer, and must struggle with this as his telos. John Rambo does the same thing in his film series. But its not killing in itself which is their (John and Logan) life’s work, its the ability to protect others and accomplish heroic feats that no one else can do as they can.

For example, in First Blood John is acting out of rage and frustration. He is not fulfilling his true telos just reveling in violence. But over the course of the next 3 films he embraces that death dealing is his primary talent and uses it to help and protect others. The Wolverine will be part of a similar cycle of futility leading to self discovery. What the characters in the previous two films have done is viewed their telos as the end of their lives, not as a means to the true end of their lives: human relationship aka love. And this is what causes their self destruction. Logan will be forced to deal with genuine human love and how it heals his personal pain, and how his vulnerability, self denial, and love for another will heal another persons pain as well. This will most likely happen in relation to a woman who is close to being his equal in combat. They will form a synthesis completing each other and enabling each other to better fight the narrative’s villain.

And Nolan’s film will be similar in some regards. I predicated that his third Batman film would be ultimately about resurrection as soon as the credits for The Dark Knight began to roll. So you can imagine my excitement when the title for the film was finally released. Batman Begins is about Birth, The Dark Knight is about Death, and The Dark Knight Rises will be about Resurrection. That is a severe gloss on each film, they are more profound than that. But it’s basically the Christological cycle. Batman takes on the guilt and image of Gotham and working from inside that image becomes Gotham’s permanent savior. The Dark Knight Rises will not end with Batman putting down his cape and cowl but taking them on even more fully: he will take them on forever. They will become his permanent identity and Gotham will finally understand that he is their only hope for salvation.

Both of these films will be the best films that are made in 2012, and both will probably be snubbed by many major Awards committees. But what they will prove beyond a shadow of a doubt is that Nolan and Aronofsky are the best they are at what they do and what they do best is pretty nice. They will also finally and fully establish the super hero/comic book film as a serious film genre that opens up new possibilities for mise en scene and other aspects of filmmaking. There are worlds and worlds of characters and storylines just waiting for talented artists to adapt into great films. 2012 may well be the most important year for 21st century cinema.

Needless to say I’m pretty excited.

The Greatest American Films Part 2: #10 Batman’s Second Coming

(I did not realize that I still had 2 blogs active on the old Blogger format, this is a post from about 7 years ago that I found on there, I’m going to rip a few of those old posts and place them here then deactivate my old blog, I can’t say I still stand by this post in particular but maybe I will finally finish my series analyzing each of these films)

For the first entry in my list of the Ten Greatest American Films I have chosen a tie between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight.

Whenever we choose to rank things we choose to polarize people. After all regardless of our metaphysical beliefs concerning value the way we determine so many aesthetic decisions is based on our preferences. We could refer to the experts to settle any disagreement but not only do they disagree amongst themselves about so many things but we (the vulgar) heartily find ourselves in disagreement with them constantly. I even started this project partially because I think Ebert’s ten greatest films list is poor (though I do think he is a brilliant critic and a very intelligent man). So how will my judging be any different form anyone else’s? Why should anybody care? I offer you two answers to this question. The first answer is simply that nobody should care; I can be and in fact am in many regards a moron. The second answer (which maybe less truthful but I like much better) is also simple: Pure Cinema. Allow me to explain.

One thing that many people seem to forget when watching movies is the very nature of the medium. A question that I always found hauntingly appropriate to this discussion came from arguably cinema’s greatest villain: Hannibal Lecter. In one of the later scenes of the film Lecter tells Starling something very important.
“First principles, Clarice. Simplicity. Read Marcus Aurelius. Of each particular thing ask: what is it in itself? What is its nature?”

I don’t know much about Aurelius myself, except that he wanted Russell Crowe and not Joaquin Phoenix to rule Rome when he died. Which turned out to be a smart decision since Russell Crowe won best actor that year at the Academy Awards. So he seems like a smart guy to me. Let’s take his advice.

So when we look at film what is it that we see? Well what was film originally? Did it have sound? No. Did it have music? Sometimes it was played live but generally no. So then film is inherently a visual medium. If film can exist without sound and even color then at its core it is a simple form of visual story.

Film is visual. But it has become more than that. Film scores have gotten so good that we even buy them and listen to them without the films. Film scripts so well written we quote their lines to make each other laugh or to impart an important truth. But remove everything else and what we have deep within the soul of cinema is visual storytelling.

I do not remember the first time I actually heard the phrase Pure Cinema. I’m sure it was in a DVD extra somewhere. I am fairly certain it was the Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid DVD I purchased at the beginning of High School. During one of the documentaries somebody was talking about how there is no music in Butch and Sundance. At least not during the actual film. There are three musical interludes that have only music and no dialogue. So during all the dramatic parts of the film there are no cues to tell you how to feel about anything. All the information is conveyed visually or by the actors. I don’t know very much about George Roy Hill as a director outside of his two masterpieces with Paul Newman and Robert Redford. But whoever was speaking in the documentary said that Hill strongly believed in something called Pure Cinema. I didn’t understand what that meant. All I knew was that it somehow related to music in film.

