Posts Tagged ‘ Batman ’

Politics and the Superhero

So, Black Panther has arrived and everybody’s pretty excited about it (well, except racists). The film has delivered the biggest debut of any Marvel hero so far (though technically the character appeared first in Captain America: Civil War) and is second in its opening haul only to the original Avengers. Beyond its early box office might, the film has also garnered outstanding reviews, with io9 calling it Marvel’s first “Shakespearean Epic.”

It’s continuing proof that the Marvel is one slick entertainment factory. The film is sumptuous in its realization of the Afro-futurist world of Wakanda, the isolated and secret utopia protected by the titular hero and king. The cast is so undeniably stellar that it’s hard to even begin to talk about the performances without this whole piece becoming a tribute to the spot-on realizations of these characters (though I have to mention the star-making turn for Letitia Wright as the newest Disney princess, Shuri…and Lupita Nyong’o because she’s Lupita Nyong’o).

(Personally, the only disappointing thing about this film was the predictability of the plot. Even without being familiar with the comics, from which several key story points were apparently taken, if you’d sat me down before the movie and asked me to outline the story, I would’ve been able to hit every key plot point based on only seeing the first trailer.)

Of course, what’s keeping the conversation about this film going is fairly atypical for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Audiences aren’t coming out of the movie wondering about the infinity stones (okay, maybe a little) or how this will impact the next Avengers movie. Instead, Black Panther has us talking about representation (again, that cast) and–gasp!–politics.

Captain America: Winter Soldier surprised me by delving into the politics of the drone war and the post-9/11 surveillance state. But those themes were really quite secondary to a plot that was still, at its heart, a superhero’s story. Black Panther, though, inverts this ideological hierarchy, putting the action and whiz-bang antics in the back seat. Up front, it offers several layers of political discourse between its varied (and surprisingly earnest) story beats, fromĀ overt commentary on the African Diaspora through the righteous but perverse ideology of Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger to implicit critique of American isolationism and exceptionalism expressed through the allegorical mirror of Wakanda.

For whatever reason, the discussion swirling around Black Panther has me thinking back to one of the biggest disappointments in the history of superhero filmdom: The Dark Knight Rises.

That film’s problematic, muddled political themes always bothered me. The way Bane tries to offer himself up as a savior of “the people” in a direct mockery of Occupy Wallstreet was a particularly noxious bent for a movie about a billionaire savior to take. Taken seriously–and Nolan’s movies plead to be taken seriously–Bruce Wayne is, indeed, a problematic figure. How many millions does he spend fighting crime through vigilantism and how much more impact could that money make actually improving communities?

The Dark Knight Rises might have explored those questions. At a few turns, if feels like it wanted to. When Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle warns Bruce Wayne that he and the other filthy rich should “batten down the hatches” because “a storm is coming” it felt as though Christopher Nolan might be game to question the inequality of Batman’s world. But when the storm comes, it is brought by the masked Bane and his master Talia Al Gul. These villains purport to be carrying on the work of the latter’s father fromĀ Batman Begins, but Ras al Gul wanted to destroy Gotham to stamp out its decadence and corruption as an example to the rest of humanity. Bane seems only interested in causing despair.

In the Dark Knight, Harvey Dent said, “You either die the hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” What a much more interesting film The Dark Knight Rises could have been if it found Batman wondering–in the light of the League of Shadows’ continued assault on a seemingly at-peace Gotham–whether he had become the villain, the lynchpin holding together a corrupt economic system that kept the rich rich and the poor under control.

But alas, that opportunity was wasted.

So The Dark Knight Rises misses its chance to comment on its times. Perhaps Nolan wanted to repudiate the Occupy movement, but refused to make it an overt propaganda film where the rich, like Batman, should really just be trusted with the reigns of society. It certainly doesn’t seem interested in interrogating the inequality or corruption that was so important in Begins.

