Arising from the ashes of our failed movie review series like the drunken pheonix he is, A.Ron emerges to give a review of the two premier superhero franchises at opposite ends of their respective lifespans. "The Amazing Spider-Man" attempts to reboot the franchise around new, younger stars and an edgier, more deliberate retelling of the origin of our friendly neighborhood webslinger, while Christopher Nolan closes out his take on the Batman mythos with the third and final installment, "The Dark Knight Rises". I'm going to use the next two paragraphs to give a spoiler-free review of both, and you can click the link for "more" to get the spoiler filled version.
Spider-Man is an ultimately disappointing movie. It suffers from many problems; we all already know the origin of Spider-Man, and it's one of the least interesting things about the character at this point. In a movie that clocks in almost 2 and a half hours long, we waste half the screen time with this recycled crap. That's another problem. The movie is two and a half hours long, and feels like it's three and a half. In between truly plodding origin and character development, we have short bursts of intenese action that, while cool, are things we've already seen before in better Spider-Man movies. I think that Andrew Garfield is potentially a better Spider-Man than even Toby McGuire, and Emma Stone is a fine version of Gwen Stacy. I hope that they don't end up as Pierce Bronson, who could have been the definitive, iconic version of James Bond except he was saddled with soggy, limp scripts and plots. The effects are also sub-par, in an age where The Avengers has shown us how to make balls-out gaga SFX work in a seamless, believeable manner, this is just unacceptable.
In stark contrast, The Dark Knight Rises is one of the most satisfying ends to a trilogy that has become the definitive version of Batman. Every concern I had heading in with the intrinsic ridiculousness of Bane and Catwoman and the historic letdowns in the third installment of trilogies were washed away, from the opening scene. It just worked. There are a few plot holes (but by no means as many as The Dark Knight), and a few instances of clunky dialog, but in contrast to the plasticy, poorly rendered CGI action of Spider-Man, these effects are practical, weighty, and real. I can't explain how polarizing this movie has become; friends of mine who I respect are reacting with a "meh" or are even openly critical of the film. I just don't understand it. I don't understand how you can walk away from this film unsatisfied. The only thing I can see in common with the people that I know that don't like it are a) carrying into the film an awareness and trauma from the horrible theater shootings, and / or b) a fairly leftist point of view. I've heard the plot described by guys like Matthew Yglasis as "balls out rightwing" and as a self-described "radical moderate" I can sort of see what they're saying, but if this ruins a piece of fiction for you, I don't know what to day. If you can get over the shadow the killings casts on the movie (and I admit, at several points in the movie, I was acutely aware of the events and how they tied into the movie, and it was for me a moving empathetic experience), and can divorce real life Occupy movements with fictional ones, I think you're going to have a good time.
Want to hear more? Read on for spoilers galore...
"The Amazing Spider-Man"
I'm not going to spend too much time on Spider-Man, because despite my glee at doing so at times, I really don't enjoy tearing down creative works. It's like eating a box of your favorite donuts; it's delicious and gives you a rush but ultimately it's unhealthy and gross. I will say it is time to liberate Spidey from Sony. If Marvel owned Spidey the way they do their other properties, I have no doubt that we wouldn't be doing things like wasting time remaking/rebooting a movie that's just a decade old.
And I don't critice them for going away from Rami and McGuire. There was lack of interest and some ridiculous salary demands being made. And Toby isn't Spider-Man, in the same way that James Bond isn't Sean Connery. What is unfathomable to me is doing the Lizard villain plotline when they were perfectly setup to do so from the Rami trilogy! Why waste the time developing an alternate relationship between Peter and Dr. Conners when it was already done in much better movies?! Why am I watching a tedious retelling of the Spider-Man origin story that takes up the first hour, and again, it was done better? Do we really need another montage of Peter Parker jumping around the city, mastering web shooters, whooping with glee with his new found powers, turning the tables and bullying Flash, losing his glasses and finding awkward success with the ladies? I mean literally, beat for fucking beat we've seen this shit before in a better movie! Part of my disatisfaction with the movie is the sheer chutzpah of the writing / directing team of James Vanderbilt and Marc Webb for sleep walking through the first hour of 2002's Spider-Man! What very few, very minor deviations they make from that origin story are almost all mis-steps with really one exception. In fact, the movie has to bend so far over backwards to get two high schoolers into these high tech labs and let them blunder into a bio-engineered spider factory it opens up some of the most laughable plot holes in the entire movie.
