Monday, 31 March 2014

Superman: The Homage

Whilst Batman Begins was being filmed Warner Bros sought to resurrect their other superhero franchise and bring Superman back to the big screen.  The project was called Superman:Flyby and the premise was a complex trilogy to make Superman dominate the cinema for the next ten years.  Playing with timelines and resurrection it's little surprise the story had JJ Abrams' fingerprints all over it.  Production meandered as the traditional problems with a Superman film reared their head; difficult casting, directors in and out whilst even choosing locations was difficult.  Abrams loitered as Warner Bros approached Bryan Singer whose idea of a returning Superman was approved when presented to Richard Donner.  Singer was a safe pair of hands having superhero experience with X-Men and the shining light of The Usual Suspects in his back catalogue.

The silly decision to cast Josh Hartnett as Superman was annulled amid typecasting and commitment fears.  The door opened for a pre-vegan Brandon Routh.  He certainly looked the part.  It's rumoured Kevin Spacey and Kate Bosworth signed on without reading a script whilst James Marsden began a quest to appear in as many superhero franchises as possible.  If they reboot The Green Lantern you know he'll be fishing around.

Routh is pretty darn good as Superman and as Clark Kent.  He manages to capture some of Reeve's charm as Kent without overdoing the goofiness and then step into the blue suit retaining a level of vulnerability that we haven't seen in previous Superman incarnations.  The main problem is the story he finds himself in.

Superman has been absent for five years, looking at the space debris of Krypton. Quite why is never really explained.  Neither is Kent's parallel absence.  He's been away 'finding himself' or something yet returns without so much as a suntan.  Verisimilitude goes so far but now it's got to the point that Lois Lane will only know if Clark Kent is Superman if it's announced via neon sign.  That rohypnol kiss back in the day was mighty powerful.  Maybe it's because Lois Lane now has a son, a son full of afflictions and weaknesses that he may as well have a neon sign that says 'Son of Superman.'  This brings worrying thoughts though.  When Supes and Lois got their freak on what stopped him getting carried away and blowing her head off?  Why was she so blase about shagging an alien? How defective are Lois' genes that they make the son of Superman so sickly?

Right, that's enough of that. Lex Luthor is trying his old real estate ploy again albeit with a twist.  Spacey looks like he's having immense fun as Luthor and hams it up darkly, changing wigs willy nilly whilst actually getting down to the nitty gritty of trying to fight Superman by levelling the playing field.  The Luthor trip to the Fortress of Solitude is inspired in it's villainy, matched only by the look on Spacey's face as he demands to learn everything from Jor-El and the Kryptonian crystals.  The inclusion of Brando as Jor-El takes us all the way back to 1978 and the supersaturated whiteness of Krypton.  It's comforting after Nuclear Man and the wilderness years.  Odd use of a model train set sees Luthor's real estate scam updated.  The only nagging doubt is just how he managed make a Kryptonite sheath for his island crystal.

Luthor's Return to Oz moment

Back to Superman, he's returned and had a beer with The Liability Formerly Known as Jimmy Olsen, but now what?  As Kent and as Superman he's alone, discarded.  The world has, seemingly, moved on.  The world doesn't need Superman anymore.  Or does it?  Handily, Luthor's model train set experiment has some aeronautical ramifications and affords Superman the opportunity to extol the virtues of air safety but ruin a ball game.  It's good, and quite the spectacle, but you can't help feeling that Superman Returns could have done with one more big set piece like this one.  The tumbling Daily Planet doesn't count.

Hey, that's an interesting theme. Shall we explore...oh, no. OK then.

It's clear that Superman Returns is a sequel and an homage to Donner's original Superman two parter but it's in this homage that sit jarring anachronisms.  Superman isn't really updated, it seems the only real updates have been rolling news channels and a ban on smoking in the workplace.  In this Internet age what would Kent really be doing in print media? And just who gets to walk back into a job after five years? Especially as he wasn't really any good.  It's lovely that Eva Marie Saint lives on the old Kent farm and plays Scrabble but in the city you'd expect a little more advancement even if the city is the misty eyed Metropolis.

Superman Returns is an OK film, not a great one and it did well enough at the box office to warrant a sequel.  Sadly, the studio and director would get distracted whilst the option on Routh's contract would expire.  It's telling that he's more remembered as Scott Pilgrim's confused vegan foe.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Why Do We Fall?

The corpse of Schumacher's Batman had gone cold, nipples presumably still erect, the Millennium had come and gone and Warner Bros were, understandably, nervous of superheroes.  The Matrix had come and spawned inferior sequels whilst Fox had dalliances with The X Men and Daredevil. Quality and success was inconsistent. It was all a bit haphazard.  For every Spider-Man there was a Hulk and every Blade a Catwoman.  Disney was yet to establish and mine Marvel Studios and Time Warner seemed to view DC as an unwanted inheritance.  Undoubtedly, there was money to be made but there was no vision, no continuity.  There was something missing and it took an Englishman to find it.