I think when I finally began to truly understand this concept was after my father bought Rear Window on DVD. This film was sort of a sacred thing in our home for long before High School. I was raised to believe that there were few if any directors better than Hitch. This belief has only grown stronger as I have become older. But while so many people will comment on the sophistication and dry wit that is so prevalent in all of Hitch’s work, or even his ability to create such leering suspense that remains suspenseful so many years later what Hitchcock understood probably better than any director was that film is a visual means of telling a story. One of the DVD extras on Rear Window pointed this out to me. Just look at the beginning of Rear Window. The entire physical, emotional, and historical setting for what is about to transpire is conveyed in a few brief shots. Not a word is spoken. For another good example of this watch the first few minutes of Rio Bravo.

Pure cinema is truly the mark of greatness when discussing films. That is why I can never consider such well-loved films as Goodfellas and The Shawshank Redemption to be truly great. They are popular. They are intelligent. But they are not pure films. Both of these films are absolutely crippled by its reliance on voice over narration. Without the narration the films convey almost no information. They tell almost no story without their words. I have no problem with narration that adds to the quality of a film but these two films are essentially monologues with images attached to them. All About Eve or To Kill a Mockingbird or even the Fellowship of the Ring and The Return of the King are dependent on narration at certain points in the story because the information is too complex to be shown. But if you took out those pieces of narration the films would not really be any worse for wear. They would still be good films.

What Nolan’s Batman films have accomplished is the most compelling visual characterization for a character ever in the history of Cinema. Everything you need toknow about why Bruce Wayne decides to become who he becomes is conveyed to you visually. Batman has what is probably the most ridiculous costume of all the mainstream comic book characters. He dresses like a bat. In the comics the primary reason he does this is because fate has ordained him to. But in Nolan’s world it is absolutely essential to his character that he does so.

We see in the very first scene of Begins how deeply his fear of Bats has been pressed upon his psyche. First he is playing with his best friend. He is full of joy and excitement. Then suddenly his perfect world is shattered with a painful frightening fall that breaks his arm. He will associate all of these things with what is about to happen to him. Bats envelop him in the darkness of the hole. But even more telling than this about the necessity of the cape and cowl which he will adorn himself with nightly in the future is what will happen next to young Bruce. His fear of Bats kills his parents. Not really of course. A poor desperate man killed Thomas and Martha Wayne. In a sense Gotham City killed them. But not Bruce. But that is how he feels. As they watch the Opera Bruce is overcome with his fearful associations with Bats. If he had been stronger. If he had not been scared of Bats his parents would still be alive and Bruce will never forget that. Later in the film after he has received the means to fight for Gotham he returns. In so many ways this city represents his failure as a man. Everything he has ever done wrong in life is associate with this city, yet he still desires to save it. To fight for it. And how does he do that? When he returns home he goes into the cave of his childhood. Essentially his descent into the cave represents the probing of his psyche. He has to make peace with his fears. So he descends and lets the Bats envelop him. He is afraid. He never stops being afraid. But he has learned to control his fear. He has learned to control his hurt over the loss of his parents, over his own mistakes and become a man. But in order to do that he clothes himself in the very symbol of his weakness and makes evil fear that which he fears himself. The rest of the film is of course wonderfully realized as well. Upon its release I think many people realized that comic book/superhero films would never be the same. The film just took itself too seriously to be thought of as juvenile anymore. It presented a world too much like our own to be ignored.

The Dark Knight is one of those Godfather Part II, Empire strikes back things. Everybody knows the sequel actually surpassed the original in artistic achievement. But artistry is not the only mark of greatness. The Dark Knight gave us a further expanded world. It took everything we loved so much about Begins and gave us even more. Ledger’s performance as the Joker is already iconic. Partially because of his death but mostly because his performance was iconoclastic. He destroyed all previous incarnations of the Joker. When you destroy the old icons new ones musttake their place. And Ledger’s has done that in spades. An IGN reviewer said recently the fact that Ledger will never be able to reprise this role is one of the most tragic events in cinema history. And I think we can all agree on that. But this is not what makes the film great. Ledger is only a very important piece of a much grander puzzle. He exists to tell us more about the central character. A hero is judged by the strength of his villains no? And what we see in this film is every heroic character rising to the occasion except eventually for Dent. He has been hurt so badly he cannot be rational any more. But Batman has been scared by these same events even more deeply and yet he persists until the very end of the picture. He is even willing to give up his innocence so that the city will not fall into despair.

Nolan’s Batman truly is one of the greatest heroes in cinema history. He stands alongside heroes like Atticus Finch as being truly noble when it truly counts. Like all truly great heroes he is not a hero. He is in fact a Servant. Near the end of To Kill a Mockingbird a lady says to Jem, in order to comfort him, that some people are born to do our dirty jobs for us. Atticus Finch currently stands at the top of AFI’s list of heroes. I am confident that when the list is updated Nolan’s Batman will either replace him there are come very very close.

These films are marked by great artistry. Nolan is a voracious visual storyteller. He uses great economy and poetry in his films to convey his stories. Visual story telling impacts us deeper than so many other forms of communication. In the last scene of Knight Gordon tells us exactly who Batman is with words. But his words would mean nothing if we hadn’t seen Batman be everything Gordon says about him for the last two hours. Also Nolan is still conveying the story visually even during this small monologue. He shows you everything Gordon is saying right up until the very last shot where Batman ascends into Blinding light, reminiscent of Jesus’ return to Heaven (in the future I dedicate an entire post to Christology in Nolan’s Batman films). I will leave you with Gordon’s closing remarks:

“Because he’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now… and so we’ll hunt him, because he can take it. Because he’s not a hero. He’s a silent guardian, a watchful protector… a dark knight.”