The Dr. Conners / Lizard vs. Spider-Man feels like such a rehash of Doc Oc and Spider-Man 2. I'd believe you if you told me they reused the same CGI models for some of the fights. The Lizard looked dumb. The idea to turn NYC into a bunch of Lizard man was incredibly dumb. The score sucked. Spider-Man's costume looked stupid. The plot of Spider-Man being hunted by the cops involves levels of stubborn-ass chief of police (who also happens to be Gwen's dad, convenient) that are unbelievable and hackneyed.
The one exception that I feel was an improvement was by altering the Uncle Ben story line slightly, I felt like that gave Spider-Man a slightly more believable character arc and motivation for being a superhero. But that's awfully faint praise. Oh, and I guess if you were butthurt by the whole "organic web shooters" controversy in Rami's trilogy, hey! You got your techno-shooters now.
The film isn't that bad. Standing alone, ignoring the previous Spider-Men, I'd give it a solid C rating. It's very average. But if you judge it by it's predacessors and the potential that the actors chosen for the roles and the Lizard villain offers, and trim 45 minutes off of it (which could easily have been done if you dispense with the origin), you've got a trim, fun film with a cast of stars that can carry the franchise into a new decade. I have no doubt they can bounce back for a sequel, because they won't be saddled with this boat anchor origin story bullshit, but I don't know. They seem hell bent on carrying over the same emotional beats Peter had with MJ in the first triology with Peter and Gwen in this one.
Look, movie producer folks. You love origin stories because they are lazy. They're the classic hero's journey and have built in emotional cues and action beats and you don't have to worry about anyone accepting that a person can shoot webs from their hands or lift a train with their bare hands or fly into space. I get it. And 20 years ago, when Superhero movies weren't accepted by the general populations, this was probably useful and required to suspend disbelief. Now? Stop it. If you have some second tier hero that we might not be familiar with (and in terms of broad pop culture, Iron Man, Thor, and even the Green Lantern would qualify) okay, maybe we go along with it. Spider-Man? Fuck you. Superman? Double fuck you. You're wasting our time and money.
"The Dark Knight Rises"
I have to be careful, because I can't say it surpasses "The Dark Knight". Heath Ledger's Joker just elevates that film so much. But this movie is more epic. It has broader scope, it has more emotional weight, it has higher stakes. Bane comes back with a resurrected and even more fanatical League of Shadows army at his back here to finish the job that Ra's al Ghul failed to do in "Batman Begins"; destroy Gotham City. It is so good, and so satisfying, that it makes me retroactively angry at Lucas, Speilberg, Copolla, Rami, and everyone else that has failed to tell a choherent 3 part epic trilogy.
I can only remember 2 other trilogies that deliver the goods consistently. Rocky 1-3, and Lord of the Rings. That's it. Star Wars's Return of the Jedi was a clear fumble. I don't even think The Godfather 2 is as good as the original, so you can only imagine how I feel about 3. Temple of Doom is a mess that tarnishes an otherwise great Indiana Jones series (let's not talk about the fourth installment). Spider-Man 3 was a letdown. The list goes on.
There are two or three twists which since I had avoided all spoilers, I did not see coming, but felt completely natural and believable. I, a grown ass man not known for being particularly emotional about things, teared up at 3 different points of the movie. There is surprisingly little Batman in this film, but it still manages to be great. The Bat, Wayne's new areal toy looks great. They've changed his cape and armor making them even more badass than before. Hathaway's Catwoman looks, acts, and sounds great, and the detail where her night vision goggles rotate to the top of her head when not in use, looking like little ears was so clever and cute I swooned when I first noticed them. Bane looks like a guy who could take a city ransom and break the Batman. Literally. Joseph Gordin-Levitt is a plausible badass as Jim Gordon's protege.