Christopher Nolan and David S Goyer set out to humanise the Bruce Wayne/Batman axis and make us care about the whole package and not just the Batarang round the back of the Joker's head.  The rumoured development of Miller's Batman:Year One looms heavy over the story as does The Long Hallowe'en and it's ideas of corruption and organised crime running Gotham whilst a surprising serial killer stalks the streets.  Loeb and Sale effectively balanced villains' origins and a surprising twist, something Nolan surely took as inspiration.  Not only were the actual comics really being used as source material but the realism and darkness of 80's and 90's Batman was being taken from the page to the screen effectively.  Burton's cartoonish realism was being usurped by a Taxi Driver cityscape easily identifiable as the industrial Northeast of the US.

Nolan seemed like a safe pair of hands for a new crack at Batman.  Despite not having an extensive filmography his ace in hand was undoubtedly MementoMemento was one of those films that Hollywood studios like: cheap and successful both critically and commercially.  It cost $4.5 million and pulled in five times that on a release fuelled by word of mouth and viral marketing.  Viral marketing would become a core feature of The Dark Knight trilogy and the following Man of Steel. Cloverfield would have MySpace profiles and Japanese drinks but Batman would have 'I Believe In Harvey Dent' and mysterious chanting.

Nolan's character driven approach was to be a refreshing tonic for the franchise now twitching back to life.  Nolan and Goyer chose to do something not yet seen on film; they chose to fully explain how Bruce Wayne adopted the Batman persona.  Batman Begins was to truly be an origin story. Yeah, we all know kiddie Wayne went to the theatre and watched his parents get dispatched by a mugger, but was this mugger really a pre-sheep dip Joker?  No, that was just convenient artistic license.  Lifting Joe Chill from the comics was much more satisfying.  Indirectly, Chill creates the Batman and Chill's time in jail is used to accelerate the story.  An amazing ensemble cast is presented as Bruce Wayne grows up and disappears.  The double act of Michael Caine's Alfred and Morgan Freeman's Lucius Fox is a perfect antidote to Rutger Hauer's Earle and his boardroom schemes.  The corporate shenanigans are far removed from the brown slime, corruption and rain which threatens to swallow up the idealistic Lt. Gordon.  Gary Oldman has a knack of looking younger than he is but at the same time conveying huge amounts of weariness and wisdom as he stands alone against the old school Irish gangsters led by Tom Wilkinson.  He might have an Italian name but Falcone is more The Departed than The Godfather.

The time spent laying Gotham's roots parallels Bruce Wayne's training in Batman: Year One but this time Wayne is trained by the ominous League of Shadows.  But who is Bruce Wayne/Batman? Nolan chose Christian Bale and looking back there couldn't have been anyone else for the role.  Jake Gylenhaal would've been great for me but back then he was too young and inexperienced, his Donnie Darko days whored for a teen turn opposite Dennis Quaid.  Much has been made of Bale being ever so method, bulking up from Trevor Reznik a little too much and hating the suit they made him wear.  Bale is yet unleash his full tetchiness as McG will testify.  It was less The Machinist and more Equilibrium and American Psycho that made Bale the best choice, these films showed he had the physical and mental edge to compliment his undoubted ability.

Bale would need an enemy of suitable gravitas.  Despite his amazingly beautiful blue eyes Cillian Murphy wasn't quite enough.  It's clear Dr Crane was a secondary villain but who he was really working for comes as quite a surprise.  Murphy is excellent as Crane and his alter ego but Nolan and Goyer didn't make his character big enough, presumably the payback for this was to have Crane as an ever present in the trilogy.  Crane's weapon of choice inspires some excellent hallucinations and it's fitting that the action explodes in Arkham Asylum.  The hospital had become a comedy dumping ground under Schumacher but is restored to Victorian horror by Nolan.  The completion is augmented by the cameo of Mr Zsasz, a particularly nasty foe of Batman.

Batman Begins sees Bruce Wayne adopt technology and grow into the role of vigilante.  Aided by Fox we move from billionaire spelunker and adrenaline junkie to full blown vigilante.  Whilst the Tumbler is the most eye catching of the technological advancements it's not the most important.  Wayne's improvisation and eye for the theatrical leads him to delve into his am-dram days and come up with the costume.  The attention to detail is remarkable, whether deliberate or note the Batsuit is heavy and hot, yet flexible.  When Bale put the suit on he hated it, his bad mood channelled through the character to make Batman a figure of rage and vengeance.  Everything is explained from the electrically manipulated fabric to the trial and error cowls.  Fox is Bruce Wayne's Q and does provide some light relief.

The same cannot be said of Rachel Dawes.  I've flicked through comics, Selina Kyle, Vicki Vale, Leslie Thompkins, Silver St Cloud and Jezebel Jet.  All woman of various ages and connections to Wayne and Batman but no Rachel Dawes which probably explains why I find her character so irritating.

Nolan may not have been convinced he'd get another crack at Batman but Warner Bros went into marketing overdrive ensuring the critical success was matched at the box office.  Batman Begins wasn't the biggest film of 2005  (come on, there was a Star Wars and a Harry Potter that year) but it did beat Hitch and The Fantastic Four.  All of a sudden those calling cards in Gordon's evidence bag weren't just wishful thinking.