In a way, then, Black Panther is the film that The Dark Knight Rises could have been. It is unafraid to question its hero’s position within its fictional world. In the beginning of the film, T’Challa has complete faith in Wakanda’s long standing secrecy, even when urged to abandon it by his love interest Nakia. It is only through his struggle against Killmonger and the revelations his appearance in Wakanda brings that he changes his view of what Wakanda should be to the world. It will not be master as Killmonger would have it, but nor can he allow his country and its myriad gifts to remain aloof from the rest of humankind. The film may have landed during the Trump presidency, but its theme is unmistakably of the Obama era: unabashedly against isolation and militarism alike, advocating principled engagement.

In these troubled political times, a success story like Black Panther is a beacon–made more explicit by a mid-credits scene at the UN in which T’Challa warns the world that we must seek unity, arguing that “illusions of division threaten our very existence…But in times of crisis, the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers.”

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So, there’s going to be a Wonder Woman

So, there’s going to be a Wonder Woman on the big screen (though not in her own movie) and she’ll look a little something like this:

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First thought: She needs to gain like twenty pounds.

For those of you who don’t follow the geekosphere, Zack Snyder, director of Man of Steel and a whole bunch of other good-looking yet vapid movies, is being entrusted with the next step in Warner Brothers’ desperate attempt to create something like The Avengers to line their pockets instead of Marvel/Disney’s (which, interestingly enough, is apparently a total historical trend with DC Comics, which this guy paints as the lame old uncle always trying to be hip like the young buck Marvel). That step is some kind of Batman vs. Superman (or Superman vs. Batman?) movie that could, maybe, have a really terrible name and will definitely have a Bostonian Batman.

And now we know it will have Wonder Woman.

Let me get something out there before I work my way (circuitously) to my main point: Wonder Woman is not a feminist icon. I know she’s a mainstream, well-known superhero who is a woman, but she’s got a pretty terrible history. The Wonder Woman comics were often an excuse for debasing the character in story lines that suggested (by design) bondage and humiliation. Wonder Woman was routinely bound by nefarious men, thus losing all her power against them. Seriously, it’s sad. See, I made that point without even mentioning the sexist costume.

One could be forgiven for thinking that this movie might turn out to be a big mess. Man of Steel was visually stunning (because that’s the thing Zack Snyder does well) but had some troubling tendencies as well (like failing to register the human tragedy of about twenty 9/11 scale building collapses at once).

So, before it’s too late, I want to register my request for Snyder and the team bringing the DC holy trinity to the screen:

You know what I want from the next Superman movie? Would you like to know, Zack?

I want to be inspired.

Does that sound so hard to do? Superman obviously inspires people. The shield logo is a revered pop culture symbol. I read not long ago about teenagers in the Arab Spring taking to the streets in Superman shirts. There is a power to this image, this figure.

Unshakable. Moral. A paragon.

In the old Christopher Reeves’ movies, Superman was a trite do-gooder in a cartoon world. Snyder and the creative team behind Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy have placed this new Superman into a grittier, more naturalistic world. In the first movie, they proved he could punch stuff–a lot.

Can he lift our spirits? Can he shine a light for the modern world? It doesn’t seem impossible to give this character substance; the current run of comics (which I admit I do not read) has him returned to his roots as a social crusader. Can Snyder and company reach beyond making “awesome” things blow up and find the soul of this character, the gold standard among the modern mythic heroes of comic frames and celluloid?

Because that would be worth watching.

Sci-Fi Connoisseur: Batman Begins/The Dark Knight

Ratings:

I’ve already gone on record saying that Batman is the best superhero, you know, once you mentally subtract the campy 60s version. Other than his budget, Batman doesn’t have any super powers–just will and wits. His weaknesses are human weaknesses, not shiny green rocks. And though many of his gadgets defy physics, at least his very nature doesn’t compromise the laws of conservation of mass and energy. All that said, before 2005 we hadn’t seen Batman executed better than the 1989 version which, though well done, was bound by Tim Burton’s eccentric vision. But Christopher Nolan’s reimagining of the Batman mythos was a game changer. If X-Men created a relatable world for superheroes, Nolan’s Batman Begins brought them into our world. That film immediately stole the crown as the best superhero film ever and despite the success of Ironman, I’d argue held it until its own sequel. Nolan’s gifts as a filmmaker are critical to the success of both films. His Gotham is dark and atmospheric, even when the lights come on. In Begins especially, his distinctive nonlinear storytelling and en media res style lifts the comic book genre into the same territory as drama and thriller–truly marking the arrival of this much-belittled sub genre to its current stature of Hollywood mainstay.