There are a few problems. Batman seems to have a little bit of Wolverine in him when it comes to healing factors, let's put it that way, and Nolan does himself no favors by making a big deal out of how broken the Batman is after his long retirement (this movie begins 7 years after The Dark Knight, with Gotham being galvanized into action by the death of their "white knight" Harvey Dent, ushering in a period of peace and prosperity that has allowed the Batman to hang up his cowl and cape). Christian Bale's Batman voice is still ridiculous. Tom Hardy's Bane voice is an interesting choice, that in the end I grew to love, but I feel like some people are going to either hate or just laugh at. The deputy commissioner guy is kind of a waste. Those police officers looked remarkably fresh and ready to go after spending 3 months trapped underground without so much as an underwear change. And it's kind of ridiculous that the fate of Gotham City comes down to a fist fight on about three separate occasions, even thought the combatants are surrounded by roughly a thousand men with guns on both sides. But what the hell, it's Batman, it's taken deadly serious by all involved, with an epic scope, and is tightly plotted. It's two and a half hours that feels like a 90 minute movie. It's both emotionally weighty and unbelievably fucking cool. As a comic book fan and fan of good movies in general, I can't really ask for more.
Towards the climax, it started to take me to a place I didn't want to see Batman go, and you know what? When I got to that place, I was okay with it. And then, the ultimate resolution of the movie was so satisfying, it produced this sort of full body sense of gratification in me that I usually associate with an exceptional Thanksgiving dinner or an orgasm. That's pretty over the top, but it's how I felt, which makes people hating on the film very puzzling to me.
As far as score, Hans Zimmer really outdoes himself, delivering an iconic, beefy sound scape that not only holds its own but ultimately enhances the movie. And the filmmakers wisely know when to drop the orchestra and let the movie stand on it's own, as in the first mano a mano confrontation between Batman and Bane, totally emphasizing the brutality of the action.
I'll tell you something else, the shootings in Denver were with me in the theater. Every time gunfire erupted, I wondered if this was the scene where that lunatic kicked in the theater door and visited death on geeky families that were just there to enjoy a movie they'd been excited to see. And at a point in the actual film when all hope appeared lost, and children were going to die, and a child exclaimed, "Look! It's Batman!" and of course he saves the day, I wished so hard that there was a real Batman that could swoop in when the bullets start flying and beat the living shit out of and then take lunatics like this to Arkham Asylum. And I thought of the kids in the theater and what they must have felt like and if they thought maybe someone or something could have saved them. And then I thought of the men who shielded their loved ones with their bodies from the bullets, and saved the lives of the people they cared about at the cost of their own, and the cops that rushed into a theater in the wee hours of a morning that had been taken over by an armored monster with high powered rifles and gas grenades, and I think; we do have Batmen in our life. They're not invicible, and they're all the more heroic because of that fact.
To me, that added an emotional subtext that enhanced this tale of selfless heroism and how incredible individual strength and willpower can overcome chaos and evil. I can see others being distracted or even bothered by it and having the experience destroyed. I've heard some suggest they're staying away from the movies because of fearing some sort of copy cat violence. I think that's a classic case of letting the terrorists win. If you'd otherwise see the movie; go see the movie. Think of how precious life is, how movies and art and entertainment help us through some of the misery of life, and how lucky we are to be around to experience all the joys and pains of living. But for god's sake don't stay home because you're afraid.
I said I can't say it's a better film that "The Dark Knight", but I can say I think "Rises" will get more play on my Bluray player. I find that the more I watch "The Dark Knight", the more I notice the gaping plot holes. Maybe I'll feel the same about "Rises", but I feel it's epic nature, and more emotional connection will carry the day. BTW, see this in IMAX if at all possible, preferably a "real" IMAX, and not the mini-IMAX theaters that are springing up all over the damn place of late. It was filmed in 70mm, and it looks just stunning in large format and sounds amazing .