I’m Batman…10
Style…7

Both films also give Batman something to do. Even Burton’s version had little to offer in terms of plot, and the horrific Schumacher sequels were pure farce. Begins, perhaps more than any other comic book origin movie, gives Batman more to do than just figure out who he is. Yes, we see him discover the Batcave and get his gadgets, but the conspiracy underneath his return to Gotham actually features some suspense and tension, tying in the early scenes with a palpable threat. With this ground work laid, The Dark Knight went farther, much farther. Railing against the terror of the Joker, Batman is unfortunately reactive, but the scope of the nightmare woven together by Nolan and Ledger makes Batman’s second-fiddle act forgivable.

Plot…7

Both films should be applauded for avoiding too-many-villains-syndrome, the blight of many a comic books movie (including every other Batman picture except Burton’s first). Begins juggles crime boss Falconi, the Scarecrow, and Ras Al Gul, while Knight pits Bats against the mobsters, the Joker, and eventually Two-Face (sort of). The supporting cast is also excellent. Michael Caine’s Alfred is much more integral to the story than previous versions and helps draw out Bruce Wayne’s humanity–something that often felt tacked-on at best in previous films. Gary Oldman’s Gordon is similarly indispensable. Much less steady is the (wholly original) character of Rachel Dawes. There’s nothing especially wrong with Katie Holmes’s performance, but it’s hard not to give Gyllenhall’s interpretation higher marks. The script for Begins doesn’t help when it has her laying down stinkers like, “Your true face is the one Gotham’s criminals now fear.”

Characters…7
Katie Holmes…-1

Well, you know what the final word is, don’t you. Liam Neeson’s Ras Al Gul is a suitable antagonist, to be sure. He’s complex enough and layered enough and delivered with enough aplomb that his reappearance in the third act really lights the fire for the climax of Batman Begins. He’s good, don’t get me wrong…but he’s no Joker. Bringing the Joker into this Batman universe was incredibly ambitious. Ras had been a bit otherworldly (literally so, in the comics) and his presence stretched the feeling that this Batman story was possible in the real world, and the cackling fiend in white face paint could have easily drawn out the more two-dimensional aspects of the Batman mythos. Instead, though, Nolan’s vision set the stage for a truly spectacular film villain. He only gets half the credit, though, because it really is Heath Ledger’s execution that makes this film such a stand out. His Joker will long rank in the top ten of movie villains for good reason. The unassailable menace he brings to the film is all the more remarkable for the concomitant humor and emotional confusion he brings to the part. The Joker is chaos itself–unsettled, even suicidal at times, but Ledger always integrates these paradoxes into a consistent lunacy that few actors could have pulled off. Ledger’s Joker is rarely angry, but when he adds that extra inflection, it sends chills down the spine.

Antagonist (Begins)…5
The Joker…14

Totals:

Batman Begins: 35
The Dark Knight: 45

Nitpicks:

  • So the psychotropic compound in the water supply can only be absorbed through the lungs. Okay…so I guess we’re to believe that no one in Gotham takes hot showers?
  • Wayne Tower is the unofficial center of Gotham city because all of the monorail lines run right through it…funny, the building seems to have completely disappeared, along with all those monorails, in the sequel.
  • Why does it look like the mayor is always wearing eye-shadow?
  • The biggest asset of this film is also my biggest nitpick: The Joker. Just how does he manage to stash all these explosives in all those places without being detected? How is he able to anticipate every single move the good guys make? It might be more forgivable if it weren’t for the fact that other Hollywood villains are being given this same superhuman ability to outwit the protagonists–including his own successor, Bane.